A Traveler’s Guide to Hartford’s Harriet Beecher Stowe House
By June Tran
HARTFORD, Conn. – A narrow pathway way cuts through Harriet Beecher Stowe’s garden leading us towards the front patio. Long and thin shrubberies lined the pathway towards the front door. As we passed by, their long finger tips tugged at our pants and legs; preventing us from further entry. At the end of our path we encountered a tall and magnificent white house. Symmetrical overall with a defined protrusion in the front, the white house stood in contrast with its emerald surroundings.
Upon entering the house, our eyes focused on the steep staircase that connected the lower floor to the upper. Arriving at the parlor, our guide quickly introduced us to the many paintings of flowers and plants hanging on the wall.
As the tour guide kindly told us, Harriet Beecher Stowe was somewhat of a “hobby painter.” The paintings hanging across the wall were created during her various trips to her other home in Mandarin, Florida.
During her winters in Florida, Stowe painted flowers and plants native to that area and brought them back to be showcased above the two or three bookshelves that lined the curved wall of the parlor. Simple decorations – family portraits and small statues – were scattered over the room. Probably the most notable item on her book shelf was a bust of her famous brother, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher.
From the outer parlor, we walked through a large doorway to the inner parlor, a cramped space reserved for family with bookcases covering the walls. On the far left side of the room stood a bookcase filled with Stowe’s works.
Compared to her prolific neighbor, Mark Twain, Stowe was also a very busy writer, publishing 30 books in her lifetime. Her most celebrated book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was not only the second bestselling book in the 19th century, but also served as a catalyst to the 20 volumes of signatures gathered on anti-slavery petitions by the Duchess of Sutherland.
In addition, to being a gifted writer, Stowe was also a talented musician. As demonstrated by the black piano that sits as the centerpiece of the inner parlor, Stowe would often play it as entertainment in this room.
The dining room of the house was no different from rest, with a welcoming feeling radiating from the room. Unlike Twain’s house, which sparked a more distant and extravagant feeling, Stowe’s house, with its simple decorations and low ceilings, felt less intimidating and opulent.
In Stowe’s home, the walls are covered with paintings and pictures of her family members. A distinctive painting of magnolia flowers hung on the left side of the dining room. For symbolic reasons, Beecher felt a connection to magnolias, which are known for their resilient and tough roots. As a writer and woman in the 19th century, Stowe identified with these traits as her own.
Symbolic items resonated throughout Stowe’s house, and a sense of authenticity and simplicity permeated it. In the bedroom Stowe’s adult twin daughters, Hattie and Eliza shared were two small beds, a medium wardrobe and a small vanity.
Despite having suitors, these two never married. In their eyes, marriage was not seen as an ‘opportunity.’ Instead, these two women opted for a job with their parents: helping them write manuscripts.
Entering the guest room – a lavish room easily mistaken for the master bedroom – we encountered the first and only closet in the entire house. In the 19th century, closets were taxed as a complete room, but Stowe did not hesitate to include one in her guest’s bedroom.
Despite leaving Connecticut for the winters, she still furnished the room with a fireplace – something her daughters’ room didn’t have. This goes to show Stowe practiced Victorian conventions despite her involvement in revolutionary movements such as the women’s rights movement and women’s suffrage movement.
Stowe’s own simple bedroom did not reflect her busy schedule. Similar to the room her daughters shared, her bedroom displayed austere decorations such as small framed pictures and a self-portrait of her daughter, Georgiana.
Sitting at the end of Stowe’s bed was a strikingly beautiful wardian case. Encapsulated within it were a myriad of bright green plants. Ivy vines with thin leaves hung above, draping over the entirety of the glass window. Calvin Stowe, her husband, had a study room adjacent to her bedroom. An intriguing painting hung above his writing desk. It featured a grey winter owl with a backdrop of a simmering South American tropical forest. While the painting itself scorches with contradiction, it is, however, another symbolic item in Stowe’s house.
Since Stowe was supposedly greeted by President Abraham Lincoln as “the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war,” her husband theorized that this owl painting might have been a gesture to connect both the South and North together once again.
Described as perhaps the busiest person who ever lived, one certainly does get that impression from Stowe’s house. In comparison to Stowe’s gravitas – she participated in three national movements while at the same time taking care of her seven children – the spirit of Mark Twain dims in contrast.