Friday, August 27, 2010

A Fanciful Encounter

Inspired by the a young volunteer with a deep love for Jane Austen, I am taking a flight of fancy this week in writing our blog.

The novels of Jane Austin are more popular today than they ever were during her lifetime. Despite being about 200 years old, they have inspired half a dozen movies that I can think of in the past ten years as well clubs, events, and that crazy series of zombie books (I'm really curious about these!).

People love to get absorbed into her world. The Jane Austen Society of North America organizes book discussions, English Country Dances, and even trips to England (pictured at left) to celebrate their love of Austen's work and taste just a little bit of her era. Still other, less formal groups gather for tea parties and dress-up occassions that enable them to the escape into a world more interesting than the hum-drum of our daily lives.

While thinking about this, my own mind wandered off into a tangent of living "a day in the world of Jane Austen," and I began to think about Clermont during the same era. What sights and smells would an English visitor find here? Part of lure of Jane Austen's books for me has always been the creation of a believable world. So here goes:

"It is such a happiness when good people get together--and they always do." This quote from Austen's book Emma is posted on the JASNA website, and I'm going to borrow it to set the tone for this fictional visit.

The fall of 1807 is a good time for visiting Clermont. Freshly returned from France where he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, the Chancellor is also flush with his most recent scientific victory: the first practical steamboat.

The trip up the Hudson (still called the North River) is a welcomed departure from the congestion of Manhattan. For $5, our visitor boards the steamboat at 5 'clock Saturday night and sleeps in one of births of common ladies' or gentlemens' cabins. On Sunday, gliding steadily against the tide at about 4 miles an hour, our English visitor is impressed with the heavily-cultivated valley. Large fields are now being harvested under the rising hulks of the Catskill Mountains.

The river is busy with boats, primarily sloops, many laden with fall harvests, and many at anchor awaiting the change in the tides or the river, but the steamboat moves on, belching smoke and occasionally a rather unnerving spray of sparks from its stack.

Once disembarked at the Red Hook dock, our visitor is retrieved by the Chancellor's carriage, and approaches New Clermont on "The Avenue" the road which runs along the river on the Livingston estate. Perhaps our visitor is as amazed with the fall colors as William Strickland was in 1794 when Clermont's trees glowed "the brightest yellow & orange...the most brilliant scarlet or purple. Europeans accustomed to the sober brown of their autumn, can form no idea of the splendor of that season, while the sun shines upon the woods."

Coming up from the south side in the failing sunlight (our visitor didn't even arrive at Red Hook until 5:00 according to the steamboat schedule), our visitor would first see an "English garden with only flowers and rare bushes...This little garden adjoins and loses itself in the wild promenade which descends to the river." (Niemcewicz, 1796). Perhaps this garden is a little torn up tonight, as Dollard, the new French or Swiss gardener whom the Chancellor brought back from his trip, is getting a head start on fall plantings. But some of the apple trees along the perimeter are heavy with late-season fruit, glittering red scattered in amongst the shifting leaves.

In the terraced courtyard in front of the mansion, the Chancellor himself greets our visitor, accompanied by his wife Mary, daughter Margaret Maria (shown at right with her best fringe of Grecian curls) and her husband Robert L. Livingston (shown above). There is just enough to time change for dinner in one of the guest bedrooms on the second floor (hung with fine French wallpapers, possibly in the popular new "French green," a color which used arsenic as one of its ingredients) before sitting down to a formal supper at nine o'clock.

The dining room is graced with stunningly large windows which face the setting sun and the Catskill Mountains. The furniture is in the simple, fine style which has been popular for a decade or so. In America it will later be called Federal; in England, Regency. In any case, the furniture is lightweight to the point of delicacy, with thin square legs, ornamented swags or chains of tiny flowers to reflect Classical Greecian and Roman taste, which Americans percieve as being appropriate for their new Republic.

The table is spread with a series of white linen clothes which are gradually removed as each new course is cleared. The "profusion, variety, and excellence of the dishes were quite remarkable; and when the cloth was drawn [dessert was served on a bare table], what exquisite pastries and confectionaries appeared!" An earlier English visitor paid the Livingstons his highest compliment with the summation there was nothing there "that might not have graced the best English table."

The Chancellor's wife Mary has taken the opportunity to use the new china just brought back from France. The Dartes Freres dishes are part of an 80 piece set, and tonight the meal is finished off with a dessert of pot de creme, a French custard served in individual little cups (matching the set of course!) to each diner (shown at left).

The meal has been served by something of a curiousity: a mix of white servants and black slaves. Americans are still wrestling with the issue of slavery, and although New York passed the Gradual Manumission act in 1799, the Chancellor still has a small number of enslaved people (probably 5) at his service. England has abandonded the practice of slavery, and it is a surprising novelty to most travelers.

Dinner conversation covers many polite topics though; mostly tonight it is about the curious nature of the Livingston's dependance on tenant farming, something which sounds decidedly Fuedal to our English visitor. Tenants, primarily of "German" origin (many descended from the earlier Palatine migration of 1711, but others of English descent) pay wheat or fowl annually to the Chancellor and provide him with several days labor. It's a system which has bennefited his family emmensely, only adding to their extreme wealth.

The wine has poured freely, and the Chancellor is on quite a rant about his sheep. He has been importing sheep from various countries, including Ireland, for years, but his most recent pride are four Merinos he got out of France. He seems to be quite bent on breeding them with his existing stock to enhance their own quality.

But our guest is sleepy. The ladies have long since retired to their own devices, and although it is only midnight, it is time for him as well. With a single candle, he climbs the stairs to his own bedroom and retires to bed, where he draws the curtains against the chilling fall air.

Clermont and the Chancellor's New Clermont (later called Arryl House) were some of the finest estates along the Hudson River, inhabited by some of the wealthiest of American citizens. In the wake of the steamboat success they were excitedly dreaming of the wealth it would bring them. Their homes represented the peak fashion and were now refreshed with new French imports. Almost any visitor would have been impressed.

However Jane Austen herself would not have received an invitation to the Livingston mansions. Lacking significant social standing or finances, she did not even gain fame from her novels, as they were published anonymously. , In 1807, Jane was facing one of the shakiest times in her life. She, her mother, and her sisters were without a permanent home, left in a state of confusion by her father's death. While other English guests marveled at the country estate, surrounded by attractive gardens and a peseant-like tentantry, Jane herself was facing entirely other realities at home.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Head Full of Steam: Remembering the Steamboat

This week marked the 203rd anniversary of the maiden voyage of the first practical steamboat. On August 17, 1807 Robert Fulton and Chancellor Robert R. Livingston were holding their breath as the Steamboat (the unique monstrosity needed no name to distinguish it from the other boats on the river at this point) made its first trip from Manhattan to Albany. The story has been told and retold so I won't belabor you with it again, but suffice to say, it has been imbued with the mists and romance of history.

When I first arrived at Clermont, fresh from graduate school, with a head full of my first love: historic costumes, steamboats were about as far from my mind as they could be. Antiquated technology had done little to capture my imagination. But the fact was that I had failed to recognize the impact of steam transportation on the American (and world) life and imagination.

The technology that pushed the North River Steamboat, as it was eventually called (and much later referred to retroactively as the Clermont), later pushed the Transcontinental Railroad to the Pacific Ocean and the Titanic across the Atlantic. One might almost say that it "shrunk" the size of the world by making distances less imposing. Journeys that once took months could now be completed in a matter of days or weeks.
On a more recent note, steam power has generated a deeply romantic following over the past century. It all really started in 1909 celebration (now memorably referred to as the Hoopla on the Hudson). The celebration simultaniously comemmorated the 200th anniversary of the Henry Hudson exploration and the 100th (plus two) anniversay of the Fulton/Livingston steamboat. The celebration was surrounded by nostalgic art, books, and more and colored by the pageantry and rose-colored glasses of the Colonial Revival (for instance, the delightfully Colonial-esque pediment on the cover of Alice Crary Sutcliff's 1909 book Robert Fulton and the Clermont).

And steam has continued to play a dramatic role in our memories. Several steamboating societies in America (and beyond) testify to the lure of steam techonology as a hobby. Boaters primarily build their own vessels, tinker with them, improve them, and carefully research and engineer them with a devotion that reminds me of classic car lovers. In 2007 I had the priviledge of riding in one of the hobby steamboats, lovingly outfitted with a striped canopy and matching sofa cushions, at the Hudson River Maritime Museum. The soft, putt putt putt of the enging and the fascinating twist of gears was downright hypnotic.

And you can't omit the popularity of Thomas the Tank Engine in all this either. Here is an unbearably-cute, anthropomorphized steam engine, who tempts hundreds of thousands of 21st century children with his drastically-outdated technology. The books were originally written in 1915 but seem to have only recently acheived their full potential with a wildly-popular television series, massive collection of train toys, and a host of other marketable items from cupcakes to bedding and furniture.

Trains seem to have become the subject of most of this "steamy" romance. But the appeal of whistling and clicking, old-timey technology has also burgeoned into an international cult-following with the popularity of steampunk. Steampunk is hard to sum up in one paragraph if you don't already know it, but its fiction is often based in Victorian-esque alternate realities, powered by whirring mostrosities of machinery, often highly decorated with polished copper and brass and a myriad of glittering gears. According to a recent issue of Steampunk Magazine, "Steampunk has always been a melting pot of ideas, where present and past intertwine with fantasies of our own imaginations..."
Now steampunk has generated its own cottage industry of artists and craftspeople remaking modern technology in the image of something much older (like the steampunk computer at left I borrowed from Wikipedia). Think something like The Flinstones using dinosaurs to replicate the image of Fred driving a crane in the show's opening sequence.
Most people are aware that Fulton did not truly "invent" the steamboat. Many inventors had already been riducled for and pursued the idea of getting something as nebulous as steam to drive gears and wheels. Fulton was merely the gifted mechanic who managed to get this tricky process to work.
What I find curious is the huge impact that this has continued to have on our psyche. It has evolved however from a frightening new techonology that threatened a whole way of life (some captains of slower sailing packet boats became so concerned about the economic impact that this could have on them, they began to ram the steamboats as a desperate attempt to put them out of commission) to something we associate with "times gone by" and something long lost. One of the draws for curious tourists to the historic district of Gastown in Vancouver, British Coloumbia is a large steam clock whose whistles chime every quarter hour. Surrounded by attractive brick sidewalks and a quaint shopping district, the steam clock is an emblem of nostalgia in a town proudly proclaiming its history--even though the clock wasn't built until 1977.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Memento Mori: Remembering Cornelia

Our Junior History Club is happening here this week, and the kids are eagerly planning their end-of-week projects. Every year, they get to pick Livingston characters and portray them inside the mansion for their parents and other guests. They dress in costume and research their person's vital statistics. I've found that kids remember for years who they portrayed at each year of camp and as young adults still hold onto a little bit of a bond for that person.

Naturally, whenever possible, they like to deliver their monologues next to the portrait of their charactor. So when my one camper announced that she was Cornelia Livingston, I couldn't help but feel a little bad that I had so little to offer her.

Dead in 1851, Cornelia was John Henry Livingston's mother, and no portrait was ever painted of her while she was alive. John Henry confirmed this in a brief memoir later in his life. Kids who portray her usually do so in front of the 1840s sewing box that stands in the study. It's a lovely piece, inlaid with mother of pearl and beautifully decorated, but it's not much of a way to get to know someone.

So instead I offered to show her the only picture of Cornelia in existance: a memento mori or post mortem photograph. My 14-year-old camper (and everyone else in her vacinity) looked a little bit disturbed by the idea.

Not only did Cornelia never have a painted portrait made of her, no photograph was ever taken of her either. Photography had been around for just over ten years when Cornelia succumbed to a lingering illness in 1851. With no other way but fading memories to hold onto her likeness, her family chose to photograph her corpse.

This was not uncommon in the nineteenth century. These photographs were perceived generally as a way to remember a loved one's face, though many modern viewers get quite stuck on the fact that they are seeing the picture of a dead body. In many early examples the subject is posed to appear as though they are sleeping or at rest. Cornelia's image looks as though she could well have just laid down for a nap, propped up gently on soft white pillows.

When seen as an extension of earlier mementos of the dead, these post morten photographs make a little more sense (to the modern, disconcerted viewer). Before photography gave us a cheaper and more exact alternative for remembering the appearance of lost loved ones, all sorts of materials were used to remember them. Handkerchiefs, rings, and gloves were all distributed at funerals as momentos of a lost loved one. Miniature portraits (like the one shown at right of Montgomery Livingston) provided a portable form of rememberance and could be mounted into jewelry when desired. This one also contains delicately braided pieces of Montgomery's hair on the back as a further rememberance.

This technique was another common way to carry the memory of the dead that dates back as far as the later 18th century (the piece at right is an example).

Still others were remembered in more commercial ways. George Washington is memorialized on a transferware pitcher right. Many other memorial pitures can be found at historic homes and museums, and a wide variety of commercial goods were to produced to commemorate his life.

An image of the lost person's face was alwys preferable, and in some cases, portraits were paited after death. This could be difficult unless the painter knew the deceased. General Montgomery's post morten portrait can be seen at right, for instance. It has the same kind of ambiguity and lack of detail that Cornelia's one and only painted portrait (made from her post mortem photograph) has as well.

While it may seem odd to us today to attempt to capture the face of a dead body, the practice to earlier Americans was born of a lack of adequate imagery produced during their lifetimes. Not seen as the image of a corpse but as a last look at a deceased loved one, the momento mori was a tradition born out of a long-practiced set of behaviors based in holding onto the people who "went before." Photography was by this time just the natural progession of technology providing a more accurate depiction.

Cornelia's photograph, seen in this light, stops being a "creepy" novelty and becomes something closer to what its originators may have seen it as: the only way for her surviving young children (at 3 and 6 years old) to ever know her face.