Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Fanny Trollope

Chapter 28

American Cooking — Evening Parties — Dress — Sleighing — Money-getting Habits — Tax-Gatherer’s Notice — Indian Summer — Anecdote of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar

In relating all I know of America, I surely must not omit so important a feature as the cooking. There are sundry anomalies in the mode of serving even a first-rate table; but as these are altogether matters of custom, they by no means indicate either indifference or neglect in this important business; and whether castors are placed on the table or on the sideboard; whether soup, fish, patties, and salad be eaten in orthodox order or not, signifies but little. I am hardly capable, I fear, of giving a very erudite critique on the subject; general observations therefore must suffice. The ordinary mode of living is abundant, but not delicate. They consume an extraordinary quantity of bacon. Ham and beaf-steaks appear morning, noon, and night. In eating, they mix things together with the strangest incongruity imaginable. I have seen eggs and oysters eaten together: the sempiternal ham with apple-sauce; beefsteak with stewed peaches; and salt fish with onions. The bread is everywhere excellent, but they rarely enjoy it themselves, as they insist upon eating horrible half-baked hot rolls both morning and evening. The butter is tolerable; but they have seldom such cream as every little dairy produces in England; in fact, the cows are very roughly kept, compared with our’s. Common vegetables are abundant and very fine. I never saw sea-cale or cauliflowers, and either from the want of summer rain, or the want of care, the harvest of green vegetables is much sooner over than with us. They eat the Indian corn in a great variety of forms; sometimes it is dressed green, and eaten like peas; sometimes it is broken to pieces when dry, boiled plain, and brought to table like rice; this dish is called hominy. The flour of it is made into at least a dozen different sorts of cakes; but in my opinion all bad. This flour, mixed in the proportion of one-third with fine wheat, makes by far the best bread I ever tasted.

I never saw turbot, salmon, or fresh cod; but the rock and shad are excellent. There is a great want of skill in the composition of sauces; not only with fish, but with every thing. They use very few made dishes, and I never saw any that would be approved by our savants. They have an excellent wild duck, called the Canvass Back, which, if delicately served, would surpass the black cock; but the game is very inferior to our’s; they have no hares, and I never saw a pheasant. They seldom indulge in second courses, with all their ingenious temptations to the eating a second dinner; but almost every table has its dessert, (invariably pronounced desart) which is placed on the table before the cloth is removed, and consists of pastry, preserved fruits, and creams. They are “extravagantly fond,” to use their own phrase, of puddings, pies, and all kinds of “sweets,” particularly the ladies; but are by no means such connoisseurs in soups and ragouts as the gastronomes of Europe. Almost every one drinks water at table, and by a strange contradiction, in the country where hard drinking is more prevalent than in any other, there is less wine taken at dinner; ladies rarely exceed one glass, and the great majority of females never take any. In fact, the hard drinking, so universally acknowledged, does not take place at jovial dinners, but, to speak plain English, in solitary dram-drinking. Coffee is not served immediately after dinner, but makes part of the serious matter of tea-drinking, which comes some hours later. Mixed dinner parties of ladies and gentlemen are very rare, and unless several foreigners are present, but little conversation passes at table. It certainly does not, in my opinion, add to the well ordering a dinner table, to set the gentlemen at one end of it, and the ladies at the other; but it is very rarely that you find it otherwise.

Their large evening parties are supremely dull; the men sometimes play cards by themselves, but if a lady plays, it must not be for money; no ecarte, no chess; very little music, and that little lamentably bad. Among the blacks, I heard some good voices, singing in tune; but I scarcely ever heard a white American, male or female, go through an air without being out of tune before the end of it; nor did I ever meet any trace of science in the singing I heard in society. To eat inconceivable quantities of cake, ice, and pickled oysters — and to show half their revenue in silks and satins, seem to be the chief object they have in these parties.

The most agreeable meetings, I was assured by all the young people, were those to which no married women are admitted; of the truth of this statement I have not the least doubt. These exclusive meetings occur frequently, and often last to a late hour; on these occasions, I believe, they generally dance. At regular balls, married ladies are admitted, but seldom take much part in the amusement. The refreshments are always profuse and costly, but taken in a most uncomfortable manner. I have known many private balls, where every thing was on the most liberal scale of expense, where the gentlemen sat down to supper in one room, while the ladies took theirs, standing, in another.

What we call picnics are very rare, and when attempted, do not often succeed well. The two sexes can hardly mix for the greater part of a day without great restraint and ennui; it is quite contrary to their general habits; the favourite indulgences of the gentlemen (smoking cigars and drinking spirits), can neither be indulged in with decency, nor resigned with complacency.

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 daylight, 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 frostbitten 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 for the universal defect in the formation of the bust, which is rarely full, or gracefully formed.

I never saw an American man walk or stand well; notwithstanding their frequent militia drillings, they are nearly all hollow chested and round shouldered: perhaps this is occasioned by no officer daring to say to a brother free-born “hold up your head;” whatever the cause, the effect is very remarkable to a stranger. In stature, and in physiognomy, a great majority of the population, both male and female, are strikingly handsome, but they know not how to do their own honours; half as much comeliness elsewhere would produce ten times as much effect.

Nothing can exceed their activity and perseverance in all kinds of speculation, handicraft, and enterprise, which promises a profitable pecuniary result. I heard an Englishman, who had been long resident in America, declare that in following, in meeting, or in overtaking, in the street, on the road, or in the field, at the theatre, the coffee-house, or at home, he had never overheard Americans conversing without the word DOLLAR being pronounced between them. Such unity of purpose, such sympathy of feeling, can, I believe, be found nowhere else, except, perhaps, in an ants’ nest. The result is exactly what might be anticipated. This sordid object, for ever before their eyes, must inevitably produce a sordid tone of mind, and, worse still, it produces a seared and blunted conscience on all questions of probity. I know not a more striking evidence of the low tone of morality which is generated by this universal pursuit of money, than the manner in which the New England States are described by Americans. All agree in saying that they present a spectacle of industry and prosperity delightful to behold, and this is the district and the population most constantly quoted as the finest specimen of their admirable country; yet I never met a single individual in any part of the Union who did not paint these New Englanders as sly, grinding, selfish, and tricking. The yankees (as the New Englanders are called) will avow these qualities themselves with a complacent smile, and boast that no people on the earth can match them at over reaching in a bargain. I have heard them unblushingly relate stories of their cronies and friends, which, if believed among us, would banish the heroes from the fellowship of honest men for ever; and all this is uttered with a simplicity which sometimes led me to doubt if the speakers knew what honour and honesty meant. Yet the Americans declare that “they are the most moral people upon earth.” Again and again I have heard this asserted, not only in conversation, and by their writings, but even from the pulpit. Such broad assumption of superior virtue demands examination, and after four years of attentive and earnest observation and enquiry, my honest conviction is, that the standard of moral character in the United States is very greatly lower than in Europe. Of their religion, as it appears outwardly, I have had occasion to speak frequently; I pretend not to judge the heart, but, without any uncharitable presumption, I must take permission to say, that both Protestant England and Catholic France show an infinitely superior religious and moral aspect to mortal observation, both as to reverend decency of external observance, and as to the inward fruit of honest dealing between man and man.

In other respects I think no one will be disappointed who visits the country, expecting to find no more than common sense might teach him to look for, namely, a vast continent, by far the greater part of which is still in the state in which nature left it, and a busy, bustling, industrious population, hacking and hewing their way through it. What greatly increases the interest of this spectacle, is the wonderful facility for internal commerce, furnished by the rivers, lakes, and canals, which thread the country in every direction, producing a rapidity of progress in all commercial and agricultural speculation altogether unequalled. This remarkable feature is perceptible in every part of the union into which the fast spreading population has hitherto found its way, and forms, I think, the most remarkable and interesting peculiarity of the country. I hardly remember a single town where vessels of some description or other may not constantly be seen in full activity.

Their carriages of every kind are very unlike ours; those belonging to private individuals seem all constructed with a view to summer use, for which they are extremely well calculated, but they are by no means comfortable in winter. The waggons and cars are built with great strength, which is indeed necessary, from the roads they often have to encounter. The stagecoaches are heavier and much less comfortable than those of France; to those of England they can bear no comparison. I never saw any harness that I could call handsome, nor any equipage which, as to horses, carriage, harness, and servants, could be considered as complete. The sleighs are delightful, and constructed at so little expense that I wonder we have not all got them in England, lying by, in waiting for the snow, which often remains with us long enough to permit their use. Sleighing is much more generally enjoyed by night than by day, for what reason I could never discover, unless it be, that no gentlemen are to be found disengaged from business in the mornings. Nothing, certainly, can be more agreeable than the gliding smoothly and rapidly along, deep sunk in soft furs, the moon shining with almost midday splendour, the air of crystal brightness, and the snow sparkling on every side, as if it were sprinkled with diamonds. And then the noiseless movement of the horses, so mysterious and unwonted, and the gentle tinkling of the bells you meet and carry, all help at once to soothe and excite the spirits: in short, I had not the least objection to sleighing by night, I only wished to sleigh by day also.

Almost every resident in the country has a carriage they call a carryall, which name I suspect to be a corruption of the cariole so often mentioned in the pretty Canadian story of Emily Montagu. It is clumsy enough, certainly, but extremely convenient, and admirably calculated, with its thick roof and moveable draperies, for every kind of summer excursion.

Their steam-boats, were the social arrangements somewhat improved, would be delightful, as a mode of travelling; but they are very seldom employed for excursions of mere amusement: nor do I remember seeing pleasure-boats, properly so called, at any of the numerous places where they might be used with so much safety and enjoyment.

How often did our homely adage recur to me, “All work and no play would make Jack a dull boy;” Jonathan is a very dull boy. We are by no means so gay as our lively neighbours on the other side the Channel, but, compared with Americans, we are whirligigs and tetotums; every day is a holyday, and every night a festival.

Perhaps if the ladies had quite their own way, a little more relaxation would be permitted; but there is one remarkable peculiarity in their manners which precludes the possibility of any dangerous outbreaking of the kind: few ladies have any command of ready money entrusted to them. I have been a hundred times present when bills for a few dollars, perhaps for one, have been brought for payment to ladies living in perfectly easy circumstances, who have declared themselves without money, and referred the claimant to their husbands for payment. On every occasion where immediate disbursement is required it is the same; even in shopping for ready cash they say, “send a bill home with the things, and my husband will give you a draft.”

I think that it was during my stay at Washington, that I was informed of a government regulation, which appeared to me curious; I therefore record it here.

Every Deputy Post-Master is required to insert in his return the title of every newspaper received at his office for distribution. This return is laid before the Secretary of State, who, perfectly knowing the political character of each newspaper, is thus enabled to feel the pulse of every limb of the monster mob. This is a well imagined device for getting a peep at the politics of a country where newspapers make part of the daily food, but is it quite consistent with their entire freedom? I do not believe we have any such tricks to regulate the disposal of offices and appointments.

I believe it was in Indiana that Mr. T. met with a printed notice relative to the payment of taxes, which I preserved as a curious sample of the manner in which the free citizens are coaxed and reasoned into obeying the laws.

“LOOK OUT DELINQUENTS”

“Those indebted to me for taxes, fees, notes, and accounts, are specially requested to call and pay the same on or before the 1st day of December, 1828, as no longer indulgence will be given. I have called time and again, by advertisement and otherwise, to little effect; but now the time has come when my situation requires immediate payment from all indebted to me. It is impossible for me to pay off the amount of the duplicates of taxes and my other debts without recovering the same of those from whom it is due. I am at a loss to know the reason why those charged with taxes neglect to pay; from the negligence of many it would seem that they think the money is mine, or I have funds to discharge the taxes due to the State, and that I can wait with them until it suits their convenience to pay. The money is not mine; neither have I the funds to settle amount of the duplicate. My only resort is to collect; in doing so I should be sorry to have to resort to the authority given me by law for the recovery of the same. It should be the first object of every good citizen to pay his taxes, for it is in that way government is supported. Why are taxes assessed unless they are collected? Depend upon it, I shall proceed to collect agreeably to law, so govern yourselves accordingly.

JOHN SPENCER,
Sh’ff and Collector, D.C.
Nov 20, 1828.”

“N.B. On Thursday, the 27th inst. A. St. Clair and Geo. H. Dunn, Esqrs. depart for Indianopolis; I wish as many as can pay to do so, to enable me to forward as much as possible, to save the twenty-one per cent, that will be charged against me after the 8th of December next.

JS.”

The first autumn I passed in America, I was surprised to find a great and very oppressive return of heat, accompanied with a heavy mistiness in the air, long after the summer heats were over; when this state of the atmosphere comes on, they say, “we have got to the Indian summer.” On desiring to have this phrase explained, I was told that the phenomenon described as the Indian Summer was occasioned by the Indians setting fire to the woods, which spread heat and smoke to a great distance; but I afterwards met with the following explanation, which appears to me much more reasonable. “The Indian summer is so called because, at the particular period of the year in which it obtains, the Indians break up their village communities, and go to the interior to prepare for their winter hunting. This season seems to mark a dividing line, between the heat of summer, and the cold of winter, and is, from its mildness, suited to these migrations. The cause of this heat is the slow combustion of the leaves and other vegetable matter of the boundless and interminable forests. Those who at this season of the year have penetrated these forests, know all about it. To the feet the heat is quite sensible, whilst the ascending vapour warms every thing it embraces, and spreading out into the wide atmosphere, fills the circuit of the heavens with its peculiar heat and smokiness.”

This unnatural heat sufficiently accounts for the sickliness of the American autumn. The effect of it is extremely distressing to the nerves, even when the general health continues good; to me, it was infinitely more disagreeable than the glowing heat of the dog-days.

A short time before we arrived in America, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar made a tour of the United States. I heard many persons speak of his unaffected and amiable manners, yet he could not escape the dislike which every trace of gentlemanly feeling is sure to create among the ordinary class of Americans. As an amusing instance of this, I made the following extract from a newspaper.

“A correspondent of the Charlestown Gazette tells an anecdote connected with the Duke of Saxe-Weimar’s recent journey through our country, which we do not recollect to have heard before, although some such story is told of the veritable Capt. Basil Hall. The scene occurred on the route between Augusta and Milledgeville; it seems that the sagacious Duke engaged three or four, or more seats, in the regular stage, for the accommodation of himself and suite, and thought by this that he had secured the monopoly of the vehicle. Not so, however; a traveller came along, and entered his name upon the book, and secured his seat by payment of the customary charges. To the Duke’s great surprise on entering the stage, he found our traveller comfortably housed in one of the most eligible seats, wrapt up in his fear-nought, and snoring like a buffalo. The Duke, greatly irritated, called for the question of consideration. He demanded, in broken English, the cause of the gross intrusion, and insisted in a very princely manner, though not, it seems in very princely language, upon the incumbent vacating the seat in which he had made himself so impudently at home. But the Duke had yet to learn his first lesson of republicanism. The driver was one of those sturdy southrons, who can always, and at a moment’s warning, whip his weight in wild cats: and he as resolutely told the Duke, that the traveller was as good, if not a better man, than himself; and that no alteration of the existing arrangement could be permitted. Saxe-Weimar became violent at this opposition, so unlike any to which his education hitherto had ever subjected him, and threatened John with the application of the bamboo. This was one of those threats which in Georgia dialect would subject a man to “a rowing up salt river;” and, accordingly, down leaped our driver from his box, and peeling himself for the combat, he leaped about the vehicle in the most wild-boar style, calling upon the prince of a five acre patch to put his threat in execution. But he of the star refused to make up issue in the way suggested, contenting himself with assuring the enraged southron of a complaint to his excellency the Governor, on arriving at the seat of government. This threat was almost as unlucky as the former, for it wrought the individual for whom it was intended into that species of fury, which, through discriminating in its madness, is nevertheless without much limit in its violence, and he swore that the Governor might go to — and for his part he would just as leave lick the Governor as the Duke; he’d like no better fun than to give both Duke and Governor a dressing in the same breath; could do it, he had little doubt, &c. &c.; and instigating one fist to diverge into the face of the marvelling and panic-stricken nobleman, with the other he thrust him down into a seat alongside the traveller, whose presence had been originally of such sore discomfort to his excellency, and bidding the attendants jump in with their discomfited master, he mounted his box in triumph, and went on his journey.” I fully believe that this brutal history would be as distasteful to the travelled and polished few who are to be found scattered through the Union, as it is to me: but if they do not deem the possibility of such a scene to be a national degradation, I differ from them. The American people (speaking of the great mass) have no more idea of what constitutes the difference between this “Prince of a five acre patch,” and themselves, than a dray-horse has of estimating the points of the elegant victor of the race-course. Could the dray-horse speak, when expected to yield the daintiest stall to his graceful rival, he would say, “a horse is a horse;” and is it not with the same logic that the transatlantic Houynnhnm puts down all superiority with “a man is a man?”

This story justifies the reply of Talleyrand, when asked by Napoleon what he thought of the Americans, “Sire, ce sont des fiers cochons, et des cochons fiers.”

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