Friday, May 5, 2017

Promoting masquerades at Stanwix Hall

Costumes for a Masked Ball
via The New York Public Library Digital Collections
In March 1839 Herman Melville was living in Lansingburgh and finishing his engineering studies at the Academy there, hoping to find work on the Erie Canal. Pro-masquerade items in the Albany Microscope, transcribed below, offer an interesting glimpse of the social life he was missing, probably, back at Stanwix Hall. The year before, letters from Melville on the "Philo Logos" debate club controversy had appeared in the Albany Microscope over the signature of Philologian. In May 1839, the Democratic Press, and Lansingburgh Advertiser published his two sketches, Fragments from a Writing Desk No. 1 and No. 2. In June Melville sailed to Liverpool on his first transatlantic voyage. He went a-whaling, as everybody knows, in January 1841. But Melville did not have to travel very far to find cannibals and con men, with every other cultural stereotype, however fanciful or grotesque--they were all partying in Albany at the Masquerade Ball. Enticing ads for the Masquerade Ball in the Albany Evening Journal (March 27, 1839) expressly invited "ladies and gentlemen of Albany, Troy, Lansingburgh, and Schenectady."

In the Microscope, one defender mentions "vociferous deprecation" of masquerades, alluding to strong attacks like the blast against masquerades that had been reprinted in the New York Evangelist from an unspecified Albany newspaper.

Also according to the Microscope, some patrons attended the dance academy at Stanwix Hall more for the music (conducted by William Whale's new business partner A. G. Graves, "that well known talented musician"), without necessarily taking lessons:

The present winter has been the most brilliant ever witnessed in the dancing way. Stanwix Hall has been more fully and fashionably attended than at any preceding season. Messrs. Whale and Graves jointly are capable of and do give the most entire satisfaction to their numerous visitors; many who do not dance attend for the mere purpose of listening to the music which is superb. On Monday evening next they give a Masquerade Ball, which will no doubt, call together a numerous and respectable company and be productive of much amusement. Keep the "ball" in motion. 
Pre-publicity for the first Masquerade Ball on Monday night included the following letter to the editor, singed "Veritas" and published in the Albany Microscope on Saturday, March 9, 1839:

MR. EDITOR:--I understand Mr. Whale intends having a Masquerade Ball on Monday evening the 11th instant, and the preparations making for the same, are very great, and a large company is expected. Great glee and joy will be realized by the company--those who are fond of "touching the light fantastic toe" will be on the move; and many important characters will be presented--there will be seen a Richard, a Hamlet, a Brutus, a Ceasar, a Rienzi, the Scourge of the Ocean, the Pirate of the Gulf, Bill Johnston, the Hero of the Lakes, and many other characters personated by the gentlemen, and on the part of the ladies will be seen Queen Victoria, and Lady Jane Grey, Queen Elizabeth, and the Queen of the Thousand Islands. Those who are fond of attending Masquerades will be highly gratified with this. Mr. Whale is sparing no pains to have every thing as it should be on an occasion like this, and will superintend the dancing. Mr. Graves, that well known talented musician, will lead the music.--

Let there be a general attendance, and my word for it, all will retire to their homes satisfied with the evening's amusement.

I will merely say those gentlemen wishing to procure Masks or Dominoes for the Masquerade Ball on Monday evening the 11th inst., will be supplied at a much cheaper rate and a first rate article at Mr. Van Schaick's in South Market street, and also at Berringer's in State street near Pearl.

The March 11th Masquerade received several enthusiastic notices in the Microscope. The spelling "achme" in "achme of abominations" appears in the notice as originally published in the Albany Microscope on March 16, 1839:

The recent Masquerade at Stanwix Hall under the supervision of Messrs. Whale and Graves, was the most brilliant pageant imaginable, and far exceeded the most sanguine expectations of its projectors. The costume and peculiarities of the inhabitants of the four quarters of the world were on that occasion congregated within the Hall--and a most motley and amusing group they were. Many of the characters were most ably sustained, and will afford a subject of pleasurable retrospection for many a day. The utmost good order was observed and nothing was wanting to render the evening's amusements perfectly satisfactory.

We have just learned that at the earnest solicitation of a great number of both gentlemen and ladies, Messrs. W. & G. have concluded to repeat it, on the evening of Wednesday March 27. There can be no doubt but that it will be thronged, as on this second occasion many who did not attend the first for fear of its proving a failure, will embrace the opportunity with the most perfect assurance of its entire success.

By many people Masquerading is spoken of with the most vociferous deprecation, and is conceived to be the very achme of abominations; but for the life of us we cannot view it in that light: as a mask does not protect its wearer from exposure and chastisement in the event of an insult--and one who is naturally vicious will manifest it masked or not. It is true the committee of arrangements should be most rigid in the enforcement of decorum, and so they should at any hall. We hope to see them often repeated. As several correspondents have noted the affair in detail, we refrain from enlarging on it.
The March 16, 1839 notice of "The Masked Ball" employs a conventional racial slur, twice, when describing a comical pair of "Siamese Twins." As described in the Albany Microscope, the "Siamese Twins" costume was inspired by popular theatrical representations of "The Siamese Twins" as an obvious fraud, with actors playing artificially conjoined stereotypes of an Irishman and African American. As documented by Joseph Andrew Orser in The Lives of Chang and Eng, one version of the Siamese Twins burlesque by Charles White played in New York in 1863 (and evidently remained popular well into the 1870's).

For the first time in my life, Mr. Editor, I was induced to attend Messrs. Whale & Graves' Masked Ball, at Stanwix Hall, on Monday evening; and I must confess, notwithstanding the deep rooted prejudice, I had formed against this kind of amusement, that I was never more highly delighted with any amusement, and what is more my prejudice at once evaporated, and thrilling delight and perfect satisfaction took its place. It was certainly one of the most exciting, novel, grotesque, pleasing scenes I ever enjoyed or fancied--all was life, bustle, hilarity and mirth--the most perfect order and decorum was observed throughout. The various characters assumed, were most admirably sustained and in perfect keeping. It would occupy more time and space than your limits will allow, to give any thing like an adequate description of the affair. Almost every nation, profession, trade, and character under the sun, had a representative--from the crowned head down to the commonest loafer. I have only a faint recollection, of some of them, which I will attempt to enumerate. There was Jim Coffin, with badge of office, his blacking brushes, &c. &c, Jim Bags, Paul Pry, Brutus, Bill Johnson, armed capapee--with pistols, dirk, etcetera, St. Crispin, with hammer, awl and waxend--Titus, Corporal Trim, Major Longbow, the Striped Pig--with a "fifteen gallon" keg lashed on his back--Hamlet in full dress--Jack Junk, John Lump, Jimmy Twitcher, Loony McTwoiter, Dennis Bulgruddery, with quizzing-glass, Jeremy Didler, Jack Downing, Sam Patch, Siamese Twins (united together by an artificial ligament--an Irishman and a nigger, most capitally sustained, especially the nigger.) There were Canadian Patriots, Veterans, of the sixteenth century, Volunteers from Maine; Hottentots, Cannibals, Brigands, Ostlers, Boot Blacks, Chimney Sweeps, Loafers, Bear Dancers, Monkeys, French Dancing Masters, Portrait Painters, Indians, &c. &c., mermaids, or half male and half female,--Quakeresses, Broom Girls, Candy and Match Girls, Dutch or Swiss, Gipseys, Ballet Dancers, Squaws, Queens, Princesses, and a thousand others, which I have not time to mention. I have only to say, that I really wish that Messrs. Whale & Graves will get up another before the season for dancing is over.

Mr. EDITOR:--Many who attended the masquerade, missed the most intellectual and interesting portion of the evening's entertainments by retiring at too early an hour. During the whole of the early part of the evening the most prominent object in the room was an antique "citidel" erected between the columns, and many enquiries were made in reference to its use, but in the sequel it proved to be a representation of the castle at the "Siege of Belgrade"--at one o'clock the assault commenced, and was conducted by Capt. Tactic, Ben, acting as orderly, Faun walked into the scene of carnage with singular bravery, the attack was irresistable and the application of the battering ram levelled the fortress to the ground. The professor acted as senes[c]hal, and after the demolition, was seen seated on the fallen fabric, like unto Caius Marius viewing the ruins of Carthage. Can't this exhibition be repeated at the next

Albany Evening Journal - March 27, 1839
The second Masquerade Ball on Wednesday the 27th also received favorable attention.  From the Albany Microscope, March 30, 1839:

The second masked ball of the season on Wednesday evening last was a most amusing and pleasant affair. The Hall was comfortably filled, and many of the characters were ably sustained. It would be impossible to describe all or even half of the singularly conceived characters, but decidedly the best dressed character was TIME, who was represented with scythe in hand, as seen in the primmer--close on his heels followed the "evil one," with a most threatening pair of horns, and golly what a tail! a printer's devil couldn't hold a candle to him. A man mountain in the shape of a huge Dutchman, occupied a great deal of space, and was productive of much mirth. A Yankee pedlar was cute, and carried it out well. Jim Bags "discoursed most terrific music," and "moved on" to the infinite delight of all within hearing. A dandy of the most refined school, languished enchantingly--he did poz. Loafers, soldiers, (detatchments from the 246th, commanded by Capt. J**n P*******n.) fancy men and nondescripts, were in abundance. There was a profusion of old women and lots of young ones. There were sisters of charity, and sisters most uncharitable in tormenting the unoffending beaux  with their killing glances and their sarcasms. The sword combat between a sailor and brigand, was admirable--could not have been bettered, had a little more regard to time been observed. But we find it impossible to keep track of the subject, and to keep cool at the same time, and shall therefore take the "back track."
 And now it is more than probable that some of our friends may suppose we intend to speak and expatiate on our character, and tell of the many good things we gave vent to, and the infinite number of witticisms, and killing speeches we poked into the ears of the ladies. But if they do expect any such expose, they are doomed to a sad disappointment. --Albany Microscope, March 30, 1839
As the following notice in the Albany Microscope (April 6, 1839) makes clear, the "Masquerade" as conducted by Whale and Graves was not the same thing as their "Grand Fancy Ball."

We beg to call the attention of our dancing friends, to this close up of the season, which is to take place on Wednesday next. This class of balls is most interesting to the aged as well as to the youthful, as they principally consist of a beautiful succession of fancy dances performed by the juvenile portion of the scholars of both sexes. This portion is executed with spirited rapidity, and the remainder of the evening is devoted to a general tripping of the toes of all who are inclined to join in the "misty mazes of the dance." We are informed that on this occasion Messrs. W. and G. have taken unusual pains in order to ensure the production of something unique in the fancy way. Let them be liberally patronised, as it most probably will be the closing SCENE of the season.
Related post

No comments:

Post a Comment