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Chapter 3: New York society

It has been explained that the continued prosperity of France under very varying forms of government is due to the fact that the municipal administration of the country is not affected by these changes, but continues much the same under king, emperor, and republican president.

I find something analogous to this in the perseverance of certain underlying tendencies in society despite the continual variations which diversify the surface of the domain of Fashion.

The earliest social function which I remember is a ball given by my father and mother when I must have been about four years of age. Quite late in the evening, I was taken out of bed and arrayed in an embroidered cambric slip. Some one tried to fasten a pink rosebud on the waist of my dress, but did not succeed to her mind. I was brought into our drawing-rooms, which had undergone a surprising transformation. The floors were bare, and from the ceiling of either room was suspended a circle of wax lights and artificial flowers. The orchestra included a double bass [30] I surveyed the company of the dancers, but soon curled myself up on a sofa, where one of the dowagers fed me with ice-cream. This entertainment took place at our house on Bowling Green, a neighborhood which has long been given up the business.

As a child, I remember silver forks as in use at my father's dinner parties. On ordinary occasions, we used the three-pronged steel fork which is now rarely seen. My father sometimes admonished my maternal grandmother not to put her knife into her mouth. In her youth every one used the knife in this way.

Meats were carefully roasted in what was called a tin kitchen, before an open fire. Desserts on state occasions consisted of pastry, wine jelly, blanc-mange, with pyramids of ice-cream. This last was always supplied by a French resident, Jean Contoit by name, whose very modest garden long continued to be the principal place from which such a dainty could be obtained. It may have been M. Contoit who, speaking to a compatriot of his first days in America, said, ‘Imagine! when I first came to this country, people cooked vegetables with water only, and the calf's head was thrown away! ’

Of the dress of that period I remember that ladies wore white cambric gowns, finely embroidered, in winter as well as in summer, and walked [31] abroad in thin morocco slippers. Pelisses were worn in cold weather, often of some bright color, rose pink or blue. I have found in a family letter of that time the following description of a bride's toilet: ‘Miss E. was married in a frock of white merino, with a full suit of steel: comb, earrings, and so on.’ I once heard Mrs. William Astor, nee Armstrong, tell of a pair of brides, twin sisters, who appeared at church dressed in pelisses of white merino, trimmed with chinchilla, with caps of the same fur. They were much admired at the time.

Among the festivities of old New York, the observance of New Year's Day held an important place. In every house of any pretension, the ladies of the family sat in their drawing-rooms, arrayed in their best dresses, and the gentlemen of their acquaintance made short visits, during which wine and rich cakes were offered them. It was allowable to call as early as ten o'clock in the morning. The visitor sometimes did little more than appear and disappear, hastily muttering something about ‘the compliments of the season.’ The gentlemen prided themselves upon the number of visits paid, the ladies upon the number received. Girls at school vexed each other with emulative boasting: ‘We had fifty calls on New Year's Day.’ ‘Oh! but we had sixty-five.’ This perfunctory performance grew very tedious [32] by the time the calling hours were ended, but apart from this, the day was one on which families were greeted by distant relatives rarely seen, while old friends met and revived their pleasant memories.

In our house, the rooms were all thrown open. Bright fires burned in the grates. My father, after his adoption of temperance principles, forbade the offering of wine to visitors, and ordered it to be replaced by hot coffee. We were rather chagrined at this prohibition, but his will was law.

I recall a New Year's Day early in the thirties, on which a yellow chariot stopped before our door. A stout, elderly gentleman descended from it, and came in to pay his compliments to my father. This gentleman was John Jacob Astor, who was already known to be possessed of great wealth.

The pleasant custom just described was said to have originated with the Dutch settlers of the olden time. As the city grew in size, it became difficult and well-nigh impossible for gentlemen to make the necessary number of visits. Finally, a number of young men of the city took it upon themselves to call in squads at houses which they had no right to molest, consuming the refreshments provided for other guests, and making themselves disagreeable in various ways. This offense against good manners led to the discontinuance, [33] by common consent, of the New Year's receptions.

A younger sister of my mother, named Louisa Corde Cutler, was one of the historic beauties of her time. She was a frequent and beloved guest at my father's house, but her marriage took place at my grandmother's residence in Jamaica Plain. The bridegroom was the only son of Judge Mc-Allister, of Savannah, Georgia. One of my aunt's bridesmaids, Miss Elizabeth Danforth, a lady much esteemed in the older Boston, once gave me the following account of the marriage:—

Yes, this is my beautiful bride. [My aunt was now about sixty years old.] Well do I recall the evening of her marriage. I was to be her bridesmaid, you know, and when the time came, I was all dressed and ready. But the Dorchester coach was wanted for old Madam Blake's funeral, and as there was no other conveyance to be had, I was obliged to wait for it. The time seemed endless while I was walking up and down the hall in my bridesmaid's dress, my mother from time to time exhorting me to have patience, without much effect.

At last the coach came, and in it I was driven to your grandmother's house in Jamaica Plain. As I entered the door I met the bridal party coming downstairs. Your mother said to me, “ Oh! Elizabeth, we thought you were not coming.” [34] After this all passed off pleasantly. Your grandmother was dressed in a lilac silk gown of rather antiquated fashion, adorned with frills and furbelows which had passed out of date. Your mother, who had come on from New York for the ceremony, said to her later in the evening, “Dear mamma, you must make a present of that gown to some theatrical friend. It is only fit for the boards.”

The officiating clergyman of the occasion was the Reverend Benjamin Clarke Cutler, brother of the bride. It was his first service of the kind, and the company were somewhat amused when, in absence or confusion of mind, he pronounced the nuptial blessing upon M and N, the letters which stand in the church ritual for the names of the parties contracting. Accordingly, at the wedding supper, the first toast was drunk ‘to the health and happiness of M and N,’ and responded to with much merriment.

I have further been told that the bride's elder sister, afterwards known as Mrs. Francis, danced ‘in stocking-feet’ with my father's elder brother, this having been the ancient rule when the younger children were married before the older ones.

In spite of the costume which met with her daughter's disapproval, my maternal grandmother was not indifferent to dress. She used to lament [35] the ugliness of modern fashions, and to extol those of her youth, in which she was one of the élegantes of Southern society. She remembered with pleasure that General Washington once crossed a ball-room to speak with her. This was probably when she was the wife or widow of Colonel Herne, to whom she was married at the age of fourteen (when her dolls, she told me, were taken away from her), and whose death occurred before she had attained legal majority. She had received a good musical education for those times, and Colonel Perkins of Boston once told me that he remembered her as a fascinating young widow with a lovely voice. It must have been during her visit to Boston that she met my grandfather Cutler, who straightway fell in love with and married her. When past her sixtieth year she would sometimes sing an old-time duet with my father. She had a great love of good literature. Here is what she told me about the fashions of her youth:

‘We wore our hair short, and creped all over in short curls, which were kept in place by a spangled ribbon, bound around the head. Powder was universally worn. The Marechale powder was most becoming to the complexion, having a slight yellowish tinge. We wore trains, but had a set of cords by which we pulled them up in festoons, when we went to dance. Brocades were much worn. I wanted one, but could not find one at [36] the time, so I embroidered a pretty yellow sile dress of mine, and made a brocade of it.’

She once mentioned having known, in days long distant, of a company of ladies who had banded themselves together for some new departure of a patriotic intent, and who had waited upon General Washington in a body. I have since ascertained that they called themselves ‘Daughters of Liberty.’ A kindred association had been formed of ‘Sons of Liberty.’ Perhaps these ladies were of the mind of Mrs. John Adams, who, when congratulating her husband upon the liberties assured to American men by the then new Constitution of the United States, thought it ‘a pity that the legislators had not also done something for the ladies.’

Among the familiar figures of my early life is that of Dr. John Wakefield Francis. I wish it were in my power to give any adequate description of this remarkable man, who was certainly one of the worthies of his time. As already said, he was my uncle by marriage, and for many years a resident in my father's house. He was of German origin, florid in complexion and mercurial in temperament. His fine head was crowned with an abundance of silken curly hair. He always wore gold-bowed glasses, being very near-sighted, was a born humorist, and delighted in jest and hyperbole. He was an omnivorous reader, and [37] was so constituted that four hours of sleep nightly sufficed to keep him in health. This was fortunate for him, as he had an extensive practice, and was liable to be called out at all hours of the night. A candle always stood on a table beside his pillow, and with it a pile of books and papers, which he habitually perused long before the coming of daylight. It so happened, however, that he waked one morning at about four of the clock, and saw his wife, wrapped in shawls, sitting near the fire, reading something by candlelight. The following conversation ensued:—

‘Eliza, what book is that you are reading?’ ‘ “Uncle Tom's cabin,” dear.’

‘Is it? I don't need to know anything more about it—it must be the greatest book of the age.’

His humor was extravagant. I once heard him exclaim, ‘How brilliant is the light which streams through the fissure of a cracked brain!’ Again he spoke of ‘a fellow who could n't go straight in a ropewalk.’ His anecdotes of things encountered in the exercise of his profession were most amusing.

He found us seated in the drawing-room, one evening, to receive a visit from a very shy professor of Brown University. The doctor, surveying the group, seized this poor man, lifted him from the floor, and carried him round the circle, to [38] express his pleasure at seeing an old friend. The countenance of the guest meanwhile showed an agony of embarrassment and terror.

The doctor was very temperate in everything except tea, which he drank in the green variety, in strong and copious libations. Indeed, he had no need of wine or other alcoholic stimulants, his temperament being almost incandescent. Overflowing as he was with geniality, he yet accommodated himself easily to the requirements of a sick room, and showed himself tender, vigilant, and most sympathetic. He attended many people who could not, and some who would not, pay for his visits. One of these last, having been brought by him through an attack of cholera, was so much impressed with the kindness and skill of the doctor that he at once and for the first time sent him a check in recognition of services that money could not repay.

After many years of residence with us, my uncle and aunt Francis removed, first to lodgings, and later to a house of their own. Here my aunt busied herself much with the needs of rich and poor. Ladies often came to her seeking good servants, her recommendation being considered an all-sufficient security. Women out of place came to her seeking employment, which she often found for them. These acts of kindness, often involving a considerable expenditure of time and [39] trouble, the dear lady performed with no thought of recompense other than the assurance that she had been helpful to those who needed her assistance in manifold ways. In her new abode Auntie lived with careful economy, dispensing her simple hospitality with a generous hand. She was famous among her friends for delicious coffee and for excellent tea, which she always made herself, on the table.

She sometimes invited friends for an evening party, but made it a point to invite those who were not her favorites for a separate occasion, not wishing to dilute her enjoyment of the chosen few, and, on the other hand, desiring not to hurt the feelings of any of her acquaintance by wholly leaving them out. When Edgar Allan Poe first became known in New York, Dr. Francis invited him to the house. It was on one of Auntie's good evenings, and her room was filled with company. The poet arrived just at a moment when the doctor was obliged to answer the call of a patient. He accordingly opened the parlor door, and pushed Mr. Poe into the room, saying,. ‘Eliza, my dear, the Raven!’ after which he immediately withdrew. Auntie had not heard of the poem, and was entirely at a loss to understand this introduction of the new-comer.

It was always a pleasure to welcome distinguished strangers to New York. Mrs. Jameson's [40] visit to the United States, in the year 1835, gave me the opportunity of making acquaintance with that very accomplished lady and author. I was then a girl of sixteen summers, but I had read the ‘Diary of an Ennuyee,’ which first brought Mrs. Jameson into literary prominence. I read afterwards with avidity the two later volumes in which she gives so good an account of modern art work in Europe. In these she speaks with enthusiasm of certain frescoes in Munich which I was sorry, many years later, to be obliged to consider less beautiful than her description of them would have warranted one in believing. When I perused these works, having myself no practical knowledge of art, their graphic style seemed to give me clear vision of the things described. The beautiful Pinakothek and Glyptothek of Munich became to me as if I actually saw them, and when it was my good fortune to visit them I seemed, especially in the case of the marbles, to meet with old friends. Mrs. Jameson's connoisseurship was not limited to pictorial and sculptural art. Of music also she was passionately fond. In the book just spoken of she describes an evening passed with the composer Wieck in his German home. In this she speaks of his daughter Clara, and of her lover, young Schumann. Clara Wieck, afterwards Madame Schumann, became well known in Europe as a pianist of eminence, and of Schumann [41] as a composer it needs not now to speak. There were various legends regarding Mrs. Jameson's private history. It was said that her husband, marrying her against his will, parted from her at the church door, and thereafter left England for Canada, where he was residing at the time of her visit. I first met her at an evening party at the house of a friend. I was invited to make some music, and sang, among other thing, a brilliant bravura air from ‘Semiramide.’ When I would have left the piano, Mrs. Jameson came to me and said, ‘Altra cosa, my dear.’ My voice had been cultivated with care, and though not of great power was considered pleasing in quality, and was certainly very flexible. I met Mrs. Jameson at several other entertainments devised in her honor. She was of middle height, her hair red blond in color. Her face was not handsome, but sensitive and sympathetic in expression. The elegant dames of New York were somewhat scandalized at her want of taste in dress. I actually heard one of them say, ‘How like the devil she does look!’

After a winter passed in Canada, Mrs. Jameson again visited New York, on her way to England. She called upon me one day with a friend, and asked to see my father's pictures. Two of these, portraits of Charles First and his queen, were supposed to be by Vandyke. Mrs. Jameson [42] doubted this. She spoke of her intimacy with the celebrated Mrs. Somerville, and said, ‘I think of her as a dear little woman who is very fond of drawing.’ When I went to return her visit, I found her engaged in earnest conversation with a son of Sir James Mackintosh. When he had taken leave, she said to me, ‘Mr. Mackintosh and I were almost at daggers drawing.’ So far as I could learn, their dispute related to democratic forms of government, and the society there from resulting, which he viewed with favor and she with bitter dislike. I inquired about her winter in Canada. She replied, ‘As the Irishman said, I had everything that a pig could want.’ A volume from her hand appeared soon after this time, entitled ‘Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada.’ Her work on ‘Sacred and Legendary Art’ and her ‘Legends of the Madonna’ were published some years later.

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