Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ghosts in the Basement: Clermont Gets Ready for Legends by Candlelight

Clermont State Historic Site’s basement is full of ghosts! Volunteers and staff are getting their corsets and tricorn hats ready to play historic spirits in the Legends by Candelight Spook Tours. I've already spent several afternoons digging down through boxes of petticoats or borrowing from near and far to be sure that every spirit has just the right costume (I have to say that the costumes are one of my favorite parts).

The Legends by Candlelight Spook Tours are the highlight of Clermont’s fall season. Guests who come to Clermont for the tours will find themselves welcomed into a 1921 Halloween party complete with fortune telling and a reproduction 1916 Ouija board. When the séance goes wrong however, the lights go out, and the house is filled with ghosts from Clermont's history. This year, we are highlighting characters from the 18th century. You can look out for Margaret Beekman Livingston (who died suddenly in our dining room, according to the family story), Nancy Shippen Livingston, Chancellor Livingston and his wife, and even bump into some more threatening characters from the same period (I won't spoil all the surprises). Ladies lament and soldiers prowl the land. You never know who you will find around the next corner!

These very popular tours are geared towards adults and children 7 years and up. Visitors on the Spook Tours will tour the mansion at its creepiest and meet ghosts from Clermont’s history. Tours run every half hour from 6:00 to 9:30 on Fridays and Saturdays, October 22, 23, 29, and 30. Rain or (moon)shine tickets are $10 for adults and $4 for children (12 and under) and go on sale October 1. Reservations are strongly encouraged. Advanced purchase is available. Call (518) 537-4240 or visit for more information.

This is a rare “Clermont After Dark” tour that will take guests through the mansion and out onto the grounds for a lamp-lit adventure along the Hudson River. If you can't make it at night, try visiting us during the daytime to see the decorations. As you know from following my blog, they are inspired by the 1920s, the “golden age” of Halloween and meticulously researched from period magazines and design manuals. See a real old-fashioned Halloween or just get ideas for your own decorations this year!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Weddings at Clermont

Over seven generations of Livingstons, Clermont has been the home of about 33 children, and during that time, it has seen its fair share of weddings. What did these weddings at Clermont look like? Well, it depends on which one you mean.

Stretching over a span of 191 years, these weddings would have differed greatly from one another. Wedding traditions and practices changed greatly over the years, and one bride's dream wedding might be simply unthinkable to the next.

Family stories and documentation exist about five different weddings and receptions at Clermont. Though more couples most likely tied the knot here in each generation, these are the ones we know:

  • Janet Livingston to Richard Montgomery (1773),

  • Elizabeth Stevens Livingston to Edward Philip Livingston and Margaret Maria Livingston to Robert L. Livingston (both in the late 1790s),

  • Katherin Livingston to Lawrence Timpson (1900),

  • and Honoria Livingston to Rex McVitty (1931).

Janet Livingston was part of the first generation to get married at Clermont. She was the eldest of ten children when she married a handsome Irishman named Richard Montgomery not long before her 30th birthday. Although older than some brides for the time, Janet's late marriage was her own choice. Arranged marriages were not common by the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and Janet was waiting for a love match. Richard was it.

The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox, 1729, Hogarth

In July of 1773, the two were married at Clermont, in the family's best room, the drawing room. They would most likely have been surrounded by a moderate gathering of friends and family as well as a few bridesmaids and groomsmen. After her religious ceremony, Janet and Richard would have sat down to a splendid afternoon dinner (accompanied by much drinking and toasting). Fashionable wedding desserts included candy and maple sugar molded into shapes, like the sheep at right. Wedding cake, or Bride's Cake was just coming into fashion. It would have been heavily spiced and remenscent of modern fruit cakes.

Let's hope Janet got a chance to dance at ther wedding. High society valued dancing as a social activity that also betrayed good breeding and status. Of course, they weren't dancing the YMCA: “After dinner we danced cotillions, minuets, Virginia and Scotch reels, country dances, jigs, etc. till ten o’clock. I had the pleasure of Miss McCall for a partner. . . The bride and bridegroom led off the different country dances . . . After supper, which was as elegant as the dinner . . . we continued dancing till twelve," wrote a Virginian about another wedding he attended in 1785.

We don't know what the Janet wore, but we can only assume it was something fabulous, according to her wealthy station. Unlike today's wedding dresses, it would have blended into the fashions of the day for more formal events. These were gowns that could, and most likely would, have seen successive wearings instead of being boxed up and stored as a memory.

Silk would have been prefered: damask, satin, taffeta--you name it. White was the choice for some of her contemporaries, but she may also have selected yellow, green, or almost anything else that caught her fancy. Just so long as the dress showed bride at her best, it was the right choice. The dress shown at right is a dress from the collections of Colonial Williamsburg, reported to have been worn for a 1756 wedding. Its wide square neckline was popular for the era, and would have shown off a healthy dose of cleavage (also fashionable).

White did find its way into the celebration in other ways. That old standard of Kindgarten art class, the paper chain, was a popular wedding decoration, and it had to be clean, white paper. Paper was expensive, and white unused paper made a good showy decoration. If the wedding cake was iced (which was not always the case), that was likely to be white as well.

When it came time for Janet's neices Margaret Maria and Betsy to get married some 25 years later, family story asserts that her mother Margaret Beekman Livingston insisted that they also be married in Clermont's drawing room in front of the fireplace. By this time, an obsession with the neoclassical had made white a popular color for dresses for all occassions, so these two ladies (both young brides in their teens) could very possibly have worn white gowns or white gowns with a pattern. Still, plenty of decolotage would have been an important feature. Twenty years later, white would become even more common, as described by this New England farmer of her wedding in 1812 "I wore a white India muslin, the skirt edged by an ornamental border wrought in colored worsted; bands of similar embroidery finished the neck and short sleeves, with a girdle to match…Mr. Emery had a blue coat with brass buttons; drab pants, white vest, a drab overcoat, and a very stylish black beaver; we both wore white kids [gloves]."

With the cerenmony still at home, they would only have had to cross the hall to the dining room for their bridal dinner, probably with many of the same accoutrments that Janet's wedding had had twenty years earlier. The dances may have changed a bit, but the English country dances were still the most popular.

According to Old Sturbridge Village, "Although advice literature and conventional wisdom stressed the importance of seeking a mate who would not prove to be a disappointment in the role of husband or wife, love—physical attraction, in addition to emotional and, for some couples, spiritual compatibility—was at the center of early nineteenth-century marriage and courtship. Men and women were urged to choose prudently but never to ignore the feelings of their hearts." Hopefully Margaret Maria and Betsy felt okay about marrying their cousins. From everything we know, they did.

However, some women were given strong encouragement by their parents to chose a mate that met with parental approval. In the case of Nancy Shippen (who married Margaret Maria and Betsy's uncle some ten years earlier), the pull of Livingston wealth and security was enough for her father to pressure her very heavily to forgoe her emotional connection to a Frech diplomat with an uncertain future. Sadly, this relationship was a total failure that resulted in a separation and harrowing battle for custody of their single daughter.

The next wedding at Clermont that we have documentation of is that of Katherine Livingston to Lawrence Timpson more than a century later in 1900. Traditions had changed quite a bit by this time, and so had Clermont. Though the house now carried with it the stately power of age, it was no longer adequate to meet with all of the requirements of a society wedding. Instead, her wedding ceremony was held about a mile away in a nearby church with the wedding breakfast being served in Clermont's dining room (where Janet, Margaret Maria, and Betsy's had all been before).

Katherine's wedding also bore the extra pressure of being covered in the local newspaper, The Tivoli Times, in rather complete detail. "On Saturday June 2nd at high noon in St. Paul's church, Tivoli, Miss Katharine Livingston... was married to Lawrence Timpson, Esq. of maizeland, Red Hook, in the presence of distinguished guests," it began. Even a number of the important guests' names were listed. I imagine the pressure to impress would have been significant.

It is lucky for us that Katherine's wedding did get written up this way since we now have an excellent description of the event, decorations, etc. For instance, we know that her decorations were mainly floral, and they were coordinated between the church and house. According to the newspaper, they "were beautiful and elaborate, the colors being white and green with a dainty touch of pink. The chancel was banked with tall palms enlived by large bunches of lillies and white roses with festoons of pink and white roses along the chancel rail." And the bridal procession was to orchestral music provided by Seidel's Philharmonic Orchestra.

And what did Katherine wear? White had gradually become a common color for wedding dresses as the nineteenth century progressed--especially after Queen Victoria selected for her wedding in 1840. "The bride wore a gown of white satin profusely trimmed with rare old point lace and a beautiful lace veil fastened with organe blossoms [also like Queen Victoria] and carried a boquet of lillies of the valley." Her corset was stiff; her petticoats were numerous and rustling; her neckline was high. Her bridesmaids wore matching white organdy dresses and carried bouquets of their own.

After the wedding, it was just the bridal party that returned to Clermont to share in the catered wedding breakfast. No reception with dancing was necessary. After the breakfast and some socializing, the bride and groom proceeded straight to their new home in Red Hook.

This was the first wedding at Clermont to be captured in a photograph. It was an uncommon practice to photograph weddings at this point in time; many couples chose to get a commemorative photograph at a later date so gathering the entire party up on the day of the event was a pretty special moment.

Thirty-one years later, when Honoria Livingston married Rex McVitty, she too celebrated a "first" in Clermont weddings. Her's was the first wedding at Clermont to be filmed. Two minutes of film have survived, and a cd of these motion pictures was given to Clermont in 2009. They show Honoria and Rex exited St. Paul's church (just like Katherine), showered with rice and smiling happily. There are about three seconds of film showing the moment caputred on photograph above. It was a very breezy day, and Honoria's dress blew wildly in the wind as Janet, the bridemaides, and groomsmen got into place. as well as a good bit more footage from their lunchtime reception on Clermont's back lawn.

The hors d'oeuvres were served by maids in black with white aprons. Children and families smile and sit on folding chairs while they enjoy large slices of frosted cake. They also smile nervously and dodge the camera whenever they see it following them.

The last moment caught on film is Honoria and Rex, changed into casual clothing and awaiting their train to their honeymoon. After their wedding, the two took off for Ireland, where Rex would introduce his new bride to his parents for the first time. A photo from just a few days later shows them on their cruise ship, trying out its amenities (who knew foosball went back to the 1930s?)

While the Livingstons may not live here any longer, Clermont's rolling hills still play host to many weddings during the warm seasons. While traditions and common practices have changed over the centuries, many people like the continuity of feeling that what they do at their wedding is connected to long string of brides and grooms throughout history. Knowing that so many couples have started the next pages of their lives together here can add a touch of continuity to the day.

And, of course, the view is stunning.

If you are interested in holding your wedding at Clermont, please contact our wedding coordinator Roberta Nolan at (518) 537-4240 for a complete packet of wedding information.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Archival Treasures: Janet's Silhouette

With all of the interest we've had in our silhouette postings, I try to keep my eye out for Livingston silhouettes while I am going about my usual business. While doing some research about Janet in the archives Saturday, I was lucky enough to happen across this.

This silhouette, marked 1921, shows Janet Livingston at age 11. This would have been during the Livingston's travels in Europe. It was apparently during one of their jaunts to England, where they visited Janet's half sister Katherine Timpson, because the address imprinted on the card 290 Oxford St., London, W.

The silhouette is cut from black paper, adhered to a white piece of cardstock, the cardstock printed with all of the studio or artists's advertising material. Handrup, the name on the piece, described this little silhouette as "A quick study silhouette portrait, cut with scissors entirely freehand in one minute."

Janet looks particularly smart in her tam 'o' shanter hat, with her chin up and long, girlish hair trailing down her back. Janet was the more boisterous of the two sisters so I imagine that a one-minute portrait was perfectly suited to her.

I don't know if Honoria got a silhouette too, though I did not find one in the same file. Perhaps if Honoria did have a silhouette cut, it was later passed onto another friend or family member. Or perhaps Janet, on a stroll through London saw the shop and showed a particular interest. Either way, it would have been a nice little souvenier of the Livingston's wanderings in London.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Getting Comfortable: A Brief History of Sitting at Clermont

I will never forget it. The first and only time I have ever had the chance to sit in a magnificent, federal-era sofa. You see, in spite of being constantly surrounded by all this fabulous old furniture and material culture, we museum folk don't get to use it. It's an irony of the job.

But just one time I was helping to clean a very old home for a fund raiser. The house was filled with family antiques that were regularly used, and I just couldn't help myself. When left to dust a suit of red velvet-upholstered furniture from Chancellor Livingston's era, I took a deep breath, looked around, and sank gently onto it.

And then my heart sank. This may have been the most uncomfortable sofa I have ever sat on. The back was stiff. The arms were too high, and the stiff velvet prickled at the backs of my legs. I was severely dissapointed.

Why was it so uncomfortable? Amongst the 18th and 19th century American elite, sitting itself was regulated by some very specific rules of body control and decorum. Although it was important to look comfortable, actually getting comfortable--or at least what I consider comfortable--was a mark of "bad breeding."

Whilst in polite company slouching, tilting, crossing your legs, and even leaning too much against the back of your chair were all marks of the ill bred. For instance, check out Margaret Beekman Livingston here. Even at 69, her ramrod-straight posture appears to make no contact with the back of her chair. Despite looking at ease, her posture (probably aided by a good strong pair of stays or 18th century corset) still conveys dignity and a commanding pressence.

Painted in 1791, the Angus Nickelson family at right are no "slouches" either. In spite of owning a lovely set of uphostered furniture, not a single woman deigns to lean back in it. Even the daughter farthest to the right exhibits her excellent 18th century posture: back straight, with shoulders yanked backwards as far as possible. Only the patriarch in the family has enough clout to be allowed the slightest lean to left. By appearing to be the most at-ease, he takes some comtrol of the scene in this painting.

Furniture makers during these centuries were thus freed from the necessity of making their goods comfortable, and instead they could focus on the elements of style that made it fashionable. For many wealthy 18th century American families, a matched set of side chairs (like this one at Clermont) made up the seating arrangements in the drawing room or parlor. Resembling modern dining chairs, they were often stored with the rest of the furniture lined up along the wall and pulled into the center of the room when their use was required. Arranged in a neat half-circle, friends visited, chatted, and took tea together in chairs like this.

I don't know if you've ever had a reason to sit in a dining chair while trying to socialize, but it's not the sort of posture most of us are used to. But this straight-backed posture was just right for your visiting friends in 1775. In some households, this practice of using side chairs as the primary seating arrangement considered well into the nineteenth century, as you can see from this family at right (pictured around 1800).

But thank goodness, some measure of comfort was starting to make an appearance. Often linked with the old or infirm, a fully-upholstered easy chair was a mark of wealth and status. The high back and deep wings could help to catch the heat of the fire when pulled up tot he glowing hearth. Nevertheless, the comfortable aspects of this chair relegated it to informal spaces (bedrooms and studies) for many years.

But other upholstered furnishings were starting to show up in American parlors (the paragons of style and formality) as the 19th century progressed. The furniture of the Empire era was still stiff and the uphostery scratchy--horsehair was a favorite--but who careed since most of the time you were still expected to have good posture, and without shorts, your legs shouldn't have been coming into contact with the upholstery anyway.

The sofa above is from Clermont's drawing room, and it is a great example of this period. Its curved arms were suggestive of relaxation and leaning, something now occassionally showing in portraiture as women draped themselves artfully about, immitating Greek and Roman luxury like the Jaques-Louis David portrait at left.

So the drawing room at Clermont was beginning to look more comfortable, though, as I learned from my experiement, it was only feeling marginally better. Plus, the dignified Livingstons may have bought the furniture and relaxed their posture a bit (the ladies' stays had also gotten a lot less stiff), but as you can see from Angelica Livingston's portrait at right, they still weren't lounging about in the public eye.

But then we get deeper into the nineteenth century. Lounging begins to have its place--still not in the drawing room, mind you. But time for leaning, tilting, and reclining was on the horizon. The richly-carved Swedish chair, now found in Clermont's informal library, is just such an innovation. This late-ninteenth century chair bears big, squishy cushions on the seat and back (none of those stiff springs or stuffing of its drawing room counterparts), and the back reclines so far it almost looks like beach chair! Finally, an appropriate place to lean back and relax. And don't miss the footstool down there either; you won't have seen that in our earlier discussions.

Still other nineteenth century furniture gradually moved away from the stiff, straight backs of its predecessors. Belter style furniture curved gracefully around the body, seeming to mold itself around the body, and it was considered formal enough to make its appearance in more formal spaces, like Clermont's drawing room (at right, circa 1945).

It was the twentieth century that really relaxed however. While Alice Livingston kept Clermont's drawing room stiff and formal in the 1920s and 30s, she began permitting more comfortable arrangements in less formal spaces. At some point she purchased a Morris chair and squirreled it away in her bedroom. This early recliner was a bastion of comfort for many Americans.

More notably, this large sofa, located in the library, is the ultimate in early twentieth century comfort. Not only is the whole thing heavily cushioned, with rolled arms that will support relaxing bodies, but an arrangement of throw pillows was strewn across it.

Now we've just gotten a little comfort crazy, right? Gradually showing up on furniture (in the appropriate places of course--not your formal parlor) throughout the nineteenth century, throw pillows allow you to adjust a piece of furniture to support your every individual curve and bump. What an idea! Be gone stiff 18th century side chair! I'm getting comfortable.
As you can see, comfort was of gradually increasing importance in the construction of furniture construction over the past 300 years. As little innovations came in they worked their way into formal spaces as the American public relaxed the bodily restraints and postures that they had once used to distinguish themselves from the unrefined rabble.

While the easy chair of the 18th century was once bannished to secretive locations where leaning was acceptable, the cushioned sofa of the twentieth century eventually found its way into our living rooms, offering comfort not just to the secretive relaxer, but even to our guests.

For a great discussion of the historical importance of sitting and comfort, check out Katherine Grier's book "Culture and Comfort: Parlor Making and Middle-Class Identity, 1850-1930."

Friday, September 3, 2010

Sticky Wicket: Croquet at Clermont

My introduction to the game of croquet as a child was undoubtedly through Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

“'Get to your places!' shouted the Queen in a voice of thunder, and people began running about in all directions, tumbling up against each other; however, they got settled down in a minute or two, and the game began.”

Okay, okay--so I saw the Walt Disney animated version long before I read the book. But the silliness of watching flamingos knocking around hedgehogs was appealing--and to a child, the devious act of knocking around the other person's hedgehog was even better. A sport where you are encouraged to mess with the other players? Bring it on!

Croquet has a history that dates back as far as the 17th century and appears to have descended from the game "pall mall." Games with similar rules were described throughout the 18th century and early 19th, but the game became fully recognizable during its resurgence in popoularity around the middle of the 19th century.

At Clermont, the first written record I have found of croquet goes back to 1878. Clermont Livingston wrote on April 29th "Moved croquet ground," suggesting that the croquet court had already existed here before that. So it is reasonable to suggest that croquet was being played on our rolling lawns at least as early as the middle of the 1870s and possibly back to the 1860s when it first experienced its resurgence.

But back to that social aspect: Croquet's slow, steady pace made it an acceptable activity for adult ladies at a time when few other outdoor sports really were. Even better, it was appropriate for men and women to play at the same time. Ooh my!
While the whole "separate spheres" idea does get overplayed for the 19th century, it is true that young, unmarried men and women were always on the lookout for ways to spend time together (isn't that true now?). Structured activities gave them an excuse to be together while helping to reassure parents or other society members that the couple was, in fact, not doing anything innapropriate. For example, think of all those lovely romantic walks the characters take in Jane Austen novels. If a one-mile walk takes you an hour to complete, someone's going to get suspicious about what's been going on out there.

So croquet made for a great opportunity to flirt with the oposite sex. Much of the period art depicting croquet focuses on the parties being mixed-sex. An 1860s Harper's Bazaar article even lampooned women's participation in croquet and a number of sports for this reason. Were they really playing because they liked the game, or were they just playing to meet boys? Either way it only sort of mattered since a woman with too much competitive spirit was considered tom-boyish. (Think of Jo in Little Women earnestly challenging Laurie to an ice skating race. This was just one of many proofs that labeled her a late-blooming or failed "lady.")
Just look at the costumes for croquet if you need a little further proof that the game was as much for flirting as anything else. A primarily middle- and upper-class game, appropriate croquet clothes for women were decorative and almost as heavy and restrive as other day clothes. Corsets, bustles, and piles of petticoats allowed them to look fashionable and pretty but not to run around too strenuously. Add in short skirts that showed off those sexy ankles (which were usually only visible for a few lucky moments) and you've got a costume that's perfect for flirting. Of course, the necklines stay high, but let's not go crazy here!

Croquet continued as a backyard passtime into the twentieth century, when it found its most avid Clermont players in Clermont Livingston's granddaughters. Janet and Honoria took up the game in the 1910s and began to play on the mansion's back lawn. This wide, flat area "made an excellent croquet court" according to Honoria, and the two girls played all summer either as a pair or with additional friends.

Honoria's competitive spirit found its greatest outlet in croquet, and when Clermont became a museum and eventually began hosting annual Croquet Tournaments, she was sure to be counted in. In 1983, the first year it took place, she arrived solo for a doubles tournament, and partnered with a young man who also arrived alone. The two were a perfect match and together took first place in the Advanced Division, perhaps the perfect storybook ending to the day.
The Croquet Tournament is still an annual event here at Clermont. In 2010, in its 28th year, the tournament will take place on September 18th and 19th, the conintuation of a tradition going back through three generations of Livingstons.