On December 31, 1852, Hattie Powell attended a New Year's Eve party in Henry, IL that got out of hand. A few days later she wrote a letter to her sister Rebecca (who was visiting family in Alexandria, VA) with all the details. Henry, IL was a small town with a total population of 400 residents (per the 1850 census). Hattie explained that none of the married people in town were invited, yet she was amazed at the large number of young people who had assembled, several of whom she had not met before. Considering the small population of Henry, and the new faces, I assume there were guests from a few nearby towns.
At the time of the party, Hattie was 19 years old, her brother Lloyd was 18, and her sister Minna was 17. So I suspect the guests ranged in age from late teens to early 30s.
During the evening, a game called, "Pleased or Displeased" was played. Everyone was asked whether he or she was pleased or displeased and was required to answer. If you answered "pleased," then the game moved on. If you answered "displeased" then you would tell the other guests what would please you in the form of a request. I suspect the request was typically something silly like asking someone to sing. However, this particular game escalated, and Hattie tells it best as follows:
"There was quite a pretty & nice looking girl there a Miss Clisbee, she said she was not pleased, she was then asked what would please her, she said for Mr. Jones (a gentleman who she had not been introduced to & had never seen till that night) to measure six yards of tape with her, & she stood up in the floor, with as bold & unblushing a face as ever you saw, while poor Mr. Jones was dragged by [?] force out of his chair to kiss her. I asked him afterwards how he liked it, he said oh very well only he thought it was rather a rough introduction to a lady."
This is quite the interesting party so far, and there is so much to love about Hattie's description of the events. First, it's clear from this passage (and from a comment earlier in the letter) that conversation between people is still inappropriate unless formally introduced. Second, I love the dry sense of humor of Mr. Jones in his response to how he liked the kiss. And best of all, the phrase, "measure six yards of tape" appears to be a euphemism for kissing in the 19th century. Hattie describes the party further as follows:
"Now I come to the most interesting part of the [party], that in which your dignified sister figured. Mr. Alber then announced that he was dissatisfied, imagine my horror [upon] his being asked what would please him to hear him say, “To see Mr. Groves measure & cut six yards of tape with Miss Harriet Powell.” There was a general shout & jump at Mr. Grove, [Deacon?] Pool exclaimed “Ah Jim Groves you will have to stand it.” No body seemed ever to imagine that Miss Harriet Powell would object. Mr. Groves at first told them to let him alone, he was not going to get up at all, but that did not satisfy them at all, so he got very mad & said something about complying with any thing reasonable which they required, but not that, I was so much agitated I did not hear what he said exactly but I heard Min, Brother & Maria say it was a most excellent reply, & I tell you what they dropped him like a hot potato. Would you not have liked to have witnessed the scene? Minna & Maria looked indignant, contemptible, Brothers eyes flashed fire & they all tell me that they never before realized that looks & actions spoke louder than words. I sat perfectly still & looked daggers. Brother says he shall forever think better of Mr. Groves…”
So again, "measuring six yards of tape" is used as a euphemism for kissing. What's intriguing is that Hattie went back and inserted "and cut" above the words "to measure" as if that was an important addition. I've searched online for this euphemism and have only found two references so far, which are included below.
The euphemism appears in a serialized novel titled, "The Hermit A story of the Wilderness," by Charles Clark Munn in a chapter called "Thanksgiving Day" that ran in newspapers across the country in 1904 and 1905. The image here is from The Evening Star of Independence, Kansas on Friday, July 22, 1904, courtesy of newspapers.com. The reference is in the next to last sentence.
I think it is safe to assume a kiss was exchanged between Aunt Lorey and Nezer.
An article on the behavior of boys titled, "Modern Boy is Retrograding, Claim Experts," appeared in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, Minnesota on June 20, 1915.
The image here is courtesy of newspapers.com.
Neither reference sheds light on the origin of the euphemism, and both are more than 50 years after the party in Henry. However they do confirm that the euphemism was known. Therefore, this fun search will continue.
While Hattie was grateful to avoid the scandalous kiss, she relished having a fun tale to tell. She could not wait to write to Rebecca, and she asks her to be sure to tell their friends in Alexandria. And I have no doubt that she and her brother Lloyd told that story many times in the years to come. However, that memory was bitter sweet because their sister Minna died about 18 months later. Hattie was so proud of how Minna, "looked like a belle" that evening and was sorry Rebecca didn't get to see her so dressed up and admired.
If you know of other examples where this euphemism is used or if you know of its origin, please contact me.
Miss Clisbee may have been Miss Louisa Clisbee, 18 years old. I searched the Illinois 1850 census for all names spelled similarly to Clisbee and found 22 potential candidates. I eliminated everyone that was male, over 35, under 18, married, and who lived too far away. Louisa Clisbee was the only remaining candidate. She was born in about 1835 in Ohio and was living in Lacon, IL in 1850. Lacon is about 9 miles from Henry (and on the other side of the Illinois River). I have not yet found this young lady on other records and am still performing research to learn more about who she was.
Mr. Jones was likely Mr. Logan Jones, 25 years old. He was listed on the Henry, IL 1850 census as living at a tavern run by Samuel Camp and working as a laborer. He was born in 1827 in Illinois.
Mr. Groves was James Groves, 27 years old. Like Logan Jones, he was listed on the Henry, IL census in 1850 as living in Samuel Camp's tavern (so the two friends were also neighbors). He was employed as a clerk in town. Hattie later referred to him as "Jim Groves," which helps to confirm his identity. He was born in 1825 in New York.
Since the two men above are listed next to one another in the same tavern on the 1850 census in Henry, IL (2 years before the party), I'm including the image below for fun, courtesy of Ancestry.com.
Mr. Alber is someone I have not yet identified.
Deacon Pool is someone I have not yet identified.
Maria is a friend of the Powell sisters. I have not yet identified her.
The image at the top is from, "Courtship Scene in the Parlour" by the German artist Spassmacher in 1862.