|ca. 1840 silk dress in the Metropolitan |
Museum of Art.
|ca. 1848 fashion print.|
|ca. 1860 fashion plate.|
1. California's first governor was Peter Hardemann Burnett. His wife's name was Harriet Rogers Burnett and they came to the Pacific Northwest in a covered wagon around 1842. The Governor was a successful lawyer and judge in Oregon for several years before coming to California for the Gold Rush with Mrs. Burnett and their 6 children. They settled in San Francisco shortly after arriving in California.
2. Judge Burnett ran for Governor in October and November of 1849, just after California had achieved independence from Mexico, and was a U.S. Territory. It's said that he won the election mainly for two reasons: he campaigned a lot with his family among transplanted Oregonians in the gold mines, and his three daughters were teenagers or in their early 20s, while his main opponent was a bachelor. Apparently, having pretty young daughters in Gold Rush-era California made that much difference!
3. The November 1849 election also ratified the California State Constitution and chose San Jose as the first State Capitol. The Legislature was supposed to meet in San Jose in December of 1849, but San Jose didn't have any appropriate public buildings, and no proper hotels or places for the legislators and government staff to live. San Jose scrambled to get ready, purchasing an unfinished 2-story adobe building that was intended to be a hotel, for the State House, but nothing was finished when the meeting date arrived. The State House was 1 large and 4 smaller rooms on the ground floor, and 1 large room on the upper floor, which was accessed by an outdoor staircase.
4. The winter of 1849 was so rainy, and the roads so flooded and muddy, that only a few legislators had arrived in San Jose by December 15th, the meeting date, and the Legislature couldn't meet until most had arrived -- a week later. Also, they had to scrounge for places to stay, and the few hotels in the area raised their prices. According to the Argonaut newspaper (in San Francisco), "No sooner was the Legislature fairly organized than the members began to growl about their accommodations. They didn't like the Legislative building, and swore terribly between drinks at the accommodations of the town generally." One of the first things they voted on, according to the Alta California newspaper (in San Francisco) was whether or not they should move the Capitol out of San Jose!
5. Governor Burnett was sworn in on December 20, 1849, after the ceremony had been postponed for several days because of the rain and mud, which made the roads and streets impassible. The mud was so thick that the legislators couldn't get home over Christmas, and loudly complained. The only luxury that seemed to be available, was strong drink, so the Legislature of 1849 was nicknamed "The Legislature of a Thousand Drinks."
6. The Argonaut records, "On the evening of the 27th, the citizens of San Jose having become somewhat alarmed at the continued grumbling of the strangers within their gates, determined that it was necessary to do something to content the assembled wisdom of the State, and accordingly arranged for a grand ball, which was given in the Assembly Chamber." Governor and Mrs. Burnett hosted the event. An account of the event from 1871 says: "Ladies were scarce, and of course, the country was raked for senoritas." The same book (History of San Jose by Frederic Hall) tells that the Spanish ladies wore red and yellow flannel petticoats under their dresses, which showed when they danced and made the American ladies smile at their unfashionableness, but the Spanish ladies were more graceful dancers than the American ladies.
7. An earlier ball, held that summer in Monterey for the writing of the State Constitution, was recorded by Mrs. John C. Fremont as "requir[ing] creativity [in costume] of the attendees ... A complete [gentleman's] ball-dress was a happiness attained only by the fortunate few. ... The dressing for this ball was a serious matter to these native California ladies. They had already all these expensive gowns, but they wished something absolutely new and in our fashion. ... [One American-born California lady said] 'Why, I have thirty-seven satin dresses, and no two off the same piece'," when she asked to copy one of Mrs. Fremont's evening gowns, and heard that Mrs. Fremont hadn't brought any evening dresses with her to California. -- from They Saw the Elephant by JoAnn Levy.
|Spanish ladies ca. 1848.|
9. The article from 1941 contains the only description I've seen of what anybody wore to the ball! The other newspapers in print in 1849 were printing out of San Francisco, and the muddy roads prevented any reports from getting to them and being printed for about 3 weeks; the Argonaut, Alta California, and Pacific News wrote about the ball in January of 1850, and mentioned it in one sentence: basically, "Governor Burnett gave his inauguration speech, and there was a ball in San Jose."
So... at least some women in the area had evening dresses to wear to the ball, and the newspapers of the time advertise all kinds of luxuries for sale from ships in the San Francisco Bay, including silks and fabrics of all kinds, so the women would have had access to appropriate materials for making evening clothes. But I'm still looking for a contemporary account -- newspaper, journal, magazine, letter, etc. -- that mentions what Mrs. Burnett was wearing! I'll try to take and upload photos of the dress in question at the museum, sometime in January. The search is still on ... but it's a fun search!