Belle Skinner in Holyoke
1874 – 1928
The earliest records of Belle Skinner’s family cuisine were her mother’s letters to England, where her father was on a silk-manufacturing equipment buying trip. Three times that week they had strawberry shortcake for supper, and Belle’s older sister Libbie was suffering with an upset stomach. The result of having eaten too many strawberries. The following year, Belle moved to Holyoke with her family at the age of eight after the family silk mill was completely washed away in the tragic May 1874 reservoir dam failure and flood that left 155 dead and only the Skinner residence standing in the Williamsburg village of Skinnerville near the Mill River. The flood-damaged family home was dismantled, removed by train, barge, and carriage and reconstructed at its new and present location on Holyoke’s high ground at 238 Cabot Street.
Belle’s mother, known as “Lizzie” Skinner, and a short list of family cooks, mostly Irish and Scottish contributed to Belle’s household arts education, as was expected of all young women and girls of the period. Belle’s sister Katherine “Kitty” Skinner Kilborne kept a childhood record of recipes she learned to create in the family kitchen, in the back pages of one of Belle’s discarded French grammar practice notebooks. Cakes, cookies, and pies figured prominently in these years of the Skinner girls’ kitchen education—indeed, Mrs. Skinner was known for her Christmas pudding which graced every holiday table, a tribute to the William Skinner’s London heritage.
Belle Skinner was a student at Vassar Preparatory and Vassar College from 1881 through her graduation in 1887. She returned to Holyoke in 1887, after earning a bachelor’s degree in Music and French, and within a year embarked on a European tour with the family for more than six months. The few family menus that remain from this time reflect Belle’s increasingly sophisticated tastes for dining and entertaining, such as her literary mystery luncheon for a group of her young women friends at Wistariahurst. She created a tongue-in-cheek menu of double entendres meant to be at once relevant and amusing, a game of culinary clue for her luncheon guests, such as “A Sign of the Zodiac, Emphasized with Impertinence” (deviled crabs) and “A Persian Propelling Power” (sultana roll.)
In November of 1902, Belle and Kitty turned their attention to the nutritional needs of the women mill workers and opened the Skinner Coffee House, a women’s community center dedicated to the memory of their father. An annual Founder’s Day was celebrated each year in November to remember their father’s kindness, generosity, and charitable works whose embodied spirit filled the women’s community of the Skinner Coffee House
Skinner Coffee House was more than a factory cafeteria. The growth of its ethnic and multi-racial women’s clubs, after-school programs for children, and “35 to 40 different classes” including cooking, helped teach girls and women of all ages and marital status the basic, advanced, and then-innovative methods of cooking, canning and preserving in a simple but expansive kitchen facility. It was a “home away from home”[i] where women gathered for meals and self-improvement outside of family, work, or religious communities.
An “ideal place for women and children,” multiple generations of women grew up with the “sociability and cheerfulness” that ruled the safe and welcoming environment of the Coffee House. Presumably a working mother, Mrs. O’Leary started coming to the Coffee House when she was eight years old and, at the age of 32, already had seven children. She remembered “24 years of pleasure, joy, knowledge and friendship.” In 1920, two of Mrs. O’Leary’s daughters were coming to after-school classes, clubs and supervised playground activities for the children of Skinner Mill workers.
“Children flock there after school and find regular teachers to instruct them in sewing, cooking and in other household arts.” In addition to the household arts, dancing, theatrical, and music lessons were among the most popular activities for girls with the spacious recreation hall often filled to capacity with children learning ballroom dancing. In 1938, more than 260 girls were enrolled in tap dancing lessons at the Coffee House’s full-to-overflowing auditorium.
In addition to the daily luncheon offerings, snacks, and cooking classes, the numerous women’s clubs organized and hosted a variety of sold out, ethnic-themed community dinners at the Coffee House in order to raise money for club outings and to include families in the social pleasures and camaraderie of the House that had become a second home to so many—the Italian Women’s Club spaghetti supper, the German supper, the Polish supper; the Negro [sic] Women’s Club chicken pie supper and waffle dinner, Russian Tea, and holiday parties. Locally raised chickens and turkeys were distributed to every family through the women members of the Skinner Coffee House at Christmas—and there were always presents for the children. Each year’s financial record includes expenditures for dolls to be gifted to the children of mill workers at Christmas.Belle Skinner kept the administrative and financial records for the Skinner Coffee House, hosted annual Founder’s Day celebrations to remember her father, and arranged work bees to engage the women in charitable work for others less fortunate. Under Belle’s guidance in 1919, Skinner Coffee House women knitted mittens, gloves and scarves and sewed dresses for French wartime refugees, driven from their homes and communities during the northern bombing raids the Alsace and Lorraine districts.[ii] Belle and Katherine packed the garments and shipped them as part of Belle’s luggage during one war-time Atlantic crossing. She delivered these lovingly-crafted garments into the hands of those in need personally, with first-hand knowledge of the Holyoke women who had fashioned the clothing.
After Sarah Elizabeth Skinner died in 1908, Belle resided in Holyoke for much of the time, though during World War I and in the years immediately following, she would divide her time between France and America—returning to Holyoke to rejuvenate her seemingly inexhaustible energies.
From 1912 to 1914, Belle directed a Wistariahurst makeover, adding a great room, a grand winding staircase, a bright and airy breakfast room leading to an Italian Renaissance revival music room built to house a growing collection of antique European and Asian musical instruments. Belle personally designed the adjacent ornamental gardens, and is thought to have expanded the collection of roses to as many as 365 varieties.[iii] Belle hosted numerous family gatherings, charity events, musical performances and club meetings at Wistariahurst. The company often started in the rose garden or Japanese tea house, moved to the south veranda for dinner on warm summer evenings, and finished with entertainment in the music room. The 1927 Skinner family Christmas weekend reunion celebration included an expanded company of friends for an evening Bal Poudre, an eighteenth-century costume ball. The ball’s elegant midnight supper buffet punctuated a full evening of festive music and dancing til dawn. An old family friend remembered that ball “I shall always think of Miss Belle as hostess at her Christmas Eve party—how gracious and charming she was and how lovely she looked,” in her eighteenth-century French holiday-red silk gown and powdered wig, reminiscent of Marie Antoinette.
[i] Brown, Jean. Wistariahurst Archives. Skinner Collection. Skinner Coffee House – Box 180, folder 27. Working women’s testimonials from a 1920 Founder’s Day collection. Simple signatures, one line notes of appreciation, and full paragraphs describing the importance of the Coffee House in Holyoke women’s and families’ lives present a stunning tribute to the success of this charitable venture.
[ii] Wilbur Forrest. New York Herald Tribune, “Rich Woman Adopts an Entire French Village.” November 7, 1920, p.7.
[iii] Rachel Weiner. “Belle Skinner: The Journey of a Leisured Victorian from Conformity to Authenticity.” Mount Holyoke College (thesis), 1990.