Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Old-Time Life in Albany
By Benson John Lossing (18131891)
[Born in Beekman, Dutchess Co., N. Y., 1813. Died at Poughkeepsie, N. Y., 1891. The Life and Times of Philip Schuyler. Revised Edition. 1872.]
NOTWITHSTANDING there was great equality in Albany society, there was a peculiar custom prevalent until near the time of the kindling of the Revolution, which appeared somewhat exclusive in its character. The young people were arranged in congenial companies, composed of an equal number of both sexes. Children from five to eight years of age were admitted into these companies and the association continued until maturity. Each company was generally under a sort of control by authority lodged in the hands of a boy and girl, who happened to possess some natural preëminence in size or ability. They met frequently, enjoyed amusements together, grew up to maturity with a perfect knowledge of each other, and the results, in general, were happy and suitable marriages. In the season of early flowers, they all went out together to gather the gaudy blossoms of the May-apple; and in August they went together to the forests on the neighboring hills to gather whortleberries, or, later still, to pluck the rich clusters of the wild grape, each being furnished with a light basket made by the expert Indian women.
Each member of a company was permitted to entertain all the rest on his or her birthday, on which occasion the elders of the family were bound to be absent, leaving only a faithful servant to have a general supervision of affairs, and to prepare the entertainment. This gave the young people entire freedom, and they enjoyed it to the fullest extent. They generally met at four oclock in the afternoon, and separated at nine or ten in the evening. On these occasions there would be ample provisions of tea, chocolate, fresh and preserved fruits, nuts, cakes, cider, and syllabub.
These early and exclusive intimacies naturally ripened into pure and lasting friendships and affectionate attachments, and happy marriages resulted. So universal was the practice of forming unions for life among the members of these circles, that it came to be considered a kind of apostacy to marry out of ones company. Love, thus born in the atmosphere of innocence and candor, and nourished by similarity of education, tastes, and aspirations, seldom lost any of its vitality; and inconstancy and indifference among married couples were so rare as to be almost unheard of exceptions to the general rule. They usually married early, were blessed with high physical and mental health, and the extreme love which they bore for their offspring made those parents ever dear to each other under the discipline of every possible vicissitude. The children were reared in great simplicity; and except being taught to love and adore the great Author of their being and their blessings, they were permitted to follow the dictates of their nature, ranging at full liberty in the open air, covered in summer with a light and cheap garment, which protected them from the sun, and in winter with warm clothing, made according to the dictates of convenience, comfort, and health.
The summer amusements of the young were simple, healthful, and joyous. Their principal pleasure consisted in what we now call pic-nics, enjoyed either upon the beautiful islands in the river near Albany, which were then covered with grass and shrubbery, tall trees and clustering vines, or in the forests on the hills. When the warm days of spring and early summer appeared, a company of young men and maidens would set out at sunrise in a canoe for the islands, or in light wagons for the bush, where they would frequently meet a similar party on the same delightful errand. Each maiden, taught from early childhood to be industrious, would take her work-basket with her, and a supply of tea, sugar, coffee, and other materials for a frugal breakfast, while the young men carried some rum and dried fruit to make a light cool punch for a mid-day beverage. But no previous preparations were made for dinner except bread and cold pastry, it being expected that the young men would bring an ample supply of game and fish from the woods and waters, provisions having been made by the girls of apparatus for cooking, the use of which was familiar to them all. After dinner the company would pair off in couples, according to attachments and affinities, sometimes brothers and sisters together, and sometimes warm friends or ardent lovers, and stroll in all directions, gathering wild strawberries or other fruit in summer, and plucking the abundant flowers, to be arranged into bouquets to adorn their little parlors and give pleasure to their parents. Sometimes they would remain abroad until sunset, and take tea in the open air; or they would call upon some friend on their way home and partake of a light evening meal. In all this there appeared no conventional restraints upon the innocent inclinations of nature. The day was always remembered as one of pure enjoyment, without the passage of a single cloud of regret.
The winter amusements in Albany were few and simple, but, like those of summer, pure, healthful, and invigorating. On fine winter days the icy bosom of the Hudson would be alive with skaters of both sexes, and vocal with their merry laugh and joyous songs and ringing shouts; and down the broad and winding road from the verge of Pinkster Hill, whereon the State capitol now reposes, scores of sleighs might be seen every brilliant moonlight evening, coursing with ruddy voyagersboys and girls, young men and maidenswho swept past the Dutch Church at the foot, and halted only on the banks of the river. It was a most animating scene, and many a fair spectator would sit or stand on the margin of the slope until ten or eleven oclock, wrapped in furs, to enjoy the spectacle.
Evening parties, the company seldom numbering over a dozen, were quite frequent. These were often the sequels of quilting parties; and princktums, games, simple dances, and other amusements were indulged in, but never continued very late. The young men sometimes spent an evening in conviviality at one of the two taverns in the town, and sometimes their boisterous mirth would disturb the quiet city at a late hour. Habitual drunkenness, however, was extremely rare, and these outbreaks were winked at as comparatively harmless.