By Maggie Lidz, Estate Historian
In 1839, after two years abroad, Evelina du Pont and her husband, J. Antoine Bidermann, settled into residence at Winterthur, their newly acquired estate. The 350-acre Delaware farm was formerly owned and managed as a tenanted sheep farm by her Evelina’s late father, E. I. du Pont, founder of the eponymous gunpowder company. The Bidermanns were not newlyweds but retirees. In homage to their recent travels, they named the property after the Bidermann ancestral hometown in Switzerland.
There is a long history of wine drinking at Winterthur, unsurprisingly as both Evelina and Antoine were French-born. Evelina emigrated in 1800 with her family when she was four years old. According to Norman Wilkinson’s excellent 1972 publication, E. I. du Pont: Botaniste, her parents made wine in France and continued to do so in Delaware. Wine grapes were a familiar part of her childhood, although there is no evidence that she grew them later at Winterthur. Antoine arrived in the United States in 1814, when he was 24. His father was a successful banker in Paris who had invested in the du Pont gunpowder mill. Antoine acted as his father’s agent. While checking on the state of du Pont’s business, he fell in love with Evelina. They married in 1815 and set up house near the mills where Antoine went to work. They had one son, James. When James turned 20, Antoine sent him to engineering school in France. Like his father before him, and to the great unhappiness of his parents, James fell in love and married while overseas.
Evelina and Antoine waged an unsuccessful 20-year campaign, conducted mostly through letters, to get their son (and his wife and growing family) back to America. These letters, preserved carefully at Hagley Museum and Library, are enormously informative and revealing about everyday life at Winterthur in this very early period. Wine comes up on rare occasions. Perhaps if it had come up more often, the Bidermanns would have had more success with luring their son back.
During the winter of 1850, Evelina wrote in annoyance to her son and daughter-in-law:
Your Aunt Adele seems to think we have no wine in this country. Although I do not drink it from taste and your father (now) on account of his health, still I can assure you whenever any of our friends come we always have it on the table and we do not mean to treat you otherwise.
Her children remained unconvinced and entrenched in Paris.
Winterthur’s 1866 household inventory, made after the death of the Bidermanns, confirms Evelina’s description of a copious quantity of wine. The 6 decanters and 45 claret and champagne glasses listed seem more than adequate for even a modern household. Still, despite Evelina’s protests and evidence of abundant glassware, Evelina’s daughter-in-law was not entirely wrong. Though widely available in 19th-century America, wine lacked the central cultural place it had in France.
One of the few items that survives from the Bidermann era at Winterthur is a partially dated (August 25, no year) bill for “1 Basket of Champagne” from J. Snider, Jr. a wine merchant at 30 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. The inventory on Snider’s printed bill included, as typical in the United States, more kinds of spirits and fortified wines than natural table wine:
Sherries, Madeiras, & Ports of every variety, still and sparkling Champagne, Burgundy, Rhine, Moselle, red & white Hermitage, Clarets, Sauterne, Lisbon, Teneriffe, Sicily, Tokay, Constantia, Paxaretta, Marachino, Rivesaltes, Curacao, Kibserer, Brandies, Scotch and Irish Whisky, Jamaica Spirits, Gin, …in wood & in bottles.
The 1866 inventory has no wine. Evelina died in March of 1863, and in August of that year her husband, blind and unhappy, returned to France to be cared for by his son and daughter-in-law. Before he left, Bidermann distributed books, plants, furniture and liquor to relatives and put Winterthur on the market. Some of the liquor from the Winterthur cellar was given to Evelina’s sister Sophie and her husband, Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont.
A decade later, Henry James invented a continental character named Felix Young for his novel The Europeans, published in 1878. James, as familiar with Europe as America, had his character repeat the same rumor as the Bidermans’ daughter-in-law. While sipping Madeira in Boston, Young “wondered why he had been told there was no wine in America.” It’s a pity that he never got to share a bottle with the Bidermanns.
Related blog post: Twentieth-Century Wine at Winterthur