"sable [gentry]"

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Fri Jul 22 22:39:57 UTC 2011

 From my notes, through 1830:

1:      "sable", verb, "to put on black-face"

      Five persons have been apprehended and sent to jail strongly suspected
of the robbery of Mrs. Temple's house.  Much of the lamp-black which they
made use of to sable their fair complexions, remains about their necks and
on their linens.  They say, "We only blacked ourselves for FUN."  But, from
apparent circumstances, there is but little doubt of their GUILT.

      N-Y Gazette & General Advertiser, February 5, 1798, p. 3, col. 1

2:      Among the number of ice cream gardens in this city, there were none
in which the sable race could find admission and refreshment.  Their modicum
of pleasure was taken on Sunday evening, when the black dandys and
dandizettes, after attending meeting, occupied the side walks in Broadway,
and slowly lounged toward their different homes.

      National Advocate, August 3, 1821, p. 2, col. 2

      [from the report on the opening of "The African Grove"]

3:      " sable fashionables", "sable lady" & "sable audience"; also "black

      *African Amusements*. -- We noticed, some time ago, the opening of a
tea garden and evening serenades for the amusement of our black gentry; it
appears that some of the neighbors, not relishing the jocund nightly
sarabands of these sable fashionables, actually complained to the Police,
and the avenues of African Grove were closed by authority; and thus were
many of our ebony friends excluded from a participation in those innocent
recreations to which they are entitled, by virtue of the great charter that
declares "all men are equal."  ***

      Lady Ann was sustained with great spirit by a young sable lady,
chambermaid to a family near Park Place. . . .  ***

      Several fashionable songs, sung with no mean taste, concluded the
evening's amusement, and the sable audience retired peaceably to their
homes.  Richard and Catesby were unfortunately taken up by the watch.

      *National Advocate*, September 21, 1821, p. 2, col. 4

      [The African Grove was closed for creating a disturbance in a
residential neighborhood; it morphed into "The African Theatre", which
staged Shakespeare's Richard III]

4:      "sable brethern and sisters"

      Charles Beers, a black man, was convicted of grand larceny, in having
stolen the goods of Thomas Drumgold.  This fellow had belonged to a company
of commedians, [sic] composed of ladies and gentlemen of color, and amused,
and very probably delighted his sable brethern and sisters, in performing
the difficult part of Richard 3d.  ***

      New-York City-Hall Recorder, 6:10 (November, 1821):88

      [Beers, aka Taft, was the understudy to James Hewlett, who took over
the role of Richard for the second performance, and was thereafter the star
of the company.]

5:      "sable managers" & "sable corps"

      We have heretofore noticed the performances of a black corps
dramatique in this city, at their Theatre, the corner of Bleecker and
Mercer-streets.  It appears that the sable managers, not satisfied with a
small share of profit and a great portion of fame, determined to rival the
great Park Theatre, belonging to the Messrs. Beekman & Astor, and
accordingly hired the Hotel next door to the Theatre, where they announced
their performances.  ***

      Come, come, said the watch, none of your play acting airs -- into the
black hole with you.  The sable corps were thus thrust into one green room
together, where, for some time, they were loud and theatrical; ever and
anon, one would thrust his head through a circular hole to survey the grim
visages of the watchmen.  Finally, they pleaded so hard in blank verse, and
promised never to act Shakespeare again, that the Police Magistrates
released them at a very late hour.

      *National Advocate*, January 9, 1822, p. 2, col. 3

      [The African Theatre didn't suit the neighbors any more than the Grove
had, so it moved to Mercer street, above Houston: the edge of town.  The
manager wanted to improve his location, and it seems figured that the Park
Theatre already drew crowds and commotion, and a little more wouldn't be
complained of.  The manager of the Park thought otherwise, disrupted
performances and had the cops raid the joint, although off-the-record.]

      [This item and nos. 2 & 5 were all written by the same man, Mordecai
Noah; no. 9 appeared in the Advocate after he had been separated from it]

6:      "sable manager"

      For the benefit of Mr. Brown, will next be presented the drama of the
"*Fortress of Sorrento*," from the fruitful pen of Mr. Noah; after which an
entire new play, written by Mr. Brown (the sable manager,) called *Shotaway;
or, the insurrection of the Caribs, of St. Domingo*.

      *New-York Commercial Advertiser*, January 16, 1822, p. 2, col. 1

7:      "sable colored woman"

      A lady passing by St. Paul's Church, was met by three sable colored
women, tricked out in the height of the fashion; one of them gave way for
the lady to pass, while another exclaimed, loud enough to be heard by the
passers by -- *Louisa, why did you give the wall to that white woman?*"

      National Advocate, July 9, 1822, p. 2, cols. 2-3

8:      "sable tragedian"

      "The opossum," continued Mr. M's informant, "is addicted to climbing
up the gum tree, thinking no one can follow him; but the racoon [sic] hides
himself in the hollow of the tree, and as poor opossum goes up, pulls him
down by the tail, and that's the plot["] -- the cries of "opossum,
opossum["] increasing, the sable tragedian comes forward, and addressing the
audience, informs them that he will sing their favorite melody with him
greatest pleasure, and accordingly sings it.

      *Sketches of Mr. Mathews's Celebrated Trip to America. . . .*  London:
Printed by and for J. Lamberd, n. d., pp. 9-10

      [Mathews was an English actor famous for his ability to do dialects;
his special shows were collections of short sketches, on the themes of his
experiences while on a trip.  He toured the United States in 1822.]

9:      "sable ruffian"

      [a letter signed Michael K. Burke, keeper of a porterhouse at 351
Broome street, who had been arrested "for hurling a sable ruffian out of my

      National Advocate, February 17, 1827, p. 2, col. ?

10:      "sable arm and hand"

      Portia was attired in the utmost extravagance of modern fashion; her
robe was so short as to expose to view the clumsy ancles [sic] and the high
calves which are peculiar to the whole Negro-race; her black woolly hair was
adorned with roses, and white glazed gloves half covered her sable arm and
hand in which she adroitly weilded [sic] a fan with Chinese figures.
--  Applauses
were lavished as freely and as unseasonably as in the theatres of the

      *Nottingham and Newark Mercury*, May 22, 1830, unknown page and
column, taken from The Family Magazine.

      [The immediate source of this was an English newspaper; there was a
Family Magazine published ca. 1830 in London, and another in Dublin.]

On Thu, Jul 21, 2011 at 2:26 PM, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at yale.edu>wrote:

> On Jul 21, 2011, at 1:47 PM, Joel S. Berson wrote:
> > I suspect searching for "sable" with other terms
> > besides "gentry" would turn up many more
> > instances in the early 19th century.
> Indeed, but I was looking specifically for “sable gentry”, partly because I
> was making the case (to myself, at least) that the OED entry for “sable”
> should have an entry for that collocation along with that for “his sable
> excellency”, “sable majesty”, and such.  In fact, the entry doesn’t include
> any cites for “sable gentry”, much less an actual subentry for it.
> My own preferred sable is the eponymous smoked fish, which isn’t even the
> appropriate color.  (It was alternately known in our family as “chicken
> carp”, which just seems weird.)
> >  (I think I
> > once complained to Jesse that the use to refer to
> > people seemed more than merely "joc.”)
> Exactly.  Jocular to whom?  I was impressed by the acumen of that passage
> ("that false elevation of language, a preposterously inflated lexis,
> deliberately employed to mock”) from Meredith in the 1840s.
> LH
> >
> > In Hawthorne's "Old News I", written probably in
> > 1828-1829 and first published in 1835, he uses "sable" twice:
> >
> > "There was a coachmaker at this period, one John
> > Lucas, who seems to have gained the chief of his
> > living by letting out a sable coach to funerals."
> >
> > "The sable inmates of the mansion were not
> > excluded from the domestic affections: in
> > families of middling rank, they had their places
> > at the board; and when the circle closed round
> > the evening hearth, its blaze glowed on their
> > dark shining faces, intermixed familiarly with their master's children."
> >
> > Joel
> >
> > At 7/21/2011 12:10 PM, Laurence Horn wrote:
> >
> >> On Jul 21, 2011, at 10:39 AM, George Thompson wrote:
> >>
> >> > ...
> >> > *Breach of the Marriage Promise*. -- A
> >> gentleman from Ulster county, who was
> >> > present at the trial of the sable gentry
> >>
> >> Talk about your euphemistic avoidance—"the
> >> sable  gentry”.  Apparently this was not
> >> uncommonly used at the time (judging from Google
> >>
> >> OED has this for adjectival “sable":
> >>
> >> 2. gen. Black. Chiefly poet. and rhetorical.
> >> a. Of material objects, persons, animals, etc.
> >> At one time applied joc. to black people.
> >>
> >> his sable majesty (also his sable excellency):
> >> applied to a dark-complexioned potentate; spec. the Devil.
> >>
> >> Jocular in origin, no doubt, but "sable
> >> gentry" seems to have become a
> >> conventionalized euphemism with or without
> >> intended jocularity.  (The OED lacks any
> >> specific entry for this collocation.) There are
> >> 187 hits in Google books, most or all
> >> exemplifying or citing 19th c. usage.  In one
> >> book, Louisa Anne Meredith, who recorded her
> >> travels in Tasmania in the 1840s, characterizes
> >> "sable gentry" as an instance of "that false
> >> elevation of language, a preposterously inflated
> >> lexis, deliberately employed to mock".
> >>
> >> LH
> >>
> >> > for a breach of the marriage
> >> > promise, the report of which originally appeared in this paper, says,
> that
> >> > when the jury awarded ten dollars damages, Cuff darted out of court --
> shot
> >> > the pit as the fancy call it -- and was pursued through the village by
> Coon
> >> > Crook, the constable, and half the boys, when he was caught and
> brought
> >> > back. Cuff has been admitted to the privileges of the limits at Big
> >> > Sopus. *N.Y.
> >> > Nat. Adv*.
> >> >
> >> > A I 4 ∫*c.* to shoot the pit : of a fighting cock, to rush out  of the
> >> > cockpit from cowardice. Often *fig.* *Obs.*
> >> > 1675    A. Marvell *Let. to Sir H.
> >> >
> >> Thompson<
> http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:31797/view/Entry/178501?rskey=7roKNU&result=1&isAdvanced=true
> >
> >> > *,   He hath a month ago shot the pitâ•¥he hath thought convenient to
> passe
> >> > over into Holland.
> >> > 1681    *Heraclitus
> >> >
> >> Ridens<
> http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:31797/view/Entry/178501?rskey=7roKNU&result=1&isAdvanced=true
> >
> >> > * 30 Aug. 2/2   Two or three more such
> >> stroaks will make them shoot the Pit.
> >> > *a*1734    R. North
> >> >
> >> *Examen<
> http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:31797/view/Entry/178501?rskey=7roKNU&result=1&isAdvanced=true
> >
> >> > * (1740) ii. v. â™—19 327   Which made the whole Party shoot the Pit
> and
> >> > retire, as not caring to be pointed at with ill-favoured Reflections.
> >> > --
> >> >
> >> > GAT
> >> >
> >> > George A. Thompson
> >> > Author of A Documentary History of "The
> >> African Theatre", Northwestern Univ.
> >> > Pr., 1998, but nothing much since then.
> >> >
> >> > ------------------------------------------------------------
> >> > The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
> >>
> >> ------------------------------------------------------------
> >> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
> >
> > ------------------------------------------------------------
> > The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ.
Pr., 1998, but nothing much since then.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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