Bertha Honore Palmer

Mrs. John Sherwood and Late 19th Century Etiquette


During the month of May 1888, the visit of Mrs. John Sherwood to Chicago garnered no less than seven articles in the Chicago Tribune.  Who was Mrs. Sherwood and what was her connection to the Glessners?

Mrs. John Sherwood was born Mary Elizabeth Wilson on October 27, 1826 in Keene, New Hampshire.  After the death of her mother she became, at age 21, her father’s hostess in Washington, D.C. during his three year tenure as a Whig member of Congress from 1847 to 1850.  It was during that period that she formed many alliances that she would carry throughout her life.  Well-read and well-traveled, she began writing in her teens and had a prodigious output including three books on entertaining, two memoirs, three novels, a book of poetry, a history of European royalty, several children’s books, and hundreds of short stories and articles published in the New York Times and other newspapers and journals of the time. 

In 1884, she published Manners and Social Usages, which became the most successful etiquette book of the day.  Frances Glessner owned a copy of the 1887 edition, published just as she was preparing to settle in amongst the nouveau riche on Chicago’s fashionable Prairie Avenue.   In the Preface to the volume, Mrs. Sherwood explains the need for such a publication:
“There is no country where there are so many people asking what is ‘proper to do,’ or, indeed, where there are so many genuinely anxious to do the proper thing, as in the vast conglomerate which we call the United States of America.  The newness of our country is perpetually renewed by the sudden making of fortunes, and by the absence of a hereditary, reigning set.  There is no aristocracy here which has the right and title to set the fashions.”
The 487-page book would have been a must-read for someone like Frances Glessner, whose husband’s business successes gave her entrée into Chicago’s most exclusive social circles.  Titles of the 59 chapters included the following:
  • Optional Civilities
  • Good and Bad Society
  • Visiting
  • Invitations, Acceptances, and Regrets
  • The Etiquette of Weddings
  • Fashionable Dancing
  • Letters and Letter-Writing
  • Costly thy Habit (concerning dress as an indication of character)
  • Chaperons and their Duties
  • Etiquette for Elderly Girls
  • New Year’s Calls
  • Afternoon Tea
  • Caudle and Christening Cups and Ceremonies
  • Laying the Dinner-Table
  • Favors and Bonbonnières
  • Supper Parties
  • The Small Talk of Society
  • The Fork and the Spoon
  • Napkins and Table-Cloths
  • Servants, their Dress and Duties
  • Manners: A Study for the Awkward and Shy
  • How to Treat English People

In early May 1888, Mrs. Sherwood arrived in Chicago to give a course of five readings in the homes of some of Chicago’s most prominent citizens.  Participants paid $10 for the course, the proceeds being split between Mrs. Sherwood and her charities.  The Chicago readings were held as follows:
  • May 10, Mrs. Potter Palmer, 100 Lake Shore Drive
  • May 14, Mrs. H. H. Porter, 311 Erie Street
  • May 16, Mrs. L. J. Gage, 470 North State Street
  • May 18, Mrs. C. M. Henderson, 1816 Prairie Avenue
  • May 22, Mrs. J. J. Glessner, 1800 Prairie Avenue
Frances Glessner was one of twelve ladies who attended a luncheon at Mrs. Palmer’s on May 9th to welcome Mrs. Sherwood to the city.  The next day she paid a visit to Mrs. Sherwood and presented her with flowers which she wore at her reading at Mrs. Palmer’s that afternoon.  Of the event, Frances Glessner recorded:
“The reading was very successful – over a hundred ladies there beautifully dressed.  Mrs. Palmer had a tea afterwards.  Mrs. W. G. McCormick and Mrs. MacVeagh poured tea.  I helped Mrs. Palmer in seating etc. – and took care of the reporter.”

The reporter was apparently from the Chicago Tribune, which ran an article the next day on the event that read in part:
“Mrs. Sherwood is a prominent society woman of New York and about three years ago inaugurated a series of readings that proved to be popular.  She has continued these ever since, always for some charitable object, and they draw together crowds of society women.  Her husband is a tall, fine-looking man, with snow-white hair, who was once a prominent lawyer but who now has nothing.  Mrs. Sherwood also adds to her income by acting as a chaperon.  She has the entrée of all the aristocratic houses in England and America, and has chaperoned many a pretty American girl in the Queen’s drawing-room.
“At the northern end (of the parlor) sat Mrs. Sherwood, for, be it known, Mrs. Sherwood does not stand to read her addresses.  She gets a big easy-chair, and, ensconced in this, lays her manuscript on the table before her and leisurely reads the contents of it to her audience, occasionally taking a sip of water from a glass that stands near her elbow.  She is a large woman, with strong features.  Her hair is jet black, and she puffs it up at the sides and dresses it in a most singular way.  Her eyes are hidden by eye-glasses.  She spoke yesterday on ‘The English Jubilee.’  The reading was of deep interest.”

The next day, Frances Glessner took Mrs. Sherwood to The Fortnightly as her guest.  During the next week she was invited to a number of teas and other entertainments featuring Mrs. Sherwood as guest of honor.   On May 19th and 21st, Mrs. Sherwood delivered lectures at the Richelieu to benefit the Kindergarten Association.  The latter lecture was on the topic of ‘Society and Etiquet.’  The Chicago Tribune reported:
“’Etiquet,’ Mrs. Sherwood said, originally meant ‘ticket,’ and nowadays was the ticket without which people could not hope to be admitted into good society.”

On Tuesday May 22, Mrs. Sherwood gave her reading at the Glessner home.  Frances Glessner recalled the event in her journal:
“In the afternoon there were one hundred and fifty ladies here to the reading.  They were seated in the hall, parlor, and dining room.  Mrs. Locke and Mrs. Palmer helped me seat them.  I served a tea afterwards.  Mrs. Fred Eames and Grace Kellogg poured tea.  Mrs. Sherwood’s paper was on Aix les bains.  She sent me a very pleasant note of good bye and a copy of the last page of her paper read here. . . The ladies wandered about very much and some of them asked to go upstairs.  On the whole the experience was not agreeable.  I stood my little old mahogany stand in front of Mrs. Sherwood and pulled the two drawers out a little and filled them with sweet peas and ferns.”

She also recorded an odd occurrence that took place that afternoon during the reading:
“Two very queer looking women strayed in to the reading and by their actions convinced me they were not members of the class.  They opened drawers in the library table and peered in to things; no one knew who they were.”

Frances Glessner owned at least one other book by Mrs. Sherwood – The Art of Entertaining – published in 1892.  The Preface begins:
“In America the art of entertaining as compared with the same art in England, in France, in Italy and in Germany may be said to be in its infancy.  But if it is, it is a very vigorous infant, perhaps a little overfed.”
Chapters include:
  • The Intellectual Component of a Dinner
  • Conscientious Diners
  • Various Modes of Gastronomical Gratification
  • The Influence of Good Cheer on Authors and Geniuses
  • Bonbons
  • Famous Menus and Receipts
  • The Servant Question
  • Something About Cooks
  • Pastimes of Ladies
  • The Comparative Merits of American and Foreign Modes of Entertaining

Pasted inside the front cover of the book is a letter from Mrs. Sherwood to Frances Glessner dated March 28, 1892 written while she was delivering a series of lectures in New Orleans, newspaper clippings detailing the same of which were enclosed.  The letter thanks Frances Glessner for a book sent to her as a gift. 

Mrs. Sherwood passed away in New York on September 12, 1903 at the age of 76.