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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Ambassador’s Ball

By Abigail Adams (1744–1818)

[From a Letter to Miss Lucy Crunch.—London, 2 April, 1786.]

TO amuse you then, my dear niece, I will give you an account of the dress of the ladies at the ball of the Comte d’Adhémar; as your cousin tells me that she some time ago gave you a history of the birthday and ball at Court, this may serve as a counterpart. Though, should I attempt to compare the apartments, St. James’s would fall as much short of the French Ambassador’s, as the Court of his Britannic Majesty does of the splendor and magnificence of that of his Most Christian Majesty. I am sure I never saw an assembly room in America, which did not exceed that at St. James’s in point of elegance and decoration; and, as to its fair visitors, not all their blaze of diamonds, set off with Parisian rouge, can match the blooming health, the sparkling eye, and modest deportment of the dear girls of my native land. As to the dancing, the space they had to move in gave them no opportunity to display the grace of a minuet, and the full dress of long court-trains and enormous hoops, you well know were not favorable for country dances, so that I saw them at every disadvantage; not so the other evening. They were much more properly clad;—silk waists, gauze or white or painted tiffany coats decorated with ribbon, beads, or flowers, as fancy directed, were chiefly worn by the young ladies. Hats turned up at the sides with diamond loops and buttons of steel, large bows of ribbons and wreaths of flowers, displayed themselves to much advantage upon the heads of some of the prettiest girls England can boast. The light from the lustres is more favorable to beauty than daylight, and the color acquired by dancing, more becoming than rouge, as fancy dresses are more favorable to youth than the formality of a uniform. There was as great a variety of pretty dresses, borrowed wholly from France, as I have ever seen: and amongst the rest, some with sapphire-blue satin waists, spangled with silver, and laced down the back and seams with silver stripes; white satin petticoats trimmed with black and blue velvet ribbon; an odd kind of head-dress, which they term the “helmet of Minerva.” I did not observe the bird of wisdom, however, nor do I know whether those who wore the dress had suitable pretensions to it. “And pray,” say you, “how were my aunt and cousin dressed?” If it will gratify you to know, you shall hear. Your aunt, then, wore a full-dress court cap without the lappets, in which was a wreath of white flowers, and blue sheafs, two black and blue flat feathers (which cost her half a guinea apiece, but that you need not tell of), three pearl pins, bought for Court, and a pair of pearl earrings, the cost of them—no matter what; less than diamonds, however. A sapphire-blue demi-saison with a satin stripe, sack and petticoat trimmed with a broad black lace; crape flounce, etc.; leaves made of blue ribbon, and trimmed with white floss; wreaths of black velvet ribbon spotted with steel beads, which are much in fashion, and brought to such perfection as to resemble diamonds; white ribbon also in the Vandyke style, made up of the trimming, which looked very elegant; a full-dress handkerchief, and a bouquet of roses. “Full gay, I think, for my aunt.” That is true, Lucy, but nobody is old in Europe. I was seated next the Duchess of Bedford, who had a scarlet satin sack and coat, with a cushion full of diamonds, for hair she has none, and is but seventy-six, neither. Well, now for your cousin; a small, white Leghorn hat, bound with pink satin ribbon; a steel buckle and band which turned up at the side, and confined a large pink bow; a large bow of the same kind of ribbon behind; a wreath of full-blown roses round the crown, and another of buds and roses withinside the hat, which being placed at the back of the hair, brought the roses to the edge; you see it clearly; one red and black feather, with two white ones, completed the head-dress. A gown and coat of Chambéri gauze, with a red satin stripe over a pink waist, and coat flounced with crape, trimmed with broad point and pink ribbon; wreaths of roses across the coat; gauze sleeves and ruffles. But the poor girl was so sick with a cold, that she could not enjoy herself, and we retired about one o’clock without waiting supper, by which you have lost half a sheet of paper, I dare say; but I cannot close without describing to you Lady North and her daughter. She is as large as Captain C——’s wife, and much such a made woman, with a much fuller face, of the color and complexion of Mrs. C——, who formerly lived with your uncle Palmer, and looks as if porter and beef stood no chance before her; add to this, that it is covered with large red pimples, over which, to help the natural redness, a coat of rouge is spread; and, to assist her shape, she was dressed in white satin, trimmed with scarlet ribbon. Miss North is not so large, nor quite so red, but has a very small eye with the most impudent face you can possibly form an idea of, joined to manners so masculine, that I was obliged frequently to recollect that line of Dr. Young’s,
  • “Believe her dress; she’s not a grenadier,”
  • to persuade myself that I was not mistaken.

    Thus, my dear girl, you have an account which perhaps may amuse you a little. You must excuse my not copying; I fear, now, I shall not get nearly all my letters ready,—my pen very bad, as you see; and I am engaged three days this week,—to a rout at the Baroness de Nolken’s, the Swedish minister’s, to a ball on Thursday evening, and to a dinner on Saturday. Do not fear that your aunt will become dissipated, or in love with European manners; but, as opportunity offers, I wish to see this European world in all its forms that I can with decency. I still moralize with Yorick, or with one more experienced, and say, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”