Victorian Christmas at the Ramsey House
The best time to go on a historic house tour is around the holidays because they are filled with elegant decorations common among the time period the house was first occupied. Not having had the chance to visit the Alexander Ramsey House in Saint Paul yet, I decided to book a Victorian Christmas tour of the house.
Alexander Ramsey was a prominent businessman in Pennsylvania before he made the journey to Minnesota in 1849 with his wife, Anna, and their first child. He is a well known figure in Minnesota because he was the states's second governor, mayor of Saint Paul, a U.S. senator and Secretary of War for Rutherford B. Hayes. Alexander and Anna were married four years before they left for Minnesota. Unfortunately their first two children only lived to the ages of four and 19 months respectively. Only their daughter Marion lived to adulthood.
The first winter in Minnesota was hard on Anna Ramsey. They were living in the original 1850 house, later replaced by the massive three story dwelling that stands today. While Alexander was away on business, she spent her first Christmas alone with their son. The temperature was so cold she could not keep water from freezing inside the house. She wrote to Alexander telling him she would never spend another Christmas alone.
The second house was built between 1868 and 1872 and was designed by architect Monroe Sheire. The house was up-to-date for the times and featured hot and cold running water, gas lighting, and hot water radiators. It even had a speaking tube that allowed the Ramsey's to speak to their servants in the kitchen. Another special purchase for the new home was an ice chest to keep their food cooled. While under construction the house was intended for only Alexander and Anna, but their daughter Marion and her children moved in after her husband was hospitalized. Evidence of the last minute change can be found on the third floor. Alexander's office was to be on the third floor, which is why they had a grand stair leading to the rooftop. This was to give visitors the allusion that there was a fourth story on the house. Instead the room was used for the children.
One of the most interesting holiday decorations displayed was the ornaments on the Christmas tree. Little metal looking pieces were actually pressed cardboard that had been painted. They kept a bucket of water and a sponge nearby because the candles on the tree often caught them on fire. For this reason, the Victorian Christmas tree was only lit for special occasions and on Christmas Day for short periods of time. A second interesting ornament was a pickle. Guests would play a game by searching the tree of the pickle ornament. The winner, if a child, would get a special gift. Adults received good wishes. We play a similar game in my house with our guests year round, but it involves a tiny cow that could be hidden anywhere.
The last Victorian game played throughout the holiday season involved a different kind of mistletoe. A ball of greenery with the berries throughout was hung above the entrance. Guests could pick a berry and present it to a lady who would either accept or decline. If they accepted the giver was allowed to kiss her on the cheek. This was quite scandalous back in the day, therefore berries were chosen carefully. In today's time, you find mistletoe hung all over and featured prominently in every Hallmark channel Christmas movie.
The house was occupied by three generations of Ramsey's until 1964 when the expansive home was donated to the Minnesota Historical Society. The granddaughter, Anita Furness, had planned for many years to donate the house to become a museum and was gathering fabric samples, making notes, and saving heirlooms. The house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has about 95 percent original artifacts.
Walking through the house I was in love with everything from the colorful wood work, the elegant stairs, the formal rooms to the stories the house held. I imagined myself living in those times, a pioneer out in the booming city of Saint Paul. I would love to travel back in time to really experience what life was like for the Ramsey family, but until the technology of Back to the Future is realized, I have to settle for the house tour instead.