Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Fanny Trollope

Chapter 25

Washington Square — American Beauty — Gallery of Fine Arts — Antiques — Theatres — Museum

Our mornings were spent, as all travellers’ mornings must be, in asking questions, and in seeing all that the answers told us it was necessary to see. Perhaps this can be done in no city with more facility than in Philadelphia; you have nothing to do but to walk up one straight street, and down another, till all the parallelograms have been threaded. In doing this you will see many things worth looking at. The United States, and Pennsylvania banks, are the most striking buildings, and are both extremely handsome, being of white marble, and built after Grecian models. The State House has nothing externally to recommend it, but the room shown as that in which the declaration of independence was signed, and in which the estimable Lafayette was received half a century after he had shed his noble blood in aiding to obtain it, is an interesting spot. At one end of this room is a statue in wood of General Washington; on its base is the following inscription:-

First in Peace,
First in War,
and
First in the hearts of his Countrymen.

There is a very pretty enclosure before the Walnut Street entrance to the State House, with good well-kept gravel walks, and many of their beautiful flowering trees. It is laid down in grass, not in turf; that, indeed, is a luxury I never saw in America. Near this enclosure is another of much the same description, called Washington Square. Here there was an excellent crop of clover; but as the trees are numerous, and highly beautiful, and several commodious seats are placed beneath their shade, it is, in spite of the long grass, a very agreeable retreat from heat and dust. It was rarely, however, that I saw any of these seats occupied; the Americans have either no leisure, or no inclination for those moments of delassement that all other people, I believe, indulge in. Even their drams, so universally taken by rich and poor, are swallowed standing, and, excepting at church, they never have the air of leisure or repose. This pretty Washington Square is surrounded by houses on three sides, but (lasso!) has a prison on the fourth; it is nevertheless the nearest approach to a London square that is to be found in Philadelphia.

One evening, while the rest of my party went to visit some objects which I had before seen, I agreed to await their return in this square, and sat down under a magnificent catalpa, which threw its fragrant blossoms in all directions; the other end of the bench was occupied by a young lady, who was employed in watching the gambols of a little boy. There was something in her manner of looking at me, and exchanging a smile when her young charge performed some extraordinary feat of activity on the grass, that persuaded me she was not an American. I do not remember who spoke first, but we were presently in a full flow of conversation. She spoke English with elegant correctness, but she was a German, and with an ardour of feeling which gave her a decidedly foreign air in Philadelphia, she talked to me of her country, of all she had left, and of all she had found, or rather of all she had not found, for thus ran her lament:-

“They do not love music. Oh no! and they never amuse themselves — no; and their hearts are not warm, at least they seem not so to strangers; and they have no ease, no forgetfulness of business and of care — no, not for a moment. But I will not stay long, I think, for I should not live.” She told me that she had a brother settled there as a merchant, and that she had passed a year with him; but she was hoping soon to return to her father land.

I never so strongly felt the truth of the remark, that expression is the soul of beauty, as in looking at, and listening to this young German. She was any thing but handsome; it is true she had large eyes, full of gentle expression, but every feature was irregular; but, oh! the charm of that smile, of that look of deep feeling which animated every feature when she spoke of her own Germany! The tone of her voice, the slight and graceful action which accompanied her words, all struck me as so attractive, that the half hour I passed with her was continually recurring to my memory. I had often taxed myself with feeling something like prejudice against the beautiful American women; but this half hour set my conscience at rest; it is not prejudice which causes one to feel that regularity of features is insufficient to interest, or even to please, beyond the first glance. I certainly believe the women of America to be the handsomest in the world, but as surely do I believe that they are the least attractive.

We visited the nineteenth annual exhibition of the Pennsylvanian academy of the fine arts; 431 was the number of objects exhibited, which were so arranged as to fill three tolerably large rooms, and one smaller called the director’s room. There were among the number about thirty engravings, and a much larger proportion of water-colour drawings; about seventy had the P.A. (Pensylvanian Academician) annexed to the name of the artist.

The principal historical composition was a large scripture piece by Mr. Washington Alston. This gentleman is spoken of as an artist of great merit, and I was told that his manner was much improved since this picture was painted, (it bears date, 1813). I believe it was for this picture Mr. Alston received a prize at the British Gallery.

There was a portrait of a lady, which, in the catalogue, is designated as “the White Plume,” which had the reputation of being the most admired in the collection, and the artist, Mr. Ingham, is said to rank highest among the portrait-painters of America. This picture is of very high finish, particularly the drapery, which is most elaborately worked, even to the pile of the velvet; the management of the light is much in the manner of Good; but the drawing is very defective, and the contour, though the face is a lovely one, hard and unfleshy. From all the conversations on painting, which I listened to in America, I found that the finish of drapery was considered as the highest excellence, and next to this, the resemblance in a portrait; I do not remember ever to have heard the words drawing or composition used in any conversation on the subject.

One of the rooms of this academy has inscribed over its door,

ANTIQUE STATUE GALLERY

The door was open, but just within it was a screen, which prevented any objects in the room being seen from without. Upon my pausing to read this inscription, an old woman who appeared to officiate as guardian of the gallery, hustled up, and addressing me with an air of much mystery, said, “Now, ma’am, now; this is just the time for you — nobody can see you — make haste.”

I stared at her with unfeigned surprise, and disengaging my arm, which she had taken apparently to hasten my movements, I very gravely asked her meaning.

“Only, ma’am, that ladies like to go into that room by themselves, when there be no gentlemen watching them.”

On entering this mysterious apartment, the first thing I remarked, was written paper, deprecating the disgusting depravity which had led some of the visitors to mark and deface the casts in a most indecent and shameless manner. This abomination has unquestionably been occasioned by the coarse-minded custom which sends alternate groups of males and females into the room. Were the antique gallery thrown open to mixed parties of ladies and gentlemen, it would soon cease. Till America has reached the degree of refinement which permits of this, the antique casts should not be exhibited to ladies at all. I never felt my delicacy shocked at the Louvre, but I was strangely tempted to resent as an affront the hint I received, that I might steal a glance at what was deemed indecent. Perhaps the arrangements for the exhibition of this room, the feelings which have led to them, and the result they have produced, furnish as good a specimen of the kind of delicacy on which the Americans pride themselves, and of the peculiarities arising from it, as can be found. The room contains about fifty casts, chiefly from the antique.

In the director’s room I was amused at the means which a poet had hit upon for advertising his works, or rather HIS WORK, and not less at the elaborate notice of it. His portrait was suspended there, and attached to the frame was a paper inscribed thus:-

‘PORTRAIT OF THE AUTHOR
of
The Fredoniad, or Independence Preserved,
a political, naval, and military poem,
on the late war of 1812, in forty cantos;
the whole compressed in four volumes;
each volume averaging more than 305 pages,
By RICHARD EMMONS, M.D.”

I went to the Chesnut Street Theatre to see Mr. Booth, formerly of Drury Lane, in the character of Lear, and a Mrs. Duff in Cordelia; but I have seen too many Lears and Cordelias to be easily pleased; I thought the whole performance very bad. The theatre is of excellently moderate dimensions, and prettily decorated. It was not the fashionable season for the theatres, which I presume must account for the appearance of the company in the boxes, which was any thing but elegant; nor was there more decorum of demeanour than I had observed elsewhere; I saw one man in the lower tier of boxes deliberately take off his coat that he might enjoy the refreshing coolness of shirt sleeves; all the gentlemen wore their hats, and the spitting was unceasing.

On another evening we went to the Walnut Street Theatre; the chief attraction of the night was furnished by the performance of a young man who had been previously exhibited as “a living skeleton.” He played the part of Jeremiah Thin, and certainly looked the part well; and here I think must end my praise of the evening’s performances.

The great and most striking contrast between this city and those of Europe, is perceived after sunset; scarcely a sound is heard; hardly a voice or a wheel breaks the stillness. The Streets are entirely dark, except where a stray lamp marks an hotel or the like; no shops are open, but those of the apothecary, and here and there a cook’s shop; scarcely a step is heard, and for a note of music, or the sound of mirth, I listened in vain. In leaving the theatre, which I always did before the afterpiece, I saw not a single carriage; the night of Miss Wright’s lecture, when I stayed to the end, I saw one. This darkness, this stillness, is so great, that I almost felt it awful. As we walked home one fine moonlight evening from the Chestnut Street house, we stopped a moment before the United States Bank, to look at its white marble columns by the subdued lights said to be so advantageous to them; the building did, indeed, look beautiful; the incongruous objects around were hardly visible, while the brilliant white of the building, which by daylight is dazzling, was mellowed into fainter light and softer shadow.

While pausing before this modern temple of Theseus, we remarked that we alone seemed alive in this great city; it was ten o’clock, and a most lovely cool evening, after a burning day, yet all was silence. Regent Street, Bond Street, with their blaze of gas-light bijouterie, and still more the Italian Boulevard of Paris, rose in strong contrast on the memory; the light, which outshines that of day — the gay, graceful, laughing throng — the elegant saloons of Tortoni, with all their varieties of cooling nectar — were all remembered. Is it an European prejudice to deem that the solitary dram swallowed by the gentlemen on quitting an American theatre indicates a lower and more vicious state of manners, than do the ices so sedulously offered to the ladies on leaving a French one?

The museum contains a good collection of objects illustrative of natural history, and some very interesting specimens of Indian antiquities; both here and at Cincinnati I saw so many things resembling Egyptian relics, that I should like to see the origin of the Indian nations enquired into, more accurately than has yet been done.

The shops, of which there appeared to me to be an unusually large proportion, are very handsome; many of them in a style of European elegance. Lottery offices abound, and that species of gambling is carried to a great extent. I saw fewer carriages in Philadelphia than either at Baltimore or Washington, but in the winter I was told they were more numerous.

Many of the best families had left the city for different watering-places, and others were daily following. Long Branch is a fashionable bathing place on the Jersey shore, to which many resort, both from this place and from New York; the description given of the manner of bathing appeared to me rather extraordinary, but the account was confirmed by so many different people, that I could not doubt its correctness. The shore, it seems, is too bold to admit of bathing machines, and the ladies have, therefore, recourse to another mode of ensuring the enjoyment of a sea-bath with safety. The accommodation at Long Branch is almost entirely at large boarding-houses, where all the company live at a table d’hote. It is customary for ladies on arriving to look round among the married gentlemen, the first time they meet at table, and to select the one her fancy leads her to prefer as a protector in her purposed visits to the realms of Neptune; she makes her request, which is always graciously received, that he would lead her to taste the briny wave; but another fair one must select the same protector, else the arrangement cannot be complete, as custom does not authorise tete a tete immersion.

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