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Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Hidden Treasures of the Collection: Vichy Water

One of the reasons that we initially created this blog was to be able to focus on items in Staatsburgh's collections that are tucked away, harder to see, or not highlighted on the standard house tour. The house has so many items in it, that it is impossible to cover it all on a tour. The "Hidden Treasures of the Collection" essay series provides a closer look at some of the lesser-known, yet interesting objects throughout the house and estate. This essay examines the high-end (non-alcoholic) beverage of choice for European elites, also found in Staatsburgh's pantry.

A 1975 photograph of the butler's pantry showing the Vichy bottle cabinet.

A utilitarian and far less ornate space than the mansion's adjacent formal dining room, the butler's pantry none-the-less served a central role at Staatsburgh. It was the final staging area for the elegant dishes before they arrived at the table. Food would be delivered from the kitchen a floor below, via the dumbwaiter, for final preparation before being served to guests. Visitors on tour can see the warming ovens, champagne coolers, silver safe, and glass-fronted cabinets of heirloom china necessary for presenting an elegant dining experience. Harder to see, in the northeast corner of the room, between the window and the dumbwaiter, is a cabinet filled with more than a dozen bottles labeled "Vichy France" and "Vichy Celestins." Surprisingly, most still contain their original mineral water!

One of Staatsburgh's Vichy Celestins bottles.
Bottles on display in the Butler's Pantry.

French "Vichy Celestins" mineral water has a long history intertwined with Gilded Age elite society and upstate New York. Long before later associations with Nazi collaboration, the city of Vichy's mineral waters and natural springs were fashionable tourist destinations and symbols of status for wealthy elites.

The waters, as well as the healing properties of their hot springs, have been known since the ancient Roman occupation. On early 19th century labels, the Vichy company touted the "ancient" health benefits of their drink, including relief of gastric pain, liver disease, and even diabetesIn 1853, the French government, under Emperor Napoleon III (whose uncle, Joseph Bonaparte, was a guest of Morgan Lewis at Staatsburgh), began to lease the rights to bottle the waters. By the time the Mills family was ordering shipments of Vichy water, the emperor has been disposed and the 'Third Republic' has been declared in France, lasting from 1870 to the Second World War. One side of the bottles' label contains a list of the branch offices in France, as well as the agencies selling the water across the globe. Among those listed are European nations (including "Jugo Slavia" or Yugoslavia), several North and South American nations, Cuba, Japan, Siam (now known as Thailand). as well as "British Territories in Africa" and "French and British Colonies." This far-reaching list demonstrates both the global reach of Vichy water and the larger presence of European colonial powers across the world during that time.

List of Vichy water branch offices and international agencies.

Francis H. Leggett & Co., general distributors of Vichy water for the United States.

The Millses' bottles came into the country through one general distributor. Francis H. Leggett & Co., listed on the bottle, was the General Distributor for the United States. Located on the west side of Manhattan between 27th and 28th Streets, Leggett was within the fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, blocks from the Gilded Age landmarks of Pennsylvania Station and Madison Square Garden. 

Vichy water was actively marketed to wealthy aristocrats and emerging millionaires. The advertisements below attest to this strategy, showing well-to-do individuals in fashionable automobiles and cosmopolitan dress enjoying the mineral water. The presence of
a Japanese figure in the last poster (below) demonstrates again the global reach of Vichy, and of France, during this period. While the Millses may not have seen these advertisements, they surely would have encountered Vichy in Paris and perhaps served it at their mansion in that city. Given the love affair of American Gilded Age society for all things French, it is not surprising to find Vichy water also at their Hudson Valley estate.

Courtesy of Vichy Celestins Spa.

Courtesy of Pinterest.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Courtesy of Vichy Celestins Spa.

As the Vichy name rose in international prominence in the United States, imitations were not far behind. In fact, our bottles have the warning "Beware of imitations" printed on the label, for just this situation. Most notably, and closely linked to the Mills family, was Saratoga Springs. The upstate New York town has been a popular tourist destination for the rich and famous for generations, due largely to the natural hot spring. Only a few years after the Civil War, bottling of Saratgoa waters with "a sweet and crisp taste" from a newly discovered spring began. Capitalizing on the popularity and reputation of the French mineral water, 'Saratoga Vichy' was founded. In 1903, the French government, which owned the Vichy springs, sued their American impostors for wrongful use of their name, yet lost the case. Years later, the Millses' daughter, Gladys Mills Phipps, would become a staple at the Saratoga horse-racing track. For generations, her family was active in the breeding and racing of thoroughbreds in the upstate town. When Gladys gave Staatsburgh to New York State in 1938, including these French Vichy bottles, it is entirely possible she had also enjoyed the Saratoga Vichy. While Saratoga Spring Water is still bottled (even served at President Obama's second inauguration), the Vichy name was dropped decades ago.

Advertisements for Saratoga Vichy water. Courtesy of Edible Manhattan.

Long after the Gilded Age (and the Third Republic), there is still a legacy of Vichy water among prominent individuals. Influential French author and critic Marcel Proust mentions the medical benefits of the mineral water several times throughout his landmark novel In Search of Lost Time. Outside of France, particularly during the Vichy French government's collaboration with the Nazis, the bottled water came to symbolize the nation. In a WWII propaganda film, Alfred Hitchcock uses a Vichy bottle to represent a soldier's loyalty. Even author Ernest Hemingway had a bottle of the mineral water in his Havana home.

Staatsburgh, too, is part of this enduring legacy. Stretching from Roman emperors to Emperor Napoleon III, through international dominance and Nazi occupations, to New York avenues and upstate lawsuits, these bottles have a wider history to reveal. So on your next tour of the mansion, spend an extra moment to find these (slightly hidden) Vichy mineral bottles in the butler's pantry with a new sense of their prominence among global generations. Tempting as it might be to open one, Staatsburgh's Vichy bottles are now museum objects, and will remain sealed...the water might not taste quite as lovely now, anyway.

Poster for Hitchcock's propaganda film Aventure Malgache. Courtesy of IMDb.

Hemingway's bottle of Vichy water. Courtesy of Flickr.

*This essay was authored by Zachary Veith, a historic interpreter at Staatsburgh State Historic Site.

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