It’s Spring! A Spotlight on Seed Catalogs

From our docent and Girl Scout Ambassador, Ava Gonzalez:

In researching Victorian gardening for the Hunter House, my favorite materials to flip through were historic seed catalogues. Through the Smithsonian online collection and the Internet Archive, hundreds of catalogues with their elaborately decorated covers are available for public viewing. Nineteenth century glamour may not scream “Burpee Seeds”, but a lot can be learned from these materials. Traditionally speaking, families were dependent upon themselves and the community to acquire fruits and vegetables. Colonial mothers kept extensive vegetable gardens. Through the World Wars, as fresh
produce was diverted to troops, women and children supplemented their rations through Victory Gardens (In Canada, they could receive “Soldiers of the Soil” pins). There is no question, however, that all classes of Victorian people often found themselves preoccupied with gardening, as it was through gardening that food was produced. Wealthy Victorian families might have hired a gardener to live on the property, and expected him to raise pineapples, grapes, and other exotic fruits all year round. It was only later, in the 19th century that eventual cultural, commercial, and population changes would cause a strong shift from home gardening. The seasonal catalogues reveal a wealth of information about the Victorian lifestyle. Let’s take a look.
The first selection is 1897 Seed Catalogue, distributed by Robert Evans & Co.

evansgarden 1

Funnily enough, this catalogue is the only featured under the search tag “cannon balls”. The Queen herself sits in the upper left hand corner, seeming to gaze down upon her soldiers, port, and a wash of ripe vegetables. Above her are several flowers, all labeled with their names; no matter how pretty a piece of artwork might be, it is still an advertisement.

Robert Evans & Co. was a seed company based in Hamilton, Ontario; one of the only records I have found of it is a passage of the book, Hamilton: The Birmingham of Canada (1892). A line on page 101 reads, “Wherever there is a farm or a garden, or a
lover of flowering bulbs and plants, the name of Robert Evans is a household word, and ample guarantee for the name, germinating qualities, and value of the seeds sent out”.
See more about it here:

The next piece is the back cover of the Parker and Wood Seeds, Plants, and Bulbs of 1892.

1892garden b

A young lady stands holding a bouquet of wildflowers. I find the image reminiscent of the earlier Ophelia, by Sir John Everett Millais. The young woman on this plant catalogue stands in front of a stream, and looks out into the distance. In fact, the Smithsonian Blog Unbound pairs it with a short quote by late docent and writer Elizabeth Periale.
“Everything is flowering, there are still a few cherry blossoms to see, so I might as well wisp downtown to catch today’s parade and other events, a garland in my hair, my ethereal gown trailing along the Mall. . .”

Many Victorian catalogues featured women as models, touting bunches of flowers or baskets of veggies. One might say that it idealized farming; they showed women hoeing or raking in a field of crops, with perfect hair, makeup, and dresses, despite the grueling activity.

The last cover is from Vaughan’s Seed Store Autumn Bulbs and Plants (1898).

vaughangarden a

In contrast to the Canadian pride shown in the first catalogue, a row of flag colored hyacinths aim to create nostalgia for the past days of summer. Most early Victorian  publications featured detailed chromolithographs of the new offerings for the upcoming year. In fact, seeds salesmen of the 19th century are responsible for the popularization of most new species among the general public. Landreth’s Seed Co. introduced The United States’ first white potato is 1811. Clever marketing, like seen on this cover, draws in even the most conservative gardeners. Written just above two waving American flags, Vaughan’s has printed, “Gardening is an employment for which no man is too high or too low”.

To read more about Vaughan’s Seed Store, visit the Western Springs Historical Society website: grass-seed- to-catalog- sales/

There are hundreds of seed catalogue covers I haven’t mentioned, with countless strange features. Carnivals, children, and flocks of cherubs all grace the front page. Not to mention how many quirky descriptions fill their pages. Please feel inspired to take a look for yourself, or ask neighbors if they have any extra gardening papers in their sheds. Many a grandparent squirreled them away, only to be found year later, stacked like National Geographic in the attic. You’d be surprised what you might find!


***Ava is responsible for the creation of our new Victorian Kitchen Garden exhibit, which is opening this spring. We are indebted to her for her efforts.***

That’s a Wrap: A Look Back on 2017

From Museum Director Jackie Spainhour:

Our halls are decked and our last two days of teas are filling- in one week the museum will close for tours and our rooms will be a little less bustling. It is a fun and exciting time of year, but also when we begin to wind down and look ahead. Sitting down to write this, I realized this month marks two years since I took on the Director position at the Hunter House Victorian Museum. It has taken me a while to get me footing, but once I figured out which direction I want the museum to take, my staff and volunteers have helped me make that a reality. Many of you wonderful people have commented on it- through quick emails encouraging me along the way or handwritten notes delivered via snail mail. I am so appreciative of the support I have received as I attempted to take a new, more community-driven direction with our programming and outreach.

So, what exactly has changed this year? To the shock of many, we began going through our museum collection and deaccessioning items that will not fit into our mission moving forward. To some this was sacrilegious; to others it was viewed as a necessary step to efficiently maintain the best parts of our collection. Obviously, I belong to the latter school of thought. We have had to make some tough choices as a museum, but we are firm in our belief that the money we raised from deaccession and the removal of those items are allowing us to house our collection in a manner more in-line with museum standards, which is very difficult to do with a small museum operating on an even smaller budget. Our Collections Manager has been able to purchase dress forms to display our clothing collection, shelving units for our basement and third floor archive, and acid-free paper and storage boxes- all because of the money earned through deaccessioning, donations, and the support of our museum members. Please, continue to support our Friends of the Hunter House Membership program. Your support made and continues to make a tangible difference in how we store and display our collection.

Apart from reorganizing our archives and raising them closer to museum standards, we have witnessed significant growth in electronic communication with all of you- through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and even this blog.  Our followers on Facebook have increased over 2.5 times, and we continue to be amazed at the number of likes, shares, and messages we receive through these sites. Many of you have noticed this change- praising our expansion into the technological world time and time again. We are beyond thankful that you continue to find us relevant and intriguing; please, keep following us!

In terms of events, we have ‘leveled up’. It is hard for me to think of a week throughout this entire season wherein we did not host some form of special programming.  You asked for bigger, better, more- and we listened. We have offered more seatings for our teas, sometimes over multiple days. We have been more mindful to offer programs on evenings after work for those with tight schedules. We have found community partners in the Slover Library, Freemason Abbey Restaurant, and Quixotic Arts. Of all of the good fortune we have had this past year, the best by far has been adding so many quality people to our family of volunteers. They are the heartbeat of this museum; we quite literally could not function without them. 2017 has been so good to us- and if you’re reading this you are a big part of our success. Thank you.

If you liked us this year, just wait for 2018. First and foremost- it’s our birthday! My mother may want to be 29 forever, but this museum is proud to be turning 30 next year. To celebrate, we are having a birthday party in April when we reopen, which will be open to the public and will feature tea and cake. If you aren’t on either our electronic or physical mailing list, you will want to sign up! Each month we will host a “30th Anniversary Throwback” event featuring reinventions of some of our favorite programs from over the past thirty years.  The ones I am looking forward to most are a nineteenth century themed fashion show, Tea with the First Ladies, and the return of our interactive children’s program Night before Christmas. If you have children between the ages of 4 and 10, you should check out our inaugural children’s membership program for 2018. For $30 annually, your child will be invited to one event each month designed solely for children- think teas in our parlor, an Easter celebration with Beatrix Potter, and Victorian field days in the garden. There are discounts available if you have multiple children you would like to enroll- just give us a call for more information.  It is going to be a fantastically nostalgic year and we are simply giddy with excitement.

As we bid adieu to 2017, we are thrilled to usher in 2018. I am so thankful for your support his year and am looking forward to seeing you all virtually and in person next year. Let’s make it one to remember!


P.S. We hear you- our website is not very user-friendly. I will be creating a new site, with the same URL, that will launch in February; be sure to be on the lookout!

Monsters and Machines: Science Fiction in the Victorian Era

From Intern Nathan Keckley:

The Victorian era introduced many of the concepts, traditions, and inventions familiar to us today, from toilets to modern education. Science fiction is one of these inheritances. Science fiction – often called “speculative fiction” – permeates our society with countless television shows, films, video games, books, and comics. Like most genres, it has acquired a very specific style: gleaming spaceships traveling faster than light; human good guys and arthropod alien baddies; superhuman powers and beeping computer consoles. Sci-fi wasn’t always covered in chrome and hemolymph, however, and many Warsies and Trekkies might drop their bickering to gape in confusion at what was once considered part of the realm of “science fiction” by the Victorians. While the Victorians’ works may seem obsolete at first glance, however, in reality they are extremely contemporary and topical, and many of the ideas and tropes modern sci-fi concerns itself with were introduced by the Victorians. This essay will demonstrate the remarkable similarities of nineteenth century science fiction to that of our age.

While scholars have credited authors from the ancient to Medieval eras as “pioneers” of the science fiction genre, one of the most important works of literature to deal with fantastical elements in a scientific light was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is often associated with that time period due to the 1931 film adaptation – yes, the black-and-white one you always watched on Halloween – which is set in what appears to be Oktoberfest in Victorian Busch Gardens. Though pop culture and this film have indelibly associated Frankenstein with Victorian Gothic, Shelley published her magnum opus in 1808 – nearly twenty years before the Victorian era.

Regardless of Frankenstein’s precise time period, it was a work that dealt with a very scientific (and, as is typical of science fiction, very speculative) idea: the creation of new life from non-life. It also deals with this idea in a scientific manner . . . sort of. Victor never actually reveals how he managed to animate his creation, only giving very vague descriptions of arcane and forbidden lore he has uncovered. This, of course, quite conveniently masks Shelley’s own lack of knowledge about anatomy and biology. In addition, this cover-up would set the precedent for modern sci-fi “techno-jargon.”[1]

Shelley’s work dealt heavily with life – specifically the creation and modification of it –and to what degree humans have a right to control and manipulate it. This weighty topic is brought up frequently in modern sci-fi franchises as well. Examples include the mentally-modified River from Firefly, the Cybermen from Doctor Who, and the entire premise of Jurassic Park. Star Trek’s Khan, with his Promethean role as the ultimate human, represents Victor’s most noble aspirations in the creation of his monster. Perhaps one of the most obvious similarities is Lieutenant Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Throughout the series, the android Data seeks to attain human emotions and feelings, mimicking the species as Victor’s monster does. Data’s nefarious twin, Lore, on the other hand, sees his physical and intellectual superiority to humans as a right to rule over them, embodying the most ignoble feelings of the monster.

While Frankenstein wasn’t technically Victorian, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde most certainly was. Published in 1886, Stevenson’s novella has now become as iconic as Frankenstein, and for similar reasons. Though it doesn’t deal with the creation of life itself, it deals with the various facets of that life. Like Frankenstein, Jekyll & Hyde features a protagonist with a medical background. The doctor’s serums showcase the Victorian fascination with the advancements made in modern chemistry, as well as identifying the dangerous Freudian consequences of the Victorians’ emphasis on restraint and suppression of baser, “bestial” instincts. With the advent of Freud and his work, this idea has perhaps become even more prevalent in our society than it was in Stevenson’s. Again, Star Trek’s writers drew heavily from Victorian literature like Jekyll & Hyde. Those who have lazily binged their way through the original Star Trek on a rainy weekend may recall one of the earliest episodes, “The Enemy Within.” In this episode, the transporter malfunctions (big surprise), splitting Captain Kirk into two entities: a wishy-washy loser who can barely stand on his own two feet, and a feral, violent beast who craves alcohol and sex (foreshadowing Wesley Crusher and Commander Riker, respectively).

Science-minded protagonists are, understandably, very common in science fiction. One of the most famous science fiction authors, H. G. Wells, featured the chemist Griffin in one of his works, The Invisible Man. Fitting the archetype of mad scientist to a tee, Griffin’s lust for scientific knowledge and the power accompanying it leads him into a downward spiral. In another of Wells’ works, The Island of Doctor Moreau, the titular vivisectionist lives in isolation on an island, stitching together animals, heedless of the consequences. This trope of the mad scientist continues to saturate science fiction well after the days of Frankenstein, Jekyll, Moreau, and Griffin. Sometimes they are well-meaning, sometimes megalomaniacal. Famous (or infamous) specimens include Einstein look-alike Doc Brown from the Back to the Future trilogy, Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor, and Dr. Wu,  Jurassic Park’s dinosaur-breeder extraordinaire, to name a few.

Wells also penned The Time Machine, in which . . . you guessed it! Someone finds a time machine.[2] The protagonist (identified only as The Time Traveler) travels into the future, where he encounters humanity’s future: a stunted, unhealthy species which has overrun the natural world with technology, rendering intellectual and physical exertion unnecessary and, as a result, obsolete. Naturally, Wells had the twenty-first century in mind when he wrote the novel. His book conveys a very cynical view of the future, compared to Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic utopia, in which everyone is fit, healthy, and can rock a jumpsuit. This idea of a feebler, stupider humanity has been reiterated in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and the Pixar film WALL-E. The Time Machine would set the precedent for many, many time-travel books, films, and television shows to come, including the Back to the Future trilogy, every other episode of the original Star Trek, and, perhaps most obviously, Doctor Who.

The Wells novel that takes the fake Portal cake is, however, The War of the Worlds. In this novel, Wells covers yet another huge trope of science fiction: aliens – specifically Martians – invading the Earth. This is brought up in countless films (Independence Day), shows (the Daleks of Doctor Who), and video games (Halo). On a less significant note, the Martian tripods may have been a very prototypical inspiration for the AT-AT and AT-ST walkers in the Star Wars saga. In addition to its initial success, The War of the Worlds received national fame in America on Halloween of 1938 when CBS aired a radio dramatization of the novel. Directed by Orson Welles, the program included quite realistic special effects – for the time at least. The majority of the broadcast was presented in the form of news bulletins and announcements. As a result, uninformed listeners tuning into the channel were greeted, apparently, with the news that Martians were invading Earth. Indeed, many listeners were not aware that the broadcast was fictional. It was not, as is sometimes sensationally put, a nation-wide crisis, but some areas did experience panic-stricken mobs, and the broadcast had to be shut down by the police, securing The War of the Worlds’ place in infamy.

There is one Victorian author who tops Wells, however, for sheer volume of literature, and that is Frenchman Jules Verne. Over the course of his prolific career, Verne would publish over fifty novels and plays, including Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Mysterious Island, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Many of Verne’s novels are speculative adventure stories in which characters travel underground, in the deep sea, in balloons, on a comet, and to the moon in a rocket ship, to name a few. Verne’s settings include the core of the earth, the depths of the ocean, the lunar surface, and a forgotten island. This coupling of adventure and science fiction would later culminate in Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and numerous other franchises. Furthermore, both Journey and Twenty Thousand Leagues carry on the sci-fi trope of mad scientist, with the monomaniac Professor Lidenbrock and the Ahab-like misanthrope Captain Nemo.

The presence of these sci-fi authors would seem to indicate that the Victorians were keenly interested in science and science fiction, and indeed the Victorians were! In the century between 1820 and 1920, the world, most notably Europe and America, were transformed irrevocably by scientific advances. The Industrial Revolution, occurring between the twenties and forties, brought numerous inventions and methods of increasing production, just as our own technological revolution has brought massive improvements to computer technology. For us it is the Information Era; for the Victorians it was the Industrial Era. Along with these advancements in the sciences came a new interest in chemistry, anatomy, geology, astronomy, engineering, and other fields of research. Those works of the time which we now call science fiction often reflected that fascination, as in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde or Journey to the Center of the Earth. The characters of Victor Frankenstein and Professor Lidenbrock embody the delight with modern science and a thirst for knowledge which the Victorians possessed in such quantities.

There were some, however, who were less than enthusiastic about these scientific and technological advancements. Appearing on the cusp of the Victorian era, the Romantic poets were the first to voice this displeasure. Wordsmiths such as Coleridge or Wordsworth exhibit a scorn for the smoggy machinations of London and Manchester, lauding instead peaceful copses, awesome mountains, and verdant glades. Mary Shelley was one such writer. While Frankenstein the film may be a gripping thriller, Frankenstein the novel has long, often dull passages describing the glories of nature. Such oppositions to industrialization continued on into the Victorian era proper and were often reflected in the literature of the time. Science fiction in particular was the perfect medium through which authors could explore the era’s conflicting views of science and technology. The mad scientists of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Robert Louis Stevenson all serve as cautionary stories, like the faerie tales of Germany, warning their society that too much of a good thing can have sinister consequences. Victor Frankenstein is the prototype and epitome of this motif: the Faustian man of brilliance, brought low through his blind meddling.

It is a testimony to the timelessness of these concerns that science fiction has so heavily saturated our society even to this day. Now our fascination with the brilliant unknown is embodied in the wonder-filled exploits of the U.S.S. Enterprise and the TARDIS in addition to The Nautilus and the time machine. We explore the Delta Quadrant along with mysterious islands and dormant volcanoes. Our concerns, fears, and doubts are now addressed by the dystopias of Star Trek, Maze Runner, and Mad Max. The scientists of Jurassic Park and Back to the Future typify our Jekylls and Griffins. Our fears of environmental destruction are still alive and well. Now, however, it is not only coal smog we fear, but oil spills, chemical refuse, and nuclear waste. For us lab experiments no longer hold the threat of mutation, but genetically modified foodstuffs and chemical preservatives have created new worries for us. We are even able to clone living creatures now – perhaps Frankenstein’s dilemma of the sanctity of life will be pushed to the front of the table once more.

The genre we now know as science fiction was to the Victorians what it is to us: entertainment; a conduit for our concerns and fears; and tangible evidence of our hopes, aspirations, and wildest dreams.

[1] “Techno-jargon” refers to a method of scriptwriting used in the Star Trek franchise. In an interview, Jonathan Frakes explained that whenever the writers of the show decided to introduce some scientific concept when, say, the warp core was breeched, rather than pulling an explanation out of their hats they would instead hand the script over to a team of actual scientists with the section marked “TECHNO-JARGON.” These scientists would promptly proceed to pull an explanation out of their hats, but their explanation at least sounded feasible.

[2] In fact, Wells coined the term “time machine.”

Confessions of a Workaholic: A Love Story

It’s mid-afternoon on a Tuesday and I am sitting on a beach in the Outer Banks, supposedly relaxing. The backstory to getting here is that I realized this was my last chance for a getaway before the madness of our fall season sets in at the museum, so I made the decision to visit a beach house my grandmother rented for the week with my mother, sans the husband and kiddo.  Well, the best laid plans…

There was a tropical storm. My mom was stung by a bee. My beach chair broke. A wave attempted to take my mom’s shoe out to sea. I got sick off of She-Crab soup.

Let’s just say it wasn’t the vacation I had planned to have to help me wind down a bit.

But let’s be honest here, does a Historic House Museum Director ever really wind down? The truth is, I am always working. When I go to the grocery store, I pick up drinks and snacks for my docents. When I head off to Target, I buy trash bags and light bulbs. I grab toilet paper and paper towels at Sam’s Club. I go to bakeries and harass the owners about just how small they can make their sweets- can we have tea sized cakes, mini pies, eclairs the size of my pinky finger? When browsing the décor at Tuesday Morning, I end up with office organizers, display items for the gift shop, and specialty napkins for our teas and hand towels for the bathroom. I have hair epiphanies in the shower regarding special events- we should set the tables up this way, such-and-such would love classical guitar music, this-or-that intern would be great for readings at that program. I pass out business cards at every craft show, social event, and party. When I order books on Amazon, I throw in one or two good ones for the museum library. Honestly, this job is a part of me- in many ways, it’s who I am.

You, as a visitor, intern, or staff member, may only see me a few days each week- but rest assured that I am working. 40 hours? Pshh! There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to grow this museum into the integral part of the community I truly believe it is destined to be. Thank the heavens for my two part-time staffers, who squeeze full-time work into partial work weeks. They too have hair epiphanies and moments of brilliance at the grocery store. Don’t even get me started on how much I adore my interns and volunteers, who spend their free time with us and only requests bribes in the form of tea and sweets.  I guess you could say working for this museum is a labor of love, for all involved.

So, why am I writing this to you? Well, because we would like to invite you to labor in love with us. Working for this museum is so much more than work- it is forging friendships that extend past our garden gate; it is using talents you never realized you had to entertain strangers who become family; it is investing in something greater than yourself or your ambitions. Working for this museum is working for the good of our community. And right now, in the midst of everything this country is going through, wouldn’t you like to be a part of something as positive as that?

Come. Join us. Make a difference. I will have a hot pot of tea and sweets waiting for you.


If you would like more information regarding volunteering or interning for the museum, please contact Museum Director Jackie Spainhour or Asst. Directors Kelly Kubiak and Ella Swain at 623-9814. Not a phone person? Email us at

Lewis Carroll and Victorian Children’s Literature

From Intern Nathan Keckley:


Some people fell in love with the works of Lewis Carroll as children; others consider them to be opium-induced nightmares. Personally, I just want Tim Burton to stop drenching them in guyliner and angst. Regardless, it can’t be denied that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass; and What Alice Found There remain some of the most popular children’s literature to this day.

As with many books, however, this wasn’t always so. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (who understandably used the pseudonym Lewis Carroll) was a mathematician and logician, and friend of the Liddell family. Charles famously began the work as a story to three children, including the not-so-coincidentally-named Alice Liddell. Allegedly, Alice requested that Charles write the story down, and so the novel began to take shape.

When Alice’s Adventures Underground, to use its original and less enthralling title,[1] first hit the shops in 1865, however, critics were not grinning like Cheshire cats at what they read. To be fair, it’s easy to understand why people think Charles Dodgson took laudanum when one reads the book, particularly near the end when a bunch of sea creatures begin to sing about soup; the famous “Jabberwocky” poem itself is just a hop and a skip of the white rabbit’s legs from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium-saturated “Kubla Kan.” Actually, perhaps it’s no wonder Tim Burton wanted in on this level of strange.

In addition to its rather psychedelic episodes, however, Alice was simply not the sort of children’s book the Victorians approved of. While eighteenth-century morality stories had been replaced by a more entertaining genre, young adult and children’s books still exhibited a desire to better their readers through example. One of the most obvious instances is Little Lord Fauntleroy, the most popular children’s book of the time period (so popular, in fact, that the Hunters owned two copies). Books like Little Lord Fauntleroy, with their sickeningly sweet child protagonists, were meant to set an example for Victorian children, just like the Captain Underpants books most definitely do not do in this century. Other children’s books favored a more realistic setting, with mischievous characters, seeking to empathize with their readers, such as Tom Brown’s School Days and the novels of Mark Twain. The Hunters themselves owned both Tom Brown and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Later on, however, these goody-goody and picaresque books were replaced with the faerie tale collections of Hans Christian Anderson and Andrew Lang, the latter bringing over a dozen of his chromatic faerie-books to thousands of avid adolescent readers. I myself have fond memories of listening to public domain recordings of Lang’s Blue, Lilac, and every other color under the sun faerie books, proof of their timelessness.

The Alice books, on the other hand, were just plain weird. Amidst hearts hidden in needles and magical pumpkin coaches, traditional faerie tales at least maintained some sense of reality. With Carroll, however, all bets were off: shops could become rivers; chess pieces and playing cards walked and talked as people. Despite this, by the time Through the Looking Glass rolled off the press six years later, the first novel shared in its sequel’s success, eventually rising to take its place among the paragons of preteen literature. Notably, the famous playwright and all-round fabulous Irishman Oscar Wilde read and enjoyed the Alice books. Joining the fan club as well was Her Majesty Queen Victoria herself, then in her mid-forties. Apparently the taciturn monarch finally found something that amused her.

One of the reasons for their popularity is that despite their sheer amount of weird, the Alice books actually contain a multitude of clever jokes in subjects such as mathematics, logical semantics, French vocabulary, and Latin grammar. For instance, at one point a monkey named Pat digs for apples in the ground; pomme de terre, the French word for potato, literally translates as “apple of the earth.” All these are topics Victorian children would be very familiar with (particularly if they were upper class). Dodgson clearly knew his audience, and his works are by no means simply a bad acid trip.

Furthermore, the books heralded a new era of literature. Dodgson’s Alice books helped to introduce the concept of fantasy works lasting longer than a few pages, as faerie tales had done. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was one of the first fantasy adventure novels, a genre which would later be elaborated on by George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin[2] and L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, finally culminating in the works of Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and the despicable authors of the pulp fantasy genre. Carroll’s works were also some of the first children’s works to make extensive use of illustrations in the form of John Tenniel’s delightfully iconic drawings. This idea would be carried on by Beatrix Potter and other children’s authors before culminating in full-on picture books near the end of the Victorian era.

Finally, Carroll was not alone in his nonsense literature. The poet Edward Lear was, during the same time period, writing extensive works of nonsense poetry, including “The Owl and the Pussycat,” which were received very favorably by the public.

Now Lewis Carroll’s books are some of the most popular works among children and adults the world over. They have been adapted into numerous dramatic performances and films, including Disney’s charming animated one and Tim Burton’s horrid emo one. I feel certain that if Mr. Dodgson could see what a delight his stories are to readers of all ages, his ghostly grin would be wider than any cat’s.

[1] Another title Carroll considered was Alice’s Golden Hour, which would make an excellent title for an alt rock band.

[2] The Hunters owned its sequel, The Princess and Curdie, both of which are delightful and charming children’s chapter books.

Why Women Cover their ‘Naughty Bits’

On an uncharacteristically humid day last week, I felt beads of sweat dripping down my brow as I pushed back the stubbornly flippant hair that stuck to my face like glue. It was miserably hot. The AC in my car was on the fritz and the warm moving breeze created by rolled-down windows more accurately resembled the fires of Vesuvius. I cursed my husband’s ability to wear light clothing without concerning himself with strappy summer sweat-collectors commonly known as brassieres.  I felt my mouth saying out loud what my mind angrily shouted: “What sadist decided that because I am a woman I have to wear a bra in this heat?!” David and I looked at each other quizzically. We are historians. We really should know this information.

And so began my quest to discover why the female sex is thus afflicted.

My questions actually started forming a number of months ago, when I began reading Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Manners, and Marriage (2016) by Therese Oneill. Her discussion of the daily struggles of fastening Victorian underclothes made me want to rip off my own in defiance. I enjoyed learning about why the Can-Can was really so popular (crotch-less underwear, anyone?) and why undergarments were always white. Okay, well maybe the second part really just disgusted me. Did you know that Victorians never, and I mean NEVER, planned to wash their actual dresses? They wore white underthings so they could see when they were adequately soiled and have them washed accordingly.[1] But as for those beautiful ball gowns, they stank to high heaven. So long, fantasies of Jane Austen!

Really, though, her book fascinated me and made me think about why society is, and has been historically, obsessed with underwear. For me, the real question was why brassieres were necessary. When did breasts become things that were shameful and should be contained? My first guess was that it had to be some time near the Middle Ages, when the church was undergoing its consolidation and really deciding how people should behave. Turns out, that’s not the whole story.

It appears that ancient cultures had their own version of the now popular band-like bras, which basically wrapped around the chest area. When the corset became a ‘thing’ in the 14th and 15th centuries, support came from below, not necessarily as a means to ‘gird the loins’ but as more of a practical invention. It seems that while the invention of the corset and the bra reflected the social and physical situations of women, there really was nothing evil in the creation of the bra, as I initially thought.

According to NPR:

“Caresse Crosby patented the first modern bra in the U.S. in 1914. While primping for a debutante ball, she donned a stiff corset and tight corset cover beneath her sheer evening gown. But the corset cover — which she described as “a boxlike armour of whalebone and pink cordage” — poked through her gown. “Bring me two of my pocket handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon,” she told her maid, who helped her sew the materials into a simple brassiere.

Crosby’s invention was the talk of the party; other girls crowded around, asking how she danced so freely. When she unveiled her creation, they immediately asked her to sew bras for them, too. When strangers offered a dollar for one of her bras, she decided to start a business and patented her “backless brassiere.” She managed to attract a few orders from department stores, but her startup fizzled. At her husband’s insistence, Crosby sold her patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Co. in Connecticut for $1,500.”[2]

So, the bra actually began as a freeing piece of clothing, designed to allow a woman to enjoy herself rather than writhe in discomfort and pain. When did this change? Honestly, it changed when the fashion industry became involved in its production. With the introduction of the underwire, the padded cups, and adjustable straps, the bra changed from a breathable undergarment to, in my humble opinion, an instrument of restraint. Nineteenth century doctors apparently agreed with me, as they attempted to dissuade women from wearing anything that was too restrictive and could cause ailments. So, bras began as something wonderful and freeing, and with modern changes, have become the one garment I despise wearing, especially on a hot summer day.


[1] Oneill, Therese. Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Manners, and Marriage. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016.

[2] Pandika, Melissa. Bra History: How a War Shortage Reshaped Modern History. (August 5, 2014),  accessed July 5, 2017.

Victorian Etiquette and Modern Travels

From Museum Director Jackie Spainhour:

I recently went on a trip, the first family trip with our fifteen month old son, to introduce him to his great-grandmother in Columbia, South Carolina. My husband was eager to see his grandmother, who is in her nineties, but was even more excited to experience the tastes of his childhood at a local burger joint and a barbecue restaurant. I was really looking forward to introducing our son to the aquarium and zoo, but my excitement quickly turned to anxiety a mere three hours into our trip. We made the decision to travel by car, which would have been a seven hour drive should everything have gone as smoothly as we planned. Unfortunately, in a small town called Micro, North Carolina, our lovely Honda Odyssey, whom we affectionately call Bertha, began to shake violently. We pulled into a mom-and-pop gas station, shut off the car, and considered our options. I took a deep breath. The baby was sleeping, thank goodness, and I knew we needed to make arrangements quickly to get this vehicle towed and get us into a working one before my son became a walking terror. I pulled out my AAA card and was certain we would be on the road within the hour. I was wrong.

AAA couldn’t locate us. When they did, they said it would be an hour and a half, but there would be a tow driver coming from the next town over and he would take the car to an AAA recommended repair shop. They connected me to Enterprise to rent a car. The problem was two-fold- the gas station attendant either didn’t know what a taxi was or was confused why I needed one, but couldn’t recommend a taxi service, and I had $10 in cash. I called a service, only to be told they only accept cash. I spotted a nearby bank and walked to it. There was no ATM, so I pulled out money from the teller. I called the taxi service back and waited for my driver to arrive. She picked me up and turned up the radio station as she drove me the ten miles to pick up my rental car. I heard all sorts of interesting snippets- an older lady was selling a deep freezer for $100 and gave her telephone number ON AIR for someone to call her to buy it, someone else had chickens and pigs for sale, and the town market was having a sale on blueberries. Let’s just say, that would never happen in Norfolk!

I picked up the rental car, drove back to my husband and now screaming baby, and waited. And we waited. And we waited. I called AAA three more times over the next two hours before they finally sent a driver- who had no idea what was going on- and he took the car. We got back on the road for the longest leg of the trip. I called the repair shop to let them know the details of the engine trouble. You know what was hilarious? They don’t work on Hondas! AAA sent my car to a place, that they recommended mind you, that didn’t work on my type of car. So, I called AAA back…again…for the umpteenth time. They apologized, said they could tow it to another facility that DID work on Hondas, but I would have to pay for it. I said in my sweet southern voice, “How can I say this nicely? No. I don’t think so. I can’t for the life of me justify why I should pay for your mistake. I would like to speak with your supervisor to have this worked out.” Insert supervisor, tow is now free, and Bertha will make her way to a larger town ten miles out. Great. I will hopefully be able to pick her up and return the rental on the day we planned to come home.

Lo and behold, I was given inaccurate information about where it was towed the second time. I miraculously found the phone number of the tow truck driver, who told me where it actually was, and I called the right place. So, what was the silver lining? The problem was covered by a recall and I paid $0, plus we didn’t have to delay too long to pick it up. But, needless to say, I had a trying day by the time we made it to Columbia.

We arranged to have dinner with my husband’s aunt and uncle, after picking up his grandmother, at a nearby Cracker Barrel. We were hungry and the baby was fussy. We sat down and he immediately started to get agitated and cry. He didn’t want to sit after being in the car all day. I picked him up to walk him outside and a woman said very loudly, “What terrible parenting. That’s what’s wrong with parents today; they pick the kid up every time they cry.” I held my tongue and walked away. When he seemed calm I returned, only for him to start again. I walked past a different woman, who proceeded to say to her waitress,” You all should provide earplugs if you’re going to let people like that eat here.” I fought back tears. Tears of exhaustion, frustration, embarrassment, anger. I went outside. My husband hadn’t heard any of it. He came outside to find me and I told him I would not go back in there or I would lose it. Needless to say, we left along with the other family members we were visiting. We took our business elsewhere. All of this to say, this trip to Columbia was not what I had imagined.

Fast forward to a much more normal car ride home, I started to imagine how different a trip like this might have been if I were a Victorian woman. First, a nanny would have been caring for my son, if he would have been brought along at all. We would likely have travelled by train, which would have taken a bit of time, but would have been much more relaxing. I could have dined on delicacies in the dining car. I would be wearing a plain, nondescript outfit so as not to attract attention to myself or my escort, who happened to be my husband. I don’t think the Lularoe top and leggings I was wearing would have cut it. If the train broke down, I wouldn’t have had to stress about finding a way to fix the situation on my own, and I would likely relish in the downtime to catch up on my reading or letter writing, which I could only do when we stopped, naturally. But, I may not have those materials in my satchel, as women were encouraged to pack lightly on their person- this is not to be said of the dozens on trunks many used when they travelled via ship, etc. I would likely not even have much money on me, to ensure it would not be stolen. Typically, I would have given the majority of it to my escort for safe keeping. So, while a lot of my autonomy might have been lost, I may have found some peace without it. Isn’t that a strangely exhilarating concept?

If those interactions with those rude people at the Cracker Barrel would have taken place on the train, there would even have been etiquette to follow in such a situation. Interestingly, I actually did what would have been advised. In many etiquette books about travelling as a woman in the Victorian Era, it was advised that a woman should never “return rudeness with rudeness.” One source argued, “Nothing will rebuke incivility in another so surely as perfect courtesy in your own manner [and] many will be shamed into apology, who would annoy you for hours, if you encouraged them by acts of rudeness on your part.” So, ignore them and save yourself the hassle of arguing with them. That, I think, is good advice. I am glad I reacted that way, although every fiber of my being wanted to react negatively towards them.

Travelling as a Victorian lady would have been much more exhilarating as well, because women so rarely were able to move about unaccompanied. That is one of the reasons I find the subject so fascinating. Many women who made the bold and brave decision to travel, sometimes even alone, did so to foreign places and kept diaries about their travels. Some simply wanted to explore the exotic; others wanted to make advances in botany or Christianize foreign peoples. Their diaries are fascinating- often times they describe the people they encounter not only with awe, but occasionally with a hint of desire and jealousy. Some wanted the same freedom to speak about sexuality as the Italians and Ottomans did; others wanted the ability to travel alone without ridicule or to live a much simpler life like many of the African tribes. If, like me, this subject is of interest to you, I hope you will join me Thursday, August 17th at 7 PM at the museum, where I will give a talk on women in the 18th and 19th century who travelled to the Middle East and other areas and recorded their movements. This will be one part of the event, which is titled Arabian Nights, and will also feature readings, music, and refreshments.

So, would you want to travel as a Victorian? Do you have experiences travelling that echo the terrible experience I had last week? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and call 623-9814 if you want to register for our Arabian Nights event. It is going to be a fun evening!


Sources for further reading:

Beeton, Samuel Orchart, Family Etiquette, 1876.

Hartley, Cecil, The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness.

Hartley, Florence, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, a Manual of Politeness, 1875.

The Hand-book of Etiquette, 1860.

Own a Piece of the Hunter House!

It’s that time of year for spring cleaning- and we are really cleaning house around here! There comes a time in the life of any house that de-cluttering needs to occur. For an historic house museum like ours, that means taking the time to really think about our mission as an organization and how the ‘things’ on display and in storage further that mission.  After taking the time to craft our mission statement, we came up with the following:

“The Hunter House Victorian Museum is a non-profit historic house museum located in Norfolk, Virginia which seeks to educate the public in late nineteenth and early twentieth century decorative arts, culture, and the structure’s significance in Norfolk’s local history.”

With this mission in mind, our staff assessed the value of the items in our collection and each piece’s relevance in telling the story of the Hunter family and their home as it pertains to the Victorian Era. Lo and behold, we found some very interesting items tucked away in corners, in attic spaces, and in boxes that we didn’t even know existed.  After a series of discussions with our Board and amongst ourselves, we decided that you can bid to own small pieces of the Hunter House. All proceeds will benefit the continued restoration of the museum’s archive. Isn’t that exciting?!

So, we are going to be hosting a silent auction that will begin on May 3rd at 10 AM and end at 3:30 PM on May 7th, which will be the end of our Kentucky Derby event. Derby attendees will be given the opportunity to bid during the tea, but anyone may stop by to place their bids at that time as well.  During the week, items will be displayed throughout the museum with sheets for you to place your bid. During the Derby event, some items will be added to those that were on display throughout the week for the silent auction. Some of our items are too large to display inside of the house, so they will not be available for viewing until the Derby event itself. We still have spots for the Derby if you would like to sign up! Call us at 757-623-9814 to make reservations.

For now, here is a sneak peak of some of the items that will be available for sale. Please note that artwork, architectural, and larger decorative items are not pictured.


(From above and below: silver items only)


(From above: Excludes the tussie mussie holder)


(From above: Hypo items only)


(From Below: Don’t forget! We are accepting items for care packages for our deployed military. Why, you might ask? We are doing this in honor of the anniversary of the US entering WWI. Any contribution, monetary or otherwise, is welcome. In exchange, enjoy 10% off  in the museum shop. Be on the lookout for more WWI-related events throughout the rest of 2017.)


We hope to see you at our silent auction!

Note: Cash or check only will be accepted for the auction. You do not have to present at the end of the auction to win.

We’re Back!

Thank you to everyone who made our opening day such a success!

We’re Back!


It’s that time of year again-time for flowering cherry blossoms, random thunderstorms, and the opening of the Hunter House Victorian Museum! It has been a trying winter for us as the staff has been navigating around the realities of working in an old house- old pipes needing repair, ceilings caving in, and finding the right people to do the work. Luckily, we have prevailed and the museum is now functioning at an optimal level, until the next round of ‘this old house’ of course. There are never dull moments around here!
We are very excited to invite you to join us during our 2017 operating season. Our goal this year is two-fold. First, we wish to make strides to fulfill our mission to educate the public on nineteenth century decorative arts, Victorian lifestyles, and the museum’s place in Norfolk’s local history. Second, we want to preserve, protect, and reinterpret our collection to allow for the fulfillment of our educational mission. These are lofty goals, indeed. Here are some of the ways we are going to meet them (and how you can be a part of what we are doing):
1. Raising funds through programming to support work in our third floor archive
Through programs like our silent auction (of REAL Hunter family/museum items!) at our Kentucky Derby Garden Party on May 7th, we hope to raise funds to purchase archival quality boxes and paper, page protectors for our extensive postcard collection, and cataloguing software.
2. Museum Memberships
Our Museum membership program is in its second year, and we hope you will consider joining! Like our special programming, funds from the museum memberships will be used to aid in restoring our archive, which will help us fulfill our educational mission. As a member, you will receive special pricing on events and become our valued partner in preservation.  Please call us for more details!
3. Spring Lectures and Symposium
Our lecture series is the purest form of educational programming we offer, and we would be delighted if you would consider attending- or even presenting- a program. Lectures are offered Fridays mornings at 11 AM in our parlor in April and May. Our scheduled programming includes:
April 7th- Alex Shelanski, ODU Student, 19th Century Boating
April 14th- Lisa Lyman, Fine Arts Specialists, Painting Conservation
April 21st- Alexandra Whiteside, Art Institute, Evolution of Interior Design
April 28th- Seth Feman, Chrysler Museum, 19th Century Art
May 5th – Jim Fish, Numismatics or the Art of Coin Collecting
May 12th- Stacy Weissner, Regency Society, How the Regency Period molded  Victorian Identity
May 19th – Joshua Weinstein, Chrysler Museum of Art, Women and Norfolk Arts:  The Victorian Origins of the Chrysler Museum
We are always on the lookout for interesting topics and presenters for both our lecture series and the 19th Century Symposium, which we cosponsor with the Eloise Hunter Chapter of the Victorian Society in America. Let us know if you would like to present on an interesting topic! If you would like to attend our spring symposium on April 29th from 10-3, give us a call at 623-9814.

4. Offering Guided Tours
Our regularly scheduled guided tours allow us to fulfill our most basic and primary function: to present our collection to the world for historical interpretation. In order to do this, we need a dedicated team of volunteer docents and interns to give tours to guests, participate in special programming, and share their love of Victoriana. Won’t you consider joining our team? Applications can be emailed to

5. Tapping into our community
After many talks and pow-wows with our lovely neighbors at the Hill House Museum in Portsmouth, we are thrilled to be partnering for a weekend honoring our fallen soldiers and Victorian mourning customs on May 27th and 28th. Come to the Hunter House on May 27th for a cemetery tour and lectures to be held throughout the day (we will post times on our social media- Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) focusing on the traditions of Memorial Day. On May 28th, journey to the Hill House for a thematic tea featuring Civil War Reenactors commemorating those who lost their lives during the conflict. Reservations for the tea must be made through the Hill House directly. Cost is $40 per guest and reservations can be secured by calling 393-0241.
But, let’s face it, sometimes we just want to party like a Victorian! So, we will continue to offer our afternoon teas filled with fun and friendship, make-and-take classes like our Paint en Plein Air, and evening programs which may or may not feature libations. Sometimes immersing oneself in a culture is the best way to educate yourself about it. Whether you choose to know the Victorians through books or Brandy is your prerogative- and we will offer you programming and support your thirst for knowledge either way!

Questions about our mission, getting involved, or our current programming? Call 623-9814 or email We’d love to hear from you!

5 Reasons You Should Take your Children to Museums

Why should you take your children to museums?  Find out the top five reasons from our Director Jackie Spainhour!

5 Reasons You Should Take your Children to Museums

If you’re like me, some days the furthest thing from your mind is dressing your screaming child, packing the diaper bag full of endless supplies, and jetting off to a supposedly fun destination as a solo caregiver. As a parent with a partner, I cannot even fathom how much more difficult it would be as a single parent. So, what I am about to suggest may seem impossible, but hear me out. I vote that you start taking your child, no matter the age, to museums. Yes, we all love the convenience of mall play centers and the park, but how many of us really take the time to introduce our children to our local gems of history, art, and culture? Really, why should we? Here are a few of my reasons why you should take that leap and adventure to your closest museum with your lovable, frustrating child.

  1. Live Through Their Eyes (Or Wandering Fingers…)


(Two of our younger guests with their moms at the witch’s tea October 2016)

Every time I take a child through the museum, I am able to view our collection in new and exciting ways. Children have a talent for pointing out the mundane and making it revolutionary. I once gave a tour to a kindergartner who had an obsession with trees and the color green. So, she proceeded to call my attention to every shade of green throughout the museum and every instance where a tree was in a pattern- on the wallpaper, on a book cover, on the upholstery and draperies- until I was convinced I was actually touring a lush forest rather than a nineteenth century house museum. This tour, and others like it with children, allowed me to appreciate surroundings that have become so familiar to me that they sometimes feel ordinary rather than extraordinary.

My child is too small at this point to really interact with museum collections, but every time I have toured a museum with a friend or family member’s child, I find the same idea holds true- they notice things you would otherwise overlook as commonplace. Children ask the best questions too, like why do the mommy and daddy sleep in different rooms? What is that chair with the opening in the seat used for anyway? Where is the television and DVD player? You can really get your money’s worth with children engaging in a Q&A with your tour guide. Of course, we can’t forget the amount of bonding you will do with your child that isn’t focused on yet another episode of Sesame Street or Bubble Guppies. That should be reason enough to get out of the house and visit a museum, but I digress.

So, in order to shed your adult haughtiness and sensibilities bring a child to a museum to find your own sense of wonder and appreciation once again.

  1. Have an Adult Conversation (With an Actual Adult)

I find that one of the most difficult parts of parenting, especially in those first few months, is getting used to being void of the normal amounts of adult human contact to which you were accustomed prior to the birth of your little one. I spent entire days having conversations aloud with a tiny person, whose only response was a dirty diaper, crying, or confused blinking.  Honestly, the lack of mature conversation is enough to drive any educated person insane. I found myself watching Ancient Aliens and other ‘historical’ programs just so I could argue aloud, rather intelligently and enthusiastically, with another adult. I guess you could say getting back to work couldn’t come fast enough.


(Gloria, Kristen, and Patsy volunteers from the Hunter House 2016)

The great thing about museums is that the majority employ a volunteer or paid docent staff, most of whom are intelligent adults. Taking your three month old son to a museum may sound insane, but it really is the perfect opportunity to watch him sleep in his buggy while you engage in articulate, adult conversation over a Monet or Van Gogh. In many instances, this may be the only adult conversation you have for a while that does not focus on your baby. In-laws, parents, and even your partner generally only engage in conversation with you to discuss the baby in some way, shape, or form. So, if you are craving adult interaction and your brain hasn’t yet turned to mush, take your little one to a museum to give yourself a much needed adult intervention.

  1. Save Money


Let’s face it- a movie will cost you and your little one $20 easily. Add in a fast food lunch or a sit down meal at Panera and your afternoon could cost close to $40- and that’s just for the two of you! Many museums offer free admission, are donation only, or offer very low-priced rates for visitors. Most of the museums in our area (with the zoo, aquarium, and Nauticus as the exceptions) cost $5 or less per person, with some offering children’s rates as low as $1. Places like the Chrysler Museum are free, thanks to the generous patronage of their members. The Hunter House charges $5 per guest, with a $1 child rate. Children under 5 are free. While I cannot argue that a museum is always a more economical outing than one to the beach, park, or mall, I do think the benefits of such a trip outweigh the nominal costs.

  1. Be a Tourist in Your Town


(Tourists visiting the Hunter House Fall 2016)

Travelling with young children can be difficult and sometimes impossible. As a result, the last time you had a vacation was probably a few years before they were born and most likely involved expensive dinners and copious amounts of alcohol. Gone are those days, my friend. Still, you can find time to have new experiences like you would have on vacation if you choose to visit places in your town that are not necessarily new, but new to you. Grab a Visitor’s Guide to your city or contact the local welcome center to discover places you may not have even known existed. People tell us all of the time, and I mean ALL of the time, that they have lived their entire lives in Norfolk and never heard of the Hunter House. Private entities like ours are not affiliated with the city and often do not get as much exposure as a result, but you can find us in Visitor’s Guides and centers because that is where we are most likely to spend our limited advertising dollars. So, plan a weekend of discovery in your town by plotting a course to visit museums and cultural centers you never knew existed. It will be much less expensive and more educational than that weekend in Cabo.

  1. Experience New Children’s Programming

Children’s programming at museums has come a long way from drawing pictures or simply touring facilities. Many museums now offer programs designed specifically for children that focus on educational milestones, STEAM education, and more. The Hunter House offers a patch with the Girl Scouts that is designed specifically around our collection. The Chrysler Museum has educators who will engage with children on their level to interpret the historical artifacts in their collection. Some museums offer puppet shows, outdoor movies, craft classes, and more for nominal or no costs. You can often subscribe to websites like to learn about all of the children’s programming happening in your area. Libraries are also treasure troves for children’s programming, but for an equally educational but different experience, take your child to a local museum and watch them learn first-hand.


There are so many more reasons to take children to museums, but in the interest of not talking you to death I will end here. What are your reasons for taking children to museums? What are your favorite local spots or children’s programs? Leave us feedback in the comments- maybe we can try to incorporate some of your favorites into our programming!