More ExpatBob in 1897

Posted: May 6, 2012 in Ancient wisdom, Stupidity
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More gems of insight from the turn of the century in Uruguay, from this excellent source. Bold mine.

The President of Uruguay (author unknown, 1897)


WHILE in Montevideo I spent an evening at the President’s mansion. The occasion was one of his weekly receptions, and the wealth, culture, and beauty of the capital were present. I might add the courage, for the reception was held under curious conditions. There were soldiers at the door who scrutinized every guest as he passed in. I felt their eyes bore through me when I entered with our consul-general and his family. Gatling guns, cannon, and dynamite bombs looked down upon us from the roof, and I doubt not private detectives were stationed here and there along the streets.

The President of Uruguay-Juan L. Cuestas—lives upon a political volcano. He is in daily danger of assassination, and he never knows when a revolution may spring up to overthrow him. He is one of the most remarkable men in South American politics; he was vice-president at the time of the assassination of Senor Idiarte Borda, and thereby became president. He is still in office, and has made himself dictator of the Republic.

At one time a revolution sprung up to overthrow him. The army had its headquarters not far from Montevideo, and many of the chief officers were in the conspiracy. If they could have trusted each other, Cuestas would have been killed. The revolution failed because the man who was to have cut the telephone wires between the station and the city did not do his duty. The result was that the President was notified as soon as the army set out for Montevideo. The officers, finding that they were discovered, suspected each other of treachery; some began to back out, withdrawing their troops, and the police were able to control the remainder.

For such reasons, President Cuestas never moves about without an armed guard. His residence is in the street of the Eighteenth of July, at quite a distance from the administration buildings. When he goes from his house to his office he has soldiers about him, and there are ten outriders on white horses in front and behind his carriage. No one is permitted to enter the presidential mansion at any time without the permission of the soldiers, and half-way up the marble staircase there is a military aide, who carefully scrutinizes all who go by.

Passing this official we proceeded to the second floor, and were soon in the President’s parlours. They are very large, and are as well furnished as those of the White House at Washington. At the time we entered they were filled with ladies and gentlemen, who were laughing and gossiping about subjects of passing interest, and as unconcernedly as though they were at a church social, and not sandwiched, as it were, between Gatling guns and military guards in the midst of possible revolution. The ladies wore low necks and short sleeves and the gentlemen were in evening dress.

When we came in, the wife, daughter, and sons of the President were entertaining the guests, His Excellency, the President, having not yet entered. Shortly after shaking hands with us, Madame Cuestas led us to one end of the room, where there was a large sofa with chairs facing each other and running out into the room at right angles to its two ends. She and her daughter sat on the sofa, and the distinguished guests and ourselves occupied the chairs. This is the way a Montevideon hostess receives her callers; it is the form of seating in the better-class houses all over South America. We chatted some time with the President’s wife, while callers came and went, shaking hands with everyone in the room as they entered, and with Madame Cuestas and all of the guests upon retiring.

The Orientales, for that is what the Uruguayans call themselves, are noted for their beautiful, cultured, and fashionably dressed women. They vie with the Portenos, or Buenos Aires women, as to beauty, and consider themselves much more aristocratic and high-born. They call Montevideo the Paris and the Madrid of South America. It must be confessed that they have some reason for the claim. The city has magnificent homes, as well as a great many wealthy inhabitants. It has its fashionable “four hundred,” who are as well-dressed and as well-bred people as you will find anywhere.

They have fine houses and well-padded pocket-books. Many of them trace their descent from families that came to Uruguay hundreds of years ago. Their possessions are in great estates, rented houses, and in cattle and sheep. They have their palaces in Montevideo, whose floors are marble, and whose ceilings are frescoed and upheld by marble columns from Italy. They have vast one-story buildings on their estates, where in summer time they entertain like lords, supplying every guest with a horse. In the winter, their surroundings are equally pretentious, but very uncomfortable, for the houses of Montevideo are as frigid as the white marble in which they are finished. The people believe artificial heat unhealthy, and in this city, which is as large as Washington, and quite as cold, there is not a furnace or a steam-heating plant. During cold snaps, a hostess often receives dressed in furs, with her hands in a muff and her feet on a hot-water bottle, and gentlemen and ladies come to state dinners in over-coats and fur capes.

Rich families have hosts of servants; they have their coachmen and footmen, their housemaids, ladies’ maids, and serving women. Men cooks are often employed; in such cases it is customary to give the cook a certain amount per day, and allow him to do the marketing and take his wages out of the daily allowance. Even where he is given the money for marketing only, it is expected that he will steal a little every day. The wages of servants are high; cooks receive from $14 to $25. per month, or about as much as they do in Washington, while housemaids are paid from $1o to $18 per month—the amounts being in gold.

Uruguayan families are large. When a young man is married he brings his better-half to live with the old folks, and often half-a-dozen families will reside in one house. As a rule, the girl goes to the husband’s family.

It would surprise many Americans who look upon society south of the equator as half-savage to know that there are many Montevideon women who wear evening and visiting dresses that cost $1 o0 dollars apiece, and that a few of the « upper ten ” have single dresses in their wardrobes for which they have paid from $500 to $1000 in gold. Their best dresses come from Paris, and they have the latest styles as soon as New York. They are fond of diamonds, the use of jewels being more common in Montevideo than in either New York or Washington. Take, for example, the case of a recent dinner here: one of the best-dressed women present was the wife of the vice consul-general of the United States, an Orientale of one of the first families. At this dinner she wore a gown of brocaded white satin, trimmed with a wide drapery of point lace, which festooned the whole skirt and its long train. Her corsage was trimmed with a row of diamond butterflies, some of which were quite large, and these diamonds ran from shoulder to shoulder. At the dinner there were other costumes equally costly, the most common of the ornaments being aigret plumes, fastened to the hair with elaborate diamond pins.

Uruguayan women are of the Spanish type, tall and well-formed. The scrawny girls are few, and the average maiden is large-boned, well-rounded, and plump. As the women grow older they run to adipose tissue, and not a few of the elderly dames are fat. The type is uniform; the eyes of most of the women are dark, but full of lustre, and their complexions are clear, dark, and rosy. Both young men and young women” look clean and healthy, and show great animation of face and manner. The men are as careful of their dress as are the women, and those of the upper classes are very particular as to what they wear on every occasion.

There are few cities where etiquette is of more account than in the South American capitals. There is in Montevideo an etiquette of the pavement. The Orientale thinks no one but a boor would allow a lady to walk on the outer edge of the pavement in going along the street; the inside is the place of honour, and the lady must always have it. If two ladies go together, the younger lady always takes the outside. If two gentlemen walk together, each vies with the other in trying to make him take the inside. A host must always give his guest the inside, and the man of lower rank gives the man of higher rank with whom he is walking the inner honourable path.

Girls do not appear on the streets without chaperones. If a young woman go out for a walk or to shop, she cannot do so unless her mother, or her aunt, or servant maid is with her. She may take a nurse girl of thirteen or fourteen, not because she is of any earthly good to guard her, but as a badge of respectability as a chaperone. Women never make the first bow to the men they meet on the street ; the man must take off his hat, or the woman cannot notice him, and if he does not do this it will be considered a slight by the woman. Young unmarried men and women cannot walk along the street together, chaperone or no chaperone, and a young woman and young man who should go out for a moonlight drive would not only lose their reputations, but would be socially ostracised. Young men who have sisters never ask their young men friends to come to their houses, and as for a young man spending an evening alone with his lady-love—such a thing is unheard of.

Even among themselves young women have no such inter-course as in the United States. There are no musical clubs, Shakespeare clubs, or women’s missionary societies. A young man has no chance to learn the character of a woman before he proposes for her hand. Even his sisters can know little about her; his only possible avenue of information is through the servants. From these, if he care to stoop so low, he may possibly learn something as to the young lady’s disposition and habits—whether she is or is not ” a big-eater ” and what it takes to keep her. His only chance of seeing the girl will be at the regular receptions of the family during the season. These are held weekly, and at them both gentlemen and ladies are at home. The usual hours for such functions are from 4 to 7 in the afternoon and from 9 to 12 at night. During the afternoon-calling wine and tea are served; and in the evening, at 11 o’clock, the guests are invited to the dining-room for refreshments. Evening dances and parties usually last so long that the more devout are able to at-tend morning masses on their way home. Dinners are elaborate, a different wine being usually served with each course, and champagne with dessert; coffee and liquors are taken in the parlours after dinner.

Among the singular customs of the country are those of courtship and marriage. The girls are carefully watched, and there is no indiscriminate love-making without the chaperonage of the parents or members of the family. Young ladies would be compromised if they had gentlemen callers; indeed, a man never thinks of calling upon a young woman until he is engaged to her. If he admires her and wishes to know her, he begins his advances by “playing the dragon”; this means that he dresses himself in his best clothes and struts up and down before her house, while she looks at him from the balcony. Every fashion-able house in Montevideo has a balcony, and the chief amusement of the girls is to stand on this or lean out of the windows looking at the people as they go by.

When the young man thus walks up and down gazing at her window, the young woman understands what it means and comes out and makes sheep’s eyes in the same direction. The two will look at each other for hours without a word being spoken. Men may come and men may go, but still they gaze. As a rule, the passers-by do not notice the lovers; indeed, it is not always safe to do so. Your action may be misconstrued, the lover may be-come jealous, and a knife thrust under the fifth rib, most likely given in the dark, may follow.

After practising this dragon act for some time, the young man may go to the father of the girl and say that he would like to call upon his daughter with a view to proposing. If papa says all right, he calls, and a day or so later you will see an item in the paper stating that young Senor So-and-So is paying attentions to Senorita Thus-and-So, and that a marriage will probably soon take place.

When the young man calls upon his sweetheart, all of the family are in the room. He gets her as far off as he can, how-ever, and devotes himself only to her. From this time on until after the marriage, he must pay attentions to no other woman. If he go to a dance or party, he must corne early and wait for her, and he will spend the evening with her alone. At every party in Montevideo you see a number of these young lovers, who are called novias, waiting for their affianced, or novias. The girl pays attention to no one but her novio, while the boy has eyes alone for his novia. The two go off by themselves and devote the evening to mutual soft-spooning compliments.

I am told that such couples are clogs on the wheels of Montevideon society. It is a wonder that mothers, who are so careful at home, will let their girls do as they please when once they are engaged. If you ask a mother where her daughter is at such a reception, she will say that she is with her novio, and the subject is dismissed as a matter of course. I was chatting about this one day with one of the Montevideon society ladies, when I asked: “What do you do if the novio becomes disgusted and ( goes back’ on the girl, refusing to marry her, or vice versa ?” The reply was: “You seldom hear of such a case. A young man who would act in that way would be disgraced by society; as for the girls, their chief end in life is marriage, and they don’t dare to miss the chance. The married state here is far ahead of single blessedness, for it is the married woman who rules society. After the wedding she can do as she pleases; when the priest performs the ceremony he strikes the chains of maidenhood from her ankles.”

The weddings of the Orientales are held in the churches, with a supper and dance at the home after the ceremony. The wedding gifts are very elaborate, generally including diamonds and silver. The honeymoon is usually spent at home, the Orientales not believing in our custom of taking wedding-journeys. They call the period ” La Luna de Miel,» or the moon of honey, and, if possible, they try to enjoy it alone. If the wedding be in the summer and the family be at the time in the country, they will come to the town house and open it up for themselves, and if in the winter they may possibly go out to the “estancia.» As to their permanent quarters, the groom’s father usually makes a present of the house and all its furniture, often including table linen beautifully embroidered, and the wife’s father does as well as he can in money and presents.


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