Historic tours focus on lives of servants

Marketplace Staff Aug 7, 2009

Historic tours focus on lives of servants

Marketplace Staff Aug 7, 2009


KAI RYSSDAL: In this age of instant entertainment and always on internet, pity the poor historic house tour. Yes, there are history buffs out there who will always show up, but family trips to historic sites just aren’t as common as they used to be. Over the past several years some of those house museums have seen the writing on the wall and revamped themselves to draw more traffic. There’s less emphasis on the furniture and the grand family that used to live there, more on the folks who really ran the place.

Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.

Ashley Milne-Tyte: The Breakers was the Vanderbilt family’s opulent summer mansion in Newport, R.I. Visitors used to take guided tours of the 70 room house, marveling at the marble walls, vast chandeliers and intricate mosaic floors. This spring, the Preservation Society of Newport County introduced an audio tour. It’s bursting with anecdotes about the family and the servants.

Pat Coleman is featured on the tour. She’s the daughter of one of the Vanderbilt’s chambermaids.

Pat Coleman: The sheets had to be changed twice a day. She always talked about all the amount of laundry that they generated. They would wear something once, it would go to the laundry. The bath would be drawn, those towels would go to the laundry.

And each bath was made of marble so thick and cold, a maid had to fill and empty it twice before the bath was warm enough for a Vanderbilt. Outside the Breakers, visitor Frank Schmandel says those behind-the-scenes details were well worth the trip from Pennsylvania.

Frank Schmandel: There’s certainly no way I would ever have walked the halls with the Vanderbilts, so to hear the other side was very interesting for me.

And let’s face it, most of us would have been on that other side. John Tschirch is architectural historian for the Preservation Society of Newport County. He says visitor numbers are up since the Vanderbilts and their staff began sharing the limelight.

John Tschirch: And I think the more culturally relevant we become and remain, we’ll hold on at least to healthy visitor numbers.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation says historic homes all over the country want to appeal to today’s more socially conscious public. That means balancing crinolines and fine architecture with kitchen stoves and even manacles. Many homes in the South now emphasize the slave experience. So do some in the north.

I’m on a tour of Philipsburg Manor, 20 miles up the Hudson from Manhattan. It used to belong to a family of Dutch merchants.

Tour guide: So this is set up as a room of a gentleman and a slave trader. I say that today, how does it sound?

Tourists:Not very good, no.

Tour guide: No it doesn’t. But at that time the slave trade was for most people just like any other business.

Until six years ago the slaves who ran this former plantation in the 1700s were barely mentioned in the tours. Now, the entire visitor experience is built around seeing how they made this place run, often without supervision from an owner or overseer.

Peter Curtis works at the Manor’s re-constructed mill as a miller and historic interpreter. He focuses on one 18th century slave in particular.

Peter Curtis: And the slaves were responsible of the mill — Caesar was the responsible member. He was bilingual.

Milne-Tyte: Which two languages?

Curtis: We think French and Dutch. He did know some math. But he was in charge of the building.

Visitor numbers have increased by 8 percent since Philipsburg Manor started telling the slaves’ story. Kate Johnson is curator of Historic Hudson Valley, which owns the site.

Kate Johnson: On the local and state level we are completely tied into the African-American tourism market and now we’re really poised to take it to the national level.

And there’s another benefit. Breathing new life into this area of history has caught the interest of corporate and individual funders. Historic Hudson Valley has received several million dollars since the program kicked off.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

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