My Research Adventures

Measuring Six Yards of Tape: A Euphemism for Kissing (Part 1)


"Courtship Scene in the Parlour" by German artist Spassmacher, 1862.

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.








Hattie began the story by referring to it as a "bussery bee." The word "buss" is an old reference that meant to kiss someone. Therefore, by referring to the party as a bussery bee, she was making it clear what the party entailed - like a quilting bee would involve quilting.


"I must tell you of the “bussery bee” Min & I went to New Years night. It was at Mrs. Jones. Lute was not invited for which I was very sorry, no married people were there, & I was very much surprised to see so large a company of young people I did not suppose so many could have been collected, nor such a number of good looking gentlemanly young men." [1]

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. Lute was her second cousin on her father's side. She was 19 and married, so she was left out of the party. Hattie went on to say:

"The invitations were very prettily written & the hour seven oclock, quite fashionable was it not. Well just as we were all sitting in the dining room with our wrappings on waiting for the appointed time a wrap at the front door was heard & in a few moments Brother (who was going with us) ushered in two very gentlemanly & quite handsome young gentlemen who he introduced to us as Mr. Giles & Mr. Jones, & they informed us that they had brought a carriage & would be happy to escort us to the party."

I love how she set the scene here by describing how she and her sister Minna were waiting in the dining room of the house with their wrappings on when a knock came at the door. It's important that she pointed out that her brother Lloyd introduced Mr. Giles and Mr. Jones because this was a time when introductions were still necessary for people to interact. They left for the party, and she wrote:

"They made themselves very agreeable during the ride, but left us at the gate to go for some of the other girls."

So, these men were riding around town picking up women in a carriage! The Powells didn't own a carriage, so I suspect Mr. Giles and Mr. Jones borrowed one and convinced Lloyd Powell to go with them because Lloyd would have known many of the young women through his sisters and could make the introductions. Once at the party, Hattie continued...

"I never in my life saw such an impudent man as that Mr. Alber, he was not introduced to me but once came & took his seat by my side, I immediately turned round to the table & took up a book, & did not speak a word to him."

How awkward is that? Hattie turned away to avoid speaking to a stranger! She'd been raised on these rules all of her life. As shocked as a modern reader is to see this behavior, the audience of this letter in Alexandria, VA was equally shocked that Mr. Alber had the audacity to speak to her at all!

"Well now for the kissing. They began to play Pleased or displeased, I did not know the game but was told that if I said I was pleased I would have nothing to do so I said I was pleased."

Hattie had never played this game and was clearly playing it safe. This party had a lot of people she'd never met, and she was likely unsure what to expect.

"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 yds 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 mean force out of his chair to kiss her."

How fascinating that to "measure six yards of tape" was a euphemism for kissing! The euphemism occurs several times in the Powell Family Papers at William & Mary, and this is first instance. The circumstances of this incident are also fascinating. Miss Clisbee was clearly a young woman that was new in town, given that Hattie explained who she was to Rebecca and emphasized that she had never met Mr. Jones nor had ever seen him. I've determined she was likely Miss Lousia Clisbee who was living in Lacon, IL in 1850 but was later in Henry, IL in 1860. She may have already moved to Henry by the time of this party. It's clear she wasn't among the girls picked up in a carriage by Mr. Jones. Perhaps Miss Clisbee was annoyed, or maybe she wanted to raise her social profile. It's further fascinating that Mr. Jones apparently had to be dragged out of his chair to kiss her.

"I asked him after wards how he liked it, he said oh very well only he thought it was rather a rough introduction to a lady."

I'm astonished that she asked him about it!

"Now I come to the most interesting part of the bee, 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…”

Mr. Alber strikes again! Hattie spurned him earlier when he tried to speak to her before being formally introduced. Perhaps he was not acquainted with that formality and was hurt and seeking revenge. Or perhaps it was a good natured effort to tease Hattie and involve her in the party. He used the phrase to "measuring six yards of tape" a second time - this time with the addition of "and cut." I searched newspapers.com for this euphemism at the time this article was originally written and found two references, which are included below.

Reference 1

Courtesy of Newspapers.com

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.















Reference 2

Courtesy of Newspapers.com

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.




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 well known.


This mystery is now solved. Click here for the later article.

While Hattie was grateful to avoid the scandalous kiss, she relished having a fun tale to tell. She could not wait to write to her sister Rebecca, and she asked her to be sure to tell their friends in Alexandria. 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.

Footnotes:


[1] Harriet Powell Henry Illinois to sister no place January 3 1853. Powell Family Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, William & Mary.


Individuals Mentioned:


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 17, 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). Louisa Clisbee was recorded on the 1860 census as living in Henry, IL, therefore she could have just moved to Henry at the time of the party.

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 or roommates). 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.

1850 Census, Henry, IL Courtesy of Ancestry.com

Mr. Giles is someone I have not yet identified.


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.

©2020 by Alison Herring