Saturday, December 31, 2011

Tricky Script: Finding Woolacombe Beach

One of the banes of an historian's existance is historic script. Especially in pencil, which fades and smudges. Reading it can be slow and involve a lot of guesswork and sighing. Thankfully, Alice Livingston had reasonably clear handwriting, like this:

"S.S. Rotterdam/Plymouth 24 June 1921" Nevertheless, when I come across a word I don't know (which seems to be all the time in the photo albums that involve travel and exotic place names), I honestly tend to skim over it unless it is vital to my research. I've been skimming over this word for a while: but today I guess I was feeling bold. I was pretty sure I could read W-O-O-L-A-C-O-(?)-(?)-E. Is that even a word? Well, thanks be to Google's autocomplete, because when I got halfway through typing, it finished the word for me: Woolacombe, a seaside resort on the north coast of North Devon, England. I even found their current tourism website.

Well, don't I feel smart?

From the dates on Alice's pictures, it looks as though the family got on their steamer (the S.S. Rotterdam, pictured at left) at the end of June in 1921 and steamed over to England, where they went to see John Henry's eldest daughter Katharine and then off all together for a seaside holiday to Woolacombe in July.
This would have been the first time that Honoria and Janet would meet their neice and nephew Theodore and Katharine (who were actually 6 and 8 years older than Honoria, respectively). They also met up with their niece and nephews along the way. In the picture at right, you can see Honoria and Janet with three other children, three of Katharine's children. They are all pictured again in the photograph below.

John Henry in his dignified suit looks a little out of place on a sunny beach, but his daughters have certainly made themselves comfortable; either Janet or Honoria has stripped off her shoes and flopped onto her back to soak up a little sun. You can just see her bare legs sticking out from behind his chair.

Woolacombe was just a short stop on their tour of England (which was of course just a piece of their six-years in Europe). From there they visited the sites: Wells, Clovelly (the photo at left shows them on the way to Clovelly), Fairford, even Stonehenge (and plenty of other places I haven't yet decoded the handwriting on). Photos show that they staid in England until about September, before heading south to Florence, Italy. Later trips back to England would take them to even more of England's countryside and cities.

Decoding Alice's handwriting can be tricky at times, but clearly it's worth the effort. We managed to fill out a travel itinerary for the first part of the Livingstons' European adventure! Three months exploring England before they were to find a longer-term home in Italy.

Now if only I can get better at reading John Henry's and Chancellor Livingston's dreadful scrawls, then I will feel accomplished...

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Roman Holiday

In 1921, Alice and John Henry Livingston decided their two daughters needed a cultural education--"Culture with a big 'C,' we called it," said Honoria of the trip. The family packed up and moved to Italy.

For six years, they lived in Florence, renting villas and traveling around Europe to see the sites (Seen at right, Villa Camerata was one of their homes. This villa still exists as a youth hostel, and there are lots of pictures of its historic rooms and veranda). "It was wonderful because we'd get in the car and drive," said Honoria much later, recalling road trips to famous Roman ruins, exotic landscapes, and historic and cultural sites. They even traveled to England to visit John Henry's oldest daughter, Katherine (you can see them at left in Stratford-on-Avon, long known as the home of Shakespeare).

The Livingstons did not completely abandon their beloved Clermont during this time. John Henry was overseeing major changes at a distance: the installation of electricity, the removal of the large Victorian veranda to make the house look more "Colonial." They made a few trips back to America, including one in 1923 aboard the Mauretania, a luxurious sister ship to the Lusitania. After two decades of use (including a stint as a troopship during WWI), the boat was an aging memory of a glamorous Edwardian age (the photo at left shows the Veranda Court, the cafe where guests could enjoy the sun, while being protected from the weather). At right, the girls can be see wrapped up against the chilly ocean breeze on their one-week trip across the Atlantic Ocean back to Euorpe.

I love looking at the photos of their trips--seeing familiar locations that I've seen a hundred other times in photographs, but this time seeing it through their eyes. For Honoria and Janet, who were still children this was a whole new continent previously seen only in books, a place to explore and learn.

But the girls' interests were not always just in the historic gravity of a famous European hotspot. Janet was perhaps not as enthusiastic as her sister. Honoria said of their trips, "I don't think Janet cared so much for it, but I loved it." In some ways, it reminds me of my trips to Civil War battlefields when I was young--more monuments and plaques than I cared to read. It would not be until years later that I grasped the importance of the places I had visited.

For Alice and John Henry, the experience would have been much different. Both of them had been to Europe on their 1906 honeymoon (and John Henry on several ocassions before that), but that was before World War I. Many things had changed, buildings damaged and destroyed, country borders entirely moved.

The Livingstons' years in Europe would prove to be the source of many important memories and the last they were to have with John Henry. It was within a few weeks of their final return to America that John Henry passed away at the age of 79. Italy continued to have an influence on Alice in particular for years to come, visible in the prominent display of her favorite souvenirs and the Italian look she incorporated into her large gardens at Clermont, especially the Walled Garden. What effect it had on Honoria and Janet is not so visible, but I can only imagine that the memories they carried of the trip were as important to them as to their mother.

Years later, Honoria would return to Europe, though to though this time to Ireland, not Italy. In 1931 she married Reginald (Rex) McVitty, and went with him to see meet his family there. Another week on an ocean liner, this time as a newlywed, is captured in this photograph of the couple playing foosball.

Monday, December 5, 2011

New Acquisitions

Clermont is a museum dedicated to the long history of the Livingston family. But the Livingstons aren't gone; many of their descendants can still be found in the Hudson Valley and beyond. In fact, hundreds of descendants have come to our family reunions held every five years or so (photographed at right in the Livingston tartan are some of our Livingston descendant friends).

Like many families, they have been the recipients of treasured family heirlooms: books from Chancellor Livingston's library, silver spoons from their table, or portraits of a great, great uncle. It just so happens that their great, great uncle was Chancellor Livingston.

It's important to remember these pieces in this light when a Livingston family member agrees to donate a Livingston artifact to Clermont. It is not just some beautiful old thing their house, it carries with it their family pride and often childhood memories. Just as I fondly remember opening presents Christmas morning while my grandfather was propped in his red leather arm chair, these Livingston descendants often have close personal ties to the upholstered arm chair that sat in the corner of the living room and they were not allowed to put their feet on.

So when a Livingston family member called to offer us a grouping of nineteenth century parlor furniture in December, we were excited. But we also needed to remember that this furniture held more than just its financial value for its owners and historic value for the museum; it also held all those family memories.

The grouping consisted of two chairs and a sofa, re-upholstered in blue to match one another in the 1960s or '70s, though the furniture itself was not a set. All three had been photographed in Clermont's Drawing Room by Alice Livingston in a set of photos taken in 1928. The furniture was given to the donor's mother by Janet Livingston just before Clermont became a museum in 1965.

To a curator, this is exciting stuff.

The sofa (pictured at left and again below) was a mid-nineteenth century transitional piece, not as bulky or Classical looking as the earlier period, but not as curvacious and ornate as the later Belter or Roccoco Revival styles that dominated American furniture after the Civil War.

The chairs were slightly later--both being simple examples of the Rococo Revival. Although they also did not match, the smaller held the exciting surprise of being a match for the curved-back chair that we currently have in the Drawing Room (photographed at right). To be honest, I'd never seen the 1928 photos, which are stored at our conservation center on Peebles Island, and had no knowledge of this furniture's existence (incidentally, those photographs also show a second floral wallpaper--different from the 1880s image--and heavy drapes on the windows. Hopefully I can get some copies scanned to share with you one of these days).

So when will you see these exciting new acquisitions? We know the sofa and two chairs were in the Drawing Room in 1928. But Alice had a tendancy to rearrange her furniture periodically (don't we all start messing with the house when the winter blues start getting us down?), and the current arrangement of the Drawing Room reflects photographs taken in the mid 1930s and 40s. Which one is correct? Both are. So in order to display the "new" trio of furniture appropriatly, we can't just combine it all but instead will have to do some thinking about which arrangement to go with, which set of pictures to go with, etc. By using the pictures, we know for sure that this is the way that Alice wanted it (not the way that we think looks right,; it's not a museum to us).

While we are thinking about that, the furniture is being conserved. The later upholstery will be removed and replaced with something similar to what we see in the photographs (or, if we are lucky, we will find more of the same damask on other furniture we already own so we can know we are really close).

But while we are recreating Alice's world, we have to remember to stop and thank the Livingston descendants who parted with it in the first place. What family memories of Christmas morning or afternoons with iced tea or bored children with their feet sticking off the edge did they part with?

I guess there's only so much musing I can do about that, and instead will just have to say a hearty "Thank you!"

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Well Served: Service in Chancellor Livingston's House

This post is part of a new series on servants in Livingston households. What was it like to serve one of the richest families in the country? What kind of life did these people live? It's a big question, and a blog is not the place for a complete investigation, but I am attacking it bit by bit with some of the interesting pieces I've gathered over the years.

"The servants were busy cleaning and sweeping": Serving at Arryl House On August 14th, 1798 Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz climbed the the steep bluff from the Hudson River to Chancellor Livingston's fashionable mansion, letter of introduction in hand. A keen observer with an interest in darn near everything, Niemcewicz wrote about the first people he encountered:

"It was seven in the morning, the whole family was sleeping, the servants were busy cleaning and sweeping the house."

So imagine the scene: It's about an hour after sunrise, the Livingstons are still asleep, and the servants have already begun the work of the day. They has risen from their basement bedrooms, dressed, and possibly eaten and were already to work. Niemcevicz saw "cleaning and sweeping" happening--but that was on the main floor.

Down in the basement kitchen (which may have looked something like the Hope Lodge kitchen at left), the cook had undoubtedly already poked the fire back up and begun breakfast preparations. Dishes were rattling, and her knife was chopping in away rhythm as she began preparations for mid-day dinner as well.

Was the cook a slave? Yes, probably. While we cannot be positive, the Chancellor owned 12 slaves in the year 1800, and the days of importing fancy French-trained chefs were still a few decades in the future. So the cook, probably a black slave woman, probably well trained in her art, spent most of her time living and sleeping in the kitchen, organizing and overseeing not only the preparation, but also the care and storage of the household's food.

According to Niemcevicz, these "servants" were well-treated. "They serve, it seems, rather from enjoyment than from necessity." Well, I would take that with a grain of salt, but it sounds as though the Chancellor ran a convivial household. His servants were well-fed and well-cared for: "They have the same food and practically the same comforts as do their masters." I doubt that the slaves slept in feather beds or dined on strawberry ices, but suffice to say that they were reasonably well-fed and treated with some affection and care, an assertion that was backed up by other travelers as well.

As I've already mentioned, some of these "servants" could have been paid staff, and some were definitely slaves. What was the ratio? The 1800 census records show that the Chancellor owned 12 slaves. Some of these would have worked outside as oposed to inside the mansion, where Niemcevicz would have encountered them. Some of these may have been the four young slave boys described by and English visitor four years ealier. At that point, they were ages five to twelve, and they were general helpmeets around the house.

But the 1790 census also shows one free female between the ages of 10 and 16 who is unaccounted for who could have been either a paid servant or Harriet Livingston (later Harriet Fulton) who is sometimes said to have staid at Clermont. Two free females between the ages of 26 and 45 are also unaccounted for, and there is no obvious answer to who those could be. One free male age 10 to 16 is also unaccounted for, leaving a total of four possible paid servants in the Chancellor's household in 1800.

If it is the case that there were four paid servants in Livingston's staff in addition to the slaves, what kind of working environment would this have lead to? Who did what? And how were the relationships between coworkers? The questions about daily life are endless.

One other paragraph of interest can be found in the Niemcevicz account of Clermont.

Amongst other servants here there was a quite black Mulatress. Having secretly has an affair with a white carpenter she had a daughter...This girl and other black imps, children of the servants, are treated and favored by their master as if they belonged to the family.

First of all, this tells us who else was filling out the household at Clermont: little children. The servants were responsible for watching their children as best they could while they worked, and these children played where they could encounter the Livingstons and their guests. This probably meant that they were not playing in the kitchen (where few guests would consider even setting foot), but more likely outside where they were not underfoot.

This passage also references two intimate relationships between black and white New York residents. The "Mulatress" was a woman of African and European descent, herself the product of an earlier relationship. According to Niemcevicz she had "a secret affair with a white carpenter," though as an inquisitive visitor, I wonder how many details the Livingstons were willing to share with him--or even how many they knew. This brief summation does not explain the complexities of human relationships and interaction. I wonder what the whole story was?

At any rate, Niemcevicz levels little or no judgement on the woman for her relationship outside of marriage; as a slave, legal marriage (had she desired it) was not an option for her, and the burden of care of their daughter fell to her. Now her personal life was on display, a point of interest for travelers from foreign countries.

Other mixed race relationships are known within the Livingston households. Henry Beekman Livingston, the Chancellor's younger brother, is said to have fathered numerous illegitimate children, some of whom with African American mothers. Henry's maladjusted and sometimes violent behavior was scandalous all around however (he was practically disowned by his mother), and he can hardly be used as an example that explains the broader Livingston family.

An additional relationship was uncovered in the 1990s between Philip the Signer's son (Philip, of course) and a Jamaican woman that he kept as a slave.  Their decedents have been kind enough to share their story.

All in all, Niemcevicz's description of Clermont and its "servants" is one of the most colorful available to us, perhaps matched only by William Strickland's visit four years earlier. It paints a somewhat rosie look at the Livingston's relationships with their slaves, omitting stories like that of Robin, a slave in Margaret Beekman Livingston's house who was nearly sold south for his troublesome behavior.

Niemcevicz's description nevertheless includes valuable information about the background life of Clermont, not just the glittering family that owned it, but the men, women, and children who polished it until it shone.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Growing up Livingston: The Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen, part 9

Little Peggy was no longer a baby, but a little girl, growing up in one of the most wealthy and notable households in the northern United States. In December of 1785, while her mother Nancy was attempting to rouse herself from a crushing depression, Peggy was turning four years old (at right, a contemporary portrait by English artist Arthur Devis).

Despite being far from her mother and caught in the center of dreadful custody battle, Peggy was surrounded by caring adults in the home of her grandmother. By this time, Margaret Beekman Livingston was 61-year-old widow with an empty nest. The sparkling face of a little grand daughter might have been just what she needed by her side. She doted on the girl a good bit, calling her "so beloved a Child," and often complimented her to others. "The old Lady supposes her to be a prodigy of good sense," wrote Nancy's brother Tommy once.

By all accounts, the Livingston household was a loving one in which to grow up. When Tommy visited Peggy at her grandmother's house in New York City, he decsribed a visit in which all love and attention was focused on the beloved little girl.

..she seated herself very much at ease on my lap & held up her little ruby lips, as often as I wished to kess them, which was every minute...the old Lady [Margaret Beekman Livingston] could not keep her hands off her, but almost smothered her with kisses.

She was the darling of all who visited the household, trotted out to charm the Bon Mond of eighteenth-century New York (now also the capital of the new nation). But during these visits Peggy was also learning the social skills which were expected to aid her in adulthood. She was escorted into the parlour for polite visits, where she was allowed to play on the floor, talk to the adults, and climb into their laps. Here she began learning polite language and manners, as in Tommy's description from the same 1785 letter:

She takes the round two or three time in the Evening to dispense her Curtesys [curtsies] and her kisses to all her uncles and aunts, whom she mentions by name before she makes her curtesy...

With grown-up assistance, the little girl even got to hold her very own tea party, inviting "20 young misses" "by card 3 days before." The party was lavish, thrown by her mother Nancy when Peggy was given leave to spend the winter and spring of 1787 in Philadelphia (surely a great excitement for both mother and daughter!).

Sewing and needlework were more skills that Peggy needed to learn. Although often taught at girls' schools, it is likely she would have practised her skills at home alongside her female family members. Peggy's mother also regularly recorded working on decorative needlework, including tambor so she would have seen adults around her doing similar work. Peggy was starting with more basic work however. "Ask her to show you her pocket [handkercheif] which she has hemmed [be] Surpris[ed] how well it is done," wrote her grandmother Margaret.

Peggy had long shown an appreciation for music, something near and dear to the hearts of the eighteenth century wealthy, and now she was learning to take part. She "sings 6 songs," wrote Dr. Shippen of his grandaughter, accompanied by the household piano forte. At just five years old, this was a good accomlishment! In addition to personal pleasure, when Peggy got bigger singing at social gatherings could entertain friends and gain the ear of a sensible gentleman, a scene often played out in Jane Austen's novels in the years ahead. Music was considered an appropriate outlet for women as well as men, and Peggy's cousins, Besty and Margaret Maria Livingston were both to study music in the years to come as well.

Dancing, another vital social skill during the period, had also been part of her education. In April, at her tea party, she "danced a cotillion well," and later we hear that "Miss Binghamton & Miss Livingston ...have been dancing minuets & Cotillions..." on March 17th.

Her education also included more formal studies. "Peggy was perfectly well at school," reported Nancy's uncle. A variety of schools were available to wealthy girls at this point, but Peggy was most likely learning at least reading and religion. When sending the little girl off to her mother late in 1786, Margaret Beekman Livingston wrote, "Her book do not suffer her to neglect" when describing the importance of her studies in a list of instructions. (See the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the full Peale portrait and credits)

It is not documented, but it is likely, that Peggy sometimes had her cousins for playmates when she was with her grandmother. The Chancellor's daughters Betsy and Margaret Maria were a year older and two years younger, respectively. Although the Chancellor and his wife did not rebuild their home at Clermont until the 1790s, their visits to his mother would have brought the girls together. It is also possible that Harriet Livingston (eventually to become Fulton) was sometimes with the party, as there is one reference to her being in the care of Chancellor Livingston for a time. In Philadelphia, her mother's shining social connections wouldhave provided her with a wealth of girls her own age (think of those 20 tea party guests!) to play with as well.

All of this was to the good, but the fact remained that here was that here was a little girl, caught in between fueding parents, and shuttled from guardian to guardian at various points of the year. She was occassionally visited by her father, whom nobody seemed to like or trust anymore because of his frightening behavior. And for half the year she knew her mother only through letters and presents. Most people seemed to view her situation with pity and indulge her perhaps more than was healthy.

It was soon worked out that Peggy would spend summers with her grandmother Margaret Beekman Livingston at Clermont and winters with her mother in Philadelphia. In between, she was passed from person to person. "Your Daughter shall [be home] on Sat under the care of her Uncle Tillotson & my Dinah who is very careful & tender of her," wrote Margaret in 1786," and then from her Uncle Lee, "Our dear little Peggy is expected hourly with her Aunt Montgomery & Mrs. Lee will speedily bring her next week."

So what was life like for little Peggy? It was full of opportunities. She had access to good education, the people with the best connections, and the lively parties that would prepare her for her future. It was full of life's luxuries, doll's from France, a pet dog, and music from harps, harpsichords, and piano fortes.

But it was also confusing. Her parents were warring. Her father was pretty well cast out of the family. Her mother was emotionally distraught. She went from guardian to guardian and home to home. That her large family universally showered her with love may have helped to distract her from this fact, but without continuity, she did get a bit unruly. Children are both fragile and resilient, and if nothing else she grew up knowing that she belonged to an important class of people. She grew up surrounded by the bon mond, as Nancy's friend called it, the "good world," where there was much to see and much to learn.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Well Served: Servants in the Eighteenth Century, #1

(Please excuse my little hiatus during October. Between assembling costumes, writing scripts, and rehearsing ghosts, the Ghost Tours quite devoured my time! You may be glad to know that our tours were quite thronged with people and well worth the effort. But back to the history!)

We talk a lot about the Livingstons and the Shippens, and the Van Rensselaers, and the Schuylers in this blog. But it is easy to forget that these folks represented the very wealthiest families. Not everyone could gallivant about in their phaeton and spend three hours getting dressed for a fancy party!

How did the other half--or 99%--live?

I always keep an eye out for references to the other residents of Clermont while doing research. What was it like to live as a servant in the households of the very rich? What were the rules? What were the daily aggrevations? What were the smells, sites, and sounds?

While a complete compendium of their lives would require a good thick tome, I think I will take the next few entries of the blog to share my favorite glimpses of servant life with you:

"Off he tumbled": Nancy Shippen's servants and drinking--Drinking in the eighteenth century did not carry the social stygmas that it it earned in later centuries. In fact, many Westerners still avoided drinking water, favoring instead beers, wines, hard cider and some hot beverages like tea, coffee, and chocolate. In cities or along waterways polluted by animal and human waste water could carry disease. Even though this was not to be understood until the 1840s, it was often thought best to leave the water alone anyway.

So the Temperance Movement was a distant dream when on Thursday, March 10, 1785 Nancy recorded the following incident:

"When I came home about one oclock I was much alarmd with [news] ... of the coachmans falling off the box & nearly killing himself. After he put me down at the assembly he came home, took up the maids & carried them to a Tavern, treated them with wine & cakes & got so drunk himself that off he tumbled. There was every thing done for him that was necessary, but the poor creatures groans still vibrate in my ears."

The night ended poorly for the coachman, but it seemed to start out rather well. Once he'd gotten his mistress dropped off at her party, he had a few hours to kill before he was going to have to go back and pick her up again. In past entries, Nancy described staying out as late as 2am dancing so what was a man to do? He rounded up the maids of the house and went out for a good time.

This means that the anonymous coachman had enough spare money to treat at least a few ladies in addition to himself, and it means that by this time of night (probably around nine or ten o'clock, when he would have had time to return from the drop-off), the maids didn't have any chores they couldn't escape. It also seems to suggest that the maids got a ride in the plush carriage, yet another treat by their friend the coachman.

I can only imagine what life was like for the maids at that point in the Shippen household. Mrs. Shippen was almost certainly clinically depressed, which was also manifesting itself in phyisical ways. Their mistress's estranged husband Henry Beekman Livingston (who had a track record of physical violence towards servants) had been seen lurking around. Nancy was alternately depressed and keeping up an active social schedule to avoid her misery, and she was having ocassional battles with her father about this matter. Things were probably tense. The maids may have needed a drink--or at least some sort of release.

After a few hours of merrymaking, the company set off for home in the early spring night over rutted roads still melting and freezing with each day. They were probably flush with wine, the ladies possibly giggling until over went their drunk driver into the road. Nancy described this incident as "nearly killing himself." Was this hyperbole? Considering that he could easily have been sitting five or six feet in the air and would have had to contend with the danger of winding up under the wheels once he came down, I don't know. Either way, he faired poorly.

Which maid quit her giggling and ran for help? Who drove the carriage home? Were they on a lighted street or was the tavern in a less savory part of town?

Living and working in the household of one of Philadelphia's respected doctors, one can only hope that he received some good care once he did get home. "There was everything done for him that was necessary," says Nancy. Hopefully that didn't involve a little "hair of the dog!"

The coachman's story continues no further. Nancy doesn't see fit to comment on his recovery or return to work. She certainly doesn't mention him getting fired or reprimanded (in fact, she quite pitties him) for the incident so perhaps it was merely regarded as an unfortunate accident--not a deviant behavior. The excitement eventually blended into the background of Nancy's existence, though I imagine he was feeling the reprocussions for some time!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Two Livingston Ladies: A Tale of Two Shoppers

As a consumate shopper myself (and fashion historian), I can't help but be fascinated by the Livingston's shopping habits--especially clothes. There isn't much in the way of eighteenth century clothing left in Clermont's collections so for the most past, I am left eagerly pawing through the documentary references I can find.

So when, in the course of doing other research, I bumped into records from both Alida Schuyler Livingston (1656-1729, pictured at right) and her grandaughter-in-law Margaret Beekman Livingston (1724-1800), I was all excited when I started finding references to clothing items. Here are two women that we have minimal imagery of (only three portraits between the two of them) so knowing about day-to-day clothing for them and their families is difficult. What on earth were they wearing!?

The two sets of records are of very different kinds so the information they provide is a little different too. From Alida, I have a collection of transcribed letters in "Livingston Then and Now." They date from between February 1697 and June 1724. Because this is not a complete list of her correspondance, just a dozen or so missives between she and her husband, there are gaping holes about other sources from which she may have done purchasing. From Margaret, I have a few pages from an account book ranging between November 1776 and April 1779. For whatever reason, this book doesn't appear to give a very complete accounting, even in the narrow range of dates it provides. Nevertheless, in spite of their flaws, both sources reference items of clothing that give us hints about the past.

I'll take what I can get.

So what do they have to say?

Alida wrote letters to her husband Robert, who was often in New York while she was in Albany or minding the manor at the Roeliff Jansen Kill. The two missed each other, and often expressed concern or endearments in their missives. But the letters were also practical exchanges of information. Located, as he was, in a major shipping capital, she often wrote requesting that he purchase certain supplies for her--clothing items among them. Other times he wrote requesting things from their stores at home. A few times, clothes simply became part of the discussion of daily life.

In November of 1711, amidst sorowful descriptions of Alida's plight supervising the Palatines, she added several mundane requests onto the end of letter, including, "Robert has to have a pair of shoes."

The shoes must have been slow in coming, because she mentioned it twice more in successive letters that month. Although, by the second request, apparently everyone's shoes were wearing out: "Don't forget my shoes and Robbert's and Hendrikje's and Naetje's shoes at Jackson's." And later, "A pair of shoes for Robbert; he wear Hensje's shoes when he goes to the mill." Shoes were required clothing for those who wished to demonstrate status so having to share a pair between the boys must have been a trial.

In July of 1711, the requested a "box of lace" and "a piece of black chalon, 1/4 black sewing thread, 1/2 black mohair and black camisole buttons." (Chalon is a light weight wool fabric) It appears that someone was getting a black garment, though I can't determine for sure what it was or who it was for. Much later in 1724, Alida was ordering more garments from her husband in New York: a cap and a "black garment"--probably a dress since it needed to be made "in accordance with your body."

At other times, Robert requested thing from home or clothing simply was part of the conversation. Alida once mentioned her husband's wigbox, suggesting that he had joined in the popular (and expensive) fashion of wearing styled wigs. Another time Robert requested that Alida send him both his leather and linen stockings and also that he "urgently" needing some night shirts, as "[I] have only 4." In the same letter he requested that Alida send down some cloth with which to make new "dress-coats." His were "all going to pieces."

When Alida gave birth to their last child in 1698, she was feverish and sick (most likely from an infection), but still gave her stays (corset) to her sister "to enlarge them on each side." Aparently she had no hope of losing enough weight to get back to her old size.

So that was Alida. What about our old friend Margaret Beekman Livingston. Margaret was born in 1724, the same year that Alida was having her "black garment" made. Her account book pages (which appear to have been written out by her eldest son Robert the Chancellor, since they once note that "mama is to pay.") are written some fifty years after Alida's later letters.

Nevertheless, some things never change. Margaret was still making sure her children had shoes to wear. In August of 1777, Margaret paid 6 shillings for "shoes for Edward," her teenage son. In March of the next year (while she was building a farm house in which to live until the mansion was ready), she paid 1 pound for "shoes for Sarah." Sarah is not the name of any of her children so I can only assume that these were for a servant or other dependant.

More shoes came in April of 1779 when Gertrude and Margaret (her daughter, also nicknamed "Peggy") were getting married. Peggy caught a new pair and so did her younger sister Alida (named after her great grandmother). At 8 pounds for one pair and 6 pounds, 5 shillings, 4 pence for the other, they much have been some pretty ones! (Maybe like these from the Bata Shoe Museum)

Gloves were also an important accessory in the 18th century, and Margaret lists several glove purchases: one pair in 1778 for 9 shillings and another that might have been for Peggy's wedding for 6 pounds, 2 shillings. Both of these purchases were made from "Mrs. Provost."

While hunkered down for the winter of 1778 (after the mansion had been burned) there is only one notable clothing purchase including one pair of silk stockings (L5.2.1) and 4 yards of cambric (a nice, but not extravagant fabric).

A few other fabric and notions purchases can be found in the record. "two pieces of tape" were bought for 3 shillings in March of 1778. Tapes were a woven linen or cotton ribbon of sorts, commonly used for apron strings amongst many other things. (At right is the small loom on which these were woven.) Later came 2 yards "crape" (crepe) for 6 pounds. And finally for Alida's big purchase in 1779 (including the white shoes), there was a "half a piece of linnen" at L6.13.4 and "shalloon" (the same as the "chalon" from above) at L20. Whatever else was purchased that day didn't get recorded, but the total was over 72 pounds.

Whew! Little Alida's shopping high must have made her giddy.

So what does all of this tell us about the Livingston ladies? We can't always find what colors they bought or how they fit (or didn't) into the current fashion trends. We can't tell how much Alida's purchases cost. And both sources give us only the tiniest picture of what these wealthy women were consuming during their long lives.

But even that tiny picture is a step forward to understanding their clothes. We can see that Margaret Beekman Livingston was buying things in a wide variety of qualities when we compare the different prices of the shoes and gloves. We can see the Alida was commited to wearing her stays (there's always a debate about how universally they were worn), even right after giving birth. And we can see the struggles she went through to keep her children in shoes, something that many parents are still wrestling with--although not always dealing with the supply issue.

Like I said at the beginning, there is not that much information surviving on this topic for the Livingstons so I'll take what I can get.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Raising the Spirits: Clermont at Halloween

Clermont State Historic Site seems to have been designed for Halloween. Coming down its bushy paths in the fall, the house looms ahead, its tall, slate roofs poking their way through the Hudson River fog. After dark, the isolated setting and twisting paths combine to create an eerie beauty that suggests the ambience of a 1920s silent horror movie. What’s that shadow over there? Was that a noise in the woods?

This year Clermont will embrace its spooky setting for its fifth year of Legends by Candlelight Spook Tours on October 21st & 22nd, and 29th & 30th. These tours are one of the highlights of the museum's season, introducing visitors to true, sad, and unusual tales of Clermont's long history. Tours run from 6:00 to 9:00, and tickets are $10 for adults and $4 for children.

Few visitors get the thrill of seeing Clermont after dark, because ordinarily the site’s gates close at dusk. It is only for rare events, like Independence Day or Christmas tours, that the grounds are open at night.

Visitors who come to Clermont for the Spook Tours will be asked to step into the year 1921, when Halloween was only just beginning to resemble our modern celebration. A brightly-adorned children’s party, complete with decorations recreated from period publications, will welcome guests intially. But 1920s mysticism goes awry when an attempt to speak to a long-lost ancestor calls back a host of Livingston ghosts! Ghosts who appear for the tour will share their stories of pirates, death in the dining room, portentious dreams, the 1777 house fire, and a pet cemetery. Stories for the Legends by Candlelight Spook Tour were researched in the museum’s archives and inspired by the many faces of Clermont’s portraits. Are the stories spookier because they’re true? Visitors will have to decide for themselves.

Exactly how the Livinsgstons of the 1920s celebrated Halloween cannot be known. They left us few records of the holiday. Two photographs exist that demonstrate their love for one tradition: carving jack-o-lanterns. Photographs from the 1910s and 1920s show the two Livingston daughters Janet and Honoria showing off their pumpkins with familiarly-toothy faces carved on them. Another image that could have been from Halloween shows the girls pearing into the eerie glow of Chinese lanterns, a common symbol of Halloween dating at least as far back as the 1880s.

Other information to re-create a 1920s Halloween at Clermont was drawn from magazines and handbooks that encouraged women of the day to decorate their houses with orange and black crepe paper and silhouettes of black cats and witches on broomsticks. The 1910s and 20s witnessed a surge of Halloween parafanalia, including special greeting cards, printed paper plates and napkins, and books that described fortune-telling games and scarey skits to liven up a party. Although trick-or-treating did not become a popular passtime until the 1930s, costumes were still fast becoming de riguer at the fashionable Halloween party.

Rehearsals for Clermont’s Spook Tours will begin in October, and community members interested in participating in a “spirited” interpretation of the museum’s history are encouraged to volunteer. Opportunities exist for acting, decorating, and more! Pumpkins entered in the Halloween Harvest Jack-o-Lantern Contest will also be displayed as part of the tour on Saturday night. For more information on the Legends by Candlelight Spook Tours, Jack-o-Lantern Contest, or the Halloween Harvest, call Kjirsten at (518) 537-4240 or visit

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Good Night Irene: A Hurricane Hits Clermont

In all likelyhood, you haven't missed the news for the past few weeks. You probably know that eastern New York got hit pretty hard by Tropical Storm Irene. Trees down, power out, and devastating flooding that destroyed whole towns all around us. Even historic Guy Park Manor along the Mohawk River was not spared by the muddy waters which tore the beautiful house to shreds.

Here at Clermont, we joined everyone else out there in battening down the hatches and holding onto our hats. The front windows were covered with plywood sheilds that would protect them and the precious contents within from flying debris or falling trees. In many rooms, we found the historic supports to hold bars that would keep the shutters closed in the event of window damage, and our maintenance guys cut new bars to fit them. Andrew Jackson's portrait by Thomas Sully (which has been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institute in the past) was draped with plastic "just in case." Our fearless leader Susan Boudreau even came on Saturday (the night before the storm) put her cats in the safety of one of the staff rooms, and settled in for as long as it would take.

Well here at Clermont we were lucky. That's all that can be said. The Livingstons built on a bluff above the river where they would be visible to passing traffic, but also where they were well above flood waters. Sure we had flooding and erosion in a number of areas of the grounds, but the rain and first wave of wind left all of the structures mainly untouched. Susan reported by Sunday evening that the power had not even been lost for any appreciable time.

One of our chimneys sprang leak and down poured several pints of rusty red water. Thank goodness for Jackson's "just in case" covering! He was right unerd that leak, and the heavy plastic draped over him protected him from any damage.

And of course, then the tail end of the storm whiplashed in with its wild, gusty winds.

All around the house and woodlands and gardens trees came roaring to the ground. One even brushed the mansion, it's branches scraping down the stucco and finally cracking a storm window before it hit the gound! We've already lost a number of our favorites this year, and to lose still more was disheartening.

When the storm cleared, Susan and the crew went out to survey the damage. Large walnuts in the cutting garden and in front of Sylvan cottage were felled, leaving sun beating down on spaces once dappled with shade. Still others came crashing down on trails and roads--the parking lot fielded three trees, one of which came down on the director's car! (The car was amazingly okay once they got the tree off it--which was good, because after three days of living at work, she was ready to go home.)

The most dangerous trees were those that had not fallen but were leaning precariously over, like deadfall traps around the park. A giant catalpa tree near the Visitor Center split up the center and groaned to one side, threatening our major roadway and forcing us to declare the park closed.

And so the work commenced. Our crew of three maintenance guys set to work with chainsaws and the back hoe. New York Parks maintenance staff came from the Taconic Region headquarters and chipped in with their chainsaws and hardhats and good strong backs too.

When the tree count was in, we found 150 trees were downed throughout the property, but by some small miracle, not a single one had landed on any of our houses or auxiliary buildings. Nevertheless the skilled work required to remove some of those trees (especially the catalpa) meant we needed help. And after three days of moving trunks as big as four feet in diameter, our guys were tired and needed more hands!

In the spirit of unity, the Central Region of New York's State Parks sent us a crew of four men skilled with tree removal, including an arborist and some very large trucks. After a four-hour drive on Thursday, the crew of four and our crew five set right to work on the trees.

From my end it looked like magic, but I know that it was sweaty, grinding labor. While I stood there in my red hard hat reflecting on the old addage about Star Trek and danger of being the only guy in a red shirt, they went through the complex task of safely belting, guiding, and felling that giant catalpa. And they didn't stop there. By Thursday afternoon, the park could safely open to the public. By Friday, the mansion was open for tours. Working straight through the weekend, they made Clermont look more like itself again.

The process is not over. Of the 150 trees that fell, only a handful have been fully cleared. Our trails are closed until further notice. We are only beginning to think about a plan of replanting, though there is no way to truly replace a 200 year old tree. Volunteers have begun flooding in to pick up sticks, clear limbs, and bring us us back. But this process will take many months.

All I can think is how very lucky we are and how very many people weren't. There are many homes in Scoharie County and elsewhere that were completely destroyed; many people are still living in shelters and watching fresh flood waters stream in as Tropical storm Lee drenches us with its remains. There is much work to be done out there, and it will take a long time for everybody.