There was no snow, fir trees, or old fur coats that reek of moth-balls, and there wasn’t even a wardrobe, but yesterday I found another world.
The morning started out as a pretty average morning. I had breakfast (honey nut Cheerios with a dash of milk), had my mind stretched during my 9am physics lecture (what really IS momentum?), then headed off to the college Archives to take photos of an 8-volume set of 18th century French books*.
*This semester, through an academic grant, I’m fulfilling my destiny as a French major by researching a collection of 18th century French literature that was donated to my college, which are now hanging out in the college Archives.
But yesterday, as I descended into the library basement (home of the reclusive erudite students, and, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the Archives), I noticed something unusual.
The first thing I noticed was that instead of a nondescript wall, there was a pair of glass doors that I had never seen before. Stranger still, beyond the glass doors was a living room that looked as though it had been paused in time. The wood paneling, the grand light blue furniture, the imposing desk in the back of the room… it looked like a room that was stuck in a time warp sometime around the 19th century.
I was utterly mystified. I had never seen these glass doors before, and seemed implausible that they would suddenly appear in front of me – was I dreaming?
Still in a state of dazed and wondering awe, I stumbled into the Archives, where I greeted Dana, the queen of the Archives desk, with a stream of excited questions. “What is that place? Has it always been there? Can I go in?”
Dana graciously answered my questions (“The Stuart Room, no, but it’s been for a while, yes”) and told me I could have a tour after she showed it to a group of PEO ladies who were stopping by any minute.
I settled down into my little research corner and started snapping photos of L’abbé de Saint-Réal’s 1787 8-volume posthumous collection of “Les Oeuvres” like a madwoman, biding my time until I could enter the secret room. After about an hour of taking photos of various religious discourses, overhearing the PEO weekly meeting (after much debate, it was settled that the next meeting would in fact be at Marcia’s house), and cursing Saint-Réal for being a writer prolific enough to fill 8 volumes, Dana finally came over and asked if I still wanted to see the room. Practically leaping out of my chair in excitement, I ditched Saint-Réal and followed Dana into Narnia.
It turns out that the room houses Napoleon artifacts, and the story all started with Carnation Milk. Yes, that Carnation Milk (evaporated, sweetened condensed, it comes in many forms).
Elbridge Hadley Stuart was the President of General Milk Company (the European arm of the company) from 1930-1965, and President of Carnation from 1932-1957. In 1955, he was awarded the Légion d’honneur (the highest French order of merit, typically restricted to French nationals) for his contribution to the growth of the French milk industry and generosity to French victims of WWII.
The honor inspired him to learn more about Napoleon, who started the Légion d’honneur, and he became an avid collector of Napoleonic relics.
A Yale alumnus, Stuart tried to gift his collection to Yale, but seeing as they already had a fair collection of Napoleonic era artifacts, they refused.
However, Stuart’s wife, Evelyn, was a Whitman alumna, so she proposed that they send the artifacts to Whitman. Whitman agreed, on the condition that they provided funding to build an extra wing to house the artifacts… and so the Stuart Room was born.
Practically everything in the room, from the artifacts on the wall to the chairs on the carpet, is from the Napoleon era.
As a French major, I was in awe.
I even had the chance to sit at Napoleon’s surgeon’s desk, which was used in St. Helena, an island in the South Atlantic (near Southern Africa), where Napoleon was imprisoned by the British. I had never considered the fact that not only was Napoleon exiled, but his whole entourage as well!
If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far, it’s that life is full of the unexpected. You never know what extraordinary thing you’ll find just around the corner, even in the most ordinary places!