Commanding a household and raising a family in Gilded Age Morris Township

Selina S. Butterworth, ca.1868.

Township of Morris – 275 Years

The North Jersey History & Genealogy Center is proud to present a series on the heritage of Morris Township as the municipality celebrates its 275th anniversary. The exhibit, Township of Morris – 275 Years, is on display in the F.M. Kirby Gallery of the Morristown & Morris Township Library through August 15th.


Selina G. Butterworth documents the realities of Gilded Age New Jersey

By Cheryl C. Turkington, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center

The diary of Selina Gibbs Butterworth (1837-1919), mistress of the Butterworth estate in Morris Township, offers a fascinating look into a life of wealth and privilege. When the young British-born wife of silk merchant Theron Butterworth arrived at his estate in Morris Township in 1868, she had little experience overseeing an upper-class household.

Selina Gibbs Butterworth, the daughter of a minister, had little formal education and often felt overwhelmed by her new duties. Her diary reflects the ebb and flow of maintaining “Ventosa,”  a twenty-two room mansion, as well as caring for her adult stepchildren and extended family, entertaining guests, dealing with illnesses and health scares, and supervising a large household staff that often consisted of Irish immigrants untrained in proper domestic service. Lonely and lacking a confidant with whom to share her experiences, she turned to writing,

Selina S. Butterworth, ca.1868.

January 1, 1868

The new year has come in with clouds, and rain, and wind, and snow, and hail, and sleet…if the day had been fair we might have been expecting someone to come, and they might not have favored us and then we might have been a little disappointed, altho [sic] we do not know any body in Morristown, except the Minister and the storekeepers. It is just as well that the storm came – but how many gorgeous dresses & jewels, and how much paint and whitewash has been expended to-day, without accomplishing the desired result.


Thursday, January 30, 1868

I thought I was doing a good deed by giving the servants a sleigh-ride but Mr. B. said, with a wise shake of his head – “there will be trouble out of it. I never knew it to fail when you go out of your way to oblige these people, there is sure to be trouble.”  Mr. B is convinced I have learned my lesson.

Ventosa as it appeared when Selina and Theron raised their family in Morris Township.

Sunday, October 4, 1868

Maggie our waitress took it into her head to quarrel with “Mary Mac” [the cook] and went off without any warning or without even coming to tell me; and she pretended to “love” me so much. There is no faith or dependence to be put in such kinds of humans.

This Summer in addition to the ordinary household duties, canning and preserving fruits, making jelly, etc., etc., I have been sewing to be in readiness for a “little visitor” who is expected to make its appearance in a week or two, so, of course, I have been very busy especially as the work was new to me, and I have not felt like doing much real work. Now I am about ready, I believe. Mary [her Irish maid] has been with me since Mama went away and she has helped a great deal.

Mary Edna “Birdie” Butterworth was born exactly one month later. Selina Butterworth bore three more children at Ventosa – daughters Charlotte May and Alice Geraldine, and son Samuel Fowler. Alice and Charlotte both attended Miss Dana’s School and later travelled to Europe with their mother and brother Samuel, who attended Stevens Institute of Technology before finding work as an engineer. Mary Edna graduated from Woman’s Medical College in 1902 and worked as a resident physician at Laura Franklin Hospital; Mary dedicated her life to improving children’s healthcare in New York City.

Daughters Charlotte, Mary Edna, and Alice. Alice and Charlotte both attended Miss Dana’s School and later travelled to Europe with their mother and brother Samuel. Mary Edna graduated from Woman’s Medical College in 1902 and worked as a resident physician in New York City.

January 1, 1870

…dear little “Birdie” is over a year old now and a dear little thing she is; she can walk alone a few steps and tries to talk very plainly…Mary Ann [the baby nurse] is so good to her that I do not take as much care of her as I would like to, and I have so many things to attend to. Now we have a new cook, who is desperately slow, so I have to be in the kitchen a good deal more than I like.

In later years, as a widow, Selina travelled extensively in the company of her adult children and wrote professionally, often under the pseudonym Sophy S. Burr, for a Christian newspaper, published in New York City. She died in Morristown in 1919.

An excerpt from one of Selina’s writings, published in an 1880 edition of “The Christian’s Work”.

The Diary of Selina Gibbs Butterworth is part of the Butterworth Family Collection, which is available to researchers in the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center.

For a behind the scenes look at our collections and additional information on New Jersey history, follow us on Twitter @NJHistoryCenter and on Tumblr at

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  1. Clarification: If you google Miss Dana’s School, you’ll find it was well-known, and actually in a different location in town. The mysteries of the private girls school and tunnel under Sussex Ave. remain …

  2. Addressing Mr. Rago’s question: In the late 1950’s I grew up on Raynor Rd. and used to play in the woods and pond near the outlet of that tunnel. As kids we had been told the tunnel originated on the property of a private girl’s school, supposedly so the girls could have access to the woods (could that have been “Miss Dana’s School mentioned by Selina Butterworth?) Further, we were told that the then current house on that property (larger than the houses of our subdivision) was the former “Packard Estate.” We knew it as the home of John Lotz, owner of the Lincoln-Mercury dealer in town. The last time I visited, I found that “our” pond had been drained and the area developed as another single-family sub. I don’t know if the tunnel was still in existence. And yes, just a few yards toward town from the tunnel, in front of the Butterworth house, was the “magnetic hill.”

  3. was the house built on the current location of what is commonly called the “butterworth house” and does anyone know about magnetic hill there and the underground tunnel crossing sussex ave?

  4. I grew up at Butterworth Farms, the development built in the 1960s. It could be that the recreation field near the top near Starlight and Sussex was part of the estate!

  5. You are correct Ventosa was “below” Starlight Dr. but on Sussex Ave./Turnpike according to Barbara Hoskins’ book Morris Township, New Jersey: A Glimpse into the Past and John W. Rae and John W. Rae Jr.’s book Morristown’s Forgotten Past,”The Gilded Age”. The 1910 A.H. Mueller Atlas of Morristown notes a property owned by Theron Butterworth just east of (closer to Morristown) Wheatsheaf Farms. I searched our digitized versions of Morristown City Directories for that era but failed to find a listing for Theron Butterworth. We have a great collection of deeds, 267 boxes, donated and that were collected by Henry Pilch but we are still organizing that collection. You are welcome to visit us to search for a more exact location of Ventosa in our Butterworth Papers.

  6. does anyone know the EXACT location of that house? I thought it was near starlight and sussex. I know there’s a tunnel under sussex near this spot. does anyone know why it was built?

  7. Very interesting to get this view of life in upper class Morris Township in the late 1800s. What a great collection to have available for a true account of history in our wonderful town. Good work, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center of the Morristown and Morris Township Library.