Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Rooms With a View: Seeing Victorian-Era Boston through Queer Eyes

The Red Study
This blog post is a preview of an article that originally appeared in the Boston Pride Guide 2018.
Be sure to follow the link at the end of the preview to read the rest of the article. 

As you wind your way up the staircase of the Gibson House Museum, you leave behind the public spaces of this elegant Back Bay townhouse and enter the family’s private quarters. The third floor was formerly the master bedroom suite—two separate bedrooms linked by a shared bathroom, as was common in wealthy 19th-century homes—of Charles Hammond Gibson, Sr. and Rosamond Warren Gibson, from their marriage in 1871 until Charles’s death in 1916.

What used to be Charles Gibson, Sr.’s bedroom is now the Red Study. It’s an apt name. The carpet is crimson; the walls and drapes a rust-red. The room is packed tightly with furniture: armchairs—also red—by the small fireplace, a desk, and several tables. Even a sofa is tucked in. In the years following Charles, Sr.’s death, this room became the domain of Charles Hammond Gibson, Jr. Known by his family as “Charlie,” he was the second of Charles and Rosamond’s three children, born in 1874. We can learn much about Charlie simply by looking at the objects that fill this brooding, close space: his books on the desk, with several ashtrays nearby; his portable projector on the center table; framed letters from American and British notables, thanking him for his thoughtful words; a memento from the Revolutionary War. Charlie’s story is both at the heart of the museum—he was, after all, the museum’s first curator—and shrouded in some mystery, as his status as a lifelong bachelor provoked some rumor and conjecture over the years.

To read the rest of this article, visit: Boston Pride Guide 2018

Friday, June 1, 2018

From Leisure to Danger: A Gibson Family Vacation on the Verge of War



This blog post is part of an occasional series about the Gibson House Museum Archives; a repository of personal documents and photographs from the extended Gibson family. The archives are accessible by appointment; contact curator@thegibsonhouse.org to make arrangements.

The Gibsons were not just devoted Bostonians, but avid world travelers as well. Multiple photo albums received as part of a recent donation to the museum by Gibson family descendant Rosamond Warren Allen document Mary Ethel and Rosamond Gibson’s travels throughout Europe in the early twentieth century. With the birth of their sons—Henry Freeman Allen and Warren Winslow, respectively—their travel bug only spread. The photo albums that all of these members of the Gibson family created allow us to not only look back at their distinctly personal moments, but also discern their opinions on and relationship to the world outside of Boston.


One section of one of Warren Winslow’s photo albums, entitled “My Trip to Europe: July, August, September 1939,” depicts the adventures of Warren, his cousin Henry, and their friends during a particularly contentious time in world history. Warren and Henry would have been in their early twenties at this point, probably fresh out of college and full of wanderlust. Their trip included visits to classic tourist destinations in England, Belgium, France, and Switzerland, but also Germany and Austria. The contrast of leisurely tourism with the swastikas and soldiers that appear in photos of cities such as Munich and Salzburg is particularly striking. Warren’s cohort also sought out naturalistic experiences in the beautiful Alps, and the comparative calm and normalcy of these places is perhaps more eerie. This effect is no accident.

In 1933, the National Socialists passed the Law for the Reich Committee for Tourism, which established a new organization to oversee all matters of tourism under the auspices of the Ministry of Propaganda. This move demonstrates the National Socialists’ acknowledgment that travel can be an important ideological tool. Accordingly, many of the important administrative cities had elements of Nazi tourism, where people actively sought out the novelty of the new regime. Warren’s group was no exception, snapping photos of the monument to the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch (the failed coup that landed Hitler in prison) in Munich.

By and large, the National Socialists pursued a policy of Gleichschaltung, or “synchronization.” Within Germany, this policy implied a desire for political conformity. From the outside, the goal was to make the international community less antagonistic to National Socialism by reassuring them of Germany’s continued normalcy. Maintaining that façade in tourists’ eyes was an inherent part this second goal. Accordingly, many of the tourist ads from the time period are completely devoid of National Socialist ideology or symbols, instead touting Germany’s beautiful historic sites, health resorts, and hospitality. Warren and his friends sought out these aspects of German tourism as well, visiting the famous Neuschwanstein castle and hiking Mt. Säuling in the south of Germany.


Yet the truth could only be concealed for so long. The tone of the photo album gets increasingly more serious, with captions mentioning “war rumors” and gas shortages. Then on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and war officially broke out. There are pictures of Warren and his friends in gas masks, suggesting that people truly did not know what to expect. Ultimately, the group cut their vacation short and returned home on September 3. The reason for this cancellation is glued to the last page of the photo album: a letter from the US consulate in England, recommending evacuation and detailing procedures to do so as safely and as soon as possible.

Ultimately, this photo album highlights the precise moment when Germany transformed from a place of leisure to a place of danger. Moreover, it demonstrates how the political can become personal. Warren and Henry would go on to serve in the war, with Warren giving his life for the cause in 1944. Perhaps this vacation was a turning point in their realization of just how dangerous National Socialism could be.

                                                                        -  Emma Gutman, Curatorial Intern (Spring 2018)


While Warren and Henry were traveling abroad, it is possible they visited their cousin Mason Hammond (another extended Gibson family member), who was teaching at the American Academy of Rome before WWII broke out. Mason Hammond went out to become one of the first “Monuments Men”, advising the Allied Forces on rescuing cultural treasures across Europe. Visit the Gibson House Museum Archives to explore the fascinating stories of the extended Gibson family.


To learn more:


Semmens, Kristin. Seeing Hitler’s Germany: Tourism in the Third Reich. New York: Palgrave. 2005.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Aunt Mary’s Worth Dress

 Velvet gown with daytime bodice, Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895), Gibson House Museum (1997.111).

There is a gem in the collection of nineteenth-century dress at the Gibson House Museum. It is a sumptuous purple velvet gown, richly colored and trimmed in velvet ribbon and silk fringe. A drape sweeps off the waist and gathers at the back in a dramatic bustle. The dress has two separate bodices: one for day wear (long-sleeved with a high collar) and one for evening wear, with a low, square neckline. The skirt is stiff from a horsehair lining, and metal stays are sewn directly into the bodice fabric.

Likely made in the early 1870s, the dress is a pitch-perfect example of Victorian fashion from that decade. The tightly corseted waist and prominent bustle create a much-desired silhouette, one that shows off a more “natural” form in comparison to the large hooped skirts of the 1860s. In dress, as in most other things, the Victorians preferred a high level of specificity, and the two bodices signify the expectation of different attire for day and evening.

Mary Crowninshield Warren Hammond (1841-1890), Gibson House Museum (1992.413.27)
Mary Warren Hammond, Rosamond Gibson’s older sister, was the proud owner of the dress. She was married to Samuel Hammond IV, Charles Gibson Sr.’s cousin, and they lived across the street at 116 Beacon Street. In photographs from the 1870s and 1880s, Mary looks elegant and confident, someone to notice. She was clearly a fashionable lady, and it seems fitting that this beautiful gown belonged to her.

The dress was made by Parisian couturier Charles Frederick Worth. Born in England,  Worth moved to Paris in 1845 and found work at Maison Gagelin, a luxury textiles firm. By 1860, he had set himself up with his own dressmaking business and by 1870, he was the most sought-after designer in Paris. He was especially known for his use of luxurious fabrics and trimmings.

What explains Worth’s popularity? Part of his success was due to the patronage of Empress Eugénie; after seeing a Worth gown at court, she treated the House of Worth as her official dressmaker. Worth was also innovative in business. He used live models, rather than mannequins, to show off his designs to potential customers. Clients like Mary Hammond would visit his offices at 7 rue de la Paix and select from the clothing on view. Chosen items would then be tailor-made for the client. His popularity spread through fashion magazines, and many wealthy American women traveled to Paris to visit the House of Worth, where he put on fashion shows and created seasonal collections. Due to these innovations and to his immense popularity, Charles Worth is considered by many to be the father of haute couture, or high fashion.

Tucked into the Gibson House Worth dress box, a handwritten rectangular label reads, “Aunt Mary’s Worth Dress.” It’s the only item of clothing in the house that Charlie personally labeled, giving us an idea that he, too, understood its value and beauty.
Velvet gown with evening bodice, Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895), Gibson House Museum (1997.111)

The Charles Worth gown will be on display at the Gibson House Museum May 30August 12, 2018. Visit the Gibson House Museum website to plan your visit, www.thegibsonhouse.org.

- Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Curator


To learn more:


Friday, March 2, 2018

Charlie Gibson, Lodger


This blog post is part of an occasional series about the Gibson House Museum Archives, a repository of personal documents and photographs from the Gibson family. The archives are accessible by appointment; contact curator@thegibsonhouse.org to make arrangements.

In  1940, Margaret MacDonald came to work as a cook at 137 Beacon Street. Charlie Gibson, Jr. had been living at the house, largely alone, for the previous six years and from a statement Ms. MacDonald signed, it sounds like things were not going all that well.
Ms. Mary MacDonald’s signed statement, April 18, 1940. This was likely written by Charlie and signed by Ms. MacDonald in response to a dispute with a previous employee at 137 Beacon Street.

“I arrived at 137 Beacon Street, on April 9, 1940, to work as cook and house-maid, and found the condition of the kitchen dirty and uncleanly, dishes shelves and utensils not properly cleaned or kept. They showed signs of gross neglect by the cook who had last been in charge of them.”

Charlie had officially moved back to 137 Beacon Street in 1935, after his mother Rosamond died. He likely needed some help keeping the house in clean and working order, so he would have hired a cook or a chambermaid. Why did things look so shoddy in 1940 when Margaret MacDonald arrived? Was there a cook at the house at all between 1935 and 1940? Where was Charlie eating?

Let’s back up a bit. Before Charlie returned to 137 Beacon Street, he “took rooms” at a number of different addresses in Boston. He spent twenty-five years at 121 Beacon Street, just down the street from his childhood home; that property had become a lodging house in the 1880s. In nineteenth-century cities like Boston, boarding houses were an important housing option for all manner of people–young and old, rich and poor–who weren’t able to, or chose not to, live at home. Boarding houses provided meals and other domestic services, like laundry and housekeeping. This was a great option for an unmarried gentleman like Charlie.

By 1900, however, many boardinghouses were in fact lodging houses–basically, the rooms without the meals. So, Charlie Gibson, a long-time lodger, would have been used to eating his meals elsewhere than in his home. It may be that when he moved back to 137 Beacon Street, he chose not to employ a cook, and the kitchen went largely unused.

If that’s the case, where did he eat? Some lodgers might return home or take meals with friends. It seems likely that Charlie did that, since he was around the corner from his childhood home and had many friends and relatives in Back Bay.
 
A page from Charlie’s daily journal, November 19, 1934. Courtesy of the Gibson House Museum Archives.    

His daily journals also contain clues about his eating habits. Monday, November 19, 1934: “Dinner, Trinity Club, 6:30.” Monday, December 10: “Dinner, Episcopalian Club, 6.” Private clubs abounded in Boston, and many Boston elites preferred eating at clubs to restaurants, as they were exclusive and membership afforded diners another opportunity to declare their social status. But restaurants were increasingly popular, too, and hotels like the Fairmont Copley served a daily dinner that became a prestigious social event for Back Bay residents.

Restaurants “were secure, predictable places of association, where people could stake out social space in the city,” writes culinary historian James O’Connell. Maybe the state of the kitchen at the Gibson House in 1940 was due to Charlie’s preference to dine out in Boston.


- Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Curator


To learn more:

·      Wendy Gamber. The Boarding House in 19th Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.
·      James C. O’Connell. Dining Out in Boston: A Culinary History. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2017.
·      “Rooming Houses: History’s Affordable Quarters.” Sightline Institute, November 14, 2012. http://www.sightline.org/2012/11/14/rooming-houses-historys-affordable-quarters/
·      “Boardinghouses: Where the City Was Born.” The Boston Globe, January 13, 2013. https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/01/13/boardinghouses-where-city-was-born/Hpstvjt0kj52ZMpjUOM5RJ/story.html



Thursday, November 16, 2017

From Guangzhou to Boston: The Story of the Porcelain Vase

Pair of floor vases, Ch’ien Lung period (1736-1786), Canton. Gibson House Museum.

“As we pass up the Grand Staircase…we come to the Music Room, on our left with double doors of black walnut, …with the original portieres of pink and gold…; pink and blue floral pattern on a pale ground of pale yellow cream, in harmony with the Chinese porcelains.”

So begins Charles Gibson Jr.’s tour of the music room, written in 1939 soon after he started to think about his childhood home as a museum to Victorian culture and society in Boston.

Those Chinese porcelains that get top billing in his tour are a collection of eight matching pieces: two garden seats, two flowerpots, two jardinières (flower stands), and two floor vases. The pieces are decorated with floral designs and Chinese figures; the color palette, known as “famille rose,” is dominated by shades of pink and red. Over two feet tall, the floor vases, or palace vases, flank the fireplace. They are a focal point in a room filled with treasures.

The vases were made in the port city of Guangzhou, known in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as Canton. According to Charlie, they were made in the Ch’ien Lung period, 1736-1786. Emperor Ch’ien Lung was a patron of the ceramic arts, and during his reign, new color palettes were introduced, including the “famille rose” colors seen on these pieces.

Porcelain wares made in Canton were manufactured specifically for the export market. Chinese emperors had confined all western trade to this one city, which made it a bustling and international marketplace. The China trade was built on Chinese exports of tea and silk, but luxury goods, like porcelain “china,” were also a hit with American consumers. In fact, “chinoiserie,” or decorative arts inspired by Chinese artistic traditions, had been fashionable since the mid 1700s, and owning China trade pieces, especially ones as large (and therefore, expensive to ship) as these floor vases, continued to be a status symbol into the 1800s.


Charles Gibson, Jr. (Charlie), with his great-aunt, Mary Ann Palfrey Russell. 
The porcelain vases passed through Miss Russell to Charlie’s family.
In his tour, Charlie goes on to say he “inherited many of the Chinese porcelains in this room – these were brought over to this country from China about 1835 for Mr. Nathaniel P. Russell… .”  The China trade, which flourished in the United States between the end of the American Revolution and the First Opium War (1839-1842), made many Bostonians quite wealthy. One of those Bostonians was Charlie’s great uncle, Nathaniel Pope Russell. He was a prominent Boston citizen, and a leading China trade merchant and marine insurance broker. His son, Samuel Hammond Russell, eventually purchased the house at 135 Beacon Street, directly next door to the Gibson House. The families were quite close, and it was through this connection that Charlie ultimately came to own the collection of porcelains.

The music room was a formal sitting room, where family and guests would retire after meals to listen to music, of course, performed by the Gibson children or by friends and guests, and to socialize and spend time together. Because it was a public space, the room was decorated to show off the family’s wealth, taste, and social connections. And this is exactly what Charlie is reminding us of when he points out these once-trendy Chinese porcelain pieces.

Floor vases, before and after restoration.

In 2016, thanks to a gift from Robert Severy, a longtime benefactor of the Gibson House Museum, the floor vases were sent to the conservation lab at Trefler’s in Newton, Mass to be fully restored. (The vase that received conservation attention was damaged and then partially repaired in the 1970s. The second vase served as a model for the process.)  

The floor vases have been off view for over a year and we are so thrilled to have them back. Stop by the Gibson House to see the complete collection of Chinese porcelains that Charlie was so very proud of.


By Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Curator



To learn more:

“The Music Room, Written in 1939.”
The Gibson House Museum Archives. Accessible by appointment.