Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Sound of Music: The Importance of Music in Victorian Homes

Listening to music within the home was something that was deeply cherished among Victorians of all social classes. In a world that was limited to objects such as music boxes to reproduce sounds in the home, live music was especially appealing. Many forms of outside entertainment were sought after, including operas, plays, and musicals. While these were wildly popular among wealthy nineteenth-century society, attending these events could prove inconvenient given New England's challenging weather and limited transportation options. Naturally, it made sense to bring the entertainment into one's home, thereby giving rise to the presence of a music room within many upper-class Victorian houses. At the Gibson House, the music room is the most lavish room and was a place where the Gibson family regularly entertained guests and friends.  

Mason & Hamlin Symmetrigrand Piano, 1908
Gibson House Museum (2006.08)
The piano became an especially fashionable musical instrument to possess, either an upright or a baby grand, depending on the wealth of the family. Since at the time many popular songs were made available in sheet music form, amateur musicians could play to their guests and family. There is quite an extensive collection of sheet music at the Gibson House Museum, collected over the years by the family. Along with individual pieces, there are bound albums containing a number of miscellaneous works, such as polka music and waltzes. The majority of the music is from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries (18791934), and was largely published in Boston. (The name Oliver Ditson & Co. appears often, indicating it was, perhaps, the family’s company of choice when purchasing new music.) The Gibson family’s music collection contains many pieces by well-known classical composers, including works like Fugue in G Minor (The Little) by J. S. Bach and Danse Polonaise by Xaver Schwarwenka, which you can listen to here and here.

The Gibson House sheet music collection includes one song that Charlie Gibson composed himself, entitled Dreams. He wrote the words and music in 1922 for the well-known baritone Emilio de Gogorza. According to some notes that Charlie wrote about the Gibson House music room in 1938, de Gogorza came to the house while Dreams was being written and sang it, offering his suggestions for edits. Charlie also noted that his piece had been sung at concerts in Boston and broadcast on a New England radio network. We have records of his attempts to get the piece published by Oliver Ditson & Co., which unfortunately were not successful.
During the period 1800–1914, it became common to hold chamber music recitals in upper-class homes. It was typical for both children and adults to play musical instruments, and most families considered music part of a well-rounded education. (This was particularly true for young women, who were expected to be capable of demonstrating their skills when potential suitors and other guests visited the home.) In the case of the Gibson family, Charles Sr. played the flute, Rosamond and each of the couples three children played the piano, and Charlie also played the violin.

Music Room, Gibson House Museum
Photo courtesy John D. Woolf
As the music room was an important part of the home, great care was taken to decorate it to enhance the enjoyment of the listeners. Chairs were usually very comfortable, and decorations such as plaster casts of musical composers and pictures and books related to the arts added to the ambience. In the Victorian home, where typical wall colors were reds, greens, or blues, subtler hues were considered more suitable for this artistic room. Walls would often be covered in fabrics such as grass cloth, Japanese cottons, velvet, linens, and sometimes tapestries.

The Gibson family put extensive thought and effort into the decoration of their music room, which is filled with cultural delights, ranging from an English replica scale model of the royal carriage commemorating King George VI to a Japanese lacquer apothecary cabinet. Chinese palace vases and cane chairs sit by the fireplace, and Chinese rugs are scattered across the floor. Having such a room in their home was important to the Gibson family, as a way to show their guests exactly how worldly and cultured they could afford to be. 

-          Olivia Spratt, Curatorial Intern (Spring 2018)

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Friday, January 4, 2019

Matching Sailor Suits for the Gibson Cousins

Henry Freeman Allen, c.1918
Gibson House Museum (2006.18.20)

Until the end of the nineteenth century, most American children were dressed like miniature adults. Prior to age three, boys and girls alike wore “dresses,” or long shifts that were simple to get on and off and easy to launder. At about three or four, girls began wearing more elaborate dresses, like their mothers, and boys were “breeched,” or put into pants, like their fathers. 

Beginning in the 1860s and 1870s, however, specific clothing for children became popular. And one of the most popular, and enduring, outfits for young boys was the sailor suit. Queen Victoria dressed the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, in a custom-made sailor suit in 1846, modeled on a real Royal Navy uniform. The prince’s portrait was painted in this outfit and it set off a craze for sailor suits that would last into the twentieth century. 

Henry Freeman Allen, 1923
Gibson House Museum (2006.18.32)
The Gibsons were not immune to this popular style of dress. The Museum owns two sailor suits, one navy and one white, which belonged to cousins Henry Allen, the son of Mary Ethel Gibson Allen, and Warren Winslow, the son of Rosamond Gibson Winslow. The cousins were quite close, and it’s easy to imagine them scampering through the house in their matching outfits while sisters Rosamond and Mary Ethel came by to visit with their mother.

The sailor suit may have been a popular choice because the central pieces—a middy blouse and long pants—were easy to wear and relatively comfortable for children’s play. That’s in contrast to some of the other popular clothing for young boys at this time period. Fauntleroy suits, inspired by the 1885 novel Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett, included matching velvet suit jacket and pants and a shirt with an elaborate ruffled collar.

Samuel Hammond IV, 1904
Image courtesy Sam Duncan
Scottish Highland costumes, again popularized by Queen Victoria and her children, were modeled on traditional Scottish dress and included a kilt, waistcoat, jacket, plaid, and cap (and often matching socks and capes, as well). The Scottish suit on display at the Museum was loaned by Sam Duncan, Gibson House Museum Board President, and was worn by many generations of the Hammond and Duncan families.

Both Fauntleroy suits and Scottish costumes would have been worn in more formal settings. The sailor suit, a more casual look and easier to reproduce, remained popular well into the twentieth century, for both girls and boys of all social classes.

The sailor suits and Scottish costume will be on display at the Gibson House Museum through February 25, 2019. Visit the Gibson House Museum website to plan your visit!

- Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Curator

To learn more:
·         Boy's Sailor Suit, Narrative Threads, The Textile Museum of Canada

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

A Century of Easton Living

This blog post is part of an occasional series about Gibson family relatives. Family trees are rife with personalities: the mysterious aunt, the curmudgeonly great-uncle, the adventurous second cousin. Join us as we explore some of these colorful characters and learn more about the interconnected nature of Boston high society in the process.

On September 2, 2018, Elizabeth Motley Ames died at the age of 99. She had lived just shy of an entire century in Boston and Easton, Massachusetts.  A great-niece of Rosamond Warren Gibson’s, she was a passionate preservationist and a longtime supporter of community causes in Easton.

Eleanor Warren (left) and Rosamond Warren (right),
circa 1870.
Gibson House Museum (1992.406.1).
The Motley family lived nearby to the Gibsons in Back Bay. Sisters Rosamond and Eleanor Warren were quite close growing up, born only a year apart; they remained so after they were married. Family lore has it that when the Motley kids walked past 137 Beacon Street, on their way to or from the Public Garden, they’d better not be misbehaving or great-aunt Rosamond would be sure to tell grandmother Eleanor about it straight away. Boston’s Back Bay was a tight-knit community into the early twentieth century.

As a young woman, Elizabeth Motley married into a prominent Easton family. Oliver Ames (1779–1863) founded a shovel factory in Easton, Mass. which would go on to become a world-class operation, involved in many key construction events in American history. The Ames family also included several politicians over the years, most notably Oliver Ames (1831–1895) who served as governor of Massachusetts in the late nineteenth century.

Elizabeth Motley and David Ames, Sr. were married in December of 1940. The next December, while David was decoding military tapes about the attack on Pearl Harbor, Elizabeth was waiting at home to give birth to their first child, born just twelve days later. After David’s service, the couple returned to Massachusetts and went on to have three more children.

Mrs. Ames was a supporter of the Easton Free Library and she and her husband were charter members of the Easton Historical Society. In 2012, they sold their family homestead to The Trustees of Reservations; the Governor Oliver Ames Estate is now a public park open to be enjoyed by all. Mrs. Ames was also a friend to the Gibson House Museum and will be missed by all who knew her.

- Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Curator 

To Learn More:

Friday, September 14, 2018

A New Wilton Carpet for the Gibsons

In about 1890, Rosamond Gibson redecorated the front hall of her home at 137 Beacon Street. Her mother-in-law, with whom she had shared the house for nearly seventeen years, had recently passed away. And in the thirty years since the house was built, styles had changed. Rosamond selected an embossed, gold-leaf wallpaper, called “Japanese Leather.” She also chose a luxe red-on-red patterned Wilton carpet.
Wilton red-on-red pattern

The carpet was manufactured by the Bigelow Carpet Company in Clinton, Mass. Bigelow was a prominent name in carpets; the company’s founder, Erastus Bigelow, developed the first power loom in America. His inventiveness ultimately revolutionized the carpet industry, making quality carpets cheaper and quicker to produce. By the late nineteenth century, Bigelow carpets were a household name. Bigelow’s classic advertising campaign encouraged people to consider purchasing a carpet for their home and business, “A Title on the Door Rates a Bigelow on the Floor.”

The Wilton style of carpet that Rosamond selected was top of the line. Traditional Wilton-weave carpets have a thick, cut pile that resembles velvet. They were the most expensive to produce and served as a status marker in many wealthy homes.

Rosamond’s carpet held up well, but after almost 130 years of use, it became worn and faded. In 2016, the Museum’s Board of Directors, with the help of several generous donors, undertook a project to reproduce a new carpet for the Gibson House.

The Museum worked with the J. R. Burrows Company here in Massachusetts and the Grosvenor Wilton Company Ltd., located just outside Birmingham, England, to design a replica of the original carpet. This involved taking samples of the old carpet to the mill, so that the pattern and dye could be matched exactly. The historic Stourvale Mill, where the new carpet was woven, is the site of the first steam-powered carpet mill in Britain. It is a fitting place to reproduce a Bigelow carpet.

Sewing carpet strips by hand 
Installing carpet on the staircase
In August, Pulsifer-Kingston, a carpet installation company in Quincy, Mass., received the carpet bales in the traditional twenty-seven-inch strips and hand-sewed them together in their workshop. Installation took three days.

We were proud to unveil the new carpet at the beginning of September. It is vibrant and plush, and complements the wallpaper beautifully. It is now easy to imagine how impressive the house's front hall would have been in 1890. 

Visit the Gibson House and see the new carpet!
Information about guided tours can be found on our website.

-Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Curator

To learn more:

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.

-Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Curator

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 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,

- Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Curator

To learn more: