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

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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.

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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.

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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.