“this bit of superb frivolity” the Meschianza

Reading SARAH LOGAN FISHER’s diary, it is difficult to appreciate the “bright” side (for some) of the British occupation of Philadelphia. The inhabitants were short of provisions. Firewood was scarce, as was hard cash. Officers moved into houses abandoned by Whigs (without their consent), or they requested (demanded) rooms in the homes of Tory sympathizers. The poor suffered terribly as did American prisoners held by the British. Some Loyalists were disappointed by the treatment they received. And Quakers were dismayed by the revelry of the soldiers.

For the upper classes, however, the winter season (1777-1778) was one of gaiety. There were assemblies, balls, dinners, plays, concerts, and parades. Quite the social whirl in fact. On Monday nights people flocked to the theater to see, in the audience, General William Howe with his supposed mistress Mrs. Elizabeth Loring, whose husband Joshua had been appointed commissary general to the prisoners in Philadelphia. The ladies welcomed news of the latest fashions and went shopping for fabrics and baubles brought from England. Hoops were in, and hairdressers were in demand.

Major John André (1751-1780), a writer of prose and poetry as well as an artist, was one of the chief organizers of what may have been Philadelphia’s largest and most elaborate public spectacle, the Meschianza—the word is a play on the word for medley in Italian. It took place on May 18, 1778 to bid farewell to General William Howe who had submitted his resignation and was returning to England. (It was likely that Howe had been relieved of his command for his failure to come to the assistance of General John Burgoyne and was therefore considered responsible for Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga in October of 1777.)

The cost of the extravaganza was enormous, in part underwritten by twenty-two of the general’s officers who contributed £3,312. It lasted eighteen hours with some 400 military and Loyalist attendees, for whom elaborate tickets were designed by André. (Howe’s crest is shown along with a motto; cannons, swords, drums, flags, and other military equipment decorate the borders.)

The celebration included a flotilla of decorated barges, cannon salutes, a military parade, fireworks displays, testimonials, a mock Medieval jousting tournament, a lavish banquet, and a fancy-dress ball. Events were staged in the mansion Walnut Grove and its grounds, an estate abandoned by Patriot Joseph Wharton. The ball was held in a large canvas tent whose interior walls André adorned with mirrors and scenery. For the contest between Knights of the Blended Rose and Knights of the Burning Mountain he designed the costumes of the participants as well as those of the young ladies (Peggy Shippen among them) over whose beauty the knights were competing. André wrote and illustrated a commemo-rative program dedicated to Peggy Chew, one of Philadelphia’s belles who had taken his fancy. Her great-granddaughter described the manuscript:

Faded and yellow with age, the little parchment vividly calls up before us the gallant young English officer, eager and full of keen interest, throwing himself with youthful ardor, with light-hearted seriousness, into this bit of superb frivolity. On the cover he has outlined a wreath of leaves around the initials ‘P.C’, and he has made a water color sketch to show the design and colors of his costume as a knight of the ‘Blended Rose,’ and that of his brother . . . who acted as his esquire and bore his shield, with its quaint motto, ‘No rival.’

See an earlier post about the British occupation of Philadelphia HERE.

For the quotation see Old Time Belles and Cavaliers by Edith Tunis Sale, p 141, accessed HERE.
For a description of the Meschianza see Social Life During the British Occupation by Darlene Emmert Fisher HERE on page 251.
The ticket shown is held by The Library Company of Philadelphia, a gift of Mrs. John Meredith Read, 1900.
The print of Major John André is based on one of his self portraits. For additional information see the publication Quarto of the Clements Library Associates, pages 6 and 7, HERE.
Also David S. Shields and Fredrika J. Teute. “The Meschianza: Sum of All Fêtes.” Journal of the Early Republic 35, no. 2 (2015): 185-214. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed November 30, 2018).


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