Upon entering Rogers Mansion, one can almost hear Lady Grantham, as she retorts Mrs. Crawley’s, “Oh how you hate to be wrong!” with “I wouldn’t know, I’m not familiar with the sensation”—one of the many brilliant lines delivered by Maggie Smith in the beloved television period drama, Downton Abbey.
The scene captures the essence of the delicate relationship between two female members of the British upper class—one more progressive, and one more set in her ways. The latter is of course of higher ranking, which makes total sense. No need for change when you’re at the top! The era is brought before us in the Southampton Historical Museum’s exhibition Downton Abbey Style in Southampton, 1900 to 1920.
The Rogers Mansion couldn’t be more fitting for the display of costumes, furnishings and vintage photographs from Southampton’s early 20th century—upon entering the home, you’re instantly transported to a world of parlor rooms and other niceties of a bygone era.
Originally built in 1843 by Captain Albert Rogers, a whaling captain, the mansion was purchased in 1899 by Samuel Longstreth Parrish, a wealthy New York attorney, who made Southampton his home until his death in 1932.
“Samuel Parrish was one of Southampton’s most active citizens and generous benefactors,” according to Emma Ballou, Curator and Registrar at the Southampton Historical Museum. Ballou explains that Parrish was involved in every major civic project during the boom years at the dawn of the 20th century. “The Rogers Mansion today reflects many of the improvements he made to the house, such as expanding the mansion to allow for a servants wing, butler’s pantry, formal dining room and an elaborate music room,” she says, adding, “The décor of this historic house reflects a colonial revival style (1890-1920) which corresponds nicely to our Downton Abbey Style in Southampton: 1900-1920 exhibit.”
The dining room, which dates to 1910, is set with silverware and etched crystal that is on loan from a descendant of early-Southampton resident H.H. Rogers (the richest man in America in 1910), and even includes a menu with typical offerings of the day.
The exhibition room features small vignettes—each one telling an “upstairs” or “downstairs” story through material items and texts on some of the real characters from Southampton’s history.
Immediately transfixing is a magnificently detailed black velvet opera coat. Hand-embroidered cuffs embellish bell-sleeves while a snake-like gold and beaded pattern wraps around the high collar, dramatically darting out at the ends. Dating to around 1918, the opera coat is on loan from the vintage clothing store, Out of the Closet (located in Water Mill) and is for sale. The coat seems dressy for what we think of as summer or country life. However, while the initial flock of wealthy Americans in Southampton (following the completion of the railroad in 1870) went for a relatively rustic and simple country life, it quickly became more of a showing. Families would arrive with all of their servants, ready to entertain high society on a grand scale. Thus, formal attire would have been a necessity.
The shifts in fashion that occur during Downton Abbey from one series to the next are also mirrored in the exhibition. Ballou explains, “At the start of the 20th century in Southampton and during Season 1 of the Downton Abbey series, the bustle and corset trends of the Victorian Era were largely declining as a gentler and more natural silhouette of the Edwardian Era was taking over. This Edwardian style on display in our exhibit is used to highlight the trends of the time—more relaxed silhouette that skimmed the body, the use of more natural and lighter fabrics, simpler embellishments, and hats were always a must.”
The “downstairs” or servants’ daily life is portrayed through a few fascinating items—including a cast-iron laundry oven that features multiple irons of different weights and a stovetop with a kettle for steam and rotating “Cylindrical Dumb Waiter,” c. 1880, which allowed for division between the kitchen, where the food was cooked, and the butler’s pantry, where the meal was arranged on plates and then brought into the dining room by butlers wearing proper attire.
Viewers will delight in peeking into the pantry and visiting the parlor after the exhibition, where one can have a seat and imagine ringing for tea.
Downton Abbey Style in Southampton: 1900 to 1920 will be on view through April 26, 2014. Visit southamptonhistoricalmuseum.org for more information on upcoming events and programs.