This week’s column is about my experience at the Independence Day celebration of The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
According to the Mount Clare Museum House website, an NSCDA property, Dame membership is extended “by invitation, with a prerequisite of direct descent from an ancestor who served and resided in an American Colony prior to 1750 and who served his country in some official capacity before July 4, 1776” to those who can provide “satisfactory proof of this service and direct lineage”.
As the great-granddaughter of immigrants, I am not a dame, nor will I ever be eligible to become one.
Luckily, I have a friend whose mother is President of the Pennsylvania chapter and whose sister is the co-chair of the Young Dames subsection of said chapter. Read as; he can pretty much bring whatever kind of mudblood he wants to these events, and he kindly chose me due to my (frequently articulated) fascination with his lineage and the social life that accompanies it.
For someone whose most binding label is “hipster adjacent,” I’m strangely obsessed with subcultures. Maybe it’s because I’m an anthropologist at heart and like interacting with new communities. Maybe it’s because I’m naturally curious (studying journalism has definitely exacerbated this). Or maybe it’s just because I watched entirely too much Gilmore Girls as a child. Regardless of its origin, the fact remains that I am enamored with the concept of a group that still celebrates America’s heritage.
The Dames of Pennsylvania base their operations at Stenton, a three acre property built in 1730 by James Logan, Secretary to William Penn, which is located at 16th and Latimer Streets in Philadelphia. One of the earliest colonial American homes in Philadelphia, stepping inside feels like entering a time capsule. It’s been a long time since I’ve been inside the Betsy Ross house or any of Philadelphia’s other historical sites, and visiting Stenton in a cocktail dress instead of an “I’m with Miss Cook’s 4th Grade class” T-shirt gave the experience an entirely new twist.
From the woodwork to the framed needlepoint, this place did me no favors in avoiding coming off like a gawking nerdy plebe. Because my friend had actual duties associated with the party, I got to wander around the house and enormous garden geeking out by myself for about an hour before things really got started. This turned out to be a blessing because as someone who is terrible at hiding her emotions, I’m not convinced that if I would have been able to a.) process, or b.) contain myself appropriately if the house had been full of the amazing party guests when I first arrived.
When he extended the invitation, my friend warned me, “This is probably the whitest thing you will ever do.” He was not wrong.
I grew up in Lower Merion, an area dominated by wealthy Jewish American Princesses who introduced me to beautiful dresses and handbags and houses long ago. That world, however, has nothing on the WASPs’.
Though I’m accustomed to females’ ability to dress up like ladies, I had never before seen so many men looking like gentlemen. Temple University boys, take notes.
Dinner jackets. Bowties. Pastels. Sear sucker pants. Pants covered with the polo logo. Khakis. Leather shoes.
I was in awe.
I was also really confused about what I supposed to do with myself once everyone arrived. I didn’t know any of these people, and I felt as if the stench of my immigrant heritage was leaking from my pores. Then, I remembered that I’m a journalist and convincing people I’m interested in mundane conversations is one of my trade specialties. So I took advantage of the open bar and played my favorite party game, which involves seeing how long I can keep someone talking about him or herself.
After the party wound down, we made our way to the Racquet Club of Philadelphia, where many of the Dames guests are apparently members, for a nightcap. This was truly the whitest thing I have ever done.
The Racquet Club was opulent. High ceilings, grand staircase, marble floors, plush carpet, portraits of dead white guys and horses- the whole shebang. I tagged along for a tour of the building, and got to see the main bar, locker rooms, barbershop (yes, they have their own), racquet courts, and the roof that happens to look directly at the top of the PNC building.
It was a magical evening. Getting to glimpse into the inner workings of an arena that can seem so dauntingly exclusive like higher society was deeply satisfying on both a personal and an academic level. I probably could have started by dipping my toe into the world of the elite at a country club or something, but that’s much less dramatic.
Besides, the Dames were really, really, fun.
Victoria Marchiony can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.