Meet Belle Skinner

Belle’s Table – A Wistariahurst Museum Archive Fellowship

Clockwise from upper left – Wistaria in bloom at
Wistariahurst, Eiffel Tower (1905), Belle Skinner (1887),
Metropolitan Opera House (1900) New York—Broadway and 39th Street.

It’s summer. The frenzy of the last weeks of the semester turns to thoughts of my first fellowship at Wistariahurst Museum. The fellowship follows on the heels of a year of work study in the museum archives, exploring the history of Belle Skinner and her charitable food organizing efforts, family entertaining, and social gatherings during the end of the nineteenth century and into the first two decades of the twentieth. The Golden Age. The Great War. Women winning the vote.

This project will culminate with the publication of a social history publication, Belle’s Table, a historical cookbook that situates Belle Skinner in three locations. Belle’s Table tells the story of this Vassar-educated woman philanthropist and her determination to bring people together around tables. The museum publication of Belle’s Table, scheduled for spring 2014 release, explores the cuisine of the period in Holyoke, Massachusetts, New York City, and Hattonchȃtel in the Lorraine district of France.

Ms. Skinner adopted and restored the French village in the region of World War I’s northeastern battlefields; a project that began 1919 and ended at her death in 1928. The cuisine featured in Belle’s Table ranges from the Skinner family holiday table to the Gilded Age dining rooms of New York’s restaurants and French regional dishes of Lorraine—a foodmap through the life and times of Belle Skinner.

Much of the research for the project was conducted in the Wistariahurst Museum archives under the direction of museum curator, Penni Martorell (FP, 2005). Skinner family letters, diaries and scrapbooks, newspaper articles, privately published monographs, menus, and early twentieth-century photographs and video productions provided a wealth of resource material that inspired and then informed the project.

By the mid-nineteen-teens, Belle Skinner’s philanthropic interests shifted from her home city of Holyoke to the needs of war refugees in the wake of World War I. As co-founder of the Skinner Coffee House, she had offered working women and their families a “home away from home,” as one life-long club member recalled in a c.1920s book of Skinner Coffee House testimonials found in the Skinner Family Collection of the Wistariahurst Museum archives.

As president of the American Committee of Villages Libérés, Belle embarked on a reconstitution project to restore the medieval village of Hattonchȃtel, its agricultural livelihood and culture, thirty-five kilometers south of Verdun.  The French government honored Belle Skinner with the Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française in 1919, and in 1920 the Consul-General of France presented her with the cross of a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. A marble monument of a provincial farmwoman was erected in the village to honor the casualties of “The Great War.”  But for the Hattonchȃtel villagers, the rebuilding, christening and ringing of the restored church bell signified a return to life as they had known it, before the war.

Belle’s Table, the blog, will illustrate the progress of organizing the project and seeing it through to completion. Topics will include archival research, grant writing, organizing and tracking a targeted culinary history research project, preparing potential questions for an honors thesis, as well as more specific historical content that will (hopefully) entice the reader to explore the fun bits and the richness of Belle Skinner’s world. And recipes, of course.

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