Behind the Scenes Collections White House

White House Wednesday | Behind the Stanchions | What is That?

By Bryce VanStavern
White House Specialist

As visitors go through the White House of the Confederacy, one of their most common questions is, “What is that?” There are many items in the house, unique to the 19th century, the purpose of which is initially…illusive. There are three objects in particular that we will most certainly be asked about on almost every tour. If you have ever wondered which are the most asked about objects in the house, read on.

It just may be the most common, “What is that,” object in the White House of the Confederacy. It is an ugly green hose that runs from a globe in the Office gasolier to a lamp on the table that Jefferson Davis used for a desk. Despite the many items scattered about the house, this ugly rubber hose covered with green cloth is the thing we seem to be asked about the most.

The hose was called an extension cord, and allowed gas from the gas line in the gasolier to be used in a tabletop gas lamp elsewhere in the room. Gaslight was dim, so gas table lamps may have been common. As useful as they were, extension cords were considered unsightly and were normally found only in private or work spaces.

Another item that is asked about on almost every tour is the large, wooden box on legs in the Dining Room. Looking like a silver chest or wine cabinet, this cellaret was used to chill a variety of beverages. Lined with lead or perhaps tin, cellarets were a very fancy ancestor of today’s Igloo cooler. But this cooler was for the rich, since ice had to be shipped from above the Arctic Circle and was very expensive. Chilled or iced drinks were a sign of wealth.

Finally, there is the stereoscope or stereopticon. Laying on a table in the Central Parlor, this device looks for all the world like something your eye doctor might use. In fact, it represents one of the earliest attempts at creating three-dimensional images. Two photos, taken from slightly different angles, are placed side by side on a slide. When placed in the stereoscope’s clip and held to the light, the photos line up in such a way that a three-dimensional image results. This was the height of entertainment technology in the nineteenth century.

The White House of the Confederacy is packed with many objects from the period. Some have a rather obvious function; others’ purpose is more difficult to determine. Now you know about these three most-asked-about objects. The next time you visit, make sure you look for them, and then look around a little more. I promise you, there are many opportunities to ask, “What is that?”