Monday, September 23, 2013

Research comes from the unlikeliest of places

As evidenced by my various afternoon adventures, I love visiting historic sites. I will drag Josh to living history museums just to pretend I'm living in colonial New England (more on that soon). When my parents called to say they were planning a weekend in upstate New York, and that they hoped to visit some painters' houses and one of the Roosevelt sites, I dropped everything to join them. Nothing says vacation to me like poking around perfectly preserved homes from another era.

But why? Yes, I'm a huge history nerd, but what exactly do I love about it? (As Josh keeps asking me.)

First, I love feeling like I'm stepping into another era. There's no better way than to actually stand in the house where the Vanderbilts entertained, or to look out at the views the servants at The Elms saw. Sure, reading historical fiction transports me to another era, as does obsessively watching Downton Abbey, but there's no replacement for seeing a 1920s refrigerator in person. And that kind of visual only fuels my imagination when I'm reading.

That brings me to the main reason why I love historic houses: each visit is a treasure trove of research. Maybe the information won't be useful for my current projects, but I can always file it away in the back of my mind, or jot down an idea in my notebook, to call up later. Guides are often bursting with strange factoids--our guide at the Vanderbilt Mansion, for example, reminded us that the Vanderbilts could build what they did because they didn't have to pay income tax. (It hadn't been invented yet.) These bits of information can spark a new idea or flesh out a current one.

During that weekend in New York, my parents and I visited the homes and studios of the Hudson River School landscape painters Frederic Church and Thomas Cole. I was finishing a draft of a historical YA novel about a young woman who longs to be a painter, and I was struggling to add enough specific details that would make her world come to life. Turns out that visiting these two homes was exactly what I needed. I got to look at Thomas Cole's paintbox, which he took with him on his regular 12-mile hikes across the mountains. Cole punched studs into his personal trunk to decorate it, and Frederic Church, himself a student of Cole, filled his home with paintings he collected during his world travels. I even learned when paints began to be sold in tubes rather than as powders.

These kinds of details are gold to writers of historical fiction, and they're tough to find in regular research routes. Plus there's no replacement for soaking in the feel of an artist's home; the very atmosphere of a place can inform your work.

If you like to visit historic homes, what do you love about it? Any places to recommend?

Top two photos of Thomas Cole house; bottom three of Frederic Church house.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Afternoon Adventure: Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park

About a month ago I met up with my parents in Hyde Park, New York, for a weekend of sight-seeing and poking around historic places (this is the order of the day with my family). After touring two painters' homes on the first day, we headed to the Vanderbilt Mansion bright and early on Saturday. Now, I have seen my share of Vanderbilt mansions, and those of their friends. Living so close to Newport, it's basically a law that I have to make a yearly pilgrimage to the Breakers or Marble House. But I'd never seen the mansion in Hyde Park.

the entrance hall

Friends, it was worth it. It was the American version of Downton Abbey.

The Vanderbilts were one of the wealthiest families in the 19th century. Patriarch Cornelius Vanderbilt created a shipping and railroad empire in the early 19th century, and his children and grandchildren used that money to build magnificent mansions during the Gilded Age, following the Civil War. Only a few of his descendants used their inheritances wisely--most of the family, including those who lived at Newport, became famous for throwing money around and trying to marry their children off to British royalty. However, grandson Frederick William actually grew his inheritance, and he got to build a bunch of beautiful residences to boot. So we made our way to his "country palace" in Hyde Park.

Frederick and his wife Louise purchased the estate as a country home, and while they often entertained friends there, for the most part it was just the two of them. Well, and loads of servants.

Louise's bedroom, because we all need a gated bed

The mansion is a gorgeous example of late-Gilded Age architecture and decoration, complete with servants' quarters that mimic the design of the public rooms. The first floor, designed for entertaining, is laid out in an oval, with dining and sitting rooms fanning off to the sides. The second floor is no different, with a gallery in the center to let light filter down to the first floor. From there you can peek into bedrooms, ranging from "simple" quarters for guests to the his-and-hers bedrooms designed to look like the palace at Versailles. A few rooms were even set up as though the Vanderbilts had left for the season; white cloths covered all the furniture and only a single lamp lit the interiors.

What fascinated me about this house was the sharp contrast between upstairs and downstairs. This is Downton Abbey-speak for the employers (who lived "upstairs") and employees (who lived "downstairs") of the Gilded Age in America. Though the basement servants' floor was laid out in the same manner as the first and second floors, the decoration was completely different: dark wood free of ornamentation, small windows that didn't let in much light, simple furniture. The servants' staircase was painted silver to mark the shift from the gold in the public rooms.

A staff of over 60 kept the house running during the entertaining season, while the Vanderbilts only ever entertained, at maximum, 16 guests. It was easy to picture a Downton-like lifestyle at Hyde Park, and in a way that's what the Vanderbilts were going for.

Wealthy Americans in the 19th century longed for the class and distinction they felt came with a European background. They traveled to Europe and purchased all the old art and sculpture and furniture they could find, because they felt American art and furniture wasn't refined enough. By building such a palace and staffing it to the nines, the Vanderbilts, like many wealthy families, were trying to become European. No wonder the place felt so English!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Shortbread fans (and a bit about ovens)

It's the last gasp of summer, friends. The air is getting cool at night (sometimes). Stores offer apple cider in big displays. And this week I go back to school.

To mark the occasion, let's look at one more recipe from this summer's Canadian vacation. It's a pretty basic shortbread recipe, one that calls for three ingredients and a modicum of decoration. But things get interesting with the instructions.

First, the original recipe calls for "washed butter." Why would you need to give your butter a bath? According to the many homesteading blogs that encourage you to make your own butter, you have to wash fresh butter well in order to drain away all traces of milk. Otherwise it goes rancid. The only other reason I can think of for using "washed butter" here is to make sure your butter is, well, buttery. Shortbread depends on a specific blend of butter, flour, and sugar, and there's no room for anything else.

Once you've mixed all the ingredients and prepared the cookies, you're instructed to "bake in a slow oven (325 F)." What?

cooking range, c. 1910
The phrase "slow oven" comes from a time before ovens had regulated temperatures. You'll find it in early American cookbooks when food was baked in Dutch ovens and in later ones when women used monstrous ranges, the predecessor to today's stove-oven combination. Until the 1920s, when most families had made the transition to gas ovens, women had to rely on their understanding of heat to put on enough wood or coals to bake bread, or to let the coals burn out to bake something more delicate, like cookies. Even into the 1920s and 1930s, some families didn't have "heat regulators," as the editors of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book called them. And if that was the case, "judgment and experience must be the guides."

The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, from where this recipe originates, used both points of reference ("slow oven" and a specific temperature) because many Americans were in the middle of switching over when it was published in 1930. Some readers had heat regulators, while others didn't. It's fascinating to see how the smallest details can illuminate a turning point in American domestic history.

I am hopelessly reliant on temperatures, just as I am pretty dependent on recipes. But I was pleased to see that when reading colonial recipes, my interpretation of "slow oven" as 300 to 325 F was right on the mark.

Shortbread Fans
(slightly adapted from The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book)

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup butter, softened

Preheat the oven to 325 F (yes, we use temperatures around these parts). In a medium bowl, whisk flour and sugar together. Work in butter with your fingertips until well blended.

Roll out the dough on a floured surface to about 1/4-inch thickness and cut out rounds with a measuring cup. Slice each round in half and press each half-moon four times with the tip of a knife, creating a fan-like decoration. Bake for 10 minutes at 325 F, or until browned on the bottom.

Works cited: Cooking range photo from Family Lineages and History.