You can be a true Victorian woman this Saturday night

Local Life March 15, 2013 0 Comments

This Victorian maid (docent) might greet you if you attend the Women’s History Month event at the historic mansion.

by Constance Garcia-Barrio

The Women’s History Month Celebration Saturday, March 16, at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion, 220 W. Tulpehocken St. in Germantown, comes wrapped in a feast for the senses. Costumed guides and wallpaper in startling, yet period-authentic patterns, catch the eye. The words of Susan B. Anthony’s speech, “Declaration of the Rights of Women of the United States,” given on the steps of Independence Hall in 1876, ring across time in an impassioned re-enactment.

“It’s a full immersion evening,” said Diane Richardson, executive director of the mansion, Philadelphia’s only Victorian museum house. “Guests will even leave with a taste of the past — a cookie made from a Victorian recipe and a copy of the recipe.”

Visitors may enter the past more deeply still. “They’ll be assigned the identity of a Victorian woman for the evening,” said Richardson, who lives in Wyndmoor. “Biographical details will help guests see the era through the women’s eyes.”

While Saturday’s celebration, which starts at 7 p.m., will open a portal to the past, it also spotlights the mansion’s new “Upstairs Downstairs” interpretive tour. Built in 1859 by cloth merchant Ebenezer Maxwell, the mansion, with its kitchen gadgetry, maids and garden gave the Maxwells a comfortable middle-class life.

Yet, Anna Maxwell had many limitations. “A woman wouldn’t have ventured out on the street alone if she valued her reputation,” said Isabella Fidanza, an intern and English major at Drexel University. “She would have taken along a relative or a maid.”

Richardson noted that if a married woman inherited money, it belonged to her husband. “The laws favored men,” said Richardson, whose empathy for Victorian women’s strictures may grow from challenges in her own life. Born in Lake City, Iowa, Richardson, 63, earned a bachelor’s degree in home economics education from Iowa State University.

She taught home economics in Iowa for one year, and then married a Navy pilot. “We moved all over the country — Florida, California and, finally, Pennsylvania,” said Richardson, who has two daughters, Amber Yonan, 36, mother of Richardson’s three grandchildren, and Suzanne O’Brien, 33. “I put my energy into homemaking and childrearing. If I had given a little attention to my career, it would have paid off. When the marriage ended after 25 years, I had to reinvent myself.”

Richardson’s childhood helped to prepare her for her vocation. “Growing up in Iowa, I tagged along when my mother and her friends went antiquing,” she said. “I also learned to appreciate fabric and to sew because that was the only way I could have pretty clothes.” She gained experience in historic preservation in restoring a circa 1770 condemned farmhouse, and later as a volunteer at the Peter Wentz Farmstead in nearby Worcester.

“I helped catalogue a collection of the Farmstead’s vintage clothing and to preserve museum objects.” She also earned a certificate in historic preservation from Bucks County Community College. It required her to do 200 hours of research on a specific topic. She chose window treatments from 1700 to 1901. In 2000, she parlayed that knowledge into her own business, Richardson Interiors, of Wyndmoor.

Richardson became executive director of the Maxwell Mansion in 2007. “When I came to the mansion, I had to make decisions about wallpaper and paint for the 2008 restoration of the parlor, hallway dining room and Mr. Maxwell’s library,” she said. “Thanks to restoring the farmhouse, I was familiar with reproduction fabrics, window treatments, historic wallpapers and other aspects of design.”

More changes were afoot. The mansion had offered the same tour for 30 years, and Richardson wanted to revamp it and spiff up the programming. However, a lack of funds stalled the project. In an outcome worthy of Charles Dickens, the mansion had a visit from a Christmas angel of sorts. Architectural historian Henry Magaziner, who had worked to save the mansion from demolition years earlier, died at age 100 on Christmas Day in 2011. He bequeathed $50,000 for the museum’s educational programming. “We couldn’t have developed the new tour without those funds,” Richardson said.

Saturday’s celebration includes a talk about Victorian women by author Cordelia Frances Biddle, the re-enactment of Susan B. Anthony’s speech and a discussion of Victorian cookery by Becky Diamond, author of “Mrs. Goodfellow: the Story of America’s First Cooking School.” Guests can enjoy champagne and “light comestibles,” but more delicious still is learning how some Victorian women broke out of their expected role.

Quaker matron Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) enraged half the city when she helped found the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in December of 1833. Not only did the members plunge into politics, considered off-limits for women, but they took on the hottest issue of the day. The group’s interracial membership added insult to injury.

For more information about the Upstairs Downstairs Tour and other events, call 215-438-1861 or visit ebenezermaxwellmansion.org

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