Mr. Cowan’s Lady Friend | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Mr. Cowan’s Lady Friend

Apr 25, 2020


The first box social, or basket social, in that part of Dakota Territory that became the state of North Dakota--the first such event of which I have found record, that is--took place in a Jamestown schoolhouse in the first week of February, 1883. The Weekly Alert reported, “The basket social of the Baptist congregation at the school house panned out about $65 in proceeds. Col. Daly officiated as auctioneer of the baskets each containing a square meal for two and the name of the lady who was to partake of it with him, but unknown to the bidder until the property was paid for and delivered. They sold at from $1 to $3.50.”


That news item gives a fair nutshell description of the American social custom known first as a basket social, later as a box social or box supper. Ladies packed baskets or boxes of delicacies; community members gathered to dine and socialize; the baskets were auctioned off, for a good cause, to gentlemen bidders, each of whom was entitled to dine with the lady who packed the basket--that lady’s identity remaining secret until the auction was concluded and it was time to eat. The process left room for lots of intrigue, hilarity, and hijinks.


The newspapers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are packed with announcements of, and reports upon, basket socials, such reports first running in the main local news section of the paper, later moving into the locals, the correspondence from rural communities under local headings. The impression is of a lively social scene, neighborliness at the grassroots, utter Americana.


Weeks ago, when I commenced researching and reporting on the custom of basket socials, I little suspected the situation that would prevail when my continuing reports would air on radio--a country locking down, unable to enjoy the simple delights of neighborly camaraderie. Now a distant wave must suffice to express appreciation to a faithful neighbor or service provider. The gathering in close quarters of a schoolhouse, the exchange of baskets, the intimate interactions of dining together--accounts of such things may move us to wistful sorrow. I continue my story now, nevertheless, to remind us of the capacity of neighborliness of which we are capable, the expression of which, God willing, we eventually will be allowed to resume.


For now I invite you to join me in a home in Pembina, Dakota Territory, the evening of May 8, 1883, as described by the Pioneer Express. “The ‘box social’ at the residence of Mrs. F. G. Dumble on Tuesday evening was a very pleasant affair. A company of convenient size ate, chatted, made music and indulged in social games,” we are told. “Enjoyment was distributed all around, and the cares of life dismissed for one evening.


“Mrs. Shafter led the company in some pleasant singing, and Mr. F. S. Johnson gave several instrumental pieces with the touch of a finished player. Mr. and Mrs. Dumble did everything necessary on their part to make the evening highly agreeable.”


In this report the phrase “box social” is printed inside quotation marks, indicating it is an unfamiliar term the editor is introducing to his reading public. Soon, however, no one would have to explain the term. A notice in the paper would turn out crowds from communities roundabout, everyone knowing what to expect, in general--although the fun was best when unexpected emotions or talents emerged. Country schoolhouses would become the typical venue for box suppers, which were as much expressions of democracy as they were opportunities for romance.


And sometimes, mystery. What shall we make of this one-sentence local report from Cambetta in the Williston Graphic, November 24, 1910: “Eugene Cowan took a lady friend to the box social.” Use your imagination.


-Tom Isern