When Minerva Stone and her husband George sat for their portraits at the studio of the prominent Boston photographer Amory N. Hardy, they were in their late twenties and had been married for seven years. Sadly, just a few years later, in 1893, George would die of typhoid fever, leaving Minerva to make her way with their young son, Mason.
Though Minerva Chace Hills was born in Cincinnati in 1862, she spent most of her life in the Greater Boston area. Census records from 1870 to 1910 place her in Groton, Newton, and Cambridge, completing her schooling, marrying Stone, and raising her son in close proximity to her late husband’s family. Mason (pictured at age twelve) would follow his uncle to Harvard College and Law School, graduating in 1909. He went on to practice law until his death in 1962.
As the college-educated widow of an office worker, it is unclear what led Minerva Stone to become the housekeeper of Henry Clay Frick’s Upper East Side mansion from 1914–19. The 1900 census places her and fifteen-year-old Mason in Newton, hosting an elderly boarder but otherwise living on an independent income. She surfaces intermittently in local newspapers as an officer of various women’s clubs; one wonders if serving as the “café chairman” of the Cantabrigia Club’s fundraising bazaar in 1905 provided useful management experience. She seems never to have worked in domestic service prior to 1914, only moving to New York City once her son had launched his career and started a family of his own. How Stone came into the Fricks’ lives remains a mystery. The fact that the Fricks spent summers on the North Shore of Massachusetts suggests the possibility of an encounter there, but no evidence of this has yet to come to light.
Stone’s role as housekeeper, explored in this blog’s previous post, put her in an in-between position within the Frick household. Her class privilege and citizenship status would have set her apart from the mansion’s majority-immigrant employees; these differences were reified by her salary ($150 per month, compared to an average staff salary of less than $50) and third-floor suite, the only staff space designed by the famed decorator Elsie de Wolfe, whom Frick had engaged for the house’s private quarters. Stone left behind no personal accounts of her time with the Fricks, but the tensions inherent to her role must have tested her character, confidence, and determination.
In fact, Stone’s first year as housekeeper was marked by conflict with a senior member of the staff, the steward John Congreve. In the summer of 1915, Congreve was reluctant to leave his home in New Jersey for the Fricks’ seasonal residence at Prides Crossing, Massachusetts. He later recalled this as a “great error,” one that “allow[ed] Mrs. Stone to take precedence.” After examining the accounts Congreve kept for the Fricks upon his departure, Stone discovered a shortage of $1,000 and brought the discrepancy to the attention of her boss. Congreve denied the allegation in a letter to Frick, accusing Stone of attempting to discredit him so "that she may obtain complete control of your house.”
This controversy was echoed the following year by the exit of chef André Gerard. Frick’s letter of reference mentioned that Gerard had “exacted rather large commissions from the people who sold goods to [his] employer.” The chef disputed this and complained of being unable to find suitable work as a result. Though frowned upon, this practice of “commissioning” (or receiving kickbacks) seems to have been commonplace in so-called millionaire households.
Stone may not have been familiar with such arrangements, but, as the "new broom" of a prominent employer, she was unlikely to look the other way. Congreve took particular offense at her interference: “To be free of having any meals with Mrs. Stone is indeed a relief, but I resent being considered a crook,” he wrote to Frick. (See letter below, transcribed at bottom.) His final line, “I cannot afford to be kept from earning a living because of the animosity of an unscrupulous woman,” suggests that Stone’s gender either rendered her word less trustworthy in his mind or made her ascendancy more galling.
A former bookkeeper himself, Frick valued Stone’s probity and ignored such criticism; his response was to put her in charge of the household’s bank account, payroll, and discretionary expenses. She remained in this role for five years before returning to Massachusetts the same month that Frick died in 1919.
Stone revived her entrepreneurial streak a few years later when she and her sister Mary opened a store and lending library in Cohasset, Massachusetts (below). After Mary died in 1934, Stone once again took up residence in another family’s home, this time as a lodger in a stately Victorian house close to Mason and his family. She died at the age of 78, two months before her first great-grandchild was born.
Minerva Stone is one of the many people whose lives intersected, however briefly, at the Frick mansion, and she looms large in our understanding of its dynamics during Henry Clay Frick’s lifetime. Yet her time at 1 East 70th Street was just one chapter of a long and fascinating life marked by family tragedy, achievement, mobility, and personal transformation.
With special thanks to the Lovell Historical Society in Lovell, Maine.
This blog post is part of Untold Histories, a research project on life behind the scenes at the Frick mansion when it was a private home. Research is still underway, so please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any stories or documents to share, or with any questions. Discover more exciting education programs and digital initiatives at Frick Connections.
Minerva C. Stone (1862–1943) (left) and George Valoncourt Stone (1862–1893) (right), card photographs, ca. 1890. Courtesy of the Lovell Historical Society
Mason Hills Stone (1885–1962), dated January 15, 1898. Courtesy of the Lovell Historical Society
Letter from J. G. Congreve to Henry Clay Frick, October 28, 1915. Henry Clay Frick Papers, Series II: Correspondence. Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives
The Tea Tray Shop, undated. Courtesy of the Lovell Historical Society
75 Park Ave
Oct. 28th ..'15
Mr. H.C. Frick
Now that Mrs. Stone after many months of hypocrisy, has succeed in influencing you to summarily discharge me, that she may obtain complete control of your house, I feel justified in protesting against a continuancy [sic] of her efforts to discredit me. I called at your house yesterday to ask if you would kindly pay me what you promised, and give me a reference for the past year that I worked in your interest, to the best of my ability.
Mrs. Stone interviewed me, and stated that my accounts were in very bad shape, there being a shortage of $1000. This I know to be untrue, and I do not think that you will approve of her effort to have any mail diverted at the Post Office, which she informed me had been tried.
I am not given to petty gossip, and do not enjoy discussing the characteristics of any employers while eating their bread, and to be free of having any meals with Mrs. Stone is indeed a relief, but I resent being considered a crook.
Also I cannot afford to be kept from earning a living because of the animosity of an unscrupulous woman.
I am, sir, sincerely and respectfully