Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Old New York

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Old New York

By John Fanning Watson (1779–1860)

[Born in Batsto, Burlington Co., N. J., 1779. Died at Germantown, Penn., 1860. Annals and Occurrences of New York City and State. 1846.]

THE DUTCH kept five festivals, of peculiar notoriety, in the year: say Kerstydt (Christmas); Nieuw jar (New Year), a great day of cake; Paas (the Passover); Pinxter (i.e., Whitsuntide); and San Claas (i.e., Saint Nicholas, or Christ-kinkle day). The negroes on Long Island, on some of those days, came in great crowds to Brooklyn and held their field frolics. The observance of New Year’s day (Nieuw jar) is an occasion of much good feeling and hospitality, come down to the present generation from their Dutch forefathers. No other city in the Union ever aims at the like general interchange of visits. Cakes, wines, and punch abound in every house; and from morning till night houses are open to receive the calls of acquaintances, and to pass the mutual salutations of a “Happy New Year,” etc.

It was the general practice of families in middle-life to spin and make much of their domestic wear at home. Short-gowns and petticoats were the general in-door dresses. Young women who dressed gay to go abroad to visit, or to church, never failed to take off that dress and put on their home-made as soon as they got home; even on Sunday evenings when they expected company, or even their beaux, it was their best recommendation to seem thus frugal and ready for any domestic avocation. The boys and young men of a family always changed their dress for a common dress in the same way. There was no custom of offering drink to their guests; when punch was offered, it was in great bowls.

Dutch dances were very common; the supper on such occasions was a pot of chocolate and bread. The Rev. Dr. Laidlie, who arrived in 1764, did much to preach them into disuse; he was very exact in his piety, and was the first minister of the Dutch Reformed Church who was called to preach in the English language. The negroes used to dance in the markets, where they used tomtoms, horns, etc., for music. They used often to sell negro slaves at the coffee-house.

All marriages had to be published beforehand, three weeks at the churches, or else, to avoid that, they had to purchase a license of the governor:—a seemingly singular surveillance for a great military chief! We may presume he cared little for the fact beyond his fee….

At the New Year and Christmas festivals, it was the custom to go out to the ice on Beekman’s and such-like swamps to shoot at turkeys; every one paid a price for his shot, as at a mark, and if he hit it so as to draw blood, it was his for a New Year or Christmas dinner. A fine subject this for Dr. Laidlie’s preaching and reformation!

At funerals the Dutch gave hot wine in winter; and in summer they gave wine-sangaree. I have noticed a singular custom among Dutch families;—a father gives a bundle of goose-quills to a son, telling him to give one to each of his male posterity. I saw one in the possession of Mr. James Bogert, which had a scroll appended, saying, “This quill given by Petrus Byvanck to James Bogert, in 1789, was a present, in 1689, from his grandfather from Holland.”…

Many aged persons have spoken to me of the former delightful practice of families sitting out on their “stoopes” in the shades of the evening, and there saluting the passing friends, or talking across the narrow streets with neighbors. It was one of the grand links of union in the Knickerbocker social compact. It endeared and made social neighbors; made intercourse on easy terms; it was only to say, “Come, sit down.” It helped the young to easy introductions, and made courtships of readier attainment. I give some facts to illustrate the above remarks, deduced from the family of B——, with which I am personally acquainted. It shows primitive Dutch manners. His grandfather died at the age of sixty-three, in 1782, holding the office of alderman eleven years, and once chosen mayor and declined. Such a man, in easy circumstances in life, following the true Dutch ton, had all his family to breakfast, all the year round, at daylight. Before the breakfast he universally smoked his pipe. His family always dined at twelve exactly. At that time the kettle was invariably set on the fire for tea, of Bohea, which was always as punctually furnished at three o’clock. Then the old people went abroad on purpose to visit relatives, changing the families each night in succession, over and over again, all the year round. The regale at every such house was expected, as matter of course, to be chocolate supper and soft waffles. Afterwards, when green tea came in as a new luxury, loaf-sugar also came with it; this was broken in large lumps and laid severally by each cup, and was nibbled or bitten as needed! The family before referred to actually continued the practice till as late as seventeen years ago, with a steady determination in the patriarch to resist the modern innovation of dissolved sugar while he lived….

The cleanliness of Dutch housewifery was always extreme; everything had to submit to scrubbing and scouring; dirt in no form could be endured by them; and dear as water was in the city, where it was generally sold, still it was in perpetual requisition. It was their honest pride to see a well-furnished dresser, showing copper and pewter in shining splendor, as if for ornament rather than for use. In all this they widely differed from the Germans, a people with whom they have been erroneously and often confounded. Roost fowls and ducks are not more different. As water draws one it repels the other….

About the year 1793–4, there was an extravagant, impolitic affection for France, and hostility to everything British, in our country generally. It required all the prudence of Washington and his cabinet, to stem the torrent of passion which flowed in favor of France, to the prejudice of our neutrality. Now the event is passed, we may thus soberly speak of its character. It may be remembered with what joy the people ran to the wharves at the report of cannon, to see arrivals of the Frenchmen’s prizes—we were so pleased to see the British union down! When French mariners or officers were met in the street, they would be saluted by the boys with “Vive la Republique.” The streets, too, at night resounded with French national airs, sung by ourselves—such as “Allons, enfants de la patrie,” “Dansons le Carmagnole,” etc. Many, too, put on the national cockade of red, blue, and white. Liberty-poles, surmounted with red liberty-caps, were often set up. We remember the French frigate L’Ambuscade, as making her stay in New York harbor, and at night the officers and men in launches would go up and down the harbor, with bands of music, singing the national airs. At the same time, the Boston frigate (British) lay off the Hook, and sent in her challenge for the L’Ambuscade to come out and fight her. It was accepted; and many citizens went out in pilot-boats, and saw the action and drawn battle….

It was a time when the people seemed maddened by impulse of feeling—such as we hope never to see aroused again for any foreigners. They were fine feelings to insure the success of a war actually begun, but bad affections for any nation whose interests lay in peace and neutrality. Washington bravely submitted to become unpopular, to allay and repress this dangerous foreign attachment. About this time, almost every vessel arriving brought fugitives from the infuriated negroes in Cape François, Port-au-Prince, etc.; or from the sharp axe of the guillotine of France, dripping night and day with the blood of Frenchmen, shed in the name of liberty and the sacred rights of man. The city thronged with French people of all shades from the French colonies, and from old France, giving it the appearance of one great hotel or place of refuge for strangers hastily collected from a raging tempest. The characteristic old-school simplicity of the citizens, in manners, habits of dress, and modes of thinking and speaking on the subjects of civil rights and forms of government, by the square and rule of reason and argument, began to be broken in upon by the new enthusiasm of la mode Française. French boarding-houses, marked Pension Française, multiplied in every street. The French West Indians, as well as many of ourselves, wore the pantaloons with feet to them, let into the shoes. Their ladies dressed generally en chemise—a loose, flowing exterior, which strikingly aided to expose their superior figures and forms. Such chemise dresses our young ladies soon learned to adopt and follow. They made then no mistakes in imagining the real symmetry of our belles.

It was wonderful how little these French people mixed in our society. They formed but few alliances with us; and finally disappeared, like birds of passage, going we knew not where. While they remained, they gave an air of French to everything. They introduced us to the use of their confectioneries and bon-bons—jewelry and trinkets—dancing and music. In music they excelled. Their boarding-houses daily and nightly resounded with the violin and clarionet, and, from their example, we adopted cotillions, and laid aside all former British modes of dancing. The Frenchmen were great promenaders, being much abroad in the street as walkers, and much in the country as shooters—they shot and ate all manner of birds, practically thinking that all depended upon the cooking. They were great shots upon the wing—indeed, they taught us so to shoot with their double-barrelled guns, expensively finished. These were new to us, and we adopted them. Before then, we were more of fishers than shooters, or sought our bird-game on the water. From them we first began to cultivate the study of French, and the use of the piano—many of them serving as our instructors. From them we learned to adopt gold watches and gilded-framed looking-glasses and pictures. They always dressed with great freshness and cleanliness; but their house-keeping was with proverbial neglect and slovenliness. They had no aim at nice floors, burnished furniture, or cleanly kitchens. They had no love to clean water, but on their persons; and from that cause they first introduced us to the use and support of public baths. They taught us also to much change our table diet—to use soups, salads, sweet-oil, tomatoes, ragouts, fricassees, and perfumes. They had bread bakers for “French bread” of their own, leavened in their own peculiar way, and French restaurants to furnish ready-cooked dishes for their dinners. From them we learned the use of mattresses and high bedsteads, the love of musical entertainments and orchestra singing. In a word, they inoculated us with Frenchified tastes and affections….

Formerly there were no side-boards, and when they were first introduced after the Revolution they were much smaller and less expensive than now. Formerly they had couches of worsted damask, and only in very affluent families, in lieu of what we now call sofas or lounges. Plain people used settees and settles,—the latter had a bed concealed in the seat, and by folding the top of it outwards to the front, it exposed the bed and widened the place for the bed to be spread upon it. This, homely as it might now be regarded, was a common sitting-room appendage, and was a proof of more attention to comfort than display. It had, as well as the settee, a very high back of plain boards, and the whole was of white pine, generally unpainted and whitened well with unsparing scrubbing. Such was in the poet’s eyes when pleading for his sofa,—

  • “But restless was the seat, the back erect
  • Distressed the weary loins that felt no ease.”
  • They were a very common article in very good houses, and were generally the proper property of the oldest members of the family, unless occasionally used to stretch the weary length of tired boys. They were placed before the fireplaces in the winter to keep the back guarded from wind and cold. Formerly there were no Windsor chairs; and fancy chairs are still more modern. Their chairs of the genteelest kind were of mahogany or red walnut (once a great substitute for mahogany in all kinds of furniture, tables, etc.), or else they were of rush-bottoms, and made of maple posts and slats, with high backs and perpendicular. Instead of Japanned waiters as now, they had mahogany tea-boards and round tea-tables, which, being turned on an axle underneath the centre, stood upright like an expanded fan or palm-leaf, in the corner. Another corner was occupied by a beaufet, which was a corner closet with a glass door, in which all the china of the family and the plate were intended to be displayed for ornament as well as use. A conspicuous article in the collection was always a great china punch-bowl, which furnished a frequent and grateful beverage,—for wine drinking was then much less in vogue. China teacups and saucers were about half their present size; and china tea-pots and coffee-pots, with silver nozzles, were a mark of superior finery. The sham of plated ware was not then known, and all who showed a silver surface had the massive metal too. This occurred in the wealthy families in little coffee- and tea-pots; and a silver tankard for good sugared toddy was above vulgar entertainment. Where we now use earthen-ware, they then used delft-ware imported from England; and instead of queen’s ware (then unknown) pewter platters and porringers, made to shine along a “dresser,” were universal. Some, and especially the country people, ate their meals from wooden trenchers. Gilded looking-glasses and picture-frames of golden glare were unknown; and both, much smaller than now, were used. Small pictures painted on glass, with black mouldings for frames, with a scanty touch of gold-leaf in the corners, were the adornment of a parlor. The looking-glasses, in two plates if large, had either glass frames figured with flowers engraved thereon, or were of scalloped mahogany or of Dutch wood scalloped—painted white or black, with here and there some touches of gold. Every householder in that day deemed it essential to his convenience and comfort to have an ample chest of drawers in his parlor or sitting-room, in which the linen and clothes of the family were always of ready access. It was no sin to rummage them before company. These drawers were sometimes nearly as high as the ceiling. At other times they had a writing-desk about the centre, with a falling-lid to write upon when let down. A great high clock-case, reaching to the ceiling, occupied another corner; and a fourth corner was appropriated to the chimney-place. They then had no carpets on their floors, and no paper on their walls. The silver-sand on the floor was drawn into a variety of fanciful figures and twirls with the sweeping-brush, and much skill and even pride was displayed therein in the devices and arrangement. They had then no argand or other lamps in parlors, but dip candles, in brass or copper candlesticks, were usually good enough for common use; and those who occasionally used mould candles, made them at home in little tin frames, casting four to six candles in each. A glass lantern with square sides furnished the entry lights in the houses of the affluent. Bedsteads then were made, if fine, of carved mahogany, of slender dimensions; but for common purposes, or for the families of good tradesmen, they were of poplar, and always painted green. It was a matter of universal concern to have them low enough to answer the purpose of repose for sick or dying persons—a provision so necessary for such possible events, now so little regarded by the modern practice of ascending to a bed by steps, like clambering up to a hay-mow.

    A lady, giving me the reminiscences of her early life, thus speaks of things as they were before the war of Independence:—Marble mantels and folding-doors were not then known; and well enough we enjoyed ourselves without sofas, carpets, or girandoles. A white floor sprinkled with clean white sand, large tables and heavy high-back chairs of walnut or mahogany, decorated a parlor genteelly enough for anybody. Sometimes a carpet, not, however, covering the whole floor, was seen upon the dining-room. This was a show-parlor up stairs, not used but upon gala occasions, and then not to dine in. Pewter plates and dishes were in general use. China on dinner-tables was a great rarity. Plate, more or less, was seen in most families of easy circumstances, not indeed in all the various shapes that have since been invented, but in massive silver waiters, bowls, tankards, cans, etc. Glass tumblers were scarcely seen. Punch, the most common beverage, was drunk by the company, from one large bowl of silver or china; and beer from a tankard of silver.

    The use of stoves was not known in primitive times, neither in families nor in churches. Their fireplaces were as large again as the present, with much plainer mantel-pieces. In lieu of marble plates round the sides and top of the fireplaces, it was adorned with china Dutch-tile, pictured with sundry scripture pieces. Dr. Franklin first invented the “open stove,” called also “the Franklin stove,” after which, as fuel became scarce, the better economy of the “ten-plate stove” was adopted.

    The most splendid looking carriage ever exhibited among us was that used as befitting the character of that chief of men, General Washington, while acting as President of the United States. It was very large, so as to make four horses, at least, an almost necessary appendage. It was occasionally drawn by six horses, Virginia bays. It was cream-colored, globular in its shape, ornamented with cupids supporting festoons, and wreaths of flowers, emblematically arranged along the panel-work; the whole neatly covered with best coach-glass. It was of English construction….

    Mr. A. B., aged seventy-five, told me that he never saw any carpets on floors, before the Revolution; when first introduced they only covered the floors outside of the chairs around the room; he knew of persons afraid to step on them when they first saw them on floors; some dignified families always had some carpets, but then they got them through merchants as a special importation for themselves. Floors silver-sanded in figures, etc., were the universal practice. The walls of houses were not papered, but universally whitewashed. Mahogany was but very seldom used, and, when seen, was mostly in a desk or “tea-table.” The general furniture was made of “billstead,” another name for maple. The first stoves he remembered came into use in his time, and were all open inside in one oblong square; having no baking-oven thereto, as was afterwards invented in the “ten-plate stoves.”

    He thinks coaches were very rare; can’t think there were more than four or five of them; men were deemed rich to have kept even a chaise. The governor had one coach; Walton had another; Colden, the lieutenant-governor, had a coach, which was burnt before his window by the mob; Mrs. Alexander had a coach, and Robert Murray, a Friend, had another, which he called his “leathern conveniency,” to avoid the scandal of pride and vainglory.