By Philip Vickers Fithian
From the Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian, A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion, 1773-1774
Editor's note: the spellings are to period and from Mr. Fithian's diary.
La[s]t night we had a Gust of Rain & Thunder; very acceptable—To Day in course Mr. Christians Dance happens here--He came before Breakfast—Miss Jenny Washington came also, & Miss Priscilla Hale while we were at Breakfast
—Miss Washington is about seventeen; She has not a handsome Face, but is neat in her Dress, of an agreeable Size, & well proportioned, & has an easy winning Behaviour; She is not forward to begin a conversation, yet when spoken to She is extremely affable, without assuming any Girlish affectation, or pretending to be overcharg'd with Wit; She has but lately had oppertunity of Instruction in Dancing, yet She moves with propriety when she dances a Minuet & without any Flirts or vulgar Capers, when She dances a Reel or Country-Dance; She plays well on the Harpsichord, & Spinet; understands the principles of Musick, & therefore performs her Tunes in perfect time, a Neglect of which always makes music intolerable, but it is a fault almost universal among young Ladies in the practice; She sings likewise to her instrument, has a strong, full voice & a well-judging Ear; but most of the Virginia-Girls think it labour quite sufficient to thump the keys of a Harpsichord into the air of a tune mechanically, & think it would be Slavery to submit to Drudgery of acquiring Vocal Music; Her Dress is rich & well-chosen, but not tawdry, nor yet too plain; She appears to Day in a Chintz cotton Gown with an elegant blue Stamp, a Sky-Blue silk Quilt, spotted apron; Her Hair is a light Brown, it was crap'd* up, with two Rolls at each Side, & on the top a small cap of beautiful Gawze and rich Lace, with an artificial Flower interwoven--Her person & carriage at a small distace resembles not a little of my much respected Laura. But on close examination her Features are something masculine, those of Laura are mild and delicate: Mr. Christien very politely requested me to open the Dance by stepping a Minuet with this amiable Girl, but I excused myself by assuring him that I never was taught to Dance.
—Miss Hale is about fourteen; a slim, puny silent Virgin; She has black Eyes, & black Hair, a good sett of Eye-Brows, which are esteem'd in virginia essential to Beauty; She looks innocent of every human Failing, does not speak five Words in a Week, & I dare say from her Carriage that her Modesty is invincible; She is drest in a white Holland gown, cotton Diaper quilt very fine, a Lawn apron, has her Hair crap'd up, & on it a small Tuft of Ribbon for a Cap She is just initiated into the School. and only hobbles yet Once I saw her standing; I rose immediately and begg'd her to accept my Chair; She answered most kindly, "Sir I thank you." that was all I could extract from this Wonder of the Sex for the two Days she stay'd, & I seemed to have an equal share in the Favours of her Conversation; so that I cannot be any way particular in describing the mental faculties of Miss Hale. it is sufficient to say that I think She is far removed from most of the foibles of Women
—Some time after these came Colonel Lee's** Chariot with five young Misses—These five, with Miss Washington & Miss Hale & Miss Nancy Carter, & Bob are Mr Christiens Compliment of Scholars in this School except Miss Turburville who is just now up the country with an Uncle, where She is to Stay some time together with Miss Corbin. Miss Betsy Lee is about thirteen; a tall slim genteel Girl; She is very far from Miss Hale's taciturnity, yet is by no means disagreebly forward; She dances extremely well, & is just begining to play the Spinet--She is drest in a neat shell Callico Gown, has very light Hair done up with a Feather, & her whole carriage is easy inoffensive, & graceful--The other Miss Lee's are small Towards evening came in George Lee, & Mr Grubb, an English Gentleman; the Company danced after candle-light a Minuet round, three Country Dances, several Reels, when we were Rung to Supper after Supper we sit til twelve drinking loyal Toasts—
*From Merriam-Webster online:
Etymology: French crêper, from Middle French cresper, from crespe
: to make (the hair) curly
**Colonel Richard Henry Lee of "Chantilly" (signed the Declaration of Independence)
Links of Interest
An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, c. 1490-1920
The Music Division of the Library of Congress has digitized over 200 social dance manuals which are available to study online.
Looking at Eighteenth-Century Clothing
This essay from Colonial Williamsburg Foundation gives a history of period clothing and includes illustrations.
National Museum of American History: Music and Musical Instruments
The Smithsonian museum has more than 5,000 instruments of American and European heritage in its collection.
Rappahannock Colonial Heritage Society
RCHS teaches colonial dances twice monthly at St. George's Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg at a very low fee. Their dance demonstration team has performed at Stratford Hall, Gunston Hall, Montpelier, George Washington's Birthplace, Ferry Farm and many other locations.
Robert Carter III of Nomini Hall
During the course of his life, Fithian's boss Robert Carter went from London libertine to celebrated Virginia emancipator.
Women and Education in Eighteenth-Century Virginia
This article by Linda Rowe gives an overview of educational opportunities for women during the era.