Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Rebecca Makes Use of Her Writing Skills

In biographical sketches of Rebecca Gratz she is often credited as a founder and the initial secretary of the Female Association, the first nondenominational charity in Philadelphia organized by women. As I have shown in the previous post and the one dated December 1, 2009, this is an exaggeration.

However, Rebecca did become the second secretary of the Association sometime between 1804 and 1808, probably earlier rather than later in this period because Sarah Butler Mease, the first secretary, delivered her third child in four years in 1804 and was likely ready to give over some of her responsibilities outside the home at that time.

Rebecca's election as secretary was quite an achievement. Although American girls had much more freedom than their peers in Europe, they became full adults only when they married. In social matters, the matrons held sway, and married women would naturally hold the important positions in charities. Rebecca's election to the post of secretary when she was a marriageable girl in her twenties tells us that the Association was 1) so desperate to fill the post that they took a chance on a young woman or 2) that Rebecca's work for the organization and her general comportment showed her to be a viable candidate despite her age.

Either way, Rebecca benefited because she found she had a talent for her new responsibilities. She had always loved literature -- her relationship with Samuel Ewing, a published poet, was based in part on this mutual interest -- and she was at this time part of the social set which had formed around a literary periodical called the Port Folio, published in Philadelphia since 1801. Many of the young men she knew published poetry and articles in the PF -- and at least four of her women friends were also contributors. Although she wrote poetry, there is no evidence that Rebecca ever submitted anything for publication; she probably knew that her poetical efforts did not rise above the amateur.

As secretary of the Female Association, she had a chance to try her hand at a different type of writing. Her main responsibility was the minutes of the meetings which she produced with accuracy and thoroughness. But the secretary's duties also included the creation of the Annual Report which was read at the yearly public meeting of the Association. Often charities printed up these reports as pamphlets for prospective donors or published them in newspapers as advertisements.

I have not come across a single example of Rebecca's annual reports for the Female Association, but based on her extant work for later charities, I can say that she grasped the importance of the reports' public relations and promotional function. Besides a list of good works, her reports made a clear statement of the charity's mission and explained the necessity for donations at the moment at hand. In 1824, two years after she gave up her office as secretary of the Female Association, the Port Folio ran an overview of local charities, based on their yearly reports. It stated that the Association "has published its annual address, but it enters into no particulars from which any conjecture may be formed of the present situation of the society."

Obviously Rebecca's talents were not so common. When a family tragedy caused her to try to resign as secretary of the Philadelphia Orphan Society in 1823, she was deflected from her purpose, probably by those who realized how hard she would be to replace.

Rebecca had found that she could use her writing abilities in the service of a good cause, a situation which she must have deemed very satisfactory. The office of secretary provided her with a central role in the organization and therefore the power to foster projects and help bring them to fruition. All in all, it was a congenial position for her and one she would accept again in two more of her charities.

(My assertion that Rebecca kept thorough minutes is based on information in the Crampton pamphlet, cited in my post of December 1, 2009. Ms. Crampton, writing in 1965, seems to have had more original FA material than is accessible now, and I am relying on her for accuracy. Rebecca's letter of resignation is in the collection of Philadelphia Orphan Society materials at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The quote from the Port Folio is from its April 1824 issue.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Female Association

In my blog post dated December 1, 2009, I provided an introduction to women's charities as well as information about the founders of the first women's nonsectarian charity in Philadelphia, the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances. The women who met in October 1800 had ambitions for their charity, but they were also prudent. Male concerns about the delicacy of women working with the poor, the need for financial support from men and perhaps their own collective comfort zone combined to make the objects of their charity women and children of all social classes who were in need through no fault of their own. (Most often, they were in reduced circumstances due to the loss of their breadwinner.) Helping the respectable and deserving poor was less a cause of concern for the men in the community.

Since many of their potential clients were embarrassed by their fall into poverty, the founders of the Female Association planned to have a representative, called a manageress, in each ward of the city who could locate and be available to those in need. Each manageress would inform the Board of Directoresses about her clients and their requirements, and the Board would authorize such financial aid or goods as it deemed necessary. The founders also created a "select committee" to attend to "those persons whose peculiar circumstances prevent their situations from being publicly known" (i.e., women from the upper classes). This option meant that these women would remain anonymous in the organization's records.

To do all this, the Female Association needed a large number of active members -- about 14 manageresses throughout the city, a board of directoresses to make the decisions and officers to run the organization -- about 30 women who were willing and able to commit a significant amount of time to meetings, fundraising and social work. This may be the reason that the organization became nonsectarian -- one congregation could not provide enough women with both the time and inclination for good works.

We do not know how Rebecca became involved with the Female Association, but a pamphlet about the organization shows that she was a member from 1801, along with her mother, her sister Richea Hays and her aunt Bella Cohen. (Her sister Rachel joined in 1803.) Of the nearly one hundred women on the membership list in 1803--an annual donation of $3 was the sole requirement for members--several others were Jewish. Their full names are not always given, but it seems that another family of civic-minded women was among them: Rachel Machado Phillips, a Mrs. Levy who was probably her daughter Rachel and a Miss Levy, possibly her granddaughter Eliza. (We will meet this family again at the founding of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society.) Another was Miss Deborah Cohen, the daughter of Jacob Cohen, the hazzan (reader) at Mikveh Israel.

In the first years of the Female Association, Rebecca Gratz was not an officer or a manageress, but she did more than pay her dues. In a pamphlet from 1803, there is mention of the soup kitchen, a new idea from Europe, which the surprisingly adventurous Association had adopted as a way of feeding the poor. A building had to be renovated to fill this function and topping the list of Female Association fundraisers for the new soup kitchen was Rebecca Gratz with $35, not an insignificant amount in those days. Rebecca's conversational powers, so admired by Samuel Ewing in his character sketch (post dated September 8, 2009), were now being used for a good purpose. Her dedication to the Female Association would be noted.

(Information for this post came from the pamphlet cited in the previous post on the Female Association, dated December 1, 2009, and two editions of another pamphlet, The Constitution of the Female Association..., dated 1801 and 1803, which may be viewed at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Also consulted (and quoted) is a book, Invisible Philadelphia: community through voluntary organizations, compiled and edited by Jean Barth Toll and Mildred S. Gillam, Atwater Kent Museum, Philadelphia, 1995.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Boys' dresses and "Breeching"


On October 5, 1799, Rebecca Gratz's sister Richea Hays wrote that her son Isaac "has got his jacket and trousers made and will next week, please God, strut like a man." She was anticipating an important moment in her son's life: his passage from babyhood to boyhood.

Babies and toddlers of both sexes wore dresses until their parents were certain that their toilet-training was successful, at which time boys received their first identifiably male garb. Isaac would be three years and three months old at the time of his "breeching," as this rite of passage was called.

Although breeching was universal in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, we have little data about the age at which it occurred for the earlier part of the period. (In the latter part of the nineteenth-century, many families commemorated their sons' first trousers with a photograph, making it possible to estimate the age of boys at their breeching.) We don't know if Isaac is early, average or late in getting his new clothes or if the time of his breeching was influenced by prevailing American customs, ethnic tradition or, since Richea was criticized by her older sister Fanny for her indulgence of her children, was simply a mother's decision.

One thing we can say about Richea: she is very proud of Isaac. Some mothers were not so happy at the end of their boys' babyhood and kept their sons in dresses long after it was necessary to do so. Cecilia Beaux's painting (above), Les Derniers Jours d'Infance (The Last Days of Infancy), painted in 1883-85, gives us an image of the closeness between mother and child which many women were reluctant to give up. Once her baby was a boy in trousers his father and brothers would take a larger role in his upbringing.

(Richea's letter to Rebecca is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, the American Philosophical Society.)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The First Waltz

If you have seen any of the movie versions of Jane Austen novels, you are familiar with the type of dancing done in ballrooms in the early nineteenth-century, and although I cannot distinguish a quadrille from a cotillion, I can describe two characteristics that most of these dances had in common.

The first is the lack of physical contact between the male and female dancers. Holding hands, maybe even linking elbows, some titillating brushing against each other's arms -- and that's about it. The second is that there is a great deal of changing of partners so that dancing was a great opportunity for brief flirtation and conversation with several members of the opposite sex.

It was in the context of these dances that Rebecca saw her first waltz in 1802: hers is among the earliest reports of the dance in America. At a private ball, the musicians struck up a waltz which was already popular in France. At this time Philadelphia had a large community of French and French colonial emigres, and those at the ball eagerly took to the dance floor.

Rebecca's reaction was not positive: "The French ladies & gentlemen danced the volts [sic]. It is not a delicate or I fancy an agreeable dance." This sounds a bit priggish, but consider this: while a man might take a woman's hand or give her his arm in the course of a stroll, taking her in his arms was not a part of accepted social interactions between the sexes and reserved for the private moments of those in love. With the waltz, a young woman had to submit to a lengthy invasion of her personal space by a man whom she may never had met before. It is not surprising that Rebecca's first response would have been negative, and she was by no means alone in this. Fifteen or twenty years would have to elapse before the waltz was accepted in at least some American ballrooms. To date I have found no evidence that Rebecca ever changed her mind about the dance.

(Rebecca's remarks are from a letter to her friend Maria Fenno in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection at the Library of Congress.)


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