Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Gratz Sisters & Solomon Moses

Solomon Moses would seem to have been an ideal beau for Rachel Gratz. His parents, Isaac and Reyna Moses, had lived in Philadelphia in the 1770's and 1780's and were old friends of Michael and Miriam Gratz. Solomon himself was actively involved in business with his father in New York, was seven years older than Rachel (a five-to-ten-year age difference between husband and wife was the norm in the Gratz's social set), Jewish, not bad looking -- and yet--.

The Gratz sisters were most appreciative of the hospitality offered by Mr. and Mrs. Moses whenever they visited New York, and especially grateful for the way the Moses family had taken their friends the Fenno's under their wing immediately after Maria and her siblings had moved to the city. But the affection and respect they felt for the parents, and also for Solomon's older sister Richea Levy, did not extend to Solomon.

In the Gratz letters, as usual discreet about male admirers, not much is said about Solomon until 1804, when he came to Philadelphia for a stay of several months. Rachel was away at her sister Fanny Etting's in Baltimore, leaving Sarah (called Sally) and Rebecca to entertain him. After about two months of his presence, Rebecca wrote to Rachel that he had "not gone yet...he waits to see you." (Rebecca in the letter underlines the portion which is reproduced here in italics.) Underlining was not characteristic of Rebecca's writing style, and I interpret it to indicate that even patient, tactful Rebecca was getting tired of Sol's prolonged presence. Rachel replied, in reference to him: "You must be having a charming time of it. At least Sally must." Sally was indeed having a "charming time." She wrote that the stupidity of Sol's conversation rendered her stupid.

This seems to be the situation vis-a-vis Solomon and the Gratz sisters in 1804: Solomon was in love with Rachel and Rachel indifferent to him, at best. Meanwhile, Rebecca found him wearisome and irritable Sarah could not stand him. Matters would remain so until the spring of 1806.

For more, see "Rachel's Romance."

(Rebecca's and Sarah's letters are from the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, the American Philosophical Society, and Rachel's response is in the Gratz Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society. Thanks to the Gilbert Stuart blog at gilbertstuart.blogspot.com for the use of the image of the painting of Solomon Moses by Gilbert Stuart.)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Rachel Gratz

Rachel was the youngest of the three Gratz sisters still at home at the beginning of the nineteenth century. With her mass of red-gold hair and hazel eyes, she was considered the beauty of the family. Visiting in New York in 1800, she was seen at the theater by a Count Germond who raved all night about her beauty and spent the next two days wangling an introduction (the acquaintance went no further). Rebecca received compliments from those who had met her, but only Rachel caused flutters from across the room.

Unlike her older sisters Sarah and Rebecca who were "sensible" women, Rachel was under the rule of what the age called "sensibility," a term which would translate today to "emotions and affections." Her disposition served to enhance her physical beauty. Playful and good-humored, Rachel knew how to have fun. In her absence her family found their world much more dull; during one of these periods, Rebecca wrote to Rachel about the conditions at home without her lively presence: "If not for the opportunity of complaining we should even want spirits to keep ourselves awake."

Rachel, however, had another side, one characterized by debilitating anxiety. In the absence of loved ones, Rachel was subject to catastrophic thinking. Imagining terrible disasters, she became depressed and unable to function. During the early years of their father's illness, Sarah and Rebecca felt that Rachel's depressed state was yet another burden on their already laden mother. Both exhorted their younger sister to make an effort, using much the same language, but Rachel reacted differently to each. She must have heard their characteristic tones of voice as she read their words and reacted poorly to the often irritable Sarah and with gratitude to gentle Rebecca. "In you I...find admonitory council and a sincere friend," Rachel wrote to Rebecca, and insisted, much to her sister's distress, on idealizing her. Sarah, witness to Rachel's adoration, commented dryly on Rebecca's "superiority in all things."

Despite her anxieties, Rachel, with her beauty and vivaciousness, must have seemed to her family destined to attract an exceptional man for her husband. Her sisters Sarah and Rebecca were to be sorely disappointed in her choice: a man that they -- and Rachel -- had made light of for five years.

(The "Count Germond" story is from Maria Fenno's letters to Rebecca in December 1800. They, like all the other letters quoted here, are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society. Thanks to http://gilbertstuart.blogspot.com for the use of the image of Rachel Gratz. The original painting by Gilbert Stuart is on loan at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia.)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Male Entitlement, c. 1800, Philadelphia

During the first years of the nineteenth century, when Rebecca was beginning her charitable endeavors with the Female Association, she was part of the literary set which had formed in 1801 around the new Philadelphia periodical, the Port Folio. The Female Association brought her into contact with the matrons who had founded the organization; her social life, with the young literati of Philadelphia. There was virtually no overlap between these two groups.

However, in the Port Folio issue dated May 22, 1802, someone who calls himself "Quixote" reports that the women he knows have a lively curiosity about the Tuesday Club, an informal group of young male contributors to the periodical who were spending more time with each other than with the ladies. He presents himself as a defender of the women's interests, having suggested that the Club elect a secretary who could then provide its minutes to each meeting of the "Philadelphia Female Association." Unfortunately, he says, he was voted down, but promises to encourage the club members to spend their leisure in female company. For this he requires no reward, "and in return we will not ask, or even wish, to be admitted at the meetings of the Philadelphia Female Association."

Well, that's patronizing but not at all unusual. Misogyny has always been a theme of satire (because most satirists have been male). It would have been more remarkable if the young men of Philadelphia had written of women with respect. But it is interesting in two regards: that the first nonsectarian charity organized by women is picked out is a worthy object for male disdain, and that the only person in the Female Association who was also part of the coterie around the Port Folio was Rebecca Gratz.

This suggests that the writer was Samuel Ewing, one of the Port Folio's most prolific contributors and a man who certainly seems (based on other evidence) to have loved and admired Rebecca. Here though, he is up to something else. He chooses curiosity, a failing traditionally ascribed to women, as the problem which he seeks to allay although the women would much rather have the men's company again than receive information about their club activities. Implicit in Quixote's "helpfulness" is the message that the men are not about to make themselves more available. At the same time, he belittles the Female Association, the one interest which Samuel Ewing did not share with Rebecca and which may have been making her less available to him. The point of view here is men will do as they please; women should not allow interests which men find boring to interfere with their availability. If a woman was less than enchanted with the perspective revealed here -- hey, it was just a little light humor. Any woman who objected was likely to be labelled a prig or a bluestocking.

I am not trying to blacken Samuel Ewing's character by speculating on his authorship. Whoever wrote it shows no more arrogance than the average man of the time. The insidious and casual entitlement displayed by the author was so pervasive among men that the writer probably would have had no sense of his own bias.

Rebecca chafed under the men's prevailing attitudes. Although she rarely criticized classes of people, she wrote to a friend in 1800, "As all men claim a superiority, tis proper they should possess it and I believe those who have least to boast, are not the most sensible of their deficiency." Here it sounds as though she may be willing to consider that some men might have a claim to superiority although she knows many who do not. But in 1804, she wrote in exasperation that she had heard so much about "woman's whim" (another traditional female failing) but would "not again reject a woman's word for any lord of the creation." It doesn't sound as though she was about to cede anything to any man.

The male attitudes were hard to bear in repartee, but they were infinitely more onerous as institutionalized in law. Married women, although they may have brought wealth into their marriage, and inherited wealth afterwards, owned nothing. Everything belonged to the husband who could do with it as he wished. Many women's charities (including the Female Association) would require that their treasurer be a single woman, spinster or widow, so that a husband could not commandeer for himself the money she was holding for the organization. This rule was often honored in the breach but it was nonetheless on the books. Similarly, the children of a marriage, in the event of a divorce, were the husband's as they were seen as part of his goods and chattels. The feminist movement from the nineteenth century into the early twentieth century is usually remembered as a struggle for women's suffrage, but early on it had other very serious issues to address.

(Rebecca's letter from 1800 is in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection at the Library of Congress; the 1804 letter is in the Verplanck Collection at the New York Historical Society.)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Girls Just Want to Have Fun

In the upper classes in nineteenth-century America, social relationships began with formality. Even young women in their teens were introduced to each other as "Miss [Last Name]." When two women switched to first names, it was a sign that they considered themselves friends rather than acquaintances. Most relationships never reached this level of intimacy.

Yet Sarah Gratz in an 1803 letter to Rebecca demonstrates there was also room for spontaneity. Some young ladies from Baltimore paid a morning visit to the Gratz house to report on Rebecca, who was in their hometown helping her older sister Fanny with a new baby. This type of visit was the formal call we associate with the era ("morning" here means late morning or early afternoon, before dinner, which was served at two or three in the afternoon).

Sarah and the young women must have immediately found each other amiable, and the visitors accepted an invitation to stay to dinner. Afterwards, when Sarah's Aunt Bell Cohen and her cousin Sarah Cohen came over, the whole group went upstairs for a party in Sarah's bedchamber.

Sarah does not describe the party, but I imagine it involved the young women kicking off their shoes, flopping on the bed, discussing men and fashions, trying on Sarah's bonnets and shawls and probably attempting some experiments with hair styles. In essence, the same sort of things girls have always done.

The group topped off the day by going shopping at six p.m.. On their return, they found three beaux -- the Gratz sisters' favorites, James Caldwell, Samuel Ewing and Charles Nicholas -- in the parlor. A fun day, all in all, and spontaneous fun at that.

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