Monday, December 27, 2010

New Year's Eve on the Prairie

I was initially drawn to my love of history because I was encouraged by the lives of pioneer women during a very difficult time in life. Learning about what they endured gave me perspective on my own trials. As we close out 2010 and ponder the New Year, I thought you might find a pioneer woman’s New Year’s musings of interest. I’ve interspersed the historic record with some personal musings [In brackets]

Emily Carpenter was 42 years old when, on August 12, 1872, she and her family (which included 3 boys and 4 girls ranging in age from 1 to 16 years old) left Bear Creek Valley in Wisconsin headed for Nebraska. The Carpenters two-wagon train included oxen Buck & Bright, Tom & Jerry, Dave & Dandy, and Duke & Derby, four cows, a gray pony named Badger, and Colonel—the dog. Moving wasn’t new to Emily. She’d already lived in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and two different counties in Wisconsin.[So much for the idea of pioneers living a hundred years on the home place!]

The Carpenters move came as a result of a letter from a homesteading friend in Nebraska. Seven children, their parents, and a brother-in-law began life “in a house of one room size 14 x 16 with attic.” [Oh … my … goodness. And I thought MY house was small for company!]That winter they “put up a story and half frame house with a combined kitchen, dining room and living room, a bedroom and pantry down stairs and one large room upstairs. [And that was the “big new house.”]”

Mrs. Carpenter served as a nurse/midwife in the neighborhood and “was noted for being able to go calmly from one case to another.” She lived on her homestead for 32 years. One of her daughters paid tribute this way: “If Ma could write a line -- her line in that big book up there -- I know about what she would write. Something like this: ‘arrived here safely after a few mishaps.’ These are the words she wrote in her journal when they arrived in Gibbon at the close of their trip from Wis. in the fall of 1872.”

As you contemplate the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011, I thought you might find a few New Year’s Eve entries from a Nebraska pioneer woman’s diary of interest:


Christmas tree New Years Day. We all went except E.W.C. and Lydia. The tree was very good but some were offended at the jokes. [The more things change, the more they stay the same!] The young folks watched the Old Year out and New in at Pool's ranch. They sang the old out the New in. Many that commenced the year with us have gone to their long home. Our hearts have been made sad many times during the past few months at parting with friends. I went to town once during the year. [Did you catch that? She went to town ONCE … all year.] Brought home some few things for Christmas.


The last day of the old year. The day is cold and dreer. The storm is howling. No one is in today. All shivering around a cob fire. [Thank you, Father, for central heat … forgive me for complaining about the bill.] Yet we should not complain, for many would be glad of as good. [Give me a heart to thank you like Mrs. Carpenter’s.] Winter with his frosty breath is giving us a little of the Artic regions where he is supposed to hold his coast. The past year has brought many changes to our family. Hulda and Cyril married the past year. [Thank you for the new love you’ve given young couples this past year!] Steve's little boy has come to greet us all with his pleasant smiles. Randie's little girl with her dear little coaxing ways has stole our hearts away. [Thank you for grand-children and their pleasant smiles and dear little coaxing ways. What a joy it is to spoil them.] May the coming year be a happy one and may we all be spared to the close. [May I ever be mindful of the blessing of today and not take it for granted.]


The last day of the year has come again. The day is nice and warm. . . . The evening finds only mother, E.W.C. and I at home. Mother has gone to her room. . . I sit here and think over the changes of the year. Dear little Fannie has gone, forever is still the little voice. Dear little one "gone before.". . . Uncle Aaron Sleeper has died during the year. [Thank you, Father, for the medical advances that have made children’s illnesses less life-threatening.] Five grand children have come to bless and cheer. May their lives be happy. Poor Mrs. Hunneybun was among the living a year ago and also Mrs. Whitakers, now they have joined the majority. Soon we shall join them a few years at the most. Soon we shall lay the burden down. Soon we shall rest from all the toil and care of earth. [My life is so much easier than it would have been in 1888. Thank you for tall the labor-saving inventions. Help me to complain less.] How blest if our work is only well done. From all our toil to find release. At the close of the year we are given to sober thoughts. Shall we be here at the close of the coming year, and if here will we be happy in the consciousness of a year well spent in good. Let us strive to be active in good work, slow to do or think evil to our neighbor, Make the golden mile our mile. [Amen, Lord!] So shall our days in contentment be passed, knowing we have done our best. Good-bye little book and old year. Laid by are you both. You pages are written full. We can not go back now to make any changes. Good-bye, good-bye.


To night is the last of 1889 The year has sped away with the swiftness of an arrow shot from the bow. Friends dear are gone who were here at the beginning. They have turned their faces from us and have gone; others have crossed to the other shore, and O! how we miss them.


The last day of 1895 has come. Soon the last day of our life. So many have gone during this year. Our little Agnes went and how our hearts ache. So young to bid all goodbye. No more will her feet on willing errands go. Never more on us to smile. The little hands are still that were so busy. yes, she has passed to the great beyond where others of our dear ones have gone. What would we not give to know if they have met and know each other there. In God's own time all will be manifest. A few more years at most will be lived, then too we shall join the many.

May we all begin the new year with Mrs. Carpenter’s sense of “making the most of the time” as Ephesians says … BLESSED NEW YEAR!

Monday, December 20, 2010

White Christmas

Remember featherbeds and pallets on the floor? Remember sleeping in you grandparents unheated upstairs and making a run for it in the morning to dress by the stove in your grandmother's kitchen? Remember being snowed in and loving it?

Much of the nostalgia I feel about having snow this time of year is probably a result of the modern era inventions that have made it so much easier to deal with the effects. Here's a heroic (at least I see him as a hero) storm story related by one Nebraska pioneer who was writing to his wife back home about his experiences in the west:

... now I can tell you of one of the most terrible storms I ever witnessed. It struck us at sunset Sunday evening with wind & rain ... Monday morning it turned to snow ... the storm lasted from sunset Sunday evening till near midnight Wednesday night making near 80 hours storm. When we would go out to try to do anything for the stock we could not see other more than from 5 to 10 ft & to be heard we had to shout at the top of the voice on account of the wind blowing such a gale ... there was a woman about a mile from here with 4 children whose husband was away from home and I knew she had but little wood if any so Wednesday afternoon I concluded to make the effort to reach her and see how they were getting along & I had to go right against the storm ... I would proceed abut 5 rd [rods] then turn and get a little breath then try it again in this way I succeeded in reaching the house & she was mighty glad to see me as they were out of wood and the ax buried under the snow. They had been in bed for 2 days only as she would break up something in the house to burn & cook something for the children to eat the oldest was only 7 years old. I dug the ax from under the snow hunted my way to a pig pen got a couple of poles and cut wood enough to do till next day then started home again ...

I'm thankful I don't have to worry about getting to the well and hauling in water, or breaking frozen water before I can wash up or make coffee in the morning. I often have the luxury of avoiding even going out when the weather is at its worst. Oh, I do my share of whining about shoveling and snowblowing when Nebraska winters rage, but overall, I have it fairly easy compared to my pioneer foremothers.

Have a safe and blessed Christmas, friends ... and a white one, too, if that's your heart's desire.

Stephanie G.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Syllabub at Belle Meade

Past this stone wall (how old is it? who built it? did slaves labor create it?, a long drive carries you towards a house in the distance that's reminiscent of Tara. Of course you're only a visitor and it's 2010, so you won't be approaching the house from this angle. Instead, you'll drive around to the side of the house, park, buy a ticket, and pass through the gift shop and by a restaurant and back outside where you encounter barn and carriage house, smokehouse, and doll house until ... finally ... you join other guests and wait. You look towards the road, trying to imagine what it must have been like to live here in the days when Belle Meade was a working horse farm five thousand acres large. Railroad tracks brought buyers and mares, and took yearlings to the big spring sale. Today, however, Belle Meade sits atop a hill in the middle of the greater Nashville area. In fact, it wouldn't be hard to drive right by without a glance. Turn back towards the house, and a docent dressed in period dress helps your imagination carry you back in time. She has an authentic and delightful southern accent and she adores history ... and you can tell.

The women of Belle Meade are, like the women of many historic sites, hard to find at first. I don't have a portrait of the woman I'd like to show you today, but her photograph is atop a sideboard in the main hall of this great house. She wears a wide white collar that comes to a point in the front, and the docent explains that, were you coming to visit back in the day, this African American woman would open the door and greet you before guiding you into whichever of the four rooms on the main floor were appropriate. That would, of course, depend on your station in life and who you were here to see. Were I transported back in time, I wouldn't have dared come to the front door of this place. I don't know where I would have been at Belle Meade, since my skin is white ... but my people were poor.

I try to imagine what it would have been like to spend time in these parlors ... but I can't. I have to admit, the finery makes me want to bolt.
The people who graced these rooms would have been horrified by my lack of ... just about everything. I would have needed to spend a lot of time with the book I bought in the gift shop titled Fashionable Dancer's Casket or the Ball Room Instructor a new and splendid work on Dancing, Etiquette, Deportment and the Toilet.

"In the selection of colors," the book advises, "a lady must consider her figure and her complexion. If slender and sylph-like, white or very light colors are generally supposed to be suitable; but if inclined to embonpoint (that would be me), they should be avoided, as they have the reputation of apparently adding to the bulk of the wearer." Some things never change. Women had to be concerned with their figures back then, too.

Up the sweeping staircase to the guest rooms (the family had a separate wing), you can imagine the ladies here, because mannequins have been dressed in period costume. Such tiny waists ... how did they breathe? Such elegance. Did they ever let their hair down and just relax? I can almost see Scarlett O'Hara clinging to one of these bed posts and ordering the woman who's picture I just saw in the downstairs hall to lace her up.

Well ... once laced up, I imagine the ladies had no trouble at all finding great satisfaction in a tablespoon or so of the syllabub waiting in the parlor downstairs. I thought I'd close the blog with a recipe from Amelia Simmons, an American orphan (yes, she had that on the book) who wrote, American Cookery: or, the art of dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, and the best modes of making Puff-Pastes, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards, and Preserves, and all kinds of CAKES, From the Imperial PLUMB to plain CAKE. Adapted to this country, and all grades of life. (WHEW ... now THERE's a title!)

To make a fine Syllabub from the Cow.

Sweeten a quart of cyder with double refined sugar, grate nutmeg into it, then milk your cow into your liquor, when you have thus added what quantity of milk you think proper, pour half a pint or more, in proportion to the quantity of syllabub you make, of the sweetest cream you can get all over it.

Let me know how it tastes................................and bon appetit!

--Stephanie G.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Square Root of Something is Nothing

Society women of the 19th century wanted to be known for their talents in the arts, not for their smarts. Most didn’t go to school, but were taught the basics of reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic by their governess or perhaps a hired tutor. As women, it was more important they were adept at playing piano, singing, doing embroidery, or painting. Adept, but not too good at it. To excel, or heaven forbid, to try to earn money with one’s talent, was forbidden.

Fine. I can accept that. Until I start to put myself in their shoes. I’ve always been good at math. How would I have fared back then? Would I have been allowed to use my math-gift? I think of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. She was able to add a column of numbers in her head—which came in handy when she took over her husband’s general store and started a lumber mill. But she was the exception.  And face it, she wasn't real.

Being good at math . . . would I have even known I was good at it? I think that’s the saddest part about women of history. What gifts were left undiscovered? How many female mathematicians, scientists, or engineers went through their lives having no inkling of their natural strengths?
Marie Curie observing uranium

Of course there are the exceptions: Madame Curie (physicist & chemist who studied radioactivity, and won two Nobel prizes), Elizabeth Blackwell (first female doctor in the USA), Emily Roebling (engineer on the Brooklyn Bridge). But what about the women of the middle class, or even women from the poorest classes? Those who had to work for a living might have had a chance to utilize their practical gifts, but they probably didn’t have the chance to know if they were good at those talents so cherished by the upper classes: singing, playing piano, embroidering, or painting. So who had it best in this regard?

Elizabeth Blackwell

I haven’t a clue.

The theme of all my novels is constant: we each have a unique purpose—the trick is to find out what it is. Because this desire-to-know is so ingrained in me, I feel extra pain in knowing so many women through the ages have not fulfilled their potential.
Emily Roebling

And yet who of us have?

What we can learn from these women who were subjected to stifling rules, is that we—who have no such rules--have no excuse for not making a concerted effort to discover all our gifts and talents, and to use them to make some kind of difference in the world.

So stop right now. Make a list of what you know you’re good at, what you think you might be good at, and what would be your dream “gift”. Take an accounting of all that you are—and can be. Then use your gifts to the fullest.

Do it for all the women who’ve gone before.//Nancy

Monday, December 6, 2010

Women and the Battle of Franklin

There is no portrait of a lady to share this week. The women who herded their children down these stairs while a fierce battle waged around them are barely mentioned in this place. They are, as I said last week, more of a footnote to the story of the Battle of Franklin, wherein eighteen thousand mostly barefoot and starving Confederate soldiers engaged the Federal army.Hay bales literally yards from this back door mark the line of battle, but the battle doesn’t stop at those hay bales. It surges past it until
men fight in the yard while sisters and mothers and children huddle in a stone-lined basement room, and two non-combatants do their best to keep soldiers
in search of respite from breaking in.

One of the men in that basement room, Moscow Carter, has already been a prisoner of war. His wife is dead and he has signed the oath of allegiance to the union so he can get home to help care for his four children. Moscow’s father, Fountain Branch, is also a widower. When Fountain Branch and his wife Polly moved into this lovely

brick home, it was at the edge of town on Columbia Pike, the main road to Nashville. It takes more than a little effort to imagine farmland and isolation today, as our tour guide tells us that the
cotton gin was across the two-lane paved road near the Dominos Pizza.

But in the basement, with the saw-marks still evident on the undersides of the floorboards above your head and the faint aroma of “basement,” it gets easier to imagine the four women living here in what must have sounded like hell.

One woman, Fountain Branch’s daughter-in-law, has come north from Mississippi with her two children … to be safer. What must she be thinking as she huddles in the basement? Can she hear the bullets peppering the side of the house? Can sh
e hear the screams?

When the battle is over, Squire Carter and his two daughters light lanterns and go looking for their brother, Todd. He’s been off at war for a long while; a courier and aide to one of the generals fighting here. He’s out there … somewhere. They find him, only 175 yar

ds from the house. He’s been lying on the battlefield through the long, frigid night. While an 8-year-old and an 11-year-old hold lanterns, a doctor operates on Todd’s head wound and moves on to others. He will use the parlor for a surgical theatre. Forty hours later, resting in the room pictured on the right. wounded in what was left of the family’s vegetable garden, Todd will die just a few yards from the room where he was born.

In two days, when the Confederate army leaves the area for Nashville and another ill-fated battle, the women of Franklin will be called on to nurse the wounded left behind. Thousands of wounded. The nurse’s photographs do not hang on the walls of the Carter House museum alongside those of the men they cared for. [Photos aren't allowed there.]

The women of Franklin remain mostly nameless, represented in the museum only by an ammunitions chest that Moscow Carter found on the battlefield and the family (presumably the women) later used “to hold quilts,” and in the fine running stitches that hold white stars on the blue ground of a hand-pieced flag “presented to the men of Company D, First Tennessee Regiment … by the ladies of Franklin.”

Who were they? What were they names? What did they look like? How did they feel about … anything?

The museum doesn’t tell us. The tour guide doesn’t say. And the walls of Carter House keep those secrets.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Carnton Plantation and The Widow of the South

Carrie McGavock of Tennessee stood on her back porch one sunny November Day and watched an army of half-starved, mostly barefoot men march towards a battle that would forever change the landscape around her beloved home.

As part of a recent trip to Nashville, Tennessee, I stood on that same porch and tried to imagine what it was like for Carrie that day and in the days that followed. By four o-clock that afternoon she would have been listening to the horrific sounds of the battle taking place to the north. The battle continued into the night, and by midnight the carpet on the floors of her home would have been visible only when a wounded, dead, or dying, Confederate soldier moved or was moved by care-givers. The wide hallway furnished so elegantly to receive visitors, the family parlor where she sat in the evenings to do needlework ... the formal dining room with the table that could seat over twenty for dinner ... had disappeared beneath a sea of bleeding, stinking, filthy, bodies. Survivors who looked back on that day would remember Carrie's dress changing over the course of the candle-lit night as the sleeves and hem of her dress became more and more stained with the evidence of her nursing.

As I stand in Carrie's house and look up at the portrait above the fireplace, I try to imagine that lovely woman changed by what had happened just a few miles north. The battle would not be remembered in the nation's collective memory as were Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg. And yet the casualties would be greater in a narrow span of time than at any of those other battles. Franklin Tennessee's population in 1864 was only a few hundred. The battle left the earth strewn with over six thousand casualties.

At some point my imagination breaks down. Even as I look at the blood stains still evident on the floors of Carrie McGavock's home, visit the graves of the thousand-plus soldiers buried within view of the house. Horror in Carrie McGavock's life happened at home.

Where does the story that appears on the pages of the best-selling novel The Widow of the South depart from what really happened? One of the members of our tour group asked that very question. The tactful docent said that they were grateful for the visitors who came to Carnton Plantation because of Richard Hicks's historical novel.

Fiction captures imaginations and carries us away to another time and place. In so doing, it can gently teach the past and send us on journeys to learn the truth behind the story. In the case of Carrie McGavock of Carnton Plantation, visitors are introduced to a woman who, one November Day, had history arrive on her literal doorstep and did what she could to mend it.

As I stand on her back porch on a November day nearly 150 years after that event, I wonder what it was like to step out this doorway the morning after the battle, look to my left, and watch as defeated soldiers filed by to pay their respects to the four Generals whose bodies lay just a few feet away. I wonder what it was like to have my children staying in a room off the kitchen because their bedrooms upstairs are operating rooms. Will they ever be able to forget the cries and moans of the patients ... or the thud above their heads as another addition to the "limb pile" lands by the fireplace? Putting my self in Carrie McGavock's place, I know that, as a mother, I'll make certain the carpet is replaced so they don't have to see the blood stains. I'll hope they never have to live through anything like this again. I'll hope they live ... because disease is surely coming in the aftermath of today's nightmare.

Carrie McGavock is better known in 2010 thanks to a novelist. I don't know what she would think of what he said about her, but as a woman I'm grateful that people know her name. Other women in other famous Tennessee places are barely a footnote. More about them in my next post.

--stephanie g.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Four Hundred

During the last few decades of the 19th century, “The Four Hundred” became synonymous with the cream of New York City society. It was a list of the 400 society elite. And yet, in an odd turn of events, the phrase was coined before the list actually existed…

Remember Ward McAllister, the event-planner, go-to guy for what-was-what and who-was-who I wrote about last week (see"Mr. Society" blog)? It’s said “the Four Hundred” term came about when he was asked by a reporter how many people would be at the next Patriarch’s Ball. McAllister said, “I supposed about as many as the ballroom at Delmonico’s will hold.” The reporter asked for more details. McAllister looked to his wife, who said, “About 400”. The newspapers ran with the idea that there were only 400 in New York City society and coined the phrase “the Four Hundred.” But there was no list.  
Delmonico's Restaurant in the late 1800's

McAllister—always eager to be in the public eye—ran with the idea and started talking about “the Four Hundred” as if it was a real entity. Sometimes he’d say that was the number of people who would fit into Mrs. Astor’s ballroom, and added that 400 was the number of people comfortable there. Not physically. Socially, as in, “If you go outside that number, you strike those who are either not at ease in a ballroom or else make other people not at ease.”

Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt in the 1900's

These kind of statements got everyone talking about who was in and who was out. The pressure to reveal the list was so strong, that in 1892, three years later, McAllister chose the date of Mrs. Astor’s annual ball to reveal the list—which only held 319 names, from only 169 families. The list contained a lot of inaccuracies. Names were misspelled, spouses were missing—or included even though they were dead (more on Caroline Astor next week.) And McAllister wasn’t consistent with his own requirement of “birth, background, and breeding.” Most of the old guard, the “Knickerbocker” families who had run New York from the seventeenth century, were on the list, but not all. There were some newly-rich, and some who just seemed to be there because they were McAllister’s favorites. Even families were divided: some family members on the list, and some not. The only common link was money. Old, new, inherited or earned, everyone on the list passed the test of being wealthy—and so were the prime candidates for the prime parties. The Four Hundred received the attention that we now give to music and movie stars. The press and the public loved hearing about their extravagances—and their troubles.

And yet, amid all their pretension, the members of The Four Hundred were often unsophisticated, obsessed with pretension and rules, not known for their brilliant table-talk, and could be quite prudish. One woman had a party in her new home and was proud of all the classical statues that graced its foyer. But the Four Hundred were appalled at their . . . nakedness. So next time, she covered the offensive parts with handkerchiefs. :o)

The Four Hundred sustained itself into the next century. Quite a feat for something that came about by accident. An excellent book on the subject can be found here:The First Four Hundred by Jerry Pattterson. In the back of the book, Patterson lists the first Four Hundred, and gives some interesting biographical information about most.//Nancy Moser

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Fun and games on the prairie

Mention the word "pioneer," and most of use envision hardy men and sun-bonneted women, covered wagons and log cabins or sod houses. We think of them as braving hostile environments, and facing untold challenges with near-mythic grit and gumption. Our imaginations swirl with visions of horse-drawn plows and kerosene lamps and, if we're really honest, we don't really think we'd want to go back to those "good old days," because we know they were really ... terrible.

As the holidays approach, I thought I'd share a few anecdotes from pioneers that remind me that, while their lives may have been difficult, they also made time for fun.

"In the winter time, no matter how cold the weather, we would bundle up and climb into the straw-filled lumber wagon, with plenty of quilts and blankets and drive to Uncle Will's. . . He lived in a sod house and his two sisters, Laura and Lydia kept house for him. Lydia played the violin and could dance and jig with the best of them. Will and Steve and Lydia played for dances and I used to 'chord' for them on the organ some times."

"There were only ten women and forty men and we danced all night, and the men nearly danced us women to death."

" ... at a Calico Ball, the lady made a calico dress and a necktie to match it. The men were given a bunch of neckties and asked to choose one without seeing the lady whose dress it matched. In this way, original partners were selected."

Sod house homeowners lucky enough to have a wood floor would sometimes put all the furniture outside to make room for dances. Apparently it wasn't unusual for someone to play the prank wherein babies asleep on a bed were re-bundled and, in the wee hours of the morning when the dance broke up, mothers simply took up the familiar blanket (who would have thought to check to see if the baby was the right one?!) ... and at some point on the way home or the next morning discovered they had the wrong baby! The anecdote I read about this incident closed with the line, "it was two weeks before the neighbors got all the babies traded back." I could almost hear the story-teller laughing.

Friendships were forged during those days that lasted a lifetime. I love the mental image drawn by this account of how a friendship began:

"George and I precipitated an acquaintance with Dr. and Mrs. Purdum ... they lived in a dugout with a sod roof on which grew tall sunflowers and through which they thrust their stovepipe and in driving one Sunday afternoon we drove upon the roof and our pony stepped through before we knew we were on their dugout. A profound apology cemented our friendship."

Maggie Oblinger Sandon remembered, "Winter evening we would play Authors or Dominoes or Checkers. Dominoes were home-made out of an empty soda box, cut them out and do our own marking of the dots. . . Authors were our delight and it taught us so many of the old-time authors and what books they had written. . . . "

Sunday drives and calico balls ... dances no matter the weather ... Authors and Dominoes and Checkers ... and a mention that "twenty miles isn't so far to drive" all remind me that while twenty-first century life may be stressful, there's value in taking time to have a little fun, too.

As the holidays approach, let's give our families something no one else can ... good memories.

--stephanie g

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mr. Society

Who was Ward McAllister?

An article in "Vanity Fair" in 1889 asked this very question. It said he was the life of the party. He was a well-traveled man who made it a point to take note of what was the best in wining, dining, and entertaining. He learned the ways of society in Europe and came back to the United States an expert. He was Mr. Society--19th century style.

He was largely responsible for making Newport, RI, the summer mecca of the rich. When he began going there in the 1850’s, it was mainly comprised of rich Southern families. Few Northerners were a part of the Newport elite. People waited for McAllister to get there so the fun could begin. “Wait until McAllister comes. He will make it lively.”

From the start, McAllister was big into keeping the gates of society tightly guarded. Regarding Newport society: “Now do not for a moment imagine that all were indiscriminately asked to these little fetes. On the contrary, if you were not of the inner circle, and were a newcomer, it took the combined efforts of all your friends’ backing and pushing to procure an invitation for you. For years, whole families sat on the stool of probation, awaiting trial and acceptance, but many were then rejected, but once received, you were put on an intimate footing with all. To acquire such intimacy in a great city like New York would have taken you a lifetime.” Soon he would be thickly enmeshed in that New York society…

Ward was one of those people who could get a party going and keep it going. In Newport, friends would say to him that they didn’t care about other people’s fancy dinners, but wouldn’t think of missing one of his Newport picnics. He’d often arrange them on a whim, asking a key person for a date, asking what their favorite food was, then drive through Newport, stopping his friends in their carriages, telling them about the picnic date, and getting them to bring some food item. Sometimes he even charged people $20. Yet people paid the price because McAllister always did it up right. He was the king of pleasure. He also was wise enough to say, “There is no society without ladies.” I agree completely.

During the Civil War he stayed away from Newport. “It wasn’t in good form to entertain while the trouble was going on.” The Civil war = "the trouble".  What an understatement. He returned after the war and took up his old position as leader of Newport society. Then he moved his ambition to New York City. He became friends with Mrs. Caroline Astor (the Mrs. Astor) and the two of them bound together to create their version of New York society. In Europe, aristocracy gained their place because of blood lines, but in America, many wealthy people were demanding a place in society by earning their way to prominence. Blue-bloods looked down at new-bloods, the nouveau riche. And yet…there was an acknowledgement that things in America couldn’t be run the same way as they were in Europe. But how to do it?

McAllister offered the idea that those who were wealthy could share a likeness within their class—a class consciousness that would unite the best of the best. Mrs. Astor worked with McAllister to “set up a screening system to keep the right people in, and the wrong ones—new money, tradesmen, Jews, divorcees and the like—out.” (Hermione Lee in Edith Wharton.) Those who are fans of Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence will see McAllister in the character of Sillerton Jackson, who appears as the go-to guy regarding correct form and manners.

In 1872, McAllister and Mrs. Astor created the Society of the Patriarchs, a group of 25 “men of worth, respectability, and responsibility”. These were the people with the power, the ones who would help create an American high society. Each year they gave the Patriarch ball. Each member was given nine invitations—five for men, and four for women. They would submit their guest list to McAllister, who would okay it. Obviously, an invitation to this event was highly sought after, and if you were invited to it—and other events—you would thereby cement your position in the higher eschelon of society.

But then McAllister made a blunder. He talked to a reporter for the “New York Tribune”: “There are only about four hundred people in fashionable New York Society. If you go outside that number you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or make other people not at ease ... who have not the poise, the aptitude for polite conversation, the polished and deferential manner, the infinite capacity of good humor and ability to entertain or be entertained that society demands.”
McAllister telling Uncle Sam he needs to
be like an English Gentleman

This drew the line in the societal sand. You were either in. Or out. (see blog next week on “The Four Hundred”.) It also showcased McAllister as the keeper of the list—which didn’t even exist at the time. It was created three years later, and only contained 319 names.

Even though McAllister ran among the richest people in America, he never earned more than a modest income. But he did marry well to heiress Sarah Gibbons. Her father had a steamboat grant from Robert Fulton (inventor of the steamboat) and derived $25,000-30,000 annually from wharf property in New York City. In today's dollars, that would be $625,000-750,000. Not too shabby. And yet something must have happened to that money because he never lived as though he was wealthy. He just ran with those who were.

He was the ultimate event-planner. For 90-minutes every morning he would hold court to society’s queens and offer them advice for their parties. He could labor over the wording in an invitation or the correct placement of the flowers. One time, some ladies got angry with him, thinking he was giving preferential treatment to so-and-so’s daughters over their own, and tried to put on a cotillion without him. It was a failure.

Mrs. McAllister did not appear in society and was an invalid, cared for by their daughter, Louise. McAllister would have weekly dinners at his house, but only for six guests, and only attended by Louise and himself as hostess and host. They were not society fetes, but small intimate gatherings in his simple house at 16 East Sixteenth St.

He was not what you would expect. He was not a dandy, wearing fancy clothes. He was middle aged, five foot-ten, weighing 200 pounds. He was balding. What he offered was knowledge of how to entertain well. His way became the way.

But sometimes he got cocky.  He often shared his opinion that New York society was better than society in any other American city. When Chicago held the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, McAllister commented that if hostesses in Chicago wanted to be taken seriously they needed to hire French chefs and "not frappé their wine too much." I love the response from the "Chicago Journal": "The mayor will not frappé his wine too much. He will frappé it just enough so the guests can blow the foam off the tops of the glasses without a vulgar exhibition of lung and lip power. His ham sandwiches, sinkers, and ... pigs' feet, will be triumphs of the gastronomic art." So there, Ward.

He also raised the ire of Bostonians when he disparaged their young ladies: “They are good scholars, but poor sweethearts. There are, of course, instances when young Boston ladies really do fall in love, but it is of a classical sort which would make the society young man of New York rather uncomfortable.” (June 17, 1894.) He goes on to berate their fashion sense, saying their first concern is whether they can afford a dress. Apparently, the true fashionistas of New York society never bothered to ask that question. If you ask me, it sounds like the young ladies of Boston owned a good deal of common sense, that the dandies in New York didn’t deserve! You can see why McAllister angered people. If you were within his inner circle he was a dear. But otherwise? He was wicked in his assessments, casting you off as inferior.

But then, he finally went too far. In 1890, he wrote his memoirs in a book called Society as I Have Found It, where he detailed his life, his experiences in Europe where he received his education in etiquette, as well as his version of various events in society. He told of his desire to be a part of society and even revealed his glee when he finally became the man who counseled the same. New York society was not amused.

By the 1890’s, McAllister was a quaint old man with old-fashioned ideas; a man who'd written a tell-all book that had told too much of the celebrities of the day—the wealthy. He died alone at a restaurant. In an article in the "New York Times" about his death, one society gentleman is quoted as saying, "Poor McAllister! What a pity it is he wrote a book!"//Nancy Moser

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Displaying Women

While researching "Masquerade" I came upon a very intriguing book by Maureen E. Montgomery called Displaying Women: Spectacles of Leisure in Edith Wharton’s New York. The title fascinated me. Displaying women? It sounded so cold. Shallow. Chauvinistic.

And honestly, it's all those things. But the book is also very true to life. For in the Gilded Age—the last few decades of the 19th century—women of society were on display. Gowns and jewels were visible evidence of their husband's success and their position in the world. Hey, if I had those clothes and jewelry I’d want to show them off too. And lounging around in a room decorated with gilt furniture and paintings by the Masters sounds relaxing. 

The reality was anything but, because there was a catch:  women were trapped. They were expected to be pretty baubles on display. In fact, their status came about because they didn’t have to work. Being a woman-of-leisure was a position to be held, to be attained. Without aristocracy of our own, Americans found a sense of nobility in the outer trappings and in attitude. The attitude was based in the fact that the rich were in control of the most precious human commodity: time. Middle- and lower-class women worked. Hard. Twelve hours a day, six days a week. Their family’s survival demanded it. If they didn’t have jobs away from the home, they toiled at raising a passel of children under stressful and limited conditions. So to not labor, to not work, to not have to take care of their own children . . .  What the rich women possessed was an unlimited expanse of free time.  That was their most enviable luxury.

Etiquette stated that “deference be shown to women as a sign that the United States had a civilized society.” Deference involved putting them on a pedestal, treating them as china dolls, a prize gained as a result of the men’s hard work. Men controlled the money. What did women control? Society. They were the gatekeepers. No one entered without their nod, and people could be ostracized with the mere act of looking away. Newcomers went through an intricate process of vetting. It “included being sponsored by someone from within the ‘inner circle’. This was followed by introductions to members of society through a series of calls and, then, if the aspirants passed this stage, invitations to private and semipublic entertainments, such as dinners and subscription balls.” Hoops, hoops, and more hoops to jump through.

Charity was women’s work. Where in Europe charity was a family affair, in American upper class society, men made the money and women spent it—and dispersed it to good causes. Which in turn gave them status. Making small needlework items to sell in charity bazaars was an acceptable pastime.

Every moment of a wealthy woman’s day was regimented. From the moment she arose, the clothing she wore for morning, afternoon, dinner, the opera, a ball . . . it was all determined by those matrons of society who’d come before, women who decided what was what and who was who. Women’s lives lived by the “tea”, the “luncheon”, and going on “calls”—and leaving cards. There were strict rules of protocol that applied to each occasion. For instance, formal calls were between 3-5 p.m. and then for only fifteen minutes. And “When a married woman called she left her husband’s card as well as her own, and this was understood to imply that the husband was participating in the courtesy of the call. Mothers would also leave the cards of sons.” Men were not supposed to have time to “call”.

Rules about hem length, gloves, conversation, thank you notes… it was a full-time job for the women to keep abreast of all the do’s and don’ts. There are scenes in the movie, “Age of Innocence” where the rebellious Ellen creates a stir when she dares to cross a room to talk to a gentleman, she crosses her leg and reveals her ankle, and she smokes a cigarette. When bicycles first became available to women, the female riders often suffered ridicule and were called whores. I think any activity that showed women gaining independence made men nervous.

This is just a sampling of the fascinating information in Montgomery’s book. I heartily recommend it—to enjoy in  your leisure time. Link to "Displaying Women" book

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tudor England and Susan Meissner, author of Lady in Waiting

When my fiction book club chose to read and discuss Susan Meissner's
The Shape of Mercy, I had no idea I would be drawn into the worlds of
both a modern-day researcher and the Salem Witch trials. I loved it!
When I learned that Susan was researching Lady Jane Grey, Tudor
England's "nine-day-queen" (who was beheaded), I hoped Susan would
be willing to share some footnotes from history with us. Enjoy!

--Stephanie G.

What artifact, place, historical event, or woman from history made you want to write this book?

I have long been intrigued by the historical account of Lady Jane Grey and have wanted to write a novel that dove
tailed her story with contemporary tale for several years. She lived during a time when women of noble birth had few opportunities to make their own choices – about anything. We live in a culture today, especially in the Western world, where women can and do make many choices but sometimes life deals you a hand that seems to leave you unable to choose what will happen next. What do you then? Are you ever truly without choice? I created a contemporary fictional character named Jane Lindsay to consider this question. She is an antiques dealer in Manhattan and one day she finds a very old ring hidden inside the binding of an ancient prayer book. Her first name is engraved inside: Jane. But she doesn’t know whose it was or how it ended up hidden inside an old book. The ring then becomes our gateway to the past.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about “the real story” while researching this book?

I was most surprised by the decision that Lady Jane Grey made all on her own. It was life-changing, life-defining, and I hadn’t really connected with it until I researched her story for this book. I thought I knew all the details that defined her. I can’t tell what you what decision was because it would be a spoiler! To give you just a snapshot of who Lady Jane Grey was, she was fifth in line to the throne of England when Henry VIII died. A few years later, at the age of fifteen, she was named Queen of Engl
and by Henry’s 15-year-old son Edward VI as he lay dying. She reigned for nine days.

Is there a historical photograph that inspired you you’d like to share?

Since Jane Grey only lived to be sixteen, there are few portraits of her, and the picture of the one I am sharing here is the one I like the best; the others make her seem so much older than she really was. I actually picture her in my mind looking younger still than this portrait. There is another painting of her I like because the artist told so much with the composition of the painting. It’s beautifully done. But it is of her last moments on earth. So, a sad painting that is beautifully done.
What one non-fiction book helped you research the most (for those who want to learn more)?

Alison Weir’s Innocent Traitor is actually a novelized treatment of Lady Jane Grey’s life and although she paints a different picture of Jane Grey’s personality than I do, Innocent Traitor was a helpful resource and entertaining at the same time. Ms.Weir is a trusted historian and a stickler to detail. She has written many non-fiction titles on the Tudor monarchs and is very respected in the realm of British historians.

What spiritual encouragement did you draw from what you've learned?

I was reminded that love is not a feeling that you must tease into perseverance, nor is it something -- when it seems to have disappeared -- that you idly wait on to see if it will return to you, it's a deliberate choice you make every day of the relationship. It is something that defines you, not simply inspires you.

Visit Susan at

Lady in Waiting
is now available
from your favorite book seller.


I was the original "horse-crazy" girl. Forget playing with dolls. When I wasn't up in my favorite tree with a book in hand (remember Thunderhead? remember The Black Stallion?), I was riding my two-wheeled "horse" with a rope tied to the handlebars for reins. At the state fair, I roamed the stables reveling in the smell of sweaty horses, hay, and manure (it was safe for parents to leave a girl to do that back then).

In Junior High school I wrote a novella set on a place called the Triple Crown Ranch in Wyoming. Never mind that I'd never been to Wyoming, never been on a ranch, never owned a horse. I designed a brand and named the three stallions running with my three herds of wild horses. I
wrote poems about "pounding across the track of life" and "racing across the turf."

Growing up did nothing to change my love of horses. In the wake of the recent film about Secretariat, I hope you don't mind indulging me a personal "footnote from history" as I remember my encounter with Red. What follows is an edited version of the letter I wrote to the editor of the newspaper in Paris, Kentucky, October 4, 1989, when Secretariat died.


As an emotional adolescent, I watched Secretariat run his last race on television. Far removed from the horse-racing world, yet caught up in the saga of a great thoroughbred's career, I cried. Tears streamed as I saw him thunder down the stretch with that great, bounding stride. I felt sure I would never see such a horse again, and my love for horses -- specifically for THAT horse -- swelled my heart.

It was not until I married that I found a kindred spirit in my love for Big Red. My husband and I read books about him together. For our most memorable anniversary celebration, he surprised me with the film "Secretariat's Last race." In those pre-video recorder days, it took many long distance phone calls to locate and have the film reel shipped from New York State, and then to locate and rent equipment so we could view it. What a gift of love.

We'd been married twelve years and had two children when a vacation trip to the east brought another surprise and dream-come-true. My husband called Claiborne Farm and, unbeknownst to me, arranged for us to visit Big Red. Watching Secretariat race across his paddock towards us literally took my breath away. Here he was, in the flesh, and I was actually touching, petting, feeding the great one peppermint candy. It was a moment to cherish, and one I've never forgotten. Later, in the barn, our escort pulled a handful of long hairs from a curry comb and gave them to me. "The black ones belong to Riva Ridge, but if you want to divide them out, the red ones are Secretariat's." Others might laugh at my childish happiness, but I didn't care. I still have Secretariat's "tail-feathers," along with framed enlargements of photos we took that day.

And so tonight, when my husband shared today's sad news, I sat at the supper table and wept like a child whose puppy just died.

I am one of those "born-again Christians" who subscribes to a literal interpretation of the Bible. In the New Testament Book of Revelation there is a reference to the armies of heaven being astride white horses. I expect to be among that army of riders, and if heaven is really a place where all our wishes come true, I know one thing for certain -- I may ride a white horse in God's army, but when the war is over I'll ask to make a trade. And then my horse will be Red.

--Stephanie G.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Day at the Park

I've always been in awe of Central Park. Knowing the perniciousness (ooh!  big word) of the American penchant for letting commercial properties expand their domain over whatever stands in their way, I’m shocked that it hasn’t been gobbled up by some developer during its 151 year history. Its exceptional existence is best realized with an aerial view. Someone had foresight. Someone had vision.

It all started in 1853 when some of the wealthy residents of Manhattan put out the idea that a park should be created in New York City. They’d seen the lovely parks in London and Paris and wanted their own bragging rights in the United States. It could be a park where they could take carriage rides and where working class people could find recreation. In 1853, after three years of public debate, the city took over 700 acres of land via eminent domain (that’s when the state seizes private property—with compensation but without the owner’s consent—for public use.) What existed at the site at the time were poor neighborhoods. Sixteen hundred people had to move for the sake of the park. Irish pig farmers, German gardeners, and a vital African-American community called Seneca Village, were displaced for the greater good. But the 700 acres wasn’t great land to begin with—which is why it hadn’t been developed commercially. It was swampy and rugged, with rocky outcroppings. The original boundaries were Fifth to Eighth Avenues, from 59th and 106th streets. In 1863 it was extended to 110th Street, which brought Central Park up to its current 843 acres.

Bethesda Terrace under construction 1862

Bethesda Terrace today
Central Park became the first landscaped public park in the United States. Its design came about because of the country’s first landscape contest. The winners were Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
They wanted to combine a pastoral feeling like the Ramble and Sheep meadow (that had sheep present into the 1930’s!) with more formal areas like the Mall (the Promenade) and the Bethesda Fountain. Bowing to opinion, they adapted their design to allow separate paths for carriage, horse, and pedestrian use. To do so, they had to create forty bridges--no two the same.
They also had to blast out solid rock to make the reservoirs and change the terrain. They used more gunpowder for blasting than was used in the (then future) Battle of Gettysburg. Over 20,000 men labored on the park, moving 3,000,000 cubic yards of soil and planting 270,000 trees and shrubs. Imagine all those seedlings and baby plants. The vista was obviously not as lush as it is now. But it was a beginning. The park officially opened in winter 1859, just in time for ice skating. Soon after, the park had over seven million visitors a year!

Yet originally, the park was bedeviled by rules of who could use it—and how. Group picnics were banned, and if you were a tradesman you couldn’t take your family on a ride in the park using the wagon you used for your business. If kids wanted to play ball? They had to have a note from the principal of their school! Stupid rules meant to keep the park pristine for the upper class. There was of course a public outcry and eventually the rules were eased. A zoo was added in 1871, a carousel, lawn tennis and such, making it much more democratic. Many changes (additions and deletions) have been made over the years, adapting to the times. The original Central Park Reservoir—that used to provide water to the city—was renamed the Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis Revervoir in 1994. Jackie O had an apartment overlooking the park and jogged there for years. Also, over 200 movies have been made using areas of the park. If you’ve seen the movies "Enchanted" (love the dance scene!), "Serendipity", "Breakfast at Tiffany’s", "When Harry Met Sally", "27 Dresses", and a myriad of “Law & Order” episodes . . . you’ve seen clips filmed in Central Park.
The Mall (Promenade)
In my novel Masquerade, I had my characters at the Bethesda Terrace (shown above as it was being constructed in 1862.) I have them comment on the Angel of the Waters fountain. I have them taking a stroll down the Mall… It’s somehow comforting to know that my 1886 characters saw what I can see today.//Nancy Moser