Ladies and Gentlemen on Display: Planter Society at the Virginia Springs, 1790-1860

Lewis, Charlene Marie , Department of History, University of Virginia
Ayers, Edward, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Rainey, Reuben, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines Southern society and culture from 1790 to 1860 through the lens of the Virginia Springs. Each summer, more elite whites congregated at these resorts than anywhere else in the South. The Virginia Springs formed a key part of the extensive and elaborate world of the Southern elite. At the springs, Southern women and men shaped and reshaped the definitions of lady and gentleman. They defined the limits and characteristics of their class as well.

The story of the Virginia Springs has many facets. The resorts' architecture and landscape provided the backdrop to the visitors' genteel world. Behind the scenes, the proprietors and their white and slave workers both ran the resorts and played important roles in spa society. In an era of greater confusion in medical care, popular and medical opinion considered the springs a perfect place for regaining and preserving health. Concern for their wellbeing and the sensual experience of the waters turned genteel society's attention towards the body, usually considered inappropriate in refined circles.

Nowhere was the dedication to, and the conflict within, Southern gentility more evident than at the springs. For its visitors, the springs possessed all of the hallmarks of their society--exclusivity, refinement, sociability, and order. But gentility at the springs also fostered a dedication to hierarchy, competition, and the exclusion of those who failed to meet genteel standards. In this public environment, men and women negotiated for their status while peers watched their every move. Yet, they also enjoyed playing out fantasies of themselves as cavaliers and ladies.

At the springs, male and female visitors interacted more easily and more often than at home. Indeed, gender relations there reveal a level of sexual integration in planter society that historians have not previously discovered. The visitors' separate gendered experiences remained significant as well; women especially found rare freedom and power. At this place of reunion and relaxation, Southern men and women established and strengthened bonds with members of their own sex. The social and cultural "work" performed at the intensely genteel, but still leisurely, Virginia Springs shaped elite society throughout the South.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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