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Social Washington


whitehouselevee The issue of “society” created much embarrassment in the formative years of the Government. America had been founded as a democracy, yet to operate smoothly, there existed social and official rankings between Americans and foreign diplomats. Having no cabinet to whom he could turn for advice, President Washington submitted the subject to VP John Adams, John Jay, General Alexander Hamilton and Rep. James Madison, whose prominence and expertise in official and social life rendered them competent advisers. The gentlemen then formed a basic coded of manners to govern the official and social surroundings of the Executive office. To the simplistic ideas of Washington’s impromptu “Cabinet,” Thomas Jefferson, fresh from Paris, added an aristocratic touch to social life, however James Madison and John Adams reverted to the more democratic “American” mode of etiquette and ranking, which has characterized social life in Washington throughout the history of the district.

The social world of the Capital was divided into three classes:

1. The Official Class, embracing all three branches of the Government, Presidential appointees to administrative departments, and includes officers of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps on duty permanently or temporary at the Capital, and civil officers of the Government whose places of employment are in the different states of the Union or officers of the Diplomatic or Consular services of the US and visiting the city.

2. The Quasi-Official Class, which embraces the Foreign Diplomatic and Consular Corps, Officers of Foreign Governments, and Officers of State or Municipal Governments in the US, in the city.

3. The Unofficial Class, which includes residents from other localities, sojourners or visitors to the city who are entitled by social status at home to recognition in good society, and permanent residents of independent means or engaged in professional or mercantile affairs.

The social and domestic routine of Washington is regulated and controlled entirely by official duties. The day was divided into two parts, socially speaking; all that portion before the dinner hour which is after the close of official hours, being regarded as morning [3-5 PM, no later than 6 PM], and that portion of time thereafter as evening [8-9 PM]. Hence, in afternoon receptions, it was generally customary to say good morning, although it was really afternoon (applied only in conversation. In notes and invitations, the usual divisions of time were used). Informal calls between friends and acquaintances, or those doing business, were generally held between 10 AM and 12 PM.

paying-calls The strictest piece of etiquette it was fatal to fail was that of paying calls. The routine was rather different from that of society in other cities, and could put a newcomer into quite a tangle! For example, everyone in official life was required to call upon the President and his wife, but they never returned them unless the caller was a Sovereign, Ruler, or fellow President. A stranger of distinction visiting the Capital was required to make their first call upon a resident official of equal rank, while a newly appointed official, of whatever rank, made the first call of office to the branch of the service or department to which the official belonged. For the stranger arriving in Washington, a simple call–that is, leaving cards for people one wished to know, or tell you were in the city–was sufficient. Amusingly, unlike any other city in America–perhaps even the world–men called on one another more than women were required to!

The Official, or Fashionable Season at the Capital began with the general receptions at the Executive Mansion and by the Cabinet Ministers on New Year’s Day, and it terminated with the beginning of Lent. During Lent, as a rule, there were no important public dinners, though quiet dinners and less conspicuous social gatherings were indulged in by some. The Congressional Season, when entertainments and amusements peaked, began regularly on the first Monday in December, and usually ended with the session, or earlier, when the session protracted into the summer. From June to September, owing to the heat of summer, prominent members of the Government and residents generally left the city on their vacations.

The formal social demands led to the creation of Receptions. As a rule, these began and ended with the Season, and comprised of two classes, and certain days were set apart for the “At Homes” of the female relations of Washington’s officials. The first class was the Afternoon Receptions, or Drawing Rooms. These required no invitations and were held between three and five P.M., to which all persons of reputable character and becoming dress were admitted. Excluding the President’s Levee, Evening Receptions required an invitation, unless otherwise announced in the newspapers. As a rule, these wevalyn_walsh_mcleanere given by the Vice-President, Senators, the Speaker, Representatives and Members of the Cabinet who entertained, and sometimes were hosted by distinguished private citizens. An evening reception lasted three hours, from eight to eleven P.M., and the gentleman of the house was always present, and received with his wife (or designated hostess) and any other whom she invited to assist her.

Due to the transient nature of Washington D.C., it was a natural battleground for social climbers to receive the social recognition denied them by their hometowns. Rather akin to popping over to Europe to mingle with the aristocracy, nouveaux riche could meet the titled and well-born without leaving the States–and a few international matches were made in Washington D.C., the most well-known being that of Belle Wilson (of the “Marrying Wilsons”) and Sir Michael Herbert (“Mungo”), while famous residents who moved to the Capital after being snubbed in their cities included Mary Leiter of Chicago, who married George Curzon and became Vicereine of India, and Evalyn Walsh McLean (left) of Colorado, the last private owner of the unlucky Hope Diamond.

The London Season


Royal Enclosure, Ascot The London season was coincident with the Parliamentary session, and from February to July, the dinner parties and other entertainments arranged for the amusement of the politicians and their families exceeded the sum of those given in all the other European capitals. From the opening of Covent Garden to the Royal Drawing Rooms, to private balls and concerts, and to Ascot (Royal Enclosure, left) and Goodwood, London and its environs were packed with not only Britain’s brightest and wealthiest, but Americans eager to rub shoulders with “my lords” and “your majesties”, Colonial millionaires desiring entree into society and a bevy of European aristocrats. By the Edwardian period, “the ‘ladies game’ of the fully-developed Victorian Season was tacked onto a program of summer events that had in most cases been well established fixtures before the Victorian era.”

As the fashionable world was largely composed of those connected with either the House of Lords or the House of Commons, their families came up to Town around the second week of February, after the best of the hunting was over. The Queen (and after his ascension, King Edward) then opened Opening of ParliamentParliament. Prior to this was the “little season,” wherein those connected with the government, the diplomatic corps, the lawyers, literary people and those of the gentry who had no large estates, remained in Town from November, with an interval of a fortnight at Christmas, until February. This was a more intimate gathering of society and was seen as the prelude to being accepted into the social round the following year.

At the beginning of the year, London was not yet overcrowded as many families chose to remain in the country, but from February until Easter, the city slowly filled. There were a few dances during Lent, and small dinners  and the occasional theatre party were held. Many of the royal levees and drawing rooms were attended, and other evening entertainments were thrown together,while daytime hours were spent in numerous five o’clock teas. When Parliament adjourned at Easter, society hostesses held large country-house parties, while those who had neither country houses nor invitations took a jaunt to the Continent or went to Brighton.

After Easter the full tide set in, everybody was up. The great houses were opened, the Park filled in the afternoon, and the Row crowded every morning with a thousand horsewomen. Lunches were frequent, dinners innumerable (forty people often sat to one sumptuous board), and balls now began. The Queen’s drawing rooms were crowded, and most theatres and operas were abandoned by people of fashion as it was impossible dine at eight and attend a play on the same night. However, this whirl lasted but five weeks when another Parliamentary recess was called and society flit again to the country at Whitsuntide (Pentecost to Americans).

Royal Academy Private ViewSociety returned to London in late May and the traditional starting signal for the Season was the Private View at the Royal Academy, or, vernissage, where the latest frocks could be seen as ladies and gentlemen strolled about examining works of art and discussing them with their artists. From this point on was the height of the season. With late dinners and later balls, visits to old friends and acquaintances, the Sunday Church Parade at Hyde Park (another event in which to see and be seen), attendances at Covent Garden, charity bazaars, and young ladies and new wives of qualified gentlemen making their curtseys in Court Drawing Rooms, days and nights were packed to the brim.

With June came Derby day, Commencement at Eton (4th of June: families visit the boys for speeches and a boat race), Ascot Week, fête and gymkhana at the Ranelagh Club. July featured the major cricket matches between the Lords and the Commons, Oxford and Cambridge, and Eton and Harrow, at Lord’s–all in one week. Garden parties in bungalows and snug cottages along the Thames were held–Chiswick, owned by the Duke of Devonshire, was loaned to the Prince of Wales on the condition that two large breakfast parties were held each week. The Queen opened the grounds of Buckingham Palace for garden parties as well, a trend that lasts into this day.

Henley RegattaThe Duke of Richmond’s race-meeting at Goodwood, the Henley Regatta, Cowes Week and Wimbledon, the last of the fêtes champêtres, were packed into the first weeks of August, and as London began to empty, dinners, parties and the like were crammed in before it emptied completely.

August 12th, otherwise known as the Glorious Twelfth, was the end of the London season, and those who didn’t hare off to shoot grouse or stalk deer in Scotland and the North usually traipsed across the Channel for cures at the numerous Continental spas, leaving Britain once more to the sporting set.

Further Reading:
The Social Calendar by Anna Sproule
Ladies of the Manor by Pamela Horn
The English Country House Party by Phyllida Barstow