Thursday, June 30, 2011

Difficulties in Naming Babies

Rebecca delighted in the happy marriage of her brother Benjamin and Maria Cecil Gist. After the couple's first visit to Philadelphia from their home in Kentucky, she wrote:

"[I]ndeed, Maria, separation from him [Ben] is a severe conflict -- which the conviction that he is happy, would alone reconcile me to -- and that you, dearest, make him so is a source of never failing gratitude to your sister's heart -- may you long enjoy every felicity together."

But even the happiest of couples do not agree on everything, and after their second visit to Philadelphia in 1823 with a 2-year-old and a new baby in tow, Rebecca records a serious disagreement: Maria and Ben had not yet settled on a given name for either of their two sons. In her usual diplomatic fashion, Rebecca comments on the situation:

"I like your idea of combining an agreeable association with the denomination of a child and that is the reason family names are so constantly perpetuated from one generation to another -- but then fashion and fancy are so various and our children not feeling the dignity of bearing a title down to posterity which sounded well to antedeluvean ears and in ancient tongues may not sympathize with our taste...hence the difficulty I have witnessed in other parents before you though I must confess it has continued longer with you than most others --....pray seek out from among your or our relations some well sounding as well as good name or else let the dear little fellows be the first of the Gratzes to bring a handsome name into the family for their grandchildren to carry forward."

So what was going on here? because two years is an excessive wait for a given name. If we look at what the final name choices are, it is possible to make an educated guess as to what was at the root of the problem. The older boy would shortly become officially "Benjamin Gratz," the second son "Michael Bernard Gratz," and this suggests a difference over what was an appropriate name for the first son.

If you have read Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Hackett Fischer's study of customs brought by colonists from four different sections of Britain, you know that naming traditions can vary even within one ethnic group. But by 1820, many of the older English naming customs were weakening. The Gist's had no tradition of naming an eldest son for his father, nor was it usual among the old Virginia families from which Maria's mother came. The choice of "Benjamin" must have been Maria's own, an instance of American individualism, a token of her love for her husband, and perhaps an unconscious effort to bind him more closely to her and her child. We can be sure it was Maria's choice, and not Ben's, because it goes counter to the Gratz family's naming traditions.

To be continued.

(The quotations are from Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

More about Boys' Dresses & "Breeching"

In January of 2010, I posted "Boys' Dresses & 'Breeching,'" which became the single most popular entry in my Rebecca Gratz blog for that year. Its source was a letter Rebecca's sister Richea Hays had written in 1799, in which she crowed about her three-year-old son's initiation into trousers and jacket.

Now I have found a comment by Rebecca herself from many years later (1847). This time it is a great-nephew who has been breeched around the time of his third birthday. Rebecca had received a visit from her niece Miriam and her family, from Savannah, a few months previous to the letter. Miriam's son Gratz Cohen was still wearing the skirts of a baby at the time. Rebecca's response to the news that he had started wearing trousers is a mix of sentiment, good sense and sound observation:

"The infantile costume became him so well that I was unwilling to have it changed. There is so much more freedom in the motions of a child's limbs in the loose dress than when buttoned up in trousers which has neither grace nor ease, that I wonder parents do not prefer to keep them longer on -- but the [boast?] of man's prerogative is assumed with his change of dress -- and little boys fancy they are becoming men, much faster as soon as they throw off [their] frocks!"

(The letter is in the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Collection, No.02639, the Southern Historical Collection, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Lost Portraits of Mrs. Benjamin Gratz: Have You Seen Maria?

Photo of a "crayon" copy of the portrait of Mrs. Benjamin Gratz (Maria
Cecil Gist) by Thomas Sully, Philadelphia, 1831. Courtesy of the Rosenbach
Museum & Library. From the bequest of Mrs. Anderson Gratz, 1984.

Just as Rebecca Gratz was having her portrait painted by Thomas Sully in December of 1830, her brother and sister-in-law Benjamin and Maria Gratz arrived from their home in Lexington, KY, for a long visit in Philadelphia.

Sully's portrait must have been deemed successful because the family decided that he should paint portraits of Ben and Maria for the Philadelphia Gratz's. In April 1831, he produced them and, at Maria's request, then painted another portrait of Rebecca to go back to Kentucky.

Three of these four paintings reside today at the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia:
Sully's first portrait of Rebecca, his portrait of Benjamin and his second painting of Rebecca, all given by or acquired from Gratz descendants. But no one knows what has become of Sully's portrait of Maria Cecil Gist Gratz, Ben's wife. Although a family member gave the Museum Matthew Jouett's portrait of Maria, done around the time of her marriage, it would certainly be nice to see her companion portrait by Sully beside that of her husband.

We are fortunate that among the materials which one Gratz descendant provided was the photograph, reproduced above, of a copy of the painting of Maria. This version is supposed to have been done in pastels, but the artist and date are unknown, as is its whereabouts.

We also know that Rebecca Gratz had the artist John Henry Brown make a miniature from Sully's original painting of Maria in 1844. The Rosenbach has a photograph of it in its collection, but Brown's portrait itself has also disappeared.

Although it is certainly possible that one of these likenesses might have been accidentally destroyed in the course of time, it seems unlikely that not a single one has survived. So look around, check the attic and friends' homes, visit your local museum. If you have seen one of these pictures of Maria, or own one of them, please contact Judith Guston, the curator at the Rosenbach, or me.

February 2012, update: For information on how two of these portraits were found, click here.

Powered by WebRing.