The First Great Cheerful Giver

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On each Fourth of July, Peabody gave a BritishAmerican banquet graced by such consequential guests as the octogenarian Duke of Wellington. His offices, well-furnished with American newspapers and magazines, became headquarters for travellers from the United States. One of them, described anonymously as “an American writer in London,” had this to say about Peabody’s habits of entertainment: During 1851 Mr. Peabody commenced inviting to dinner every person who brought a letter of credit on his house. The thing had been unknown heretofore. He showed to the stranger particular attentions. A day or two after his arrival there was a polite note of invitation to dinner at the ‘Star and Garter’ or to a Sunday’s fete at Hampton Court, or to a sail on the Thames, or, at least, to an ‘At Home’ at Club Chambers … At the head of the dinner-table, as the host of the numerous fetes given at Richmond Hill, Blackwall, and Hampton Court, in his spacious suite of apartments at Club Chambers, or among guests at his extemporized pleasure-parties, Mr. Peabody was one of the most genial of men. … Where the Duke [of Wellington] went all could go. It [the July 4, 1851, dinner] was without exaggeration the affair of the season. Mr. Peabody spared no expense. Lablache, Alboni and Grisi, lent the concert the aid of their voices; duchesses waltzed with Governors of States, and members of Parliament flirted with Massachusetts belles, long past the small hours of the night; newspapers chronicled the wonderful success of the rich American’s banquet; and on the morning of July 5, 1851, George Peabody’s name was in the mouths of half the kingdom.

It was during this period of increasing fame, as his capital was rising into the millions, that Peabody became aware of an occupational problem: what to do with his money. He never married; a story, possibly apocryphal, has it that he carried a lifelong torch for a Providence girl, who, travelling in Europe with friends, met him and became engaged to him, only to jilt him for a former fiancé. His habits, other than those connected with business entertainment, were frugal. He carried his lunch to his office in two small tin boxes, and when not with clients he dined, by preference, in cheap chophouses. He liked to fish, to play whist and backgammon, to sing Scottish songs, and to talk. He employed a valet only during the last year of his life, when he was ill and feeble. During most of the 1860’s, when his income was more than $300,000 a year, he drew only one per cent, $3,000, for personal expenses. He helped support an army of poor relatives, but the surplus remained alarming. He hit upon philanthropy as the answer to the problem.

For Peabody, charity began at home. In the summer of 1852, when he was invited to the centennial celebration of the severance of the town of Danvers from Salem, he was too busy to show up; but he sent the centennial committee $20,000, to which he later added $230,000 more, to establish a Peabody Institute. This opened in 1854 with a museum, lecture hall, and library, and Peabody visited it two years later, on his first trip to America in nineteen years. A lavish welcome awaited him. Contemporary lithographs depict grand processions of silk-hatted citizens, an Institute inscribed “Dedicated to Knowledge and Morality,” and other local buildings and triumphal arches bearing banners inscribed with such devices as “Danvers Welcomes Her Favorite Son,” “Danvers Welcomes a Nation’s Guest,” “Honor to Him, Who Loves to Honor His Country,” “A Friend at Home and Abroad,” and “George Peabody Respected and Honoured on Both Sides of the Atlantic.” A reception was held, followed by a dinner for fifteen hundred, at which, if we can believe the erratically spelled bill of fare, more than fifty dishes were served, namely: Boiled: Mutton, Caper Sauce. Turkey, Oyster Sauce. Chickens, Celery Sauce. Saltpetred Beef. Ham. Tongue. Roast: Turkeys. Geese. Chickens. Ducks. Lamb. Beef. Pigs. Entrees: Potted Pigeons. Beef a Ia mode. Chicken Salad. Stewed Oysters. Brazed Tongue. Escalloped Oysters. Lobster Salad. Chicken Mayornase. Game: Black Ducks. Widgeons. Teal. Red Head Ducks. Pastry: Charlotte Russe. Tipsey Cake. Chess Cake. Cream Cake. Glacée Pudin. Custard Pudding. Washington Pies. Pies of various kinds. Cake of all kinds. Ice Cream: Vanilla. Pine Apple. Lemon. Strawberry. Sherbet. Punch. Fruit: Oranges. Raisins. Apples. Peaches. Pears. Grapes. Melons. English Walnuts. Almonds. Pecan Nuts. Table Ornaments: Tea. Coffee.

These were downed to the accompaniment of thirteen speeches (including one by Peabody); one song of welcome, rendered by a relative of the guest of honor—Mrs. Joel R. Peabody, who started out, Welcome! illustrious friend and guest! / Aye, more than welcome here, / And be the day forever blessed / That brings back one so dear; two odes, sung by other ladies; and a score of toasts, commencing with one to Rufus Choate (“An adopted son of old Danvers”) and moving with great sweep to King Alfred, Bacon, Shakespeare, and Milton (“They are ours by inheritance. Our share in their glory is that of brotherhood with the elder branch of the family”).

The Favorite Son bore up admirably. “Mr. Peabody appeared in our streets the next morning, apparently as fresh and vigorous as usual,” a published account of the proceedings states. “He made personal inquiry and observation of all matters relating to the Institute, examining the Treasurer’s books.”