Tag Archives: Victorian era

If you were to walk . . . or race a sleigh through Downtown Lowell’s Streets – 1906

Did you know that Jingle Bells was composed by James Lord Pierpoint in Medford, Massachusetts in 1850?  It’s claimed that the town’s 19th century sleigh races inspired the song, and that it was originally written as a Thanksgiving, not Christmas song.  Why “jingle bells”?  Music historian James Fuld informs that the horse-drawn sleighs of the Victorian era, passing on its snow-covered streets, moved very quickly and in almost complete silence, and needed to “jingle” their bells as they approached intersections to alert other sleighs of their presence.  The first modern traffic light didn’t see an American street until 1914.

By Timmis, Reginald Symonds [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Two-Horse Open Sleigh - in Toronto, 1913

But, as our ancestors “dashed through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh”, what did they see as they passed “over the hills” and “laughed all the way”?  In the horse-centric world of Victorian-era cities, they would have seen streets that looked much more residential (read: less congested) than today’s downtown area roads.  In Lowell, Massachusetts, for instance, if your sleigh got ‘upsot’ by drifting into a snow bank, as the song’s lesser known second verse narrates, your great-grandparents would have seen some fairly gnarled and mistreated trees surrounding them.  On Lowell’s Dummer Street, which connects the city’s Acre neighborhood with its historic downtown district, Great-Grandpa would have seen lots of trees – with some uses that would be considered quite unorthodox today.

He would have seen some trees used as hitching posts for horses, some used as trolley poles, and some even used for billboard supports!  All of these uses caused significant damage to trees in Victorian-era cities.  On two of Lowell’s downtown area streets, the aforementioned Dummer Street, and Dutton Street (one of the thoroughfares leading into the downtown area), he would have seen lots of trees, like the one below, with severe damaged caused by . . . well, hungry horses.  When the horses weren’t otherwise occupied pulling sleighs or wagons through the city’s streets, they were often tethered to trees while their owners attended to downtown business or called upon friends. The horses, hungry and bored, would then gnaw on the trees, which caused some fairly significant damage.

From Lowell's Municipal Records - 1906 City Forester's Report

From Municipal Records of Lowell - City Forester's Report - 1906

Sometimes, cities provided hitching posts for travelers to hitch their horses.  When they didn’t, people improvised.  In the Dutton Street photograph at right, you’ll notice a hitching ring protruding from the tree’s severely damaged trunk.  City foresters of the era advised that tree trunks should be enclosed to a proper height in wire netting and, evidence of what this looked like appears in the Broadway photographs below.  One might surmise, however, that the true intent behind protecting that tree, rather than roadway beautification, was to protect the tree’s use as a trolley pole.

Billboards existed even in Victorian times, and they vexed city residents even then.  Billboards escape mention in Pierpoint’s Jingle Bells, but the use of trees as billboard supports persisted in Lowell as least as late as 1905, when the city passed its own sort of early Highway Beautification Act.  By the end of 1906, the city forester’s department had spent considerable resources removing the billboards from city trees.  It’s said that Lowell’s Branch Street and Dutton Street had the most cases of signs attached to trees.

From Municipal Records - Lowell City Forester's Report 1906

Can’t you just picture dashing through the snow on a road such as this one (below) from Lowell’s Middlesex Village a century ago?  Just add a little snow and some windows glowing with gaslit lamps inside, and you’d have a scene fit for a Thomas Kinkade painting.  But – this photograph, taken in 1906, doesn’t actually show a winter scene.  Instead, these trees are lifeless due to poisoning by “illuminating gas” – the same gas used, in an era before electricity was common, to power lighting in houses.  According to period sources, a considerable leak from a gas main could kill a group of trees in a single night.  Even a very slight leak could kill trees over a long period of time.

As I ponder the third verse of Pierpont’s jingle, and how it recounts the narrator’s rival laughing at him after he falls from the sleigh:

A day or two ago, the story I must tell. 

I went out on the snow,And on my back I fell.

A gent was riding by, In a one-horse open sleigh. 

He laughed as there I sprawling lie, But quickly drove away.”

I feel I have a better idea of just what the fallen sleigh rider saw as he looked up at the long ago night sky, past his tormenting rival and into the branches beyond.  I can also envision the trunks of the trees outlining the roads he walked as he made his way home to his gas-lit home and his waiting family.

Happy Holidays, Readers!  And Best Wishes for a Successful 2012!


The Etiquette of Eating Olives – Victorian-Era Table Manners

Richelieu, by Philippe de Champaigne (detail),...

Cardinal Richelieu, Image via Wikipedia

There’s a story about the rather richly named Armand Jean du Plessis that circulated throughout Victorian-era New England during the 1880′s.  The story goes that du Plessis, better remembered by the world as the 17th-century Cardinal Richelieu of  France, once exposed an impostor pretending to be a nobleman by the way the man ate his olives.  Those watching this spectacle, the Cardinal included, were nonplussed when the impostor nobleman, upon failing to find an olive fork at the table, exposed himself as a fraud when he substituted an ordinary fork when procuring his olives.  The proper thing to do, the Cardinal and his tablemates knew, was to fish those olives from the dish with one’s fingers.

This story resonated with Victorian listeners.  Observing table manners provided a means by which one could identify the ‘uncultivated’ who were attempting to ‘rise above their condition’ and masquerade among the wealthier classes of society.  Mary Barr Munroe, writing for the March 2, 1889 edition of Good Housekeeping, reflected on some people-watching she herself had recently done in New York.  As she sat at a New York City restaurant she “saw a richly dressed woman with every evidence a lady, handle her knife, fork, and napkin in a way that bespoke anything but gentle breeding”.  At another table, she watched “a man take from his pocket a medicine bottle, shake it, pour out a dose and swallow it with evident disgust.”

Apparently, to the Victorians, the list of crimes against proper table manners was long.  Munroe advised that it was improper to:

  • Let food fall upon one’s clothes;
  • Grasp for food across the table;
  • Gulp one’s meal or tea down lustily;
  • Pick that same meal from one’s teeth moments later;
  • Smack one’s lips after finishing that meal (including any bits caught within one’s teeth);
  • ‘Loll’ at the table; and
  • Misunderstand the various utensils at the table, including butter knives, salt-spoons, sugar tongs, and napkins.
By Creator unknown. [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Group of people lined up in front of an 'Eating Saloon'

Other table faux-paus included ordering too much from the menu or not being able to find an item there to one’s liking.  In addition to the aforementioned olives, table manners grew specific depending on the type of food consumed.  A soft-boiled egg, for instance, could be eaten in the English manner, that is, directly from its shell, using a small egg cup and egg spoon.  Alternately, the soft-boiled egg could be eaten in the American fashion, by striking the egg against the cup and then pouring its contents within that cup.

Rules were prescribed for the consumption of celery too.  ‘Strictly finger food’, the Victorians advised.  To add salt, one should hold the stalk in one’s left hand, while shaking the salt dispenser over the celery with the other.  Always be mindful, etiquette advised, that a plate is positioned under the shaking effort in order to catch any errant salt.  Corn on the cob presented a specific challenge to Victorian table watchers.  Some advised that consumers of the corn should hold the ears in “pretty little doylies”; others thought this a perfectly absurd use of table linen.  Rules even existed for the ‘after-meal’: one should never pile dirty dishes or fold spent napkins.

Some claim that table manners make a pleasant dining experience possible for all.  Others argue that they serve as a method by which the upper classes of society can identify and further ostracize the ‘uncultivated’.  Before the Victorian era and even before Cardinal Richelieu‘s day, table manners were observed during what today’s society calls ‘people watching’.  But, whether you consider them important or not, they do provide some interesting viewpoints into societies of the past and the interrelations of the classes within them.


In His Words: Charles Dickens’ Perspective on New England and Public Transport, 1842

We New Englanders have long called Boston “the Hub”.  And there’s a sense, just barely concealed, that we’re really referring to the hub of the universe, and not merely the hub of the state or region.   Undoubtedly, New England has a strong regional identity that includes the ubiquitous image of the “proper Bostonian” as well as a rich, well-known history that stretches back, at least from a European perspective, almost four centuries.  So, when one thinks about Massachusetts during the Victorian period, images of God-fearing, long-hemmed, be-hatted New Englanders walking to white, steepled churches in verdant town commons emerge.  Great Britain, whose long-reigned monarch gave the period its name, surely corners the market on the prim manners and complex social rituals associated with the Victorian era.  But, from an American perspective, how was New England viewed during the Victorian period?

By From an oil painting by R. J. Lane [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Dickens, ca. 1840

Enter Charles Dickens to provide us some perspective, from one of Queen Victoria’s most well-known subjects, no less.  When Charles Dickens and his wife made their first trip to the United States and Canada in 1842, he was barely 30 years old, nearly three years away from publishing A Christmas Carol, and almost two decades from publishing A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.  Even with his early works, however, Dickens, by 1842, had already amassed a large following in New England.

The long-time Justice at the Lowell Police Court, Samuel P. Hadley, a ten-year-old boy at the time, recorded his memories of the Dickens visit to Lowell, Massachusetts years later for the Lowell Historical Society.  He recalled Dickens’ early novel, The Pickwick Papers, and how Lowell had grown enamored with the rich scenes and contagious humor displayed by Dickens in the work.   Judge Hadley, like many Lowell residents of the time, had taken turns reading the book aloud with his family, and recalled watching his father convulse with laughter, until they had to close the book and stop reading, not being able to stand any more.  He also recalled spilling tears over Little Nell Trent, the angelic and virtuous young heroine who met a tragic fate in Dickens’ novel, The Old Curiosity Shop.

While visiting Boston in early February 1842, Dickens took a one-day excursion to see the factories of Lowell, a young city barely 20 years into its existence at the time.  Very little documentation of the visit exists in the Lowell papers of the day.  Dickens made no friends with the reporters when he failed to notify them of his coming visit.  His recollections of the trip survive mostly in his travelogue, American Notes for General Circulation, published later that year.  He used the travelogue to discuss his perceptions of American culture, and provide some interesting insights into how our Victorian-era ancestors were viewed by the English.

Q:  What were Dickens’ impressions of rail travel in the United States?

A:  Dickens noticed that the American railroads had no distinct first and second class carriages like their British counterparts.  Rather, he remarked that the railroad cars were divided into gentlemen’s cars (where everyone smoked) and ladies’ cars (where no one did).  He also noted, nineteenth-century perspective clearly exhibited, that “as a black man never travels with a white one, there is also a negro car”, which he went on to describe as a “great, blundering, clumsy chest”.

He found the railroad cars to provide a “great deal of jolting, a great deal of noise, a great deal of wall, not much window, a locomotive engine, a shriek, and a bell”.  The cars, he said were like “shabby omnibuses, but larger, holding thirty, forty, or fifty people.”  For warmth, the cars were equipped with a stove, he noted, fed with charcoal or anthracite coal, which was red-hot and “insufferably close”.  Through the light of its embers, one could see fumes co-mingle with the tendrils of smoke wafting in from the gentlemen’s car.  Gentlemen did ride in the ladies’ car, when they accompanied ladies.  Also, some ladies travelled alone.

Q:  Victorian-era people have a reputation for being rather standoffish, even stiff in their rigid, long-hemmed clothes.  What did Dickens think of the Americans he met on the train?

A:  Dickens bristled at the informality exhibited by the train conductor (“or check-taker, or guard, or whatever he may be”).  As he explained:

“He walks up and down the car, and in and out of it, as his fancy dictates; leans against the door with his hands in his pockets, and stares at you, if you chance to be a stranger; or enters into conversation with the passengers about him.”  He also found it odd that “everybody” on the train “talks to you, or to anybody else who hits his fancy.”

Q:  And the American intellect?

A:  Dickens wasn’t impressed.  He noticed that when upon learning he was an Englishman, Americans asked how the US railroad compared to its British counterpart.  In his travelogue, Dickens presents this rather comical exchange:

“If you are an Englishman, he expects that the railroad is pretty much like an English railroad.  If you say “No,” he says “Yes?” (interrogatively), and asks in what respect they differ.  You enumerate the heads of difference, one by one, and he says “Yes?” (still interrogatively) to each.  Then he guesses that you don’t travel faster in England; and on your replying that you do, says “Yes?” again (still interrogatively), and it is quite evident, doesn’t believe it.  After a long pause he remarks, partly to you, and partly to the knob on the top of his stick, that “Yankees are reckoned to be considerable of a go-ahead people too;”  upon which you say “Yes,” and then he says “Yes” again (affirmatively this time) ; and upon your looking out of window, tells you that behind that hill, and some three miles from the next station, there is a clever town in a smart location, where he expects you have concluded to stop.  Your answer in the negative naturally leads to more questions in reference to your intended route (always pronounced rout) ; and wherever you are going, you invariably learn that you can’t get there without immense difficulty and danger and that all the great sights are somewhere else.”

Dickens noted that politics was much discussed aboard the train, as were banks and cotton.  He also noted that, as today, “that directly [after] the acrimony of the last [presidential] election is over, the acrimony of the next one begins”.

Q:  And the landscape of Victorian-era New England?

A:  Dickens found the rail very narrow in the United States – with the forest closing in tightly, almost claustrophobically, on the train.  Where a view could be had, he saw only “stunted trees: some hewn down by axe, some blown down by the wind, some half fallen and resting on their neighbours, many mere logs half hidden in the swamp, others mouldered away to spongy chips.”

Q:  And the picturesque lakes and ponds we treasure today?

A:  “Each pool of stagnant water has its crust of vegetable rottenness; and on every side there are the boughs, trunks, and stumps of trees in every possible stage of decay, decomposition, and neglect.”

Q:  And the idyllic New England townscapes we imagine as even more pristine in Victorian times?

By Boston Directory [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1852 B&L RR Schedule, Showing Dickens' Route from 11 Years Earlier.

A:  “Now you emerge for a few brief minutes on an open country, glittering with some bright lake or pool, broad as many an English river, but so small here that it scarcely has a name; now catch hasty glimpses of a distant town, with its clean white houses and their cool piazzas, its prim New England church and school-house; when whir-r-r-r ! almost before you have seen them, comes the same dark screen: the stunted trees, the stumps, the logs, the stagnant water.”

So much for an appreciation of the wetlands protection act.

Dickens appears to have viewed the towns along the Boston to Lowell route – Somerville, Medford, Winchester, Woburn, and Billerica, to name a few, as hinterlands on civilization’s edge.  He noted stations “in the woods” where it seemed “the wild impossibility of anybody having to get out is only to be equalled by the apparently desperate hopelessness of there being anybody to get in.”

On arriving in Lowell

Dickens thought it odd that no gate, policeman, or signal marked the railroad crossings.  As his train rushed through the last crossing before Lowell, he noticed only a wooden arch (“rough”, in his words) with these words of caution: “When the bell rings, look out for the locomotive.”  He found his arrival into Lowell startling as the train raced through the darkness under a wooden bridge and emerged into the blinding brightness of the main thoroughfare of a large town (probably Lowell’s Merrimack Street).

He watched as tradesmen looked up from their trades, people leaned from their doors and windows, boys stopped playing with kites and marbles, pigs stopped burrowing, and horses reared up,  as the train pulled into the station in a shower of burning sparks, screeches and groans.

Dickens had arrived in Lowell – to see the factories of a manufacturing town that, at approximately 21 years old, was “only just of age”, in his words.

Next Post:  Dickens thoughts on Lowell, the City.


The Civility of the Past – Our Ancestors’ Experiences with Public Transport

Do you commute to work using public transportation?  There’s a certain etiquette, a set of norms, that is easily observable when you are on the bus, the train, the subway, or even a plane.  There’s a prevailing thought out there that civility is a “thing of the past”.  But, was it?  Did our ancestors live in a world where people took just one seat on a horsecar, or politely inquired about the space beside a sitting passenger before sitting on the edge of their coats?  The answer is: “hardly”.

Books and articles written on etiquette can be a dry read, but they can also be a valuable and interesting source of insight into what everyday circumstances were like for our ancestors – and provide a perspective into just how little society, at least from the standpoint of social interaction, has changed in the last 120 years.  If etiquette books cautioned electric car (trolley) riders not to open the window next to them without first asking those seated behind them, then it’s likely that they did.  And, it’s also likely that the woman behind them, as her elaborately ringleted hair was assaulted by the twin furies of wind and road dust, thought of just how she would craft the next sentence of an etiquette book admonishing this.

James Henry Stark, in his Stranger’s illustrated guide to Boston and its suburbs, includes a list of horse railroad rules that had been established by the various Horse Railroad Companies of Boston by 1882:

Horse Railroad Rules:  

  • Getting on or off the front platform, riding on the steps, or talking with the driver is prohibited.
  • Never get on or off a car while it is in motion; notify the conductor, and wait until the car is stopped.
  • No disorderly or intoxicated person will be allowed to ride in the cars.
  • No smoking is allowed on the cars, excepting on the three rear seats of the open cars.
  • Full fare will be charged for children occupying seats which may be required by other passengers.
  • Articles lost in the cars may be inquired for at the offices of the different companies.
  • Peddling in the cars is prohibited.
  • No dogs allowed in the cars.
Truly, the list of rules reads eerily similarly to what might be encountered on an MBTA bus or subway car today.  A Good Housekeeping article on The Etiquette of Travel from several years later in 1889 provides similar insights, and also suggests that the behavior observed in Boston-area horsecars was not unique to just Boston.  Good Housekeeping advises that each traveler should not occupy more than one seat, fill seats around them with packages, or show a “disobliging spirit” when asked by a standing passenger to remove their things from those seats.  As I write the first draft of this post – on a rush hour commuter rail train heading into Boston – it’s obvious that this advice applies equally well to today’s public transportation ridership.
By Heywood, John B. -- Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Horsecar outside Scollay's Building in Boston's Scollay Square

The article also tackles the issue of a group of two or three people, turning over the seat in front of them (an option still available on some of today’s commuter rail trains) and taking over a space usually available for up to four people.  If you change out today’s baseball caps for Victorian bowler hats and today’s tight-fit jeans for yesterday’s long-hemmed corseted profiles, an image emerges of later comers milling about in the aisles, unsure whether to continue standing, or force themselves into a conversation among friends, in order to sit awkwardly among them, and likely ride backwards, facing the rear of the train.  If you’ve ridden the commuter rail for any time during the cold weather months, you’ve likely endured the discomfort of an oblivious seat companion brushing beside you and abruptly sitting atop your coat.  This appears to have been equally vexing to Victorian-era passengers, maybe even more so, in an age of long dresses.

For longer journeys, perhaps the present-day equivalent of a Boston to New York City journey by train, etiquette advised our ancestors to prepare their luncheons carefully and thoughtfully so that their companions would be spared the indignity of watching them eat chicken wings or legs with their fingers.  They were also advised to throw their debris, be they peanut shells or orange peels or even chicken bones, from their open windows – since the sight of these scattered across on trolley floors or window sills was considered unsightly.

When imagining or exploring the world of the ancestors we are researching, we sometimes consider it to be far more foreign or unfamiliar than it really was.  Our ancestors commuted just as we do now and faced situations that still ring familiar today.  Civility is not truly a “thing of the past”; rather, our perception of 19th century US culture probably incorporates a greater degree of civility than what truly existed.


Your great-grandparents really did lock their doors – or should have. . . .

As you read contemporary accounts of everyday life in Victorian-era New England, a few things gradually become clear.  1.  Burglary was quite common.  2.  Gun ownership was also quite common.  Sure, there’s a lot of truth that Victorian-era New Englanders spent considerable time riding through snow-covered landscapes on one-horse open sleighs while caroling.  (Think Currier & Ives lithographs).  While they were away in the sleighs, however, burglars eyed – and in some cases entered – their homes.  While today’s burglars target easy resellers like electronics and jewelry, burglars in the late 19th century were not nearly so selective.  Accounts of stolen furniture, livestock, and equestrian supplies are common.

C.E. Horne, who lived on the outskirts of Haverhill, Massachusetts, was a sensible homeowner.  Just days before the Fourth of July in 1897, he and his family left Dora Dow, a servant in his household to watch the house while they went out.  Soon after the family left, two men came to the door.

“We’ve come to take the furniture,” one told Dora, aged 15 years at the time.

Something about the men didn’t feel right and she wished that they would leave.  She told them.  They didn’t.

“Let’s get a rope and tie the little vixen.”  the man said and left the house to get a rope.

This, of course, was alarming to Dora.  The other man stayed behind and quickly learned that Dora was not to be easily subdued.

Her eyes searched the kitchen and found a bread knife, on the kitchen table, behind the man.

She waited for her moment.  When it came, she pushed him away, reached for the knife.  Seeing her holding the knife, the man tried to make a run for it.  And quickly felt a knife burrow deep into his back.

The man kept running, out of the kitchen, out of the house, and into the team (wagon) that his partner had slowed in front of the house.  The wounded man jumped into the team and the two vanished, never coming back for the furniture.

Dow, for her part, waited for her employer to come back.  And when he did, of course, she learned that no one was to come for the furniture.  C.E. Horne alerted the police and hopefully gave his servant a well-deserved raise.

Our Victorian-era predecessors may have have fewer tools than we have today to combat crime, but they were quick to use the resources at hand.  While the images preserved in Currier & Ives lithographs do provide a window into Victorian-era life as Victorians would like to present it, stories preserving the other, also true, elements of society must also be considered when creating a complete representation of Victorian era life.

Sources:

  • “Stabbed Robber.”  The Lowell Sun.  2 July 1897: 1.