The Alexander Ramsey House
Furnishing a Victorian Home
by Barbara Ann Caron
Spring 1995 (Volume 54, number 5, pages 194-209)
"House" and "home" have long been important cultural symbols in America. During the
nineteenth century, as urbanization and industrialization separated the workplace
from the residence, these terms intensified in meaning. In the Victorian era
(1837-1901), the architectural entity "house" was associated with the male, whose
job was to provide shelter for his family. Capturing a popular sentiment of the period,
architect Elisha Charles Hussey wrote in 1877, "A man's house is the expression of
himself. As he builds, so is he."
"Home," on the other hand, was the realm of the female, according to the dictates of
the Victorian cult of domesticity. As the home was transformed into a center for
socializing rather than economic production, the ideal wife and mother became
responsible for creating a stable and orderly environment where morals, manners, and
cultural values could flourish. As a result, her domain extended from furnishings to
domestic activities and the ambience she fostered. As author Jan Cohn observed,
"The house that had been described from 1850 onward as the expression of the character
of ... the man who built or purchased it gradually became an expression of the woman
who decorated it."
In St. Paul's Irvine Park neighborhood, the Alexander Ramsey House today stands as
one of the Minnesota Historical Society's premiere historic sites. Completed in 1872,
the house is a monument both to the Ramsey family and to the era in which it was built.
Social history helps us understand how Alexander and Anna Jenks Ramsey developed their
aesthetic preferences. Analysis of their furnishings, particularly those in two important
spaces–the library and reception room–tells us more about the Ramseys' lifestyle and
status, their degree of individuality, and their identification with a particular set of
Alexander Ramsey's life spanned the Victorian era. Born in Pennsylvania in 1815, he
was admitted to the bar in 1839 and practiced law in Harrisburg. His lifelong
involvement in politics began in 1840, five years later he married Anna Earl
Jenks (1827-84), a young woman whose Quaker education, social skills, and status
as the daughter of a judge and congressman made her an asset to the young politician.
At age 34, Alexander was appointed first territorial governor of Minnesota, and in
May 1849 he and his 22-year-old wife moved to St. Paul, a frontier city of 400 residents.
Their first dwelling, a small story-and-a-half frame house on present-day Third
Street between Jackson and Robert Streets, was originally built as a tavern. It
served as both home and office.
A letter from Anna to her brother William Jenks expressed ambivalence about the
move to St. Paul. Discussing the Ramseys' first real house soon to take shape at
the corner of Walnut and Exchange Streets, she wrote, "We are going to build a
house during the summer as we are so inconveniently situated. Imagine we will
have a very comfortable one if the carpenters fulfill the contract. I would like
to furnish it neatly but am too close [stingy] to buy new as Mr. R desires me and
afraid to send east for my own fearing I may never get back to live." Anna's fear
that she would not return to Pennsylvania hints at the difficulty of her early
years in St. Paul. Her four-year-old son Alexander Jenks died in July 1850, and
19-month-old William Henry died less than two years later. Marion, the Ramseys'
only surviving child, was born in 1853.
After serving as territorial governor from 1849 to 1853, Alexander's career in
public office included a stint as mayor of St. Paul (1855-57), two terms as state
governor (1860-63), and two terms as a U.S. senator (1863-75). During their years
in Washington, D.C., Alexander and Anna Ramsey lived at the National Hotel and
actively participated in the city's political and social events.
No doubt their experiences in the nation's capital and travels abroad influenced
the Ramseys when they commenced to build their second house in St. Paul. Anna's
frequent letters to teenage Marion at school in Philadelphia recorded an active
social life. On March 4, 1864, she confided, "On Tuesday last I was at the President's:
had a very nice time but nothing to eat: and I did not like that by any means."
In June she wrote, "I went to the Opera last week with Mrs. Lincoln." "Well I went
to the dinner party at the White House: had a splendid dinner and enjoyed myself
greatly," she told Marion on February 15, 1865, adding that 17 courses were served
and "the ladies were beautifully dressed." Anna herself was apparently a
well-recognized figure in Washington society. An 1865 newspaper account of
President Ulysses S. Grant's inaugural ball noted, "The Northwest contributes
on the whole the fairest women to the National Capital–Mrs. Senator Ramsey
To further Marion's education, the Ramsey women spent 1869-70 in Europe.
Sixteen-year-old Marion studied German, voice, and piano, and Anna took up
needlework. Through travel and her education in a Philadelphia boarding school,
Marion acquired the proper Social accomplishments of the day.
In addition to major social events and extended travel, Anna received and made
social calls in Washington. On New Year's Day 1868, for example, she recorded
in her diary, "Received 90 calls." On two days that April, she made 29 and 27
calls and noted, "Back home 4:50."
When visiting, Anna apparently paid close attention to her surroundings, often
relaying bits of information to Marion. On May 7, 1864, for example, she
mentioned the "large and superbly furnished" home of Mr. Brown, a naval agent.
On March 19, 1867, she noted that Senator Chandler had "purchased a fine house."
Her April 30, 1866, letter first broaches Alexander's interest in having a new
and more elaborate dwelling: "On Saturday after dinner Papa and myself rode over
to Georgetown in the cars and after arriving there we walked over considerable of
the city. I was astonished to see so many beautiful residences surrounded by
fine grounds. Papa made the sensible remark: he wished he owned such a home:
how he would enjoy it: I wonder if we all would not also." The following year,
with Ramsey still a first-term senator, construction began on the "Mansion House."
Alexander had the family home of nearly 20 years moved across the street in
order to build on the same comer lot in the increasingly settled Irvine
Architectural historian Alan Gowans notes that the social function of a mansion
is to proclaim superior status and evoke a sense of luxury. While one might
question whether the Ramsey house was truly a mansion, Alexander's use of the
term suggests his aspirations. His new dwelling was not only fashionable but
also relatively expensive, although certainly not as extravagant as the city
and resort homes of the East Coast's wealthy. Designed by local architect
Monroe Sheire, it was completed in 1872 and cost nearly $41,000, including
the fence and fireplace mantles. The modern mechanical systems–boiler and
plumbing–added about $5,000. (The 1990 value of $41,000 is approximately
$460,000; with the plumbing, the total rises to about $515,000.)
The Ramseys' new house exhibited all the important characteristics of the
ideal Victorian-American home. The Second Empire or Mansard style that
Alexander selected was considered fashionable, modern, elegant, and urban.
Rooted in France's architectural renaissance under Napoleon III and the
Empress Eugenie, this style dominated public and private construction in
the United States in the 1860s and early 1870s. The house is a substantial
single-family dwelling with three stories, 15 major rooms, porches, bathrooms,
a modern heating system, and a generous lawn. The first floor contains
the public rooms, accessible from the central hallway. Private
family quarters are located on the second floor; the laundry and utilities
occupy the full basement. Servants' quarters, attic storage, and, in the
1880s, a playroom for Alexander's and Anna's grandchildren made full use of
the third story. The scale of the Ramsey house is impressive: 15-foot ceilings
on the first floor, a 300-square-foot (plus bay) library, 360-square-foot
reception room, 800square-foot grand parlor, and a central hallway 10 feet
wide by nearly 40 feet long.
Although Anna Ramsey signed the construction contract, that phase of the
project was clearly within Alexander's province. With construction completed,
her job of furnishing the new dwelling commenced. Just as Alexander's desire
for a mansion and choice of style demonstrated his position as a Victorian
gentleman, Anna's interior scheme demonstrated her personal tastes and
allegiance to major Victorian preoccupations: tradition and heritage,
consumerism and the desire to be fashionable, and the cult of domesticity.
Icons of heritage conferred a degree of comfort and stability as the United
States transformed from a traditional to a modern society amid dramatic
social, political, and economic change. Technological advances,
industrialization, mass production, new methods of distribution, and
improvements in transportation and communication resulted in a sense of
optimism about the future. But the rapidity of change also created anxiety,
compounded by political corruption and several serious economic depressions
and recessions between 1873 and 1885.
Like many of their contemporaries, the Ramseys retained ties to the past in
this turbulent era. Although Anna spent thousands of dollars on new items,
she chose, for example, to incorporate some of the family's mid-Victorian
Rococo-revival furnishings in the library. Her loyalty to a style of furniture
that had passed out of fashion was an expressive act, whether motivated by
parsimony, nostalgia, or, more likely, the desire to document a history of
family prominence. Since fashionable consumer goods were available to the
masses at affordable prices, status was established not exclusively through
new goods but also by possessing objects with the patina of age. The Ramseys
had inherited some of their earlier Victorian furnishings; others they
apparently ordered from St. Louis in 1849. While these pieces were not very
old by national standards, they did demonstrate that the family had acquired
fine furnishings during the years when St. Paul was little more than a small
town in the wilderness.
On the other hand, Anna Ramsey also participated in the consumer trends of the
day by acquiring fashionable, mass-produced furnishings through A. T. Stewart
and Company of New York City, America's first department store. Utilizing this
new approach to merchandising, Anna purchased two train-car loads of expensive
furniture for the library, reception room, dining room, hall, and four bedrooms.
The Renaissance-revival furniture, which was at the height of fashion in the
1870s and early 1880s, cost $3,210, including packing charges. Anna also bought
a mirror, carpeting, window treatments, bedding, and bed and table linens for
$4,270 and a Steinway concert grand piano for $1,400. (In 1990 dollars she
spent nearly $100,000.) In 1881, a St. Paul newspaper reported that the home
was furnished with "the luxury of comfort and the elegance of refinement."
Anna bypassed St. Paul merchants and journeyed to New York City for her major
purchases, either because she was living in Washington or, equally likely,
because New York offered a wider selection. The St. Paul city directory for
1871 listed only 13 furniture manufacturers and wholesalers/retailers, six
upholsterers, and three suppliers of carpets. There were no cabinetmakers,
and the joint entry for wallpaper and window shades listed only four merchants.
With the financial resources and the knowledge of fashion that accompanied
her social status, she took advantage of the latest advances in manufacturing
(mass production), marketing (the department store), and delivery systems
Obviously, Anna Ramsey showed her acceptance of the cult of domesticity by
eagerly decorating her new home. Furthermore, she enhanced the furnishings
with some of her own needlework, the most popular feminine activity of the
day. While in Europe with Marion, Anna wrote to her sister Hannah Jenks
Crouch on January 5, 1870, "Expect to be able to furnish my house quite well
with my own handiwork. This [embroidery] is a new thing with me but strange
to say I find great enjoyment in it and was it not for this the days would
Buying fashionable and relatively expensive furnishings from an East Coast
department store placed the Ramseys on a par with well-to-do families nationwide.
For example, Anna Ramsey made her purchases shortly after Sarah Davis, wife of
Supreme Court Justice David Davis, bought seven rooms of furniture for her new
home in Bloomington, Illinois. The women chose not only the same manufacturer
but many of the same Renaissance-revival pieces as well.
Between 1875, when Alexander failed to earn the Republican nomination for a
third Senate term, and 1879, when President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him
secretary of war, the Ramseys retired to their new house in St. Paul. The
family entertained frequently, so the home was on display to members of local
and, to a lesser extent, national society. In 1875 the large parlor was the
site of one of the social events of the season when Marion Ramsey married
Charles Eliot Furness (1844 1909).
While Alexander continued to travel extensively, Anna focused her attention
on her home and family. Her frequent letters to Marion in Philadelphia
mentioned daily activities including gardening, hemming draperies, making
baby clothes for the anticipated grandchild, attending church, calling on
friends, and receiving visitors. On March 1, 1876, Anna told Marion of
a "charming call" by "Mrs. General [Elizabeth Bacon] Custer," who was
on her way to Fort Lincoln. And on September 5, 1878, a visit from
President and Lucy Ware Webb Hayes added spice to Anna's life in St. Paul.
The Ramseys entertained the Hayeses for breakfast before they attended
the state fair. Upon the unexpected cancellation of a civic banquet,
Anna and the servants prepared for the guests an impromptu but well-received
dinner of sirloins and prairie-chicken legs.
In May 1876, the Ramseys traveled to Philadelphia to see their new
granddaughter, Anna E. R. (Anita), and to visit the Centennial Exposition.
Almost 10 million Americans, more than 20 percent of the population from
all classes and locales, attended. Highlighting American achievements in
art and science, the exposition also included displays by 25 countries
from Europe, South America, Africa, and the Middle and Far East. Enterprising
Japanese, Turkish, and North African merchants set up bazaars outside
the exhibit halls, encouraging an interest in exotic wares. "Nothing
on so grand a scale, so exotic, or so euphoric with 'culture' had ever
been seen in America before," according to historian Russell Lynes.
The Philadelphia exposition made a major impact on American tastes, and
Anna Ramsey was not exempt.
On April 12, 1876, Alexander wrote to Marion that Anna "is daily
talking of her proposed visit to the centennial–I think she is an old
dunce to care so much about that institution but she seems infatuated with
it and I verily believe will hang about until the next centennial comes around."
While there are no extant records of purchases by the Ramseys, Anita Furness
recalled that her parents bought Japanese items such as vases, bowls, and a
screen after the event closed. These objects came to the Ramsey house when
Marion's family took up permanent residence in 1883.
During Alexander's 15 months in Hayes's cabinet, the Ramseys rented a house
in Washington from Postmaster General J. A. Cresswell. In 1881 they returned
for good to their St. Paul mansion. After her marriage, Marion regularly
traveled there for family visits. When her husband was hospitalized in 1882
and institutionalized in 1883, she and her surviving children, Anita,
(Alexander) Ramsey, and Laura, returned to St. Paul. The addition of three
children, aged one to eight, had a dramatic impact on the household, as
did the death of Anna Ramsey in November 1884. After Marion became mistress
of the house, she made some changes that reflected her interest in one of the
latest decorating trends, the Aesthetic style, which advocated "useful forms"
rather than the excessive ornamentation of the mid-Victorian period. The
Ramsey mansion remained the family home until the death of Anita, the last
surviving grandchild, in 1964.
A closer look at the furnishings of the Ramseys' library and reception room
offers greater insight into the family's lifestyle and social alignments.
The existence of separate public and private spaces was important to the
Victorians. Since the library and reception room represent major public spaces
within a private home, they are likely to contain items that served both
functional and symbolic needs. For the most part, Anna Ramsey purchased the
furnishings specifically for these rooms, which were used year around for
both informal family activities and formal social interactions.
Textiles contributed significantly to the rooms' visual impact. During the
Victorian era, wall, floor, window, and door treatments, upholstery, and
miscellaneous items such as tablecloths and antimacassars were mass produced.
Highly prized, these textiles are an effective vehicle for understanding the
sociocultural history of the American Victorian home and family.
Since some of the 1872 furnishings have been discarded, moved to other
rooms, or stored over the course of the house's long occupancy, receipts,
photographs, daybooks, and journal entries from the Alexander Ramsey
Papers helped identify and document the original furniture and textiles.
Trade catalogs of the period, 20 household-art publications from the 1870s
through 1887 (the heyday of the genre), and historic photographs of 50
libraries and 90 reception rooms or parlors in Victorian homes throughout
the United States from about 1870 to 1900 established the Ramseys' social
and cultural context.
Victorian tastemakers–authors of household-art publications–felt that a
library, even a small one, was as necessary as a parlor in any cultured,
refined household. By the late nineteenth century, they acknowledged that
"nine times out of ten . . . the library–so called–is also the smoking room,
morning room, school room, or ante room"; therefore, it should be decorated
not with the austerity of a "genuine library" but as a "pleasant and useful
family room." Informality and comfort were the hallmark, produced by "quiet
and unobtrusive" decoration. To achieve this effect in furnishings, the
publications most frequently recommended somber tones including olive and
other greens, buff or tan, gold, ochre, brown, and, to a lesser extent, red
and blue. Sir William H. Perkin's discovery of synthetic dyes in 1856 made a
wide array of new colors available to textile and furnishings manufacturers.
Oral histories, correspondence, and material evidence suggest that the Ramsey
library was the informal, family space that tastemakers advocated. On
October 27, 1875, Anna wrote to Marion: "I am now alone with your Papa for the
winter and altho it is very lonely we have a very cozy time of it. Our evenings
are spent in reading to each other Dickens' works, have just finished David
Copperfield." Four days later, Anna added, "After we leave the dinner table, we
retire to the Library and each seat ourselves beside the table, and until ten or
half past he never thinks of leaving me; unless to freshen himself up he takes
a little air upon the piazza." The library continued as a cozy family setting
after the arrival of Marion and her children. As a small child, granddaughter
Laura Furness had her dinner at a little table in the library. Anita recalled
that the library was one of her grandfather's favorite places in the house;
his favorite activities were reading and having visitors. Upon his death in
1903 Alexander Ramsey's body "laid in state in the library."
The eight pieces of new furniture that Anna purchased for the library could not
adequately fill so large a space, indicating that she intended to include pieces
the Ramseys already owned. Indeed, visible in an 1884 photograph that shows some
of the library's and reception room's furniture is a midcentury Rococo-revival sofa,
probably part of the parlor suite ordered from St. Louis in 1849.
Photographs of Victorian interiors were frequently staged for a particular occasion,
so they may not reflect actual room arrangements. A comparison with the 50
photographs of period libraries suggests that this sofa probably sat by the
bay window to take advantage of daylight.
Another older piece pictured in the photograph is one of a pair of "Spanish" chairs
with a band of Berlin wool-work embroidery. It is thought that Anna Ramsey executed
the needlework while she was in Dresden, Germany, with Marion. Anna's accounts
recorded the purchase of zephyr work"; Berlin embroidery yarns were also known as
"zephyr" yarns, and the patterns were widely available from midcentury into the
1880s. Both Spanish chairs may have been placed in front of the fireplace; a
period publication shows a man sitting in a similar chair while reading his
newspaper by the library fire.
The overstuffed Renaissance-revival chair, which takes center stage in the 1884
photograph, was purchased in 1872. Made by Fr. Krutina, a New York City manufacturer
and dealer in "firstclass cabinet furniture," it was originally part of a seven-piece
suite including two divans, a patent rocker, a large easy chair, and two open-back
side chairs. Obtained through A. T. Stewart's for $351, the suite was intended
for the reception room. The well-worn, dark red pile upholstery on the easy chair
(now in storage) is thought to be original. The suite's overstuffed lines, plush
pile upholstery, and abundant trims reflect the Turkish substyle of Renaissance-revival,
an emerging fashion in the early 1870s. The Victorian fascination with Turkey
probably derived from the opening of the Suez Canal in 1867 and the popular exhibits
at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. According to one author, this style
of furniture satisfied a "restless yearning for exotic faraway places ... and only
the unsophisticated resisted the urge for tantalizing Turkish furnishings." The
Ramseys' library chair most likely sat in the southeast corner under the gas jet
that provided reading light.
Although not visible in the 1884 photograph, a "lounge (no back)" costing $75 also
appears on the Krutina invoice for library furnishings. It was probably
upholstered in a plush pile with tufting and fringe. Lounges were usually
boudoir pieces, since it was inappropriate for a Victorian lady to recline in
public. In the 1880s the boudoir of Mrs. C. A. Whittler of Boston and the New
York bedroom of John D. Rockefeller had similar pieces. At the same time,
Alexander's political opponent Ignatius Donnelly had a lounge in the library
of his home in Nininger, Minnesota. Likewise, the Ramseys' friend Senator Charles
Sumner had several in his Washington, D.C., library; perhaps this informality
influenced the Ramseys. Certainly, purchasing a lounge for this public space
suggests that Anna Ramsey intended the library to be an informal room, although
it is not certain that the lounge was actually used there.
A table for reading and writing was essential for any library, and the
Ramseys' featured a rectangular walnut model in the Renaissance-revival
style. The original felt inset was probably olive green, consistent with
the room's tertiary color scheme, based on desaturated warm browns and olive
tones. Similar tables, although sometimes more elaborate, could be found in
many Victorian interiors.
Completing the purchases for the library were four Renaissance-revival side
chairs and a pair of matching armchairs, upholstered in easy-to-clean leather
and finished with brass nails. Louis Pasteur's work on germ theory in the
1870s and 1880s touched off a major concern for sanitation and good hygiene.
Consequently, leather upholstery was frequently found in Victorian dining
rooms, but it was not common in libraries.
The Ramsey's library table and several leather chairs were probably placed near
the fireplace, directly under the center gaslight. Here Anna and Alexander sat and
read to each other.
Consistent with the room's fashionable color scheme, the windows in the library
bay were probably topped with buff-colored lambrequins in 1872. These
fabric window treatments, similar to flat valances, were usually attached to a
wooden frame that extended along the top and partly down the sides of a window.
They were elaborately embellished with cording, fringe, and trims. Anna probably
replaced these lambrequins in 1884 with more fashion able, dark grayish-olive
velour draperies embellished with free-style wool and silk embroidery. The
two-dimensional, stylized floral embroidery pattern was designed and executed
by the School of Art Needle Work in Philadelphia at a cost of $144.74.
While Anna Ramsey's diary entry of May 2, 1884, recorded the expenditure
"for curtain in large parlor bay window," the large parlor has three
additional individual windows, for which nothing new was ordered. Furthermore,
the draperies visible in an 1884 photograph of the large parlor were still
fashionable. This evidence, along with the colors and the patterns of sun
damage visible on the draperies (now in storage), suggests that they
supplanted the library's original lambrequins.
By 1884 portieres had replaced the original 12-foot-tall walnut doors between
the the library and reception room. Tastemakers emphatically promoted portieres
as being more artistic and graceful than doors, "express[ing] hospitality
and cheer" and turning "a barrier into a beauty." They also added a theatrical
quality, offering partial glimpses into adjacent rooms. While portieres appear
in many of the historic photographs of libraries and reception rooms, the
Ramseys' simple, unembellished ones were not high fashion. Not documented by
receipts, they may have been purchased locally.
Similarly, the original library wallpaper, probably purchased in St. Paul, did
not follow the style advocated by many 1880s tastemakers.
The 1884 photograph shows a low-contrast wallpaper with a small pattern, unlike
the recommended tripartite design that set apart the lower wall, the main
wall, and the frieze on top. In 1990, low-contrast, grayish brown floral
wallpaper fragments were discovered behind the fireplace mantle, but no firm
evidence dates this paper to the late Victorian period.
Anna Ramsey purchased the library's multicolor, cut-pile, wall-to-wall carpeting
at A. T. Stewart and Company's carpet and upholstery department in 1872. The
two-dimensional, abstract pattern, woven in 27-inch strips with a 54-by-54-inch
repeated pattern, appears to have had a narrow border. It was done in the
recommended tertiary hues. On January 2, 1873, Alexander paid $238.55 to his
neighbor, John "Matthias" (Matheis), for "laying carpet, etc." Matheis, who
sold carpets, oilcloths, window shades, wallpaper, and draperies, may also have
provided and hung the original wallpaper.
Miscellaneous textiles visible in the 1884 photograph include two doilies
or antimacassars and a fringed throw. Antimacassars were created to keep
macassar hair oil from staining upholstery; commercially produced in many
sizes, they sold for as little as nine cents each. One antimacassar in the
photograph, a square of white guipure d'art lace, is still in the house. While
it may have been machine made, the other pieces in the 1884 picture appear
handmade. Guipure lace, also known as darned netting or spiderwork, was
one of many popular Victorian needle arts. Both Anna Ramsey and Marion
Furness were proficient needleworkers, and Anita Furness recalled that her
mother made the crochet pieces in the house.
All in all, the Ramsey library was well within the mainstream of contemporary
interior design. The colors and textures created an appropriately subdued atmosphere. 38 Solid-color upholstery fabrics minimized the visual textures and complemented the highly patterned carpet. Plushes and other pile fabrics created a sense of modest luxury. Even the eclectic mix of new and old furnishings was typical of the period. Almost half of the 50 historic photographs of libraries showed two or more furniture styles; the Turkish substyle appeared in one-third of them, while a simpler version of the Renaissance-revival style was found in nearly one-half. The earlier Rococo-revival style, however, was not common.
While the Ramsey library's wall treatments were simpler than others of the day,
the portieres, wall-to-wall carpeting, and window treatments followed the current
trends. By the late 1870s, wall-to-wall carpeting was considered unsanitary, since
it could not easily be removed for cleaning. Photographs document that many
Victorians nevertheless retained it. In contrast, the Ramseys were fonder of
antimacassars than the majority of Victorians whose libraries were captured
in the 50 period photographs.
While the Victorian library had evolved into an informal family living space by
the 1870s and 1880s, the parlor or reception room was still essentially a woman's
province. As the site of public social interaction, it was meant to exhibit the
home's "most brilliant aspect." In the parlor, the homemaker carried out "her
mission as promoter of the beautiful" by exhibiting her refined taste, good
judgment, and wisdom in selecting furnishings.
Though some household-art publications argued against the need for formal parlors
reserved exclusively for ceremonial purposes, the Ramseys had sufficient space
to retain this special room. In fact, their house had two parlors–the "grand parlor"
on the west side of the main hall, reserved for large events during the
social season, and the smaller reception room, used year around for receiving
and entertaining guests. On January 2, 1876, Anna wrote to Marion, "Yesterday
being New Year's day the old custom of calling was observed; although not so
generally as in former years... had about one hundred visitors." On January 1,
1883, Alexander's diary noted, "Wife says she had near 70 calls." Other
letters and family diaries refer to callers as well as dinner guests, who
were probably received in this room. Anna most likely entertained her reading
circle there as well.
Because the reception room or parlor showed the family's public face, it should
be lavishly furnished with an eye to beauty and elegance. Tastemaker Harriet
Prescott Spofford felt that only a lack of finances could justify simplicity.
She also stated, "Providing there is space to move around, without knocking
over the furniture, there is hardly likely to be too much in the room." The
Ramsey finances were sufficient to furnish the reception room fashionably in 1872.
Publications promoted a variety of color schemes for the parlor: peach, rose,
ethereal green, gold, greenish yellow, blue-green, low tones (dulled or grayed
hues), twilight shades, blue and cloudy reds. While red and blue hues were
acceptable, Anna's selections were less subtle and more intense than the colors
Whether purchased separately or en suite, sofas, divans, lounge or easy chairs,
and a variety of light chairs for the ladies were required parlor accoutrements.
The Ramseys' seven-piece suite in the Renaissance-revival Turkish substyle
satisfied the need for both comfort and fashion. The upholstery was probably
a red plush with tufting and fringe, like the large easy chair that was placed
in the library. The suite's two divans (not visible in the photograph) most
likely stayed in the reception room except during the winter when, as Marion
Furness told her daughter Anita, "The piano has flitted, as is its annual custom,
to the warmer clime of the reception room where it will pass the winter months."
In the 90 historic photographs of parlors, sofas were placed either against
the wall or at an oblique angle near a fireplace.
Among the other Renaissance-revival furnishings acquired in 1872 and documented
in the 1884 photograph are five chairs, a jardiniere (ornamental plant or flower
stand), and an inlaid parlor table. The open backed walnut side chair is
one of the pair from the original seven-piece parlor suite. So, too, is one of
the overstuffed easy chairs, located at either side of the pier mirror; the
second was ordered separately for $52. The Turkish influence is evident in the
peaked corners of the chair backs, their tassels, and the fringe. The same style
chair is pictured in many period interiors, from Boston to Denver, suggesting
that it was both widely available and popular.
The small occasional chair (behind the jardiniere) and the armchair
(near the portiere) are two of many upholstered chairs that Anna Ramsey bought
in 1872; Sarah Davis purchased the same style chair for her home. Listed on
the 1872 invoice as bedroom furnishings, some cost $64 per pair and others
were $24 for three. The shipping list referred to bedroom and parlor chairs
in yellow, blue, and red.
The Krutina receipt also indicates that Anna Ramsey purchased a patent or
platform rocker for the reception room. Unfortunately, it is no longer in
the house. Patent rockers catered to the Victorian interest in mechanical
innovations and epitomized the late nineteenth-century ideal in comfortable
seating. Perhaps it was so well used that the mechanism wore out and the chair
Trade catalogs of the period confirm that a variety of revival furniture styles
were available simultaneously, although some were deemed more fashionable
than others. Based on these, it appears that Anna Ramsey's purchases were
not only fashionable and comfortable but also relatively expensive. For
example, at approximately the same time that she paid $351 for the Krutina
parlor suite, Coogan Brothers of New York offered a similar one for $18.
The window treatments in the reception room were less elaborate than most
tastemakers would recommend and simpler than those in many contemporary parlors.
Intense blue lambrequins that were embellished with hand-applied cording, fringe,
and flat ornamental trim hung at the windows. Purchased from A. T. Stewart's
carpet and upholstery department in the summer of 1872, they topped lace
curtains obtained from Lord & Taylor through A. T. Stewart's retail department
for $17 per pair. These may have been guipure lace, since the inserts appear
similar to the library's extant antimacassar. Anna's curtains were probably
luxurious and expensive; an 1881 Lord & Taylor catalog offered guipure lace
curtains at prices ranging from $8 to $20 per window.
Tastemakers who devoted detailed attention to the parlor generally advocated
soft, rich draperies that harmonized with the decor of the room. Some
publications illustrated lambrequins; others opposed them. Spofford felt
that lambrequins with lace curtains had an airy effect and were satisfactory
when finances did not allow a more elaborate treatment. Because Anna's other
choices showed that she could have afforded more, it may be that the simple
window treatments merely reflected her tastes. While the use of lace curtains
without heavy draperies was somewhat atypical for the period, it no doubt
created the desired "light and airy" effect. These curtains remained in
place well into the twentieth century. They are clearly visible in a photo
of Anita Furness from about 1915.
The reception room wallpaper is not visible in the 1884 photograph, except for
a narrow strip of border reflected in the pier mirror. Wallpaper in light
colors with stylized floral or similar motifs in low-contrast, overall patterns
was widely recommended by household-art books and would have been visually
consistent with the library paper.
The reception room's wall-to-wall carpet was more formal and elegant than the
library's and served as an interesting background for the unpatterned pile
upholstery. Purchased from A. T. Stewart's in 1872, it is still in use.
The pattern has red, stylized motifs on a grayish-cream ground. The carpet
was manufactured in 27-inch strips with a 17-inch multicolor mitered border
in red, blue, green, and black.
Other typical Victorian flourishes visible in the 1884 photograph were the
machine-made antimacassars and a round "center" table with its embroidered
or appliqued tablecloth, placed in the middle of the reception room. One
tastemaker advised her readers that a parlor table "looks cozy and delightful,
and as though the room was really lived in and enjoyed."
Like the library, the Ramseys' reception room generally followed mainstream fashions.
Although the Turkish furnishings did not supply light and airy elegance, they
were, nevertheless, very fashionable and connoted luxury and comfort, which
were also important values. This was, in fact, the most popular style, shown
in almost half of the 90 period photographs, followed by a simpler version
of Renaissance revival. On the other hand, the Ramsey reception room housed
only Turkish pieces, while more than half of the contemporary "parlors
contained at least two furniture styles.
The appearance, ambience, and use of the Ramsey house's library and reception
rooms provides insights into the family's lifestyle not recorded in their copious
journals and letters. As of cult of domesticity dictated, Anna Ramsey and Marion
Furness took seriously their role as homemakers, keeping current with new trends.
Changes in the rooms over the years attest to the women's knowledge of evolving
styles: while Anna's tastes dominated in the selection of the original
Renaissance-revival furnishings, Marion's "artistic" influence became evident in
the early 1880s. If we know how to read them, the rooms' mute furnishings express
the family's strong ties to tradition,and heritage balanced by their consumerism
and the desire to be fashionable, modern Victorians.