- Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Aurora Historical Society board member Mary Clark Ormond. All images are courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.
Welcome to Thanksgiving dinner at the Tanner House, the elegant Victorian house at 304 Oak Ave. on Aurora’s historic west side. It was built in 1857 for William and Anna Tanner and their nine living children and today is operated as a house museum by the Aurora Historical Society.
Come in! For now, let’s just step past the riotously-ornamented Parlor. We can talk about that another time. It’s Thanksgiving, and we are going to the Dining Room.
Please take a seat at the table. But before you tuck in your napkin and raise your knife and fork in gleeful anticipation of turkey and trimmings, we need to talk.
The practice of setting aside time for giving reverent thanks to God is a multi-national one and predates the Victorian period by many generations. By the time the Tanner family moved from their farm near Tanner Road on the far west side into their city home, a day of thanksgiving had already been named a federal holiday by George Washington.
A few years into the future, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln would finalize the date with a far-ranging and eloquent proclamation that was pure Lincoln.
Sober and church-going, the Tanners were great admirers of President Lincoln. With or without the encouragement of their hero, this was a family that probably offered thanks at every meal and as guests in their home, we would, too.
But before you bow your head in anticipation of a prayer, fair warning — there is nothing cooking today on that fine wood-burning cookstove in the kitchen, so it is OK to look around the dining room, instead.
If your first impression is that the room is smallish and the table might not fit 11 people around it, you are not the first to notice. “How ever did they manage?” is a question we hear often. We have to look at Victorian lifestyles for an explanation of that.
At that time, the concept of the formal dining room was still developing in the United States. The grand homes of Europe had them, and along the east coast, so did wealthy Americans. But the trend toward dedicating precious space in a house as a place just for meals was still filtering down to the middle classes.
Although from all evidence the Tanners were sensitive to what was required in a fine home, they were not inclined to grandeur, and their dining room is modest.
With 11 family members and a compact room, the Tanners may very well have employed a common Victorian practice and eaten in shifts.
The table you are sitting at is not the real table used by the Tanners, nor is anything else except for the decorative dishes hung on the wall. The original furniture was dispersed to the family after the last two occupants, brother and sister Henry and Imogene, passed away in 1934.
(The house was given to the historical society in 1936.) Instead, what you see — the chairs, the china cabinet and the side table — are period-appropriate antiques purchased or donated so we could interpret family life in the late Victorian period.
The fireplace, however, is original. It is nicely proportioned and seems like a cozy aspect of a dining room in the era before central heat (today the house is heated by hot water in radiators).
But it isn’t black marble and it isn’t even a fireplace. The room was heated by a wood or coal-burning stove, while the *fireplace* is just a wooden mantel and surround painted to look like black marble and applied to the wall.
As we have already said, the Tanners knew how to make a fine home, but they were content with a faux fireplace for appearances only. In the same economical way, the wood trim in the room, a plain pine or fir, was grained to look like more expensive oak.
While you are looking around, take note that in the north wall, behind the china cabinet, is a door, nicely matched to the two windows on either side, but disused. Although we don’t know why, at some point in the family history (they lived in the house for 77 years) the porch to which the door opened was removed and the door sealed up.
Family lore says that some meals were taken on that porch, although from old pictures it looks too small to accommodate a table and chairs.
Speaking of doors, if you count the number of doors in the room, you’ll come up with six, quite a lot for a room that measures 18 by 12 feet. The doors, windows and fireplace together ensure that there is really no wall space in the room and you have to wonder whether a china cabinet the size of the present one could have been used.
According to a granddaughter, writing about her summer visits to William and Anna, the closet in the room was used for china and that seems more likely.
One of those six doors connects straight into the kitchen, a common feature of many dining rooms, but another door straight into the pantry gives a hint that the family may not have planned to rely on servants at mealtime.
Whether or not there was full-time domestic help in the household is a question that hasn’t been fully answered by the historical records we have. Census records indicate just one individual, a Margaret Molitor, in 1860 and none in later years.
Our Thanksgiving dinner today is just a fantasy. No smells of roasting turkey and baking pies have greeted us, or the scamper of children and grandchildren on the steep staircase, or the kitchen gossip that we imagine accompanied the many tasks centered on the glowing-hot stove. Some experiences have been lost to us and we can only speculate.
Tanner House Holidays
The Tanner House Museum will be opening Dec. 8 for Tanner House Holidays, free open houses offered from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. every Sunday and Wednesday and from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. every Friday in December. Through Dec. 29, closed Christmas Day. Donations greatly appreciated.
And by the way, if you want an introduction to that wood-burning cookstove, there is one on our website, www.aurorahistory.net, presented by docent and house historian Karen Nickels.
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