Saturday, February 19, 2011

SilverWhere?: Place Settings in History

Forks and knives and spoons--oh my!! From the first time I saw the movie "Pretty Woman," I knew that a formally-set table was something intimidating. You use what, when? In the movie, there's something in there about counting tines on the forks, and then the tutor in the scene breaks down and advises Julia Roberts to just "work from the outside in." Then I went graduate school and was given the additional advice to hesitate and watch what other people were doing (hopefully inconspicuously). Even a young George Washington was concerned with this issue when he copied out dining rules from 100-year-old etiquette manuals. It's an old story: how does the upwardly-mobile, but socially ignorant diner fit into a high-society dinner?

But what about the upwardly-mobile hostess? The presentation of that intimidating dinner table was something that required equal or greater effort than just selecting a fork. How many forks were suposed to go there in the first place? Centerpieces aside, the question is, "where does all that silverwear go?" (It is worth adding here that servants, especially butlers, were the ones asking this question in some time periods and social circles).

It's a question that has been asked throughout history, and there are as many answers as there are sources. The Festive Tradition: Table Decoration and Desserts in America, 1650-1900 , my new favorite source on the matter, has an impressive assortment of diagrams to inform the curious. I raided some historic magazines and books on my own shelves as well, and here is what I found.

Things started developing into a pretty recognizable form by the beginning of the 18th century, when forks were making it onto the scene and napkins were increasing in popularity and availability. Early on in the process, the stalwart dinner fork got put on the left side and staid there. Bless its little heart. You can always count on the dinner fork. You can see it at left even in the Thomas Rowlandson satirical cartoon of 1788. The fellows in the picture may look like uncultured slobs, but at least they know where the dinner fork goes.

But then the dinner fork had children. Many of them. Their names were Shrimp, Oyster, Pickle, Salad, Fish, Pastry, and Dessert (1935 illustration at right). And there were more too, but we can only follow so many of Fork's offspring. In the 18th century and early nineteenth century, it was the proliferation of dishes that made a meal notable. According to Festive Tradition, " might take several servants up to twenty minutes to carry in all the dishes to the the table." With meals served in only two or three courses, and different forks for each food, you couldn't really "work from the outside in." Knowing the use of each fork was a bit tougher, perhaps with the exception of dessert forks, which showed up alone at the end of the meal.

But then in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, we started dining a la Russe, meaning that each type of food was served in its own course, and the table didn't have to be reset between all of them. All the forks showed up on the table at once, and it was up to the hostess or butler to know which order the meal was coming out in so that the silverwear could be arranged accoridingly.

Thankfully for everyone, in the 20th century, we got a little bit more casual about our dining, and the number of forks on most fancy tables decreased. Even a 1906 Christmas table set on the right shows only one fork. Ladies Home Journal apparently let you off easy. See above photograph for a departure from this from Alice Livingston's 1935 copy of Table Service and Decoration. At left you can see an image a formal table from the same book however which shows only four forks, neatly arranged in order of use. Don't miss that wiley shrimp fork on the right. It can't be trusted; it moves around.

What about the Knife? It seems trustworthy enough. Predating the fork, this old codger was once used as the major dining implement of the well-bred. You stabbed your food with the tip of it and gently brought it to your mouth that way. There it is in an 1825 instructional illustration on the left. You'll notice that the blade points in. This is important. You can also see the blade pointing in on the Thomas Rowlandson image from 1788 and the 1935 photograph above. It is as constant as the Northern Star. Knife could even show up on the dessert table as shown in the 18th century image below (with the spoons). Even when the knife was not in its usual place to the right of the plate (as shown in the 1860s Godey's Ladies Book image at right), the blade pointed toward the plate.

The Knife's cousin, the Carving Knife, hung out nearby in the eighteenth century when the proliferation of dishes included multiple large meat dishes. Then several carving sets were dispersed around the table, and the diner nearest the roast mutton, for instance, was responsible for artfully carving it up. The Knife also had a pal named Butter Knife who came and went later on in history (my quickresearch didn't find any before the 20th century, but please correct me if I've missed one). Butter Knife usually had a safe home lying diagonally on the bread plate above and to the left. He was a bit of a loner.

So what of the spoon? The lowly Spoon, the first utensil most Western children learn to use. Sadly, it could not be trusted either. Spoon was a social butterfly. It made friends and moved around the table, even diverging from the strict perpendicular orientation of the other flatwear.

Like the knife, the spoon was specialized early on. Traditionally, the table spoon belonged on the right, outside the knife, the convex part facing up (oposite of modern day). It flipped over somewhere in the middle of the eighteenth century and remains concave part facing up still today.

Serving spoons of various sizes could be found all around the table in the serving dishes of course. Salt spoons could also be found on the 18th century table before salt began to be served in shakers. Several salt cellars, adorned with their own spoons would be located around the elgant table to make it easy for each diner to reach this expensive flavoring. But the soup spoon was a bit of a migrant. It could sit still further to the right or it could travel up above the plate and lie paralell to the edge of the table. Still worse was the Dessert Spoon who came out with the elite dessert team and could sometimes be found at a hazardous diagonal orientation (seen at left). By 1935 Alice's Table Service book also describes tea spoons, iced tea spoons, jelly spoons, olive spoons, orange spoons, ice cream spoons (with tines like a spork) and the 5 o'clock tea spoon (very closely resembling the cereal spoon).

The real show-off at the table turned out to be the Napkin. Perhaps it was because it was doomed to be tucked 'round the diner's neck (or eventually in their lap) to suffer as a sheild against sloppy oysters, butters sauce, and meat juices, or perhaps it was because of its humble name (in the 18th century, the word napkin refered to any small cloth, including a baby diaper). In any case the Napkin meandered around the place setting, trying out different places and appearances from early on.

The Napkin stared its life pressed to have sharp square fold that would match similar folds on the table cloth. Later, it could be dressed up with a silver napkin ring starting in the 19th century, as seen in this detail of the 1860s Godey's image. At various times, the Napkin could conceal a hot dinner roll, as seen at right in this late 19th century illustration.

Most flamboyantly, the napkin could become a sculpture folded artfully on each diner's plate, as seen in the 1891 image at left. It continues to hang out on the plate in this manner at many fancy meals today. Folding instructions of all sorts are written down, shared, or kept secret as needed. Still on its humblest days, the napkin returns to basic folds beside or underneath the fork or even resting peacefully on the plate.

Indeed it seems that the only constant in this whole place-setting debacle is the Plate. It waits right in the middle of the party every time, just waiting for its helping of meat and potatoes. Sometimes it shares with a bread plate. Other times it patiently waits under a soup bowl. But it never wanders, and we are never left looking for it. Even the freshest hostess need never fear the placement of the Plate.

The addition of assorted wine, water, and cordial glasses could serve to make matters more confusing, but the truth of the matter turned out to be that the smart hostess used only as many utensils and dishes at she had things to put in them (no sense in putting out the red wine glass if you weren't going to use it in the first place), and the refined hostess put out enough that you would never have to use the same thing twice (the practice of licking your dinner fork clean so it can be used for dessert is not part of the refined table). Lastly, the layout needed to be sensible so that everyone could follow along.

By the early to mid 20th century, formality in dining decreased somewhat, but even today I find that many people are stilling trying to find the right way to set a table. The 20th century etiquette guru Emily Post continues to give advice in this matter, but the clever history student will find comfort in the knowledge that for over two hundred years, the rules have flexed and bent at will. When wrangling your flatwear into submission, trust only the plate, and know that all those other wiley pickle forks and olive spoons are just as confused as you are.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Separation: The Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen, part 6

The morning dawned when Nancy Shippen Livingston was to leave with her daughter for Clermont. On July 7, 1783 she and her mother shared a good cry before she could bring herself to dress and ride out. Her parents and brother accompanied the traveling party a little ways before the time came at last to part.

Nancy's mother still hoped that her daughter would give up on her husband and leave Peggy at Clermont, returning to Philadephia alone. "don't let your love for our sweet baby tempt you to throw your self into Misery," she advised. Her father issued similar advice, but Nancy had convinced herself that the presence of their child would temper his cruelty. More tears and "sobbing," everyone kissed each other and the baby, and finally Nancy was on her way back north

They traveled on horseback through Newark and Hackensack, up to Fish Kill, and paused for breakfast in Newburgh with Mrs. Washington (at Washington's headquarters, pictured above), before spending the night in Poughkeepsie. Here she was disquieted to find out that her story as Henry Beekman Livingston's mistreated wife was already flying around the Hudson Valley.

She'd still had no letter from her husband even acknowledging that she was on her way, and she was beginning to experience jitters about what kind of reception she would receive. Unsure what else to do, she bypassed his house (technically her house too), and headed straight to Clermont. She wrote him a humble letter asking to reconcile, and the same day he responded with a letter so vile that she could not even bear to transcribe it into her journal: he was sending her away. Away from him, and more importantly, away from their child. "O! my heart! what must I suffer! & must I part with you my angel Child?" she wailed bitterly. Even Henry's mother could not convince him to take back his wife, and a week and a half later Nancy was back in Philadelphia with her parents--no husband, no child, no hope.

During her previous stay in Philadelphia, Nancy had developed a routine of reading, needlework, and visiting, but now she was too distracted to concentrate. "I spend my time mostly in my room," she wrote. "I read when I can, but it is seldom I can collect my thoughts sufficiently." She spent much of her time thinking of baby Peggy and crying alone. "I have retir'd, I am now fond of solitude," she wrote in September, a full month after leaving Peggy in New York.

We've already observed that the emotional bond between Nancy and her daughter was particularly strong. After the emotional crisis of her first year of marriage, Nancy's daughter became her main source and recipient of affection. "I feel she is 'close twisted' with the fibers of my heart," she wrote. The absense of the little girl left a large hole in Nancy's life.
She was also missing out on her child's development. She wrote to Margaret Beekman Livingston in October asking "if she [Peggy] can yet walk alone." (At 18 months, she was a late walker) During their trip to New York the previous month, Peggy had spoken only a few words. What new ones had she added to her vocabulary? Her socialization, education, and more were now all in someone else's hands.

Still more frightening was the threat of illness. Peggy was still recovering from the terrifying incident with a snuff box when Nancy left her, and the spectre of death was a constant threat to eighteenth century mothers. Some have estimated the overall child mortality rate in 18th century America as high as 20-30% (Family life in 17th- and 18th-century America), and the risk was the greatest for young children. The possibility that Peggy could become ill and die even die before her mother had a chance to see her again was a nagging fear in Nancy's mind. "I fear she is sick & that your humanity prevents you from letting me know it, & perhaps this is the reason I have not heard by the last two posts..." she cried to "gramama Livingston" in October when she had not heard recent enough news. Again November fear crept into her journal:

I am distressed past all discription at not hearing of my dear Child for so long a time. What can be the reason? is she sick or, what?

She waited anxiously for news of Peggy wherever she could get it. Letters came sometimes from Clermont. "Her looks are much improved, having grown quite fat," wrote her grandmother.

No person espcially Gentlemen enters the Room, but she goes to them and says upe, and sits on their Lap and begins a conversation intirely her own. But her favorite one is her baby that ingroces all her time and her care, next to the Harpsichord of which she is extremely fond.

At other times Nancy gathered information about her child from other society travelers who had visited the Livingstons. The Washingtons were ocasionally guests of Mrs. Livingston and the Shippens and shared their news of the little girl. In December Louis Otto brought her news, "he has been to N.Y. & saw Peggy, and kiss'd her he says a thousand time, & says she looks beautiful." in January she wrote "Mr Willing is return'd from N. York & I have heard from my precious Child. She is well & happy & her grand mama doats on her."

Finally in March Nancy had a chance to see her little girl. Margaret Beekman Livingston and her grand daughter were still in New York City for the winter, and on March 10, Nancy was eagerly packing to go. "How happy I feel in the thought of clasping my beloved child once more in my fond arms, & pressing her to my bosom..." After several fits and starts, Nancy finally arrived at the Livingston's town house on Queen St on March 17th. She had not seen Peggy in five months, and her baby was now a toddler.

The meeting was a tense one, since after all that time away, Peggy no longer recognized her mother.

I beg'd her to come [to] me & call'd her my darling Child & try'd to take her, by forse. All wou'd not do, she wou'd not take [the] least notice of me, nor let me take her from her grandmother; it was more than I cou'd bear, I was distress'd & mortified, & burst into tears.

One can only imagine the scene. As other family members did their best to tempt the little girl to over to her mother, the child only became more distressed by the drama and refused. Finally Nancy won out:
I walk'd to the window to hide my tears, & thought of some trinkets I had in my pocket which I had brought for her. I set down and display'd them upon my lap, & called her to me, the sight of them made her come instantly.

By that evening, the crisis was averted, and Nancy took Peggy (her beloved new maid in tow) to Lady Kitty Duer's house, where she was staying (for an unspecified reason, Margaret had to bow out of housing Nancy). The two spent several happy weeks together, and Nacy had no more time to write in her journal. But the visit had to come to an end sometime. Dr. Shippen had already forbade Nancy from taking Peggy away from her Livingston relatives, and soon Nancy was again facing the bitter prospect of returning home alone.

More resigned now to the prospect, Nancy wrote on May 1st "I parted this morning with my darling Child, and it was dreadful beyond all description, yet it was not near so painful as it was the time before. It was indeed nothing in comparison."

She now had a sick mother to return to, a resurging love for Louis Otto, and ever-deepening problems with her estranged husband. Perhaps in some ways, leaving Peggy in the loving and stable arms of her grandmother was not so bad.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Finding the Old Lady: Margaret Beekman Livingston

I've got Peggy on my mind. One of the quirks of being a historian is that you feel like you get to know people who have been dead for a few hundred years. Margaret Beekman Livingston was Peggy to her close friends and family, and that is how I've come to feel about her. Now that I'm presenting a talk on her at the Great Estates Symposium, we've got to get to know one another a little better.

Stories about the Revolutionary War heroine of the Livingston family abound: she rebuilt the mansion after it was burned by the English army; she picked the first governor of New York State; she died suddenly in the dining room. Some of the stories are myths, and some are exagerations, and some are true. The game now is to pick apart one from the other and find the "Old Lady of Clermont" at the center of it all.

That so many stories exist about Peggy gives some clue to the importance she had in this family. Whether or not they are strictly true, it is Margaret Beekman Livingston that the stories are told about, rather than family other women who lived in the same time period. For instance, we know almost nothing about her daughter-in-law Mary Stevens Livingston or her mother-in-law Margaret Howarden. These two women were part of her daily life at Clermont, and yet we don't even know what year Margaret Howarden died! It was Peggy's powerful familial influence that was passed down from generation to generation.

The story of her early life is one that is not uncommon amongst wealthy 18th century women.

Like many women, she was intially defined by her association with powerful men. She was the daughter of Henry Beekman of the wealthy Rhinebeck Beekmans. She was the wife of Judge Robert R. Livingston (pictured at left). She was the mother of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston.

About her personally, we know that her Livingston mother died shortly after her birth, and she was raised by a maternal aunt in Brooklyn. As an adult, she was an intensly religious woman who kept a diary filled with her sentimental musings on faith. She was married at 18 and shared a very affectionate marriage with the Robert the Judge. "You are the cordial drop with which Heaven has graciously thought fit to sweeten my cup," he wrote in a letter to her once. They spent their winters in a town house in New York City and their summers at Clermont with his parents. She had eleven children in 22 years.

It was in 1775 that Margaret's life changed dramatically. Within seven months her father-in-law, father, and husband all passed away, leaving her as the proprietress of the Beekman patent and Clermont. It is at this point that we start to get the big stories about her, particularly as surround the burning of Clermont:

In october of 1777, English General Howe (at right) sent troops up the Hudson towards Albany. As General Vaughan lead these forces north, he began burning out the homes of rebellious families (the obvious problem here being that technically he was committing acts of violence against his fellow English citizens since the King hadn't recognized us as a seperate country yet).

Several stories have been immortaziled about this event in town histories and family lore. We know that somehow Mrs. Livingston got word ahead of time that Vaughan was commiting these acts and that on October 15, two days before he arrived at Clermont, she left with her youngest children for Salisbury, CT.

One family story puts she, her children, and her slaves wildly packing a broad array of furniture and moveable goods, then hiding silver, china, and mirrors in the surrounding outbuildings and wells before they left. But archeological evidence shows that many fine furnishings and china were burned with the house, meaning that she probably did not have as much time as she would have liked to remove her valuables, and thus many were destroyed with her home.

Two different family stories of her departure have been preserved in local histories or family recordings. One states that since she and her family were housing an English prisoner of war, he offered to speak to Vaughan on her behalf and save the house. According to the story, she insisted that her house be burned like the other patriots. Another puts she and her family actually departing by wagon on the hill above Clermont, when they looked behind them and saw the smoke from the house already curling through the air. Letters between she and her son show however, that she had been clear of the house for two days before Vaughan arrived on the 17th to burn the house.

Yet one more story, recorded in a 1924 history of the region, persists from this era: that Mrs. Livingston selected New York's first governor.

Shortly before the delegates, who declared NY independent, met at Kingston, a number of the most influencial met at Clermont, to consider, among other questions, who should be the first governow. A valid objection to every person was raised until Mrs. Livingston proposed G. Clinton. Her suggestion was received with acclamation..."

But even this story has been soundly abused by the Chancellor's most avid biographer George Dangerfield.

While these stories seek to pay homage to Peggy, they almost obscure her real accomplishments.

When left at the head of the massive estate of Clermont, she decided against remarrying in order to find someone who would manage it. Perhaps it was the idea of letting the Livingston name cease to be lord of Clermont or perhaps she simply felt confident enough in her own skills to do it alone. She had grown up in the Livingston tradition of women who were involved with the family business (Alida Schuyler Livingston pretty much ran the manor while her husband was regularly away) so it was likely that she had not been kept completely out of the loop for the past 33 years of estate management. Nevertheless, managing the large estate and its population of tenants was no small job that many women may have considered easier with a new husband.

Letters and tenant books show that she remained very much in personal control of the estate, using a lawyer (Cockburn) to handle legal proceedings and contracts where the law prevented her from representing herself.

She also stayed in close contact with her eldest son Robert. Even if she did not advise him in political matters, she certainly had a lot to say about his personal ones (once going on a rather long tangent imploring him not to party to hard while in Philadelphia at the age of 35).

In 1790, as a measure of her considerable wealth, we see that she owned 15 slaves, more than anyone else in Livingston, Clermont, or Germantown, with the exception of her Manor cousin, who owned the surprising sum of 44. Of 139 slaveholders in the area, most owned less than 10, and 3 seemed to be the most common.

On her own, Peggy became synonomous with Clermont, and several historic drawings or letters refer to "Mrs. Livingston's Clermont." While other wives identities were lost behind their husbands', Peggy's was the driving force behind one of the most prominent Hudson Valley Estates.

When she died in 1800, Margaret Beekman Livingston's life was again shrowded with legend. On July 1st, she passed away at the age of 76. An 1894 accoutn by Walter Rutherford states that

The old lady of Clermont took her leave of this world with great eclat. She walked about the garden [at Clermont] and did business all the morning, had several of her friends to dinner of which she amply partook. In taking a glass of wine she found her right hand failing, changed it to her left, soon fell in a fit, and expired without a groan.

And yet another story shows her dieing in Kingston or New York City, though why she wouldn't have left the city for Clermont in the summer (as was her custom), is questionable as well.

It seems only fit that her death be as curious as her life. No matter what the facts, we know that Margaret Beekman Livingston left a strong impression on the people around her, one that has lasted for over 200 years.