Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"Merry Widow" Fever

One of the (many, many...) things I love about the Betsy-Tacy series is their incorporation of popular music. One piece, "The Merry Widow Waltz", is practically a character in Betsy in Spite of Herself.
The Merry Widow was the world’s first hit musical. The tremendous acclaim that accompa­nied its premiere in Vienna on December 30, 1905 brought instant fame to its thirty-five-year-old composer, Franz Lehár, and began an international success. In the century since, there has scarcely been a night without a performance somewhere in the world. {Source}
Author, blogger, and Betsy-Tacy fan Melissa Wiley did a post last year featuring this lovely waltz. Since she did such a great job, I won't try to say it all again. Just head over to her blog, Here in the Bonny Glen, to:
  • Hear what this waltz sounds like
  • Read the excerpt from Betsy in Spite of Herself when she first hears it while in Milwaukee
  • See a list of links relating to the song, including a funny gallery of postcards poking fun at the extravagant style of hats inspired by the piece
These photos are in the back of Betsy In Spite of Herself
Speaking of Merry Widow hats, these are also mentioned several times in Betsy In Spite of Herself. For example:
Beside him was a slight graceful girl, beautifully and expensively dressed in a gray suit with a big fluffy fur and a Merry Widow hat so wide that it made the one Betsy cherished in a box upstairs look positively narrow. (606)
"Tell Irma if she wants to see the Merry Widow, she can just come up and look at me."
    "You don't sound very heartbroken."
    "I'll put on my Merry Widow hat for her," Betsy joked. (645)
The first quote leads me to think that the bigger the hat, the more stylish you were! Do you remember in the post on shirt waists how I described the S-shape silhouette that was popular in the early 1900s? Well, as the new century wore on, a different shape came into vogue, hallmarked by the rise of the Merry Widow hat:
1907-8 saw the start of a new body silhouette called the Empire or Directoire where the long columnar outline that tapers to the feet is contrasted with the big Merry Widow picture hat.  The fashion designer Lucile had designed the original widow hat for an operetta in 1907, but it influenced hat fashions for 3 more years.  It was always black and encased in filmy chiffon or organdie and festooned in feathers. {Source}
Lily Elsie modeling the Merry Widow
hat designed by Lucile. {Source}
While Franz Lehar’s 1905 premier of The Merry Widow did give this beautiful and often outrageous hat its most well known name, the hat in general had already begun to grow larger and larger since the end of the 19th century. It now took on gargantuan proportions compared to its predecessors. As is often the case, fashion had its own logic; As [sic] the new century moved forward, a larger millinery style was required to accommodate the larger and very popular pompadour hairstyles. By the middle of the new decade waistlines were radically raised and skirts became much slimmer, without frills and decorations. A large-crowned and wide-brimmed hat created the needed sense of balance for the silhouette. Although one might wonder at the precise meaning of balance when the depth of the brim could be up to one foot! {Source}
Apparently, this opera took 1907-08 by storm. Besides hats and music, there is also mention in BISOH of Merry Widow Sundaes ("Merry Widow Sundaes were the rage" [583]). I was curious what this creation would be comprised of, so I looked it up. With the help of the very useful Google archives, I came across three different recipes for Merry Widow Sundaes. Clearly it wasn't a certain recipe that made this concoction unique, it was just cashing in on the popularity of Lehár's musical. I'm not sure what particular sundae was served at Heinz's, but here are the three period recipes I found:

Place 2 No. 20 portions of chocolate ice cream close together on a split banana. Cover with whipped cream so as to make an oval mound, sprinkle with a little grated sweet chocolate and place 3 fresh cherries on top of the mound.
 Place a cone of ice cream on a dish around the edge of which lay three vanilla wafers flat, the wafers marking the points of a triangle; now put a slice of banana at each point where the cakes join together, placing crushed peaches on one side of the dish and crushed strawberries on the other, sprinkle a little chopped nuts over the ice cream, and top off with whipped cream and a cherry. Price 15 cents-- The Soda Fountain.
From 1908 Druggists Circular:
Place a tall cone of strawberry ice cream in a flat dish, pour a little grape syrup and a little "champagne syrup" around the bottom; add two slices of peach, and on top of the cone balance a thin slice of pineapple topped off with an arabesque dab of whipped cream and a red cherry.
More Merry Widow links: 


  1. What an informative post! I am in awe that you found the century-old sundae recipes! I love your new blog!