You could be forgiven for believing that celebrity is a peculiar and pervasive symptom of our contemporary culture. After all in our multi-channel, always on pop-culture, 24×7 event-driven, media-obsessed maelstrom celebrities come, and go, in the blink of an eye. This is the age of celebrity.
Well, the U.S. had its own national and international celebrity almost two hundred years ago, and he wasn’t an auto-tuned pop star or a viral internet sensation with a cute cat. His name — Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de La Fayette, a French nobleman and officer, and a major general in the Continental Army.
The Marquis de Lafayette, French nobleman and officer, was a major general in the Continental Army by the age of nineteen. When he returned for a comprehensive tour of the United States in 1824-1825, Lafayette was 67, and was the last man still living who had served at his rank in the Continental Army.
Americans loved the aging soldier for his role in the Revolutionary War, and for his help after the war in smoothing diplomatic relations between the United States and France. Moreover, he was a living connection to his friend and mentor George Washington. The combination made him a celebrity who enjoyed a frenzied reception as he made his way through all 24 states.
Women, especially, poured forth affection for the Marquis. In one beautifully lettered address, the “Young Ladies of the Lexington Female Academy” (Kentucky) showered their visitor with assurances that he was remembered by the new generation of Americans: “Even the youngest, gallant Warrior, know you; even the youngest have been taught to lisp your name.”
Lafayette’s visit inspired the production of souvenir merchandise embroidered, painted, or printed with his face and name. This napkin and glove are two examples of such products.
In his book Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, William L. Bird, Jr. reports that Lafayette was uncomfortable when he encountered ladies wearing these gloves—particularly because a gentleman was expected to kiss a lady’s hand upon first meeting. Bird writes:
When offered a gloved hand at a ball in Philadelphia, Lafayette “murmur[ed] a few graceful words to the effect that he did not care to kiss himself, he [then] made a very low bow, and the lady passed on.”
Read the entire article here.
Image: La Fayette as a Lieutenant General, in 1791. Portrait by Joseph-Désiré Court. Courtesy of Wikipedia.