Fig. 8

 

Fig.1. Possible favor that had been kept by Pauline Robinson in her débutante book from 1900. Small, flat, painted ivory flower. ‘Robinson Family Papers’, New York Historical Society, MS520, MS2309, Series 1, Book 1 Folder 3. Photographed by author.

Fig.1. Possible favor that had been kept by Pauline Robinson in her débutante book from 1900. Small, flat, painted ivory flower. ‘Robinson Family Papers’, New York Historical Society, MS520, MS2309, Series 1, Book 1 Folder 3. Photographed by author.

 

This object is likely to be a débutante favor that was kept by New York débutante Pauline Robinson and fixed into her 1900-1901 débutante yearbook (fig.1). I came across this object during my research for my dissertation, in which I looked at the débutante and the débutante season during the Gilded Age in New York and the material culture that surrounded this social ritual. It was not just the dress that was important for a young girl’s coming-out season; there was a huge array of items needed for the girl (and her mother) to purchase in order to be accepted into the social elite.

 

Favors played an integral role in the events of the débutante season. A favor was a gift given at a coming-out event, a ball, or dinner dance, much like wedding favors that are still given out today. This object is the item that I found during my research that is most likely to be a favor. It is a small, flat, ivory flower (10cm x 10cm) shaped like a four leaf clover. It has small purple flowers painted onto it, a bird and a thistle. There is a rectangular area, painted to look like a card, which has inscribed onto it ‘Souvenir D’amitie. Miss Robinson’ translating as ‘token of friendship’. The ‘Miss Robinson’ is written using ink rather than paint and is in different handwriting suggesting that this was not a home made token and that maybe a number of these were bought and given out to a few girls. Although it is not known if this was definitely a débutante favor it is likely to be one due to the fact that it was found within Robinson’s débutante yearbook and that it has the characteristic flower decorations that were synonymous with débutantes.

 

The favors were judged by the guests in terms of quality, but also originality and the performance that surrounded their distribution. Harper’s Bazaar published an article on the 14th October 1899, entitled ‘New Cotillion Favors for the Season’, which looked at what made a successful favor and why such things were needed (fig.2). The article begins with ‘upon the favors, quite as much as upon the leader, the success of a cotillion depends. Many dances which would otherwise have gone down in the history of society events as dull have been redeemed by them. [1] ’The article introduces favors as an integral element to a cotillion. Harper’s Bazaar informs its readers that there should be different favors for the two sexes, showing the forethought of the hostess but, most importantly, ‘novelty and daintiness are the only qualities they must possess’. [2]

 

Fig.2. New Cotillion Favors for the Season’, Harper's Bazaar, 14 October 1899, p.869.

Fig.2. New Cotillion Favors for the Season’, Harper’s Bazaar, 14 October 1899, p.869.

 

As part of the social season cotillions would have been attended by débutantes. A cotillion was, as American historian Maureen Montgomery describes, a  ‘regular feature of both subscription and private balls. This was a formal dance, a kind of formal parade, with set figures planned and rehearsed well in advance. Before the event it would have been rehearsed.’ [3] The Harper’s Bazaar article covers why favors were important, advice on the type of favors and how many favors were acceptable to hand out to guests. A number of the example favors are from France and Britain and, as the article suggests, would have been bought through a certain Mrs Collins’ shop on Broadway.

 

The Vanderbilt’s cotillion is the example used as a good use of favors:

First came shower-bouquets of artificial daisies and violets, cascades of blossoms and ribbons, which the men presented to the women, who in turn offered boutonnieres to their partners. For the second figure there were exquisite little gilt pin-trays for the women and gilt match boxes for the men. Tinsel sashes trimmed with roses were given to the women in the third figure, the men receiving thermometers in the form of hunting trophies. The favors for the fourth figure were even more charming. At the entrance to the ball-room was a gondola, from which a gondolier in costume distributed little Venetian lanterns to the women- to light their way to the men’s hearts, it was said. Silver hearts trimmed with roses were presented to the men to facilitate their partners’ task. The lanterns made of pink roses and gilt gauze, which answered for glass, were hung from ribbon-trimmed sticks, and were exquisitely dainty. [4]

The description of these favors in this passage and how they were presented emphasises how the performance that surrounded the giving out of favors was as important as the actual favors themselves. This is stressed by the article that comments how ‘the way favors are served has much to do with the success of a cotillion.’ [5]

 

In the New York Times society page in 1908 there was a report of a cotillion that was danced in the dark. This article emphasises the importance of the performative aspect of the distribution of the favors.

 

One figure danced with the house lights turned out, the favors were pink orders with tiny electric lights and pocket flashlights for the men; for the girls flower parasols lighted with tiny electric bulbs, it being danced to the lights worn by guests. Other favors included hoops of tissue trimmed pink roses, and policemen’s clubs filled with confetti. [6]

 

In this instance it is apparent that a large portion of this débutante’s cotillion was designed around the favors and how they were distributed. The influence of technology is evident here but could also allude to one of the most famous fancy dress costumes worn from the period. In 1883 Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt II attended Mrs Alva Vanderbilt’s most famous ball dressed as ‘Electric Light’ wearing a Worth dress (fig.3). The Vanderbilt ball was one of the most talked about and extravagant events of the decade and this dress was one of the highlights of it. This dress was an embodiment of Old World aristocracy meeting New World technology, the combination of elegance and modernity. Phyllis Magidson from the Museum of the City of New York explains how just three years before this dress was worn, ‘Thomas Edison had patented an electricity distribution system [… two years later it] began supplying customers [in New York] with electricity.’ [7] This technological advancement is evident as inspiration in both dress and the performance of favor distribution. The use of electric lights in the débutante cotillion as favors not only demonstrates the family’s wealth at being able to incorporate modern technology in such an imaginative way, but also highlights their association with the Vanderbilts.

 

Fig.3. Fancy dress costume worn by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II to the Vanderbilt Ball. Maison Worth representing “Electric Light,” 1883.

Fig.3. Fancy dress costume worn by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II to the Vanderbilt Ball. Maison Worth representing “Electric Light,” 1883.

 

 

Although there are items in museum collections and archives that fit the descriptions of some of the favors written about in newspaper reports, there is no solid evidence that they were in fact débutante favors. But how important were these favors to the guests after they had been to events? One Harpers Bazaar article suggest that the individuals could have collected, ‘as many as twenty favors in one night.’ [8] Would everyone have kept all of those favors that they received? It is difficult to answer this question, as each individual was different. However those receiving the favors at these events were all wealthy and if one received a Liberty scarf from a ball, would it be worn afterwards? Or would the individual want a Liberty scarf that cost far more and was unique? It would seem that the giving out of favors at these events could be compared, albeit in a rather rudimentary way, to Christmas crackers. They provide entertainment for the moment and are well received, but afterwards, who actually keeps their paper hat or mini screwdrivers? Favors played an integral performative role in the success of a cotillion despite their ephemeral qualities. Although the favors themselves may not have been treasured the performance surrounding them would have surely stayed in the guests memories.

 

 

1.  ‘New Cotillion Favors for the Season’, Harper’s Bazaar, 14 October 1899, p.869.

2. Ibid.

3. Maureen Montgomery, Displaying Women: Spectacles of Leisure in Edith Wharton’s New York (New York, Routledge, 1998), p.30.

4. Ibid

5. Ibid.

6.  ‘Cotillion Figure Danced in the Dark’, New York Times, 30 December 1908, p.13.

7.  Phyliss Madigson, ‘A Fashionable Equation: Maison Worth and the CLothes of the Gilded Age’, GIlded New York (New York, The Monacilli Press, 2014), pp. 107-128 (p. 115).

8.  ‘The Débutante’, Harpers Bazaar, 2 December 1899, p.32.

 

 

By Harriette Lane

 

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