Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Fanny Trollope

Chapter 17

Departure from Cincinnati — Society on board the Steam-boat — Arrival at Wheeling — Bel Esprit

We quitted Cincinnati the beginning of March, 1830, and I believe there was not one of our party who did not experience a sensation of pleasure in leaving it. We had seen again and again all the queer varieties of it’s little world; had amused ourselves with it’s consequence, it’s taste, and it’s ton, till they had ceased to be amusing. Not a hill was left unclimbed, nor a forest path unexplored; and, with the exception of two or three individuals, who bore heads and hearts peculiar to no clime, but which are found scattered through the world, as if to keep us every where in good humour with it, we left nought to regret at Cincinnati. The only regret was, that we had ever entered it; for we had wasted health, time, and money there.

We got on board the steam-boat which was to convey us to Wheeling at three o’clock. She was a noble boat, by far the finest we had seen. The cabins were above, and the deck passengers, as they are called, were accommodated below. In front of the ladies’ cabin was an ample balcony, sheltered by an awning; chairs and sofas were placed there, and even at that early season, nearly all the female passengers passed the whole day there. The name of this splendid vessel was the Lady Franklin. By the way, I was often amused by the evident fondness which the Americans shew for titles. The wives of their eminent men constantly receive that of “Lady.” We heard of Lady Washington, Lady Jackson, and many other “ladies.” The eternal recurrence of their militia titles is particularly ludicrous, met with, as they are, among the tavern-keepers, market-gardeners, &c. But I think the most remarkable instance which we noticed of this sort of aristocratical longing occurred at Cincinnati. Mr. T— in speaking of a gentleman of the neighbourhood, called him Mr. M—. “General M— sir,” observed his companion. “I beg his pardon,” rejoined Mr. T— “but I was not aware of his being in the army.” “No, sir, not in the army,” was the reply, “but he was surveyor-general of the district.”

The weather was delightful; all trace of winter had disappeared, and we again found ourselves moving rapidly up the stream, and enjoying all the beauty of the Ohio.

Of the male part of the passengers we saw nothing, excepting at the short silent periods allotted for breakfast, dinner, and supper, at which we were permitted to enter their cabin, and place ourselves at their table.

In the Lady Franklin we had decidedly the best of it, for we had our beautiful balcony to sit in. In all respects, indeed, our accommodations were very superior to what we had found in the boat which brought us from New Orleans to Memphis, where we were stowed away in a miserable little chamber close aft, under the cabin, and given to understand by the steward, that it was our duty there to remain “till such time as the bell should ring for meals.”

The separation of the sexes, so often mentioned, is no where more remarkable than on board the steam-boats. Among the passengers on this occasion we had a gentleman and his wife, who really appeared to suffer from the arrangement. She was an invalid, and he was extremely attentive to her, as far, at least, as the regulations permitted. When the steward opened the door of communication between the cabins, to permit our approaching the table, her husband was always stationed close to it to hand her to her place; and when he accompanied her again to the door, he always lingered for a moment or two on the forbidden threshold, nor left his station, till the last female had passed through. Once or twice he ventured, when all but his wife were on the balcony, to sit down beside her for a moment in our cabin, but the instant either of us entered, he started like a guilty thing and vanished.

While mentioning the peculiar arrangements which are thought necessary to the delicacy of the American ladies, or the comfort of the American gentlemen, I am tempted to allude to a story which I saw in the papers respecting the visits which it was stated Captain Basil Hall persisted in making to his wife and child on board a Mississippi steam-boat, after bring informed that doing so was contrary to law. Now I happen to know that neither himself or Mrs. Hall ever entered the ladies’ cabin during the whole voyage, as they occupied a state-room which Captain Hall had secured for his party. The veracity of newspaper statements is, perhaps, nowhere quite unimpeachable, but if I am not greatly mistaken, there are more direct falsehoods circulated by the American newspapers than by all the others in the world, and the one great and never-failing source of these voluminous works of imagination is England and the English. How differently would such a voyage be managed on the other side of the Atlantic, were such a mode of travelling possible there. Such long calm river excursions would be perfectly delightful, and parties would be perpetually formed to enjoy them. Even were all the parties strangers to each other, the knowledge that they were to eat, drink, and steam away together for a week or fortnight, would induce something like a social feeling in any other country.

It is true that the men became sufficiently acquainted to game together, and we were told that the opportunity was considered as so favourable, that no boat left New Orleans without having as cabin passengers one or two gentlemen from that city whose profession it was to drill the fifty-two elements of a pack of cards to profitable duty. This doubtless is an additional reason for the strict exclusion of the ladies from their society. The constant drinking of spirits is another, for though they do not scruple to chew tobacco and to spit incessantly in the presence of women, they generally prefer drinking and gaming in their absence.

I often used to amuse myself with fancying the different scene which such a vessel would display in Europe. The noble length of the gentlemen’s cabin would be put into requisition for a dance, while that of the ladies, with their delicious balcony, would be employed for refreshments, instead of sitting down in two long silent melancholy rows, to swallow as much coffee and beef-steak as could be achieved in ten minutes. Then song and music would be heard borne along by the midnight breeze; but on the Ohio, when light failed to shew us the bluffs, and the trees, with their images inverted in the stream, we crept into our little cots, listening to the ceaseless churning of the engine, in hope it would prove a lullaby till morning.

We were three days in reaching Wheeling, where we arrived at last, at two o’clock in the morning, an uncomfortable hour to disembark with a good deal of luggage, as the steam-boat was obliged to go on immediately; but we were instantly supplied with a dray, and in a few moments found ourselves comfortably seated before a good fire, at an hotel near the landing-place; our rooms, with fires in them, were immediately ready for us, and refreshments brought, with all that sedulous attention which in this country distinguishes a slave state. In making this observation I am very far from intending to advocate the system of slavery; I conceive it to be essentially wrong; but so far as my observation has extended, I think its influence is far less injurious to the manners and morals of the people than the fallacious ideas of equality, which are so fondly cherished by the working classes of the white population in America. That these ideas are fallacious, is obvious, for in point of fact the man possessed of dollars does command the services of the man possessed of no dollars; but these services are given grudgingly, and of necessity, with no appearance of cheerful goodwill on the one side, or of kindly interest on the other. I never failed to mark the difference on entering a slave state. I was immediately comfortable, and at my ease, and felt that the intercourse between me and those who served me, was profitable to both parties and painful to neither.

It was not till I had leisure for more minute observation that I felt aware of the influence of slavery upon the owners of slaves; when I did, I confess I could not but think that the citizens of the United States had contrived, by their political alchymy, to extract all that was most noxious both in democracy and in slavery, and had poured the strange mixture through every vein of the moral organization of their country.

Wheeling is the state of Virginia, and appears to be a flourishing town. It is the point at which most travellers from the West leave the Ohio, to take the stages which travel the mountain road to the Atlantic cities.

It has many manufactories, among others, one for blowing and cutting glass, which we visited. We were told by the workmen that the articles finished there were equal to any in the world; but my eyes refused their assent. The cutting was very good, though by no means equal to what we see in daily use in London; but the chief inferiority is in the material, which is never altogether free from colour. I had observed this also in the glass of the Pittsburgh manufactory, the labour bestowed on it always appearing greater than the glass deserved. They told us also, that they were rapidly improving in the art, and I have no doubt that this was true.

Wheeling has little of beauty to distinguish it, except the ever lovely Ohio, to which we here bid adieu, and a fine bold hill, which rises immediately behind the town. This hill, as well as every other in the neighbourhood, is bored for coal. Their mines are all horizontal. The coal burns well, but with a very black and dirty cinder.

We found the coach, by which we meant to proceed to Little Washington, full, and learnt that we must wait two days before it would again leave the town. Posting was never heard of in the country, and the mail travelled all night, which I did not approve of; we therefore found ourselves compelled to pass two days at the Wheeling hotel.

I know not how this weary interval would have worn away, had it not been for the fortunate circumstance of our meeting with a bel esprit among the boarders there. We descended to the common sitting room (for private parlours there are none) before breakfast the morning after our arrival; several ordinary individuals entered, till the party amounted to eight or nine. Again the door opened, and in swam a female, who had once certainly been handsome, and who, it was equally evident, still thought herself so. She was tall, and well formed, dressed in black, with many gaudy trinkets about her: a scarlet fichu relieved the sombre colour of her dress, and a very smart little cap at the back of her head set off an immense quantity of sable hair, which naturally, or artificially, adorned her forehead. A becoming quantity of rouge gave the finishing touch to her figure, which had a degree of pretension about it that immediately attracted our notice. She talked fluently, and without any American restraint, and I began to be greatly puzzled as to who or what she could be; a lady, in the English sense of the word, I was sure she was not, and she was a little like an American female of what they call good standing. A beautiful girl of seventeen entered soon after, and called her “Ma,” and both mother and daughter chattered away, about themselves and their concerns, in a manner that greatly increased my puzzle.

After breakfast, being much in want of amusement, I seated myself by her, and entered into conversation. I found her nothing loth, and in about a minute and a half she put a card into my hand, setting forth, that she taught the art of painting upon velvet in all its branches.

She stated to me, with great volubility, that no one but herself and her daughter knew any thing of this invaluable branch of art; but that for twenty-five dollars they were willing to communicate all they knew.

In five minutes more she informed me that she was the author of some of the most cutting satires in the language; and then she presented me a paper, containing a prospectus, as she called it, of a novel, upon an entirely new construction. I was strangely tempted to ask her if it went by steam, but she left me no time to ask any thing, for, continuing the autobiography she had so obligingly begun, she said, “I used to write against all the Adams faction. I will go up stairs in a moment and fetch you down my sat-heres against that side. But oh! my dear madam! it is really frightful to think how talent is neglected in this country. Ah! I know what you are going to say, my dear madam, you will tell me that it is not so in yours. I know it! but alas! the Atlantic! However, I really must tell you how I have been treated: not only did I publish the most biting sat-heres against the Adams faction, but I wrote songs and odes in honour of Jackson; and my daughter, Cordelia, sang a splendid song of my writing, before eight hundred people, entirely and altogether written in his praise; and would you believe it, my dear madam, he has never taken the slightest notice of me, or made me the least remuneration. But you can’t suppose I mean to bear it quietly? No! I promise him that is not my way. The novel I have just mentioned to you was began as a sentimental romance (that, perhaps, after all, is my real forte), but after the provocation I received at Washington, I turned it into a sat-herical novel, and I now call it Yankee Doodle Court. By the way my dear madam, I think if I could make up my mind to cross that terrible Atlantic, I should be pretty well received, after writing Yankee Doodle Court!”

I took the opportunity of a slight pause to ask her to what party she now belonged, since she had forsworn both Adams and Jackson.

“Oh Clay! Clay for ever! he is a real true-hearted republican; the others are neither more nor less than tyrants.”

When next I entered the sitting-room she again addressed me, to deplore the degenerate taste of the age.

“Would you believe it? I have at this moment a comedy ready for representation; I call it ‘The Mad Philosopher.’ It is really admirable, and its success certain, if I could get it played. I assure you the neglect I meet with amounts perfectly to persecution. But I have found out how to pay them, and to make my own fortune. Sat-here, (as she constantly pronounced satire) sat-here is the only weapon that can revenge neglect, and I flatter myself I know how to use it. Do me the favour to look at this,”

She then presented me with a tiny pamphlet, whose price, she informed me, was twenty-five cents, which I readily paid to become the possessor of this chef d’oeuvre. The composition was pretty nearly such as I anticipated, excepting that the English language was done to death by her pen still more than by her tongue. The epigraph, which was subscribed “original,” was as follows:

“Your popularity’s on the decline:
You had your triumph! now I’ll have mine.”

These are rather a favourable specimen of the verses that follow.

In a subsequent conversation she made me acquainted with another talent, informing me that she had played the part of Charlotte, in Love a la mode, when General Lafayette honoured the theatre at Cincinnati with his presence.

She now appeared to have run out the catalogue of her accomplishments; and I came to the conclusion that my new acquaintance was a strolling player: but she seemed to guess my thoughts, for she presently added. “It was a Thespian corps that played before the General.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:50