Early 20th Century Lipa as seen through the eyes of an American Official’s Wife

This article features an excerpt about Lipa, its people and culture, in the year 1902, lifted from the series of letters written by Edith Moses about the Philippines. These letters were eventually published as a book entitled “Unofficial Letters of an Official’s Wife” in 1908. It gives us a vivid account of the Lipeños’ life a few months after the historic surrender of General Miguel Malvar (April 16, 1902) and the end of the Filipino resistance against the Americans in Batangas.

Saturday, November 15, 1902

Today we start for Lipa, where we spend the night and where another ball is being prepared for us. It is said the ladies of Lipa will wear their celebrated diamonds on this occasion.

On Friday night we decided that we must start for Manila the following day. General Bell arranged to go with us, and, hearing that the town of Lipa proposed to give us a baile, we thought it would be interesting to accept the invitation and stay overnight in that town.

Porfiria Reyes y Laygo, one of the Lipeña elites, bedecked in jewelry

Ever since coming to the Philippines we have heard of the splendors of Lipa. Formerly the inhabitants were rich and lived in great style. Society was very gay, and the diamonds of the ladies of Lipa were celebrated throughout the Archipelago. The source of all this wealth was coffee. About ten years ago a pest killed the plants, and since that time the splendor of Lipa has gradually decayed. During the insurrection, Lipa was one of the towns that gave most trouble to the Americans. The inhabitants aided and encouraged their people in every way, and General Bell was obliged to shut up a large number of citizens and keep many more under strict surveillance. This made the people of Lipa bitter against the army. The Americans gave a ball after the pacification of Batangas when General Wheaton and General Chaffee went through Lipa, but none of the ladies of Lipa’s four hundred was present, so General Bell was curious to see who would attend our ball.

It was arranged to leave Batangas about three o’clock in the afternoon and drive in the Dorety wagon to San Jose, ten miles distant, and from there to ride horseback the rest of the way. Mrs. Taft, the general’s aide, and I were to ride. The general and the governor, who was escorting us through his province, preferred to drive. The goodbyes to Mrs. Bell and Batangas were said with much regret. We had enjoyed our visit and were sorry it was over. The Dorety ride was not pleasant, although the road was pretty good, and all but the last four miles was smooth and well macadamized. The four miles, however, were full of holes, and we could not go faster than a walk. The roads in the Islands are difficult to keep in order, for they are worn into deep ruts by carts, the wheels of which revolve with their axles and grind into the macadam. The stone is not of the best quality, and it is soon crushed into powder. Then come the tropical rains and wash it away. The first cost is considerable when one must use the so-called cheap labor. In some parts of the Islands every mile costs five thousand pesos. The men are paid at the rate of twenty-five cents, gold, a day, but they are lazy and inefficient.

Lipa’s Ladies of Aristocracy, from left to right: Sinforosa Catigbac y Solis, Macaria Catigbac y Solis, Vicenta Aguilera y Solis, Soledad Aguilera y Solis, Emilia Solis y Africa, Consuelo Lozada y Solis, Amanda Solis y Africa, and Leonor Teresa Solis y Africa (Maria Kalaw-Katigbak Collection)
Some Lipeña Belles
(Photo courtesy of the Luistro-Aranda Family)

We found our horses ready at San José, and I mounted a beautiful bay horse called Bob, and we started on the Lipa train in gay spirits. We went through canyons and over hills. We had to push our way through bushes and trees, and Mrs. Taft lost her hat twice, and I was nearly strangled by a big rope of tough green vine. Now and again the path widened out and we could trot or canter.

Finally, Lipa came in sight and at first, we were much disappointed, for it looked mean and dilapidated. Pigs ran about the weed-grown streets, washing hung on broken-down garden walls.

We turned a corner into a narrow street and stopped at the gate of a large house, the headquarters of the garrison in Lipa. The tales of the fine houses were true, for we entered a marble-flagged piazza and found ourselves in a hall with quite a palatial staircase. Two wooden knights in armor, somewhat the worse for wear, stood in the corners and a bronze chandelier hung from the ceiling. All the rooms were large and well furnished. Being left to ourselves a short time, we made the most of our freedom.

As soon as we had taken off our riding habits we started out alone to see the town. As we were walking along, looking at the houses, a young Filipino saw us and stepped up, saying in very good English : ” Madams, may I assist you ? ” We told him we were looking about the town and wished to see the church and some of the fine houses, so he joined us and we found him an excellent guide. The church has a fine marble floor and is large but not beautiful. The houses interested me more. They almost all have gardens and backyards. They are not built with the stables underneath, although the entrance to one of the finest houses was through the barnyard.

The palatial home of Doña Catalina Solis viuda de Aguilera which may have been the venue of the baile of 1902.

They are built in many cases three stories high, including an entresol [entresuelo]. We went to see a famous garden and to get a view from the tower of a handsome house. There we found an agreeable lady and her very pretty daughter. The garden was in Italian style, quaint and stately. From the tower we had a glorious view of the town, the mountains, a sunset, and a rising moon. While we were enjoying the view, a servant announced that the presidente, consejales, and principales were waiting for us in the sala; so, we went downstairs and found six or seven solemn gentlemen who shook hands and through their interpreter, whose English was convulsing, ” welcomed us hearty ” to Lipa and invited us to the ball. They then shook hands a second time and expressed their desire to escort us to the officers’ quarters, where we were staying. So, we started in procession and solemnly paraded the streets to the headquarters, where we shook hands for the third time and exchanged the proper compliments.

When we were dressed and ready for our dinner another delegation of about twenty young girls waited on us to pay their respects and welcome us to Lipa. They were like a flock of tropical birds, as they fluttered about. The invitation to the ball was recited in verse by one of the girls. We dined at the officers’ mess, and at half-past eight went to the baile.

The baile de etiqueta in Lipa that took place before World War II.
(Courtesy of the Family of Antonio Solis Silva)

The house was large and handsomely furnished and the elite of Lipa was there in brilliant blue, pink, and green gowns, but alas! the celebrated diamonds and pearls were not in evidence. There were many more girls than men, and only a few of the company danced. There was one youth, the center of attraction. He wore an evening suit with a buttonhole bouquet. He parted his hair in the middle, thrust into his vest was a pair of yellow kid gloves, and in his eye a monocle. This was not so extraordinary as his manners. ” Ah! madams, good evening to you, how admirable are your appearances,” was his greeting as he struck an attitude in front of us, hand on hip with one foot pointed outward. He posed all the time, sometimes gazing fiercely into space with arms folded, or listening with eyes turned to heaven during a sentimental song. The little mestizas in blue and pink giggled and fairly collapsed with nervous joy when he placed his eyeglass in his eye and planted himself in front of them. We danced the rigodon twice; the second time a new figure was introduced called the paseo, in which each lady promenaded around the room with all the men in turn as partners. The general’s aide was the only American dancing, and there were at least fifteen Filipino youths who seemed deaf and dumb, but “Cholly,” the dude, remarked : ” Here we are again, madam, it is a most comfortable occasion,” and another youth said in a painfully labored tone : “Here-in-Filipinas-we-spik- much-English.” The supper was very good, and we all sat down to eat it in the big dining room. General Bell was in his element. They were all there, his ancient enemies for the women of Lipa were more incorrigible insurrectos than the men. He danced with the girls and enticed the old ladies into taking a turn; he talked and he joked, and his aide, poor boy, following the general’s lead, whirled the girls of Lipa about like a steam engine. At twelve o’clock we were worn out and persuaded our hostesses that we must go, in view of our early morning departure. But the general, after escorting us to our quarters, took his aide back to the ball and I believe he did more “pacifying ” that night than he had accomplished during his entire campaign.

Moses, Edith, Mrs. Unofficial Letters of an Official’s Wife. New York: D. Appleton and company, 1908.