The Davenport House

The Davenport House is important in the history of Savannah as both an object of history, and as the start of the preservation movement and Historic Savannah Foundation. This house was built by the architect Isaiah Davenport in 1820 for his family and served as his calling card and example of his work. After her husband died, Sarah Davenport turned the Davenport House into a boarding house and it remained so until 1955, when a group of women saved it from being torn down and turned it into a museum. This was the start of the Preservation Movement in Savannah, and the birth of the Historic Savannah Foundation. Today, it serves as a way of understanding the way people lived during this time period, as well as showing the tastes and preferences that were prevalent at the time. This paper will primarily focus on the objects in certain rooms and a few aspects of the architecture that were linked to social norms and practices. Hopefully, this paper will serve as a guide to help tell the story of the Davenports and some aspects of Savannah during this time in history.

The ground floor gift shop is in the raised, ground floor basement were the kitchen and slave living areas were located. There are several reasons why this basement is raised. One reason is that Savannah has very sandy soil that is difficult to dig a basement in. Another reason for this design is that since there was no air conditioning back then, windows and open doors were the only way to get ventilation. During this time period, the main means of transportation inside the city was by horse and buggy. This, along with other livestock, had the result of the streets being rather filthy, which would have made it more difficult to keep the basement clean if wasn’t raised. In the basement, food would have been prepared and water for bathes would have been heated using the largest of the fireplaces in the house. Bathes would normally take place in the basement using a hip tub. A hip tub, rather than being a tub you sit or lay down in, is used by having the bather squat down in the tub and having someone pour water over the bather while they scrubbed. When the bath was finished, you would then dispose of the used water outside. The fireplace was not only used for the above mentioned reasons, but was also away to heat the house in cold weather. For this reason, every room that was used constantly had a fireplace for warmth. They were connected to four chimneys that are located in pairs on both sides of the house.

Going up the stairs from the basement, you end up in the main hall. The front door is directly across from the back door. This is due the fact that, once again, there was no air conditioning. The reason these two doors are across from each other is so that when both are open, a breeze can come through. The windows in the house are done the same way for the same reason. However, given that there were no gas lamps or electric lights at this time, other than daylight people had to rely on candles and fireplaces for light. In regards to candles, having a breeze would be a problem if one did not have a hurricane shade. A hurricane shade is a glass tube made to fit around a single candle stick to prevent it from being blown out by a gust of wind. In this way you could have the windows open when it was dark and not worry about the candles being constantly extinguished.

In the downstairs area, you have the morning room, the drawing room, Isaiah Davenports study, and the dining room. These rooms were the more public rooms that the Davenports would have had guests in. The study and the drawing room were more public than the other two, and were separated by two columns on either side of the main hall were these rooms ended. They would have had guests in the other rooms, but not as often as the study and drawing room. The study was were Isaiah Davenport would have met clients and discussed business, and the drawing room is simply the living room where the Davenports would have met friends and chatted or held other such gatherings. Both of these rooms also have engravings hanging over the mantles of their fireplaces. Engravings are pictures that are made using a press and a piece wood or metal that has the image carved into it. It was a way to mass produce pictures before printing presses for images were made. The engraving in the study is of the Signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the one in the drawing room is of the British Surrender at Yorktown. Having these two engravings in the most public of their rooms shows that the Davenports were patriotic, or at least portrayed themselves as such. These two rooms are located near the front door, which has a rifle in the corner. The reason for the rifle being there is to have something to shoot off at the 4th of July, or for protection, given that at this time many Southern families were afraid of slave revolts and other such violence.

When you go to the other end of the house, you have the dining room and the morning room. The morning room is where the family would have kept the children when they had guests and didn’t wish to have the children there. This room would have a few children’s toys, chalk boards for lessons and other things for the children. There is also a spot where Mrs. Davenport might have sat and enjoyed some sewing or other activities. A small sewing kit sits on the arm of the chair she would have used. This sewing kit may have been used by her, or one of her sons when they served in the Civil War (three sons fought for the Confederates, and one for the Union). A doll sits near this spot that at the time was used to display fashions. This was before fashion magazines after all. Instead, you would have the latest fashions on the doll.

In the dining room, there is a cloth that sits underneath the table. This cloth was used like a painter’s drop cloth for food. It was much more of a hassle to clean floors back then than it is today due to the lack of Windex. This cloth was simply taken out and beaten after a meal, rather than someone cleaning the floor. There is also a box on a dresser at the end of the table. This holds the liquor. It was considered uncouth to openly display liquor in one’s house, so they but the bottles in this box that they would keep closed while the bottles were not in use. There is also a strange glass object next to this box. This object was a fly catcher that used honey to lure insects into the hole in the bottom. Once inside, the insects would not fly down, so they couldn’t leave. Once the catcher was full, one simply had to take it outside and pull the cork in the top to empty it. Given that wire screens over windows was uncommon, and that Savannah is located sandy coast with several marshes where flies, gnats, and mosquitos can breed, this would have been a way to at least lessen the problem.

When you go upstairs, there are four bedrooms that belonged to the main family. These rooms are connected by doorways that go from one room to the next. This would have allowed the Isaiah and his wife Sarah to check on their children in the middle of the night, or allow their children to come to them quickly if something was wrong. In the hallway outside the rooms, there is a book with hair clippings in it. This was Mrs. Davenport’s family album. Photography was not an option at that time for making keepsakes of your children, so instead Sarah Davenport kept hair clippings of her children at different times in their childhood and stored them in this book.

The first room on the left is the room of the Davenports only daughter that survived infancy Cornelia. This room has a four post bed with an insect screen and a feather mattress and pillow, as well as dresser with a mirror, and other objects that a young girl would have in her room. As their only daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Davenport were inclined to dote on her a little more than on their sons, hence the expensive bed. Going through the connecting door, you enter into the master bedroom. Here is where Isaiah and Sarah Davenport slept, and also where a sick family member would have been kept. This room has a chair by the fireplace along with an antique bed heater. This bed heater is basically a small metal pot on a handle that someone would put hot coals in and run under the mattress to make the bed warm at night. Also on the wall above the mantle are silhouettes. Silhouettes are black cutouts that form the profile of a person. This was cheaper than having portraits painted of family members since, again, photography was not an option in this time period. The silhouettes in the Davenport House are of Isaiah Davenport, Sarah Davenport, Cornelia Davenport, Isaiah Davenports mother.

In the corner of the room is what appears to be a dresser, but when opened is revealed to be a chamber pot. This ceramic pot was used the same way that someone today would use a toilet. Since they didn’t have indoor plumbing at this time, this was how a person relieved themselves at night so that they wouldn’t have to go outside to use the outhouse. Also in this room is a crib where child that hadn’t reached toddler age yet would sleep. Through the next connecting door, you enter a small hallway that was used for storage and for hanging up laundry that one did not wish to be seen by the neighbors. This hallway leads to the main boy’s room. This room is not as fancy as Cornelia’s room and is also made for more than one occupant. The beds in this room, unlike the one in Cornelia’s room, are straw beds. A straw bed has a frame with ropes for support and a mattress stuffed with straw. In the case of these beds the straw was replaced with pine straw due to the latter being easier to acquire. The pillows are also stuffed with peat moss or more straw. The ropes in the frame would have to be tightened regularly for the comfort of the sleeper. This is actually where the expression “sleep tight” comes from. Also in this room is a crib for children that have reached toddler age, but aren’t big enough for a bed. In this room are several toys that young boys would have like a rocking horse, wooden guns, and spinning tops. The room adjacent to this one is a spare room that would have been used as a guest room or extra boy’s room. This room is not use by the Davenport House except for special events.

On the third story is the attic. This room is also not usually open to the public except for special events. This room has not been restored like the other rooms and has a very run down look to it that contrasts with the rest of the Davenport House. This room would have probably have served no other purpose except for storage. There is another room next to this one, but it is nothing more than a storage room that also houses the A/C unit. Going back down the stairs to the first floor and to the backdoor. By this door are two leather fire buckets. These buckets were used by the town bucket brigade during a fire to transport water from its source to the fire. This was done by people forming a bucket chain. To do this, people would line up side by side between the fire and the water source and pass the buckets from one person to the next. This was not as effective as a fire hose, but it was less exhausting and more organized than individuals running back and forth between the water source and the fire. When you exit through the backdoor, you come to the Davenport House garden. This beautiful garden was not there when the Davenports live in the Davenport House. It was put there later by the Trustees Garden Club, and has been kept up ever since, and is rented out for marriages and other such special events. The backdoor leads out to a raised platform with a staircase leading down to the garden underneath this staircase is a door into the basement. This is where slaves would come out to pump water, do the laundry, dispose of rubbish, and other such things. The Davenports carriage house would have also been located somewhere close by to this area at the back of the house. The carriage house served as a period version of a garage for a horse and buggy that the Davenports would have used for transport.

 

The objects and architecture of the Davenport House tell the story of a family that lived in a different era from our own, and it also tells the story of preservation in Savannah. After her husband died, Sarah Davenport turned the Davenport House into a boarding house and it remained so until 1955, when a group of women saved it from being torn down and turned it into a museum. This was the start of the Preservation Movement in Savannah, and the birth of the Historic Savannah Foundation. Since then, several more houses and buildings have been preserved, as well as the squares and parks being restored and maintained. The movement that started with a few women acting to prevent an old house from being torn down led to the restoration and preservation of the oldest city in the state of Georgia and one of the oldest cities in the United States. Without the Davenport House, Savannah would be a very different place.

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