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

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Christmas 1899 at Staatsburgh

Every year we decorate the mansion for the Christmas season.  We don't merely put up a tree and throw some garland on the railings.  We really deck the halls...Gilded Age style!  There are no fewer than six decorated trees, bows on every sconce, decorations in every room, and an amazing display in the dining room.  We are talking splendor x 100!  The mansion closes for three weeks for all of this work to be done by staff and a highly-skilled cadre of volunteers!  However, the Mills did not leave behind a blueprint or photos of their Christmas decorations.  The only thing we have is a quote from a neighbor who remembers boughs of holly.  Since 100% historical accuracy is out of reach, we decorate in the spirit of the holiday and the spirit of the splendor of the Gilded Age.

Christmas at Staatsburgh, 2016

We also do not have definitive knowledge that the Mills family spent Christmas here.  We know the family spent most of the autumn at Staatsburgh and we assume they did spend at least a few Christmases here over the years.  Thankfully, earlier this year, we received an amazing gift.  The Staatsburgh guestbook used from 1899-1908 was discovered and donated to the site.  The guestbook was signed by visitors when they arrived at Staatsburgh.  It has entries and therefore proof that the family was here for Christmas in both 1899 and 1900.  There are many guests all fall, during the week of Thanksgiving and even two weeks before Christmas, but Christmas, as we will discover, was mainly a family affair at Staatsburgh. Let us first take a look at Christmas 1899...

In 1899, William McKinley was President, Garret Hobart was Vice President (until his death in November) and the world was just days away from facing a new century.  Just like 2017, Christmas in 1899 was on a Monday, the beginning of the financial week.  In one New York hospital, future cultural icon, Humphrey Bogart was born.  Also similar to life in 2017 was the number of dreary stories on the front page of the newspaper.  The New York Times Christmas Day edition featured articles on the front page about deaths from a British steamer wreck, a mining disaster in Pennsylvania with even more casualties, and an investigation into the corruption of Tammany Hall.  Other significant events to happen during 1899 included the end of the Spanish American War, the beginning of the Phillipine-American War, and the newsboys strike in New York City, which later inspired the movie and Broadway musical Newsies.

Away from all hustle and bustle of the city, the Mills family spent a quiet Christmas at Staatsburgh, their country home 80 miles north of the city.  The guestbook has provided us with much useful information about who visited the house and when, but it has also opened up countless more questions!  Oftentimes a missing person raises a lot of questions, but we can't know for sure if they were truly missing or if they just neglected to sign the guestbook.  Did guests always sign during a visit or did only a portion of visitors sign?  If it wasn't standard practice, then these guest lists may be incomplete and disclose less than we had hoped.

The guestbook signatures from Christmas 1899 reveal a small, intimate gathering with mostly family members and a few close friends.  Only family members from Ogden's side of the family are present.  Perhaps Ruth's closest family members spent Christmas in England since her twin sister moved there when she married an Englishman.

Staatsburgh Guestbook entries on Christmas 1899
On the previous page in the guestbook, we see that Ogden's brother in law, Whitelaw Reid, arrived on Christmas Eve.  Whitelaw Reid married Ogden's sister Elisabeth Mills whose name is fifth from the top in the above image.  Reid was the editor of the New York Tribune and was the Vice Presidential candidate in 1892.  He later became the US Ambassador to England, but at the end of the nineteenth century, he was serving on a commission to negotiate peace at the end of the Spanish American War.  The Mills family and the Reid family frequently entertained together both in the United States and Europe so it is easy to conclude that they had a close relationship.

Whitelaw Reid, 1892

Whitelaw and Elisabeth had two children, but only one, Jean Templeton Reid, was present this Christmas.  She was 15 years old and only one year younger than her cousins Gladys and Beatrice Mills.  It was still nine years before she would marry John Hubert Ward (the second son of an earl and equerry to four British kings) and live in England.  This Christmas she was still young and unconcerned with courting or finding a proper husband.  Her brother, Ogden Mills Reid, was not present, but he was 17 so it is possible that he made his own plans for the holiday (or did not sign the guestbook).   The patriarch of the family, Darius Ogden Mills (D.O.), a widower at this point, was also present to enjoy Christmas with his two children and his grandchildren.

Jean Templeton Reid Ward, 1909

In addition to the family, close friends W.S. Hoyt (see below), a Miss Frances Ogden, and one other person with an undecipherable signature signed the guestbook.  It looks like the last name is Webb, but the first name does not resemble any of the Webbs that we know about.  UPDATE: We figured out the signature!  I was researching another man who signed the guestbook, Fernando Yznaga, brother of Consuelo Yznaga, Duchess of Manchester, and I discovered a newspaper article that referred to him as one of the Three Vanderbilt Musketeers.  The article insinuated that these three men spent a lot of time traveling and socializing with William K. Vanderbilt.  The three men consisted of Fernando Yznaga (at one point he was married to the sister of Vanderbilt's first wife), Winfield Scott Hoyt (!), and J. Louis Webb.  I looked at the signature again and sure enough, it was him!  We found our Webb!  J. Louis Webb was the brother of William Seward Webb who had married Lila Vanderbilt, William K.'s little sister.  He was also a lifelong bachelor so his attendance at the Mills family Christmas is logical since he was a close friend of Winfield Scott Hoyt.  We don't know much about Frances Ogden, but she did spend a lot of time at Newport and she remained unmarried throughout her life.  It is possible that she is a distant relation because D.O.'s mother's name was Hannah Ogden, but so far we haven't been able to find the connection.

The obituary of Frances Ogden, May 26, 1929

Winfield Scott Hoyt, 1922 Passport Photo
The final non-familiar visitor at Christmas was Winfield Scott Hoyt.  His name consistently appeared in the guestbook, and we know he frequented Staatsburgh because one of the rooms had his name on the call box.  Mr. Hoyt also worked for William K. Vanderbilt and we believe he fulfilled a similar role for the Mills family.  He likely served as an accountant or financial secretary for the family, but he was also a distant relative of Mrs. Mills.  Mr. Hoyt's uncle, Lydig Hoyt, married Ruth's aunt, Geraldine Livingston.  The Hoyts lived at a house called The Point on property adjacent to Staatsburgh.  Since Mr. Hoyt was here for many holidays over the years including Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, it is likely that he was very close with Ruth and Ogden.  At the time Mr. Hoyt was a bachelor so he did not have a wife or children.  He did not marry until 1920 when he was 65 and by that point he was no longer working for the Mills family.  As we will see in the next blog essay, Mr. Hoyt was also present at Staatsburgh for Christmas in 1900.

If you happen to visit Staatsburgh during the Christmas holidays, you will be able to see and feel the Christmas atmosphere in a way similar to the guests and family during Christmas 1899.  The house feels very livable and it is easy to imagine roaring fires and lively conversation.  There is a perfect hill for sledding and there would be ice skating and ice boating on the river if it was frozen.  Staatsburgh offered the opportunity to spend time outside even in the winter months.  The mansion was close to the nearby village yet still isolated from the outside world.  The upper classes during the Gilded Age were often insulated from the struggles and strife faced by many during that era, and spending Christmas on a country estate away from the city was another layer of separation.


  1. This is a great post! What a treasure trove that guestbook is.

  2. Thank you! We have much more planned for the content of the guestbook!

  3. I can't wait to see what else you have planned for the contents of the guestbook!