Tipping, weather, charity and resigning

In late January 1895 KCB wrote three letters: one to Fan, one to Susie and one to her Aunt S. P. Lees.

After three months in Russia, she expresses her homesickness…

Your letter came as such a pleasant surprise you don’t know how I prize every word from home and from those I love.

I fear I will drop out of the lives of those I love, I am so far away and will be away so long, that every body will be so used to doing without me, they will cease to miss me.

I am afraid I have a touch of homesickness today, but I will do myself the justice to say, I am not always this way.

Letter from KCB to Fan, January 29, 1895, St. Petersburg

She spends lot of her letter to Fan talking about the need for tipping in Russia.

We have been greatly amused and somewhat appalled too [sic] at the amount of tipping expected here.

Letter from KCB to Fan, January 29, 1895, St. Petersburg
The Breckinridges were obligated to tip their servants including all those pictured here.

Apparently anyone delivering anything expects to be tipped (“tea money”) and servants expects to be tipped at the end of the year. She gives an example of having a few pieces of furniture delivered and twelve men were waiting to be tipped. KCB finds this “indescribably funny.”

And Christmas and New Year are a “horribly expensive time.” Servants are supposed to get an additional half wages at Christmas – like a bonus. But they had only been there for a few months, so the Breckinridges decide to give their servants a quarter of their wages.

But the tipping doesn’t stop there. The Switzar (“man who guards the entrance” of their building) and the myik (who “takes care of the court”), the police in charge of building, the men at the Foreign Office, soldiers between the residence and the Legation (who present arms) all expected to be tipped at the end of the year.

Plus the workers at the Legation. Even servants of friends.

Then if you have any friends where you visit often, to tip liberally their butlers, lackeys, swatter, etc

Letter from KCB to Fan, January 29, 1895, St. Petersburg

KCB also talks about the weather – the snow and the ice.

A great part of the city is built on islands. I can’t imagine how people get on in the summer when they have to do without their numerous ice ways. For carriages sleighs etc they have broad handsome avenues cut across. Then lines of fir trees planted on each side made firm in the ice, and rows of lamp posts. That gives you an idea of how permanent the winter is here.

Letter from KCB to Fan, January 29, 1895, St. Petersburg
Horse drawn sledge, in Russia. Library of Congress.

She tells Susie about the sleigh rides and the Russian landscape.

I wish you could enjoy some of sleigh rides with us. There is one drive that is specially beautiful; it is across several islands to the Baltic. You pass by one of the Palaces built by the Emperor Peter the Great and the whole drive, after you leave the city is like park. And with the beautiful frost work over everything, it is like fairyland.

Letter from KCB to My Dearest Susie, January 28, 1895, St Petersburg

She comments that the buildings in Russia are “ugly colors and architecture not very pretty” but that with the frost, they become beautiful.

And for other classes, who do not wish to walk, and cannot ride they have other contrivances.

Letter from KCB to Fan, January 29, 1895, St. Petersburg

Interesting use of the word contrivances. And I double checked that I didn’t mistranscribe. Maybe she meant to write conveyance and wrote contrivances instead.

Catherine the Great dropped in to visit the “ice mountain” in St. Petersburg, depicted in this detail from an 18th-century painting by Benjamin Paterssen. (Way Before Roller Coasters, Russians Zipped Down Enormous Ice Slides by Jessica Leigh Hester)

She also describes a “little open car” that goes across the River. She thinks it is like a roller coaster. She hasn’t tried it but the children have.

Is started down an incline plane and the speed with which it starts is sufficient to carry it over another one comes back to same way.

Letter from KCB to Fan, January 29, 1895, St. Petersburg

She also describes the sled or sleigh chairs that are all around St. Petersburg.

… the ice had been smoothed, and there are always men and chairs for hire. The men are on skates. You get in a chair and cover with a rug, and the man gets behind and fairly files over with you, all for five kopeks, about two and a half cents.

Letter from KCB to Fan, January 29, 1895, St. Petersburg

She also writes about drinking or drunkenness and gambling. Drunkenness is the vice of the lower classes and gambling is the vice of the upper classes. She says that during the holidays, there aren’t sled chairs because “all men are drunk.”

Of course I speak of the lower classes, poor creatures it seems to be almost all the pleasure they have in life … Among the upper classes I should say gambling was the national sin, not drinking.

Letter from KCB to Fan, January 29, 1895, St. Petersburg

In her January 30, 1895 letter to Aunt Lees, KCB goes into detail about charity work in Russia.

I have been interested in several cases here. You know we need to be very careful how we help here, but we are so blessed in having this good friend [pastor].

Letter from KCB to My darling auntie, January 30, 1895, St. Petersburg

She writes about an orphanage “under care of [our] pastor’s church” and under the “patronage of some of the royal family.” The orphanage houses about 40 to 50 children – mostly of prisoners – aged infants to 14 year olds. She also expresses her concern about working with children who have been “baptized in the Greek church.”

I have been asked to be one of the directresses and after considering the matter carefully, I don’t see any reason why I should not be.

Letter from KCB to My darling auntie, January 30, 1895, St. Petersburg

Was this because the children are of a different religion or because she is the wife of the Minister and doesn’t want to rock the boat?

She gives more insight about her pastor in this letter. She says he has the wisdom of the serpent and harmlessness of the dove.

[He has] the entire confidence of the Government which is a great help to him in his work and which he is very careful never to impose on or misuse.

Letter from KCB to My darling auntie, January 30, 1895, St. Petersburg

The most shocking and enlightening part of this letter is a section about Clifton resigning. What?

There is no truth in the reports in the papers about Clifton’s resigning. Of course we can’t pretend to live as do the representatives of other great nations. And of course there are often times when it is some what embarrassing. But we are not going beyond our means and when we cant’ afford a thing we won’t pretend it. We hope not to be misunderstood but if we are, we can’t help it.

We can’t afford to ruin ourselves for the sake of the opinion of a few people who care nothing in the world about us. I still think there are great advantages and we expect to stay.

Letter from KCB to My darling auntie, January 30, 1895, St. Petersburg

WOW! That is very telling. I’ll need to find the “reports” in newspapers.

One of the things I want to make sure I catalog in this project is the children’s personalities and reactions as documented by their mother. Their third child and youngest daughter, Lees, seems to be the pretty one with. a more girly personalities. KCB confirms this with a story of Lees and grand living.

Lees amused us very much at the table the other day. You know how she has always longed for grand living. She said, “well now I know what it is to be rich. I would be satisfied to go home and be poor.”

Letter from KCB to My darling auntie, January 30, 1895, St. Petersburg

The majority of the letter to Susie is taken up with details of the Blessing of the Waters or the Blessing of. the Neva. This was a formal palace event where the men wore uniforms and KCB wore a dress of grey satin (bought in Paris with a small bonnet of violets. The event took place on January 6th (Russian calendar) and KCB/CRB were “invited to the Winter Palace to witness it.” They were told none of the Imperial family would be present because they are still in deep mourning – only the Diplomatic Corps invited and received by Court officials. The ceremonies were “abridged” and KCB was sorry “not to see it in all its magnificence.”

… usually about the biggest day of year in Russia and they depend largely on it for prosperity.

Letter from KCB to My Dearest Susie, January 28, 1895, St Petersburg
The Small Throne Room of the Winter Palace

She writes the ceremony started in the throne room of Peter the Great – “one of the handsomeist (sic) rooms I have seen yet.”

The walls were hung with red velvet, embroidered with gold and silver, there was a massive solid silver chandelier holding I should think several hundred lights. Two solid silver tables, with candelabra etc in silver. None of the rooms I have seen yet in either the Palaces I have been in have any carpets except on the stairs. The floors are beautifully inlaid and highly polished.

Letter from KCB to My Dearest Susie, January 28, 1895, St Petersburg
Artist’s depiction of Nicholas II at Blessing of the Neva in 1904.

The Diplomatic Corps watched the service from the Winter Palace but they couldn’t hear what was being said (although KCB wouldn’t have understood the words). The priests were dressed in white satin and silver trimmed with gold with jeweled mitres on the highest priests. They carried banners, crosses, icons, etc. There were two choirs – one “dressed in blue trimmed with white and one in cherry trimmed with white.” A small chapel was built on the water’s edge with a dome shaped roof. The chapel was “round and supported by arches… over each arch was a colored sacred painting.”

It was very striking with … background of snow. Lines of soldiers formed from the Palace across the street to the chapel, then a double line of priest inside that.

Letter from KCB to My Dearest Susie, January 28, 1895, St Petersburg

She said the crowd was “packed as far as one could see on both sides” and few covered heads. She felt it was too cold to not have their heads covered but “I suppose the spirit of intense devotion that seemed to possess them, kept them from taking cold.”

Then a man went to the waters edge and dipped up a large silver cup of water, through a hole in the ice. It used to be the custom to send a naked man down through the ice to bring up the water from the bottom. I am glad this had been discontinued although I am told it is still done in some parts of Russia.

Letter from KCB to My Dearest Susie, January 28, 1895, St Petersburg

And this time she got food at the end of the ceremony. Light refreshments were served “in lieu of the elaborate breakfast which is customary.”

2 comments

  1. Hello Museum Girl,

    I think I’ve written you before and I know you have heard from my husband, Curt Johnson. 

    I’m his wife, Gwen Johnson, and a direct  relative of KCB. 

    <

    div dir=”ltr”>I have really enjoyed reading your emails! I

    Like

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