In Their Hands: Telling Women’s Stories

These objects from Historic Hudson Valley’s curatorial and archival collections offer a window into the lives of the free and enslaved women who lived and worked at our historic sites, including Philipsburg Manor, Van Cortlandt Manor, and Sunnyside. Educators use these items to illuminate the history of women in the Hudson Valley region and to support the research generated by our Women’s History Institute. 

Objects from the Collection

Milk Bowl

Redware with glazed orange-brown interior (late 18th/early 19th c., Unknown maker), this dish is a later example of the kind of milk bowls that Susan, Abigail, Dinah, Massey and Sue, the African women enslaved at Philipsburg Manor, might have used in the dairy as part of their labor-intensive butter production for the Philipse family.

Redware Basin

This redware basin, with an interior white slip and lead glaze (late 18th/early 19th c., Unknown maker), features a curved ledge attached inside to the top edge that held soap when washing clothes. At Philipsburg, it would have likely been used by one of the enslaved women to wash clothing and linens.

Miniature Shoe

This charming miniature delftware shoe (ca. 1800-1850, Unknown maker), with a pointed toe and French heel, is thought to have been given as a favor to commemorate a wedding. Delftware, a kind of tin-glaze pottery which originated in the Netherlands in the 17th century, often took its designs and colors from Chinese porcelain imported to Europe by the Dutch East India Company.


Created and used by women for everyday use, this detachable linen and cotton pocket (18th c., Unknown maker) features designs of patchwork, stripes, eyes, and suns. Pre-19th century womens’ pockets tied around the waist and could be accessed through an opening in the seam of a skirt, while remaining hidden from the outside


Owned by a member of the Van Cortlandt family, this dress (19th c., Unknown maker) is made of pink satin brocade fabric, lined with crinoline, and trimmed with silk lace. The references to 18th-century fashions in the design of the dress suggest it may have been made as a costume, possibly for the centennial celebrations of 1876.

Alphabet Blocks & Toy Box

Toys such as these wooden, highly decorated blocks (late 19th c., Unknown maker) and box (1830, N. Grafton) were useful to mothers educating their children at an early age. These toys are typical of the kind that would have been enjoyed by Irving’s young relatives at Sunnyside.

Bouquet Holder

This silver bouquetier (1847, Gelston & Treadwell) was given to Charlotte Irving (niece of Washington Irving; youngest child of his brother, Ebenezer) by her husband William R. Grinnell on their wedding day, June 8, 1847. Bouquetiers typically held a small nosegay and were considered a fashionable accessory in the 19th century.

The manufacturer’s box is also shown, with inscriptions:
In pencil, on the top of the box:
April 1906 Given to C. I. Grinnell by her husband at her marriage
Given to Katharine Grinnell by her grandmother Charlotte Grinnell

In ink, inside the box:
Charlotte Irving Grinnell From W. R. Grinnell June 8, 1847


This doll (1850-1860, Unknown maker)—known as Belinda and made of porcelain, leather, and cotton—originally belonged to Theresa Romeyn Beck, a relation of the Van Cortlandt family, who later married a great-nephew of Washington Irving. Belinda may be considered a forerunner of contemporary dolls: her wardrobe is extensive and includes a cage crinoline and traveling cloak, as well as a steamer trunk to hold it all. Belinda can be seen at Sunnyside during “Home of the Legend” every fall.

Portable Desk

A small walnut and pine desk (mid-19th c., Unknown maker) with a slant-top door. Writing desks such as these were designed to be portable, so that middle class ladies could keep up their correspondence within the home or while traveling. This desk is regularly on display at Sunnyside

Account Book

The account book (1834-1858) of a milliner/seamstress, possibly living in Rye, NY, detailing supply purchases, personal and travel expenses, in English money and later in American money. This book is a rare illustration of a working woman’s life in mid-19th century New York.


This is the journal (March, 1863- November, 1864) of Susan Van Wart Storrow (1844 –1865), great-niece of Washington Irving. The journal details daily and social life in Civil War New York City, Lenox, MA and Irvington, NY, also noting national incidents and battles which will later be of significant historical importance.

Album of Sheet Music

Album of sheet music which belonged of Catharine Irving (1816-1911), niece of Washington Irving and resident of Sunnyside; bound copies of her piano and vocal versions of popular and operatic music for amateur study and performance. One of the pieces shown is “The Captive Knight,” a poem by the celebrated Romantic poet Felicia Hemans (1793-1835), whose work was in the Irving family collection. “The Captive Knight” is described as “set to music by her sister,” suggesting that artistic accomplishment ran in the family.

Crossed Letter

Letter from Eliza Storrs (1814-1837) to Emma Nicholas (1816-1866), December 19, 1836. Emma Nicholas was the daughter of Ann Hoffman Nicholas (the eldest daughter of Judge Josiah Hoffman, and older sister of Matilda Hoffman, who had been Washington Irving’s fiancee.) Washington Irving remained close friends with the Hoffman family after Matilda Hoffman’s death, and the Hoffman Family papers are an important part of Historic Hudson Valley’s manuscript collection and the subject of our original Women’s History Institute’s Virtual Transcription Project. This letter, written between two childhood friends, is a delightful example of a crossed letter. Rather than adding extra pages to a letter which would increase the cost of postage, correspondents often wrote diagonally or what appears as vertically across the page, crossing over the already horizontally written text – thus, a crossed letter.