The French Legation Museum’s collection contains some objects that belonged to Alphonse Dubois and the Robertson family, while others were bought specifically for interpretation purposes. Regardless of how they came to the Museum, each object tells an interesting story about life in early Austin.
Hide Bottom Chairs:
The Legation’s reconstructed kitchen collection contains two hide bottom chairs, a ubiquitous furniture form in early Texas. These chairs were easily constructed with few tools and have a high survival rate, occupying exhibit space in museums across the state. In Texas, slat or ladder back chairs were commonly covered in stretched cow or deer hides, while those made in the southeastern United States usually have woven rush seats. In the mid-nineteenth-century, hide-bottom chairs were not considered primitive, like they sometimes are now. Modern descriptors of now antique hide-bottom chairs include the words “dirty,” “creaking,” and “decrepit.” However, when first constructed, they would have been simple, elegant furniture forms. The freshly tanned seats would still be stretched taught but somewhat elastic, the soft hair providing a decorative element. The chairs’ slats and poles would have been joined tightly and the wood surfaces finished to a smooth shine. These chairs were used for seating during entertainments, the way folding chairs are used today. Early Austin tavern owner, George Dolson, furnished his establishment with twenty-one such hide-bottom chairs placed beneath cherry wood tables. In his study of early Texas furniture, Lonn Taylor found the Texas governor’s mansion was furnished in 1861 with at least fourteen hide-bottom chairs.
Mahogany Side Table:
Dr. Robertson and his wife Lydia Lee Robertson were married in 1842. The following year, fellow Austinite, Thomas Marston died and his belongings were sold at a probate sale. The Marston family moved from Deerfield, New Hampshire to Austin in the late 1830s bringing with them a large suite of fine mahogany and walnut furniture. At Marston’s probate sale, Dr. Robertson bought a walnut sideboard, a “fine wardrobe,” and a mahogany side table. This side table may be the one that survives in the French Legation Museum collection.
The worktable is a popular nineteenth-century furniture form used in parlors and drawing rooms for the storage of needlework and sewing projects. The table’s legs are lathe turned with a ring motif just below the table’s runners, a motif that appears in furniture created in New Hampshire and Connecticut in the first half of the nineteenth-century.
Dr. Robertson’s Personal Library:
Lacking a university or a public library, some early Austinites compiled personal libraries containing books that would inspire and entertain. Personal book collections reflect the specialization of their owner’s interests or occupation. Robertson’s library includes both English and French dictionaries, Dr. John Eberle’s A Treatise on the Practice of Medicine, the Senate Journal of 1833 and a Henry Clay biography. Of Robertson’s library, two titles provided an opportunity for armchair travel far away from the Texas frontier: Wilbur Fisk’s Travels in Europe and Narrative of the Residence of Fatalla Sayeghir. American clergyman, Wilbur Fisk traveled Europe in 1839 describing his reactions in a manner that reads as a pious treatise on European behavior. Narrative of the Residence of Fatalla Sayeghir also details the foreign and the exotic, however Fatalla Sayeghir’s adventures are set in the Middle East. The book involves one of Napoleon’s scouts, who was sent to explore the region to find water sources. Most fantastically, the scout was supposedly charged with uniting multiple Arab tribes under the ruler-ship of a single chief. Both Fisk’s travel journal and de Lamartine’s Narrative contain black and white lithographs illustrating the scenes described inside. Possession of these books would display one’s rounded education, interest in other cultures, as well the owner’s capability of setting aside time specifically for reading for pleasure.