• On the Extravagance of Mark Twain’s Family Dishes

    Melissa Scholes Young on Humble Beginnings, Thanksgiving, and Leisure Time

    Susan Crane’s china isn’t at Quarry Farm anymore. Or at least I can’t find it. I’m rummaging through every cupboard, cabinet, and sideboard looking for it. At Quarry Farm, the family home where Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, summered and wrote his most important works, I search for Susan Crane’s dishes to set the table for my own family’s Thanksgiving meal.

    Crane was Clemens’ beloved sister-in-law and she and her husband, Theodore Crane, inherited this stately home in the woods on the east hill of Elmira, New York when her father died in 1870. She lived here until 1924, managed her own dairy farm, and devoted herself to her sister, Olivia Langdon Clemens, Sam’s beloved bride.

    Olivia and Sam joined Susan at Quarry Farm every year from March to September. All three of Sam and Livi’s daughters—Susy, Clara, and Jean—were born under this roof. Their adoration for Susan was mutual; Sam wrote, “She was an idol and the rest of us were her worshippers.” Besides all the family, though, Sam came here, like me, to write.

    In 1874 Susan Crane had a study built a hundred yards from the house for Sam’s visits where he could write without the full house’s demands. Perhaps she was also motivated to relocate his 30 cigar a day habit and his cussing ways. Of Quarry Farm, Twain wrote in 1886, “This may be called the home of Huckleberry Finn and other books of mine, for they were written here.”

    Sam wrote every day until 5 pm and returned for supper, as we Missourians call it. In accordance with Victorian angel duties and as testament to her upper-class domesticity, Susan would serve a seated dinner, probably on the china I’m searching for.

    Of course Samuel Clemens wrote his most important works at Quarry Farm. Breakfast and coffee were served. Then he strolled up the hill to his study for the solitude that writing requires. No one interrupted him. He was left with his thoughts and his cats to wrestle with words. When the sun was beginning to set, he brought his pages back down the stone steps where happy hour had begun on the porch and dinner was waiting.

    After the dishes were cleared by servants, he often read from his draft to his adoring family who provided gentle feedback and heaps of praise. It was the ideal writing residency, a luxury at the time only successful, male authors would be afforded. Clemens had clearly found the answer to work life balance by working when he wanted and enjoying the life women provided him.

    Mama’s china collection sits today in the same cabinet in a corner of my dining room in Washington, DC far from the dirt road that raised me.

    I have the privilege of following in Clemens’ footsteps as a Quarry Farm Fellow at the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, which is just a fancy way of saying I get to live here and write uninterrupted for the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. Next Thursday, my family will join me here for our dinner, just as the Clemens Langdon Crane crew might have gathered. We’ll use the posh dining room for the occasion and sit at the Langdon family table.

    In residency, when I need a break from the hours of writing and researching, I plan our table, read menus, and search for china. I want to honor this house that fostered the writing of books I was raised on. Clemens and I share the same hometown, Hannibal, Missouri, a town one thousand miles away nestled between quarried bluffs, just like here, overlooking a river flowing in the valley below, the Mississippi and the Chemung River, twinkling lights of the drowsing white town below.

    In one cabinet, I discover a set of Elmira College industrial dishes with their logo and plenty of purple linens of their colors. Appropriate for a dinner with colleagues or trustees but not quite right for my family of teens and porch dogs. I’m trying to civilize us all with china and menus.

    My mama bought her dishes piece by piece over the years of my childhood in rural Missouri. We couldn’t afford fancy china so she saved reward stamps earned from our $25 weekly food budget. Each trip we’d stock the essentials: ground chuck on sale, hot dogs, spaghetti, and Kool-Aid. Most of our food came from our garden next to our house Daddy built in the country: corn, green beans, tomatoes, watermelon, and potatoes. I’d collect fresh eggs from our hens every morning. Mama canned strawberry preserves. Once in a while we’d slaughter a pig or get half a cow from Uncle David’s farm down the dirt road.

    In town, with our trunk full of what we could afford and couldn’t make ourselves, Mama would lick the grocery stamps and paste them in a paper book that showed her progress. She’d tuck it safely in our glove box and lock it with a tiny key. Every few months a book would be full, and we got to pick out a piece of china. At the service desk, we’d slide the reward book across the counter and flip through the catalog of prizes. Mama had already studied it and knew exactly what her next acquisition was.

    She’d counted out .99 in pennies to pay the shipping if her prize wasn’t in stock. If Mama saved for months, we could get a whole place setting. Over a decade, she filled the china cabinet Daddy built for her: 12 settings, platters, a gravy boat with an attached bottom plate, a tea kettle, tea cups, and matching saucers.

    The dish pattern is a delicate powder blue flower against a stark white background with a thin silver rim. The dishes were too nice to eat off though. We mostly dined off paper plates. Mama would take out her dishes once a year, wash them, and dry them for her display. China was saved for fancy occasions and we had few .

    Mama’s china collection sits today in the same cabinet in a corner of my dining room in Washington, DC far from the dirt road that raised me. We use the dishes for birthday dinners, for holidays, and sometimes just for forced family fun when we need cheered. We haven’t broken any yet but we are a family of four and there are plenty of reserves. When Mama visits, she takes out each piece, handwashes and dries it, polishes the cabinet shelves, and tucks her china in their place.

    Fine china was once the rage with brides but the trend has declined with the rise of casual American eating. When Mama got married at 17 in 1969, she dreamed of life far from rural poverty which might include the things civilized people do: a piano to play, delicate dishes to serve on, and air conditioning to escape the Missouri summer heat. My life today in Washington, DC as an associate professor and writer is far from my hometown, but I feed my family on Mama’s dishes because of what they represent: endurance, hard work, frugality, and desire.


    Since I can’t find Susan Crane’s china, I settle for her menu. In “Thanksgiving at Quarry Farm in 1897,” Twain Scholar & Professor at Elmira College Matt Seybold wrote that the meal “was planned by Susan Crane and described on elegant cards featuring the family cats.”

    Beneath our family dinner table will be an aging chocolate Labrador, whose white beard Sam Clemens would have admired; our dog is appropriately named Huckleberry Nacho Finn. We will use his likeness to decorate the front of our menu and adapt the food for our modern mixed carnivore vegetarian feast.

    In his writing, Mark Twain didn’t relish in fancy . . . But the page and his dinner place were different matters.

    With the menu declared and a local turkey ordered from a nearby farm, I return to our table and my search for Susan’s dishes. I’m trying to simultaneously author in Mark Twain’s wake and take care of my family as his beloved benefactor did. I ask Steve Webb, the caretaker of six years and independent Twain scholar who lives on the property, if he knows if any of the dishes in the house were hers. He tells me that the furniture has been catalogued but not the household contents.

    I continue my hunt through cabinets and closets. I climb up the attic loft and search the cellar. I call the local Chemung Historical Society and scour the Mark Twain House in Hartford’s online archives. I lunch with Joe Lemak, the director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, and he tells me that no one has asked him about the dishes before. But it was never about the dishes.

    It was about the time to plan a dinner, the resources to serve plentiful food, and the leisure to enjoy the meal before, during, and after. Working class folks are usually too tired for fuss. We need efficiency and quick fuel. Hands that have labored all day do not want to wash fine china all night. Twain and I share humble roots in Hannibal; the Samuel Clemens who quit school at 11 following his father’s death to help support his family as a printer’s apprentice lived at a great distance from these great halls.

    After more days of searching, I call Mama, who is at my home with my family while I fulfill fellowship duties here (“So they pay you to stay there and write?” she asked months before, surprised at the artistic leisure.) I ask her to pack our china. “Will do,” she says, “how many are you serving?”

    An hour later, tucked in a sideboard in the pantry, I find the remains of what was probably once an elegant service. Like Mama’s dishes, they have a floral pattern against an ivory background lined with a thin gold line. Their pattern is of multi-colored roses and I remember that Susan Crane was known to Elmira locals at “Our Lady of the Flowers.” The stamp on the back reads “Rose of Lamberton.” Lamberton was the largest manufacturer of fine china made in America beginning in 1869.

    The dishes I’ve found are vintage but they are not hand painted. My research reveals that this pattern was distributed by Fisher, Bruce, and Co in Philadelphia and New York and that Lamberton China sold mostly to high-end hotels and train companies, such as the one owned by the Langdons in Elmira.

    In his writing, Mark Twain didn’t relish in fancy. He famously advised, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” But the page and his dinner place were different matters. In Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens, author Andrew Beahrs writes, “Twain was never one for self-restraint” when it came to his food fantasies.

    Once Sam married into an upper-class family and settled his wife Olivia into the mansion they built at Nook Farm in Hartford, CT, “Twain was a long way from Hannibal—its raccoon and greens and corn poke, its hoecake and simply fried fish.” The planning and serving of stately dinners, what their longtime maid called “self-consciously lavish,” fell to Livy. In his research, Beahrs claims that “Livy displayed her skills as a mother and a wife; Twain’s status as an upper-middle-class Victorian gentleman was at stake.” Livy had china, of course, many patterns and sets, some she even bought on shopping trips with Susan in Europe.

    Clemens probably cared more about what was on the dishes than the dishes. He was famously game for good times, long conversations, and wine. “When others drink,” Mark Twain said, “I like to help.”

    Our Thanksgiving table is finally set with china that may or may not be Susan Crane’s and I’m so grateful to be here I’ve let slip my insistency on the authenticity of her exact dishes. We mix and match styles to make a set. My family is gathered. My oldest daughter washes the dishes and linens and meticulously sets the table after consulting a website about how to do so. My youngest daughter makes the cranberry sauce and prepares a basket of rolls. My husband is carving the turkey and pouring champagne.

    There is so much food and we have no agenda.

    I cook the rest of our menu precariously and hilariously on a mid-century electric stove parked next to an original 19th-century grand stove and hearth. My main goal is not to be the resident fellow responsible for burning Quarry Farm to the ground.

    At the center of our table, the turkey stands alone, majestic and juicy. I’ve done my best to baste the tofurkey and packed it with red potatoes, pearl onions, celery, and carrots. The gravy and green beans brings it all together. We say grace. We share things we’re grateful for. They tell me everything I’ve missed in the weeks I’ve been at Quarry Farm. They ask about my writing, and I share an early draft of this essay.

    Then we put the dishes on to soak and drive into town to see Mark Twain’s study which was relocated from the Quarry Farm property to the grounds of Elmira College. My husband jokes that if the study were mine, he’d have to visit every 30 minutes and rebuild my fire. “And bring me hot tea,” I add.

    It’s cold—dark New England winter cold—and there are snow flurries. The moon is full and the wind is freezing. The tires in our car want air as they do when the temperature announces winter, and my husband stops to check them and fill our tank, already thinking about our drive to D.C. tomorrow morning.

    Back at Quarry Farm, I make hot chocolate with marshmallows and set up Monopoly having tired of Yahtzee and its required math (“feels like school,” one kid complains). One by one we go back to the kitchen for leftovers at our leisure. There is so much food and we have no agenda. Eventually, the guitars come out and we relax into making music together, which requires much less talking.

    The Quarry Farm caretaker brings over his bass, keyboard, and dog. Time slows on East Hill, which is how Susan Crane would have wanted it, when she nicknamed her home “Do As You Please Hall.” And we do.

    Before bed, I make my family bundle up to sit on the porch and look at the stars which we can see brightly here for the dimmer city lights. Then we go upstairs and climb into the beds where the Langdons and Clemens and Cranes once laid their heads. “I am grateful for you,” I whisper to my old dog, but my husband thinks I mean him and I do.

    I don’t know if we set our Thanksgiving table with Susan Crane’s dishes or if Olivia, her sister and Sam Clemens’ beloved wife, helped her acquire them on a shopping trip, or if Mark Twain ever enjoyed his evening meal on their floral delicacy after a day of writing about ruffians and rivers, but I believe they’d all be pleased that a fellow girl from Hannibal made her way up the hill.

    Melissa Scholes Young
    Melissa Scholes Young
    Melissa Scholes Young is the author of the novels The Hive and Flood, and editor of Grace in Darkness and Furious Gravity, two anthologies by women writers. She is a contributing editor at Fiction Writers Review, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Ms., Washington Post, Poets & Writers, Ploughshares, Literary Hub and elsewhere. She has been the recipient of the Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Foundation Residency Fellowship and the Center for Mark Twain Studies' Quarry Farm Fellowship. Born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, she is now an associate professor in Literature at American University. Follow @mscholesyoung or go to melissascholesyoung.com.

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