Victorian Curiosities

Rhinebeck’s Wilderstein and Poughkeepsie’s Locust Grove are two of the most highly regarded Victorian Estates in the Hudson Valley. We are pleased to present this joint online exhibition featuring a selection of household objects original to each house. The Victorians were very inventive, and had intriguing and fantastical things! We hope you enjoy this “virtual” journey stepping back in time and learning more about life in the Victorian era.

Match box cover

Nineteenth-century houses were littered with matches. Candles, lamps, fireplaces, and gas lights all had to be lit individually, and smokers of pipes and cigarettes consumed matches by the score. Matches became widely available in the 1820s and by the 1850s “safety matches” which used red phosphorus and a separate, treated striking surface were being manufactured by the millions. In an elegant house, though, common cardboard boxes clashed with the décor and so elegant covers were created to conceal the box. This example was made in China about 1900 and featured a brass frame with enamel decorations, and a top panel of carved jade. From the Locust Grove collection.

Stereoscope and Zograscope

Victorians loved technology and this beautiful wooden frame (1850-1875) combines two sets of lenses for viewing images. The large lens on top is the Zograscope – it magnifies flat images and can enhance the viewer’s sense of depth. The two eyepieces below are the Stereoscope – two lenses designed to be used with stereocards. Stereocards are composed of two images of the same scene takes from slightly different angles. When viewed through the special prisms of the stereoviewer, the image appears to be three-dimensional. From the Locust Grove collection.

Bird Bouquet

Specimen groups like this one were common features in Victorian households. Variations include flowers crafted from paper, shells, or wax, (invariably protected under glass) but birds carefully mounted and preserved were a popular way to bring color and nature indoors. Today most people prefer their birds alive! This example was presented to Annette Young’s grandfather, George Innis, in 1865 by Poughkeepsie’s 150th New York State Infantry Regiment in gratitude for his “untiring efforts” to support the Union during the Civil War. Look for the Cedar Waxwing, Scarlet Tanager, and Baltimore Oriole. From the Locust Grove collection.

Seal Wheel

Letter writing (and reading) filled much of the day for 19th-century Americans. Before pre-gummed envelopes were available, sealing wax was used to keep letters private. Sticks of hard wax were melted over a candle and dripped onto the flap, then flattened with a decorative seal. Some writers used the same seal over and over but others liked to change things up. For them, seal wheels like this one created multiple options for a decorative finish. This example, made between 1875 and 1900 includes six different seals of carved semi-precious stone, set in gold mounts on an amethyst-glass handle. From the Locust Grove collection.


Innis Young, who moved with his parents to Locust Grove in 1895 at the age of 8, was almost entirely deaf by the early 20th century. He purchased this otophone (an early hearing aid) from the E.B. Meyerowitz Company of New York in 1919 after a number of medical treatments failed to improve his hearing. The otophone works by holding the flat side to the user’s ear and pointing the horn toward the person speaking. A diaphragm inside theoretically amplifies the sound (though we’re not sure how well it really worked!). From the Locust Grove collection.

Celery Vase

Throughout the 19th-century celery was a popular treat on most dinner tables. Instead of being chopped, trimmed, or cooked, though, in elegant houses diners would find it served with the leaves on, standing in cool water to keep it fresh. This vase, of hand blown and cut glass, was probably made between 1825 and 1850 in Pittsburgh – one of the largest centers of American glassmakers. It originally belonged to Annette Young’s great-grandmother – Annette carefully documented its history as a family heirloom. From the Locust Grove collection.


By the mid-19th century, inkstands became both ornate and whimsical, with each country specializing in their own unique style. This Turkish Style Brass Inkstand, circa 1875-95, features two inkwells with hinged covers in the form of domed minarets. These minarets are on a shaped stand with a serpentine skirt and scrolled feet. The entire inkstand is elaborately engraved with flowering vines, entrelacs, and a crocodile fighting a dog. The base is engraved with hunting scenes and wild animals. From the Wilderstein collection.

Butter Churn

From the mid-1800s through the 1940s, the hand-crank butter churn was the most commonly used household butter churn in America. This butter churn has a rectangular, clear glass container with rounded corners as a base. Screwing into the top of the container is an iron mechanism with two interlocking wheels and wooden handle screws on top. When the wheels are turned, it moves wooden paddles which reach the bottom of the interior of the container. Remnants of the silver paint remain on the exterior. From the Wilderstein collection.

Toast Rack

This silver-colored toast rack is both decorative and functional. It is formed by seven ogee arch bands rising in height from the center and resting on a rectangular frame with ball feet. The arch bands create partitions for up to six slices of toast. The gaps between the partitions are essential to keep the toast from getting soggy and allow vapors to escape. The centermost band ends in an ogee arch handle with fleur de lis finial, which would allow the rack to be easily passed around the table. This arch is supported by a rod that rests on the central bar running the length of the base. From the Wilderstein collection.

Postal Scale

Before the telephone and telegraphs were widely available, Americans relied on letter writing to keep in touch. This Roberval style, brass postal scale was created by Tiffany & Company, Union Square, New York, Circa 1860-80. Both of its balance pans are engraved with a cluster of flowers and lie on openwork supports. Sitting on its oval base are its graduated weights used for measurement. From the Wilderstein collection.

Fly Trap

A piece of local history, this “Decker’s Giant Fly Trap” was made by the Decker Bros in Rhinebeck, New York. The trap works by luring pest attracted to sweet nectar placed in the interior. Flies would enter the mesh cone that narrows to a small entrance, preventing larger bugs such as moths from entering. The flies would be unable to escape the trap, as they only would fly upward and sideways, not downward to freedom. This trap is created using a wooden A-frame painted olive green with slanted screens on both sides. There is rectangular wood bottom, top, and ends, with an interior cone for trapping flies. There is also a hole in the bottom for cleaning out the trap. From the Wilderstein collection.

Sock Stretcher

In the days before synthetic fabrics, wooden sock stretchers were used for just the reason the name suggests. They prevented socks from shrinking after washing them. Although they are mostly forgotten now, sock stretchers were ubiquitous during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These wooden sock stretchers have five holes in the frame with a middle hole in the heel to speed up the drying process. From the Wilderstein collection.