Ramsey House “date night” programs discover depth of Victorian life

Minnesota Historical Society tour guides and volunteers introduced visitors to Victorian superstitions at Ramsey After Dark on Friday, June 13, a fitting date for the event. (submitted photos)

History Happy Hour visitors learn about popular art and culture of the Victorian era.

The popular History Happy Hour event packs the parlor at the Ramsey House.

Young ladies dress up in Victorian outfits to learn about Victorian fashion, etiquette, dancing and poise at the Finishing School for Young Ladies summer day camp.

History can be a mystery! This young visitor to the Ramsey House uses his timeline map to explore history at the Time Capsule for Kids program.

Children can explore a year in the life of the Ramsey family at the Time Capsule for Kids program.

Secrets revealed at Ramsey After Dark program

In 2009, the Alexander Ramsey House in St. Paul nearly closed due to budget cuts and low attendance. For two years, the doors of the 142-year-old mansion opened only for tours during the Christmas season.

Now, after a complete redevelopment of its monthly programming, the historical site is thriving. Visitors pack the parlor twice a month for the “Ramsey After Dark” and “History Happy Hour” events. More than the typical tour, the events take visitors into the secret lives of the Ramsey family and their contemporaries as historical interpreters expose the “hush-hush” aspects of Victorian life such as superstitions, mental illness and the Red Light district.

‘What have we got to lose?’

Located at 265 S. Exchange St. in the Irvine Park neighborhood of St. Paul, the Ramsey House was completed in 1872 by Minnesota’s first territorial governor, Alexander Ramsey. The house was given to the Minnesota Historical Society following the death of Ramsey’s last surviving heir in 1964.

Today, the historical society hosts a variety of fun and informative programs at the site, including Ramsey After Dark, History Happy Hour, History Chef, Time Capsule for Kids, summer day camps and Christmas tours.

Many of these programs wouldn’t exist, however, if the site hadn’t been close to closing in 2009 and 2010.

With programs not seeing the attendance and admission dollars the site needed to stay open, site supervisors realized that something had to change. 

“There are times that you just have to realize, ‘Well, what have we got to lose?’” says program supervisor Jayne Becker. “And that can be a really good thing.”

With help from a grant from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, site supervisors were able to work with museum consultants to reassess their programs.

The result was a completely reimagined experience: instead of giving visitors a general tour of the house with an introduction to the Ramsey family, the site would offer theme-based series with topics that would change every month. With this program format, the site hoped to share specific stories in the lives of the Ramsey family that would engage visitors and encourage them to come back for more.

“There are so many stories that can be shared,” Becker says. “(The new program format) is a different way of looking at a history site and little by little being able to address specific stories.” 

In the spring of 2012, the Ramsey House debuted Ramsey After Dark and History Happy Hour. Intended as date night-style events, the programs give visitors the chance to tour the mansion and mix and mingle in the parlor while learning about everything from Victorian superstitions and medical practices to hysteria and Gothic novels.

“I think there’s a lot of value in learning about some of the darker topics or more shocking topics of the Victorian era,” Becker says. “A lot of what the Victorians dealt with...we still deal with today in 2014.”

Ramsey After Dark brings history to light

A Friday, June 13, the Ramsey After Dark program took a look at Victorian superstitions. Tour guides led groups of visitors through the house while answering questions about the Ramsey family and introducing the beliefs of the Victorian era.

Superstitions were associated with life and death; mostly death.

“Unfortunately, in Victorian time, a lot of life had to do with death,” says tour guide Kate Currie. The Ramsey House was set for mourning during the tour, with all of the mirrors in the house covered in black cloth, a superstition the Victorians observed in order to prevent the departed soul from becoming trapped in the mirror. 

The frequency and senselessness of death during the Civil War drove the spiritualist movement during the Victorian era. Spiritualism was founded in the belief that people could communicate with the dead through séances and mediums.

“A lot of this was just parlor tricks,” Currie says, explaining how people communicated with spirits through table-tapping. But the tricks convinced many Victorians: “People want(ed) to know that the loved ones they lost were okay,” Currie adds. 

“What they were trying to do was comfort themselves and make sense of things that didn’t make sense,” added tour guide Paulette Day.

Though it’s documented in personal archives that Alexander Ramsey attended a séance in 1863, the historians at the site aren’t convinced he believed in many of these superstitions.

“We don’t know if (Ramsey) believed in any of it, but it was sort of the thing to do in that time,” Currie says.

“It was very individual,” Day adds. “Definitely there were people who didn’t believe in superstitions at all, just like today.”

Today, people still believe some of the superstitions Victorians believed. For instance, many Victorians avoided stepping on a crack (though they feared demonic possession rather than breaking their mothers’ backs), and breaking a mirror meant seven years of bad luck for them as well (at least it did for servants, for whom it could take up to seven years of wages to afford to replace it).

At the end of the hour-long tour through the Ramsey House, visitors gathered in the parlor to play games and socialize—just as the Ramsey family would have done with their guests in the 1870s.

More from the Ramsey House

As the Ramsey House programs gain popularity, Becker plans to add more events in the next year or two to cater to visitors’ interests, including a series on Alexander Ramsey himself and his controversial political career.

“Who really was he? Why is it Ramsey County?” Becker asks. “I think (a program about Alexander Ramsey) will fulfill that niche that people want to know about the family.”

The Ramsey After Dark Program on July 11 addressed Victorian secrets, including mental illness, addiction, sexuality and birth control. History Happy Hour on July 31 will examine Minnesota’s history of transportation by looking at old maps.

Kid-friendly events will also take place at the Ramsey House throughout the summer and fall, including “Time Capsule for Kids” on the first Saturday of each month and the “History Detective” and “Finishing School for Young Ladies” summer day camps.

Reservations are required for most events. To make a reservation, call 651-296-8760 or register online at http://tickets.mnhs.org. 

For more information about the Ramsey House, visit http://sites.mnhs.org/historic-sites/alexander-ramsey-house.

If you go...

Visit the Alexander Ramsey House throughout the summer and fall for a variety of fun and informative events.

Ramsey After Dark
Secrets of Victorian life emerge from the shadows in this adult evening program series. Monthly programs explore hidden aspects of Victorian history through letters, journals, music, theatrical presentations and parlor games. From medical practices and political controversies, to superstitious beliefs and romantic encounters, discover why Victorian society was not what it appeared to be. Some events contain adult content and are intended for visitors 18+.

Programs are offered the second Friday of the month (Jan.-Oct.) at 7:30 p.m. Additional events may be added at 8:30 p.m. to accommodate visitors.

Monthly Topics
•  Aug. 8-Angels and Madams
•  Sept. 12-Medical Confidential
•  Oct. 10-Victorian Gothic Novels
Fee: $10 adults, $9 seniors and college students; $2 discount for Minnesota Historical Society members.
Reservations required. Call 651-296-8760 or register at http://tickets.mnhs.org.

History Happy Hour
While sipping, snacking and socializing, learn about popular art and culture of the Victorian era. Snacks and two drink tickets are included. This program is for ages 21+ only.

Programs are held the last Thursday of each month (Jan.-Oct.) at 5:30 p.m.

Monthly Topics
•  July 31-Transportation Maps
•  Aug. 28-Daguerreotype Photography
•  Sept. 25-Hysteria
•  Oct. 30-Brewing in St. Paul
Fee: $25, $16 for Minnesota Historical Society members.
Reservations recommended. Call 651-296-8760 or register at http://tickets.mnhs.org.

Time Capsule for Kids
Children and their parents can explore a year in the life of the Ramsey family in this creative, hands-on family program. Using a timeline map and Time Capsule Tokens, families can discover the food, fashion, music and special events in history. Before and after the program, children can create and take home their own time capsule.

Programs are offered the first Saturday of the month (Jan.-Oct.) at noon and 1 p.m.

Monthly Topics
•  Aug. 2-1861
•  Sept. 6-1876
•  Oct. 4-1868
Fee: $10 adults, $9 seniors and college students, $7 children ages 6-17; free for children age 5 and under and Minnesota Historical Society members.
Reservations required. Call 651-259-3015 or register at http://tickets.mnhs.org.


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