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My Dearest: Love and Courtship in the Gilded Age

My Dearest: Love and Courtship in the Gilded Age
April 2, 2020 By: Dawn Brean, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts

My Dearest: Love & Courtship in the Gilded Age

Missing Clayton? Feel the love with this walkthrough of the latest thematic tour, My Dearest: Love & Courtship in the Gilded Age. This special installation explores courting customs of the American Victorian era at the turn of the 20th century, including the social etiquette of romance, making or accepting a proposal, announcing an engagement (or breaking one off), and preparing for a wedding. Focusing on Henry Clay Frick and Adelaide Howard Childs (respectively known as Clay and Ada to their friends and family), this tour tells the story of their courtship and marriage within the social context of the period with the help of artifacts, photographs, and archival documents.

So, what is courting? Courtship in many ways is similar to dating today. It was regarded as a special and important period for young couples and occurred after introductions but before a formal engagement. Courting allowed a couple to become better acquainted, served to deepen initial feelings of romantic love, and ensured the connection was based on mutual admiration, respect, and a certain degree of harmony in tastes and temperaments. Much like today, in the mid-19th century, romantic love was viewed as a necessary solid foundation for any successful marriage. Theocritus’ The Dictionary of Love (1858), defined courtship (rather floridly) as:
a delightful word which has the honor to represent the most tremulously delightful season of the tender passion. In marriage, love gets sober, philosophical, meditative, and sets itself, with good intent, to the stern practical duties of life. But, in courtship, it is all romance, excitement, hope, desire, expectation, sweet dreams, and if there be any other charming word, that comes in also, to swell the total of this fresh and beautiful sunrise of love.
Of course, love wasn’t the only consideration when contemplating marriage. In her book, Gems of Deportment and Hints of Etiquette (1881), journalist Martha Louise Rayne bemoaned that there were not as many marriages for love as there used to be. “They [contemporary young women] have luxurious tastes, and wish to keep them, and govern their lives accordingly. Love is very delightful, of course; but when it is fortified by a generous bank account, they are more favorable to its approaches.” However, nearly all the etiquette guidebooks agreed that one should never marry for money alone.

Charles Dana Gibson (American illustrator, 1867-1944), Another Monopoly, 1899, pen and ink on paper. Illustration for Life Publishing Co. Courtesy of The Minneapolis College of Art and Design Library.

Life at the turn of the 20th century was governed by a strict code of social etiquette and this absolutely included romance. Who courted? Respectable gentlemen called only on women who were “out” in society. The proper age for making one’s debut was after a young girl had finished her formal education, but it depended more on her maturity level than age. The average age was around 18 to 20. Once she was “out,” a young woman could attend balls and parties, although almost always chaperoned by her mother, aunt, or an older female relative.

A gentleman typically waited for a formal introduction to be made, requesting permission through a mutual social acquaintance, before embarking in courtship. Women in particular (and perhaps unsurprisingly) had to tread a very fine line when courting. Our Deportment (1881) cautioned, “No well-bred lady will too eagerly receive the attentions of a gentlemen, no matter how much she admires him; nor, on the other hand, will she be so reserved as to altogether discourage him.”  

The rules of formal introductions and courting were well known to the upper classes steeped in generations of gentility, but for the newly rich who aspired to climb the social ladder, etiquette guidebooks outlined the appropriate behavior for nearly every social situation. The knowledge of and proper following of etiquette rules were indicators of one’s social status and a badge of moral character. A selection of period etiquette guidebooks are on display in the reception room at Clayton, an appropriate spot, as the reception room is where a gentleman would have waited to be seen when visiting the home of young woman.

Interested in perusing some of these books for yourself? Here are links to digitized versions of a few of the volumes on view:

Etiquette books on display in Clayton Reception Room.

Title page of Our Deportment.

Courting men would have sat with their intended in the parlor, typically in the presence of a chaperone. Calling at home was one of the most popular courting pastimes, but the modern age brought new opportunities for the commingling of genders—theater excursions, horseback riding, carriage drives, bicycling, and skating. Physical activities gave the couple a small degree of freedom, privacy, and perhaps even the chance to hold hands.

Installation view of Clayton Parlor.

It is not known exactly how Henry and Adelaide met, but they were acquainted by the spring of 1881. Charming handwritten notes from April 1881 attest to the growing connection between the couple. Frick writes: “Miss Ada, It has every appearance of being a pleasant evening, and if agreeable to you, should like to join you for that horseback ride this evening at 7…Very sincerely, H.C. Frick.” In another, “Miss Ada, I thank you very much for the beautiful Easter card received from you on Saturday, I prize it very highly. Will you accompany me to see Emma Abbot in ‘Fra Diavolo’ at Opera House Friday evening 22nd inst? Hoping for a favorable reply I am sincerely H.C. Frick.”

Letter from Henry Clay Frick to Adelaide Howard Childs. Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

If a man decided he was ready to propose (having already gained the approval of the young lady’s family), he was encouraged to do so in person. Our Deportment instructed, “A spoken declaration should be bold, manly and earnest, and so plain in its meaning that there can be no misunderstanding.” Women were cautioned against accepting a proposal too enthusiastically, but also warned that they should not say no twice to a proposal they wished to ultimately accept. Should the lady wish to refuse, she was expected to be kind and dignified in her response, and it was considered absolutely indecorous to flirt or keep a gentleman in suspense if she had no intention of accepting. Should it become necessary to break an engagement, that was best done by letter, in order to clearly express one’s position, and accompanied by the return of any gifts, photographs, or mementos given during the engagement. Time, of course, healed all romantic wounds. As Our Deportment mused, “The heart, lacerated by a hopeless or misplaced attachment, when severed from the cause of its woe, gradually heals and prepares itself to receive fresh wounds.”


                                                      Unknown.artist, illustraion of a proposal.

Of course we know the end result of Henry and Adelaide’s budding romance. On view in the parlor is a loving cup given to Henry Clay Frick and Adelaide on their 25th wedding anniversary. Created by the prestigious silver maker Gorham Manufacturing Company, the cup features their intertwined initials and the dates 1881—1906. An engraved note on the bottom of the cup reveals it was given by their children, Childs and Helen. 

Gorham Manufacturing Company, Loving cup, 1906, sterling silver.

The installation in the dining room draws inspiration from a small party thrown “just for the family” on Valentine’s Day by Childs and Helen Frick. Childs wrote that he and Helen cut out a great many hearts, painted them red, sewed them together, and strung them around the candelabra. He adds, “The table looked very pretty” with red flowers and red shades. The note is undated, but the party was probably sometime in the early 1890s.

Installation views of Clayton Dining Room.

Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

Valentine’s Day parties were en vogue in fashionable, upper-class houses of this period. An illustration from the February 1904 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal shows decorations similar to what Childs describes along with other suggestions for luncheon tables adorned with hearts and flowers. One popular suggestion circulated in magazines was a “bird party,” based on a legend that February 14 was the date birds chose their mates. Hostesses were to encourage guests to dress as their favorite birds. Decorations and refreshments followed an appropriately avian aesthetic. Inspiration for your next Valentine’s Day celebration!

Interested in learning more about the history of Valentine’s Day? We recommend this post by Kelsie Paul, Manager of School Learning.

“February Luncheon Tables” from The Ladies’ Home Journal, February 1904.

Objects relating to chocolates, cake, sweets, and bon bons are also on view in the dining room, including a chocolate service made by Dresden ceramics manufacturer Karl Richard Klemm decorated with courting couples in romantic settings in the style of Antoine Watteau and François Boucher.

Installation views of Clayton Dining Room.

In the kitchen, candy heart molds and chocolates evoke preparations for a Valentine’s Day celebration. The tradition of offering sweets to loved ones on Valentine’s Day has a long history. Two of the most familiar are chocolates in fancy heart-shaped packages and conversation hearts. The origins of both date to the Victorian era. One of the earliest references to Valentine’s Day confections packed in heart-shaped boxes in America dates to the 1890s. Their development is often credited to English chocolate-maker Richard Cadbury as early as 1861. Heart-shaped candies printed with Valentine-specific missives were introduced by the New England Confectionery Company (Necco) in 1902 and branded as Sweethearts. Some of the original sayings—Be Mine, Be True, Kiss Me—remain popular today.

Installation view of Clayton Kitchen.

An installation in the breakfast room focuses on Henry and Adelaide’s wedding, described as “one of the most notable weddings of the season” by the Post-Gazette. The ceremony took place on December 15, 1881 at the Childs family residence in Oakland, just one day before the bride’s 22nd birthday. Care was often given to the time of year and day of the week chosen for the wedding. December was a popular time for weddings as it was right in the middle of the social season. As the folk rhymes went:

Monday for Wealth; Tuesday for Health; Wednesday the Best Day of All; Thursday for Losses; Friday for Crosses; and Saturday No Luck at All

Marry when the year is new and he’ll be loving, kind and true,
When February birds do mate, you wed not or dread your fate.
If you wed when March winds blow, joy and sorrow you’ll both know.
Marry in April when you can, and joy for maiden and for man.
Marry in the month of May and you’ll live to rue the day.
Marry when June roses grow and over land and sea you’ll go.
Those in July who do wed must labor for their daily bread.
Whoever wed in August be many a change is sure to see.
Marry in September’s shrine your living will be rich and fine.
If in October you do marry, love will come but riches tarry.
If you wed in bleak November, only joys will come, remember.
When December snow falls fast, marry and true love will last.

If you want to learn more details about Clay and Ada’s wedding, check out this post by Amanda Gillen, Director of Learning & Visitor Experience.

An image of Adelaide Childs in her bridal costume sits on the sideboard. The white wedding dress became a popular choice after the 1840 wedding of Queen Victoria to Albert of Saxe-Coburg. The fashion in the early 1880s was white silk or brocade with a long veil of tulle or lace with a wreath of flowers. Orange blossoms were most common as they were considered emblems of purity. The Post-Gazette reported, “The bride was attired in a rich costume of brocaded cream-colored satin, and wore the customary long bridal veil.”

Installation view of Clayton Breakfast Room.

A remarkable survival in our collection is Adelaide’s wedding cloak. It is gold and ivory brocade with all over floral design of scrolling chrysanthemums inspired by Far Eastern designs. Chenille fringe edges the sleeves, collar, and front closure with decorative rosettes and braids at the back. The drape of the cloak is designed to fit over a bustle. Although there is no label inside, it is likely by a high-end New York maker or importer.

Adelaide Howard Childs' wedding cloak.

The center table holds a display of objects from the collection that date to the early 1880s and could have been wedding gifts to the Frick. The objects on view are characteristic of what upper class young couples would likely have received and nearly all typify the Anglo-Japanesque style so popular in the early 1880s.

Giving presents to a newly married couple became widespread in the second half of the 19th century. Industrialization led to an increase in material goods and there was no shortage of silver, crystal, and china what-nots for newlyweds. Popular gifts included silver serving ware, asparagus tongs, grape scissors, gravy spoons, oyster forks, lobster and nut picks, sugar tongs, fruit and cabinet plates, teacups and saucers, and crystal goblets and platters. Generally, nothing overtly practical was given, as that would indicate need, which was impolite.

Installation views of Clayton Breakfast Room.

Wedding gifts were occasionally displayed at the wedding alongside the names of the givers. Etiquette books appear divided over whether or not displaying gifts was “in good form” or not. Some argued that the practice compelled guests to give increasingly expensive and impressive gifts. Sensible and useful items took a backseat to the giver’s desire to show off their own wealth, taste, and status.

Though we don’t know if Mr. and Mrs. Frick displayed gifts at their wedding, there is some archival evidence that tells us about gifts they received. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, “They were the recipients of an unusually large number of costly presents.” The Daily Post noted, “The presents were exceptionally elegant” before describing a silver service “which has but few equals in this country” presented to the couple from Mr. and Mrs. George Childs, relations of the bride. Perhaps this referred to the large Tiffany and Company flatware service for twelve in the fashionable Audubon pattern? Examples from the service are currently on loan from descendants of the family and we are grateful for the opportunity to share them.

Tiffany and Company Audobon flatware on display in Clayton Breakfast Room. 

Another wedding gift to the couple is the tea and coffee service by Whiting Manufacturing Company on the sideboard. A letter written to Helen from Adelaide in 1912 references the set as a gift from Mrs. Walter Ferguson and notes that it was used daily. Mr. Ferguson was one of the three partners who constituted the original H.C. Frick Coke Company and the couples remained friendly for decades.

Tea and coffee service, Whiting Manufacturing Company, circa 1881.

One other gift written up in newspaper accounts of Henry and Adelaide’s nuptials was the bride’s present from the groom—a pair of solitaire diamond earrings that purportedly cost $5,000 (approximately $126,800 in 2020). Those are undoubtedly the same earrings adorning Adelaide’s lobes in this image of the couple while on their honeymoon. Immediately after the wedding, the newlyweds embarked on a month-long trip that took them to New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. (Ever the businessman, Frick most likely solidified his partnership with Andrew Carnegie while on his honeymoon excursion in New York.)

Adelaide and Henry on their honeymoon. Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

But he wasn’t all business. From the handful of letters that survive in the family papers at the Frick Art Reference Library Archives in New York, we know that Frick addressed many of his letters to Adelaide “My dear one” or “My dearest,” which is of course where the title for this installation came from.

Rounding out the love and courtship display is a selection of romance stories from Clayton’s library collection, including classics from William Shakespeare with a beautifully illustrated version of The Taming of the Shrew for young children. Desperate to see the lithograph illustrations inside this volume? You can view them here.

Installation view of Clayton Sitting Room.

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