Category Archives: Widows

Spoken Between the Courses: 1905

SPOKEN BETWEEN THE COURSES

Mr. Bounderby’s wife had not said a word to him since they sat down to dinner, except to remark that the weather was exceedingly warm. Casting a covert look at her across the fish he noticed two deep and ominous lines between her eyebrows.

“Brace up, Bounderby!” he said to himself, and forthwith swallowed a great goblet of wine without drawing breath.

“My dear,” he began, “You seem rather distrait this evening.”

“I—I am far from well, Archibald,” faintly. “The doctor”—

“Ah!” Bounderby drags his chair close to the table and assumes the attitude of a man about to catch a cannon ball in his bare hands. “Why, my dear, I think I never saw you looking so well before.”

“That Is because I have taken pains to conceal my sufferings. Doctor Borax assured me that I am falling rapidly, and nothing short of a trip to Switzerland would save me,” whisking a dainty bit of cambric across her eyes.

“Huh! He doesn’t consider my chances of failing when he gives such expensive prescriptions. Besides, you are the very picture of health.”

“That is the most dangerous sign of all. Nature’s last rally before the end. I feel it here! Here!” Clasping her bosom convulsively and staring at the ceiling.

“Well, now if it is us bad as that,” replies the unsympathetic brute, “I shouldn’t risk the journey. But apart from financial reasons there is another why you shouldn’t go.”

“How can there be any other?”

“Heh? Oh, to be sure! Why, business wouldn’t permit me to go with you, and as for straggling off alone in your feeble health”—

“Oh, I have arranged for all that. Dear mamma will accompany me.”

“Take the old ca — old lady with you? There’s double expense!”

“But what (tragically) does a paltry sum of money weigh against a life?”

“As you say (musingly), what does a paltry sum of money weigh against a life? I give it up.” He relapses into deep thought and then returns to the charge. “But think, Celestina, how people will talk if you spend the summer away from your husband.”‘

“And for idle gossip would you hold me here to perish at your feet?”

Bounderby, in a brown study, rouses at the last words.

“Perish? Feet? Whose feet? Certainly not! But, my love, are you not the least bit selfish? Of course I can deny you nothing, but a man needs woman’s companionship more in summer than any other time,” (He sighs deeply.) “It is then that love’s romance is renewed and the most holy sentiments of the soul awakened. Ah, me,” and bows his head on his breast.

His wife regards him curiously, even with some alarm.

“Since you are bent on going” — after a pause— “better this summer.”

“And why this summer more than another?” icily.

‘There is— er — a possibility I shall not have to spend the silvery evenings alone,” his coward eyes downcast.

“Archibald Bounderby,” nibbling nervously on her handkerchief, “I insist on your explaining your meaning.”

“Oh, it’s nothing that could interest you, my dear. Fact is an old friend of ours has asked me to look her up a house in the neighborhood. It will comfort you when in foreign climes to think that I have a pleasant place to spend the evenings. Won’t it, darling?”

“And might I ask who this person is?” twisting her handkerchief to shreds and displaying ill-concealed emotion.

“Why, certainly, my dear. Of course, you have not forgotten— the former Miss Gabster— she’s a widow now.”

“You mean the creature with dyed hair that angled so shamelessly for you before we were married?” her voice rising shrilly.

Bounderby swallows a chuckle mid shakes hands with himself effusively under the protection of the table. “I certainly knew the lady very well before marriage, but what of that? It will make it all the easier to renew the acquaintance.” The craven Bounderby dares not raise his shameful head, and an ominous silence follows. A servant enters with the next course, removes the remains of the fish and himself.

“Well, my dear, and what are you thinking about?” he asks. She seems to be writing on the table with a fork. Then she gulps hard, as if a croquet ball had lodged in her throat:—

“I— l have been thinking that, after all, it is selfish of me to consider my own happiness first. Wha— what If you should fall ill whe— when I am away,” with a look as if confronted by some horrid vision.

“And your health, my dear,” hardly able to repress his unholy glee.

“Archibald (with tragic gravity), a wife’s place is at her husband’s side. I shall remain.”

Victorious in his villainy, the arch-hypocrite says to himself as he imprints a chaste kiss on his wife’s brow, “Archie, old boy, you were born to be a diplomat!”

Los Angeles [CA] Herald 30 April 1905: p. 30

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  The summer pilgrimage of the Little Woman to some Beauty Spot while her lord and master remained toiling at home in the summer heat was a convention which inspired many jokes and saucy sea-side postcards. We have seen the rules for gentlemen who preferred to think of themselves as “slipping the leash” rather than abandoned by wife and chicks. Mrs Daffodil has mentioned the Summer Girls who posed as married ladies to avoid mashers. Gentleman, too, posed as “grass widowers” as we see in this cartoon.

knew his way about mourning cartoon

Algy: No bereavement, I hope, dear boy? I see you’re in mourning. Neddy: Oh, no, nobody dead. Fact is, I’m off to Rotorua for a week. I want the girls to take me for a widower, and then I’m sure of a good time.

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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Mrs Lincoln’s Bonnet String: 1865

mary todd lincoln bonnet worn to ford's theatre

The bonnet worn by Mrs. Lincoln to Ford’s Theatre on 14 April, 1865, the night President Lincoln was assassinated. http://digitalcollection.chicagohistory.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p16029coll3/id/2592/rec/1

MRS. LINCOLN’S BONNET STRING NOW A TREASURED RELIC IN A MISSOURI HOME

A Bit of Tulle From Headgear the Martyred President’s Wife Wore the Night He Was Assassinated Has Been Preserved and Handed Down in Family of Man in Whose Apartment the Great Emancipator Died.

Even in his lifetime mementoes of President Lincoln were carefully preserved to be passed on as heirlooms. With his tragic death these took on greatly increased significance and importance, and with the growing appreciation of the great emancipator’s place in history they have come to be among the most cherished of possessions.

One of these to which unusual interest attaches now reposes in a small pasteboard box in one of the finest ante-bellum homes in Central Missouri, the residence of Mrs. Charles Carroll Hemenway at Glasgow. It is a string from the bonnet Mrs. Lincoln wore to that fateful performance of “Our American Cousins” at Ford’s theater, April 14, 1865. A mere wisp of white tulle, it has lain all these years, folded several times and carefully protected from the light, together with a letter written by an eye-witness of the tragic scenes in which it figured. Although the bonnet string itself is of purely sentimental value, the letter throws vivid and authentic light on the closing hours in the life of the martyred President.

The bonnet string and the letter were sent in May, 1865, by George Francis of Washington, to his niece, Josephine Hemenway, who at her death, passed them on to her brother, the late Rev. Charles Carroll Hemenway, of Glasgow, Mo. It is from his widow, now wintering in New York City with her daughter, Josephine Hemenway Kenyon—widely known woman physician and editor of the Child Health page for Good Housekeeping magazine—that permission has been obtained to tell the story, perhaps for the first time in print.

Mr. Francis and his wife lived in an apartment house across the street from Ford’s theater, where Lincoln was assassinated. The President was carried to their apartment, but Mr. and Mrs. Francis had retired, so he was taken to a small bedroom at the end of the hall, occupied by a young man. Mrs. Lincoln, in her distraction, cast her bonnet aside and when she departed from the house several hours later, she neglected to take it with her. The young man, knowing that she would adopt the mourning bonnet as was the custom of the period, made no attempt to return her property. Keeping it for his own, he cut from it one of its strings which he gave to the Francis family across the hall.

WILD DAYS IN WASHINGTON.

Mr. Francis’s letter with its detailed account of the occurrences of that tragic night follows with the omission of some family news at its conclusion.

“Washington, D.C.

“May 5, 1865.

“Dear Josephine: Your letter of last week and the one in January reached me in due time. I have been on the point of writing to you for sometime back but we have had so much excitement here, so much to occupy my attention, that it has seemed as if I must be in a dream and I have hardly known what I was about.

“The fall of Richmond, the surrender of Lee’s army and the assassination of the President is all that has been thought of here. The President died in our house and we witnessed that heart-rending scene. I shall never forget that awful night, following as it did one of such general rejoicing. For a week before the whole city had been crazy over the fall of Richmond, and the surrender of Lee’s army. Only the night before, the city was illuminated, and though it has been illuminated several times just before this time it was more general and was the grandest affair of its kind that ever took place in Washington.

“THE PRESIDENT IS SHOT!”

“At the time of the murder we were about getting in bed. I had changed my clothes and shut off the gas when we heard such a terrible scream that we ran to the front window to see what it could mean. We saw a great commotion in the theater, some running in, others hurrying out, and we could hear hundreds of voices mingling in the greatest confusion. Presently we heard some one say ‘the President is shot,’ when I hurried on my clothes and ran across the street as they brought him out of the theater.

“Poor man! I could see as the gas light fell upon his face that it was deathly pale and that his eyes were clouded. They carried him out into the street and toward our steps. The door was open and a young man belonging to the house, standing on the steps, told them to bring him in there, expecting to have him laid upon our bed. But the door of our room being fastened, they passed on to a little room in the back building at the end of the hall. Huldah (Mrs. Francis) remained looing out of the window until she saw them bringing him up our steps, when she ran to get on her clothes.

“Mrs. Lincoln came in soon after, accompanied by major Rathbone and Miss Harris. She was perfectly frantic. ‘Where is my husband? Where is my husband?’ she cried, wringing her hands in the greatest anguish. As she approached his bedside, she bent over him kissing him again and again, exclaiming, ‘How can it be so! Do speak to me.’

NO HOPE FROM THE FIRST.

“Secretary Stanton, Secretary Wells and all of the members of the cabinet except Secretary Seward came in and remained all night. Also Charles Lumm, George Carter, General Augur, General Meigs, two or three surgeons and a good many others. Our front parlor was given up to Mrs. Lincoln and her friends. The back parlor (our bedroom) was occupied by Secretary Stanton. He wrote his dispatches there during the night. Judge Carter held an informal court there, and it was full of people.

“Mrs. Lincoln went in to see her husband occasionally. Robert Lincoln was with her. Reverend Dr. Gurly was there and made a prayer by the bedside of the President, and then in the parlor with Mrs. Lincoln.

Mr. Lincoln was insensible from the first and there was no hope from the moment he was shot. As he lay on the bed, the only sign of life he exhibited was his breathing. About 2 o’clock he began to breathe harder and he breathed with more and more difficulty until he died. After he died, Dr. Gurly made a short prayer over him and then prayed again with Mrs. Lincoln in the parlor.

A CABINET MEETING THERE.

“A cabinet meeting was then held in our back parlor, and soon after the most of the people left. Mrs. Lincoln went soon and in about two hours after he died he was carried away to the President’s room. We saw him the last time up in the capitol the day before he was carried away.

“Things are now resuming their natural appearance, but business seems to keep very quiet….

“Your Uncle

“George Francis.

Kansas City [MO] Star 12 February 1934: p. 18

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  At the head of the article, we find an image of the bonnet worn to Ford’s Theatre by Mrs Lincoln on that tragic night in 1865. The ribbons do not appear to have been removed or altered, but perhaps there was tulle over the present strings or the “tulle” was actually a bit of lace.

One is slightly uncertain of the bonnet’s provenance–it appears to have been purchased by the Chicago Historical Society in 1920, which is when the Society bought the eccentric and eclectic collection of Charles Frederick Gunther, a wealthy confectioner who amassed a wealth of historical artifacts for his own museum, including many relics of the Lincoln assassination, such as the furniture of the President’s death-chamber, as well as the purported skin of the serpent from the Garden of Eden.

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

The Baroness’ Jewel Box: 1870s

 

jewel casket hermann bohm

THE BARONESS’ JEWEL BOX

A Story from the German

The Baroness Rukavina Eltz was the most splendid and dashing personage in the Er Valley. Her castle near Somlyo was the finest specimen of a great residence in all that shadow of the Er Mellek [Érmellék], and she, a Roumanian by birth and a Hungarian by marriage, seemed to unite  all the brilliant characteristics of both these picturesque races.

She was a widow to begin with, and since the animal man has speculated upon the varieties of the angel woman, a widow has been pronounced the most amiable variety of the species. She was very beautiful, tall, svelte, blue eyed, black-haired , piquant, red and white, with the most scornful little mouth and the most delicate profile; her hand and foot were models, although the latter was frequently stamped when she was not pleased. She was–in the third and last place, as preachers say– very rich, and had fallen heiress to two collections of jewels which were almost fabulously valuable. A brilliant creature, the Baroness. She owned villages and vineyards and made a large income every year from her sale of Ruster, a grand wine of a pale golden hue, which had as full and peculiar a flavor as she had herself. The Baroness sent her wine to Vienna, where it was considered equal to Tokay.

Of course, she had suitors, the beautiful, sharp Baroness. They came from Transylvania and Russia, from Roumania and all Hungary, from Austria and all the German Principalities; and for the unlucky wretches about Pus Poki and the Behar Settlement, and the country gentleman of Erdioszegh, they knelt and worshipped in vain as she dashed past them on her fleet thoroughbred, for she was Diana as a huntress and the queen of the Amazons also. Her black horse Tetenyer was said to emit fire from his nostrils when he stopped to breathe.

This grand lady was afraid of nobody, loved nobody, had no friends, save the nuns at the foot of the Rez Gebirge and one old priest who seemed to be deeply in her confidence. Every year she made a grand visit somewhere–Vienna, Paris, Rome, London or St. Petersburg. She spent money like water, made everybody talk, wonder and admire, and where her splendid jewels were the envy of all the Court ladies.

Yes, she was afraid of one man, and that was her steward, Neusiedler, he who for years had managed her vast estates, her vineyards and her wheatfields, her fields and fisheries.

Neusiedler was a crouching, cross eyed, mean-looking German, married to a bold, black eyed woman, who was twice his size, and who lived in the village, near the castle, and who spent her time envying and hating the Baroness. Madame Pasteur, the French companion, and Matilde, the French maid, who never left the Baroness, thought that Neusiedler, and his wife had the evil eye and that they would some day wilt the Baroness. But Rukavina Eltz laughed at this fear, and kept on her course exultant. Still when the yearly pay day came round, and she had to look over accounts with Neusiedler, she did show what she had never shown before–fear.

Among her jewels was a splendid rope of pearl-colored pearls, the rarest thing in the whole world, neither black nor white, but pearl color, with three great emerald pendants, each as large as a small pear. The Emperor always noticed this jewel with a smile and a compliment when the Baroness Rukavina-Eltz went to a court ball at Vienna. He told her that the Empress had nothing half as handsome, and it is to be feared that the Emperor spoke also of the white, firm neck on which the necklace rested, for Rukavina-Eltz was apt to blush and look magnificently well at such moments. Then she had great chains of sapphires as blue as her eyes and some big rubies which the baron had given her (the old Baron, twice her age, who went down into Roumania for her when she was 15.) and she had diamonds, of course—every rich lady has diamonds– and a great box full of engraved amethysts and antique gems, some that Cardinal Antonelli gave her in Rome, for he, too, had admired the wild Baroness.

Indeed, if the Baroness Rukavina Eltz had ever written her memoirs, what a story she could have told! But the end of every woman’s history is that she finally falls in love, and such was the beginning of the end of the story of Rukavina-Eltz. She went to England one summer, and there was a young Lord Ronald Somerset, or a Lord George Levenson Montague, or a young Lord Howard Plantagenet (they mix them up so, these English words, they are not half so individual as our Hungarian names.) who could ride better than she could. This was a terrible blow to the Baroness and she wished herself dead.

But when at dinner the soft-voiced, handsome, tall young Englishman, Sir Lyster Howard Lyster (that was his name after all) sat next to her and talked so well and so complimentary to her seat, ‘cross country, and noticed the pearl-colored pearls, and the emeralds, with his lips, and the neck underneath with his eyes, Rukavina Eltz forgave him, and he began to talk of her home near Somlyo, and it ended in a large English party coming to the Er Valley, under the shadow of the Er Mellek, for a long summer visit. And how they raved about everything—the wine, the horses the scenery, the wild, barbaric splendor of the Baroness’ housekeeping, and how they all hated Neusiedler and his big, black-browed wife, who were invited up to the balls.

There was an English lady, one with very long teeth, and a very long noise, and very high eyebrows, and they called her Lady Louisa. She was very grand and lofty, and Madame Pasteur heard her say one day—“Do you know, dear Baroness, I think you are so very careless—don’t you know? –about those beautiful jewels of yours—do you know?”

“But who could steal them?” said the Baroness, laughing. “There are none like them in all Hungary, and no one would dare wear them, they are so rare!”

‘Ah! But some of these wild people of yours! They might swallow your emeralds, those fierce Croats, the Roumanians; and then you keep them in such open closets and boxes.” Madame Pasteur nodded her meek head, too. She had trembled for the jewels always.

But the Baroness and Sir Lyster began to think of other things and jewels; and there were moonlight rides and walks, and there were long talks and many reveries. Lady Louisa went home, they all went, but Sir Lyster came back.

And then, one evening, Madame Pasteur said afterwards that she saw Neusiedler come in and bully the baroness and she heard him hiss out the words—“Remember if you marry, you lose all. Remember the Baron’s will!”

And Rukavina-Eltz turned pale and said, “Bully, traitor, fiend,” between her shut teeth. She went off to Paris on one of her long visits, and Neusiedler squeezed the tenants and made every one miserable. The castle was shut up and black Tetenyer grew thin in his stable.

When she came back she looked older and more sedate. She went often to see the nuns at the foot of Rez Gebirge. She saw the priest also very often, and Madame Pasteur thougth she was growing devote. But she dressed in her usual dashing colors (for she was a very Roumanian at heart) and she wore one of those scarlet quilted petticoats that the English ladies wore so much; and very pretty it looked, with her dark habit and her dark dresses looped up over it. This, with a scarlet feather in her hat, looked as if the Baroness was thinking of England.

It was a miserable day, that, when Madame Pasteur and Matilda came screaming down the long corridor.

“The jewels are gone! Gone! Gone!’

The Baroness had the great bell of the castle run, and Neusiedler was sent for at once. She was very pale for she loved those pearls and emeralds.

Neusiedler was composed, every look was made to say, “I told you so;” he had always warned her about the jewels.

“What can be done?” asked the Baroness.

“Search, whip, imprison, all who attempt to leave the province,” said Neusiedler, calmly.

“Except women—I will have no women whipped,” said the Baroness.

“I am glad to hear that, “said Neusiedler, laughing his malicious laugh, “for Madame Neusiedler goes to Vienna tomorrow.”

“Ah!” said the Baroness, “you know I could not mean, at any rate, that Madame Neusiedler should be disturbed; send her in my little carriage with the three ponies to Erdiosegh.”

“Your excellency is very condescending,” said Neusiedler, bowing to the ground.

The local police sought everywhere for the lost jewels, but no traces of them could be found. The Baroness sat in a sort of stupor and looked out of the window.

“I will go to England,” said she hastily one day. “Neusiedler, some money, and arrange for me to be gone three months.”

“It is well, Madame,” said the steward.

It was a very roundabout route that the Baroness took for England. When Matilda and Madame Pasteur reached the station at Erdiosegh, they were astonished to see the Baroness dash into the ticket-office and buy tickets for Vienna, and when they arrived, all of them, at her fine hotel at Vienna, who should step out to meet them but Sir Lyster Howard Lyster.

Nothing but the well-known eccentricity of the Baroness apologized to Madame Pasteur for what followed. She commanded two dresses to be made, and that Madame Pasteur should go with her to a public masked ball at the Opera House in Vienna.

“Sir Lyster Howard Lyster will go with us!” said she, as a shade passed over the pale face of her companion.

Oh! That the lady of sixteen quarterings should be seen in such a low place! No; she was not seen! She was masked; but that she should even go! What a sacrifice of pride and of decency, Madame Pasteur thought it, as she saw the Baroness take the arm of one masked man after the other, and then go into the supper room with a party who followed a tall mask in a black domino.

A voice stuck on Madame Pasteur’s ear—was it that of Madame Neusiedler? Was it—could it be?

Yes! And as she threw back mask and hood there sparkled on her neck the pearl-colored pearls and the emerald pendants of the lost jewels. O Heaven!

“The necklace of the Baroness,” shouted the impulsive, the imprudent Madame Pasteur.

It nearly spoiled the plot, for Madame Neusiedler was among the friends and confederates. However, the tall Englishman stepped forward, and the two Viennese policemen arrested the woman.

She behaved with extraordinary coolness, and explained—“It is indeed the necklace of the Baroness, given by her to my husband for moneys which he had advanced to her. Let her deny it if she dare. I have her written acknowledgment of the money, and I have come to Vienna to sell the necklace, where it is well known.”

All gathered around the wonderful necklace, which the Chief of Police put in his breast pocket, removing the woman Neusiedler.

The Baroness went back to her hotel and allowed Madame Pasteur to pass a wretched night. She would explain nothing.

All Vienna was alive when the great case came on, and not a few ladies were glad to hear that the Rukavina-Eltz jewels were in pawn—that envied necklace.

Neusiedler came to his wife’s rescue, and told the story over again. The evidence against the Baroness was damning. She had, according to his story, lived far, far beyond her income, and he had supplied her with money. She had fabricated the story of the lost necklace, to try and cheat him, but here were her signatures,  and here was the Baron’s will, which she was about to try to disregard—his will saying that she should never marry, or, if she did, that she lost all her vast estates.

“Baroness Rukavina Eltz, what have you to say to this? What is your defense?” said the prosecuting counsel.

“Only this!” said the Baroness, holding up in her hand the pearl colored pearls and the emerald drops, the real necklace! On the Judge’s desk lay a facsimile of the famous necklace. The two ornaments looked exactly alike.

“Let an expert be brought and say which is the real necklace and which the imitation one, made in Paris, and used by me to lure this wretched and dishonest thief of a steward on to his destruction!” said the Baroness, with a flash of Roumanian fire in her eyes.

It was true! Neusiedler had been foiled; he had stolen a false necklace, which the Baroness had had made in the Rue de la Paix.

“He has been stealing from me for years; he has doubtless forged a false will of the Baron, for I have found the true one!” said Rukavina Eltz. “I could not unravel the net that he has thrown over me but for this happy thought of tempting him to steal some false jewels. Had he got the real ones, his story would have been plausible. Now, I trust justice is convinced that it is a lie!”

A dreadful noise followed this speech of the spirited Baroness; Neusiedler had fallen down in a fit. Never more would he drink the yellow tinted Ruster; never more would he return to the joys of crushing the peasantry of Somlyo—of cheating the Baroness. The Baroness had cheated him at last. Sold! Sold! Sold! With false pearls and emeralds!

It was a very grand wedding, that of the Baroness to Sir Lyster Howard Lyster, who though only an English country gentleman, proved to be richer than she and who made her a loving and a hunting husband.

The Emperor gave her away, and she wore the pearl-colored pearl with the emerald drops, now become historical.

“Ah! Madame, dear Baroness, please tell me where you have kept the real jewels all these months?” said the pious Madame Pasteur, almost kissing the hem of her mistress’ robes.

The Baroness was dressed for travelling, as her faithful adherent knelt and asked this question. She had on the quilted satin red petticoat; the scarlet of old England.

“Was it in the double locked closet of the north tower?”

“Ah, no! faithful Pasteur, thou knowest Neusiedler had the key to that!”

“Was it in the jewel case of thy great ancestress, the Roumanian Princess?”

“No. Guess again!”

“Was it in the convent of the nuns of Rez Gebirge?”

“No, Pasteur, I never gave them anything to keep but my sins.”

“Was it in the Baron’s strong box in the cellar?”

“No, my dear Pasteur, no. You have the hiding place under your finger. They were quilted into the lining of this red satin petticoat. I owe the idea to that good Lady Louisa. “See here!” and gently raising the edge of her travelling skirt, right over her left foot, the Baroness showed Madame Pasteur a neat little series of pockets, where the jewels had been safely hidden in a scarlet prison.

The Columbian [Bloomsburg PA] 19 August 1881: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  A happy ending, and all due to an undergarment that proved functional as well as decorative.  Never let it be said that fashionable scarlet petticoats are good for nothing but seduction.

The Baroness must, indeed, have been magnificent to turn the head of the Emperor, married to the exquisitely beautiful and equally wild horsewoman, the Empress Elisabeth.

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

Dinnerware of the Dead: 1900

skull mug

Mrs Daffodil has been persuaded (well, “badgered” might be the mot juste) to offer a guest post by that Relentlessly Informative person over at Haunted Ohio, who has found what she feels is an interesting tit-bit about an unusual mourning custom from the United States. Without further ado, Mrs Daffodil introduces Chris Woodyard, author of The Victorian Book of the Dead. 

While working on a monograph on shrouds, I ran across this piece on memorializing the dead at the dinner table. It comes from Pennsylvania, a state particularly rich in interesting folklore and funereal practices. The resourceful Mrs Daffodil uncovered articles about that state’s “death drawer” custom, which also was reported in 1900.

What can we say about a custom that cherishes the tableware of the deceased as domestic relics and a family’s belief in an ongoing presence of the beloved dead?  Is it an expression of “complicated grief,” where the bereaved cannot let go of their sorrow, or a literal way to continue a connection with those lost?

IN MEMORY OF THEIR DEAD

“Oh, yes, I always keep our dead mother’s plate at her place at the table,” said the daughter of a rich eastern Pennsylvania farmer. “We will also keep her knife, fork, spoon, cup and saucer, and her napkin. I don’t know why we do it, only that it is the custom hereabouts among the large landowners. Whenever any grown person dies in the family, especially an unmarried daughter or the mother, her plate at the table is never taken away, save once a month, when it is washed. No one ever sits at that place no matter what the crowd is, no one uses anything belonging to mother. We hold the place sacred.

“Down at the farm of one of our neighbors they never remove the plate of their eldest daughter, who died 20 yrs. Ago. All the table article she used to use, are still there. An no one has ever occupied her narrow bed in her room. Her things are just as she left them, even to the chinaware on her bureau. Her dresses are faded and moth-eaten, and considerable had to be taken away, but a good many of her things are still as she left them.

“There is not so much regard shown for the boys. But when the head of the house dies his vacant chair at the table is never occupied. No one would dare to take that seat. At one large farm they kept his picture in a frame on his chair until one day the glass cracked and the frame split from some unknown cause. To this day they have an idea that the old farmer’s spirit came back and gave that picture a crack, because he didn’t like to see it there. Next they looked for the plate to be knocked off the table, but as that didn’t happen they take it for granted that the farmer thinks that’s all right. Over on another farm, where their oldest son died ten years ago, his room is closed forever, and kept just as he left it, with his gun, boots, clothes, and fishing rods in the corner. They still call it John’s room, and it will so continue until the farm passes into new hands. Not long ago the sale of a farm was nearly blocked when the owner wanted to stipulate in the deed that a certain room was not to be occupied until after the death of the seller.

“We know an aged lady who still pays for two seats in their church. Her husband died 11 years ago. She pays for his seat, and she occupies hers, never his, and no one else ever sits in that seat. Where a child over seven years of age dies, the plate is kept at the table a short time only. Where the child is 15, the plate is kept longer. Where the son or daughter dies, aged 21 or more, then the plate is never removed. I know one place where three grown daughters died within a year of diphtheria. Their plates in a row, are never removed, but fresh flowers are frequently placed near them. Their parents and brothers and sisters have long since ceased their weeping, and the table is no more sad, but everything is merry and happy, and they frequently chat with the dead people just as if they were present. It does no harm, even if it is foolish, as some people say.

“Three years ago an old farmer died five miles from here. He left seven grown children, two sons, and five daughters, all unmarried, and living at home. There is a rule in the family, and it has been so ever since the old gentleman died, that once a week each child shall spend a half hour in the old man’s big rocking chair, and think of him, commune with him, pray for him, ask his advice as to the farm management. They believe that he wants it to be thoroughly understood that he is still the master of that big farm. I guess he is, too, for the children are running the place on the co-operative plan, and they are getting along all right, apparently.

“People have to be very careful of the plates, cups and saucers of the dead. It is considered very bad luck if any piece is broken.”

Boston [MA] Daily Advertiser 13 July 1900: p. 5

This is very reminiscent of the ancient custom of equipping the dead with grave goods, brought to such perfection by the Egyptians, the Vikings, and the nomads of the Siberian steppes.  It also reminds me of the French family who stipulated that the bedroom of their son, killed in the Great War, should be kept as a shrine by the house’s owners “for 500 years” or the stories that Queen Victoria kept Prince Albert’s room as a shrine, commanding that hot water for shaving be brought daily and that the dead man’s clothes should be laid out for him. I haven’t been able to find any contemporary reports that the Queen really did issue orders to this effect, but she was acutely aware of the power of domestic relics, collecting locks of hair, casts of beloved relatives’ hands, and jewellery made from baby teeth. She also directed that a large number of sentimental objects be placed in her own coffin such as a dressing gown of Prince Albert’s and John Brown’s mother’s wedding ring.

In the article on “death drawers,” found by Mrs Daffodil, we find the following passage about a lady who also wanted to take it with her, although on a much more modest scale:

One most unusual request was that a plate, cup and saucer, knife, fork and spoon should be placed in an old woman’s coffin. She had used them for 70 years, and did not wish anyone else to use them when she was gone.

The Sun [New York, NY] 18 February 1900: p. 27

It appears that the custom of setting a place for the dead was not uncommon even outside Pennsylvania.

There is a woman in Atchison who sets a place at the table every day for her husband, who died over a year ago. In his plate she never fails to place a little bouquet of flowers. She believes the dead know what is going on on earth.

The St. Joseph [MO] Herald 19 January 1891: p. 4

At this historical distance, it is hard to know if some diners with the dead were merely trying to cope with their grief or had been driven mad by misfortune.

Sets Table for Dead Wife;

Police Take Him Away

Frank J. Nagle, forty-seven years old, a plate printer, of 457 I street southwest, is in Washington Asylum Hospital today for observation as to his mental condition. The police say he had his table spread for his wife, several months dead, and his two little children, who are in St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum. Nagle recently lost his job at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and this, with his other misfortunes, is believed by his friends to have resulted in temporary mental derangement.

The Washington [DC] Times 16 February 1914: p. 12

This gentleman seemed to have a more balanced attitude, perhaps as a result of his Spiritualist faith. Or perhaps his wealth kept him from being sent to the asylum “for observation.”

SET TABLE FOR THE DEAD.

Menasha Man Had Places for Deceased Members of Family.

Menasha, Wis., Dec. 28. After a final consultation with the spirits death closed the life of Joseph A. Sanford, a wealthy retired lumber dealer of this city. Mr. Sanford was 84 years of age, and had been a resident of Menasha for more than sixty years. He was connected with the Menasha Wooden Ware Company, now the largest plant of its kind in the world, during its infancy; and later attained extensive lumber interests. During the last ten years Mr. Sanford had not partaken of a meal or retired at night without first having the table set for the deceased members of his family. At the retiring hour a fresh baked cake was placed on the table for the spirit members and these were consulted in all matters of importance concerning Mr. Sanford’s life before any action was decided upon.

The Indianapolis [IN] Star 29 December 1907: p. 11

I wish I knew the ending of this story of an unfortunate mother trying to cling to hope.

SHE AWAITS MISSING SON.

Winsted, Conn, December 12. Mrs. Martin Doyle, Sr., of Harwinton, has set a place at the table each meal time for her absent son, Michael, ever since he disappeared on April 3, 1904. After having partaken of supper that evening he walked out and has not since been heard of, although everything possible has been done by his relatives to find him.

In the interval Mrs. Doyle has lost her husband, her home has been destroyed by fire, and her other son, Martin, has become insane and is now in an asylum, leaving her alone.

The Montgomery [AL] Times 12 December 1907: p. 6

In 1883 Engineer John M. Miller, of Ohio, died in a train wreck. Articles commemorating his life mentioned that he believed that the ghosts of a fellow trainman and of his little daughter came aboard his engine to keep him company. Poignantly, he had a place set at his table for the child.

A few years ago Miller lost by death a bright little girl, to whom he was greatly attached, and ever afterward she, too, would nightly and daily get on his engine at a certain place on the road, and ride and talk with him until his train neared Dayton, and then disappear. As in the former case, her seat was kept for her in the cab, and no one allowed to occupy it.

At his home a chair was always set up to the table, the crib in which the child had been rocked drawn near, and a plate and food placed on the table, just as when the little girl lived and prattled. It is even said that the father would look at the chair and talk to its supposed occupant just as he used to do during its lifetime, and what seems strange now is that the wife and mother, an intelligent and highly respected lady, entertained and does now, the same superstitious views in regard to the child, and had the utmost faith in all that her husband ever told her about the ghostly visitations on the road.

Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 12 February 1883: p. 3

In The Ghost Wore Black, I wrote about the young woman who “married” the ghost of her dead fiancé. She, too, would set the table and chat over dinner with the shade of the dear departed. Is such a thing morbid or “foolish;” does it do harm to the grieving?

There is something both sad and yet convivial about dining with the dead. Many cultures practice it; the Hungry Ghost festival, and Dia de los Muertos, for example, bring the living and the dead together once more through food. And we eat together after funerals, reminding ourselves over the funeral baked casseroles that life goes on, that we still live and hunger, until we too can join the Buffet Invisible.

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil can only imagine what Cook would say to such a proceeding…  The custom gives an entirely new meaning to the phrase “coffin plate.”

 

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

Modern Valentine Flowers: 1911

Costly Flower Valentines

No one welcomes St. Valentine’s day more heartily than the florists unless it is the candy dealers. The modern valentine is a far cry from the lace paper and cardboard affair. Also it costs a lot more than the old-fashioned sort. The old time valentine was often a serious proposition—so serious that the sender never dreamed of inclosing his card, knowing that the recipient would have no trouble at all in guessing where it came from. The average young man sent one a year—that is, if he sent any at all. The modern way is different. Oftener than not the donor’s card goes along with the valentine, and if a leading florist is to be believed one young man will send half a dozen floral valentines.

This is speaking generally, of course. There are exceptions, as, for instance, a young man who the other day placed an order with a florist to be delivered to a certain young woman on St. Valentine’s morning by 8 o’clock. He was particular about the hour, wanting to be first in the field, he said. His valentine was to be of violets made into a heart-shaped design ten inches at its widest part, pierced with a slender dagger of solid gold bought at a leading jeweler’s. This was to be inclosed in a pure white satin paper box, tied with four-inch wide violet satin ribbon. The girl who didn’t like that valentine would be hard to please, the florist admitted, even though the donor’s card did go along.

 

Violets for the Girl

Violets, he said, are a popular valentine for the reason that they are a popular corsage decoration. They mean faithfulness, and it is easy to form them into a heart-shaped bunch. In one case instead of sending the usual long violet pin with the flowers, the florist put in a pin supplied by the customer, made of silver, topped with an enamelled Cupid.

“Corsages are in the lead for valentines, next come boxes of cut flowers, preferably roses, next fancy pieces combining flowers and china or silver or gold—the latter, though, usually going to older women,” said the florist.

“Some young men take the trouble to find out a girl’s pet flower and won’t take anything else. A 10-inch across bunch of lilies of the valley is ordered for one young lady and we have orders for gardenia, camellia, and orchid valentines made up in corsage size.

Pink carnations are the favorites of one young woman who will get two dozen of the finest we can send as a valentine.

“White lilacs are ordered for the valentine of a woman who is devoted to this flower, which is not easy to get at this season. I have the privilege of mixing white and pink lilacs if I can’t get really fine white ones.”

One of the most costly valentines ordered at this store is destined for a widow. This is made of the finest specimens of orchids, the sort shading from pink to lilac. It is a three-story affair, standing when finished about three feet high. The lowest round contains two gilded wicker oval baskets, between which rises a tall gilded rod adorned with two oblong gilded vases one above the other. Baskets and vases are lined with zinc and will hold water. When sent each receptacle will be filled with orchids and orchids will drop from one to the other, practically covering the whole frame.

Another orchid valentine is of the same order, but smaller, consisting of one oval basket with a handle following its widest part, and which covered with orchids gives the basket a two-story look.

China cupid in gondola Bonhams.com

China cupid in gondola Bonhams.com

Pink Roses Final.

“Valentines of silver gold or china receptacles filled with flowers did not originate with florists,” a Washington flower dealer said. “I don’t mean large pieces, but dainty, fine, often costly vases and small jardinières which may be used simply as art objects. One of these, in the shape of a gondola, a bunch of cupids sitting in the prow, the whole thing not more than nine inches long, represents a valuable kind of porcelain. I understand, and the article is almost a work of art. This, filled with violets, goes to a lady for a valentine. A silver box with a hinged cover, about 8 by 5 inches and 5 inches deep, was brought in last year to be fixed up with violets for a valentine. It was intended for a jewel box, I believe.

“All sorts of vases in all sorts of shapes are utilized to carry the flower valentine, some of them quite tall and not costly; others smaller and costing a stiff price. These, as a rule, go to older women. When fancy flower pieces are sent to young women the foundation is usually of fancy straw or wood.

“When a man comes in and orders a certain kind of roses and a good many of them sent to a young woman as a valentine I generally take a good look at him, for that sort of order oftener than most others indicates something really doing in the sentiment line. At other seasons to send roses to a girl doesn’t mean nearly so much as when they are sent on St. Valentine’s day. Roses by common consent mean love, and when a man picks out the deepest pink variety in the store—well, as I said before, it usually means something doing. Send his card with it? Yes, indeed.”

The candy dealers, too, have taken to using all sorts of china receptacles filled with bonbons for valentines. Some are low and flat; others two stories high; not unlike an airship, and each when divested of the candy is a pretty ornament for table or cabinet.

One variety of the two-story pattern has a hollow champagne bottle poised aloft and filled with bonbons. The lower part is decorated china and the bottle is removable.

In the leading confectioners’ exquisite example of Dresden and of Sevres china shaped as boats, pony carts, wheelbarrows, and automobiles are included in the novel candy holders provided for those able to pay pretty well for a valentine, and though the connection between sentiment and bric-a-brac is not very clear, at the same time this is the style of valentine the up-to-date girl is quite likely to prefer.

The Washington [DC] Post 12 February 1911: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Violets, in the language of flowers, mean modesty, love, and faithfulness. If they are white, “candor” or “innocence.”  They have long been a staple of Valentine’s Day; they are also associated with half-mourning. There is a moral there somewhere, but Mrs Daffodil does not care to dwell on it.

One does wonder what the language of flowers has to say about a three-feet-high arrangement of orchids destined for a widow? While orchids signify “beauty” and “refinement” in the language of flowers, Mrs Daffodil associates them with the nouveau riche and “stage-door Johnnies” of the Music Halls. Perhaps the giver of the orchids intends the recipient to exchange her weeds for flowers.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

How Mrs Stum Arranged a Funeral: 1875

mourning ladies Quad's Odds 1875

ONE IN A THOUSAND

How Mrs. Stum Arranged the Details of the Funeral.

If all women were as cool and matter-of-fact as Mrs. Stum! But she is one in a thousand. She was over at Mrs. Moody’s, on Macombe street, the other day, her iron-gray hair combed down flat and her spectacles adjusted to gossip range, when she suddenly arose and said:

“Mrs. Moody, be calm. Where do you keep the camphor bottle?”

“Why?” asked the surprised Mrs. Moody.

“Because they are bringing your husband through the gate on a board! I think he’s smashed dead, but be calm about it! I’ll stay right here and see to things!”

Mrs. Moody threw up her arms and fell down in a dead faint, and Mrs. Stum opened the door as the men laid the body on the porch.

“Is he dead?” she asked in an even tone.

“I think so,” answered one of the men; “the doctor’ll be here in a minute.”

The doctor came up, looked at the victim and said life had fled, adding:

“His back and four or five of his ribs are broken.”

“That’s sensible, that is,” said Mrs. Stum, gazing at the doctor in admiration. “Some physicians would have said that his vertebrae was mortally wounded, and would have gone on to talk about the ‘larynx,’ the ‘arteries,’ the ‘optic nerves,’ and the ‘diagnosis.’ If he’s dead it’ll be some satisfaction to know what he died of. Well, lug in the body and send a boy after an undertaker.”

The men carried the body through to a bed-room, and Mrs. Stum went back to Mrs. Moody, who was revived and was wailing and lamenting.

“Don’t, Julia—don’t take on so,” continued Mrs. Stum. “Of course you feel badly, and this interferes with taking up carpets and cleaning the house, but it’s pleasant weather for a funeral, and I think the corpse will look as natural as life.”

“Oh! My poor, poor husband,” wailed Mrs. Moody.

“He was a good husband, I’ll swear to that,” continued Mrs. Stum; “but he was dreadfully careless to let a house fall on him. Be calm, Mrs. Moody! I’ve sent for one of the best undertakers in Detroit, and you’ll be surprised at the way he’ll fix up the deceased.”

When the undertaker came in Mrs. Stum shook hands and said that death was sure to overtake every living thing sooner or later. She mentioned the kind of coffin she wanted, stated the number of hacks, the hour for the funeral, and held the end of the tape-line while he measured the body.

Several other neighbors came in, and she ordered them around and soon had everything working smoothly. The widow was sent to her room to weep out her grief, doors and windows were opened, and as Mrs. Stum built up a good baking fire, she said:

“Now, then, we want pie and cake and sauce and raised biscuit and floating islands. He’ll have watchers, and the watchers must have plenty to eat.”

When the baking had been finished the coffin and undertaker arrived, and the body was placed in its receptacle. Mrs. Stum agreed with the undertaker that the face wore a natural expression, and when he was going away she said:

“Be around on time. Don’t put in any second-class hacks, and don’t have any hitch in the proceedings at the grave!”

From that hour until two o’clock of the second day thereafter she had full charge. The widow was provided with a black bonnet, a crape shawl, etc., the watchers found plenty to eat, a minister was sent for, eighteen chairs were brought from the neighbors and everything moved along like clock-work.

“You must bear up,” she kept saying to the widow. “House cleaning must be done, that back yard must be raked off, and the pen stock must be drawed out, and you haven’t time to sit down and grieve. His life was insured, and we’ll go down next week and select some lovely mourning goods.”

Everybody who attended said they never saw a funeral pass off so smoothly, and when the hack had landed the widow and Mrs. Stum at her door again, Mrs. Stum asked:

“Now, didn’t you really enjoy the ride, after all?”

And the widow said she wouldn’t have believed that she could have stood it so well.

Detroit Free Press.

Macon [GA] Weekly Telegraph 4 May 1875: p. 7

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil hopes that, should she ever find herself in a similarly worrying situation, she would be as resourceful as Mrs Stum, (the name means “silent,” in the Germanic tongue) if not quite so painfully candid.

There were, in point of fact, a thousand-and-one little duties to consider when organising a funeral; Mrs Stum’s quiet efficiency touches on several of them: providing the widow with black clothing without her having to leave the house; opening doors and windows, presumably under the “superstitious” belief that it would aid the the dear departed in departing; baking plenty of food for the “watchers,” who would sit up all night to ensure that the dead were not left alone—such vigils were thirsty (and hungry) work. The “hacks” ordered were the carriages to carry the family and friends to the grave and a successful funeral was often judged by the number of carriages following the hearse to the grave.

Mrs Daffodil has previously written of “fiends for a funeral,” who relished the rare treat of a carriage ride to the cemetery, while that funereal person over at Haunted Ohio has appropriated the same title for a post about individuals with a peculiar taste for attending the funerals of total strangers.  Undertakers ultimately had to resort to special cards and tickets of invitation to keep away the interlopers. One feels instinctively that Mrs Stum would have instantly spotted these funeral fanciers and turned them out of the cemetery.

For more on Victorian mourning customs in a (mostly) more sombre vein, see The Victorian Book of the Dead by Chris Woodyard.

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

“Educated Women of Gentle Birth, Destitute and Alone:” 1903

christmas dinner tableA

The Christmas Table

A Novel Christmas Banquet.

By Elizabeth L. Banks.

“Educated Women of Gentle Birth, Destitute and Alone”

So began the strange invitation to a strange Christmas banquet given a few years ago in New York by a well-known church and society woman.

I attended the banquet in my capacity as newspaper reporter, and I speak of it as “strange” because, indeed, it was the strangest as also the most touching banquet I ever attended.

For a certain part of that Christmas Day I was on duty for my newspaper, and it was my task to report the doings at various charity Christmas feasts which were that day given to the city’s poor.

Altogether merry and jolly I found the partakers of the newsboys’ dinner, when I peeped upon them at the beginning of my round. It fairly did my heart good to see them in their hundreds gathered about immense tables, whereon were turkey and cranberry sauce, and escalloped oysters, and plum puddings, and mince pies and celery, and everything else the Christmas appetite could fancy. I watched them scramble into their seats, grab the turkey-legs with their two hands, bite off the meat, use their knives instead of forks, and their fingers sometimes in place of either.

“Why, say,” said one of the grinning youngsters to me, “w’at ye doin’ at our dinner? You ain’t no newsboy!”

“No,” I answered; “but I’m what might be called a ‘newswoman,’ because I’m going to write all about your Christmas dinner for to-morrow’s paper.”

“Hurrah! Hurrah!” came the chorus from the boys. “Say, fellers, ain’t it fine? This yere lady’s goin’ to write about our dinner for her paper. Say, miss, just put my name in as one o’ the guests, will ye? I’m Billy Snyder. An’ there’s me brother, an’ Sam Jones, too—don’t forget ’em, will ye? Say, just take the names of all of us, an’ print ’em, and when I calls out to-morrer’s paper I’ll shout: ‘Yere’s yer mornin’ paper—all about the newsboys’ dinner—buy a paper, mister, and read all the names of us fellers what was there!'”

It was “merry Christmas” with those newsboys, sure enough. Some good people were giving them a free dinner, and they were enjoying it as only boys of their ilk could enjoy such a feast. There was but one cloud upon their happiness—the fact, which I tried to impart to them as gently as possible, that I could not put their names in the paper because of lack of space. But I got a good report of their merriment, and out again into the white Christmas weather I went, then on a cable car to the “up-town” or fashionable part of New York.

“To Educated Women Of Gentle Birth, Destitute And Alone.—You are invited

by Mrs. __ to a Christmas Dinner here in her house to-day at two o’clock.”

In the drawing-room window of one of the brown-stone houses was the sign, the magnet that had drawn me from the newsboys’ dinner on the east side to another Christmas dinner on the west side. A few days before Christmas the invitation had been published in the various New York newspapers: and then, on Christmas Day, lest any of the wished-for guests might not have read the papers, there shone from the window of the brown-stone mansion the light to guide them thither.

At the door of the drawing-room stood the hostess, receiving her guests.

“A merry Christmas! I am pleased to see you,” was her greeting to each one that passed her. She extended her hand, and several times, as guest after guest passed into the beautiful room beyond, I noticed a pained, half-bewildered look on the face of the hostess, and once or twice her eyes were bright with tears.

No servant stood near to announce the guests, since all were nameless for the day. Some, the hostess recognised as friends of former years; some, I, too, knew as grand dames of a time not long gone by; but to each and all only the cheery greeting, “Merry Christmas! I am pleased to see you,” was given, and, finally, when a hundred of New York’s gentlewomen — “destitute and alone”—had passed through the hospitable portal, the doors of the dining-room were thrown open, and the guests took their places at the tables.

The table linen was of the finest damask, the silver shone resplendent, the china was beautiful and costly, the glasses thin and dainty, and the table decorations were such as only taste and wealth could provide. In front of each cover was a tiny cut-glass vase of flowers.

Around the tables there were gathered sweet-faced women with white hair: women with tired, careworn faces and dark hair; and there were some young girls whose beauty shone out in spite of the melancholy of their eyes. All were well dressed—that is, there was nothing cheap or loud or gaudy about the apparel of the guests—but many of the hats and dresses were a bit old-fashioned, and none of the clothes were absolutely new.

A handsome woman of about forty was wearing a black satin dress: satin which, when purchased, must have cost five or six dollars a yard. Her hat, old and behind the times as it was, showed that it had originally been bought of a certain milliner who is known to supply only the richest of New York’s women with headgear. Her boots were of the finest kid, and had been mended in a neat, though amateurish, way by the wearer. One knew instinctively that her feet were encased in silk hose, doubtless much darned.

“I really could not eat any dinner today,” she said, as she tried to smile up at her hostess. “Just a cup of coffee— that is all. You see, my head…”

But it was not her head. It was her stomach! As I looked at her I knew the woman was starving; that she had got past the ravenously hungry stage. Two days before, perhaps, she might have felt hungry, but now she felt only faint and weak, and craved for her Christmas dinner nothing but a cup of coffee. Some years before, she had been giving charity dinners herself, and called in the children of the poor and fed them in her own palatial home. Her hats and dresses were then of the latest style and make, bought in London and Paris, where she had been accustomed to go every year.

At a table there sat society belles of a quarter of a century ago. There was one woman who had owned her hundreds of slaves before the war between North and South; there was the daughter of an honoured judge; the wife of an absconding defaulter; the widow of a clergyman who bad once preached to one of the wealthiest of eastern congregations; there were some women and girls who were trying hard to earn a living by office work, as dressmakers, as milliners, but who, because they were gentlewomen who had never been trained to pounce upon the “almighty dollar” and catch it as it came near, were failures, and must needs be pushed to the wall by the other working women of New York—the less refined and less dainty, but the stronger and better trained.

When the dinner was over and some of the guests were leaving, a woman I had known in another city a few years previously, and whose entertainments I had many times written up for the society columns of the paper on which I had then held a position, recognised me and turned aside to speak to me.

“You here! You here!” she whispered in an agitated voice. “Surely you cannot be going to write up this as a brilliant social function, with the names of the guests and the description of the gowns we are wearing! Promise me one thing for the sake of the days when I used to help you to fill your society page: you will not put my name in among the names of the guests at this dinner.”

“I am not putting any names in,” I answered. “Indeed, I am to write very little about it, except to say that a dinner to gentlewomen was given this year, and that I hope every Christmas to follow may see another such dinner.”

She pressed my hand, and went out silently. I left the house and continued my reportorial round. How happy were the faces at all the other “charity dinners “! How the idea of being “written up” appealed to the newsboys, and the bootblacks, and the cripples, and the inhabitants of the slums! Truly, it was “merry Christmas,” indeed, at all the other places. There were snipes and cheers, and a gulping down of good things. Only in the brown-stone mansion where a rich gentlewoman presided at a table where were gathered these other gentlewomen, “destitute and alone,” did I find sadness on every face. Yet, of all the Christmas charities, I doubt not that this was the one most needed and most deserved and appreciated by those to whom the invitations were sent out.

As I have said, it all happened a few years ago in New York, and all my Christmases since then have been spent in London. Here also I have, Christmas after Christmas, gone about to report upon the feasts spread for the poor. I have heard the smacking of the newsboys’ lips over the huge bites of prime Christmas roast beef; I have heard the watercress and flower girls counting aloud the plums in the slices of plum-pudding which lay upon their plates; I have seen “the poor” of the East End heartily enjoying their Christmas goose with apple sauce, and I have seen the little children of the mission chapels laughing gleefully as they played with their Christmas toys—all these things have I seen provided by London’s rich and well-to-do for London’s poor.

But not yet have I known of a feast provided for London’s women of gentle birth, “destitute and alone,” of whom there are many hundreds more than there are in New York.

There are many of them who live in the topmost, backmost, cheapest little rooms of apartment houses in the most select of West End neighbourhoods, in order, as they will say with a mirthless smile, to “have a good address.” For they do not like anyone to know they are poor, these gentlewomen who are “destitute and alone.” They are supposed by their landladies to “go out for their meals.” Biscuits and watercress, with sometimes a bit of cold ham or beef, bought ready cooked, or an egg, surreptitiously boiled over a little spirit stove, form the bulk of their none too frequent meals. Their clothes look often out-of-date, but their skirts do not look drabbled or dirty, for when they are in their little rooms they mend and brush and patch and darn, re-trim their hats with the same old flowers and ostrich-tips, and the same old ribbons, turned and pressed.

In her room the poor lady has no Christmas fire—but who suspects that? She has neither roast goose nor roast beef of Old England for dinner. She will eat a biscuit and some cheese—that is, unless this year some London woman follows the example of the New York woman, and gives a novel Christmas dinner.

But would she go if she were invited? Would scores of others like her become guests at a party where the hostess took them by the hand and wished them “A merry Christmas.” inquiring not their names, stipulating only that they should be women of gentle birth, “destitute and alone “?

I am not sure: I cannot know; but I believe there would be many guests at such a Christmas feast in London. The hostess must be herself a woman of gentle birth and tact and diplomacy, She must not, on the day of the feast, call in her friends to help her receive her guests. It were better she should receive alone. She must not give over the entertainment of her guests to her servants. Though she should advertise her intention of receiving in the newspapers, she should see that no representatives of the press are there to report upon the identity of her guests. Indeed, if there were any possible way of keeping the address where the dinner is to be given out of the papers, it would be preferable.

The door of the hospitable house where the feast was to be given could not, of course, be left open during the two or three hours when the dinner was in progress. Both the wintry weather and the danger of the entrance of thieves would forbid that. The knocker would be used by the guests, the door opened by a servant, and the guests conducted to the drawing-room where the hostess awaited them. That is all. It requires a careful thinking out, management, and delicate handling.

The Quiver 1903

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: While the thought was kindly meant, the luncheon for those of education and gentle birth (did the hostess require a certificate?) sounds infinitely depressing, not unlike those dreary economies practised by the destitute. One wonders if those in attendance felt worse afterwards, having been given a brief glimpse of their former lives, like the visions of the Little Match Girl as she lit matches in the snow.

Mrs Daffodil fears that, though laudable is the aim of giving impoverished gentlewomen a holiday treat, there is an unpleasant suggestion that the formerly rich cannot bear poverty as easily as can those born to it.  Mrs Daffodil finds offensive the notion that the daughters of the rich cannot compete with the “less refined and less dainty, but the stronger and better trained.”  If training to “pounce” is needed, then perhaps the kind hostesses would consider subscribing the money spent on an afternoon’s entertainment to fund instruction in useful and remunerative trades.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.