History of Oregon Newspapers/Rise of Society Writing

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THE first real account of a society event ever published in a news on the Pacific Coast appeared in the second number of the paper Oregon Spectator February 19, 1846. The event was a ball at Vancouver. Under a single-line sidehead the item appeared as follows:

Captain Baillie and the gun-room officers of H.B.M.S. Modeste entertained a numerous circle at a ball here, upon Wednesday evening. There was a brilliant assemblage of the "fair sex" of Oregon; and although in the far west, yet from the gay display that night we are proud to state that the infant colony can boast of as pretty faces and handsome "figures" as the mother country. Dancing commenced at 8 o'clock, and it was pleasing to see the "tripping on the light fantastic toe" kept up with such spirit. The dresses of the ladies was a theme of universal admiration, combining neat ness, elegance, and ease. Reels, country dances, figures eight, and jigs was the order of the evening; and if we do not yet come that fashionable dance, the Polka, still we live in hopes of seeing it introduced at our city balls, a gentleman who knows and dances it well and who lately visited the Falantine Plains having kindly volunteered to instruct the Oregonian beauties in its intricacies.

Vancouver, February 7, 1846.

A glimpse of the social life and the society reporting of the middle 50's in Oregon is afforded by the following from the Oregonian, August 23, 1856:

A complimentary ball was given by the friends of Capt. Withers, U.S.A., to that gentleman at the Metropolis Hotel, on Thursday evening last. A large number of ladies and gentlemen were present from Oregon City, Vancouver, Astoria, and other places, as well as from this city. Everything was got up in a style unequalled before in Oregon. The large hall at Keith's Metropolis Hotel was most beautifully decorated and lighted up with several brilliant chandeliers, which, with the enchanting music from the splendid band belonging to the military post at Vancouver, and the beautiful daughters of "old Mother Eve," produced a scene of gaiety seldom equalled in any country. The supper was the best we have seen gotten up on this coast, and was enjoyed with as much relish as the dance. Everything, in short, was in tip-top order, and was a compliment to the gentlemen who got it up, as well as to Capt. Withers.

Capt. Withers leaves for the United States on the next steamer. May his journey through life's devious ways be as enjoyable as was this parting compliment to him.

The printers had a good bit to do with the tone of the notice a young couple got in early days on the occasion of their marriage. Notice the second paragraph of this item, preceeded by a hand-sign (Oregonian Sept. 4, 1852):


On Wednesday, 1st inst., at the residence of Col. W. W. Chapman in the city of Portland, O. T., by Rev. J. H. Wilbur, Mr. Simon B. Marye, and Miss Sarah Eveline, daughter of Col. W. W. Chapman.

The lateness of the hour at which the above was received, will prevent us from making "only a few brief remarks" at this time. It is but justice to say, however, that in this their hour of joy, they forgot not the printer. Our best wishes go with the happy couple through all the varied scenes of life — may peace and plenty attend their steps and pledges of undying affection rise up around their hearthstone, who shall call them "blessed."

But should the unbidden sigh ever involuntarily rise, "would it were done before," we beg them to remember . . .

Notwithstanding the emotional ecstasy of the printer—or could it be because of this?— the item ended there, leaving the happy couple and the bewildered reader to wonder just what it was that was so well worth remembering.

It was the custom of the times to send to the printers bits of the wedding cake or a generous sample of the refreshments, solid or liquid, which contributed to the joy of the occasion. When this little detail was overlooked, the length and the tone of the wedding notice were not unaffected by the oversight.

St. Patrick's day stuff used to call forth all the latent enthusiasm of the society writers in early Oregon. After an account of the St. Patrick's Day celebration in Portland with . . . . "a stirring address by S. J. McCormick, Esq." the Oregonian writer went on to say (March 19, 1861):

In the evening there was a grand ball at the Willamette Theatre, which had been floored over and decorated for the purpose of dancing. An unusually good time was experienced and all who partook of the experiences must look to it with emotions of pleasure, and hope for a return of the day.

Another of those fulsome wedding notices in which it is made perfectly obvious that the contracting parties did not forget the "typos" appeared in the Oregonian March 19, 1861, soon after the daily edition was started:


In this city on the 28th inst., at the residence of the bride's mother, by Rev. P. McCaffrey, Mr. Henry D. Hoyt to Miss Mary L. Millard, both of this city. In common with an extensive circle of acquaintances, we wish the newly married couple a happy and prosperous future. It is but seldom that a matrimonial alliance has called forth so many heart felt wishes for the happiness of the parties. In that feeling we concur and hope that all the days of their lives will be as much to their honor as the past life of each has been a source of pleasure to their relatives and friends. The "typos" drink the health of the bride and bridegroom around the "imposing stone." Mr. and Mrs. Hoyt go below on the Panama this morning. [Below, here means to San Francisco.]

The society department was different in the 80's. The daily Northwest News carried a half-column (weekly), and here is a sample, headline and all, from the issue of April 7, 1883:


A Brief Resume of Occurrences in the
Drawing Room and Parlor.

A Dull Week—Festivities Postponed—Fashion's
Decrees—General Gossip—Etiquette.

(Note—All communications should be addressed
to "Society Column," Daily Northwest News.)

Usually at the expiration of Lent, "Society," like spring blossoms, resumes her newest and gayest garb, but owing to the serious illness and death of two persons so well known and universally beloved and lamented as Charles Hodges and the young wife of Rev. Mr. Lee, Portland "circles" have been bathed in tears.

"Tears for the brave, good man,
Whose worth and whose works will live!
Tears for the fair young bride, whose life so brief
Was filled with usefulness and love."

Here follow eleven items, filling five inches of space; some of the items are regular society news and two or three miscellaneous. The mixture of "business" and society is indicated in the following:

Mr. Tyler, brother-in-law of Professor Cook, the music teacher, is in the city. He expresses himself much pleased with Portland and will probably engage in business and send for his family.

Society news of the early 80's, as handled in the Oregon papers, had advanced from the fumbling formlessness of the late forties and the fifties; society itself was "growing up" a bit. Until the advent of the Sunday paper, late in 1881, the social week was reviewed to the extent of half a column to a column in the Saturday morning Oregonian.

Right up to the time of the Sunday paper there was rather a heavy seriousness about it; any humor that appeared had "crept in," inadvertently. Headlines were small and as far removed from liveliness as humanly possible.

Among the personals is a comment on some prominent Portland society matrons, clipped from Andrew's Society Queen, "the great society paper," in its issue of September 3:

Mrs. ex-Senator Corbett is one of the most elegant ladies at the "States." She dresses in exquisite taste without being fond of display and is altogether a most charming and affable lady. There is excellent society in Portland, and she is a leader. . . .

Mrs. Oscar R. Meyer of Portland, Oregon, is a lady of delightful vivacity, a fine singer, and highly cultured in every respect.

The Sunday Oregonian was launched about two months later (Dec. 4, 1881), and the gayety attending its advent was not wanting in the social column itself, which had been transferred to the Sunday paper. Nothing heavy and didactic is interpolated, but the column is not allowed to get monotonous. In the very first Sunday issue, right in the middle of the Society notes, between a solemn description of an heirloom costume worn at a recent Old Folks' concert and a story of a dignified party at the residence of Mr. C. B. Bagley at Olympia Wednesday on the occasion of the birthday of the editor of the Courier, one comes suddenly upon this:

Mary had a vaccine scab
Upon her snow-white arm;
She warned her beau to this effect
For fear he'd do it harm.
But when they came to part that night,
She gave a mighty grab
And whispered, "Hug me awful tight
And never mind the scab."

Nothing like that has been appearing in the Sunday society department in Portland for some time.

An ad like this in these days would probably suggest that the persons involved were declasse or at least not of the elite. The names, however, belie this and indicate that society news and editing were not in those days what they have since become:

Will Receive Today.—Mrs. John Crau will receive her friends today at 331 West Park, assisted by Mrs. David Tuthill, Miss Helen Teal, Miss Shelby, Miss Walker, and Miss Egbert, ja 1 1t.

Perhaps it is unnecessary to explain that the ja 1 1t in the Portland Northwest News is an advertising guide-line signifying that this is an ad which the printer is to take out after the one insertion, according to directions from the advertiser. An ad like that today would get 'em talking. But that was 1883.

By 1899 the society writing had become pretty thoroughly conventionalized, but there were still some oddities as compared with prevailing practice today. Total space in the special Sunday section (the daily society department had not yet arrived) was about ten columns, two-thirds of which was devoted to the social and personal news of Oregon and Washington communities as far away as Pendle ton, La Grande, and Walla Walla.

The department had a three-column engraved heading "Society," and usually one layout of pictures printed from zinc etchings—the halftone process though invented more than twenty years, was not yet common in the newspapers. This time the "art" was made up of three pictures of "three ladies who will help to make the Irish Fair a success."

The papers were still mixing "reader" ads unmarked among their short news notes and personals to catch the reader who was not bent on perusing advertising, so we see in the Sunday Oregonian of January 1, 1899, several little ads, separated by a tiny "jim" dash from the "Society Personals," one of which ads directs attention to the "greatest clearance sale of them all . . . miniatures, bronzes, pictures, etc. . . . See the prices. Bernstein's, 307 Washington." The custom of society editors' failing to mention one's business connection in society notes was not highly regarded in those days, for another item under the "Society Personals" reads:

Mr. J. W. Wilson, of the firm of Meyer, Wilson & Co., will leave the latter part of this month for New York, where he will reside permanently.

The change in society news-handling since those days has involved the adoption of more colorful, objective writing, greater space allotment, development of the halftone picture layout. Makeup, with greater and more attractive "art" layouts, and ads removed from the first page of the section, and more display headings, is much improved.

Edith Knight Hill, "Marian Miller" of the Oregonian, who as Edith Knight Holmes, went to work on the Oregonian in December, 1912, succeeding Gertrude P. Corbett on the society desk, who in turn had succeeded Leila Shelby, was the first editor of daily society in Portland. Heretofore it had run but once a week, of more recent years on Sunday.