Decorating for the holidays, 19th-century style
Monday, December 4th 2023
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.
Toys by the tabletop tree in the Hampton-Preston Mansion
A stocking on the mantel at the Hampton-Preston Mansion
Sheet music by the Hampton-Preston Mansion piano
The decorated bannister in the Hampton-Preston Mansion
Sweet treats at the Robert Mills House
A festive mantel at the the Hampton-Preston Mansion
Across the street in the Hampton-Preston Mansion, you’ll find even more polished silver, as well as some of the most ornately decorated mantels you have ever seen! The discussion of the holiday season continues here, focusing on how the Hampton, Preston, and Manning families would have celebrated Christmas in the home in 1850. The rooms discuss who would have lived in the home and how they could afford to have such a lavish Christmas. The reality of how their enslaved population spent Christmas and the days after is featured as well, including in a complex discussion on gifting in the home’s study. The final room features something that one may notice is missing from the Robert Mills House: a Christmas tree and gifts. Be sure to come on the tour to learn why! And be sure to visit again during this year’s Candlelight Tours to see the Columbia Choral Society perform a selection of Christmas songs.
While on the Hampton-Preston tour, expect to find some of your favorite objects taking a rest and temporarily replaced with some holiday artifacts. A favorite object to point out is the mysterious topsy-turvy doll, who is making her second appearance during this year’s holiday season. Topsy-turvy dolls, which are fused at the waist to showcase two different girls, one white and one Black, have a contested history as to their origin: most scholars now believe that these dolls were used for enslaved girls to learn through play, using the white doll to imitate the care their own mothers had to provide to white children in the household. This handmade doll is a sharp contrast to a doll that one can find displayed under the Christmas tree in the house’s parlor. This doll was actually made in the late 1900s by Columbia doll maker, Pricilia Hoyt (1917-2021). The ceramic doll is dressed in the manner of an antebellum white woman, similar to the type of doll that would have been given to a Manning or Preston child.
From polishing silver to curating the objects around the annually revised tour to decorating the homes, a lot of planning and pride go into the creating of Holiday and Candlelight Tours here at HC. We hope you have a chance to stop by this year for a tour, and we wish you and yours happy holidays!
Historic Holidays by the numbers
141 Feet of Garland
56 Sugared Fruits
32 Oyster Shells
8 Unwrapped Toys
7 Decorated Mantels
4 Musical Instruments
1 Christmas Tree