“Plays, Balls (yes Balls) visits and serenades”

Tea dances, balls, and assemblies were highlights of the social season for the wealthy. Descriptions of these entertainments by women are numerous. Nancy Shippen Livingston, separated from her husband Henry Beekman Livingston, was living with her parents in Philadelphia in 1784. Upset by the custody battle over their child she nevertheless enjoyed visiting friends and taking part in the social life of that city. In her journal she noted her attendance at a ball given on the birthday of the Dauphin of France. It is said that: “A dancing room sixty feet wide was built next to the French legation, its roof supported by lofty pillars painted and festooned, the walls covered with banners and appropriate pictures.”

Thursday 8—This Morning was entirely Taken up in preparing to go to a Ball at the French Ministers. I went with Mrs Powel, & passed a delightful Eveng—Mr [Bushrod] Washington, my partner [a nephew of George Washington]—danced a Minuet, I believed I look’d well at least My Partner told me so—came home at one.

The Tilghmans were a prominent Maryland family. Tench Tilghman was aide de camp and private secretary to General George Washington. His sister Mary, known as “Molly”, kept up a lively, gossipy correspondence with her cousin Polly Pearce. She wrote from Chestertown, Maryland, Friday morning [1785]:

Tho the season is so far advanc’d, yet our agreeables cannot yet give up dancing. The celebrated Mr Brown has lately arrived from Philada and last Tuesday there was a Concert for his Benefit, which concluded with a Ball I partook of the Music, and really had my Dollars worth of entertainment. I had no idea of such execution on the flute, and he draws the most exquisite tones that you can imagine. I came home at 10 o’Clock . . . . To night there is another Concert and Ball I shall just go to hear the Music.

Don’t you love the phrase “really had my Dollars worth of entertainment”? It sounds so modern. She wrote on July 7, 1788:

I need touch but slightly on our late grand exhibitions. All other distractions of gaiety fell far short of this last one . . . . Plays, Balls (yes Balls) visits and serenades, fill’d up both night and day. The vulgar refreshment of sleep, was not even thought of for one Week. and at the end of it, the gay ones look’d accordingly, pale and Haggard.

And on January 29, 1789:

The last [of our three Balls] was a very pleasant Evening. Polly gave us an excellent cold supper, and a profusion of Cake Almonds Raisins &c. They were quite family partys . . . .

She continued:

Late as it is, I must tell you that last night we were at a Ball at Petty Jacksons, where we staid till one o’Clock. It was really a very genteel entertainment. We had twelve couples. I went determin’d not to dance, but who can resist the temptation of a superexcellent partner. It was not in nature to refuse Jack Chew, with whom I danced three dances. We had some of the most capital figures I have seen for a long time. O that you had been there my dear Polly. I wish’d for you a thousand times tho’ tis ten to one but your wicked comments wou’d have made me misbehave.

Find Nancy Shippen Livingston’s entry, as well as editor Ethel Armes’ description, HERE, pages 170-71. The excerpts from Molly Tilghman’s letters are from the Maryland Historical Magazine Vol. 21, No. 1, page 38, and No. 3, pages 228 and 233. The portrait of Molly is by Charles Willson Peale and is at the Maryland Historical Society.

posted November 18th, 2013 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Amusements, Entertainments


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