Make your family vacation an expedition into the past by discovering the backstairs secrets of historic American houses. Many museums and houses now document the long-overlooked roles of servants and slaves. Behind-the-scenes tours give fascinating insight into the social and cultural values of bygone eras. From plantations to urban mansions, here's a selection of sites that demonstrate how households really worked.
Newport, Rhode Island
Among the legendary "cottages" you can tour in this venerable resort town, the Elms stands out for the completeness of its utilitarian exhibits -- from the wine cellar and coal tunnel to the recently opened top-floor servants' quarters. Modeled after an eighteenth-century chateau, it was built in 1901 as the summer residence of a coal tycoon whose forty-three servants worked eighteen-hour days, six days a week. Behind-the-scenes tours take place hourly; January 5 to April 12, open only on weekends and holidays.
George Washington Memorial Parkway
Mount Vernon, Virginia
Our first president's plantation relied on the labor of more than one hundred slaves, but the buildings and grounds were designed to ensure that family and guests would rarely encounter them. Visitors, however, can see historic interpreters performing traditional slave tasks, and the impressive kitchen. Slave Life Tours are offered from April through October.
Thomas Jefferson's role as a southern planter figures prominently in tours of his home. Only three hundred feet away from the house, along a dirt path winding among mulberry trees, thirty to forty slaves lived and labored in tiny cabins. Take the Plantation Community Tour (April through October), or spend a whole day walking the site during a Plantation Community Weekend, when historic reenactments portray everyday existence two hundred years ago.
2160 Linden Drive Southeast
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Until only three years ago, the servants' quarters at this 1886 Queen Anne–style mansion were used as office space. But as the house historian began to uncover information about the staff of approximately twenty people who lived there, the quarters were opened to the public. Now the standard tours encompass these areas -- and there are plans to launch a strictly backstairs tour next summer.
1800 South Prairie Avenue
Designed by the prominent architect Henry Hobson Richardson and built in 1887, this residence epitomizes the "upstairs-downstairs" dichotomy of Gilded Age Chicago. Farm-machinery mogul John Glessner and his wife, Frances, frequently gave lavish dinner parties for which their servants often prepared, cooked, served, and cleaned from dusk until dawn. Tours encompass the rooms where the entertaining occurred as well as the kitchen and work areas where a well-organized staff made it all possible.
James J. Hill House
240 Summit Avenue
Saint Paul, Minnesota
All tours of this late-nineteenth-century mansion include the laundry, pantry, and kitchen, and teach visitors about the lives of the twelve servants who worked there. Each December, costumed interpreters reenact preparations for the Hills' extravagant holiday parties.
3380 Ashley River Road
Charleston, South Carolina
Built by European and African American craftsmen in 1738, this Georgian-Palladian dwelling is the oldest preserved plantation house open to the public. What it lacks in original furnishings, it makes up for in scholarly interpretations. Take the self-guided marsh walk, for instance, and you will stand where slaves once cleared the now-resurgent marsh for rice planting. The tour "Connections: Africans, Europeans, and Americans" pieces together two centuries of history.
2247 Highway 18
West African slaves passed down an oral history -- including tales of Br'er Rabbit -- behind the walls of the cabins that still dot this property, which was run primarily by Creole women for eighty-four years. Up in the 1804 manor house, mistress Laura Locoul wrote a memoir about day-to-day existence on the sugarcane plantation. Tours convey a vivid picture of slave life.
1906 McFaddin Avenue
Cattle rancher W.P.H. and his wife, Ida Caldwell McFaddin, moved into their Colonial Revival in-town residence in 1907. The domestic staff, like the cowboys at the family ranch, were primarily African Americans, many of whom lived in the carriage house, which also accommodated the family's automobiles, cows, horses, and gymnasium. Take a self-guided carriage-house tour to see exhibits about the servants and their lives.
470 West Walnut Street
Life on Pasadena's Millionaires' Row is the subject of tours at this well-preserved Beaux Arts-style house built in 1906 and now operated by the Pasadena Museum of History. Docents show you the back stairway used by the servants and their small, dark sleeping quarters, and they may even introduce you to one of the Fenyeses' former maids, who still works on the premises.
4 Westmoreland Place
Owner David Gamble envisioned a house in which family, guests, and staff could move from room to room easily. The resulting design drew no distinction in livability between "upstairs" and "downstairs," making this exquisite landmark a harbinger of modern layouts where the kitchen became the heart of the living space.