Friday, March 25, 2011

A Friendly Game of Chess

The North West Sitting Room at Clarke House Museum is similar to the modern-day family room. As the most casual space in the home, the Clarkes would have used this sitting room for informal conversation and evening diversions. Mrs. Clarke and her daughters, Mary and Caroline, would have settled down in the evenings to do needlework or read. Her four boys may have also read or pulled up a couple of chairs to engage one another in a game.

The North West Sitting Room has been recently staged for a chess game between Robert (age 19) and his brother Edward (age 13) in 1857. The board is home-made, painted black and red, with delicately carved ivory pieces belonging to a finer game board, long ago lost. In addition to playing games, the Clarke boys might have used their leisure time in the evening to catch up on the current issues of the day. They may have talked about the present recession or about the slave issue and murmurings of secession.

A reproduction of a June 1857 issue of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Magazine is casually laid over the chess board in the sitting room as if Robert has just set it aside. Engravings of Dred Scott, his wife, and two daughters grace the front page.

Scott became famous after a long-fought court battle to gain freedom for himself and his family. In March of 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that because Scott was black, he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue for his freedom. The court's decision also declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820, legislation which restricted slavery in certain territories, unconstitutional. While the decision was well-received by slaveholders in the South, many northerners were outraged. The decision greatly influenced the nomination of Abraham Lincoln to the Republican Party and his subsequent election, which in turn led to the South's secession from the Union.
(Courtesy of

The Clarkes would have been very aware of the Dred Scott case and its implications. Where exactly they stood on the issue of slavery and full freedom for blacks is unknown, but it is certain that it was a topic of conversation in their social circle. The family Sitting Room was a space where polite, inoffensive conversation could be set aside in favor of speaking candidly about social and political issue within the confines of the home, perhaps over a friendly game of chess.

1 comment:

  1. Another great post and history lesson. Love the staging of the parlor.


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