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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
Before 1800, game—venison, possum, raccoon, and wild fowl—was for many American households “a substantial portion of the supply of food at certain seasons of the year,” although only on the frontier was it a regular part of the diet. In the West and South this continued to be true, but in the Northeast game became increasingly rare as forests gave way to open farmland, where wild animals could not live.
Through the first half of the eighteenth century, Americans had been primarily concerned with obtaining a sufficiency of meat and bread for their families; they paid relatively little attention to foodstuffs other than these two “staffs of life,” but since that time the daily fare of many households had grown substantially more diverse.
Remembering his turn-of-thecentury Kentucky boyhood, Daniel Drake could still see the mealtime scene at the house of a neighbor, “Old Billy,” who “with his sons” would “frequently breakfast in common on mush and milk out of a huge buckeye bowl, each one dipping in a spoon.” “Old Billy” and his family were less frontier savages than traditionalists; in the same decade Gov. Caleb Strong of Massachusetts stopped for the night with a country family who ate in the same way, where “each had a spoon and dipped from the same dish.” These households ate as almost all American families once had, communally partaking of food from the same dish and passing around a single vessel to drink from. Such meals were often surprisingly haphazard affairs, with household members moving in and out, eating quickly and going on to other tasks.
But by 1800 they were already in a small and diminishing minority. Over the eighteenth century dining “in common” had given way to individualized yet social eating; as families acquired chairs and dining utensils, they were able to make mealtimes more important social occasions. Most Americans expected to eat individual portions of food at a table set with personal knives, forks, glasses, bowls, and plates. Anything that smacked of the old communal ways was increasingly likely to be treated as a sin against domestic decency. The clergyman Peter Cartwright was shocked at the table manners of a “backward” family who ate off a “wooden trencher,” improvised forks with “sharp pieces of cane,” and used a single knife, which they passed around the table.
“One and all, male and female,” the observant Margaret Hall took note, even in New York’s best society, ate “invariably and indefatigably with their knives.” As a legacy of the fork’s late arrival in the colonies, Americans were peculiar in using their “great lumbering, long, two-pronged forks,” not to convey food to the mouth, as their English and French contemporaries did, but merely to keep their meat from slipping off the plate while cutting it. “Feeding yourself with your right hand, armed with a steel blade,” was the prevalent American custom, acknowledged Eliza Farrar’s elaborate Young Lady’s Friend of 1836. She added that it was perfectly proper, despite English visitors’ discomfort at the sight of a “prettily dressed, nice-looking young woman ladling rice pudding into her mouth with the point of a great knife” or a domestic helper “feeding an infant of seventeen months in the same way.”
Mrs. Farrar acknowledged that there were stirrings of change among the sophisticated in the 1830s, conceding that some of her readers might now want “to imitate the French or English…and put every mouthful into your mouth with your fork.” Later in the nineteenth century the American habit of eating with the knife completely lost its claims to gentility, and it became another relic of “primitive manners.” Americans gradually learned to use forks more dexterously, although to this day they hold them in the wrong hand and “upside down” from an Englishman’s point of view.
Primitive manners succumbed to campaigns for temperance and gentility.
The old ways, so startlingly unfamiliar, to the modern reader, gradually fell away. Americans changed their assumptions about what was proper, decent, and normal in everyday life in directions that would have greatly surprised most of the men and women of the early republic. Some aspects of their “primitive manners” succumbed to campaigns for temperance and gentility, while others evaporated with the later growth of mass merchandising and mass communications.
Important patterns of regional, class, and ethnic distinctiveness remain in American everyday life. But they are far less powerful, and less central to understanding American experience, than they once were. Through the rest of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the United States became ever more diverse, with new waves of Eastern and Southern European immigrants joining the older Americans of Northern European stock. Yet the new arrivals—and even more, their descendants—have experienced the attractiveness and reshaping power of a national culture formed by department stores, newspapers, radios, movies, and universal public education. America, the developing nation, developed into us. And perhaps our manners and morals, to some future observer, will seem as idiosyncratic and astonishing as this portrait of our earlier self.