Mademoiselle Governess

Ursula Kremer, Media Production Intern

*The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not of the Barker Mansion*


I confess: I have not read Jane Eyre. Don’t get me wrong, I want to and fully intend to someday read Jane Eyre, but I have yet to. As an English major and a reader interested in that genre and era, I feel compelled to put that in the form of a confession. However, I do know the major plot points, and Charlotte Brontë’s  story came up multiple in my research for this topic.

I settled upon the research topic of governesses and nurses somewhat by accident. As I was researching the specific servants living at the Barker Mansion, in the 1910 census, a name popped up that surprised me a bit. Sara Curie was listed before the servants and after the Barker family in the census, and her occupation confused me multiple times over. Firstly, I found the writing for this particular word illegible. The 1910 census that lists the Barker household is completely handwritten, and while most of it was readable, this particular word was not.


(Image from 1910 Census of the United States of America)

After an extended amount of time deciphering the handwriting with the assistance of other Mansion staff, we finally figured out that it read ‘companion.’ As someone not thoroughly knowledgeable about the terminology and details of this period in history, I was blown away. My jaw dropped. Mr. Barker kept a companion? Or Mrs. Barker? She was openly listed as a companion on the census? How had we not known of this impropriety?

I was quickly corrected by a few of our Heritage Interpreters, that the term ‘companion’ was used for women in positions similar to that of a governess. Usually, a ‘governess’ would become her pupils’ ‘companion,’ as they aged out of the need for a teacher and more for a chaperone and respectable attendant and friend.

However, there continues to be (and was during the Victorian and Gilded Ages as well, I found) an association of governess-types with romance and/or scandal. Jane Eyre, in which the young governess end up marrying her brusque employer, Mr. Rochester, published in 1847, is the ultimate example. William Thackeray also wrote of a scheming governess who works to marry her way out of her position [2]. Other stories and episodic novels appearing in periodicals such as The Living Age featured the two classic types of governesses: the wizened, jaded governess and young, romantic heroines [3]. One of the stories in The Living Age is literally titled, “Zaidee: A Romance.” You guessed it. Zaidee is the name of the young Swiss governess. In the story “The Hidden Path,” also found in The Living Age, two governesses appear. The first is literally called “the spinster,” and described as “the dried-up, worn-out, yet kindly under-teacher, whose life-blood has almost frozen in her veins under the chilling influences of forty years of a teacher’s hardships” [3]. In the same story, the young governess becomes the romantic heroine, and is literally carried from a burning building by the love interest in the final scene. Governesses, obviously, appear regularly and are even the heroines in Gothic and Victorian stories.

People, including governesses, are not stereotypes alone, as we all know. This is a common issue that I come across as an English major. How are real people reflected in stories and literature? Why are they portrayed this way? Specifically, what about Catherine Barker’s governess/companion, Sara Curie? Some of these questions have already been answered for me. Some speculate that the figure of the governess captured the imagination of Victorian authors because they were “[just] like an orphan,” in that governesses were often placed in a foreign setting without friends and expected to make their way in the world, encountering new people and obstacles. They were a “blank slate,” and so, a great character-type for a story, especially a young female character [2]. The wily governess scheming her way into a higher class also makes for a compelling villain figure [2]. And let’s not forget the wise mentor role that the seasoned governesses get shoved into in literature.

After more research, I found that these depictions of people are not accurate at all. I have gathered that governesses could best be described, in a generalizing summary, as working women first and foremost. These were women that had a job to do and a wage to earn.

One of the primary examples of the governess lifestyle is found in Anna Bahlmann, who served Edith Wharton. Bahlmann was largely left out of Wharton’s memoir, yet Wharton’s personal correspondence with this woman was released just a few decades ago, and shed an incredible new light on both of their lives and relationship with each other. Bahlmann (who just happens to share a birthday with myself) was thirteen years older than Edith Wharton and was the daughter of German immigrants. She served Wharton for over forty years in total, first starting as her tutor, then becoming her governess, then her companion, then her personal secretary. The women shared a close “intellectual and personal relationship” and are even buried near each other. In spite of coming from different classes and backgrounds, their remaining letters prove what a large part of their lives that they were for each other. It should also be noted that Bahlmann never married or had a known whirlwind romance, throwing the literature stereotype to the wind [6].

Other governess figures that I found included two women, Grace Scott Bowen and Elizabeth Weed Shutes, who were governesses that survived the sinking of the Titanic. In addition to staying with their pupils throughout the sinking, neither of them married either [1]. Other true stories of governesses that I found followed in a similar pattern.

So, knowing that becoming a governess was not an idyllic, impassioned quest to find a husband, but rather a practical decision lifestyle, I then turned my research to what daily life was like for most governesses. The primary task for governesses was to teach, and partially raise, the young women remaining in the house after their brothers were sent to boarding school [2]. Luckily for young women of the time hoping to start in on the governess business, there was literally a manual written for them in 1826 called The Complete Governess. The manual breaks up topics to be taught into chapters, some of which include: English grammar, arithmetic, chemistry, zoology, natural philosophy, and more [4]. Governesses were also expected to teach older female pupils ‘accomplishments,’ such as music, painting, dancing, and other skills that would serve them in their quest to find future husbands [2, 4]. Governesses were also in charge of reinforcing the “moral” education of their pupils, which could often be a factor in determining who was hired as a governess, as most Protestant families would not want a Roman Catholic governess and vice versa [2]. With all of this combined, it is safe to assume that a governess and her student would spend a majority of the day together. If they got along well, then a close relationship could be expected, and would often become the norm. If a governess and her pupil got along well, the governess may end up serving her mistress for decades in different capacities, as was the case for Anna Bahlmann and Edith Wharton, or they might stay in contact as good friends for the rest of their lives. This was the case for Catherine Barker and Mlle. Sara Curie.

A governess, such as Sara Curie, had multiple responsibilities, but there were other requirements and trends that they had to follow. In Victorian England, most governesses were young women from middle-class families who were educated but too socially well-off to earn a living from work in a factory or shop, so serving an upper-class family appealed to their social expectations while allowing them to earn a wage [2]. Additionally, French governesses were not favored due to their affiliation with the Roman Catholic faith [2]. In Gilded Age America, the opposite seemed to be true. French governesses were very popular and fashionable for the time, their uniforms even reflecting their origins. From a document in our archives it is explained: “Ladies have adopted for their nurses, the French style of dress– dark, stiff gowns, white aprons, and caps. French nurses are, indeed, very much the fashion, as it is deemed all important that children should learn to speak French as soon as they can articulate.” Having a French nurse and/or governess was a national trend. The wealthy Frick family employed a governess called Mademoiselle Marika Ogiz, and even most of the governesses featured in the articles in The Living Age were French-speaking, either Swiss or French [5, 3]. Overall, a French governess was the type of governess to have– she had to look and dress French, speak and teach fluent French, and was often a French or Swiss immigrant.

The Barker’s governess was no exception. We at the Barker Mansion do not know very much about their governess, but she was a large part of Catherine Barker’s life. Sara Curie was born approximately in 1875 in France to French parents. She is known to have immigrated to the United States in 1896, when she was about 21 years old. She is first listed as living with the Barker family in the 1910 census, when she was 35 years old, but not at all in the 1900 census. Therefore, she was first employed by Mrs. Barker some time between 1900 and 1910. When serving the Barkers, she lived at the Mansion with them. Her room was either the single room on the third floor or possibly one of the servants’ rooms on the second floor. She is listed on the 1910 census as being able to read, write, and speak English. After her time with the Barkers, she moved in with her friends Mrs. and Mr. Alexandre Beauvais in Chicago, before they all moved to outside of Paris together. Sara Curie and Catherine Barker stayed in contact throughout their lives, visiting each other multiple times when Catherine was an adult. Sara Curie and the Beauvais couple passed away in the Hendaye region of France, in the lower Pyrenees. The year of her death is not known. She passed away sometime between 1930 and 1969. She never married and it seems that she lived with Mrs. and Mr. Beauvais for the remainder of her life.

Governess' Bed

(Image of Bed in Third Floor Bedroom, Barker Mansion Archives)

The life of the governess was not easy and was not the romantic adventure made out in some of our favorite novels and stories. Nurses and governesses were expected to be well-educated, well-mannered, and amiable, and lived away from their home with a new family for their job. One of the wise, spinster governesses from a story within The Living Age periodical describes her job as: “…the most slavish profession that society ever put upon women” [3]. This statement follows the melodramatic sentiments of the gothic literature of the age, but it touches upon the hardships and harsh realities of the hardworking women. These women worked hard to raise and teach the young women of the Victorian and Gilded Ages, and I find their stories even more impressive and even captivating than those of governesses in novels. They were true heroines of their time.


[1] “Governess.” Titanic People Database. Encyclopedia Titanica, 2019. Courtesy of Encyclopedia Titanica.

[2] Hughes, Kathryn. “The Figure of the Governess.” Last modified May 15, 2014. Courtesy of the British Library.

[3] Littell, Eliakim, ed. The Living Age, Volume 48. Boston: Littell, Son, and Company, 1856. Courtesy of Google Books. Digitized by Harvard University, 2008.

[4] The Complete Governess: A Manual for Governesses. London, 1826. Courtesy of the British Library.

[5] “Victorian Women of the Gilded Age.” Victoriana Magazine, 2016. Courtesy of the Frick Museum Website & Victoriana Magazine.

[6] Wharton, Edith. Irene Goldman-Price, ed. My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann. Yale University Press, 2012. Courtesy of Google Books.


Ursula Kremer 7.31.19

Kids’ Summer History Camp Has Begun!

Ursula Kremer, Media Production Intern

* The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not of the Barker Mansion*

We are in the midst of a very busy week at the Barker Mansion– this week is Kids’ History Camp! For four days, campers will come to the Mansion and become immersed in the history and stories of the Barker family and this area. We have a full schedule planned out, but as this is my first history camp aimed at a young audience, I am a bit nervous. It was very interesting to me to see how the staff here at the Mansion, myself included, worked to bring the past to life in a tangible, multi-faceted, and intriguing way.

Certainly, the primary scheduled activities are a fun way for the kids to interact with history. Including a behind-the-scenes tour and encounters with the archives and artifacts, kids will experience the less public, but more academic and, frankly, exciting part of history– the research and details of history and preservation! The kids will be able to literally touch some remaining artifacts from a long-ago era. Hands-on learning certainly goes a long way in every setting– especially museums.

Other, more subtle ways that we have been able to bring history to the present is through living aspects of their lives. For example, after my research into the foods regularly eaten by the Barker family and people in the Gilded Age, I found that they were fond of aspic and placing food in gelatinous molds. Thus, in a modernized, possibly more palatable fashion, we will be eating jello cups for one of our snacks. Additionally, we will be playing garden games and seeing toys of Catherine’s that were popular in her childhood. In little activities like these, campers will be able to experience history, allowing learning to happen with all five senses.


This year’s theme for Kids’ Camp is “Discovering History through Storytelling.” As an English major who has taken multiple classes in ancient texts and mythologies and an interest in the evolution of humankind’s stories, I am super excited about this. Human beings have been storytellers since the dawn of their time. As storytelling itself has a long history, its prevalence and impact cannot be overstated. It allows us to reconnect with and tell the story of those before us, making it then our story too. One of the wonderful things about the discipline of history is that it works to tell stories with a great variety of tools. Rooms, buildings, physical objects, people, and documents can all tell their own story. It is historians’ job to bring those stories to light. I am thrilled to be able to bring the campers along on this journey, teaching the kids the stories themselves as well as how to find and tell the stories.

I look forward to the rest of this week and all of the stories that we will be telling!

Be sure to tune in to our podcast on Friday and check out past blog posts from our Heritage Interpreters here at the Barker Mansion. You can also find us on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and our website.


Ursula Kremer 7.23.19

Taking Care of Some Historical Laundry

By TJ Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

*The blog post solely reflects the views of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

One of the biggest challenges at the mansion is piecing together the layout of rooms that were only used by the servants. The Barkers, the architect who designed the home, and the Barkers’ insurance company took many photos of the mansion right when the family was living in the new addition. In fact, several of the contractors who designed the home sent photographers over to take photographs to be used in advertising. I am currently tracking down some of these advertisements. These were all photos of the nicest rooms in the mansion, the parts of the home that the Barkers used themselves and spent the most money on decorating. But, the Barker family was just three out of the 11-13 people who lived in the mansion (8-10 servants), and no photos were taken of the rooms the servants occupied for both work and sleep. These un-photographed spaces account for roughly half of the mansion’s 35,000 square feet.

This week I challenged myself to try to piece together the original layout of one of those rooms. On Wednesday, I gave a behind-the-scenes tour, and I wanted to be able to tell my group more about the laundry room, which is the final stop on tour. Using the 1905 contracts, blueprints, and specifications, I was able to get a somewhat clear picture of how Barker’s laundry room was laid out in 1905. Get ready for some serious historical logic and primary source bonanza!


The laundry today


I started by first looking around the room itself, seeing what remains in the laundry today. When you first walk into the laundry room, a weird smell hits you. According to my former boss, the administration which preceded her kept a group of feral cats in the laundry room during the winter. The room today has a modern washer and dryer for washing tablecloths for events, several cabinets, an old metal table, and a row of three sinks on the north wall. There are also three drawers in the north wall; these were used to collect ash from the stoves in the kitchen above. The laundry room was added during the 1905 addition and was below the kitchen.


Laundry Room
1905 blueprint for the laundry


I found some discrepancies between the original specifications and the current laundry. First and foremost, the blueprint called for two doors into the laundry but only one door is there today. The original blueprint also included a row of four sinks, attached at the southeast wall. The design specifications only called for three tubs though, “Wolff’s F 5392 Columbia” tubs. The tubs had “roll rim wash trays with integral backs,” Columbian legs, brass soap cups, wringer attachments, and other features. They were made by the L. Wolff Manufacturing Company which had a factory in Chicago along with showrooms in the Loop. There are three washtubs with sink attachments in the laundry room today, but they are not on the north wall. I crawled around on the dusty cobweb-covered floor looking for a maker’s mark or serial number but had little luck, so I turned to the world of digital primary sources.


After a bit of digging, I was able to find some of the Wolff Mfg. Co.’s catalogs. The HathiTrust digital library had Wolff’s 1904 catalog series F, and sure enough, F-5392 was there. The image in the catalog was a close match to what is in the basement today with a few pieces absent. The backs in the current tubs are a little lower than the picture 5393 model but as you can see below there are options for different heights. I found another model in the catalog that looks more like the current tubs, it is possible that the Barkers changed their mind or maybe Wolff Mfg. Co. was out of model F-5392 at the time, I included the other model below.


Wolff Mfg. Co 1904 Catalogue F, p.803;




Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 4.54.54 PM.png
Wolff Mfg. Co 1904 Catalogue, p.798;


The main missing piece was the wringer; the mechanical part on the top was gone while the wooden base was still there. The base actually had to be ordered separately, I included its page in the catalog below. Now I can confidently say that these fixtures are original to the mansion (the faucets still work too). This level of verification does not happen very often in my urban archaeology adventures, and I do not think anyone could be more ecstatic than me over a 1904 plumbing catalog. I was also able to find most of the mansion’s other fixtures in these catalogs which I will share in a future post.


One of the more exciting features of the laundry room was brought to my attention by my former boss, Jessica Rosier. In December 2018 Jessica visited the Glensheen Mansion in Duluth Minnesota, and something there reminded her of my blueprint for the Barker Mansion laundry room.

Glensheen Mansion had a large mechanical dryer in their laundry room. The clothes were hung on racks that pulled out from the machine, and they were dried by heated coils on the sides of the machine powered by either gas or coal. Jessica sent me a photo of the dryer and told me that she remembered there being a dryer labeled on the 1905 blueprint for the drawing-room.


Glensheen mansion dryer
The dryer at Glensheen Mansion; photograph courtesy of Jessica Rosier


Jessica sent me this photo on December 23, and her question about the dryer in my blueprint turned out to be one of the best Christmas presents I received that year. Her question first led me to find the dryer listed on the original blueprint. It was in the southwest corner of the room, and it had six drying racks attached. The architect drew the extent of the racks when pulled out from the dryer. An exhaust vent was nearby in the wall above the three ash collection drawers in the wall. Likely, the vent was connected to the dryer, and it still has the original ornate grill on it. It should be noted that the Butler’s pantry also had a dryer; the dryer there was for drying dish towels and it was simply a cabinet connected to a vent.



I spent some time trying to track down exactly what type of dryer the Barkers had. I searched through old catalogs and architectural magazines on Google Books and HathiTrust Digital Library for a “six rack stove dryer” or “six rack cabinet dryer” as both names were used for this type of machine. I found several advertisements from between 1905 and 1910 for coal and gas-powered dryers from The Chicago Dryer Company. The Barkers’ dryer was likely purchased from this company as most of the interior plumbing, electrical, and gas fixtures were purchased from Chicago companies and almost all of the contractors who worked on the home were from Chicago.

The Chicago Dryer Company built several six-rack-models that were either gas or coal-powered. Two gas outlets were installed in the laundry room in 1905 along with electric light fixtures. Thus one of these outlets may have been for the dryer rather than for gaslighting. I am going to keep digging through my files, and maybe I will find a record of exactly which one they purchased.

Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 12.08.00 PM

Apart from the mechanical dryer, the laundry room was specially designed for drying clothes outside as well. The laundry room has two large windows that allowed servants to attach clothes to the lines outside directly. The specifications called for those windows to only have screens on half the window so that the servants could access the clotheslines. The courtyard outside the window was for drying clothes. There also was a catch basin or drain in the middle of the courtyard which collected wastewater from the boiler, refrigerator, and washtubs. The catch basin would have had a metal grate on it but has been removed at some point in the past one hundred years and filled in.


Low windows for hanging clothes in the courtyard


The laundry room also has an original cabinet in the corner and an original cabinet in the middle. The middle cabinet matches the drawings Perkins did for the sewing room cabinets and other cabinets in the servants’ rooms. Perkins did over 130 large drawings of the interior on full-size linen drawing paper. I only have copies of about twenty of these drawings, so the laundry room drawings are among the missing pages. I am not sure if the long cabinet on the east wall is original, it is full of paint cans right now. There was also the refrigerator waste chute I mentioned in my post on July 13. The last detail I have documented is the intercom; the laundry room had one of the six intercoms installed in the mansion during the 1905 addition.

Now the only question that remains in piecing together this room is how the servants did the washing. They used the Wolff tubs to do hand washing, but I do not have a record of a mechanical washing machine in this room. At the time there were mechanical washing machines available. Given how the Barkers spared no expense ordering the most modern of appliances and fixtures for the entire house, I can surmise that there was some sort of mechanical washer in this room originally. There was also likely a large wringer on the floor, similar to the one in the picture from Glensheen Mansion. It is possible that the washer could have been in the room across the hall from the laundry room which was called the cleaning room. The cleaning room had a large sink in the room but did not have any other fixtures listed in my documentation.

So there we go, the laundry has been pieced back together to the best of my ability. I am sure more details may emerge in the future, such as the model of dryer and washer the Barkers had. I also hope to learn more about the servants who worked in here; we have the names of the maids but almost no more information on them. This week I added some interpretive signage and the advertisements and images of the original fixtures for future behind-the-scenes tours to use. Now all I need to do is piece together the other twenty-odd rooms that we don’t have photographed.

TJ Kalin 7.19.19



The Quest for Servants

Ursula Kremer, Media Production Intern

* The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not of the Barker Mansion.*

For many who visit the Barker Mansion, including myself, the building itself can be an overwhelming experience. We all appreciate the great beauty and historic value that the Mansion is, and I am thrilled by being in its presence and learning about its stories. However, I don’t think that I am alone in thinking that the Barker story feels a bit distant. Surely most of us are not, nor will be ever become, high-profile, orphaned heiresses or presidents of multi-million-dollar companies. The Barkers were a form of American royalty for their time, and their mansion is a testament to that position. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Barkers certainly experienced hardships and suffering of various forms, but it can be a challenge for the heritage interpreters and those wanting to connect with this history more to find a relatable, common ground sometimes. Who were the people during the Mansions prime who were perhaps more familiar folks, as it were, like us?

I believe that many of these feelings and questions can be remedied by information about the domestic servants and staff of the Barker Mansion. A home as grand as the Mansion required quite the team to care for the building, gardens, and family. Interest in the servants and their lives does crop up among guests here, and I am certainly intrigued to know more about the group that really ran the show. Unfortunately, this can be quite challenging to do, and multiple house museums like the Barker Mansion face similar difficulties [2]. Firstly, their primary space has been disturbed by the hands of history. Our administrative offices and behind-the-scenes spaces needed for running the Barker Civic Center were once the servants’ quarters– renovated, updated, and altered multiple times throughout history. These rooms simply don’t look like they would have when servants were utilizing them so much of the information typically gathered by looking at the rooms, their state, what is in them, etc. has been lost. This is also an unfortunate reality for similar American museums [2]. The servants’ quarters are “the first to go,” likely because they are less valuable, less aesthetically pleasing, have less documentation about them, or have not held up as well due to poorer quality materials used in their construction. It depends on the building. For the Barker Mansion, besides having been somewhat neglected, that area was updated and heavily altered during the era that Purdue owned the house, allowing students to use it.

Even with all of their changes, the basics remain the same– the hallway, walls, and, most strikingly, the doors. All of the doors on the second floor that were used as servants’ bedrooms and the bathroom have Dutch-style doors, with a little door within the top half of the main door covered by shutter-like slats. As these rooms were part of the original 1857 home, our heritage interpreters speculate that they are most likely served as an attempt to create airflow. Even to this day, there is no air conditioning and little ventilation up here (a fact that the modern staff is painfully aware of). Recently, some servants’ rooms and the bathroom and linen closet have been decorated to serve as an example and are now wonderfully open for the public to view. So, that is our modern setting for research on the servants, changed and renovated, serving a different purpose, but still offering a little glimpse and hints into their lives here.


The next direction to turn for research to find out more about these people is documentation. Unfortunately, very little survives concerning the Barker servants. In our archives we have a few handwritten letters from Mrs. Katherine Barker to different servants in the house, including Christine Hult, who was the head housekeeper at the time, and a maid referred to as Tilla. Other names are mentioned in the notes and even the menus written by Mrs. Barker, such as Gus, Agnes, Matilda (perhaps she is Tilla?), Mat, and Alice. Luckily for us here at the Barker archives, Christine Hult’s granddaughter offered us some wonderful information and artifacts concerning her grandmother back in 1994. This is often the only way that the names and information regarding lesser known people, our fellow “folks,” are researched by modern historians– through the dedication and preservation work done by their respective family members.

In addition to personal family archives, the Barker Mansion has turned to historic census records to find out more about these people. While the census takers at the time would hardly know it, having created them for taxation purposes, census records are a treasure trove of information for modern historians. It is important to keep in mind that, although the census records were government documents, they are riddled with many errors. Census takers frequently anglicized and/or misspelled people’s names and allowed their own personal biases to come through. Nevertheless, the census has much to offer for historians, as the dated documents tell us (more or less) who was living where, with whom, how old everyone was, what everyone’s names were, where they were born, where their parents were born, what their occupation was, if they spoke English, if they were married, and much more. That being said, the U.S. census records have provided a great bulk of the Barker Mansion’s information on the servants here. We know more information about the servants from those, but the picture is still incomplete. What were their lives like? What was their daily schedule? Were they happy here at the Barker Mansion?


Luckily, other domestic servants’ stories from those in a similar era and situation have survived in forms of letters, diaries, and otherwise. From these, historians have been able to paint a general picture of the lives of servants during the Gilded Age. I, in turn, read these to gather a story for our servants.

The most noticeable aspect about domestic servants was that they really did not fit in, in that the position of servant and servitude in this manner was not comfortable in American culture. Wealthy families, particularly those of “new money,” who had made their fortunes in the Gilded Age were trying to emulate families of “old money” and the European aristocracy. The more rigid social status and norm of domestic servants familiar to the British did not cross the ocean neatly [1, 2]. American ideals and sense of individuality, and for many the recent memories of American slavery, kept the keeping of servants from establishing [4]. This may be the primary reason for the high turn-over rate of the serving staff at large houses. At the Barker Mansion, with each ten-year gap between the censuses, an entirely new collection of names is listed. While the censuses may not have the complete list of servants living with the Barkers at the time, that fact still recommends the idea that no individual was working here for more than ten years. It seems that this was a national trend, as servants were continually being sought out and new staff needing to be trained even in Washington, D.C. [3]. As a Driehaus Museum article puts it: “…servants were hard to find, and even harder to keep” [2].

Another reason for the irregularity in the staff could have been the indisputably hard work that all of the servants had to do. The staff was in charge of every aspect of running the house, from caring for any children, helping the family members get dressed, cleaning, gardening, starting and maintaining the fires, laundry, cooking, and more. In addition to the tough labor aspect of the work, the schedule was incredibly grueling. Many of the servants lived in the homes of those they served (a la our modern-day offices at the Mansion), and were working from dawn to midnight at least. Some servants, including some at the Barker Mansion, were “day servants,” and so could return to their own home and/or families at the end of the work day [4]. This practice seemed to be more common in Southern states, where a live-in style of service was too reminiscent of slavery [4]. As the Barkers were of the North, this was less likely a motivator. Additionally, all of their known serving staff were white people of European descent. Still, wages were low and time off was limited to typically one afternoon a week and every other Sunday [2, 5]. It is hard to compute the psychological toil from being at the constant beck and call of a family with all of their rules, quirks, and expectations as well. Clearly, being a servant was not for the weak or faint of heart.

The reason for becoming a servant in the Gilded Age was quite different for Americans than was common in England. Serving was not the means to raise one’s social status as it was in England [2]. Serving was a job, a means to an end, and a more dignified way to earn a wage. During the era in American history, immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe and Ireland, was at a very high rate, with nearly 750,000 people entering into the United States each year [5]. Many of these immigrants, frequently of the lower classes, found work as domestic servants. In the early 1900s, nearly a third of women working as domestic servants were foreign-born. The average percentage of immigrants working as domestic servants during the first half of the 1900s was about 10%, but the number did decline after the 1920s [5]. Specifically, 60% of all Irish-born working women were servants [6]. Many of the domestic servants were immigrants or the children of immigrants who needed to make a wage, moving on quite frequently if they get married or something better comes along. This high percentage of immigrants and first-generation Americans working as servants carries over to the Barker Mansion– the census lists some of the servants as being born in or whose parents were born in countries such as Germany, Sweden, Ireland, England, Prussia, Poland, Canada, and France. The census records the servants as all able to speak English, but we don’t yet know how fluent everyone was or what dynamics may have arisen as a result of these diverse backgrounds. It was very common for domestic servants of Irish descent or nationality to suffer stereotypes and discrimination, particularly Irish Catholics [6]. This seems unlikely to be manifested at the Barker household, as Mrs. Barker herself was the daughter of Irish immigrants.

It is through little clues and intuitions like these that historians are able to piece together as truthful and accurate of a story as they can of the servants of the Gilded Age with supporting information from the national norm. However, it doesn’t feel quite sufficient. As someone researching social history, I want to know every detail of the lives of these people who were perhaps less glamorous but no less important than those of high-profile families like the Barkers. The lifestyle of the Gilded Age rode on their hard-working shoulders, quite literally in some cases and historians seek to do them justice. This again brings me to my initial lament that there is so little evidence documented for many of the common folk, like us, who lived back then. At least, there is relatively so little that has been shared and made available to the public and historians. It is once again a reliance on personal collections and family stories that help bring these people’s experience back to light. Perhaps that letter and photograph from your grandparents is precious is more ways than you know.


Thank you for reading this week’s blog post. Tune in on Friday to the Barker Mansion podcast in which I will go more in detail about what information we have regarding the specific servants of the Barker Mansion. Who knows? You may hear a familiar name. 


[1] Anderson, Jon. “For Servants, Every Day was Labor.” Chicago Tribune. Last modified September 5, 2000.

[2] “Below America’s Stairs: Domestic Servants in the Gilded Age.” The Richard H. Driehaus Museum. Last modified June 14, 2012.

[3] Heard, Amy.

[4] Spainhour, Jaclyn. Gilded Age Norfolk, Virginia. Charleston: The History Press, 2015.

[5] Stigler, George J. Domestic Servants in the United States, 1900-1940. NBER, 1946. Courtesy of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

[6] “The Irish Domestic Servant.” Courtesy of American Studies at the University of Virginia.


Ursula Kremer 7.16.19

Plumbing Puzzles

By TJ Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

*The blog post solely reflects the views of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

A few weeks ago, I posted about my research on the cisterns at the mansion. At the time, I was able to map out the cisterns and the drainage system they were connected to. I had a big problem historical problem though: I did all this research on the cisterns but had no idea what happened to the water the cisterns collected. At the time, I searched through specifications for the building as well as looking for physical pipes in the walls of the basement that may have been connected to the cisterns. It seemed as if it was all to no avail, but this week, everything changed.

Like many of the puzzles at the mansion, the answer was sitting right in front of me. When I was working on the cistern project, I was still organizing my files of work orders and specifications for the mansion from 1905. I had most of the specifications sorted into their own PDF’s, originally the files were all individual Jpeg images. When I was sorting these files, my technological ineptitude got the best of me more than once. I accidentally sorted several files wrong, and some of the work specifications had other specifications mixed in. For example, my specifications for the ironwork had the fireproof flooring specifications attached at the end. When I was working on the cistern project, I did not realize many of these mistakes, and I ended up missing the plumbing specifications, which were mixed in with the interior woodwork specifications.

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This week I finally noticed the mistake and sorted them out. It turns out the plumbing specifications had exactly what I was looking for and much, much more. A page in the specifications was labeled “Cistern Supply,” and it clearly defined where the cistern water went. The cisterns collected water from the gutters, overflow from the fountain, and from the under soil and took the water through a filtration chamber. The filtration chamber had a metal pipe which fed the water into an “automatic pressure tank” in the basement. The pressure tank was very large, 42” by 12’ and was made by the Kewanee Pneumatic Water Supply Co. of Kewanee Illinois. I was able to find a brochure for the company’s pressurized tanks and I included some of their advertisements below.

This tank pressurized the cistern water and allowed it to be used in the laundry tubs, hot water heater, the master bathroom, the second-floor servant’s bathroom, the bathroom in the old master bedroom, the Bishop’s room bathroom, and Mr. Barker’s bathroom. All of these bathrooms put a lot of demand on the cisterns. The plans called for the original home cisterns removed, ostensibly because of these higher demands, but it turned out that the cisterns were not the only source of water for these rooms.

cistern supply

This biggest find in the document was the other sources of water for the mansion. We always said on tour that the pressurized plumbing for the house came from the freight car factory one block away. The factory had a water tower at the time, and it is well documented that the house received electricity from the factory, so it was not too much of a historical leap to assume that the water also came from the factory, but we were wrong. The document very clearly stated that “the main city supply will enter the basement through the north wall of the boiler room.” The mansion was connected to city water at the time! The city water supplied several of the bathrooms, the cleaning room in the basement, the boiler, an old basement sink, the servant’s basins (small sinks in several of the servant’s rooms), the slop sink (in a mop closet in the servant’s quarters), sinks in the servant’s dining room, Butler’s pantry sinks, and a few other spots throughout the house.

city supply

Many of these rooms had both cistern water and city water. This confused me at first; I assumed that some fixtures in these rooms were cistern water, and some were fed with city water, but this did not make much sense. After a very close read of the document, I found some answers. According to the document, a valve in the boiler room was set up to allow the Barkers to entirely shut off and drain the city water from the home. A similar system was set up for the cisterns. The plans also had extra valves that could change the source for specific rooms, switching which water source went for which room. A hot water heater in the basement was also set up to take water from either source.

I have a few mildly-educated guesses as to why this system was in place. First, it may have been set up so that the mansion could rely primarily upon cistern water and only use city water in times when rainwater was in short supply. My second guess is that it was for the Barkers to avoid city water during cholera outbreaks. Cholera was an often fatal bacterial infection caused by infected water supplies. I have records of numerous cholera outbreaks in Michigan City during the time the Barkers were alive. In August of 1879, John H. Barker’s five-month-old son passed away due to a cholera outbreak in Michigan City that claimed the lives of several other children. Shutting off the city water and switching to cistern water could be one way to avoid infected water in Michigan City. The cistern and city water was not the entire story, though. According to the document, there was one other source of water for the mansion.

cholera 1
Burial labeling Cholera as cause of death for the Barker’s son; Trinity Church Archives
Burial record for John Barker’s son; Trinity Church Archives

The document had a brief section titled “well water supply.” This section ordered the contractor to attach an old hand pump from the original kitchen to a “water lift” inside the home to take well water up to the attic tank. The attic tank is a large metal tank covered in canvas which sits inside the closet of the head maid’s room on the top floor. When the document was drawn up, the maid’s room was not there, and the tank was inside the attic. The maid’s room was not planned until after the addition was complete and it was not built until late 1908 at which time the room was built so that the maid’s closet opened up to the tank.

well water supply


The water lift may have worked similar to a windmill, using a vane to displace air and water to force the water up the pipe. Several pipes are still connected to the tank inside the closet. One of those pipes may be my ticket to finding the pump inside the attic, but I am not very interested in climbing around the attic right now given that it is well over one hundred degrees in there in on these summer days.


The water tank was directly connected to extra outlets in the Butler’s pantry and kitchen sinks. The sinks in these rooms and possibly more outlets were supplied with well water. I am not sure why well water specifically supplied these two spots, nor am I sure why they needed to use the attic tank when they had two other sources of water. Since the water in the tank did not circulate much, attic tank water was liable to freezing in the winter and or becoming stagnant in the summer. The Barkers had a radiator installed next to the tank to combat the tank freezing. An advertisement for the Kewanee Company compares their pneumatic tank (like the one for the cistern) with these attic tanks. The attic tank is also very close to being above the servant’s bathroom and may have supplied water pressure for a shower there. As with most of my puzzles, more research is needed. Oh, the love of primary sources!


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The document also clarified where the wastewater was to go. Most of the wastewater in the home was either sent into a sewer line lain between the cisterns and the side of the home in the garden. Basement and boiler wastewater went into a catch basin underneath the courtyard on the side of the house. Connected to this catch basin was one final noteworthy find: refrigerator waste.

A small section was labeled “refrigerator waste.” The refrigerator waste was excess water that melted from the ice chamber. The water went through a lead-lined oak shaft and fed into pipes that went out into the catch basin under the courtyard. The catch basin was a drain for water from the laundry and boiler as well. In my last post, I wrote about how I believe the original refrigerator was cooled by liquid ammonia and not an icebox. The ice melt that went through the waste chute may have been ice from the part of the refrigerator that made ice, or it could be that it is indeed an icebox, more research will be needed to determine this.

refrigerator waste

Overall, this document went a long way to answering my puzzling questions about the mansion. Like all answers, though, it brought along new sets of questions and new directions for research. I’ll keep digging deeper, and in the meantime, I am going to edit our tour scripts and signage to take out any mention of water supply from the Barker’s factory. More adventure awaits!

TJ Kalin 7.13.19

Menus & Food

Ursula Kremer, Media Production Intern

*The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not of the Barker Mansion*

As someone interested in the more menial, day-to-day aspects of life for people in history, I was thrilled to find that tucked away in the Barker Mansion’s archives are seven menus handwritten by Mrs. Katherine Barker herself. I was interested in anything concerning the food itself and the process of preparation. Lo and behold, there were many things on the menus that stood out as extravagant, wealthy, and even bizarre by our modern-day standards. The titles of some dishes were even entirely unknown to me (granted, I am about the furthest possible thing from a food expert). Anyhow, my interest was piqued, and thus began my research journey into the foods eaten by the Barker family as based on the remaining menus.

Firstly, it is important to know the approximate dates of the menus. All of the menus that we have in the archives are, again, handwritten by Mrs. Katherine Barker. Knowing this, anywhere from 1893 to about 1910 would have been possible dates. However, my research in this way was made much easier by one of the Barker Mansion’s heritage interpreters, as he had already determined that all of the menus are likely dated from the 1890s. So, with a time frame identified, I could press forward.

Some of the most striking dishes (at least to a modern reader) are scattered throughout the menus, intercut by familiar courses such as cheese and crackers, of all things. It is known that the Barkers dined in “the Russian style”– at least for formal meals– of which the trademark is multiple smaller courses. One of the menus has eight courses written out for one meal and is followed by specified drinks. A variety of dishes served in the rounds of courses caught my eye, including: “fillet of Sheeps-Head,” “Capon Breast,” “Chicken Timball,” “Blue Points,” “Prairie- Chicken,” “Terrapin,” and “Peas in Aspic.” Additionally, the amount of oysters eaten amazed me. Oysters were included as the first course on nearly every menu. As a modern person living in Midwest America, it seemed to me that this family dined in near exorbitant fashion. However, my research was soon to prove me wrong.

Menu 4

(Menu, Barker Mansion Archives)

Before I dive into my discoveries, I would like to offer some quick clarifications and vocabulary concerning the menus. I apologize if, for those of you reading, this is a review, but I certainly had to look them up. “Sheeps-Head,” or sheepshead, is actually a fish now found along the western Atlantic, but at one time was common in the Great Lakes. Capon is a type of meat made from the breast of a fattened up, castrated rooster. “Timball,” which I presumed to mean timbale, is the name given to food that has been pressed into a mold or pastry shell. “Blue Points,” or bluepoints, are a type of oyster. Prairie chicken is, in fact, not a chicken, but is more similar to a grouse and is considered hunting fowl to this day. Terrapin is a type of turtle. Aspic is similar to gelatin, in that it is a jelly-like substance, commonly made from meat stock. Those are the terms that I found unfamiliar. So, once I felt more confident in understanding what the Barkers were eating, I could then pursue why the Barker’s ate what they did and the social impact and history of some of the dishes.

After reading the menus, I formed a hasty hypothesis immediately. As the Barkers were a wealthy family, wouldn’t meals with prominent or multiple guests be a key moment to display their wealth to their peers? Yes and no seems to be the correct answer. Surely, I thought, unusual and even lavish meats such as oysters, terrapin, capon, and prairie chicken would the best show of the Barker’s awareness of wealth and what was fashionable for the times. This theory was quickly undermined by my discoveries. I also noticed that there was a suspicious lack of red meats. No dishes involving ham or beef (aside from maybe stock) are included on the Barker’s remaining menus. I found this surprising, as the Barkers had a farm nearby that included livestock. Yet, it seemed that they didn’t partake of that readily available supply for meat. Again, my hypothesis centered around class, as I guessed that ham and beef were more common among the lower classes. This also turned out to be wrong. So, I was 0 for 2 on my theories, but it required a fair amount of research to realize that.


Luckily for me, the internet has been invented and hundreds of resources are available through it. I was able to track down multiple menus from a similar era, as well as a few cookbooks from the time providing background and societal conditions surrounding dishes in addition to the recipes themselves. My next step was to draw up a comparison between the dishes included in the Barkers’ menus and these other menus of the time. Would it prove that the classy Delmonico’s hotel of New York city didn’t serve any beef or ham to their upper-class patrons? What about the Bingham House hotel? I would soon find out.

The first topic that I tackled was the oysters. On the Barker menus, the oysters are listed as either the first or second course. Oysters proved to be a common starter. Then, as the comparisons continued, they seemed too common. The proper and fashionable upper-class dinner “…[commenced] with raw oysters” [6]. At an elaborate Easter Sunday dinner at the Bingham House in 1899, blue points (a type of oyster) were served [4]. These are just a few examples of the prevalence of oysters on the American table. Looking further, I gathered more information about the cultivation and industry of oysters. Popular in America since the beginning of America, oysters became so popular in the mid-19th century that whole restaurants were devoted to them. These were typically called “oyster houses” or “oyster saloons” [3]. America seemed to have completely fallen in love with oysters, finding such muses as to even write articles about them and their recipes in dedicated cookbooks and newspaper articles. Eventually this love resulted in an over-harvesting of the New England oyster beds and so oysters were harder to come by starting around the 19th century [3]. However, this drop in the availability had not occurred when Mrs. Barker was writing up the menus. They were in the midst of the oyster craze. So, as oysters were an expected first course for a proper household, and regularly made their way onto a majority of American tables in addition to dining cars, hotels, and clubs, oysters surprisingly did not seem to be a display of the Barkers’ wealth. My attention turned elsewhere.

I then focused on other meats rarely eaten in today’s world: prairie chicken and terrapin. Imagine my dismay at finding my theories again busted. The prairie chicken is not a commonly known bird species today, although it was once thriving in the grasslands of the uncultivated Midwest. Today the prairie chicken is at regular risk of endangerment, largely due to a loss of their grassland habitat over the centuries of America’s history. This shortage of prairie chickens was not felt in the mid-to-late-19th century, however. The plowing of the grasslands with the newly invented steel plow caused an increase in the prairie hen industry, as now the now homeless birds became vulnerable to hunters and populations were more congregated in the remaining ideal habitats. So, in the mid-1800s, “[more] than 600,000 prairie-chickens were bought by the city’s [Chicago’s] markets every year, at a price of $3.75 per dozen” [2]. That is a little over $100 for a dozen in today’s money. Recipes of the time seem to accommodate the upper class, like the Barkers, through to those of somewhat simpler means [2]. The Barkers served prairie chicken during an era when it was literally being brought into Midwestern cities by the trainload. Its popularity and the abundance of diverse recipes involving the prairie chicken lead me to conclude that this was not the fancy, elite dish that I was searching for. Terrapin seemed to be another notable meat. Yet again, I stood corrected, as terrapin and other turtles dishes could be found in an abundance of menus, in a range of costs [4]. In fact, it seemed to be that turtle was a typically used meat and source of protein in the 19th century, leading to their endangerment in some cases and a drop in the availability of turtle meat in the more recent centuries [6]. Foiled again in my quest to find evidence of the Barkers’ wealth in their meals, it was time to think outside of my modern box and make an interesting discovery.


So, what was the most noticeably expensive food on the menus? Mushrooms. This element of my research led me into an extensive study on the mushroom industry of the Gilded Age in America. I will go into further detail on my process and finds of researching on the next Barker Mansion podcast. It will go live this Friday, so be sure to check it out!


Another point on meat, or lack thereof, that could not be ignored was the absence of beef and pork from the menus. Granted, the Barker Mansion archive only retains seven menus from the era, so it could easily be the case that the family had such meat on days that we simply do not have documentation remaining. However, these menus include meals that suggest they are not the average family dinner. One menu elaborates on having 20 guests, at least eight courses, and specifications on what the maids should wear. It would seem that for dinners such as these, it would behoove the high-profile Barkers to put their best foot forward and impress their guests. Yet there is the lack of beef even here. I suppose I was stuck in a rut of sorts from my first hypothesis, as I figured that these red meats must be the meat of the lower classes, or at least not as prestigious and influential as seafood and fowl. This was quickly derailed once I looked at other menus from the time, as beef dishes were present at expensive, upper-class institutions and events. I am unable to argue with the numbers– steaks were commonly some of the most expensive items on each menu [4]. This left me with a great puzzle. Where was the beef?

A few explanations arose from further research and discussion with the Barker Mansion heritage interpreters. The first was that it was simply a matter of taste. It is important to remember that it is a subjective, dynamic individual creating these documents that we now study. Perhaps, as Katherine Barker grew up in an upper-middle-class family on the East Coast, she simply brought her palate with her and wished to eat foods from her childhood (many of the dishes have connections to the East Coast). Or there is no specific trends to her tastes, she simply had the family eat what they liked and beef was unliked. It is hard to say. The other theory involved research into the family health. I noticed that many of the dishes, such as seafood, chicken, vegetables in gelatin, and croquettes, are all foods that are easy to eat. They require less chewing than a hearty steak. Mr. John H. Barker was considered older when he married Katherine Barker, and is known to have suffered from a variety of ailments that accompanied his “old age.” Mr. Barker passed away on December 3, 1910 at the age of 66 years from what was diagnosed as double pneumonia. According to Michigan City’s The Evening post article from the same day (found in the Barker Mansion archives), Mr. Barker had also been diagnosed with jaundice a year prior to his death. His symptoms as a result of the jaundice and any other illnesses that he may have had are unknown to me at this time– it would require much more research on my part. However, it is possible that this somewhat unusual menu could have resulted from his poor health and potential discomfort that he might have had, such as nausea or abdominal pain. With no evidence yet discovered by myself or the Barker Mansion staff, it is not possible to yet prove either of these theories. Both remain little mysteries at present, brought about by the research done by myself and observations made by myself and colleagues, and perhaps further research on it will soon follow.

After all of this research, it seemed I had only concluded what was not the case. The Barkers curiously did not have any beef or ham dishes included in their menus, but it is not totally clear why. Oysters, prairie chicken, and terrapin all were not extravagant meats used for impressing important guests. However, in addition to the presence of mushrooms, it seems that the Barkers had a few additional ways of validating their societal position. Occasionally, Mrs. Barker would write out extra specific dishes on the menus. These included items such as: German asparagus, California artichokes, fresh strawberries, fresh mushrooms, all of which are on the menu for the large party of 20 people. Perhaps Mrs. Barker did not show her class through eye-catching, over-the-top dishes, but instead getting the best ingredients for more modest dishes. The Barkers certainly did not opt for modesty concerning the expenses of their house, including the kitchen amenities. By having a large refrigerator which used ammonium to keep items cool, as well as a gas-powered warming oven to keep pastries and bread toasty, the Barkers were able to provide guests and themselves with regular dishes that may have been more inaccessible to the average American of the time. These included food items such as ice cream and jellies.

While the Barkers were certainly wealthy for their time and let it come through in their meals via their eating of mushrooms, cold dishes, and specific food items, it is also balanced with an element of unpretentiousness which I found surprising. My initial hypothesis of which dishes were used to show wealth and prosperity, especially dishes such as oysters and terrapin, was ultimately proven wrong through extensive research. The Barkers tended towards meals, especially meats, that were common for all classes of the time period. This entire project served as a valuable lesson for my first major research here at the Barker Mansion and truly helped me to get my foot in the door with the experience. It’s actually nice knowing that, even at the cost of my initial hypothesis, new and interesting information was found and I am grateful for the opportunity to share it.


Don’t forget to check my podcast coming out this Friday in which I will cover my extensive research and discoveries of mushrooms! See you then!


[1] Farmer, Fannie Merritt. The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1896. Courtesy of MSU Digital Libraries.

[2] Beahrs, Andrew. “The ‘Prairie Hens’ of Illinois.” Cornell University. Last modified July 15, 2008.

[3] Dwyer, Dialynn. “Raw or Fried?” Boston Globe Media Partners. July 21, 2017.

[4] “What’s On the Menu?” New York Public Library Labs.

[5] Winston, Sydnee C. “Extreme Dining in the Gilded Age.” The National Women’s History Museum. Last modified June 14, 2013.

[6] Zhou, Li. “The Foods Americans Once Loved to Eat.” Last modified June 24, 2015.


Ursula Kremer 7.9.19

Introducing our Media Productions Intern

Ursula Kremer, Media Production Intern

*The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not of the Barker Mansion*


As some may now notice, this blog post is authored by a new member of the Barker Mansion team. My name is Ursula Kremer and I am serving as an intern here at the Mansion, with a focus on media production. I’ll be here at the Mansion for the next few months and hosting some of the podcasts and writing for the blog during that time. To provide a little introduction to myself: I am a student at Hanover College pursuing a degree in English and Creative Writing. While not a history major, I enjoy the study of it and have a particular affection for the 19th and 20th centuries. The Barker Mansion in itself is a wonderful resource and also houses extensive records that I look forward to utilizing. Some topics that I hope to research in the coming weeks include: the types of and preparation needed for meals eaten by the family, symbolism and meaning of the beds of the family and guests, the mythology found carved on various pieces throughout the Mansion, a more in-depth look at the lives, expectations, and realities of the women living in the Mansion, and the experience of the wealthy children living in the Gilded Age, especially young Catherine Barker.

For those of you who have yet to visit the Barker Mansion, it is a truly spectacular and beautiful place. As a writer interested in historical fiction and the time periods in connection with the house, inspiration comes seeping up through the pine wood floorboards. I often feel like I am able to live my childhood fantasies of exploring and feeling at home in a massive, mysterious, old house. Now I just need to find my magical wardrobe. Having now become a member of the Barker Mansion staff, I also have an even stronger appreciation for the work put into preserving the integrity and the beauty of the house and gardens. Ranging from tough physical labor (our hard-working director, herself, vacuumed out the garden fountain yesterday) to in-depth research on the Barker family, the home, and the related time periods, the realities of being one of those entrusted with such a wonderful piece of history does hold a solemn weight. However, it is no less magical.

I look forward to the next few months that I have at the Barker Mansion and the future research and writing that will stem from that. Be sure to check out past blog posts written by the fabulous heritage interpreters of the Barker Mansion staff, as well as the Baker Mansion podcast. The next episode comes out on Friday.  See you all next week!


Ursula Kremer 7.2.19