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.)