Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Portsmouth Assembly House, Part II

Upper Hall,  Bath

Part II, The Assembly:

In this section Sarah writes about the Assembly. Based on her age, some of the descriptions might have told to her by her mother, as they seem evocative of the period from1790 to 1820.  In the last paragraph, Sarah writes about the Whiddens a family of builders for at least 4 generations in the city of Portsmouth and their involvement in the festivities. An otherwise insignificant remark, it speaks to the historic connection between designers and builders to masques and thearticals.

Sarah also makes reference to Dinah Gibson (1742(?)-1825) an enslaved woman owned by her grandmother "in the days of slavery." Through documented research we know that Dinah gained her freedom and continued to work for the Rice family. (Black History, pg. 105-6). Dinah's conversations about food provide an intimate reflection of a passing moment in time—"boil it for that long" or perhaps, "roast it then peel it, not the other way."  These seemingly insignificant memories connect Sarah with her past and provide us with a greater sense, not just understanding, of the past. Sarah composed this passage when she was 65 and her combination of remembering the meek and mighty gives a sense of how individuals capture their own past—a fabric interwoven with the familiar and the fantastic.

Gown, 1805-1810

"The assemblies were held there from the days of the Revolution until Franklin Hall was built, about 1820. Portsmouth was noted for the elegance of its entertainments, but the "assemblies" were the chief glory of the place. Both Washington and Lafayette had an opportunity to witness the elegance and grace displayed on those occasions. They were very exclusive, — sustained by subscription. They had two managers, who, with powdered hair and chapeau under left arm, looked the impersonation of power and dignity. Each lady was taken into the ballroom by a manager, and seated. The ladies wore low-necked dresses of silks and satins and velvets, the hair dressed with three ostrich feathers a la Prince of Wales. The gentlemen appeared in prescribed costume, which was blue coat with bright buttons, chapeau under arm, knee- breeches, silk stockings, pumps, and white kid gloves.

Blue Coat with Brass Buttons 1815-20

At the appointed moment the numbers were called for the draw dance, after that the cotillions, which were voluntary. A manager led the first dance with the eldest lady, or a bride, if one were present; and everything was conducted with great state.

Master of Ceremonies, Rowlandson

About ten o'clock, sandwiches of tongue and ham, with thin biscuit, were handed round on large waiters, in turn with sangaree, lemonade, and chocolate.
There were eight assemblies, followed by a Washington ball given on the 22d of February. Any one who would pay five dollars could attend this ball, but the outside world did not care much about it. Court was sitting at this time, and the ballroom was thickly sprinkled with lawyers. At the Washington ball a great fruitcake was placed in a corner of the ballroom, which one of the managers cut.

A Ball at Scarborough, Rowlandson

The family of Mr. Whidden prepared the rooms and entertainment for the elegant company. I remember that Dinah (who in the days of slavery was owned by my grandmother, and who assisted the Whiddens in the arrangements) used to tell a great deal about the sandwiches, and how long they boiled the chocolate, which had spice in it. Besides serving as a ballroom, this room was the central point for all the most important public exhibitions and for the semi-social functions of the day."*

A Grand Jamaica Ball, 1800-10

*This account of the old Assembly House was found among the papers of the late Mrs. Ichabod Goodwin, and was written by her in 1870 and appear in:

Portsmouth Book, Boston, Geo. H. Ellis, Printer, 272 Congress Street, 1899, pg48-49.

Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African-American Heritage, Mark J. Samsons and Valerie Cunningham, UPNE, Hanover, 2004.

The semi-social functions of the day are in the next post.

Jeff Hopper is the Director of the Warner House and researches social history.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.