It is difficult for us to comprehend both the difficulty and leisure of traveling in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century. Today, we get our two weeks of paid vacation a year, head down the road at 85 miles per hour or board a plane, and arrive at our destination within 24 hours. For the next five days, we chase attractions, hit the ski slopes, or sunbathe until we must repeat our frantic journey back home. Almost everyone can afford to take some sort of yearly excursion, and there are travel options for every budget. We go by bus, car, train or airplane and stay in hotels, motels, campers, tents and hostels.
Over one hundred and sixty years ago, things were quite different. Travel was not for everyone, literally. The upper class and members of the aristocracy went on holiday for months at a time. The working class, for the most part, did not travel. When on the road, travelers would stay in one place for weeks at a time either in a hotel or enjoying the hospitality of a friend or person to which they had a letter of introduction. They did not travel light. Besides lugging trunks filled with gowns and other finery, the aristocratic traveler would often bring along various "extras": a nurse for the children, a secretary, or a cousin or distant relative to act as a pseudo-servant.
Travel was in general more active than it is today. Tourists of all sorts went hiking to scenic points, rode horses from the local stables, and spent endless hours simply walking around the cities. Many of the travelers write about walking five to ten miles a day as if it were nothing. Much of this walking was done going to and from popular sites in the various cities.
Entertainment for the tourist again depended on the purpose of the trip and status of the traveler. The upper-class would attend balls and parties. If a tourist came with letters of introduction, he or she had a ready-made social circle. There would be balls, dinners and parties to attend. Letters of introduction also were the catalyst for the endless ritual of calling. The reception of visitors and paying of visits was a common and often exhausting practice. Without the telephone, there was no other way of giving ones respects but to physically pay a visit. Visits could last from fifteen minutes to hours, with most of the time spent drinking tea, eating cakes, and of course, talking. Conversation was truly an art, comparable to one's ability to play a musical instrument or sing.
Overall, the typical American vacation in the 1830's was considerably slower and more involved than in the 1990's. The travelers had a lot more interaction with the culture of America than a foreign traveler would have now. The slow pace offered more time to reflect on and respond to what they were experiencing. This intimacy and contemplation have produced the many narratives discussed here.
In what manner the travelers saw America had a significant impact on what they saw. The modes of travel in the United States were not only a curiosity in their own rights, but they had an immeasurable effect on how the traveler viewed the New World and his or her temperament. Was it from the sunny deck of a smooth sailing steamboat or from the leaking window of a decrepit stage coach on a bad road west of Cincinnati? Every country looks better when the visitor is comfortable. It is impossible to discern how each travelers mood was affected by each excursion, but some useful generalizations are attempted here.
The very first stop for most of the travelers was at the United States customs house. Most of the travels do not mention this visit, but among the three that do there are very different experiences that lead to the same assumption about America. Phrenologist George Comb was amazed at the civility of the officials toward the individual traveler. Alexander Farkas was equally impressed with the proceedings,
"as we stepped on American soil, no one asked us or any of our travel companions for our passports, not even our names, and our entry drew no special attention. The second was that at the Customhouse the traveler's word of honor was accepted and no one opened his luggage to check whether he had told the truth" (52).Thomas Hamilton, the unimpressable Englishman, did not have such a good experience:
"In New York, you are first required to swear that the specification given of the contents of your boxes is true; and then, as if no reliance were due to your oath the officers proceed to complete a search" (9).Hamilton goes on to explain how the custom's officials have no special uniform or badge. He wants to see the hierarchy and decoration of public employees--"a visible impersonation of the majesty of the law"--as there is in England. Hamilton is not alone in his discomfort with the lack of visible authority and class distinctions in America. Many of the other aristocratic travelers also reflect the same uneasiness with being in a country that does not somehow separate them from the masses.
It would be easy to assume that Hamilton and Farkas had different experiences merely out of chance. They probably did. But, had their experiences been reversed, the writings may not have been much different. Farkas, a fanatical supporter of America, would have perhaps marveled at the equality of the workers and their efficiency in searching his bag, while Hamilton would have found the lack of security in this wild country deplorable. We must keep in mind both what was said and who said it.
Almost all modes of travel were slow and difficult, but the stagecoaches were especially so. Before the railroads opened in the mid to late 1830's, stage was the major means of overland travel. Scheduling times for the various types of stages were constantly changing, and a shift in weather could alter itineraries for weeks. Reservations were rarely made ahead of time, and tourists had to change plans daily to get where they wanted to go.There is little doubt that stagecoach travel was the reason for many of the bad impressions the United States made on travelers. Universally, the travelers complain of the crowded, unventilated coaches and the horrible roughness of the roads. A few of the writers see the reasons behind the uncomfortable conditions while others are content to complain and even poke fun at American ingenuity. The following descriptions are obviously of the same type of coach, but note the different tone of each.
"It was of ponderous proportions, built with timbers, I should think, about the size of those of an ordinary waggon, and was attached by enormous straps to certain massive irons, which nothing in the motion of the carriage could induce the traveller to mistake for springs. The sides of this carriage were simply curtains of leather, which, when the heat of the weather is inconvenient, can be raised to admit a freer ventilation. In winter, however, the advantages of this contrivance are more than apocryphal. The wind penetrates through a hundred small crevices, and with the thermometer below zero, this freedom of circulation is not found to add materially to the pleasures of a journey. The complement of passengers inside was nine...The driver also receives a companion on the box, and the charge for this place is the same as for those in the interior. The whole machine, indeed, was exceedingly clumsy, yet perhaps not more so than was rendered necessary by the barbarous condition of the road on which it travelled...I thought of the impression the whole set-out would be likely to produce on an English road. The flight of an air-balloon would create far less sensation...it might pass without question as the family-coach in which Noah conveyed his establishment to the ark" (Hamilton, 86).
"We jolted up here yesterday at the rate of four hours to thirteen miles and quite fast enough for the safe of one's bones, for such a road for ruts and hoes and all manner of conveniences for shaking poor mortals to pieces I have not travelled over since I crossed the Pyrenees" (Hall, 36).
"Of these coaches! No Englishman can conceive the surpassing clumsiness and wretchedness of these leathern inconveniences. They are shaped something like boats, the sides being merely leathern pieces, removable at pleasure, but which, in bad weather, are buttoned down to protect the inmates from the wet. There are three seats in this machine...And away we went after them, bumping, thumping, jolting, shaking, tossing and tumbling over the wickedest road, I do think, that ever wheel rumbled upon" (Kemble, 51)."
There is no doubt that some of the roads and stages in America were the worst and strangest these Europeans encountered, yet none of these three makes any effort to understand why. The phrenologist George Combe, true to his character, investigates the reasons for the seemingly strange construction of the stage.
It [the stagecoach] is an open landau, but differs considerably from the vehicle of the same name in England. the wheels are wide apart, but slight and narrow in the rim. The body is hung on old fashioned steel upright springs, with leathern straps. It has no windows, but the sides are not paneled, but covered by leathern curtains which let up and down at pleasure...We found it safe, comfortable and exceedingly well adapted to the roads on which we travelled" (Combe, 35).Combe goes on to inquire about the conditions of the roads and finds they are a direct result of the climate, the economics of the area and the policies of a democratic government.
"On talking with a gentleman whom we met about the bad state of the roads, he remarked, 'that they, like everything else in this country, are under the direct control of the people.' The people are chiefly farmers who own their own land, and they have a great aversion to part with their money for any object which is not calculated to give them individually a return of profit...In winter...the roads are covered with snow, and sleighing is then good; in summer they are dry and hard; it is only in spring and fall that they are soft and bad" (Combe, 37).If a consensus had to be reached, it would be that stagecoach travel in the United States was very primitive. However, the writers are getting this impression because they are comparing the roads of America to those of England without taking the extenuating circumstances into account. This constant comparison between two incompatible countries causes the less inquisitive writers to conclude that the United States is in a sorry state. When Combe discovers the political, financial and climatic reasons for the bad roads, he not only finds the answer to his question, but, like Tocqueville, he sees the underlying forces that shape American society.
Steamboat was by most accounts the preferred mode of travel in America. The descriptions of steamboats are as smooth as the river itself. Not only were the steamboats infinitely more comfortable than the stages, they were a wonder of the New World. America had the wide, slow-moving waterways needed for large boat travel and the size and power of these vessels was something that had no companion in Europe. Even hard-to-please Margaret Hall found the big boats to her liking.
"The steam vessel we came in is the most magnificent thing of its kind I have yet seen. The deck is about one hundred and fifty feet long, and below there are excellent cabins, one very large in the centre where the meals are laid out, and at one end is the Ladies' Cabin and the other end the Gentlemen's, all three magnificently furnished and the dinner the best and the most neatly served that I have seen in any hotel in this country" (35).The actress Fanny Kemble also enjoyed the boats but found them to be crowded like so many other places in America.
"The steamboat was very large and commodious as all these conveyances are" (49).
"To an English person, the mere circumstance of being the whole day in a crowd, is a nuisance. As to privacy at any time, or under any circumstances 'tis a thing that enters not into the imagination of an American. They do not seem to comprehend that to be from sunrise to sunset one hundred and fifty people confined in a steamboat, is in itself a great misery..." (78).
For Frederick Gustorf, a lower class traveler, the crowded conditions were much worse, but the mode of travel was still satisfactory. Even after a horrible night in a suffocating room with fifteen bunks, the hearty German proclaims that the "inland transportation facilities of this country are indeed very beautiful" (12).
All of the travelers were impressed at the rate of speed, which could get up to "a remarkable sixteen miles per hour" (Lyell, 22).
According to most of the travelers, accommodations in America were hit or miss. The few major hotels, located in the largest cities, did not measure up to European standards. For most of the upper-class travelers, the first stop off the boat was the American Hotel in New York City. Fanny Kemble writes of it:
"We were recommended to the American Hotel, as the best and most comfortable in New York, and truly the charges were as high as one could have paid at the Clarendon, in the land of comfort and taxation. The rooms were a mixture of French finery and Irish dirt and disorder" (48).Outside of the big cities, the main form of refuge was a family-run inn. The descriptions of inns are many and varied. They range from quaint and comfortable to completely dissatisfactory. Oftentimes, the writer's opinion admittedly reflected the kindness of the owners and not the condition of the accommodation itself.
In the cities, the less expensive lodging came in the form of boarding houses. Frederick Gustorf refers to them as "holes" full of "millions of bedbugs and mosquitoes." Oftentimes he slept only on a dirty matters on the floor along with several other drunken souls, living "like pigs in a stable."
Of all of the travelers, only Charles Lyell and George Combe were fortunate enough to ride on the newly built railroads. The railroads really began to flourish in the east after 1835 and both are astounded by the ease of rail travel. Even with delays, it could easily beat the stagecoach. It would be interesting to see how different the impressions of the pre-1838 writers would have been if they had not spent hundreds of bone-cracking miles in a stagecoach, but had written their accounts in the first class compartment of a train, watching the landscape of the New World slip smoothly by the window.