During the late 19th century, Davidson was still fairly isolated, and in the absence of movies and other entertainments, residents readily provided their own. A perusal of The Davidson Monthly from the era reveals the character of such amusements.
In the spring of 1889, the Monthly described one such event: “A very enjoyable private Theatrical was held in the old chapel for the benefit of the parsonage. It consisted in charades, songs, tableaux and shadow pantomimes. The shadow pantomime performance was excruciatingly funny, and brought down the house time after time. The entertainment was due to the efforts of Mrs. Campbell and Dr. Currell, and so are the thanks of those who attended.”
In February of 1893, the “Peak Sisters” hosted a fundraiser for the village cemetery. The sisters, all young ladies from the town, were supposedly from Alaska, and used fake names like Arminty, Dorty, and Hannababilindy. “The program … was quite well carried out from beginning to end. The singing was most excellent and the selections from the very latest and most popular songs of the day. The ‘Last Rose of Summer’ and ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ were among the best, though all deserve special mention. It was a ‘laugh and grow fat’ time which all enjoyed, and the ‘Sisters’ re-set each time amidst hearty applause. … despite their first declarations to be old maids forever, [the ‘Sisters’] at last admitted that it would not take much persuasion of the proper kind to keep them at Davidson. The Glee Club sang a few selections at the entertainment. The whole affair was a success in every respect, financially as well as otherwise, and we hope the ‘Peak Sisters’ will pay us another visit in the near future.”
A month later there was a “Tacky Party,” a costume party that featured “ridiculous, side-splitting, verdant, hayseedy costumes … Each new comer, as he or she appeared rigged in ‘tacky’ costume upon the parlor floor, was the signal for a renewed season of laughter and applause, until the scene, when the whole company were assembled, was simply beyond the descriptive powers of an English vocabulary …Crinoline (of the antique variety), carmine paint and bangs a la mucilage and water, seemed to be the prevailing style with the ladies, while red socks, celluloid collars and brief tight-fitting ‘Plymouth Rock’ pants were the chief characteristics of the male portion.”
The judges eventually awarded prizes to Fannie Cammon and L.C. Vas’s, whose costumes were “the ‘furthest removed from style and good taste,” and awarded them each “a peck of raw peanuts … [the] evening, which was one continual round of pleasure and enjoyment, [is] not soon to be forgotten.”
That same spring, Davidson College’s senior class, assisted by some of the ladies of the town, presented a Shakespearean entertainment. According to the Monthly, “The programme consisted of extracts, both comic and tragedic, from Shakespeare’s plays; and was interspersed with lovely music suitable to the occasion. The costumes of the actors were exquisitely beautiful, and the effect produced by them was heightened by the use of magnesium lights. The whole entertainment was a grand success, as was shown by the large and crowded house who were present.”
The following March, the junior class put on a show that the Monthly referred to as “a howling success.” This program would be very inappropriate in our time, as it featured a minstrel show: “The programme, which was kept a profound secret to everyone prior to its enactment, was well carried out and greatly enjoyed by everyone present. It was something quite new to the Davidson public, namely, a negro minstrel. After giving the class yell and singing a class song, the majority of the class joined the audience, while the main feature of the entertainment, the minstrel, was performed. The troupe was introduced by Mr. J. C. Story, in a most flowery and eloquent oration, descriptive of the former travels and successes of his ’Star Company.’
“Then followed the minstrel proper …The performance consisted of songs, jokes, and negro performances, all of which were ably rendered and well carried out. Mr. Matthews’ performance on the bones and tambourine deserves especial attention, and in every one’s estimation, he compares favorably with any ever seen ‘on the boards.’ The whole programme was almost entirely original, being gotten up by a committee of the class, and abounded in jokes and hits at the professors and the boys. The Juniors are certainly to be congratulated on the success of their entertainment, and their next appearance will consequently be looked forward to with great expectancy and pleasure.”
December of 1894 featured a “most delightful entertainment” sponsored by the King’s Daughters.* “The nature of the entertainment was known only to the ‘Daughter’s,’ who positively refused to say anything in regard to it, except that it was to be a 10c evening, and that no refreshments were to be served. The curiosity of the boys … ran high, and to satisfy it, they betook themselves to the Y.M.C.A. Hall, where rollicking games, too numerous to mention were indulged in for an hour or so. After these, the crowd was royally entertained by the newly introduced game of cornhurling**, the occasional monotonies of which were broken by accompanying vocal and instrumental solos. The entertainment was most assuredly a success, not only socially, we are glad to hear, but financially, something over eight dollars being realized.”
The Christmas season in 1895 was by all accounts a festive one, featuring skating, paying calls, and informal social gatherings. The festivities were started off with a “straw ride,” to which “‘Uncle Sam’ … sent the pick of his teams … the company was in the best of spirits, and the pleasure experienced, anyone may imagine.”
On Tuesday night, there was a Fad Party in the old chapel, where each attendee, “by some peculiarity of dress, indicated a Fad, and the evening was spent in guessing the fads and roasting marshmallows. Miss Julia Holt was awarded the prize for guessing the greatest number of fads, a box of fine confectionery.” Saturday of that week featured roller skating in the gym, and the following Monday there was a persimmon hunt, “the only remarkable feature of which was the failure to find any persimmons.”
That evening, the Junior Band of King’s Daughters hosted a Carnival of Months. “The members of the Band wore costumes representing the months of the year. After the audience had been given a chance to guess which month each costume represented, there followed appropriate recitations from the Band, each giving the birthday stone and flower of a month. An instrumental duet was played by Misses Holt and Thompson, followed by a song by Miss Minnie Schofield. All then repaired to the dining room, where refreshments were served from four tables beautifully representing the seasons…A neat little sum was realized from the birthday offerings, and the exercises were concluded with a song by the Band.”
More events were to follow. “Christmas Eve, the Factory children were delighted with a Christmas tree and treat at the Linden Chapel. Appropriate songs and recitations were given by the children. Miss Mary M. Dupuy also recited very beautifully. Santa was impersonated by Mr. T.H. Spence, who had a pleasant remark for each recipient of his bounty. Christmas night, most of those on the Hill gathered at the residence of Mr. Hugh Sloan. Oysters served in the hostess’s delicious style, and music and games made the evening pass very pleasantly. The cold weather of the following Saturday made a candy pull at Mr. Stewart’s quite a pleasant success…Monday night, December 30, a domino party was given by Dr. Harding, and on New Year’s Eve Mrs. Vinson threw wide open her hospitable doors to a Symposium. Lists of questions, whose answers depended upon one’s knowledge of flowers and “common cents,” were handed from table to table.”
Finally, in April 1897 a group of college students and “young ladies of the village” attended a reception by the Misses Sparrow.” A parlor theatrical, in which Misses Sudie and Mabel Mott, Mary Sparrow and Lila Glasgow took part, was given for the entertainment of the guests, after which refreshments were served. The idea of a parlor theatrical on social occasions is a rather novel one at Davidson, but the admiral success of this one has shown it to be worthy of imitation.” It is clear that even in Davidson’s relative isolation, its denizens found plenty to do!
*The International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons was organized in New York City in 1886. The Christian charitable organization is interdenominational, and has as its motto, “Not to be ministered unto, but to minister.
**Probably a precursor to today’s cornhole game. German settlers brought a tossing game to the midwest during the second half of the 19th century, and eventually the bags used in the game were stuffed with corn.
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.