Johnstown woman hosts tea parties at Brookside Museum
Sue McLane is The Victorian Lady. A buyer and collector of antique clothing since the ’80s, she’s touched outfits that were hundreds of years old and become immersed in the stories of countless Victorian era couples and high profile players.
Now, for the past several years, she’s been hosting Victorian tea parties for children during the February break from school at Brookside Museum in Ballston Spa. She dresses in antique outfits from her own collection and takes them through what a day in Victorian American would have been like and ends the two hour program with a traditional tea party.
`She explains how the clothing was different; women had to wear long skirts, heavy petticoats and gloves. She goes into things like cars, furnaces and other things kids can relate to. The kids make their own fans they can take home and help prepare the food and beverage for the tea,` said Linda Gorham, education director at the museum. `It gives them an appreciation, in some respects, for what they have today; in terms of the ease of life that we have, they can compare what it was like to live in another period of time and look at hardships people had.`
Tea preparation is a big hit, said Gorham. They wear aprons and prepare triangular shaped tea sandwiches with the crust cut off and frost their own sugar cookies. They drink blueberry tea and take full advantage of the sugar cubes.
`Most like the tea, some don’t care for it and won’t drink it, but I always see them piling sugar cubes in. It’s funny,` said Gorham.
McLane has been the Victorian Lady since 1991 and only became intrigued with the era and history itself during what she considers her second career: independent scholar. After spending seven years as a registered nurse in medical, surgical, cardiac and critical care units, she said she’s gained an appreciation for the Victorian era’s simpler way of life and applies it to her own.
`This career is a lot more fun! I’m an avid reader; when I moved into my house I had 48 boxes of books and my library is now filled with 19th century primary sources,` said McLane. `I live like they did back then. Every morning when the sun comes up I open my drapes and let it stream in so it can light and warm the house. Then I close those two layers of drapes at night and the heat is retained. I don’t have a television and I only recently bought a laptop.`
McLane said she feels like life during Victorian times was more real and less artificial.
`I like to think my life is actually my own reality show and I don’t need to sit down in front of a television and watch other people have their reality. My reality is that I don’t have a TV. I live in a house that was built in 1870 and I have beautiful architectural elements that I can always admire like bay windows and a tin ceiling,` said McLane. `I think there’s value in history and if we make history more relevant, more people would see that value and enjoy it as well.`
Making history relevant is exactly what she tries to do with her tea parties and other programs, like talks about Victorian underpinnings and many discussions about the woman’s role during that time. She’ll be speaking at the Women’s Symposium at the Hamilton Montgomery Boces Center Saturday, March 20, as part of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Hometown Association.
McLane said she discovered her passion in a backwards way`her love of antique clothing introduced her to her fascination with history. Each outfit, she said, tells a story and looking at the details explains the time and energy it took to create that.
`Every time I see something new, I pull that thread to see how it leads me to another level of history,` said McLane.
She restores outfits and displays them at antique shows. These shows are what led about 25 of her pieces to appear in the movie, `Titanic.`
`I have quite a lot of clothing in different movies and theatre performance, most notably ‘Titanic’ and ‘Out of Africa,’ which was really one of the first films to use real, authentic clothing,` said McLane. `Now more and more people from filmmakers to museums to independent collectors demand antique clothing. I like to think of it as there’s now more places for [these outfits] to be saved.`
McLane said she lets each article of clothing to share with her its story. She remembers a huge hat she came across from 1910; fur, bleached white with curled edges and a large purple ostrich plume all the way around it. The woman gave her a photo of her grandma, who had worn it, which let her feel a special connection. She also has a wedding dress from the 1890s, which came with charcoal drawings of the couple who wore it, from Schenectady. She said she’s discovered clothing from many well-known people but can’t say who they are because in the antique business, she said, you quickly learn to be discreet.
Her programs and services are mainly spread through word-of-mouth; although with her new laptop and internet access, she’s hoping to put together some type of Web site. The tea party at Brookside was so popular that it was stretched over two days this February and will be repeated over April break for children age five to 12.
More information is available on the Web site, www.brooksidemuseum.org.“