Last week, we were introduced to Blanche Butler Ames (1847-1939), wife of Adelbert Ames, a Massachusetts native and former Union general who served two non-consecutive terms as governor during Reconstruction. Young Blanche entered the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion with some trepidation, unimpressed by the grand house which seemed like a “great barn” or a dilapidated but “great hotel.” She was also displeased by the level of service available to her in Jackson, and she wrote all of this in a letter to her mother that was published for our reading enjoyment in Chronicles from the Nineteenth Century: Family Letters of Blanche Butler and Adelbert Ames, in Two Volumes (1957).
Her mother, being a good mother, responded with a long letter giving lots of advice, most of it good, well-meaning advice of the kind mothers give: “Do not put up with inferior servants in your position, if better ones can be found.” “”Do not keep an old cook, whom you have to teach from the beginning how to roast meat and bake bread. I know you can find a good cook after the Southern style, and that is not bad.” “Unless your penitentiary women are well instructed they will ruin your lace curtains.”
I can almost hear Blanche giving a sigh reading it and muttering, “I’m all grown up now, Mother!” But of course, she was too good a daughter to have actually written that.
In this second letter, dated February 13, 1874, Blanche continues her narrative description of her new home. I’m including her introductory paragraphs about the Reconstruction-era farm-to-table system for you foodies in the reading audience (she apparently sent a man on a snipe hunt), but I’m editing this long letter to cut to the Mansion bits as soon as possible. I’ve also inserted a few paragraph breaks in one long paragraph about the first floor, and I’ve added the floorplan from last week’s letter to help you navigate through the house along with Blanche.
The Mansion, February 13, 1874
Dear Mother: I received your long, nice letter three or four days ago, but have been so very busy that I have not had a moment in which to answer it.
Wednesday night I had a little tea party. Mr. and Mrs. Raymond, Mr. and Mrs. French, Mr. and Mrs Brown, Mr. and Mrs. Avery. The supper was very good, and the affair went off well enough–but was a great deal of trouble, and kept me as busy as a bee. Our menu was as follows–Stewed oysters, chicken pie, venison steaks, currant jelly–broiled snipe on toast, rolls, crackers, olives, pickles, peaches, guave jelly tarts, sponge cake, favorite cup cake, tea, coffee. In the course of the evening, cake and wine was passed around.
Do you think there was enough? I hardly know what else we could get here. I had to send a man out to shoot the birds. They are cheap, and it is strange we cannot get them daily. He asked me a dollar for a dozen, and considered it a large price. The things were well cooked, and the table looked nicely. If it were to do over again I would sent to New Orelans for grapes, pineapples, bananas, oranges, etc.–but it is very uncertain and somewhat troublesome, like sending to New York from Lowell. Moreover, I forgot that it was the season for such things.
. . . .
We shall give but one reception this year, and that will be to the members and senators when the legislature adjourns. The great question which disturbs the residents here is “Shall we call on Mrs. Ames?” Quite a number have called, and the rest will probably follow.
. . . .
You wish to know how this house is furnished. I will begin with the room they call “Blue.” The curtains and furniture are of blue reps, considerably faded, and a carpet in which every color but blue is mixed in the greatest confusion of scrolls and medallions. The curtains are Nottingham lace. The entry, or hall, is very handsome in shape, and tastefully furnished in stucco and gilt. It is painted to represent green and buff marble, with a light block patterned oilcloth on the floor.
By the figure I have drawn you can see the construction of the hall. There are four niches large enough for life size statues, but there are none to put in.
A large, old-fashioned hat rack stands in one corner. The stairs are painted to look like green marble, and have a strip of brussels stair carpeting down the center, fastened with broad brass stair rods. These rods are well cleaned and I have had the oil cloth washed and varnished, which with four crimson rugs at the different places causes the hall to look fresh and presentable.
The drawing room has a handsome, rather dark velvet carpet upon it. The furniture and curtains are of crimson figure reps (silk). The curtains in the front parlor are of embroidered lace, those in the back are Nottingham. There are two good-sized pier glasses at the ends of the room. The walls are white, but the cornice is elaborate and the chandeliers, though old-fashioned, are showy. There is a grand piano covered with a crimson cloth. This the state has not yet paid for–but will I suppose this session of the legislature. It has been in the house now for two or three years. The mantels in the lower rooms are all of white marble and good-looking, athough the hearths were so black when we came no one would have suspected the material of which they were made. The wood work of the furniture was grey and rusty looking. A little linseed oil has completely restored it. The steel bars to the fenders were so rusty and smoked the men though they must be iron.
The dining room curtains are green. All these curtains are in the valance form, finished with tassels. The carpet is the same as that in the blue room. Large folding doors connect the two. The chairs are of black walnut covered with green leather, very much faded and worn. The table and sideboard are of some wood resembling rosewood. The china is white, with a broad light green band, and the letters E.M. in the center. The silver, which I am happy to say is all plated, and the glassware are marked with the same initials. Two large cake baskets, two smaller, and two silver tea-sets, two cake baskets, two water pitchers, thirty-six nut crackers (who do you suppose wanted so many) and large numbers of silver knives and forks, spoons, etc. Nottingham lace curtains. I forgot to say that there is a glass, a library table and a book case without books in the blue room.
Now for the rooms upstairs. These are all a good deal worn and dingy looking. The mantles are old-fashioned black wooden structures, with an ordinary sized grate in the center. The room we occupy has a cherry set, very elaborate but very shoddy. The carpet is a bright brussels and the furniture is covered with green reps. The parlor chamber has a handsome walnut set–brussels carpet–furniture blue reps. The back chamber, a shoddy ingrain carpet. The chamber set of oak and ebony. The chamber back of ours, which I use for the nursery, has a blue three-ply carpet on the floor, and the chamber set of black walnut.
If these rooms had been decently used they would still have been in good condition. They have only been used four years. Mrs. Alcorn first occupied the rooms on the right of the hall, and she had a family of small children. Then she moved to the left of the hall, and finally concluded to go into the back building. All this within two years time. So that all the carpets are stained, and all the furniture upstairs is grimy and shabby. There are no curtains to the windows–which are very large–but all are supplied with elaborate shades.
The back building of which I speak is a gloomy structure. The men are trying to clean it. The furniture is not worthy of description.
Taken all in all, the house is very spacious and pleasant, but like a hotel. So much so I hardly feel at home yet. I think it may seem different before long.
I shall take your advice and change my cook. I have engaged one to come a week from next Monday.
. . . .
With regards from Gen’l Ames.–Love and kisses from the children for my sweet Mother from