The Beekman Family Coach is one of the New-York Historical Society’s most unique objects. It is also one of only three 18th-century carriages used in colonial North America that is known to survive in original condition. A curatorial intern at the Museum, I’m a Ph.D. candidate in American & New England studies at Boston University, specializing in American material culture and decorative arts history. This summer, I had the opportunity to investigate the coach’s history after it returned to New-York Historical in July following a meticulous conservation. Though my focus is typically on material culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this project allowed me to combine my research interests with the conservator’s findings to draw connections across time. In the process, I learned how carriage painting—and specifically the various colors used on horse-drawn vehicles—held meaning for Americans in the 18th century and beyond.
Purchased in 1771 by New York merchant James Beekman, the coach remained in the family until 1911, when it was donated to New-York Historical by the original owner’s great-grandson, Gerard Beekman. Conserved by the B. R. Howard Conservation Studio, with funding from a Federal Save America’s Treasures grant, the coach underwent a lengthy treatment process that included a thorough cleaning of its exterior and interior, from its original iron tires to its carpeting and upholstery. Among the most exciting finds hidden beneath a thick layer of varnish applied during the 20th century was five layers of historic paint―including the cab’s now-visible celadon green color dating from the 1790s.
Microscopic analysis of the coach’s paint layers indicate that it was repainted at least four times prior to receiving its current coat, and some of the layers are still visible in a few discreet spots. The coach was initially painted ochre yellow, decorated with gilded moldings, and accented with a vermillion red undercarriage. The second layer reveals a slightly brighter yellow body with gilded moldings and a similar vermillion undercarriage. The third paint layer yielded a tan body with red or possibly dark orange details, gilded moldings, and a red undercarriage. The fourth layer, a deep green body, with gilded mouldings and a yellow-and-blue striped undercarriage. The fifth and final layer is the coach’s surviving celadon green body color, with a pale yellow and beige undercarriage and gilded and celadon moldings.
What do these paint layers tell us about how carriage owners regarded their prized vehicles and the changing tastes of the period? Carriage repainting was common during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, especially for luxury vehicles like the Beekman coach. Because colors quickly went in and out of fashion, repainting horse-drawn vehicles became a way for coach owners to refresh carriages without purchasing a new one. The five paint layers found on the Beekman coach indicate that the family used it regularly and wanted to maintain its visual appeal. Who might have done this work? Repainting was one of many services offered by carriage makers, including William and Elkanah Deane, New York’s premiere coachmakers. As described in William Deane’s 1772 advertisement, “Said Deane paints and repairs all manner of old work very reasonably.” These services were common in centers of wealth, like New York City, where elite residents were more likely to own and maintain carriages. In fact, the relationship between status and carriage ownership continued to be so important to New York culture that when Central Park first opened in the mid 19th century, park planners added a number of driving areas reserved for coaches. Driving a well-maintained carriage in the park became a way for wealthy New Yorkers to establish membership in the city’s upper class.
The designs and colors used to repaint the Beekman coach also offer a window into the period’s growing association between color and psychology. By 1770, scientists and philosophers had been interested in color theory for centuries. Aristotle’s color theory—the belief that color was sent by God from heaven and that all color derived from black and white—is the first known such theory and was widely held for over 2,000 years before being challenged by Isaac Newton in 1704. Newton posited that all colors were derived from the three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. In the late 18th century, scholars of color theory became less concerned with color as a scientific measurement and more concerned with its subjectivity and relationship to human psychology. One of the leaders of this line of thinking, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, developed the Rose of Temperaments in 1798, a diagram that aligns certain personality traits and characteristics with corresponding colors. Of the five historical paint colors on the Beekman coach, four were shades of green and yellow—both popular shades of the period. Goethe’s Rose of Temperaments associates the color yellow with tyrants, heroes, and adventures and the color green with hedonists, lovers, and poets. These may have been attractive qualities to the wealthy James Beekman.
Yellow and green may also have been attractive colors for showcasing up-to-date knowledge about color science. Several scientific developments during the 1770s spurred the introduction of new shades and formulations of many colors, including yellow and green. Turner’s Yellow, introduced in 1770, and Cobalt Green, introduced in 1780, were the result of scientific and chemical processes. Creating green pigments was an especially laborious and dangerous process due to the toxicity of the materials. Scheele’s Green, also known as Paris or Emerald Green, invented by Swedish chemist Carl Scheele in 1775, used arsenic to give the color its vibrancy. (So toxic were the effects of the color that it was rumored to have been responsible for the death of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1821.)
Period correspondence indicates the popularity of green and yellow as coach colors in the 18th century. A June 6, 1768, letter written by George Washington to Robert Cary & Co., a London-based merchant house, illustrates his color predilections for his own carriages as well as those commissioned for his wife, Martha. Requesting a new chariot after this old one had “run its race,” Washington declared, “green being a colour little apt, as I apprehend to fade, and grateful to the Eye, I woud give it the preference, unless any colour more in vogue and equally lasting is entitled to precedency, in that case I woud be governd by fashion.” Washington’s emphasis on the colors “in vogue” underlines the importance of changing fashions, and helps explain the many color changes of the Beekman coach in just a 30-year period. Washington further commented on the importance of appearances, as related to his coach, in a letter dated April 8, 1780. He wrote, “[t]hough I prefer a plain Chariot it may not be amiss to Ornament the Mouldings with a light airy gilding; this will add little to the expence [sic] and much to the appearance.” This may have been the same thought process of James Beekman, whose coach maintained gilded moldings through several repaintings.
Washington was not the only influential figure with a coach of similar design to that of the Beekmans. In 1789, a patent-yellow coach with striped edging was crafted in London and delivered to Thomas Jefferson in Paris where he was serving as minister from the United States. Additional period correspondence reveals a number of other yellow carriages imported from England during the period, including a yellow chariot for sale in a 1749 advertisement in The Maryland Gazette, as well as a light yellow carriage delivered to Josiah Parker of Virginia in 1784.
Without surviving documentation, it is difficult to know the express motivations in color choice for the Beekman coach. However, the coach was crafted during a period of intense interest in color—how it could be used to understand the human mind and personality, to convey wealth and status, and to engage in the latest developments in science and technology. From period correspondence, both of the Beekman family and of other influential figures, it is clear that maintaining the appearance of coaches was of utmost importance, as evidenced by the numerous redesigns and paint jobs. Despite James Beekman’s attempts to keep the coach in fashion, changing tastes eventually led to it falling out of favor with most of the Beekman children. In a deed of gift dated May 9, 1801, James Beekman passed ownership of the coach to his eldest son, William, “as [his] other children refuse[d] to use it on account of it not being fashionable.” This suggests that Beekman family members felt that the coach was already out of fashion in 1801, just a few years after its final paint job. Fortunately, the coach remained in the Beekman family until it was donated to New-York Historical, where it’s currently on view.
Written by Kayli Rideout, New-York Historical curatorial intern
Top image: Detail of Mount Pleasant (Beekman Mansion), New York City. ca. 1874. Abram Hosier. Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper. Gift of the Beekman Family Association
John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington (Washington: 1931) Vol. II, pages 488-489. Washington to Robert Cary & Co., London, from Mount Vernon,” June 6, 1768.
The Maryland Gazette, October 4, 1749; Virginia Historical Magazine, Vol. VIII (1901), pages 333-334. Bill for a chaise presented by Hyndman & Co. of London against Josiah Parker of “Macclesfield” Isle of Wight Co., Va., dated November 4, 1784