Saturday, May 29, 2010

Playtime in the Parlour: Blind Man's Bluff, Tableaux, and Other Games

It's all well and good to tell children that there was no television "back in the day." It has become a standard explanation for the differences in life then and now when we talk to kids. But this "description" is sorely lacking in explanation. What filled the gaps in time when kids today spend 2-5 hours a day watching TV or playing video games? We've left a dreadfully fuzzy gap that even many adults can't fill in. Chores? Reading? What did people do in their leisure time?

Certainly the working classes and large arculturally-based populations in America filled their time with, (though they too found time for their own relaxation and entertainment). But in the 18th and 19th centuries an increasing portion of the poulation, both children and adults, found themselves graced with large amounts of idle time on their hands.

It was a matter of status to fill this time in part with activities that loaned themselves to self-improvement. Reading books that would improve their intellect about science, music, art, and travel was considered important to becoming a well-rounded person (it was also useful for conversation at dinner parties). Visiting and letter-writing were ways to pass information and strength social ties. Horseback riding and walking increased in popularity for women as the century progressed. And needlework, painting or drawing, and music were all useful and acceptable artistic outlets for young women.

Games were never far from people's hearts however, and the parlor or drawing room became the place for leisure and entertainment as well as quiet study. While many of these games date back to the 18th century or even earlier, it is a little later in the 19th century that you begin to find them codified into books.

Changing attitudes on children's play meant that some were developed with children in mind. In the 1830s A Boy's Own Book was filled with "useful amusements" for young men. Some ten years later in 1843 A Girl's Own Book followed suit. Others were published throughout the 19th century and into the 20th.

Many games were developed with adults in mind as much as children. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the Church family at Olana regularly gathered in the Court Hall to play such games to pass pleasant evenings. A later text (Games for Everybody, published in the early 1900s) gives some idea as to the application of these games for adult gatherings.

"Every one is fond of having a good time when invited out to a party or social. Sometimes a stupid evening has been spent because either the guests were not congenial or the hostess had not planned goodgames. The purpose of this book is to furnish just what is needed fora pleasant home gathering, church social, or any other indoor occasion."

Some games could be mildly tititlating, encouraging players to challenge behavioral standards within a safe, structured environment. For instance Blind Man's Bluff, depicted above in an 1803 print or at right in a 1880s children's illustration, required a blind-folded player to touch his or her captive to try to discern their identity. The possibilities for mildly embarassing mishaps in mixed-sex groups remind me of the awkwardness of a junior high school dance.

A game described in a mid-century book Drawing Room Plays and Evening Amusements, held in Clermont's collections, is called "The Cherries." In it, cherries are taken by all of the members of the party but one, preferably unsuspecting, "victim." All of the other players chose a fruit to represent themselves, and the "victim" announces "I will exchange my cherry for a___"--let's say pear. The pear person then "has many ways of obeying this; he may either place the stem of the cherry in his mouth till the cherry touches his lips, and victim must then take, or he puts it in her hair, or his shoe, or anywhere." Judging from the description in the book, with a near-kiss being the first option for passing along the cherry, the close physical contact was at least half the fun.

While a few games in this book are indicated for young children, most appear to be for more mature players. This book also includes a selection of simple plays to put on at home, something the Church family also engaged in (if you scroll up, you'll notice what a fantastic stage and proscenium arch that space makes). Plays could enable amature actors a chance to pretend at new relationships or roles with other friends. For instance, two people could become friends, lovers, or enemies, all without the burden of being responsible for their own words ("it's all in the script!")

Another game, called "Tableaux" or "Tableau Vivant" was a popular favorite, in which teams grouped together behind a curtain and, using any available props, formed living pictures of familiar scenes. Fairy tales, paintings, and many others were appropriate. At this point, the curtain was whipped back, and the audience had to guess what it was that being portrayed. This game is sometimes still played with children under the name "Living Pictures" or "Living Portraits."

Much can also be made of the practice of paying "forfeits" for error or failure in a game. A good-natured punishment of sorts, these were invariably left up to the imagination (and dignity) of the players. A kiss, a silly rhyme, or recitation could all be ennacted by the player who made a mistake.
Parlor games fell out of favor somewhere in the early 20th century, though they do find ocassional homes amongst some groups of people. Some are particularly handy in the classroom on a rainy day. My favorite for this purpose is "Hide the Slipper," which is played sitting in a circle on the floor, but involves much less running around than "Duck, Duck, Goose." Others show up at ocassional parties--"Charades" was a favorite in the nineteenth century and can still be found sometimes today.
On the whole, life without TV was not only full of reading and self-improvement, but also could be lively, raccous, and a little bit risque. Even so, Parlor Games could also become ways for a family to share time together: when Drawing Room Plays and Evening Entertainments found its way into Clermont, it was as a gift from Grandmother Clarkson to Honoria when she turned five years old.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Katherine: John Henry's Other Daughter

Alice and John Henry Livingston had two daughters, Janet and Honoria. But John Henry was married twice before he and Alice tied the knot in 1906. His first daughter Katherine L. was born in 1873, and she had moved to England by the time Alice and John Henry were married. Thus, she does not get more than a passing mention in the regular house tour. But her childhood at Clermont was one of Victorian-era ellegance and priviledge--interspersed with losses whose effects had powerful effects on her life.

When Catherine Livingston was born in the spring of 1873, it was only a few short weeks before her mother died of complications from the birth, and John Henry Livingston was left a single father at the age of 25. John Henry was avidly pursueing a law career, and for a few years Catherine bounced between her aunts: Mary Livingston dePeyster at Clermont and elsewhere with her mother's Hammersly sisters. Although the households were loving, with the Hammerslys she endured a rather "strict" Victorian upbringing, as she later recounted it to her daughter.

Thankfully for her, John Henry remarried Emily ("Bessie") Evans in 1880, and Catherine moved with the family up to Clermont. There they became a "blended family" of sorts as John Henry accepted the care of his nephew. His sister's husband and eldest daughter had died by 1875, and Mary soon died in 1876. Their only surviving child was Clermont de Peyster, now 12, who joined the family as Catherine's older brother. With John Henry's father and step mother living next door at Arryl House, the family snuggled into life on the Hudson River.

Catherine, Clermont, Bessie, and John Henry appear to have been a close, happy family with all of the things a well-to-do Victorian household could wish. The mansion was looking particularly splendid with fresh wallpaper and plenty of late 19th century brick-a-brack. Catherine had a nursemaid who may have been a relative of her father's beloved nurse Serena Minkler. A live-in language tutor was engaged to prepare she and Clermont for world travel in Europe, and six other assorted servants (almost all native New Yorkers instead of the Irish workers Mary had hired) were on hand to take care of the family's needs.

However Clermont dePeyster's early death as a teenager punctuated this happy era with further tragedy. Not only was he was the last of Mary and Fredrick's family, he was the closest thing Catherine had ever known to brother. The loss staid with Catherine through her adulthood. She always kept a photograph of him in her home.

Catherine had a busy life as a teenager. She gave up her nursemaid and took on a ladies' maid. She threw herself into piano playing with a certain aplomb, learned German and French, took dancing lessons (an invaluable skill for the socially-elite of the era), and went to the theater whenever the chance presented itself. In keeping with the growing trend of the late 19th century, she was an active young woman who road horseback, took swimming lessons (which cost $5 in May 1887 and in June merrited buying a bathing suit for $3.25), and played tennis on the Southwest lawn at Clermont or at the nearby Livingston enclave, the Edgewood Club. Expensive fees ($10 per month) were also paid for use of a gymnasium.

Beginning in 1887, when she was 14, Catherine started taking annual trips to the wealthy vacation haven in Bar Harbor, Maine. Here 80 room "cottages" perched on the rocky coastline beside rich hotels where bathers reclined in seawater pools (neatly lined with granite to avoid having to actually get into ocean with all of those unnerving sea creatures and barnacles). The social scene was bustling with the elites of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, providing the young lady with all of the opportunities she could want for dancing, fun, and flirtation.

Catherine stretched her legs beyond the social scene of the United States in 1890. On the 1st of May, she booked passage on a steamer bound for England. In June she made a number of new clothing purchases for the trip, bought a steamer trunk ($9) and a Kodak camera ($34.69), arranged for international credit, and set sail on June 26th.

She spent two years there and made subsequest trips thereafter, leaving the Hudson River Valley almost completely behind her. She changed the spelling of her name to Katherine, as Catherine with a "C" had been her mother's name. Katherine especially favored England on these trips and was even presented at court to Queen Victoria by her friend Lady Snagge.

But loss again poked its nose into Catherine's life. When she was 19, Bessie, whom she had known as a mother for 12 years, died. Three years later, her grandfather died in 1895 (leaving Clermont to her instead of her father, interestingly enough), and around this time John Henry began to join her in her travels.

The two travelled even more extensively together throughout Europe and even as far as India and Japan. The travels were not lonely ones. According to her daughter, "Often they joined friends from New York, Philladelhpia or Boston, or with English friends for their voyages."

By this time, Katherine (now affectionately known as "Kitty") was a grown woman. Particularly tall like her father, she was fashionable, well traveled, and well-monied--a good catch for a wife.

In 1900 she re-connected with homeland by getting married. Lawrence Timpson was part of the Hudson Valley elite and a Red Hook native. The John Henry gave his daughter away to Mr. Timpson in Tivoli at an elaborate ceremony in June of 1900. Her glamorous satin gown received newspaper coverage, along with the extensive floral decorations and music by Seidel's Philharmonic Orchestra.

They returned to Clermont for the traditional bridal breakfast (a Victorian predecessor to the modern reception) in Clermont's dining room. The recently-renovated mansion was thouroughyl decked out in lillies and white and pink roses. Breakfast was served in the dining room by "Sher of New York City."

Sadly, marriage did not seem to provide a all the comforts Katherine had hoped for in her life. Although she quickly gave birth to a son in 1901, life became tumultuous again soon after. Her mother-in-law died in 1902, and in 1905 an "estrangement" between she and her father again made her long to leave the Hudson Valley.

Katherine and Lawrence moved to England where life had been so exciting before. But eventually even her marriage could not provide the happiness she sought. She and Lawrence, who would not suffer the social indignity of a divorce, separated and lived their lives independently.

She patched up things with her father at some, giving Clermont to him, and in 1921, when John Henry and Alice brought their children to Europe, they spent a "seaside holiday" with Katherine in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire), north Devon. This would was just the second time that she met Janet and Honoria and for them it would have been the first time they had had to get to know their half sister and their nieces and nephews.

Katherine died in February of 1933 at the age of 60. She had filled her late life by taking an interst in "village wellfare," Berkshire, and studying history and architecture. She bought and renovated a house called Appleton and dug into gardening with the same zeal that Alice Livingston was employing at Clermont. She had lived through a time of great change and expanding opportunities for women, but bound her conservative upbringing and social standing, had pursued a course of life that was acceptable to the old standards. Nevertheless, she strikes me as an independent woman, quick to take control of her situation by changing it and always in search of a new adventure.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Recollections of John Henry Livingston

I probably haven't devoted enough time on this blog to John Henry Livingston (1848-1927). Alice Livingston's husband (I talk about her all the time), he had grown up at Clermont during the mid nineteenth century and lived here intermitently until his death. He had a law career and almost a political career. He outlived two wives before marrying Alice in 1906, and he made many of the most notable renovations to Clermont during his tenure as head-of-household (including the roofline, 10 bathrooms, and and the addition and subsequent removal of a large Victorian porch).

In 2000, when his daughter Honoria passed away, she left behind a ledger filled with loose manuscripts, which she left to Clermont. Amongst these was a brief, unfinished writing by John Henry, which gives us a look into his life.

This anecdotal little narative is primarily devoted to telling the story of John Henry's own childhood and the process of growing up, but in the process it sheds light on family life at Clermont in the early and mid nineteenth century.

John Henry's parents were Clermont (pronounced "Clement"--but yes, he was named after the house) and Cornelia. Cornelia was Clermont's third cousin, which John Henry mentions without disquiet. The Livingstons, and many other wealthy Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries, married distant cousins with some frequency, and later in life, John Henry was not exempt from this practice.

They lived year-round at their Clermont estate with their two children, where they could be near Cornelia's parents (who lived Oak Hill, near the present-day location of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge). His mother also enjoyed a close friendship with their next-door neighbors Montgomery Livingston and his wife Mary Colden Swartout Livingston.

John Henry never had a chance to know his mother well, as she passed away in 1851 when he was only three and she was 27. She was aparently ill for several months as the family relocated to New York City, where she could be near her physician. In his writings, he reached for the details that he knew in order to preserve some memory of her:

I cannot remember her alas, but those who knew her told me she was very beautiful. She was tall, five feet ten inches I think -- a fine carriage and regular features. Mr. Charles Tillotson, who was one of her intimate friends, once told me that he thought her the handsomest woman he had ever seen. There is no life portrait of her, that which I have was copied from a dauggereotype after her death, but the coloring is her own, for Mr. Tillotson kindly described it in detail to the artist & took great pains that it would be correct.

In John Henry's adult life, this ghostly-looking post-mordem portrait hung in the private family library.

John Henry's father Clermont Livingston went on several years later to marry his cousin's widow, the next-door neighbor Mary Colden Swartout. John Henry remembered his father as being both very involved with his children and yet somewhat aloof.

He would join us in our games out of doors, & yet I can never remember any familiar jesting or romping. My father was dignity personified & we never would have dreamed of taking any liberties with him.

We know from his own farm journal that Clermont Livingston was also devoted to being a country gentleman. From 1856-1862 he kept a journal that detailed the success of the estate's farmland. "May 18, 1857: Fruit trees in blossom except apples." "May 25, 1858: Put out greenhouse plants."

The journal is a little limited in the information it provides so it is good to have it augmented by John Henry's description. "He was devoted to his country place, a good shot & a good horseman & devoted to his books & passed much of his time in reading." He also added, "to the day of his death my father always sat for preference in our dining room, where his easy chair & sofa were installed." The dining room, a bastion of formality in a nineteenth century home, would have been an odd place for regular relaxation.

From John Henry's writings we can also learn a little about what growing up at Clermont would be like in the 1850s. Like most boys in that era, John Henry wore dresses during his youngest years. "When I was four years old," he wrote, "I was promoted from dresses to trousers." We also know from the quote above that he and his sister Mary played outside together.

They were supervised by a 30-year-old Germantown local named Serena Minkler. John Henry remembered her fondly:

I have pleasant recollections of seeing my dinner put before me, which with a simple turn of the wrist I would deposit upon the floor should I not be in the mood for beef & potatoes, and Serena, all sympathy for such behavior, would run off downstairs to her kitchen to bring something more to my taste. Anything Johnnie wanted, Johnnie must have, could she procure it.

I can't help but wonder how Serena would have recounted the same story.

When John Henry and his sister were very young, they would most likely have been taught reading and religion by their father and step mother. He mentions having a book Aesop's Fables at one point; in particular he was terrified by its picture of a Satyr.

By 1856 though, it apparently came time to bring in a professional, and Clermont Livingston hired a Danish tutor for the children. Despite having donated the land that was used for the town school in 1834, the Livingstons educated their children with private tutors, another custom common to the wealthy of the nineteenth century.

The tutor moved into the gate house (now Sylvan Cottage) and there he taught not only John Henry and Mary, but also four neighboring de Peyster siblings (who were also cousins of John Henry's). "They always came late & never knew their lessons, but we all had the very best of times together," he wrote.

School at Clermont started at nine o'clock (they were up at six however) and included a lunch and half-hour recess like that experienced by many public school children. It was finished at two, and the afternoon was given to play. Some evening time was reserved for stufy. Bed time was at nine thirty.

It is a quirk of humanity that as we begin to age, that we notice the world has begun to change around us, and we begin to think it might be valuable to write down our fleeting recollections of the way things were. John Henry was not immune to this urge, and his writings have joined the many at Clermont that help us to understand life here on a personal level.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Montgomery Livingston, the Forgotten Painter

Given Clermont's proximity to the Hudson River School havens at Olana and Cedar Grove, it is no wonder that many visitors who enter the library at Clermont point eagerly to the big paintings at each end of the room and ask "are those Hudson River School?" The large works' peaceful, pastoral settings and and reverent feel for nature give them a similar look to familiar works by Thomas Cole or Frederic Church.

The two paintings in our library, and several others displayed or stored in the house, were produced in the early 19th century by Montgomery Livingston. Montgomery (pictured at right) was the son of Margaret Maria Livingston and Robert L. Livingston. Montgomery (pictured at right) was the son of Margaret Maria Livingston (the Chancellor's youger daughter) and Robert L. Livingston. Montgomery was born in 1816, and grew up at Arryl House as one of eight children.

In 1830, Montgomery was among the many lucky well-to-do young American men who was packed off to get cultured in Europe. He based himself in Geneva, where he focused on drawing, painting, and lithography. The painting shown above is one of these that he generated in Switzerland, showing cows grazing in a broad, shallow river with a small farm house watching over the scene.

Montgomery was by no means rooted in Switzerland however, and his letters show him gallavanting around a bit:

"Here I am in Dresden, but I think of leaving as soon as ___. HWL has made me a delightful offer to return to Paris and from there accompany him to Florence where he intends spending the summer." ---March 4, 1837

It was around the time of this letter that money began to be Montgomery's problem, as it was to be for the rest of his life. Soon after, the Panic of 1837 struck America by this time, and the banking crisis made finances were just as messy at home. The letter above ends with the following:

"One thing which I chall want very much will be money before the end of this year for I am afraid I shall get out before my next years letter of credit reaches me..."

In April and May he wrote home again, asking his father for money. With the banks no longer paying out silver, Robert L. first recommended that his son cultivate relationships with friends who could assist him and then that his son simply come home. Nevertheless, Robert L. still supported Montgomery and wanted him to "pursue his own inclinations." Montgomery managed to stay on in Europe for a little while longer before returning home that winter.

At home in New York, Montgomery continued to paint and draw, and he exhibited his work at the national Academy of Design. He soon married a woman named Mary Colden Swartout (shown here in her elder years).
Money continued to be a problem as the panic of 1837 degenerated into an econimic depression, and in January of 1840, a note was anxiously scrawled to his father:
"Times are very hard here no money to be had. I wish you would lend me $200 as soon as convenient for I am very hard pushed for money."
A note on the envelope, probably written by his father, indicated "Montgomery/ sent him $100."
Eventually, Montgomery moved to Arryl House in 1843 when his father passed away. There he set up a studio and lithography equipment in the house so that he could continue his artwork.
He maintained a low profile overall, staying out of politics or the turmoil over the Livingston landholdings in the Catskills. He solved his money problems by selling off pieces of the land holdings his father had left to him whenever his cash supply ran low (according to the family story, he kept this cash in a top hat under his bed).

With a dependable source of money at his back, Montgomery could continue to focus his energies on artwork without the pressure of having to look for buyers. A number of small sketchees like the one below remain in Clermont's collections. These appear to be images of the nearby lanscape; this one has always been thought to be a tenant's farmhouse. Images of the Catskills painted from Montgomery's front yard also figure prominently among these.

He died, as did several of his siblings, at a young age in 1855. With no children, his paintings were passed onto his family members, and his house (Arryl House) and belongings were auctioned off with the profits going to his surviving siblings. His widow walked across the green rolling sheep fold to marry his widower cousin Clermont Livingston (John Henry's father).

Montgomery Livingston is considered by some critics to be a member of the Hudson River School of artists. Others do not include him. Either way, he certainly added color to the palette of Livingstons who inhabited the Chancellor's estate at Clermont.