Domestic Food Spaces & Power: Reflecting on my Research for the Latrobe Symposium

By Jenna Febrizio, PhD, Curator & Director of Education

Stepping into the Past

Returning from her honeymoon in January 1899, Amelia Heurich wrote in her diary: “Christian brought me right to his home 1307 N.H. Ave. and turned the entire house over to me.”  

Amelia’s entry gives the sense that stepping onto the property was immediately transformative: The Virginia-born 33-year old had recently resigned from her job as a secretary in the Treasury Department after her engagement to Christian Heurich, a German immigrant brewery owner in DC. In this new role, she was to oversee all operations of the mansion, including staff management. 

However, the home she moved into had layers of history built into it: 

  • In 1879, her aunt - also named Amelia (and also Christian’s first wife) - purchased the property but died 5 years later.
  • The home was designed by her husband’s late second wife, a German immigrant named Mathilde, who died 5 years before she moved in.
  • There was a team of household staff already working there. 

On top of this all, she did not get keys to the front door of her new home. 

If you were in this position, how would you establish yourself in a place that had so many other identities built into it? 

This was one of the questions I posed while speaking at a symposium on April 6, 2024 centered on the Architecture of Food, hosted by the Latrobe Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians. 

Taking an empathy-based approach, I asked people to step into the past, considering Amelia’s experience and household staff experiences and how they would differ based race, gender, ethnicity, and income. Also, how would attendees’ attempt to “step into the past” change based on what we know (and don’t know) about them?

Unfortunately, in almost all cases we do not have staff perspectives, so we encourage people to think critically about how we remember the past, and whose memories we use to do that.

Memory of Amelia

The Heurich House Museum’s memory of Amelia Heurich has focused on her as a moderator between staff and family, asserting control in the domestic realm, particularly in food spaces in the home. 

Through research and new interpretation, I have looked at relationships between Amelia and the staff who prepared and served meals in these spaces. The main staff handling food matters in the Heurich home were the Cook, a role typically held by immigrant women, and the Butler, a position usually filled by Black men. Today, we know of at least 30 people in these roles (15 Butlers and 15 Cooks).

During my talk, I virtually walked attendees through three food spaces in the Heurich home that have been central in the museum’s memory of Amelia Heurich: the larder (used for food storage), kitchen (used for food preparation), Dining Room (used for food service). 

The Larder

Amelia wrote down detailed grocery lists, meal plans, and recipes in her boudoir. After going to the market, she stored food in her larder, a small room next to the kitchen. Amelia did not have keys to the front door of her home, but her granddaughter Jan Evans remembered that, She had everything under lock and key. Often on her belt she wore this huge thing of keys.” If a cook needed ingredients for a recipe, she would request them from Amelia who would disperse the items as needed, giving her control over ingredient access.


The Kitchen

Just as in other Victorian-era homes, staff spaces were separate from the family’s rooms. However, Amelia often inserted herself into staff spaces like the kitchen, where she watched closely during food preparation. Evans claimed that: “Sometimes she would sit down there at the table and tell them what to do.” We have been trying to understand relationship dynamics between Amelia and the staff, which has been challenging since we typically only have Amelia’s perspective. For example, in 1920, Amelia wrote that a cook named Mary Dex told her to get out of her own kitchen after a series of incidents, which is a direct way of resisting Amelia’s authority. 

The Dining Room

Staff brought food from the kitchen into the basement Butler’s Pantry, lifted it by dumbwaiter up to the first floor Butler’s Pantry. The Butler would serve it through a door into the Dining Room, where Amelia sat at the chair closest to the door, “controlling the flow of dinner.” 

This photograph shows Amelia in her chair as an intermediary between the staff and family. In the photo, Andrew Bell, a Black Washingtonian who worked as a Butler for the family for about 19 years, leans towards her with a platter. With her hand towards the platter, Amelia looks intently down at the food. All of the other plates at the table are empty, but Amelia has food on her plate. Today we look at this photograph along with oral history notes from a walkthrough with Andrew Bell in 1962 to try to piece together his experience.

More Thoughts

We are always trying to learn more about how people would have actually experienced life and work in the home. 

In general, people’s reactions to Amelia's role often varies, but sometimes visitors express negative comments about her management style. In these cases, I encourage people to think of her role in a more nuanced way and consider the implications this has for the memory of women in power. 

At the symposium, it was exciting to hear other scholars’ research. There were so many different approaches to looking at food spaces and how people act (and interact) in them. Their reactions and questions about our work at the museum were thought provoking - only emphasizing my feeling that there’s always more research to do!

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