The Mark Twain House: Frequently Asked Questions

by Rebecca Floyd, Manager of Interpretive Services |

Why Hartford?

There are numerous answers to this question. Sam Clemens had come to know the city on visits to see his publisher, and the community of writers, journalists and businessmen appealed to him. Hartford was a wealthy, modern and beautiful city, and after “roughing it” out West in his young manhood he was dazzled by the city and its inhabitants. It was industrial and businesslike, yet green and park-like in its wealthier neighborhoods.

What year was the house built?

Construction on the house was started in 1873, and it was finished in 1874. It took 16 months to build and cost approximately $40,000 to $45,000.

What kind of architecture is this?

Picturesque Gothic. It is a short-lived niche of the Gothic Revival, with a fantasy, picture-book look.

How many objects in the house are original?

There are significant Clemens items in each room, and most of the other items are from the time period. Many objects, if not original, are referenced in primary Clemens document sources or in secondary sources about 19th-century material culture. The interior reflects the tastes of the family and contemporary fashion trends based on sources such as photos, letters and books.

How could he afford to build a house like this if he was just starting his writing career when they built it?

Sam Clemens was becoming known as a writer in 1873-74 and was making money, but Olivia’s family money paid for it. Her father was a wealthy coal and timber merchant in Elmira, N.Y. The property was always in her name.

The Drawing Room

Did they really have wall-to-wall carpet?

Yes, in Clemens family documents there are numerous references to the purchase and installation of wall-to-wall carpets for the house. Olivia also purchased thousands of dollars worth of antique rugs, both in New York and Europe to place over the carpets, as was fashionable at the time.

Who played the piano?

They all did. Music was a very popular hobby for this family, in fact, for this neighborhood. Concerts, recitals and musicals were a common occurrence. Susy and Clara were both accomplished players. Clara grew up to play professionally. Even Sam was known to play and sing along to his favorite tunes.

The Dining Room

Is that leather on the walls?

No. It’s embossed wallpaper with a lacquer finish intended to give the effect of leather. The Clemens family wasn’t quite wealthy enough to afford real leather wall covering.

Who came to dinner?

They loved intimate dinner gatherings, and guests looked forward to invigorating conversation. Writers, neighbors, military figurres and businessmen who visited included Charles Dudley Warner, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Joel Chandler Harris, Gen. William T. Sherman, Gen. Philip Sheridan, Henry Stanley, William Dean Howells, William Gillette, Grace King and Bret Harte.

The Library

Are these his books?

No, but they are books of the period, and books he is known to have owned. He gave much of his personal collection to start the Redding Public Library (now the Mark Twain Library) in Redding, Conn. Some were sold off by his daughter Clara Clemens Samossoud in the 1950s. A difficult-to-find source for the books he owned is Alan Gribben’s Mark Twain’s Library: A Reconstruction (1980), which is in our research library. We own approximately 270 of the family’s personal collection, also available to scholars in our library by appointment.

Did they really have a conservatory?

Yes. The plants on display were common to the time period and what we know about the family. The house where Olivia Clemens grew up in Elmira, N.Y., had a conservatory, and she worked with the architect on the layout of the home, so it may have been her idea. The family also had a greenhouse on the front lawn so fresh flowers were available all year round.

Can you tell me anything about the mantel? Is that the Clemens family coat-of-arms?

Clemens purchased the mantel in Scotland while the Hartford house was still under construction. It is about 20 years older than the house, and was probably built for Ayton Castle in southeast Scotland. The crest is the combined crest of the Mitchell and Innes families, whose mottos can be seen carved in the wood: “Je recois pour donner,” or “I receive in order to give;” and “Deo favente,” or “In God’s hands.”

What does it say over the fireplace?

Cut into the brass plate over the fireplace are the words “The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it,” a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

What is the significance of the picture of a cat in a ruff collar?

The cat in the Elizabethan collar was the starting-off place for a Clemens storytelling ritual: His daughters required him to tell tales that had to involve each item on the mantelpiece, starting with that cat. Clemens loved cats, and the family owned many during their time in Hartford.

A bedroom on the first floor?

The Mahogany Room, a guest room off the Library, reflects a common floor plan at the time - especially for a family who had a very public life. This way all the more public spaces were on the first floor, and once upstairs there was more privacy - less show.

Where is the toilet? Did they have toilets?

Yes, they did have seven or eight toilets. They even had them updated a few years after they moved in. Toilets and plumbing in this house are currently being researched: The house underwent so many changes post-Clemens that there is very little 19th-century plumbing evidence left.

Did they have litter boxes for all those cats?

We don’t know!

The Stairs

Why are the banisters so low?

That was the style at the time. They give an illusion of height when visitors look up the stairwell from the front hall or down from the third floor. Houses were not built to code as they are now.

The Master Bedroom

Why is the bed in the master bedroom arranged with one side against the wall?

We have documentary confirmation from Clemens’ autobiographical writings that it was arranged this way.

Why are the pillows at the foot of the bed rather than at the head?

Clemens gave two reasons for why he and Livy had the bedclothes arranged that way: One, that he had paid so much for the bed he wanted to admire the carvings on the headboard; and two, that the angels carved there gave him pleasant dreams.

The Nursery

Are these their toys?

No, but it is a collection of toys from the time period.

The Billiard Room

Is this really his billiard table?

Yes, but not while he lived in Hartford. It was given to him as a gift when he was living in New York City in 1906.

What are the framed checks on the billiard room wall all about?

They are copies of royalty checks for $200,000 and $150,000 from the sales of the memoirs of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, made out to Grant’s widow, Julia Grant. Clemens’ publishing company published the book in 1885-86, carrying out Grant’s wish to provide for his family. Grant had died just months before the book’s publication.

Where did Mark Twain write?

Mark Twain wrote in many places, including the hayloft of the carriage house and an octagonal study his sister-in-law built for him in Elmira, N.Y. But when in Hartford, he found the southwest corner of the billiard room worked best.

What happened to the house after they lived here?

The Clemenses sold it to an insurance executive and his family in 1903. The building later served as a boys’ school, an apartment house, and a branch of the Hartford Public Library. It opened as a house museum in 1974, a century after the Clemenses moved in.

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