Romance on Millionaires Row: Courtship rituals tightly monitored in Victorian times

WENDY CHESTNUT/Sun-Gazette Correspondent A mounted peacock would have been a symbol of wealth, above. “Everything is a statement of your refinement and education,” said Bob Esposito, art and architectural historian. “You flaunted what you had and didn’t worry about it. Everyone just enjoyed it.”

The ballroom fills with people dancing in their finest silks beneath chandeliers sparkling with flickering candles. The women’s large skirts twirl across the waxed wooden floor, but no ankles are revealed. A peek of cleavage may be seen, but arms are covered in long gloves as women chatter with one another. It is not proper to approach or stare into a man’s eyes.

Flora is wearing a new organza gown her step-mother ordered from the seamstress. Her step-mother also demanded she wear six petticoats tonight to enhance her waist. Thankfully they are all made of cotton, but Flora is so hot she can feel sweat sliding down the back of her kneecaps. Her corset isn’t overly tight, but she still can’t catch her breath because of her nerves. She has to dance with her prospective husband tonight. He is the son of one of her father’s business associates. He had been introduced to her parents, so if he asks her to dance, she has no choice — she has to say yes.

She eyes the sparkling punchbowls full of cider, but she doesn’t want to have to go behind the screen in the other room and have the servants help her with her skirts to use the chamber pot. The sugared fruit and meat pies on the lace-covered tablecloth only make her stomach roll. Since she finished at the Hattie Hall Seminary for Young Ladies, she can sing, sew and manage her own house. She knows at age 19 she has to find a husband or people might start to whisper. She just hopes she likes him.

Florence “Flora” Herdic was the daughter of Peter Herdic, a lumber baron and one of the wealthiest men in Pennsylvania in the late 1800s. Herdic’s daughter married William Jones McClary, a carriage builder from a distinguished Delaware family, on Oct. 15, 1874, at the age of 19.

It’s hard to say whether she ever loved her first husband or if the scene above ever happened. Love wasn’t a requirement for marriage in the Victorian era, according to Bob Esposito, a local art and architectural historian.

Privileged young women followed the ways of society, he said. They might want to follow their baser urges and receive stolen kisses from admiring beaus, but they had to remain virgins and marry. They knew they faced possibly being disowned by their family if they became pregnant, leaving them alone and poverty stricken.

“Women tried to find someone who was not horrible to live with, who had a job and could move up in their profession,” Esposito said when asked what romance was like in that period. “They hoped to have a nice house and that he would support their children, for there really was no birth control.”

Clothing covered women from head to toe. A woman never went out of her house without a hat and gloves. Bodices for day dresses were high-necked, tightly fitted and long-sleeved.

“Clothing was utterly feminine and designed to emphasize an admired small waist,” Esposito said. “With the invention of the sewing machine in 1846 clothes were more lavishly trimmed, and lace machinery was developed so lace could be made at a fraction of the cost of hand-made.”

Regardless of class, the goal in life was to get married and have a family. “Women were not only just an adornment for their husband but a means to help their husband succeed. If their husband succeeded, then she and her children also did,” Esposito said.

Courtship in the Victorian period was a tradition and it was very popular. Queen Victoria and her family were the idols of the Victorian society and they laid down some rules for courting that had to be followed, according to “Courting the Victorian Woman,” by Michelle J. Hoppe. Queen Victoria reigned in England from 1837-1901.

“Courtship advanced by graduations, with couples first speaking, then walking out together and finally keeping company after mutual attraction had been confirmed,” Hoppe explained. “A young woman used her mother’s visiting cards or that of another female relative if her mother was dead. This same person usually served as her chaperone, as a single girl was never allowed out of the house by herself.”

A calling card was a small card with a name that was presented at the door to a butler or servant, according to Scott Sagar, curator at the Thomas T. Taber Museum of the Lycoming County Historical Society. “If the corner was folded down, it indicated a visit later that day,” Sagar said.

Though the family’s parlor was probably the most common place for a “date,” couples also went bicycling in fair weather or ice skating in winter. There were many parks, which were popular for strolls and picnics, Sagar said. There was live theatre at the Lycoming Opera House, the Ulman Opera House and the Academy of Music, and the Repasz Band performed. There were many social clubs and church functions with dances and suppers.

“Courtship was considered more a career move than a romantic interlude for young men, as all of a woman’s property reverted to him upon marriage. Therefore courting was taken very seriously — by both sides,” Hoppe said.

McClary seemed to have made a wise career move with Flora Herdic. McClary found a job with his father-in-law, and he and his wife moved into a home that Peter Herdic built on Millionaire’s Row, just below Fifth Avenue. The 1880 census indicates that the McClary’s had a cook and a servant, both from Ireland, Mary Sieminski, a local historian, said.

Maybe Herdic’s daughter was persuaded by her father more than has been recorded in historical journals. She eventually left her husband, running away and eloping with their upholsterer, Sieminski reported from an 1886 story in the New York Times. She took her two sons, the family silver, linens and $300. It caused quite a scandal as the upholsterer, Alfred M. Haswell, was married with four children.