March 20, 2018

Mine and Mine Only: The Marriage Proposal and Engagement

by Ann Haddad

The Proposal, 1862.

“The Proposal,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1862.

This is the second in a series of blog posts on mid-19th century courtship and wedding customs. Click here to read the first post, on 19th century courtship.

A Horse and a Wife

Charles A. Bristed, in his satirical sketch of American society, The Upper Ten Thousand (1852), noted:

“The first thing, as a general rule, that a young Gothamite does is to get a horse; the second, to get a wife.”

Although it is uncertain if Effingham Nichols owned a horse, he did indeed acquire a wife, the bride being none other than Elizabeth Tredwell, eldest daughter of Seabury and Eliza Tredwell. Effingham was only two years into his law practice, located on 7 Nassau Street, when he wed the very eligible 24-year-old Elizabeth on April 7, 1845. We do not know the duration of their courtship, but Effingham must have received significant encouragement from the young lady during that time, emboldening him to declare his love and to propose marriage.

Never Flirt!

Asking a young woman for her hand in marriage was never perceived as an easy task for a gentleman. After all, his fate rested in her hands! For this reason, the etiquette manuals of the day warned women repeatedly not to trifle with a young man’s affections, lest it earn the woman the dreaded reputation of being a flirt. If a gentleman’s behavior towards a woman conveyed romantic feelings, and she did not wish to encourage him, she was to do her utmost to gently rebuff his sentiments in a kindly manner, and gradually withdraw from his company. An honorable woman never shared (except with her parents) that she had rejected a suitor. As A Manual of Etiquette (1868) stated:

“If you possess either a decent generosity, or the least good breeding, you will not divulge a secret which should be sacred between you.”

Passing the Test

Queen Victoria Proposing to Albert, 1840.

“Queen Victoria Proposing to Albert,” 1840.

After their courtship had gone on for an appropriate period (etiquette manuals were reluctant to establish the proper length of the courtship period), a woman who found the attention from her suitor more than agreeable indicated in unspoken ways that a proposal of marriage would be welcome. She, of course, could not propose to a gentleman (only queens were permitted to do so; Queen Victoria notably proposed to Prince Albert); but, according to the Dictionary of Love (1858):

“… she may lawfully do all in her power to put him in the notion of proposing. She may be very glad to see him when he calls, she may gently chide him for staying away so long ‘We feared you had forgotten us,’ or she may, by the purest accident, always happen to get a seat very near him whenever she is in his company. It is clearly a lady’s right to modestly open the way for the approaches of a gentleman whose heart she honorably wishes to obtain.”

A young lady’s father (especially a wealthy one like Seabury Tredwell, who needed to protect his daughter from fortune hunters) had already assessed the suitor’s finances (were his prospects good enough to provide a home for and support a wife and children?), scrutinized his lineage (did he come from a reputable family?), and deemed him acceptable. At this point, it was safe and indeed incumbent on the young man to seize the opportunity and proceed with a proposal. As stated in The Art of Good Behavior (1846), a popular etiquette manual:

As a general rule, a gentleman need never be refused. Every woman, except a heartless coquette, finds the means of discouraging a man whom she does not intend to have, before the matter comes to the point of a declaration.”

An unidentified young clerk in New York City indicated his confidence that he had a future with his beloved Julia when he wrote in his diary on October 13, 1844:

“Was much amused at a remark Julia made. She said ‘I don’t know how to take you.’ I replied ‘Take me as I am.’ She answered, ‘I expect I shall be obliged to.’ It may be a prophetic remark.”

Once the suitor determined that his offer of marriage would be welcomed, there was nothing left to do but “pop the question” (an idiom in use since 1826). The Art of Good Behavior perfectly captured the anxiety of the moment:

… and though he may tremble, and feel his pulses throbbing and tingling through every limb; though his heart is filling up in his throat, and his tongue cleaves to the roof of his mouth, yet the awful question must be asked.”

Sarony & Majors. Popping the Question, 1846. Henry T. Peters Collection, Smithsonian Institute.

Sarony & Majors. “Popping the Question,” 1846. Henry T. Peters Collection, Smithsonian Institute.

Will You Marry Me?

Should a gentleman find elusive the right words with which to propose, he needed only consult one of the popular etiquette manuals, which offered many suggestions. Here are some from The Art of Good Behavior:

“Will you tell me what I most wish to know!”
“Yes, if I can.”
“The happy day when we shall be married?”

“Have you any objection to change your name?” “How would mine suit you?”

“One word from you would make me the happiest man in the universe.”

“Well, Mary, when is the happy day?” “What day, pray?” “Why, everybody knows we are going to get married, and it might as well be one time or another; so, when shall it be?”

And then there was the laconic gentleman who, according to the Evening Post of August 14, 1840, proposed in the following manner:

“Pray, madam, do you like buttered toast?”  “Yes, sir.” “Buttered on both sides?” “Yes, sir.” “Will you marry me?”

Currier & Ives. "Youth: The Season of Love,"  1868.

Currier & Ives. “Youth: The Season of Love,” 1868.

The joyous declaration of love was described in the Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony (1852):

“The happy moment of opportunity arrives, in sweet suddenness, when the flood gates of feeling are loosened, and the full tide of mutual affection gushes forth uncontrolled.”

James R. Burtin, a young New York gentleman who worked as an engraver, recorded in his diary the exciting moment when, after nearly two years of courtship, he proposed to his beloved Ann Elisa on February 18, 1844:

“This is an evening I shall always remember with mingled feelings of pleasure and pain. One question I asked my dear Ann, the answer of which depended my future happiness or misery and she hesitated to answer it. It was a moment of suspense tho if she knew how I loved her and how dear she is to me she would have given me an answer at once. I did not doubt but that her answer would be such as one as I wish and the answer was one that put all doubt aside. She loves truly and I love her and whatever may take place I shall love her as long as life shall last. She is dearer to me than Mother, brother or Sister. Without her I may almost say that life would be unendurable, but now all doubts are at an end. She is mine and mine only.”

Put It in Writing

For those timid, tongue-tied gentlemen who could not bear the thought of proposing in person, etiquette manuals, such as the American Fashionable Letter Writer (1845), also offered sample proposal letters, such as:

“Every one of those qualities in you which claim my admiration, increased my diffidence, by showing the great risk I run in venturing, perhaps before my affectionate assiduities have made the desired impression upon your mind, to make a declaration of the ardent passion I have long since felt for you.”

On October 28, 1843, Henry Patterson, a contemporary of Burtin’s, wrote in his diary about his written proposal of marriage to Eleanor Wright:

“Last week Thursday I made proposals of marriage to her in writing; Sunday evening I received a conditional acceptance, also in writing, and Wednesday evening we spent in unfolding to each other our situation, prospects, hopes, principles, feelings, in short everything which would tend to a judicious and proper settlement of the question now the subject of our joint consideration. I will only record, that as I become acquainted with her, I become more thoroughly convinced of our suitableness to each other; and the outpouring of tender feelings which I enjoyed on Wednesday evening, that sensation of mutual love and trust which I have since felt within us, renders the present the happiest period of my life.”

Charles Baugniet. Indecision, n.d.

Charles Baugniet. “Indecision,” n.d.

I’ll Get Back to You

When a gentleman made an offer of marriage either in person or by letter, it was incumbent upon the young lady to receive it graciously. She knew, either by instruction from her parents or by the advice provided by etiquette manuals, never to accept or reject the offer immediately. Such an important decision merited deep reflection, and discussion with her parents, whose consent was necessary before any answer was given. As Farrar reminds her readers in The Young Lady’s Friend (1837):

“It should be an avowed principle of your life, that you will never marry without the consent of your parents, nor merely to please them.”

If the young lady’s parents opposed the match, the couple carefully considered the objection, and perhaps delayed their marriage until the reason for the disapproval had been overcome.

The American Fashionable Letter Writer provided an example of a young lady’s written reply to a proposal of marriage:

“There are many points beside mere personal regard to be considered; these I must refer to the superior knowledge of my father and brother, and if the result of their inquiries is such as my presentiments suggest, I have no doubt my happiness will be attended to by a permission to decide for myself.”

Man to Man

After proposing marriage, the next daunting step for the gentleman was a formal meeting with the woman’s father, to officially ask for his consent to the marriage. It is noteworthy, with regard to parental consent, that the opinion of the young woman’s parents appears to be the only one that matters. None of the diaries consulted for this post made any mention of the suitor’s parents in any aspect of the courtship or engagement. As Ellen K. Rothman concluded in Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America (1984), “A woman’s parents were asked; a man’s parents were told.”

Seabury Tredwell was probably not surprised when Effingham Nichols entered his study to request Elizabeth’s hand in marriage; he most likely was expecting it. Effingham would have been prepared to discuss his law practice, his future prospects, and his financial situation in detail. He was, after all, responsible for providing a stable economic environment for Seabury’s daughter; it was critical that he explain how he planned to go about this. Seabury already knew Effingham came from an excellent family, and must have been willing to accept Effingham’s status and envision his future success. Imagine the joyful scene on Fourth Street when, once Seabury gave the couple his blessing, Elizabeth and Effingham shared the happy news with her mother, Eliza, and her siblings!

James Hayllar. The Only Daughter, 1875

James Hayllar. “The Only Daughter,” 1875.

The parents of Eleanor Wright, the young woman with whom Henry Patterson was in love, were separated (separation and divorce were not as uncommon as we might think — a topic for a future blog post). That may explain why it took two months for Henry to meet with her father. On December 30, 1843, he wrote:

“By mutual agreement that it was advisable, I called the next morning on her Father, in Fifth Street, and briefly acquainted him with my past intercourse with his daughter and my plans for the future; I asked his approval. He expressed his approbation as far as he was acquainted with the circumstances, and treated me in every respect in a gentlemanly manner.”

We have no idea what Elizabeth’s siblings thought of her suitor, Effingham Nichols. The opinion of brothers and sisters held little weight when it came to choosing a mate for life. Elizabeth Brevoort was a young girl of fourteen when on July 31, 1848, she wrote in her diary of her sister’s love interest:

“I must say it is not the marriage I wish for her but if she thinks she will be happy with him, I am sure it is none of my business.”

The Engagement Period

Patrick W. O’Neil, in his dissertation thesis, Tying the Knots: The Nationalization of Wedding Rituals in Antebellum America (2009), described the engagement period (which typically lasted from six months to two years, depending on the family circumstances and the age of the couple) as a moment of transition between courtship and married life wherein couples could come to a full understanding of the meaning behind their commitment to one another. It was viewed as an opportunity for the lovers to imagine themselves married, and to declare their suitability to the world. In doing so, they experienced a loosening to some extent of the restrictive bonds of decorum, and hence were able to deepen their knowledge of each other. O’Neil cautioned, however, that the easing of rules in this rigid society only went so far:

“None of this is to say that the middle-class men pursued gender equality in their married relationships: they would not have taken kindly to assertions of autonomy from their future wives.”

In the mid-19th century, once the young lady and her parents consented to the marriage, the announcement of the engagement was initially made to family and intimate friends only; this was typically done in writing. This allowed all involved to take a collective breath and live with the idea; it would be during this time that either party could gracefully break off the engagement without doing widespread damage. After a week or two, the wider circle of friends and acquaintances would receive news of the engagement.

John Shirley Fox. The Engagement Ring, 1898.

John Shirley Fox. “The Engagement Ring,” 1898.

The Ring-Bearers

According to Ellen Rothman, in Hands and Hearts, the custom of presenting one’s betrothed with a ring upon engagement began in the 1840s. The simple bands, which sometimes included a cut stone, were mutually exchanged; they served as a public sign of the couple’s commitment to each other. Occasionally, another personal token, such as a portrait miniature of the future bride, was presented to the groom-to-be in place of a ring. Diamond engagement rings as we know them today did not become popular until Tiffany & Co. introduced the Tiffany setting in 1886.

Behave Yourselves

Not surprisingly, the conduct of a betrothed couple was also governed by a strict protocol. When in public, any overt signs of familiarity and exclusivity were forbidden. The gentleman was to behave gallantly and honorably toward any woman in his presence, not just to his fiancée; and his future bride refrain from pouting or reacting with jealousy and anger when he did so. That didn’t mean, however, that the gentleman refrained from being protective of his sweetheart, or that she ignored him. Ideally, they presented to the world an image of blissful and contented happiness. Although the couple did not isolate themselves from the society of others, the woman was careful to avoid spending time with any other man in private. When attending sociables and other entertainments in the absence of her betrothed, etiquette dictated that she be accompanied by a family member or intimate family friend.

In private, a gentleman never took advantage of his bride-to-be, for he had her honor to maintain. As the Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony (1852) pointed out: “he is dealing with his future wife.” Whenever he was in the presence of his betrothed, it was a young man’s duty to avoid any display of fatigue, low spirits, or “excessive animation.” Several etiquette manuals also discussed the engagement period as a time when a gentleman bore the responsibility of advising and guiding his betrothed, by correcting her faults and helping to mold her character. It was the rare mid-19th century treatise, such as Mrs. A.J. Graves’ Woman in America (1858) that challenged this notion, stating, “woman was not given to a man for a toy to amuse his idle hours; but to be, in truth and in reality, a helpmate to him – a minister for good.”

The Welcome Mat

Once the engagement was underway, the gentleman was expected to pay frequent calls at his bride-to-be’s home. He was to ascertain, however, the time most convenient for his call; and when he visited, he was to focus attention on the entire family, not just on his betrothed. His aim in making the calls was to gradually win the affection of the family, especially the girl’s mother. The visits were usually made in the evening, with the gentleman wearing evening attire, as he would for the theatre or a concert. As the Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony stated,

“The neglect of this point would betray, first, a carelessness in habits, next, a want of deference to the lady’s family, and lastly, a deficiency in due respect to herself.”

According to their diary entries, both Henry Patterson and James Burtin could be found almost nightly at the homes of their betrothed. Often they had tea with the family in the afternoon and then return in the evening! Burtin, who had made a habit of frequent visits even before his engagement, wrote in his diary on November 16, 1843:

“I am inclined to think that love makes a fool of a man , that is in other people’s estimation, but what is the use. I love Ann Elisa and when I can see her there is not the least doubt but that I will.”

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Currier & Ives. Kiss Me Quick, ca. 1845.

Currier & Ives. “Kiss Me Quick,” ca. 1845. D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA.

Stealing a Kiss

Despite the protocol set forth in popular etiquette manuals, evidence in diaries of this period indicates that betrothed couples were frequently left alone in the young lady’s home, often until 1 or 2 a.m. Henry Patterson and Eleanor Wright spent many evenings alone in her parlor, playing chess, whist, reading to one another, and ultimately exchanging mutual affection. On January 21, 1844, he wrote:

“Monday evening I spent with Eleanor, with chess, reading, and conversation, all of which, having mingled with them expressions of the most tender love and kindest feelings, served to render that evening one of the happiest seasons of my life.”

James Burtin even exercised with Ann Elisa, as he wrote on his diary on May 25, 1843:

“In the evening called over to see Ann Elisa found her jumping the rope joined in with her and had some fine exercise but found it rather warm work.

“This is a Waste of Our Time” 

Once betrothed, couples were permitted to go out together unaccompanied: for walks on the Battery; to concerts at Niblo’s Garden; to museums, theatre, church, lectures, and to weddings of friends and family. After months of such activity, with no wedding date yet set, Henry Patterson was growing increasingly frustrated. He wrote in his diary on March 24, 1844:

“Oh! how tired and impatient I feel, to be thus compelled to take a part in amusements, and join in company for which I feel no affinity. Enjoying alone Eleanor’s society, with no restraints on the interchange of tokens of love, is almost the only thing that is at all satisfactory to me: how painful to me that this is a waste of our time, in foolery, and empty amusements. Yet, may it not be played upon us to exercise our patience, and and learn us to prize more highly and justly the unspeakable blessing which we do enjoy?”

Fixing the Day

The days of idle amusements were soon over for Henry and Eleanor; once their marriage date was set (by the woman, this being one of her express privileges), they found themselves busier than ever. There was a household to set up, a trousseau to purchase, and a wedding to arrange. As the wedding industry was in its infancy, it was typical for a wedding date to be announced only two to three weeks prior to the actual date. As a result, the wedding preparations were intense and extensive, requiring hard work by both parties. The burden, as we shall see, rested more on the woman’s shoulders, for as Rothman points out in Hands and Hearts: “While engagement interfered with a man’s work, it was a woman’s work.”

Sources:

  • Anonymous. The American Fashionable Letter Writer, Original and Selected. Troy, N.Y.: W. & H. Merriam, 1845. www.catalog.hathitrust.org. Accessed 3/1/18.
  • Anonymous. The Art of Good Behavior, and Letter Writer, on Love, Courtship, and Marriage: A Complete Guide. New York: Huestis & Cozans, 1845. Main Collection, New-York Historical Society.
  • Anonymous. The Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony: With A Complete Guide to the Forms of a Wedding. London: David Bogue, 1852. www.books.google.com. Accessed 2/2/18.
  • Arthur, T[imothy]S[hay]. Advice to Young Ladies on Their Duties and Conduct in Life. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, 1847. babel.hathitrust.org. Accessed 1/16/18.
  • Brevoort, Elizabeth. Diary, 1848. Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, New York Public Library.
  • Bristed, Charles Astor. The Upper Ten Thousand; Sketches of American Society. London: Parker and son, 1852.  www.babel.hathitrust.org. Accessed 2/13/18.
  • Diary of an Unidentified Clerk in New York City, 1844-45. MssCol. 2147, Rare Books and and Manuscripts Division, New York Public Library.
  • Diary of an Unidentified Young Man [James R. Burtin], January 1, 1843- 1844. Manuscripts Division, New-York Historical Society.
  • Farrar, Mrs. John. A Young Lady’s Friend. Boston: American Stationers’ Company, 1838. www.archive.org. Accessed 1/23/18.
  • Graves, Mrs. A.J. Woman in America; Being an Examination into the Moral and Intellectual Condition of American Female Society. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1858. www.catalog.hathitrust.org. Accessed 3/2/18.
  • Johnson, S. O. [Sophia Orne]. A Manual of Etiquette with Hints on Politeness and Good Breeding. Philadelphia: D. McKay, 1868. www.archive.org. Accessed 2/26/18.
  • O’Neil, Patrick W. Tying the Knots: The Nationalization of Wedding Rituals in Antebellum America. Dissertation Thesis, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2009. www.cdr.lib.unc.edu. Accessed 3/1/18.
  • Patterson, Henry. Diaries, 1832-1848. Manuscripts Division, New-York Historical Society.
  • “Popping the Question.” The Evening Post, Fri., August 14, 1840, p. 2. www.newspapaers.com. Accessed 2/28/18.
  • Rothman, Ellen K. Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1984.
  • Theocritus, Junior [pseud.]. Dictionary of Love. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1858. www.archive.org. Accessed 2/5/18.
  • “Tiffany and Co. History,” Tiffany & Co. www.press.tiffany.com. Accessed 3/2/18.
February 13, 2018

Romance and Sweet Dreams: Mid-19th Century Courtship

by Ann Haddad

Valentine, 1847.  MHM 2002.4606.44.

Valentine, 1847. (MHM 2002.4606.44)

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Valentines for an Eligible Lady

Valentine’s Day has been celebrated for centuries, but only became entrenched in American culture in the early 1840s, with the rise in popularity of commercially produced paper valentine cards. Made of delicately embossed and perforated lace papers, valentines became the fashionable way to convey romantic interest and to freely express the desire for romantic love.

The lovely Elizabeth Tredwell, eldest daughter of Seabury and Eliza, no doubt received her share of valentines from young men of her class. She was pretty and accomplished, and would certainly have been considered an eligible young lady. The Tredwell Archives contain several charming valentines; however, the senders and recipients are unknown.

On April 7, 1845, Elizabeth married Effingham Nichols (see our April 2017 blog post, “Days of Sorrow, Days of Rejoicing: The Marriage of Elizabeth Tredwell and Effingham Nichols”). We do not know when and how Elizabeth and Effingham met, nor are we aware of the length of their courtship. Based on the many strict codes of etiquette that governed courtship, however, we can assume theirs followed a dictated course.
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Romantic Love

In the mid-19th century, romantic love was viewed as the solid rock upon which a healthy marriage was built; according to Karen Lystra, author of Searching the Heart (1989), it was only within the sacred state of marriage that one’s “ideal self” could be revealed. Courtship, therefore, was respected as a special time in the lives of a young couple. This period, after introductions and before a formal engagement, served to intensify the feelings of romantic love; to insure that the bond formed between a couple was true; to guide one in learning the real character of the other; and to ensure that their attraction was based on mutual respect and admiration. In Theocritus’ The Dictionary of Love (1858), it is defined as the period that is “all romance, excitement, hope, desire, expectation, and sweet dreams.”

Before Courtship: Under Mama’s Watchful Eyes

The time for a young woman to enter society and assume her role as a marriageable woman was determined by her parents; it depended not on her age, but on her level of maturity. A woman was also expected to have completed her education, or “finishing,” typically between the ages of 16 and 18, before entering society. Elizabeth most likely went “into company” (or “came out,” as it was later called) sometime around the age of 20.

Mrs. Okills Academy, attended by Elizabeth Tredwell and several of her sisters, held musical soirees to showcase the accomplishments of students. New York Herald, 1840.

Mrs. Okill’s Academy, attended by Elizabeth Tredwell and several of her sisters, held musical soirees to showcase the accomplishments of students. New York Herald, 1840.

Courting before this age was highly frowned upon. After completing her schooling, a daughter remained at home (which was viewed as a woman’s empire), under the watchful eyes of her mother. Here she learned domestic arts; assisted with rearing her younger siblings; and was instructed in the rules of manners and civility, which were highly valued in society. A young lady was chaperoned at public entertainments, such as theatre or dances, by her parents, brothers, or an intimate family friend. (Once she became formally engaged, her lover became her “legitimate protector and companion.”) She was expected to rebuff any male attention, and maintain a polite disinterest in courtship. Mrs. John Farrar, in A Young Lady’s Friend (1837), writes,

“The less your mind dwells upon lovers and matrimony, the more agreeable and profitable will be your intercourse with gentlemen. Regard men as intellectual beings who have access to certain sources of knowledge to which you are denied.”

Elizabeth also received guidance from her mother (likely culled from popular advice books such as Lydia Maria Child’s The Frugal Housewife (1829); Godey’s Lady’s Book; and etiquette and conduct manuals) about acceptable behaviors that reflect what Mrs. John Farrar called “delicacy and refinement” when in the company of young men. Never let a man hold your hand; decline his offer of assistance with getting in and out of carriages; never squeeze into a tight space with a gentleman; never speak of your private affairs or feelings; always have a friend present for carriage rides; never borrow money from a man; avoid gossip. Mrs. Farrer stressed:

“Your whole deportment should give the idea that your person, your voice, and your mind are entirely under your own control. Self-possession is the first requisite to good manners.”

Above all, a young lady was never to make obvious public plays for the attention of a young man, or insinuate that she wanted an invitation from him. According to T.S. Arthur, author of Advice to Young Ladies (1847), such inappropriateness indicated “an outrageous want of all decent respect for herself.”

Money and Religion

Aside from the usual parental concerns associated with finding a suitable partner for their daughter, Seabury and Eliza Tredwell had another reason to be extremely careful when vetting young men who were interested in courting Elizabeth: the family’s enormous wealth. Guarding against any unprincipled suitor who viewed a fortune as indispensable when choosing a wife was no doubt of utmost importance. They therefore sought to find a husband for Elizabeth whose own wealth was equal to or greater than her own. Similarity of religion was also considered to be a requisite; whoever sought and won Elizabeth’s hand had to be of the Episcopal faith (see our February 2017 blog post, “The Man That Got Away,” for a discussion of the aborted romance of Elizabeth’s youngest sister, Gertrude, and Luis Walton).

A Formal Introduction

A gentleman did not consider courting a woman unless he had been formally introduced to her. (Men were not without their etiquette manuals: Lord Chesterfield’s Advice to His Son on Men and Manners, first published in 1774, was the popular source.) Effingham may have been introduced to Elizabeth through her father or one of her uncles, or through a respected friend of the family. For those without known connections, it was the gentleman’s task to respectfully make her acquaintance. Upon noticing a woman at a dance, for example, he first learned her name by making discreet inquiries, and then, through his societal connections, asked for an introduction. As the couple became acquainted through conversation, the gentleman ascertained the woman’s level of interest, and whether any further attentions were welcome.

Elizabeth Tredwell (MHM 2002.0114)

Elizabeth Tredwell (MHM 2002.0114)

Effingham Nichols (MHM 2002.0122)

Effingham Nichols (MHM 2002.0122)

Dear Mr. Tredwell

If he perceived that she was not averse, and he was confident that his position in life and circumstances were sufficient to allow him to proceed, a gentleman took the next step — writing to the woman’s father to ask permission to pay a visit to their home. In this important communication, he stated his position and prospects, and mentioned his family. The Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony (1852) cautioned the suitor against any smugness or over-confidence at this stage:

“Never think you are doing the family a favor. A man must convey delicate respect towards the parents, to prove himself worthy of the treasure of which he is about to deprive them.”

Valentine, mid-19th century MHM 2006.4606.43

Valentine, mid-19th century (MHM 2006.4606.43)

The following portion of a sample letter from The Art of Good Behavior (1845) may be similar to one sent to Seabury Tredwell from Effingham Nichols, when he desired to begin courting Elizabeth:

“The subject upon which I presume to address you is one so near to my heart, and so connected with my prospects of happiness in this life, that I find it difficult to summon resolution for the task; but sir, I have dared to entertain so high an opinion of your goodness, that I am emboldened to write to you with candor, to solicit the greatest favor it is in your power to bestow.”

Emily Thornwell, in The Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility (1856), defined the proper look of a letter from a potential suitor to a young woman’s father:

“Observe that letters of introduction are never sealed by well-bred people. Every letter to a superior ought to be folded in an envelope. It shows a want of respect to seal with a wafer; we must use sealing wax; men usually select red.”

Once permission was obtained from the father, the young lady in question then extended a letter to the gentleman, inviting him to pay a call. She avoided displaying any excessive interest in him, however. Thornwell emphasized the importance of restraint:

“You should not remark to a gentleman, ‘I am very happy to make your acquaintance;’ because it should be considered a favor for him to be presented to you, therefore the remark should come rather from him.”

The Trial Period

As soon as the father established that a young gentlemen was suitable company for his daughter (accomplished through inquiries among his set as to the family and status of the suitor), courtship commenced. In the young lady’s front parlor, with a chaperone present, a courting couple engaged in allowed activities including singing, talking, piano playing, and parlor games with other guests. Supervised carriage rides and outdoor excursions to dances, picnics, dinners, and concerts were also permitted. During this time, the couple observed one another’s habits and conduct for evidence of good moral character and virtuous principles, and hence suitability.

A Receipt for Courtship, n.d., Library of Congress

A Receipt for Courtship, n.d., Library of Congress

A woman considered positive traits, such as a man’s ability to speak with ease, respect, and courtesy to all; a neat appearance; excellent manners and deference to all women; and his readiness to honor and defend the opposite sex. Among the negative qualities that put a woman on her guard, as noted in The Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony, were:

“Keeps irregular hours
His studies do not form the subject of his conversation, as bearing on his future prospects
Shows disrespect for any age
Laughs at things sacred
Absents himself from regular attendance at church
Shows an inclination to expensive pleasures, or to low and vulgar amusements
Betrays a desire for enjoyments beyond his means or reach
Makes his dress a study
Betrays a continuous frivolity of mind.”

Etiquette manuals were replete with warnings to young ladies to beware being dazzled by “morally depraved” men or, as stated in Advice to Young Ladies:

“A young lady should be careful that brilliant qualities of mind, a cultivated taste, and superior conversational powers, do not overcome her virtuous repugnance to base principles and a depraved life.”

The Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony also provided guidelines for gentlemen as they waded into the murky waters of courtship. A woman who was kind, patient, benevolent, peaceful, and charitable; and who enjoyed home-centered pleasures, was worth pursuing. But a gentleman should “retire speedily but politely” from a woman with any of the following traits:

The Lovers Walk, Currier & Ives, 1856.

The Lovers Walk, Currier & Ives, 1856.

“Has the heartless buzzing of a flirt
Gives smiles to all and a heart to none
An uneven temper
Is fond of dress, and eager for admiration
Is ecstatic in trifles and nonsense, and frivolity
Is weak in her duties
Is petulant, saucy, or insolent
If the holiness of religion does not hover like a sanctifying dove ever over her head
Is prideful, boasting, vane, sharp rather than quiet
Gaudy”

When choosing to cast his eye upon a young lady with views toward matrimony, a gentleman needed to be mindful of the following:

“You do not catch us by mere beauteous look,
Tis but the bait, floating without the hook.”

Despite all these dire warnings, the author ended on an uplifting note:

“In nine out of ten cases it will be found that some demonstration of gentleness, benevolence, devotion, or self-sacrifice will invariably have been the foundation and first cause of serious thoughts of matrimony.”

No Gifts, Please

Another rule of courtship prohibited a young lady from accepting presents from a gentleman, prior to his having made a distinct proposal of marriage. It was considered improper and unbecoming, and implied an obligation on her part. Should the gentleman insist on her accepting a gift, she was to acknowledge its receipt in the presence of her parents, thereby removing any trace of impropriety. Any gifts received anonymously were put away and never mentioned. According to T.S. Arthur’s Advice to Young Ladies, flowers, fruit, and candy were the only acceptable presents from a young man to a young lady prior to their engagement, because:

“their perishable nature exempts them from the ban put upon more enduring memorials.”

Love Letters: “The Sweetest Things”

With all the restrictions placed upon young lovers during their courtship, letter writing became the allowed means by which they could express their feelings, continue the process of getting to know one another, and hopefully, fall in love. In the mid-19th century, suitors had at their disposal numerous letter-writing manuals that offered sample letters for every occasion, including expressions of romantic love and marriage proposals. In The Dictionary of Love (1858), love letters were referred to as, “among the sweetest things which the whole career of love allows.” The author of The Art of Good Behavior wrote: “The delicate and interesting preliminaries of marriage are oftener settled by the pen, than in any other manner.”

"St. Valentine's Day. Looking Out for the Letter-Carrier," Godey's Lady's Book, 1862.

“St. Valentine’s Day. Looking Out for the Letter-Carrier,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1862.

Love letters were considered sacred and sincere testaments to a couple’s love; such intimate correspondence was regarded with respect and a deep sense of privacy. A family member would never open a daughter’s or sister’s love letter; upon receiving it she retired to her room to read its contents in private.

Valentine, n.d., Butler-Laing Family Papers, NYHS

Valentine, n.d., Butler-Laing Family Papers, NYHS

It comes as no surprise to learn that rules governed the writing implements, paper, and even stamps, for love letters. The Art of Good Behavior insists:

“For a love letter good paper is indispensable. When it can be procured, that of a costly quality, gold-edged, perfumed, or ornamented in the French style, may be properly used. The letter should be carefully enveloped, and nicely sealed with a fancy wafer – or what is better, plain or fancy sealing wax. The whole affair should be as neat and elegant as possible.”

We have no surviving love letters between Effingham and Elizabeth. Perhaps one might have been similar to the following, from the Butler-Laing Family Papers (NYHS), written in 1861 by Frank Butler to his cousin Mary:

“My dear Cousin if you could only realize how deep an attachment I have found for you, and how sincerely and fondly I have learned to love you, even from the very first hour of our meeting, you might then imagine the thought of being so wholly separated from you, for how long a time God only knows, can be attended with painful feelings only.

Goodbye Mary, and may God bless you and the other members of the happy family with which you are connected. And may you sometimes, in your nightly visions think of one who holds you in highest admiration and unlimited affection.
Devotedly your cousin,
Frank Butler”

Valentine, c.1845. Emily Hosack Rodgers Papers, NYHS

Valentine, c.1845. Emily Hosack Rodgers Papers, NYHS

Another, unsigned and undated, from the Emily Hosack Rodgers Collection (NYHS), indicated the freedom a gentleman felt in writing to his love interest:

“If you love me, I will seek only to enfold your whole existence within the arms of a true and devoted love. With the true wisdom of an affectionate heart I will only seek, will only desire to find my own happiness in yours.”

A Valentine’s Day Poem

The Obituary Record of Yale University (1902) mentioned that Effingham Nichols wrote poetry and prose. Perhaps he sent a valentine poem to Elizabeth during their courtship. It may have been similar to this one, “Friendship Offering” (NYHS), written in 1832 to Anna Brooks:

“If though thinkest, Anna
That I shall complement thee now,
And say how well you play on the piano,
And praise the brightness of thy brow;
Or tell thee that thy voice is sweet,
Or that thou hast a lovely face,
Or snowy hands, or pretty feet,
Or complement one single grace,
That throws its glory o’er thy manner,
Or even praise those eyes of thine!
Thou art indeed mistaken, Anna;
Although in every Valentine,
I know thou hast a right to think
Such praise would be given to thee;
But thou! oh, thou couldst never drink,
Deep of the cup of flattery:
For in the depths of thy young mind,
Life’s holiest treasures are enshrined.
Learning and wit, and beauty bright,
And virtue – charms that alone delight
The soul – Yes! All these blessed gifts are thine.”

Our next blog post will address the rituals surrounding marriage proposals and engagement. Happy Valentine’s Day!

VALENTINE-color

Sources:

  • Anonymous. The Art of Good Behavior, and Letter Writer, on Love, Courtship, and Marriage: A Complete Guide. New York: Huestis & Cozans, 1845. Main Collection, New-York Historical Society.
  • Anonymous. The Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony. London: David Bogue, 1852. books.google.com. Accessed 1/18/18.
  • Arthur, T[imothy]S[hay]. Advice to Young Ladies on Their Duties and Conduct in Life. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, 1847. babel.hathitrust.org. Accessed 1/16/18.
  • Brooks, Anna. Valentine’s Day Poem, 1832. Manuscripts Division, New-York Historical Society.
  • Butler-Laing Family Papers, 1818-1892. Manuscripts Division, New-York Historical Society.
  • Emily Hosack Rodgers Collection, 1848-1888. Manuscripts Division, New-York Historical Society.
  • Farrar, Mrs. John. A Young Lady’s Friend. Boston: American Stationers’ Company, 1838. internetarchive.org. Accessed 1/23/18.
  • Halttunen, Karen. Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.
  • Knapp, Mary L. An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City 1835-65. New York: Girandole Books, 2012.
  • Lystra, Karen. Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Rothman, Ellen K. Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1984.
  • Theocritus, Junior [pseud.]. Dictionary of Love. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1858. internetarchive.org. Accessed 1/22/18.
  • Thornwell, Emily. The Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility: In Manners, Dress, and Conversation. New York: Derby & Jackson, 1856. internetarchive.org. Accessed 1/17/18.
  • Valentines. American Antiquarian Society. americanantiquarian.org. Accessed 1/24/18.
  • Yale University. Obituary Records of the Graduates of Yale University Deceased from June,1890 – June, 1900. New Haven: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor, 1902, p. 672.
April 9, 2017

“Days of Sorrow, Days of Rejoicing:” Elizabeth Tredwell & Effingham Nichols

by Ann Haddad

Bells Are Ringing!

Piano Book (MHM 2005.6100).

The magnificent row house on Fourth Street was surely buzzing with excitement on the morning of Wednesday, April 9, 1845, for it marked a Tredwell milestone: the first family wedding! Seabury and Eliza’s eldest child, 23-year-old Elizabeth Seabury, was about to tie the knot.

Born on July 23, 1821, in the Tredwells’ first home at 34 Cedar Street, Elizabeth was baptized on August 18 at St. George’s Chapel, then located at Beekman Street. She, like four of her sisters, attended the fashionably elite Mrs. Okill’s Academy, located at 8-10 Clinton Street (now 8th Street). In addition to the usual academic subjects, Elizabeth was instructed in the French language and in music, two skills considered essential to a young woman’s education. The Tredwell Books Collection contains one of Elizabeth’s music books, Instructions for the Attainment of the Art of Playing the Piano Forte, which was most likely also used by her sisters.

The Nichols Family: An Excellent Lineage

Elizabeth’s “finishing school” education was the preparation for the roles she was predestined to assume within the elite society in which she was raised, that of wife and mother. Meanwhile, the young man to whom she would one day be wed was being educated by a private tutor so that he would follow in his father’s footsteps and attend Yale University.

Effingham Howard Nichols, born on November 17, 1821, was surely considered a suitable match for Elizabeth; he came from a prominent New York family, counting among his ancestors Sir Richard Nichols, the first English Governor of New York. His father, Reverend Samuel Nichols, was an Episcopal clergyman and rector of St. Matthew’s Church in Bedford, New York, where Effingham was born. Effingham Howard Warner, his uncle and namesake, was one of the founders of St. Bartholomew’s Church. His mother, Susan Nexen Warner, was the daughter of millionaire George James Warner, who lived on Fourth Street and the Bowery, and owned a substantial amount of property in the neighborhood, including at one time the land on which the Tredwell home was built.

After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1841, Effingham commenced the study of law, working as a clerk until 1843, when his opened his own law practice at 7 Nassau Street.

Effingham H. Nichols NYS Law License, Issued May 18, 1844. (Nichols Family Papers, NYHS).

Effingham H. Nichols NYS Law License, Issued May 18, 1844. (Nichols Family Papers, NYHS).

A Fashionable Wedding

We do not know when or how Elizabeth was introduced to Effingham. Most likely they met through their parents’ friends or through Seabury’s business associates. Alas, no written record exists of the couple’s courtship and wedding. (For a thorough and revealing discussion of the strict rituals of mid-19th century courtship, see Chapter 9, “A Fine Romance,” in Mary L. Knapp’s An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City,1835-65.)

Elizabeth Tredwell (MHM 2002.0114)

Elizabeth Tredwell (MHM 2002.0114)

Effingham Nichols (MHM 2002.0122)

Wedding Dress, American, 1845-50. (Metropolitan Museum).

Wedding Dress, American, 1845-50. (Metropolitan Museum).

The couple were wed by the groom’s father on April 9, 1845, at St. Bartholomew’s Church, then located at Great Jones and Lafayette Place. It is likely that after the church ceremony, the Tredwell family hosted a wedding reception for family and friends in their Greek Revival double parlor.

Elizabeth, undoubtedly aware of the new trend begun five years earlier by Queen Victoria upon her wedding to Prince Albert, may have worn a white or cream colored wedding dress. Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular women’s magazine that was the arbiter of fashion and taste, wrote of the color in 1849:

“It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.”

 Custom also dictated the bridal dress be made of satin and the veil be of Brussels lace “… well enough for city drawing-rooms;” the wreath and bouquet be composed of white flowers (although orange blossoms were popular); and white silk stockings and satin slippers finish the bride’s ensemble. Only a wealthy man like Seabury Tredwell would have been able to afford such finery for his daughter.
.
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The Heiress Is Born!

Lillie Nichols, ca. 1856 (MHM 2002.0242)

Lillie Nichols, ca. 1856 (MHM 2002.0242)

In keeping with the tradition of the time, wherein newlyweds lived with the bride’s family while the groom established his career, the couple resided with Elizabeth’s parents on Fourth Street. Nine years later, on October 30, 1854, their first and only child, Elizabeth Howard “Lillie” Nichols, was born. Elizabeth was 33 years old. Phebe, one of Elizabeth’s sisters, recounted the birth in a surviving letter to her younger sisters, who were at the Tredwell family farm in Rumson, New Jersey:

“The Doctor came at 8 oc in the morning and did not leave until about 8 in the evening. I suppose you are very anxious to see the little stranger, she looks just like the Nichols light hair fair complexion and long fingers just like her daddy. She is the best little thing, and handsomest little creature you ever saw.”

In the early to mid-19th century it would have been highly unusual that nine years would pass before the birth of a couple’s first child. According to historian Judith Walzer Leavitt, in this period an American woman gave birth to an average of seven live children. As motherhood largely defined a woman’s identity, childlessness was usually explained by the high rate of miscarriage and stillbirth during the Antebellum period.

Real Estate Speculator

In addition to his law practice, Effingham became caught up in the mid-19th century Brooklyn real estate boom, in the area now known as the Fort Greene Historic District. Easily accessible to Manhattan by steamboat, the neighborhood attracted the burgeoning middle-class population who took up residence in the new three and four-story brownstone row houses. Between 1851 and 1859, Effingham bought and sold at least seven properties in the area; in 1859, after living for 14 years under Seabury’s roof, Effingham, Elizabeth, and five-year-old Lillie moved to the Brooklyn neighborhood.

Neighbors of the Astors

Between his real estate investments and his law practice, Effingham must have achieved considerable wealth, for in 1864 he followed other members of the fashionable upper class and relocated his family and four Irish servants to a brownstone at 339 Fifth Avenue, at 33rd Street. Several members of the Astor family, including Mr. And Mrs. William Backhouse Astor II, were neighbors at nearby 350 Fifth Avenue (now the site of the Empire State Building), an address that would become the epicenter of New York society, with Caroline Astor as its Queen.

The Nichols’ Fifth Avenue home was known to many Yale graduates for its warm and generous hospitality, for Effingham, described by his colleagues as “a delightful host and companion,” was devoted to his Alma Mater and served actively on the Fairfield County Alumni Association of Yale University. Sadly, the Nichol’s home was one of three brownstones torn down in 1890, nine years after Effingham sold it.

Railroad Baron

Beginning in 1865, Effingham switched his career path from personal law to corporate counsel for the Pacific Railroad and other large railroad enterprises. His involvement, from 1867 to the spring of 1873, necessitated him spending a large portion of his time in Washington, D.C. He had become a wealthy financier with an outstanding reputation among his peers as “a man of force, who strongly influenced his business associates.”

 In his later years, Effingham sold his railroad interests to devote more time to real estate law, and to the management of family interests, notably, the settlement of Seabury’s estate.

Country and City Pastimes

Leland House, Schroon Lake, NY. (Nichols Family Papers, NYHS).

Leland House, Schroon Lake, NY. (Nichols Family Papers, NYHS).

The Nichols family, in addition to spending summers at Greenfield Hill, Connecticut, where Effingham’s extended family resided, vacationed at Leland House, a grand hotel on Schroon Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. They clearly left their mark on the town. Effingham was instrumental in the building of St. Andrew’s Chapel, serving as a warden from its founding in 1880 through at least 1885. He also financed the building, in 1870, of the “Effingham,” the first steam-driven commercial freight and passenger boat on Schroon Lake. In the Adirondacks, Effingham cultivated a deep love of the natural world. He also possessed an artistic nature, and was an occasional writer of prose and poetry. In New York City, he was a member of the Union League Club and the London Society of Science and Art, and a Fellow of the National Academy of Design.

Elizabeth’s Health Fails

The frequent trips to Schroon Lake were most likely attempts to restore Elizabeth’s health. We do not know when she developed the chronic bronchitis that would eventually take her life. A letter from Effingham to his father, dated July 27, 1873, from the Adirondack Mountains indicates that at age 52 she was already ill:

“Elizabeth I think is improving a little. Her fever has left her. But her cough still continues.”

 In another undated letter, Effingham expresses growing concern about Elizabeth:

“Early in the evening the Doctor (Horne of NY) thought she might not live through the night. But she has rallied some and now he thinks we may be able to move her to NY if she continues to rally for three or four days. Poor Lillie has ten times the nerve that I have. It is very sad indeed.”

“A World of Sorrow”

In 1878, writing to Elizabeth’s sister Julia from Schroon Lake, Effingham’s tone is despairing and melancholy:

“Elizabeth is very, very weak. It is very doubtful about being able to move her. This is indeed a world of sorrow.”

Elizabeth was 58 years old when she died on January 7, 1880, at her home at 339 Fifth Avenue. She was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Lillie was 25 years old at the time of her mother’s death.

In October 1881, Effingham wed Caroline Robins of Metuchen, New Jersey. He and his new wife moved to 620 Fifth Avenue, at 50th Street, and then in 1895 to Park Avenue and 75th Street, where he lived until his death. He died at the age of 77 on November 4, 1899, at his summer home in Greenfield Hill, Connecticut.

Lillie never married; she died in 1944 at the age of 90. It was she who inherited the Tredwell home on Fourth Street after her aunt Gertrude’s death; she then sold it to George Chapman in 1934. Thus the Merchant’s House Museum was born.

Reflecting on his life in an essay published in University Magazine in 1892, Effingham wrote:

“Providence has thus far dealt gently with me. I have met with fortune and misfortune, with days of sorrow and days of rejoicing; but my blessings have been greater than I deserved.”

A Lasting Union

Railroad Depot, Effingham, KA, 1958. (www.thenewsleaf.com).

Railroad Depot, Effingham, KA, 1958. (www.thenewsleaf.com).

Although we have no written testimony that sheds light on the marriage of Elizabeth and Effingham, it is apparent from his letters and work on their behalf that Effingham bore deep affection and concern for his wife and her family. The marriage, ended only by death, lasted 35 years.

In 1868, Effingham Howard Nichols had had the distinction of having a town, Effingham, Kansas, named in his honor. As a promoter of the Central Branch Union Pacific Railroad, he was instrumental in the growth of the town. Effingham no doubt was privileged to name at least three of the streets, for they bear the names Seabury, Howard, and most endearingly, Elizabeth.

Sources:

  • ancestry.com. U.S. Newspaper Extractions from the Northeast, 1704-1930. New York Evening Post, 11 April, 1845. Accessed online 3/30/17.
  • ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995. Accessed online 3/30/17.
  • Godey’s Lady’s Book.Etiquette of Trousseau,” August, 1849. www.godeysladysbook.com. Accessed online 4/3/17.
  • King, Greg. A Season of Splendor: The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009.
  • Knapp, Mary. An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City, 1835-65. New York: Girandole Books, 2012.
  • Levitt, Judith Walzer. Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750-1950. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Fort Greene Historic District Designation Report. September 26, 1978. www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/downloads/pdf/reports/FortGreene_DR.pdf. Accessed online 3/31/17.
  • Nichols Family Papers, 1810-1833. Manuscript Collection, New-York Historical Society.
  • Post-Standard, 28 September 1972, p. 30. www.newspapers.com. Accessed online 4/4/17.
  • Proceedings of the New York State Bar Association. Albany, New York, January 15-16, 1901, p. 364. Accessed online 4/4/17.
  • Town & Country, Vol 79, p.14., September 1, 1922. Accessed online 3/29/17.
  • Yale University. Obituary Records of the Graduates of Yale University Deceased from June,1890 – June, 1900. New Haven: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor, 1902, p. 672. Accessed online 3/29/17.
  • Yale University. University Magazine, Vol. 4, 1892, p. 49-51. Effingham Nichols File, Merchant’s House Museum Archives.
  • Yale University Class of 1841. Semi-centennial Historical and Biographical Record. New Haven: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor, 1892, p.152-156. Accessed online 3/29/17.