Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A day in the life of a wealthy widow on a country seat in colonial New York


Margarita Schuyler was a wealthy housewife in the countryside near Albany, New York. She was born in January 1701, the daughter of Johannes Schuyler & Elsie Staats Wendell. She was raised by her widowed mother & grew up in the Schuyler house in Albany, New York, & at the family farm, where she enjoyed the company of a large extended family. At the age of 19, in December 1720, she married her first cousin Colonel Phillipus Schuyler.


The couple had no children. They made their home at their country seat north of Albany called the Flats, which became a retreat for family and visitors. Her husband died in February, 1758. By that time, his wife was known as "Madame Schuyler," a gracious hostess & matriarchial figure in Albany social circles. Madame Schuyler knew better than to remarry, because then her husband would own all of her assets.  Instead she lived just as she chose for 54 more years as a widow.  She died at the Flats on August 28, 1782, at the age of 81. Ann Grant describes the older Madame Schulyer in her memoir.


"After the middle of life, she went little out; her household, long since arranged by certain general rules, went regularly on, because every domestic knew exactly the duties of his or her place...


"She began the morning with reading the Scriptures. They always breakfasted early, and dined two hours later than the primitive inhabitants, who always took that meal at twelve. This departure from the ancient customs was necessary in this family, to accommodate the great numbers of British as well as strangers from New York, who were daily entertained at her liberal table. After breakfast she gave orders for the family details of the day...her household affairs...went on in a mechanical kind of progress, that seemed to engage little of her attention, though her vigilant and overruling mind set every spring of action in motion...


"Having thus easily and speedily arranged the details of the day, she retired to read in her closet, where she generally remained till about eleven; when, being unequal to distant walks, the colonel and she, and some of her elder guests, passed some of the hotter hours among those embowering shades of her garden, in which she took great pleasure...


"From this retreat they adjourned to the portico; and while the colonel either retired to write, or went to give directions to his servants, she sat in this little tribunal, giving audience to new settlers, followers of the army left in hapless dependence, and others who wanted assistance or advise, or hoped she would intercede with the colonel for something more peculiarly in his way, he having great influence with the colonial government...


"At the usual hour her dinner-party assembled, which was generally a large one...There was more choice and selection, and perhaps more abundance at her table, than at those of the other primitive inhabitants...Her dinner-party generally consisted of some of her intimate friends or near relations and strangers sometimes invited, merely as friendless travelers, on the score of hospitality, but often welcomed for some time as stationary visitors, on account of worth or talents, that gave value to their society; and, lastly, military guests... Conversation here was always rational, generally instructive, and often cheerful...


"The afternoon frequently brought with it a new set of guests. Tea was always drank early here...with so many petty luxuries of pastry, confectionary, &c. that it might well be accounted a meal by those whose early and frugal dinners had so long gone by...


 "In Albany it was customary, after the heat of the day was past, for the young people to go in parties of three or four, in open carriages, to drink tea at an hour or two’s drive from town. The receiving and entertaining this sort of company generally was the province of the younger part of the family; and of these parties many came, in summer evenings, to the Flats, when tea, which was very early, was over...

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"The young people, and those who were older, took their different walks, while Madame sat in her portico, engaged in what might comparatively be called light reading, essays, biography, poetry, &c. till the younger party set out on their return home, and her domestic friends rejoined her in her portico, where, in warm evenings, a slight repast was sometimes brought; but they more frequently shared the last and most truly social meal within..."

Memoirs of an American Lady: with Sketches of Manners and Scenery in America, as they existed previous to the Revolution written by Anne Mc Vickar Grant. First published by Strahan and Preston, Printers-Street, London, in 1808.
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