Thursday, August 19, 2010

"Eating seems to be the predominant passion of a Virginian."

Some time between 1770 and 1774, Rev. Thomas Gwatkin shared with friends in England his unique insight into aspects of colonial life not usually glimpsed in most contemporary correspondence: eating and drinking. Gwatkin, a 30-year-old, English-born Oxonian who was the professor of natural philosophy and mathematics at the College of William & Mary, and a close friend of Jeremy Bentham's, appears to have taken a rather dim view of the especial fondness of Virginians for food and recreational beverages. Perhaps because of Gwatkin's especially critical eye, this selection gives us a rather entertaining peek into one man's transatlantic perception of life in Williamburg on the very eve of the American Revolution.

"I observed . . . that the natives of Virginia eat greater quantities of animal food than the Inhabitants of Britain. A short account of their manner of living may afford you some entertainment. Their breakfast, like that of the English consists of tea Coffee and Chocolate; and bread or toast and butter, or small Cakes made of flower and butter which are served to Table hot, and are called hoe Cakes from being baked upon a hoe heated for that purpose. They have also harshed meat and homony, Cold beef, and hams upon the table at the same time, and you may as frequently hear a Lady desiring to be helped to a part of one of these dishes as a cup of tea. Their tables at dinner are crowded with a profusion of meat: And the same kind is dressed three or four different ways. The rivers afford them fish in great Abundance: and their Swamps and forests furnish them ducks teale blue-wing, hares, Squirrells, partridges and a great variety of other kinds of fowl. Eating seems to be the predominant passion of a Virginian. To dine upon a single dish is considered as one of the greatest hardships. You can be contented with one joint of meat is a reproach frequently thrown into the teeth of an Englishman. Even one of the fair Sex would be considered as Gluttons in England. Indeed, I am inclined to believe more disorders in this Country arise from too much eating than any other cause whatsoever. In the Afternoon tea and Coffee is generally drank, but with bread or toast and butter. As Supper you rarely see any made dishes. Harshed and Cold meat, roasted fowls, fish of different kinds, tarts and sweetmeats fill up the table. After the cloth is taken away both at dinner and supper; Madeira and punch or toddy is placed upon the table. The first toasts which are given by the Master of the family, are the King; the Queen and the royal family; the Governour and Virginia; a good price for Tobacco. After this, the Company be in a humour to drink, the ladies retire, and the Gentlemen give every man his Lady; then a round of friend[s] succeeds; and afterwards each of the Company gives a Sentiment; then the Gentleman of the house drinks to all the friends of his Company and at last concludes with drinking a good Afternoon or good Evening according to the time of day."
[William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. IX (1952), pp. 81, 83-84]

Monday, May 17, 2010

Reflections on the D.A.R.lings: Historical memory, American-style

When it comes to historical memory--American-style--it doesn't get better, or weirder, than those nineteenth-century creatures of social exclusion, the DAR, the Colonial Dames, etc. In the midst of a society being transformed by waves of non-English immigration (waves that began long before many of the founders of these organization ever cared to admit), groups like the DAR and the reconstituted Society of the Cincinnati shot up like wildflowers in an effort to take possession of Early American history, at least of a sort. To me, it's important to keep in mind that just as such ancestral veneration shifted into top gear, many of these same Victorians took ownership of history into their hands and out of ours (quite literally) in another way: By editing beyond recognition or outright destroying reams of historical correspondence and other records that didn't fit their image of the past or, more to the point, the reflection they wanted to see of themselves in it.

But where, really, do most of us fit in such constructs? My grandmother's family on my father's side, the Taylors, for example, arrived in Maryland in 1662. Over the next 308 years they managed to move all of 60 miles, from Calvert County to Baltimore, where I was born (which must set some sort of record for historical inertia). They participated in all the big events--the Revolution, the War of 1812 (my great-great-great-grandfather was at Fort McHenry on that fateful night in 1814), the Civil War--and managed to be on the "right" side in each of them, which would make me a member of any number of groups if I chose to identify myself in such a way. On the other hand, my grandfather's father, Walter Stoermer, a German lad with a young half-French wife, didn't arrive in Baltimore from Darmstadt until around 1900. So am I a mere arriviste mongrel or a true American blue-blood with an exceptional claim to ownership of the most salient aspects of American history and, consequently, American character?

The truth, of course, is both, because that multiplicity--both personal and social--is at the heart of whatever there is that is "American" about our history and character, even if historians haven't yet quite worked out what those things really are (I blame the Victorians).

This post was inspired by one of the most clever persons I know, whose work into her own family history has revealed much the same sort of patchwork of identities, from the Mayflower in 1620 to migration from Italy to America during World War II, and who sent me the poem below, from a 1936 New Yorker, which I think captures the sense of things quite nicely (but she has a happy felicity for that).

The D.A.R.lings
Chatter like starlings
Telling their ancestors' names

While grimly aloof
With looks of reproof

Sit the Colonial Dames.
And The Cincinnati
All merry and chatty
Dangle their badges and pendants

But haughty and proud
Disdaining the crowd
Brood the Mayflower Descendants.

~ Arthur Guiterman, The New Yorker, 1936

Friday, March 5, 2010

Aftermath of the Massacre: "This inhuman piece of barbarity"

Given that today is the 240th anniversary of the "Boston Massacre" that occupies such an evocative place in American history, I thought a particular letter in my research database might be of interest to the tens of readers of Transatlantic History. It was written by William Palfrey of Boston to his friend, the infamous John Wilkes, during the events of March 5, though sent a week later. I came across it one day while going through the Palfrey Papers at the Houghton Library of Harvard. This extraordinary passage is one of those rare windows into a major event that really brings it alive for readers. It also shows how one's political presumptions--Palfrey was a staunch Patriot Whig--clearly shape one's perceptions about such events. Nevertheless, Palfrey's account returns us to the very scene, the precise moment of one of the most famous events in the history of the American Revolution.

“I was oblig’d the break off the above by the alarm of ringing a Bell which I at first imagin’d to be for Fire...but sent my servant to see where it was. he very soon return’d & told me there was no fire by that some of the inhabitants & Soldiers were fighting near Kingstreet: I immediately ran out towards the Scene of action & had just got to the East End of the Courthouse which makes the front of Kingstreet when I head the discharge of six or seven Musquettes I ran with many others towards the place where I was witness to one of the most shocking scenes that ever was exhibited in a Christian Country. Three unhappy victims lay weltring in their Gore two others mortally wounded & Six other dangerously. This inhuman piece of barbarity was perpretated by a party of eight Men under the command of one Capt Thos Preston of the 29th Regiment, all the Bells in Town were immediately rang the Inhabitants gather’d some in attempting to remove the dead & wounded were threaten’d & wounded by the Soldiers."
William Palfrey to John Wilkes, 13 March 1770, in Palfrey Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University, MSS 1704.4(89).