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Fashion And Luxury

( Originally Published 1902 )

MANNERS and customs in the polite society in New York followed closely those of London. All the fads and changing fancies of English fashionable life were faithfully reproduced here. These were imported with other up-to-date luxuries. The New Yorker could always become acquainted with the folly or affectation that was the latest London thing in manners because of the constant stream of British officers who passed through this port. Moreover, many sons of merchants were sent to Europe to complete their education and see the world.

As wealth and luxury increased, the number of natives who travelled abroad for business or pleasure multiplied. The consequent alteration in their manners and morals was commented on in print. In 1754, a subscriber asked an editor to print Gay's fable, The Monkey Who Had Seen the World, together with the subscriber's " observations on the bad improvement of travelling on some of our New York Gentle-men." He was very severe on the latter. " At all places they boast of their acquirements," said he, " which are so mean that no traveller should speak of them but with the greatest indifference, nay, con-tempt." Thence he went on to say :

"Condumanus, who has not long since visited London, confined all his speculations there to Haddock's Bagnio, Vauxhall, Covent Garden, or some luxurious seats of pleasure . . . Guglio can boast the honour of having been several times drunk in London. He has there improved in the art of drinking, has seen the King and Royal Family; has been in St. Paul's ; can tell where the Tower stands, and seen some things within it; has heard Garrick act been at both the theatres, and can correct the errors of the stage ; knows how the actors should strut; when in a rage; how he should startle and tremble when a ghost appears; how he should singly kick up his heels when he makes his exit.

" Little Clodis Friskabout, besides all these improvements, has many others; he has accomplished himself, if we may believe him, in all the arts that constitute a complete gentleman. He has eat Otterlings, woodcocks and the greatest varieties to be got for money; has conversed with the Gentlemen of the Inner Temple ; has been present at balls and masquerades, and distinguished himself there in that most polite accomplishment, dancing, whereof he is now complete master. He can move a Minuet after the newest fashion in England ; can quiver like a butterfly ; is a perfect connoiseur in dress; and has been author to all the new cock't hats and scratches in town ; has learnt the art of address from the gentility of Covent Garden, which, by Jove, he swears has ruined his constitution. Amongst the accomplished beaux, he has learned those elegant expressions, Split me, Madam; By Gad; Dam me; and fails not to use them on all occasions. So entirely is he taken up with England, that he always mentions guineas when he speaks of money. In short, he values himself for his most excellent faculty of expatiating on vices never in his power to commit, and rails at every virtue; swears he can harangue and please a lady as well as any man of them all ; and take a pinch of rappee with as graceful flourish as a Frenchman."

About the middle of the century, wealth and luxury had reached such a height in New York as to raise serious protests from old-fashioned citizens who were attached to solid and comfortable, but quiet and unostentatious living. In 1734; a writer said :

" Our luxury consists more in an expence of what is imported from foreign parts than what is of own growth manufactories; I am credibly informed that tea and china ware cost the province, yearly, near the sum of 10,000 ; and people that are least able to go to the expence, must have their tea tho' their families want bread. Nay, I am told, often pawn their rings and plate to gratifie themselves in that piece of extravagance."

In 1747, another wail was heard in a Burgomaster's admonition against the Prevalence of Luxury :

" At this time, the furniture and expenses of every trades-man now equal those of the merchant formerly ; those of the merchant surpass those of the first rate gentleman ; those of the gentleman, the old lords, &c. All other nations have each their favourite luxury ; as the Italian his pompous palace, the French-man his fine suit, the Pole his splendid equipage, the German his capacious cellar, the Spaniard his bead roll of titles, &c. But our taste is universal ; & there is scarce a little clerk among us, who doth not think himself the outcast of Providence, if not enobled by his salary, fees, etc., to outlive the rich man in the Gospel."

Two years later also there is the following similar complaint :

"This province above any other has felt the miseries of ignorance and they still remain our sorest afflictions. A sordid thirst after money sways the lives of our people ; while learning and all the arts lie dispised and neglected. The most insipid dunces crowd into preferments and office. But the want of education reigns (also) in every art, trade, business and character, and discovers itself in a peculiar manner in the various companies of men that collect themselves into weekly clubs and societies in several parts of this city. Their conversation turns upon the most trifling subjects ; a set of noisy fops bluster away the evening in a storm; others smoke their pipes with a senseless stupidity ; some impertinently chat away whole hours with effeminate observations on dress and the ladies; others, in open defiance of the laws of decency and modesty, fling out the most fulsome trash, that has neither a tendency to improve or divert but to debauch and corrupt the mind, and the room you sit in resounds perpetually with oaths and curses.

" There is not to be found but one set of men whose company is innocent and profitable. These gentlemen have declared themselves enemies to nonsense and vice, and are resolved to improve the taste and knowledge and to reform and correct the manners of the inhabitants of this town. They have formed themselves into a club, and meet every week to discant upon learned subjects in a private apartment."

In 1773, it was stated that "The prevalence and daily increase of vice and immorality of every kind among us are too evident to escape the notice of the most superficial observer," and so a number of gentle-men were forming the American Society for the Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor. This was surely beginning at the wrong end of the social ladder. In the same year, a censor of public morals complained that in these days of dissipation and prodigality, to be an advocate for virtue is to be deemed sour and superstitious, fashionable vice characterizes good breeding, liberality results more from pride than benevolence, and confidence and audacity sully the bloom of youth. He continued: " In the days of our forefathers, when decency was in esteem, the voice of love seldom escaped in whispers from the shelter of concealment, and delicacy harmonized every note. Their more refined posterity disdain such childish coyness, the voice of love grows clamorous in public assemblies, and even the votaries of Diana permit incense to be offered to Venus in the deepest recesses of their consecrated groves. Are not the celestial joys of holy wedlock daily bartered for titles, feathers, and glittering gold ?"

In another article, this author complains that the neglect of religion has become a mark of politeness, and that those who stand highest in the community and set the example are dishonourably distinguished by their contemptuous neglect of public worship. It seems that the rising generation follows this pernicious example. " The Lord's Day is now dedicated by them to scenes of jollity and dissipation, and is distinguished from the other parts of the week by nothing more than by the freer indulgence of riot and every species of excess. Advancing thus to man-hood, with minds habituated to luxury, ignorant of the doctrines of religion, and unimbued with any principles of piety, what can we expect but that the maturer period of their lives will present us with a more luxuriant crop of intemperance and profanity ?" The writer then proceeds to denounce the Stage and all its workers.

In the fashionable follies of the day, the women certainly did not lag behind the men. They dressed magnificently, directed splendidly appointed houses, where frequently servants waited in livery, drove in handsome equipages, and sometimes managed businesses of their own. Afternoon tea, until the early days of the Revolution, was always an important social function ; and many are the protests heard against the excessive use of this herb. In 1731, an alarmist wrote to one of the papers as follows :

A real Concern for my Fellow Creatures makes me give you this Trouble. I should think myself happy if I could persuade them from a custom of a fatal Consequence (I mean habitual Teti-Drinking) which so universally prevails among us. Were it only the Consideration of so much expended on what is absolutely unnecessary, it would not give me much Concern, and I should silently lament the unaccountable Follies of Human kind; But when not only their Fortunes, but their Health and Happiness are in Danger, I think it my Duty openly to forewarn them, and endeavour as much as in me lies, to prevent their Ruins." " The continual pouring into the Body such quantities of what (if not much worse) is no better than Warm Water " the writer considers very harmful. " Nor does the Body suffer alone, the Soul also is hindered in the free Performance of its Functions and has its share of Disorder; Hence that Melancholy, that Heaviness, that Peevishness, those unaccountable Fancies, those groundless Fears and Apprehensions in short, whatever comes under the Name of Spleen, I may very justly charge here; nor will I acquit this Drug from laying the Foundation of many other Distempers "—He also fears that " the fatal Effects of this Custom are entail'd on our Posterity."

It was not only tea that roused the ire of our censor. He also strongly objected to what he called the impertinent custom into which women as well as men had fallen of taking snuff. If he did not exaggerate, that New York ladies were quite as advanced as their London sisters :

" This silly Trick of taking Snuff is attended with such a Cocquet Air in some young (as well as older) Gentlewomen, and such a sedate Masculine one in others, that I cannot tell which most to complain of, but they are to me equally disagreeable. Mrs. Saunter is so impatient of being without it, that she takes it as often as she does Salt at Meals, and as she affects a wonderful Ease and Negligence in all Manners, an upper Lip mixed with Snuff, and the Sauce is what is presented to the Observation of all who have the Honour to eat with her. The pretty Creature her Niece does all she can to be as disagreeable as her Aunt; and if she is not as offensive to the Eye, she is quite as much to the Ear, and makes up all she wants in a confident Air, by a nauseous Rattle of the Nose when the Snuff is delivered, and the Fingers make the Stops and Closes on the Nostrils.

" This, perhaps, is not a very Courtly Image in speaking of Gentlewomen, that is very true; but where arises the Offence? Is it in those who commit, or those who observe it ? As for my part, I have been so extremely disgusted with this filthy Physick hanging on the Lip, that the most agreeable Conversation, or Person, has not been able to make up for it. As to those who take it for pretty Action, or to fill up little Intervals of Discourse, I can bear with them; but then they must not use it when another is speaking, who ought to be heard with too much Respect, to admit of offering at that Time from Hand to Hand the Snuff-Box. But Fla-villa is so far taken with her Behaviour in this kind that she pulls out her Box (which is indeed full of good Brazile) in the middle of the Sermon ; and to show she has the Audacity of a well-bred Woman, she offers it to the Men as well as the Women who sit near her ; But since by this Time all the World knows she has a fine Hand, I am in hopes she may give herself no further Trouble in this Matter. On Sunday was sevennight, when they came about for the Offering, she gave her Charity with a very good Air, but at the same Time asked the Church-warden if he would take a Pinch. Pray, Sir, think of these Things in Time."

Flavilla's snuff-box may have resembled one advertised for in 1737 : " Lost, or mislaid, (by a lady) on Saturday last, an oval gold snuff-box with an Egyptian pebble top (14 pistoles reward and no questions asked). If offered to be sold or pawned, pray stop it." A gold snuff-box of the period is shown on page 379. It is now owned by the family of the late James de Peyster.

During the year 1731, the ladies made several complaints against the men for lack of due attention. The following excerpt from this controversy will show the alleged grievances on both sides :

" The Court for Reformation of Manners take into Consideration the Hardships of those who desire to ` enter the Conjugal state' and complain of ` their Incapacity to imitate the young ladies of their own Rank, in their inordinate Love of appearing Polite.'

istly, The Court observe, That the Splendid Appearance of those young Ladies who affect to be Polite, is to the great Discouragement of the industrious Petitioners.

"2ndly, That these Polite young Ladies esteem themselves above the addresses of their Equals.

" 3dly, That the said Ladies are great Admirers of Tea, to the utter Confusion of the distressed Petitioners, who are alltogether unacquainted with the Ceremony which usually pass at the Tea-Table ; which Ignorance of theirs makes them appear excessively Awkward and Ridiculous.

"The Court accordingly took the foregoing grievances into Considerations, and give their Sentiments and Verdicts as follows.

" istly, The gay and darling Appearance of these Ladies is partly excusable if they can reasonably afford it, being justly commended if they desire to attract the Affections of the Beaus, who mind not the Inside of themselves and others, so much as the Outside.

"The Court thinking that a strictly fashionable Beau must have a plentiful stock of Money, which is the aim of these Ladies.

" 2dly, The severe Treatment which these Ladies give the Petitioners is highly unpardonable, seeing, that tho' they may be more knowing in some trifling Points of Politeness, yet their Fortune and perhaps their Common sense is not more extensive than the slighted Admirers; but the Court call this scornful Behaviour nothing but an over-valuing themselves, or in plainer Terms, Pride and Vanity.

"3dly, The sensible Misfortune which the Petitioners lay under in being utterly ignorant in the Ceremony of the Tea-Table (which is look'd upon as a Point of great Importance) we shall remedy as well as we can, it being impossible to root out the Custom of drinking Tea ; we therefore propose as follows, That the Petitioners shall collect among themselves as much Money as will buy a set of China or (if they should be less Extravagant) Earthen ware, such as Cups, Saucers, Slop-Bason, etc., proper for a modish Tea-Table, and allow a Salary to any young Lady who is thoroughly acquainted with its coin-pleat Decoromy ; we say, let them employ such a skillful Per-son to teach them the Laws, Rules, Customs, Phrases and Names of the Tea Utensils ; on all which (by a close Application) they may soon arrive to a great Proficiency, which will certainly render them polite and agreeable to those whose Favour they solicite.

"The Court having laid down these their Sentiments, adjourned till such Time as, more grievances call'd their Attention. Radamanthus, Sec'ry.

" The Court had forgot to inform the Petitioners, that taking of Snuff will wonderfully influence their desired Success."

It should be remembered that the masculine woman had just come into vogue. She evidently had made her appearance in New York. In 1732, the following description was reproduced here from a London periodical :

" In days of yore for a lady to be dressed like a woman, to speak and act like a woman was thought decent ; but now the case is much altered. I went once to visit Stradella, and found her with a napkin Cap on her head, made up like a Man's, with her Hands behind her, whistling and trying in how many Paces she could measure the Room. She turned upon her Heel and extending her right Hand, gave me a friendly shake and saluted me with How dos't old Hal? Hast break-fasted? Wilt have Tea, Coffee or a Dram of Nantz? I chose Coffee. Here, says she, Get's a Pot immediately; let the Groom bring the Horses to the Door, and see my Pistols are well Primed. But our Ladies don't intend to stop here. Bob Brawney has received some Love Letters from more than one, and Mr. Maidly has been smartly rally'd in two or three for his bash-fulness. But is it not, dear Spec, (to be somewhat serious) a melancholy Reflection that our Females are Women at 12 or 13; Men at 18; and very Girls at 50 or 6o? That we find almost a universal Contempt of Religion and Economy in the Fair Sex and all Virtue is turned to Ridicule. This vitiated Taste, so prevalent in Town, spreads itself into the Country."

The Duchess of Gordon, who visited this country with her husband Staats Long Morris in 1769, was evidently very much in the fashion ; she was long re-membered for her masculine dress and manners as well as for her good heart. Her husband had title to a large tract of land in Otsego Co., New York, and she went with him in 1769 on a visit to inspect it, travelling on horseback from the Hudson river near Catskill westward through the unpeopled wilderness to the Susquehanna river.

In 1734, a contributor objected to women taking so much active interest in politics. He protested :

As many of your Readers are of the Female Sex, I hope they won't take it ill, if they should be told that Politicks is what does not become them; the Governing Kingdoms and Ruling Provinces are Things too Difficult and Knotty for the fair Sex ; it will render them grave and serious and take off those agreeable Smiles that should always accompany them. It is with the utmost concern that I daily see Numbers of Fair Ladies contending about some abstruce Point in Politicks, and running into the greatest Heats about they know not what ... .

" And what I think still worse, is, they can't help shewing their Resentments in the publick Streets. The other day I saw one of the Courtiers walking along the streets, and being obliged to pass by the Door of one of the Contrary Party, she speaks to her Children, who were with her, that at their Perils they should not bow when they pass'd by such a Door, and when she got home could not help exulting at that great Mark of Disrespect that she had shewn and how pretty the Children had behaved."

A contributor to a newspaper in 1735, admitting that he was in the habit of seeking " a dish of tea with some one of my female acquaintance after the busy hours of the day are over," called one afternoon upon a lady, and was surprised to find a " large Company of agreeable women between the ages of fifteen and fifty." This really seems to have been a sort of woman's club, for one of them took the great chair and discussed with the others the Hunc Over De Club, kept every Tuesday evening at four houses in the city. Several of the women present gave their opinions regarding this club. One young lady thought it would be wise to advise " the young gentlemen of the town to think more of -their Belles and less of their Bottles."

Women's clubs of some kind undoubtedly existed here during our period. In 1747, a scribbler, who signs himself Kursonius addresses some verses :


"From envious tales and idle life refrain,
And save your censur'd reputation;
You yet may shine ; esteem once more regain,
And grace your predecessors' nation.
With others' business never interfere,
Nor more such jealousy discover;
And at the end of one probative year
I promise each good nymph a lover.


However, for this he speedily did penance with the following apology : " Several ladies having taken the verses addressed to the officious ladies of the Female Club in Mr. De Forest's paper of the third of August to be meant for them, Kursonius humbly begs their pardon." Kursonius probably would have got into sad trouble if he had not recanted, for the respect for the sex here was almost a superstition in as far as lip-service was concerned, and many champions were always ready to rush into print in their cause.

Notwithstanding the protests, there was a good deal of satire written upon fashionable follies and those who adopted them. In 1767, a native versifier writes :



"With hair so long, so lank, so sleek,
Which not a comb composes,
Why do you hide your brow and cheek,
And hardly spare your noses ?
Say, ye, in whom each worth appears,
Adorned by all the graces,
What makes you thus, my pretty dears,
Ashamed to show your faces? "

To this, on the following week, a lady replied :

"Presumptuous Man, to slander prone,
Whose verse thy name disgraces !
What demon whispered we were grown
Ashamed to show our faces?
In perfect pity to mankind,
We veiled us for a season :
Unmask, my girls, he'll quickly find
That pity was the reason."

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