Gauze, Ivory, Sequins
19th Century Culture; Early Chicago; Social Gatherings
Mrs. Grant Fitch
Our previous Artifact Ambassador introduced John and Juliette Kinzie’s trip from Fort Winnebago to John’s hometown of Chicago. The Chicago to which the Kinzies traveled in the blustery spring of 1831 was a blossoming city on the cusp of exponential growth and filled with social contradictions. Juliette’s descriptions of the town and anecdotes of their visit convey a place striving to play its part as the region’s largest settlement while still retaining its remote frontier sense of social excitability.
Since John had last lived in the city, it had gone from a fur trading center to a town of entrepreneurs preparing to raise their stature and capitalize upon their Lake Michigan frontage in the developing state of Illinois. Juliette found a welcoming new place of socialization. Part of the new regimen of Chicago social life prescribed a dance to be held in the Kinzies’ honor at nearby Hickory Creek, a settlement southwest of Chicago which had yet to be touched by the urbanization bug which had bitten Fort Dearborn.
The Kinzies found particular humor in the burgeoning contrast between the self-aggrandized young men who lived in the city and the rural frontier pretensions of the reception’s Hickory Creek hosts. In her expressive manner of writing, Juliette described how the young, single Chicago men determined to use their perceived urban charm to outcompete Hickory Creek’s uncouth suitors at the ball. With fine horses—one borrowed for the occasion—and an ample supply of dashing theatrics, the Romeos initially succeeded in their venture. When the disgusted Hickory Creek men left early, full victory was declared. John and Juliette articulated their amusement, however, at the discovery that these sulkers earned the last laugh, having shaved the manes and tails off the Chicago gentlemen’s flashy steeds, ruining their grand departure.
Not only did this ball demonstrate the contrast between frontier settlers and the newly-urbanized citizens, but it also represented urban progress that was advancing too fast for social customs to catch up. The young people of Chicago considered themselves, as the area’s only town-dwelling inhabitants, to have “seen something of the world.” They still held, however, to the frontier tradition of celebrating the arrival of visitors in a big way.
In the East, such receptions were also held. However, the guests of honor at these community-wide events were usually of a much higher stature. This week’s Artifact Ambassador is a fan that was worn by young Rachel Dennison at one such extravaganza on September 13, 1824, for the Return of Lafayette Ball at the capitol building in Albany, New York. Full military dress and proper social appearance was strongly encouraged for the commencement of dancing at 8 o’clock in the evening. This fan—although now a shadow of its former extravagance—was a proper complement to a visiting ladies’ attire. Revolutionary War General Marquis de Lafayette’s return was an occasion of extraordinary social excitement, meriting the type of Eastern social custom this Ambassador represents.
Conversely, visitors of much lower stature remained a source of excitement on the frontier. Whether it entailed travelers meeting on the Fox River, new arrivals at Fort Winnebago, or—in this case—the return of a familiar face to Chicago, visitors brought news, gossip, and an occasion for festivities. Regardless of how out-of-place a reception of this kind may have seemed to Juliette, who herself was of Eastern upbringing, the Kinzies relished the ambitious welcome. Juliette’s memoirs record their pleasure over signature frontier-style hospitality while at the same time enjoying the amusements of the large town trappings which had begun to take root around the Fort Dearborn settlement of early Chicago.