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