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.)

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