Friday, April 10, 2015

Socialites of 1890

While browsing copies of the Waterbury Sunday Herald through the Connecticut State Library's Digital Collections, I came across an illustrated writeup about a ball held in January or February 1890 by the Second Regiment Connecticut National Guard, which was headquartered here in Waterbury. The ball was held at Waterbury's City Hall (not the current building; the former City Hall building which was located on the Green).

The "news" article is fascinating both for the evocative images of the event, and for the tiny glimpse it gives of Waterbury's high society women during the Gilded Age. Although the article gave little detail about the women it featured, my research has uncovered a wide range of fascinating life stories, including a glamorous actress, a diplomat's wife rescuing a man from a grizzly bear in Canada, the wife of a famous playwright, women who were active in local organizations, and women who preferred the "quiet" life of raising a family and managing a household.

Artist's depiction of the ball, Sunday Herald (9 Feb 1890)

1890 was the peak of the Gilded Age, the era of astounding U.S. wealth, when the mansions of Newport were being built for New York City's wealthiest families, when the Astors and Vanderbilts headed up the list of 400 New Yorkers deemed worthy (by them) of being considered high society.

While Waterbury's wealthy could not rival that of the Vanderbilts, we still had our own social elite made up of the city's wealthiest and most respectable families. The Second Regiment ball was the event of the season for them. Dressmakers were kept busy for weeks, even months, preparing the most impressive ballgowns possible for the women attending the event. Dignitaries in attendance included the Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, and Waterbury's Mayor.

The evening began with a half hour reception at 9 p.m., followed by dancing. The ball concluded at 11 p.m., at which point the revelers walked through a specially-constructed, temporary passageway leading from City Hall to the Scovill House hotel next door, where they sat down to a supper that lasted until 2 a.m.

The ball was one of the few occasions when women of "polite society" made a public appearance. During this era, women of high social status were more or less confined to very limited options. They were expected to oversee their children and the household servants, socialize privately with the wives of important men, and keep both themselves and their homes looking their best. They were expected to embody refinement, elegance, and good taste. It would be scandalous for a woman of high society to earn an income, speak in public, enter a bar, or voice an opinion that differed from her husband's.

During the 1880s, more and more newspapers began to include a Society Page, dedicated to listing public appearances by upper class women, with a focus on their fashionable clothing. The goal was to increase female readership, with the assumption that women were naturally interested in knowing what fashions were worn by the wealthiest women in town. Society Pages were eventually expanded to include advice on cooking, etiquette, health, sewing, and other "feminine" topics.

The Sunday Herald ran portraits of fourteen of the women who attended the ball, and listed descriptions of the gowns worn by 58 women. Although not classified as a Society Page, the articles were typical of what was found in Society Pages of the time. This is the first time I've come across something like this for 19th century Waterbury; there may well be earlier examples.

For many of these women, this is the first time I've seen a portrait or any mention at all. I've done some digging into their histories. For some, I've been able to find a small amount of biographical information. For others, I've found almost nothing--respectable women weren't written about in this era.

For each woman, I've included both my research and the 1890 newspaper description.

Mrs. Frederick J. Brown

Mrs. Frederick J. Brown was born Lena Migeon Hayden, a daughter of inventor Hiram W. Hayden. Lena married Frederick J. Brown in 1878 shortly after his graduation from Yale. Frederick Brown was active in politics, serving on the Waterbury Common Council (the predecessor of the Board of Aldermen), the Board of Education, and in the State House of Representatives. He earned a living operating an insurance business on Bank Street downtown. Lena was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Browns had two children.

Newspaper description, 1890: The Governor was Mr. Brown's guest at the 1890 ball; Mrs. Brown wore white silk with corn color trimmings.

Mrs. Roswell H. Buck

Minnie A. Donaldson was the wife of Roswell Hollister Buck. At the time of the ball, Buck worked as a book-keeper for Benedict & Burnham. Roswell Buck was a member of The Arcadian Club, an amateur theatrical group. Minnie Buck was musically inclined, singing in the choir of St. John's Episcopal Church and with the Waterbury Harmonic Society. Their son, Mitchell S. Buck, born in 1887, worked as a heating engineer and wrote numerous essays and books in his spare time.

Newspaper description, 1890: Mrs. Buck wore white silk, black threat lace, black feather trimming, and a black plume fan to the ball.

Mrs. George Clowes

Mamie T. Blacknall, the daughter of a North Carolina physician, married George Hewlett Clowes in 1882. Clowes became one of the major manufacturers in Waterbury. With Edward F. Randolph of New York, Clowes was a founder of manufacturing company Randolph & Clowes, established in 1886. By 1889, their company was spread out over seven acres of factory and office buildings close to the Naugatuck River. By 1893, the company was worth over $1 million.

George Clowes was also a housing developer. He purchased twenty-four acres of woods about a mile northwest of downtown in the Hillside neighborhood and laid out streets (Randolph Avenue, Clowes Terrace, etc.) and building lots. Clowes named the housing development Norwood, and built his own home on a site overlooking the city.

Newspaper description, 1890: Mrs. Clowes wore ashes of roses silk with a long train and an old gold brocaded front.

Miss Edith Curtis

 Edith Curtis was the daughter of Mary Louise Hine and Franklin Luther Curtiss. Edith's father worked at Citizen's Bank and was a founder and treasurer of the Waterbury Club.

Newspaper description, 1890: Miss Edith Curtis wore a white silk gown to the ball.

Nellie Lynde Dickinson married Edward L. Frisbie, Jr. in 1878. Her husband was the son of a Waterbury industrialist and followed in his father's footsteps, serving on the board of Benedict & Burnham. Nellie's father was president of the board at Benedict & Burnham, Waterbury Watch, and the Meriden & Waterbury Railroad, and served on numerous other boards. Nellie was a member of the DAR and was mother to one child. Nellie lived a long life, dying in 1953, only a few weeks before her 95th birthday.

Katherine "Kittie" Hamilton was the daughter of David B. Hamilton, a shareholder in numerous manufacturing companies. Following his death in 1898, Katherine inherited hundreds of shares, an insurance payout, a piano, and $5,000 cash. Katherine was involved with the Waterbury Industrial School and Girls' Club (now Girls Inc.), serving as its president during the World War I era. Additionally, Katherine was president of the Hospital Aid Society at Waterbury Hospital, and was involved with Associated Charities, the First Church, the DAR, and the Mattatuck Historical Society

Newspaper description, 1890: Miss Kittie Hamilton wore a white dotted mull trimmed with satin.

Emma L. Pearsall married William H. Hylan not long before the ball. Hylan later became the head of the Insular Police at San Juan, Puerto Rico. The couple appeared in the 1900 census as living in the home of Emma's mother, Laura Pearsall, a somewhat notorious and flamboyant widow who started the Lakewood amusement park. The Hylans had one daughter, Laura Linola, born in 1891. That same year, Laura Pearsall was sued for her part in a scandalous affair (more on Laura Pearsall in an upcoming post).

Newspaper description, 1890: Mrs. Hyland wore white faille, francaise, covered with tinsel and silver, brocaded silver waist, low corsage, short sleeves, matching silver slippers, a white feather fan, a bouquet of lilies, and pearls and diamond ornaments. The Sunday Herald described her as "pretty Mrs. Hyland, a veritable gem flower."

Mrs. Eugene "Jean" Jacques

Annie Louise Ames was a somewhat famous actress who settled down to married life in Waterbury with theater impresario Eugene "Jean" Jacques in 1889. For more on Ames, see my earlier post.

Newspaper description, 1890: Mrs. Jean Jacques attended the ball wearing a burnt orange gown with an accordeon skirt, matching slippers, low corsage, and diamonds. The Sunday Herald wrote of her, "Then there was queenly Mrs. Jean Jacques. Everybody envied Jean."

Misses Munson

Mary and Sara "Sadie" Munson were the daughters of Luzerne Munson, manager of Apothecaries' Hall.

Newspaper description, 1890: Miss Sadie Munson wore a pea green and silver gown, a Brussells net and violet trimming, with a bouquet of violets and a violet plume fan.

Mabel Smith was the daughter of Earl Smith, one of the directors of the Waterbury Buckle Company. Mabel married New York playwright Bayard Veiller in 1892. She died at Manhattan in 1895 and was buried at Riverside Cemetery in Waterbury.

Kate Elise Seymour married Col. Charles E. Turner in 1886. Charles Turner joined his father's prosperous dry goods business in May 1890. He was appointed U.S. Consul-General of Ottawa, Canada by President McKinley in 1897 and served until 1902. Kate made international news in November, 1902 when she rescued a Quebec game warden from a grizzly bear. Upon seeing the game warden being mauled by the bear, Kate raced at the bear, presumably waving her arms and shouting at it. Startled, the bear retreated, allowing Kate's husband to carry the game keeper to safety. Although the man was severely wounded by the bear, he survived the encounter.

Newspaper description from the 1890 ball: Mrs. Charles Turner wore a white lace overdress and white silk. 

Martha C. Starkweather, originally from Massachusetts, married Henry L. Wade, a prominent Waterbury industrialist, in 1877. Martha served on the board of the Associated Charities. The family spent their summers in Middlebury beginning in 1910, when they acquired an old farmhouse and land. Martha oversaw the addition of a new wing on the house, containing a kitchen and rooms for the maids.

Newspaper description, 1890: Mrs. Wade wore white faille francaise, brocaded satin front, Queen Anne neck. 

Harriet "Hattie" Wheeler was the daughter of Moses Henry and Harriet (Middlebrook) Wheeler of Bridgeport. She married Edward O. Goss in 1891. Goss was the son of Scovill's president and became president himself from 1920 to 1938. He was involved with numerous other organizations as well.

Newspaper description, 1890: Miss Hattie Wheeler wore white mull over lavender silk, with a bouquet of roses and a white fan.

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