Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Anything Cool! Keeping cool in the Antebellum South, Part one

Richard Clague Louisiana artist, 1821-1873), Backyard in Algiers

How did Southerners keep cool during the sweltering Summer months in the Antebellum South? From research the more money you had the cooler you were. As means of keeping cool during the Antebellum period was experienced by a privileged few. We will explore the many ways that people keep cool during the Sweltering summer months that begone in late Spring and ended well into the Fall here in the Deep South, and how social class and economic status affected your coolness.

                   William Henry Buck New Orleans artist, 1840-1888), Lake Pontchartrain

One way of keeping cool during the summer months was to move away from big crowded cities to a country retreat . Affluent family would take Grand Tours to Europe during the Summer. Vacation on the East Coast at fashionable resorts. Madam LeVert a famous Mobile, Alabama Belle vacationed at Congress Hall a hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York. Congress Hall was constructed in 1803 as a boarding house for guests at the new spa resort town. If you did not want to travel far from home most Southern states had cool water front land or hill top property where affluent Southerners built summer homes. There were two choices here in Mobile, Al Point Clear and Spring Hill. From as early as the 1800s wealthy families from Mobile, New Orleans and across the United States chose to spend their summers in Point Clear located across Mobile Bay. In the days of yellow fever outbreaks, Pt. Clear residents believed they were escaping to what was deemed as "good air" because of the daily breeze off of Mobile Bay. Arrival to the area was traditionally by ferry boat. Some family's owned Summer homes that faced the bay (sometimes referred to as cottages) or they stayed at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear.

"Miss Walton of Florida," by Thomas K. Sully, 1833. She would later be best known in Mobile -- and the world as Madame LeVert.

Spring Hill a community located six and a half miles west of Mobile encompassing a hilly terrain of which the highest point is 215 feet above sea level. A number of springs furnished an abundant supply of pure fresh water. Mobile families were lured to the lush beauty of the area seeking high ground relief from the heat of the city, mosquitoes and the dread yellow fever epidemics. A toll gate at the entrance of Spring Hill charged 25 and 50 cents per vehicle during the Antebellum period. Carolina Hall a three story home in Spring Hill begun in 1832 in the late Federal style was remodeled in the mid 1840's in the Greek Revival style using columns in the Tower of Winds order from ancient Greece. It was built by affluent cotton merchant William A. Dawson as a summer house on 125 acres, who named the home after his native state. Mr Dawson had a winter home in the city of Mobile.

      Stewartfield built in 1849 in the Greek Revival style in Spring Hill was the Summer home of Roger Stewart, a cotton broker, and family

Only the upper middle class and rich could afford to leisurely travel for months and own Summer homes. As middle class people and under had to work full time year around just to keep things going. One could keep a home rectally cool without leaving ones primary home. Southern homes were built to be cool. Built off the ground sometimes on raised basements homes in the South were build under large compounds of shady trees like live oak and had covered verandas to shade the building, large rooms, high ceilings for attracting heat, wide center hall used for cross ventilation as well as doors and windows that were lined up for air flow. In order for cross ventilation to work doors and windows had to be open almost all the time. At night some people slept on sleeping porches usually located on the 2th floor to the side or back of a home. Drapes were closed during the day to keep the sun from heating a room. Homes were dark during day time as a way to keep them cool. Buildings and homes in the south almost away's had wide porches on the front and back and sometimes all the way around a building to shade the building from heating up. Kitchens were almost always separate from the main building because of heat and fire.

Marie Adrien Persac (b. France 1832, d. Manchac, Louisiana 1873, active New Orleans 1857-1872), “Star Plantation, St. Charles, LA”, c. 1861, gouache on paper

Homes were dressed according to the season. A 19th Century housekeeping practice known as “Summer Dress” were white canvas slip covers protected elaborate upholstered furniture, sheer window treatments replaced heavy silk draperies and grass sisal rugs replaced heavy hot imported wool carpets , now all the rage in today’s sophisticated homes, were once an integral part of the Southern housekeeping ritual of keeping cool in the steamy summer months. Gilt Chandeliers, gilded picture frames and mirrors are wrapped in netting to protect them from insects and dirt, as bugs and fly's were attracted to the gold leaf and would leave droppings if not covered. As a barrier against annoying insects, the beds are all draped in mosquito nets, and a glass-domed flycatcher baited with sugar water and cobalt poison is set out to attract bugs that have slipped through the open windows. As temperatures soar, in order to better deal with the summertime heat most Southerners, would dramatically change the decor of their home.

Early on in the South Furniture that had caned and woven wicker seats were popular during the summer months as they allowed air flow compared to heavy upholstered furniture. Furniture with cane and wicker seats would have seat cushions used in the winter months. Some furniture had interchangeable seats, Summer/Winter seats, Upholstered seats could be popped out to reveal caned seats.

West Indies or Caribbean caned sofa early 19th c

                              Pair of American Classical caned seat chairs early 19th century

Not only were homes dressed down for the summer months but people also dressed themselves accordingly to the season. This was a way of keeping cool that just about all social class and economic status could participate in. Thinly woven unlined linens and cottons were the fabrics of Summer. Men often were white or ivory colored suits. Planters were known during this period for wearing white and off white suits with wide brim straw hats. Woman of the period used to wear loose fitting and airy cotton garments at home suitable for the hot climate. This type of dress called a chemise was made popular by French Queen Marie Antoinette during the last quarter of the 18th century. Many fashionable woman in Antebellum Louisiana were painted by artist of the day wearing this type of cool muslin dress.

Clara Mazureau in Summer dress byJacques Guillaume Lucien Amans 1838

                           Gentleman in Summer dress by Jacques Guillaume Lucien Amans 1840's 

Augustine Massicot Tanneret in Summer dress by Jacques Guillaume Lucien Amans 1830's                                                                                    
Some homes in the South had other means of keeping cool by having a punkah in the dinning room over the table. A punkah or shoo-fly was a large swinging fan, fixed to the ceiling, a servant pulled a attached rope that connected the punkah during the hot weather to ward off fly's and cool the dinner guest. Very few homes and public buildings in the South during the period right before the war between the states had a type of primitive central air conditioning by placing large blocks of ice in a insulated basement with pips connecting cool air up into rooms in the main building. In the Next part of Anything Cool I will blog about Cool and cold foods and drinks. Ice houses, Summer houses and Dairy buildings in the Antebellum South.
             Melrose a 1845 Greek Revival mansion in Natchez, Mississippi has one of the most elaborate punkah's made in the South. Made of carved mahogany with a carved palmetto motif

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