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The life & times of a newspaper’s society reporter (1898)

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The life of a society reporter
If you have read just a few of the wedding descriptions from the Society pages of old, you might imagine that people always did everything with such style and grace in the Victorian era. Well, as this society reporter notes, those poetic tales of lavish receptions and picture-perfect couples might just be more in the realm of fantasy than reality.

Society wedding of 1899

The society reporter: She needs an elastic conscience and plenty of adjectives

The trials of the provincial social scribe and the tribulations which are hers every month in the year — English inadequate.

by Adelia Alice Humphrey

Somewhat after the fashion of an entry in Pudd’nhead Wilson’s diary, it might be said that August is one of the bad months for the society editor in a small Western town. The other months are September, October, November, December, January, February, March, April, May, June and July. It is not unlimited sport to be obliged to wear an intellectual jag all the time, and that is just the fate of the unfortunate individual in question.

The society editor is expected to see “spacious apartments,” “profusions of stately palms and cut flowers,” “bewildering costumes” and “rich family plate” — where in reality, a lilliputian parlor and dining room contain a few vases of flowers, a palm or two and some highly respectable but unmistakably modern silver. As for the costumes, the only thing astonishing about them, as a rule, is the wonderful freshness they have kept under constant use.

SEE WHAT SHE MEANS: Wedding bells at the Presidio (1896)

The first requisite for a successful society paper is an editor who holds life membership in the Ananias Club. Indeed, she must be one from whom a devotee of the fishing rod might gain valuable pointers in describing his catch. One who is not a versatile and highly-accomplished liar cannot expect to succeed in the noble undertaking of writing up what the people ought to have done, but didn’t. They fall so far short sometimes that it takes a lively imagination to discover what the social function is intended to be.

The life & times of a newspaper society reporter (1898)

The society reporter writing about weddings

When a wedding occurs — ah, that is when the rose lights must be turned on. Neutral tints are out of the question. The bride, be she as unsightly as a back porch or awkward as an easel, must be invested with a full assortment of charms of the latest and most approved style. Wedding gowns of swiss and muslin are transformed into the most exquisite mousseline de soie over taffeta silk, and apparently without the slightest scruple of conscience.

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The groom, of course, must figure conspicuously as a rising young businessman. Whoever heard of a groom who was not “well and favorably known” and a “man of sterling character”? Then the “appointments” must be said to have been in perfect taste, though it must be confessed they are more often disappointments in reality.

However, that is no concern of the society editor. She is fixing up a fairytale to be sent around to the absent friends of the interested parties.

MORE: Wedding etiquette: An old-fashioned bridal procession (1893)

If a trip is made to the bride’s home, the whole family gather in solemn assembly to give the reporter a few pointers as to how to write it up. “Mrs Brown assisted in the decorations, so you must say something nice about her, and don’t forget Mrs Williams. She sent so many flowers for the house,” are a few of the suggestions pretty apt to be made.

If nine hundred and ninety nine of these are remembered, and one forgotten, woe to the society editor. The indignant family shudder at the thought of buying a copy of a paper which said nothing whatever of the ribbons on the seats reserved for the family. The paper is obliged to hump along without the quarter or half-dollar sale it had been so eagerly counting on.

The life & times of a newspaper society reporter (1898)

A society reporter on concerts and musical events

Weddings and parties may be tough propositions, but they are as easy as losing an umbrella compared with amateur musical events. To do full justice to the amateur Pattis — to say nothing of the embryo Mozarts, Chopins and Hadyns — requires the exercise of the full privilege of a thirty-third-degree member of the Ananias aggregation.

MORE: Wedding etiquette: Church decor & flowers (1893)

Words fall ignominiously and go into the hands of a receiver. Sighs of ecstasy, little screams of delight, clasped hands and uplifted eyes cannot be put into print unfortunately, so the reporter must look to her laurels or she’ll fan out in every inning.

If a few French phrases can be skillfully manipulated, the cause is saved. Whether they are appropriate or not is another other matter — entirely irrelevant in fact. Any one of the performers will be immeasurably flattered to read that he sang “comme un fou,” or played “avec le gout le plus mauvais de tout le monde.” But whatever is said, superlative adjectives alone are permissible. They must be dealt out in a manner as judicious as to fit the dealer for a place in the diplomatic corps.

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But even that trial is microscopic compared with lending an appreciative ear and pencil to exponents of the noble art of elocution. “The smell of that jasmine flower” is appallingly popular. It seems to have penetrated to the uttermost parts of the earth. Wherever there is a “reader,” people must expect to listen to “Aux Italiens” world without end.

There is only one way to get even with the world on that score, and that is to learn the piece one’s self. It’s a weapon that proves mighty useful on occasions.

Praise or insult?

In any branch whatsoever of a society reporter’s work in a small town, anything but the most lavish praise is a horrible insult. Each “artist” or hostess makes a secret visit to the office. Confidingly, a gentle request for a “good write-up” is whispered into the editor’s ear. That individual has a heart that is at least as soft as rubber, so what is to be done?

As time goes on, the praise must be more and more recklessly bestowed. It becomes a sort of impressionistic word painting. The writer stands a few feet off and tosses compliments at the copy sheets. You know the rest.

Finally the office becomes a soft soap factory with an extensive output. The rules that separate the columns in the form have to be built up to keep the stuff from slopping over and blurring the paper. Vocabularies go on a strike and have to bo sent to a sanitarium to be rejuvenated.

Then is life in the office of the society editor not one of unrestrained hilarity. Great hunks of gloom and ill-temper may be pried up most any old place about the room. A longing most intense to do one of two things seizes the editor: Only just once to write events up as they really are, just to see what effect would be produced, is one. The other is to quietly close up her office and silently steal away.

Neither desire can be humored, however. She must restore herself to a measure of contentment with her one hope for the future. She has been describing imaginary glories so long that some day, surely she will excel in the art of designing. Then will come a glad release, and the name of Worth will no longer be alone on Dame Fashion’s escutcheon.

Fashionable women of 1899

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