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 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.

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