The Hottest Celebrity of Early 19th-Century America Was a 67-Year-Old Frenchman

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Aug. 19 2013 1:05 PM

The Hottest Celebrity of Early 19th-Century America Was a 67-Year-Old Frenchman

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

The Marquis de Lafayette, French nobleman and officer, was a major general in the Continental Army by the age of 19. 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.

Advertisement

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.”

The Smithsonian will exhibit the Lafayette glove, along with other notable souvenirs (a piece of the Bastille and FDR’s 1934 birthday cake) in the National Museum of American History through August 2014.

RWS2012-05629
Glove, ladies, with portrait of Lafayette. PL*013487. Richard Strauss. From Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.