It has been a pleasure to take you on the journey of this year’s Yuletide at Winterthur tour with the installments of the blog. The final theme of Yuletide turns the focus to Winterthur founder, Henry Francis du Pont, and one of his favorite past times, entertaining on the estate. Guests are invited to enter the Chinese Parlor, a room during Henry Francis du Pont’s residence that saw a great deal of use. Women would return to the Parlor after dinner for coffee and were later joined by the men to play cards into the early morning.
“The Chinese Room, with its piano and its bridge and backgammon tables, became our favorite place for parties as well as daily use.” – Ruth Lord, Henry F. du Pont and Winterthur, p. 188.
When the du Ponts were at home, flowers were abundantly displayed. Formal rooms such as the Chinese Parlor might have as many as 25 arrangements. The flowers seen on the tour evoke Mr. du Pont’s preference for floral displays that utilized masses of a single type of flower.
As in many of our own homes, evergreens and flowers have always been part of the holiday season at Winterthur. During the 1800s, poinsettias were not the Christmas staple they are today; rather, violets and roses were grown in the Winterthur greenhouses to decorate the house at Christmas. Later in the H. F. du Pont household (1904–1950), poinsettias appear with great frequency on the lists of holiday descriptions. Staff who worked for Mr. du Pont recalled the lavish display of greenery on the Montmorenci stairs. The stairs lend themselves to garland because the greenery could be draped and tied. Mr. du Pont was adamant that no nails or hooks should be driven into the architectural details. Therefore none of the fireplace mantles were garlanded.
The du Pont’s placed their Christmas tree in the Conservatory every year. The tree was placed here in December 1931, the first Christmas the family spent in the newly renovated house. The Conservatory tree throughout the years varied from 14’ to 18’ tall and was decorated in a stylish modern fashion. Each year the tree was banked with some type of floral display, predominately poinsettias. The Norway Spruce donated by The Klusak Family of Fallen Timber Farm in Rising Sun, Maryland, stands 15 feet tall. Lit with bright lights and beautiful glass ornaments, it dazzles in the Conservatory.
The custom at Winterthur was for each holiday guest to have a basket under the Conservatory tree until Christmas Day, when staff brought the baskets into the library. Gifts given at the du Pont celebration varied from books, personal items, and decorative household items, including occasional antiques. Mr. du Pont gave his wife and his daughters, Ruth and Pauline, jewelry and clothing, among other things.
One of the favorite stops on Yuletide at Winterthur is the Dried-Flower Christmas Tree. Although H. F. du Pont did not decorate his own tree in this fashion, the tree is inspired by du Pont’s love for the Winterthur Garden. Many of the blossoms on this tree grew at Winterthur and all of them were dried here.
Christmastime at Winterthur was all about the families. A photo recently given to Winterthur by H. F. du Pont’s daughter Ruth du Pont Lord inspires the dining room table display. The photo shows the family gathered around the table festively decorated with her children in mind. On the table are three small Christmas trees and four tall sparkly reindeer standing guard at the corners. The meal is likely a luncheon on Christmas Eve, which would have been followed by the staff Christmas party later in the afternoon.
Another tradition at Winterthur during the holiday season was the Christmas event that became known as “Mr. Harry’s party.” The affair featured entertainment by a magician, a ventriloquist, marionettes, or trained animals, and afterward, ice cream, cake, and presents for all ages.
H. F du Pont took great pride in all of his celebrations.
“My father invested much energy in these parties, chose the entertainment, and bought the presents himself—first at Bloomingdale’s, and in later years at Wanamaker’s. . . where the manager allowed him to shop after hours. The year before he died, he had 219 presents ready for distribution.” — Ruth Lord, Henry F. du Pont and Winterthur, A Daughter’s Portrait, pp. 217–18
The Yuletide tour at Winterthur, a special treat for visitors of all ages, extends until January 5. Winterthur is closed Christmas Day and open New Year’s Day. For more information and special Yuletide programming, please visit winterthur.org/yuletide.