Welcome to Staatsburgh State Historic Site's blog! Learn more about the Gilded Age home of Ruth and Ogden Mills!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Gilded Age Christmas

It's that time of year again!  During December, Staatsburgh transforms into a festive wonderland of bows, boughs, holly, poinsettias and Christmas trees.  We prepare for the busiest season of the year by spending the month of November decorating the entire house so that we can welcome visitors to admire the Christmas decor, Gilded Age style.  But what was the experience of Christmas during the Gilded Age?  How did the Mills family celebrate Christmas?

Staatsburgh's library, decorated for the holidays

We don't know for certain where the Mills spent each Christmas season, but we do know there were times they were at their New York City house and there were times they were at Staatsburgh.  The Mills' grandchildren have many fond memories of Christmas especially regarding the generosity of their grandfather. During an interview filmed in the 1990's, Ruth and Odgen's granddaughter, Sonia Phipps Seherr-Thoss, fondly reminisced about her "Papa's" kindness,

“Oh he was a very kindly man [Ogden]. I liked him very much. He always came to spend Christmas with us. And so it was a great occasion. We had to wait for him to arrive. We couldn't go into the Christmas tree until he got there. But then he always brought us a very nice check at Christmas. And we were quite strictly brought up. We were never given much allowance, very small allowance. But his check was a great excitement. Might even have been fifty dollars. And that was a fortune!  I remember once he gave me a check like that and I'd like to say I did nothing but buy learned books, but it isn't true, I loved ice cream and I had many banana splits.”

Some of the grandchildren recall receiving presents from their grandparents by the Christmas tree in the boudoir.  If you are able to tour the house, take note of the beautiful tree in this room, which was Mrs. Mills' private enclave - a space reserved for her, to which only her family and closest friends were admitted.

The boudoir decorated for the holidays.
The Mills' grandchildren used to receive their gift under the tree in this room.

Touring the house, you will see several Christmas trees.  Accounts of Christmas trees in the United States are traced back to German immigrants in Pennsylvania in the mid 18th century.  In 1850, a print appeared in Godey's Lady's Book of Queen Victoria and her family gathered around the Christmas tree, which began to popularize the custom for the entire country.  By 1900, most homes had Christmas trees and the American custom of the floor to ceiling tree became more popular than the European-style tabletop tree. Most homes used candles to light their trees until well into the 20th century, but wealthy families like the Mills family, with electrified homes, would have used electric lights as early as the 1880s. 

Queen Victoria and family in the Godey's Lady's Book published in 1850.

Some of the first Christmas ornaments were very simple things that could be found at home: dried apples, strings of popcorn or cranberries, pine cones, but by the 1870s, store-bought, commercially made ornaments became the norm.  Because Christmas trees had German origins, many of the most popular ornaments for the trees were German.  German ornaments made of tin, wax, tinsel, embossed cardboard, and glass were imported and sold in American stores.  By the 1880s Woolworths was importing and selling millions of dollars of German glass ornaments.

A 19th century glass German ornament 

American Christmas trees were full of German ornaments, but the demand soon hit a snag with the beginning of World War I.  After the war began in 1914 there were still plenty of German ornaments on the shelves of American stores, but by Christmas the following year the Allies had placed an embargo on German products.  By 1916, there were no more German made Christmas ornaments left to sell in the US.  A couple of years later, American companies began to produce similar products, but their initial attempts were far inferior to the quality of the German ornaments.  By the 1920s, the Germans were easily able to regain the market they had lost with the production restrictions and anti-German sentiment that resulted from World War I.

Sandringham House, Norfolk, England
Certainly Christmas was much different for the Mills family and their servants.  Christmas was often a time when families gave an extra bonus to their devoted staff.  If you are a fan of the television show Downton Abbey, you may remember the Christmas episode where the servants get the night off and the family has to fend for themselves.  The family held a servants ball for their staff and gave them thoughtfully chosen Christmas gifts.  Even King Edward VII, who spent Christmas with his family at Sandringham House, the family's country estate in Norfolk, would send food, supplies, and gifts to all of the workers and families living in cottages throughout the estate.

The Mills family was no exception to this kind of generosity and the Poughkeepsie Journal reported that during the Thanksgiving holiday in 1896, the year the house remodel was completed, the family gave a grand ball with a Hungarian Band for the benefit of the servants.  They provided a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner the evening prior in addition to an amazing spread at the ball.  At Christmas, employees remember receiving a $20 gold piece and a big turkey.  In 1903, the paper also reported that "There was a big time at the Mills Mansion on Christmas Eve when the village folks and other guests were invited to enjoy themselves."  Christmas was meant to be a joyous time for all and we hope to recreate that spirit and jovial atmosphere here at the site with the decorations throughout the mansion.

From everyone here at Staatsburgh State Historic Site, we hope you have a wonderful holiday season full of friends and family!

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