Anna Charlotte Dering Sleight 1811 – 1905 Manuscript, ink on paper, 48 pages, 42 pages used, 7 ¾ in x 4 7/8 in, closely written. 6 signatures, with a three-hole stab stitch, probably the author’s own sewing. There is a pencil annotation believed to be the author’s, in an elderly hand, “Anna C. Sleight written in” on the last unopened fold. This journal was begun on April 6, 1829, as a sequence of letters written by an eighteen-year-old woman to her older sister Elizabeth Packer Dering 1805 – 1881, who had just sailed from Manhattan to Sag Harbor, to keep Elizabeth informed on her social life and current events in New York City. The last entry is dated May 24, 1829. This is a young unmarried woman’s journal for another young woman, with whom she shared intimate knowledge about their young “set.”
Anna Charlotte Dering was the youngest daughter of Henry Packer Dering and Anna Fosdick Dering. Henry Packer Dering was the first postmaster under Federal appointment and appointed by George Washington to be the first Federal customs collector on Shelter Island, New York. Anna Dering’s future husband was William R. Sleight, whom she married in 1833. Together, they had ten children, only three of whom survived her in 1905.
This journal was begun on April 6, 1829, as a sequence of letters written by an eighteen-year-old woman to her older sister Elizabeth Packer Dering 1805 – 1881, who had just sailed from Manhattan to Sag Harbor, to keep Elizabeth informed on her social life and current events in New York City. The last entry is dated May 24, 1829. This is a young unmarried woman’s journal for another young woman, with whom she shared intimate knowledge about their “set.”
This short 1829 journal offers exceptional insight into the rarefied world of a young woman from old wealth at the beginning of the Jacksonian era as much as it presents a look at New York City, as it was to grow rapidly with the expansion of the United States.
From the perspective of place, the journal provides a unique record of New York City in April and May 1829. Anna Charlotte Dering portrayed lower Manhattan, where she lived and her activities were concentrated, from her vantage point as a wealthy, landed, single woman from Long Island’s East End establishment. Minutiae of her daily New York life were written into Anna’s personal accounts to her sister.
The streets in lower Manhattan where she lived included Hudson St, Mercer and Canal Streets, Peck Slip, Franklin St., Hudson Square. Her entries suggest that people walked from place to place and took carriages in inclement weather. She was also an eyewitness to local events. On April 9, she described the fire which burned the Lafayette Circus Theater located on what is now West Broadway, (then called Laurens St.) and Grand St. The unique theater was a “Hippodrama” set up for theater performances and equestrian and aquatic shows. The theater was built by Charles W. Sandford who may have been the father of the Miss Sandford mentioned in the journal. Anna described the building as a “most splendid site… every spire & chimney was gilded….” She wrote of the fire: “Last night I was up watching the burning of the LaFayette Theatre … The sky was very cloudy & thick which made the reflection [sic] much stronger. It was light enough in my room to see & read – … I was not a little alarmed – the heat was so very intense that the fire men were unable to do but very little towards saving it – there has been a great loss of property as it was not insured.”
She described people rushing to watch a public hanging, noting the streets were filled with people “all running one way out of town” because “the two unfortunate criminals are today to pay the debt which the laws of the country require of them…”. She expressed disapproval of people who get excited over a public execution.
From a local “coffee shop” she recorded “everyone is displeased that ‘King Andrew must now have what he pleases’…”. She referred to criticism of President Andrew Jackson, but interestingly, the political cartoon depicting Jackson dressed like a monarch was only first published in 1833, and at the time of the journal entry, Jackson had barely been in office three months. Then, as now, New Yorkers held strong views. Coffee shops with newspapers in Manhattan still functioned as newsrooms.
New York was already the financial center of the young nation and was fast becoming its commercial hub thanks in large part to the opening of the Erie Canal four years earlier in 1825. The children of families whose wealth was established in the 18th century now had opportunities to increase the family riches through marriage as well as new enterprises. Not only could the rich grow their fortunes but the 1820s witnessed a burgeoning middle class. As now, class distinction, old versus new money, became visible through fashion. She wrote specifically about changing fashions unwittingly addressing the city’s growth in dry goods businesses as well as its early days as a fashion center.
This was not her first trip to New York as she noted fashion changes from previous visits. She wrote that “Chintz” had been renamed “Foulard muslin” and apparently it became more expensive. “What think you of my having one of those fashionable foulards, Mrs. Brumley bought it and insisted upon my having it. I had rather have an 18 pence collar ….”. Her reaction to the gift suggests a frugality different from her contemporaries. She may have been more sensitive toward the growing visibility of New York’s middle class, from which people such as she were supposed to distance themselves. The shops she frequented with her peers and elders included: Fountaine’s & Stewart’s, Bourne’s, a shop to buy “the instruments to make artificial flowers,” a milliner where she, with her group, had hats designed.
The port of New York figured in Anna’s journal in an entry where she described a walk to Peck Slip when the ships from Shelter Island had arrived with full cargoes including her “frock” and mailing a letter to Shelter Island or Sag Harbor.
Anna confronted the issue of temperance in some journal entries when she went with her social peers to Church or lectures on the subject. (The New York City Temperance Society’s minutes starting in 1829 and until 1849, are housed in the NYPL.) Temperance was one of the reform movements which characterized the first quarter of the nineteenth century. In the 1820’s the movement broadened beyond the church to lecture halls or lyceums, where discussion and intellectual debate occurred. In her second entry on April 7, Anna was invited to a lecture at the Lyceum but didn’t attend because she was tired from the day’s “walking in the wind.” In a “Saturday evening” journal entry at 10 o’clock she wrote that she’d returned from church where she heard a sermon preached on the topic of temperance that lasted for two hours. Her entry for Sunday [May 3] referred to an “excellent sermon” by Mr. Bruen who discussed “distilled” versus “fermented” liquor and “approved wine.” The popularity of the topic of drinking and temperance might explain why she confided to her sister in her second journal entry that her writing may not be so clear because she’d taken a “glass of whiskey punch” which had “mountain dew” in it. She alluded to her sister’s experience with such a drink.
Church attendance, Bible Study and Sabbath breakfast were part of a Sunday ritual. [Sunday evening entry would have been April 12] She described a sermon in church or bible school by Rev. Bruen who addressed the scholars and “who from his conversation I supposed to be a missionary … we had a very good sermon from Mr. B” and “a stranger preached more than hour…”. In a later entry she wrote Elisabeth that she decided against joining the church because she viewed the church as “prying…into family concerns…”.
From the perspective of person, Anna Charlotte Dering’s journal provides a clearly-rendered picture of the daily life of a prominent young woman in New York City and a window into her wealthy world. She related a description of herself in a “Saturday afternoon” entry as “just budding,” perhaps suggesting she was among the youngest or the shyest. In another entry she described a comment about her beauty. Because she wrote well and had a keen eye for detail, her journal implies she was quite bright and had a formal education. (There is a record of her attending the Litchfield Female Academy between 1824-25, however there are some dating inconsistencies in that record.)
The personality that emerges shows Miss Dering to be an accommodating and thoughtful young woman who wanted to stay up to date and who was close to her sister Elisabeth and brothers, Henry and Ludowick Dering, whom she mentions several times. She joined in the social activities expected of her “fashionable” set but as some of her entries reveal she missed her home life on Shelter Island and felt lonely without her sister, a feeling that seems to have intensified. Her social set included the following individuals families whom she mentioned throughout the journal: Mrs. Van Wyck, members of the Havens family noting Juliet and Sarah, Miss Sandford, Mrs. Holbrooke, Dr. Forrester, members of the Lord family, the Laurens family, Mrs. Henry, Mrs. Charter, the McClure family, Mrs. McClean, the Dwight family, the Gardiner family, the Lee family, the Stewart family, Dr. Thomson, Miss Wooster, Mr. Thompson, Mr. Adams, members of her own Dering family and her cousin Frances, Dr. Cox, the Charles family.
From a national historical perspective, this journal is important in the context of the early months of the of the Andrew Jackson administration when the country overall experienced growth across many sectors. Anna Charlotte Dering’s journal presents the impact of change in the comfortable daily life of one upper class young woman following her prescribed course of life but with a critical eye on the attitudes and activities of her wealthy peers.