Anyone who has been in Santa Barbara during Old Spanish Days has seen — and possibly been cracked over the head with — the colorful, confetti-filled cascarones. While the breaking of hollowed-out eggs over people’s noggins is a long-held tradition during Fiesta, it was also popular party entertainment in Monterey, California, in 1848. We know this thanks to a letter written by William Tecumseh Sherman (who later gained fame as a Civil War general) to his future wife Ellen Ewing describing a party he attended on the West Coast. The letter is from the book Home Letters of General Sherman (1909), and it gives a lively vision of folks covered head-to-toe with “gilt and colored paper.” ¡Viva la Fiesta!
This is the season of dancing and there has been a good deal of it, in fact one is looked for every Sunday night. The officers gave the “great ball” of the season on New Year’s Eve.
You have no doubt heard of the Mexican custom of filling eggshells with cologne and other fragrant water to break upon passers-by. Here it is carried out to a great extent, but is confined to the house and chiefly at balls and dances. Here the shells are mostly filled with gilt and colored paper, cut very fine, which broken over the head leave it covered with spangles. The ladies break over the gentlemen’s head and the reverse, and so great are the liberties taken to accomplish the feat that some from behind will clasp your arms tight whilst others shower on the cascarones (filled shells).
Here they do not like shells filled with perfumed water as it produces stains on the dresses, and also colds to which these people are very subject. It is polite to avoid a cascarone and even to grasp a lady’s hand to crush the shell in it, if she be in the act of breaking it, but when a gentleman gets a cascarone on his head, he is bound to return it which is sometimes quite difficult when the ladies are skilled in dodging. You can scarcely imagine the extent to which this is carried.
At a small party a few nights ago, there were upwards of four hundred cascarones broken among a party of not over twenty-five persons. The ladies sit all day clipping up their tinsel, the finer, the more valuable and the whole is destroyed in a few hours’ flirting. As I mentioned, a gentleman who is honored by an egg, for it is conceived a compliment, is bound in courtesy to return it and has to pay sometimes as high as one or even five dollars for an eggshell filled with tinsel stuff.
I have often laughed to see a whole party of grown men, myself included, sitting around a table clipping this stuff in preparation for a coming dance, but the customs of Monterey are as sensible as the customs of other places and must be respected.