Who Was the Original Southern Belle?

Eleanor Rose

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800px-Portrait_of_Sallie_Ward_by_George_Peter_Alexander_Healy%2C_1860.jpg

Sally Ward Lawrence Hunt Armstrong Downs

Who was the original Southern belle? I wish I knew. @NH Civil War Gal got me thinking about this when she inquired about the origin of the phrase, “Southern belle.” Probably like a lot of little girls growing up in the South, I was told the story of Sally Ward. Sally was a lovely and sometimes scandalous "belle." Do you think she was the first young lady to be referred to as a Southern belle? If not, do you have any other ideas?

Sally Ward Lawrence Hunt Armstrong Downs, also known as Sallie, was born on September 29, 1827 in Scott County, Kentucky. She became a celebrated belle - some think the first referenced as such. Sally married four times and is known as one of the first women in the United States to wear cosmetics. She is also known for wearing some daring outfits.

Sally always embodied "an old Kentucky way of life." She grew up in Louisville, Kentucky with her seven siblings. She was educated in a French finishing school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and graduated in 1844. She spoke fluent French and played several musical instruments. Sally supposedly organized one of the first fancy dress balls in Kentucky and set the standard for women to wear several dresses during a fancy ball.

Sally’s first husband was T. Bigelow Lawrence, a member of the Boston elite. Married on December 5, 1849, their marriage ended in 1850 due to “cultural differences.” It was said that Sally “never learned the secret of obedience” and freely used “paints and other cosmetics.”

In 1852 she married Dr. Robert P. Hunt, a Kentucky native. They made their home in New Orleans where Sally enjoyed hosting lavish parties. They had two sons, Robert and John Wesley, and one daughter, Emily. John Wesley was their only child who survived to adulthood. He later worked as the night editor of the New York World.

Dr. Hunt joined the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War and was killed in combat. He and Sally had separated when he decided to join the army because she was a staunch supporter of Abraham Lincoln.

When the war ended, Sally married Vene P. Armstrong, a local merchant. After his death, she married her fourth husband, Major George F. Downs, another Kentucky native. They resided in Louisville, Kentucky until their deaths.

7765555_124278918727.jpg

Sally's gravesite (Find A Grave - courtesy of Julie)

7765555_124278926301.jpg

"Her's was a mind that knew no wrong.
Her's a tongue that spoke no evil."

(Find A Grave - courtesy of Julie)

Not much is known of Sally in her later years. She reportedly died of a ruptured stomach ulcer on July 8, 1896. Per the Find A Grave site, she is buried at the Cave Hill Cemetery. Her portrait was done by George Peter Alexander Healy. It is housed at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.



Source: Sallie Ward: The Celebrated Kentucky Beauty by Mrs. Ella Hutchison Ellwanger. Published January 1918.
 

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Deleted User CS

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Ellie. As usual you have provided some very educational as well as interesting information on the possible derivation of the term, "Southern Belle." Sallie reminds me of a character from Margaret Mitchell's great book, "Gone with the Wind." She certainly had an affinity for marriage: she was the Elizabeth Taylor of her time. A question: Was multiple marriages very common with some Southern Belle's? Thanks again for starting this very interesting thread. May I say Miss Ellie you certainly remind me of a quintessential modern Southern Belle. David.
 

Eleanor Rose

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Ellie. As usual you have provided some very educational as well as interesting information on the possible derivation of the term, "Southern Belle." Sallie reminds me of a character from Margaret Mitchell's great book, "Gone with the Wind." She certainly had an affinity for marriage: she was the Elizabeth Taylor of her time. A question: Was multiple marriages very common with some Southern Belle's? Thanks again for starting this very interesting thread. May I say Miss Ellie you certainly remind me of a quintessential modern Southern Belle. David.
As always David, you are extremely kind and thoughtful. You certainly raise an interesting question. According to the CDC's report, 100 Years of Divorce and Marriage Statistics, divorce statistics were not recorded prior to 1867. However, while there certainly was a stigma attached to getting a divorce in the 19th century, divorce did happen on occasion.

1867 - 1879 - .03%

1880 - 1886 - .04%

1887 - 1890 - .05%

1891 - 1897 - .06%

1898 - 1900 - .07%

In most states in the early 19th century, an act of the legislature was required to end a marriage. The process for obtaining one would likely have been long, expensive and publicly humiliating. I imagine this discouraged all but the most desperate. Based on my limited reading, this was beginning to change by the 1850s.

Interestingly, divorce was often used as a metaphor for secession. As Mary Boykin Chesnut surveyed the Union splitting apart, the North and South reminded her of a “long-married, long-quarreling husband and wife whose union had gone finally asunder.” Mary wrote in March 1861:

“We separated North and South because of incompatibility of temper. We are divorced because we have hated each other so. If we could only separate, a ‘separation à l’agréable,’ as the French say it, and not have a horrid fight for divorce.”

Even Abraham Lincoln took up the comparison. In February, on the first day of his train journey to the capital, the president-elect gave a speech in which he accused secessionists of viewing the bond between states as “no regular marriage, but a sort of free love arrangement, to be maintained [merely] by passional attraction.” This comparison was criticized, even among some Republicans, as being off-color and deemed beneath the dignity of the Presidency.
 

Northern Light

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belle
noun

\ ˈbel \
Definition of belle
: a popular and attractive girl or woman especially : a girl or woman whose charm and beauty make her a favorite

I doubt it had anything to do with skirts. It comes from the French- belle

First Known Use of belle

1622, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for belle
French, from feminine of beau beautiful — more at beau
 

Deleted User CS

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As always David, you are extremely kind and thoughtful. You certainly raise an interesting question. According to the CDC's report, 100 Years of Divorce and Marriage Statistics, divorce statistics were not recorded prior to 1867. However, while there certainly was a stigma attached to getting a divorce in the 19th century, divorce did happen on occasion.

1867 - 1879 - .03%

1880 - 1886 - .04%

1887 - 1890 - .05%

1891 - 1897 - .06%

1898 - 1900 - .07%

In most states in the early 19th century, an act of the legislature was required to end a marriage. The process for obtaining one would likely have been long, expensive and publicly humiliating. I imagine this discouraged all but the most desperate. Based on my limited reading, this was beginning to change by the 1850s.

Interestingly, divorce was often used as a metaphor for secession. As Mary Boykin Chesnut surveyed the Union splitting apart, the North and South reminded her of a “long-married, long-quarreling husband and wife whose union had gone finally asunder.” Mary wrote in March 1861:

“We separated North and South because of incompatibility of temper. We are divorced because we have hated each other so. If we could only separate, a ‘separation à l’agréable,’ as the French say it, and not have a horrid fight for divorce.”

Even Abraham Lincoln took up the comparison. In February, on the first day of his train journey to the capital, the president-elect gave a speech in which he accused secessionists of viewing the bond between states as “no regular marriage, but a sort of free love arrangement, to be maintained [merely] by passional attraction.” This comparison was criticized, even among some Republicans, as being off-color and deemed beneath the dignity of the Presidency.
Ellie. Thank You very much for the additional information. I certainly appreciate it as always. David.
 

nitrofd

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belle
noun

\ ˈbel \
Definition of belle
: a popular and attractive girl or woman especially : a girl or woman whose charm and beauty make her a favorite

I doubt it had anything to do with skirts. It comes from the French- belle

First Known Use of belle

1622, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for belle
French, from feminine of beau beautiful — more at beau
Thats interesting,goes back to 1622.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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We're a little stuck with making guesses, I know. You'd have to guess the French word was in the mix- and we loved our French. Belle meant lovely woman, accredited beauty? Our Virginia, planter settlers brought a good assortment with them, ( we grew them from there ) ' well born ', accustomed to those strict codes of behavior already in place in Europe, well versed in the womanly attributes of watercolors, needlework, frequently horsemanship and hostess duties, determined to transplant some kind of aristocracy. Underlying that way of life would have been a population of unnamed ( as far as history is concerned ) enslaved, on which the whole setting depended.

It could easily go back to pre-Revolution? No idea if the ' Belle ' term was around in the late 1600's but bet somewhere in the next century it popped up. What's weird is, Northern women of a certain ' class ' ( hate saying that in connection with this country ) say, New Amsterdam were equally wealthy, socially ambitious, frequently of ' good ' families and pursued the same wish to transplant aristocracy ( or create one ). Also had the idea it was ok to own humans, enslaved built those fortunes, too. There was no designation for Northern women of the same ilk.

Really do not mean to pour cold water on the thread, honest. Had ancestors who settled New Amsterdam and held property into the early 1900's. Makes me wince, thinking of what it took to create their settings, is the thing.
 
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I don't know about y'all but I married the Original Southern Belle 46 years ago! She is a Mississippian and every bit a Lady except those times when it's hard to be a Lady!!!
Regards
David
Likewise. My wife of 43 years was born in Mississippi and lived most of her life in Louisiana and Atlanta.
 


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