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Tag Archives: Riversdale House Museum

I went to a historical program this week, but it was much better than Diane’s and also appropriate to Amanda’s on Valentine’s Day (and Carolyn, sigh. Carolyn, do try and get your mind out of the gutter). I’ve finished my chocolate–I ate half of them at five minutes after midnight and the other half that evening of the 14th and here’s the evidence.

But I digress. I went to a chocolate program at Riversdale House Museum and although I was volunteering I didn’t spill anything on anyone and I managed to eat a fair amount too. There were some awesome chocolate fans there who ate their way through four centuries of chocolate and probably would have been good for more.

You can find the recipes at Cooking Up the Past, the FB page that Riversdale’s Food Historian runs, and which has some great stuff on it.

So, chocolate. First it starts off as a tree with a fruit, with seeds (pods), from which you extract the nibs (the things that look as if a mouse has visited). It’s a very labor intensive product and you can see a video made by the foodways historian at Williamsburg on a site devoted to the history of chocolate in North America, American Heritage Chocolate. There are some more recipes and also products if you wish to try some authentic cookery.

Chocolate is NOT sweet. You have to add sugar and I found that the historic recipes had a bitter kick to them rather like coffee–cacoa does have a high caffeine content. This is why chocolate was a popular breakfast drink–we used a latte machine to froth up spiced and (slightly) sweetened chocolate in hot water and added in milk to taste just as you would with coffee. This 1731 chocolate pie, one of the delicacies served at the chocolate event was deliciously bitter.

Into the nineteenth century, things got sweeter. Here’s a whole plateful of chocolatey thrills, including ice cream, a layer cake with chocolate icing, chocolate pudding, a heart-shaped cocoa biscuit, a cake with chocolate icing and some chocolate candy.

We went into the twentieth century with tollhouse cookies, and into the twenty-first with white chocolate and chocolate flavored with chili. Yum. Then we kitchen staff did the dishes. If you’re anywhere near the Washington, DC area, check out the schedule of events at Riversdale: there’s a complete weekend of women’s activities on May 5-6, The 1812 Woman, one of the many events commemorating the war of 1812.

So let’s talk about chocolate!

And go visit The Bookish Dame who’s given Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion a great review today and is giving away a copy!

I attended a Twelfth Night Ball last weekend (a bit late, but who among us really tracks these things?) at Riversdale House Museum. It was fab, I wore my new feathers, and after talking to fellow guests my ladies maid (husband) and I retired to insert my feathers to their upright position. The secret? When you twist your scarf into a turban, you pin in your feathers and use the twist to hold it into place. It will remain upright for some time even after vigorous dancing. If your feathers remain erect for more than four hours, you must seek immediate medical help…

And here’s a video of how to twist a scarf into a turban. And doesn’t this lady in the center, who used this technique, look great?

The ball was a lot of fun with dancing and supper. One interesting thing was that at the beginning we seemed to have more men than women and then toward the end many of the men mysteriously disappeared and so we actually had a distaff set for one of the later dances. In Regency/Federal times they would have retired to drink and smoke, but since this is a fragile historical building, this was not an option. I think they went for a quiet sit down, exhausted by female energy.

Here we are dancing in a room that was originally the house’s stables and carriage house. It’s actually the west wing of the house and went through various incarnations over the past two hundred years and the walls are hung with copies of portraits of the Lords Baltimore, the founders of Maryland (like no one ever lived here before?). The first owner of the house, Rosalie Calvert, married into the family, although she was a Belgian with sophisticated European tastes who had fled to the New World to escape Napoleon.

If you’re in the Washington DC area you must visit Riversdale. Come this Sunday and you’ll meet me–I volunteer as a docent. Coming up on February 11, we have a program on chocolate, Tasting the Past: A Chocolate Sampler, which explores the history of chocolate in America. I definitely plan to attend that one! For a full schedule of events throughout the year, go here.

Other news I have to share today include our own Risky Elena guestblogging at Writer Unboxed on her successful comeback in the age of digital publishing. Go Elena! And you go on over there and say hi!

I linked earlier in the post to turban-tying instructions at American Duchess. This is a wonderful site, with lots of how-to stuff, solid historical research, and a source for historical footwear. If you love Downton Abbey (and who doesn’t, with the exception of me) you have surely noticed the clothes. Even I like the clothes. This is her latest offering, these glorious Astoria shoes from that period. The way it works is that the Duchess must receive pre-orders to go into production and if you put in an order early (now) you’ll receive a discount. Yum.

One of the other reasons this period is so popular right now, other than PBS, is that this April is the 100th anniversary of the Titanic and there’s a lot of historical reenactment connected with it. It’s also the 200th anniversary of the war of 1812, something Riversdale is involved in since the inglorious Battle of Bladensburg took place very near the house, followed by the sacking of Washington. Are you taking part in any events or planning to attend as an observer?

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Last Saturday I attended an event at Riversdale House Museum, Maryland, where historians taught us the skills of the Georgian-Federal era housekeeper. Kate Dolan, who was our guest last Thursday, was also there–here she is with an apron full of herbs.

The house boasts a beautiful garden where herbs, flowers, and vegetables are grown, often sharing the same space, and most of my pics were of the garden. If you’d like to see some really good photos of the costumed participants, go here.

After a short presentation on herbs we gathered them to make our own herb vinegars in the kitchen of the dependency (behind Kate)–it’s a mid nineteenth century building outside the house which is now used for open hearth cooking demonstrations.

We had a delicious lunch we prepared that featured produce from the garden, using some American eighteenth century recipes and a couple from Mrs. Beeton. Joyce White, the Foodways expert on staff at Riversdale, emphasized the importance of setting the table correctly and making sure that each dish (served a la francaise) was beautiful in appearance, garnished with flowers, herbs, and asparagus fronds from the garden.

Here are some pics of the garden. The right one shows the house and the monster asparagus plants on the right.

In addition we experimented with authentic cleaning substances and techniques for brass and mahogany–guess what, they worked!

We were very lucky to have Katy Cannon, an expert in historical cosmetics giving a demonstration. Check out her website at She burned some pastills for us, which were thought to perfume the air and therefore prevent infections, and we learned that our ancestors enjoyed making pastills embedded with gunpowder for innocent fun in the parlor. I bought some of her products, and here is my loot from the event:

From left to right:
A Ball to take out Stains (and it does. In use. It’s soap, lemon, and alum.)
Bags for preffe or clothes, that no Moth may breed therein. Snappy name! From a 1653 recipe, juniper wood, cloves, rosemary, wormwood. It smells delicious!
My very own rosemary and thyme vinegar.
In front, it looks like jam but it’s mahogany polish.

Tell us if you’ve tried any historic recipes or cleaning methods. Did they work?

Also if you’re in the greater Washington DC area, please come to Riversdale’s Battle of Bladensburg Encampment on August 13. It’s free, with house tours, kids’ activities, food, music, uniformed historical reenactors, and loud explosions. More details here.

And in the Blatant Self Promotion department, here are two places where you can comment to enter a contest for a copy of my erotic contemporary TELL ME MORE: Snap, Crackle, and Popping Blog and Write About.

I’m very excited to introduce Mrs. Rosalie Calvert, who in her twenty-first century existence is Katherine Spivey. Katherine has read everything I’ve read, and more (and Katherine, I still have one of your books. Sorry about that). This Saturday, Mrs. Calvert, dressed to the nines, will appear at Riversdale House Museum, MD, when we celebrate the Battle of Bladensburg, an inglorious defeat at the hands of the British that took place just a couple of miles from the mansion.

Mrs. Calvert is graciously receiving callers at her splendid house. Come on in and have a nice cup of tea and enjoy some sophisticated, witty conversation of the sort so rarely met with on these shores …

Thanks, Janet, for inviting me to be a guest blogger. I’m honored. Janet and I volunteer at Riversdale House Museum in Maryland, and we’ve co-presented on 18th- and 19th-century literature. At Riversdale, Janet’s a docent, and I’m a historical interpreter/reenactor/person who dresses up and pretends to be someone in history.

The person I interpret is Rosalie Stier Calvert, an emigre from Belgium who came to the United States in 1794. She married into the Calvert family, her parents built Riversdale, and then her family moved back to Europe. We’re enormously lucky to have as a source her treasurer trove of letters, which were discovered in Belgium around 30 years ago, translated, and published by Johns Hopkins University as Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert. Few letters have provided such a robust picture of American life from a foreign and female viewpoint. I’ve been playing her since 1995.

Since she wrote her letters to family and not with an eye to publication, she reveals many things: customs and manners in the fledgling United States (she dislikes most American women), the travails of raising a family (although a large family is delightful if the children are well-behaved), the effects of the embargo and the war (no one has any cash!), gardening and horticulture (“I am disgusted with all controversy except for politics”), politics (her low opinion of President “Tommy Jeff”), fashions, and the economy (she acted as business agent for her father and brother).

In one of her letters she describes the aftereffects of the burning of Washington in 1814. During the Battle of Bladensburg, she saw the “rockets’ red glare” from her bedroom windows. Her husband and son went to the battlefield to render aid and bury the dead. She stored the recovered rifles in her bedroom.

Before the British invaded, people had defined themselves by state, but after the burning of Washington the country united: “We are all Americans now.”

How did I get started reenacting? I met some people at a ball at Gadsby’s and started dancing. Then I started participating in civilian reenactments for the colonial period at places like Carlyle House in Alexandria and the State Department. Then I stepped in as Rosalie Calvert at one of the period dinners during Maryland’s tricentennial: three hours of being a character live. I couldn’t script the conversation; I just had to be Rosalie Calvert: say the sorts of things she might say, include topics she would introduce, betray the opinions she held. While I’m Mrs. Calvert, I don’t say favorable things about Presidents Jefferson and Madison, even though my other reenacting character is Mrs. Madison.

And what, pray tell, does reenacting have to do with romances? Specifically Regencies? I’d read Jane Austen’s ouevre by the end of middle school. I’d read all of Georgette Heyer’s by the time I finished high school. And I did graduate work at the University of Virginia on 18th- and early 19th-century British novels. I love the pace of the sentences, the graduated degrees of intimacy in conversation, the architecture of the works, and the undoubted moralism (well, Mrs. Heyer not so much).

Indeed, Mrs. Calvert’s life reads like a romance in high life–except that she had a due sense of humor and proportion, enjoyed being busy, and had an undoubted capacity for business. Included in all of this was a love of reading novels: “We have 11 novels in the house,” she says, though her mother reads them to improve her English.

The more I work with her, the more she’s begun to resonate with my own life. I’ve started gardening and getting my finances in order, and I’ve even learned to like anchovies. (Life imitates history, after all.) I may even learn to like hock. I just got back from a weekend at the beach; a reenacting event next weekend means I wore a large hat, went out only between 7-9 a.m. and 7-8 p.m., and slathered enough sunscreen to cover Almack’s. I enlisted my husband in my search for cameo brooches, period-authentic amethyst or opal rings, and long kid gloves that fit.

It’s important to remember that she loved her family dearly. She never saw any of them after they returned to Europe; Rosalie was either pregnant or prevented by war/embargo from going to Europe on a visit. She once went a year without getting a letter from her family. I’m convinced she would have been an early adopter (#federaleramomblogger) of social media and probably would have had a smartphone.

That being said, bring on the questions!

I’m thrilled to welcome Ann Wass as our guest today. Ann is historian at Riversdale House Museum, MD, which hosts a battle reenactment of the Battle of Bladensburg on August 14 and other events throughout the year. Ann is author of Part 1 (the Federal era, 1786-1820), of the book, Clothing through American History: The Federal Era through Antebellum, 1786-1860. More here about the book.

As my specialty is dress in the United States, I have explored how American women kept up with the Regency fashions of their English sisters and the Empire fashions of their French ones. In Charleston, women “copied from the fashions of London and Paris” (Ramsay 1809, 409). In New York, women seemed “more partial to the light, various, and dashing drapery, of the Parisian belles, than to the elegant and becoming attire of our London beauties, who improve upon the French fashions” (Lambert 1810, 2:196-97).

By the late 1790s, French women wore slender, high-waisted dresses made of lightweight, clinging cotton muslins. Englishwomen generally modified the look, and most Americans did, too; emigrée Rosalie Calvert wrote, “In this more virtuous land only the contours are perceived through filmy batiste–a subtler fashion” (Callcott 1991, 34; even in France not everyone went to extremes. Maria Edgeworth wrote from Paris, “people need not go naked here unless they chuse it” [Colvin 1979, 27]). One American, though, enthusiastically adopted French fashions and became the talk of the town. In 1803, Betsy Patterson of Baltimore married Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger brother. Jerome presented Betsy with gowns from France, and in Washington, DC, Margaret Bayard Smith saw “mobs of boys crowded round her splendid equipage to see what I hope will not often be seen in this country, an almost naked woman” (Smith 1906/1965, 46-47).

How did women learn about the latest fashions from abroad? Some, like Mrs. Bonaparte, received gowns from Europe, while others went shopping there themselves. Elizabeth Monroe and Sarah Bowdoin, both married to diplomats, shopped in Paris and London. Dolley Madison commissioned Ruth Barlow, wife of the minister to France, to send her “large Headdresses a few Flowers, Feathers, gloves & stockings (Black & White) or any other pritty thing” (Shulman 2007).

Ladies also bought imported goods in American shops. In 1805, New York merchant Joseph Kaumann advertised “3 trunks ladies Hats and Bonnets/1 do. ready made Gowns” from Nantes, one of France’s leading seaports. In 1807, the French milliner Mme. Bouchard “just received from Paris, the newest fashions, more elegant than have yet been seen in this city.” Her English rival, Mrs. Toole, also received “a very handsome assortment” including bonnets, shawls, veils, and ribbons from Paris (though she was English, she no doubt knew her clientele would admire the latest Parisian fashions.)

Other merchants sold English goods. In 1805, Baltimore milliner Miss Hunter imported fall fashions from London. Even in the midst of the War of 1812, while there were major disruptions in trade, Mrs. Gouges in Baltimore sold fashions from both England (the enemy!) and France. It may have been Mrs. Gouges that Betsy Bonaparte had in mind when she wrote Dolley Madison in 1813, “There are in the Shops in Baltimore French Gloves Fashions &c: & the little taste possessed by me shall be exerted, in Selecting, if I obtain your permission, whatever you may require.” Mrs. Madison replied, “I will avail myself of your taste, in case you meet with anything eligant, in the form of a Turban, or even anything brilliant to make me. . . .” (Shulman 2007).

American women also studied European fashion plates for ideas to make their own clothes. These hand colored engravings struck from steel plates were published in English and French periodicals. Rosalie Calvert asked her sister in Antwerp for several of “those little engraved sketches showing morning and evening dress. . . with them we will be able to copy your styles.” (Callcott 1991, 347). New Yorker David Longworth subscribed to the English Gallery of Fashion and exhibited the plates to fashion-hungry women for a small fee (Majer 1989, 220). Josephine DuPont sent Margaret Manigault plates from Paris in 1799, and Margaret thanked her friend for the “curious, & entertaining, & astonishing, & very acceptable Costumes Parisiens” (Low 1974, 51). In 1814, Margaret’s daughter received “a fine collection of ‘Belle Assemblies”’ from Mrs. Dashkov, wife of the Russian minister to the United States (Manigualt 1976, 23). La Belle Assemblée, despite its French name, was published in England and was difficult to obtain during the war years.

Once the war was over, American women again had ready access to European fashions. In Philadelphia, Mary Bagot, wife of the British minister, found, “every sort & kind of French, Indian & English goods to be had-excellent of their kind & not dear” (Hosford 1984, 43). Even out west, women kept up appearances. A Scotsman observed, “I have seen some elegant ladies by the way. Indeed, I have often seen among the inhabitants of the log-houses of America, females with dresses composed of the muslins of Britain, the silks of India, and the crapes of China” (Flint 1822/1970, 286).

Advertisement, Baltimore American & Commercial Daily Advertiser
Merino Redingote, Costume Parisien, 1812
Ball Dress, La Belle Assemblée, August 1818

Callcott, Margaret Law, ed. 1991. Mistress of Riversdale. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Colvin, Chistina, ed. 1979. Maria Edgeworth in Franch an Switzerland. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Flint, James. 1822/1970. Letters from America. Repr. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation.

Hosford, David. 1984. Exile in Yankeeland: The Journal of Mary Bagot, 1816-1819. Records of the Columbia Historical Society 51: 30-50.

Lambert, John. 1810. Travels through Lower Canada, and the United States of North America, in the Years 1806, 1807, and 1808. 3 vols. London: Richard Phillips.

Low, Betty-Bright P. 1974. Of Muslins and Merveilleuses: Excerpts from the Letters of Josephine du Pont and Margaret Manigault. Winterthur Portfolio 9: 29-75.

Majer, Michele. 1989. American Women and French Fashion. In The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire 1789-1815, ed. Katell le Bourhis. 217-237. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Manigault, Harriet. 1976. The Diary of Harriet Manigault 1813-1816. Rockland, ME: Maine Coast Publishers.
Ramsay, David. 1809. The History of South-Carolina: from its First Settlement in 1670, to the Year 1808. Charleston: David Longworth.

Shulman, Holly C. 2007. Dolley Madison Digital Edition. Version 2007.07.

Smith, Margaret Bayard. 1906. The First Forty Years of Washington Society. Ed. Gaillard Hunt. New York: Scribner.

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