Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Three Graces

In her youth, Rebecca appeared at the dancing assemblies and other social events with her sisters Sarah, two years older, and Rachel, two years younger. It is said that a stranger, seeing the trio enter the room, inquired their names, and when he was given the information from a bystander, responded that they were not the Gratz's but the Graces.

This story was reported by one niece, about sixty years later, but it was probably true many times over. At the beginning of the nineteenth century in America, the pun was the favorite form of verbal wit. When Rebecca found Washington Irving to be the most agreeable young man she had met in New York (see my post for November 17, 2009), she mentioned among his accomplishments his adeptness at punning. Another adept was Samuel Ewing, who, she reported in 1803, had visited and "made puns all evening." The leading periodicals of the day, the Port Folio, to which Ewing often contributed, and Salmagundi, written in part by Irving, often acknowledged the ubiquitous punning among the young chattering classes who formed much of their readership. Given this contemporary predilection for the pun and the ease of connecting Gratz's with Graces, somebody probably made essentially the same comment about Rebecca and her sisters every time they made an entrance.

(The source of this story is Recollections of my aunt, Rebecca Gratz, by Sarah Hays Mordecai, written in 1870 and privately published in Philadelphia in 1893 (31 pp). Rebecca's letter about Samuel Ewing's punning, dated June 29, 1803, is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, the American Philosophical Society.)

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