Books · Historic House Museums · Merchant's House

Now Available—An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City, 1835-65

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.

5 thoughts on “Now Available—An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City, 1835-65

  1. That lock of hair that you found in the diary really is amazing. It reminds me of the Civil War era pocket bible I was given with the round hole in it.. The hole doesn’t go completely through the whole book, but almost. The emotional connection to the past just rushes through you when you come upon one of these treasures. Wise people say we should live in “the moment,” that we shouldn’t dwell on the past. It occurs to me, while reading your post, that the past can sometimes be the present. When we make that emotional connection, the past comes to life and becomes this moment. Then we learn and are illuminated by all that has gone before. Your book is an illumination! You are an illuminator. I hope many, many people get your book and enjoy all your discoveries.

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  2. The book (An Old Merchant’s House) is as entertaining as it is edifying, and is touched throughout by the pathos of our knowing that the lives of these historical people, though foreshortened by time, were as real and compelling to them as our lives are to us!

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  3. I made my first visit to the Merchant’s House Museum earlier this month and just finished reading your book. What an excellent job you did sharing such interesting historical information! As a former special collections librarian who has transcribed many 19th-century diaries and letters, I know just what you mean about the great discoveries you can make reading these primary sources. Did you prepare all the details shared in the notebook we read as we toured the house? It added so much to our visit! If you’d like to read my blog post in which the Merchant’s House is mentioned, please visit http://beesfirstappearance.wordpress.com/2012/12/12/nyc/

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    1. Thanks, Betsy. Yes, I wrote the self-guided tour booklet; I’m glad you found it helpful. Some people prefer a docent-guided tour, and we do offer those at scheduled times, but some folks prefer to tour the House on their own and at their own pace. I personally find this is a rewarding way to approach an historic site. Loved your blog. That 15-hour tour of Manhattan is amazing! What a lot of ground you covered; I’m so glad the Merchant’s House was part of your day. Hope you’ll come back sometime.

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