Monday, September 4, 2017

17th Century Dollhouses in the Rijksmuseum

Dollhouses were common in the seventeenth century, but the ones that survive are anything but child’s play. They combine the cabinet of curiosities- strange and wonderful specimens of art and nature collected by the rich to show off their wealth, taste, and education- with the cult of domesticity that grew up in the seventeenth century. Three Dutch dollhouses from the late 1600s survive. The houses of Petronella Oortman and Petronella Dunois are in the Rijksmuseum, while the house of Petronella de la Court is in the Centraal Museum. Their collections are virtually complete and have been added to since their creation in the late 1600s, and the detail with which they were decorated can give us marvelous information about life in New Netherland and Dutch New York.

Many of the rooms of dollhouses are grander than almost anything in New Netherland, but there are humbler rooms as well. The kitchens of all three seventeenth-century houses preserve the workspace of the seventeenth-century cook. Oortman drew on the Netherlands’ large supply of silver miniatures (such toys are mentioned in the 1690s inventory of Margaretha Van Varick) to stock her house, and her cook room displays tiny silver dishes, colanders, a spoon rack with spoons, and, astonishingly, two chickens on a spit in a reflector oven.

All three houses also have cellars to store food and drink. Dunois’s cellar shelves hold tiny pies, rolls, and a cow’s head as well as herbs in jars covered with bits of leather. Barrels of butter sit on the floor and salted fish and a rolling pin and breadboard hang from nails high up on the walls, free from the damp and any attack by mice or rats. All three cellars placed the supplies of beer and wine behind a locked grill; such a grill still survives today in the cellar of the Cornelis Wynkoop house in Marbletown, New York.  Beer barrels marked with the signs of local breweries are tapped, their contents ready to be decanted into a pitcher or bottle; in Oortman’s cellar, bottles of green and brown glass stand on a shelf drilled with holes, probably so the bottles could be stored upside down.
The dollhouses are also a source of information for textiles. Dutch inventories list huge numbers of household linens, and each dollhouse has its own linen room to iron, starch, and arrange them all. Dunois’s best room has an exquisite cabinet filled with tablecloths, napkins, and lengths of linen very much like the ones that filled the kasten of New Netherland households.

There are also fabric furnishings. Oortman’s tapestry room is named for the chain stitch tapestry on the walls, and her lying-in room is hung with red velvet. Meanwhile Dunois’s salon is hung with pale yellow silk and her lying-in-room in bright Indian chintz- perhaps a similar fabric to Jan Gerritsen van Marcken’s “small red flowered curtains.” To a modern observer the effect is overwhelming, but a seventeenth-century viewer would have known immediately that a room decorated that way would have required a fortune in silk or imported cotton print.

Another relic of Dutch settlement that has not survived is the artwork. Petronella de la Court was an art collector, and she filled her dollhouse with dozens of paintings, prints, and sculptures. Dunois and Oortman also collected tiny examples of artwork. But this was not the only way the Dutch enjoyed art in their homes. The salons of Oortman and de la Court are painted with landscapes that completely fill the walls. Oortman’s front hallway features grisaille paintings in shallow niches, imitating marble statues (grisaille painting is done entirely in shades of black, white, and gray). Ceilings, shutters, chimneypieces, and cupboards are painted, as are pieces of furniture. A few examples of such decoration survive from New Netherland and Dutch New York. A kas owned by the Monmouth County Historical Society and dated between 1700 and 1740 is beautifully painted with fruit and flowers in shades of gray. The Van Bergan overmantel, showing the landscape and people of the Van Bergen farm, has survived, and the cradle in Crailo’s Dutch room, dated 1680-1740, still has its original painted garlands.

The final aspect of Dutch home life that these dollhouses portray was actually outside the house. Both Oortman and de la Court included gardens in their dollhouses; Oortman’s was an extra box that could be inserted behind the front hall containing a tiny garden. This has been lost, but a painting of the house from about 1710, also in the Rijksmusum, shows a fountain and statues, as well as trees arranged around a pool.

Vegetable gardens, herb gardens and orchards certainly existed in New Netherland. But the Castello Plan, a detailed map of New Amsterdam in the 1660s, shows many formal gardens as well. De la Court’s garden room gives us an idea of what we might have found there. It shows classical statues, a small pergola, and flowerpots holding small fruit trees. The Dutch love of fruit was recorded by Adraien van der Donck, and the list of fruits grown in New Netherland included cherries, peaches, apricots, plums, persimmons, currants, figs, and gooseberries, as well as wild grapes. For the doll inhabitants of de la Court’s miniature house, this garden would have represented a source of fresh and preserved fruit for the family. The garden also includes plants grown for their beauty such as rosebushes and, against the left wall, a cheerful North American import- a sunflower. 

To see these dollhouses online, search “doll’s house” at and “de la Court” at www. This article also drew on the book The 17th-century Dolls’ Houses of the Rijkmuseum.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Spring Activities - Cheese and Butter Making

Spring is the perfect season for butter and cheese making.  Cows are having calves, producing more milk and providing one of the ingredients for cheese making, rennet.  The grass is new, the cow’s milk is sweet.  Milk preservation was very important in the spring and dairy production has a long history in the Netherlands.  The grass in the lowland, damp areas of the Netherlands is the most abundant resource.   The highest producing dairy animal is the Friesian breed of cow which was developed in North Holland and Friesland.  From the beginning of time cheese and butter have been one of the best ways to preserve milk.  In the Netherlands cheese production was regulated in the middle ages, sold at markets in the center of town by local farmers, where guilds could balance the price of cheese.  

 Dairy production was mainly a women’s job.  The environment for cheese and butter making needed to be clean and sanitary.   Anything less than clean could be lethal or unprofitable.  Small buildings or rooms in the basement would be fitted with brick or stone floors, ceilings and inside walls plastered and whitewashed against dirt.  Because coolness was also vital floors of dairy buildings were mostly below grade and well ventilated to keep cool.  Gervase Markham in his 1615 book “The English Housewife” describes the keeping of a dairy “the main point belonging there unto is the housewife’s cleanliness in the sweet and neat keeping of the dairy house; where not the least mote of any filth may by any means appear, but all things either to the eye or nose so void of sourness or sluttishness, that a prince’s bed chamber must not exceed it.”  

The first step in processing the milk for cheese and butter is to strain it, removing the chunky bits, cow hair, and flies. Then you pour the milk into wide, shallow pans, leaving it twenty-four to forty-eight hours on the shelves while the cream rises. The pans were earthenware, glazed on the inside, metal pans were rarely used because they could change the flavor of the milk.  Once the cream rises, it's skimmed off with big flat spoons and stored.  As with meat in a smokehouse, water is the enemy; it makes things go off. Since cream is more  fat than water, it has a longer shelf life than milk. To make butter, the cream is worked in a plunge churn. The agitation causes a physical change in the cream, so the fat accumulates in bunches while the water gets separated. Dairymaids learn to listen to the churn for the diagnostic slop, slop. . . slush. That thin watery sound means the butter has formed. The long job of making butter had its own rhyme.  This was as a song which went with the rhythm of the work.  It was widely known on both sides of the Atlantic, with many variations and was probably already old when mentioned in print in 1685.  Many cultures had their own churning songs. 

After the cream had formed lumps of butter, it still wasn’t ready for serving or preserving.  It was taken out of the churn, probably with wooden scoops, ready to be salted and shaped.  Buttermilk, which had separated from the butterfat, had to be rinsed off.  This would improve texture and flavor, and also help the butter keep well, since milk turns rancid more quickly than fat alone.  Salt was usually mixed in at this stage, for flavor and preservation.  Working or “kneading” the butter with a pair of wooden butter hands was the last step to shape the butter then store in a cool place until the time to use. 

 To make cheese, take the fresh milk, heat it slightly then and add rennet, which is derived from the lining of a calf's stomach. Rennet is an enzyme that curdles milk and starts the solidifying process. After standing for twelve hours, the rennet-milk mixture resembles Jell-O. If you take the pan and shake it, the whole thing wiggles. You then cut the cheese into squares with a knife.  This makes lines where the whey, the watery part, can weep out of the solid curds. The whey is strained off and used in some recipes or given to the farm animals as a protein drink.  The curds are then ready for the cheese press, to force out the rest of the water.  The cheese will stay in the press for a few days then dry on a slated shelf, being flipped daily, for a couple of months.  This produces a hard cheese that will last for years.  Flavor and texture come from the type of milk used for cheese making, what the animal eat, drying time and even the environment the cheese dries in.  There are many varieties of cheese and each country has its own varieties as well.  

Wednesday, April 26, 2017


Pinkster, or Pinxteren as the Dutch called it, was an annual rite of spring that accompanied the celebration of Pentecost.  In New Netherland, references to Pinkster appeared as early as 1628, and as the colony grew, so did the size and scale of Pinkster celebrations.  For instance, on May 9, 1655, a tavern owner in Beverwijck received permission from the Court of Fort Orange to hold a Pinkster celebration featuring a traditinal game of "shooting the parrot".  In this game, armed participants took turns shooting at the figure of parrot that was affixed to the top of a pole.  The 1655 celebration in Beverwijck turned into a raucous and boisterous affair though.  Dutch West India Company authorities reported on extensive property damage associated with the festival, and Peter Stuyvesant himself chastised the Pinkster merry-makers for "much drunkenness and other insolences" as well as "unnecessarily wasting poweder" for the firearms.

Despite its Dutch origins, Pinkster became the most important holiday of the year for enslaved Africans and African Americans living in New Netherland and New York during the 17th and 18th centuries.  By the early 1800s, Pinkster was still being celebrated in Albany on Pinkster Hill, the current site of the NYS Capital.  But by then it had become a distinctly African American celebration.  Historical descriptions of Albany's Pinkster celebrations have survived to reveal a clear pattern for the festivities.  First, in the weeks or months before Pinkster, enslaved people would have negotiated and probably insisted on receiving time off to travel to Albany and join the celebrations, which could last as long as a week.  African Americans made other preparations as well, including gathering and crafting items to be sold and traded at the festival.  A witness to Albany's 1803 Pinkster festival took note of a hastily assembled bazaar where Pinkster attendees sold food, alcoholic beverages, as well as essential ingredients in various folk medicines including sassafras bark, roots, and herbs.

Pinkster began on Pentecost Sunday, which was filled with religious ceremonies and events for children.  On Monday, the atmosphere became more festive.  The day opened with a parade featuring a "Pinkster King," who was elected from within the enslaved community.  After the parade, the designated grounds were given over to music and dancing, all presided over by the Pinkster King.  A spectator named James Eights specifically commented on the music and dances that followed the Pinkster Monday parade in 1803.  According to Eights, women and men spontaneously joined in singing with the performers.  African drumming dominated the musical stylings, and Eights identified the lead drummer as a man named Jackey Quackenboss, probably one of the nine enslaved people "owned" by Hendrick Quackenbush, who resided in the Quackenbush house on Broadway in Albany, which still stands today.

Pinkster Festival at Philipsburg Manor

In the past, historians tended to see Pinkster as a "safety valve" for slavery.  Those historians claim that by allowing even a small amount of liverty around the Pinkster holiday, slaveholders actually made it easier to perpetuate enslavement and to prevent all-out uprisings and resistance.  But a new book by the historian Jeroen Dewulf entitled The Pinkster King and the King of Kongo challenges that "safety valve" notion.  Dewulf and other historians point out that the enslaved participants on Pinkster HIll essentially prganized the festival themselves, and they did so in a very specific way.  In music, dance, food, and even in the election of Pinkster King, a number of West African traditions informed and shaped the way revelers celebrated.  The Pinkster holiday was more than a break from lives of forced labor; it was a major way that enslaved men and women preserved culture through the generations.

Just as importantly, Pinkster was also a political demonstration showcasing the effective methods of organization and resistance within the enslaved population.  Every spring, hundreds of enslaved people in various locations in the upper Hudson Valley started negotiating, possibly even arguing with their enslavers in order to be granted time to travel and celebrate Pinkster.  Also, the Pinkster King was also politically significant since he was elected by the slave community and not as a mere figurehead.  The Pinkster King was usually an enslaved man selected for his leadership abilities, especially his capacity to negotiate with his enslavers and gain significant concessions from them, including time off for holidays, visits to his family members in other areas, even promises of emancipation in exceptionally rare cases.  The Pinkster King was also usually a physically imposing man, capable of defending himself and others.

Pinkster Festival at Philipsburg Manor

In 1804 the Common Council of the City of Albany severely restricted Pinkster celebrations.  Then in 1811, they banned Pinkster altogether, citing the boisterous and raucous elements that had been part of the festival from the very beginning.  It was only in 2011 that Pinkster ban was officially repealed.  On April 22nd, Crailo's Pinkster Festival marked the first time that Pinkster has been celebrated in the Upper Hudson Valley in nearly two centuries.  More importantly though, the event commemorates the lives of the Pinkster celebrants, who preserved and defended their culture, humanity, and political traditions in the most difficult circumstances imaginable.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Link Between Alexander Hamilton, Two Presidential Assassins and Christian Science


      What or who is the link between those three disparate entities in the title of this article?  The answer is Allan McLane Hamilton.   A.M. Hamilton, was the grandson of Alexander Hamilton and the great-great grandson of Hendrick Van Rensselaer of Crailo.  Allan McLane Hamilton was the son of Alexander  Hamilton’s youngest son, Philip.  Philip Hamilton was only two years old when his father was shot in the duel with Aaron Burr.
       Allan McLane Hamilton was born on Oct. 6, 1848 in Brooklyn, New York.  In 1870, he graduated from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.  He would specialize in psychiatric    illnesses.  Psychiatrists, during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, were also called  alienists.  Allan McLane Hamilton became one of America’s foremost forensic alienists of that time period.
       On July 2, 1881, President James A. Garfield was shot by Charles Julius Guiteau.  Dr. Hamilton was called in to examine the assassin. Hamilton believed “. . .Guiteau is only a shrewd scamp.” (NY Times 1/14/1917).  Hamilton felt that Guiteau was not insane, that “. . . he (Guiteau) felt his only successful defense was one of insanity. . . I had several occasions to see Guiteau in jail, when he talked quietly and sensibly.”  Guiteau was hanged on June 30, 1882.
       Nineteen years later, on September 6, 1901, President William McKinley was shot.  The assassin in this case was Leon F. Czolgosz.  After being summoned to examine Czolgosz,  Dr. Hamilton was not allowed to meet with the prisoner.  “. . . the people’s experts had evidently made up their minds that the prisoner was sane and that no  further examination was considered necessary. . ."                                              
        Even though he had not been allowed to examine Czolgosz, Dr. Hamilton attended the trial on September 23, 1901 and came to the conclusion that, “. . . the assassin (Czolgosz) was really a defective who had long been drifting into paranoia.  Hamilton’s final judgement of the Czolgosz trail was as follows,  “I really do not think in all my experience that I have ever seen such a travesty of justice. . .”
        Dr. Hamilton was called in to examine and give his professional opinion as to the sanity of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science Church.   “Early in 1907, George W.  Glover instituted legal action for an accounting of his mother’s (Mrs. Eddy) estate on the ground that she was mentally incompetent.” (NY Times, 10/11/1909).  Dr. Hamilton examined Mrs. Eddy in the summer of 1907 and found her to be     “. . . absolutely normal and possessed of a remarkably clear intellect. . .” (NY Times, 8/25/1907).
        Dr. Hamilton’s opinion of Mrs. Eddy is interesting when compared to his testimony about Christian Science in another trial.  In February 1901, while sworn under oath, declared that “Christian Science is an insane   delusion. . . any person believing that the Devine mind can cure disease. . . without material aid,  is to that extent insane.” (NY Times, 2/19/1901).

Friday, February 24, 2017

Dutch Jambless Fireplaces

Image result for image of jambless fireplaceThe most basic hearth in a house is a simple fire pit in the middle of the floor, with smoke filling the living space. The first great change to this form was the move from the center of the room to one side or end of the room, where the wall could give support to a smoke hood to direct smoke outside. Smoke hoods could usually be put into and removed from a building without affecting the rest of the structure, and from them developed the chimney, a permanent, integral part of a building. Although chimneys were difficult to remove or change, they were also easy to put on an interior wall or use in a house with a second story or attic, because they did not need to vent directly through a wall or roof. By the late medieval period hearths were generally wide and shallow. The mantel was supported by corbels and occasionally pillars. During the sixteenth century much of Europe saw the fireplace recede between the two sides, or jambs, that enclosed the hearth.

 But in the Netherlands the opposite happened. The hearth moved into the room, the walls never materialized, and even the corbels and pillars of the medieval fireplace disappeared. Pieter Aertsen’s 1552 painting The Egg Dance shows an extremely shallow hearth with cloth hanging from the mantel. Interestingly, no other type of smoke hood or chimney is shown with this cloth, perhaps because the jambless fireplace is uniquely terrible at drawing up smoke.

The jambless fireplace may have developed because of the Netherlands themselves. The country is marshy, and in some places construction can only be done by sinking beams into the earth to support the building above. The Renaissance scholar Erasmus once described Amsterdam as a city of people living in the tops of trees because the entire city was built on these posts. The weight of a large enclosed hearth may have been difficult for builders in this style to support. Instead they shifted the weight of the chimney to the house’s support beams. Alternately, some surviving smoke hoods in Scotland (where they were called hingin lums and used into the twentieth century) appear similar to the jambless fireplace, and the smoke hood might have been integrated into the house’s structure to allow better venting for large buildings.
By 1650 the jambless fireplace was obsolete. The mid-17th century saw an increased control of airflow in fireplaces and chimneys as people developed a greater understanding of venting. Stoves were becoming popular for heating rooms, and there were hearths developed specifically for cooking, laundries, and industrial uses. The Dutch continued using the jambless fireplace, but the form was so impractical that in the 1750s it began to disappear in favor of the smaller English-style hearth we recognize today.
Few examples of the jambless fireplace survive, all of them from the first half of the eighteenth century. The Luykas Van Alen house in Kinderhook, the Jean (Jacob) Hasbrouck house and Bevier-Elting house on Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, and the Roeloff Westervelt house in Tenafly, New Jersey are the most famous  examples. Restored jambless fireplaces are in the   Cornelius Schermerhorn House in Kinderhook, the  Peter Winne house in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Schenck House in the Brooklyn Museum. Other surviving or restored hearths are in private homes.  One example is in the Half Moon Tavern ( in the Ostrander-Elmendorf house in Hurley. These restorations are not only meant to restore the buildings’ original character.
They are thoughtful choices to value the early Dutch history of the area and to represent the Dutch protectiveness of their distinctive, precious culture.

Jean (Jacob) Hasbrouck house, Historic Huguenot Street 

Further reading:
The Hudson Valley Dutch and Their Houses, Harrison Meeske
Dutch Vernacular Architecture in North America,   1640-1830, John R. Stevens
Dutch Colonial Homes in America, Roderic H.Blackburn

The Jean Hasbrouck House

Mabee Farm

Wyckoff House jambless fireplace
The Egg Dance, 1552

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Hamilton Men's Nemesis


                  Alexander Hamilton” has become the latest “super star” of the Broadway stage. The musical has been widely and almost uniformly praised for its presentation of one of the United States’ Founding Fathers – albeit to a hip hop, rap beat.
                  Hamilton’s has connections to the New York State’s Hudson River Valley elite through his marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler – daughter of General Philip Schuyler, granddaughter of Hendrick Van Rensselaer. Hamilton married into the New York Dutch aristocracy. Marrying Elizabeth Schuyler opened the door to power, privilege and prestige, to say nothing about wealth, for this illegitimate young man from the Caribbean.
                  The Knickerbocker society of New York was based on the inter-marriage of the most powerful  families, much like the dynastic families of Europe. When Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler were joined in wedlock, they began their own dynasty – generations of Hamilton/Schuylers, whose lives reflect all the variations of human-kind, both good and bad.
                  The negative view of the Hamilton family’s legacy was the subject of an article in the Montgomery Alabama Advertiser.  The article, of Sunday, October 4, 1903, was entitled  “Hamilton Fate Throughout The Ages.” Generation after generation of Hamiltons were portrayed as hardly deserving the high standing they occupied in society.
                 This same theme of lackluster Hamilton familial achievements was brought forth in an Atlanta Journal.  In the Journal’s article, entitled “Evil Fate –Pursues The Hamilton Family”, a listing of the less than stellar descendants of Alexander Hamilton is examined.  “Legends of the middle ages relate how an evil spirit of disaster was wont to pursue certain ancient noble families. . . such a  nemesis seems to have followed the house of Hamilton in the United States.”
                 According to this newspaper article, “In all the tragic chapters of the Hamiltons there has been a baleful enchantress. . . some beautiful woman had in each instance been largely responsible for the undoing of these men’s lives.”
                 It is well known that Alexander Hamilton had an eye for the ladies and had been “led astray” on more than one occasion.  Hamilton’s son, John Church Hamilton, was known, it was said, to have been involved in a number of breach of promise lawsuits.
John Church Hamilton’s son, General Alexander Hamilton, was “. . .said to have been expelled from the Second Reformed Church in Tarrytown, and to have threatened on more than one occasion to kill his wife.”

                Another of John Church Hamilton's sons was General Schuyler Hamilton.  Schuyler Hamilton had a son named  Robert Ray Hamilton, who was an attorney and an Assemblyman in the New York State Legislature.  According to the New York Historical Society, Museum and Library, “In the mid-1880’s,  Hamilton began an unfortunate relationship with Eva Mann, which resulted in a scandal. . . . Hamilton secretly married her in June of 1889 after she convinced him that he had fathered a baby, Beatrice, who she had reportedly purchased from a midwife”.  Later that  year, Robert Ray Hamilton discovered that not only had he been lied to about Beatrice’s paternity but that Eva was still married to her first husband. “Eva attempted to attack Hamilton with a knife; however, failing to hit him, she turned her attack on a maid, Mary Donnelly, who she suspected of telling Hamilton the truth.”
                The scandal and ensuing divorce and criminal trials drove Robert Ray west for a fishing and hunting trip at Yellowstone in Wyoming.  He stayed in a remote cabin with John D. Sargent, a relative of the famous artist, John Singer Sargent.  John D. Sargent was known as a strange, reclusive man.

                In late August 1890, Hamilton went out on a hunting excursion by himself.  When he failed to return home, a search party was organized. His horse, with its saddle overturned, was found.  Days later Robert Ray Hamilton was found floating, face-down, in the Snake River.  It was determined by the authorities to have been an accidental drowning.  Rumors began to spread that the body found was not Hamilton’s.  It was reported in The Rockford Daily Register Gazette of February 10, 1891, that “. . .he (Hamilton) was plunged into the very depths of shame by his infatuation for a notorious woman and was now absconded to Australia."  His family said they believed him to be dead and denied he was still alive and using a false identity.  Sightings of Robert Ray Hamilton were reported in Europe, Australia, and other places around the world.  
                There had even been rumors that Robert Ray Hamilton had been murdered by John D. Sargent, a man with mental problems.  This was not the first murder that Sargent was believed to have committed- he was thought to have killed his first wife.  In August 1913, Sargent killed himself in his isolated cabin in the Rockies.  

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer

           Mrs. Van Rensselaer was born Mary Denning King, on May 25, 1848 in New York City. Her father was Archibald Gracie King – son of Charles King, the President of Columbia University and grandson of Archibald Gracie – the wealthy builder of Gracie Mansion in New York City and business partner of Alexander Hamilton.
            On October 4, 1871, Mary Denning King married John King Van Rensselaer in New York City.  John King Van Rensselaer had an impeccable lineage of his own. His father was Col. Henry Bell Van Rensselaer and his paternal grandfather was Stephen Van Rensselaer III – wealthy businessman, holder of many powerful political offices, founder of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Last Patroon of Rensselaerswyck, also  known as “The Good Patroon”.
            Thus, through her own family and that of her husband’s, May (as she preferred to be called) King Van Rensselaer had family connections back to the beginnings of the European settlement of New Netherland/New York. That impressive pedigree was something of which she was very proud and which infused all aspects of her life.
            May “. . . Van Rensselaer argued that those who had earned social distinction by being born into the right families . . . should be emulated and kept in the spotlight . . . She was concerned that the  high society of the Twentieth Century was too focused on wealth and the ostentatious display of it . . . to be socially prominent, one did not need breeding (or) refinement . . . (just) wealth and an astute press agent.” (1)
John King Van Rensselaer home No. 134 E 95th Street 

            Mrs. Van Rensselaer’s life encompassed a wide variety of interests and activities. She authored a number of books on varied subjects. The Goede Vrouw of Mana-ha-ta  is Mrs. Van Rensselaer’s history of Dutch women in New Amsterdam/New York up to the American Revolution. She praises the colonial Dutch women (the Goede Vrouw – the Good Wife), who had played a larger part in society, as compared to their British colonial counterparts.  The book deals with some of her favorite subject-matter – the superiority of the Dutch and the shining contributions of the Dutch Founding Families in New Netherland.
            “ ‘Let us found a patriotic society of women descended from colonial ancestry’ . . .with these words spoken in April 1890, . .  Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer of New York initiated what was to become the oldest colonial lineage society for women in the United States”. (2)  The Colonial Dames of America would be a very exclusive group, “. . . eligibility alone, without express invitation did not secure invitation . . . in 1895. . . it rejected a great-great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin’s”(3)  Some suspected the rejection was due to Franklin not being considered to be a gentleman by the Dames.  Mrs. Van Rensselaer stated she did not approve of Franklin’s morals.
            Another elite institution of which Mrs. Van Rensselaer was a member was the New York Historical Society, founded in 1804. Although technically open to the public, the upper-crust members did not encourage public participation in viewing their historical treasures.  At a meeting of the NYHS in January 1917, Mrs. Van Rensselaer did not hesitate to give her opinion about the Society. “The Society is dead or at least moribund . . .(they) have $1,000,000 worth of property but only 2 cents worth of gumption.”  “It should not elect worthless officers simply because they bear old Knickerbocker names . . .The old fogies should be sent to the rear and new, red blood is sadly needed”.  “ When the new woman shall have dusted off all our historical societies, the number of restful places open to men is going to be materially reduced.” (5)
            While her remarks seem to speak of a modern outlook and a changing world, they are based on the nativist fears of the early Twentieth Century.  “She felt that immigrants would not have a proper understanding of the valuable heritage of her ancestors (and therefore the proper understanding of the value of elites like herself). Van Rensselaer felt that social distinction had its place, but it should not overwhelm efforts to educate the city’s public, many of whom were immigrants or children of immigrants.”(1)
            Mrs. Van Rensselaer practiced what she preached. Starting in 1915, she brought neighborhood children into her townhouse’s library to teach them American history.  “ . . . instructions were not stuffy or boring; including, for instance, historic tableaux in which the children dressed in period costumes and played out important American events.”(4)
            May Van Rensselaer was called bombastic and a bomb thrower.  She was an unapologetic snob and elitist.  She was a woman of her time and class, who honored and revered the past but was also practical and forward-looking.



            1.  Browne, Dorothy M., “New York City Museums and Cultural Leadership 1917-1940”, 
                  Dissertation – City University of New York
            3.  Davies, Wallace Evan, “Patriotism on Parade: The Story of Veterans’ and Hereditary
                 Organizations in America 1783-1900”, Harvard University Press
            4.  Daytonian in Manhattan, “The May King Van Rensselaer House –
                 No. 134 East 95th Street”, Feb. 13, 2015
            5.  New York Times, January 4, 1917