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.)

Powered by WebRing.