Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
American Manners in 1850
By James Ford Rhodes (1848–1927)
From ‘History of the United States’

WHEN we come to consider society in the narrower sense given to the word, we find we must study it as something distinct from the great throbbing life of the American people of 1850–60. New York, whose “Upper Ten Thousand” have been described by N. P. Willis and Charles Astor Bristed, furnishes the example. Bristed introduces us into what is a curious world, when we reflect that he writes of the United States of 1850–52. While his sketches show a touch of caricature, they represent well enough the life of a fashionable set of New York City. We see men working hard to get money for their personal enjoyment; idlers who have come into a fortune; pretty and stylish girls; women who preside gracefully at table and converse with wit and intelligence. Bristed takes us among men whose sole aim in life seemed to be to make a lucky hit in stock speculation; to compound a sherry cobbler; to be apt in bar-room repartee; to drink the best brands of claret and champagne, and to expatiate on them in a knowing manner; to drive a fast horse; to dance well, and to dress in the latest fashion. We assist at a wedding “above Bleecker Street”; we are taken to a country-house, and see a family dinner served at four o’clock, where, although the only guest is a gentleman just from England, and the viands are not remarkable, “champagne decanted and iced to the freezing-point” followed Manzanilla sherry, and “a prime bottle of Latour and a swelling slender-necked decanter of the old Vanderlyn Madeira” succeeded the champagne. Bristed describes the fashionable life at “Oldport Springs,” a disguise for Saratoga. He speaks of a huge caravansary, a profuse American breakfast, a promenade on the wide porticos, cigars and ten-pins, the bar-room and billiards, lounging and gossip, a bad dinner at three which the ladies dressed for, a drive after dinner, dancing until two in the morning for men and women, and gambling the rest of the night for the men.  1
  The Upper Ten Thousand of 1850–60 lend themselves to delineation somewhat better than the same class of our own time. Those who did not go to Europe passed the summer at Saratoga, Newport, or Sharon; and their watering-place life was open to the public gaze. N. P. Willis’s chapter on ‘Manners at Watering-Places’ would read oddly enough if set forth by a similar adviser of the fashionable world of our time. People of reserve, who wished for no other than their city acquaintances, were termed “absolute exclusives,” and counseled to have a summer resort of their own; for the very purpose of most, in going to Saratoga and Newport in the gay season, was to make new acquaintances. Yet care should be taken to avoid too great promiscuity in social intercourse. While young men who happened to be strangers to the reigning set could of course become acquainted with some of the “dandies” during “a game at billiards or a chance fraternization over juleps in the bar-room,” those whose pleasure was not found in games or in drink might find it difficult to get properly introduced; and young ladies who were strangers would encounter the same obstacle. Therefore, in order that desirable acquaintances might be easily made, Willis, an authority whom society held in respect, proposed that a “committee of introduction” should be named by the landlord of each large hotel. These should act under a “code of etiquette,” which Willis proceeded to outline. Such action, he declared, would delightfully harmonize and enliven our summer resorts. It is hardly probable that the plan proposed by the literary social leader of the day was systematically adopted. There was little need of it, for entrance into watering-place society was not difficult. Respectability and fairly good manners were of course requisite; but these being presupposed, the important qualification was wealth. “Wealth,” wrote George William Curtis, “will socially befriend a man at Newport or Saratoga better than at any similar spot in the world.” Yet all was not garish. At Newport, the votary of fashion could not be insensible to nature’s charm. At Saratoga, “youth, health, and beauty” reigned; “we discriminate,” the Lotus-Eater said, “the Arctic and Antarctic Bostonians, fair, still, and stately, with a vein of scorn in their Saratoga enjoyment; and the languid, cordial, and careless Southerners, far from precise in dress or style, but balmy in manner as a bland Southern morning. We mark the crisp courtesy of the New-Yorker, elegant in dress, exclusive in association, a pallid ghost of Paris.” After the sectional excitement of 1850, however, fewer Southerners came North. The repeal of the slave sojournment laws of Pennsylvania and New York made the bringing of their slaves with them as body-servants inconvenient. The excitement about the Fugitive Slave Act, and the passage of the Personal Liberty Laws, involved the risk of losing their negroes; and after the most powerful Northern party made, in 1856, a political shibboleth of the declaration that slavery was a relic of barbarism, it was still more disagreeable for Southern gentlemen accompanied by their servants to travel at the North.  2
  Newport, the leading watering-place in the country, was, in the opinion of Curtis, the vantage-ground to study the fashionable world. There he found wealth the touchstone; but he saw money spent without taste and in vulgar display. We Americans, he declared, had the money-getting, but not the “money-spending genius.” If high society was “but the genial intercourse of the highest intelligences with which we converse—the festival of Wit and Beauty and Wisdom”—he saw none at Newport. “Fine society,” he moralizes, “is a fruit that ripens slowly. We Americans fancy we can buy it.” The peripatetic observer was glad to get to Nahant. There he wrote: “You find no village, no dust, no commotion. You encounter no crowds of carriages or of curious and gossiping people. No fast men in velvet coats are trotting fast horses;” and in the evenings “there are no balls, no hops, no concerts, no congregating under any pretense in hotel parlors.” But by the early part of the decade of 1850–60 the life in Newport had begun to change. Originally a Southern resort, New-Yorkers commenced to divide their favors between it and Saratoga. Cottages became the fashion. The hotel season declined.  3
  The fashionable people of New York generally went to Europe. When de Tocqueville wrote his last volume on America, the rich American in Europe was characteristic; and between 1850 and 1860 crowds went over the sea for the summer. To writers of books and writers for the magazines, there seemed in the high American society much that was meretricious, and certainly no real enjoyment. The “uncommon splendatiousness” annoyed Thackeray. That Mammon had become the national saint, and that as a consequence, dullness and gloom characterized the elegant people, was undeniable. This led a witty Frenchman to record that “the most cheerful place he could find in one of the metropolitan cities was the public cemetery.” One of our stanch admirers found our society “sometimes fatiguing”; and another, who went frequently to dinner parties in New York, thought they were very stupid. Men talked of trade, and women talked about dress, each other, and their troubles with servants. Yet the people Lady Wortley met on the streets in New York reminded her of Paris. The Americans were said to resemble the French more than the English. The ladies in New York, Thackeray wrote, “dress prodigiously fine,—taking for their models the French actresses, I think, of the Boulevard theatres.” He thought Boston, New York, and Philadelphia “not so civilized as our London, but more so than Manchester and Liverpool.”  4
  Bristed noted that only makeshift liveries could be seen in the American metropolis. When liveries were first introduced, there was a great outcry against them, which resulted in their being adopted in a half-way manner. “They were hooted out of Boston.” None but the greatest dandies at Saratoga put their coachmen in uniform. In March 1853, however, the New York Herald complained of the “alarming spread of flunkeyism,” as evidenced from the rich people setting up liveries for their coachmen and their footmen. The dress of gentlemen in the decade we are studying would in these days appear peculiar; that of the ladies, grotesque. In Washington, where society retained the tone imparted to it by President Madison and his wife, Senators went to the Senate and Representatives to the House, as late as 1853, dressed as if they were going to a party.  5
  A reference to some of the topics on which Willis discourses will afford us a glimpse of the life of the people to whom he addressed himself. He complains of the “want of married belles in American society,” and decries the public opinion that obliges a woman to give up “all active participation in society after the birth of her first child.” He devotes a chapter to the consideration of the question, “Should married ladies go into society with their daughters?” In dilating upon ‘The Usages of Society,’ he asks, “Ought young girls to be left by mothers to themselves? Should those who have incomes of $5,000 vie with those who have $25,000? In a business country, should socialities commence near midnight and end near morning? Should very young children be dressed as expensively as their mothers?”  6
  To the Upper Ten Thousand of to-day—or if high society has increased proportionately to the growth of population, it must be more nearly the upper thirty thousand—the highest social class of 1850–60 would seem crude and garish. Extraordinary has been the development of taste, the growth of refinement, the improvement in manners since that time. When we take a broader view, and consider the whole Northern people, limiting our inquiry to men and women of American birth, we see similar betterment in their personal bearing. The testimony of foreign travelers regarding American manners differs; but whether we rely on the favorable, the unfavorable, or the impartial opinions, we arrive alike at the conclusion that there has been a gain. Omitting a comparison regarding certain personal habits and uncouth behavior, that disgusted many Europeans and made the burden of much comment, we see in one particular an improvement, denoting a rising out of provincialism. “For fifty years,” wrote de Tocqueville, “it has been impressed upon the inhabitants of the United States that they form the only religious, enlightened, and free people. They see that with them, up to the present, democratic institutions prosper, while meeting with failure in the rest of the world: they have then an immense opinion of themselves, and they are not far from believing that they form a species apart from the human race.” Ampère notes of Americans their “perpetual glorification” of their country; and he cannot keep from thinking that it is a mortification for them “not to be able to pretend that an American discovered America.” But when we come to our own time, Bryce observes that one finds nowadays from European travelers the “general admission that the Americans are as pleasant to one another and to strangers, as are the French or the Germans or the English. The least agreeable feature to the visitors of former years, an incessant vaunting of their own country and disparagement of others, has disappeared; and the tinge of self-assertion which the sense of equality used to give is now but faintly noticeable.”  7
  With improvement in this respect, there is no longer evident, as formerly, such extreme sensitiveness to the opinions of Europeans, and especially of the English. Harriet Martineau thought that the veneration in New England for Old England was greater “than any one people ought to feel for any other.” It is undeniable that, mingled with the unrestrained curiosity with which the American people ran headlong after the Prince of Wales on the occasion of his visit to the United States in 1860, there was a genuine enthusiasm and a kindly feeling for the country and the sovereign that he represented.  8
  With all our improvement, have we grown more interesting? De Tocqueville was just when he wrote: “In the long run, however, the view of that society, so agitated, appears monotonous; and after having contemplated for a while this ever-changing picture, the spectator becomes weary.” Somewhere about 1870, Lowell asked: “Did it never occur to you that somehow we are not interesting except as a phenomenon?”  9
  The people of the decade we are studying did not lack for public amusements. In music, the era began with Jenny Lind and ended with Adelina Patti. The impression made by the Swedish Nightingale still remains fresh. On her arrival at New York she was received like a queen. Triumphal arches of flowers and evergreens were erected on the pier, where an enthusiastic crowd greeted her. The flag of Norway and Sweden floated over her hotel. Barnum, her manager, kept up the interest in the songstress by all sorts of clever advertising until the day of the sale of the tickets for the first concert, when fabulous prices were paid for seats. She sang at Castle Garden; and the accounts of the pressing crowd that gathered outside on the occasion of her first appearance, call to mind a national party convention rather than a host assembled to do homage to the greatest interpreter of the art of song. Her singing of operatic selections struck lovers of music with amazement and delight; but when she burst forth in one of her national airs, the great audience was thrilled, and their hearts vibrated with emotions that took them for the moment away from earth.  10

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