By Jim Harmon
“Society news” used to be a big deal, even in the smallest of newspapers.
Growing up in Libby in the 1940s and ’50s, I can recall the local newspaper dialing up our house … wait, I made a bit of a mistake there. They didn’t “dial.” They just picked up the phone and asked the operator to be “connected to” our number. Libby didn’t get dial phones until late into the ’50s, if memory serves. We didn’t get TV until much later than the rest of the world, too.
This is where you utter a sympathetic sigh. Please?
Where was I?
Oh, yes. They called to ask my mother about a recent visit of my aunt from the Billings area. The following week, the item was in the paper.
Just about everywhere in the country in the 1900s, society columns were prevalent in newspapers. Many Sunday editions contained large, separate sections outweighing the sports news. The papers covered social events from engagements and weddings to minutes of social and religious groups to card parties and out-of-town visitors.
Society news had a long run, but now has gone the way of the wringer washer and the wood cook stove.
Instead of society news, we now have social media. The platform has morphed from newspapers to smart phones; the content has evolved from the older, established members of society to the youth.
I was curious, though, about the roots of society news in the American press.
Some sources point to James Gordon Bennett Jr., who created a column in the New York Herald in 1835 dealing with the antics of the well-to-do in society. Although largely satirical, it seemed to catch on with both the general readership and the well-to-do, who apparently liked reading about their own, sometimes tasteless, behavior.
In Montana’s earliest newspapers, social news notes and other brief reports were buried under a heading of “local jottings.” You might read about Marcus Daly being in town, right next to a sentence or two about local vagrants being arrested.
But in the late 1800s, things changed. As Montana became home to more wealthy individuals, a number of newspapermen started to emulate their Eastern brethren. The Helena Independent, in 1889, dedicated a full column to “The Social World,” in which it reported on the “numerous entertainments for society people.”
Declaring the gowns worn by local belles to be unusually elegant, the columnist remarked, “Helena has been quite conspicuous among the cities of its size in the west for the tasteful dressing, both for the street and for evenings, of its ladies.”
Not to be outdone, papers like Missoula’s Western Democrat greatly increased their coverage of the movers and shakers of society in the early 1890s. They dubbed them the “Smart Set,” the “Upper Crust” or the “Missoula 400,” and the stories weren’t buried – they were on the front page!
Even today, locals can recognize many of the names of Missoula’s social elite from 19th century social news in the Western Democrat.
“Mr. and Mrs. Beckwith charmingly entertained a select party of friends at their palatial home last Friday evening,” read one such column. “Whist was the game furnished for the entertainment of the guests. A sumptuous repast was also served during the evening.”
The economy may have been going to hell in a hand-basket for most people (the crash of 1893), but still, it was the gilded age and the 1 percenters had to carry on.
The Western Democrat reported on a local group called the “Biodas,” who “held a ‘poverty party’ at the residence of Miss Worden on East Pine street last evening. The members were attired in the choicest patterns and loudest shades of spring calicoes. Some of the patterns were so loud that they took a hand in the conversation in a mezzo-soprano tone of voice. Some of the latter are ‘horrid’ enough to insist that the feeling was mutual on this score. Be that as it may, the Biodas claim to have spent a most enjoyable evening.”
Now, “the terpsichorean art” (dancing) was the foundation of many 19th century social events. So, naturally, there were numerous dancing academies to be found in the Garden City and, of course, to run an academy, one had to be a “professor.”
Professor Holtbuer advertised his “first-class dancing academy at the Realty Hall, where he is prepared to teach the latest styles in the terpsichorean art. Open afternoon and evening.”
Meantime, Professor R. D. Owen announced he had “just received the music for the new and latest dances in vogue in the east. The repertoire consists of the Bon Ton, Rivulet, Victoria and Harvard Gavotte.”
In January 1894, the Western Democrat lamented: “Missoula society bewails a scarcity of dancing men. Some of the fairest flowers of the social conservatory are now regularly blossoming along the wall. The men … are content to pose at the doorways or loll in the smoking room.
“The girls wish in vain for a return of the days of their grandmothers when there were two or more aspirants for the honor of every dance with every girl; when men attached as much importance and took as great pride in the art terpsichorean as women; when the motto of every social gathering was ‘On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined.’ “
Even when local dances were well attended and enjoyed, the newspaper critic could still find fault: “At one of the social dances held in the city recently there were present a number of ladies belonging to the upper crust of Missoula’s ‘400’ who danced nearly, if not quite, the entire program through without removing their hats. There has been considerable criticism indulged in by a number of those who witnessed this affair.
“One gentleman ventured to say it would be in equally as good taste for him to dance with overcoat and overshoes; that if they felt they were any too good to go and remove their hats they should certainly stay away.”
All of this was just too much to take, at the competing paper, the Missoulian. They decided to publish a tongue-in-cheek society column on their front pages.
It was hilarious … until its roots were exposed, and it abruptly disappeared.
That story, next week.
Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.