- Historic Sites
How British Are You?
Very. The legacy of British traits in America is deeper and more significant than we knew.
November 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 7
Finally, the backcountry. The clothing of this culture underscored manliness for men, femininity for women. Bodices were cut low, and the dresses were comparatively short. They were thought to be immodest by Quaker, Puritan, or even Anglican standards. Backwoodsmen wore clothes that emphasized muscularity, with the broad seams running horizontally. The shirt was “cinched” tightly at the waist. This style enlarged the shoulders and narrowed the hips. We like to think that this attire sprang from the frontier life of these people. Not so. It was a direct importation from the borderlands. As for speech, do you remember Lyndon Johnson’s speech with its whar for where, far for fire, narrer for narrow ? This is typical of the British borderlands, especially Northern Ireland. Double negatives abound: “He don’t do nothin’.” Of course, linguistically and sartorially much has changed in both America and Great Britain. Yet the persistence of many old patterns of speech and even of clothing is striking.
Virginians spoke of killing time, backwoodsmen of passing time, New Englanders believed in improving time, Quakers in redeeming time.
What about other contrasting patterns, such as sports, for example?
Let me make a comment before doing so. These topics—I have about twenty-five or so categories—are important in themselves but also in their cumulative and integrative capacity. They dovetail and reinforce each other. In other words, you won’t find housing styles out of line with modes of social ranking or clothing habits out of alignment with religious and magical beliefs and so on. To illustrate: Virginia’s upper-class houses were designed like the manor houses of southern England. In both countries they were built with a distinct public function in mind: In the great center halls the gentry conducted their business, entertained their guests with balls, administered local justice, and so forth. That form of vernacular architecture was suited to the kind of life and culture the big planters developed.
But to answer your question. Sport is a very good indicator. New Englanders, for instance, were very organized in all things, even the kinds of games they played. They especially liked team sports. In early America football was called the Boston game, and baseball the New England game.
In Virginia sport meant a hierarchy of blood sports. Every rank was encouraged to kill animals of a size proportionate to their status—a great chain of slaughter. Commoners were not allowed to race their mounts against those of the elite. Even their betting was prohibited. Whereas anyone, high or low, could be fined in New England for gambling, in the Tidewater commoners alone were punished for violating their social position by gaming. Virginia gentlemen wagered enormous sums to demonstrate their wealth and power and to defy the fates. The Virginians were obsessed with fortune and astrology. Gambling was a testing of one’s fortune. In fact, Virginians often cast their sense of social order in terms of fortune. That is, it was fortune that placed one rank over another. The New Englanders had a very different way of thinking about the world, dividing it between the forces of good and the forces of evil. So their obsession was with witchcraft, the same as in eastern England. But back to sports. Sundays and court days in Virginia were favorite times for a horse race that often ended in bloody melees over the outcome. Jockeys lashed each other as well as their horses.
In stark contrast were the quiet habits of the Quakers. They preferred gardening. In the backcountry the Scots and Irish imported those sports that suited the warrior mode of their life. Our modern field sports—the javelin, foot race, broad jump, weight throwing, and so on—derive directly from the so-called Caledonian games. Also boxing and wrestling. These sports were a hardy business in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Eye gouging was common. Some backwoodsmen let their nails grow long and hard, the better to spring an eye from its socket.
It sounds as if there were differences as well with regard to more serious matters, such as the proper use of time and the concept of work.
‘Time ways” is a superb marker of cultural distinctiveness. As you might expect, New Englanders believed in the idea of improving time. Virginians spoke of killing time; Quakers, redeeming time. Backwoodsmen thought in terms of passing the time. Each of these concepts reflected the deepest values of their culture. By improvement New Englanders had in mind personal and spiritual advancement. “Killing time” was not a phrase that appeared in any New England diary I have ever read. After all, it was a native of Boston who invented daylight savings time and an English Puritan who invented the alarm clock. New Englanders thought that one should be working hard at either mental or physical labor, not leaving it to others so that one could simply relax and enjoy. Study—especially religious study—was a high priority for self-enhancement.