Friday, March 3, 2017

The Portsmouth Assembly House, Part III



A Master of Ceremonies


Sarah Goodwin packs her short remembrances of the Assembly House with details that bring the building and the inhabitants of late 18th and early 19th century Portsmouth to life. She provides a participant's view of a commodious urban life—a changeable canvas composed of the famous and noteworthy,  the social season and cultural celebrations, and the interplay of the local community. Part three completes this extended blog piece with her pithy observations of a concert, theatrical performance, exhibit, and a troupe of East Indian Jugglers.

Part III, Art and Entertainment:

Concert at the Upper Rooms, Rowlandson


"A Handel and Haydn Society, organized by the most distinguished musical gentlemen of the town, met here two afternoons in the week, when Mr. B., the president, wielded the baton with great dignity and precision. Two gifted young ladies presided by turns at the piano, while several gentlemen were skilfull with the violin and flute. I was fortunate enough to be one of the members, and the meetings were very much enjoyed.

Dolby's British Theatre, Cruicksnak


Every summer for many years the Boston Stock Company had theatrical entertainments in the assembly room. Mr. and Mrs. Duff, Mr. and Mrs. Pelby, Mr. Adamson, a famous comic singer, and others, played five nights in the week to the Mite of the town, at a dollar a ticket. Ladies were without bonnets, usually with a large white veil thrown over the head, the border coming over the forehead.

Viewing at the Royal Academy, Rowlandson


The first great oil painting that I ever saw was exhibited in the back room of that house, and covered one side of the wall. It was by Granet, and represented a Capuchin chapel, with the monks at their devotions. I saw it twice; and the perspective was so fine, the moment I entered the room I was in the chapel. This great painting was destroyed by fire in St. Petersburg many years ago.


The Dancing Maaster's Ball, Laurie & Whittle

Here, too, a famous dancing-school flourished; and it was under Mr. de Grand Val and Mr. Bossuet that I had my first lessons in dancing.

East Indian Jugglers

There came East Indian jugglers, who did the most astonishing things, at least to our young eyes. In fact, it was under this wide-spreading roof that Portsmouth people gathered for many a year, to participate in all that was most entertaining and often instructive, in their then necessarily restricted world."*

* This account of the old Assembly House was found among the papers of the late Mrs. Ichabod Goodwin, and was written by her in 1870 and appear in:

Portsmouth Book, Boston, Geo. H. Ellis, Printer, 272 Congress Street, 1899, pg 48-49.

Jeff Hopper is the Director of the Warner House and researches social history.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Portsmouth Assembly House, Part II



Upper Hall,  Bath

Part II, The Assembly:

In this section Sarah writes about the Assembly. Based on her age, some of the descriptions might have told to her by her mother, as they seem evocative of the period from1790 to 1820.  In the last paragraph, Sarah writes about the Whiddens a family of builders for at least 4 generations in the city of Portsmouth and their involvement in the festivities. An otherwise insignificant remark, it speaks to the historic connection between designers and builders to masques and thearticals.

Sarah also makes reference to Dinah Gibson (1742(?)-1825) an enslaved woman owned by her grandmother "in the days of slavery." Through documented research we know that Dinah gained her freedom and continued to work for the Rice family. (Black History, pg. 105-6). Dinah's conversations about food provide an intimate reflection of a passing moment in time—"boil it for that long" or perhaps, "roast it then peel it, not the other way."  These seemingly insignificant memories connect Sarah with her past and provide us with a greater sense, not just understanding, of the past. Sarah composed this passage when she was 65 and her combination of remembering the meek and mighty gives a sense of how individuals capture their own past—a fabric interwoven with the familiar and the fantastic.

Gown, 1805-1810


"The assemblies were held there from the days of the Revolution until Franklin Hall was built, about 1820. Portsmouth was noted for the elegance of its entertainments, but the "assemblies" were the chief glory of the place. Both Washington and Lafayette had an opportunity to witness the elegance and grace displayed on those occasions. They were very exclusive, — sustained by subscription. They had two managers, who, with powdered hair and chapeau under left arm, looked the impersonation of power and dignity. Each lady was taken into the ballroom by a manager, and seated. The ladies wore low-necked dresses of silks and satins and velvets, the hair dressed with three ostrich feathers a la Prince of Wales. The gentlemen appeared in prescribed costume, which was blue coat with bright buttons, chapeau under arm, knee- breeches, silk stockings, pumps, and white kid gloves.

Blue Coat with Brass Buttons 1815-20

At the appointed moment the numbers were called for the draw dance, after that the cotillions, which were voluntary. A manager led the first dance with the eldest lady, or a bride, if one were present; and everything was conducted with great state.

Master of Ceremonies, Rowlandson

About ten o'clock, sandwiches of tongue and ham, with thin biscuit, were handed round on large waiters, in turn with sangaree, lemonade, and chocolate.
There were eight assemblies, followed by a Washington ball given on the 22d of February. Any one who would pay five dollars could attend this ball, but the outside world did not care much about it. Court was sitting at this time, and the ballroom was thickly sprinkled with lawyers. At the Washington ball a great fruitcake was placed in a corner of the ballroom, which one of the managers cut.

A Ball at Scarborough, Rowlandson


The family of Mr. Whidden prepared the rooms and entertainment for the elegant company. I remember that Dinah (who in the days of slavery was owned by my grandmother, and who assisted the Whiddens in the arrangements) used to tell a great deal about the sandwiches, and how long they boiled the chocolate, which had spice in it. Besides serving as a ballroom, this room was the central point for all the most important public exhibitions and for the semi-social functions of the day."*

A Grand Jamaica Ball, 1800-10

*This account of the old Assembly House was found among the papers of the late Mrs. Ichabod Goodwin, and was written by her in 1870 and appear in:

Portsmouth Book, Boston, Geo. H. Ellis, Printer, 272 Congress Street, 1899, pg48-49.

Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African-American Heritage, Mark J. Samsons and Valerie Cunningham, UPNE, Hanover, 2004.

The semi-social functions of the day are in the next post.

Jeff Hopper is the Director of the Warner House and researches social history.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Portsmouth Assembly House, Part I

The divided Assembly House in 1938
While researching social dancing in Portsmouth, NH in the first half of the 18th century, I came across a reference to a personal remembrance of the 18th century Assembly House (circa 1770) by Sarah Parker Rice Goodwin (1805-1896).  She was the wife Ichabod Goodwin, the governor of New Hampshire at the start of the Civil War. Her papers are held by Strawbery Banke Museum. As a prominent member of Portsmouth in her own right, her reflections are very interesting. I found her remembrances of the Assembly House were so interesting that I think they should be seen in their entirety. Some of the remembrances were probably handed down to her, but her birth is close enough to the period that the earliest reflections may be those of her grandmother, mother and perhaps her own youth.  For the reader's ease I broke her essay into three sections without any other other structural alterations.

These two images show the altered building turned on its original site. The Assembly House would have been parallel to the street and risen above the roof tops of its neighbors.

The divided Assembly House in 1970

Part I, The Assembly House:

"If the old Assembly House were still in being, what a treasury of art memories it would be in these days of centennial excitement and interest! The builder and owner of this interesting house was Mr. Michael Whidden, who must have been a real artist and a remarkable man. I can remember him distinctly as he appeared in his nineties. He was little and florid, and wore a white linen skull-cap, such as is worn by masons at their work. The house was of wood, large, long, and painted white. There were on the lower floor three great parlors, a kitchen, and an immense hall and staircase. This hall ran through the house and opened upon a garden, decorated by a summer-house, octagon in shape, of two stories, with large glass windows. How many bouquets of red clover- blossoms I have gathered in this garden, to my great delight!

The assembly-room took the whole front of the second story, and was about sixty by thirty feet, with large windows and an orchestra over the entrance. Back of it were two dressing-rooms. There were three chandeliers for wax candles, and branches from the walls also for candles. In the assembly-room the cornices were beautifully carved, and in all the rooms the carving was richly gilded.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Assembly House was the abundance and variety of wood carvings. The facade was decorated in festoons of flowers over the windows, and every imaginable figure proper to external ornamentation was there. Years ago, when the house was sawed in two, preparatory to being moved away, bits of carving and gilding were scattered about the street, to the delight of children. It was clear, sheer Vandalism; and there is nothing so beautiful now."*


A very altered Portsmouth Assembly House lasted nearly 200 years. In 1838 the original building was cut in half and swung apart to create a street between the buildings. The second floor was lowered in height and altered beyond recognition.(Gurney, 46-47)  The buildings were demolished in the early 1970s. 

However, in the Austen Only blog there is a section on the Stamford Assembly rooms, which fits the footprint of the Portsmouth site, so image below will help give a sense of the Assembly House in Portsmouth, NH during the late 18th century into the early 19th century.

Stamford Assembly Room © Austenonly
An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the Town of Stamford, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1977 provides a floor plan of the Stamford hall, and also an approximation of the Portsmouth Assembly performance floor. This floor plan also appear in the Austen blog, but I provide this link to the Monmument's text as a source for other historic architectural researchers.

Stamford Assembly Room Floor Plan

*This account of the old Assembly House was found among the papers of the late Mrs. Ichabod Goodwin, and was written by her in 1870 and appear in:

Portsmouth Book, Boston, Geo. H. Ellis, Printer, 272 Congress Street, 1899. pg 48-49.

Portsmouth Historic and Picturesque, C.S. Gurney pub. 1902, reprinted in 1981 by Strawbery banke Museum, Peter Randall, publisher.


The next part of the essay discusses the dances and clothing.

Jeff Hopper is the Director of the Warner House and researches social history.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Georgian Vignette


Fancy a little Sunday tea with this glam Georgian couple - 1760s style?

Peering into this fabulous vignette makes one feel a trifle voyeuristic, inspecting the sumptuous clothing, the contents of the tea table, the interior architecture and palette. Peeking into the room, we observe how the 'quality' lived.  I will always have a spot in my heart for the period room and the educative value of placing items in context. 

Do pass the marmalade!

This lovely ensemble is brought to you by @MFA Boston

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Rachel Hartwell's Belle Époque Evening Dress

This frothy, feminine 1890s Belle Époque evening dress was worn by Rachel Hartwell (Pfeiffer). According to a family note, included with the dress, it was purchased with money she earned from teaching school. It is in the Hartwell Clark collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS). [1]


The bodice is an effusive affair of lace, silk, chiffon, and multi colored beads, while the skirt is simple but with a subtle pink stipe running through the silk (impossible to pick up with my phone camera) and a ruffled hem with pink silk peeping out. 
It was the perfect ensemble for a young, stylish unmarried woman. [2] Rachel married in 1896, and the MHS has her London-made wedding gown in their collection, the subject of a future post.
The evening dress is in need of conservation and is currently being evaluated by an experienced textile conservator.

Rachel Hartwell (1868-1905) was born in Watertown, Massachusetts, USA and attended Wellesley College. She graduated in 1891. While taking classes at Harvard in the summer of 1892, she met her future husband, George Pfeiffer. They were married 28 December 1896 and traveled Europe extensively. She died on 28 January 1905 in childbirth, leaving behind the couple’s only child, Hilda. She was 37 years of age.

Stay tuned for more to come on this, and other garments, from the Hartwell-Clark collection.

Many thanks to MHS Curator, Anne Bentley, and the MHS staff for their ongoing assistance.

1.     The Hartwell-Clark collection is currently unprocessed. For additional information, see: http://www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0194
2.     For more on 1890s fashion, see: http://www.vintagevictorian.com/costume_1890.html




Thursday, November 24, 2016

Snappy Victorian Button Boots by Atelier Louette-Finner

Fun, fresh and contemporary low-heeled button boots, circa late 1870s-1880s, by Belgian shoe and bootmakers, atelier Louette-Finner. The black and white check upper contrast with the black lower, giving the appearance of a spat or overshoe. It is the use of the checked textile clad heel which sets the boots apart, adding a visual flourish and illustrating why the firm excelled in design. The heel softens the more masculine style.  The boots are in the collection of the Bata Shoe Museum and on view in ‘Fashion Victims’ (through January 2017; http://www.batashoemuseum.ca/fashion-victims/)

The shoe concern exhibited at a number of international expositions, including the 1867 Paris International. Their shoes may be found in other collections, such as the Centraal Museum.  
Again, atelier Louette-Finner adds their own design flare to two pairs of 1870s women’s shoes.