Colonel Samuel West Peel (1831-1924), an Arkansas businessman, was the first native of the state who became a member of the US Congress. Here, he was named a legal representative to the most important five tribes (1) in the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). During the Civil War, as a member of the Confederate Army, he was a staunch defender of the southern way of life.

The most accurate representation of these values is to be found in the manor he built in 1875 for his wife, Marie Emmaline (1835-1903), to resemble her childhood house in Alabama. Located in the outskirts of Bentonville, Arkansas, the 14 room brick house, designed in the Italianate style, was a farmstead surrounded by apple orchards. It was known at the time as ‘The Oaks’, due to the many oak trees that populated its property. Of these trees, there still is a remaining one, a 300 years old oak.

Peel family owned the house until the first decade of the twentieth century. Afterward, it changed ownership several times, until 1991, when it was bought by Walmart Corporation which donated it to The Peel House Foundation. In 1995, the manor was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, it serves as a museum and as a venue for public events (2).

The entrance room leads to Marie Emmaline`s room on the left, the place where she received the guests. The attractions of the room are the Grand Piano, which also served as a mourning related item, a typical Victorian reality (e.g. the piano could be closed and on top of it the coffin was put for the funeral services); the other is the so-called courting-settee, a sort of sofa made of a three-armchairs assembly-the one in the middle was designed with shorter back support, lest the chaperon fell asleep during the courting ritual.

Right next to this parlor, there is the dining room, a richly decorated part having on display the original dishes and cutlery, but also many donations of items dating from that time.

On the right side, the entrance room leads to Colonel Peel`s library. The Oriental wallpaper and the Native American artifacts catch the visitor`s view. A noteworthy thing is the hardwood floor, which was stained with ox blood; being an expensive procedure, it meant that the floor hidden to the eye, like the under carpet areas, was left unfinished.

On the upper levels, the girls` room comprises a very nice collection of dolls and young lady’s toilet objects, as well as the complete set of clothing needed by a young girl of a ‘good family’ in the second half of the nineteenth century. The parents` bedroom is remarkable for its refined wallpaper, and especially for its spectacular crocheted bed cover; worthy of attention is a fan that belonged to Missis Peel. The boys` room shows toys that were typical to the pre-school kids of the Victorian age, of which the train could not miss.

Below the ground floor, a kitchen (‘The Harvest Room’) and a pantry with the typical Victorian kitchen tools have been re-designed. In the original setting of the mansion, the kitchen was separate from the house due to fears that the house could catch fire otherwise. Also, in the original setting, there was an ‘icehouse’ and a ‘carriage house’. The ‘icehouse’ was the storage room for ice, which was obtained (chopped out) from lakes or rivers and then brought to the storage room and covered by water to seal the cracks.

The Peels were a typical Victorian couple. They had 11 children, of whom 9 survived. Their family life, of both parents and children, was governed by strict rules and by the typical gender segregation of the time. As the house partition illustrates, the mistress of the house was entertaining the guests in a separate area from her husband`s home office. This is obvious to such an extent that Marie Emmaline`s parlor represents a completely different universe if compared to Colonel Peel`s library. In the same fashion, that the girls and the boys` rooms were distinct in spirit, is understandable, but they were spatially remote too: the girls were not allowed to use the same stairs with the boys; the same with the entrances, the girls and their nanny were accessing the back entrance of the house.

Some of the Peel daughters had a college education, and few of them were gifted musicians. One of them, Katherine was hostess for many of the family’s social events, when her father was away in Washington. This dynamics of cultural restrictions, based on gender and age, coated in social practices typical to each family, based on rank and education, is one of the peculiarities of Victorian time, which renders that epoch as more complex than we usually assume. Simply said, it was highly restrictive and punitive (e.g. children were not allowed to dine with the elders until the age of 13, the time when they were supposed to have developed the appropriate table manners!), but at the same time, it offered the pathways to intellectual innovation and gender awareness.

  1. Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole

The resources which served for the above information can be found on the site of the Mansion-Museum, and on the explanations on display in every room of the house.

One thought on “A Victorian Manor in the American South: Colonel Peel`s Mansion in Bentonville, Arkansas (USA)

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