Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sleigh Bells Ring

An unscientific survey of the weather information in Rebecca Gratz's letters shows that Philadelphia winters were as variable in the nineteenth century as they have been in more recent years. One December she is gathering roses in her garden; in another she is housebound by rain and ice. But when snow came, and it seems to have come more frequently than in the 21st century, people of Rebecca's time had one thing that added greatly to the season's charm: travel by sleigh.

On a November evening in 1800, after a snowstorm, Rebecca's friend Maria Fenno in New York wrote that there was "no other noise but the jingling of sleighs" in the street outside her house.
Lovely as the sleigh bells were, Maria's words point up their reason for being: sleighs moved silently, the horses' hoofs muffled by the snow -- the bells alerted the unwary to their approach.

In January 1805 Eliza Fenno, Maria's little sister, recorded another evening made magical by sleigh bells. A friend of Eliza's had planned to give a dance at her house, but on the day of the event there was a heavy snowstorm, and by 8 p.m. no one had come. "We were in despair when the sound of sleigh bells coming down the lane made our hearts leap...." The sleigh brought "a cargo of beaux," and more sleighs soon followed. It was "a most delightful dance," Eliza wrote Rebecca, and the party did not break up until 3 a.m.

Another pleasure the sleigh afforded was to old people whose joints could no longer take the bouncing of carriages and wagons on the truly terrible roads which existed in most parts of the country in the early nineteenth century. A sleigh, however, could give them a smooth ride to those they could no longer visit at most times of the year -- and then whisk them home again before the snow melted.

Finally, there were sleighing parties similar to the one pictured in a detail from the painting above by John Lewis Krimmel. Here a sleigh full of merrymakers is probably making a tour of inns in the area where they can stop, warm up, drink, then go on to the next hostelry. As they are pictured here, the partiers are feeling no pain, probably noisy and a menace to other traffic. Sleighs, it seems, for all their charm, could be used recklessly.

(The letters from the Fenno sisters are from the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, the American Philosophical Society. I am embarrassed to confess I have misplaced the reference for the information about sleigh rides for the elderly. I will add it when I recover it, but if someone can identify it for me, I would be most appreciative. German-born John Lewis Krimmel, arrived in Philadelphia in 1809, where he painted many genre scenes set in the city and its environs until his death in 1821.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Did St. Nicholas Visit the Gratz House?

In 1841 Rebecca wrote that she had received a cheerful letter from her nephew Horace (born 1820), one of her sister Rachel's children whom she raised after their mother's death. In it Horace reminded his sister Sara (born 1817), who still lived with Rebecca, of the Christmas Eves of "bygone years when they used to busy themselves in childish philosophy upon the mysterious character of Dear Old St. Nicholas."

This sounds as though Horace and Sara might have been expecting a visit. Could this be possible? Well, maybe. The 1820's, when they were children, was a time when most people in Philadelphia hardly knew what Christmas was. Episcopalians, Roman Catholics and German Protestants had religious services on December 25, with a festive meal and (in some instances) gift-giving, but they celebrated discreetly because the vast majority of their neighbors (Quakers, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians, etc.) heartily disapproved of such popish/pagan practices. Christmas was a working day, with stores and public offices open. People went about their business.

However, on December 23, 1823, a newspaper in Troy, New York, printed an anonymous poem entitled "A Visit from St. Nicholas," which we know as "Twas the night before Christmas." The author drew on the customs and stories brought to New York by its first Dutch settlers and kept alive by the old Dutch families in the state.

One of the remarkable things about the poem is the absence of any religious or didactic content -- no mention of the Nativity nor the necessity for children to be good to merit a visit. Its main character, "St. Nicholas," the "jolly old elf," bears no resemblance to the Christian saint (just as well, since Protestants eschewed the veneration of saints as quasi-polytheism). This St. Nick is a being from a simpler era when folk beliefs in magical saints and elves were common. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, these figures could be seen as neither pagan nor superstitious (and therefore dangerous) but as charming and harmless, the stuff of stories to delight children.

The poem evokes the wonder and magic of St. Nick, but its most memorable images are a "sleigh full of toys" and that "pack full of toys" which St. Nick brings down the chimney. Although some children had formerly received presents at this time of year, all children now knew that when St. Nicholas was involved, they could expect many, much more. "Twas the Night" provided a vision of a sort of juvenile Saturnalia.

The poem was a phenomenon, reprinted in newspapers and almanacs throughout the country, filling an amorphous desire for whimsy, magic and the pleasures of childhood. The holiday soon took hold. In December 1830, Maria Gratz, Rebecca's sister-in-law, in from Kentucky (where new ways came late), reported to her mother: "Christmas is a gay time here. Thousands of persons fill the streets and shops buying presents for their children." How could any child learn about St. Nicholas and not wonder, "Will he visit me?" Rebecca Gratz was probably among the first Jewish Americans to be asked that question by beloved children, and we do not know her answer.

A visit from St. Nick would be central to the American Christmas, but it was a tradition rooted in candy and toys, not in the Incarnation. Yet its unstoppable popularity was one of the forces which led many Protestants to reinstate Christmas as a major religious holiday. In an 1839 History of Philadelphia, the author announced that since the Presbyterians and some other denominations had recently embraced it, Christmas was now generally observed in Philadelphia. He added that parents were turning to educational presents for their children -- this must have been one of the first attempts to give St. Nick's visit a more serious purpose. America, however, was already on its way to a monster consumer holiday, and if Rebecca had ever indulged Horace and Sara with a visit from St. Nick, she must have been relieved that her "children" had grown up before the holiday became more religious and still more materialistic.

(Rebecca's letter is from the Miriam Moses Cohen Collection, Southern History Collection, the University of North Carolina. The History of Philadelphia mentioned is by Daniel Bowen; its text is accessible on Google Books.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Hanukkah Greetings!

The Gratz family observed the festivals and holy days of Judaism throughout the year, and in her letters Rebecca makes many references to them. However, there is one holiday for which I have yet to find a mention -- Hanukkah. There is no reason to think that the Gratz's did not celebrate it, but its absence from their correspondence suggests its minor status in the Jewish calendar. Only in the twentieth century did Hanukkah come to prominence in America as the Jewish alternative to Christmas.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Portrait of Miriam Gratz

In 1802 Miriam Gratz, Rebecca's mother, acceded to the requests of her children that she have her portrait painted. Rebecca went with her for her first sitting and wrote to her friend Maria Fenno about the experience. From a position "behind Stewart's chair" (that would be Gilbert Stuart she's talking about) she marveled "to see a countenance so dear to my heart appear on a board which but a few minutes before was a...piece of mahogany." She was struck by the resemblance and animation she saw in the work.

Miriam Gratz died suddenly in 1808, leaving her family in profound grief. Her husband Michael had suffered from depression for years, then sustained a stroke in 1800 from which he made a very partial recovery. He was as dependent on her as any of her children. Rebecca wrote to Maria in 1809: "We have indeed shut up our greatest treasure, the portrait of our beloved Mother, but we often visit it to weep over features too deeply graven on our hearts to require even the painter's skill to preserve. When first we were deprived of this best of parents I daily visited her picture, and felt that my only consolation was to gaze on it. But one day my father went into the room and was so overcome by looking at it, that we determined to sacrifice our wishes of having it constantly before us and close the room where it hangs."

(Gilbert Stuart's portrait of Miriam Gratz is in private hands, and I have not found a photograph of it. The Rosenbach Museum and Library has a copy of the painting by Jane Cooper Sully Darley, not currently on view. To see a reproduction of the Darley version, go to the Loeb Database of Early American Jewish Portraits on the website of the American Jewish Historical Society. The first of the two letters quoted in this post is in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection at the Library of Congress; the second from the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Women's Charities, Philadelphia 1800

Philadelphia had always been a progressive city, and by the last decade of the eighteenth century, it had produced numerous charities, some run by religious organizations, some by ethnic groups, others by professions, but all created and organized by men.

The first charity developed by women was the Female Benevolent Society at the African Church (now the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas). A mutual aid society introduced in 1793, the organization was made up of subscribers who could call upon it for help if and when they were in need.

The second women's charity, founded by Anne Parrish, a member of the Society of Friends, and administered by the women of her Meeting, also originated during the difficult period 1793-1995 when Philadelphia suffered through two yellow fever epidemics. Shortly after its formation, the Female Society of Philadelphia for the Relief and Employment of the Poor (as the organization came to be known) received a letter from a male Friend who was concerned about the "indelicacy" of women working with the urban poor. The Secretary copied the letter into the minutes, and the group proceeded with their endeavors. In the early years of the nineteenth century, they were best known for their Hall of Industry, where they paid poor women to spin.

What is noticeable here is that these are good works attributable to outlying groups, not the women from the socially and politically prominent families who attended the Dancing Assemblies. It would not be until October of 1800 that a group of such women met in the parlor of the minister of the Second Presbyterian Church to begin their efforts for the needy. Among them were Hannah Boudinot, whose husband had been president of the Continental Congress in 1782-83; her daughter Susan Bradford, widow of an Attorney General of the United States; Sarah Butler Mease, a daughter of a signer of the Declaration; Sarah Ralston, a daughter of Mayor Matthew Clarkson whose leadership during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 fostered calm and produced effective action in the city; and Miss Sproat, probably a daughter of the Rev. Mr. James Sproat of Second Presbyterian who died ministering to the sick during the same epidemic. Although they met under the auspices of a religious congregation, these women came from families with a tradition of civic responsibility as well. In the new republic they may have seen their actions as not simply a way to live their faith, but also as their contribution to nation-building. In a republic, who better than they to see the needs of poor women and take up the task of helping those in difficult circumstances?

Nearly 40 years later, Dr. Ashbel Green in whose parlor this meeting took place would remember: "It was at that period an untried experiment for the female to attempt extending the sphere of her exertions beyond the narrow limits of her own household." Yet these women were about to found an ambitious citywide organization, the first to go beyond a single congregation and become truly nonsectarian in its membership. Among the first women to become members in the organization's first full year were a number of Jewish women including twenty-year-old Rebecca Gratz.

(The information about the earliest charities is from Bruce Dorsey's 2002 book Reforming men and women: gender in the antebellum city. Information about the founding of the Female
Association is from a pamphlet by Eleanor S. Wistar Crampton, "The Female Association of Philadelphia for the Relief of Women and Children," published in Philadelphia in 1965. I found it among the Female Association papers at Haverford College's library.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Take the canal boat from Pittsburgh"

In 1835 Rebecca Gratz visited her brother Benjamin and his family in Lexington, Kentucky, for several months over the summer. As fall approached her brother Hyman wrote her, promising to meet her on her way home at Wheeling, West Virginia, or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He suggested that she plan to "take the canal boat from Pittsburgh," that she would like it much better than a land journey.

Few people realize today that Pennsylvania once had a system of canals, connected in a few places by railroads, which could take travelers all the way across the state. Certainly, as Hyman suggests, the ride on a canal boat must have been much smoother than anything the roads of the era could offer.

The canals of Pennsylvania, dug (for the most part) during the building boom following the success of the Erie Canal, were soon completely superseded by railroads. A map of the state's canal system appears on the website of the Pennsylvania Canal Society.

(The letter from Hyman Gratz to Rebecca, dated Sept. 15, 1835, is found in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Portrait of Washington Irving

I finished the previous post without sharing one of the young Washington Irving's important attributes: he was a bit of all right. How annoying it must have been for Rebecca's prospective suitors to see her obviously enjoying the company of another, and more handsome, young man.

This portrait, now in the collection of Historic Hudson Valley, Tarrytown NY, was painted in 1811 by John Wesley Jarvis. In January of that year, Irving and his friend Henry Brevoort visited Philadelphia where Rebecca reported, "They are pleased with everybody and everybody are pleased with them." Washington must have been sitting for the portrait at this time because Rebecca says that he had refused to show the painting to the Gratz family and intended to have it altered on his return to the city. By May the portrait must have been completed to his liking because it was part of a large exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Rebecca wrote to Maria Fenno Hoffman: "Tell Washington all the belles at the exhibition commended his picture....he is a great favorite." Along with "the belles," Irving liked this image of himself (as who would not): the painting hung at Sunnyside, his home in Tarrytown NY, during his lifetime.

(Rebecca's January 1811 letter is from the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society, and the one from May is from the New York Historical Society.)

Washington Irving, Rebecca Gratz & an Unwanted Suitor

Rebecca Gratz's romance with Samuel Ewing, a Presbyterian, ended with her refusal to marry him because of the difference of religion. This is the stuff of legend. Yet, if Rebecca was so charming and lovely, you might think that she would have had at least one other suitor, and you would be correct.

Isaac and Reyna Moses of New York City, old friends of Rebecca's parents, had three sons just the right age (five to ten years older) for the three Gratz sisters still at home at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The young men looked great on paper, scions of a wealthy Jewish family well-known to the Gratz's and already active in the family business. But somehow they did not please the Gratz girls.

Rebecca had spent the winter of 1805-06 in low spirits, having broken with Ewing the previous August, and in April of 1806 her family eagerly sent her off to visit her best friend Maria Fenno Hoffman in New York for a change of scene. About three weeks after she arrived, Rebecca received a letter from her younger sister Rachel who had urgent news from a friend: M.L. (short for Moses Levy), the middle Moses son, was upset because several evenings before at Maria's house, Washington Irving had come in just as he was about to propose to Rebecca. Rachel knew that Rebecca had no interest in this proposal and worried that M.L. would interfere with the her sister's enjoyment of New York. Her advice to Rebecca for avoiding another attempt: "Keep Washington with you as you have done before" [my emphasis].

When Maria Fenno had married Josiah Ogden Hoffman in 1802, Washington Irving was desultorily studying law in Hoffman's office, and although he had little talent for legal matters, he had other gifts -- conversation, charm, good humor--which made him a welcome guest at the Hoffman home. In the spring of 1806, Irving had just returned from eighteen months in Europe and it was at this time that he was introduced to Rebecca.

For her part, Rebecca was delighted with Irving, calling him "the most pleasant young man I have met" in New York. Elsewhere she gave an expanded description of him at a social gathering: Mr. Irving, she wrote, "made puns -- told stories -- wrote poetry... he became quite agreeable to the whole party." Washington provided the liveliness and fun which Rebecca needed. There is no hint of romance on either side. As Maria Fenno Hoffman's close friend, Irving would have been informed about Rebecca's recent romantic history. Besides, he was two years younger than Rebecca and without a profession. In this situation the two could quickly settle into a relaxed relationship, unimpeded by the uncertainties which could blight budding friendships between men and women.

All this must have happened quickly if they were already partners in deception against M.L. (and possibly other unwanted suitors). Irving was too socially adept not to realize that Rebecca was sometimes using him as a shield and was gallant enough to spare a kind young woman from unwanted attentions she could not politely avoid by herself. In years to come their friendship would continue in New York and also at the Gratz house in Philadelphia. It was a very real relationship, better characterized as cordial than as intimate. The legend of Rebecca Gratz as the inspiration for the character of Rebecca in Scott's Ivanhoe rests on the undocumented story that Irving vividly described her to Walter Scott whom he visited in 1817. He was certainly capable of doing that -- whether he did or not is another question.

As for poor M.L., he never married. In a letter from 1802 Rebecca gives us a strong hint as to why she was not interested in him when she tactfully describes his enthusiasms: [M.L] "is certainly the most romantic young man in the boro. He constantly keeps sacking his imagination for omens and wonders--where other people would see nothing extraordinary." "Romantic" here is not "flowers and candy" romantic. This was the Romantic Age, and one of the earliest emanations of the romantic sensibility was an interest in the supernatural (omens, ghosts, etc.). Rebecca was more comfortable in the Age of Reason. Her highest compliment about Samuel Ewing was that he was a "sensible, agreeable companion" although she also added that he was "rather romantic." Rebecca found a little romanticism acceptable in an essentially rational man, but the thought of spending one's life with a man whose major interests in were omens and ghost stories must have been most unappealing to her.

(Rebecca's letters from 1806 are from the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society. Her letters from 1802 are from the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection at the Library of Congress.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dancing Assemblies & Dances

A series of subscription balls given throughout the social season, dancing assemblies first appeared in England and migrated to America during the colonial period. They were very popular on both sides of the Atlantic because they made large dances possible for participants at a fraction of the cost of having a ball at home. (Few people in Philadelphia had enough space for a large dance anyway.) To organize a dancing assembly a group of well-to-do men each paid the prescribed subscription fee. From their number, they chose several managers who would set the dates for the dances and choose the venue, catering and music for the season. Each subscriber received season tickets for himself and for the women (18 or older) in his family. All other men had to pay to get in, and the price was high enough to discourage the working class.

The first dancing assembly in Philadelphia was in 1748. It is a marker of the city's ease with diversity that among the subscribers were David Franks and Nathan Levy, prominent Jewish merchants. Philadelphia tolerance is usually traced to its first Quaker settlers, but since Quakers did not dance, the openness of the assemblies indicates that members of other sects had adopted Pennsylvania's welcoming policies.

The Assemblies were not the only dances. The Gratz's had room enough to hold a small dance at their house, and Rebecca reported on dances at the homes of friends. There were also Bachelors' Balls, for which a group of unmarried men clubbed together to organize a dance for their friends in a rented venue.

Like the Bennett sisters in Pride and Prejudice (Elizabeth Bennett met Mr. Darcy at the local dancing assembly), the Gratz sisters longed for a dance. Or as Rebecca put it, dances were "anticipated with delight for a week -- and then enjoyed with a zest of true pleasure."

In later years Rebecca wistfully remembered her youthful enjoyment. When she was forty and trying to persuade her young sister-in-law Maria, Ben's wife, to come to Philadelphia for the season, she wrote, "If you were here I should buckle on my old finery again for the pleasure of accompanying you [to the Dancing Assembly]...[although to me] a ball room seems more like a memorial of lost pleasures than an incitement to new ones."

Even in her 60's Rebecca was still attending balls, albeit out of duty rather than for pleasure. In 1844 she wrote of a ball to benefit the Hebrew charitable societies with which she was associated. The managers had insisted on her going because "so many of the genteel Jewesses decline," a hint at the social friction between the old Philadelphia Jewish families and the newer immigrants. More likely, however, is that the organizers wanted Rebecca because she was considered the most genteel Jewess in the city, as the reputed inspiration for the character of the immaculate Rebecca of York in Scott's immensely popular novel Ivanhoe. Always responsible, she concluded that she would go "to prove that I recognize the obligation conferred on the societies to be benefited by it."

(The information about dancing assemblies is drawn from a number of histories of Philadelphia, but the most detailed source is Thomas Willing Balch's The Philadelphia Assemblies, published in 1916. Rebecca's youthful joy in dances is from an 1807 letter in the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society. Her wistful memories are published in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, and the letter about her dutiful attendance later in life, dated January 21, 1844, is from the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Collection, Southern History Collection, University of North Carolina.)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Lost Portrait of Rebecca

Almost immediately after Sully finished Rebecca's first portrait in 1830 (see the post dated Oct. 6, 2009), Hyman Gratz, her brother, commissioned another. Since the two lived under the same roof, Hyman did not need two pictures of his sister. Perhaps the second painting was to be a gift for another brother and his wife who lived in Kentucky, Benjamin and Maria Gratz.

According to Sully's records, this second painting was erased, and Fielding and Biddle, Sully's biographers, report that there was a Gratz family story that the portrait was rejected "on account of a turban or other head-dress painted in the portrait by the artist."

Now this is odd. I don't think most portraitists added something as important to a painting as headgear, without the prior consent of the sitter. So why the surprise for the woman who was after all Sully's first Philadelphia patron?

I think the answer lies in the specificity of the word "turban" in the story. Turbans had been popular with women from the 1790's on, and this particular type of head covering was not unusual in female portraits of the period. (To see some of the styles of turban then current, go to www.lynnmcmasters.com.) But for Rebecca Gratz the turban had special significance. By 1830 she was identified in the public mind with the character Rebecca in Scott's popular novel Ivanhoe. Guess what the fictional Rebecca wears in her first scene: a yellow turban.

Sully probably thought he was offering a compliment to Rebecca Gratz by recognizing her as the inspiration for the character. But the family saw that it would be taken as a symbol of her vainglory, that people would think that she dressed up like the character in the book to remind everyone (and posterity too) that she was the real Rebecca of Ivanhoe. Such a painting would have been considered to be in the worst possible taste, and it is no wonder the Gratz's wanted it destroyed.

There exist, however, two paintings by Sully -- both of women in yellow turbans -- which are usually identified as Rebecca Gratz, despite the fact that neither bears much resemblance to her. While one of them may be the "erased" painting, reworked to not look like Rebecca, Sully would have been taking a chance in reusing it: should the Gratz's have ever heard of or seen it, they would have been deeply offended.

If my theory is true, any painting of a woman in a yellow turban is not Rebecca Gratz. The two pictures are probably from among Sully's "fancy paintings," as he called his works which were not portraits.

(I am not showing the two "woman in a turban" paintings here. Images of them are available on the internet [Try searching "Rebecca Gratz" on Google Images]. The one reproduced in black and white has the face of a little girl. If you view the other painting, which is in color, you will see a woman wearing a rather silly version of a turban, one I haven't found in fashion illustrations of the era, and in a pose unlike any among Sully's many portraits. Given the fashion sense Rebecca exhibited in her previous portrait, I don't see her as a sensible woman of fifty agreeing to wear such a getup. Note also the reddish curls at the nape of the woman's neck. I found a small envelope among the Rebecca Gratz letters at the Library of Congress. On it were written her name and the date Aug. 27, 1869, the day she died. Inside were several strands of hair, raven black in color, just as it is in the authenticated portraits by Sully and all eye-witness descriptions of Rebecca.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Philadelphia Ghost Story

In a letter dated November 8, 1801, Maria Fenno wrote to Rebecca about an incident at a well known Philadelphia hostelry:

Mr. John Bleecker and a friend stayed at the City Tavern "where a ghost...disturbed their repose. It seems they slept in the room where poor Jackson put an end to his existence and the ghost as they described it to Mr. Otto [presumably the innkeeper] the next morning answered the description of that unfortunate young man."

Maria took the rational view: she thought that someone who knew of the "pranks at Princeton" perpetrated by Bleeker and his friend "determined to frighten them by a frolick of that kind." However, she felt herself to be in the minority and worried that the incident "would be an injury to the house as many people credit the story." The tale had no lasting effects, and the City Tavern survived for many years to come.

(The letter quoted here is from the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, the American Philosophical Society.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Women and Accidental Burns

A common cause of injury and death in women of 18th and early 19th-century America was fire, not surprisingly since cooking was done at an open hearth, where a stray spark, unnoticed, could catch and send a woman's dress up in flames. But even a lady, who never did kitchen work, was in danger as well, from the fireplaces throughout the house.

The Port Folio, Rebecca's favorite periodical, stated in 1802 that the death-by-fire rate had worsened "since the introduction of light clothing. Ladies are forced to a nearer enjoyment of the fire, and the thin muslin transparency is in a blaze in a moment" (May 29, 1802, p. 166). Perhaps this is what had happened to Rebecca's 19-year-old cousin Becky Cohen. In February of the same year. as she stood by her bedroom fireplace her dress caught fire. Becky panicked and ran downstairs. Rebecca commented that this was the worst course to take, showing that young women were knowledgeable, at least theoretically, about what not to do in such an emergency. Becky Cohen's left side and arm had been "dreadfully burned" by the time the fire was put out.

All nursing was done by the women of the family. Becky was in such agony that her cousins and aunt joined her mother and sisters in shifts, giving her some relief with cold compresses. A week later Becky still could not turn over and continued to need the round-the-clock care of her female relatives, including the Gratz sisters.

The Gratz's and their relatives had an often misplaced faith in doctors, but in this case their readiness to accept medical advice brought them some relief. Despite her "extreme modesty" Becky Cohen submitted to the doctor's dressing her side, something that many women of the time would not have endured nor most families permitted. Through his examination of her burns, the doctor was able to recognize when the danger of infection had passed. He eased the anxieties of the family by assuring them about two weeks after the accident that Becky was on the road to recovery. She lived until 1840.

The first cook stoves were manufactured in the 1820's and quickly spread from urban areas to farms and villages. Women were no longer at risk from an open fire in their kitchens although they could still sustain serious burns from the hot metal of the stove.

(The letters quoted here are in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection at the Library of Congress. For more about women's clothing, see my July and August posts on fashion in 1800. Information on cook stoves is derived from Jack Larkin's fascinating The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840, 1988.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Aunt Becky to the Rescue

Rebecca Gratz was "Aunt Becky" to a host of Gratz nephews and nieces and to the children of close friends as well. Among these "honorary" nieces and nephews were Montgomery, James, Elizabeth (Lizzie) and Frank Blair, the children of Francis Preston and Eliza Blair of Blair House, Washington DC. Rebecca's brother Benjamin had married Eliza Blair's sister Maria Cecil Gist in 1819; both families were clannish by nature and looked upon each other as relatives for at least two generations.

In October 1843, James Blair, a naval officer, was in love with Mary Boswell, a relation of his mother's from Kentucky, who was visiting Rebecca Gratz. James went to Philadelphia, proposed to Mary and was rejected. The same day he proposed to another young woman named Elizabeth Guillon, the daughter of a doctor, and was accepted.

Naturally his family, knowing of his feelings for Mary Boswell, opposed a rash marriage on the rebound. Preston Blair wrote to Mrs. Guillon, suggesting that wedding plans be delayed, but James announced that he would not leave Philadelphia unmarried. At this juncture, someone with a cool head and a talent for tact was needed on the ground for face-to-face negotiations.

Rebecca enlisted the aid of Jo Gratz (the most charming and sociable of her brothers) and together with Dr. Guillon and James they worked out an arrangement which left any wedding plans in abeyance until James returned from his next voyage. Despite his initial opposition to his parents' wishes, Rebecca Gratz thought James seemed "greatly relieved."

On January 14, 1846, James married Mary Jesup. I have found no record of how Miss Guillon fared.

(This post is drawn from Elbert B. Smith's Francis Preston Blair, New York: Free Press, 1980. pp. 183-84.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Sully's First Portrait of Rebecca

(For more recent news and a color reproduction of this painting, see "The Rosenbach Acquires Sully Portrait of Rebecca Gratz.") In 1830 Hyman Gratz, one of Rebecca's older brothers, commissioned Thomas Sully to paint her portrait. Many years before, in 1807, when Sully had decided to come to Philadelphia for the winter, he brought a letter of introduction to Rebecca from her friend Washington Irving in New York. In a purely social situation such a letter required the recipient to invite the bearer to dinner, introduce him to some friends and generally be helpful as he settled in. When the bearer of the letter was a man who needed work, the recipient was being asked to be his patron. Rebecca commissioned Sully to copy a miniature of her, and within the year three other Gratz relatives had had their portraits done.

Sully helped his career along by giving discounted prices to those among the first to be painted, and soon settled his wife and children in Philadelphia which would remain his home for the rest of his life. By June of 1809, he had made enough money to keep his family and send himself off to England where he would see Old Masters and study with the reigning English portraitist Thomas Lawrence. Sully returned more technically proficient and a master of the fashionable Lawrence style.

When at last Sully was offered the opportunity to paint his patroness he depicted her as a regal lady of fashion gazing pensively into the middle distance. In doing so he caught for posterity the thoughtful woman who developed and managed good works as well as the wealthy woman who loved clothes and knew how to use them to enhance her good looks.

If you compare the miniature of Rebecca in her 20's done by Malbone (see"Women's Fashions: 1800. Part 1") with this painting, you can see (especially at the jaw line) that Sully's portrait resembles Malbone's. However, Sully has come under attack for excessively flattering his first Philadelphia patron. When he painted her, Rebecca was 49, and although in the portrait she appears a mature woman rather than a girl, not many people would guess her age correctly.

My own theory about Sully is that he was both accurate and inaccurate. He was accurate enough about his sitters' features (perhaps a nip here, a tuck there, but still recognizable), but the glowing complexion he gave them (a trick he learned from Lawrence) is, let us say, not so accurate. Nearly all his sitters --men and women alike --have roses and cream skin tones which no one except a baby has in real life. We are seeing Rebecca without crow's feet, a wrinkled brow or those little lines around the mouth which are the first signs of aging. If you look at the portrait and imagine it with these marks of age, you will still see a very attractive woman, who, at 49, retains a substantial portion of her youthful beauty.

Other posts of possible interest are: A Lost Portrait of Rebecca and Sully's Second Portrait of Rebecca.

(This portrait is in private hands, and I do not know if it has ever been photographed in color. If it has, I would love to see the photo.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Civil War Tragedy

Benjamin Gratz (1792-1884), Rebecca's youngest brother, settled in 1819 in his bride's hometown, Lexington, Kentucky. He and his wife Maria (nee Gist) had six sons, four of whom lived to adulthood. After Maria's death he married her niece Anna Boswell Shelby, a widow with a son around the same age as Ben's youngest.

The stepbrother-cousins came to Pennsylvania for prep school, and their Aunt Becky welcomed them to her house on Chestnut Street for those academic vacations too short to make a trip home feasible. During these years she wrote glowingly to Kentucky about her nephews.

The boys seem to have gotten along well but as they came to manhood in the 1840's and 1850's, they were divided by the issues of slavery and secession. Benjamin Gratz, though a slaveholder, was a strong Unionist; his sons Bernard, Hyman and Cary stood with him. However, another son Howard and Jo Shelby, Ben's stepson, who had gone into business together in Missouri, were with the South.

The family rift was played out tragically on August 10, 1861, at the Battle of Wilson's Creek, Missouri: Capt. Cary Gratz on the Union side, Jo Shelby across the lines from him. Cary was killed, devastating his father. Rebecca wrote that she wished that by sharing Ben's grief she could somehow lessen it. But in her many letters to Kentucky, seeking to console Ben, she also was solicitous of the continuing anxieties of her sister-in-law, Jo's mother, telling her, "I hope [Jo] will escape unhurt from this desperate conflict."

Cary's body was brought home and interred, the first Civil War soldier to be buried in Lexington Cemetery. Jo Shelby rose to the rank of general in the Confederate army, and is today considered one of the South's most brilliant cavalry officers. At the beginning of the War, he had left his wife and children in Missouri. When as southern sympathizers they were expelled from their land in 1863, Benjamin Gratz escorted them to Lexington, Kentucky, where they lived for the rest of the war. Jo Shelby and his wife named their first son born after the end of the conflict Benjamin Gratz Shelby.

(Much of the information in this post is drawn from The Letters of Rebecca Gratz, which is available on the internet. The letter quoted is from the Henrietta Clay Collection, Transylvania University, Lexington, KY.)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Happy New Year!

"May you be written in the Book of Life," Rebecca's traditional New Year's wish to her sister Sarah, Sept. 28, 1800.

(This letter is found in the Gratz Collection at the Rosenbach Museum & Library.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Character Sketch of Rebecca Gratz

In 1800 a young man wrote the following description of nineteen-year-old Rebecca Gratz:

"Miss Rebecca Gratz is one whose conversation and society will be courted by those who seek for gratification of the purest and most exalted kind -- With a mind discriminating and correct, expanded by observation and by books -- with a disposition formed to cheer and to charm the domestic circle and to dignify the most exalted equally with the humblest station, she will float along the current of life, respected as a companion and beloved as a friend -- As a wife she will render happy any one whose habits and disposition are not at war with happiness -- The ills of life may press hard and heavy on him whom she honours with her choice, but despondency will vanish before her exertions -- Her affections are warm and her sensibility great, but her judgement [sic] will ever correct their errors and alleviate their pangs -- Dignified in her deportment, her only pride is conscious rectitude -- Affable and unassuming, no man will yet dare to hazard the loss of her esteem."

Flattering, but is it accurate? From the letters of her friends, it is clear that others admire Rebecca's conversational skills. There are instances of her democratic bent in her letters, and it is evident throughout her correspondence that for Rebecca reason is humanity's preeminent faculty and the means by which to achieve a happy and useful life.

But there are also things in this description which letters do not give us because correspondence was considered a serious endeavor at that time. Rebecca's letters show her to be thoughtful and kind, but it's not clear from them alone if she smiles often. The character sketch by someone who has actually seen her assures us that she was charming and cheerful as well.

The description was probably written by Samuel Ewing, whom Rebecca would love and refuse for religious reasons. She certainly associated Ewing with this type of writing since she would suggest in 1802 that his "pen should delineate [a friend's] character." It is a shame that the character sketch of the other young woman does not survive. I'm sure all such efforts were gallant and flattering, but it would be interesting to compare Rebecca's with another's to see if Mr. Ewing's attachment to Miss Gratz was obvious.

(The character sketch is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society. Rebecca's letter to Maria Fenno, dated June 22, 1802, in which she suggests that Mr. Ewing write another sketch is in the Miscellaneous Manuscript Collection at the Library of Congress.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Summer at the Shore

Everyone who could afford it left the city for at least part of the summer. For Rebecca and her brothers and sisters in the early 19th century, one of their destinations of choice was Long Branch, at the New Jersey shore.

It was a trek to get there. From New York, which was much closer, the trip took eight hours to go the 55 miles by boat and "Jersey waggon." It would have been an overnighter by stagecoach or carriage for Philadelphians.

Visitors stayed at boardinghouses, and the accommodations must have been good to attract the Gratz's year after year. There was probably a public hall for balls and other evening entertainment; Rebecca's friend Maria Fenno wrote that she arrived at eight p.m. "and joined in the dancing."

Of course, the main attraction was the beauty of the seashore, the healthful air and sea bathing. It is likely that there were bathing machines, changing rooms on wheels which opened right onto the water. Since women wore a loose shiftlike costume for bathing (with coverage from the shoulder to below the knee), they were not eager for anyone to see them getting in or out of the surf. Once they were in the ocean, some women were able to do more than bob around. According to Maria Fenno, women took advantage of the buoyancy of the salt water at a New York bathhouse to help them in learning to swim.

After an early dip, the rest of the day for ladies was given over to walks, sewing, reading and chatting with old friends and new acquaintances. As long as the weather held good and no communicable diseases (like flu) made an appearance, visitors enjoyed a restful vacation from home routines.

(This post is based on letters, dated July 1 and August 1, 1801, from Maria Fenno to Rebecca Gratz. They are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Aunt Becky

Rebecca Gratz, a devoted aunt to her numerous nieces and nephews, was also "Aunt Becky" to the children of friends. She enjoyed entertaining and assisting these young people when they were in Philadelphia, and they returned her attentions with lasting affection.

One of these children was Caroline Murat, the great-niece of Napoleon Bonaparte. Not someone you might expect to meet in Philadelphia, Caroline was the daughter of Lucien Murat, the son of one of Napoleon's sisters. He had followed his uncle, Joseph Bonaparte, into exile in Bordentown, NJ, and had married Caroline Fraser, a young woman of good family, who was living there. Murat was much better at spending than earning money, and his wife was forced to open a school for girls to pay the bills. Rebecca's nephew Gratz Moses, a doctor in Bordentown, became the family's physician; he introduced his aunt to Mrs. Murat, and a warm friendship ensued.

Here is how Caroline remembered Rebecca many years later (she was about thirteen years old, at the time she is describing, the winter of 1846-47):

"I was going to stay with some old friends of my mother to whom I often went to visit....Our friends lived on Chestnut Street No. 2, Boston Row [between 12th and 13th Sts.]. They were a Jewish family -- a dear old maiden lady, her two brothers [actually three] and a niece. 'Aunt Becky,' as we always called her...had still a very beautiful face, a most perfect type of Jewish beauty. Her form and figure, cast in nature's happiest mold, few could rival, and I enjoyed being with her."

There are several factual errors in the complete passage (which I have abridged here). However, the emotional content of her reminiscences is one of authentic happiness.

Caroline and her family were saved from penury by the ascension of their cousin, Napoleon III, to the imperial throne. They went to France, became princes and princesses, and lived well, at least until the end of the Second Empire.

(Caroline's quotation is from My Memoirs, published by G.P. Putnam's & Sons, New York, in 1910.)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Telegraph & Private Life

When Samuel F. B. Morse tapped out his famous "What hath God wrought" message on the telegraph in 1844, he inaugurated a new era in communications. Business and finance, railroads and newspapers all saw the value of close-to-instantaneous information and used the tool accordingly. The telegraph was employed much less frequently for personal matters, but it proved invaluable during family crises.

In 1846 Rebecca reported to her relatives in Kentucky that her eldest brother-in-law Reuben Etting (1762-1848) was in fragile and declining health, but had his wife and children, except one son, close at hand in Philadelphia. Henry Etting, a career Navy man, had been appointed to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but, Rebecca wrote, "The magnetic telegraph could recall the absentee in an hour, should he be required." What she means is that instead of someone going by train to New York to deliver the message (a five-hour trip at the least), a telegram could be sent and delivered to Henry in less than an hour, thus permitting him to return home in about half the time it would have taken previously. Having the entire family around a deathbed was a comfort to the dying and to the grieving. Also comforting was the possibility -- for the first time, thanks to the telegraph -- that even a son so far away might be able to get home in time to bid farewell to his father.

(This post is based on information about the telegraph in Daniel Walker Howe's wonderful book, What hath God wrought: the transformation of America, 1815-1848, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 696. Rebecca's letter to her sister-in-law Maria Gratz, dated Feb. 13, 1846, is published in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by David Philipson, Arno Press, 1975.)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

America Vespucci, Adventuress

Sometime in late 1838 or early 1839, a woman who became known as "America Vespucci" arrived in the United States. Her surname was accurate; she was indeed a member of the Florentine family which had produced Amerigo Vespucci, for whom the Americas were named. Her first name may have been Maria or Elena, but people knew her by her putative middle name, Ameriga, which the press changed to "America."

A woman in her thirties, Signorina Vespucci was universally praised for her mass of dark hair, fine eyes and beautiful figure. Traveling through the country, she took each city by storm, but her goal was Washington DC. There she presented herself to lawmakers, cabinet secretaries and judges as an Italian freedom fighter who had been exiled from her native land for political reasons. She told them she had come to America to beg for a little land on which to live out her days on the continent which bore her ancestor's name.

The politicians fell all over themselves giving her hearings and sending her invitations. Among her admirers was James Kirke Paulding, the Secretary of the Navy, who was so "struck by her beauty and her resemblance to Rebecca Gratz, his friend in Philadelphia," that he gave a dinner in her honor.

All Washington was disillusioned when a visiting French prince refused to meet Vespucci on the grounds of her immorality. His parents, the prince said, had paid her off to end a dalliance with his older brother, and it was their money which had provided her passage to the United States. Vespucci dropped out of the public eye and returned to her vocation as mistress to wealthy men.

(For a contemporary account of Vespucci, the full text of Perley's Reminiscences is available on the internet as is a short biography at www.trivia-library.com. The quote about Paulding is from Ralph M. Aderman's and Wayne R. Kime's book, Advocate for America: the Life of James Kirke Paulding. Selingrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2003. p. 255)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Rebecca Gratz & Charles Dickens. Part 2

In the midst of her comments about Dickens' American Notes, Gratz departs from her discussion of the book's merits and writes on a more personal level: "I do not know what Rosa [her niece Rosa Hays Marx] will say about his [Dickens'] description of her Cottage though he compliments her husband." Dickens had written of a visit he made to a plantation outside of Richmond, which must have been Rosa and Charles Marx's Wheatland.

"The planter's house," Dickens wrote, "was an airy rustic dwelling....the blinds being all closed and the windows and doors set wide open, a shady coolness rustled through the rooms which was exquisitely refreshing after the glare and heat without...." Dickens went to the slave quarters but was not invited to go into "the crazy, wretched cabins, near to which naked children basked in the sun...." Nevertheless, he concluded, "I believe this gentleman [Charles Marx, the owner] is a considerate and excellent master, who inherited his fifty slaves, and is neither a buyer or seller of human stock; and I am sure, from my own observation and conviction, that he is a kind-hearted, worthy man."

I have found only one letter from Rosa Hays Marx: it was written shortly after her marriage and in it she praises her husband for his kindness to his slaves. I had previously discounted her comments as those of a woman in love, but Charles Dickens was certainly not in love with the man or the institution of slavery. Rosa's and Dickens' words make me want to know more about Charles Marx. He seems to have been aware of and trying to mitigate the cruelty of the immoral system in which he was enmeshed; as such, he stood somewhat apart from the many Southerners who were eager to expound on the virtues of a slave society to any and everyone.

(See the previous posting for sources. Rosa's letter to Rebecca Gratz, dated June 24, 1836, is from the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.)

Rebecca Gratz & Charles Dickens. Part 1

In early 1842, Charles Dickens visited the United States where he traveled extensively. Before the end of the year he had published his reflections in American Notes for General Circulation.

In November of 1842 Rebecca recorded her reactions to his new book. She began with a general comment about the many English writers who had visited America and written about it -- usually in a manner highly critical of the new nation, despite the hospitality which their admiring hosts had bestowed upon them. "It is a pity," she wrote, that they should come at all since "it is the breaking up of friendship to make their acquaintance."

As for Dickens' views, she comments, "I do not think his Southern friends will relish his strictures on the vexed question of slavery any more than the Editors & book sellers do of the press....Taken the whole I do not see any ill spirit in his notes, some pages are very good, some very amusing and some very true which we might wish otherwise." But she adds, "If he has gleaned nothing more to embellish future tales, his visit to America will not add much to his literary reputation." (Dickens did draw on his American travels for his next novel Martin Chuzzlewit.)

To read "Rebecca Gratz & Charles Dickens. Part 2" click here.

(This post uses material from Rebecca Gratz's letter to her niece Miriam Cohen, dated November 10, 1842. It is in the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Papers, 1824-1864, Collection Number 02639, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Rebecca Gratz's First Bar Mitzvah Party?

Rebecca's family celebrated their boys' Bar Mitzvah's, but it is not clear how. There are no descriptions in her letters because relatives had no need to explain these things to each other. We do know that her youngest brother Benjamin had the misfortune to have his Bar Mitzvah during a yellow fever scare in 1805. Rebecca commented that the Etting's (her oldest sister Fanny's family) would celebrate the occasion with the Gratz's; no one else in the congregation was still in town.

Perhaps the custom Rebecca followed was visiting the family of the Bar Mitzvah after services to offer congratulations. In any case, in 1841, after watching one of the boys from her Sunday School read the whole Torah portion, Rebecca went to his home. The boy and his (male) friends were there as well as the male and female friends of the parents. In the front parlor were two tables covered with a "magnificent feast," where the two groups were eating. Rebecca reported that she could feel "the joy and happiness circulating freely."

She expressed her surprise "at finding such a scene" to the mother who explained, "He is our eldest son and we wished to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah...this is his great day."

It's clear from her words and the fact she is reporting it to her niece that this is all new to Rebecca. The family's name which she mentions is difficult to read (her handwriting can be a challenge) but it seems to end with -berger. Perhaps they were relatively recent arrivals in the great wave of German immigration which began in the 1820's, and retained their customary celebrations in America. I don't have the answer, but I would be very interested in knowing if someone else has run across any information on this topic and also if anyone knows the form the celebration took among Jewish Americans like the Gratz family in the 18th and early 19th century.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Women's Fashions: 1800. Part 2

The first responses to the new style, like Abigail Adams', were of moral outrage, denouncing it as the "reigning unchaste costume, the impure style of dress, and that indelicate, statue-like exhibition of the female figure..." (The Port Folio, December 12, 1801). But most journalists were young men who liked the new look. Their comments often expressed a mock concern for the young women's health in such light clothing: "From the number of young nudes whom we daily see, we might suppose that parents had revived the barbarous custom of exposing their children." (The Port Folio, June 19, 1802).

One young man grasped why women were so enthusiastic about the style. Nineteen-year-old Washington Irving, in his first published piece (in New York's Morning Chronicle, Nov. 15, 1802) described the clothing of the Revolutionary War period: a woman wore a corset laced as tightly as possible to nip in her waist, a hoop (which was positioned around the hips), as many as five petticoats and finally a gown; her outfit was completed-- at the top -- by a precariously high hair style built on a cushion of false hair and -- at her feet -- by high heeled shoes which caused her to teeter and lean dependently on the arm of her escort.

In contrast, he depicted the contemporary belle, who "emulating in her dress and actions all the airy lightness of a sylph...trips along with greatest vivacity [aided, no doubt, by her newly fashionable flat shoes]. Her laughing eye, her countenance enlivened with affability and good humor, inspire with kindred animation every beholder." His words capture the sense of liberation which women must have felt, getting out from under the complicated styles of the 18th century.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Women's Fashions: 1800. Part 1.

To the right is a miniature of Rebecca Gratz, painted in 1804-1806 by Edward Greene Malbone. She is wearing the high-waisted "Jane Austen" style of dress which came into vogue just before the turn of the 19th century. To us these dresses seem demure, but when they first appeared, they were a scandal.

The style began in Revolutionary France where all things classical were in fashion. Women sought to emulate the look of Roman statues by wearing draped white muslin dresses (and little else). They also abandoned the "big-hair" look of the 18th century which required wigs and hair pieces for its effects, in favor of simple chignons in keeping with the classical style.

The new fashion arrived in Philadelphia in 1800, to the disgust of Abigail Adams: "The stile of dress ...is really an outrage upon all decency....A...petticoat of certainly not more than three breadths...nothing beneath but a chemise....Over this a thin coat, a muslin...made so strait before as perfectly to show the whole form. The arm naked almost to the shoulder and without stays or bodice....you might literally see through [women wearing this style]."

Like the miniskirt of the 1960's this "empire" style of dress was something which women wanted to wear. They made it less scandalous by adding a long corset topped with cups which provided more coverage for the breasts under the light fabric of the dress and probably helped control jiggle. However the skirts remained straight and when moving or standing in wind or rain, women revealed the outlines of their legs and the size and shape of their derrieres, body parts which in the case of ladies had been purely theoretical for centuries.

For Part 2, click here.

(The quote from Abigail Adams' letter of March 1800 may be found on p.242 of New Letters of Abigail Adams 1788-1801, edited by Stewart Mitchell, Read Books, 2007. Information about the long corset is from The History of Underclothes, by C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, Dover Books, 1992.)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Rebecca Compared to the Biblical Deborah

Rebecca Gratz founded the first Hebrew Sunday School Society in America in 1838. Based on the Protestant template, her school offered the children of Philadelphia's Jewish community age-appropriate lessons about their religion. The school broke with Jewish tradition in that it was run and taught by women.

In 1840, a Dr. Salomon visited her classroom. He was a learned man who had lectured in his native language at the local German synagogue, but he did not speak English. However, he brought Rebecca a Bible, pointed out a verse he wanted her to read and offered her his hand. The verse was Judges 5:7. It is from the song of Deborah, the woman judge who brought leadership and authority to the Israelites during a time of social disorder. In the King James version of the Bible (the English translation which Rebecca would have used), it reads: "The inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel until that I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel."

American Jews faced less dire problems than the Israelites of Deborah's time, but there were real tensions. In Philadelphia a group of disaffected congregants had recently left Rebecca's synagogue Mikveh Israel to help form a new one. In the South, many of the old Jewish families hoped to keep their faith alive by embracing a reformed Judaism, which would retain the religion's ethical base but jettison the practices and observances they found onerous. Meanwhile, Evangelical Christians were actively seeking to convert Jews. It must have seemed to Dr. Salomon that Rebecca Gratz alone represented one of the few unifying forces of the time endeavoring to strengthen and nurture the children of Israel.

(This post is based on a letter, dated March 29, 1841, from Rebecca Gratz to her niece Miriam Cohen. It is from Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen collection No. 02639, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rebecca Gratz & the Barbary Pirates

A young woman safely at home in Philadelphia in 1804 could still be touched by violence half a world away. The Gratz sisters had been friends as teenagers with the Caldwell sisters and their brother James. The girls mysteriously fell out with each other, but James continued to call on and to escort the Gratz's around town and remained a great favorite with all three sisters at home.

In late 1798 or early 1799, shortly after the death of his father, James became a midshipman in the US Navy, perhaps because his family needed the income. The Gratz sisters thought the Navy was not the ideal place for their friend. Rachel, the youngest, regretted that "his situation in life is too little calculated for a mind like his." Although a career as a naval officer was an honorable aspiration for a young man, the Gratz's knew it was -- of all the gentlemanly professions -- the most physically challenging and dangerous. They worried whenever he was at sea, and their anxiety must have been heightened when the United States went to war against the Barbary Pirates.

The Pirates were really agents of several rogue states in North Africa, whose rulers demanded huge payments so that American shipping might ply the Mediterranean without fear of their depredations. President Jefferson sent the American Navy to put an end to the extortion in 1801. The Americans would claim victory in 1805, but before that, in August 1804, Lieutenant
James Caldwell was killed in action in the harbor at Tripoli. When the news reached Philadelphia a few months later, Rebecca and her sisters mourned deeply for their lost friend.

(Much of the information in this post is gleaned from letters among the Gratz sisters and their friends from 1799-1804 in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society. Virtually every book on the First Tripolitan War gives an account of the heroic death of Lieutenant Caldwell.)

River Travel Before Steamships

Rebecca Gratz's trip to Troy, NY, in 1804, included a voyage up the Hudson River. Fulton's steamboat was still three years away, and the only available means of travel by water was by sailboat. Although the Hudson, even for those going north against the current, was a far superior means of travel than the roads of the era, the length of time on the river, dependent on the wind, varied greatly. Two days was the best that could be hoped for, but if the wind died, the boat had to anchor and wait. Rebecca's trip took five days. Passengers were responsible for their own food. When the boat anchored they were able to go ashore. Rebecca and her companions bought milk at a nearby farm, but she was grateful that her friend in New York had packed such a large basket for their party.

The return trip south on the Hudson from Troy to New York followed the current and was much more reliable in terms of time.

Rebecca Gratz & Liberty of Thought

On a trip to Troy, NY, to visit her aunt in 1804, 23-year-old Rebecca met a man who was an aggressive atheist. This was probably her first exposure to someone with his views, and she initially reacted "with disgust and answered with indignation." He, she wrote to her sister, "pursued the argument to a length and extent that shocked me and appeared to level every moral obligation, every social virtue and every dependence on a future state of reward or punishment...." But, she went on, "After this you may think I should not wish to meet [him] again....I assure you on the contrary there is not a man in Troy whose society is more desirable -- he attends to all the duties of a good citizen, is benevolent and honorable in his communication with the world and affectionate to his family. He is frequently at Aunt's, we rally him on his infidelity but find him well informed and agreeable."

Rebecca had very strong religious principles, but she also had what in her time would have been called powers of observation, i.e., she benefited from experience, and factored what she had learned into her judgments. In this case, she had grasped that the virtuous way in which the atheist led his life was more important to her assessment of him as a man and a companion than the philosophical views he espoused. She had had the insight which on a societal level would make freedom of religion and of thought possible in the United States.

(This post is based on information in a letter Rebecca wrote to her sister Rachel on August 12, 1804. It is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.)

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