Letter to Mammy, November 3, 1894, Petersburg

Drawing of Saint Petersburg’s Neva Perespective, 1894

KCB’s first letter postmarked from Saint Petersburg on November 3, 1894 (OS) and addressed to “My dearest mammy.”

November 3rd 1894

My dearest mammy,

                        I am getting awfully homesick for letters. Nobody writes to me – I have not had a letter from the United States since I got to Russia. The children and I are putting in most of our time studying french. Clifton has not much time for it yet. They are having services every day in St. [illegible] and he has to go in full dress. He hates to come home and dress in the middle of the day and dress again after the services. Before the Emperor died the services were to pray for him. Yesterday there was a beautiful service for the new Emperor. I could not go because I had no suitable gown. Ladies of the Diplomatic corps had to wear white silk, high neck and long sleeves and white bonnets. Today there is a service of mourning when every body appears in crepe. I have to were (sic) black, and am having a gown made. I must also were (sic) a crepe bonnet and long crepe veil during the funeral ceremonies. The order has not been issued officially yet and so I don’t know how long we will be required to wear black.

                        One of the biggest department of government here is “The Ceremonies”. They regulate everything even to your livery. If you give a formal dinner you send the names of your guests to the “the Ceremonies” and they tell you how to seat them. The weather here is trying. The real cold weather has not begun yet, it snows and freezes, and thaws and rains and sleets etc. and we are surprised and disappointed to learn that the winters are extremely damp notwithstanding the cold they say that often when the thermometer is at zero there is a heavy fog –

                        It is very hard to decide upon an apartment. The company rooms are all handsome. The bed rooms small, dark and gloomy – We have looked at several. They are all pretty much alike. They differ only in size and location. They all have one enormous salon generally about 30 feet square. The floors are beautifully inlaid. They often have handsome mirrors etc. The dining rooms are handsome also. And they have several smaller parlors. The bed rooms all open on the court, the halls into which they open are very narrow and being on the inside are almost perfectly dark. They are heated by the big white porcelain stoves like they used in Germany. The bedrooms never have open fires, but the outer rooms generally do. They use wood all together. And it takes one man’s whole time nearly, to attend to the fires. We have engaged the butler that lived with the former minister five years I think, and about ten years with the secretary of Legation before that. We will engage the other servants and be responsible for them. He speaks french and german, and Russian of course. No English. We will give him 20$ a month. The cook will get 15$. The house girl who will be german, I believe will get 7$. The cook will be a man and able to get up all dinners etc. Then the man for the fires about 7$. There are no elevators in any apartment we have seen and the wood must be brought up from the court. Then there will be a second butler who will also be footman. He will get 10$ I believe. It looks like an awfully expensive establishment, but as things go here, I am afraid we cant do with less. Our naval attaché who had lived here five years, says he cant do with less than eleven servants. Most people who have to entertain keep more. You never wear your wrap in the parlor, and there are no rooms provided. Your footman must hold it (torn corner) his arm in the hall, whether it be calling in the day or entertainment at night. There will be comparatively little entertaining this winter, because of the Emperors death. We have been to one dinner, and go to another tonight. There promises to be enough for our inclinations and our pockets.

                        When you write, tell me all the (torn edge) about everything for (torn edge) hear anything. A great deal of love dear mammy for you and all at Mrs. Brown’s house.

Your devoted daughter
Katherine C. Brechinridge
(swirl line underneath)

First of all let me state that I believe “My dearest mammy” is KCB’s beloved maternal aunt Susanna Preston Lees. So no connection to Scarlett O’Hara and that Mammy. I think her aunt would be the first person KCB would write from Russia and the closing of the letter “Your devoted daughter” seems to confirm this assumption. Ok now that that is out of the way, on to the fun…

One of the great joys of KCB’s letters home from Russia is her art of detail. And this letter is a perfect example. She outlines the differences between what she is used to in American and how things are done in the royal court. It’s one thing to move to a foreign country with different customs and language but the Breckinridges have moved to a different country and become part of a royal court with all the rules and expectations that go along with that. And they are republicans* on top of all that!

Here is CRB in his full court dress.

One of the first customs that the Breckinridge had to get used to (or at least Clifton did) was the necessity of full court dress. In this letter KCB says “he has to go in full dress. He hates to come home and dress in the middle of the day and dress again after the services.” And it’s not just the hassle of coming home to change in the middle of the day (after all, home is in the same building). See in 1867 Congress actually legislated American diplomats could not wear “any costume not previously authorized by Congress.” The approved “costume” for diplomats and other American dignities oversees was a “evening suit of black” – specifically long pants.

Congress probably had something like this in mind…

But in an effort to be very republican and not appear aristocratic, the United States Congress made their representatives look very out of place. In his 1896 article in The North American Review, writer H. C. Chatfield-Taylor points out that “in a blaze of gold lace which flashes from the ambassadors down to the servants who upon state occasions wait behind his chair, the American representative stands out so distinct, so unique, in his simplicity that he really appears to be the only person who has a uniform  at all.” Breckinridge asked and received permission to wear the formal court dress (particularly the knee breeches seen in the photo above). But that wouldn’t be the end of it. American newspapers harassed him in print for “abandoning good republican clothes for European foppery.”

I scanned this image out of a 1979 edition of the Arkansas Historical Quarterly. The original caption reads “The Breckinridges departing from the legation on a sleigh ride around St. Petersburg.”

When the family arrived in Saint Petersburg, they had to find a new location for the legation as well as their family apartment. Although both CRB and KCB came from politically powerful and prestigious families, their financial means were far less than one would think. Because of their name and position in American society, the Breckinridges would have been classified (and probably thought of themselves as) upper class. But that was in America. This was Russia. And the royal court at that.

Here’s how I said it in my thesis…

In the late nineteenth century, the United States favored an isolationist policy toward other nations.  Therefore, the government did not provide its diplomats with generous stipends.  In 1890, the United States claimed thirty-three diplomatic missions around the world.  The diplomatic service salaries ranged from $4,000 in Monrovia to $17,500 in London.[1]  In an article entitled “American Diplomats in Europe” published in July 1896, H. C. Chatfield-Taylor stated,

Underpaid in comparison with the representatives of other first-class powers, and provided with few, and in some cases no, secretaries, [diplomats] are sent abroad to spend the first months of theirs missions in househunting (sic) and furnishing.[2]

Chatfield-Taylor also explained that United States ministers and ambassadors “find themselves without sufficient means to maintain the national dignity.”[3]  In 1896, the British government paid their Ambassador to Russia $39,000 per annum and provided him with a permanent residence in the chic Quai de al Cour area of Saint Petersburg.  The American government provided the Breckinridges with $17,500 per annum and no permanent residence or housing stipend.[4]

In comparison to the aristocrats they associated with in Russia, the Breckinridges lacked the financial means to live in the same manner.  While most members of the Diplomatic Corps had a generous salary and living allowance, the Breckinridges barely scraped by with a household of servants and a sleigh at their disposal. And although, to most Americans in 1894, an annual salary of $17,500 per year would have made them rich beyond their wildest dreams…it was nothing for a government representative living in one of the most expensive cities in the whole with his wife and 3 children. So economize they must.

In his 1979 article in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly entitled “An Arkansan in St. Petersburg,” James Willis states “the American legation had been located for some years on the Quai de la Cour, near the Winter Palace, an area in which the French and British maintained their embassies. Forced to economize, Breckinridge moved the legation to the Boulevard des Gardes á Cheval, opposite the barracks of the tsar’s horse guards and next door to the Dutch legation. The twenty-room apartment was quite handsome, and the Breckinridges employed a staff of Russian servants. The new legation was, nonetheless, decidedly less fashionable than the apartment on the Quai de la Your, but it was all the Breckinridge could afford.”

And where did this put the United States? Yes we favored an isolation policy. We were not a global power yet – that would come in the next century. But did a simple act of economy by one diplomat effect the place of the United States on a global stage? Did the  selection of a strict Presbyterian who wouldn’t give dinners on Sunday nights effect the way the rest of the world viewed this new republic?

*I want to clarify that when I use the term republican in referring to the Breckinridges it is with a lowercase r. They were not Republicans in political party affiliation but republicans because they hail from the republic that is the United States of America. Like most white Southerns who supported the Confederate cause, both Clifton and Katherine Breckinridge would have voted with the Democratic political party. In fact Clifton was elected to Congress as a Democrat.[1]Henry E. Mattox, Twilight of Amateur Diplomacy: The American Foreign Service and its Senior Officers in the 1890s (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1987), 159-163.
[2]H. C. Chatfield-Taylor, “American Diplomats in Europe” The North American Review(July 1896): 125.
[4]Chatfield-Taylor, 127.  In 2002 prices, Breckinridge’s stipend equals $336,498.57.

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