I’ll readily admit that this scrap has me a tad befuddled. Because it was found among other scraps that appear to be from the same newspaper, I can say with some confidence that this bit is from March 13, 1888. Ah, but the content? Like I said, it has me a little confused.
It seems to be from a page that featured a collection of many short articles, unrelated and of an entertaining, rather than journalistic, nature. There is a part of one piece that explains how raindrops are formed. And then at the bottom of the page is a single paragraph on another topic entirely.
It talks about a “correspondent” who wants nothing more than to describe the apparently outrageous number of drunk men he observed upon his arrival in St. Petersburg. He claims that he saw more drunk men on his first day there than during his entire previous four months in Europe. He goes on to say that, although the peasants of Belgium have a poor reputation for temperance, he “saw more drunken men in Petersburg on my way from the station to the hotel than I saw in all of Belgium.” Funny stuff, but is it an actual report from Russia or simply an example of nineteenth century humor?
My real confusion, however, stems from a bit about two column inches in length. It is called “Prices for Puffs,” and fully half of it is made up of a list of rates for some service that I don’t completely understand, or can be certain even existed.
The author claims that this is a “schedule of rates” that has been given to him by some “finder.” He says it is clearly the property of someone who “writes letters from Washington about society ladies.” Below that is a list of choices as to what the writer of such a letter can mention, and how much each will cost. For example, if the writer says that the lady is “beautiful and accomplished,” well, that will set her back fifty cents. It only costs half that to be described as a “charming hostess,” but if the woman wants to be described as looking “like Mrs. Cleveland,” it would cost $2.25. (Mrs. Cleveland being, of course, the reigning First Lady at the time.)
I found myself amused by this short article, but for the life of me I can’t determine whether it is a legitimate description of a service used by society ladies, or a sharp piece of social satire written by some fellow literary wit over a century and a quarter ago. After all, people have been paying for decades to include positive items in gossip columns. So why not in a letter of introduction?
The prices themselves vary so much that it leads me to think this is all a good joke. For example, it would cost a lady ten dollars (About $250 today!) to include the information that she “is immensely wealthy,” but she could instead be described as “having a sweet disposition” for only a nickel! Which makes sense on some level, I suppose. Especially to anyone who has ever had a friend who tried to set him up with a cousin who had “a sweet disposition.”
The writer closes by saying that he only has half of the list, and apologizes that he can’t further education and guide his readers. Is this true, or did he just run out of funny ideas and so cut the list short? I suppose I’ll never know for sure, but the nice thing is that either way this old scrap of newspaper made me laugh, and more than once.