Sunday, January 27, 2013

Frozen Canaries

It's really cold this week, and inaugural balls are on my mind, so I had to take a look at Ulysses S. Grant's 1873 inaugural ball. I promise I'm not really this obsessed with frozen things. From this account it is not clear whether the canaries survived the cold or not. The New York Times article published the day after the ball mentions the cold, and people keeping their coats on, and the popularity of warm drinks, but doesn't say anything about canaries.

The organizers of the ball were undoubtedly expecting seasonable late March weather, but what they got was record cold. There is not much you can do to heat a large temporary structure when the thermometer reads 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Well, our latest brought discomfort, and discomfiture of another sort. Neither money, time nor labor were stinted in this leviathan, that still lifts up its broken and propped up back in Judiciary square. The building was 350 feet long. The ball-room 300 by 100 feet. All this was temporary, built of light boards, lined with lighter muslin. You might as well have attempted to have warmed Pennsylvania Avenue as such a place on such a night.

Twenty-four hours before the ball the wind-devils went at it. If a host from the pit had received full power to move and dismember it, it could scarcely look more forlorn than it did one Monday morning. They had sat on its spine in one place till it curved in, punched it up in another till it was hunchbacked. They had inflated its sides till they swelled out like an inflated balloon, while the air was black with the tar-rags, seaming its roof, which flying imps were carrying up to high heaven.

No less the official report said of the inside: "The mighty American Eagle spreads his wings above the President's platform, He has suspended, from his pinions, streamers one hundred feet in length, caught up on either side by coats of arms. The circumference of this vast design is one hundred and eighty feet. The President's reception platform is sixty feet long, and thirty feet wide. Twelve pilasters support alternate gold-figured, red and blue stands, on which are pots of blooming flowers. The platform and steps are richly carpeted. In the rear of the balcony, are immense festoons of flags, banners, shields, radiating from a huge illuminated star of gas-lights."

What were all those white and rosy walls of cambric, to the all-pervading polar wave that froze sailors' fingers, and struck West Point Cadets to the pavements, in congestive chills, at noonday? Why, they were nothing but an immense sieve, to strain that same polar wave through on to the persons of delicate (?) women, who, without money, and without price, for the sake of dubious admiration and commend, in promiscuous assemblies, outvie Lydia Thompson in paucity of attire.

But the ball. My intention was to say, that the President was so near frozen in the day-time, he was not sufficiently thawed out to appear under that spreading eagle, until half-past eleven o'clock, when the north wind swooped in from behind, and he congealed again immediately. The President's platform was at the north end, and all the muslin splendors of the presidential dressing and waiting-room could not, and did not, warm that polar wave.

The thousands of canary-birds perched aloft, who were expected to burst into simultaneous song at the sight of him, and to trill innumerable preludes in honor of Miss Nelly, instead, poor wretches, had, one and all, gone to bed, with their toes tucked in their feathers, and their bills buried in their breasts, in dumb effort to keep them from freezing. Not a canary-bird sang. No, they were as paralyzed with cold as the bipeds below.

On the presidential platform, the President and Mrs. Grant sat, the central figures. A little in the rear, sat Mrs. Fish—stately, lovely, and serene as ever; and just behind her, the Secretary of State. Next, were Mrs. Boutwell and Miss Boutwell, and the Secretary of the Treasury; then came, dream-like, Mrs. Creswell, handsome Mrs. Williams, and motherly Mrs. Delano. Ellen Grant stood beside her mother, and Edith Fish hovered beside her's—both winsome and unaffected girls, though the girlish grace of the latter shows, already, the line intellectual quality of her mother. The Governor of the District, with his wife and daughter, and numerous other officials, filled the platform.

Back of the Cabinet stood the Foreign Ministers, bereft of their court attire, but glittering with decorations. Tall Lady Thornton bent like a reed in the blast; and Madame Flores, the beautiful young wife of the Minister from Equador, glowed in her warm rich beauty, even at zero. Alas! that all those wondrous tints of blue and gold, of royal purple and emerald, of lavender and rose, all the gleam of those diamonds, all the show of necks and arms, which was to have made the glory of this "court circle," alas! that they were all held in eclipse, by layers on layers of wrappings, till, at a little distance, the whole platform seemed to be filled with a crowd of animated mummies, set upright, whose motions were as spasmodic and jerky as those of Mrs. Jarley's wax works.

It was very sensible—the only refuge from certain death—that all those necks and arms, diamonds, pearls, velvets and satins, should hide away under ermine capes, cloaks and shawls; but, lumped in aggregate, they did not make a pretty picture (the wraps, I mean). Indeed, the polar wave submerged the presidential platform, and made anything but a picturesque success. And how unlucky, when for the first time in the history of inauguration balls, there was a "cubby" for every hat and wrap, that every man and woman should be obliged to keep them on.

Mary Clemmer, Ten Years in Washington: Life and Scenes in the National Capital, as a Woman Sees Them, Hartford, CT:A. D. Worthington & co., 1873 p. 280-283.)

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