By Emily J Weitz
Given the wild success of PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” with a fourth season premieres in early 2014, it seemed like a fitting time for the Southampton Historical Museum to dip into the rich reservoir of high society Southampton during the same time period.
“We always try to follow popular trends,” says Emma Ballou, who curated the exhibition. “We always want to get people in. “Downton Abbey” is very popular right now, so we decided to focus on the history of this area from that time period.”
The time period is 1900 to 1920, which also happened to be a pivotal era in Southampton history.
“Before that time,” explain Ballou, “Southampton was very rural. But just before the turn of the century, the train extended. The socialites began to come out, bringing these huge chests and servants and a very decadent lifestyle with them. This decadent lifestyle mirrors Downtown Abbey.”
The decadence and luxury continue to this day, but this was really first time they appeared in Southampton, Ballou explains.
The show is set up to allow people to really step into the lifestyle of some of the first members of this elite class.
“You first walk in,” says Ballou, “and it’s, in a way, a study of interiors from that time. It shows what the Southampton home would have looked like.”
Rooms are labeled, and Ballou found it particularly interesting to note the difference between the rooms designed for the families and the rooms designed for the family’s help.
“There’s a butler’s pantry and a servants’ hall,” she says. “And there was no interaction between the different levels. The kitchen staff would never go into the dining room, for example.”
One artifact that the museum received just in time for the show is a cylindrical dumb waiter that transferred food through the wall between the kitchen and the butler’s pantry.
“It’s a great object,” says Ballou, “and it was part of a house in Southampton. The house was sold and will be destroyed. That was rescued and donated, and is so perfect for this exhibit.”
Another part of the exhibition that Ballou finds particularly revelatory is the women’s clothing; not just for its aesthetic value but also because of what it captures about women’s changing roles at that time.
“Before the 1900s,” she says, “it was all corsets. But as gender roles loosened, their clothing did as well. There was a more relaxed feeling. They had these leisurely outfits to go to the Meadow Club to play tennis.”
The show really focuses on what the high society was doing at that time. These were the people who were featured in the paper, who were hosting balls. Because of their high profiles, there was actually a lot of material to work with, said Ballou.
“The history of this period is so rich,” says Ballou. “There were lots of articles, photos, and objects. It’s such a well-documented time. Cameras were around and the photographs were amazing.”
They decided to highlight some interesting individuals of the time, like the Cryder triplets, a trio of society girls who were often described in the papers as “tall, blue-eyed, and strikingly handsome”. They often dressed alike, wearing different colored ribbons so they could be identified.
The culture of artists in Southampton was also hatching at the time, and places like William Merritt Chase’s Summer School of Art began to sprout up. One intriguing woman who set down roots in his Art Village was Zella de Milhau, who was described by art historian Ron Pisano:
“Whether it was for winning the potato-growing contest, driving one of the first automobiles in the area, or showing up as a Spanish soldier at a costume party at the Art Village Studio, Zella de Milhai always managed to steal the show.”
The exhibition is filled with clipping, photos, clothing, and other artifacts that capture the essence of the time, and the stories of the real individuals that mirror the characters in Downton Abbey are perhaps the most intriguing.
“It’s a wonderful period of Southampton’s history,” says Ballou. “It was an awakening: the beginning of it becoming what it is today.”
Downton Abbey Style in Southampton is currently on view at the Rogers Mansion on Meeting House Lane in Southampton, and will be on display through April 26, 2014. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 11 to 4. Call 283-2494 for more information.