Fanny Trollope: Domestic manners of the Americans (1832)

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In noting the various brilliant events which diversified our residence in the western metropolis, I have omitted to mention the Birthday Ball, as it is called, a festivity which, I believe, has place on the 22nd of February, in every town and city throughout the Union.  It is the anniversary of the birth of

General Washington, and well deserves to be marked by the Americans as a day of jubilee.

I was really astonished at the coup d’oeil on entering, for I saw a large room filled with extremely well-dressed company, among whom were many very beautiful girls.  The gentlemen also were exceedingly smart, but I had not yet been long enough in Western America not to feel startled at recognising in almost every full-dressed _beau_ that passed me, the master or shopman that I had been used to see behind the counter, or lolling at the door of every shop in the city.  The fairest and finest belles smiled and smirked on them with as much zeal and satisfaction as I ever saw bestowed on an eldest son, and I therefore could feel no doubt of their being considered as of the highest rank.  Yet it must not be supposed that there is no distinction of classes:  at this same ball I was looking among the many very beautiful girls I saw there for one more beautiful still, with whose lovely face I had been particularly struck at the school examination I have mentioned.  I could not find her, and asked a gentleman why the beautiful Miss C. was not there.

„You do not yet understand our aristocracy,“ he replied, „the family of Miss C. are mechanics.“

„But the young lady has been educated at the same school as these, whom I see here, and I know her brother has a shop in the town, quite as large, and apparently as prosperous, as those belonging to any of these young men.  What is the difference?“

„He is a mechanic; he assists in making the articles he sells; the others call themselves merchants.“

The dancing was not quite like, yet not very unlike, what we see at an assize or race-ball in a country town.  They call their dances cotillions instead of quadrilles, and the figures are called from the orchestra in English, which has very ludicrous effect on European ears.

The arrangements for the supper were very singular, but eminently characteristic of the country.  The gentlemen had a splendid entertainment spread for them in another large room of the hotel, while the poor ladies had each a plate put into their hands, as they pensively promenaded the ballroom during their absence; and shortly afterwards servants appeared, bearing trays of sweetmeats, cakes, and creams.  The fair creatures then sat down on a row of chairs placed round the walls, and each making a table of her knees, began eating her sweet, but sad and sulky repast.  The effect was extremely comic; their gala dresses and the decorated room forming a contrast the most unaccountable with their uncomfortable and forlorn condition.

This arrangement was owing neither to economy nor want of a room large enough to accommodate the whole party, but purely because the gentlemen liked it better.  This was the answer given me, when my curiosity tempted me to ask why the ladies and gentlemen did not sup together; and this was the answer repeated to me afterwards by a variety of people to whom I put the same question.

I am led to mention this feature of American manners very frequently, not only because it constantly recurs, but because I consider it as being in a great degree the cause of that universal deficiency in good manners and graceful demeanour, both in men and women, which is so remarkable.

Where there is no court, which every where else is the glass wherein the higher orders dress themselves, and which again reflected from them to the classes below, goes far towards polishing, in some degree, a great majority of the population, it is not to be expected that manner should be made so much a study, or should attain an equal degree of elegance; but the deficiency, and the total difference, is greater than this cause alone could account for.  The hours of enjoyment are important to human beings every where, and we every where find them preparing to make the most of them.  Those who enjoy themselves only in society, whether intellectual or convivial, prepare themselves for it, and such make but a poor figure when forced to be content with the sweets of solitude: while, on the other hand, those to whom retirement affords the greatest pleasure, seldom give or receive much in society.  Wherever the highest enjoyment is found by both sexes in scenes where they meet each other, both will prepare themselves to appear with advantage there.  The men will not indulge in the luxury of chewing tobacco, or even of spitting, and the women will contrive to be capable of holding a higher post than that of unwearied tea-makers.

In America, with the exception of dancing, which is almost wholly confined to the unmarried of both sexes, all the enjoyments of the men are found in the absence of the women.  They dine, they play cards, they have musical meetings, they have suppers, all in large parties but all without women.  Were it not that such is the custom, it is impossible but that they would have ingenuity enough to find some expedient for sparing the wives and daughters of the opulent the sordid offices of household drudgery which they almost all perform in their families.  Even in the slave states, though they may not clear-starch and iron, mix puddings and cakes one half of the day, and watch them baking the other half, still the very highest occupy themselves in their household concerns, in a manner that precludes the possibility of their becoming elegant and enlightened companions.  In Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, I met with some exceptions to this; but speaking of the country generally, it is unquestionably true.

Über Karin Koller

Biochemist, Writer, Painter, Mum of Three
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