UPSTATE NEW YORK. 1824. Literary Knowledge of American Women.
I found an intelligence that surprised me at every turn, and which, in itself, gave the true character to the humanity of which I was the subject. I repeatedly found copies of your standard English authors, in retired dwellings where one would not expect to meet any production of a cast higher than an almanac, or a horn-book; nor were they read with that acquiescent criticism which gives a fashion to taste, and which makes a joke of Moliere better than a joke of any other man. Young women (with whom my situation, no less than my tastes, oftenest brought me into literary discussions) frequently surprised me with the extent of their acquaintance with, and the soundness of their opinions concerning the merits and morality of Pope and Addison, of Young and Tillotson, and even of Milton and Shakspeare. This may sound to you ridiculous, and certainly, if taken without a saving clause for the other acquirements of my female critics, it is liable to some exception; but I repeat I have often known professed blues acquit themselves with less credit than did several of my passing acquaintances at the tea-tables of different New-England inns.
CASTLE GARDEN, NEW YORK. 1824. Ball honoring La Fayette
In this manner we passed through the crowd, until we had gained the terrace. Here we paused, to take a more deliberate view of what I will not term an assemblage, for its adjuncts and peculiar features strictly entitle it to be called a prospect. The vast extent of the salle lent an air of magic to the whole scene. Slight, delicate beings, seemed to be floating beneath us at a distance that reduced their forms to the imaginary size of fairies; while the low, softened music aided in the deception. I never witnessed a similar effect at any other fete. Even the glimpses that were here and there caught of the gloomy recesses, in which artillery had formerly frowned, assisted in lending the spectacle a character of its own. The side curtains of the canopy were raised for the admission of air, and one had only to turn his eyes from the dazzling fairy scene within, to look out upon the broad, placid, star-lit bay, which washed the foot of the fortress. I lingered on this spot near an hour, experiencing, an unsocial delight that may seem to savour of the humour of our fraternity, especially when one remembers the numberless temptations to descend which were flitting like beings of the air before my eyes. But a crowd of sensations and reflections oppressed me.
Again and again I asked myself the question, if I what I saw were true, and if I really were standing on the continent of Columbus. Could those fair, graceful creatures be the daughters and wives of the mechanics and tradesmen of a provincial town in North America? Perhaps, dear Bethizy, it was assailing me in my weakest par t; but I do not remember, before or since, ever to have been so alive to the injustice of our superficial and vague notions of this country, as while I stood gazing down on some two or three thousand of its daughters, who were not only attending but actually adorning such a scene as this. Most of them certainly would have been abashed, perhaps gauche, if transported into one of our highly artificial coteries; but, believe me, the lost laboured refinement of Europe might have learned, in this identical, motley, republican assemblage, that there is a secret charm in nature, which it may be sometimes dangerous to attempt to supersede.
BEARGRASS CREEK, KENTUCKY. Fourth of July Barbecue.
Columbia's sons and daughters seemed to have grown younger that morning. For a whole week or more, many servants and some masters had been busily engaged in clearing an area. The undergrowth had been carefully cut down, the low boughs lopped off, and the grass alone, verdant and gay, remained to carpet the sylvan pavilion. Now the waggons were seen slowly moving along under their load of provisions, which had been prepared for the common benefit. Each denizen had freely given his ox, his ham, his venison, his turkeys, and other fowls. Here were to be seen flagons of every beverage used in the country; "La belle Riviere" had opened her finny stores; the melons of all sorts, peaches, plums and pears, would have sufficed to stock a market. In a word, Kentucky, the land of abundance, had supplied a feast for her children.
A purling stream gave its water freely, while the grateful breezes cooled the air. Columns of smoke from the newly kindled fires rose above the trees; fifty cooks or more moved to and fro as they plied their trade; waiters of all qualities were disposing the dishes, the glasses, and the punch-bowls, amid vases filled with rich wines. "Old Monongahela" filled many a barrel for the crowd. And now, the roasted viands perfume the air, and all appearances conspire to predict the speedy commencement of a banquet such as may suit the vigorous appetite of American woodsmen. Every steward is at his post, ready to receive the joyous groups that at this moment begin to emerge from the dark recesses of the woods.
Each comely fair one, clad in pure white, is seen advancing under the protection of her sturdy lover, the neighing of their prancing steeds proclaiming how proud they are of their burdens. The youthful riders leap from their seats, and the horses are speedily secured by twisting their bridles round a branch. As the youth of Kentucky lightly and gaily advanced towards the Barbecue, they resembled a procession of nymphs and disguised divinities. Fathers and mothers smiled upon them, as they followed the brilliant cortege.
In a short time the ground was alive with merriment. A great wooden cannon, bound with iron hoops, was now crammed with home-made powder; fire was conveyed to it by means of a train, and as the explosion burst forth, thousands of hearty huzzas mingled with its echoes. From the most learned a good oration fell in proud and gladdening words on every ear, and although it probably did not equal the eloquence of a Clay, an Everett, a Webster, or a Preston, it served to remind every Kentuckian present of the glorious name, the patriotism, the courage, and the virtue, of our immortal Washington. Fifes and drums sounded the march which had ever led him to glory; and as they changed to our celebrated "Yankee Doodle," the air again rang with acclamations.
Now the stewards invited the assembled throng to the feast. The fair led the van, and were first placed around the tables, which groaned under the profusion of the best productions of the country that had been heaped upon them. On each lovely nymph attended her gay beau, who in her chance or sidelong glances ever watched an opportunity of reading his happiness. How the viands diminished under the action of so many agents of destruction I need not say, nor is it noccessary that you should listen to the long recital. Many a national toast was offered and accepted, many speeches were delivered, and many essayed in amicable reply. The ladies then retired to booths that had been erected at a little distance, to which they were conducted by their partners, who returned to the table, and having thus cleared for action, recommenced a series of hearty rounds. However, as Kentuckians are neither slow nor long at their meals, all were in a few minutes replenished, and after a few more draughts from the bowl, they rejoined the ladies, and prepared for the dance.
Double lines of a hundred fair ones extended along the ground in the most shady part of the woods, while here and there smaller groups awaited the merry trills of reels and eotillons. A burst of music from violins, clarionets, and bugles, gave the welcome notice, and presently the whole assemblage seemed to be gracefully moving through the air. The "hunting-shirts" now joined in the dance, their fringed skirts keeping time with the gowns of the ladies, and the married people of either sex stepped in and mixed with their children. Every countenance beamed with joy, every heart leaped with gladness; no pride, no pomp, no affectation, were there; their spirits brightened as they continued their exhilarating exercise, and care and sorrow were flung to the winds. During each interval of rest, refreshments of all sorts were handed round, and while the fair one cooled her lips with the grateful juice of the melon, the hunter of Kentucky quenched his thirst with ample draughts of well-tempered punch.
I know, reader, that had you been with me on that day, you would have richly enjoyed the sight of this national fete champetre. You would have listened with pleasure to the ingenious tale of the lover, the wise talk of the elder on the affairs of the state, the accounts of improvement in stock and utensils, and the hopes of continued prosperity to the country at large, and to Kentucky in particular. You would have been pleased to see those who did not join the dance, shooting at distant marks with their heavy rifles, or watched how they shewed off the superior speed of their high bred "old Virginia" horses, while others recounted their hunting-exploits, and at intervals made the woods ring with their bursts of laughter. With me the time sped like an arrow in its flight, and although more than twenty years have elapsed since I joined a Kentucky Barbecue, my spirit is refreshed every 4th of July by the recollection of that day's merriment.
NEW YORK CITY. May 19, 1828. Evening Ball
We did not come home from Mr. Hone's till nearly one o'clock. We went at half past nine and found a terribly formal circle of ladies and a group of gentlemen in the middle of the room. There were two large rooms open, communicating by folding doors and handsomely furnished and lighted. Quadrilles were danced in both rooms, the same set with very slight variation that is danced in Edinburgh. I danced once, for it would be thought quite strange here that any married lady should decline dancing. They marry so very young, generally about sixteen or seventeen, that they would have no enjoyment at all if they ceased to dance on that account. Between the dances we had a song or two from a Madame Mallibran. She was a Madame Garcia and is here thought the most surprising singer that ever was heard. I should think that in London she would be considered third, fourth, or fifth rate. And the most disagreeable part of the manners of the Americans is that you are called upon to admire and be surprised to such a degree that by the time I came home, I was perfectly worn out. Another thing, too, which is very puzzling is the constant appeal that is made whether manners and society are not exactly the same as those in London. What can I say? I can't tell people who are doing their best to amuse and please me that they are not within a hundred degrees of the polish and refinement of English society; the very question shows their deficiency, for what can be more ill-bred than to ask anyone what they think of yourself, and it is, in fact, neither more nor less. I am extremely interested by seeing and hearing the progress of their institutions, their desire to acquire knowledge, and the quiet, sensible, and at the same time enthusiastic conversation of clever men upon the state of the country, and the many improvements, but when they come to light ballroom conversation nothing can be so ponderous, and, as for an attempt at a joke, the weight of it is enough to crush you to atoms. The women do not bear the test of evening dress. They have no air, and, tho' they have plenty of good clothes on, the taste is not good. There was too great a mixture of flowers and pearls and different kinds of ornaments in the hair. They hold themselves ill, I saw but one person who danced well.
ALBANY, NEW YORK. September 15, 1827. Separation of Women and Men during Evening Entertainments
I do not remember whether I have described to you at any time the extreme stiffness of an American party, at least as far as we had an opportunity of judging. We were last night at one at Mrs. Clinton's Mr. Clinton, you know, is Governor of this State of which this place is the capital. Consequently the specimen we had may be clearly reckoned a sample of quite the haut ton of this part of the Union. We were invited to tea and went at eight o'clock. On entering the first drawing room both Basil and I started back, for we saw none but gentlemen, not a single lady, and we thought there must be some mistake in asking us in theree but in a moment the Governor came forward and giving me his arm hurried me into the adjoining room at the top of which sat Mrs Clinton who placed me on the seat next to herself. Round the room were placed as many chairs as could be crammed in and a lady upon each, a most formidable circle, and I had to go through the not less formidable ordeal of an introduction to at least a dozen of those who were nearest me. In the course of the evening the gentlemen did venture into the room and stood for a short time talking to one or other of the ladies, but there was seldom a chair vacant for any of the males to seat themselves upon, and altho' occasionally the ladies had courage to cross the room and change places with each other I never saw any lady standing during the whole evening, and the Mistress of the House alone seemed to enjoy the privilege of moving at her ease about the rooms. We had abundance of refreshments with several editions of tea and cake, then came two servants, one with a tray full of beautiful, china plates of which he gave each lady one, another man followed bearing a tray covered with dishes of peaches and grapes which were in like manner handed round, then followed another course of plates and in their rear a magnificent pyramid of ice, supported on each side by preserved pineapple and other sweetmeats. Then came wine, and again more plates and more ice. In short, Mrs. Clinton seemed to be of the opinion of a lady of whom I have been told by some of my friends at home, that the easiest way to entertain her guests was to keep thcm eating. I was introduced to many persons during the course of the evening, the Chancellor of the State of New York, and Mr. Van Buren, one of the most eminent men in this State.
WASHINGTON. January 3, 1828. The Custom of Calling Cards; Inadequacy of Evening Entertainment.
I have been out since I began to write. Miss Baker took me in her carriage to return some visits, fortunately at Washington it is the custom to leave cards instead of going in; many persons even send round their cards by their servants. Anything is better than having to go into every house and say the same thing twenty times over, and here where the distances are so great and the visits are so numerous, one's whole time would be taken up in this most uninteresting and profitless occupation.
The hours at Washington are particularly well-suited to the style of life. Dinner is at five universally, and there is no sitting after dinner, so that by half past seven everybody is ready to go to the evening party wherever it may chance to be, and there are few evenings without one. They, again, are over by half past ten or eleven. Dancing is the universal amusement, with a couple of whist tables in the corner for those who are so disposed, of whom Mr. Vaughan is always one. A change since you and I knew him! The parties, to judge by the two I have been at, are of the most shabby description, small, ill-lighted rooms and bad, dirty-looking refreshments, carried through the crowded dancers by nasty black boys, on old japanned trays, to the great detriment, I doubt not, of the ladies' dresses. The music, too, is defective; in short, nothing could be worse in all respects. I hope we shall find things better arranged at the Dutch Minister's, where we go to-night.
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA. March 2, 1826. Absence of Women at Dinner Parties.
Yesterday we had another stroll about the town which I admire the more I see of it, and when the trees which ornament the side of the streets are quite out the effect must be very pretty. It is a remarkably cheerful looking place, Charleston. The dinner at Mr. Pettigrew's consisted of thirteen gentlemen and three ladies, Mrs. Pettigrew, Mrs. Nott, who is living in the house, and myself, the others were all gentlemen without their wives, according to the fashion of the place and of many other places in the Union. Women are just looked upon as house-keepers in this country, and as such are allowed to preside at the head of their own table, that they may see that all goes right.
CINCINNATI, OHIO. 1828. Inadequacy of Evening Entertainments.
Had I passed as many evenings in company in any other town that I ever visited as I did in Cincinnati, I should have been able to give some little account of the conversations I had listened to; but, upon reading over my notes, and then taxing my memory to the utmost to supply the deficiency, I can scarcely find a trace of any thing that deserves the name. Such as I have, shall be given in their place. But, whatever may be the talents of the persons who meet together in society, the very shape, form, and arrangement of the meeting is sufficient to paralyze conversation. The women invariably herd together at one part of the room, and the men at the other; but, in justice to Cincinnati, I must acknowledge that this arrangement is by no means peculiar to that city, or to the western side of the Alleghanies. Sometimes a small attempt at music produces a partial reunion; a few of the most daring youths, animated by the consciousness of curled hair and smart waistcoats, approach the piano-forte, and begin to mutter a little to the half-grown pretty things, who are comparing with one another "how many quarters' music they have had." Where the mansion is of sufficient dignity to have two drawing-rooms, the piano, the little ladies, and the slender gentlemen are left to themselves, and on such occasions the sound of laughter is often heard to issue from among them. But the fate of the more dignified personages, who are left in the other room, is extremely dismal.
The gentlemen spit, talk of elections and the price of produce, and spit again. The ladies look at each other's dresses till they know every pin by heart; talk of Parson Somebody's last sermon on the day of judgment, on Dr. T'otherbody's new pills for dyspepsia, till the "tea" is announced, when they all console themselves together for whatever they may have suffered in keeping awake, by taking more tea, coffee, hot cake and custard, hoe cake, johnny cake, waffle cake, and dodger cake, pickled peaches, and preserved cucumbers, ham, turkey, hung beef, apple sauce, and pickled oysters, than ever were prepared in any other coun- try of the known world. After this massive meal is over, they return to the drawing-room, and it always appeared to me that they remained together as long as they could bear it, and then they rise en masse, cloak, bonnet, shawl, and exit.
CINCINNATI, OHIO. 1828. Absence of Amusements
I never saw any people who appeared to live so much without amusement as the Cincinnatians. Billiards are forbidden by law, so are cards. To sell a pack of cards in Ohio subjects the seller to a penalty of fifty dollars. They have no public balls, excepting, I think, six, during the Christmas holidays. They have no concerts. They have no dinner parties.
They have a theatre, which is, in fact, the only public amusement of this triste little town; put they seem to care little about it, and either from economy or distaste, it is very poorly attended. Ladies are rarely seen there, and by far the larger proportion of females deem it an offence against religion to witness the representation of a play. It is in the churches and chapels of the town that the ladies are to be seen in full costume: and I am tempted to believe that a stranger from the continent of Europe would be inclined, on first reconnoitering the city, to suppose that the places of worship were the theatres and cafes of the place. No evening in the week but brings throngs of the young and beautiful to the chapels and meetinghouses, all dressed with care, and sometimes with great pretension; it is there that all display is made, and all fashionable distinction sought. The proportion of gentlemen attending these evening meetings is very small, but often, as might be expected, a sprinkling of smart young clerks make this sedulous display of ribbons and ringlets intelligible and natural. Were it not for the churches, indeed, I think there might be a general bonfire of best bonnets, for I never could discover any other use for them.
The ladies are too actively employed in the interior of their houses to permit much parading in full dress for morning visits. There are no public gardens or lounging shops of fashionable resort, and were it not for public worship, and private tea-drinkings, all the ladies in Cincinnati would be in danger of becoming perfect recluses.
CINCINNATI, OHIO. 1829. Extreme Sense of Propriety of American Women; Separation of the Sexes.At Cincinnati there is a garden where the people go to eat ices, and to look at roses. For the preservation of the flowers, there is placed at the end of one of the walks a sign-post sort of daub, representing a Swiss peasant girl, holding in her hand a scroll, requesting that the roses might not be gathered. Unhappily for the artist, or for the proprietor, or for both, the petticoat of this figure was so short as to show her ankles. The ladies saw, and shuddered; and it was formally intimated to the proprietor, that if he wished for the patronage of the ladies of Cincinnati, he must have the petticoat of this figure lengthened. The affrighted purveyor of ices sent off an express for the artist and his paint pot. He came, but unluckily not provided with any colour that would match the petticoat; the necessity, however, was too urgent for delay, and a flounce of blue was added to the petticoat of red, giving bright and shining evidence before all men, of the immaculate delicacy of the Cincinnati ladies
I confess I was sometimes tempted to suspect that this ultra refinement was not very deep seated. It often appeared to me like the consciousness of grossness, that wanted a veil; but the veil was never gracefully adjusted. Occasionally, indeed, the very same persons who appeared ready to faint at the idea of a statue, would utter some unaccountable sally that was quite startling, and which made me feel that the indelicacy of which we were accused had its limits. The following anecdote is hardly fit to tell, but it explains what I mean too well to be omitted.
A young married lady, of high standing and most fastidious delicacy, who had been brought up at one of the Atlantic seminaries of highest reputation, told me that her house, at the distance of half a mile from a populous city, was unfortunately opposite a mansion of worse than doubtful reputation. "It is abominable", she said, "to see the people that go there; they ought to be exposed. I and another lady, an intimate friend of mine, did make one of them look foolish enough last summer: she was passing the day with me, and while we were sitting at the window, we saw a young man we both knew ride up there; we went into the garden and watched at the gate for him to come back, and when he did, we both stepped out, and I said to him, 'Are you not ashamed, Mr. William D., to ride by my house and back again in that manner ? ' I never saw a man look so foolish. "
In conversing with ladies on the customs and manners of Europe, I remarked a strong propensity to consider every thing as wrong to which they were not accustomed.
I once mentioned to a young lady that I thought a pic-nic party would be very agreeable, and that I would propose it to some of our friends. She agreed that it would be delightful, but she added, " I fear you will not succeed; we are not used to such sort of things here, and I know it is considered very indelicate for a ladies and gentlemen to sit down together on the grass. "
I could multiply anecdotes of this nature; but I think these sufficient to give an accurate idea of the tone of manners in this particular, and I trust to justify the observations I have made.
CINCINNATI, OHIO. February 22, 1829. Birthday Ball; American Sense of Aristocracy; Effect on American Manners of the Separation of the Sexes.
In noting the various brilliant events which diversified our residence in the western metropolis, I have omitted to mention the Birth-day Ball, as it is called, a festivity which, I believe, has place on the 22nd of February, in every town and city throughout the Union. It is the anniversary of the birth of General Washington, and well deserves to be marked by the Americans as a day of jubilee.
I was really astonished at the coup d' oeil on entering, for I saw a large room filled with extremely well-dressed company, among whom were many very beautiful girls. The gentlemen also were exceedingly smart, but I had not yet been long enough in Western America not to feel startled at recognising in almost every full-dressed beau that passed me, the master or shopman that I had been used to see behind the counter, or lolling at the door of every shop in the city. The fairest and finest belles smiled and smirked on them with as much zeal and satisfaction as I ever saw bestowed on an eldest son, and I therefore could feel no doubt of their being considered as of the highest rank. Yet it must not be supposed that there is no distinction of classes; at this same ball I was looking among the many very beautiful girls I saw there for one more beautiful still, with whose lovely face I had been particularly struck at the school examination I have mentioned. I could not find her, and asked a gentleman why the beautiful Miss C. was not there.
" You do not yet understand our aristocracy," he replied, "the family of Miss C. are mechanics."
"But the young lady has been educated at the same school as these, whom I see here, and I know her brother has a shop in the town, quite as large, and apparently as prosperous, as those belonging to any of these young men. What is the difference ?"
"He is a mechanic: he assists in making the articles he sells; the others call themselves merchants."
The dancing was not quite like, yet not very unlike what we see at an assize or race ball in a country town. They call their dances cotillons instead of quadrilles, and the figures are called from the orchestra in English, which has a very ludicrous effect on European ears.
The arrangements for the supper were very singular, but eminently characteristic of the country. The gentlemen had a splendid entertainment spread for them in another large room of the hotel, while the poor ladies had each a plate put into their hands, as they pensively promenaded the ball-room during their absence; and shortly afterwards servants appeared, bearing trays of sweetmeats, cakes, and creams. The fair creatures then sat down on a row of chairs placed round the walls, and each making a table of her knees, began eating her sweet, but sad and sulky repast. The effect was extremely comic; their gala-dresses and the decorated room forming a contrast the most unaccountable with their uncomfortable and forlorn condition.
This arrangement was owing neither to economy nor want of a room large enough to accommodate the whole party, but purely because the gentlemen liked it better. This was the answer given me, when my curiosity tempted me to ask why the ladies and gentlemen did not sup together; and this was the answer repeated to me afterwards by a variety of people to whom I put the same question.
I am led to mention this feature of American manners very frequently, not only because it constantly recurs, but because I consider it as being in a great degree the cause of that universal deficiency in good manners and graceful demeanour, both in men and women, which is so remarkable.
Where there is no court, which every where else is the glass wherein the higher orders dress themselves, and which again reflected from them to the classes below, goes far towards polishing, in some degree, a great majority of the population, it is not to be expected that manner should be made so much a study, or should attain an equal degree of elegance; but the deficiency, and the total difference, is greater than this cause alone could account for. The hours of enjoyment are important to human beings every where, and we every where find them preparing to make the most of them. Those who enjoy themselves only in society, whether intellectual or convivial, prepare themselves for it, and such make but a poor figure when forced to be content with the sweets of solitude; while, on the other hand, those to whom retirement affords the greatest pleasure, seldom give or receive much in society. Wherever the highest enjoyment is found by both sexes, in scenes where they meet each other, both will prepare themselves to appear with advantage there. The men will not indulge in the luxury of chewing tobacco, or even of spitting, and the women will contrive to be capable of holding a higher post than that of unwearied tea-makers.
In America, with the exception of dancing, which is almost wholly confined to the unmarried of both sexes, all the enjoyments of the men are found in the absence of the women. They dine, they play cards, they have musical meetings, they have suppers, all in large parties, but all without women. Were it not that such is the custom, it is impossible but that they would have ingenuity enough to find some expedient for sparing the wives and daughters of the opulent the sordid offices of household drudgery, which they almost all perform in their families.
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA. August 1830. On the Civilizing Influence of Literature
I conceive that no place in the known world can furnish so striking a proof of the immense value of literary habits as the United States, not only in enlarging the mind, but what is of infinitely more importance, in purifying the manners. During my abode in the country I not only never met a literary man who was a tobacco chewer or a whiskey drinker, but I never met any who were not, that had escaped these degrading habits. On the women, the influence is, if possible, still more important; unfortunately, the instances are rare, but they are to be found. One admirable example occurs in the person of a young lady of Cincinnati: surrounded by a society totally incapable of appreciating, or even of comprehending her, she holds a place among it, as simply and unaffectedly as if of the same species; young, beautiful, and gifted by nature with a mind singularly acute and discriminating, she has happily found such opportunities of cultivation as might distinguish her in any country; it is, indeed, that best of all cultivation which is only to be found in domestic habits of literature, and in that hourly education which the daughter of a man of letters receives when she is made the companion and friend of her father. This young lady is the more admirable as she contrives to unite all the multifarious duties which usually devolve upon American ladies, with her intellectual pursuits. The companion and efficient assistant of her father's literary labours, the active aid in all the household cares of her mother, the tender nurse of a delicate infant sister, the skilful artificer of her own always elegant wardrobe, ever at leisure, and ever prepared to receive with the sweetest cheerfulness her numerous acquaintance, the most animated in conversation, the most indefatigable in occupation, it was impossible to know her, and study her character, without feeling that such women were "the glory of all lands," and, could the race be multiplied, would speedily become the reformers of all the grossness and ignorance that now degrade her own. Is it to be imagined, that if fifty modifications of this charming young woman were to be met at a party, the men would dare to enter it reeking with whiskey, their lips blackened with tobacco, and convinced, to the very centre of their hearts and souls, that women were made for no other purpose than to fabricate sweetmeats and gingerbread, construct shirts, darn stockings, and become mothers of possible presidents? Assuredly not. Should the women of America ever discover what their power might be, and compare it with what it is, much improvement might be hoped for.
WASHINGTON. Spring 1831. Separation of the Sexes; Inadequacy of Amusements
Mixed dinner parties of ladies and gentlemen are very rare, and unless several foreigners are present, but little conversation passes at table. It certainly does not, in my opinion, add to the well ordering a dinner table, to set the gentlemen at one end of it, and the ladies at the other; but it is very rarely that you find it otherwise.
Their large evening parties are supremely dull; the men sometimes play cards by themselves, but if a lady plays, it must not be for money; no ecarte, no chess; very little music, and that little lamentably bad. Among the blacks I heard some good voices, singing in tune; but I scarcely ever heard a white American, male or female, go through an air without being out of tune before the end of it; nor did I ever meet any trace of science in the singing I heard in society. To eat inconceivable quantities of cake, ice, and pickled oysters; and to show half their revenue in silks and satins, seem to be the chief object they have in these parties.
The most agreeable meetings, I was assured by all the young people, were those to which no married women are admitted; of the truth of this statement I have not the least doubt. These exclusive meetings occur frequently, and often last to a late hour; on these occasions, I believe, they generally dance. At regular balls married ladies are admitted, but seldom take much part in the amusement. The refreshments are always profuse and costly, but taken in a most uncomfortable manner. I have known many private balls, where every thing was on the most liberal scale of expense, where the gentlemen sat down to supper in one room, while the ladies took theirs, standing, in another.
What we call pic-nics are very rare, and when attempted, do not often succeed well. The two sexes can hardly mix for the greater part of a day without great restraint and ennui; it is quite contrary to their general habits; the favourite indulgences of the gentlemen (smoking cigars and drinking spirits) can neither be indulged in with decency, nor resigned with complacency.
NEW YORK CITY. Spring 1831. Sunday Amusements for Gentlemen; Effect of Religion on Females.
On the opposite side of the North River, about three miles higher up, is a place called Hoboken. A gentleman who possessed a handsome mansion and grounds there, also possessed the right of ferry, and to render this productive, he has restricted his pleasure-grounds to a few beautiful acres, laying out the remainder simply and tastefully as a public walk. It is hardly possible to imagine one of greater attraction; a broad belt of light underwood and flowering shrubs, studded at intervals with lofty forest trees, runs for two miles along a cliff which overhangs the matchless Hudson; sometimes it feathers the rocks down to its very margin, and at others leaves a pebbly shore, just rude enough to break the gentle waves, and make a music which mimics softly the loud chorus of the ocean. Through this beautiful little wood a broad well-gravelled terrace is led by every point which can exhibit the scenery to advantage; narrower and wider paths diverge at intervals, some into the deeper shadow of the woods, and some shelving gradually to the pretty coves below.
The price of entrance to this little Eden, is the six cents you pay at the ferry. We went there on a bright Sunday afternoon, expressly to see the humours of the place. Many thousand persons were scattered through the grounds; of these we ascertained, by repeatedly counting, that nineteen-twentieths were men. The ladies were at church. Often as the subject has pressed upon my mind, I think I never so strongly felt the conviction that the Sabbathday, the holy day, the day on which alone the great majority of the Christian world can spend their hours as they please, is ill passed, (if passed entirely) within brick walls, listening to an earth-born preacher, charm he never so wisely.
"Oh! how can they renounce the boundless
Of charms, which Nature to her vottries yields!
The warbling woodland, the resounding shore,
The pomp of groves, and garniture of fields,
All that the genial ray of morning gilds,
And all that echoes to the song of even,
All that the mountain's sheltering bosom yields,
And all the dread magnificence of heaven;
Oh ! how can they renounce, and hope to be forgiven !"
How is it that the men of America, who are reckoned good husbands and good fathers, while they themselves enjoy sufficient freedom of spirit to permit their walking forth into the temple of the living God, can leave those they love best on earth, bound in the iron chains of a most tyrannical fanaticism? How can they breathe the balmy air, and not think of the tainted atmosphere so heavily weighing upon breasts stil dearer than their own? How can they gaze upon the blossoms of the spring, and not remember the fairer cheeks of their young daughters, waxing pale, as they sit for long sultry hours, immured with hundreds of fellow victims, listening to the roaring vanities of a preacher, canonized by a college of old women? They cannot think it needful to salvation, or they would not withdraw themselves. Wherefore is it? Do they fear these self-elected, self-ordained priests, and offer up their wives and daughters to propitiate them? Or do they deem their hebdomadal freedom more complete, because their wives and daughters are shut up four or five times in the day at church or chapel? Is it true, that at Hoboken, as every where else, there are reposoires, which as you pass them, blast the sense for a moment, by reeking forth the fumes of whiskey and tobacco, and it may be that these cannot be entered with a wife or daughter. The proprietor of the grounds, however, has contrived with great taste to render these abominations not unpleasing to the eye; there is one in particular, which has quite the air of a Grecian temple, and did they drink wine instead of whiskey, it might be inscribed to Bacchus.
BALTIMORE, MARYLAND. Summer 1831. Strawberry Party
The environs of Baltimore are exceedingly pretty: almost every eminence is crowned with a country house, surrounded by gardens and pleasure grounds richly wooded, and laid out to the best advantage, so as generally to afford a peep through the trees at some part of the Patapsco, or the Chesapeake. They are admirably adapted for a fete champetre, or a strawberry party, as it is called at Baltimore. I had the honour of an invitation to the only one that was given during my stay in that city. The company assembled about six o'clock. Quadrilles and waltzes were kept up with great spirit, first on the lawn, and then in the house till about eleven. In the mean time strawberries and cream, ices, pine apples, and champagne, were served up in the greatest profusion.
NEW YORK CITY. May 14, 1831. Tocqueville's letter to his mother,concerning the visiting practices of Americans.
For instance, we were utterly astounded the first day to see the women come to breakfast at eight o'clock in the morning carefully dressed for the whole day. It's the same, we are told, in all the private houses. One can with great propriety call on a lady at nine o'clock in the morning.
NEW YORK. Country Estate of Mr. Prime. June 15, 1831. Musical Entertainments at a Wedding Reception.
The only thing overdone was the music. Don't take me for a barbarian. It was de trop because it resembled what one hears in the booths at a fair. This people is, without contradiction, the most unhappily organized, in matter of harmony, that it's possible to imagine. If only they realized the truth. But they are a hundred leagues from suspecting it. We spend our life enduring howling of which one has no conception in the old world. What the young ladies who regale us with this musique miaulante affect most are its difficult passages. And I answer for it that if their object is to produce contrasting and discordant sounds, it would be impossible to succeed better and very hard to carry the thing any further. Aside from the fact that one is never sure that the air is finished, it ends always like a book whose last page has been torn out. I used to think the singer had stopped short, and I would always listen instead of applauding. You must think that I speak of this subject with a sort of indignation; but note that besides the displeasure which detestable music causes, however little one has heard of good, there is always the feeling of moral violence to which one is subjected in being forced to listen, willy-nilly, and to appear pleased as well.
The other day, a propos of that, I had an amusing misadventure. We were at the house of a lady who set out to sing us a national song [Yankee Doodle, perhaps] whose air and words are comical. After the first couplet they laughed, myself with the rest of them. It was a way of applauding. The second couplet begins and I start thinking of something else, so profoundly that I soon am a total stranger to my surroundings. In the middle of my aerial voyage I hear the tune ending. I remember that one must laugh and I laugh, quite loudly even. At this explosion of gaiety every one looks at me, and I am confounded to learn that the comic song whose beginning I had heard had ended five minutes before, and that the song which had just put me into such a cheerful mood was the most plaintive, the most tearful, in short the most chromatic, of the whole American repertory.
NEW YORK CITY. May 26, 1831. Letter describing the Social Acitivities of New Yorkers.
Evenings we go out into society. We see several American families fairly often, particularly that of Mr. Prime, our banker. He is the richest business man in New-York. He has a tall daughter, dry and homely, an excellent person, who is a good musician [Mathilda Prime]. We play charming duos of flute and piano, which amuses me a good deal...We also see the Jones family allied to the Shermerhall [Schermerhorns] with whom we were on the vessel which brought us to America. There are also in this house some very attractive girls, but without beauty, and rich rather than seductive..
We are received with infinite kindness in the Livingston family. Mr. Edward Livingston is at this moment Prime Minister of the United States. His family is very numerous. I see particularly his nephew John Livingston, for whom Montebello had given me a letter. Mrs. John Livingston is a charming woman, as attractive as can be, and flirtatious as well. But I do not know and shall never know myself if her coquetry goes further. We are to go together in several days to visit the military school of West-Point, which is only a few miles from New-York.
There are, finally, some very attractive women in the Cruyere [Schuyler? Grier?] , Duer families, etc. etc., where we go when we have the time.
If we went into society with intentions of pleasure or seduction, we could regard as lost the time we pass in these families. But as our resolutions are entirely opposed to this result, we find only profit in it. SING SING, NEW YORK. June 6, 1831. Deplorable lack of musicianship of American Women.
Staying in town at a boarding house, Beaumont wrote this as a pseudo-legal document or affadavit, 6 June 1831:
The said Sir Alexis, formerly reproachable for too cool and reserved an air of society, too much indifference toward those he didn't like, and a silent and calm attitude too near to dignity, has accomplished a complete reform in his manners. He is now seen to be affable and agreeable toward every one, kind to old ladies as to young, and putting himself out to entertain even those whose face he doesn't like. Is an example of this necessary? The fifth of June in an overwhelming heat, we found ourselves at Sing-Sing in the parlour of a respectable woman (more respectable perhaps than she of whom Brantome spoke and Descessars reminded us on the eve of our departure). This lady, who numbers about 45 springs, is passionately fond of music, an unhappy passion if ever there was one. To our misfortune, she sits down at the piano, she begins an infernal music which she continues two mortal hours, singing, crying, howling as if she were possessed of the devil. Traitor to my habits, I was in a corner succumbing to ennui and without strength to dissimulate.
What was Alexis doing at this moment? Seated near the piano with a smiling face, he was approving, applauding each tirade, and pouring the balm of satisfaction on the soul of our virtuosa, avid for praise without measure. He really had the air of enjoying himself, and the expression of happiness was painted on his face! And yet that woman was ugly, old, and a detestable musician!! There's the man!
NEW YORK. June 1831. Escape from New York Society: Beaumont's letter
[Our] tour to Niagara and Canada will be a little pleasure tour which will recompense us for the boredom of the towns. After having suffered all that civilization can produce that is most fatiguing and boring, we shall find a certain charm in this excursion into lands which are still wild and where nature has preserved her primitive beauty. I am tired of men, and above all of Americans. I have kept too far away from American women to know if they are attractive, so it's with a true feeling of happiness that I leave them and their cities behind to go into parts where I have many chances of not meeting them. I say chances because I am not certain of my fact. Niagara draws a great crowd, especially at this season, and there are a few of our devoted friends who threaten to rejoin us. We should even be certain to find ourselves among them if we hadn't taken the course of misleading them as to our route.
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA. October 1831. Beaumont's time as a guest of Robert Walsh; Balls and Music
At frequent intervals he gives small soirees, where we did some fine waltzing, I promise you. They play at his house some very good music, which would I am sure compare very well with the music of Gallerande. At the last concert I heard an Englishwoman, Miss Sterling, who is d'une tres grande force on the piano. Anne Walsh, the younger [of the daughters] sings marvellously; she was a real success in the duo, Amour sacre de la Patrie, which she sang with Mr. Dirigi, a little Italian who is not wanting in talent but who, because of his affectation and his grimaces, makes one die laughing...
Many of my evenings have been spent in small gatherings, simple, not very brilliant, but very agreeable. Don't expect of me a description of moeurs, that would be to enter upon a path without end; all that I can say is that this society is very happy. The women practise an unrestrained coquetry. But all the world agrees in acknowledging that they stop there. Among the husbands, there are some who are amiable enough to deserve their good fortune; but in general they are much more happy, and much better treated by their wives, than their qualities give them a right to be. The fact is that, with the exception of a small circle of literary men whose civilized ways and European manners quite recall our most agreeable salons, it can be said that at Philadelphia, as in all the other cities of the United States, the American men are occupied with but one single thing, their business.
CHAPTER 5: MARIE. Literary Habits of American Women; Musical Ability of American Women.
Nelson was in the habit of commencing the evening by asking his daughter if any new books had come out; for, in the United States, men read nothing; they haven't the time; the women are charged with this duty, and they report on all the political and literary publications to either their fathers or their husbands, and so inform them that they may discuss these works as if they knew them. Then Nelson would request his daughter to play some music.
The young girl showed some embarrassment at my presence; however, since her father never listened to her playing, she assumed I would be no more attentive. Now, generally, in American drawing rooms, when the music begins it is a signal for conversation. I admit that at first I had very little curiosity about how Marie would perform. Most American girls are automatons at the piano; they take lessons for three months and memorize one waltz and one contradance; when one asks them to play, they rush to the piano and, without any warming up, dash therough their little repertory like children who know a story and babble it to all comers without understanding a word.
All the women in this country learn music, but hardly one has a feeling for it; they do this because it is fashionable, not because they like it...
[Marie] united in her person all that was seductive in American women, with none of the faults which overshadow the light of their good qualities. One would have thought her a European girl, with ardent passions, a lively imagination, with Italian sensuousness and a French heart; and this girl, American by reason of her mind, lived in the midst of a moral and religious world!
PLYMOUTH, MASSACHUSETTS. Winter 1835. Favorable Appraisal of Manners at the Pilgrim Ball. The dinner being over, the gentlemen returned to their several abodes, to escort the ladies to the ball in Pilgrim Hall. I went, with a party of seven others, in a stage coach, every carriage, native and exotic, being in requisition to fill the ballroom, from which no one was excluded. It was the only in-door festival, except the President's levee, where I witnessed an absolutely general admission and its aspect and conduct were, in the highest degree, creditable to the intelligence and manners of the community. There were families from the islands in the bay, and other country residences, whence the inhabitants seldom emerge, except for this festival. The dress of some of the young ladies was peculiar, and their glee was very visible; but I saw absolutely no vulgarity. There was much beauty, and much elegance among the young ladies, and the manners of their parents were unexceptionable. There was evidence in the dancing, of the "intensity" of which we had heard so much in the morning. The lads and lasses looked as if they meant never to tire; but this enjoyment of the exercise pleased me much more than the affectation of dancing, which is now fashionable in the large cities. I never expect to see a more joyous and unexceptionable piece of festivity than the Pilgrim ball of 1835.
ELBRIDGE, NEW YORK. Fall 1834. Lifestyle of the Wealthy contrasted wtih Entertainments in the Villages.
The manners of the wealthy classes depend, of course, upon the character of their objects and interests: but they are not, on the whole, so agreeable as those of their less opulent neighbours. The restless ostentation of such as live for grandeur and show is vulgar; as I have said, the only vulgarity to be seen in the country. Nothing can exceed the display of it at watering-places. At Rockaway, on Long Island, I saw in one large room, while the company was waiting, for dinner, a number of groups which would have made a good year's income for a clever caricaturist. If any lady, with an eye and a pencil adequate to the occasion, would sketch the phenomena of affectation that might be seen in one day in the piazza and drawing-room at Rockaway, she might be a useful censor of manners. But the task would be too full of sorrow and shame for any one with the true republican spirit. for my own part, I felt bewildered in such company. It was as if I had been set down on a kind of debatable land between the wholly imaginary society of the so called fashionable novels of late years, and the broad sketches of citizen-life given by Madame D'Arblay. It was like nothing real. When I saw the young ladies tricked out in the most expensive finery, flirting over the backgammon-board, tripping affectedly across the room, languishing with a seventy-dollar cambric handkerchief, starting up in ecstasy at the entrance of a baby; the mothers as busy with affectations of another kind; and the brothers sidling hither and thither, now with assiduity, and now with nonchalance; and no one imparting the refreshment of a natural countenance, movement, or tone, I almost doubted whether I was awake. The village scenes that I had witnessed rose up in strong contrast; the mirthful wedding, the wagon-drives, the offerings of wildflowers to the stranger; the unintermitting, simple courtesy of each to all; and it was scarcely credible that these contrasting scenes could both be existing in the same republic...
NIAGARA FALLS. August 1837. Outdoor Amusements in America.
The game of nine-pins is a favourite game in America, and very superior to what it is in England. In America.; the ground is always covered properly over, and the balls are rolled upon a wooden floor, as correctly levelled as a billiard table. The ladies join in the game, which here becomes an agreeable and not too fatiguing exercise. I was very fond of frequenting their alleys, not only for the exercise, but because among the various ways of estimating character, I had made up my mind that there was none more likely to be correct, than the estimate formed by the manner in which people roll the balls, especially the ladies. There were some very delightful specimens of American females when I was this time at Niagara. We sauntered about the falls and wood in the day time, or else played at nine-pins; in the evening we looked at the moon, | | spouted verses, and drank mint juleps. But all that was too pleasant to last long: I felt that I had not come to America to play at nine-pins; so I tore myself away, and within the next twenty-four hours found myself at Toronto, in Upper Canada.
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS. February 1842. Public Meeting Places for Women of Society.
The tone of society in Boston is one of perfect politeness, courtesy, and good breeding. The ladies are unquestionably very beautiful-in face: but there I am compelled to stop. Their education is much as with us; neither better nor worse. I had heard some very marvellous stories in this respect; but not believing them, was not disappointed. Blue ladies there are, in Boston; but like philosophers of that colour and sex in most other latitudes, they rather desire to be thought superior than to be so.
Evangelical ladies there are, likewise, whose attachment to the forms of religion, and horror of theatrical entertainments, are most exemplary. Ladies who have a passion for attending lectures are to be found among all classes and all conditions. In the kind of provincial life which prevails in cities such as this, the Pulpit has great influence. The peculiar province of the Pulpit in New England (always excepting the Unitarian Ministry) would appear to be the denouncement of all innocent and rational amusements. The church, the chapel, and the lecture-room, are the only means of excitement excepted; and to the church, the chapel, and the lecture-room, the ladies resort in crowds.
NEW YORK CITY. Spring 1842. A Coloured Ball at Almack's.
Our leader has his hand upon the latch of "Almack's," and calls to us from the bottom of the steps; for the assemblyroom of the Five Point fashionables is approached by a descent. Shall we go in? It is but a moment.
Heyday! the landlady of Almack's thrives! A buxom fat mulatto woman, with sparkling eyes, whose head is daintily ornamented with a handkerchief of many colours. Nor is the landlord much behind her in his finery, being attired in a smart blue jacket, like a ship's steward, with a thick gold ring upon his little finger, and round his neck a gleaming golden watch-guard. How glad he is to see us! What will we please to call for? A dance? It shall be done directly, Sir: "a regular break-down."
The corpulent black fiddler, and his friend who plays the tambourine stamp upon the boarding of the small raised orchestra in which they sit, and play a lively measure. Five or six couples come upon the floor, marshalled by a lively young negro who is the wit of the assembly, and the greatest dancer known. He never leaves off making queer faces, and is the delight of all the rest, who grin from ear to ear incessandy. Among the dancers are two young mulatto girls, with large, black, drooping eyes, and head-gear after the fashion of the hostess, who are as shy, or feign to be, as though they never danced before, and so look down before the visitors, that their partners can see nothing but the long fringed lashes.
But the dance commences. Every gentleman sets as long as he likes to the opposite lady, and the opposite lady to him, and all are so long about it that the sport begins to languish, when suddenly the lively hero dashes in to the rescue. Instantly the fiddler grins, and goes at it tooth and nail; there is new energy in the tambourine; new laughter in the dancers; new smiles in the landlady; new confidence in the landlord; new brightness in the very candles. Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross-cut; snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning in his knees, presenting the backs of his legs in front, spinning about on his toes and heels like nothing but the man's fingers on the tambourine; dancing with two left legs, two right legs, two wooden legs, two wire legs, two spring legs-all sorts of legs and no legs-what is this to him? And in what walk of life, or dance of life, does man ever get such stimulating applause as thunders about him, when, having danced his partner off her feet, and himself too, he finishes by leaping gloriously on the bar-counter, and calling for something to drink, with the chuckle of a million of counterfeit Jim Crows, in one inimitable sound!