Friday, December 16, 2016

Kitchen Ball at White Sulphur Springs, 1838

Visiting mineral springs was a popular pastime in antebellum America. Wealthy Southerners of this era often visited these hydrotherapy spas to socialize as much as for their supposed medicinal values. Being that noted mineral springs were often in mountainous area, they were a popular draw during the summer and early fall months as a retreat from the lowland heat and its associated illnesses.

One of the most frequented spas in the South was White Sulphur Springs, Virginia (now in present-day Greenbrier County, West Virginia). White Sulphur Springs boasted accommodations for over 500 people in its main hotel, as well as its family cottages. 

Naturally, when wealthy slave owning families visited White Sulphur Springs, they often brought their favorite domestic slaves to attend to their needs. It was on a visit in 1838 that German artist Christian Friedrich Mayr painted the above scene of "Kitchen Ball." It has been speculated that this image captured a slave wedding due to the focal point couple dancing in white attire. Whether it was wedding, or just an occasion for fellowship and recreation with fellow enslaved individuals, it captures a moment in time and away from their masters' gaze to enjoy some well deserved free time. The foreigner Mayr's painting shows the ball participants in a dignified manner without the unfortunate grotesque features common in images painted by Americans. Mayr also depicts African American musicians. He places a flute player, a cellist, and a fiddler. 

One wonders what sort of conversations these enslaved people held while free of their owners' control for a brief period. Did they compare notes on how to cope with slavery? Did they use the opportunity to just forget about their enslaved condition for a little while? Did they network in attempt to better their individual situations? Did they try to find out information about love they had been separated from?

White Sulphur Springs was visited for its springs as early as the late 1770s, but came into its own as noted resort in the period from 1830 to 1860. It hosted a number of presidents during this period as well as other noted politicians, celebrities, and their families. Although White Sulphur Springs has undergone a number of changes in the years since, it still operates, now as the Greenbrier: America's Resort. If you have traveled on I-64 between Lexington, Virginia, and Beckley, West Virginia, you have likely noticed it.

A Kitchen Ball image courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Art
White Sulphur Springs image courtesy of the University of Virginia


  1. Very interesting! Your comment about the European artist is another example of how foreigners have been able to view African-Americans without the prejudice and other cultural baggage that has afflicted Americans. American jazz became popular in Europe in the 20th century before it came to be more widely appreciated in the U.S. Similarly, the Turkish founders of Atlantic Records and the Polish founders of Chess Records succeeded in identifying incredible rhythm and blues talent that went unnoticed by mainstream recording companies. -- Linda Kelso

  2. Hi Linda, Yeah, I know African American soldiers during WWII were surprised by the lack of prejudice in some European locations. And I think Josephine Baker relocated to France for similar reasons. Hope you all are doing well.

  3. Hi Tim, I check in with you from time to time...always enlightening and much appreciated information and images. Missed this post about the Kitchen Ball painting. I'm curator at the North House Museum in Lewisburg, WV, formerly VA, and 8 miles from the Greenbrier. A native of our town, an African American, retired here a few years ago and answered her own question of where is the black story in this museum by mounting an exhibit, Invisible Roots and Legends. The board grabbed her immediately to claim some inclusivity but didn't realize that her goal was to have the black experience sprinkled thoughout the museum next to the story of the North's and all the other "important" figures in the region's development. We have teamed up to provide photographs and stories of the enslaved and free people of color and on into the 20th century for our visitors and school groups.
    Right now a high quality large print of the Kitchen Ball is being framed and will soon hang over the sideboard in the dining room near the giant photograph of Gen. Lee. I convinced the museum committee to pay for this, but I think they will have quite a shock when they find this actually on the wall in the North's dining room!
    I wanted to have this picture up in time for my Beyer and Banjos at the Springs show in July. I've had 21 lithographs conserved and they will be rehung for the exhibit. I see you show the Beyer White Sulphur print. One painting that has disappeared that we know of is the only one in which he depicted slaves - how I wish it could be found - it showed a corn shucking "party". Beyer was a German, and he painted for money to fund his travels in America; still, the enslaved people who made possible the wealth and ease for the wealthy who came to the spring resorts are indeed invisible.
    Toni Ogden

  4. Thank you for the kind words. I'm glad to hear the image is being used to educate people about enslaved peoples. While many of the slaves depicted in the image were likely there with their non-resident owners, slavery was not non-existent in the Appalachian South. Mountain slaves worked in a diverse range of occupations and benefited their owners greatly.