VI. SOCIETY IN 1776.
Despite the numerous biographies, histories, narratives, diaries, and volumes of correspondence concerning the revolutionary epoch, which fill many shelves of our larger libraries, it is not easy to reproduce in imagination the state of American society as it was a hundred years ago. In order to do so we must exclude from the mind many objects and ideas which have been familiar to us all our lives. We must subtract all of material improvements, of changes in the method of doing things, of new directions and wide divergencies in the current of thought and knowledge that have come about in the interval. We must strip the modern home, for instance, of appliances without which it is difficult to conjure up a picture of comfort, much less of luxury. We must forget railways, and the telegraph, and every other use of that still mysterious agent, electricity. We must put out of our minds all notion of great cities, of long lines of elegant shops, blocks of noble residences, spacious parks adorned by every refinement of the gardening art, public buildings capped with stately dome and graceful turret and sculptured front; all notion of the later growth of recreation, the theatre and the concert hall, the lecture platform, the brilliant holiday festival, the sea excursion, the gay and attractive summer resort with its big hotels and its countless luxuries. We must return in imagination, in short, to a social condition but few remnants of which are still to be found in remote corners of the country; the relics of which still visible to the eye are rare and precious, and dwindling away day by day; and the life and spirit of which have ceased with the broadened, gift-laden civilization which has replaced the old primitive simplicity, and made a powerful, teeming, and restless nation out of scattered villages and colonies struggling to exist.
Still, there was a very distinct advance in culture, elegance, comfort, and luxury, beyond the condition of the colonies in the previous century. Those who remember the stately Hancock House, on the top of Beacon Hill in Boston, and compare its exterior and interior with still extant edifices which were residences of the wealthier colonists of two hundred years ago, may gather some idea of the far more lavish adornment and elegance of the period in which Hancock lived. We may well believe that when Washington drove through the streets of Philadelphia in a state coach, "of which the body was in the shape of a hemisphere, cream- colored, bordered with flowers round the panels, and ornamented with figures representing cupids, and supporting festoons," he presented a very different appearance from that of the early Puritan governors and Virginian squires; and could we have peeped into the square, solid drawing-room in which, as President, he held his receptions, aided by the matronly grace and dignity of Mrs. Washington, the scene would be far gayer and more imposing than William Penn's house would have displayed, or the company of the richest Dutch "patroon" of New York could have presented in the seventeenth century.
Yet, had we gone over the mansion, in how many things would we, used to the minute refinements of this later age, have judged it wanting! Instead of gas, there would be candles, and not of the best quality, everywhere. Instead of stoves and furnaces with coal, we should have been fain to comfort ourselves with the cheerful blaze and genial glow, but scant and capricious warmth, of the wood logs, burning in the big open fireplaces. Lace curtains and moquette carpets would be nowhere apparent. The furniture, though here and there richly carved and bountifully upholstered, would be wanting in variety and the luxurious ease of that which we now enjoy.
[The Tables of 1776.]
At table we should have missed the thousand refinements and inventions of French and native cooking which now lend variety to our sustenance. The food would have been substantial and heavy and little various; the English simplicity, probably, of barons of beef and shoulders of mutton, and cold bread, and big plum puddings, with a relish of fruits. Were we in fancy to journey from New York to Philadelphia or Boston, we should be forced to rumble slowly over bad roads, through interminable forests and by desert sea-coasts, in heavy and rudely jolting vehicles, and be several days upon the trip.
[Travelling in the Olden Time.]
[The Wealthier Classes.]