In last month’s Meet the Hewitts “snippet” you met the Cooper and Hewitt grandparents and Amelia Cooper and Abram Hewitt. This brief chapter pictures the early years of the Hewitt children.
Margery Masinter, Trustee, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and MA ’93, History of Decorative Arts and Design, Parsons the New School for Design
Sue Shutte, Historian at Ringwood
Childhood Snapshots: 1870s
Peter Cooper and the Hewitt family lived together in two homes—9 Lexington Avenue in New York City and Ringwood Manor in New Jersey. Abram and Amelia Hewitt showed great patience and tolerance in raising their six children, taking the typical childhood pranks and mischievousness in stride.
The house of my grandfather, Peter Cooper, where we all lived, was a large square brick house. . . . The high stoop entrance was in the center. . . . My first active memory is of meeting my sister, Nellie, and punching her in the stomach.
So recalls Edward Ringwood Hewitt in his lively memoir, Those Were the Days.
The house at 9 Lexington Avenue contained 35 rooms tended by many servants and included an extensive library and gymnasium. Its proximity to Gramercy Park offered private space for sports and games with cousins and friends. No wonder the children grew up to be well-read athletes with an enormous sense of fun, who loved to play practical jokes on guests and family members.
Edward tells of using a hand-cranked electric machine, “My sister Nellie had wonderful long blond hair which would stand out when she was electrified. . . . We used to play that she was the wild man of Borneo.” (When Edward took away the charge, Nellie was fine.)
The Hewitt children were introduced at an early age to a vibrant social life at dinners at 9 Lexington Avenue and house parties at Ringwood Manor. A steady flow of successful businessmen, brilliant inventors, and distinguished foreign visitors came to see Peter Cooper and enjoy Abram’s sharp wit and Amelia’s gentle gracious manner. The family was known for its hospitality, and conversation at the homes was always spirited.
Abram and Amelia insisted on a well-rounded education. Therefore, all the children were tutored in drawing, languages, and music, in addition to formal classes at Miss Eliza Torrey’s School. At age seventeen, Sarah attended Miss Porter’s Young Ladies School at Farmington, CT. According to Edward, the children were tutored for hours every day. “Our mother had an obsession about education. She felt that we should waste no time during the whole year but must have lessons during the summer.” His stories of playing pranks on their French governess at Ringwood, Mme. Rogelin, are very entertaining.
While their mother focused on her gardens, her homes, and collecting fashionable objects of the French taste, Abram amassed a large library. Eleanor remembers her father’s preoccupation in “awakening and cultivating the minds of his children,” and, as she wrote in 1919,
To give his children pleasure and occupation, he placed within their reach in his personal library delightful histories to fill their minds with the manners and customs of olden times and countries.
The Cooper Union Library has preserved the girls’ scrapbook from the 1870's, filled with drawings, opera programs from the Academy of Music, playbills, school memories, ship manifests, and all manner of ephemera—documents of their meticulous collecting at a very early age! There must have been many similar scrapbooks, now lost, filled with memorable events, such as when they went to Philadelphia in 1876 for the Centennial Exposition.
Summers and weekends at Ringwood Manor, with its fifty-one rooms, including twenty-six bedrooms and thirteen bathrooms, provided idyllic times for the six athletic Hewitt children. Ringwood was also known for its liveliness, frequently host to a variety of family and friends.
Eleanor recalls the active life at Ringwood Manor, with its hundreds of acres,
These young people who were among the pioneers as women sports in riding, driving, hunting, and skating, who loved horses and dogs, games, etc., had imported the first game of lawn tennis.
The Ringwood guest books are wonderful testimonials to many happy times and the Hewitt family’s love of entertaining.
Interactive Timeline of the Cooper Hewitt World
Hewitt, Edward R., Those Were the Days: Tales of a Long Life. Duell, Sloan and Pierce, 1943.
Hewitt, Eleanor Garnier, The Making of a Modern Museum, 1919. Online at http://archive.org/details/makingofmodernmu00hewi.
Coming up next month:
Developing an educated eye
Travels to Europe
Meeting art dealers
Early collecting experiences