The price of chocolate

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

From The Magazine ANTIQUES, January/February 2012. |

A pretty little porcelain cup and saucer, delicate and sweet. In nearly every historic house museum in the United States, a handsome antique tea or chocolate set ornaments a parlor tabletop. This ritual display speaks of polite society, hospitality, and good cheer. But at one historic site, Philipsburg Manor, a chocolate cup and saucer stand for something more. That objects as unlikely as these can be used to address a difficult, indeed tragic, aspect of American history illustrates the special role of art and artifacts at Historic Hudson Valley as well as the institution’s commitment to public history.

In the manor house at Philipsburg Manor, a set of four chocolate cups and saucers in the Imari palette grace a room called the Upper Kitchen. These ceramics were purchased for the collection in 2003 as part of a wholesale retooling of the site’s public programs and installation. In museum parlance, this process is called a reinterpretation. Museum managers undertake reinterpretation projects to keep programming fresh, engaging, and accurate. During this initiative, HHV made changes throughout Philipsburg Manor, but the most significant alteration occurred inside the manor house, the centerpiece of the site.1

Among the thousands of historical documents mined by researchers, the single most important manuscript was the 1750 probate inventory of Adolph Philipse–an international merchant, member of the colony’s Anglo-Dutch ruling class, and the property’s largely absentee owner. The lengthy list of Philipse’s property, along with the credits and debits to his estate, runs fifty-five pages in length and is in the collection of the New York Public Library. It offers a revealing snapshot of the site and its inhabitants at the time of Philipse’s death. Joseph Reade, the family relative and merchant who conducted the inventory, tallied Philipse’s possessions room by room, item by item. In the house at Philipsburg Manor, Reade recorded “3 china chocolate cups” among the contents of the Upper Kitchen.

As we planned the re-creation of this room, we were anxious to acquire a set of antique chocolate cups. Philipse’s own cups were long gone, probably sold at the on-site auction held after his death. Where would we find multiple matching china dainties appropriate for a 1750 manor house belonging to a Dutch family? I searched many sources before contacting dealers Bill and Arlene Palmer Schwind of Yarmouth, Maine, with my request. “Why yes,” Arlene wrote back, “we have four matching chocolate cups and saucers for sale and they are just right for Philipsburg Manor.”

Right indeed. These cups and saucers had an impeccable provenance. They had been part of a cargo of tea, gold, and 150,000 pieces of porcelain on a Dutch East India Company ship called the Geldermalsen. The ship was headed to the Netherlands from China when it sank in the South China Sea in 1752. Salvaged in 1985, the cups and saucers had lain underwater for more than two centuries before coming to Philipsburg Manor. However fascinating their story of loss and recovery–a tale that might be highlighted on museum tours elsewhere–they are called to a different purpose at Historic Hudson Valley.
If we return to that all important 1750 inventory of the Philipsburg Manor property, the first entries we read are surprising, even shocking. Topping the list are the names of Ceaser, Sampson, Sam, Massy, and nineteen other men, women, and children. These enslaved Africans, the site’s only full-time residents in 1750, ran the mill, dairy, bake house, boats, and farm on this northern provisioning plantation. They were part of a community that had existed on this site for nearly seventy years, yet they were also legally part of Adolph Philipse’s estate to be dispersed after his death. The stories of James, Flip, Venture, and the other Africans who called the site home until 1750 are highlighted at Philipsburg Manor.

When visitors see the chocolate cups and saucers on their tour of the manor house, they hear how Dutch merchants’ worldwide trade connections facilitated the presence of luxuries such as porcelain and chocolate in New York, and also how slave labor produced chocolate, sugar, and other foodstuffs in the Caribbean. Visitors are asked to imagine the enslaved cook Massy’s bittersweet thoughts as she prepared a foamy pot of hot chocolate for the Philipses, probably aware of the price paid in human life to produce the ingredients on West Indian plantations.4

The chocolate cups and saucers, like other key objects on display, are placed with purpose. It goes without saying that they contribute to a historically accurate period room arrangement; far more important is their ability to provoke inquiry and discussion. Philipsburg Manor’s guides use artifacts to evoke the site’s early inhabitants and to address important themes in American history. While it might not be evident to visitors, these interpreters are working from a written tour framework with learning objectives designated for each space. The idea is that a proper appreciation of the past comes from looking at history from multiple perspectives. Even though Philipsburg Manor’s program of public history gives great weight to the experiences of the enslaved Africans who lived and worked there, it also addresses the circumstances and probable worldviews of the site’s owner and overseer as well as the tenant farmers who conducted business at the mill and manor house. As we all know, two people who participate in the same event can go away with contrary perceptions. Such is the case with history. It is contested, complicated, and messy.

Consider again the porcelain cup brimming with warm sweet chocolate. Massy almost certainly thought about it in a quite different way than did Adolph Philipse. She knew that a cup of chocolate after childbirth was probably as much of the drink as she would ever be allowed to have.5  Similarly, early on the day of the auction of the late Mr. Philipse’s possessions, potential buyers looked forward to previewing merchandise, seeing friends, eating, and drinking-an exciting combination of business and pleasure. The enslaved Africans headed for the auction block were not so sanguine. Illustrative points like these appear throughout the Philipsburg Manor tour.

The goal is to encourage museum visitors to dip into the historical material without demanding transformation or consensus. In this way, the visitor can begin to wonder, “What might I have done in this situation?” We know that much learning occurs in the days and weeks following a museum visit, when visitors have a chance to reflect and make connections. Historic Hudson Valley’s intent is for visitors to leave Philipsburg Manor-and indeed all of its historic sites-knowing exactly why their visit mattered and why this site is important.

1 Historic Hudson Valley is very grateful for support received from the National Endowment for the Humanities for this project. 2 In part because of the Philipses’ loyalty to the crown during the American Revolution, the only objects with direct connections to the site are the thousands of partial and nearly whole artifacts recovered during archaeological digs. These objects suggest the extensive network of international trade of which this provisioning plantation was a part. 3 As is typical of eighteenth-century documents, Reade’s spelling in Philipse’s probate inventory did not always conform to standard English. The names of the enslaved Africans listed on it are spelled here as they appear in the document. 4 Although the name of the enslaved person who cooked for Philipse is unknown, Massy has been assigned the role of cook in the tour. The other women listed on the 1750 inventory were Susan, Abigal, Dina, and Sue. 5 The settlement of Adolph Philipse’s estate lists a charge for hot chocolate given to two of the enslaved African women after the birth of their babies, probably purchased in an effort to strengthen them.

Kathleen Eagen Johnson, a museum consultant and former curator and director of collections at Historic Hudson Valley,  is the project director for Historic Hudson Valley’s loan exhibition at the 2012 Winter Antiques Show.