Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Fanny Trollope

Chapter 6

Servants — Society — Evening Parties

The greatest difficulty in organising a family establishment in Ohio, is getting servants, or, as it is there called, “getting help,” for it is more than petty treason to the Republic, to call a free citizen a servant. The whole class of young women, whose bread depends upon their labour, are taught to believe that the most abject poverty is preferable to domestic service. Hundreds of half-naked girls work in the paper-mills, or in any other manufactory, for less than half the wages they would receive in service; but they think their equality is compromised by the latter, and nothing but the wish to obtain some particular article of finery will ever induce them to submit to it. A kind friend, however, exerted herself so effectually for me, that a tall stately lass soon presented herself, saying, “I be come to help you.” The intelligence was very agreeable, and I welcomed her in the most gracious manner possible, and asked what I should give her by the year.

“Oh Gimini!” exclaimed the damsel, with a loud laugh, “you be a downright Englisher, sure enough. I should like to see a young lady engage by the year in America! I hope I shall get a husband before many months, or I expect I shall be an outright old maid, for I be most seventeen already; besides, mayhap I may want to go to school. You must just give me a dollar and half a week, and mother’s slave, Phillis, must come over once a week, I expect, from t’other side the water, to help me clean.” I agreed to the bargain, of course, with all dutiful submission; and seeing she was preparing to set to work in a yellow dress parseme with red roses, I gently hinted, that I thought it was a pity to spoil so fine a gown, and that she had better change it.

“’Tis just my best and my worst,” she answered, “for I’ve got no other.”

And in truth I found that this young lady had left the paternal mansion with no more clothes of any kind than what she had on. I immediately gave her money to purchase what was necessary for cleanliness and decency, and set to work with my daughters to make her a gown. She grinned applause when our labour was completed, but never uttered the slightest expression of gratitude for that, or for any thing else we could do for her. She was constantly asking us to lend her different articles of dress, and when we declined it, she said, “Well, I never seed such grumpy folks as you be; there is several young ladies of my acquaintance what goes to live out now and then with the old women about the town, and they and their gurls always lends them what they asks for; I guess you Inglish thinks we should poison your things, just as bad as if we was Negurs.” And here I beg to assure the reader, that whenever I give conversations they were not made À LOISIR, but were written down immediately after they occurred, with all the verbal fidelity my memory permitted.

This young lady left me at the end of two months, because I refused to lend her money enough to buy a silk dress to go to a ball, saying, “Then ’tis not worth my while to stay any longer.”

I cannot imagine it possible that such a state of things can be desirable, or beneficial to any of the parties concerned. I might occupy a hundred pages on the subject, and yet fail to give an adequate idea of the sore, angry, ever wakeful pride that seemed to torment these poor wretches. In many of them it was so excessive, that all feeling of displeasure, or even of ridicule, was lost in pity. One of these was a pretty girl, whose natural disposition must have been gentle and kind; but her good feelings were soured, and her gentleness turned to morbid sensitiveness, by having heard a thousand and a thousand times that she was as good as any other lady, that all men were equal, and women too, and that it was a sin and a shame for a free-born American to be treated like a servant.

When she found she was to dine in the kitchen, she turned up her pretty lip, and said, “I guess that’s ‘cause you don’t think I’m good enough to eat with you. You’ll find that won’t do here.” I found afterwards that she rarely ate any dinner at all, and generally passed the time in tears. I did every thing in my power to conciliate and make her happy, but I am sure she hated me. I gave her very high wages, and she staid till she had obtained several expensive articles of dress, and then, UN BEAU MATIN, she came to me full dressed, and said, “I must go.” “When shall you return, Charlotte?” “I expect you’ll see no more of me.” And so we parted. Her sister was also living with me, but her wardrobe was not yet completed, and she remained some weeks longer, till it was.

I fear it may be called bad taste to say so much concerning my domestics, but, nevertheless, the circumstances are so characteristic of America that I must recount another history relating to them. A few days after the departure of my ambitious belle, my cries for “Help” had been so effectual that another young lady presented herself, with the usual preface “I’m come to help you.” I had been cautioned never to ask for a reference for character, as it would not only rob me of that help, but entirely prevent my ever getting another; so, five minutes after she entered she was installed, bundle and all, as a member of the family. She was by no means handsome, but there was an air of simple frankness in her manner that won us all. For my own part, I thought I had got a second Jeanie Deans; for she recounted to me histories of her early youth, wherein her plain good sense and strong mind had enabled her to win her way through a host of cruel step-mothers, faithless lovers, and cheating brothers. Among other things, she told me, with the appearance of much emotion, that she had found, since she came to town, a cure for all her sorrows, “Thanks and praise for it, I have got religion!” and then she asked if I would spare her to go to Meeting every Tuesday and Thursday evening; “You shall not have to want me, Mrs. Trollope, for our minister knows that we have all our duties to perform to man, as well as to God, and he makes the Meeting late in the evening that they may not cross one another.” Who could refuse? Not I, and Nancy had leave to go to Meeting two evenings in the week, besides Sundays.

One night, that the mosquitoes had found their way under my net, and prevented my sleeping, I heard some one enter the house very late; I got up, went to the top of the stairs, and, by the help of a bright moon, recognised Nancy’s best bonnet. I called to her: “You are very late.” said I. “what is the reason of it?” “Oh, Mrs. Trollope,” she replied, “I am late, indeed! We have this night had seventeen souls added to our flock. May they live to bless this night! But it has been a long sitting, and very warm; I’ll just take a drink of water, and get to bed; you shan’t find me later in the morning for it.” Nor did I. She was an excellent servant, and performed more than was expected from her; moreover, she always found time to read the Bible several times in the day, and I seldom saw her occupied about any thing without observing that she had placed it near her.

At last she fell sick with the cholera, and her life was despaired of. I nursed her with great care, and sat up the greatest part of two nights with her. She was often delirious, and all her wandering thoughts seemed to ramble to heaven. “I have been a sinner,” she said, “but I am safe in the Lord Jesus.” When she recovered, she asked me to let her go into the country for a few days, to change the air, and begged me to lend her three dollars.

While she was absent a lady called on me, and enquired, with some agitation, if my servant, Nancy Fletcher, were at home. I replied that she was gone into the country. “Thank God,” she exclaimed, “never let her enter your doors again, she is the most abandoned woman in the town: a gentleman who knows you, has been told that she lives with you, and that she boasts of having the power of entering your house at any hour of night.” She told me many other circumstances, unnecessary to repeat, but all tending to prove that she was a very dangerous inmate.

I expected her home the next evening, and I believe I passed the interval in meditating how to get rid of her without an eclaircissement. At length she arrived, and all my study having failed to supply me with any other reason than the real one for dismissing her, I stated it at once. Not the slightest change passed over her countenance, but she looked steadily at me, and said, in a very civil tone, “I should like to know who told you.” I replied that it could be of no advantage to her to know, and that I wished her to go immediately. “I am ready to go,” she said, in the same quiet tone, “but what will you do for your three dollars?” “I must do without them, Nancy; good morning to you.” “I must just put up my things,” she said, and left the room. About half an hour afterwards, when we were all assembled at dinner, she entered with her usual civil composed air, “Well, I am come to wish you all goodbye,” and with a friendly good-humoured smile she left us.

This adventure frightened me so heartily, that, notwithstanding I had the dread of cooking my own dinner before my eyes, I would not take any more young ladies into my family without receiving some slight sketch of their former history. At length I met with a very worthy French woman, and soon after with a tidy English girl to assist her; and I had the good fortune to keep them till a short time before my departure: so, happily, I have no more misfortunes of this nature to relate.

Such being the difficulties respecting domestic arrangements, it is obvious, that the ladies who are brought up amongst them cannot have leisure for any great development of the mind: it is, in fact, out of the question; and, remembering this, it is more surprising that some among them should be very pleasing, than that none should be highly instructed.

Had I passed as many evenings in company in any other town that I ever visited as I did in Cincinnati, I should have been able to give some little account of the conversations I had listened to; but, upon reading over my notes, and then taxing my memory to the utmost to supply the deficiency, I can scarcely find a trace of any thing that deserves the name. Such as I have, shall be given in their place. But, whatever may be the talents of the persons who meet together in society, the very shape, form, and arrangement of the meeting is sufficient to paralyze conversation. The women invariably herd together at one part of the room, and the men at the other; but, in justice to Cincinnati, I must acknowledge that this arrangement is by no means peculiar to that city, or to the western side of the Alleghanies. Sometimes a small attempt at music produces a partial reunion; a few of the most daring youths, animated by the consciousness of curled hair and smart waistcoats, approach the piano forte, and begin to mutter a little to the half-grown pretty things, who are comparing with one another “how many quarters’ music they have had.” Where the mansion is of sufficient dignity to have two drawing-rooms, the piano, the little ladies, and the slender gentlemen are left to themselves, and on such occasions the sound of laughter is often heard to issue from among them. But the fate of the more dignified personages, who are left in the other room, is extremely dismal. The gentlemen spit, talk of elections and the price of produce, and spit again. The ladies look at each other’s dresses till they know every pin by heart; talk of Parson Somebody’s last sermon on the day of judgment, on Dr. T’otherbody’s new pills for dyspepsia, till the “tea” is announced, when they all console themselves together for whatever they may have suffered in keeping awake, by taking more tea, coffee, hot cake and custard, hoe cake, johny cake, waffle cake, and dodger cake, pickled peaches, and preserved cucumbers, ham, turkey, hung beef, apple sauce, and pickled oysters than ever were prepared in any other country of the known world. After this massive meal is over, they return to the drawing-room, and it always appeared to me that they remained together as long as they could bear it, and then they rise EN MASSE, cloak, bonnet, shawl, and exit.

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