As was the custom in nineteenth century society, great wealth brought civic responsibility. Mrs. Gardner fulfilled her duties with unusual flair. Fenway Court (the turn-of-the-century moniker for today’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) was the setting for events to benefit local charities as well as support for artistic creation. These events included an annual garden competition, plays performed in the Gothic Room, and modern dance performances. Concerts and lavish dinner parties also took place.
Traditionally, family recipes and silver were passed down from mother to daughter and Isabella transcribed her own cookery book of close to 100 recipes. Her recipes are filled with obsolete terms and utensils, imprecise measurements and directions that leave out what we would consider critical information. For example, her recipes call for a hair sieve or a sheet of buttered letter paper. Measurements were an imprecise: “pinch”, “handful” or “half glass”. There was no way to regulate the temperature of a hot stove. The cook would thrust her hand into the oven and count – if the cook could hold their arm in the oven for 12 seconds, it was hot – 24 was moderate. Recipes wouldn’t say how long to cook – you were to “bake until done”.
Laying the table service for a Victorian dinner was a formidable task. The Victorians invented specialized tools for every menu and American companies were even more inventive than Europeans. A unique fork was required for oysters, lobster, fish, roast meat, pickles, olives, cake, bread, pastry, fruit, lemon and strawberries. Isabella owned a kumquat fork. The sheer volume of utensils inspired Oscar Wilde to write, “The world was my oyster but I used the wrong fork”.
Luckily, there were guides on etiquette and household management that were essential reading for all young brides. When Isabella married John Lowell Gardner in 1860 she brought with her The Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility by Emily Thornwell.
It included the unalterable behaviors for conduct at the table. Under the heading “Special Rules to Be Observed at the Table” are the following rules:
e It is ridiculous to make a display of your napkin
e It is uncivil to turn down the first glass of wine offered by the host.
e It is ridiculous to cut with a knife your bread, which should be broken by hand
e We should, as much as possible, avoid putting next to one another two persons of the same profession, as it would necessarily result in an aside conversation.
e It would be impolite to monopolize a conversation which ought to be general.
e If you have no skill in carving meats, do not attempt it.
We beg you, dear guests, to keep these rules of etiquette in mind as you make your way through the museum during our “feast” on the evening of November 15th.
We’re unsure of her skill in carving meats, but Kristin Parker is certainly skilled at organizing and caring for Isabella’s cookbooks, tableware and journals, all part of her job here at the Gardner Museum as our archivist. Whenever we seat her next to fellow archivists, “aside conversations” about acid-free paper or the preservation of digital photographs inevitably ensue. Read her last blog post, about Isabella’s “Manuscript Club,” here.
The Supper Table, from Isabella’s copy of Mrs. Beeton’s Every-Day Cookery and Housekeeping Book, Museum Archives