Distilling Kentucky Derby Fashion: Classic Dress and Hat Tips

Jenna Bush Hager. Bless her heart.

It feels mean to list the myriad reasons why these two “Off to the Races” outfits chosen by Jenna Bush Hager for Southern Living are so, so, so wrong, from the inappropriate hats and the weird dresses right down to the to the uncomfortable shoes. Any Kentucky girl can take one glance at these and know that no part of them will work. But tearing them apart piece by piece seems cruel and petty, and the first rule of Derby is to be open, kind, and up for anything. So if Jenna Bush Hager wants to commit these Derby atrocities, I’m not going to judge her for it. Sometimes we have to learn our own lessons, and I’m sure Jenna Bush Hager would learn them firsthand if she ever came to a Derby (which she clearly has not). I do wish Southern Living would stop treating her as a Derby authority. Nobody knows how to do Derby like a Kentucky girl.

Derby projects and curriculum start in preschool. Believe us when we tell you, Southern Living, that nobody knows how to do Derby better than the people of Kentucky.

The Dress:

Distilling Derby fashion is relatively easy if you start with a classic sundress. The ideal piece has classic, flattering lines in a soft color. Derby weather can be unpredictable, so the perfect dress needs to be easily layered with a pretty cardigan on a cooler day, or a smart raincoat on a rainy day. These items can be easily shed if the sun comes out and the day warms up. A flattering dress in a pretty color that can be easily layered–it really is that simple. And, when it comes to a Derby dress, my philosophy is the simpler the better, because it is all about the hat.

The Hat:

There are so many hat options that shopping can feel overwhelming, which is why I like to start the process by finding the dress first. Of course, if you fall in love with a hat, you could easily work from the other direction. So many boutiques and trunk shows around town sell wonderful Derby hats and fascinators, and there are also hat designers in Louisville who do custom designs, like Kenzie Kapp or the Hat Girls.

I personally like to start with the dress and then make a trip to Dee’s Crafts, to get exactly what I want. Dee’s is a local craft store, but in early April they get all the millinery supplies you can imagine and you can smell the hot glue guns from the parking lot. They will consult with you and put your hat together for you, but I know what I like and prefer to do it myself.

I’m generally not a feather girl; I’m a flower girl, and I’m not sure about mixing the two on on hat. I’m not saying it can’t be done; I’m just saying you have to be careful with it. I like simple band of ribbon around the crown of the hat and tailored bow in a solid color behind the flowers. It is very, very, very easy to go over-the-top in a bad way at this point in the process, but you also have to be open to nontraditional millinery supplies. I always walk away from the actual millinery flowers to the silk flowers section, to see what creative options they might have in the right color scheme. I like a monochromatic pastel color scheme with a few pops of white or neutral, so I start with millinery flowers I like and then supplement with something in the right shade from the permanent flower department. I don’t generally do netting on hats, but I love them on fascinators.

A recent picture of my Dee’s shopping cart, which was obscenely filled with floral supplies for a Thurby fascinator and Derby hat.

Dee’s will put it all together for you and have it ready in a couple of days, but I’m good with a glue gun and I know exactly what I want, so this year I did it myself.

My hat, halfway through the creative process


The Shoes:

As for shoes, no one cares about them. You can’t see them in most pictures, and you’ll do so much walking that they’re probably going to get beat up anyway. They should be presentable and comfortable. I’ve worn the same pair of pink kitten heel pumps to Derby for the past ten years or so. They’re comfortable; they’re pretty; they match almost everything. I can walk long distances in them, and I don’t care if they get wet, muddy, or if someone spills bourbon on them.

The Takeaway:

Fashion is important at Derby, but you are looking at a long, exhausting day of walking, day drinking, walking some more, making random friends, and day drinking some more, so comfort is important, too. Go for dresses that offer layering options and shoes that don’t hurt. Add the perfect hat and you’re ready to go.

Kentucky Derby How-To: Ask A Kentuckian!

In Louisville, Derby is a birthright. We are born into it. The hats, the bourbon, the local events, the parties–these are ours from childhood. We all may do Derby a little differently–and there are lots of different ways to do Derby–but we can’t help knowing how it’s done because it is such a part of our collective identity. Getting away from it would be like trying to abdicate a noble title. You could do it if you wanted to, but why would you? Derby is who we are in Louisville; resistance to the Derby magic is futile.

We absolutely adore the bits and pieces of national attention we get during the weeks leading up to Derby. Kentuckians are very eager to show the world who we really are, and we enjoy having our most charming customs presented in a way that flatters us and our culture in front of outsiders. We are painfully aware that sometimes outsiders consider us to be ignorant, barefoot rubes with missing teeth and bad grammar. Sometimes there are embarrassing stories that don’t accurately represent us. It’s nice for others to see us portrayed as we see ourselves: hospitable, genteel people who can throw a good party, know when seersucker is appropriate, and can maintain a classy buzz for hours in a fabled historic setting.

You see, we are absolutely steeped in Derby traditions and Derby pride from infancy. As preschoolers we dress up in horse-themed outfits and homemade hats to march in school Derby parades. My children’s preschool devotes two full weeks to Derby-themed curriculum leading up to the big day; lessons cover all the big Derby Festival events like the Great Steamboat Race and Great Balloon Race. The kids do Derby Festival-themed crafts, and there’s a stick horse race in addition to the parade. By the time we’re in elementary school, we’ve all been to the Junior Jockey Club at Churchill Downs, have a working knowledge of the way betting works, and have personally met Churchill Charlie.

In Louisville, we know all the most famous horses’ names, and we consider them old friends who bring back memories of Derbies past. I remember having simulated Derby races on the swingset of my elementary school–we’d choose which racehorse we wanted to be, and whoever swung to the highest point the fastest was the winner of the swingset Derby. Everyone wanted to be Secretariat.

By the time we’re twelve, we know what type of bourbon is appropriate for bourbon balls, because we’ve already been making them with our grandmothers for five years, and we know what to do at the betting window, too. Most schools don’t even have school on Oaks Day, because it’s pointless; no one really learns or works during Derby time.

On Derby day, whether we’re in the infield, the Turf Club, a friend’s Derby party, or our own garden planting tomatoes, when the race comes on and they lead the horses into the gate and sing My Old Kentucky Home, most of us will get a little misty-eyed because of the beauty and pageantry of it all. In that moment, this place is presented to the whole world as wonderful. We already know that it is, but there’s something so moving about all of us joining together to sing the song together, and to celebrate our collective history and culture. It’s one we’re happy to share with visitors.

Derby is a part of who we are as Kentuckians, and we know how to do it better than anyone else. The parties, the dresses, the hats, the Derby Festival events are second nature to us, and we can tell you how to navigate it all, because we have lived it our whole lives. That should count for something, shouldn’t it? I wouldn’t go to Paris and tell the people there how to be more Parisian.

And yet, in recent years, respected magazines like Southern Living and Garden & Gun, have published stories and tips for Derby that are written by people from places like Texas, who couldn’t possibly have the knowledge or experience with Derby that every Louisvillian has gained just by a lifetime of Derby osmosis. I don’t understand this, because I know so many people who know Derby and are willing to share Derby. If you want to know about Derby, ask a person who has lived it year after year.

I’m not just talking about a one-time offense, either. Twice in recent years Southern Living has featured Jenna Bush Hager’s ideas about what to wear to the races, and, bless her heart, I’m sure she’s really sweet and lovely, but she’s the wrong person to ask about Derby. Ask me, ask my mother, my grandmother, ask any of my children, or any of my friends, but please don’t ask Jenna Bush Hager, because she has clearly never been to the Derby. Garden & Gun had a piece about how to throw a Derby party in recent years. It was written by an Austin-based blogger who suggested decorating with lilacs of all things. That is just blasphemy. Lilacs are lovely, but they don’t say Derby. Roses say Derby, and even the most inexperienced Derby novice knows that.

Southern Living and Garden & Gun are two wonderful publications; I read both of them and I enjoy the content and ideas presented. I love that they celebrate the South, and It pains me to mention their sacrosanct names in a negative light. It’s just that I don’t understand why they wouldn’t ask a Kentuckian about the Derby. It seems so simple. If you’re trying to decide what to wear to a rodeo: ask Jenna Bush Hager or an Austin-based blogger. If you’re trying to demystify Derby, ask a Kentuckian. You can ask one any of us.

If you’re going to the Derby and need to know how to navigate a day at Churchill Downs, ask a Kentuckian.

If you’re curious about attending one of the big fundraising galas leading up to the Derby, ask a Kentuckian.

If you’re going to Derby and need help with a dress, hat, and shoes that will look the part and last through a very long day of walking, drinking, and being exposed to various kinds of weather, ask a Kentuckian.

If you’d like to learn how to make the perfect mint julep, ask a Kentuckian.

If you’re looking for recommendations on bourbon or traditional Kentucky foods, ask a Kentuckian.

If you want to decorate your house for Derby, ask a Kentuckian.

If you’re throwing a Derby party in your town, and need to know how it’s really done, ask a Kentuckian.

We’re here and eager to help, and we know what we’re talking about.

I plan to break it all down for you in the next few days, so stay tuned.

To the Revolution!

I always wear my grandmother’s diamond bracelet and a pair of pointed toe heels when I march for women’s rights.

Just teasing…I actually stumbled upon the local women’s march while I was taking my daughters to see The Sound of Music at the Kentucky Center for the Arts. I was wearing Lilly Pulitzer and the aforementioned impractical heels; the girls were decked out in smocking and bows. There was nary a pussy power hat among us, but we were listening to The Sound of Music original motion picture soundtrack in the car. “…Lo and behold you’re someone’s wife, and you belong to him…” These words were literally playing in our car as we came upon the women’s march. Subversive is how I roll.

I think the pussy power hats are cute, in the same way I think flower crowns and unicorn headbands are cute–and y’all know I love a flower crown. Anything with kitty ears is automatically adorable, and I naturally support accessories that come in shades of pink. I’m not sure I could bring myself to walk down the street wearing a pussy power hat, though. I am just way too traditional. Wearing a “Pussy Grabs Back” foam claw is completely out of the question.

It’s not that I don’t applaud these protests. I do. I like that they were nonviolent, and, honestly, it seems like an amazing event to be a part of. I’m a little sad that I didn’t attend the Washington march, if only because I have FOMO and I love a party. (Although, how much of a party could it really be without a lot of boys? And wine. Do we know the wine situation at the march?) To me it sort of looked like Derby, only with more angry signs and fewer (zero) sundresses and  wide-brimmed picture hats. Still, comparisons could be made between the two events, but only if mint juleps and Korbel champagne splits were available for purchase at the march.

I was excited about checking out the Louisville march–we got downtown early because I didn’t know the traffic situation, so we ended up having about an hour to kill before meeting people for lunch. I let the girls choose between checking out the march, or going to the Bristol for special Mommy and Me time at the build-your-own bloody mary bar. They went with the bloody marys, which makes me think I raised them right. Or did I? I’m honestly too weary of it all to go into an existential tailspin over this question.

As I said before, I’m a traditionalist, and rearing daughters requires me to strike a delicate balance. I want them to be proud to be girls, to grow up with the same rights and pay and opportunities as their male counterparts. I’ve been that girl, working in an old boys’ club. I know how it feels to realize that the men in the meeting really don’t care what you have to say. I remember the day in seventh grade when I learned that shutting up and being pretty was more attractive to boys than raising my hand and answering questions. The thought of my girls coming to that realization makes me sad, but doesn’t every girl learn that lesson at some point? Maybe the millions of women marching today never did. Either that, or they just don’t care what the boys think. I have to respect them either way.

At the same time, I’m trying to teach my daughters to present themselves well, and to have good manners. Do we have to be so crass, with all the “Pussy Power” business? Is it really constructive to scream about blood and periods in the street? (I’m looking at you, Ashley Judd). Sometimes I think we have all just completely lost our minds. Can’t we conduct ourselves gracefully, while politely requiring men to be respectful? Maybe we can’t. Maybe without the agitators making demands, girls like me wouldn’t have the freedom to conduct ourselves with grace and politeness in our everyday lives. Maybe there is a gentler way to get things done, or maybe there isn’t. If that’s the case it means others are doing the hard work while I reap the benefits.

I feel like I should write them a thank-you note.

Raise a glass to freedom–something they can never take away!

On Girl Scout Preparedness and Being the Unprepared Brownie Mom

My daughter’s tiny, safe little liberal bubble of a private school doesn’t have a Girl Scout troop, so she’s in a Brownie troop at a nearby private school–one whose atmosphere is a lot more like Lord of the Flies. (Although if Anne Miriam had been a character in Lord of the Flies, she would have ended up efficiently ruling the island in a benevolent dictatorship–Jack, Ralph, and Piggy would have been answering to her, and she wouldn’t have taken any nonsense from any of them), She goes over there once every two weeks and knows half of the girls there from preschool or other places. She likes it and fits right in–and my cousin is cookie mom of this troop–but we’re still sort of on the outskirts just by virtue of not going to that school.

When my cousin delivered the Girl Scout Cookie packet sometime last month, our house was in the midst of pre-Christmukkah chaos. There were boxes arriving every day; I was stashing them anywhere out if sight. There were cute kid projects coming home and performances to attend and gingerbread houses to decorate and latkes to fry, and a mid-winter scouting project was the least of my problems. I was just trying to make it to the end of December alive. Since I wanted my house to exude an air of holiday warmth and elegance, I shoved any clutter–including the unassuming manila envelope–out of sight.

Who’s THAT PREPARED, anyway, to be thinking about a January project in the middle of the December madness? The Girl Scouts are that prepared, apparently. They start selling the cookies on New Years Day, hangovers be damned. Do you know what I do on New Year’s Day? I attend a mother/child brunch (while the husbands watch sports somewhere else) that involves drinking Prosecco for eight hours straight while the kids run wild and put makeup and hair chalk on each other, until my husband finally shows up and makes me leave. I’m not thinking about selling Girl Scout cookies that day. I’m actually never thinking about selling Girl Scout cookies, until today, because the deadline is upon us.

This afternoon Anne Miriam wanted to put on her Brownie vest and hit up the neighbors, which would have been fine except that I couldn’t find the cookie packet. The problem started with my New Year’s resolution, which was to be more deliberate with my time. I bought this new Simplified Planner by Emily Ley–I’ve been making lists and planning meals. I’ve felt organized, happy, and in control! I even deleted the Facebook app from of my phone, because I want to focus on real time interactions instead of a virtual social media feed. I bought a book called Madame Chic at Home, which reminds readers to be fabulous, joyful, and thankful as they do their daily rituals. I’ve read all the blogs about organizing your house–they all say to banish clutter and to do your laundry to completion. I’ve been doing this!

The problem is that when the clutter is sort of bay (but the house is still not super organized behind the scenes), and I’m looking for a specific item, I can’t look in the normal clutter places because I’ve cleared away the clutter. This is bad news: it means that the Girl Scout cookie packet is shoved into a darkened corner of my basement or something. Unless it has the power to turn back time, even my pretty new Emily Ley Simplified Planner couldn’t help me now. It was time to take bold action. Here’s what I did:

Step 1: Put off anxious third grader with an excuse about why she can’t go out knocking on doors. (“Because I need you to help your sister learn to read right now!”)

Step 2: Pour two fingers of bourbon. Jefferson’s Reserve.

Okay, maybe three.

Step 3: Distract the kids with Netflix.

Step 4: Start tearing through drawers. Check the playroom, the basement, the guest room closet. Check this stack of books. 

Don’t get distracted by Period Rooms in the Met!

Step 5: Text all my friends and complain about the Girl Scouts for being too prepared. (Seriously–who is thinking about Girl Scout cookies in December?)

Step 6: Run across my kids’ birth certificates, my marriage license, and some of the passports. Yay! 

This is usually what I’m looking for and can’t find when I’m desperately tearing up everything in the house.

Step 7: Text my husband to see if he took the cookie packet to work. (He didn’t).

Step 9: Take a break to shop the new Mini Boden catalogue. Consider ordering this adorable dress for my middle child.

Totally ordered it.

Step 9: Freak out. Consider pouring more bourbon and just sitting down and giving up. Mentally draft an apologetic email to my cousin the cookie mom to ask for a new cookie packet. Decide not to because it’s just too humiliating.

Step 10: Frantically rifle through the serpentine-front slant-top secretary, and find something that looks promising beneath a stack of old first grade math papers (?). Vow to go through those soon. Pull out the coveted manila envelope. 

Take that, Girl Scouts! Shove your preparedness where the sun doesn’t shine!
I love this little Brownie!

Let the frantic, 36-hour cookie selling spree begin!

Matthew Boulton Treasures in the Speed Museum

I remember the Christmas I spent my Saturdays working at Wakefield-Scearce Galleries. I was barely out of college and my real job was as a graphic designer as a magazine, but on Saturday mornings I’d wake up early in my cozy seventh floor apartment in the Willow Terrace, and drive out to Shelbyville in the cold, to be stationed either among gorgeous English antiques in the second floor gallery, or in the silver vault. While I was there, I tried learn everything I could about the antiques in the gallery, and to train my eye by just being in the room with them. In the silver vault, I was mostly among the Old Sheffield Plate and the Victorian plated silver, and those Victorians had a silver piece for every conceivable function! I tried to learn them all, and I read about the plating techniques. In the first floor gallery, there were cases of sterling silver forged by the great eighteenth century craftsmen (and women–I’m looking at you, Hester Bateman!). That’s where I learned about Matthew Boulton.

Fast forward to present day–after the excitement of the snow day, when everyone went back to school, I decided to treat myself for being such an awesome snow day mom. I headed to the Speed Museum to explore the galleries and have lunch with a friend.

The Speed has adopted the contemporary practice (which I totally support) of integrating decorative arts into their  various galleries. I headed for the European Galleries and was thrilled to find some gorgeous examples of silver work and fire gilding by Matthew Boulton.

Georgeous silver work by Matthew Boulton


I have a thing for épergnes–notice the harpies adorning the legs of this one. They’re winged creatures who might snatch food–just like party guests might have done from this very épergne.
A pair of lovely ormolu mounted candlesticks and urns.

One of these days, I’ll be in an antique store and I’ll find a piece of silver with that unmistakable Matthew Boulton mark, and a piece will be mine.

Snow Day (Sort of) in the Ville and Hot Chocolate History

A lifetime in Louisville has taught me that sometimes school is cancelled at even the threat of snow, and that you’d better stock up on bread and milk before they sell out at the Kroger. Experience as a mom has taught me to buy lots of kid snacks, hot chocolate supplies, and bourbon, too.

True to form, most schools in Louisville were cancelled today–but ours wasn’t. I didn’t let the girls know that some kids were out of school (even their little sister didn’t have preschool). I love a snow day as much as the next girl, but when your school doesn’t have buses and most kids live in the neighborhood, there’s really no reason to cancel for a dusting. I imagine it was a fun school day for them–looking out the window at the falling snow, playing on the playground with their friends, and wondering whether there would be an early dismissal–which there was. School let out right after lunch.


When the big girls got home, Beatrice and Eloise went out to play in the snow while Anne Miriam went to the coffee shop with her friends.

After playing in the snow, everyone came inside to sit in front of the fire, watch movies, and drink hot chocolate. I like to make hot chocolate by chopping a semisweet Ghirardelli bar and whisking it in hot milk, then cooling it with a little cream and topping it with marshmallows.

The Spode mugs stay out all winter for our family’s hot chocolate needs.
Eloise enjoyed a cup of hot chocolate while watching a My Little Pony Equestria Girls movie

Acquiring chocolate wasn’t always so easy as hitting up the Kroger baking aisle. When it was introduced to Europe by Spanish explorers, it was an expensive luxury affordable only to aristocrats. There was much ritual involved in preparation, and just as the introduction of tea led to lovely tea tables and porcelain tea sets, the chocolate pot was born. Tall silver or porcelain chocolate pots had spouts at the top. Cacao beans were melted in hot water before sugar and milk were added to the pot; the mixture was then frothed with a molinet, a swizzle stick attached to a finial through a hole in the lid of the chocolate pot.

The Anxiety by Jean Baptiste Le Prince depicts a woman in an opulently draped bed,with a chocolate pot on the table nearby.
The Family of the Duke of Penthièvre, by Jean Baptiste Charpentier, is also called La Tasse de Chocolat. Central to the composition is the Princesse de Lamballe, who holds a lovely porcelain chocolate cup in one hand and feeds her little dog with the other.
This lovely 18th century French chocolate pot from La Courtille, now at the Met, would add elegance and grace to any snow day in Versailles or Louisville.

Harry Potter Table Preparations

Today was a day for intense Harry Potter crafting, which was complicated by the fact that Bea’s preschool was cancelled once again. Bea is a lovely child, until she’s not–and, really, what four-year-old understands the importance of bringing respectable competition to one’s table at the Butterflies in Motion luncheon? Most adults don’t get it–although I tend to gravitate toward the ones who do.

Bea is presh, but patience is not her strong suit.

I spent the morning finalizing the plan for linens, napkins, and chair wraps with Events, creatively molding hot glue onto chopsticks, and applying labels to potion bottles with Mod Podge. Then Bea and I ran over to Carolyn’s to discuss the final plan for the table, and then poor Bea and I spent some quality time together before I came home to paint the wands and tea-stain fifty Hogwarts acceptance letters.

Chop sticks with hot glue, pre-painting
Painted chop stick wands with burnished metallic handles
A few of my potion bottles–these are the ones that don’t have potions in them yet.


Tea-stained Hogwart’s acceptance letters, with Hogwarts seal.

I’m excited about the table. Set-up is tomorrow night at the Brown Hotel, and the luncheon is Thursday. A few of my tea-stained letters are still drying, and I need to make a few more potions. Now that most of the Harry Potter crafting is finished, I can focus on my wizard look. I’m lucky to have a daughter who owns all the Gryffindor accessories.

Whirlwind October


Last year at Gallrein Farms


Bea’s first field trip is coming up


Amma bearing balloons


Eloise and me on her field trip last year

I make it a point never to miss a field trip or school party–I’ll show up with cupcakes every time my children’s schools will let me, and I will happily ride a bus anywhere with my girls while they and their friends climb all over me. Alas, it’s time for my three-year-old’s very first field trip, and there is a conflict: the preschool pumpkin patch outing happens to be on the same exact day of the Butterfly Society luncheon. This, of course, makes me feel like a horrible mother, but the truth is I’ve been spearheading the whole theme of our table and crafting up a storm, and I just can’t miss it because it’s a commitment I made awhile ago.

The theme of the luncheon is always movies, and each table is decorated in the theme of a different movie. This year our table chose Harry Potter, so we’re all wearing wizard robes and there’s an elaborate table theme, the details of which I’m not even sure I should be divulging. I’ll be sure to post pictures when it happens, but the point is I’m so racked with mommy guilt that I’m actually considering making an appearance in the pumpkin patch wearing my wizard outfit. That wouldn’t be weird at all, would it? The tragic part is that I won’t even be able to sleep off my post-luncheon champagne buzz like a normal person, because that afternoon after my children finish school we’re leaving on a road trip for a family wedding, and I’m driving.

We have been keeping up a ridiculous pace this month. I have dashed from party to party, and hosted a few of my own. I went on a lovely overnight spa weekend with my best friend, and the next day threw a school fall festival the next day with the help of another mom. I’ve thrown a dinner party and a pickle-themed birthday party complete with a pickle cake and a paint-your-own-cucumber station, and now I’m staring down a field trip, a luncheon, a family wedding…and all that will happen before the next weekend, when I’m charged with making a magical Halloween for everyone. It’s all so much fun, and I know I bring this on myself by saying yes to so much, but it’s so exhausting. I want to do all of it, but doing all of it makes me really, really want a nap.

This reminds me that I should really be using these precious few moments while my children are asleep to make wizard wands, but the thought of creatively molding hot glue onto a chop stick right now makes me want to collapse.

Something We Can All Agree On: the Beauty of Philadelphia Chippendale Furniture

Talking about politics too much makes you ugly, so I like to follow along with a a certain level of detachment. Too many people want to yell about what they believe and aren’t willing to listen to the other side, or even assume the best intentions from people who disagree with them. I prefer a softer approach: I try to listen to both sides fairly, form my opinions, and then keep them to myself. When things get too ugly, I unplug and turn to something beautiful as a palate cleanser.

The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, expresses the rococo ideals of lightness, playfulness, and femininity.

In the spirit of this week’s Democratic National Convention, I wanted to discuss Philadelphia furniture in the colonial period (and, in all fairness, I would have written about Cleveland furniture during the RNC, if only Cleveland had made any notable contributions to decorative arts, bless its heart). I’ve always been interested in the difference between furniture styles in colonial cities–in what makes a Philadelphia chair so…Philadelphia.

In New York, where there was a large population of British loyalists and there were many British immigrants to interpret the latest London trends, the furniture and decorative arts have a distinctly English feel. In New England, where there were fewer immigrant cabinetmakers, carvers, and engravers, local craftsmen focused more on the form of pieces than the decoration. In Philadelphia, a uniquely American rococo style emerged when craftsmen took New England furniture forms and added fashionable embellishments in the latest Chippendale styles.

Philadelphia Tea Table

Philadelphia Tea Table in mahogany, 1765-75, attributed to Hercules Courtenay. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tea tables in Philadelphia were usually round, often with tops that tilted to the side and a tripod stand. The piece above has a scalloped top and reeded stand that expresses weight and tension through the sturdy legs and the compressed ring on the pillar, which give the impression of that they are bearing weight from the top of the table. This is a uniquely Philadelphia feature.

Philadelphia Game Table

The Francis-Fisher-Coxe Chippendale carved mahogany card table, circa 1760.

Like many Philadelphia flip top game tables, the Francis-Fisher-Coxe table has cabriole legs, and less carved ornament than contemporary chairs or case furniture. The apron and skirt appear to be the joint work of a cabinet maker and joiner, and the distinctly separated areas are a uniquely American feature. The piece has a serpentine shaped apron with a light decoration of a central cobochon and carved acanthus leaves at the knees. The ball and claw feet have a compressed ball, as if bearing weight, in the Philadelphia style.

Philadelphia High Chest of Drawers

Philadelphia high chest of drawers in mahogany, pine, and poplar, circa 1780. De Young Museum.

The iconic Philadelphia high chest of drawers took a uniquely American style case piece and added elegant contemporary rococo decoration. The signature detail on the Philadelphia high chest of drawers is the dramatic central finial, set above the highly figured carving on the tympanum. The piece has a a broken pediment, with flame finials to either side, and reticulated batwing bail pulls on each drawer. Carving near the serpentine shaped apron reflects that on the tympanum, and the knees are covered in carved decoration and terminate in compressed claw and ball feet.

These and other beautiful examples of colonial furniture emerged at a point in our history during which loyalists and patriots were fiercely divided. Trouble was brewing in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Charleston, and it would ultimately boil over into the American Revolution, but not before there were non-importation acts on goods and materials from England that ultimately shaped the furniture and decorative arts of the period. These pieces are a product of their unique point in history, and understanding their story is understanding our American story.

Be sweet to each other, friends, and seek out the beautiful, even where there’s discord!

The Corn Top’s Ripe and the Meadow’s in the Bloom: a Day Trip to My Old Kentucky Home

Kentucky girls on the front steps of My Old Kentucky Home

“Why don’t we just go up there and say, ‘This was our last weekend together, and we didn’t feel like going to Fort Sumter and touring goddamn colonial homes. We wanted to go to the beach and meet boys and go to wild parties and dance’? I mean why can’t we tell them the truth?” –Carson, from the movie Shag

I never tour a colonial home that I don’t think of that immortal line from Shag (the greatest slumber party movie of all time). Of course, like any other fun loving Southern former sorority girl, I make it a point never to miss an opportunity to go to the beach and meet boys and go to wild parties and dance. Unlike Carson, I’ve never considered those activities mutually exclusive with touring colonial homes.

I was the kind of child who enjoyed that sort of thing, and I still do. Colonial Williamsburg is my Las Vegas, and I love the party atmosphere in New Orleans almost as I love the French Empire antiques on Royal Street. Wandering through M.S. Rau or Ida Manheim, and then picking up a Hurricane in a go-cup is pretty much my idea of a perfect day.

These Kentuckians know good bourbon when they see it.

I admit I was hesitant at first to let my own children in on the fun. The last thing I need is for one of my precious angels to break a piece of the historic wedding ring Limoges in the dining room of My Old Kentucky Home. But they have to learn good taste somewhere, and now’s the time–otherwise they’ll be 30 years old and standing completely bewildered in the middle of a Pottery Barn, with no clue where or how to begin. They’ll be the sort of people who can’t look at a chair and decide immediately if they like it or not, and so they have to search for a year for the right chairs, and constantly discuss their exhaustive search with bored friends and family. That is something I simply cannot abide. I feel sad for people who have no idea what their tastes are; I won’t let it happen to my family.

And that brings us to our day trip to My Old Kentucky Home, which I never would have attempted without the help of my gracious parents. Can you imagine taking these people into a 221-year-old house without reinforcements?


It went well though. No one broke anything. The worst thing that happened was that Bea touched a marble top tea table just because I told her not to. I’m lucky to have an eight-year-old who does not suffer fools, or put up with any shenanigans from her sisters; she immediately laid the smack down. The girls got to hold some authentic sugar snips (they know how obsessed I am with sugar chests), and got to see a gorgeous old piano with mother-of-pearl keys and one of those creepy portraits where the eyes follow you. Our tour guide led us in a rousing chorus of My Old Kentucky Home, which my girls know by heart; it made me proud to hear them sing along. When Anne Miriam noticed the matching trumeau mirrors in the front hall, I had one of those rare transcendent parental moments where I knew I’m doing something right–which probably means that karma will be knocking me back down soon enough.

The girls explored this pretty arbor on the side of the carriage house.
“Wait for me, everybody!”