Ain’t No Party Like a Henry Shaw Party

24, July 2017

There ain’t no party like a Henry Shaw party ’cause a Henry Shaw party . . . didn’t have an official start time. Friends just showed up at his door.

A vertical, steel engraving of Henry Shaw in a suit and tie; his authograph is below the portrait.Steel engraving of Henry Shaw. Missouri History Museum.

Henry Shaw was born 217 years ago today in Sheffield, England. He moved to St. Louis when he was 18 years old and amassed a big enough fortune to retire by the time he was 40. He also knew that the answer to the question “What do you get for the city that has everything?” was—nearly 300 acres of land that comprise Tower Grove Park, the exquisite grounds surrounding his home that would become the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the School of Botany at Washington University.

But Shaw wasn't just a generous gift giver; he was a great party host too. In his writings, Shaw talks about the many friends and acquaintances he made when he landed here in 1818, Messrs. Soulard, Christy, Berthold, Cabanne, Gratiot, and Chouteau among them. Like Shaw himself, these men were rich, powerful, highly educated—and presumably frequent guests at his estate. Shaw was so renowned for his generosity of spirit that every year on his birthday his friends would come to his home unannounced. By all accounts, he loved it.

In this piece from the James Overton Broadhead Papers, housed in the Missouri History Museum’s Library and Research Center, a story from the Daily Missouri Republican dated March 17, 1884, describes Shaw’s birthday bashes this way:

For several years the intimate friends of Mr. Henry Shaw have been in the habit of celebrating each recurring birthday of his by calling at his residence in the beautiful gardens which he has given to the people of St. Louis, without waiting for an invitation to do so, knowing Mr. Shaw’s liberal hospitality, which no one who has been present at one of these occasions will ever forget. Mr. Shaw is as genial as a host as he is entertaining as a companion. His house . . . was illuminated with Japanese lanterns, and in front of the door in large letters of red flowers in the greensward, the guests found their welcome in the word “Salve.” Farther from the door [composer Joseph W.] Postlewaite’s band was stationed, playing an occasional air.

A sepia photograph of Henry Shaw's country home in Tower Grove.Henry Shaw's country estate, known as the Tower Grove House, was designed by his friend George I. Barnett. It is located in the Missouri Botanical Garden. Missouri History Museum.

Besides being an affable host, Shaw looked out for his friends who had, shall we say, overindulged. In this Republican story from 1879, Shaw recounts the hunting party he helped arrange for Daniel Webster in 1835. Webster was a statesman best known for being an influential senator from Massachusetts in the mid-1800s and a two-time U.S. secretary of state: once under William Henry Harrison (then John Tyler, after Harrison died 31 days into his term) and again for Millard Fillmore. As Shaw recalled:

Five deer were killed that day, and three of them were barbecued whole, one being put on the table, horns and all. Webster sat at the head, and the party was rather dull until he got a bottle and a half of wine in him. Then he commenced. I have never heard such a talker before or since. Stories! He told them one after another, keeping the table convulsed. I have never been able to get them out of my head, and the majority of them were not the kind to be told had there been ladies present.

Webster had arrived to the hunting party on horseback, but when it came time to leave he was so intoxicated that Shaw worried about his safety and put him in a buggy instead. Not to be deterred, Webster said, “No, no, gentlemen. Those people at home shall never have it to say of me that I went hunting from St. Louis and got so drunk that I could not keep up my saddle.” At that, Shaw conceded and helped lift Webster up onto his horse.

So today, raise a responsible toast to Henry Shaw, a generous party person with an open-door policy who would have been glad to find you a ride home after one too many celebratory drinks.

—Kristie Lein, Associate Editor

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