Washington DC - Sketches Of City Life
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
THOSE who knew Washington before the Board of Public Works, under the leadership of Governor Shepherd, began the remarkable improvements, described elsewhere, and who have not visited the city since, can hardly imagine the great change that has taken place everywhere within its boundary. The streets once filled with rude specimens of architecture, now contain very handsome structures, varied and ornate ; and in the popular resident sections the majority of the houses are notable for their pleasing and tasteful forms. In the extensive northwest quarter there have been erected during the past ten years large numbers of very costly and magnificent houses, which in variety and elegance of form, in size and in luxurious appointments, are unequaled in the country. What is known as the " West End" is more especially the fashionable locality, but in other portions of the northwest quarter, and also on Capitol Hill, are many streets of fine mansions. The city is now very largely one of brick and stone, there being but few wooden buildings, except in the sections occupied by the colored people.
The West End comprises about five miles of territory stretching east and south from the foot of Kalorama Hill, which borders on Rock Creek and West Washington. It was formerly called " The Slashes," and was a dreary, unhealthy part of the city, covered with swamps, and mainly occupied by negro squatters. During the Rebellion the government erected barracks over it, and it was largely used for military purposes. When the Board of Public Works began its improvements this marsh-land was included in the comprehensive plan. It was carefully drained and graded, and everything necessary was done to make it desirable for habitation. Many acres were purchased at a low price by a combination of real estate speculators, who were shrewd enough to see that the district was likely in a short time to become the most eligible in the city for the residences of the wealthy and fashionable class. Their sagacity was well rewarded, for the acres they had obtained so cheaply were afterward disposed of at several dollars per foot, and great fortunes realized. The land in every part of the West End is now held at very high prices, and is considered to be the most valuable in Washington.
Connecticut Avenue, with a roadway one hundred and thirty feet in width, extending from Lafayette Square to the northern boundary line of the city, is the principal thoroughfare of this district; and Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont avenues — broad, beautiful highways— also cross it. There are squares and circles with parks and statues in various portions of the district, and its whole appearance is exceedingly bright and charming.
It is on this spacious plain, but a few years ago an almost value-less area of swamps, that those palatial mansions, the pride and boast of the capital, are erected. Here are the residences of the wealthiest citizens, and those of the millionaires from different sections of the United States who make Washington their winter home. Here are the grand mansions of Blaine, Windom, Cameron, Cox, Stewart, Matthews, and a large number of other prominent men, and those of most of the high government officials, and the leading officers of the army and navy. Here are the foreign legation buildings, and here the leaders of society have congregated under splendid roof-trees. On every side is a dazzling spectacle of luxury and grandeur, and one can obtain, by a stroll through the avenues and streets, a realization of the enormous wealth that is centering in Washington at the present time. Those competent to judge express the opinion that in less than ten years every portion of this district, extensive as it is, will be covered with magnificent buildings, and that it will be verily a region of palaces. Before the capital celebrates its centennial, it is likely that the West End will have obtained great fame as one of the finest resident sections in the world.
Fashion has firmly set its seal upon this district, and all those improvements which come with. opulence are lavished upon it. The mansions here are constructed of marble, costly greenstone, and fine pressed brick, and are so arranged as to secure the highest quality of artistic work. The architecture includes many forms of the antique and the mediaeval, and the most approved modern styles. The interiors are remarkable for special methods of ornamentation, for marbles and bronzes, for carvings and paintings, and exquisite cabinet work. Europe and the Orient are searched for designs and sub-stances, and apparently there is no limit as to cost.
It is a common saying of the citizens that Washington is destined to be the most popular winter resort of the continent, on account of its genial climate and the host of attractions it furnishes not to be obtained elsewhere, and that year by year greater numbers of Northern people of wealth and leisure will take up their residence in it. People who wish to escape the rigorous northern winter, and at the same time have the excitement and enjoyments of a large city, will, it is believed, speedily ascertain that the capital is most desirable as a winter home. This belief is already partially realized, as every winter during the past few years throngs of strangers have sojourned in Washington, and the demand for costly dwellings has been quite remark-able.
From its early days the national capital has been noted for being a gay and pleasure-loving city, and its social life has been usually brilliant and delightful. Of late it has developed its social qualities to a very considerable extent, and society now has the claim of cosmopolitan characteristics. The city is so admirably adapted for the homes of people of refinement, culture, and leisure, that many believe it will become in a few years the social metropolis of the United States. There are receptions, dinners, balls, germans, afternoon teas, kettle-drums, and all sorts of entertainments almost without number, from the beginning of winter until late in the spring, and few American cities have such an incessant round of gayety. Properly the social season begins on New Year's day and continues till Ash-Wednesday, but of late years it has been quite customary to have society entertainments before January, and even before the session of Congress begins in the first part of December, and to continue them through Lent. Many society people do not observe Lent in a strict manner, and some not at all, and they are willing to give receptions and parties during this period. The houses of the wealthy are now constructed with special reference to the giving of grand entertainments, very large drawing-rooms and dining-rooms being made, and accommodations provided for a host of guests.
What is called the " official society " includes the President and the members of his Cabinet, Senators and Representatives, members of the Supreme Court, and of foreign legations, and persons in eminent positions in the army and navy, and in the public service generally. Retired statesmen, justices, generals, and others once prominently connected with the government, are also placed in this society. There are many social organizations, the members of which are government employes of various ranks, and state associations, which include all the persons socially inclined from a certain state who are living in the city. The wealthy residents, not connected with the public service, have sets and circles, exclusive or not, as it may be; and there are numerous literary, musical, and art societies, which have frequent entertainments.
It is said that Washington society people, during the winter, lunch in one place, dine in another, dance in several houses of an evening, and are never at home, except on their reception-days. Each week of the social season is full of events. Monday is the reception-day of the wives of the Justices of the Supreme Court, and of the General of the Army and the Admiral of the Navy. Many of the residents of Capitol Hill are also " at home" on that day. On Tuesday the prominent families of the West End have receptions, and on Wednesday the members of the Cabinet and the Speaker of the House of Representatives receive their friends and the public. On Thursday many receptions are held by Senators and Representatives. Friday and Saturday are filled out variously. There are very many pleasant " Saturday evenings "— dinners, card-parties, and meetings of social organizations. The officers stationed at the United States Barracks, and at the navy yard, give weekly receptions, at which dancing is customary.
All the official receptions are announced in the newspapers, and those in the afternoon are open to the public. The name or card should be promptly given to the usher upon entering a house, and if the name is not properly announced it should be mentioned at the presentation. If cards are left by strangers they are always honored by return cards, or calls in person, and invitations to evening receptions in official circles usually follow. Small and plain cards are used, with the name engraved or written, but never printed. The dress customary in society for morning calls should be worn at after-noon receptions, and full dress in the evening. The hours for after-noon receptions are from two to five o'clock ; for evening receptions, from eight to eleven o'clock.
It is customary for visitors to Washington to call first on the residents. If the person called upon is not at home," turn down the upper right-hand corner of the card, thus indicating that the call was made in person. If the call is intended for the different members of the family, either leave several cards, or one with the right side entirely folded over. When making a parting call, previous to leaving the city, a card should be left with p. p. c. written on the right-hand lower corner. The time to return calls or cards is within three days. A. call should be made in person after a dinner-party, but after other ,entertainments a card may be sent by a servant or by mail.
Invitations to dinner should be promptly accepted or declined, but with regard to other entertainments, no answer need be sent unless the letters R. S. V. P. are on the invitation. The customary form of acceptance to a dinner invitation is as follows : " Mr. R— has the honor to accept Mr. S —'s kind invitation to dinner for Wednesday, the loth of February, at eight o'clock. Feb. 6, x88—." The date and hour of the dinner are mentioned in the acceptance to show that they are understood. This form, properly adapted, may be used in accepting other invitations.