CASTLE GARDEN, NEW YORK. 1824. Fashion of American Women and its Relationship to Manners and Morality. It has always appeared to me, that manner in a woman bears a strict analogy to dress. A degree of simple, appropriate embellishment serves alike to adorn the graces of person and of demeanour; but the moment a certain line is passed in either, the individual becomes auxiliary to the addition, instead of the addition lending, as it should, a grace to the individual. It is very possible, that, if one woman wears diamonds, another must do the same thing, until a saloon shall be filled with the contents of a jeweller's shop; but, after all, this is rather a contest between bright stones than bright eyes. What man has not looked a thousand times, even at beauty, with indifference, when it has been smothered by such an unnatural alliance; but what man has ever met beauty in its native attractions, without feeling her power influencing his inmost soul? I speak with no dissembled experience when I answer--None!...
The distinguishing feature of American female manners is nature. The fair creatures are extremely graceful if left to exhibit their blandishments in their own way; but it is very evident, that a highly artificial manner in those with whom they associate, produces a blighting influence on the ease of even the most polished among them. They appear to me to shrink sensitively from professions and an exaggeration that form no part of their own politeness; and between ourselves, if they are wise, they will retain the unequalled advantage they now possess in carrying refinement no further than it can be supported by simplicity and truth. They are decidedly handsome: a union of beauty in feature and form, being, I think, more common than in any part of Europe north of the Adriatic. In general they are delicate; a certain feminine air, tone of voice, size and grace being remarkably frequent. In the northern, eastern and middle states, which contain much more than half the whole population of the country, the women are fair; though brunettes are not unfrequent, and just as blondes are admired in France, they are much esteemed here, especially, as is often the case, if the hair and eyes happen to correspond. Indeed it is ditlicult to imagine any creature more attractive than an American beauty between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. There is something in the bloom, delicacy, and innocence of one of these young things, that reminds you of the conceptions which poets and painters have taken of the angels. I think delicacy of air and appearance at that age, though perhaps scarcely more enchanting than what one sees in England, is even more common here than in the mother country, especially when it is recollected how many more faces necessarily pass before the eye in a given time in the latter nation than in this. It is often said that the women of this climate fade earlier than in the northern countries of Europe, and I confess I was, at first, inclined to believe the opinion true. That it is not true to the extent that is commonly supposed, I am, however, convinced by the reasoning of Cadwallader, if indeed it be true at all. Perhaps a great majority of the females marry before the age of twenty, and it is not an uncommon thing to see them mothers at sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen. Almost every American mother nurses her own infant. It is far more common to find them mothers of eight, or of ten children, at fifty, than mothers of two or three. Now the human form is not completely developed in the northern moiety of this Union, earlier than in France, or in England. These early marriages, which are the fruits of abundance, have an obvious tendency to impair the powers of the female, and to produce a premature decay. In addition to this cause, which is far more general than you may be disposed to believe, there is something in the customs of the country which may have a tendency, not only to assist the ravages of time, but to prevent the desire to conceal them. There is no doubt that the animal, as well as the moral man, is far less artificial here than in Europe. There is thought to be some. thing deceptive in the use of the ordinary means of aiding nature, which offends the simple manners of the nation. Even so common an ornament as rouge is denied, and no woman dares confess that she uses it. There is something so particularly soft and delicate in the colour of the young females one sees in the streets here, that at first I was inclined to give them credit for the art with which they applied the tints; but Cadwallader gravely assured me I was wrong; He had no doubt that certain individuals did, in secret, adopt the use of rouge; but within the whole circuit of his acquaintailce he could not name one whom he suspected of the practice. Indeed, several gentlemen have gone so far as to assure me that when a woman rouged, it is considered in this country, as prima facie testimony that her character is frail. It should also be remembered, that when an American girl marries, she no longer entertains the desire to interest any but her husband. There is perhaps something in the security of matrimony that is not very propitious to female blandishments, and one ought to express no surprise that the wife who is content with the affections of her husband, should grow a little indifferent to the admiration of the rest of the world.
LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY. May 7, 1828. Attitudes toward European Fashion.
We then took a walk along the river bank thro' a most beautiful avenue of beech and elm and returned home at five o'clock supposing that long ere that time Eliza must have finished her walk. But no! Whilst we had been thus soberly engaged the young lady had been exciting a much greater sensation in the place than her Papa or Mama are likely to do. We had all gone out together but after walking about a hundred yards Mrs. Cownie and her little charge parted with us and turned into a shop in search of something they wished to purchase. This proved to be a milliner's shop, and the old lady was so delighted with Eliza's frock-one which her Aunt Katherine worked for her-that she begged Mrs. Cownie as the greatest favour to let her see some more of her dresses.
Cownie very good-naturedly returned home for three of the child's prettiest frocks and nothing could exceed the admiration, not only of the milliner, but of the numerous ladies for whom she sent to see these beautiful things. Now you must know that they have all been worn and washed for a twelvemonth, and I could not but imagine what would be the amazement of the Louisville ladies could they have seen the clothes of the children of some of my friends who understand the subject so much better than I do that my little girlie's modest equipment could not possibly bear comparison with their's However, as those ladies knew no better they were sufficiently astonished with what they saw. Patterns were taken and a request made that one of the frocks might be sent to a lady at some distance, but Mrs. Cownie not liking to lose sight of her property could not carry her good nature so far. They had seen Basil and me walk past and the next petition was for the loan of my bonnet to copy, a bonnet which I got the beginning of last summer, but the milliner says that a thing being made from an English pattern or from what is worn by anyone well known gets sale so much distance.
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA. August 1830. Comparing the Ladies of Philadelphia with Those of Baltimore.
My letters of introduction brought me acquainted with several amiable and interesting people. There is something in the tone of manners at Philadelphia that I liked; it appeared to me that there was less affectation of ton there than elsewhere. There is a quietness, a composure in a Philadelphian drawing-room, that is quite characteristic of a city founded by William Penn. The dress of the ladies, even those who are not Quakers, partakes of this; they are most elegantly neat, and there was a delicacy and good taste in the dress of the young ladies that might serve as a model to the whole Union. There can hardly be a stronger contrast in the style of dress between any two cities than may be remarked between Baltimore and Philadelphia; both are costly, but the former is distinguished by gaudy splendour, the latter by elegant simplicity.
WASHINGTON. Spring 1831. Strange Fashions of American Women.
The ladies have strange ways of adding to their charms. They powder themselves immoderately, face, neck, and arms, with pulverised starch; the effect is indescribably disagreeable by day-light, and not very favourable at any time. They are also most unhappily partial to false hair, which they wear in surprising quantities; this is the more to be lamented, as they generally have very fine hair of their own. I suspect this fashion to arise from an indolent mode of making their toilet, and from accomplished ladies' maids not being very abundant; it is less trouble to append a bunch of waving curls here, there, and every where, than to keep their native tresses in perfect order.
Though the expense of the ladies' dress greatly exceeds, in proportion to their general style of living, that of the ladies of Europe, it is very far (excepting in Philadelphia) from being in good taste. They do not consult the seasons in the colours or in the style of their costume; I have often shivered at seeing a young beauty picking her way through the snow with a pale rose-coloured bonnet, set on the very top of her head: I knew one young lady whose pretty little ear was actually frost-bitten from being thus exposed. They never wear muffs or boots, and appear extremely shocked at the sight of comfortable walking shoes and cotton stockings, even when they have to step to their sleighs over ice and snow. They walk in the middle of winter with their poor little toes pinched into a miniature slipper, incapable of excluding as much moisture as might bedew a primrose. I must say in their excuse, however, that they have, almost universally, extremely pretty feet. They do not walk well, nor, in fact, do they ever appear to advantage when in movement. I know not why this should be, for they have abundance of French dancing-masters among them, but somehow or other it is the fact. I fancied I could often trace a mixture of affectation and of shyness in their little mincing unsteady step, and the ever changing position of the hands. They do not dance well; perhaps I should rather say they do not look well when dancing; lovely as their faces are, they cannot, in a position that exhibits the whole person, atone for the want of tournure, and fo rthe universal defect in the formation of the bust, which is rarely full, or gracefully formed.
EN ROUTE TO NIAGARA BY CANAL BOAT THROUGH NEW YORK. Spring 1831. Grim Countenance of American Women.
There is a great quietness about the women of America (I speak of the exterior manner of persons casually met), but somehow or other, I should never call it gentleness. In such trying moments as that of fixing themselves on board a packet-boat, the men are prompt, determined, and will compromise any body's convenience' except their own. The women are doggedly stedfast in their will, and till matters are settled, look like hedgehogs, with every quill raised, and firmly set, as if to forbid the approach of any one who might wish to rub them down. In circumstances where an English woman would look proud, and a French woman nonchalante, an American lady looks grim; even the youngest and the prettiest can set their lips, and knit their brows, and look as hard and unsocial as their grandmothers.
BALTIMORE, MARYLAND. Summer 1831. Beauty of American Women; Need for an Aristocracy to Improve Manners.
I had understood, and am quite ready to admit, that Baltimore deservedly enjoys a high reputation for female beauty. I am speaking of the American ladies in general, when I remark that it is no injustice to them to maintain, that where you will see twenty pretty girls, you will not see one really handsome woman. I have frequently observed the prettiest features, such as more reminded me of England, than of any other country; but I think that most Europeans who have formed a correct taste from the "stone ideal" of Greece, would agree with me that ladies with pretensions to that higher degree of beauty, are not so often to be met with in America as in England. There is one particular in which they would do well to imitate my fair countrywomen.
They have great charms for the breakfast table; but yet, elegant and lady-like as many of them undoubtedly are, how often have I been compelled to wish, that the breakfast table had not quite so many charms for them. They must know that to eat is unfeminine; and that ladies should in the presence of gentlemen, appear very hungry, is a decided proof of a deficiency in national manners, just as much, or even more so, than that men, be they who or what they may, should sit with their hats on in the dress circle at New York. The influence of a court would extend to, and would remedy all this. I should here again remark, that the first society is seldom seen at the theatre, and would not be guilty of such behaviour.
NEW YORK CITY. 1834. Bad Fashion and Poor Dental Hygiene of American Women.
But it is not uncommon for females in America both to smoke & chew tobacco. Indeed, the American ladies are not much behind their lords in habits of a tendency far from pleasing. Ladies of fortune and some pretension to breeding, may be seen in the streets & at home, with a huge piece of Sugar Candy Sucking & enjoying it with all the gout of a spoiled Slobbering child. I have seen them lift their veils & take a bite, and even bite off a piece & present it to a friend or companion as a condescending schoolboy would do, and when the stock is exhausted, thcy coolly walk into a store, or shop, for a fresh supply. This love of sweets infects the American females of all ranks-and accounts in some degree for the universal benefit they might derive by employing a dentist-I saw but few Americans with sound or white teeth...
It was once doubtful, it is said, from the decent length of an (American female's garment, whether she had any feet at all. That doubt, however, is now completely removed. For they wear their garments so short, as to exhibit the whole of the calf of the leg to the gaze of their Beaux-in fact, in the display of their persons, both at home & abroad, they exceed the most coquettish Parisian Belle, though in their manners they want that naivete which in the latter makes it palatable, in a degree. During the cooler season they generally wear tightish frilled trousers, by which their lets are decently kept in the shade; but in the hot weather, they not only dispense with them, but appear in the streets with naked legs, feet, & bosom, with a parasol cap to cover the head. I am now speaking of New York; higher up the country the excessive display of their persons is still greater.
The style of their fashions are the most tasteless & outre imaginable. The preposterous length of their bonnets exceed any thing I ever saw in England, even at the time when the lady's hat was made a subject of ridicule in our English Pantomimes. One writer in an American paper, in the Spring of 1834, with great truth said of the bonnet of an American lady, who came under his observation, that it "resembled in color & shape a smashed lobster! " & was "here & there ornamented with knots, or bows, like peeled Onions!" This latter observation I had myself often made to a friend, as I passed by them in the Streets of New York. Indeed no woman in England could appear publicly in the British Metropolis dressed as the American married ladies generally are, and hope to preserve her character-- "Egad! Sirs," as I once heard Abernethy say during one of his amusing lectures, "the very boys would run after her."
Perhaps one reason for American ladies wearing such short garments is that they are generally admired for small and pretty feet. Nevertheless, it is impossible for an English eye not to be shocked at the display they make of their persons, both at home & abroad; and it is surprising that amongst their divines some second Tillotson or Rowland Hill has not sprung up to censure & correct such dangerous incentives to vice, as the female habits & fashions in America really are. But in Republican America, where very many of their spiritual teachers are taken from the very outcasts of European society, who, it is well known, rule the female devotees with as iron a hand as ever did the priesthood of any Roman Catholic community; when it is also well known that at their American Camp-meetings, their love-feasts, etcetera, these same pastors assist in scenes of debauchery that would shock a practiced libertine; it is not surprising that the ladies of America are wanting in that greatest charm of their sex, a cultivation of the delicate, ladylike, adornment and concealment of their persons, which indicates purity of mind & sentiment, and the presence of moral sense; nor that American husbands are not gifted with a very savage sense of propriety.
One disagreeable fashion, to my eye at least, is that of American females almost universally dressing themselves in a glaring red, when at home, the effect of which is almost as offensive to the sight as are their painted edifices. And never did I see the female form so distorted by those tasteless things, modern corsets & stays, as it is in America. It is a fashion for the gentlemen to carry their admiration of small waists to an excess and the ladies have, in consequence, carried their cultivation of it to such a pitch, that I feel no hesitation in saying, many girls never live to be women in consequence. In a room the most respectable married females take a pride in exhibiting the whole of the bust bare. In the streets females of character will be seen in the most gaudy trappings with their stockings full of holes.
BALTIMORE, MARYLAND. April 19, 1836 General Appearance of American Women.
The hour after midnight. Just returned from a very gay ball at a private house. Let us revisit it and I will introduce you to an American ballroom: how crowded are the rooms, and what a number of pretty women there are; few distinguished beauties, but many, very many faces that one loves to look at. The ladies are well dressed too. So are the gentlemen and there is nothing in their appearance, or manner, by which you could distinguish them from a company in an English ball room. The only thing that strikes you as strange is, that the musicians are coloured people--and I may add, that you will scarcely hear any gentleman present addressed by a title lower than that of field officer at least.
Let us take our stand here, and I will point out some of the people to you: that pretty animated little girl with fair hair, fresh complexion, and merry blue eyes that twinkle brightly through the long dark lashes, is Miss E. M. She is, I believe, an only daughter, does what she pleases in her papa's house and gives very pleasant parties. Her voice is like a singing birdŐs, how musical is her laugh with its clear silvery tones ringing from the pure metal of the heart. That lady seated at the end of the room, figure en bon point dressed in a robe of rich black velvet, and wearing a profusion of jewels, was the wife of a King. Jerome Buonaparte. She was, I am told, eminently handsome, and she still does retain the traces of former beauty. The young lady to whom she is speaking is her niece Miss P., one of the belles of Baltimore.
Remark that tall slight lady in the centre of the room, now she turns her head, what a glorious face, glowing with youth and joy and intelligence. What expression! Every feature speaks. Did you ever see a more finely formed head, a more serene and noble brow ? They are such as Phidias would have loved to copy, and her mouth now slightly parted in a smile, how inexpressibly beautiful it is? Altogether it is one of the faces of such surpassing loveliness which one seldom sees, but in a dream. But, but, alas, her figure is wretched, long, thin and gawky, her motions are ungraceful. Her step is heavy, uncertain without the slightest ease or elasticity. She has the face of a goddess. but the figure of a Yankee. A majority of the ladies have good eyes and delicate complexions.
That low, slight made effeminate-looking young man dressed with scrupulous exactness, gold chains round his neck, and rings on his delicate fingers, enough to make the stock-in-trade of a dozen pedlars, is the most consummate fop, and conceited coxcomb I had ever the fortune to meet. He has scarcely spoken a word since he entered the room. Of course he does not dance, as he declares the very thought of being pushed about so horrifies him, and the quick motions of the dancers makes him frightfully nervous. There he has been standing all evening with his chapeau bras in one hand and a curious looking walking stick in the other. He is rich, has been in Europe, travelled there a short time, and returned with his head turned, and it seems inflated with the ambition of being the Beau Brummell of America.
NEW YORK CITY. November 27, 1836 General Appearance of the Ladies of Society.
Arrived at New York. Whether it is the force of contrast or not, I don't know but the city appears a much finer place than the first time I visited it.
Broadway is very gay. It is the fashionable promenade and is crowded from an early hour till evening with gaily dressed ladies. There is a considerable sprinkling of pretty faces among them but such figures. Oh, ye Graces, after what models were the New York ladies fashioned. Such flat, lanky, awkward figures, only to be equalled by their vile mode of walking. I protest on my conscience, I have not yet seen a woman here who could walk even passably They have no elasticity of step, not even the shadow of grace in their movements, they have a loose slip shod gait which is the very reverse of the poetry of motion. Some of them do attempt the short step, and lively tripping walk of the French ladies, but all they can accomplish is a painful wriggle. Yet they are celebrated for their style--a Devilish bad style it is. They dress in the most extravagant manner, there is an air of vulgar flash about them which I dislike, they are very partial to fine bonnets. It struck me as not in very good taste for ladies in the depth of winter to wear white silk bonnets bedecked with a profusion of artificial flowers, and ostrich, and Bird of Paradise plumes. I suppose they go on the principle that fine feathers make fine birds. In some circles of New York society you meet ladies of highly cultivated minds and literary attainments, and in the enjoyment of their society you almost forget that they are perhaps a little too cerulean in hue.
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS. Winter 1835. Voices of Women in America; Peculiarities of Language in America.
A great unknown pleasure remains to be experienced by the Americans in the well-modulated, gentle, healthy, cheerful voices of women. It is incredible that there should not, in all time to come, be any other alternative than that which now exists, between a whine and a twang. When the health of the American women improves, their voices will improve. In the meantime, they are unconscious how the effect of their remarkable and almost universal beauty is injured by their mode of speech...
I rarely, if ever, met with instances of this pedantry among the yeomanry or mechanic classes; or among the young. The most numerous and the worst pedants were middle-aged ladies. One instance struck me as being unlike anything that could happen in England. A literary and very meritorious village mantua-maker declared that it was very hard if her gowns did not fit the ladies of the neighbourhood. She had got the exact proportions of the Venus de Medici, to make them by: and what more could she do ? Again, a sempstress was anxious that her employer should request me to write something about Mount Auburn: (the beautiful cemetery near Boston.) Upon her being questioned as to what kind of composition she had in her fancy, she said she would have Mount Auburn considered under three points of view: as it was on the day of creation, as it is now, as it will be on the day of resurrection. I liked the idea so well that I got her to write it for me, instead of my doing it for her.
As for the peculiarities of language of which so much has been made, I am a bad judge: but the fact is, I should have passed through the country almost without observing any, if my attention had not been previously directed to them. Next to the well-known use of the word " sick," instead of "ill," (in which they are undoubtedly right,) none struck me so much as the few following. They use the word " handsome" much more extensively than we do: saying that Webster made a handsome speech in the Senate: that a lady talks handsomely, (eloquently:) that a book sells handsomely. A gentleman asked me on the Catskill Mountain, whether I thought the sun handsomer there than at New York. When they speak of a fine woman, they refer to mental or moral, not at all to physical superiority. The effect was strange, after being told, here and there, that I was about to see a very fine woman, to meet in such cases almost the only plain women I saw in the country. Another curious circumstance is, that this is almost the only connexion in which the word woman is used. This noble word, spirit-stirring as it passes over English ears, is in America banished, and "ladies" and " females" substituted: the one to English taste mawkish and vulgar; the other indistinctive and gross. So much for difference of taste. The effect is odd. After leaving the men's wards of the prison at Nashville, Tennessee, I asked the warden whether he would not let me see the women. " We have no ladies here, at present, madam. We have never had but two ladies, who were convicted for stealing a steak; but, as it appeared that they were deserted by their husbands, and in want, they were pardoned." A lecturer, discoursing on the characteristics of women, is said to have expressed himself thus. "Who were last at the cross? Ladies. Who were first at the sepulchre? Ladies."