Monday, March 18, 2013

Brilliant Costumes - Beautiful Women

In the the 1870s, The Saint Andrew Society of Chicago held a series of annual Grand Balls for charitable purposes. I have not determined how many years they held these events but the first reported was in 1875. In 1877 the Tribune described the event as “one of the notable social events of the season. Brilliant costumes, beautiful women and an enjoyable occasion.” The affair was elegant and this is only six years after the city had been totally destroyed by the Great Fire.

It is interesting how the Tribune describes the event and the St. Andrew’s Society. “It is charitable withal, and they who absorb the pleasures of the evening find no drawback in the contemplation of the fact that the shekels expended for tickets are devoted to the aid of the sufferers who find the edges of the world away from home as sharp and pitiless as the thistles of Scotia. Not a bad scheme, this gathering of the fortunate to aid those upon whom the smiles of the Goddess have not fallen, and to the St. Andrew’s Society belongs a wide and well-filled credit page for the efforts of its members in the protection of their countrymen in the sorrow and misfortune that have fallen upon them.”

The 1877 ball was held at the Sherman House and it was an evening filled with dancing and eating. Everything was ready by eight o’clock but it was ten before all the guests had arrived. Music was provided by Pound’s orchestra and a “varied order of dancing was suggested by a competent committee.” In great detail the Tribune described the dresses worn by the ladies and included only one gentleman in their descriptions. Here is a sampling:

Mrs. Godfrey MacDonald wore a black corded silk dress with trimmings of point lace. Miss Agnes Ritchie wore a black gros-grain, with corsage of gas-light blue silk, and her hair in natural flowers. Mrs. Charles B Stillman wore a gas-light blue dress with diagonal flowers, trimmed with tulle and a sash of winter berries with her hair powered. Miss Alexander of Montreal had an elegant dress of white swill and velvet with a train trimmed in double bands of velvet, embroidered and white with an apron front and corsage decollete. Her hair was in band’s. Mrs. Alexander Thompson wore a black gros-grain, elaborately trimmed with black velvet; hair garnished with winter berries, diamond ornaments.

Almost 40 women have their attire described in the Tribune. The only man so described was Long John Wentworth. He wore black doe skin pants the top fronted with a black vest under a swallow tailed coat with hair Absalom. (I assume this means long hair and is a reference to the Old Testament story of King David’s son.) Wentworth came to Chicago in 1836 and became the managing editor and later the owner of Chicago’s first newspaper, the Chicago Democrat. He was twice mayor of Chicago and served numerous terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He died in 1888 at the age of 73 and is buried in Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago.

The food tables were set up in another room and consisted of one long table with small tables on either side. No regular time was set for eating; the guests were left to their own schedule and “they accordingly fell to when the exercise of dancing seem to them sufficient to furnish them an appetite.” In other words dance till you’re hungry and then eat and go back to dancing. The menu for this event is not given. The attendance is also not given but usually was around 300. The largest attendance was 500 in 1875.

In 1879 when the Tribune reported on the Charity Ball, the following statement appeared in the newspaper. “As usual with the St. Andrews people, they did not arrive until a late hour, and dancing did not commence until 10 o’clock. Supper was served at 12 o’clock... after which dancing was resumed until the small hours.” Some things never change. If you have ever tried to plan an event for the Society, you know how difficult it is to get early reservations.

The Gilded Age (1874-1907) was a period of great economic growth as the United Statea became the leader in the industrial age. Heavy industries, coal mining and railroads were the leaders in this expanding economy. Immigration increased with some 10 million people arriving. Many new social movements began like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

The Illinois St. Andrew’s Society held one of the most notable social events of the season. “Brilliant costumes, beautiful women and an enjoyable occasion.” Sometimes, I wish there was a movie so we could all enjoy what occurred.   

Wayne Rethford, Past President
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society

April 6, 2013 - History Club: Our speaker is David T. Macfarlane a Master Chef born in Elderslie, Scotland. He spent 10 years in the U.S. Navy serving two four-star admirals, the crew and officers of the USS Mount Whitney and the President of the United States in the White House and Blair House in Washington, D.C. “Chef Macfarlane has consistently returned to Scotland as an example to all Scots to never forget from whence they come...” More information to follow.

June 14 and 15, 2013 - Highland Games - Hamilton Lakes, Itasca, IL.

June 28, 2013 - Chicago Scots at the White Sox Game

August 22, 2013 - Skerryvore Concert - Martyr’s, Chicago.

September 13, 2013 - Kilted Golf Classic - Bloomingdale Country Club

November 22, 2013 - 168th St. Andrew’s Day Dinner Celebration

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