Position of New York — Externals of the city — Conveyances — Maladministration — The stores — The hotels — Curiosities of the hospital — Ragged schools — The bad book — Monster schools — Amusements and oyster saloons — Monstrosities — A restaurant — Dwelling-houses — Equipages — Palaces — Dress — Figures — Manners — Education — Domestic habits — The ladies — The gentlemen — Society — Receptions — Anti–English feeling — Autographs — The “Buckram Englishman.”
New York, from its position, population, influence, and commerce, is worthy to be considered the metropolis of the New World. The situation of it is very advantageous. It is built upon Manhattan Island, which is about thirteen miles in length by two in breadth. It has the narrowest portion of Long Island Sound, called East River, on its east side; the Hudson, called the North River, environs it in another direction; while these two are connected by a narrow strait, principally artificial, denominated the Harlem River. This insular position of the city is by no means intelligible to the stranger, but it is obvious from the top of any elevated building. The dense part of New York already covers a large portion of the island; and as it daily extends northward, the whole extent of insulated ground is divided into lots, and mapped out into streets.
But, not content with covering the island, which, when Hendrick Hudson first discovered it, abounded with red men, who fished along its banks and guided their bark canoes over the surrounding waters, New York, under the names of Brooklyn, Williamsburgh, and four or five others, has spread itself on Long Island, Staten Island, and the banks of the Hudson. Brooklyn, on Long Island, which occupies the same position with regard to New York that Lambeth and Southwark do to London, contains a population of 100,000 souls. Brooklyn, Williamsburgh, Hoboken, and Jersey City are the residences of a very large portion of the merchants of New York, who have deserted the old or Dutch part of the town, which is consequently merely an aggregate of offices. Floating platforms, moved by steam, with space in the middle part for twelve or fourteen carriages and horses, and luxurious covered apartments, heated with steam-pipes on either side, ply to and fro every five minutes at the small charge of one halfpenny a passenger, and the time occupied in crossing the ferries is often less than that of the detention on Westminster Bridge. Besides these large places, Staten Island and Long Island are covered with villa residences. Including these towns, which are in reality part of this vast city, New York contains a population of very nearly a million! Broadway, which is one of the most remarkable streets in the world, being at once the Corso, Toledo, Regent Street, and Princes Street of New York, runs along the centre of the city, and is crossed at right angles by innumerable streets, which run down to the water at each side. It would appear as if the inventive genius of the people had been exhausted, for, after borrowing designations for their streets from every part of the world, among which some of the old Dutch names figure most refreshingly, they have adopted the novel plan of numbering them. Thus there are ten “Avenues,” which run from north to south, and these are crossed by streets numbered First Street, Second Street, and so on. I believe that the skeletons of one hundred and fifty numbered streets are in existence. The southern part of the town still contains a few of the old Dutch houses, and there are some substantial red-brick villas in the vicinity, inhabited by the descendants of the old Dutch families, who are remarkably exclusive in their habits.
New York is decidedly a very handsome city. The wooden houses have nearly all disappeared, together with those of an antiquated or incongruous appearance; and the new streets are very regularly and substantially built of brown stone or dark brick. The brick building in New York is remarkably beautiful. The windows are large, and of plate-glass, and the whole external finish of the houses is in a splendid but chaste style, never to be met with in street-architecture in England. As the houses in the city are almost universally heated by air warmed by a subterranean stove, very few chimneys are required, and these are seldom visible above the stone parapets which conceal the roofs. Anthracite coal is almost universally used, so there is an absence of that murky, yellow canopy which disfigures English towns. The atmosphere is remarkably dry, so that even white marble edifices, of which there are several in the town, suffer but little from the effects of climate.
Broadway is well paved, and many of the numbered streets are not to be complained of in this respect, but a great part of the city is indescribably dirty, though it is stated that the expense of cleaning it exceeds 250,000 dollars per annum. Its immense length necessitates an enormous number of conveyances; and in order to obviate the obstruction to traffic which would have been caused by providing omnibus accommodation equal to the demand, the authorities have consented to a most alarming inroad upon several of the principal streets. The stranger sees with surprise that double lines of rails are laid along the roadways; and while driving quietly in a carriage, he hears the sound of a warning bell, and presently a railway-car, holding thirty persons, and drawn by two or four horses, comes thundering down the street. These rail-cars run every few minutes, and the fares are very low. For very sufficient reasons, Broadway is not thus encroached upon; and a journey from one end to the other of this marvellous street is a work of time and difficulty. Pack the traffic of the Strand and Cheapside into Oxford Street, and still you will not have an idea of the crush in Broadway. There are streams of scarlet and yellow omnibuses racing in the more open parts, and locking each other’s wheels in the narrower — there are helpless females deposited in the middle of a sea of slippery mud, condemned to run a gauntlet between cart-wheels and horses’ hoofs — there are loaded stages hastening to and from the huge hotels — carts and waggons laden with merchandise — and “Young Americans” driving fast-trotting horses, edging in and out among the crowd — wheels are locked, horses tumble down, and persons pressed for time are distracted. Occasionally, the whole traffic of the street comes to a dead-lock, in consequence of some obstruction or crowd, there being no policeman at hand with his incessant command, “Move on!”
The hackney-carriages of New York are very handsome, and, being drawn by two horses, have the appearance of private equipages; but woe to the stranger who trusts to the inviting announcement that the fare is a dollar within a certain circle. Bad as London cabmen are, one would welcome the sight of one of them. The New York hackmen are licensed plunderers, against whose extortions there is neither remedy nor appeal. They are generally Irish, and cheat people with unblushing audacity. The omnibus or stage accommodation is plentiful and excellent. A person soon becomes accustomed to, and enjoys, the occasional excitement of locked wheels or a race, and these vehicles are roomy and clean. They are sixteen inches wider than our own omnibuses, and carry a number of passengers certainly within their capabilities, and the fares are fixed and very low, 6–1/2 cents for any distance. They have windows to the sides and front, and the spaces between are painted with very tolerably-executed landscapes. There is no conductor; the driver opens and closes the door with a strap, and the money is handed to him through a little hole in the roof. The lady passengers invariably give the money to a gentleman for this purpose, and no rule of etiquette is more rigidly enforced than for him to obey the request to do so, generally consisting in a haughty wave of the hand. The thousand acts of attention which gentlemen, by rigid usage, are compelled to tender to ladies, are received by them without the slightest acknowledgment, either by word or gesture. To so great an extent is this nonchalance carried on the part of the females, that two or three newspapers have seriously taken up the subject, and advise the gentlemen to withdraw from the performance of such unrequited attentions.
Strangers frequently doubt whether New York possesses a police; the doubt is very justifiable, for these guardians of the public peace are seldom forthcoming when they are wanted. They are accessible to bribes, and will investigate into crime when liberally rewarded; but probably in no city in the civilised world is life so fearfully insecure. The practice of carrying concealed arms, in the shape of stilettoes for attack, and swordsticks for defence, if illegal, is perfectly common; desperate reprobates, called “Rowdies,” infest the lower part of the town; and terrible outrages and murderous assaults are matters of such nightly occurrence as to be thought hardly worthy of notice, even in those prints which minister to man’s depraved taste for the horrible.*
* [The state of New York has improved. Mr. Fernando Wood, who was elected Mayor in November, 1854, has issued stringent regulations for the maintenance of order. A better police-force has been organised, and many of the notorious “Rowdies” and other bad characters have been shut up on Blackwell’s Island. His tenure of office has just expired, and it is much to be feared that the mob, which exercises an undue influence upon the municipal elections, has not chosen a successor who will interfere with its privileges.]
No language can be too strongly expressive of censure upon the disgraceful condition of New York. The evil may be distinctly traced to the wretched system of politics which prevails at the election of the municipal officers, who are often literally chosen from the lowest of the people, and are venal and corrupt in the highest degree.
During my visit to New York a candidate for one of these offices stabbed a policeman, who died of the wound. If I might judge from the tone of the public prints, and from conversations on the subject, public feeling was not much outraged by the act itself, but it was a convenient stalking-horse for the other side, and the policeman’s funeral procession, which went down Broadway, was nearly a mile in length.
The principal stores are situated in Broadway; and although they attempt very little in the way of window display, the interiors are spacious, and arranged with the greatest taste. An American store is generally a very extensive apartment, handsomely decorated, the roof frequently supported on marble pillars. The owner or clerk is seen seated by his goods, absorbed in the morning paper — probably balancing himself on one leg of his chair, with a spittoon by his side. He deigns to answer your inquiries, but, in place of the pertinacious perseverance with which an English shop man displays his wares, it seems a matter of perfect indifference to the American whether you purchase or no. The drapers’ and mercers’ shops, which go by the name of “dry goods” stores, are filled with the costliest productions of the world. The silks from the looms of France are to be seen side by side with the productions of Persia and India, and all at an advance of fully two-thirds on English prices. The “fancy goods” stores are among the most attractive lounges of the city. Here Paris figures to such an extent, that it was said at the time when difficulties with France were apprehended, in consequence of the Soulé affair, that “Louis Napoleon might as well fire cannon-balls into the Palais Royal as declare war with America.” Some of the bronzes in these stores are of exquisite workmanship, and costly china from Sèvres and Dresden feasts the eyes of the lovers of beauty in this branch of art.
The American ladies wear very costly jewellery, but I was perfectly amazed at the prices of some of the articles displayed. I saw a diamond bracelet containing one brilliant of prodigious size and lustre. The price was 25,000 dollars, or 5000l. On inquiring who would purchase such a thing, the clerk replied, “I guess some southerner will buy it for his wife.”
One of the sights with which the New York people astonish English visitors is Stewart’s dry-goods store in Broadway, an immense square building of white marble, six stories high, with a frontage of 300 feet. The business done in it is stated to be above 1,500,000l. per annum. There are 400 people employed at this establishment, which has even a telegraph office on the premises, where a clerk is for ever flashing dollars and cents along the trembling wires. There were lace collars 40 guineas each, and flounces of Valenciennes lace, half a yard deep, at 120 guineas a flounce. The damasks and brocades for curtains and chairs were at almost fabulous prices. Few gentlemen, the clerk observed, give less than 3l. per yard for these articles. The most costly are purchased by the hotels. I saw some brocade embroidered in gold to the thickness of half an inch, some of which had been supplied to the St. Nicholas Hotel at 9l. per yard! There were stockings from a penny to a guinea a pair, and carpetings from 1s. 8d. to 22s. a yard. Besides six stories above ground, there were large light rooms under the building, and under Broadway itself, echoing with the roll of its 10,000 vehicles.
The hotels are among the sights of New York. The principal are the Astor House (which has a world-wide reputation), the Metropolitan, and the St. Nicholas, all in Broadway. Prescott House and Irving House also afford accommodation on a very large scale. The entrances to these hotels invariably attract the eye of the stranger. Groups of extraordinary-looking human beings are always lounging on the door-steps, smoking, whittling, and reading newspapers. There are southerners sighing for their sunny homes, smoking Havana cigars; western men, with that dashing free-and-easy air which renders them unmistakeable; Englishmen, shrouded in exclusiveness, who look on all their neighbours as so many barbarian intruders on their privacy; and people of all nations, whom business has drawn to the American metropolis.
The Metropolitan Hotel is the most imposing in appearance. It is a block of building with a frontage of 300 feet, and is six stories high. I believe that it can accommodate 1300 people. The St. Nicholas is the most superb in its decorations; it is a magnificent building of white marble, and can accommodate 1000 visitors. Everything in this edifice is on a style of princely magnificence. The grand entrance opens into a very fine hall with a marble floor, and this is surrounded with settees covered with the skins of wild animals. The parlours are gorgeous in the extreme, and there are two superb dining-rooms to contain 600 people each. The curtains and sofa-covers in some of the parlours cost 5l. per yard, and, as has been previously named, one room is furnished with gold brocade purchased at 9l. per yard. About 100 married couples reside permanently at the St. Nicholas; it does not, however, bear the very best reputation, as it is said to be the resort of a large number of professed gamblers. Large as these hotels are, they are nothing to a monster establishment at Cape May, a fashionable summer resort in New Jersey. The capacities of this building, the Mount Vernon Hotel, though stated on the best authority, can scarcely be credited — it is said to make up 3000 beds!
Owing to the high rates of house-rent and the difficulty of procuring servants, together with the exorbitant wages which they require, many married couples, and even families, reside permanently at the hotels. Living constantly in public, without opportunity for holding family intercourse, and being without either home cares or home pleasures, nomade, restless, pleasure-seeking habits are induced, which have led strangers to charge the Americans with being destitute of home life. That such is the case to some extent is not to be denied; but this want is by no means generally observed. I have met with family circles in the New World as united and affectionate as those in the Old, not only in country districts, but in the metropolis itself; and in New England there is probably as much of what may be termed patriarchal life as anywhere in Europe.
The public charities of New York are on a gigantic scale. The New York Hospital, a fine stone building with some large trees in front, situated in Broadway, was one which pleased me as much as any. Two of the physicians kindly took me over the whole building, and explained all the arrangements. I believe that the hospital contains 650 beds, and it is generally full, being not only the receptacle for the numerous accident cases which are of daily occurrence in New York, but for those of a large district besides, which are conveniently brought in by railroad. We first went into the recent-accident room, where the unhappy beings who were recently hurt or operated upon were lying. Some of them were the most piteous objects I ever witnessed, and the medical men, under the impression that I was deeply interested in surgery, took pains to exhibit all the horrors. There were a good many of the usual classes of accidents, — broken limbs and mangled frames. There was one poor little boy of twelve years old, whose arms had been torn to pieces by machinery; one of them had been amputated on the previous day, and, while the medical men displayed the stump, they remarked that the other must be taken off on the next day. The poor boy groaned with a more than childish expression of agony on his pale features, probably at the thought of the life of helplessness before him. A young Irishman had been crushed by a railway car, and one of his legs had been amputated a few hours previously. As the surgeon altered the bandages he was laughing and joking, and had been singing ever since the operation — a remarkable instance of Paddy’s unfailing lightheartedness.
But, besides these ordinary accidents, there were some very characteristic of New York and of a New York election. In one ward there were several men who had been stabbed the night before, two of whom were mortally wounded. There were two men, scarcely retaining the appearance of human beings, who had been fearfully burned and injured by the explosion of an infernal machine. All trace of human features had departed; it seemed hardly credible that such blackened, distorted, and mangled frames could contain human souls. There were others who had received musket-shot wounds during the election, and numbers of broken heads, and wounds from knives. It was sad to know that so much of the suffering to be seen in that hospital was the result of furious religious animosities, and of the unrestrained lawlessness of human violence.
There was one man who had been so nearly crushed to pieces, that it seemed marvellous that the mangled frame could still retain its vitality. One leg was broken in three places, and the flesh torn off from the knee to the foot; both arms and several ribs were also broken. We went into one of the female wards, where sixteen broken legs were being successfully treated, and I could not but admire a very simple contrivance which remedies the contraction which often succeeds broken limbs, and produces permanent lameness. Two long straps of plaister were glued from above the knee to the ankle, and were then fixed to a wooden bar, with a screw and handle, so that the tension could be regulated at pleasure. The medical men, in remarking upon this, observed that in England we were very slow to adopt any American improvements in surgery or medicine.
There were many things in this hospital which might be imitated in England with great advantage to the patients. Each ward was clean, sweet, and airy; and the system of heating and ventilation is very superior. The heating and ventilating apparatus, instead of sending forth alternate blasts of hot and cold air, keeps up a uniform and easily regulated temperature. A draught of cold air is continually forced through a large apparatus of steam-pipes, and, as it becomes vitiated in the rooms above, passes out through ventilators placed just below the ceiling. Our next visit was to the laundry, where two men, three women, and, last but not least, a steam-engine of 45-horse power, were perpetually engaged in washing the soiled linen of the hospital. The large and rapidly-moving cylinder which churns the linen is a common part of a steam laundry, but the wringing machine is one of the most beautiful practical applications of a principle in natural philosophy that I ever saw. It consists of a large perforated cylinder, open at the top, with a case in the centre. This cylinder performs from 400 to 700 revolutions in a minute, and, by the power of the centrifugal force thus produced, the linen is impelled so violently against the sides, that the moisture is forced through the perforations, when the linen is left nearly dry.
Strange as it may appear to those who associate America with plenty and comfort, there is a very large class of persons at New York living in a state of squalid and abject poverty; and in order that the children belonging to it may receive some education, it has been found necessary by the benevolent to supplement the common school system with ragged or industrial schools. In order not to wound the pride of parents who are not too proud to receive a gratuitous education for their offspring, these establishments are not called Ragged Schools, but “Boys’ Meetings,” and “Girls’ Meetings.” I visited two of these, the first in Tompkin Square. There were about 100 children in the school, and nearly all of them were Irish Roman Catholics. They receive a good elementary education, and answered the questions addressed to them with correctness and alacrity. The Bible, of course, is not read, but the pupils learn a Scripture catechism, and paraphrased versions of Scripture incidents. One day, during the absence of the teacher, one of the pupils was looking into an English Bible, and another addressed her with the words, “You wicked girl, you know the priest says that you are never to open that bad book; I will never walk with you again.” The child, on going home, told her mother, and she said that she did not think it could be such a bad book, as the ladies who were so kind to them read it. The child said that it was a beautiful book, and persuaded her mother to borrow a Bible from a neighbour; she read it, and became a Protestant. These children earn their clothing by a certain number of good marks, but most of them were shoeless. Each child is obliged to take a bath on the establishment once a-week. Their answers in geography and history were extremely good. In the afternoon the elder girls are employed in tailoring and dressmaking, and receive so much work that this branch of the school is self-supporting.
I visited another industrial school, in a very bad part of the town, adjoining the Bowery, where the parents are of the very worst description, and their offspring are vicious and unmanageable. I think that I never saw vice and crime so legibly stamped upon the countenances of children as upon those in this school. The teachers find it extremely difficult to preserve discipline at all; and the pilfering habits of the pupils are almost incorrigible. They each receive a pint of excellent soup and an unlimited quantity of bread for dinner; but they are discontented and unthankful.
The common school system will be enlarged upon in a succeeding chapter; but I cannot forbear noticing one school which I visited, It was a lofty, four-storied building of red brick, with considerable architectural pretensions. It was faced with brown stone, and had a very handsome entrance-hall and staircase. The people of New York vie with each other in their hospitality to strangers, and in showing them the objects of interest within their city in the very best manner; and it was under the auspices of Dr. Wells, one of the commissioners of education, that I saw this admirable school, or rather educational institution. On inquiring the reason of the extraordinary height of the balustrades, I was told that some weeks previously, as the boys were hurriedly leaving school, forty of them had been pushed over the staircase, out of which number nearly the whole were killed!
In the girls’ room about 900 girls between the ages of eight and eighteen were assembled. They were the children of persons in every class in the city except the very wealthiest and the poorest. All these girls were well dressed, some of them tasteful, others fantastic, in their appearance. There was a great deal of beauty among the elder pupils; I only regretted that the bright bloom which many possessed should be so evanescent. The rich luxuriant hair, often of a beautiful auburn hue, was a peculiarity which could not be overlooked. There were about ten female teachers, the principal of whom played some lively airs upon the piano, during which time the pupils marched steadily in from various class-rooms, and took their seats at handsome mahogany desks, which accommodated two each. No expense had been spared in the fittings of the apartment; the commissioners of education are evidently of opinion that the young do not acquire knowledge the more speedily from being placed on comfortless benches, without any means of resting their weak and tired frames.
Each desk contained a drawer or cupboard; and to encourage those habits of order and self-reliance to which so much weight is attached in the States, each pupil is made responsible for the preservation and security of her books and all implements of education. The business of the day commenced by the whole number of girls reverently repeating the Lord’s Prayer, which, in addressing God as “Our Father,” proclaims the common bond of brotherhood which unites the whole human race. The sound of 900 youthful voices solemnly addressing their Creator was very beautiful and impressive. A chapter from the Bible, read aloud by the teacher, followed, and a hymn beautifully sung, when the pupils filed off as before to the sound of music. We next went to the elementary room, appropriated to infants, who are not sent to the higher school till their proficiency reaches the standard required.
The infant system does not appear to differ materially from ours, except that it is of a more intellectual nature. In this room 1300 children joined in singing a hymn. In the boys’ rooms about 1000 boys were receiving instruction under about 12 specimens of “Young America.” The restless, the almost fearful energy of the teachers surprised me, and the alacrity of the boys in answering questions. In the algebra-room questions involving the most difficult calculation on the part of the pupils were answered sometimes even before the teacher had worked them out himself.
Altogether, I was delighted with this school and with the earnestness displayed by both teachers and pupils. I was not so well pleased with the manners of the instructors, particularly in the boys’ school. There was a boastfulness, an exaggeration, and a pedantry, which are by no means necessary accompaniments of superior attainments. The pupils have a disrespectful, familiar, and independent air, though I understood that the punishments are more severe than are generally approved of in English schools. The course of instruction is very complete. History is especially attended to, with its bearing upon modern politics. The teachers receive from 80l. to 300l. a year, and very high attainments are required. Besides the common and industrial schools, there are means of education provided for the juvenile portion of the very large foreign population of New York, principally German. There are several schools held under the basements of the churches, without any paid teachers. The ladies of New York, to their honour be it said, undertake, unassisted, the education of these children, a certain number being attached to every school. Each of these ladies takes some hours of a day, and youth and beauty may be seen perseveringly engaged in this arduous but useful task.
The spirit of practical benevolence which appears to permeate New York society is one of its most pleasing features. It is not only that the wealthy contribute large sums of money to charitable objects, but they personally superintend their right distribution. No class is left untouched by their benevolent efforts; wherever suffering and poverty are found, the hand of Christianity or philanthropy is stretched out to relieve them. The gulf which in most cities separates the rich from the poor has been to some extent lessened in New York; for numbers of ladies and gentlemen of education and affluence visit among the poor and vicious, seeking to raise them to a better position.
If there are schools, emigrant hospitals, orphan asylums, and nursing institutions, to mark the good sense and philanthropy of the people of New York, so their love of amusement and recreation is strongly evidenced by the numerous places where both may be procured. There is perhaps as much pleasure-seeking as in Paris; the search after amusement is characterised by the same restless energy which marks the pursuit after wealth; and if the Americans have little time for enjoying themselves, they are resolved that the opportunities for doing so shall be neither distant nor few. Thus, Broadway and its neighbourhood contain more places of amusement than perhaps any district of equal size in the world. These present variety sufficient to embrace the tastes of the very heterogeneous population of New York.
There are three large theatres; an opera-house of gigantic proportions, which is annually graced by the highest vocal talent of Europe; Wood’s minstrels, and Christy’s minstrels, where blacks perform in unexceptionable style to unwearied audiences; and comic operas. There are al fresco entertainments, masquerades, concerts, restaurants, and oyster saloons. Besides all these, and many more, New York contained in 1853 the amazing number of 5980 taverns. The number of places where amusement is combined with intellectual improvement is small, when compared with other cities of the same population. There are however some very magnificent reading-rooms and libraries.
The amount of oysters eaten in New York surprised me, although there was an idea at the time of my visit that they produced the cholera, which rather checked any extraordinary excesses in this curious fish. In the business streets of New York the eyes are greeted continually with the words “Oyster Saloon,” painted in large letters on the basement story. If the stranger’s curiosity is sufficient to induce him to dive down a flight of steps into a subterranean abode, at the first glance rather suggestive of robbery, one favourite amusement of the people may be seen in perfection. There is a counter at one side, where two or three persons, frequently blacks, are busily engaged in opening oysters for their customers, who swallow them with astonishing relish and rapidity. In a room beyond, brightly lighted by gas, family groups are to be seen, seated at round tables, and larger parties of friends, enjoying basins of stewed oysters; while from some mysterious recess the process of cookery makes itself distinctly audible. Some of these saloons are highly respectable, while many are just the reverse. But the consumption of oysters is by no means confined to the saloons; in private families an oyster supper is frequently a nightly occurrence; the oysters are dressed in the parlour by an ingenious and not inelegant apparatus. So great is the passion for this luxury, that the consumption of it during the season is estimated at 3500l. a-day.
There are several restaurants in the city, on the model of those in the Palais Royal. The most superb of these, but not by any means the most respectable, is Taylor’s, in Broadway. It combines Eastern magnificence with Parisian taste, and strangers are always expected to visit it. It is a room about 100 ft. in length, by 22 in height; the roof and cornices richly carved and gilded, the walls ornamented by superb mirrors, separated by white marble. The floor is of marble, and a row of fluted and polished marble pillars runs down each side. It is a perfect blaze of decoration. There is an alcove at one end of the apartment, filled with orange-trees, and the air is kept refreshingly cool by a crystal fountain. Any meal can be obtained here at any hour. On the day on which I visited it, the one hundred marble tables which it contains were nearly all occupied; a double row of equipages lined the street at the door; and two or three hundred people, many of them without bonnets and fantastically dressed, were regaling themselves upon ices and other elegancies in an atmosphere redolent with the perfume of orange-flowers, and musical with the sound of trickling water, and the melody of musical snuff-boxes. There was a complete maze of fresco, mirrors, carving, gilding, and marble. A dinner can be procured here at any hour of day or night, from one shilling and sixpence up to half-a-guinea, and other meals in like proportion. As we merely went to see the restaurant, we ordered ices, which were served from large reservoirs, shining like polished silver. These were paid for at the time, and we received tickets in return, which were taken by the doorkeeper on coming out. It might be supposed that Republican simplicity would scorn so much external display; but the places of public entertainment vie in their splendour with the palaces of kings.
It was almost impossible for a stranger to leave New York without visiting the American museum, the property of Phineas Taylor Barnum. The history of this very remarkable man is now well known, even in England, where the publication of his ‘Autobiography’ has been a nine days’ wonder. It is said that 60,000 copies were sold at New York in one day, so successful has he been in keeping himself for ever before the public eye. It is painful to see how far a man whose life has been spent in total disregard of the principles of truth and integrity should have earned for himself popularity and fame. His museum is situated in Broadway, near to the City Hall, and is a gaudy building, denoted by huge paintings, multitudes of flags, and a very noisy band. The museum contains many objects of real interest, particularly to the naturalist and geologist, intermingled with a great deal that is spurious and contemptible. But this museum is by no means the attraction to this “Palace of Humbug.”
There is a collection of horrors or monstrosities attached, which appears to fascinate the vulgar gaze. The principal objects of attraction at this time were, a dog with two legs, a cow with four horns, and a calf with six legs — disgusting specimens of deformity, which ought to have been destroyed, rather than preserved to gratify a morbid taste for the horrible and erratic in nature. But while persons of the highest station and education in England patronised an artful and miserable dwarf, cleverly exhibited by a showman totally destitute of principle, it is not surprising that the American people should delight in yet more hideous exhibitions, under the same auspices.
The magnificence of the private dwellings of New York must not escape mention, though I am compelled to withhold many details that would be interesting, from a fear of “violating the rights of hospitality.” The squares, and many of the numbered streets, contain very superb houses of a most pleasing uniformity of style. They are built either of brown stone, or of dark red brick, durably pointed, and faced with stone. This style of brick masonry is extremely tasteful and beautiful. Every house has an entrance-porch with windows of stained glass, and double doors; the outer one being only closed at night. The upper part of the inner door is made of stained glass; the door-handles and bell-pulls are made of highly-polished electro-plate; and a handsome flight of stone steps, with elegant bronze balustrades, leads up to the porch. The entrance-halls are seldom large, but the staircases, which are of stone, are invariably very handsome. These houses are six stories high, and usually contain three reception-rooms; a dining-room, small, and not striking in appearance in any way, as dinner-parties are seldom given in New York; a small, elegantly-furnished drawing-room, used as a family sitting-room, and for the reception of morning visitors; and a magnificent reception-room, furnished in the height of taste and elegance, for dancing, music, and evening parties.
In London the bedrooms are generally inconvenient and uncomfortable, being sacrificed to the reception-rooms; in New York this is not the case. The bedrooms are large, lofty, and airy; and are furnished with all the appurtenances which modern luxury has been able to devise. The profusion of marble gives a very handsome and chaste appearance to these apartments. There are bath-rooms generally on three floors, and hot and cold water are laid on in every story. The houses are warmed by air heated from a furnace at the basement; and though in addition open fires are sometimes adopted, they are made of anthracite coal, which emits no smoke, and has rather the appearance of heated metal than of fuel. Ornamental articles of Parisian taste and Italian workmanship abound in these houses; and the mouldings, cornices, and woodwork, are all beautifully executed. The doorways and windows are very frequently of an arched form, which contributes to the tasteful appearance of the houses. Every species of gaudy decoration is strictly avoided; the paint is generally white, with gilt mouldings; and the lofty rooms are either painted in panels, or hung with paper of a very simple pattern.
The curtains and chair-covers are always of very rich damask, frequently worth from two to three guineas a yard; but the richness of this, and of the gold embroidery, is toned down by the dark hue of the walnut-wood furniture. The carpets of the reception-rooms are generally of rich Kidderminster, or velvet pile; an air of elegance and cleanliness pervades these superb dwellings; they look the height of comfort. It must be remembered that the foregoing is not a description of a dwelling here and there, but of fifty or sixty streets, or of 4000 or 5000 houses, those inhabited by merchants of average incomes, storekeepers not of the wealthiest class, and lawyers. The number of servants kept in such mansions as these would sound disproportionately small to an English ear. Two or three female servants only are required. Breakfast is very early, frequently at seven, seldom later than eight. The families of merchants in business in the lower part of the city often dine at one, and the gentlemen return to a combination of dinner with tea at six. It does not appear that at home luxury in eating is much studied. It is not customary, even among some of the wealthier inhabitants of New York, to indulge in sumptuous equipages. “Hacks,” with respectable-looking drivers and pairs of horses, fill the place of private carriages, and look equally well. Coachmen require high wages, and carriages are frequently injured by collision with omnibuses; these are among the reasons given for the very general use of hired vehicles.
The private equipages to be seen in New York, though roomy and comfortable, are not elegant. They are almost invariably closed, with glass sides and front, and are constructed with a view to keep out the intense heat of the summer sun. The coachmen are generally blacks, and the horses are stout animals, with cropped tails. The majority have broken knees, owing to the great slipperiness of the pavements.
Altogether, the occupants of stages are the most secure of the numerous travellers down Broadway. The driver, on his lofty box, has more control over his horses, and, in case of collision, the weight of his vehicle gives him an advantage; and there is a general inclination, on the part of the conductors of carriages, to give these swiftly-moving vehicles “ample room and verge enough.” While threading the way through the intricate labyrinth of waggons, stages, falling horses, and locked wheels, it is highly unpleasant for the denizens of private carriages to find the end of a pole through the back of the equipage, or to be addressed by the coachman, “Massa, dat big waggon is pulling off my wheel.”
Having given a brief description of the style of the ordinary dwellings of the affluent, I will just glance at those of the very wealthy, of which there are several in Fifth Avenue, and some of the squares, surpassing anything I had hitherto witnessed in royal or ducal palaces at home. The externals of some of these mansions in Fifth Avenue are like Apsley House, and Stafford House, St. James’s; being substantially built of brown stone. At one house which I visited in —— street, about the largest private residence in the city, and one which is considered to combine the greatest splendour with the greatest taste, we entered a spacious marble hall, leading to a circular stone staircase of great width, the balustrades being figures elaborately cast in bronze. Above this staircase was a lofty dome, decorated with paintings in fresco of eastern scenes. There were niches in the walls, some containing Italian statuary, and others small jets of water pouring over artificial moss,
There were six or eight magnificent reception-rooms, furnished in various styles — the Mediaeval, the Elizabethan, the Italian, the Persian, the modern English, &c. There were fountains of fairy workmanship, pictures from the old masters, statues from Italy, “chefs-d’oeuvre” of art; porcelain from China and Sèvres; damasks, cloth of gold, and bijoux from the East; Gobelin tapestry, tables of malachite and agate, and “knick-knacks” of every description. In the Mediaeval and Elizabethan apartments, it did not appear to me that any anachronisms had been committed with respect to the furniture and decorations. The light was subdued by passing through windows of rich stained glass. I saw one table the value of which might be about 2000 guineas. The ground was black marble, with a wreath of flowers inlaid with very costly gems upon it. There were flowers or bunches of fruit, of turquoise, carbuncles, rubies, topazes, and emeralds, while the leaves were of malachite, cornelian, or agate. The effect produced by this lavish employment of wealth was not very good. The bedrooms were scarcely less magnificently furnished than the reception-rooms; with chairs formed of stag-horns, tables inlaid with agates, and hangings of Damascus cashmere, richly embossed with gold. There was nothing gaudy, profuse, or prominent in the decorations or furniture; everything had evidently been selected and arranged by a person of very refined taste. Among the very beautiful works of art was a collection of cameos, including some of Cellini’s from the antique, which were really entrancing to look upon.
Another mansion, which N. P. Willis justly describes as “a fairy palace of taste and art,” though not so extensive, was equally beautiful, and possessed a large winter-garden. This was approached by passing through a succession of very beautiful rooms, the walls of which were hung with paintings which would have delighted a connoisseur. It was a glass building with a high dome: a fine fountain was playing in the centre, and round its marble basin were orange, palm, and myrtle trees, with others from the tropics, some of them of considerable growth. Every part of the floor that was not of polished white marble was thickly carpeted with small green ferns. The gleam of white marble statues, from among the clumps of orange-trees and other shrubs, was particularly pretty; indeed, the whole had a fairy-like appearance about it. Such mansions as these were rather at variance with my ideas of republican simplicity; they contained apartments which would have thrown into the shade the finest rooms in Windsor Castle or Buckingham Palace. It is not the custom for Americans to leave large fortunes to their children; their wealth is spent in great measure in surrounding themselves with the beautiful and the elegant in their splendid mansions; and it is probable that the adornments which have been collected with so much expense and trouble will be dispersed at the death of their present possessors.
I have often been asked, “How do the American ladies dress? Have they nice figures? Do they wear much ornament? What are their manners like? Are they highly educated? Are they domestic?” I will answer these questions as far as I am capable of doing so.
In bygone times, the “good old times” of America perhaps, large patterns, brilliant colours, exaggerated fashions, and redundant ornament, were all adopted by the American ladies; and without just regard to the severity of their climate, they patronised thin dresses, and yet thinner shoes; both being, as has been since discovered, very prolific sources of ill health. Frequent intercourse with Europe, and the gradual progress of good taste, have altered this absurd style, and America, like England, is now content to submit to the dictation of Paris in all matters of fashion. But though Paris might dictate, it was found that American milliners had stubborn wills of their own, so Parisian modistes were imported along with Parisian silks, ribands, and gloves. No dressmaker is now considered orthodox who cannot show a prefix of Madame, and the rage for foreign materials and workmanship of every kind is as ludicrous as in England.
Although the deception practised is very blameable, there is some comfort in knowing that large numbers of the caps, bonnets, mantles, and other articles of dress, which are marked ostentatiously with the name of some Rue in Paris, have never incurred the risks of an Atlantic voyage. But however unworthy a devotion to fashion may be, it is very certain that the ladies of New York dress beautifully, and in very good taste. Although it is rather repugnant to one’s feelings to behold costly silks and rich brocades sweeping the pavements of Broadway, with more effect than is produced by the dustmen, it is very certain that more beautiful toilettes are to be seen in this celebrated thoroughfare, in one afternoon, than in Hyde Park in a week. As it is impossible to display the productions of the millinery art in a close carriage in a crowd, Broadway is the fashionable promenade; and the lightest French bonnets, the handsomest mantles, and the richest flounced silk dresses, with jupons, ribands, and laces to correspond, are there to be seen in the afternoon. Evening attire is very much the same as in England, only that richer materials are worn by the young. The harmony of colours appears to be a subject studied to some purpose, and the style of dress is generally adapted to the height, complexion, and figure of the wearer.
The figures of the American ladies in youth are very sylph-like and elegant; and this appearance is obtained without the use of those artificial constraints so justly to be condemned. They are almost too slight for beauty, though this does not signify while they retain the luxuriant wavy hair, brilliant complexion, elastic step, and gracefulness of very early youth. But unfortunately a girl of twenty is too apt to look faded and haggard; and a woman who with us would be in her bloom at thirty, looks passée, wrinkled, and old. It is then that the sylph-like form assumes an unpleasant angularity, suggestive of weariness and care. It is remarkable, however, that ladies of recent English extraction, under exactly the same circumstances, retain their good looks into middle life, and advancing years produce embonpoint, instead of angularity. I was very agreeably surprised with the beauty of the young ladies of New York; there is something peculiarly graceful and fascinating in their personal appearance.
To judge from the costly articles of jewellery displayed in the stores, I should have supposed that there was a great rage for ornament; but from the reply I once received from a jeweller, on asking him who would purchase a five-thousand-guinea diamond bracelet, “I guess some Southerner will buy it for his wife,” I believe that most of these articles find their way to the South and West, where a less-cultivated taste may be supposed to prevail. I saw very little jewellery worn, and that was generally of a valuable but plain description. The young ladies appear to have adopted the maxim, “Beauty when unadorned is adorned the most.” They study variety in ornament rather than profusion. “What are their manners like?” is a difficult question to answer. That there is a great difference between the manners of English and American ladies may be inferred from some remarks made to me by the most superior woman whom I met in America, and one who had been in English society in London. In naming a lady with whom she was acquainted, and one who could scarcely be expected to be deficient in affection towards herself, she said, “Her manners were perfectly ladylike, but she seemed to talk merely because conversation was a conventional requirement of society, and I cannot believe that she had any heart.” She added, “I did not blame her for this; it was merely the result of an English education, which studiously banishes every appearance of interest or emotion. Emotion is condemned as romantic and vulgar sensibility, interest as enthusiasm.”
The system which she reprehended is not followed at New York, and the result is, not that the ladies “wear their hearts on their sleeves for daws to peck at,” but that they are unaffected, lively, and agreeable. The repose so studiously cultivated in England, and which is considered perfect when it has become listlessness, apathy, and indifference, finds no favour with our lively Transatlantic neighbours; consequently the ladies are very naïve and lively, and their manners have the vivacity without the frivolity of the French. They say themselves that they are not so highly educated as the ladies of England. Admirable as the common schools are, the seminaries for ladies, with one or two exceptions, are very inferior to ours, and the early age at which the young ladies go into society precludes them from completing a superior education; for it is scarcely to be expected that, when their minds are filled with the desire for conquest and the love of admiration, they will apply systematically to remedy their deficiencies. And again, some of their own sex in the States have so far stepped out of woman’s proper sphere, that high attainments are rather avoided by many from the ridicule which has been attached to the unsuitable display of them in public. The young ladies are too apt to consider their education completed when they are emancipated from school restraints, while in fact only the basis of it has been laid. Music and drawing are not much cultivated in the higher branches; and though many speak the modern languages with fluency, natural philosophy and arithmetic, which strengthen the mental powers, are rather neglected. Yet who has ever missed the higher education which English ladies receive, while in the society of the lively, attractive ladies of New York? Of course there are exceptions, where active and superior minds become highly cultivated by their own persevering exertions; but the aids offered by ladies’ schools are comparatively insignificant.
The ladies in the United States appeared to me to be extremely domestic. However fond they may be of admiration as girls, after their early marriages they become dutiful wives, and affectionate, devoted mothers. And in a country where there are few faithful attached servants, far more devolves upon the mother than English ladies have any idea of. Those amusements which would withdraw her from home must be abandoned; however fond she may be of travelling, she must abide in the nursery; and all those little attentions which in England are turned over to the nurse must be performed by herself, or under her superintending eye. She must be the nurse of her children alike by day and by night, in sickness and in health; and with the attention which American ladies pay to their husbands, their married life is by no means an idle one. Under these circumstances, the early fading of their bloom is not to be wondered at, and I cannot but admire the manner in which many of them cheerfully conform to years of anxiety and comparative seclusion, after the homage and gaiety which seemed their natural atmosphere in their early youth.
Of the gentlemen it is less easy to speak. They are immersed in a whirl of business, often of that speculative kind which demands a constant exercise of intense thought. The short period which they can spend in the bosom of their families must be an enjoyment and relaxation to them; therefore, in the absence of any statements to the contrary, it is but right to suppose that they are affectionate husbands and fathers. However actively the gentlemen of New York are engaged in business pursuits, they travel, read the papers, and often devote some time to general literature. They look rather more pale and careworn than the English, as the uncertainties of business are greater in a country where speculative transactions are carried to such an exaggerated extent. They also indulge in eccentricities of appearance in the shape of beards and imperials, not to speak of the “goatee” and moustaches of various forms. With these exceptions, there is nothing in appearance, manner, or phraseology to distinguish them from gentlemen in the best English society, except perhaps that they evince more interest and animation in their conversation.
The peculiar expressions which go under the name of Americanisms are never heard in good society, and those disagreeable habits connected with tobacco are equally unknown. I thought that the gentlemen were remarkably free from mannerisms of any kind. I have frequently heard Americans speak of the descriptions given by Dickens and Mrs. Trollope of the slang and disagreeable practices to be met with in the States; and they never, on a single occasion, denied their truthfulness, but said that these writers mistook the perpetrators of these vulgarities for gentlemen. The gentlemen are extremely deferential and attentive in their manners to ladies, and are hardly, I think, treated with sufficient graciousness in return. At New York a great many are actively engaged in philanthropic pursuits. The quiescence of manner attained by English gentlemen, which frequently approaches inanity, is seldom to be met with in America. The exhilarating influences of the climate and the excitement of business have a tendency to produce animation of manner, and force and earnestness of expression. A great difference in these respects is apparent in gentlemen from the southern States, who live in an enervating climate, and whose pursuits are of a more tranquil nature. The dry, elastic atmosphere of the northern States produces a restlessness which must either expend itself in bodily or mental exertion or force of expression; from this probably arise the frequent use of superlatives, and the exaggeration of language, which the more phlegmatic English attribute to the Americans.
Since my return to England I have frequently been asked the question, “What is society like in America?” This word society is one of very ambiguous meaning. It is used in England by the titled aristocracy to distinguish themselves, their connexions, and those whose wealth or genius has gained them admission into their circles. But every circle, every city, and even every country neighbourhood, has what it pleases to term “society;” and when the members of it say of an individual, “I never met him in society,” it ostracises him, no matter how estimable or agreeable he may be. In England, to “society,” in each of its grades, wealth is a sure passport, as has been evidenced of late years by several very notorious instances. Thus it is extremely difficult to answer the question, “What is New York society like?” It certainly is not like that which is associated in our minds with the localities May Fair and Belgravia; neither can it be compared to the circles which form parasitically round the millionaire; still less is it like the dulness of country neighbourhoods. New York has its charmed circles also; a republic admits of the greatest exclusiveness; and, in the highest circles of the city, to say that a man is not in society, is to ostracise him as in England. It must be stated that some of the most agreeable salons of New York are almost closed against foreigners. French, Germans, and Italians, with imposing titles, have proved how unworthily they bear them; and this feeling against strangers — I will not call it prejudice, for there are sufficient grounds for it — is extended to the English, some of whom, I regret to say, have violated the rights of hospitality in many different ways. I have heard of such conduct on the part of my countrymen as left me no room for surprise that many families, whose acquaintance would be most agreeable, strictly guard their drawing-room from English intrusion. And, besides this, there are those who have entered houses merely to caricature their inmates, and have received hospitality only to ridicule the manner in which it was exercised, while they have indulged in unamiable personalities, and have not respected the sanctity of private life.
It was through an introduction given me by a valued English friend that I, as an English stranger, was received with the kindest hospitality by some of those who have been rendered thus exclusive by the bad taste and worse conduct of foreigners. I feel, as I write, that any remarks I make on New York society cannot be perfectly free from bias, owing to the overwhelming kindness and glowing hospitality which I met with in that city. I found so much to enjoy in society, and so much to interest and please everywhere, that when I left New York it was with the wish that the few weeks which I was able to spend there could have been prolonged into as many months.
But, to answer the question. The best society in New York would not suffer by comparison in any way with the best society in England. It is not in the upper classes of any nation that we must look for national characteristics or peculiarities. Society throughout the civilized world is, to a certain extent, cast in the same mould; the same laws of etiquette prevail, and the same conventionalisms restrict in great measure the display of any individual characteristics. Balls are doubtless the same in “society” all over the world; a certain amount of black cloth, kid gloves, white muslin, epaulettes if they can be procured, dancing, music, and ices. Every one acknowledges that dinner-parties are equally dull in London and Paris, in Calcutta and in New York, unless the next neighbour happens to be peculiarly agreeable. Therefore, it is most probable that balls and dinner-parties are in New York exactly the same as in other places, except that the latter are less numerous, and are principally confined to gentlemen. It is not, in fact, convenient to give dinner parties in New York; there are not sufficient domestics to bear the pressure of an emergency, and the pleasure is not considered worth the trouble. If two or three people have sufficient value for the society of the host and hostess to come in to an ordinary dinner, at an ordinary hour, they are welcome. If turtle and venison were offered on such an occasion, it would have the effect of repelling, rather than attracting, the guests, and it would not have the effect of making them believe that their host and hostess always lived on such luxurious viands.
As dinner-parties are neither deemed agreeable nor convenient, and as many sensible people object to the late hours and general dissipation of mind produced by balls and large dancing parties, a happy innovation upon old customs has been made, and early evening receptions have been introduced. Some of the most splendid mansions of New York, as well as the most agreeable, are now thrown open weekly for the reception of visitors in a social manner. These receptions differ from what are known by the same name in London. The crowd in which people become wedged, in a vain attempt to speak to the hostess, is as much as possible avoided; late hours are abandoned; the guests, who usually arrive about eight, are careful to disappear shortly after eleven, lest, Cinderella-like, the hostess should vanish. Then, again, all the guests feel themselves on a perfect equality, as people always ought to do who meet in the same room, on the invitation of the same hostess.*
* [The Americans justly ridicule that species of bad breeding which leads people at parties to draw back from others, from a fear that their condescension should fall upon ground unconsecrated by the dictatorial fiat of “society.” An amusing instance of the effect of this pride, which occurred in England, was related. Some years ago the illustrious Baron Humboldt was invited to play the part of lion at the house of a nobleman. A select circle of fashionables appeared, and among the company a man very plainly dressed and not noticeable in appearance. He spoke first to one person, and then to another: some drew themselves up with a haughty stare; others answered in monosyllables; but all repulsed the Baron; and it was not until late in the evening, after he had departed early, disgusted with this ungracious reception, that these people knew that by their conduct they had lost the advantage of the conversation of one of the greatest men of the age.]
The lady of the house adopts the old but very sensible fashion of introducing people to each other, which helps to prevent a good deal of stiffness. As the rooms in the New York houses are generally large, people sit, stand, or walk about as they feel inclined, or group themselves round some one gifted with peculiar conversational powers. At all of these re-unions there was a great deal of conversation worth listening to or joining in, and, as a stranger, I had the advantage of being introduced to every one who was considered worth knowing. Poets, historians, and men of science are to be met with frequently at these receptions; but they do not go as lions, but to please and be pleased; and such men as Longfellow, Prescott, or Washington Irving may be seen mixing with the general throng with so much bonhommie and simplicity, that none would fancy that in their own land they are the envy of their age, and sustain world-wide reputations. The way in which literary lions are exhibited in England, as essential to the éclat of fashionable parties, is considered by the Americans highly repugnant to good taste. I was very agreeably surprised with the unaffected manners and extreme simplicity of men eminent in the scientific and literary world.
These evening receptions are a very happy idea; for people, whose business or inclinations would not permit them to meet in any other way, are thus brought together without formality or expense. The conversation generally turned on Europe, general literature, art, science, or the events of the day. I must say that I never heard one remark that could be painful to an English ear made, even in jest. There was none of that vulgar boastfulness and detraction which is to be met with in less educated society. Most of the gentlemen whom I met, and many of the ladies, had travelled in Europe, and had brought back highly cultivated tastes in art, and cosmopolitan ideas, which insensibly affect the circles in which they move.
All appeared to take a deep interest in the war, and in our success. I heard our military movements in the Crimea criticised with some severity by military men, some of whom have since left for the seat of war, to watch our operations. The conclusion of the Vienna negociations appeared to excite some surprise. “I had no idea,” an officer observed to me, “that public opinion was so strong in England as to be able to compel a minister of such strong Russian proclivities as Lord Aberdeen to go to war with his old friend Nicholas.” The arrangements at Balaklava excited very general condemnation; people were fond of quoting the saying attributed to a Russian officer, “You have an army of lions led by asses.”
The Americans are always anxious to know what opinion a stranger has formed of their country, and I would be asked thirty times on one evening, “How do you like America?” Fortunately, the kindness which I met with rendered it impossible for me to give any but a satisfactory reply. English literature was a very general topic of conversation, and it is most gratifying to find how our best English works are “familiar in their mouths as household words.” Some of the conversation on literature was of a very brilliant order. I heard very little approximation to either wit or humour, and badinage is not cultivated, or excelled in, to the same extent as in England.
On one occasion I was asked to exhibit a collection of autographs, and the knowledge of English literature possessed by the Americans was shown by the information they had respecting not only our well-known authors, but those whose names have not an extended reputation even with us. Thus the works of Maitland, Ritchie, Sewell, Browning, Howitt, and others seemed perfectly familiar to them. The trembling signature of George III. excited general interest from his connection with their own history, and I was not a little amused to see how these republicans dwelt with respectful attention on the decided characters of Queen Victoria. A very characteristic letter of Lord Byron’s was read aloud, and, in return for the pleasure they had experienced, several kind individuals gave me valuable autographs of their own literati and statesmen. Letters written by Washington descend as precious heirlooms in families, and so great is the estimation in which this venerated patriot is held, that, with all the desire to oblige a stranger which the Americans evince, I believe that I could not have purchased a few lines in his handwriting with my whole collection.
It would be difficult to give any idea of the extremely agreeable character of these receptions. They seemed to me to be the most sensible way of seeing society that I ever met with, and might be well worthy of general imitation in England. When I saw how sixty or a hundred people could be brought together without the inducements of dancing, music, refreshments, or display of any kind; when I saw also how thoroughly they enjoyed themselves, how some were introduced, and those who were not entered into sprightly conversation without fear of lessening an imaginary dignity, I more than ever regretted the icy coldness in which we wrap ourselves. And yet, though we take such trouble to clothe ourselves in this glacial dignity, nothing pleases us better than to go to other countries and throw it off, and mix with our fellow men and women as rational beings should, not as if we feared either to compromise ourselves or to be repulsed by them. This national stiffness renders us the laughing-stock of foreigners; and in a certain city in America no play was ever more successful than the ‘Buckram Englishman,’ which ridiculed and caricatured our social peculiarities.
The usages of etiquette are much the same as in England, but people appeared to be assisted in the enjoyment of society by them rather than trammeled. Morning visiting is carried to a great extent, but people call literally in the morning, before two o’clock oftener than after. On New Year’s Day, in observance of an old Dutch custom, the ladies remain at home, and all the gentlemen of their acquaintance make a point of calling upon them. Of course time will only allow of the interchange of the compliments of the season, where so much social duty has to be performed in one brief day, but this pleasant custom tends to keep up old acquaintanceships and annihilate old feuds. It is gratifying to observe that any known deviation from the rules of morality is punished with exclusion from the houses of those who are considered the leaders of New York society; it is also very pleasing to see that to the best circles in New York wealth alone is not a passport. I have heard cards of invitation to these receptions refused to foreigners bearing illustrious titles, and to persons who have the reputation of being millionaires. At the same time, I have met those of humble position and scanty means, who are treated with distinction because of their talents or intellectual powers. Yet I have never seen such a one patronised or treated as a lion; he is not expected to do any homage, or pay any penalty, for his admission into society. In these circles in New York we are spared the humiliating spectacle of men of genius or intellect cringing and uneasy in the presence of their patronising inferiors, whom birth or wealth may have placed socially above them. Of course there is society in New York where the vulgar influence of money is omnipotent, and extravagant display is fashionable; it is of the best that I have been speaking.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52