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

Friday, December 30, 2022

Masquerade! Paper Faces on Parade!

The Christmas season is always a grand affair at Staatsburgh!  The site has elaborate decorations that evoke the decadence and over-the-top nature of the Gilded Age. Quite often, the holiday decorations are aligned with a theme and in 2022 that theme was masquerade.  Masks adorned various Christmas trees and tables throughout the mansion and the strains of Phantom of the Opera's 'Masquerade' could be heard in the dining room (hence the borrowed lyric in the title of this essay.)  Masquerade balls evoke a sense of mystery and opulence that was most commonly associated with 16th-century Venice and the Carnival. Since wearing a mask could act as a disguise, there was an element of thrill and intrigue about not knowing the identity of your dance partner.  Although masquerade balls fell out of fashion the following century, they became popular again in 18th-century Europe.  Given that Gilded Age décor frequently copied 18th-century European tastes and styles, it was only natural that masquerade balls were once again part of entertaining .  

Banquet table in the Dining Room, December 2022

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

"My Dear Gitty,": What Margaret Lewis Livingston's Letters to her Daughter Reveal about the Mother of 12

Could letters serve as a gateway to the mind?  To a person's innermost thoughts and feelings?  Is it possible to peer into the psyche of a person by reading their letters?  Maybe, maybe not.  In retrospect, we cannot know how much a person pours of themselves into their correspondence.  Are they truthful or reserved?  Do they have an agenda? Did the writer consider their legacy when composing letters that would potentially shape the way they are remembered?  All of these questions come into play when historians explore primary sources such as correspondence.  

At Staatsburgh, we often lament the lack of letters and personal papers left behind by the Mills family.  While the family donated estate lands, outbuildings, the mansion and its furnishings to New York State, any personal papers were removed by the family.  Letters from Ruth and Ogden Mills do exist in the archival collections of the recipients and there is always more to find.  Even though correspondence to or from Ruth and Ogden Mills is thin, a treasure trove of letters from Ruth's grandmother, Margaret Lewis Livingston (1780-1860) exists and were recently annotated and published by Mary Mistler.  This essay will share some of the insights about Margaret's life that can be gleaned from reading through all of these letters.

The annotated book of letters from Mary Mistler and Staatsburgh's typewritten transcripts of the letters.  Mistler's book is currently available for purchase in Staatsburgh's gift shop!

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Enslaved & In Service II: A New Nation

If you're just joining us, consider going to the Introduction for Enslaved & In Service: here! Missed the last post? Find "Part I: Colonial New York" here.

"What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim."
- Frederick Douglass,

John Trumbull. Declaration of Independence. 1826. Oil on canvas.
12' x 18'. United States Capitol Rotunda. 
Edited by Arlen Parsa and Zachary Veith to highlight enslavers depicted.
Courtesy of PolitiFact.

            At the conclusion of the War for Independence, Benjamin Rush stated “The American War is over, but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed.”[i] Benjamin Rush and others expected great social change on the horizon. Indeed the revolutionary rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence – that all men are created equal – had a resounding impact on every aspect of society, especially the growing discussion around enslavement.[ii] The words and actions of the Revolutionary generation demonstrate a paradox between owning humans and espousing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of the forty-seven men depicted in John Trumbull's painting, "Declaration of Independence" (above), thirty-four enslaved people. Among those thirty-four men, indicated with red dots over their faces by documentarian Arlen Parsa, are Morgan Lewis' father, Francis Lewis (indicated by a yellow diamond) and his brother-in-law, Robert Livingston (indicated by a blue square). Despite how Benjamin Rush and others saw the American Revolution as a social revolution, the conditions for enslaved Black people in the early republic barely improved.[iii] The same men who declared "all men are created equal" enforced a racial hierarchy that denied basic human rights to Black and other non-White people.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Hidden Treasures of the Collection: Brunswick Panatrope Records

Two months ago, I wrote this post about Staatsburgh's Brunswick Panatrope that is located in the Main Hall.  This music player, which dates to 1927, has one original record inside the player.  Was this disc the last piece of music the family listened to while using the Panatrope?  What else did they listen to?  I always wondered about the rest of their music collection and I am happy to report that I discovered two binders of additional records in storage!  What can these records tell us about the family's musical preferences and the role of music in their lives?

Staatsburgh's Brunswick Panatrope

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Hidden Treasures of the Collection: Brunswick Panatrope

“Without music, life would be a blank to me.” — Jane Austen, Emma

Gilded Age entertaining and music went hand in hand.  Attending the opera, musicales, or grand balls with a live orchestra was a common social activity for the Gilded Age elite.  Live music was also a frequent component of at-home entertaining.  When Ruth Mills held a reception for Alice Roosevelt on the occasion of her father's election as President, the Staatsburg Band serenaded her, and the Hungarian Band played music for the evening's dancing.

It was during the Gilded Age, that a whole new way to listen to music was developed.  Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, which was the first generally reliable device to record and play back audio.  The sound was fairly scratchy by modern standards, but the technology worked and continually improved over time.  The phonograph was a cylinder playing machine, and by the 20th century it was replaced with the disk phonographic record.  With this new technology, a machine now existed that could bring recorded music into the home and public spaces.

Thomas Edison and his second phonograph, 1878

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Enslaved & In Service I: Colonial New York

If you're just joining us, consider going to the Introduction for Enslaved & In Service: here! Missed our last post? Find "A New Beginning" here.

"Anyone who calls themselves an explorer is an invader to someone else - someone is always paying for the gilding"
Alice Proctor
The Whole Picture 

A slave auction in Dutch New York.
"Slave Auction, 1655" Howard Pyle, 1895.

Sojourner Truth - a contemporary
to Staatsburgh - has introduced slavery
in the Hudson Valley to generations
of Americans.

            Slavery in the Hudson Valley has been an overshadowed aspect of our local history. To better understand Staatsburgh founder Morgan Lewis’ connection to enslavement, it is important to start with how central slavery was to New Yorkers for generations. The entire system of Northern enslavement, from the international slave trade to the local manor houses, operated in parallel with American slavery elsewhere. Yet our contemporary ideas of American slavery fail to acknowledge the scope of bondage in the North. The Hudson Valley offers a window into a world beyond southern plantations to underscore how ubiquitous slavery was for New York colonists and early Republic citizens.[ii] Our collective image of slavery must include people of African descent enslaved in northern states, such as Sojourner Truth and countless others, and not just southern plantations.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Staatsburgh & The Gilded Age

As the stewards of a site that interprets the Gilded Age, we were very excited to see an entire television series dedicated to the era.  We were especially interested because the show was created by Downton Abbey mastermind, Julian Fellowes who is known for the efforts he puts into the historical details and accuracy of his shows and movies.  The first season of HBO's The Gilded Age depicted 1882 New York and aired from January - March 2022; a second season is forthcoming.  The show brought the era to life with magnificent costuming, sets, and a dramatization of the clash between old and new monied elites.  In addition to this central clash of values, the show also depicted the life of the black elite in Brooklyn, the plight of servants, and the ways new technology was about to revolutionize the country.  Although the main characters were fictional, there were several real historical figures mixed in such as Mrs. Astor, Ward McAllister, and Mrs. Fish among others.  

Photo: HBO

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Enslaved & In Service: A New Beginning

Plato. William. Belinda. Stephen. Mary. Peter Williams. Dinah.
The recorded names of people enslaved by Morgan Lewis.

Morgan Lewis,
founder of Staatsburgh.
             Former g
Morgan Lewis is traveling home from Albany. His carriage drives down the dirt roads parallel to the merchant ships sailing in the Hudson River. Before long, he and Mrs. Gertrude Livingston Lewis stop along their way to visit her siblings in one of the countless Livingston estates between Albany and Clinton. Lewis soon arrives at his own country seat, “Staatsburgh,” named for the original Dutch land owners. Their carriage drives past the sheep grazing and horse stables nearby, when the magnificent Federal Style brick mansion comes into view. As Morgan Lewis steps out of his carriage, Stephen, his Black enslaved valet dressed in European-style livery, is there to carry his bags. The cook, a Black enslaved woman named Mary, is preparing the Lewis family’s dinner inside. The Black domestic staff have been busy all day preparing the home for their enslaver’s arrival.  

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Competitive Figure Skating in the 1920s

Although most rivers and ponds are far from fully frozen in January 2022, it is possible that avid ice skater Ruth Mills was enjoying skating season in the late nineteenth century.  January is National Skating Month and a time for figure skaters to share their love of ice skating with others.  It is the perfect time to learn to skate, but in lieu of getting out on the ice yourself, let us take a look back at skating in the United States a century ago.  Given the skating background of Staatsburgh's curator (me), the subject is one of great interest and I have enjoyed researching and writing about skating these past few years! *              

Unknown skaters enjoying the ice in 1925.
Photo Source

*For more information about Staatsburgh's past programs about figure skating in the Gilded Age, take a look at this Poughkeepsie Journal article, this blog essay, or these essays on Staatsburgh's blog