The first time I visited New York City’s Merchant’s House Museum as a tourist, some sixteen years ago, I asked if there was a book I could buy that would tell me more.

I felt sure there would be, but there wasn’t. So I offered my services as a volunteer and started learning about life in a 19th century New York City rowhouse.

After a few years, it occurred to me that I should write the book I had wanted to buy, and finally the time came when I felt I knew enough to do it or at least knew where to find out what I needed to know.

And so here it is. Much of the research for the book came from diaries, letters and memoirs written by the Tredwells’ neighbors One of the greatest pleasures of my lifetime has been reading those 19thcentury diaries. Most of those I read are housed at the New-York Historical Society library, a beautiful quiet place to work that is not too large and never crowded. The staff there is

New-York Historical Society Library Reading Room Photo courtesy of N-YHS

friendly and genuinely interested in being helpful, which they are. One can really relax and sink into the past there. And when you’re doing research in diaries, relaxing is essential. They aren’t indexed, of course, so you just have to take your time and peruse them page by page, hoping that a relevant nugget of information will turn up. And when it does, you can be sure you’re in possession of the real thing. And that was important to me. I wanted to know how people really lived in houses like the Merchant’s House. And it was those people themselves who told me through their own words and in their own handwriting.

I’ve been asked why I think people kept those diaries.  Was it a therapeutic exercise? Did they think others cared what they thought? Probably not. Most of them seemed to be well adjusted and I doubt that any of them intended for their diaries to be read by others. Virginia Woolf once wrote: I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realizes an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past. Perhaps the diarists wrote in order to more fully experience life in retrospect.

More than once I was moved to tears on reading of a child’s death, It happened so often. Reading the statistics of child mortality during that time is one thing; reading a mother’s diary who has lost a child is quite another. You just know when you read that one of the children has the “dreaded disease” (scarlet fever) that within a few pages you will share a parent’s grief.

Once I turned the page and discovered a lock of hair! Brown, straight hair slightly curled at the end, tied with a black ribbon. It almost took my breath away. I held it for a few moments between my fingers, wondering. Then I put it back between the pages where I suppose it still is. The past can hardly get more real than that.

Subjects covered in the book include the roles men and women played during the period 1835-65, a detailed description of the upscale neighborhood of the Merchant’s House, the décor and furnishings of the Tredwell home, lighting, education, fashion, hygiene and beauty, customs surrounding social calling, courtship, music, dancing, dinner service, the parlor tableaux, the role of the servants, the leisure activities of women, and death and mourning customs.

It’s a miracle that this house has survived in its original condition—not, however, without extraordinary effort from talented and committed caregivers. But that’s another story—one I may write next time around.