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.)

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