Ebenezer Maxwell House – A Victorian Mansion in Philadelphia

Victorian architecture is pretty epic. With gabled roofs soaring up toward the sky, you can’t help but feel awe at the majestic splendor before you when you walk by a Gothic style house.

My sister and I visited Ebenezer Maxwell Victorian House, Museum & Garden on her birthday in late July. This home, built in 1859, was purchased by Ebenezer Maxwell and his wife Anna Smith and later sold to the Hunter Stevenson Family. Generations of the latter family lived in the house until 1956. The first floor reflects the 1860s whereas the second floor reflects the 1880s.

Ebenezer Maxwell House, July 2023

Many of the pieces – like the stained glass windows in the home – are original and were in the house when the residents lived there. Ebenezer Maxwell House offers tours upon reservation, and our guide wore historic dress. It was an immersive experience, and I quite like visiting historic homes to peek into the lives of people from times past.

IMG_0759.jpgIMG_0760.jpgOne of my favorite things that I learned that day was that mason jars were invented in Philadelphia in 1858! I never knew that. Apparently, before mason jars, people used a wax seal to can food, and it was a really messy process.Mason jars

Victorians enjoyed taking part in all sorts of eccentric crafting projects. They saved shed human hair and pet fur to create framed wall-hangings. They preserved small animals and fauna with arsenic, and arranged them artfully in glass domes. Children would keep small mice as pets. We saw a little mouse house in the children’s nursery.

IMG_0756.jpgIMG_0768.jpgIMG_0806.jpgIMG_0815.jpgDollhouse in the nursery

Ebenezer Maxwell House had a collection of so many cool Victorian inventions and knickknacks. This thread organizer was so nifty. I can imagine it being helpful in modern hand sewing projects.Victorian thread organizer

Today, if you wanted to sell products that you create, you would likely take lots of photos, post them to social media to spread the word, and open an online shop. Back in the late 1800s, photographs weren’t as common, and the internet was (obviously) nonexistent. So, traveling salesman would advertise their products by making miniature models of them. They’d share these teeny models with potential buyers to show what they could make on a larger scale. Ebenezer Maxwell House had a few of these teeny models in the kitchen. Some of them were used by the children as toys and ended up in the nursery.Teeny stove modelTeeny stove model

Can you spot the teeny stove model in this photo?Can you spot the teeny stove model in this photo?

The Victorian kitchen was so fascinating to me. There are a lot of tools in it that we still use today – we saw an iron, a waffle maker, and a kettle. There were other items, like the crimper (for clothing), which are uniquely of that time period.IMG_0777.jpgIMG_0785.jpgIMG_0786.jpgIMG_0787.jpgI really liked the bell system in the kitchen. Our guide shared that every bell had a different chime, so the servants would know which room was calling for service. I thought that was kind of cool – like having a different ringtone for each one of your friends on your cell phone. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Ebenezer Maxwell House boasted the latest in technological advancements of the time. There was a hot air register system, which was basically central heating. You can see the hot air register below, which was designed to look like a fireplace.

There was a bathroom with indoor plumbing in the house originally. However, at the time, the S-pipe hadn’t been invented, and the toilet had a straight up-and-down pipe. This means that after they flushed, unpleasant smells from the toilet would emanate throughout the house. So, the family eventually abandoned using the toilet and went back to using chamber pots.

When you tour the house, the guide starts with the first floor, and then leads you to the second floor. On the second floor, the lady of the house had both a sitting room, bedroom, and toilette.  I found it fascinating that her sitting room had a stained glass window – so luxurious! Normally only churches have stained glass windows these days.

IMG_0808.jpgIMG_0810.jpgIMG_0813.jpgIMG_0825.jpgIMG_0823.jpgBack then, floor-length drapes were a sign of wealth during that time.

The gentleman of the house had an office, which had glorious sunlight streaming in from the large windows. The clock on the mantlepiece was donated by Maxwell descendant, which I thought was so cool.

IMG_0789.jpgIMG_0791.jpgIMG_0792.jpgThroughout the house, there are posters about local residents who were contemporaries of the Maxwell and Hunter Stevensons families. I found Eliza Ann Grier’s story both inspiring and sad. You can read about it in the photo below.

If you visit with young children, just know that the House is quite strict about rules and they ask that you do not touch anything unless invited to do so. If you have accessibility needs, you may want to call ahead. There are stairs to enter the house, and I’m not sure whether there’s an elevator.

There is a bijou garden in the front, but it was a boiling hot 93 degrees that day so we didn’t spend too much time traipsing around outside.

IMG_0833.jpgIMG_0834.jpgIMG_0838.jpgIMG_0851.jpgIMG_0848.jpgIMG_0856.jpgIMG_0859.jpgIMG_0873.jpgThe garden has a Franklinia tree. The botanist and explorer John Bartram propagated Franklinia trees for his garden in Philadelphia before they went extinct in the wild. You can learn more about John Bartram and his garden – which is the America’s oldest surviving botanic garden – at my Bartram’s Garden blog.

Do you like to visit historical homes? Which one is your favorite? Have you been to Ebenezer Maxwell House before?

To read more about other gardens that I’ve visited in the local Pennsylvania/Delaware/New Jersey area, check out my Ultimate Guide to America’s Garden Capital. I add new gardens to that list every month.

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