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Amusements - Balls, Assemblies And Public Entertainments

( Originally Published 1902 )



ONE of Society's chief diversions was dancing ; but the dances of the Georgian age were far more graceful than those of to-day. We cannot doubt that there were many entertainments in private homes for which Mr. Lenzi and other caterers supplied the supper and made the table attractive with sweets, jellies, custards, cakes, syllabubs, wines and fruits. The slightest as well as the more important gathering, of persons furnished the excuse for a ball. We have seen that nearly every concert ended with a ball, or that " the proper music would wait on the ladies and gentlemen " after the programme had been played and sung.

Balls, as well as concerts, were given for the benefit of musicians, dancing-masters and others, and tickets were sold for these at four or five shillings.

The Assembly seems to have been a kind of dancing club or class that met regularly during the winter. It was composed of the most fashionable people of the city. In 1759, we read : " The Dancing Assembly will be opened at Mr. Edward Willet's on the evening of Dec. 8th, and will continue every other Thursday evening from that time during the season. Directors : Duane, Walton, M'Evers, Banyer." Two of these directors seem to have liked their social duties in connection with this organization, for in 1763 we read :

"Several gentlemen have declined taking charge of the Dancing Assembly again as being a disagreeable and unthankful office. Therefore Charles M'Evers and C. Duane, being sensible of the advantage of so useful and polite an entertainment have taken charge till managers agreeable to the public shall be elected."

Philip Livingston and Thomas Hicks seem to have been elected, for their names are signed as managers. On Oct. 24, 1 763, they announced that "The New York Subscription Assembly will begin at six of the clock this evening at Mr. Burns's Assembly Room in the Broad-Way." On Oct. 23, 1766, we read : " Dancing Assembly will be opened at Burns's long room on Thursday, the 30th Inst. at 6 P.M., and continued once every fortnight during the season." The managers were Gerard Walton, John Marston and William Seton.

These Dancing Assemblies were long in vogue ; and appear to have been among the most important entertainments that New York afforded. In an unpublished diary of the period written in 1741—'7 by Elisha Parker, a young lawyer who was born in New Jersey in 1724, and came to New York in 1740 to study law with James Alexander, there is mention of these dances. Young Parker was studious and diligent, but found time to enjoy himself. He was well-connected and through the Alexanders had many opportunities for forming new acquaintances. His diary, unfortunately, is short and fragmentary. He lived at Mrs. Ver Planck's in the Broad-Way. He gives us a very clear idea of his daily life when he notes :

"Used to get up early and breakfast and go to Mr. Alexander's; write from eight till dinner-time; come to my lodgings and eat dinner; go back and write (I think) till six o'clock; then read with him in his room till supper-time."

"Came to New York where I spent the winter; lodged at Mrs. Vangelder's; spent chief of my time at Mr. Alexander's in the day; law and business at night ; continued as we had done the winter before at mathematics with his son. At Morrisania with J. Depeyster; in December my grandmother dyed; in ye holidays the cocks fought. . . . Young assembly in Broadway ; many entertainments by the parents of the young ladies, I think same the winter before. Mrs. Baker McIntosh, C. Breton officers, Harrison ; Twelfth Cakes sometime the be-ginning of the winter." (1745.)

" Much frolicking this winter ; at first not acquainted with any of the officers ; David Johnston intimate; introduced to 'em; got intimate with Rob and Tyr. . . . Cards; diversions; more time spent with Ladies; few frolicks at their homes; Mrs. A's family in mourning; Dr. dead; J. V' Horne hurt him-self; big foolish affair about big mistake; frolick at Mrs. Johnston's; Sam Bayard. . . . J. Stevens lodg'd sometimes with me at Mrs. Vangelder's; our jaunt to Morrisania in a slay; dined at J. Bass's with Ladies; young Assembly; asked also to the Old." (1747.)

Such were the pleasures of the day. One of the ladies with whom Mr. Parker used to frolic and ance at these assemblies was Miss Catherine Alexander whom he subsequently married. The dancing-academy seems to have been somewhat similar to the Assembly, if we may judge from the following announcement of Oct. 19, 1772 : " The dancing academy begins Thursday the 22nd inst. John Reade, John Jay, Robert S. Livingston, Junr. Managers."

The entertainments given at the Fort were especially brilliant. The Governor frequently issued invitations which, naturally enough, were much sought after. His Majesty's birthday was always given up to demonstrations of every kind that could fill the hours of a holiday. In the evening there were several balls, the most distinguished being that given at His Excellency's home in the Fort. We cite a few con-temporary descriptions of these demonstrations :

" His Majesty's Birthday, was observed here with the usual solemnity. Between the hours of eleven and twelve in the forenoon, his Excellency, our Governour was attended at his House in Fort George by the Council, Assembly, Merchants, and other Principal Gentlemen and Inhabitants of this and the adjacent Places. The Independent Companies posted here being under Arms and the Cannon round the Ramparts firing while His Majesty, the Queen's, the Prince's, the Royal Families, and their Royal Highnesses, the Prince and Princess of Orange's Healths were drunk ; and then followed the Healths of his Grace, the Duke of New-Castle, of the Duke of Grafton, of the Right Honourable Sir Robert Walpole, and many other Royal Healths. In the Evening the whole City was illuminated, his Excellency and Lady gave a splendid Ball and Supper at the Fort, where was the most Numerous and fine Appearance of Ladies and Gentlemen that had ever been known upon the like occasion." (1734)

The anniversary of the King's accession and of the Queen's birthday were similarly observed. Of the King's birthday in 1735 we read :

"The Evening was concluded with all demonstrations of Loyalty and Joy. There Fort at which the Appearance of Gentlemen and Ladies was very splendid, many of them in New Cloaths and very Rich in Honour of the Day."

"The Prince Wales's Birthday celebrated at the Black Horse in a most elegant and genteel Manner. There was a most magnificent Appearance of Gentlemen and Ladies. The Ball began with French Dances, and then the Company proceeded to Country Dances, upon which Mrs. Norris led up two new Country Dances made upon the Occasion ; the first of which was called, The Prince of Wales, and the second, The Princess of Saxe-Gotha, in Honour of the Day. There was a most sumptuous Entertainment afterward. At the

conclusion of which the Honourable Rip Van Dam, Esq., president of His Majesty's Council began the Royal Healths, which were all drank in Bumpers. The whole was conducted with the utmost Decency, Mirth and Chearfulness." (1736.)

"A Jack was displayed all the day from a flagstaff on the south west bastion of Fort George, the City Regiment of Militia and troops were under arms, and reviewed by His Excellency George Clinton, Esq., our Governor, from the piazza of the City Hall, as they passed by from the Broad Way, where they had been drawn up, and they made a very handsome figure, his Excellency being attended by some of the Gentle-men of the Council, the Mayor, Corporation and Officers of the militia, entertained them in honour of the day with a most extraordinary glass of wine (such as is rare to be met with in any private house) from Hugh Crawford's near at hand, and there were drunk His Majesty's and other Royal Healths, under the discharge of twenty-one of the artillery of the Fort, His Majesty having now entered into the 65th year of his age.

"In the evening there was a private entertainment and ball at His Excellency's, consisting of a snug select company of the choicest fruits of the town, that were particularly invited for the purpose, the only entertainment of the kind that His Excellency's leisure has admitted of upon such public occasions during his administration ; the company was very sociable, and the night concluded there as usual.

"The gentlemen that had not the honour to be invited to His Excellency's ball resolved not to be behindhand in their demonstrations of loyalty on this occasion, and therefore ordered a public entertainment to be provided against the evening at Mr. Ramsey's tavern, where there was a very splendid and beautiful appearance of ladies, such as would have graced an Assembly in England. There were several gentlemen of the Council and Corporation, and most of the principal merchants and other gentlemen in the city, that made up a gay and numerous assembly.

The ball was opened about six o'clock, the city being illuminated from one end to the other, the supper was .served up about ten, and notwithstanding the short warning given, there was the greatest variety this town or country could pro-duce, and the tables were decorated in so neat and elegant a manner as raised a general admiration and 'twas declared by good judges that never was a more magnificent entertainment in this country. The whole tables were taken up with ladies the length of two rooms laid into one, that the gentlemen's time was generally employed in waiting on them, and when they were done the gentlemen supplied their places. After supper, His Majesty's, the Prince and Princess of Wales, and the other Royal Healths were drunk, and then prosperity to the province, a speedy exportation of its enemies, etc.

" The whole affair was conducted with the utmost decency and decorum; there was the greatest gaiety, cheerfulness and complacency in every countenance. T h e ball was concluded about 5 A. M. and the night was passed in the general satisfaction, without the least incivility offered or offence taken by any one, which is scarce to be said on the like occasions. We are told this was distinguished by the title of the Country Ball." (1748.)

Birthdays of other important men afforded the opportunity for festivities. For example, on Jan. 17, 1765, the papers report : " Monday last, being the birthday of the Marquis of Granby, Master of the Ordnance, in the evening an elegant entertainment was provided by the officers of the artillery, and several curious fireworks were exhibited in the fields."

There were a number of patriotic, benevolent, and political societies and social clubs in the city. Unfortunately the records of these organizations are scanty. One of the most important was that of St. George, the patron saint of England. This continued in existence until 1781. It seems to have been a very important social organization. St. George's Day (April 23) was always marked by some entertainment. For example

" Friday last being the anniversary of St. George, his Excellency Sir Jeffrey Amherst gave a ball to the gentlemen and ladies of this city at Cranley's New Assembly Room. The company consisted of 69 ladies and as many gentlemen, all very richly dressed; and 'tis said the entertainment was the most elegant ever seen in America." (1762). In 1771 " a number of Englishmen descendants of Englishmen amounting on the whole to upward of 120, had an elegant entertainment at Bolton's in honour of the day . . . Twenty-three toasts were drunk and the company parted at early dawn in high good humour." Among those present were the Rt. Hon. the Earl of Dunmore, his Excellency Gen. Gage His Majesty's Attorney-General, the gentlemen of His Majesty's Council, and President John Tabor Kemp, Esq.

The Irishmen had their St. Patrick Society and the Scotchmen their St. Andrew Society.

" The anniversary feast of St. Patrick is to be celebrated on Wednesday, the 17th Inst. at the house of Mr. John Marshall, at Mount Pleasant, near the College. Gentlemen that please to attend will meet with the best usage." (1762.)

" Monday last being the anniversary of St. Patrick, tutelar saint of Ireland, was ushered in at the dawn with fifes and drums which produced a very agreeable harmony before the doors of many gentlemen of that nation, and others. Many of them assembled and spent a joyous though orderly evening at the house of Mr. Bardin in this city." (1766.) Twenty-three toasts were drunk.

"Last Monday the anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called Santa Claus, was celebrated at Protestant Hall, at Waldron's, where a great number of the Sons of that ancient saint celebrated the day with great joy and festivity." (1773.)

" March 7, 1774. Last Tuesday, being David's Day, a very elegant entertainment was given at Hull's in honour of their tutelar Saint, by the officers of H. M. Welsh Fusilears to their Excellencies the Governor and General and the gentlemen of the military establishment. Wednesday, another very elegant entertainment was given at Hull's His Excellency the Governor to the Honourable the Gentlemen of His Majesty's Council and to the gentlemen of the General Assembly."

"March 21, 1774. Tuesday morning last, the gentlemen who compose the most benevolent Society of the Friendly Brothers of St. Patrick gave a very elegant breakfast at Hull's to the principal ladies this city in commemoration of the tutelar saint of Ireland."

"Friday last, being the anniversary of St. Andrew, the same was observed by the gentlemen of the Scots Society of this city, and others. A splendid and elegant dinner was provided at the house of Mr. John Thompson ; the colours being displayed on board the ships in the harbour, particularly the ship Prince William, Capt. Bishop, was beautifully decorated. His Majesty, the Royal Family and the other loyal toasts were and gentlemen of drunk, while the cannon on board the Prince William were discharging. In the evening they went in procession to the theatre in Nassau Street attended by a vast concourse of people." (1753.)

" On Wednesday being St. Andrew's Day, the Resident and Honorary Members of the New York St. Andrew's Society held their Anniversary meeting at Scotch Johnny's where, agreeable to the intention of the charitable institution, a considerable sum of money, it is said, was collected for the use of the poor. After which as there happened to be a great many Scotch gentlemen belonging to the army in town, upwards of sixty members in all dined together in a most elegant manner. Many loyal and patriot toasts were drunk on the occasion, heartily yet soberly. In the evening, the same company gave a ball and entertainment at the Exchange Room and King's Arms Tavern to the town, at which a large and polite company of both sexes assembled. The ladies in particular made a most brilliant appearance, and it is thought there scarcely ever was before so great a number of elegantly dressed fine women seen together at one place in North America. As there was a great many of His Majesty's officers present, several too of the first rank, who had never before seen a public company of ladies in this part of the world, they were most agreeably surprised and struck with the charming sight! The whole was conducted with the utmost regularity, decency and elegance; and nothing but gaiety, good humour and universal satisfaction appeared from beginning to end." (1757.)

New York was never niggardly in greeting a distinguished individual. Slight as the following account of Jan. 5, 1756, may be, it furnishes us with an idea of the city's enthusiastic welcome to Sir William Johnson, the hero of the battle of Lake George :

"Last Tuesday, Major General Johnson arrived here from Albany ; about 6 miles out of town he was met by a considerable number of gentlemen on horseback who conducted him to the King's Arms tavern, where most of the principal inhabitants were assembled to congratulate him on his safe arrival. The ships in the habour saluted him as he passed the street, amidst the acclamations of the people. At night the city was beautifully illuminated and the general joy displayed on this occasion evidenced the high gratitude of the people for the singular services this gentleman has done his country in the late expedition."

Society was always glad to seize any opportunity for a social evening, a dance, or a feast. The officers of the garrison were foremost in promoting brilliant entertainments, and there was also much quiet conviviality among citizens. The following paragraphs may be quoted as instances :

" Monday last in the evening a grand entertainment was given by the gentlemen officers of the army to the ladies and gentlemen of this city ; at which we hear there was the most numerous and brilliant appearance of both sexes that ever was known in this place." (Jan. 26, 1767.)

"The friends of Messrs. John Cruger, James De Lancey, Jacob Walton, and James Jauncey, who are inclined to spend a day together in a social manner, are requested to meet at Burns's Long Room to-morrow evening at six o'clock in order to fix the time." (Jan. 30, 1769.)

" On Monday evening there was a very numerous and most brilliant appearance of ladies at a ball in Hull's Assembly Room on occasion of Mrs. Tryons' and His Excellency our gracious Governor's departure for England." (April 11, 1774.)

There was a Flying Club advertised to meet on Nov. 21, I773 ; and a Society of the Friendly Brothers in 1774, when we learn that the " concert which was to have been given at the Assembly Room is deferred on account of the public Breakfast of the Gentlemen who compose the Society of the Friendly Brothers. There was also a Social Club, which met in the winter at Fraunces's Tavern. A function of much social brilliance, attended by the Governor and all the notabilities, was the annual Commencement of King's College. That of 1767 is typical of many.

" Last Tuesday a Publick Commencement was held at St. George's Chapel in this City. His Excellency the Governor, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, several of the Members of His Majesty's Council and a polite, crowded, and splendid audience of Gentlemen and Ladies were pleased to honour the day with their Company.

" The Ceremony began with suitable prayer and an elegant Latin Oration by the Rev. Myles Cooper, A. M., President of the College : To these succeeded a very spirited Salutatory Oration by Mr. De Peyster, delivered with a very decent Action and proper Emphasis. Then followed Syllogistic Disputations in Latin upon the following Questions. The Bachelors Thesis, An, Materia habeat in se vim activam? The Negative also was main- tained in a Latin Philosophical Dissertation by Mr. B. Cuyler.

"The Thesis for the Masters, was—An, sublato statu future., ulla meneat ad virtutem obligatio ?

" The negative of which was strongly supported in another Latin composition by Mr. S. Bayard.

"A concise and full Refutation of Mr. Hobbes's Principles was offered in a masterly Manner, in an English essay on the much contested Position—Ultrum Status Naturae fit status Belli.

" The Exercises being finished, the President conferred on the following young Gentlemen the Degree of Batchelor of Arts : Messrs. De Peyster and Cuyler. And the Degree of Master of Arts on Messrs. Verplanck, Livingston, Watts, Bayard, Wilkins, Hoffman and Marston.

" The Ceremony was succeeded by a polite English Valedictory oration, genteely addressed to the most respectable parts of the Audience, and gracefully delivered by Mr. Philip Livingston.

"Then followed a very proper and serious English Address from the President to the young Gentlemen ; which with a suitable Prayer concluded the Business of the Day.

" The Whole was conducted with great Propriety, Decency and Order, and to the Satisfaction of the Numerous and Polite Audience.

" His Excellency the Governour, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, the Members of his Majesty's Council, and many Gentlemen of Distinction, honoured the Governors of the College with their Company in the College Hall at Dinner."

In 1771, a reporter became enthusiastic over the performances of the day :

" It is with sincere satisfaction we observe that the young gentlemen performed their several exercises with such propriety of pronunciation and gracefulness of gesture as obtained the highest applauses from the most numerous and respectable audience that ever assembled in this city on such an occasion. Every lover of his country and admirer of the sciences must have seen with joy so fair a train of youth, promising by their present improvements future excellence in their respective professions and consequential advantages to their country. A correspondent observes that of the many excellent speeches delivered at our last Commencement, the following is perhaps not the least true, tho' it be not the most polite :

" That is a very learned young gentleman—a very young learned gentleman indeed. And after he has seen a little more of the world, and been kicked down stairs two or three times for his impertinence—he will be much the better for it."

During the first half of the century, the average New Yorker was too busy to care much about higher education. King's College was not founded till 1754. In 1748, Cadwallader Colden complained : " Tho' the Province of New York abounds certainly more in riches than any other of the Northern Colonies, yet there has been less care to propagate Knowledge or learning in it than anywhere else. The only principle of Life propagated among the young People is to get Money, and Men are only esteemed according to what they are worth,—that is, the Money they are possessed of."

Three dresses of the period are shown on pages 302, 305 and 307; the first belonged to Angelica Schuyler ; the second to Susannah de Lancey, and the third to Judith Crommelin Ver Planck. They are worn by lineal descendants of the original owners. A locket of the period appears on page 309, painted with a figure of Ceres. This was a gift in England from John Austen to Martha Colgate and is now owned by their granddaughter, Mrs. Martha Colgate Singleton. The chairs on page 314 show the Chinese taste of the day as applied by Chippendale.



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