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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

American Society in the Constitutional Period

By William Sullivan (1774–1839)

[Born in Saco, Maine, 1774. Died in Boston, Mass., 1839. The Public Men of the Revolution. 1834.—Edition of 1847.]

IT may not be uninteresting to sketch the condition and usages of society about the time of the adoption of the constitution, according to the impression now retained of them. There were families who were affluent and social. They interchanged dinners and suppers. The evening amusement was usually games at cards. Tables were loaded with provisions. Those of domestic origin were at less than half the cost of the present time. The busy part of society dined then, as now, at one, others at two o’clock; three o’clock was the latest hour for the most formal occasions. There were no theatrical entertainments; there was a positive legal prohibition. There were concerts. About the year 1760, Concert Hall was built by a gentleman named Deblois, for the purpose of giving concerts; and private gentlemen played and sang, for the amusement of the company. There were subscription assemblies for dancing, at the same place, and it required a unanimous assent to gain admission. Dress was much attended to by both sexes. Coats of every variety of color were worn, not excepting red; sometimes the cape and collar were of velvet, and of a different color from the coat. Minuets were danced, and contre dances. Cotillions were of later date. They were introduced by the French, who were refugees from the West India islands. A very important personage in the fashionable world was Mrs. Haley, sister of the celebrated John Wilkes. She came over in the year 1785 and purchased the house in which the late Gardiner Greene lived, at the head of Court Street. She was then advanced in life, of singular personal appearance, but a lady of amiable deportment. She afterwards married a gentleman who was the uncle of a celebrated Scotch reviewer; but after some years returned to England. Her house was a place of fashionable resort. Marriages and funerals were occurrences of much more ceremony than at the present day. The bride was visited daily for four successive weeks. Public notice was given of funerals, and private invitations also. Attendance was expected; and there was a long train of followers, and all the carriages and chaises that could be had. The number of the former in town was not more than ten or twelve. There were no public carriages earlier than the beginning of 1789; and very few for some years afterwards. Young men at their entertainments sat long and drank deep, compared to the present custom. Their meetings were enlivened with anecdote and song.

Among the remarkable visitors of this country was Brissot de Warville, in 1788, afterwards chief of a faction in the French Revolution called the Girondists. He was executed in Robespierre’s time, at the age of thirty-eight. He came over to learn how to be a Republican. He was a handsome, brisk little Frenchman, and was very well received here. He wrote a book on this country. He was much delighted with the Quakers, and is said to have respected their simplicity of dress, and to have introduced in his own country the fashion of wearing the hair without powder. It was a common practice for clergymen to receive boys into families to prepare them for college. The means of educating females were far inferior to those of the present time. The best were “boarding-schools,” and there were but two or three of these. The accomplishments acquired were inferior to those which are common among hundreds of young females of the present time.