Friday, February 27, 2015

Margaret Howarden Livingston: A Long-Lost Livingston Wife

It is a sad fact of seventeenth and eighteenth history that women's lives all-too-often lost behind the identity of their husbands.  In rare cases, where letters or diaries may have been preserved, you can get to know some of the women of history--one of the most famous being Abigail Adams.

Well the Livingstons lost the human identities of many of their women too.  So often I can find nothing but their birth, death, and how many children they had.  This is probably most true of Margaret Howarden Livingston, who's husband built Clermont in the 1740s.  I never even knew her birth and death dates until today!

So today I got my first peak into the first Mistress of Clermont while I was reading a section in the Dutchess County Yearbook for 1930.  Her granddaughter Janet Livingston Montgomery remembered her with great affection and with the only account I have yet found.

This portrait may depict Margaret Howarden Livingston
or possibly her daughter-in-law Margaret Beekman
Livingston.  See here for more information.
Apparently the reason Janet remembered her grandmother so fondly was because Margaret was Janet's primary care taker while she was growing up.  "From infancy I became a favourite with my father's mother," Janet wrote in 1820.  Janet was born in 1843, when her grandmother was 50, and apparently the older woman saw to it that the girl was "spoiled by indulgence."  Until the age of 12, Janet considered Margaret her "tender parent," and she hints at the cuddling and intimacy one would expect to share with a beloved guardian.

Janet also recalls her grandmother as "a melancholy" woman.  "The first thing that strikes my memory was her tears."  What made Margaret so sad?!  "Often she has lulled me to sleep on her bosom by her tales of sorrow taken from the Bible, or perhaps the incidents of her own life..."  Whatever it was, Janet's impressionable youth was spent learning about Margaret's family and history, which apparently were at least partially the source of her sadness.

First of all Margaret was baptized on July 13, 1693 so probably born not terribly long before that.  Her father died when she was young, and she "treasured" several letters he had written all her life as her only connection to him.  Somehow (the Reminiscences confuse generations frequently, making the stories difficult t sort out), the family's significant wealth was lost, and Margaret spent her own childhood "in very moderate circumstances" imagining what her life should be "having the fortune of a princess."

She once told Janet a story about going to a fortune teller when she was young--her friends convinced her, she swore.  And what do 18th century girls want to know about the future?  Their husbands, of course!  When the friends had all had their turns, and Margaret's turn came, the fortune teller told her she would wed a "Dutch-Scotsman," and offered to show his face in a mirror (a common divining technique).  But Margaret ran away out of fear.

Whether the story is true or not, when she was about 24 years old she married Robert Livingston in November of 1717, a Dutch-Scotsman with a bit of a wild reputation.  Nevertheless he was from a good family, and he got along with her mother very well.  Together they had only one child (Robert R. Livingston, "the Judge" was Janet's father), and there is no record why there were not more.  Were lost pregnancies part of her sadness?  Or did she just not get pregnant?  Even though Janet is quick to report a bad marriage in another part of the family, her portrait of life with her Livingston grandparents appears harmonious so I don't think that incompatibility played a role in the couple's limited fertility.

So by 1743 Margaret's husband was either building or planning to build a good mansion on his country estate, now called Clermont.  Her only son gave her the first grandchild (Janet), and her Howarden mother died three months later.

For twelve years she appears to have been Janet's primary care taker, comforting herself by sharing her life story with the little girl who soaked it all up like a sponge.  More grandchildren followed at a rate of about one every other year.  She welcomed a total of six into the world.

And then in 1755 Margaret died suddenly at age 62.

And that's all I have, but it's more than I'd previously been able to gather in 10 years here at Clermont.  I've often wondered about Margaret, and hopefully I will learn more.  This is just one more step in our effort to learn about the Livingstons as people and try to make their history more than just a recounting of names and dates.

Sorry we remember you as primarily "melancholy" Margaret, but hopefully we will be able to fill in some more details in the future.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Is it Really Necessary? Of Corset is!

Corsetry often proves to be a problem for museums that do costumed interpretation.  Volunteers and museum staff who are eager to teach history to the public may or may not be eager to lace up a garment that's been demonized for centuries.  It can be a little unnerving, and it can take some getting used to!

At Clermont, we do our share of costumed interpretation, and we have been lucky to be able to cajole our staff into the appropriate corsets and stays.  Actually, quite a number of our staff have been curious or even downright excited to try on their first steel-boned undergarment.  And on the opposite end of the spectrum, one or two have presented some pretty good reasons why they need to go without.  We are grateful to our skilled volunteers and staff so we try to find the best solution for each person.

So is it really necessary?  Is corsetry really worth all this effort?

Of course it is!

Presenting the most accurate costumes we are capable of means a long process of learning and replicating each detail--from the right corset to the right ruffle.  It's an ongoing process, and it's part of our commitment (and a museum's purpose) to interpret history accurately.

That means not just putting our staff in any old corset, but making sure they have the right one for their time period.  Just as the shape of the skirts changed the silhouette every decade or so throughout the past two centuries, the shape of the torso (and the foundations underneath) changed too.

Just like most women today have given up the iconic "bullet bra" of the 1950s, women of the past were conscious that an out-of-date corset would make them look out of date too, as shown in the 1901 corset ad below at left.  Much more important than just compressing the waist, corsets "corrected" the figure, pushing bust, waist, and hips into a fashionable configuration.

So for each era of costume that Clermont interprets, we have purchased or made the right gowns and the right corsets.

It's taken us 10 years to get where we are, and we've decided to share what we've learned so far.  To that end, we'll be hosting a lecture entitled Corsets: Building Fashion from the Inside Out on March 14, 2015 at the beautiful and historic Hudson Opera House at 2:30pm.  Three live models will demonstrate what a different a corset can make--even without tight lacing--in the look of an historical costume, and Clermont's costume historian Kjirsten Gustavson will give an illustrated talk about the changes corsets underwent during the two centuries that Clermont was the home of the Livingston family.

Please call early.  Clermont's costume lectures often sell out!  (518) 537-4240

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Adventures in 18th Century Teenagers with a Young Janet Livingston

References for the following are all taken from Janet Livingston Montgomery's Reminiscences, transcribed in the Dutchess County Year Book, 1930.  The Reminiscences were intended for her favorite, and youngest, brother Edward Livingston.

Janet Livingston Montgomery (1743-1828) is best known as the builder of Montgomery Place, or perhaps as the widow of Brigadier General Montgomery, who died in the Battle of Quebec in 1775.  But before Janet was a widow, she was teenager looking for a husband.

Janet was the first of her parents' many children.  I don't know why for sure, but she spent most of her first 12 years growing up with her paternal grandmother and grandfather.  It wasn't an uncommon arrangement to divide up child rearing among several households.  They were happy and indulgent years apparently, but when her grandmother died, she was sent to the care of her paternal grandfather--and his wife Gertrude.

Janet, who much later in life declared "I don't like stupid people.  I have never been accustomed to them," felt stifled under Gertrude, who was her grandfather's second wife.  In a rather cutting description of the woman, Janet once said that she had "all the cunning and intrigue that her weak intellect would allow."

Life with Gertrude and Col. Beekman (the grandfather) was strict, and freshly-turned-teen Janet was dismayed at her life there, listening to the old dame prattle on about her fashionable youth (now long past).  Janet didn't care and found the conversations thoroughly "intolerable."  She needed some space to herself, and you should never underestimate the powers of a determined teenager.

Desperately seeking privacy for visiting with friends, Janet enlisted the help of the family servants in renovating an old, mostly forgotten room in the house.  Apparently "a little hump-back wasp of a steward" had been using it for 50 years, but never mind him--teenage Janet needed some space!

She and the servants cleared out some "large guns, and two large pictures of Indian pheasants," washed the room, and soon thereafter she began receiving her own friends there.

The steward did his best to hang onto a corner of the space.  Once he dared to get off his stool and try to talk to her though, haughty Janet had her grandfather throw him out of the room for good.

Once she had an inch, Janet took a mile.  She wanted a fashionable space to receive her friends.  You know, with wallpaper.  And curtains.  Working with the servants at night--since she was sure she would be denied permission by her financially-concious grandparents--Janet tried to scrape decades of whitewash from the walls, but only wound up completely wrecking the plaster (thankfully the half-deaf grandparents never heard the crash).  She somehow repaired it, purchased wallpaper, borrowed furniture from her parents, and even got her hands on a little stash of Beekman liquor that was so old and bad her grandfather wouldn't touch it (but she loved).  Now she was all set up at home.

But young Janet wanted more than a cozy fireside parlor with her "newspaper and the pipe."  She wanted to go out.  She wanted to meet boys.  It was the 60s now (the 1760s, that is), and she was old enough to "go into company."

The winter social season in New York offered many temptations for an energetic young lady like her.  But her grandfather would have none of it.  He "detested the word engagements," she wrote.  As far as he was concerned "girls knit stockings and spun and learned to make good wives."  Apparently learning to be a good wife wasn't on Janet's to-do list, but going to a few parties and engagements was.  One night she even enlisted the help of several servants (including the coachman and at least one woman) to sneak out in someone else's carriage--a classic technique of getting picked up in front of someone else's house.

Nevertheless, later in life she was proud of her male conquests.  "I had many idle scenes," she wrote.  Knowing that 18th century dating could get a little handsy, I do wonder what those "idle scenes" entailed.

The first young man who called on her was a "Yael" College graduate with a "little bobbed wig and a switch in his hand..."  She turned him away in "disgust."  When telling the story, she felt the need to add "After some years he married and in a fox chase broke his neck."

Another suitor, a "modest Scot" in the military promised to return to her after going to home to get a better commission.  She wasn't quite ready to promise herself to him, but was ready to wait and see if he came back.  "He set sail and was lost at sea."  Suitor number two was dead.  Janet was thinking herself cursed.

So she wasn't completely cloistered.  She got permission to receive guests and even go out from time to time--provided she was home by 10pm, which was just the height of indignity since all her friends "kept late hours."  At least once we know that she and "the three ladies in our house" got permission to go to a play, where she started a little romance with the rather dashing man in the seat next to her.  He was a real socialite, the life of the party, and always raising a toast to Janet when he was out and about.  But when her mother got wind of the romance, Janet was afraid of the outcome.

There wasn't time to worry.  The young man's friends convinced him to go out drinking one night.  They drank until the morning and then decided to go riding (can you see where this is going?).  The man fell and broke his neck, and Janet's little dalliance was over with.; suitor number three was dead too.  "What was surprising, I was prepared for this event by a dream," she said.

Later she fell desperately in love with a handsome officer with "a beautiful coat and cockade" but no money or family connections to speak of.  Her parents put a stop to that, but it was hard for Janet and the "struggle between love and duty was very painful."  Janet's parents weren't going to arrange her marriage, but they certainly weren't going to let her throw in her lot with any old soldier who might not be able to provide for her in the way she was used to.  At least this one didn't die like the last two.

Janet was getting older now and still stuck living under the care of her parents and grandparents.  Her younger brother had already gotten married.  She needed to get focused on her future.

Men in uniform apparently were something of an attraction for her.  When she was 23 she met another soldier who was polite but also shared her general impatience with the human race.  The meeting came and went, but when he returned ten years later, he found her still single, and he struck up conversations again.  The romance went quickly, and they were married that summer.  Janet had long since left her teen years behind, but at least she'd finally accomplished the all-important goal of finding a mate.

Janet's teen years sound remarkably familiar: borrowing the carriage, sneaking out, moderate rebellion (though nothing too wild), a sprinkling of booze and smoking, and several failed romances.  All of this was written when she was 77, and many details in her writings get confused about who was who or when.  This section of the Reminiscences has a lot of clarity and detail though, which just goes to show you that even if you don't go to a conventional modern high school, your teen years make a life-long mark on you.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Reluctant Revolutionary, Part 2.: The Chancellor Refuses Montgomery

We know that Brigadier General Richard Montgomery wanted out of the American Revolution.  Like George Washington, he had not asked for a military post, but he had been selected by committee for his experience in the French and Indian War years before.  His letters to his wife are clear in expressing his frustration with his troops and his desire to quit his commission as soon as he could find a replacement.

In November he requested to leave the military again, but the responses were bleak.  John Hancock, at Congress in Philadelphia on November 30th wrote to Richard that he hoped the officer would stay at his post and that "the Loss of so brave and experienced an officer will be universally regretted as a Misfortune to all America."

His own brother-in-law and good friend Robert R. Livingston Jr (the Chancellor) was struggling north to Canada that month.  On November 28th, they arrived at Ticonderoga, freezing and exhausted from the trip (perhaps they would have done better if they had brought more than "but one blanket" for the two of them), and Robert had heard of Richard's desire to resign as well.  He wanted Montgomery to stay too.

"I do not know how to approve or blame your Desire of quitting the service," Robert wrote, "Your country still wants you...& yet the sacrifice you must make is such as can hardly be borne by a man of any sensibility or feeling, heaven direct you to what is best."

This paragraph must have either made Montgomery's heart sink or his blood boil.  It's heard to know.  Either way, not knowing where to find a replacement, Robert pushed his brother-in-law to stay at his post--even while the troops were deserting and returning their families wherever possible.

Long story short, Livingston and Franklin turned back south just a few days later, and Montgomery made plans to visit his wife at home during the winter, when the army would wait out the season, but he pushed on for now at the head of an army bound for Quebec.  Only a month later, he was killed in battle.

Did the Chancellor feel any guilt for his brother-in-law's death?  I don't know.  Despite the obvious dangers of war, he could not have predicted Richard's death in Quebec.  His own exertions and those of his brothers (Henry and John) put everyone at risk--not just his sister's husband.

It was all part of a dreadful fall and winter for Robert.  While he was returning south from this horrible journey with Franklin, first his grandfather and then his father passed away at Clermont on December 9th.  He felt the loss of his father very deeply, and wrote back and forth with his friend John Jay about it many times.  Richard's death was just a few weeks later on New Year's Eve.

Did Janet fault her younger brother's role in encouraging Montgomery to stay in the army?  If she did, it has not surfaced in any writings.  Instead, she was with them often in the coming years, perhaps taking comfort in a shared loss.

For Montgomery it was too late.  Remorse or blame could not bring him back.  His farm and mill were out of his reach forever, and in spite of his reservations, he went down in history as a hero--the first officer to die in the American Revolution.