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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