By Tom McGehee, Museum Director of the Bellingrath Home
(Note: Tom McGehee will lead the second session of Bellingrath Gardens and Home’s Winter Wednesdays on January 20 with a behind-the-ropes tour of the Bellingrath Home. Join us for his talk, which will begin at 10:30 a.m. in the Magnolia Cafe. To register, call 251.973.2217.)
When she was furnishing the Bellingrath Home in the 1930s, Mrs. Bessie Bellingrath amassed a varied collection of antiques and collectibles from homes along the Gulf Coast.
She also tried to find discreet ways to help friends and acquaintances who had financial difficulties after the Depression hit in the 1930s.
Here are three very diverse objects from the Bellingrath collection which all came from the same source: Miss Ethel Berrey, a former Mobile school teacher. During the Depression, Miss Berrey was forced to turn her home at 1113 Church Street into a boarding house/ antiques shop, and she also sold off many of her prized possessions.
In a letter dated January 26, 1956, she wrote a niece, “I sold Mrs. Bellingrath worlds of stuff – she bought the finest of 1113’s furnishings.”
In the upstairs hall of the Bellingrath Home is a frosted glass light fixture suspended by brass chains. Miss Berrey wrote: “The shade is painted with two brilliant birds of paradise. I have never seen anything comparable to its beauty. I bought it for $6 and sold it to her for $100. She enjoyed big prices!”
Miss Berrey also noted that Mrs. Bellingrath “paid $200 for a wonderfully beautiful pair of vases whose fronts had scenes of peasant children gathering peach blossoms. The backs of the vases are Swiss mountain scenes. The vases are a gorgeous blue.” The 1943 inventory of the Bellingrath Home places these in Mr. Bellingrath’s bedroom. They are still there.
Miss Berrey died in Ohio on June 28, 1956, at the age of 73. In calculating the worth of a dollar in 1936, it is worth noting that the light fixture today would cost an equivalent of over $1,700, while those vases would top $3,400.