Decorating for the holidays, 19th-century style

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By: Rachel Gregor

Monday, December 4th 2023

Holiday mantel
When it comes to holiday home decor, a lot has changed.

When you visit the Robert Mills House and the Hampton-Preston Mansion during our Holiday House Tours, don't expect to find glitz and glam. Compared to our modern displays with bright lights and colored plastic baubles, early 1800s decorations seem very understated. But every piece of special holiday decor placed by our collections team has a story.

When you step into the Robert Mills House during the holiday season, you’ll be greeted by freshly polished silver, plenty of sugared fruits, and a buffet of desserts and spirits. If you get a chance to stop by during our Candlelight Tours this year, you’ll be treated to live music on the guitar of period-appropriate songs. The tour features content about a traditional Christmas in 1820s Columbia, bringing in the stories of Sarah and Ainsley Hall, for whom the house was built, and other prominent Columbia citizens such as Henry and Elizabeth Lyons. Each room discusses how enslaved people, including Sarah’s maid Matilda, would have spent the season preparing for such a lavish party, and the possible ordeals enslaved people may face on “Heartbreak Day” due to the agendas of their owners. However, as Christmas was less popular at the time than it is now, there will be much less holly and garland than you may expect.

Key objects to keep an eye out for on your visit are the two bright candelabrums in the entry hall which are making their first appearance on display in several years. In preparation for the holidays, all of Historic Columbia’s silver on and off display gets finely and safely polished. These candelabrums were the most impressive feat of the Collections team this year, going from a dark blue to shiny silver. Nearby in the dining room, you’ll find an impressive spread of holiday-themed desserts. These desserts, and even more (faux) food being prepared in the basement’s warming kitchen, have a seasonal tie such as gingerbread and oyster stew.