Secure the Shadow, Ere the Substance Fade

By Jillian Heller

Funeral rites developed with human culture and are constantly changing. What may seem uncivilized, unpleasant, or strange to us today may have been the norm for a group of people in the past. Although perceptions and treatment of death are always shifting, there are a few things that remain constant, such as a ceremony, a sacred place for the deceased, and a memorial for the dead. Post-mortem photography was a very common method families used to memorialize their loved ones. This week’s objects are two powerful post-mortem images found in our archives.

During the 1800s, death was a socially acceptable topic. Dying was viewed as a very normal part of life, the ultimate act of nature. Death was not as feared like it is today and grief was a standard emotion to publicize. Separation of the body from the household increased anxiety over dying; being close to the incidence made the death of a loved one more realistic. In the 19th century there was a high rate of children mortality. These deaths usually occurred in the home and therefore all members of the family shared the experience. It was an affair to be documented and remembered. The taking of post-mortem photograph was a notable occasion, as the result left the relatives with a tangible memorial.

Click here for image.

Post-mortem portraits were simply photographs of the very recently deceased for the remaining family. The photos had to be taken in a quick time frame, since this was before embalming became standard. The images were made possible using Daguerreotype photography. Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre was a French romantic painter and printmaker who invented this photographic image made famous in 1839. The photo was on a “highly polished, silver plated sheet of copper with iodine vapors, exposed in a large box camera, developed in mercury fumes, and stabilized with salt water.”1 It was viewed as mode of artistic expression, as well as a scientific tool. The use of this photography was perfect for depicting the loss of an individual.

Click here for image.

The photographing of passed individuals was a very intimate scene. The photographer entered a special space where the only people outside the family present were a clergyman and a doctor. There were quite a few daguerreotypists during this time that advertised their services in print. One particularly haunting slogan from one was: “Secure the Shadow, Ere the Substance Fade, Let Nature imitate what Nature made.” The motto has unknown origins but seems to have stemmed from a 17th century fable.2 It can be assumed the word shadow alludes to what is left of the passed individual while the substance is what is fleeting the individual. The advertisement is also so fitting because daguerreotype photo is characteristic for its rendering of shadow and shading. The beautifully poignant phrase captures the important role post-mortem photography had in everyday life and to the family.

There were particular characteristics that were typical of post-mortem photography. When first viewing one of these eerie images, the individuals appear to be still living, with only subtly clues to elicit that they are actually dead. When post-mortem portraits began in the 1840s and 1850s they were typically close up shots and with few accouterments. Occasionally children would be holding toys or be held in their mother’s arms. A popular theme from 1840-1880 was “the last sleep”, where the passed individual is depicted as only sleeping.3 The Historic Huguenot Street Archives has an example of this. The image depicts the baby Margaret Holmes tucked in her blankets, lying down in a crib. Toddlers were often photographed in a christening dress, while young women were in a white dress that could represent a wedding dress. These gowns could symbolize these special life-defining occasions or simply a nightgown, as an illusion to eternal sleep.4

Post-mortem photography is associated with the Latin phrase Memento Mori, loosely translated as “remember your mortality”. These photographs appear to be disturbing or ghostly to a modern day eye, however, they served a great use in the 19th century. Capturing an image of the deceased in the natural setting of their home was viewed as an artistic creation of Memento Mori. These tangible memories of loved ones were precious possessions that can be looked at as eternal memorials of the departed.

1Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.” Daguerre (1787–1851) and the Invention of Photography. The Metropolitan Museum, n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.

2 Henisch, Heinz K., and Bridget Ann. Henisch. The Photographic Experience, 1839-1914: Images and Attitudes. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1994. Print.

3 Hannavy, John. Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography. London: Routledge, 2008. Print.

4Memento Mori.” Museum of Art and Archaeology. University of Missouri, n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.


Kasten Culture

Hi! I’m Chloe Baker, a history major with a minor in Medieval and Early Modern studies at SUNY New Paltz. I am very excited to be interning at Historic Huguenot Street!

This week’s object is the grote kas, a large storage cupboard with roots in Renaissance Dutch architecture. This item became popular among immigrant inhabitants of Colonial New Netherland and were a staple in Dutch households during the Colonial era. The kasten were meant to be the center of attention in a room, with the largest ones exceeding eighty inches in height. They were typically used for the purposes of storing bed linens and clothing, such as women’s skirts and petticoats. The process of keeping the cloths and linens clean and dust free was a time consuming and lengthy endeavor. Women would often take two sheets of linen and fold them diagonally and horizontally to ensure that the contents inside of the kasten were kept free and in place. If the coloring of the linen was not perfectly white, women would have them bleached.1 Thus it can be inferred that the kasten were important pieces of furniture to Dutch housewives.



The design of these American kasten typically included a base with a single draw or draws, a shelved central cupboard with paneled doors, and a molded cornice. The kasten contained sharply defined moldings and overhanging cornices, which took time and required the skills of a carpenter. Such a design was an improvement from the original, old-fashioned Renaissance form. The kasten were often rich as they were made from sweet gum wood, mostly found in New Jersey, which contained a smooth grain with a light red-born color. They sometimes contained diamond-shaped or rectangular panels on the stiles and drawer fronts, and was usually applied to a contrasting wood such as walnut.2

Not only did the kasten serve a practical purpose for wives and add a decorative element to households due to their elaborate and detailed carvings, but they also became a source of Dutch pride among Dutch immigrants in America. As America’s colonial era approached, what was once known as New Amsterdam became New York due to wars between the Dutch powers and the English. As more British settlers traveled to the New World, Dutch individuals did in fact stay, however most were hesitant to acculturate into English society. Owning kasten became an expression of Dutch pride, and was very commonly mentioned in wills that included furniture. 3  Unlike colonial Dutch architecture, which possessed a different style depending on the region, kasten usually stayed the same in design for all Dutch households. Only a few variations existed, depending on the region of New York they were made. In this way it can be inferred that the kasten were universally used to preserve the heritage, culture, and even values of the Dutch people, most of whom likely possessed a fair amount of wealth during a time when the population demographics of the New World were shifting.

We have many on the street, notably on display in the Jean Hasbrouck and Abraham Hasbrouck houses. This particular kas is in the Abraham Hasbrouck house and dates to 1750, made at the Beekman-Elting workshop in Kingston. This is a wonderful example of the Dutch furniture, as the original finish remains after over two hundred years of oxidation.

1 Blackburn, Roderic H. and Ruth Piwonka. Remembrance of Patria: Dutch Arts and Culture in Colonial America, 1609-1776. Albany Inst of History & Art: 1988. 260. Print.

2 Volk, Joyce Geary. “The Dutch Kast and the American Kas: A Structural/Historical Analysis.” New World Dutch Studies-Dutch Arts and Culture in Colonial America 1609-1776. 1987. 107. Print.

3 Kenny, Peter M. American Kasten: The Dutch Style Cupboards of New York and New Jersey 1650-1800. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991. Print,

Travel for Travel’s Sake

By Ashley Montevago

This week’s object is a 19th century traveling case which belonged to Mabel R. Gerow. The case was used to transport various toiletries Ms. Gerow needed for her travels. The brown leather bag lined with blue silk contains a hair brush, mirror, several small glass bottles, a cork screw, sewing kit, and many other objects. A calling card holder can also be found in the case with the calling card of Miss Florence Gerow, a popular item of the century. They were used to set up proper calls to one’s social circle and would be the determining factor in accepting or possible rejection of an in person meeting. More examples of calling cards, as well as other Victorian objects, will be on display in our “True Politeness:” The Daily Life of a Victorian Lady exhibition at the DuBois Fort, beginning September 12.



Researching this traveling case took me on a fascinating trip and I discovered new information. It can be inferred Ms. Gerow was part of the upper middle class of the period and was well accustomed to traveling. Why else would she have such an extensive traveling case? The 19th century was a time when traveling became much more popular due to the development of the Transcontinental Railroad. Many upper and middle class people were able to venture off to other states with ease. Mabel R. Gerow was originally from Vineland, NJ, however she died in Chicago, IL, in 1903. This led me to look further into her death to figure out why she died 800 miles away from home. I found out she died in a theatre fire, the Iroquois Theatre fire, which killed over 600 people due to poor planning and improper fire safety. When the theatre first opened, the Chicago fire captain pointed out the major safety violations but was assured that the theatre was completely fire proof. On December 30, 1903, a spark from a light fixture set the stage curtain on fire causing a surge of panic in the theatre. When the “fool proof” fire curtain was used to contain the fire, it snagged and stage hands could not get it to open fully. The fire quickly spread destroying everything in its path. The few hundred who were lucky enough to make it out experienced health issues months later.

Finding Mabel R. Gerow’s traveling case serves many purposes. Its main function is to be on display in Gertrude Deyo-Brodhead’s bedroom located in the Deyo House. People can take it for face value and see all the wonderful things women in the 19th century needed on trips away from home. If one takes the time to dive deeper into the object, many new pieces of information can be discovered. Ms. Gerow’s traveling case took her places she had never been and it allowed me to discover things I had never known about.

On Display: “True Politeness:” The Daily Life of a Victorian Lady

“True Politeness:”
The Daily Life of a Victorian Lady
Exhibition by the Curatorial Department
September 12 – October 31, 2015

etiquetteThe Historic Huguenot Street Curatorial Department has developed a new exhibit which sheds light on American female culture during the Victorian Era (1837-1901). Beginning Saturday, September 12, “True Politeness”: The Daily Life of a Victorian Lady will be on display in the DuBois Fort Visitor Center (81 Huguenot Street), featuring a selection of quintessential household items and artistic tools.

As Queen Victoria introduced a new social order in Great Britain based upon ideals of piety and propriety, many Americans followed suit by adopting a concept referred to as the “cult of domesticity.” During this period of the 19th century, white middle to upper-class women focused on life within the home, as well as their outward appearances. A “true lady” not only presented herself as delicate and humble, but was also well-versed in social etiquette and various artistic endeavors (specifically music-making and painting). The objects within the upcoming exhibit reflect upon the impressively high standards that Victorian women were expected to uphold, and demonstrate the daily tasks with which they would concern themselves.

This exhibit is free and open to the public, September 12 through October 31. The DuBois Fort Visitor Center is open Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends, 10 am – 5 pm; and Fridays 10 am — 8 pm.

A Spectacle of the Opera

By Jillian Heller

While the opera had been well established in Europe since the 16th century, it did not become popular in the United States until the 19th and 20th centuries. Even then, it was mostly enjoyed by high society. American opera started to become more prevalent once the Metropolitan Opera House was built in 1883. With 3,800 seats, the “Met” became the premier musical venue for any upper class New Yorker. However, in such a vast theater, it was difficult to perfectly view the performance. To optimize the experience, most socialites brought along opera glasses to better see the stage. This accessory made any of those thousands of seats a preferable one.

This week’s object is a pair of opera glasses that would have been used by the cultural elite at the turn of the 20th century. The glasses are essentially an elegant pair of binoculars comprised of brass and mother of pearl. Brass bridges at the objective lens and the eyecups conjoin the two scopes. Perpendicular to the bridges is a brass rod that is the location of the focus wheel. Turning the wheel adjusts the zoom and focus to the preference of the user. Most opera glasses followed this structure, all looking very similar.




One way people try to differentiate the similar models is by looking at the retailer’s trademark. Our object has the maker’s mark “A. Stowell & Co, Boston” around both the eyecups. A. Stowell & Co. was a jewelry retailer located in Charleston and Boston, Massachusetts during the 1800s. Beginning in 1822, three generations of brothers provided jewelry, silverware, hair ornaments, fans, and opera glasses to New England. Our particular opera glasses can be speculated to hail from the turn of the 20th century. A pair of opera glasses during this time can cost between $5-$80, equating to about $130-$2000 today, depending on how ornate of glasses the buyer would like.



The structure of opera spectacles has not changed much since the making of our A. Stowell glasses. However, the history of binoculars can be traced back 400 years. Opera glasses were the result of generations of scientific discoveries. Several landmark inventions gave way to the product we recognize today.

It all began with the creation of the telescope. In 1608 Dutch optician Hans Lipperhey applied for a patent on his marvelous new invention. Unfortunately, his request did not get approved, but instead was followed by a suggestion from the committee reviewing his application. “To ascertain … whether he could improve it so that one could look through it with both eyes.” In several months Lipperhey abided and connected two parallel telescopes, creating the first ever model of binoculars. However, binoculars are much more than combining two telescopes. Optically, a lot still had to be done to make Lipperhey’s binoculars efficient. Only a year later, the famous Italian philosopher and mathematician, Galileo Galilee, improved magnification to 3X and then again to 30X. He used a convergent objective lens and a divergent eye lens, resulting in a non-inverted, upright image. Galilean telescopes are also known as terrestrial telescopes because the observer could view magnified, upright images on earth or in the sky using erecting lenses.

In 1611, Johannes Kepler introduced binoculars with a wider field of view. He altered Galileo’s design by using a convex lens as the eyepiece, opposed to a concave one. This substitution allowed more light to come into the eyepiece, developing the larger field of view. The structure of Keplerian telescopes allowed for substantially higher magnifications, but inverted the image. Many regard Kepler’s findings as the foundation of modern optics. Luckily, Anton Schyrle, a monk from modern day Czech Republic, reverted the Kerplerian telescope by adding an extra lens to the eyepiece. He also writes Oculus Enoch, a book that described the binocular design and first introduced the words “ocular” and “objective”. In 1758, Englishmen John Dolland addressed an issue that all telescopes suffered from, color aberration. He cemented two lenses, each made from a different type of glass, together creating a color free lens. This achromatic invention is what we still use today! In 1825, Pierre Lemiere created the center focus wheel in Paris. This allowed for both eyes to be focused together, rather than the previous individual focus wheels. Very soon after this, Venetian optician, D. Salva designed a bridge that connects two Galilean telescopes. This bridge is a part of the current standard structure of binoculars. Most contemporary opera glasses and the object of the week follow Galileo’s original design, with the addition of many improvements over the years.

The first documentation of opera glasses was in 1730 on a London advertisement. However, it was just a monocular, essentially just a tiny telescope. It was not until around 1820 that invention of the binocular was presented as a tool for the opera. Opera glasses were always tastefully decorated. They were treated as a fashion accessory by the second half of the 19th century. Designed with gems, ivory, enamel, glass and nacre, opera glasses were just as elegant as the elite who frequented the theater. An instrument so tasteful had to be treated as so. Every pair of opera glasses was accompanied with a protective carrying case. They were usually comprised of leather and lined with colored silk. The case was shaped to the hourglass contours of the binoculars. A practical small leather handle was usually connected to the center top of the case. The case our A. Stowell glasses came in follows suit, with brown leather and blue silk lining.

Opera glasses were essential for any high-class individual. With nights spent at the theater, one had to be equipped with the appropriate theater gear. Opera glasses were not only a tool, but also a fashion accessory to keep in hand. Without them, the whole experience of going to the opera would be hindered. They were revolutionary in that they brought the performance closer to the audience.


Collector’s Guide to Opera Glasses: History, Structure and More.” Gilai Collectibles. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Aug. 2015.

The Jewelers’ Circular. 1st ed. Vol. 85. N.p.: Jewelers’ Circular, 1922. The University of Michigan, 17 Feb. 2011. Web.

Opera in America.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 26 Aug. 2015.

Our Story.” Metropolitan Opera. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Aug. 2015.

Rosenthal, J. William. Spectacles and Other Vision Aids: A History and Guide to Collecting. San Francisco: Norman Pub., 1996. Print.

The Wellesley College Magazine. Vol. 5. N.p.: n.p., 1986. Harvard University, 27 May 2007. Web.