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The Secret Life Of A Developing Country (Ours)
Forget your conventional picture of America in 1810. In the first half of the nineteenth century, we were not at all the placid, straitlaced, white-picket-fence nation we imagine ourselves to have been. By looing at the patterns of everyday life as recorded by contemporary foreign and native observers of the young republic and by asking the questions that historians don't think to ask of another time—what were people really like? how did they greet one another in the street? how did they occupy their leisure time? what did they eat?—Jakc Larking brings us a portrait of another Americna, an America that was so different from both our conception of its past life and its present-day reality as to seem a foreign country.
September/October 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 6
WE LOOKED DIFFERENT
Contemporary observers of early-nineteenth-century America left a fragmentary but nonetheless fascinating and revealing picture of the manner in which rich and poor, Southerner and Northerner, farmer and city dweller, freeman and slave presented themselves to the world. To begin with, a wide variety of characteristic facial expressions, gestures, and ways of carrying the body reflected the extraordinary regional and social diversity of the young republic.
When two farmers met in early-nineteenth-century New England, wrote Francis Underwood, of Enfield, Massachusetts, the author of a pioneering 1893 study of small-town life, “their greeting might seem to a stranger gruff or surly, since the facial muscles were so inexpressive, while, in fact, they were on excellent terms.” In courtship and marriage, countrymen and women were equally constrained, with couples “wearing all unconsciously the masks which custom had prescribed; and the onlookers who did not know the secret would think them cold and indifferent.”
Underwood noted a pervasive physical as well as emotional constraint among the people of Enfield; it was rooted, he thought, not only in the self-denying ethic of their Calvinist tradition but in the nature of their work. The great physical demands of unmechanized agriculture gave New England men, like other rural Americans, a distinctively ponderous gait and posture. Despite their strength and endurance, farmers were “heavy, awkward and slouching in movement” and walked with a “slow inclination from side to side.”
Yankee visages were captured by itinerant New England portraitists during the early nineteenth century, as rural storekeepers, physicians, and master craftsmen became the first more or less ordinary Americans to have their portraits done. The portraits caught their caution and immobility of expression as well as recording their angular, long-jawed features, thus creating good collective likenesses of whole communities.
The Yankees, however, were not the stiffest Americans. Even by their own impassive standards, New Englanders found New York Dutchmen and Pennsylvania German farmers “clumsy and chill” or “dull and stolid.” But the “wild Irish” stood out in America for precisely the opposite reason. They were not “chill” or “stolid” enough, but loud and expansive. Their expressiveness made Anglo-Americans uncomfortable.
The seemingly uncontrolled physical energy of American blacks left many whites ill at ease. Of the slaves celebrating at a plantation ball, it was “impossible to describe the things these people did with their bodies,” Frances Kemble Butler, an Englishborn actress who married a Georgia slave owner, observed, “and above all with their faces....” Blacks’ expressions and gestures, their preference for rhythmic rather than rigid bodily motion, their alternations of energy and rest made no cultural sense to observers who saw only “antics and frolics,” “laziness,” or “savagery.” Sometimes perceived as obsequious, childlike, and dependent, or sullen and inexpressive, slaves also wore masks—not “all unconsciously” as Northern farm folk did, but as part of their self-protective strategies for controlling what masters, mistresses, and other whites could know about their feelings and motivations.
American city dwellers, whose daily routines were driven by the quicker pace of commerce, were easy to distinguish from “heavy and slouching” farmers attuned to slow seasonal rhythms. New Yorkers, in particular, had already acquired their own characteristic body language. The clerks and commercial men who crowded Broadway, intent on their business, had a universal “contraction of the brow, knitting of the eyebrows, and compression of the lips…and a hurried walk.” It was a popular American saying in the 1830s, reported Frederick Marryat, an Englishman who traveled extensively in the period, that “a New York merchant always walks as if he had a good dinner before him, and a bailiff behind him.”
Northern and Southern farmers and city merchants alike, to say nothing of Irishmen and blacks, fell well short of the standard of genteel “bodily carriage” enshrined in both English and American etiquette books and the instructions of dancing masters: “flexibility in the arms…erectness in the spinal column…easy carriage of the head.” It was the ideal of the British aristocracy, and Southern planters came closest to it, expressing the power of their class in the way they stood and moved. Slave owners accustomed to command, imbued with an ethic of honor and pride, at ease in the saddle, carried themselves more gracefully than men hardened by toil or preoccupied with commerce. Visiting Washington in 1835, the Englishwoman Harriet Martineau contrasted not the politics but the postures of Northern and Southern congressmen. She marked the confident bearing, the “ease and frank courtesy…with an occasional touch of arrogance” of the slaveholders alongside the “cautious…and too deferential air of the members of the North.” She could recognize a New Englander “in the open air,” she claimed, “by his deprecatory walk.”