It is not often that one comes across a group of 19th century photographs that show both the exterior and the interior of a private residence. The Pope Mansion photographs are one such collection, but charming as it may be to see the white peacock that once woke the residents of Bushwick with its screeches, those images lack one significant element--there are no pictures of the residents of the house. What would we not give to see the profligate George Pope and his sensible sister, who wished to live within her modest means?
Now another small collection has crossed our threshold--a group of seven images of the residence of John H. Peet, at 241 Harrison St Brooklyn, known today as Kane St after being renamed on May 8, 1928. Taken in 1889 and 1890, these photographs show the exterior and interior of a handsome federal style frame house, with porches all but engulfed in greenery, and a picket fence enclosing a small front garden. Architectural order contrasts with vegetable ebullience. It is an attractive building of four stories including an attic where the family's Irish servants probably had their quarters.
Of slightly larger format, the interior shots show a lavishly furnished interior as would befit a partner in the well-known dry goods company of Whittemore, Peet, Post & Co. Portraits of ancestors hang above a heavy sofa; sumptuous brocade drapes frame the windows in high Victorian style, and rugs, tablecloths and wallpaper vie for decorative preeminence. In the opposite corner of the same room, a mantelpiece supports heavy candelabras and, dimly seen, another ancestor watches benignly over the books, the antimacassars, the footstools, the fire irons--all the paraphernalia of middle class comfort.
And here below is the dining room, with silverware massed on the sideboard below a portrait of a pensive cleric, and an ornate lightolier that must have presided over thousands of family meals. In 1880 the Peet family consisted of John H, aged 52, born in Connecticut and working in the dry goods business; Caroline, his wife, aged 46, keeping house; son John, age 23, working in the family trade; daughter Cora, 19; and sons Louis (17) and Robert (14) still at school. (Dry goods are textiles such as blankets, linens, uniforms, ready made clothes etc.) Servants Mary Cullen and Catherine Brady kept the house in order.
Now this must be the family patriarch, taken wearing what looks like a robe and slippers, at Christmas 1890. He is 62 years old but looks older. An extravagant display of family photographs suggest that he is one of a numerous and prosperous clan, and yet he looks off into the distance, unsmiling, wondering perhaps, what it was all for. Or maybe he is turning over in his mind the curious story of the six thousand cases of blankets. On July 19, 1878, the New York Times announced that Whittemore, Peet, Post & Co would be auctioning off a great many blankets, carriage robes etc. On July 21, John H. Peet went down to Brighton Beach to enjoy the sea air; and on July 23 the blanket sale took place, at which $1,200,000 worth of dry goods sold for $900,000, with attendance from all the prominent dry goods houses across the nation. This poor result was perhaps a harbinger of things to come, for the following year according to the New York Times of May 8, the company suspended its business operations with liabilities of over $1,000,000. But paying creditors 50 cents on the dollar does not appear to have significantly altered the family's standard of living. They retained the house, and the silver was evidently kept polished.
As far as I can tell, there is no story of family conflict here to rival that of the Popes. John H. Peet lived until 1902. His obituary notes that he was a grandson of Major Gen John Webb, a Revolutionary officer; a member of the Hamilton Club, a life member of the Long Island Historical Society, one of the original members of the Merchants Club of New York, a member of the vestry of Christ Church at the corner of Clinton and Kane Streets, and a Trustee of the Citizens' Savings Bank.
Who is this lady with the white bonnet, the richly pleated dress staring straight ahead as her hands clutch a pair of knitting needles? Pictured twice, her expression ranges from glum to glummer. Common sense would claim her as Mrs Peet, the Caroline of the censuses of 1860, 1870, 1880 and 1900, survivor of 45 years of marriage to John H., but on the verso of both images is written "R.L. Peet." Caroline Peet took a prominent role in organizing the Children's Carnival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1877, the social event of the year. Of R.L. Peet, we know nothing at all.
No use shouting "Cheer up, R.L. Peet! The hairdresser did a lovely job with the curling tongs and lunch is in half an hour!" The poor lady seems frozen in dire thoughts of eternity, or for all we know, has simply dropped a stitch.