Merchant's House

What Did They Do All Day?


It’s a question often asked by visitors to the Merchant’s House Museum, a 19th century home where four unmarried sisters and their widowed mother lived.

No children, no job, no electricity, no telephone, and four Irish servants to do the housework and cooking—so what filled their days?

They Wrote letters and notes by the dozens with a dip pen. They  fussed with their clothes. They read the Bible and  books (mostly non fiction) with tiny type and small black and white woodcuts. They shopped on Broadway and called on their friends. And their friends called on them. They filled the pages of albums with samples of seaweed they collected from the Jersey shore. And they spent hours on other popular 19th century craft projects like converting lobster claws to  toothpick holders.

Yet there were long dark winter afternoons when spirits must have drooped for want of amusement.

And that is why the 19th century home so often counted among its residents a songbird, most often a canary. Did the Tredwells own a canary? Probably. We know that their young neighbor, John Skidmore, did. On New Years Eve,1858, he recorded in his pocket diary that he had bought a “canary, cage, and fixings” for $5.00.

My Canary Bird

Did we count great, O soul to penetrate the
themes of mighty books,
Absorbing deep and full from thoughts, plays,
But now from thee to me, caged bird, to feel
the joyous warble
Filling the air, the lonesome room, the long
Is it not just as great, O soul?
Walt Whitman


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