Axidava

From New York To Washington In 1866

Safe arrived last night, after spending twelve days of my life at sea. I say last night, as it took us so long to land and get through the custom-house that it was dark before we reached the Fifth Avenue Hotel. But it was bright daylight and sunshine as we steamed up the splendid harbor of New York, a view which I should have been sorry to have missed.

As far as our personal experiences go, the custom-house officers of New York are not half so troublesome as they are said to be. We had nothing to smuggle, but there was a vast amount of smuggling done by some of our fellow-passengers. One man landed with his pocket full of French watches, and another with a splendid Cashmere shawl round his neck. The custom-house officer, searching the next luggage to mine, unearthed two boxes of cigars; of course these were contraband. He spoke as follows: “Which are the best?” Opens box. “Have you a light? I forgot; we must not smoke here. Well, I will take a few to smoke after my supper.” Takes twenty cigars, and passes the rest.

December 14, 1866.—I have been on my feet all day, delivering letters of introduction. These are plants that require to be put in early, or they are apt to flower after the sower has quitted the country. The stores of the Broadway are the most wonderfully glorified shops ever seen. Something between a Manchester warehouse and a London club-house.

I have spent all my day in going to and fro in Broadway, the wonderful street of New York; in ten years’ time the finest street in the world. At present there are still so many small old houses standing in line with the enormous stores, that the effect is somewhat spoiled, by reason of the ranks not being well dressed. Broadway is now much in the condition of a child’s mouth when cutting its second set of teeth,—slightly gappy. The enormous stores look even larger now than they will do when the intervals are filled up. The external splendor of the shops is chiefly architectural; they make no great display of goods in the windows; but the large size of the rooms within enables them to set out and exhibit many times the amount of goods that an English shop-keeper shows.

The city of New York is on the southern point of Manhattan Island, having the East River running along one side, and the North River or Hudson along the other. Some day far in the future, when the present municipality is purged or swept away, and the splendor of the Thames Embankment scheme has been realized, New York will probably have two lines of quays, planted with trees and edged with warehouses, which will make it one of the finest cities in the world. The business quarter is at the point of the peninsula. The fashionable quarter is to the north, reaching every year farther inland. As the city increases, the stores keep moving northward, taking possession of the houses, and driving the residents farther back. The land is not yet built over up to Central Park, said to be called so because it will be the future centre of the city that is to be.

The concentrated crowd that passes along Broadway in the morning “down-town” to its business, and back in the evening “up-town” to its homes, is enormous; but the pavements are bad for men and abominable for horses: to-day I saw five horses down, and two lying dead. At the same time, allowance must be made for the fact that it has been snowing and thawing and freezing again; but as this is no uncommon state of things in this climate, why pave the streets with flat stones that give no foothold? The “street-cars” are the universal means of conveyance. These are omnibuses running on tramways, but the name of omnibus is unknown: if you speak of a “bus” you are stared at. A young New Yorker, recently returned from London, was escorting his cousin home one evening; as the way was long, he stopped and said, “Hold on, Mary, and let’s take a bus.” “No, George, not here in the street,” the coy damsel replied….

We went to-day to the top of Trinity Church tower; a beautiful panorama, with the bay of New York to the south, the city stretching away northward, and a great river on either side. But it was bitterly cold at the top, as we had heavy snow yesterday, and the wind was blowing keenly. We went also to the Gold Exchange, and gold happened to be “very sensitive” this morning, in consequence of some rumors from Mexico which made it possible that the time for United States interference was nearer than had been supposed. The noise was deafening; neither the Stock Exchange nor the ring at Epsom at all approach it. All the men engaged in a business which one would suppose required more experience than any other, the buying and selling of gold, seemed to be under twenty-five years of age; most of them much younger, some quite boys. The reason given me was that older heads could not stand the tumult, all gesticulating, all vociferating, every man with a note-book and pencil, crowded round a ring in the centre of the hall like a little cock-pit, to which you descend by steps. Every now and then a man rushes out of the telegraph corner with some news, which oozes out and makes the crowd howl and seethe again. The hands of a big dial on the wall are moved on from time to time, marking the hour of the day and the price of gold. This is the dial of the barometer of national prosperity, marked by gold instead of mercury….

A huge sum of money has been laid out on Central Park, the Bois de Boulogne of New York. When the timber has grown larger it will be very pretty. The ground is rocky, with little depth of soil in it; this makes it difficult to get the trees to grow, but, on the other hand, gives the place a feature not to be found in our parks or at the Bois, in the large masses of brown sandstone cropping up through the turf here and there, and in the rocky shores of the little lakes.

In the evening we went, by invitation of our courteous banker, to the Assembly at Delmonico’s rooms. In this we consider ourselves highly honored and introduced to the best society of New York. The toilets and the diamonds were resplendent, and one figure of the “German” (cotillon), in which the ladies formed two groups in the centre, facing inward with their bright trains spread out behind them, was a splendid piece of color and costume. Prince Doria was there, and most of the magnates of the city looked in. Some of the wealthiest people in the room were pointed out to me as the present representatives of the families of the old Dutch settlers; those are the pedigrees respected here.

December 20, 1866.—We left New York, having stayed exactly a week, and meaning to return again. By rail to Philadelphia, ninety-two miles, through a flat, snow-covered country, which, under the circumstances, looked as dismal as might be. The latter part of our journey lay along the left bank of the Delaware, which we crossed by a long wooden bridge, and arrived at the Continental Hotel just at dusk. It is evident we are moving South. The waiters at this hotel are all darkies.

December 21, 1866.—Philadelphia is a most difficult town just now for pedestrians, the door-steps being all of white marble glazed with ice, and sliding on the pavement may be had in perfection. Spent the best part of the day in slipping about, trying to deliver letters of introduction. The system of naming the streets of Philadelphia and of numbering the houses is extremely ingenious, and answers perfectly when you have made yourself acquainted with it; but as it takes an ordinary mind a week to find it out, the stranger who stops four or five days is apt to execrate it. All the streets run at right angles to one another, so that a short cut, the joy of the accomplished Londoner, is impossible. It is a chess-board on which the bishop’s move is unknown. Nothing diagonal can be done. The city is ruled like the page of a ledger, from top to bottom with streets, from side to side with avenues. It is all divided into squares. When you are first told this, a vision arises of the possibility of cutting across these squares from corner to corner. Not a bit of it: a square at Philadelphia means a solid block of houses, not an open space enclosed by buildings. When you have wandered about for some time, the idea suggests itself that every house is exactly like the house next to it; although the inhabitants have given up the old uniformity of costume, the houses have not; and without this elaborate system of numbering, the inhabitants of Philadelphia would never be able to find their way home.

Nevertheless, if that is the finest town in which its inhabitants are best lodged, Philadelphia is the finest town in the world. It lodges a much smaller population than that of New York in more houses. In no other large town are rents comparatively so cheap. Every decent workingman can afford to have his separate house, with gas and water laid on, and fitted with a bath.

We have been making a study of the negro waiters. Perhaps cold weather affects them; but the first thing about them that strikes you is the apathetic infantine feeble-mindedness of the “colored persons” lately called niggers. I say nothing of the seven colored persons, of various shades, who always sit in a row on a bench in the hall, each with a little clothes-brush in his hand, and never attempt to do anything; I allude to those who minister to my wants in the coffee-room with utterly unknown dishes. I breakfasted yesterday off dun-fish and cream, Indian pudding, and dipped toast; for dinner I had a baked black-fish with soho sauce, and stewed venison with port wine; for vegetables, marrow, squash, and stewed tomatoes; and for pudding, “floating island.”

You see there is something exciting about dinner. After you have ordered four courses of the unknown, and your colored person has gone in the direction of the kitchen, you sit with the mouth of expectation wide open. Sometimes you get grossly deceived. Yesterday F—— ordered “jole,” and was sitting in a state of placid doubt, when his colored person returned with a plate of pickled pork. At present I am quite of the opinion of the wise man who discovered that colored persons are born and grow in exactly the same way as uncolored persons up to the age of thirteen, and that they then cease to develop their skulls and their intelligence. All the waiters in this hotel appear to be just about the age of thirteen. There are two who in wisdom are nearly twelve, and one gray-headed old fellow who is just over fourteen.

*

Even in this city of Penn the distinctive marks of Quakerism are dying out. The Quaker dress does not seem much more common in Philadelphia than in any other city, nor do they use the “thee” and “thou” in the streets; but at their own firesides, where the old people sit, they still speak the old language. A Quaker in the streets is not to be distinguished from other Philadelphians. I was talking to Mr. C—— about this, and he said, “Let me introduce you to a Quaker; I am a member of the church myself.” L—— was not quite clear whether he was a Quaker or not. His parents had been; his sons certainly were not. Some of the best of the Southern soldiers came from the city of the Quakers. There is a story of a Quaker girl, who was exchanging rings with her lover as he set off to join the army; when they parted she said, “Thee must not wear it on thy trigger-finger, George.”

Dined with Mr. L——, the publisher. He showed us over his enormous store, which seemed to be a model of discipline and organization, and described the book-market of America as being, like the Union, one and indivisible, and opened his ledger, in which were the names of customers in every State in the Union. He told us that he had about five thousand open accounts with different American booksellers. His policy is to keep in stock everything that a country bookseller requires, from a Bible to a stick of sealing-wax, so that when their stores get low they are able to write to him for everything they want. He contends, as other Philadelphians do, that New York is not the capital of America, but only its chief port of import, and that Philadelphia is the chief centre for distribution. Mr. Hepworth Dixon had been here not long before, and, as was right and fitting in the city of Quakers, a high banquet had been held in honor of the vindicator of William Penn.

*

We went this morning over the Capitol, an enormous edifice still in progress; parts of it are continually built on to, and rebuilt, to meet the wants of the legislature. The two new white marble wings are very beautiful and nearly complete, and the dome is on the same scale with them, and of the same material. The centre is now out of proportion since the wings were built, and is of stone, painted white to match the rest in color and preserve it from the frost. If the South had succeeded in seceding it might have sufficed; but now it is bound to grow, and Congress are going to vote the amount of dollars necessary to make the Capitol complete. When completed it will be magnificent.

We are very unlucky in seeing these great marble palaces (for several of the public buildings of Washington are of this material) with the snow upon the ground. Against the pure white snow they appear dingy; under a summer sun they must show to far greater advantage. What ancient Athens appeared like, surrounding its marble temples, I can hardly realize; but the effect of the splendid public buildings in Washington is very much detracted from by the sheds and shanties which are near them. The builders of Washington determined that it should be a great city, and staked out its streets accordingly twice the width and length of any other streets: rightly is it named the city of magnificent distances. But although the Potomac is certainly wide enough, and apparently deep enough, to justify a certain amount of trade, and its situation is more central than that of Philadelphia, the town has never grown to fill the outlines traced for it.

To make a Washington street, take one marble temple or public office, a dozen good houses of brick, and a dozen of wood, and fill in with sheds and fields. Some blight seems to have fallen upon the city. It is the only place we have seen which is not full of growth and vitality. I have even heard its inhabitants tell stories of nightly pig-hunts in the streets, and of the danger of tumbling over a cow on the pavement on a dark night; but this must refer to by-gone times.

One of the most curious and characteristic of the great public buildings of Washington is the Patent Office, in which a working model is deposited of every patent taken out in the United States for the improvement of machinery.

This assemblage of specimens is an exhibition of which all Americans are proud, as a proof of the activity of American ingenuity working in every direction. Capacity to take out a patent is a quality necessary to make up the character of the perfect citizen. Labor is honorable, but the man who can invent a labor-saving machine is more honorable; he has gained a step in the great struggle with the powers of nature. An American who has utilized a water-power feels, I take it, two distinct and separate pleasures: first, in that dollars and cents drip off his water-wheel, and, secondly, in that he has inveigled the water-sprites into doing his work. If you tell an American that you are going to Washington, his first remark is not, “Then you will see Congress sitting,” but, “Mind you go and see the Patent Office.”

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