Carriages, horses, and the weather (and staying warm)

Gezicht op oevers langs de bevroren Neva in winters Sint-Petersburg (Rijksmuseum)

By late December 1894 into January 1895, KCB seems to be settling in and learning the ropes of living in Russia. The winter was quiet because the court was in mourning. But KCB proclaimed “I have enjoyed the sleigh rides immensely.” She also comments on the oddity of Russia…

It is such a strange country & the customs in every respect so different from ours.

KCB knew they had arrived in Russia at a special time. She stated to one correspondent (Letter from KCB to your loving friend with the first few pages missing dated January 19, 1895) that the marriage of Nicholas and Alexandra was “like a chapter from fairy land.. we certainly fell upon most interesting times.” She underestimated the advantage of their position but arriving in Russia seems to have made her understand the advantages the experience will have on their children.

She realizes the importance of knowing another language – especially French. She said it is “absolutely necessary to speak French & German… French is the language universally used in society… in the Diplomatic set every body speaks it.” In the elite Russian society the Breckinridge enter, KCB sees most Russians speaking French, stating they “seem to prefer [French] to their own & use it in their family almost exclusively.” My guess is this is not true of lower classes and peasants. The majority of their servants (most from Baltic provinces) speak German and the head butler speaks French. The governess they have hired to educate Mary and Lees is French and speaks German but not English. KCB comments that the little girls are “not improving as fast as they should have done” with a French governess and speaking French all day. KCB explains that Lees get her languages all mixed up – “her sentences are pretty evenly divided now between German and French, with a little English thrown in when she is at a loss!”

In her letter to Jain on December 19, 1894 (Letter to Jain from St Petersburg dated December 19, 1894), KCB talks a lot about transportation and horses and a little about the weather. And a little bit about the wedding. I have no idea who Jain is. My instinct tells me that she is someone from Susanna Preston Lees’ household. But she might be one of her sisters-in-law (either a wife of one of her brothers or one of the wife on one of Clifton’s siblings). KCB signs her letters to Jain as “our devoted sister.”

The weather is an ongoing theme in KCB’s correspondence. In this letter to Jain she says “today has been really cold, something as I imagined weather here would be… there was a heavy fog, although the weather was intensely cold.” She also commented that the Russian people looked peculiar with “their eye brows and eye lashes covered in frost.”

In a letter dated January 19, 1895 (with a missing first page AGAIN!), KCB states

What I have missed greatly is the sun. I fancied the weather would be clear like the Canada winters. But one rarely sees the sun, & there is often a heavy fog even when it is very cold. It is necessary to unlearn all ones geography here, about the sun anyway. It rises directly in the south, & sets almost exactly where its rises. It behaves in a most singular manner.”

She explains that the sun makes “its appearance about 11 in the morning, right opposite our windows, travels about the length of 3 houses across the way, never getting much above the house tops & then about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, drops down behind the same block of houses it rose from behind!”

Apparently her friends wanted to know how they keep warm in frozen Russia. KCB states “you will be surprised to hear that I have never suffered as little with cold in my life. When I contrast it with the last winter I spent in Pine Bluff it is like being in the tropics.” She explains that the walls in the houses in Russia are built 4 to 5 feet thick and that the division walls are even thicker – “flues run in all directions through these walls & the whole house is an even temperature.” And she also mentions the tall white square porcelain stoves that keep Russian and Scandinavian homes warm. According the KCB the double pane windows also help with keeping the interior of their residence warm and the rooms are so warm that the Breckinridges leave the transoms open for ventilation “much to the disgust of [the] servants who can’t understand anybody wanting fresh air.”

Horse-drawn omnibus in London, 1902

KCB describes the omnibus and horses. The omnibus is defined by Wikipedia as “a bus or horse drawn bus…mainly used in the late 19th century in both the United States and Europe and was one of the most common means of transportation in cities. In a typical arrangement, two wooden benches along sides of the passenger cabin held several sitting passengers’ enclosed cabins.” KCB says of the omnibuses in Saint Petersburg, “even the omnibuses are open and on runners although they had close ones when we got here.” Odd that the omnibuses are open in mid-December but were close in early November when they arrived. She goes on to explain, “I went out in a close carriage today, because of the heavy fog, it seemed so raw, but we have been using the sleigh, and you seldom see a close vehicle.”

Regarding horses, she describes them as “the prettiest things you ever saw and you never saw anything go like they do.” KCB also explains that horse “stand perfectly still” when stopped and are not blanketed or walked. She explains that there are “no law against fast driving… and they go like the wind.”

…funny to see the horses. They were today covered all over with a white frost. I don’t know whether it was from their own breath or just the frost in the air… They look like “spirit” horses. Their manes were a mass of frost and stood out like they had been frizzed.”

KCB talks about their apartment. She really wanted a house “but no one lives in house here except the royalty & it takes a princely fortune to keep one up.” She reminds her correspondent that she has always disliked living in an apartment. The one they chose faces South so they “get what sun there was to be had.” They wanted a furnished living space but none were available. But in the end she seems pleased with the apartment they selected, stating “we have a very pretty one & are quite comfortable.” And as she’s said repeatedly, it was all more expensive than they planned – “the labor & expense of getting settled has been great.”

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