Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Food Glorious food!: Foodstuffs in the Letters of Alida and Robert Livingston, 1680-1700

While moving from my tiny old office to a freshly-emptied one across the hall I came across two long-lost research files.  They were full of transcripts of letters between Alida, Robert Livingston (seen at left), and a small assortment of family and associates.  Hooray!  I put them on a shelf for a "rainy day," and one finally came up.  So I cuddled up in my new, roomier office with a view of the Hudson River to see what jumped out at me from a first reading.

Food!  There is a lot of talk of food in these letters:  food for trade, food for the family, food to provision an army.  It's a dizzying array of goods that helps to paint a more vibrant picture of life in Colonial New York.

To begin with, there is a lot of talk of meat, particularly in the letters between Robert Livingston and his brothers-in law, S Van Cortlandt, Philip Van Cortlandt, and Brandt Schuyler.  These men were discussing the business of shipping and trading and later the business of victualing an army during King William's War 1690-97.

In particular, meat was a particular concern for feeding the army.  These three men usually referenced it by the barrel, meaning that it was probably preserved in salt and possibly smoked as well.  They talk about "meat" (possibly beef), "ox-meat," and "pork."  In 1680 Livingston mentioned "a barrel of fish" to his wife Alida.  It was not always of best quality.  "I never saw salted meat so nor packed with so much salt as this Pork was. In truth one eight of it was salt," wrote Governor Hunter of one shipment in 1710.  But salted and cured meats were the most common form of consumption in the colonies, often being part of three meals per day. 

How big was a barrel of meat?  Barrels were used for a huge variety of products.  They barrels varied in size and often corresponded to what was in them.  For instance, barrels containing tobacco--referred to as hogsheads--were regulated by law to be 48" tall and 30" across the top and bottom.  The meat barrels being discussed in this case may seem quite large to you and I.  One of S. Van Cortlandt's letters references "6 more big barrels containing 3541 lb. of ox meat"  (emphasis mine).  Assuming they were all holding roughly equivalent quantities, that's about 590 pounds of meat per barrel.  I guess that is pretty big.  But in the same letter, Van Cortlandt also mentions having to buy New England meat, "a barrel of which does not contain that much." 

The expense of meat was a constant concern, seemingly especially bad in 1691.  Van Cortlandt complained in October ...I could not purchase any [meat] but at a very high price."  Later in the letter "I have never in all my life had as much difficulty in raising money as now."  In October 1691Van Cortlandt complained that "meat costs 34 and 35 sh[illings] a barrel here...[I] will be forced to pay 34 for New England [meat]..."

Sometimes  meat came on the hoof.  The men discussed moving livestock including cattle, sheep, "300 well fatted sows."  These meat animals could be moved live to their needed locations and slaughtered there for food.  In October 1698 Alida wrote "we have slaughtered those 9 animals and distributed for 31 days" to the Indians, though apparently they were eaten quicker than expected since in the next sentence she complained that "all has now been consumed."

Later in November 1691, Van Cortlandt later procured "531 lb. of ox-meat," along with  "2 barrels of pork" and "35 barrels of meat" and packed them on a yacht for the 70 men on board.  But meat was not their only food.  The men were also provisioned with "53 loafs of soft bread at 7lb. apiece and [2 lb, 1 shilling, 12 pence] in hard bread and 4 barrels of small beer."

Bread was a staple of both the Dutch and English diets (Dutch culture still being very present in the Hudson Valley), and it was made in a huge variety of shapes and consistencies, and wheat was grown extensively in the Hudson Valley region.  Barrels of flour were heavily traded by the Livingstons, taken in annually from their tenants farmers as payment for their rent (usually in tandem with fowl and labor, referred to as a "days riding").  Alida and her husband often speak of wheat in very large quantities, once mentioning 200 barrels being loaded onto a boat for trade in 1682.  And one whole series of letters was sent back and forth between Livingston and Van Cortlandt seeking a payment of a debt of  "12 barrels of flour" from John Gilbert in April and June of 1681.

The price of the wheat was frequently the topic of discussion as well--reminding me of the way in which we now focus on the price of gas.  In 1681 S. Van Cortlandt wrote Livingston that "flour is in Barbados 20 orretten, 5 [pounds] Long Island [and] wheat is 7 guilders per bushel in New York."  From the context of the letter, I sadly can't figure out whether these prices are high or low. Some 17 years later in 1698, Alida wrote the price of wheat as "no less here than 10 guilder the bushel."

Baking bread was often done at special ovens instead of individual homes.   In September of 1698, Alida told her husband "I have spoken to Wessels about the baking but they are not ready for heaths because of the continual rain."  Similarly, a decade later in 1710, when the Palatines were making their best efforts in East Camp (future Germantown), a man named Kass worked as the baker for the Livingstons.  Unfortunately for Kass, the Livingstons weren't given enough money to feed families in East Camp, and he once had to be hidden to keep hungry rioters from beating him.

You might have noticed that Van Cortlandt provisioned his men with "small beer" in November of 1691.  Beer was among the most common daily drinks in the colonies, primarily because water and other non-alcoholic beverages were of unreliable quality and often unsafe.  In this collection of letters, beer and "small beer" (which had less alcohol) were the most commonly-mentioned beverages.  Other alcohol was also part of the conversation: barrels of rum (accompanied by its byproduct molasses) and "anker of brandy" in October of 1691 are both mentioned.  Even so, S. Van Cortlandt mentioned the brandy, it was followed up with a request for Livingston to "send down good beer" for Mr. Bridger "to be drunk by spring.  He requests that it be good since there will be many tasters," Van Cortlandt added importantly.  On the whole though, beer was the most common beverage in these writings.

 You might think that in an agricultural society like this one, produce would be a big part of the letters.  To the contrary, since Alida and Robert and Van Cordlandt were most often discussing food that was to be shipped or moved somewhere, I found few references to fresh food.  Fresh food was certainly produced, but it rarely was mentioned when the Livingstons and their partners discussed loading and unloading shipments.  The most commonly mentioned vegetable was peas.  Alida sent 900 bushels to her husband in April of 1698.  So early in the season, these may likely have been preserved (perhaps by drying) over the winter, and it is possible that they were destined for planting.  The concept of dried peas is further supported by the fact that Philip Van Cortlandt shipped peas "as per your orders" to his brother Livingston in the dead of winter--January--1682. 

Apples, which are now closely identified with this region, are mentioned in the letters three times.  Once in 1682, Philip Van Cortlandt thanked his brother-in-law Livingston "for the apples you sent [they] are very good and longlasting."  This was in January so even if they were picked in October, those apples were four months old.  Apparently Livingston was sending out gifts of apples that month.  He also sent some to S. Van Cordlant, who deemed them "very good and durable."

In September of 1698--closer to harvest season--Livingston's wife Alida Alida was worried, not only about apples in 1698, but also about peaches.  "You don't send me any [peaches] nor apples for none are to be gotten here for it seems that you do not think much about us," she wrote.  Why there were "none to be gotten," I don't know, but peaches were one of the marvels of New York.  According to The Island at the Center of the World, the luscious fruit grew particularly well in the local soil and climate, and the Dutch were thrilled with the bounty.

Alida's letters with requests for food to feed the family and stock the manor store show the most varied list of foodstuffs.  On March 20, 1698 (I imagine just after the ice had broken up on the Hudson to enable shipping), she requested "2 prunes, 2 currants, 3 raisins, 6 rice."  (These foods all have a symbol--presumably a unit of measurement--transcribed after them, but it is unknown to me and not translatable onto the computer)  This fare could have been produced in other colonies, but her request in the same letter for "2 lood bayleaves, 2 lood cinnamon sticks" indicates some more exotic tastes.  Later in 1700 she sent out to her husband and son Johannes from her stores at the manor "a small bag with ginger and allspice and the small bag with salt."  Alida was of Dutch decent, and Dutch cooking heavily favored spices like these for both sweat and savory foods.

The Dutch sweet tooth also came through in Alida's food orders. In August of 1698, Alida was trying to restock her household with sugar.  On the 25the she wrote "if our barketine [boat] comes in then we have to have 2 hogsheads of sugar."  Three days later on the 28th she reminded her husband (in case he hadn't been paying attention the first time, perhaps), "let a barrel of sugar come up."  Sweets were a special part of the Dutch and English diets.  The Dutch were the originators of cookies, according to noted Dutch food historian historian Peter Rose, but other sweets were part of the diet of Colonial Americans, particularly the well-to-do. 

And there you have it--about twenty years worth food as described in letters to and from Robert Livingston from his wife and associates.  Because the letters are generally discussing shipping, this record leaves out local produce, produced in kitchen gardens and even large plots--anything that was grown and consumed in the same location.  But it does give us a picture of the food that was transported around the region, whether it was to feed the troops, stock a store, or feed the family.  Preserved meat, peas, and wheat or bread seem to have seen the most travel.  But other products, including exotic spices and sugar from Caribbean seaports were still an important part of the diet.

What were people cooking with the food?  Soldiers would have subsisted on the most basic fair, cooked and served sometimes in the same tin kettle.  Instead Alida would most likely have drawn from her Dutch background, with possible additions from the influx of English culture around her.  Although she was living at the manor, often isolated from the comforts of New York City or Albany, she nevertheless would likely have had some fine dishes.  She and her husband were wealthy, and was procuring silk for clothes and paintings for her walls so it is no stretch to imagine fine ceramics or silver on top of her table rug or cloth (seen layered above).

Either way, both the soldiers and Alida (seen at right) were limited by seasons and the long time required to ship products from place to place.  Fresh peaches were for September, but aging apples, dried raisins, and currants were the fruits of January.  Fresh meat was always to be had, but wheat for bread paramount and came in large shipments.

Just like today, food was an important part of life.  People worked long hours to earn or grow it.  Women worked hard to prepare it, and people ate it together every day (if they were lucky).  Just as the taste of your own mother's recipe for pie (or cookies, you know what I mean) might take you back to being five years old and sitting under the kitchen table, food can stimulate a whole different way to understand and relate to history.  You might have to use a little imagination, but it's worth it to feel what it was like to live in Colonial New York.

Want to learn more about Dutch foodways?  Try Peter Rose's books and lectures!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Livingstons and Their Fabulous Hats

So I was inspired by this entry in Taylor Shelby's delightful "Hats from History" blog to take stock of some of the fabulous head wear the Livingstons have sported over the years.  Mrs. James Duane (at right) was a daughter of Robert the 3rd Lord.  Painted in 1787, she is proudly wearing an enormous day cap, perched on top of an equally large hairdo.

White day caps made of linen, silk, or occasionally cotton were de riguer  head coverings for women--both wealthy and poor--throughout the 18th century.  They kept the hair clean and were part of creating a fashionable appearance.  They were even kept on under larger hats and bonnets.  They also went through varying styles, and historians like John Styles in Dress of the People have suggested that even poorer women attempted to keep pace with headwear trends.

Above at left is Margaret Beekman Livingston some 45 years earlier around 1742, sporting a much smaller cap with broad and expensive lace trim, possibly a pinner cap, which would have long tails of lace that reached down her back.  At right is Maria Thong Livingston, circa 1764, sporting a small, close-fitting daycap with the lappets tied tightly down around her ears.  The only ornament on the cap from this angle is a narrow ruffle that frames her face.

Catherine Ten Broeck, at left, is portrayed around the same time with a similar cap--lappets, ruffle and all--only hers is adorned with a white ribbon and a bow on top.

During the 1780s and 90s, fashionable caps got very big like Mrs. Duane's that we saw at the beginning of this blog entry.  For instance, check out this fabulous 1785 mob cap from  Dames a la Mode blog.   To me when they get this big, they start to look a bit like some sort of wild confectionery on the head.

Even Margaret Beekman, who was nearing 70 by this time, was willing to experiment with larger day caps.  Note, in her 1793 Gilber Stuart portrait, how much higher the caul (or the large part that covers the hair) stands off her head much than the caps of 30 years earlier.  Her ruffle has also become more elaborate, requiring a finer fabric and an extra row of stitches to hold it in place--though she still has her lappets tied tightly under her chin.

If puffy caps were fashionable, Margaret Beekman Livingston was not going to be left behind the times. 

Sadly, I only have one example of a Livingston in a hat (as opposed to a cap) from this time period. That's Sarah Livingston Jay, portrayed as right circa 1780s.  Straw hats were popular for long before Sarah picked them up, but she did wear hers with style.  Love that big gauze-y tie under her chine, and the puffs around the crown.  They remind me of the puffs of giant mob caps seen in earlier images.

Moving into the early 19th century, the Livingstons continued to experiment with their caps and hats.  In my opinion the best ever worn by any Livingston anywhere is that of Margaret Maria Livingston in her circa 1802-1807 portrait:

Turbans! Yes, turbans came into vogue during the early 19th century.  Check out Alice Swift Livingston in her stylish version in 1810:

 Even Sarah Johnson Livingston in 1800 was experimenting with an early version:

Not that the good old white day cap was ever totally cast aside.  Sarah Livingston Livingston, at right in 1806, kept her modest little cap with no more grandiose ornament than a simple ribbon cockade and soft, draping ruffle (that makes her look quite dour, unfortunately).

And then there's Joanna Livingston Van Cortlandt at left.  her cap could almost have come from the previous century.  (As an interesting side note A Portrait of Livingston Manor suggests that this portrait is posthumous from a wax profile done in the 1790s).

At least for portraiture and evening, more women also left their hair unadorned with more than fancy curls during this time period.  Check out Angelica at right around 1815.  Angelica's aunt Alida Livingston Armstrong (seen below) elected instead to go with long strings of pearls wrapped around her forehead instead of risk looking unkempt in her portrait a few years earlier.

There were many other styles of headwear during this time period (keep scrolling through either of Taylor Shelby's blogs I linked to above for delightful examples), but the Livingston women seem to have stuck with the above options--at least for their portraits.  Who knows what they wore every day since I have so little in the costume collection that dates back this far.

Pushing forward into the next few decades of the 19th century, the Livingston ladies were portrayed in some more really fabulous headwear.  I love this one of Judith Livingston, at left, in 1825.  She appears to be wearing something between a turban and the frilly, frilly daycaps that came into popularity for the next few decades.

Then there's dear Louise Livingston in 1827, sporting a large straw hat, ornamented with lots of flowers and ribbons.  There are even more flowers under the hat on a ribboned ornament in her hair itself.

 My second favorite hat in the Livingston family portraits is this one on Helen Livingston Ten Broeck in 1832.  This is another giant confection of hearwear, and I love the way the ribbons on it also match the one at her neck.  My only regret about this image is that the artist apparently thought it was too big to bother squeezing all the way into the portrait.  Boo.  I'd love to see what the top of it looked like.

Later in the 19th century, decorative bonnets really came into their own.  Frilled out with silk, lace, flowers, and ribbons, the style was dependent upon the size of the brim and the shape with which it flared out.  I love this little example from mid century.  (Sadly, this image was in a box of unidentified photos so I don't know who this pretty little girl is)  There aren't too many examples of these in my collections, but I do like to keep my eye out.

But bonnets were not the only hats out there.  Hats came in all sorts of sizes and shapes, like these at left from the 1860s (note those feathers on the one at left).  One appears to be straw, the other is felt or velvet.  Livingston women would have had the buying power to purchase from New York City shops, getting some of the most fashionable things available at the time.  Some who traveled abroad may even have been able to choose from the peak of European fashions--France or England. 

I like this one too: a men's wear inspired hat meant to go with her riding habit.

 The next best records I have of Livingston hats comes from Alice Livingston, who lived at Clermont in the early 20th century.  She left behind plenty of images of her childhood, and most of them include excellent millinery.

For instance, this one taken in the late1880s with her sister Adelaide.  Love the feathers!

And here she is again a couple years earlier (don't miss those bangs!):

This 1892 image features Alice in a glamorously-adorned straw hat, and her friend in something much plainer.

But truly Alice's best hats were from the early 20th century.  Hats of the period again went through a Really Big! stage, and Alice was not immune to the whims of the fashion.  Here she is on honeymoon in Egypt: 

Alice wore lots of big hats.  At right is a portrait taken (also on honeymoon) in France in 1906.  That ostrich feather is truly massive, and may possibly come from a few feathers piled together to build enough bulk.  Some hats from the period featured entire taxidermied birds perched atop them, though the practice proved ecologically devastating.  I can't imagine traveling around Europe with all those big hat boxes.  It must have been quite a pile of luggage.

I also love this picture from when Alice returned from her honeymoon: all decked out to go walk her baby in the snow around Clermont in 1909.

Then come the 1910s, and Alice left me little good material for that time period.  I think she put all of her big effort into dressing the children.  There are lots of pictures of her two daughters in matching hats (and matching dresses for that matter), like this one at left from around 1916.

Alice, like many modern mothers I think, seems to have found herself behind the camera a lot more than she was in front of it, but I did find this one of her watering her garden in Aiken, South Carolina around 1916 or 17.

Hats had shrunk down again by this time, and they were not too far off from modern proportions.  There are a lot tilted down brims that gave women and girls a slightly wilted look, like Honoria at left.

By the time Honoria and Janet were in their teens, it was the 1920s, and hats became frequently very close fitting.  I like these exotic little things, photographed in Italy between 1922 and 1925.

And then there's Honoria in what appears to be a turban (the return of the turban!) just a few years later.  

And then in the very late 1920s or 1930, we see the image we're all more familiar with of a very close-fitting little cloche style hat.

So that's about two centuries of the Livingstons and their hats.  I love the shifting cycle of small to large and back again.  Each style is an integral part of the overall aesthetic of their clothing, and it's an important part of recreating the era.

Clermont is working on our reproduction hat collection, and these hats appear at important costumed events like the Fall Fete: A Regency Tea Party (coming up on Sept. 28th, 2013 at Vanderpoel House of History).

While hats have largely disappeared from both men's and women's heads over the past 30 years, they used to be a requirement of proper dress.  So what do you think?  Was it just one more accessory that made us slaves to fashion, or should we bring hats back to everyday fashion?