Saturday, January 7, 2012

"Company at Dinner:" The Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen, part 10

Not all of Nancy's life was sorrowful. In fact, the round of parties, teas, and socials she describes are enough to dizzy the modern reader!


With the issue of her daughter's custody finally at a settlement and her dreadful husband for the moment out of the picture, Nancy Shippen Livingston could rejoin the dazzling Philadelphia social scene of the Federal era. For the 18th and 19th century wealthy, winter was the social season, and few early diaries give us such a vivid depcition of this as Nancy's. She describes dinners, teas, lectures, singing, and dancing--so often in fact that it almost becomes a routine of busy-ness.

"Sunday [Jan] 4 [1786]--Company at dinner--spent the afternoon & evening alone reading..."

Dinner was the afternoon meal and generally the largest of the day, but the evening meal could also serve as a social gathering. Restaurants as we know them did not exist yet (and were certainly not frequented by the upper classes), and social dining was done in the homes of friends.

These meals could be intimate with only a few guests: "Col. Harry & Mrs. Lee have spent this evening with us in a very friendly and sociable manner..." wrote Nancy's father in 1787. Another day in March of 1786, Nancy wrote "Louisa and I staid all night with our friend Mrs Burrows who insisted on our staying & dining with her today also." Small gathering gave time for intimate chats with close friends, less bounded by the strictures of mixed company ettiquette.

Or social meals could also be very large as Margaret Beekman Livingston described in 1788, "at dinner, surrounded by 17 or 18 people" including her son "the Chancellor." Nancy also dined with larger groups: "A company of learned men dined here today," she wrote in March of 1786 These may have been guests of her father's since she withdrew sometime after the meal and left them to themselves.

Each member of the company was responsible for keeping the gathering pleasant for all. In March of 1786, a blind philospher named Dr. Moyse spent several evenings with the Shippen home with mixed results. "The good Dr entertained us on the Piano Forti, on which he played delightfully. He insisted on my performing, I did & and accompanied it with my voice," wrote Nancy on Thursday. But on Saturday she wrote again:

Had a small party at home this even'g. The blind Philospher made one of the company. The even'g the most disadreable I ever spent--owing altogether to Mr S.'s ill-timed raillery. His extreme ill nater'd criticisms made every one unhappy. Dr Moyse far from being entertaining.

Tea held an important palce in the visiting routine. Often it was a small group of people, as small as two or three people. Nancy fmentions "Drank Tea at Mrs Vardons with Miss Craig," and "Dr Moyse drank a sociable dish of Tea with Papa & Myself...," both in March of 1786. At other times, "tea" could be an excuse to bring a much larger group of people. Only a week after the small tea shared with Dr. Moyse, Nancy had the "happiest [evening] I ever spent" with a party of ten well-selected guests for tea. (1787 French fashion plate at left borrowed from the eye-poppingly beautiful 18th Century Blog).

Tea parties could become large social affairs, as in the one held in Peggy's honor in April of that year: "20 young misses, treated...with all good things, & a violin." All the comotion! Five coaches were left standing outside the door, awaiting their cargo. Still another night, nancy threw an "elegant Teaparty" resulting in seven carriages waiting at the door. Dr. Shippen wrote Nancy's brother Tommy "Nancy made a great exertion at the nobility & aquitted herself to a charm as you know she can when every thing is to her mind..."

Large dinner parties, assemblies, and balls were still more exciting entertainments. They were beautiful, filled with glamousous spectacles of food and decoration and dress, as in those described in Louise Conway Belden's book The Festive Tradition. A 1798 dessert table in Philadelphia was once described thus:

In the middle was an orange tree with ripe fruit, [its] root...covered wtih evergreens [and] some natural and artificial flowers. Nothing scarcely appeared on table without evergreens to decorate it. The girandole...was let down just to reach the top of the tree. you can't think how beautiful it looked.

Nancy took these gatherings seriously, once mentioning that it took her three hours to get dressed, and another time mentioning with mock embarassment "Must I acknowledge that the greatest part of this day was spent in preparing for the assembly." Women especially devoted extreme attention to their appearances for these events (lampooned at right in a print by James Gilray). In fact, the only comparable modern situation I could think of would be how long it takes most brides to get ready for their weddings. If only there were a few more opportunities for us to get so dressed up today!

It seems that the social season of 1786 kept Nancy so busy, that she completely gave up writing in her diary for most of a year. Well--perhaps it was more than just parties and balls. At any rate, most of the news we have from that year comes frome letters, corresponding with Uncle Lee or her brother Tommy away at school in England. Gifts of extravagant hats and fine white cotton stockings (to serve in place of silk) mingled with his descriptions of English and Americna social life fill the letters.

It wasn't until September of 1787 that Nancy picked up her journal again. She penned a melancholy entry describing the untimely death of a Miss P Ross at 17 years of age. Nancy sat alone in her her room "ruminating on my past life & lamenting the uncertainty of all human hopes" when she remembered the diary and dug it out of her writing desk (pictured at left, an escritoire said to have belonged to Marie Antoinette).

Another death later that year was to bring an old drama back into Nancy's life. Her old flame Louis Otto's wife Eliza Livingston died in childbirth, and a new string of heart-fluttering letters began to fly between them in the winter of 1788.

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