Monday, January 28, 2013

Freezing Fingers, Toasted Toes

By Anne Dealy, Director of Education and Public Information 

This year in Geneva we got our first real snow of the season just before Christmas. Some were surely happy to have a white Christmas. Others were reminded of why they want to move south. Now begins the season of complaints; complaints about snow and cold, slippery roads, chilly drafts and our bulky clothes. As one who spends six months of the year trying to get my hands and feet warm, I long for the heat of summer time. Despite my discomfort, I am eternally grateful for my life in a time of central heating. I am quite certain I would never have been warm in the years before its advent, for a comfortable house in winter was a rare thing in much of the United States prior to the late 19th century. According to the English traveler Margaret Hunter Hall, who visited Cayuga, NY in 1827, American houses were built “expressly for summer, without the slightest reference to the six months’ winter that they suffer.” (G, p.183). Those of us who spend our days in old houses like Rose Hill Mansion and the Prouty-Chew House know how uncomfortable they can be in winter. Even today, their large rooms, high ceilings, and many windows make them chilly and drafty.

According to Priscilla Brewer’s book From Fireplace to Cookstove: Technology and the Domestic Ideal, most early Americans followed the English example, heating their homes with fireplaces. The biggest drawback to fireplaces, then as now, is that most of the fire’s heat escapes through the chimney. Sitting by the fire meant a comfortable front and a cold backside. In northern European countries like Holland and Germany, wood burning stoves were commonly used beginning in the 1600s. Stoves gave greater heat for less wood, an important consideration in Europe, where wood was scarce and costly by this time. For several reasons, including their milder climate, the English did not embrace this new technology, preferring “the cheerful flicker…of a fire” (Brewer, p. 24). The frontier colonists in America were too busy clearing land and establishing settlements, to concern themselves much with comfort and convenience. They followed the practice of their native land, building houses with fireplaces intended to warm the person, not the room; the idea being that if you got cold you went over and warmed up by the fire. As a result, houses in North America were rarely warm in winter, and families confined themselves to one or two rooms for the long cold winters.

Brewer indicates that in 1800 the typical American family burned 18-20 cords of firewood a year to heat their home. Inhabiting a country rich in forested land, Americans used up wood at rates that shocked Europeans. In newly settled areas, there was so much wood and so few people to clear it that wasteful practices became the norm. Wanting to clear land quickly, settlers often burned forests, ridding themselves of the trees and producing potash, a valuable compound used as a fertilizer and in the manufacture of glass. Geneva’s newspapers of the early 1800s are full of offers to pay scarce cash for wood ashes. Highly profitable, potash production was a major driver of deforestation on the New York frontier in the late 18th and early 19th century. With wood plentiful, there was little incentive to economize or improve heating efficiency.

1806 Geneva advertisement offering cash for wood ashes

Unfortunately, these practices quickly led from abundance to scarcity, with settled areas of the colonies experiencing fuel shortages as early as the 1680s. By the mid-1700s the fuel crisis was acute in some areas, and the high price of wood led some Americans, including Benjamin Franklin, to consider ways to heat homes more efficiently. In order to accommodate the English desire for an open hearth and visible fire, Franklin and other focused on improving the efficiency of the fireplace. His 1741 solution was the Franklin stove. This “stove” was really a cross between a stove and a fireplace. It was essentially a metal box, open on one side, which fit into a fireplace and increased the radiation of the fire’s heat into a room. You can see a late 19th-century colonial revival variation on this design in the rear parlor at Rose Hill Mansion, where we know the Swans had a stove in the 1860s.

“Franklin” Stove at Rose Hill

The prejudice against enclosed stoves was slow to die, with critics arguing that warm, stuffy air promoted sickness and that stoves were unrefined. Of greater consideration for most families was the high cost of purchasing a stove, which was only within the reach of the wealthy in the 18th century. As a result, stoves first became widely used, not in the home, but in public buildings such as churches, shops, and schools.

After Independence, the fuel crisis increased interest in stoves, while improvements in iron production and transportation lowered stove costs and made them more available. Locally, stoves were available by the 1820s. For the Finger Lakes region, the opening of the Erie Canal system beginning in 1817 made stove importation realistic. Prior to this improvement, the heavy cast iron stoves either had to be produced locally or brought in by wagon from the east, making them prohibitively expensive. In 1818 a Seneca Falls merchant advertised in the Geneva Gazette, ten plate and Franklin stoves from the Constantia Iron Works on Oneida Lake, which were probably brought in by canal. Beginning quite suddenly in September of 1823, several Geneva stores started advertising stoves, among these Phineas Prouty’s offer of “Box, Oven, Cooking, Parlor, and Franklin STOVES” at his Seneca Street store. This sudden change may have coincided with the opening of the canal to Seneca Lake. Most households still did not use stoves extensively, and many houses, including the Prouty-Chew House (built in 1829) and Rose Hill (1839), were constructed with fireplaces in nearly every room.

Prouty’s stove advertisement from 1823 Geneva Gazette

Because they were heavy and difficult to transport, stoves were often produced locally. In 1837, Burrall & Dwight offered the Geneva Cooking Stove, patented by Burrall (the Thomas Burrall who patented many agricultural tools). According to the advertisement, this stove required “less fuel, and answers more purposes with less labor, than any other Stove in use.” In 1846, an advertisement for the Geneva Foundry Store offered a list of 10 different types of wood and coal stoves in multiple sizes at wholesale and retail prices. Cooking and heating stoves took off in the 1830s and 40s as fuel costs increased and transportation networks improved. In November of 1850 Robert Swan’s mother writes Margaret, “We got two very nice stoves for you & some Sundry useful things are put up with the Stoves.” The stoves were shipped on the Erie Railroad, likely to Elmira and then on the Chemung Canal and Seneca Lake to Geneva.

Cookstove in Rose Hill kitchen

As technology improved, households adopted a variety of heating methods. Some people preferred to use a fireplace in the parlor and put stoves in smaller, less formal spaces. Manufacturers also produced fancy, decorated stoves for the parlor, like the Andes line by Geneva’s Philips and Clark Stove Company. With the adoption of coal as a fuel beginning in the 1830s and the subsequent development of central heating systems, some homeowners installed coal fire grates and furnaces. In 1880s photos of Rose Hill, we can see the radiators present in the house.

Rose Hill main hall showing radiator on the rear right side

The Prouty family put a wood burning fireplace in their 1858 bedroom addition, but a coal grate in their new dining room in 1870. They also had a furnace as early as 1857 that had to be started up when the cold weather came. You can see the remnants of this system throughout the house today.

Furnace grate in the Prouty-Chew House.

None of these efforts succeeded in keeping them warm when the weather turned severe:
And today we're glad to keep our noses in doors, it is so bitterly cold. The children wore blankets pinned over their heads for one hour this morning and cried with the cold. Ally's cup of water by the bedside was frozen and Grandpa has worn his overcoat all day. Tonight the wind howls in shrieks—the snow flies in clouds, and the keen searching cold penetrates even our furnace-heated rooms.” —Adelaide Prouty, 1861

Thermometer 5° below zero this morning & 30° in our room. We all had cold noses & struggled very acutely. —Phineas Prouty, Jr., 1859

As evidenced by the abundance of foundries producing boilers, heaters and stoves in Geneva at the end of the 19th century, consumer demand for improved heating systems was strong. Improvements in production and the low cost of coal made a comfortable home accessible to more Americans each year, so much so, that today we can barely conceive of the cold endured by our ancestors during the winter months.

For more information on comfort and heat in homes, see:

Priscilla Brewer, From Fireplace to Cookstove: Technology and the Domestic Ideal in America. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000.

Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett, At Home: The American Family, 1750-1870. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990

Backstory with the American History Guys, website and podcast on heating and cooling history:

Friday, January 25, 2013

No Free Money: Historic Preservation 101

By John Marks, Curator of Collections & Exhibits 

When people consider buying an old house in Geneva, they often call the historical society. A standard question is, “Is there free money to restore my old house?”

No, there isn’t.

The long answer has several parts. Old houses are not necessarily historic, and there are several levels of recognition. Government historic preservation grants generally aren’t available to individual homeowners. So why restore an old house? (Restoration refers to identifying and preserving original materials and carefully replacing missing elements, as opposed to wholesale modernization of an exterior, i.e. vinyl replacement windows.)

What’s a historic house?
Fifty years is a common measurement for “historic” or “antique”. By age alone, ranch houses built in the early 1960s can be considered historic. Time is only one consideration. The New York State Historic Preservation Office (NYSHPO) has a list of criteria for declaring a house, commercial building, or place historic. (Every state has an Historic Preservation Office or “shippo”.)
“The quality of significance in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture is present in districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects that possess integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association, and:
  1. that are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or
  1. that are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past; or
  1. that embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or
  1. that have yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.”
In plain English, a house needs to be associated with an historical event or person, have significant architectural merit, or be part of a district (neighborhood or street) that meets these criteria. South Main Street from William Street to “the cemetery dip” is a federally-recognized historic district.

Who decides what’s historic?
Three levels of government may designate historic structures: local, state, and federal. The City of Geneva has an Historic Districts and Structures Commission that recognizes significant buildings. Created in 1969, there are two historic districts (South Main Street and Genesee Park) and 20 individual buildings.

218 Washington Street is an individual house on the city’s list; Genesee Park, which includes this house, is a city historic district which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

New York State and the federal government both have Registers of Historic Places with identical criteria (see above); if the SHPO recognizes a property, they recommend that the National Park Service do the same. There are two National Register districts, identical to the city’s districts, and 11 buildings and places.

The Farmers and Merchants Bank on Linden Street was added to the National Register in 2008.

Local designations offer the most protection to historic buildings. Geneva’s commission reviews any changes to the exteriors of historic buildings that are visible from the street, and must approve the demolition of protected properties. Federal protection of historic properties only applies if government money is involved, i.e. buildings on the National Register are being demolished for a federal highway. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 states that an Advisory Council must be allowed to comment on the impact of demolition; this rarely results in the cancellation of projects.

Before the gas station on Main Street was demolished, Section 106 was invoked because federal money was involved and the building was eligible for the National Register.

Is there any financial help to restore an old house?
There is a New York State Historic Homeownership Rehabilitation Tax Credit, but it’s not available to everyone. In addition to being listed on the State or National Register of Historic Places, “the house needs to be located in an eligible census tract.” (Whatever that means.) That’s just the beginning of the red tape.

The Historical Society administers the Fund for Historic Geneva, a 3%-interest loan program for preservation of historic homes in the city of Geneva. Properties need to be on the list of city-recognized historic structures, or be eligible for inclusion, as determined by the Fund committee. (If you’re not sure, just ask.) Preservation projects include: restoration or installation of period windows, detailed soffits and facias, period shutters, period gutters (such as Yankee style), etc. Sadly, the program does not cover routine maintenance such as painting and routine roofing.

If there are no outright grants (aka “free money”), why should I do it?
Because you want to. Restoring an old house is not for the faint of heart. Neither is competing in triathlons, another activity which consumes many hours of free time and thousands of dollars – yet many people pursue it. A well-preserved old home may fetch a higher price when it comes time to sell (or it may not), but ultimately you need to do restoration because you want to.

The above is a very simplified description of historic preservation. For more information:

Landmark Society of Western New York - Based in Rochester, the Landmark Society of Western New York has excellent articles and links for preservation information.

Historic Zoning in Geneva - The Historic Zoning portion of Geneva’s municipal code lists city-designated historic properties and districts, and details the         duties of the Historic Districts and Structures Commission

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Tom Thumb Visits Geneva

By Alice Askins, Site Manager of Rose Hill
Aug 13 Visiting Tom Thumb. 62 ½                                                                                                   Sill Family expense book, 1847

General Tom Thumb was the stage name of Charles Sherwood Stratton (1838 - 1883), a little person who became famous under the showman P. T. Barnum.

Charles Stratton was a son of a Bridgeport, Connecticut carpenter.  At birth he weighed 9 pounds, 8 ounces.  During his first six months Charles developed normally reaching 25 inches tall and weighing 15 pounds. Then he stopped growing.  His parents were naturally concerned; their doctor said Charles was unlikely to reach usual adult height.
P. T. Barnum (a distant relative,) taught Charles to sing, dance, mime, and imitate famous people.   At the age of 5 Charles made his first American tour with routines that included impersonating such varied characters as Cupid and Napoleon Bonaparte.  He also sang, danced, and delivered comical banter with a straight man.  People loved him, and the tour expanded.

In 1847, the year the Sills went to see him, Charles Stratton started to grow again, but very slowly. By 1862, he had reached 2 feet 11 inches.  The next year, he married another little person, Lavinia Warren.  The wedding was front-page news.  The couple was received by President Lincoln at the White House and toured Europe and Japan together.  The Strattons became wealthy. 

On July 15, 1883, at 45, Charles died suddenly of a stroke.  At his death he was 3 feet, 4 inches tall, and weighed 71 pounds. Over 10,000 people attended his funeral. 

I found the ad for Tom Thumb’s 1847 visit in the Geneva Gazette:

THIS distinguished man in miniature, weighing only 15 pounds, 15 years of age [he was actually about 9], and but 27 inches high, who has been received with the highest marks of Royal favor by all the principal crowned heads of Europe, and who has performed before five millions of persons during the last four years, will hold six public levees at the GENEVA HOTEL, on Monday and Tuesday, Aug 9th  and 10th    [The note in the Sill book is dated the 13th –  did General Thumb stay over, or did the keeper of the accounts just not write down the expense until later?]

The little General will appear in all his performances, including Songs, Dances, Grecian Statues, etc., and also represent Napoleon Bonaparte, Frederick the Great, etc.

He will also appear in his beautiful Scotch costume, and his elegant Court Dress, worn before Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, the King and Queen of the French, Nicholas, Emperor of Russia, and all the principal crowned heads and nobility of Europe

It is now five years since the little General appeared in Geneva, and his weight is precisely what it was at that time, viz: 

                     ONLY FIFTEEN POUNDS!

He is perfectly symmetrical in all his proportions, intelligent and graceful beyond belief, and SMALLER THAN ANY INFANT THAT EVER WALKED ALONE.

The MAGNlFICENT PRESENTS, JEWELS, &c., received from the Kings, Queens, and nobility of Europe will be exhibited.

His beautiful MINIATURE EQUIPAGE, presented by Queen Victoria, consisting of pigmy Ponies and Chariot, attended by Elfin Coachman and Footman, in Livery, will promenade the streets each day, and be seen in front of the House at 12 and 5 ½   o'clock.

Notice to the Public.

This is positively the LAST TIME Gen. Tom Thumb will ever be seen in Geneva, as he retires forever from public life as soon as he has paid a brief visit to the principal cities in the Union.  . . .

Admission 25 cents. Children under ten years, half price.

In 1847, Mr. and Mrs. William Sill had five children ranging in age from four to fifteen.  Based on the admission prices, I’m guessing that Mr. or Mrs. Sill took three of their younger kids to the performance or one child over 10 and another child under 10. 

This however was not the last time that Tom Thumb visited Geneva.  On June 13, 1856, for example, the Gazette said he would soon appear at Linden Hall.  Such was the public interest in Tom Thumb that the paper reported on his doings even when he wasn’t coming here.

On January 5, we found a photograph in the archives that underscores Tom Thumb’s popularity.   Inscribed on the back of the photograph is “Freddie Higgins & Leah Kellogg in character as Tom Thumb & wife.”  

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Will Your History Be A Mystery?

By Karen Osburn, Archivist

What will your grandchildren be able to find out from the historic records you leave behind? I am often asked why I don’t have images of or information on a certain home, building, event, or person in the Historical Society Archives and I tell the questioner it is because no one shared a photo or research material with us.  Most of our collection is made up of items and information donated to the historical society.

Many people think photographs and manuscripts from 20, 30 or 40 years ago are too recent to be of interest to historians, but these items are already historic.  How many people remember businesses like “Cool Beans” located in the Dove Block during the early 2000s or Mario’s located on Hamilton Street ?  These were businesses that existed in Geneva just 10 years ago and are now gone.  Our archive has a small amount of material on each of these restaurants that we actively collected when we knew each establishment was going out of business, but hundreds more everyday events that make up the bulk of history, go uncollected and unrecorded each year.

Example of a letter from our collection dated 1829.  
Will there be any documents to tell your story in 184 years? 
How many examples of handwriting will 
survive 100 years from now? 

 This is a problem and will become a larger problem as time goes on.  In the age of information, people may not save photographs in the same format, may not write letters, may have manuscripts saved in the “cloud”.  There are wonderful new space saving, easy access forms in which to store information, but will your children think to look on your computer and transfer your image files to their computer?  Or, if you saved electronic communications, will your grandchildren find your e-mails to their parents as detailed and interesting as the letter you would have written 20 years ago?  Do you keep journals or diaries on your laptop? Will your unprinted manuscript ever get printed?  Will your nieces and nephews find the images of the old family homestead that you linked to  Perhaps, but what happens to the history of your family, the first family home, or the business your grandfather started if they don’t think to look at your electronic records? 

I don’t bring these questions up because I want folks to flock in here with all their records (though I wouldn’t mind that), but because I would like to remind everyone that history is fragile.  No museum or historical society has the staff to continually go out into their city and record every change that happens each year; we rely on our members and the public to help us preserve the story of our area.  If your history, which is entwined with the place you live, is created and preserved on a computer will your heirs think about contributing this information to the local historical society or just wipe the hard drive clean?

A photograph of Hugh Dobbin who died in 1855.
Will there be a photograph of you for your
relatives to see in 158 years?
I have a few suggestions that may help you ensure the future of your past.  If you save your photographs electronically back them up on a flash drive, or external hard drive.  Also make sure you label each photo and each file so people looking at them know who is in the picture, when and where it was taken.  The quickest way to insure photos will not be saved by future generations is to leave a collection of images with no identification.  There will come a time when no one remembers who the people are and the images lose their historic value.

The historical records you leave behind for your family allow you to tell your story to them long after you are gone.  The words and images you preserve for them will bring You to life for generations to come.  A little careful planning on your part can help you ensure your personal history is accessible and preserved for your family.  If you want help or suggestions on record preservation just contact the archivist or curator at your local historical society and discuss it with them.  The steps you take today save history for tomorrow.

Volunteer, Jane Donegan, working on Warren Hunting Smith's papers, 
a collection consisting of over 30 boxes of material.

Monday, January 14, 2013

It's All About The Story

By Kerry Lippincott, Executive Director

mu-se-um: noun: a building, place, or institution devoted to the acquisition, conservation, study, exhibition, and educational interpretation of objects having scientific, historical, or artistic value.

A m
useum can be many things.  For me museums are places to explore and discover, recharge my batteries, spend quality time with family and friends, shop, gather new ideas to try back at my own institution and, of course, work.  Yet, whether as a museum professional or visitor, I’ve struggled with the question - what do museums actually do?   

The definition above as elements of what a museum does – objects, exhibitions and educational interpretation.   Yet this definition and others just don’t seem quite right to me.  Though its  taken me awhile,  I’ve actually come up with an answer that I’m happy with.  Simply put, museums tell stories.  Whether it’s through programming, exhibits and publications, museums tell stories about people (and in some cases animals and natural history), places and events.  

To tell the stories of Geneva, the historical society uses a variety of methods.  For example, there are guided tours of Rose Hill, exhibits at Prouty Chew and the Cemetery Stories program for fifth graders.  This blog is just another way for us to share Geneva’s stories and how we go about telling those stories.  I hope you will enjoy the posts!