by Ann Haddad
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.
In the mid-19th century, romantic love was viewed as the solid rock upon which a healthy marriage was built; 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.
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.
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.”
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 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:
“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
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.”
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.
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,
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!
- 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.
by Esther Crain
Our thanks to guest blogger Esther Crain.
Esther Crain, a native New Yorker, is the author of 2016’s The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910 (Hachette) and the New-York Historical Society’s New York City in 3D in the Gilded Age (Black Dog & Leventhal) published in 2014. She is the founder and editor behind Ephemeral New York, a website that chronicles the city’s past, which was been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, New York Daily News, and New York Post.
Introducing the New Woman
They began appearing in the 1890s: young women, their hair pinned back or piled in loose waves under elaborate hats, striding confidently down Broadway and Fifth Avenue. Dispensing with the petticoats and heavy corsets that weighed their mothers down a generation earlier, these middle- and upper-class women dressed in crisp, high-collared shirtwaists and long tailored skirts—garments which scandalously rose several inches off the ground when they pedaled a bicycle on Riverside Drive or strolled along gusty 23rd Street.
This army of “new women,” as they were called, embraced the progressive thinking of the later Gilded Age. Not content to be confined to the sphere of the home, they took part in the social world of theaters and restaurants. Some attended new women’s colleges like Hunter and Barnard. Many pursued something of a career: in settlement houses, as typists, or in the arts. Perhaps they lived independently. “Bachelor girl” apartments were the latest fad reported by the press, which was endlessly fascinated by the New Woman’s comings and goings.
A City Captivated
“There had been much said in the newspapers concerning the New Woman and what kind of creature she was,” stated the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in March 1895. “The pictorial papers had ridiculed her, showing her standing at bars drinking on street corners smoking cigars. This ridicule, however, would not prevent the coming of the New Woman. She would occupy any and every place, which an intelligent human being could fill: the bar, the pulpit, the legislative hall, and will be found in every trade and profession.”
Older generations were shocked by her self-reliance and sense of purpose in the wider city. Her male counterparts took her autonomy in stride and enjoyed her propensity to play tennis and ride a bike. Cultural critics worried about her morals. Pioneering women’s rights activists largely cheered her on. “The finest achievement of the new woman has been personal liberty,” wrote writer and champion of women’s freedom Winnifred Harper Cooley in 1904.
What Did Gertrude Tredwell Think?
The New Woman must have been an alien creature to Gertrude Tredwell. Born in 1840, Gertrude was a product of a much smaller New York that barely extended past Union Square. At the time of her birth, the city’s population hovered at approximately 300,000; by 1860, about half a million more people inhabited New York, including immigrants largely from Ireland and Germany whose lives were vastly different than that of the Tredwell family.
In the pre-Civil War city, men of means like Gertrude’s merchant father, Seabury Tredwell, occupied the outside worlds of business and politics and could freely enjoy restaurants, saloons, and sports. Women like herself, her mother, and her sisters were supposed to be “the angel of the home,” raising children, managing her household, and influencing the moral development of her family.
Like the typical New Woman, Gertrude was born into comfortable financial circumstances. But the comparison ends there. The New Woman was determined to develop independence and live freely, her movement and safety enhanced by electric streetlights and the new whirring cable cars. Gertrude, on the other hand, didn’t leave the Tredwell home. She came into the world at 29 East Fourth Street, grew up in an enclave of wealth and refinement, and died in the same house, amid a much shabbier neighborhood, 93 years later.
The Fight for Equal Rights
Within the span of Gertrude Tredwell’s life, the equal rights era that led to the New Woman was ushered in. After the Civil War, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony relaunched their fight for women’s rights, including the right to the vote. Working from an office on Newspaper Row, Stanton and Anthony published their weekly paper, Revolution. (“Men their rights, and nothing more; women their rights, and nothing less” was the motto.) They spoke out at lecture halls like Cooper Union at Cooper Square and Steinway Hall, on East 14th Street, both not far from the Tredwell home.
As the Gilded Age continued, individual women made strides. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the nation’s first female doctor, opened a medical school for women. Despite the fact that she was legally barred from voting, Victoria Woodhull announced her quest to be the first woman president and ran on the new Equal Rights party ticket. Josephine Shaw Lowell founded the city’s Charity Organization Society. Nelly Bly and Alice Austen pioneered a type of journalism that called for social changes. Lillian Wald and Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch founded settlement houses and sparked a wider movement to boost opportunities for women and children.
The Working Girl Makes Her Entrance
Rising at the same time as the Equal Rights movement and this new professional class of women was another Gilded Age female archetype: the working girl. With men off on the battlefields during the Civil War, women took their place. These young, often immigrant women toiled in factories, clerked in offices, cooked and cleaned in private homes, and acted as shop girls in the dry goods emporiums of Ladies Mile. After the end of the war, they continued to work. In 1869, one-fourth of all women in New York did paid labor, according to the New York Herald.
Upper class women tended to be indifferent to them. (“While yet your breakfast is progressing, and your toilet is unmade, comes forth through Chatham Street and the Bowery, a long procession of them by twos and threes to their daily labor,” wrote Fannie Fern in an 1868 essay aimed at the middle class.) Even so, the mass of working women changed the look of the city, joining men in streetcars on the way to work in the morning and back to their family home or boardinghouse when the day was done. They were the subject of plays and popular songs. No labor laws mandated that women and men in the same job get equal paychecks, so they were paid less. Harassment on the job was a problem, as was unscrupulous male bosses who wouldn’t pay up. To help, the Working Women’s Protective Union formed in 1863. Located on Bleecker Street, it was a few blocks—but worlds away—from the Tredwell home.
The Suffragist Hits the Streets
As women’s presence and power increased in New York, many coalesced behind one main goal: the right to vote. In the 1900s and 1910s, suffrage supporters rallied in Union Square and held many parades on Fifth Avenue that were catnip to the media, always obsessed with the New Woman and her sisters in arms. In 1912, about 10,000 parade marchers demanded the vote. In 1915, the number of marchers swelled to 40,000. In 1917, New York voters gave women the right to cast their ballots—three years before the 19th amendment was ratified.
Did Gertrude register to vote along with more than 414,760 women from New York State following the 1917 decision? No. But it’s hardly surprising. She would have been 77 years old by then, a member of the 19th century wealthy merchant class now living in the progressive 20th century, when the city’s population was closing in on 5 million. Her last surviving sister died in 1909, leaving Gertrude impoverished and alone.
Surely she was aware of the enormous changes in the status of women in her lifetime. She must have read newspaper accounts of Stanton and Anthony; certainly she came across the New Woman, striding along Broadway or socializing with friends. Gertrude likely watched shop girls head to factories and store counters from her window on East Fourth Street, now a rougher-edged neighborhood that was less residential and bent toward light manufacturing. What did she think of them and the new world women inhabited? If only the Merchant’s House walls could talk.
Tredwell family research contributed by William Herrlich.