Tag Archives: vanity

A Corpse Dressed for a Ball: 1830s


death and the maiden Death's Doings 1827


“’Tis no use talking to me, mother, I will go to Mrs P—.’s party to—night, if I die for it—that’s flat! You know ‘as well asl do, that Lieutenant N— is to be there, and he’s going to leave town to-morrow—so up I go to dress.”

“Charlotte, why will you be so obstinate? You know how poorly you have been all the week; and Dr — says late hours are the worst things in the world for you.”

“ Pshaw, mother! nonsense, nonsense.”

“Be persuaded for once, now, I beg! Oh, dear, dear, what a night it is too—it pours with rain, and blows a perfect hurricane! You’ll be wet, and catch cold, rely on it. Come now, won’t you stop and keep me company to-night? That’s a good girl!”

“Some other night will do as well for that, you know; for now l’ll go to Mrs P ——’s if it rains cats and dogs. So up—up—up I go! ” singing jauntily, ‘Oh, she shall dance all dress’d in white, So ladylike…’

Such were, very nearly, the words, and such the manner, in which Miss J—— expressed her determination to act in defiance of her mother’s wishes and entreaties. She was the only child of her widowed mother, and had, but a few weeks before, completed her twenty-sixth year, with yet no other prospect before her than bleak single blessedness. A weaker, more frivolous, and conceited creature never breathed—the torment of her amiable parent, the nuisance of her acquaintance. Though her mother’s circumstances were very straitened, sufficing barely to enable them to maintain a footing in what is called the middling genteel class of society, this young woman contrived, by some means or other, to gratify her penchant for dress, and gadded about here, there, and every where, the most showily dressed person in the neighbourhood. Though far from being even pretty-faced, or having any pretensions to a good figure—for she both stooped and was skinny—she yet believed herself handsome; and by a vulgar, flippant forwardness of demeanour, especially when in mixed company, extorted such attentions, as persuaded her that others thought so.

For one or two years she had been an occasional patient of mine. The settled pallor—the tallowiness of her complexion, conjointly with other symptoms, evidenced the existence of a liver complaint; and the last visits I had paid her, were in consequence of frequent sensations of oppression and pain in the chest, which clearly indicated some organic disease of her heart.  I  saw enough to warrant me in warning her mother of the possibility of her daughter’s sudden death from this cause, and the imminent peril to which she exposed herself by dancing, late hours, etc.; but Mrs —’s remonstrances, gentle and affectionate as they always were, were thrown away upon her headstrong daughter.

It was striking eight by the church clock, when Miss J—, humming the words of the song above mentioned, lit her chambercandle by her mother’s, and withdrew to her room to dress, soundly rating the servant-girl by the way, for not having starched some article or other which she intended to have worn that evening. As her toilet was usually a long and laborious business, it did not occasion much surprise to her mother, who was sitting by the fire in their little parlour, reading some book of devotion, that the church chimes announced the first quarter past nine o’clock, without her daughter’s making her appearance. The noise she had made overhead, in walking to and fro to her drawers, dressing-table, etc. had ceased about half an hour ago, and her mother supposed she was then “engaged at her glass, adjusting her hair,” and preparing her complexion.

“Well, I wonder what can make Charlotte so very careful about her dress to—night!” exclaimed Mrs J—, removing -her eyes from the book, and gazing thoughtfully at the fire; “Oh! it must be because young Lieutenant N — is to be there. Well, I was young myself once, and it’s very excusable in Charlotte—heigho!” She heard the wind howling so dismally without, that she drew together the coals of her brisk fire, and was laying down the poker, when the clock of — church struck the second quarter after nine.

“Why, what in the world can Charlotte be doing all this while?” she again inquired. She listened—“I have not heard her moving for the last three.quarters of an hour! I’ll call the maid and ask.” She rang the bell, and the servant appeared.

“Betty, Miss J— is not gone yet, is she?”

“La, no, Ma’am,” replied the girl, “I took up the curling irons only about a quarter of an hour ago, as she had put one of her curls out; and she said she should soon be ready. She’s burst her new muslin dress behind, and that has put her into a way, Ma,am.”

“Go up to her room, then, Betty, and see if she wants any thing; and tell her it’s half-past nine o’clock,” said Mrs J—. The servant accordingly went up stairs, and knocked at the bed-room door, once, twice, thrice, but received no answer. There was a dead silence, except when the wind shook the window. Could Miss J— have fallen asleep? Oh, impossible! She knocked again, but unsuccessfully, as before. She became a little flustered; and, after a moments pause, opened the door, and entered. There was Miss J— sitting at the glass. “Why, la, Ma’am,” commenced Betty in a petulant tone, walking up to her, “here have I been knocking for these five minutes, and”— Betty staggered,horror-struck, to the bed, and uttering a loud shriek, alarmed  Mrs J—, who instantly tottered up stairs, almost palsied with fright.—Miss J— was dead!

I was there within a few minutes, for my house was not more than two streets distant.  It was a stormy night in March: and the desolate aspect of things without—deserted streets—the dreary howling of the wind, and the incessant pattering of the rain, contributed to cast a gloom over my mind, when connected with the intelligence of the awful event that had summoned me out, which was deepened into horror by the spectacle I was doomed to witness. On reaching the house, I found Mrs J— in violent hysterics, surrounded by several of her neighbours, who had been called in to her assistance. I repaired instantly to the scene of death, and beheld what I shall never forget. The room was occupied by a white-curtained bed. There was but one window, and before it was a table, on which stood a looking-glass, hung with a little white drapery; and various articles of the toilet layscattered about—pins, brooches, curling-papers, ribands, gloves, etc. An arm-chair was drawn to this table, and in it sat Miss J—, stone dead. Her head rested upon her right hand, her elbow supported by the table; while her left hung down by her side, grasping a pair of curling irons. Each of her wrists were encircled by a showy gilt bracelet. She was dressed in a white muslin frock, with a little bordering of blonde. Her face was turned towards the glass, which, by the light of the expiring candle, reflected with frightful fidelity the clammy fixed features, daubed over with rouge and carmine—the fallen lower jaw—and the eyes directed full into the glass, with a cold, dull stare, that was appalling. On examining the countenance more narrowly, I thought I detected the traces of a smirk of conceit and self-complacency, which not even the palsying touch of Death could wholly obliterate. The hair of the corpse, all smooth and glossy, was curled with elaborate precision; and the skinny sallow neck was encircled with a string of glistening pearls. The ghastly visage of Death thus leering through the tinselry of fashion—the “vain show” of artificial joy—was a horrible mockery of the fooleries of life!

Indeed, it was a most humiliating and shocking spectacle. Poor creature! struck dead in the very act of sacrificing at the shrine of female vanity!—She must have been dead for some time, perhaps for twenty minutes, or half an hour, when I arrived, for nearly all the animal heat had deserted the body, which was rapidly stiffening.  I attempted, but in vain, to draw a little blood from the arm. Two or three women present proceeded to remove the corpse to the bed, for the purpose of laying it out. What strange passiveness! No resistance offered to them while straightening the bent right arm, and binding the jaws together with a faded white riband, which Miss J— had destined for her waist that evening!

On examination of the body, we found that death had been occasioned by disease of the heart. Her life might have been protracted possibly for years, had she but taken my advice, and that of her mother. I have seen many hundreds of corpses, as well in the calm composure of natural death, as mangled and distorted by violence; but never have I seen so startling a satire upon human vanity, so repulsive, unsightly, and loathsome a spectacle as a corpse dressed for a ball!

Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician, Volume 1, Samuel Warren, 1835

corpse at a ball deaths doings 1928

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: There was an entire genre of cautionary literature about the perils of ball-going. Young ladies were warned against late hours, over-heated rooms, unduly stimulating beverages, low-cut gowns, and over-familiar gentlemen. They were cautioned to tell their Mothers everything, and to wear wraps coming and going, lest they end a frigid corpse like Frozen Charlotte. One would think, to read these well-intentioned screeds, that a young person’s reputation, virtue, health, and life were at dire risk whenever she left the house. Here is a sample specimen, entitled “Eleven Modes of Suicide.” Mrs Daffodil’s readers will consider themselves warned.

Dr Warren, while he may have derived much satisfaction at his diagnostic ability, seems a censorious, misogynistic prig. Given what Mrs Daffodil knows of how the face of a corpse strangely alters after death, it is unlikely that even the most assiduous observer could detect a “smirk of conceit” in the countenance of the recently deceased. One fears that the doctor’s hateful personal prejudices have compromised his observational powers.

One also wonders why, if the young lady was “the torment of her amiable parent, the nuisance of her acquaintance,” would the good Doctor have wished her life protracted, “possibly for years” except for his own personal vanity in not wishing to lose a patient?

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.


“Where Cupid Dons His Armor:” Gems of Dressing Tables: 1895

Queen Charlotte and her draped dressing table by Zoffany.

Queen Charlotte and her draped dressing table, as painted by Zoffany.

Where Cupid Dons His Armor

Gems of Dressing Tables for Milady’s Own Uses

Crystal Reflects Itself in Bevel Mirrors and Silver Glitters on Inlaid Wonders.

The most expensive dressing-table on record, in a field where extravagance reigns and an ever desirous ambition excites to new wonders of beauty and convenience, is one that was recently purchased by Lady Beresford. Her ladyship is now, according to recent rumor, particularly interested in the appointments of her bedchamber, and is giving a personal attention to its adornments, its materials and its arrangement—attention to a degree which she never before found it necessary to bestow upon her own apartment during the two previous terms of her married life. All happiness to her ladyship and the little lordling, but about the dressing table!

It is a solid piece of place glass without flaw and deep as one’s finger when the hand is pressed against its surface. Seldom has a piece of glass been so perfect. It might be a diamond were it cut and polished. This piece of rare glass forms the top of the table and cost several hundred dollars of our money. Yet it is only a narrow strip of crystal.


Her ladyship has chosen for a dressing spot a place in the middle of her bedroom. A tall glass rises from the back of the shelf which forms the dressing table and the piece of clear looking glass lies below it. Upon it are placed the little luxuries of the toilet. On Lady Beresford’s table these are all cut glass, very heavy and very beautifully faceted.

The bedroom is hung in cardinal, her ladyship’s favorite color, and the dressing table has cardinal candles standing from brass candelabra. Touches of gold adorn the cut glass, and the dressing shelf is rich and sparkling, like a row of glasses upon a sideboard, were it not made very feminine with the pomades and toilet preparations. The oddest thing about this dressing-table is that it is all repeated on the other side, and whichever way you approach it you may see yourself and find all the necessary things for beauty’s care awaiting you. On the reverse side her ladyship keeps the scents of the toilet and the bottles of unnamable things wanted by all true beauties, each bottle and bit of glass on this side being trimmed with silver in place of the gold on the other side.

Miss Edith Shipard, the young woman who is represented in the great portrait show as holding a blue velvet book in her hand while she delivers one of her foreign tales, has a dressing-table as characteristic and peculiar as the young woman herself.

This dressing-table has a cloth of gold hung over it, entirely enveloping its four sides, for it is a square table standing in the middle of the floor. Supported by two tall gold feet is a square mirror. This is draped with cloth of gold. Upon the table lie a dozen small cloth-of-gold mats, upon which lie comb and brush, dress whisks, perfumes, and vinaigrettes. Upon one corner is the manicure set in a gold case by itself and upon another corner are pin trays, cushions, &c.

All the pieces are mounted in gold and all rest upon gold settings. What gives the very singular aspect to this table is the way fleurs de lis are scattered over the cloth of gold. They are interwoven and are so placed in the draping that they are very conspicuous. This gives the dressing-table the look of a prie-dieu. It is possibly used as one, for at one side of it is a great cloth-of-gold cushion, and over the cushion, at the side of the dressing-table is a small projecting shelf, upon which lies a Book of Common Prayer. It is easy to believe, looking at it, that there its pretty mistress sinks upon her knees, upon this golden cushion to pray for the strength and patience that are as much needed in the life of a poor girl as a rich one.

Miss Virginia Fair is a young woman of many fancies. She is not capricious, but she has a great love for the beautiful. If she were less fond of art and travel, of reading and athletics, she would have been snatched up long ago in the grab for heiresses.

Miss Fair’s California dressing-table has a top of mother of pearl. It is one of those old-fashioned tables that grandmother had in her parlor and would never allow us to touch, as finger-marks show upon it, unless the fingers are the pink-tinted ones of womanhood. Miss Fair’s table is a very long one and shallow, as so many fashionable dressing tables are. Women who want to make them at home bring about the same result by placing a five or six foot plank upon iron brackets, making it secure to the wall, and afterwards draping it. Miss Fair’s mirror is as wide as her dressing-table, and it is fastened, as all mirrors should be, flat against the wall. It reaches well toward the ceiling and is draped at the top with an abundance of pink silk and satin, laid in alternate folds.


The brushes, combs, etc. that occupy one portion of this long shelf are backed with mother-of-pearl, and are laid upon small pink mats. There is a cheap imitation of this pearl in a material that may be papier-mâché. It is pearl gray, a little streaked but quite clear when polished. This is used by several young ladies, who have seen the wonderful Fair dressing-table and want one like it.

The advantage of a table as long and narrow was this one, with the broad mirror running in front of it, is that several chairs can be placed along its front of the different operations of the toilet. The manicuring has its corner. The hair-dressing occupies one entire end. The cosmetics, necessary in windy weather as well as in sun, have their spot fitted out for them, and in the center may be left a long vacant space with only the toilet waters, extracts, sweet-smelling spices and highly comfortable things enjoying the place of honor.

Although dressing-tables of the city are very fine, the ladies who occupy country places until Christmas of the purpose of riding to hounds are the ones who absolutely revel in fine toilet appointments and what is more, they boast of them. They want their guests and their friends to know how luxuriously they have appointed themselves, and they make no secret of the fact that the dressing-table went up into the hundreds of dollars before it was complete.

Mrs. Adolph Ladenburg, “the new woman,” as she is called since she left her two-months-old baby for an hour to ride to hounds, has perhaps the most magnificently equipped dressing-table of any of the famous Meadow Brook set. Mrs. Ladenburg is a society beauty, a millionaire’s wife, a most charitable woman, and the coming typical hostess in New York—according to those who judge society form the charmed inner circle of “the know.”

This thrice-blessed young beauty of a matron owns a dressing-table that would have been the envy of the best girl of Paris’ time. It is a sectional table. The mirror in the middle rises from the floor to the ceiling, like a cheval glass. Upon each side are low shelves, under which the dresser can seat herself while she presses her feet close to the glass for an impartial view of self. Over these side shelves are two more mirrors. The glass, a fine plate, is all in one piece, being cut off at each side and running down to the floor in the center.


The difficulty with most dressing-tables is that you can get only a view of your face, but this one has large side wings that stretch out and extend back of one’s head, so that you see yourself on all sides at once. When the two side ends are unfolded they meet back of your head in a compete circle. The minor appointments of the table are blue; the backs of the brushes and the solid pieces are of silver.

The Marquise Lanza, daughter of Dr. William A. Hammond of Washington and herself a writer of books, is always an exquisitely dressed woman. She is large and blonde, with a very creamy complexion. Like all society women of beauty, the marquise owns a dressing-table, and hers is both a marvel and a novelty. It is in the shape of a semi-circle, in the middle of which the dresser sits. Maid or hairdresser can take a stand behind her and pick up the implements as wanted. Back of the semi-circle tilts a round glass of large size. The colors of table and ornaments are pale green. The table is delicately tinted in green, and even the glass looks green, reflecting the hues of the table. The other trimmings are not prominent, but there is an impression of brightest gold in bits here and there.

An English gentleman visiting this country, and learning something of the beauty and cost of the dressing table of our belles, commented upon them rather sarcastically, by saying the fact of there being so many professional beauties here was more than explained in the existence of the wonderful beautifying tables.

But to this his scoffed-at hearers replied that the dressing-tables were only for the setting off and the preservation of beauty, as window gardens set off plants and conservatories preserve them. But their argument was of no avail, when, a little later, in walked a beautiful matron, know from ocean to ocean, who began at once upon an elaborate description of a new table, with jewels pressed into the top, and upon which were a thousand dollars’ worth of cosmetics that were unpacked that day and placed ready for use at evening, when there was to be a great ball.

The Morning Times [Washington, DC] 8 December 1895

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Lily, Lady Beresford was the daughter of Commodore Cicero Price, U.S.N. She rose in her matrimonial engagements from the wealthy Louis Hammerslee of New York to the eighth Duke of Marlborough (construction at Blenheim was finished with the new Duchess’s money). She took a tiny step back for Lord William Leslie de la Poer Beresford (“the little lordling,” who was shorter than his wife), but, consolingly, was walked down the aisle at St George’s, Hanover Square, by her devoted step-son, the ninth Duke.  His marriage with Consuelo Vanderbilt was the result of the Lady Beresford’s “friendly scheming.” According to the papers, £6000 a year was settled on Lord William, a gallant, if diminutive, soldier and avid sportsman, of whom it was said that “he had broken every bone in his body but his neck.”

Miss Edith Shipard was (later) Edith Shepard Fabbri.  She was, as one might expect from a young woman painted holding a book bound in blue velvet and possessing a dressing table that looked like a prie-dieu, a literary lady with many spiritual qualities. In fact she founded a spiritual retreat, “The House of the Redeemer” in her New York house. She was a great-granddaughter of Commodore Vanderbilt and married Ernesto Fabbri, a banker born in Florence, Italy.

The aptly-named Miss Virginia Fair (“Birdie” to the family) was the daughter of Senator James Graham Fair who made his money in gold and railroads. He was one of “nature’s gentlemen,” divorced by his wife for “habitual adultery,” and not invited to his second daughter’s wedding.  Uniting two great fortunes, Miss Fair “was snapped up” in 1898 by William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. They separated in 1909 and divorced in 1927. She was well-known for her charities and her thoroughbred stable.

The name of Mrs Ladenburg was so well-known that headlines like “Mrs. Ladenburg Again to Wed?” were self-explanatory. The public knew all about her millions, her widowhoods, her engagements, her stolen jewels, her horses and her rivalries in the hunting field.

The Marquise Lanza was the daughter of a former Surgeon-General of the United States and wrote novels with titles like A Modern Marriage and Basil Morton’s Transgression, about”ordinary, real people” such as a young woman who marries (instead of her young doctor lover) a “man of wealth and delicate, too delicate, tastes, over whose life hangs the dead phantom of insanity.”  A reviewer said “A Golden Pilgrimage is a great book, and the author seems…to have said the last word of her decade on marriages for money.”

dressing table