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Social Life In Old New Orleans by Eliza Ripley

Social Life In Old New Orleans 
by Eliza Ripley

I
New Orleans Children Of 1840

CHILDREN should be seen and not heard." Children were neither seen nor heard in the days of which I write, the days of 1840. They led the simple life, going and coming in their own unobtrusive way, making no stir in fashionable circles, with laces and flounces and feathered hats. There were no ready-made garments then for grown-ups, much less for children. It was before California gold mines, before the Mexican war, before money was so abundant that we children could turn up our little noses at a picayune. I recall the time when Alfred Munroe descended from Boston upon the mercantile world of New Orleans, and opened on Camp Street a "one price" clothing store for men. Nobody had ever heard of one price, and no deviation, for anything, from a chicken to a plantation. The fun of hectoring over price, and feeling, no matter how the trade ended, you had a bargain after all, was denied the customers of Mr. Alfred Munroe. The innovation was startling, but Munroe retired with a fortune in course of time.

Children's clothes were homemade. A little wool shawl for the shoulders did duty for common use. A pelisse made out of an old one of mother's, or some remnant found in the house, was fine for Sunday wear. Pantalettes of linen, straight and narrow and untrimmed, fell over our modest little legs to our very shoetops. Our dresses were equally simple and equally "cut down and made over." Pantalettes were white, but I recall, with a dismal smile, that when I was put into what might be called unmitigated mourning for a brother, my pantalettes matched my dresses, black bombazine or
black alpaca.

Our amusements were of the simplest. My father's house on Canal Street had a flat roof, well protected by parapets, so it furnished a grand player ground for the children of the neighborhood. Judge Story lived next door and Sid and Ben Story enjoyed to the full the advantages of that roof, where all could romp and jump rope to their heart's content. The neutral ground, that is now a center for innumerable lines of street cars, was at that time an open, ungarnished, untrimmed, untended strip of waste land. An Italian banana and orange man cleared a space among the bushes and rank weeds and erected a rude fruit stall where later Clay's statue stood. A quadroon woman had a coffee stand, in the early mornings, at the next corner, opposite my father's house. It could not have been much beyond Claiborne Street that we children went crawfishing in the ditches that bounded each side of that neutral ground, for we walked, and it was not considered far.

The Farmers' and Traders' Bank was on Canal Street, and the family of Mr. Bell, the cashier, lived over the bank. There were children there and a governess, who went fishing with us. We rarely caught anything and had no use for it when we did. Sometimes I was permitted to go to market with John, way down to the old French Market. We had to start early, before the shops on Chartres Street were open, and the boys busy with scoops watered the roadway from brimming gutters. John and I hurried past. Once at market we rushed from stall to stall, filling our basket, John forgetting nothing that had been ordered, and always carefully remembering one most important item, the saving of at least a picayune out of the market money for a cup of coffee at Manette's stall. I drank half the coffee and took one of the little cakes. John finished the repast and "dreened" the cup, and with the remark, "We won't say anything about this," we started toward home. We had to stop, though, at a bird store, on the square above the Cathedral, look at the birds, chaff the noisy parrots, watch the antics of the monkeys, and see the man hang up his strings of corals and fix his shells in the window, ready for the day's business. We could scarcely tear ourselves away, it was so interesting; but a reminder that the wax head at Dr. De Leon's dentist's door would be "put out by this time," hurried me to see that wonderful bit of mechanism open and shut its mouth, first with a row of teeth, then revealing an empty cavern. How I watched, wondered and admired that awfully artificial wax face! These occasional market trips—and walks with older members of the family—were the sum of my or any other child's recreation.

Once, and only once, there was a party! The little Maybins had a party and every child I knew was invited. The Maybins lived somewhere back of Poydras Market. I recall we had to walk down Poydras Street, beyond the market, and turn to the right onto a street that perhaps had a name, but I never heard it. The home was detached, and surrounded by ample grounds; quantities of fig trees, thickets of running roses and in damp places clusters of palmetto and blooming flags. We little Invited guests were promptly on the spot at 4 P. M., and as promptly off the spot at early candlelight. I am sure no debutantes ever had a better time than did we little girls in pantalettes and pigtails. We danced; Miss Sarah Strawbrldge played for us, and we all knew how to dance. Didn't we belong to Mme. Arraline Brooks' dancing school? 

The corner of Camp and Julia Streets, diagonally across from the then fashionable 13 Buildings, was occupied by Mme. Arraline Brooks, a teacher of dancing. Her school (studio or parlor it would be called now) was on the second floor of Armory Hall, and there we children—she had an immense class, too—learned all the fancy whirls and "heel and toe" steps of the Intricate polka, which was danced in sets of eight, like old-time quadrilles. Mme. Arraline wore in the classroom short skirts and pantalettes, so we had a good sight of her feet as she pirouetted about, as agile as a ballet dancer.

By and by, at a signal from Miss Sarah, who had been having a confidential and persuasive interview with a little miss, we were all placed with our backs to the wall and a space cleared. Miss Sarah struck a few notes, and little Tenie Slocomb danced the "Highland fling." Very beautiful was the little sylph in white muslin, her short sleeves tied with blue ribbons, and she so graceful and lovely. It comes to me to-day with a thrill, when I compare the companion picture—of a pale, delicate, dainty old lady, with silvered hair and tottering step, on the bank of a foreign river. It is not easy to bridge the seventy years (such a short span, too, it is) between the two. Then the march from "Norma" started us to the room for refreshments. It is full forty years since I have heard that old familiar air, but for thirty years after that date I did not hear it that the impulse to march to lemonade and sponge cake did not seize me.

Alack-a-day! Almost all of us have marched away.

Eliza Ripley, Social Life In Old New Orleans: Being Recollections Of My Girlhood (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1912), 1-6.

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