Despite the numerous biographies, histories, narratives, diaries, and volumes of correspondence concerning the revolutionary epoch, which fill many shelves of our larger libraries, it is not easy to reproduce in imagination the state of American society as it was a hundred years ago. In order to do so, we must exclude from the mind many objects and ideas which have been familiar to us all our lives.
We must subtract all of the material improvements, of changes in the method of doing things, of new directions and wide divergencies in the current of thought and knowledge that have come about in the interval. We must strip the modern home, for instance, of appliances without which it is difficult to conjure up a picture of comfort, much less of luxury. We must forget railways, and the telegraph, and every other use of that still mysterious agent, electricity. We must put out of our minds all notion of great cities, of long lines of elegant shops, blocks of noble residences, spacious parks adorned by every refinement of the gardening art, public buildings capped with stately dome and graceful turret and sculptured front; all notion of the later growth of recreation, the theatre and the concert hall, the lecture platform, the brilliant holiday festival, the sea excursion, the gay and attractive summer resort with its big hotels and its countless luxuries. We must return in imagination, in short, to a social condition but few remnants of which are still to be found in remote corners of the country; the relics of which still visible to the eye are rare and precious, and dwindling away day by day; and the life and spirit of which have ceased with the broadened, gift-laden civilization which has replaced the old primitive simplicity, and made a powerful, teeming, and restless nation out of scattered villages and colonies struggling to exist.
Still, there was a very distinct advance in culture, elegance, comfort, and luxury, beyond the condition of the colonies in the previous century. Those who remember the stately Hancock House, on the top of Beacon Hill in Boston, and compare its exterior and interior with still extant edifices which were residences of the wealthier colonists of two hundred years ago, may gather some idea of the far more lavish adornment and elegance of the period in which Hancock lived. We may well believe that when Washington drove through the streets of Philadelphia in a state coach, "of which the body was in the shape of a hemisphere, cream-colored, bordered with flowers around the panels, and ornamented with figures representing cupids, and supporting festoons," he presented a very different appearance from that of the early Puritan governors and Virginian squires; and could we have peeped into the square, solid drawing-room in which, as President, he held his receptions, aided by the matronly grace and dignity of Mrs. Washington, the scene would be far gayer and more imposing than William Penn's house would have displayed, or the company of the richest Dutch "patroon" of New York could have presented in the seventeenth century.
Yet, had we gone over the mansion, in how many things would we, used to the minute refinements of this later age, have judged it wanting! Instead of gas, there would be candles, and not of the best quality, everywhere. Instead of stoves and furnaces with coal, we should have been fain to comfort ourselves with the cheerful blaze and genial glow, but scant and capricious warmth, of the wood logs, burning in the big open fireplaces. Lace curtains and moquette carpets would be nowhere apparent. The furniture, though here and there richly carved and bountifully upholstered, would be wanting in variety and the luxurious ease of that which we now enjoy.
At table, we should have missed the thousand refinements and inventions of French and native cooking which now lend variety to our sustenance. The food would have been substantial and heavy and little various; the English simplicity, probably, of barons of beef and shoulders of mutton, and cold bread, and big plum puddings, with a relish of fruits. Were we in fancy to journey from New York to Philadelphia or Boston, we should be forced to rumble slowly over bad roads, through interminable forests, and by desert sea-coasts, in heavy and rudely jolting vehicles, and be several days upon the trip.
It is a striking fact that people in the days of Washington traveled not a whit more rapidly than people in the days of Moses or of Homer. The chariot-rider of the Olympic games attained a speed which was, perhaps, never equaled in Europe or America until the first railway-train sped between Liverpool and Manchester, in 1830. In 1776, the Americans were still mainly confined to the original occupations of the early colonists, farming, trade, hunting, and fishing. Manufactories there were not as yet; Lawrence and Lowell. Pittsburg, and the great industrial New York towns, were still in the womb of the future. In almost every household throughout the land, the old-fashioned spinning-wheel was humming under the pressure of matronly and maidenly feet, by which the homespun garments of the time were made. While the less well-to-do and laboring classes were content with clothing spun and knitted at their own firesides, the wealthier people arrayed themselves with far more ostentation than they do to this day. Silks and satins came hither by ship-loads from France to supply the luxury of costume which was then in vogue. The difference between the costumes of that day and of this was especially marked in the attire of gentlemen. Now there is much greater plainness and uniformity. When Washington held his levees, he was generally dressed "in black velvet, with white or pearl-colored waistcoat, yellow gloves, and silver knee and shoe buckles." "His hair was powdered and gathered in a silk bag behind. He carried a cocked hat in his hand, and wore a long sword with a scabbard of polished white leather." The display of dress was not less marked in other officials, and in men of high social rank. The judges of the Supreme Court wore scarlet robes faced with velvet. "If a gentleman went abroad, he appeared in his wig, white stock, white satin embroidered vest, black satin small-clothes, with white silk stockings, and a fine broadcloth or velvet coat; if at home, a velvet cap, sometimes with a fine linen one under it, took the place of the wig; while a gown, frequently of colored damask lined with silk, was substituted for the coat, and the feet were covered with leather slippers of some fancy color." All men shaved their beards clean; a man who appeared in the streets wearing hair on any part of his face was stared at, and very likely laughed at.
All the great gentlemen wore wigs; most of the country farmers contented themselves with tying their hair in a queue behind, sprinkling it with powder when they went to church on a Sunday. As for the ladies, those in the best society were even more elaborate in their toilets than those of to-day. On the dressing of the hair, especially, much time and money were spent. It was raised high upon the head and powdered thick; "the hairdressers," says Higginson, "were kept so busy on the day of any fashionable entertainment, that ladies sometimes had to employ their services at four or five in the morning, and had to sit upright all the rest of the day, in order to avoid disturbing the head-dress."
Although our ancestors did not possess the variety of amusements which now exists, their life was far from a humdrum one. Theaters were tabooed but were beginning to hold their ground here and there, though not, we may be sure, in New England. There were, however, private theatricals and charades, which became at one period very much in vogue in the aristocratic houses of New York and Philadelphia. Concerts were often held, and in the country, many old-time English festivals, such as May Day, were kept up. The most frequent and fashionable amusements of that time were balls and parties. We hear of the gentlemen and dames going to "routs" in their sedan chairs, much as they did in the old country: arriving at eight--they kept better hours than our modern fashionable people--they would dance the staid and stately minuet and the gayer contra-dance, to the music mainly of fiddles, till midnight, and then separate, horrified at the lateness of the hour.
Indeed, we are able to see in the habits of the American upper classes a distinct imitation of London fashions, despite the quarrel with the British. The whole etiquette of patrician society was based upon that of the English court, just as the law administered in the courts was borrowed from that dispensed at Westminster. It is interesting to note that "gentlemen took snuff in those days almost universally: and a great deal of expense and variety were often lavished upon a snuff-box. To take snuff with one another was as much a matter of courtesy as the lifting of the hat."
The days of prevalent cigar-smoking and tobacco-chewing had not come. The use of wine and ardent spirits was regarded with less reprobation in the old society than in the new; profanity, too, was indulged in much more freely by men of standing and moral profession than now. Thus we can recognize, in these and in many other things, a progress in morals, and in greater refinement both of thought, manners, and language, as well as in the material enginery of civilization.