Here to return to
SOCIAL LIFE AND RECREATIONS
THE CHARMING WOMEN OF OLD PHILADELPHIA — JOSEPH SHIPPEN’S TRIBUTE TO SOCIAL LEADERS — WHAT A YOUNG MAN REQUIRED OF HIS SISTER — A MOUSE IN HER NIGHT CAP — WHY THE KISS WAS DISAGREEABLE — RULES OF THE DANCE — THE GOVERNOR’S PREDICAMENT — THE CEREMONY OF THE SPOON — THE JOYS OF SLEIGH-RIDING AND SERENADING — A DINNER AT PRESIDENT WASHINGTON’S MANSION
PHILADELPHIA’S social life has long been famous for its unusual combination of exclusiveness and warmth, conservatism and open- mindedness, self-sufficiency and generous hospitality. And the women who for generations have given tone to this social life have helped to give the city a good name and have added to its fame.
Even early travelers and visitors spoke with enthusiasm of the charming women of the city; in fact, some of them found difficulty in expressing their gratification and delight in the presence of the fair daughters of the city.
Witness William Black’s extravagant language, from a letter written in 1744:
“In the Evening I made haste to the Rendezvous of the Fair, much Elated with the Thoughts of Spending a few hours so agreeably as I propos’d in the Company I was going to make one in: On coming to the Place I found the Lady had been punctual to the Appointment: I was lucky enough not to be Engaged with any more but the young Lady of the House, and her Acquaintance my Favorite; In a very little time I found my self alone with the latter. On which to improve my Acquaintance and the Opportunity, I broached a Serious Discourse with her which was not carried on long before I found her a person to whom Nature had been as bountifull in Regard to her Mind, as I before observ’d she had been Carefull of her Body; to be short, What with her Wit and Quickness of Expression, Join’d to the Influence of her Beauty and manner of Behaviour, I was Possess’d with a Pleasure much easier felt than Describ’d, and can only be Imagin’d by those, who know what it is to Enjoy the Company of a Woman Every Way Agreeable.”
On another occasion he said:
“I am no Painter, Neither do I pretend to any thing that way, yet I cannot pass by this Lady, without giving you a Rough Draught of her. I cannot say that she was a Regular Beauty, but she was such that few cou’d find any fault with what Dame Nature had done for her. She was of the Middle Size (which I think is the Stature that best becomes the sex), very well Shap’d: her Eyes were Black, full of fire, and well Slit, they had something in them Remarkably Languishing, and seem’d to Speak the Softness of a Soul Replete with Goodness, her Eye-brows black and finely Arch’d, her Nose was well turn’d, and of a Just Bigness, and her Mouth was Neither wide nor very little, with Lips of a fine Red, and when they moved discovered two Rows of Teeth white as Ivory and Regularly well Set; her Forehead round and Smooth, as for her Hair, it was a Shining black, but noways harsh. Her Neck, her Arms, and Hands seem to have been made and fitted for her Face, which was of a Complection made up of the Lilly and the Rose.”
A quieter description, but one fully as pleasing, Was given by John H. B. Latrobe, of his mother, the wife of Benjamin H. Latrobe, the architect of the Capitol at Washington, and the daughter of Isaac Hazlehurst, the partner of Robert Morris. The occasion of the description was a social function where Mrs. Latrobe had attracted great attention. The loyal son said:
“She was a very tall woman, five feet, eight inches, and had always been celebrated for the beauty of her figure. Her face was in no ways remarkable. She had been a leading belle in Philadelphia, and had the air of a woman of fashion of that day. On this occasion, she was dressed in white satin with a long train, and wore a turban of spangled muslin with a gold crescent, fastening a heron’s upright plume.”
But perhaps one of the most pleasing pictures of some of the belles of old Philadelphia was penned by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Shippen. After looking at some of the sparkling faces before him at the Dancing Assembly of 1769 he wrote, while yet in the Assembly room:
Thomas Willing Balch, in quoting this tribute in rhyme in his history of the Philadelphia Assembly, explains that the references in the stanzas are to Mary White, sister of Bishop White, who became the wife of Robert Morris; Alice Swift; Abigail Willing, daughter of Charles Willing; Polly Franks, daughter of David Franks; Katherine Inglis, who lived for fifty years on Pine Street, opposite St. Peter’s Church; Mary McCall; Sally Coxe, who married Andrew Allen, Justice of the Supreme Court of the Province of Pennsylvania; and the three oldest daughters of Benjamin Chew, Mary, Anna Maria, and Elizabeth.
The picture of a belle who flourished years later was given in form far less attractive by Miss Margaret Cary, of Boston. After a visit to Woodlands in 1815 she said:
“But Molly Hamilton — I will say it though I should have the whole sisterhood at my ears — is a complete old maid. She is, however, a very energetic character. After the death of a married sister, she took upon herself the entire care of her nieces, who are now, I am told, fine girls. . . She was very civil, and pressed me to come again. She goes out every morning and stays till three o’clock, walks about without any regard to the weather, and presents as plain an appearance as one of us going into the garden to pick peas. It rained all the time we were there, but she used no umbrella, and seemed to defy the weather. Do you think we brought home any of the beautiful flowers which were growing in great abundance? Not a leaf.”
The ideas of the day as to what constituted charm in a young woman were sometimes startling. In a number of The American Museum for 1798 there is quoted a letter which a young man wrote to his sister in 1788. His rather exacting requirements were set forth in the stilted language of the day:
“Be, my dear girl, as assiduous to cultivate your understanding, to improve your mind, to acquire every truly female and elegant accomplishment, as you would be, if you had not one single recommendation to our favour besides. Beauty of person may catch us at first; but the beauties of the mind can alone secure any conquest worth making. . . . Neatness and elegance is what you ought principally to have in view; everything beyond that must be left in a great measure to your own taste, and the fashions of the day, which as long as they are not inconsistent with decency, ought in some measure to be regarded. . . . If a girl devotes that time which ought to be employed in more important concerns to the care of her person, she then becomes the just object of our ridicule and contempt, be her dress what it will. But from this folly, I am confident, my lovely girl is secure: she will always have too just an opinion of her own merit, to think it depends on those external appendages which she puts on and off every day at pleasure: . . . nor will she ever forget that ‘True loveliness needs not the foreign aid of ornament, but is when unadorned, adorned the most.’ . . .
“I would wish you possessed of undefiled and benevolent religion, which descends from heaven, and refines and purifies the human heart . . . I would wish you to be unaffectedly modest, without prudery, chearful, easy, and forcible, . affable and frank, without ever forgetting that delicate reserve, absolutely necessary to support the dignity of your character, . . . well acquainted with books, without a pedantic display of your knowledge, sensible, without aiming at the character of a wit . . . all these blended and intermingled with that softness, that gentleness, and that tenderness peculiar to your sex.”
But such a delineation of an ideal character is certainly far preferable to the sarcastic “Instruction to Fine Ladies” which a contributor sent to a number of the same magazine:
“Let a young lady, who is looking for a husband, be very careful not to promise or deny any suitor — it is vastly delightful to keep a company of admirers, fawning, flattering, swearing, kneeling, and so forth — a blush is requisite now and then to prevent any false insinuations of those envious maidens who may call you a coquette; and dear sir may be said once or twice in the day, to remove the disgusting title of a prude. . .
When invited to a card party you must declare yourself a very bad player; should they be very cross to you during the evening effect a laugh now and then; . . .
“If kind nature has bestowed its enchanting gift of voice, and that you can sing prettily, you may assume some airs — let the company press till they are almost weary, and whenever it is affirmed by any person that you can sing you may insist upon it that you cannot — this is a great proof of good manners.
“If nature has denied you that harmonious gift, never give the company the trouble of asking twice. . .
“Are you to see your lover? never take notice of him. Speak to every gentleman but him. . .
“To go to church every Sunday morning and evening, is very necessary: to old ladies and gentlemen it conveys good ideas . . .
“It is necessary that you get by heart a few lines of poetry, out of Pope or Dryden, to introduce upon any subject it will convince the company that you have read these fine bards.”
In the effort to make themselves attractive, the belles of the city, in the days following the Revolution, imitated the women of France in their method of fixing their hair. Timothy Pickering in a letter to his wife written about 1778, told of what seemed to him a great enormity:
“I mentioned to you the enormous head-dresses of the ladies here. The more I see, the more I am displeased with them. ‘Tis surprising how they fix such loads of trumpery on their polls; and not less so that they are by any one deemed ornamental. The Whig ladies seem as fond of them as others. I am told by a French gentleman they are in the true French taste, only that they want a very few long feathers. The married ladies, however, are not all infected. One of the handsomest (General Mifflin’s lady) I have seen in the State does not dress her head higher than was common in Salem a year ago. But you know, my dear, I have odd, old fashioned notions. Neither powder nor pomatum has touched my head this twelve month, not even to cover my baldness. The latter I find a very common thing, now men have left off their wigs.”
In like manner John H. B. Latrobe, in 1796, told of the ladies of his day who on their heads built up magnificent structures, works of art, which could not be done away with, but remained so built for some time, with dire results in some cases, as, for instance, when a mouse got into the nightcap of one belle, giving her a dreadful fright. Evidently the mouse was attracted by the pomatum used in building the headdress.
It is hardly fair to say that the custom of having such stately headdresses was due entirely to French influence, for in 1773 Sarah Eve wrote:
“In the morning Dr. Shippen came to see us. What a pity it is that the Doctor is so fond of kissing; he really would be much more agreeable if he were less fond. One hates to be always kissed, especially as it is attended with so many inconveniences, it decomposes the economy of one’s hankerchief, it disorders one’s high Roll, and it ruffles the serenity of one’s countenance; in short the Doctor or a sociable kiss is many times worse than a formal salute with bowing and curtseying to ‘this is Mr. Such-an-one and this Miss What-do-you-call-her.’ ‘Tis true this confuses one no little but one gets the better of that, sooner than to readjust one’s dress.”
But long before the days of Sarah Eve there was earnest discussion in and around Philadelphia as to the evil of just such adornments as were disarranged by Dr. Shippen’s polite salutes. In 1726 the Friends in Burlington, New Jersey, sent to the “Women ffriends” a communication on the evils of overadornment of which copies reached women in Philadelphia. And this is the earnest appeal they read:
“A weighty concern Coming upon many faithfull ffriends at the Meeting in relation to dress undue Liberties that are too frequently taken by some that Walk among us and are accounted of us. We are willing in the pure love of Truth which hath mercifully visited our souls Tenderly to Caution and to advise our ffriends against these things which wee think inconsistent with our Ancient Christian Testimony of plainness in Apparel &c. Some of which we think proper to particularize.
“As first that immodest fashion of hooped Petty-coats or the imitation of them either by something put in to their petticoats to make them set full or wearing more than is necessary or any other imitations whatsoever which was taken to be but a Branch springing from the same corrupt Root of Pride. And also that none of our ffriends accustom themselves to wear their Gowns with superfluous folds behind but plain and decent nor to go without Aprons nor to wear superfluous Gathers or Pleats in the Cap or pinners nor to wear their Heads dressed High behind neither to cut or lay their hair on the fforeheads or Temples.
“And that ffriends are carefull to avoid Wearing of stript shoes or red or white heeled shoes or Clogs or shoes trimmed with gawdy colors . . .
“And also that ffriends do not accustom themselves to go with bare Neck.”
It is a question if some of the men did not set the example of such headdresses as the “ffriends” deprecated. At any rate Sarah Eve, in her Journal on March 11, 1773, recorded with displeasure her observation concerning the hair dressing of a famous minister:
“I never once thought before I heard Mr. Clifford mention it why such an exemplary man as Mr. Duché [Rev. Jacob Duché, senior assistant minister of Christ Church and St. Peter’s] should sit every day and have his hair curl’d and powder’d by a barber. Since, I have thought about it greatly, and would like to have his sentiments on this subject. But, my dear Ma’am, What would a Parson be without powder, it is as necessary to him as to a soldier, for it gives a more significant shake to his head, and is as priming to his words and looks. As to having his hair curled, he perhaps thinks it of little consequence, since curled or uncurled locks will turn to gray, or perhaps he may look upon it as more humiliating to wear his own hair than a wig, as then his head must serve as a block on which the barber must dress it.”
If Mr. Duché had not been a clergyman he would probably have been called a macaroni, for this was the term applied to the dandies of the days before the Revolution. Miss Eve refers to this term in another part of her Journal. Her father was in business in Jamaica. The family longed for news of him, and when, in January, 1773, Dr. Curry reached Philadelphia from Jamaica, they were angered and hurt because three days passed without a message or a call. Miss Eve resolved not to forgive his slight, until she learned that “he had entertained so high an idea of our quality, that the poor Doctor thought his cloathes were not good enough to wait upon us in, therefore delayed the visit until he gets fitted up in the ‘Macaronia’ taste, I suppose.”
The strange name “Macaroni” came to be applied to dandies when a company of young men, during the reign of George III, after their return from a tour in Italy, founded a club which they called “The Macaroni.” They had many fads, but one of the most pronounced was an extreme modishness in dress. Naturally, then, a dude came to be known as a “Macaroni.” One of the popular songs of the day employed the term:
Another instance of the use of the word is the familiar one in Yankee Doodle:
Both the belles and ‘the beaux of early Philadelphia were devoted to the annual Assemblies, a distinctively Philadelphian institution. They date from 1748 and are still making social history.
Among the subscribers to the first assembly was Charles Willing, the mayor of the city, who married Ann Shippen, daughter of Edward Shippen, and of whom Dr. William Smith, Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, later wrote an extremely complimentary epitaph:
The rules for the regulation of the first Assembly were made known with great care. Some of them were:
“1. The Assembly to be held every Thursday Night from the first Jan’y 1748/9 to the first Day of May in every Year, and begin precisely at six in the Evening, and not by any Means to exceed twelve the same Night.
“2d. The Subscribers consisting of Gentlemen to Chuse by a Majority four of their Number to act as Directors under whose Management the whole Assembly is to be during the Season.
“3d. The Directors are to furnish the Ladies with Tickets for the Season, which must admit only the Lady whose Name is first wrote on the ticket by one of the Directors.
“4th. On Application made to the Directors by any Subscriber, for the Admission of any Stranger, A Ticket is to be given out for every such Stranger particularly the Subscriber who shall apply for such Ticket paying immediately on the Delivery of it for a strange Gentleman Seven Shillings and six pence, for a Lady nothing.”
A curious letter dated at New Castle, May 3, 1749, addressed to Thomas Penn, by Richard Peters, told of an incident of the first Assembly:
“By the Governors encouragement there, has been a very handsome Assembly near a fortnight at Andrew Hamiltons House & Stores which are tenanted by Mr. Inglis — make a Set of good Rooms for such a purpose: It consists of Eighty Ladies and as many Gentlemen, one half appearing every Assembly night. Mr. Inglis had the Conduct of the whole and managed exceeding well. There happened a little mistake at the beginning which at some other times might have produced disturbance. The Governor would have opened the Assembly with Mrs. but she refused him, I suppose because he had not been to visit her. After Mrs. — refusal, two or three Ladies out of modesty & from no manner of ill design excused themselves so that the Governor was put a little to his Shifts; when Mrs. Willing now Mrs. Mayoress in a most genteel manner put herself into his way & on the Governor seeing this instance of her good nature he jumped at the Occasion and they danced the first Minuet.”
Concerning the Assembly of 1755 an anecdote is related in a letter from “Trent Town,” New Jersey, dated April 18, 1755:
“The ancient King of the Mohawks, (the same who was in England in Queen Anne’s Time) came down with some of his Warriors this Winter to Philadelphia, and assured them of his friendship, though he owned many of the young Mohawks were gone over to the Enemy; they were entertain’d at the Stadthouse and made their Appearance also among the Ladies on the Assembly night, where they dance the Scalping Dance with all its Horrors, and almost terrified the Company out of their Wits. I must tell you they brought with them a beautiful young Lady, who in publick made the Indian Compliment, a Tender of her Person to the Governor; as gallant a Man as he is, he was quite confounded at the Time; I know not if he accepted her.”
The Assemblies were interrupted during the Revolution, but they were resumed in 1786, and during the closing years of the century they were more brilliant than ever.
Perhaps it was the Assembly patrons whom an advertiser in 1810 had especially in mind when he called attention to his “Patent Anatomical Dancing Shoes,” which were described in such glowing terms as the following:
“Corns, twisted heels and lacerated insteps shall no more agonize human nature, no more shall the aged witness the aid of a crutch, the middle aged shall walk certain sure and easy step, the young shall step as an heart, and never know their accumulated horrors, this shall deserve more of our country than all the celebrated corn plaster physicians; . . . the foot looses in its appearance one third of its size, as to a side view thereof, making it to appear exceedingly near.”
The advertiser insisted that “every Lady and Gentleman must have a pair of lasts . . . reserved solely for their own use.” They would then be asked to pay five dollars for each pair. The alluring bait was held out, “No please no pay.”
Dancing was by no means the most popular social employment in the city. Tea-drinking must have exceeded it in an immeasurable degree; both men and women seemed unable to get through a day without tea, and no social call was complete without the cup — or usually cups — of the pleasant drink. The reader of the Journal of Elizabeth Drinker smiles as he notes the frequent references to tea. Sarah Eve follows her example. One day she wrote:
“In the afternoon Mama and I drank Tea at Capt. Stainforth’s, met a good deal of Company there, among the rest Major Edmonson, just returned from the Illinois.”
“In the afternoon Anna and I went out to look for some Calico for Mrs. Smith, we were to return immediately, but instead of that, we staid and drank Tea with Betsy Guest, — sad girls, sad girls! — but we really could not help it, our cloaks and bonnets were taken off by force, and locked up — but that was from our desire, as we found they were determined to keep us, we begged they would secure them, which they accordingly did; worse and worse! worse and worse! . . .
“In the afternoon we received a formal invitation from Mrs. Stretch to drink Tea with her at her new house, to which Hannah and myself comply’d with cheerfulness. . We were much pleased with our visit to her new house, that here one may see elegance in miniature — I don’t mean the elegance of a palace, but of simplicity which is preferable — the one pleases the eye but flatters vanity, the other pleases the judgment and cherishes nature. As I walked through this home I could not help saying this surely might be taken for the habitation of Happiness!”
When Alexander Mackraby visited the city he was much impressed with the hospitality of the people which showed itself so often over the tea cup. On March 5, 1768, he wrote a letter to Sir Philip Francis in which he said:
“I have mentioned before how very agreeable the reception I have met with from your cousins here, more particularly so, as it has introduced me to that kind of acquaintance which is the most difficult for a stranger to obtain; but which is at the same time absolutely necessary to his comfort, where there are no public places of diversions; I mean that of a few agreeable families for a dish of tea, and a dish of chat, without ceremony.”
In 1782 the Chevalier de la Luzerne took the Prince de Broglie to call on Mrs. Robert Morris. The record of the visit is delightful:
“The house is simple but well furnished and very neat. The doors and tables are of superb mahogany and polished. The locks and hinges in brass curiously bright. The porcelain cups were arranged with great precision. The mistress of the house had an agreeable expression and was dressed altogether in white; in fact, everything appeared charming to me. I partook of most excellent tea, and I should be even now still drinking it, I believe, if the ambassador had not charitably notified me at the twelfth cup that I must put my spoon across it when I wished to finish with this sort of warm water. He said tome: it is almost as ill-bred to refuse a cup of tea when it is offered to you, as it would be indiscreet for the mistress of the house to propose a fresh one, when the ceremony of the spoon has notified her that we no longer wish to partake of it.”
Another French visitor, the Marquis de Chastellux, noted not only the tea-drinking, but other forms of diversion:
“In the afternoon we drank tea with Miss Shippen. This was the first time, since my arrival in America, that I have seen music introduced into society, and mix with its amusements. Miss Rutledge played on the harpsichord, and played very well. Miss Shippen sang with timidity, but with a pretty voice. Mr. Ottaw, secretary to M. de la Luzerne, sent for his harp: he accompanied Miss Shippen and played several pieces. Music naturally leads to dancing; the Vicomte de Noailles took down a violin, which was mounted with harp strings, and he made the young ladies dance, whilst their Mother, and other grave personages, chatted in another room.”
In 1769 a visitor to the city told of a very popular diversion:
“Seven sleighs with two ladies and two men in each, preceded by fiddlers on horseback, set out together upon a snow of about a foot deep on the roads, to a public house a few miles from town, where we danced, sung, and romped and eat and drank, and kicked away care from morning till night, and finished our frolic in two or three side-boxes at the play.”
Serenading also was popular. A man in a letter to his sister tells of the pleasures of an evening devoted to this amusement, and also tells of other diversions:
“We, with four or five young officers of the regiment in barracks, . . . about midnight sally forth, attended by the band, . . . and play under the window of any lady you choose to distinguish; which they esteem a high compliment. In about an hour all the blackguards who sleep upon bulks, . . . are collected round, . . . and altogether make it extremely agreeable on a fine frosty morning. . . . We have no plays or public diversions of any kind; not so much as a walk for the ladies, that there is no opportunity of seeing them but at church, or their own houses, or once a fortnight at the assembly. I have been to some of their assemblies, and have danced once with a charming girl, a cousin of yours; but you never saw her, nor in all likelihood ever will. I shall therefore only tell you I was very happy, and very much envied.”
Fortunately there have been preserved for us a few pictures of life in some of the hospitable homes for which the city was famous. Dr. Manasseh Cutler, after visiting William Hamilton at Woodlands, in 1803, wrote his impressions:
“We . . . arrived about an hour before sun-set. This seat is on an eminence which forms on its summit an extended plain, at the junction of two large rivers. Near the point of land a superb, but ancient house is situated. In the front, . . . is a piazza supported on large pillars, and furnished with chairs and sofas like an elegant room. . . . We then walked over the pleasure grounds, in front, and a little back of the house. It is formed into walks, . . . with borders of flowering shrubs and trees. Between are lawns of green grass, frequently mowed, and at different distances numerous copse of the native trees, interspersed with artificial groves, which are of trees collected from all parts of the world. . The green houses which occupy a large space of ground, I cannot pretend to describe. Every part was crowded with trees and plants, from the hot climates. . . .
“. . . We retired to the house. The table was spread and tea was served. . . . Between ten and eleven, an elegant table was spread, with, I believe, not less than twenty covers. . At one, we retired to bed. . . . In the morning, as we had informed him we must do, we rose as soon as daylight appeared. When we came down we found him up and the servants getting breakfast. We assured him we must be excused, for the stage would leave us, if we were not in season, and the passengers would breakfast at Chester. . . At parting with our hospitable friend, he extorted from us . . . a promise never to pass again without calling.”
President and Mrs. Washington were the social lions of Philadelphia. Their simple, gracious manners made them welcome guests wherever they went. At first they were at the house of Robert Morris, as appears from a letter written by the host on June 15, 1787:
“General Washington is now our guest, having taken up his abode at my house during the time he is to remain in this city. He is President of a convention of Delegates from the Thirteen States of America, who have met here for the purpose of revising, amending, and altering the Federal Government.”
During his service as President Washington lived in a handsome house where he entertained lavishly. Of one of his dinners Theophilus Bradbury, of Essex County, Massachusetts, wrote:
“Last Thursday I had the honor of dining with the President, in company with the Vice-President, the Senators and Delegates of Massachusetts, and some other members of Congress, about 20 in all. In the middle of the table was placed a piece of table furniture about six feet long and two feet wide, rounded at the ends. It was either of wood gilded, or polished metal, raised only about an inch, with a silver rim round it like that round a tea board; in the centre was a pedestal of plaster of Paris with images upon it, and on each end figures, male and female, of the same. It was very elegant and used for ornament only. The dishes were placed all around, and there was an elegant variety of roast beef, veal, turkeys, ducks, fowls, hams, &c.; puddings, jellies, oranges, apples, nuts, almonds, figs, raisins, and a variety of wines and punch. We took our leave at six, more than an hour after the candles were introduced. No lady but Mrs. Washington dined with us. We were waited on by four or five men servants dressed in livery.”
The farewell dinner given by Washington was an event that made a deep impression. Concerning the President’s reception of his guests that day an eyewitness wrote:
“Washington received his guests,
standing between the windows in his back dining-room. The company, entering a
front room and passing through an unfolding door, made their salutations to the
President, and turning off, stood on one side. His manner was courteous, of
course, but always on these occasions somewhat reserved. He did not give his
hand, but merely bowed, which was the mode for that day. Mr. Morris came in,
and when the President saw him entering the room, he advanced to meet him, and
shook him heartily by the hand: Mr. Morris, in allusion partly, perhaps, to the
day which may have been cloudy, but more to the event, repeating as he came
forward the lines: —
‘The day is overcast, the morning lowers,
And heavily in clouds brings on the day —
The great, the important day.’”
After that day Mr. and Mrs. Washington ceased to be social factors in Philadelphia, but their home life and their hospitality became a part of the social traditions of the city.