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Extravagance And A Return To Simplicity

( Originally Published 1902 )

THE luxury and frivolities of some of the wealthy sometimes caused grave offence to the staid old-fashioned class, and the voice of the censor and moralist was frequently heard. If we may believe a writer in 1739, society in New York was going to the dogs. It seems that a cousin of his had rudely passed him in the street without acknowledging his salutation :

"Let us then consider the reason why there is so much pride to be found in most of the young ladies of this town, which may be inquired into by looking into the manner of their education on from their infancy to years of discretion. This may be done by looking into that of my cousin's, who may pass as a sample of the rest.

" This young woman is now in her 18th year ; during her infancy till the age of five years, young miss was not to be teased with learning, as being of an age too tender to undergo the hard task of A. B. C. Mama pretends that loading her memory when so young may be of dangerous effects to the child, that the dear little creature must have her will in every-thing. The maids must be drubbed, the great booby of a brother hold his head in his mother's lap to let his little sister twitch his hair, the lap dog must be beaten and turned out of doors, the monkey cuffed, and, in short, the father called dog and good for nothing.

" Miss is now past 5 years and sole mistress of her father's house. If she can be taught to read, story books, in Mama's opinion, are now proper to tickle her little fancy. Prayer books 'tis true ought to be read by children, but her daughter's temper is such that she cannot take to them, a little romance would please the child much better, her inclinations are merry and a child of her age ought to be humoured.

"She's now ten years of age, her mind is ripe for plays. Here is again a noble field of vanity presented to madam, her mind is wholly taken up with the pleasures it affords, and an actress's part repeated by heart yields greater joy to her parents than if she knew the whole Catechism.

" Her eleventh year draws on : it is now full time she should appear in the world. Stand by, every brother's part in the father's estate ! Head-dresses, masks, necklaces, gloves, patches, fans, shoes, girdles, rings, with many other beguiling things, whereby many of our sex are tempted to enter their snares ;—all this while no manner of religion is going forward. The young lady's days are passed in receiving and paying visits ; her nights at balls and masquerades, or at cards and dice. The father thinks to gain a rich husband by equipping her after a manner superior to her rank, and the mother for her part very willingly conceives the father's folly will one day tend to the child's good. Miss now, according to the nature of her sex, thinks it time to display her grandeur, everything insipid in itself appears beautiful to her. A sap-headed beau in her opinion has all the charms that were ever bestowed on the lordly creature Man, but a native of the place, and, above all, a relation, will never be able to attain to the perfections visible in one of foreign parts. It cannot be, for when they appear in courtly habits, they do not become them, they are clumsy in them, and all their ways are affected and foolish. On the contrary, when they appear in company with clothes becoming a merchant, they are monsters filled with covetousness, beasts undeserving the happiness of her conversation, the favour of her smiles, or the honour of her company. O ! Pride, thou art now in all thy glory, Virtue can no more face thee, Innocence is a scandal to thee, and the remembrance of poor relations are wounds too painful for thy tender frame to bear.

"The young lady being now come to years of discretion is certainly too well founded in the paths of idleness and vice to oppose the one with industry and the other by a glorious example of virtue, and may perhaps (as by experience is often found) be the ruin of her relations, the disgrace of her country, and the destruction of her own soul."

The editor adds that he is very apt to think that this is nothing but truth "since I myself have observed that the young maidens of York and Flushing have not half the good qualities that they were blessed within the years 1710 and 1711."

Affairs of the heart and the business of getting a husband formed quite as important parts of fashion-able life as they do to-day. In a town where every energy was devoted to money-making, a portionless maiden had small chance of making a desirable match. The gay young English officers and merchants were fortune-hunters in many instances, and the native New Yorker was accustomed to go where money is. A prize in one of the many lotteries sometimes gave a poor maiden an advantage over her sisters, and therefore tickets could always be sold to the ladies. In 1747, a lady " whose hopes of getting a husband by a fortune in a lottery had been disappointed, draws up a Charitable Lottery—a bill for the relief of the distressed widows and maidens of the City and Province of New York."

Whereas, by the great and melancholy disuse of holy matrimony in this city & province, an infinite number of His Majesty's good & loving female subjects remain widows, and others are left upon the hands of their parents in the unnatural state of virginity, to the grievous prejudice of the Common-wealth, the insupportable burden of private families, & the unspeakable concern, affliction & grief of the said females. And

" Whereas all ordinary methods to prevent or remedy so great & growing an evil, have hitherto proved ineffectual:

" Wherefore, for the better hindrance thereof for the future & for the necessary & due encouragement of propagation, which we ought more particularly now in time of war to pro-mote & attend to, It is prayed that it may be enacted ; and

" Be it enacted &c. That all the widows & virgins of the City & Province aforesaid, from the age of 15 to 50 may & shall be disposed of by lottery, in the following manner, that is to say,

" Every unmarried male person of the age aforesaid, in this city & province, that shall be allowed & approved of as proper adventurers in this lottery shall give in their names & take out each one ticket for which he shall pay the sum of Z5: And that every widow & virgin shall & may each put in their names gratis.

" The great prizes are to be two fortunes of £5000 each; to of £1500; 4 of £2000; 20 of £1000; 40 of £500; 50 of £200 ; and l00 of £I00 each. The second prizes are Beauties in Number 200; Pretty girls, l00; Widows, 500; Agreeables, 200; Good conditioned, 400 ; Wits, to; and Housewives, 5. The lowest prizes are, Women of Fashion & Good-breeding, too; Good card-players, 200; Misses of General Accomplishments, 50 ; Friskies, 50; Special Breeders, 500; and Saints of the First Magnitude, 150. And in the list of blanks are comprehended all the females of this city & province unmarried within the age aforesaid.

"And Whereas the principal objections against lotteries are the draining the poor of their money, and discouraging trade and industry ;

" Be it provided, That in this present lottery no man shall be permitted to take a ticket who is not worth £500, unless it be such useless and idle persons, who do little or nothing else all day but stroll up & down the streets with a pipe in their mouths smoking; & with respect to all such, it is hereby declared that they shall serve their country this way, seeing that they are or will be of no other use to the community.

"And be it further enacted—that whatsoever any man shall draw, whether blank or prize, good or bad, he shall be obliged to husband & keep the same; whereby this City & Province will be relieved & discharged of all the present widows and virgins, & of their doleful complaints, & the births, in all probability, increased to near one half the number this ensuing year.

"And be it further enacted—That in order to prevent any disputes & quarrels that may arise about fixing the value of the inestimable prizes, it is hereby declared that the Beauties shall be settled by the members of the Chit Chat Club, and the Pretties & Agreeables shall be rated by the number of their lovers, the Wits by the number of their enemies, and the Widows by their admirers ____

"And Whereas some ill-affected & seditious persons, generally known by the name of Old Bachelors, who omit no opportunity of aspersing the administration, may go about to represent this act as an attempt to introduce arbitrary power here in the plantations, by putting a grevious yoke on the necks of His Majesty's subjects residing in this province; it is hereby declared that there is nothing in this present act contrary to Magna Charta, or the Petition of Rights.—And it is hereby further declared, That no persons, except old debauchees & bachelors above thirty shall be compelled to take a ticket, but only advised & exhorted thereto, (if they can show any good cause or lawful impediment against it.) And no person shall take more than one ticket, except C-n-c-ll-rs, M-m-b-rs of the G-n-r-1 Ass-m-bly, J-dg-es, J-st-c-s of the P--c, M-y-rs, R-c-rd-rs & Ald-r-m-n, Sailors & Soldiers, who are hereby al-lowed two, in case they do prove to the satisfaction of the Managers that one will not serve their turn.

" And forasmuch as Betty Tiptoe, Spinster, trusting too much to her beauty, wit & good fortune, & not having the fear of Virginity before her eyes, has refused diverse good offers, & merely out of wantonness & disdain, has showed a cruel delight in the pains and sufferings of her admirers; it is there-fore thought proper to make an example of her, by not admitting her into the number of prizes in this present lottery.

"And Whereas difficulties & disputes may possibly arise about determining in what rank of the prizes Kitty Woundall, Miss Blowsabout, Sally Prim, the Widow Cantwell & Miss Hydden should be placed, whether among the Beauties, the Pretties, or the Agreeables, they each claiming all three, to prevent confusion & save the public needless trouble, they are hereby desired to choose for themselves, as they shall like best, any one of the said three ranks, but no more."

In 1735, another distressed lady, who signed herself Mrs. Nameless, wrote to the editor asking for advice since she was over head and ears in love.

"But Custom and the Modesty of my own Sex forbids me to reveal it to the Dear Man I adore. I have often thought of discovering it by Letter, but I know the Vanity of the Sex so well, that I may depend upon being dispised the Moment I do it. With my Eyes I have often spoke, and my Tongue has very near betrayed me; but the Dear Charming Man seems not to mind what I say or do, tho' I fancy if he could Imagine how dearly I loved him, he would love me to the greatest Excess. How to discover my Passion is the greatest Difficulty I now labour under. I have at Church look'd him full in the Face; and when I had drawn his Eyes blusht as red as fire, whene'er he sees that sign he may be sure, that is the Lady that has fixt her Affections. I could describe my seat in the Church, but I dread to make it too plain ; my Habits I sometimes, nay often, Change, and could I Change my Sex till I made my Passion known, I would not be a Moment from the Person I doat on But that is as impossible as a contented Mind at this Juncture."

It was customary in fashionable circles to be married by license in the evening at the home of the bride's father. When retrenchment and simplicity of all kinds were cultivated after the Stamp Act, wed-ding and funeral expenses and parade were greatly cut down. In December, 1765, therefore, a wedding among people of wealth by publication of bans was worth a special notice :

"We are credibly informed that there were married last Sunday evening by the Rev. Mr. Auchmuty, a very respectable couple that had been published at three different times in Trinity Church. A laudable example and worthy to be followed. If this decent, and for many reasons proper, method of publication were once generally to take place, we should hear no more of clandestine marriages, and save the expence of licences, no inconsiderable sum these hard and distressing times."

In announcing the wedding, the papers always had something complimentary to say of the bride, as in the following instances in 1759 :

"Saturday night, Mr. John Lawrence of this city, merchant, was married to Miss Catherine Livingston, daughter of the Hon. Philip Livingston, Esq. ; late of this city, deceased, a very agreeable young lady with a handsome fortune."

"Wednesday night last, Mr. Thomas Marston, son of Mr. Nathaniel Marston, merchant, of this city, was married to Miss Kitty Lispenard, daughter of Leonard Lispenard, Esq.; of this place, merchant also; a most agreeable young lady possessed of all those good accomplishments that render the married state completely happy."

In 1774, Thomas Moncrieff married the very amiable Miss Helena Barclay at her father's house in Wall Street. " Immediately after the ceremony, they set out for their country retirement on Long Island." This wedding took place in the morning, doubtless on account of the journey.

New Yorkers were extremely fond of pets. A great number of advertisements of lost dogs appeared. Various breeds are described. In 1730, the Governor's dog, a large young mastiff, was lost ; in 1734, a slave ran away with a " black shock dog, cropt ears, his Tail docked very short" ; in 1763, someone lost a small bitch puppy, named " Sylvia." This was a spaniel with a dark brown body and short tail. In 1769, Lord Rosehill lost his "small blacK and white Dog of King Charles's breed, for which he offered twenty shillings; and in 1773, another dog-lover lost "his liver and white pointer" that "answers to the name of Ponto." In 1769, Mr. Deas, the peruke-maker wants a dog of the true Newfoundland breed, young and of the largest size."

Birds were also kept as pets. Parrots were favourites, for the constant importations of parrot cages and the advertisements of the same by the local braziers indicate a demand for them. In 1759, we read that James Bernard, inn-keeper at King's Bridge, had " to dispose of a large collection of Canary Birds in full plumage and song. Those Gentlemen and Ladies that spoke some time ago to him for Canary Birds by favouring him with a Line where they may be sent, can now be supplied." The aforesaid Mr. Deas advertised for some " Virginia Nightingales and other curious Birds " in 1769.

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