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,

- 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 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.
·      “Boardinghouses: Where the City Was Born.” The Boston Globe, January 13, 2013.

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.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Boston Interconnected: Then and Now

Boston is small for a “big city.” This was certainly true for the Gibson family’s upper- class social circles in the nineteenth century. They married into their friends’ families and were business partners with their neighbors. It’s true for me, too, when I discover that a new friend went to my university, or I unexpectedly attend the same event as a colleague. The more time one spends here, the easier it becomes to recognize the interconnectedness of people and places. It’s also true for the Gibson House Museum in its many connections to other historic organizations throughout the greater-Boston area.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit John Singer Sargent
Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 

This well-known Sargent painting hangs in the new American Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). The four girls pictured are the daughters of Edward and Isa Boit, as the title informs. The room is in their Paris apartment, which they moved into after leaving 110 Beacon Street, Boston—just three houses down from the Gibson family. In addition to being neighbors, Charles and Rosamond Gibson were friends of the Boits and both were members of their wedding party. 

 Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

A more tangible connection between the Gibsons and the MFA lies within the MFA’s jewelry collection. A beautiful pink brooch once belonging to Rosamond Warren Gibson was purchased by the museum in 2010. Although it is not currently on display, it is a fine example of Bostonian material culture. 

Peabody Essex Museum
 Image courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.

Another Gibson family object that has made its way into the collection of a large museum is the Warren family dollhouse. As a young girl, Rosamond played with it at her parents’ home on Beacon Hill. The extravagant, five-foot tall dollhouse was also a childhood favorite of her daughters, who played with it on the fifth floor of the Gibson House. After they had grown, Rosamond donated it to what is now the Peabody Essex Museum in 1926.

Royall House & Slave Quarters
“Historic exterior with orchard.” Image courtesy of the  Royall House & Slave Quarters.

Just a fifteen-minute drive away (by contemporary vehicle) in Medford lies the Royall House & Slave Quarters. Starting in 1810, the house was occupied as a summer home by local rum distiller Jacob Tidd and his wife Ruth Dawes Tidd. Ruth was the sister of Sara Dawes Hammond, Catherine Hammond Gibson’s mother. As a child, Catherine played in her aunt’s courtyard and gardens. Ruth lived in that house until she died in 1861, just two years after Catherine moved into her new home at 137 Beacon Street. Today, the museum is interpreted for the previous century, when the Royall family, as well as enslaved men, women, and children, lived on the estate.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
“Entryway in the Gardner Residence at 152 Beacon Street, Boston. about 1882.”
Image courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

After Isabella Stewart married Jack Gardner in 1860, they moved into 152 Beacon Street. Although we cannot say for sure, it is very likely that Isabella attended dinner parties just down the street at the Gibson House. Her museum in the Fenway was opened to the public a little more than forty years later. 

Boston Athenaeum
 Image courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum.

Edward Clarke Cabot is the architect of both 137 Beacon Street and the Boston Athenaeum at 10 ½ Beacon Street. The Athenaeum opened in 1849, ten years before the Gibsons moved into their own Cabot-designed building. Many of Cabot’s artistic works, including this painting of Beacon Street in 1880, are held within the Athenaeum today. 

Beacon Street, Edward Clarke Cabot. 
Image courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum.

The more one dives into the personal and material histories at 137 Beacon Street, the more one discovers such connections. The Gibson House Museum is lucky to enjoy all of its fantastic neighboring institutions and a history rich in complexity. Maybe you will run into a neighbor or friend while visiting one of them and be reminded of this city’s deep interconnectivity. If Boston ever feels like a small-big-city to you, imagine all of the connections you are yet still unaware of.

By Barbara Callahan, Museum Assistant

References (in order of mention):

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. Artwork: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accessed September 3, 2017.

"Gem set brooch with pendant drop." Artwork: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accessed September 3, 2017.

“The Pink Brooch.” The Gibson House Museum. Accessed September 8, 2017.

“The Warren Dollhouse.” The Gibson House Museum. Accessed September 8, 2017.

"Historic exterior with orchard." Royall House & Slave Quarters. Accessed September 8, 2017.

"Mansion House." Royall House & Slave Quarters. Accessed September 8, 2017.

 “Entryway in the Gardner Residence at 152 Beacon Street, Boston, About 1882. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Accessed September 8, 2017.

"About Isabella Stewart Gardner. Marriage." Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Accessed September 8, 2017.

"About: Mission & History." The Boston Athenaeum. Accessed September 8, 2017. 

"Edward Clarke Cabot." The Boston Athenaeum. Accessed September 8, 2017.