Party Like It’s 1850

The main plot and some of the sub-plots of my work-in-progress revolve around relationships between the sexes. I try to be faithful to the attitudes of people of the mid-19th century in my book, even though modern readers are often put off by how formal people were compared to our own times. My characters come from many classes—from educated to illiterate, urban to rural. It’s difficult to know for certain how different people were from today.

92_cotillion 19th century

Dancing a cotillion in the 19th century

So I was delighted to come across a description of a party in Sacramento in March 1850. The March 23, 1850, issue of the Placer Times—published exactly 166 years ago today—contained a lengthy account of a cotillion at the Gordon House a week or so prior to the paper’s publication. I won’t quote the whole thing, because it’s quite lengthy. But here’s an excerpt:

The Gordon House Cotillion Party. . . .

“On Tuesday evening last the votaries of Terpsichore assembled at the Gordon House and tripped it on the light fantastic toe till the wee short hours of Wednesday morn had marked the figure three on old time’s hour glass.
“. . .
“As we entered the ball room, the music was in full blast, bearing its gay and lively sounds to the hearts of the therein assembled beauty and fashion, and moving their happy possessors nimbly to and fro, obedient to the welcome call of the manager. The room, though small was well lighted and tastefully arranged, for which the host and company too may, I presume, thank the ladies of the house.
“A feeling of sympathetic joy thrilling through you, could not be restrained on witnessing the happy, smiling countenances of the dancers. The gay laugh, the gentle whisper, the amiable smile, the bashful courting glance, the bright; flashing of pretty eyes, the tripping of nimble feet, the rustling of silks and satins, the magnetic influence in touching a soft, tiny hand—all lent their aid to make the scene a happy one. — Indeed, it was a happy time, and although not so much so as at the previous ball of Thursday evening at the Fort, still all appeared gay and cheerful. There is no telling, however, how far off some one’s thoughts were, even if smiles did play around the mouth and light up the countenance.
“We had the felicity of dancing with several of the ladies. Where all were so handsome, it would appear invidious to particularize, but I cannot withhold my perfect acquiescence in the prevailing opinion that Mrs. H. was decidedly the queen of the night. Her fine figure, well set off in a rich black silk dress, and her amiable disposition fully entitled her to this distinction.

[and then our chivalrous author describes many other women attendees, and then some of the men]

“Several Colonels and Captains were also present, but those titles arc now-a-days more common than “mister.” So those who are no farther advanced than Colonel, can’t shine among the big ’uns. They must get up a hop among their own kidney, and then they can bud.
“. . .
“Bye the bye, I must not forget the supper, which was served up in Gordon best style.—Turkeys, ducks, oysters, preserves, jellies, plain and fruit cake, confectionary, nuts, raisins, with coffee and cream, all of which, including the ice cream, was “not to be beat.” San Francisco stands entirely in the shade. Our “doings” are “did” by perfect connoisseurs who are “some” in their lines.
“The company did ample justice to the repast, and parted with the hope of soon meeting again. Till then au revoir.

(I also discovered that just a few weeks after this cotillion, the April 18, 1850, edition of the Sacramento Transcript, advertised an auction of the furniture, fixtures, and goodwill of the Gordon House. Apparently, the “Gordon best style” did not last very long.)

Not everyone in the mid-19th century society was enamored of dancing. The August 30, 1850, edition of the Sacramento Transcript reported:

Some of the eastern papers are out against dancing, declaring that the chief votaries of the Terpsichorean art are brainless young men and giddy young ladies. But the worst of it is that the modest cotillion is almost banished from dancing parties, and supplanted by the voluptuous polka. One editor confesses to being old fashioned enough to dislike seeing a wife or sister, whirling round a room in the arms of a comparative stranger who is probably a puppy. There are many persons in every society who conscientiously object to dancing—believing that it leads to dissipation of another character. Others believe that dancing is an innocent amusement, and instead of being hurtful and leading to dissipation, that it is merely a pleasant pastime and beneficial to health. For our part we are not disposed to set up as an umpire in the matter, being willing that those disposed may “trip the light fantastic toe” so long as they have a toe to trip; and equally willing that the antidancing society may preach away until they bring about the millenium they desire, when the “head shall triumph over the heels.

So, in 1850, as in 2016, it appears to take all kinds. My characters can dance or not dance, as their morals move them. But you can see that formal descriptions of relationships between men and women prevailed—at least in the social classes that read the newspapers.

I love these little glimpses of the past that my research finds for me.

When have you chuckled at something you’ve learned about the past?

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0 Comments

  1. I’m laughing at this line now, Theresa. “Some of the eastern papers are out against dancing, declaring that the chief votaries of the Terpsichorean art are brainless young men and giddy young ladies.” Did you find these articles online or at the library?

  2. What a delightful post, Theresa! I love the language, which reminds me of Trollope’s narrators in his novels. I find it interesting that conversational and journalistic English has changed so much since 1850. Wonderful information here. Thanks for keeping us in touch with history.

    • Carla,
      I get a kick out of reading the stilted language also. And I struggle as I write about this era how much to mirror the language and how much to adapt so that modern readers will relate. I try to find a happy medium.
      Theresa

      • That would be a challenge, Theresa. I tend to pick up on stylistic trends so easily that probably even today I will find that I am echoing some of that article in my own conversations! By evening it should fade . . . 🙂

  3. I absolutely adore these old newspaper articles. I search for them for my genealogy research, and they are always exciting, both for their “differentness” and for their similarities with today (or if not today, my childhood). Did they really use “not to be beat” and “full blast”? WOW.

  4. I was amazed to see that “full blast” was used in 1850. FYI I use Google’s Ngram viewer to check out diction for my historical mysteries set in Kansas City in 1900.

    • Juliet,
      Thanks for mentioning Ngram. I’d never used it before, but can see it would be helpful for writing historical fiction. I use the Online Etymology Dictionary at http://www.etymonline.com/ to check out whether words were being used in the context I want to use them in the 1840s-50s.
      Theresa

  5. The piece of art ( 1% for Art requirement in any public building built or remodeled) in the arts District Garage adjacent to the Kauffman Center is entitled ‘Terpsichore for Kansas City.’ I had never heard that word before ( Greek name of the goddess of dance?) until I just now read your blog! I enjoy hearing about all your research. You are amazing!

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