Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Fanny Trollope

Chapter 7

Market — Museum — Picture Gallery — Academy of Fine Arts Drawing School — Phrenological Society — Miss Wright’s Lecture.

Perhaps the most advantageous feature in Cincinnati is its market, which, for excellence, abundance, and cheapness, can hardly, I should think, be surpassed in any part of the world, if I except the luxury of fruits, which are very inferior to any I have seen in Europe. There are no butchers, fishmongers, or indeed any shops for eatables, except bakeries, as they are called, in the town; every thing must be purchased at market; and to accomplish this, the busy housewife must be stirring betimes, or, ‘spite of the abundant supply, she will find her hopes of breakfast, dinner, and supper for the day defeated, the market being pretty well over by eight o’clock.

The beef is excellent, and the highest price when we were there, four cents (about two-pence) the pound. The mutton was inferior, and so was veal to the eye, but it ate well, though not very fat; the price was about the same. The poultry was excellent; fowls or full-sized chickens, ready for table, twelve cents, but much less if bought alive, and not quite fat; turkeys about fifty cents, and geese the same. The Ohio furnishes several sorts of fish, some of them very good, and always to be found cheap and abundant in the market. Eggs, butter, nearly all kinds of vegetables, excellent, and at moderate prices. From June till December tomatoes (the great luxury of the American table in the opinion of most Europeans) may be found in the highest perfection in the market for about sixpence the peck. They have a great variety of beans unknown in England, particularly the lima-bean, the seed of which is dressed like the French harico; it furnishes a very abundant crop, and is a most delicious vegetable: could it be naturalised with us it would be a valuable acquisition. The Windsor, or broad-bean, will not do well there; Mr. Bullock had them in his garden, where they were cultivated with much care; they grew about a foot high and blossomed, but the pod never ripened. All the fruit I saw exposed for sale in Cincinnati was most miserable. I passed two summers there, but never tasted a peach worth eating. Of apricots and nectarines I saw none; strawberries very small, raspberries much worse; gooseberries very few, and quite uneatable; currants about half the size of ours, and about double the price; grapes too sour for tarts; apples abundant, but very indifferent, none that would be thought good enough for an English table; pears, cherries, and plums most miserably bad. The flowers of these regions were at least equally inferior: whether this proceeds from want of cultivation or from peculiarity of soil I know not, but after leaving Cincinnati, I was told by a gentleman who appeared to understand the subject, that the state of Ohio had no indigenous flowers or fruits. The water-melons, which in that warm climate furnish a delightful refreshment, were abundant and cheap; but all other melons very inferior to those of France, or even of England, when ripened in a common hot-bed.

From the almost total want of pasturage near the city, it is difficult for a stranger to divine how milk is furnished for its supply, but we soon learnt that there are more ways than one of keeping a cow. A large proportion of the families in the town, particularly of the poorer class, have one, though apparently without any accommodation whatever for it. These animals are fed morning and evening at the door of the house, with a good mess of Indian corn, boiled with water; while they eat, they are milked, and when the operation is completed the milk-pail and the meal-tub retreat into the dwelling, leaving the republican cow to walk away, to take her pleasure on the hills, or in the gutters, as may suit her fancy best. They generally return very regularly to give and take the morning and evening meal; though it more than once happened to us, before we were supplied by a regular milk cart, to have our jug sent home empty, with the sad news that “the cow was not come home, and it was too late to look for her to breakfast now.” Once, I remember, the good woman told us that she had overslept herself, and that the cow had come and gone again, “not liking, I expect, to hanker about by herself for nothing, poor thing.”

Cincinnati has not many lions to boast, but among them are two museums of natural history; both of these contain many respectable specimens, particularly that of Mr. Dorfeuille, who has moreover, some highly interesting Indian antiquities. He is a man of taste and science, but a collection formed strictly according to their dictates, would by no means satisfy the western metropolis. The people have a most extravagant passion for wax figures, and the two museums vie with each other in displaying specimens of this barbarous branch of art. As Mr. Dorfeuille cannot trust to his science for attracting the citizens, he has put his ingenuity into requisition, and this has proved to him the surer aid of the two. He has constructed a pandaemonium in an upper story of his museum, in which he has congregated all the images of horror that his fertile fancy could devise; dwarfs that by machinery grow into giants before the eyes of the spectator; imps of ebony with eyes of flame; monstrous reptiles devouring youth and beauty; lakes of fire, and mountains of ice; in short, wax, paint and springs have done wonders. “To give the scheme some more effect,” he makes it visible only through a grate of massive iron bars, among which are arranged wires connected with an electrical machine in a neighbouring chamber; should any daring hand or foot obtrude itself with the bars, it receives a smart shock, that often passes through many of the crowd, and the cause being unknown, the effect is exceedingly comic; terror, astonishment, curiosity, are all set in action, and all contribute to make “Dorfeuille’s Hell” one of the most amusing exhibitions imaginable.

There is also a picture gallery at Cincinnati, and this was a circumstance of much interest to us, as our friend Mr. H., who had accompanied Miss Wright to America, in the expectation of finding a good opening in the line of historical painting, intended commencing his experiment at Cincinnati. It would be invidious to describe the picture gallery; I have no doubt, that some years hence it will present a very different appearance. Mr. H. was very kindly received by many of the gentlemen of the city, and though the state of the fine arts there gave him but little hope that he should meet with much success, he immediately occupied himself in painting a noble historical picture of the landing of General Lafayette at Cincinnati.

Perhaps the clearest proof of the little feeling for art that existed at that time in Cincinnati, may be drawn from the result of an experiment originated by a German, who taught drawing there. He conceived the project of forming a chartered academy of fine arts; and he succeeded in the beginning to his utmost wish, or rather, “they fooled him to the top of his bent.” Three thousand dollars were subscribed, that is to say, names were written against different sums to that amount, a house was chosen, and finally, application was made to the government, and the charter obtained, rehearsing formally the names of the subscribing members, the professors, and the officers. So far did the steam of their zeal impel them, but at this point it was let off; the affair stood still, and I never heard the academy of fine arts mentioned afterwards.

This same German gentleman, on seeing Mr. H.‘s sketches, was so well pleased with them, that he immediately proposed his joining him in his drawing school, with an agreement, I believe that his payment from it should be five hundred dollars a year. Mr. H. accepted the proposal, but the union did not last long, and the cause of its dissolution was too American to be omitted. Mr. H. prepared his models, and attended the class, which was numerous, consisting both of boys and girls. He soon found that the “sage called Decipline” was not one of the assistants, and he remonstrated against the constant talking, and running from one part of the room to another, but in vain; finding, however, that he could do nothing till this was discontinued, he wrote some rules, enforcing order, for the purpose of placing them at the door of the academy. When he shewed them to his colleague, he shook his head, and said, “Very goot, very goot in Europe, but America boys and gals vill not bear it, dey will do just vat dey please; Suur, dey vould all go avay next day.” “And you will not enforce these regulations si necessaires, Monsieur?” “Olar! not for de vorld.” “Eh bien, Monsieur, I must leave the young republicans to your management.”

I heard another anecdote that will help to show the state of art at this time in the west. Mr. Bullock was shewing to some gentlemen of the first standing, the very elite of Cincinnati, his beautiful collection of engravings, when one among them exclaimed, “Have you really done all these since you came here? How hard you must have worked!”

I was also told of a gentleman of High Cincinnati, TON and critical of his taste for the fine arts, who, having a drawing put into his hands, representing Hebe and the bird, umquhile sacred to Jupiter, demanded in a satirical tone, “What is this?” “Hebe,” replied the alarmed collector. “Hebe,” sneered the man of taste, “What the devil has Hebe to do with the American eagle?”

We had not been long at Cincinnati when Dr. Caldwell, the Spurzheim of America, arrived there for the purpose of delivering lectures on phrenology. I attended his lectures, and was introduced to him. He has studied Spurzheim and Combe diligently, and seems to understand the science to which he has devoted himself; but neither his lectures nor his conversation had that delightful truth of genuine enthusiasm, which makes listening to Dr. Spurzheim so great a treat. His lectures, however, produced considerable effect. Between twenty and thirty of the most erudite citizens decided upon forming a phrenological society. A meeting was called, and fully attended; a respectable number of subscribers’ names was registered, the payment of subscriptions being arranged for a future day. President, vice-president, treasurer, and secretary, were chosen; and the first meeting dissolved with every appearance of energetic perseverance in scientific research.

The second meeting brought together one-half of this learned body, and they enacted rules and laws, and passed resolutions, sufficient, it was said, to have filled three folios.

A third day of meeting arrived, which was an important one, as on this occasion the subscriptions were to be paid. The treasurer came punctually, but found himself alone. With patient hope, he waited two hours for the wise men of the west, but he waited in vain: and so expired the Phrenological Society of Cincinnati.

I had often occasion to remark that the spirit of enterprise or improvement seldom glowed with sufficient ardour to resist the smothering effect of a demand for dollars. The Americans love talking. All great works, however, that promise a profitable result, are sure to meet support from men who have enterprise and capital sufficient to await the return; but where there is nothing but glory, or the gratification of taste to be expected, it is, I believe, very rarely that they give any thing beyond “their most sweet voices.”

Perhaps they are right. In Europe we see fortunes crippled by a passion for statues, or for pictures, or for books, or for gems; for all and every of the artificial wants that give grace to life, and tend to make man forget that he is a thing of clay. They are wiser in their generation on the other side the Atlantic; I rarely saw any thing that led to such oblivion there.

Soon after Dr. Caldwell’s departure, another lecturer appeared upon the scene, whose purpose of publicly addressing the people was no sooner made known, than the most violent sensation was excited.

That a lady of fortune, family, and education, whose youth had been passed in the most refined circles of private life, should present herself to the people as a public lecturer, would naturally excite surprise any where, and the nil admirari of the old world itself, would hardly be sustained before such a spectacle; but in America, where women are guarded by a seven-fold shield of habitual insignificance, it caused an effect that can hardly be described. “Miss Wright, of Nashoba, is going to lecture at the court-house,” sounded from street to street, and from house to house. I shared the surprise, but not the wonder; I knew her extraordinary gift of eloquence, her almost unequalled command of words, and the wonderful power of her rich and thrilling voice; and I doubted not that if it was her will to do it, she had the power of commanding the attention, and enchanting the ear of any audience before whom it was her pleasure to appear. I was most anxious to hear her, but was almost deterred from attempting it, by the reports that reached me of the immense crowd that was expected. After many consultations, and hearing that many other ladies intended going, my friend Mrs. P— and myself, decided upon making the attempt, accompanied by a party of gentlemen, and found the difficulty less than we anticipated, though the building was crowded in every part. We congratulated ourselves that we had had the courage to be among the number, for all my expectations fell far short of the splendour, the brilliance, the overwhelming eloquence of this extraordinary orator.

Her lecture was upon the nature of true knowledge, and it contained little that could be objected to, by any sect or party; it was intended as an introduction to the strange and startling theories contained in her subsequent lectures, and could alarm only by the hints it contained that the fabric of human wisdom could rest securely on no other base than that of human knowledge.

There was, however, one passage from which common-sense revolted; it was one wherein she quoted that phrase of mischievous sophistry, “all men are born free and equal.” This false and futile axiom, which has done, is doing, and will do so much harm to this fine country, came from Jefferson; and truly his life was a glorious commentary upon it. I pretend not to criticise his written works, but commonsense enables me to pronounce this, his favourite maxim, false.

Few names are held in higher estimation in America, than that of Jefferson; it is the touchstone of the democratic party, and all seem to agree that he was one of the greatest of men; yet I have heard his name coupled with deeds which would make the sons of Europe shudder. The facts I allude to are spoken openly by all, not whispered privately by a few; and in a country where religion is the tea-table talk, and its strict observance a fashionable distinction, these facts are recorded, and listened to, without horror, nay, without emotion.

Mr. Jefferson is said to have been the father of children by almost all his numerous gang of female slaves. These wretched offspring were also the lawful slaves of their father, and worked in his house and plantations as such; in particular, it is recorded that it was his especial pleasure to be waited upon by them at table, and the hospitable orgies for which his Montecielo was so celebrated, were incomplete, unless the goblet he quaffed were tendered by the trembling hand of his own slavish offspring.

I once heard it stated by a democratical adorer of this great man, that when, as it sometimes happened, his children by Quadroon slaves were white enough to escape suspicion of their origin, he did not pursue them if they attempted to escape, saying laughingly, “Let the rogues get off, if they can; I will not hinder them.” This was stated in a large party, as a proof of his kind and noble nature, and was received by all with approving smiles.

If I know anything of right or wrong, if virtue and vice be indeed something more than words, then was this great American an unprincipled tyrant, and most heartless libertine.

But to return to Miss Wright, — it is impossible to imaging any thing more striking than her appearance. Her tall and majestic figure, the deep and almost solemn expression of her eyes, the simple contour of her finely formed head, unadorned excepting by its own natural ringlets; her garment of plain white muslin, which hung around her in folds that recalled the drapery of a Grecian statue, all contributed to produce an effect, unlike anything I had ever seen before, or ever expect to see again.

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