The Englishwoman in America, by Isabella Bird

Chapter 5.

First experiences of American freedom — The “striped pig” and “Dusty Ben” — A country mouse — What the cars are like — Beauties of New England — The land of apples — A Mammoth hotel — The rusty inkstand exiled — Eloquent eyes — Alone in a crowd.

The city of Portland, with its busy streets, and crowded wharfs, and handsome buildings, and railway depots, rising as it does on the barren coast of the sterile State of Maine, fully bears out the first part of an assertion which I had already heard made by Americans, “We’re a great people, the greatest nation on the face of the earth.” A polite custom-house officer asked me if I had anything contraband in my trunks, and on my reply in the negative they were permitted to pass without even the formality of being uncorded. “Enlightened citizens” they are truly, I thought, and, with the pleasant consciousness of being in a perfectly free country, where every one can do as he pleases, I entered an hotel near the water and sat down in the ladies’ parlour. I had not tasted food for twenty-five hours, my clothes were cold and wet, a severe cut was on my temple, and I felt thoroughly exhausted. These circumstances, I thought, justified me in ringing the bell and asking for a glass of wine. Visions of the agreeable refreshment which would be produced by the juice of the grape appeared simultaneously with the waiter. I made the request, and he brusquely replied, “You can’t have it, it’s contrary to law.” In my half-drowned and faint condition the refusal appeared tantamount to positive cruelty, and I remembered that I had come in contact with the celebrated “Maine Law.” That the inhabitants of the State of Maine are not “free” was thus placed practically before me at once. Whether they are “enlightened” I doubted at the time, but leave the question of the prohibition of fermented liquors to be decided by abler social economists than myself.

I was hereafter informed that to those who go down stairs, and ask to see the “striped pig” wine and spirits are produced; that a request to speak with “Dusty Ben” has a like effect, and that, on asking for “sarsaparilla” at certain stores in the town, the desired stimulant can be obtained. Indeed it is said that the consumption of this drug is greater in Maine than in all the other States put together. But in justice to this highly respectable State, I must add that the drunkenness which forced this stringent measure upon the legislature was among the thousands of English and Irish emigrants who annually land at Portland. My only companion here was a rosy-cheeked, simple country girl, who was going to Kennebunk, and, never having been from home before, had not the slightest idea what to do. Presuming on my antiquated appearance, she asked me “to take care of her, to get her ticket for her, for she dare’nt ask those men for it, and to let her sit by me in the car.” She said she was so frightened with something she’d seen that she didn’t know how she should go in the cars. I asked her what it was. “Oh,” she said, “it was a great thing, bright red, with I don’t know how many wheels, and a large black top, and bright shining things moving about all over it, and smoke and steam coming out of it, and it made such an awful noise it seemed to shake the earth.”

At half-past three we entered the cars in a long shed, where there were no officials in uniform as in England, and we found our way in as we could. “All aboard!” is the signal for taking places, but on this occasion a loud shout of “Tumble in for your lives!” greeted my amused ears, succeeded by “Go a-head!” and off we went, the engineer tolling a heavy bell to notify our approach to the passengers in the streets along which we passed. America has certainly flourished under her motto “Go a-head!” but the cautious “All right!” of an English guard, who waits to start till he is sure of his ground being clear, gives one more confidence. I never experienced the same amount of fear which is expressed by Bunn and other writers, for, on comparing the number of accidents with the number of miles of railway open in America, I did not find the disadvantage in point of safety on her side. The cars are a complete novelty to an English eye. They are twenty-five feet long, and hold about sixty persons; they have twelve windows on either side, and two and a door at each end; a passage runs down the middle, with chairs to hold two each on either side. There is a small saloon for ladies with babies at one end, and a filter containing a constant supply of iced water. There are rings along the roof for a rope which passes through each car to the engine, so that anything wrong can be communicated instantly to the engineer. Every car has eight solid wheels, four being placed close together at each end, all of which can be locked by two powerful breaks. At each end of every car is a platform, and passengers are “prohibited from standing upon it at their peril,” as also from passing from car to car while the train is in motion; but as no penalty attaches to this law, it is incessantly and continuously violated, “free and enlightened citizens” being at perfect liberty to imperil their own necks; and “poor, ignorant, benighted Britishers” soon learn to follow their example. Persons are for ever passing backwards and forwards, exclusive of the conductor whose business it is, and water-carriers, book, bonbon, and peach venders. No person connected with these railways wears a distinguishing dress, and the stations, or “depots” as they are called, are generally of the meanest description, mere wooden sheds, with a ticket-office very difficult to discover. If you are so fortunate as to find a man standing at the door of the baggage-car, he attaches copper plates to your trunks, with a number and the name of the place you are going to upon them, giving you labels with corresponding numbers. By this excellent arrangement, in going a very long journey, in which you are obliged to change cars several times, and cross rivers and lakes in steamers, you are relieved of all responsibility, and only require at the end to give your checks to the hotel-porter, who regains your baggage without any trouble on your part.

This plan would be worthily imitated at our termini in England, where I have frequently seen “unprotected females” in the last stage of frenzy at being pushed out of the way, while some persons unknown are running off with their possessions. When you reach a depôt, as there are no railway porters, numerous men clamour to take your effects to an hotel, but, as many of these are thieves, it is necessary to be very careful in only selecting those who have hotel-badges on their hats.

An emigrant-car is attached to each train, but there is only one class: thus it may happen that you have on one side the President of the Great Republic, and on the other the gentleman who blacked your shoes in the morning. The Americans, however, have too much respect for themselves and their companions to travel except in good clothes, and this mingling of all ranks is far from being disagreeable, particularly to a stranger like myself, one of whose objects was to see things in their everyday dress. We must be well aware that in many parts of England it would be difficult for a lady to travel unattended in a second-class, impossible in a third-class carriage; yet I travelled several thousand miles in America, frequently alone, from the house of one friend to another’s, and never met with anything approaching to incivility; and I have often heard it stated that a lady, no matter what her youth or attractions might be, could travel alone through every State in the Union, and never meet with anything but attention and respect.

I have had considerable experience of the cars, having travelled from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, and from the Mississippi to the St. Lawrence, and found the company so agreeable in its way, and the cars themselves so easy, well ventilated, and comfortable, that, were it not for the disgusting practice of spitting upon the floors in which the lower classes of Americans indulge, I should greatly prefer them to our own exclusive carriages, denominated in the States “’coon sentry-boxes.” Well, we are seated in the cars; a man shouts “Go a-head!” and we are off, the engine ringing its heavy bell, and thus begin my experiences of American travel.

I found myself in company with eleven gentlemen and a lady from Prince Edward Island, whom a strange gregarious instinct had thus drawn together. The engine gave a hollow groan, very unlike our cheerful whistle, and, soon moving through the town, we reached the open country.

Fair was the country that we passed through in the States of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Oh very fair! smiling, cultivated, and green, like England, but far happier; for slavery which disgraces the New World, and poverty which desolates the Old, are nowhere to be seen.

There were many farmhouses surrounded by the nearly finished harvest, with verandahs covered with vines and roses; and patriarchal-looking family groups seated under them, engaged in different employments, and enjoying the sunset, for here it was gorgeous summer. And there were smaller houses of wood painted white, with bright green jalousies, in gardens of pumpkins, and surrounded by orchards. Apples seemed almost to grow wild; there were as many orchards as corn-fields, and apple and pear trees grew in the very hedgerows.

And such apples! not like our small, sour, flavourless things, but like some southern fruit; huge balls, red and yellow, such as are caricatured in wood, weighing down the fine large trees. There were heaps of apples on the ground, and horses and cows were eating them in the fields, and rows of freight-cars at all the stations were laden with them, and little boys were selling them in the cars; in short, where were they not? There were smiling fields with verdant hedgerows between them, unlike the untidy snake-fences of the colonies, and meadows like parks, dotted over with trees, and woods filled with sumach and scarlet maple, and rapid streams hurrying over white pebbles, and villages of green-jalousied houses, with churches and spires, for here all places of worship have spires; and the mellow light of a declining sun streamed over this varied scene of happiness, prosperity, and comfort; and for a moment I thought — O traitorous thought! — that the New England was fairer than the Old.

Nor were the more material evidences of prosperity wanting, for we passed through several large towns near the coast — Newbury Port, Salem, and Portsmouth — with populations varying from 30,000 to 50,000 souls. They seemed bustling, thriving places, with handsome stores, which we had an opportunity of observing, as in the States the cars run right into the streets along the carriage-way, traffic being merely diverted from the track while the cars are upon it.

Most of the railways in the States have only one track or line of rails, with occasional sidings at the stations for the cars to pass each other. A fence is by no means a matter of necessity, and two or three animals are destroyed every day from straying on the line. The engines, which are nearly twice the size of ours, with a covered enclosure for the engineer and stoker, carry large fenders or guards in front, to lift incumbrances from the track. At eight o’clock we found ourselves passing over water, and between long rows of gas-lights, and shortly afterwards the cars stopped at Boston, the Athens of America. Giving our baggage-checks to the porter of the American House, we drove to that immense hotel, where I remained for one night. It was crammed from the very basement to the most undesirable locality nearest the moon; I believe it had seven hundred inmates. I had arranged to travel to Cincinnati, and from thence to Toronto, with Mr. and Mrs. Walrence, but on reaching Boston I found that they feared fever and cholera, and, leaving me to travel alone from Albany, would meet me at Chicago. Under these circumstances I remained with my island friends for one night at this establishment, a stranger in a land where I had few acquaintances, though I was well armed with letters of introduction. One of these was to Mr. Amy, a highly respected merchant of Boston, who had previously informed me by letter of the best route to the States, and I immediately despatched a note to him, but he was absent at his country-house, and I was left to analyse the feeling of isolation inseparable from being alone in a crowd. Having received the key of my room, I took my supper in an immense hall, calculated for dining 400 persons. I next went into the ladies’ parlour, and felt rather out of place among so many richly dressed females; for as I was proceeding to write a letter, a porter came in and told me that writing was not allowed in that saloon. “Freedom again,” thought I. On looking round I did feel that my antiquated goose-quill and rusty-looking inkstand were rather out of place. The carpet of the room was of richly flowered Victoria pile, rendering the heaviest footstep noiseless; the tables were marble on gilded pedestals, the couches covered with gold brocade. At a piano of rich workmanship an elegantly dressed lady was seated, singing “And will you love me always?” — a question apparently satisfactorily answered by the speaking eyes of a bearded Southerner, who was turning over the pages for her. A fountain of antique workmanship threw up a jet d’eau of iced water, scented with eau de Cologne; and the whole was lighted by four splendid chandeliers interminably reflected, for the walls were mirrors divided by marble pillars. The room seemed appropriate to the purposes to which it was devoted — music, needlework, conversation, and flirting. With the single exception of the rule against writing in the ladies’ saloon, a visitor at these immense establishments is at perfect liberty to do as he pleases, provided he pays the moderate charge of two dollars, or 8s. a day. This includes, even at the best hotels, a splendid table-d’hóte, a comfortable bedroom, lights, attendance, and society in abundance. From the servants one meets with great attention, not combined with deference of manner, still less with that obsequiousness which informs you by a suggestive bow, at the end of your visit, that it has been meted out with reference to the probable amount of half-sovereigns, shillings, and sixpences at your disposal.

It will not be out of place here to give a sketch of the peculiarities of the American hotel system, which constitutes such a distinctive feature of life in the States, and is a requirement arising out of the enormous extent of their territory, and the nomade life led by vast numbers of the most restless and energetic people under the sun.

“People will turn hastily over the pages when they corne to this” was the remark of a lively critic on reading this announcement; but while I promise my readers that hotels shall only be described once, I could not reconcile it to myself not to give them information on “Things as they are in America,” when I had an opportunity of acquiring it.

The American House at Boston, which is a fair specimen of the best class of hotels in the States, though more frequented by mercantile men than by tourists, is built of grey granite, with a frontage to the street of 100 feet. The ground floor to the front is occupied by retail stores, in the centre of which a lofty double doorway denotes the entrance, marked in a more characteristic manner by groups of gentlemen smoking before it. This opens into a lofty and very spacious hall, with a chequered floor of black and white marble; there are lounges against the wall, covered over with buffalo-skins; and, except at meal-times, this capacious apartment is a scene of endless busy life, from two to three hundred gentlemen constantly thronging it, smoking at the door, lounging on the settees, reading the newspapers, standing in animated groups discussing commercial matters, arriving, or departing. Piles of luggage, in which one sees with dismay one’s light travelling valise crushed under a gigantic trunk, occupy the centre; porters seated on a form wait for orders; peripatetic individuals walk to and fro; a confused Babel of voices is ever ascending to the galleries above; and at the door, hacks, like the “eilwagon” of Germany, are ever depositing fresh arrivals. There is besides this a private entrance for ladies. Opposite the entrance is a counter, where four or five clerks constantly attend, under the superintendence of a cashier, to whom all applications for rooms are personally made. I went up to this functionary, wrote my name in a book, he placed a number against it, and, giving me a key with a corresponding number attached, I followed a porter down a long corridor, and up to a small clean room on the third story, where to all intents and purposes my identity was lost — merged in a mere numeral. At another side of the hall is the bar, a handsomely decorated apartment, where lovers of such beverages can procure “toddy,” “night-caps,” “mint julep,” “gin sling,” &c. On the door of my very neat and comfortable bed-room was a printed statement of the rules, times of meals, and charge per diem. I believe there are nearly 300 rooms in this house, some of them being bed-rooms as large and commodious as in a private mansion in England.

On the level of the entrance is a magnificent eating saloon, principally devoted to male guests, and which is 80 feet long. Upstairs is a large room furnished with a rare combination of splendour and taste, called “The Ladies’ Ordinary,” where families, ladies, and their invited guests take their meals. Breakfast is at the early hour of seven, and remains on the table till nine; dinner is at one, and tea at six. At these meals “every delicacy of the season” is served in profusion; the daily bill of fare would do credit to a banquet at the Mansion House; the chef de cuisine is generally French, and an epicure would find ample scope for the gratification of his palate. If people persist in taking their meals in a separate apartment, they are obliged to pay dearly for the indulgence of their exclusiveness. There are more than 100 waiters, and the ladies at table are always served first, and to the best pieces.

Though it is not part of the hotel system, I cannot forbear mentioning the rapidity with which the Americans despatch their meals. My next neighbour has frequently risen from his seat after a substantial and varied dinner while I was sending away my soup-plate. The effect of this at a table-d’hôte, where 400 or 600 sit down to dine, is unpleasant, for the swing — door is incessantly in motion. Indeed, the utter absence of repose is almost the first thing which strikes a stranger. The incessant sound of bells and gongs, the rolling of hacks to and from the door, the arrivals and departures every minute, the trampling of innumerable feet, the flirting and talking in every corridor, make these immense hotels more like a human beehive than anything else.

The drawing-rooms are always kept very hot by huge fires of anthracite coal, and the doors are left open to neutralise the effect. The temperance at table filled me with surprise. I very seldom saw any beverage but pure iced-water. There are conveniences of all descriptions for the use of the guests. The wires of the electric telegraph, constantly attended by a clerk, run into the hotel; porters are ever ready to take your messages into the town; pens, paper, and ink await you in recesses in the lobbies; a man is ever at hand to clean and brush soiled boots — in short, there is every contrivance for abridging your labour in mounting up stairs. But the method of avoiding the confusion and din of two or three hundred bells must not be omitted. All the wires from the different rooms centre at one bell, which is located in a case in the lobby, with the mechanism seen on one side through a sheet of plate-glass. The other side of the case is covered with numbers in rows. By each number is a small straight piece of brass, which drops and hangs down when the bell is sounded, displaying the number to the attention of the clerk, who sends a waiter to the apartment, and places the piece of brass in its former position.

Steam laundries are connected with all the large hotels. At American House the laundry is under the management of a clerk, who records all the minor details. The linen is cleansed in a churn-like machine moved by steam, and wrung by a novel application of the principle of centrifugal force; after which the articles are dried by being passed through currents of hot air, so that they are washed and ironed in the space of a few minutes. The charge varies from six to ten shillings a dozen. There are also suites of hot and cold baths, and barbers’ shops.

Before I understood the mysteries of these hotels, I used to be surprised to see gentlemen travelling without even carpet-bags, but it soon appeared that razors and hair-brushes were superfluous, and that the possessor of one shirt might always pass as the owner of half a dozen, for, while taking a bath, the magic laundry would reproduce the article in its pristine glories of whiteness and starch. Every attention to the comfort and luxury of the guest is paid at American House, and its spirited proprietor, Mr. Rice, deserves the patronage which the travelling public so liberally bestow upon him. On ringing my bell it was answered by a garcon, and it is rather curious seldom or never to see a chambermaid.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31