Oh, why am I out, seeking sushi sustenance, on the coldest day of the year?
Because I have a touch of cabin fever, and because Maud all but forcibly pulled me out, plunked me on my scooter, and got me to a hot bowl of miso soup at Okinawa nearby.
Living in the Cabin, even with central heating, we spend a lot of time in front of a fire stoked with very good hardwood. I can’t help but imagine the hearths of the past when New York was Dutch, when New Amsterdam was 15 streets and 2,000 residents. When a fire was the only heat source in a long, bitter winter.
Not much remains of that era’s built environment. But one impressive hearth specimen remains from the 1680s, twenty miles up the Hudson from Manhattan in Yonkers, New York. Now known as Philipse Manor Hall, it was then the house Margaret Hardenbroeck built. I wrote about her, her female descendants and her home, constructed of coursed rubblestone masonry in the then-wilderness, for my history The Women of the House. Hardenbroeck and her husband Frederick Philipse had negotiated for tens of thousands of acres with the local Lenape Indians.
In her new home’s first-flour room — seen here to the left — with its corner view of the river and the majestic Palisades, she installed a fireplace of bricks held together by plaster fortified with horsehair. It was huge, designed in the style of fireplaces of the day, so big a person could duck inside and see the clear cobalt heavens through the brick-framed top. A tongue of flagstone extended into the room, providing a generous space to prepare meals. A slightly more genteel version of her hearth can be seen at New York’s Van Cortlandt House– the oldest house in the Bronx — built some years later, in 1748.
Despite the heat that must have escaped up the chimney, the occupants of Hardenbroeck’s house, out in the woods, all by themselves, with no neighbors, no local tavern, no welcoming church, would surely stay warm.
How do you think the Dutch in America survived the cold winters? I asked Maud as we tucked into hot coffee.
They wore plenty of furs, she said.
Right. It didn’t hurt that Hardenbroeck made her living as a fur trader – one of the most successful of the age. This could be a likeness of her engaging in her business, beaver hat set squarely on her head.
She traveled from the island of Manhattan up the Hudson to Albany to acquire beaver pelts from Native American trappers and returned south to ship the furs off to Holland, sometimes traveling on board to keep an eye on her merchandise. She made a fortune, more than enough to build her solid Yonkers pied a terre and to clothe herself in furs as well. She was a crack businesswoman and I always liked to see her signature at the bottom of contracts.She could definitely drape herself in all the furs she wanted to, like this well-cloaked London fashionista from the era, portrayed by Wenceslas Hollar. The mask is to keep her complexion fresh.
Something odd struck me about Hardenbroeck’s fireplace when I first saw it. Most Dutch hearths have a decorative surround of Delft tiles.
Staid Dutch burghers usually employed tilework in pure white or sober biblical allegories in safe shades of blue. Hardenbroeck’s, on the other hand, was framed by painted tiles that she might have found especially chic, with exotic pictures in a stylish minor-key tint called manganese that resembled the magenta-blue-brown of a fading bruise. Off shades called “sad” persisted as high fashion in the clothes of this period, denoting not necessarily gray or black but muddier earth tones, whether russet, plummy red, or the golden brown called ‘tawney.’ Even some pewter plates received the descriptor “sad-colored.”
Hardenbroeck chose a theme with some Delft craftman’s cracked vision of the wilden of the New World: heavy-lidded hermaphrodites frolicking on animal feet, breasts bulging, carrying fruits that resembled ripe melons and accompanied by old-style griffins. These images reflected the era, which paired intensive high-seas exploration and scientific curiosity with tenacious ancient beliefs in monsters.
Artists and writers without firsthand knowledge of lands abroad still portrayed the scenery of America as crowded with Cyclopes and unicorns and other odd beasts, like those of Fortunio Liceti, who was sharing his creations with the world at around the same time.
The fanciful renderings on Hardenbroeck’s hearth tiles offer an ironic counterpoint to the house’s site, centered among the ghosts of ancient native villages whose all-too human inhabitants had perished of fevers, plagues and violence. New Amsterdam, where Hardenbroeck spent most of her time, was relatively cosmopolitan – for America. These were people, not only Dutch but a range of nationalities, who had braved all sorts of dangers to settle here, and now they lived clustered together in relative safety. They even bartered and socialized with the local Indians, when they weren’t making war on them.
But did the fur trader’s hearth fires keep her warm against the seventeenth century equivalent of our polar vortex? We have to assume they did. Folksy colonial historian Alice Morse Earle quoted a poem in one of her many books about the Dutch in Manhattan.
Shut in from all the world about,
We sat at the clean-winged hearth about,
Content to let the north wind roar
In baffled rage at pane and door,
While the red logs before us beat
The frost-line back with tropic heat;
And ever, when a louder blast
Shook beam and rafter as it passed,
The merrier up its roaring draught
The great throat of the chimney laughed,
The house dog on his paws outspread
Laid to the fire his drowsy head…
Hardenbroeck kept her up-river lodgings until her death in 1691, at the age of 54, and the house stayed in the family for a century after that, until the loyalist Philipses were driven off their estate after the Revolution, back to England. Hardenbroeck used the house at Yonkers throughout her career-intensive years as a stopover on her way to and from the fur fair at Albany, storing goods in a dry, paved cellar, no doubt happy to warm her hands by a blazing fire for a couple of days en route.
The sushi has arrived.
Cold fish on a cold day, how nice. We are fond of our fresh fish, here along the Hudson in the winter of 2014. No doubt, the Dutch denizens of New York also appreciated their seafood more than 300 years ago. After all, the harbor at New Amsterdam was stocked with foot-long oysters.