Category Archives: Movies and Videos

The Historic House Tells It Like It Was

Front parlor, Merchant's House Museum. Photo by Patrick Blanc

Front parlor, Merchant’s House Museum. Photo by Patrick Blanc

To feel the world of the nineteenth century in our bones, it’s necessary to find a place that can take us there. Such places are rare. Without question, in New York City, the most authentic domestic nineteenth-century place is the Merchant’s House Museum. 

From the introduction to the forthcoming Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House by Mary Knapp

If you can’t visit this wonderful place in person, this documentary by BluePrint New York City, which aired on New York stations last week, is the next best thing. Just click on the link above to view.

Front hall and stairway, Merchant's House Museum. Photo by Patrick Blanc

Front hall and stairway, Merchant’s House Museum. Photo by Patrick Blanc

Of all the ways we have of connecting to the past, as far as I’m concerned, the historic house museum trumps all others when it comes to understanding life in a place and time beyond memory. It’s here we can come closest to the people who went before us. These are the very walls that enclosed them. Here they stood before the fire. Here are the mirrors that reflected their movements in the parlor. This is the stair they climbed on their way to bed.

When we tune in to the height of the ceilings, the nearness of the walls, the path we travel from room to room, the narrowness of a passageway or the lack or presence of natural light, we begin to understand what daily life was like for those who lived there long ago.

One house that serves us particularly well in our attempt at understanding is the Merchant’s House Museum in New York City. I say that not because this year marks the twentieth anniversary of my involvement with the Museum, but because this house is unique.  Only one family, The Seabury Tredwells, lived there for almost 100 years. They moved in in 1835; the baby born in the  house in 1840 died in an upstairs bedroom  in 1933.  So there is one continuous storyline; no confusing amalgamation of different families’  ghosts.  They came, and they stayed—for almost a century.This was their home, and most importantly, these are their things. They quit buying new furniture somewhere around midcentury. And that’s not all! There are 40 gowns worn by the Tredwell women that go on exhibit on a rotating basis as well as personal objects like books and needlework and fans and children’s homework.

The House underwent a structural restoration in the 1970s that is unparalleled for authenticity. For example, when it was necessary  to remove the floorboards in the kitchen to address a problem of water infiltration, the original boards were carefully numbered and their placement indicated on a diagram so that they could be replaced just the way they were. When the House was reroofed, original slate tiles were reused where possible. The parlor draperies and carpet are exact reproductions of the originals. Today, when walls need repainting, the original colors are matched as determined by the latest scientific methods of paint analysis.

Finally, the serendipitous floor plan makes it possible for us to actually enter the rooms and feel the space around us.  We can never come closer to the nineteenth century than we do here.


Filed under Architecture, Conservation, Historic House Museums, Merchant's House, Monuments and Memorials, Movies and Videos, Preservation

“Don’t Let’s Ask For The Moon; We Have The Stars.” (Now, Voyager,1942)

stars shinning

I love Cinderella stories, I enjoy watching old movies, and I’m a fan of Bette Davis. It follows, therefore, that I have watched Now, Voyager more than once and will probably watch it again.

Poor Charlotte Vale, (Cinderella), the child of a domineering, hateful mother (mean stepsister) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown when her sister-in-law brings Dr. Jaquith, a psychiatrist  (fairy godmother) by the house to secretly evaluate her.  Charlotte is squirrled off to Dr. Jacquith‘s  rest home where under his ministrations she is transformed. And what a transformation it is! When weeks later we first see her—gone are the sensible shoes, the dowdy dress, the apologetic posture, the glasses, the severe unstylish hairdo, and the shaggy eyebrows. Well actually the eyebrows are pretty much gone altogether, having been replaced by a thin line drawn with an eyebrow pencil—the idea of glamor in the 40’s— as was the movie mouth, which I tried in my youth to replicate—unsuccessfully as it turned out, since I didn’t know about lip liner.

To mark her newly found independence, Charlotte goes on a cruise where she meets Jerry Durrance (prince charming) who is unhappily married, traveling alone on business, and has an emotionally damaged child who is unloved and unwanted by her mother.  You guessed it—Jerry and Charlotte fall in love. Now even though Charlotte has been transformed, she is not quite yet cured, but the love of Jerry and the relationship she later develops with Jerry’s child, Tina, brings her completely around.

However, Jerry and Charlotte are not exactly going to live happily ever after because there is the impediment of the wife, to whom Jerry is honor bound. (A quaint idea to be sure). But Jerry and Charlotte are now inextricably bound by their shared love of Tina. The famous last line comes after Jerry asks if she can be happy with such an arrangement: “Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the  moon; we have the stars.”

It’s a far-fetched story, hopelessly romantic with a terrific score and of course the incomparable Bette Davis. Modern audiences no doubt find the outmoded sensibilities amusing, and the lack of overt sex odd. There are lots and lots of loving words, however, and interesting dialogue.

And there is one more thing that dates the film and makes it a subject of study of times past.  Now, Voyager is “the cigarette movie.” Everybody smoked back in the day, because they didn’t know any better—and never has the cigarette been utilized more effectively than in this movie. In this last scene, Pau Henreid, who plays Jerry, does something that is the quintessence of cool. He puts two cigarettes in his mouth at once, lights them both, and hands one to Davis. They say it was he who originated this custom, and although this movie precedes my smoking days by some years, I definitely remember young men doing this. In fact, I believe Herb did it for me. Certainly Herb was very cool.

I’m sure Cinderella stories will be around as long as people tell stories. The cigarette trick on the other hand . . . .

Here’s how it was done:


Filed under Movies and Videos

Post Script to E-Books vs. Tree Books: “Introducing the Book”

This has got to be one of the funniest videos on You Tube. The language, incidentally, is Norwegian.

 MY LOCATION: Coming to you today from Lake Peekskill, New York.

Beautiful Lake Peekskill

Beautiful Lake Peekskill


Filed under Movies and Videos, Technology, Uncategorized

“I’d Like to Kiss You, But I Just Washed My Hair.”

Bette Davis in "Cabin in the Cotton."

Bette Davis in “Cabin in the Cotton.”

The Bette Davis movie, Cabin in the Cotton,  is long forgotten, but this famous line lives on,  puzzling though it may be for those of you who can’t remember a time when we didn’t enjoy the convenience of hand-held electric hair dryers.

In the dim past before the 1950s, “Sorry, I can’t; I just washed my hair” was a common and convenient excuse that enabled us to turn down an unwelcome last-minute invitation.

You see, washing your hair then was a very big deal. Well, actually it was the drying that was the big deal. On a warm summer day you could sit in the back yard and let the sun do its work. In the winter you could toss your locks before the hot air register if you happened to have a forced hot air furnace. And those of us not blessed with curly hair had to “set it” in pin curls. Certainly no one washed her hair every day.

So the line is really very funny. Bette Davis said that of all the lines she spoke in the movies, this was her favorite.

But think what hair washing must have meant for women in the 19th century before running water, much less hot water, was available, and when all women had long hair.

Julia Tredwell in a studio portrait probably taken to commemorate her performance in a tableau or parlor theatrical in which she portrayed the Biblical Ruth. Usually she wore her hair in braids that wound round. . .and round the back of her head.

Julia Tredwell in a studio portrait probably taken to commemorate her performance in a tableau or parlor theatrical in which she portrayed the Biblical Ruth. Usually she wore her hair in braids that wound round. . .and round the back of her head.

Now I’ll admit that not all women had hair as long as Julia Tredwell, but still. . .

The following is from An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City, 1835-65

Hair care relied heavily on the hairbrush. Lola Montez, author of a widely read 1858 advice book and herself a great beauty, recommended ten minutes brushing two,three, or even four times a day. Washing long hair was a major undertaking, particularly before the availability of running water. However, it was generally felt that it was not so much the hair that needed frequent washing as the scalp, which may have made the job somewhat easier, even if it did not make the hair cleaner. Alcohol-based hair washes were sometimes relied upon to remove the perfumed pomades or hair oils that were then popular. Godey’s Lady’s Book offered a recipe for one such pomade, which was said to ward off gray hair. It consisted of four ounces of hog’s lard, four drams of spermaceti (the oil from the sperm whale), and four drams of bismuth (an alkaline metallic powder) to which perfume could be added if desired.



Filed under Movies and Videos

Capturing The Sounds of The Past

Capturing the sounds of the past seems almost impossible, yet these “authentic sounds,” when available, can connect us to another time in an almost magical way.
In the front parlor of the Merchant’s House Museum in New York City there is a pianoforte that dates to the 1840s and remarkably retains all of its original parts. It has been been reconditioned, using these parts, and is now in playable condition. A concealed speaker softly plays a looped recording of tunes from a music lesson book bearing the name of the oldest daughter of the family who lived in the house. Stand in that parlor furnished with the family’s furniture; see what they saw, and hear what they heard. You’ll never come closer to the 19th century.


Engaging Places

Soundworks documents the creation of “authentic sound” for Steven Spielberg’s film, Lincoln.  The sound designer discusses his efforts to collect sounds at historic sites and in museum collections, such as the clocks and doors at the White House and a pocket watch at the Kentucky Historical Society.

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Filed under Education, Merchant's House, Movies and Videos

The Heiress Comes (Back) to Broadway!

The Heiress, starring Jessica Chastain in the title role, is now in previews at the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway. It will run for a limited engagement of 18 weeks.

Washington Square by Henry James tells the story of a young woman, her domineering physician father, and the man she loves.

Based on Henry James’ novel Washington Square, it is such a powerful story that audiences can’t get enough of it. The novel is one of James’ most popular and certainly one of his most readable books. In 1947 Ruth and Augustus Goetz wrote a play based on the book called The Heiress, which opened that year on Broadway and ran for a year. A movie, starring Olivia de Havilland, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the pathetically shy Catherine Sloper, came out in 1949. In 1995 the play returned to Broadway with Cherry Jones turning in Continue reading


Filed under Books, Historic House Museums, Merchant's House, Movies and Videos, New York Theater

Recommended Viewing: Seven Wonders of the Industrial World

I know it sounds like the most boring thing you ever sat through in seventh grade, but believe me it isn’t. Many of you are probably familiar with this video; I wasn’t, and I was awestruck by what I was seeing. Continue reading


Filed under Movies and Videos, Technology