If you’re thinking of thinking way, way back – say, 150 years or so – for a more retro holiday home style this year, think Hampton-Preston or Robert Mills.
Historic Columbia’s Hampton-Preston Mansion and Robert Mills House are decked in 19th-century style for the holidays, along with an early 20th-century decorated Mann-Simons Site, to give folks a glimpse of how Columbians of the past celebrated the season.
Consider the historic Hampton-Preston Mansion your 1860s lookbook. Candlelit table-top trees, peacock feathers, lemons and lots and lots of evergreens (because some things never go out of style) are on your must-have list.
The 1818-built house, originally owned by Columbia merchant Ainsley Hall and then by S.C. soldier and politician Wade Hampton and his descendents, is decorated in 1860s style to represent the Civil War era.
“You would really show off your wealth this time of year,” Historic Columbia tour guide Heather Bacon-Rogers said.
But Historic Columbia experts aren’t sure the Hampton family would have even been present in the house in 1864, 150 years ago, given the 1863 death of family matriarch Mary Cantey Hampton, the ongoing war and the October 1864 death of Wade Hampton III’s son Preston Hampton in battle, according to Bacon-Rogers.
“It might be a fairly somber time for this family,” she said.
Subtle evergreen garlands embellished with pine cones, fruits and peacock feathers adorn mantle pieces and doorframes throughout the main floor of the house. The family likely made good use of the products of their lavish gardens, which included a lemon grove and abundant greenery, to bring the outdoors in with their decor, Bacon-Rogers said.
You won’t find strung lights illuminating the windowpanes or hanging from wreaths and trees in the Hampton-Preston house. Rather, actual candles garnish a table-top tree, under which sit brown paper-wrapped gifts decorated with sprigs of holly, in the house’s front parlor. And the family would have, of course, kept a water bucket on hand to douse a tree fire should the candles spark the greens, Bacon-Rogers said.
Many gifts, she said, were handmade, but wealthier families such as the Hamptons and Prestons would also give as gifts clothing and sweets purchased from abroad or Columbia’s Main Street shopping district.
You won’t find gifts beneath a Christmas tree of any kind across the street at the 1820s-decorated Robert Mills house, designed by architect Robert Mills and also built by Hall in 1823. The holiday staple didn’t catch on in Columbia until around the 1850s, after England’s Queen Victoria brought them into fashion, Bacon-Rogers said.
The holidays in the 1820s were less a family-oriented affair than a raucous, alcohol-fueled, noise-making, gun-firing celebration, Bacon-Rogers said. New Years, rather than Christmas, was when most gift-giving occurred, she said.
Minus a festive tree, the Robert Mills house is minimally decked in evergreen and fruit arrangements similar to the Hampton-Preston decor. Pheasant feathers would have added flair to the greenery at the time, Bacon-Rogers said, while pineapples would have been used decoratively to show off a family’s wealth.
“They look beautiful, but it’s also a way to say, ‘I paid extra to have these here for you,’” she said.
That was a surprise to Ray and Lorraine Gibson, who toured the home while visiting their daughter, Kelly, in Columbia over the Thanksgiving weekend. The Gibsons said they also were surprised by the overall minimalism of the decor in the Robert Mills House.
“Living was more utilitarian,” Lorraine Gibson said. “You have what you needed.”