Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America

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With keen insight and subtle humor, John F. Kasson explores the history and politics of etiquette from America's colonial times through the nineteenth century. He describes the transformation of our notion of "gentility," once considered a birthright to some, and the development of etiquette as a middle-class response to the new urban and industrial economy and to the excesses of democratic society.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Kasson adds an important and delightful dimension to our previously narrow understanding of the history of everyday life in the United States. His book offers a wonderful way to trace the relationship between socioeconomic change and cultural norms." —Michael Kammen, Cornell University
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A social historian who has written previously about leisure and technology, Kasson ( Amusing the Millionssingular is correct? : Coney Island at the Turn of the Century ) here interprets the development of middle-class manners in an insightful essay on conduct, culture and consciousness. He examines the transformation of our notion of ``gentility'' from the period before the American Revolution, when it seemed a birthright to some, until the early 20th century, when the term, he argues, came to suggest habits of ``excessive conventionality'' and ``false delicacy.'' In the intervening years, politeness epitomized an ideal of public and private control, which the author explores in the advice of etiquette manuals, illustrations from period advertisements and excerpts from diaries, novels, autobiographies and travel sketches detailing American daily life. Kasson's close readings are generally most illuminating when he sticks to standard texts such as Edgar Allen Poe's story ``The Man of the Crowd'' and Herman Melville's ``Bartleby,comma is correct?/correct the Scrivener''; a few more inventive intellectual exertions, like his reconsideration of the Last Supper in the context of Victorian dining ideals, take him somewhat far afield. (June)
Library Journal
Kasson contends that the 19th century was an important era in the development of standards of public decorum as we know them in 20th-century America. In areas as diverse as artistic performances, gender relationships, and dining, he examines how earlier models for personal behavior became increasingly unworkable. Economic change in the 19th century led to a growing middle class capable of participating in social activities previously reserved for a small upper class, and to the growth of cities where many people were brought into close contact. Social commentators believed it essential to improve the manners of the 19th-century middle class. Kasson's book is heavy going initially, and one wishes his earlier chapters had the focus and wit of the later ones on emotional control, table manners, and public spectatorship. But for persevering readers this can be a rewarding book. For academic and larger public libraries.-- Charles K. Piehl, Mankato State Univ., Minn.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374522995
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/28/1991
  • Series: American Century Series
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

John F. Kasson, who teaches history and American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of Houdini, Tarzan and the Perfect Man; Amusing the Million; Rudeness and Civility; and Civilizing the Machine.

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Read an Excerpt

Rudeness and Civility


Manners before the Nineteenth Century

Manners are generally a subject for anecdote, rarely for analysis. But a half century ago, in The Civilizing Process, Norbert Elias placed the study of manners on an entirely new footing with his treatment of the phenomenal changes in standards of deportment and expression since the Middle Ages. Norms of polite conduct, he insisted, could not be understood in isolation. Rather, they were intimately tied to the structures of feeling, human relations, and the larger society of which they were a part. Taking the extensive European literature on manners from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century as pivotal to his analysis, Elias noted how strange, even shocking, many admonitions in the earlier works appear to a modern reader. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century guides for refined nobles at court earnestly addressed concerns that now appear both too gross and utterly superfluous to mention at all:

Before you sit down, make sure your seat has not been fouled.


Do not touch yourself under your clothes with your bare hands.


Do not blow your nose with the same hand that you use to hold the meat.


A man who clears his throat when he eats and one who blows his nose in the tablecloth are both ill-bred, I assure you.


Do not spit on the table.

In attempting to suppress a fart, no less an authority than iErasmus advised:

If it is possible to withdraw, it should be done alone. But if not, in accordance with the ancient proverb, let a cough hide the sound.

Similarly, the Wernigerode court regulations of 1570 cautioned:

One should not, like rustics who have not been to court or lived among refined and honorable people, relieve oneself without shame or reserve in front of ladies, or before the doors or windows of court chambers or other rooms.

A 1609 edition of Della Casa's Galateo warned:

One should not sit with one's back or posterior turned toward another, nor raise a thigh so high that the members of the human body, which should properly be covered with clothing at all times, might be exposed to view ... . It is true that a great lord might do so before one of his servants or in the presence of a friend of lower rank; for in this he would not show him arrogance but rather a particular affection and friendship.

With regard to sleeping, even as late as 1729, one reads:

If you are forced by unavoidable necessity to share a bed with another person of the same sex on a journey, it is not proper to lie so near him that you disturb or even touch him; and it is still less decent to put your legs between those of the other.1

Instead of condemning such instances as evidence of "barbaric" or "uncivilized" behavior, Elias put aside value judgments in order to focus on what the process of "civilization" entailed. He assigned key importance to the changing requirements of daily life from the decentralized, rank-structured, hierarchical social relationships of the Middle Ages to the rise of the modern state: "As more and more people must attune their conduct to that of others, the web of action must be organized more and more strictly and accurately,if each individual action is to fulfil its social function. The individual is compelled to regulate his conduct in an increasingly differentiated, more even and more stable manner." All societies, he acknowledged, demand that individuals exercise some controls over the gratification of their feelings. Yet in comparison to more recent times, Elias argued, people in the late Middle Ages expressed their emotions—joy, rage, piety, fear, even the pleasure of torturing and killing enemies—with astonishing directness and intensity. As the state gradually assumed a monopoly over physical power and violence, individuals were expected to cultivate reserve and mutual consideration in their dealings. Once normal, even refined practices came to be regarded as offensive. First in social settings among their superiors, then increasingly among equals and inferiors and at all times, adults were expected and eventually children taught to discipline their desires and bodily gratifications. Particularly intimate bodily activities—eating, coughing, spitting, nose blowing, scratching, farting, urinating, defecating, undressing, sleeping, copulating, inflicting pain on animals or other human beings—became governed by especially exacting standards and were assigned their special precincts, for the most part behind closed doors. Innovations in polite behavior—epitomized in the rise of the such "implements of civilization" as the fork, the special nightdress for sleeping (replacing day clothes or nakedness), the handkerchief, the chamber pot and later the water closet—expressed this growing delicacy of feeling, a rising threshold of embarrassment, and correspondingly greater stress upon individual self-control. As a result, human affect and behavior were divided into aspects that might appropriately be displayed in public and others, especially sexuality, that had to be kept private and "secret." This split, as Elias emphasized, has enormous implications for the formation of modern personality, with its internalization of prohibitions and its exquisite sensitivity to embarrassment, shame, and guilt.2

Elias's account is open to a number of criticisms.3 His insistence upon the crucial role of the rise of the modern state in the "civilizing process" was far too sweeping and undeveloped to be entirely satisfactory. Arguably, too, the role of the court was ultimately of less importance than that of the bourgeoisie in carrying forth the rising standards of refinement. His starting point in the late Middle Ages conveniently overlooked classical antiquity. Nor did he account sufficiently for the lessening of standards of reserve and growinginformality in the twentieth century. Granting when he wrote in the 1930s that "a certain relaxation is setting in," Elias contended it was "merely a very slight recession," and "only possible because ... the individual capacity to restrain one's urges and behavior in correspondence with the more advanced feelings for what is offensive, has been on the whole secured."4 In the half century since Elias wrote these words, we have traveled sufficiently far to feel a double sense of distance, not only from the relative lack of refinement of earlier times, but also from what many would regard as the overrefinement of the Victorian era. For each generation takes its own norms of behavior and feeling as objective.

Nonetheless, Elias opened the door to a new kind of cultural history, keenly attuned to changing standards of emotional expression, bodily control, and personal interaction, and seeking to correlate these with larger changes in social structure. Belatedly discovered by scholars with its republication and translation decades later, including a two-volume English translation in 1978 and 1982, The Civilizing Process encouraged fresh explorations of historical terrain, including the transformation of American life from the colonial period through the nineteenth century.

The "Civilizing Process" and Colonial America

Even though the "civilizing process" Elias described had substantially advanced by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the American colonies as well as in northern Europe, an unmistakable divide separates this period from the nineteenth. Almost all books on manners in colonial America were reprinted from English and French sources. Not only do they contain an emphasis on "superiors" and "inferiors" that would dramatically lessen in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but they also preserve striking remnants of the sort of advice Elias identified, which later generations would regard as shockingly crude. The most widely circulated of these colonial works was Eleazar Moody's School of Good Manners, based on a French courtesy book of 1564. It was first printed in New London, Connecticut, in 1715and ran through at least thirty-three editions before the mid-nineteenth century.5 Intended for children, this short work contained a mixture of instructionon worldly deportment and Christian doctrine that would soon go out of fashion. The 1786 edition admonishes the reader:

Grease not thy fingers or napkin more than necessity requires.

Bite not thy bread, but break it; but not with slov[en]ly fingers, nor with the same wherewith thou takest up thy meat.

Smell not of thy meat nor put it to thy nose.

Foul not the table cloth. Put not thy hand in the presence of others to any part of thy body not ordinarily discovered.

Spit not in the room but in the corner, or rather go out and do it abroad.6

Similarly, the fifteen-year-old George Washington, working from a French Jesuit Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour of 1595 that was widely circulated in various languages and first translated into English in 1640, dutifully copied such maxims as:

Put not off your Cloths in the presence of Others, nor go out of your Chamber half Drest

Spit not in the Fire, nor Stoop low before it ... .

... bedew no mans face with Spittle by appr(oaching too nea)r him (when) you Speak

Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks &c in the Sight of Others, if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexteriously upon it[;] if it be upon the Cloths of your Companions, Put it off privately, and if it be upon your own Cloths return Thanks to him who puts it off

Being set at meat Scratch not neither Spit Cough or blow your Nose except there's a Necessity for it

Cleanse not your teeth with the Table Cloth Napkin Fork or Knife but if Others do it let it be done w/t a Pick Tooth7

Other sources confirm this sense of very different standards and practices of conduct in the colonial period—in some respects, particularlyin more rural areas, continuing well into the nineteenth century. "Virginians do not use napkins," the French traveler Brissot de Warville marveled in 1788, "but they wear silk cravats, and instead of carrying white handkerchiefs they blow their noses either with their fingers (I have seen the best-bred Americans do this) or with a silk handkerchief which also serves as a cravat, a napkin, etc." Three years later, in 1791, another Frenchman visiting the resort of Bath, Virginia, observed "an elderly American" at a five o'clock tea, "after taking a cup in one hand and slices of bread and butter in the other, opened his mouth and told the servant to fill it for him with smoked venison."8

As for the sharing of beds by adults as well as children, strangers as well as relatives, usually but not always of the same sex, that practice continued throughout the colonial period and at least up to the time of the Civil War, though it clearly offended members of the gentry by the eighteenth century, particularly when they found themselves in forced intimacy while traveling. Often a household lacked even a bed, and in William Byrd's phrase, the entire family "pigg'd lovingly together" on the floor. The English clergyman Andrew Burnaby expressed his distaste in relating a story he learned during his American travels in the 1750s:

A gentleman some time ago travelling upon the frontiers of Virginia, where there are few settlements, was obliged to take up his quarters one evening at a miserable plantation; where, exclusive of a Negroe or two, the family consisted of a man and his wife, and one daughter about sixteen years of age. Being fatigued, he presently desired them to shew him where he was to sleep; accordingly they pointed to a bed in a corner of the room where they were sitting. The gentleman was a little embarrassed, but being excessively weary, he retired, half undressed himself, and got into bed. After some time the old gentlewoman came to bed to him, after her the old gentleman, and last of all the young lady."9

A century later, travelers both domestic and foreign were still complaining of strange bedfellows. In Moby-Dick (1851) Herman Melville devoted two brilliantly comic chapters to Ishmael's predicament in sharing a bed with a decidedly exotic harpooner, Queequeg, for whom tattoos serve as pajamas. But others thoughtnothing of the practice. When, for example, as a young man Abraham Lincoln first arrived in Springfield, Illinois, in 1837, lacking family, friends, or money, he went to the store of Joshua Speed to buy materials to make a bed—on credit. When he learned the cost, however, Lincoln looked so melancholy that Speed suggested he save his money by sharing Speed's own room and "very large double bed." "

"Where is your room?" asked he. "Upstairs" said I, pointing to the stairs, leading from the store to my room. Without saying a word, he took his saddle-bags on his arm, went up stairs, set them down on the floor, came down again, and with a face beaming with pleasure and smiles exclaimed "Well Speed I'm moved in."

Lincoln stayed two or three years.10

Just as Elias observed with respect to late-medieval and early-modern Europe, so in eighteenth-century America—and much later in the backcountry and frontier—a more relaxed sense of human boundaries and bodily controls was accompanied by fewer inhibitions toward direct personal violence and cruelty. The fierce "rough-and-tumble" fighting in the Southern backcountry that began at least as early as the mid-eighteenth century and flourished through the antebellum period offers a particularly disturbing example. By the time of the American Revolution, the legislatures of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina testified graphically to the carnage of such contests by making it a felony to "cut out the Tongue or pull out the eyes," slit, bite, or cut off the nose, kick or stomp upon "the King's Liege People." The provocations for such brawls give further insight into very different norms of conduct and of honor. On the day of two "fist Battles" in 1774, Philip Fithian, the tutor at Robert Carter III's grand household in Tidewater Virginia, wrote in his journal:

The Cause of the battles I have not yet known; I suppose either that they are lovers, & one has in Jest or reality some way supplanted the other; or has in a merry hour call'd him a Lubber, or a thick-Skull, or a Buckskin, or a Scotsman, or perhaps one has mislaid the others hat, or knocked a peach out of his Hand, or offered him a dram without wiping the mouth ofthe Bottle; all these, & ten thousand more quite as trifling & ridiculous, are thought & accepted as just Causes of immediate Quarrels, in which every diabolical Strategem for Mastery is allowed & practiced, of Bruising, Kicking, Scratching, Pinching, Biting, Butting, Tripping, Throtling, Gouging, Cursing, Dismembring, Howling, &c.11

The historian Elliott Gorn has argued that such fights were crucially connected to the "premodern" character of intensely local, kin-based communities that preceded or, as the nineteenth century advanced, remained on the margins of the booming capitalist society. Brawling was part of a larger male culture of violent sports and vengeful action, heavy drinking and immediate pleasure-seeking, a culture much closer in key respects to the easy laughter and impulsive anger of the late Middle Ages as described by Elias than to the life of "the modern middle-class individual, with his subdued, rational, calculating ways."12

Looking Backward

By the late nineteenth century the "civilizing process" had so advanced among the urban middle classes that those who seriously contemplated daily life in colonial America increasingly felt themselves looking backward over a great divide to what was in signif- icant respects a coarser age.

Charles Francis Adams, Jr. (1835—1915), offers a striking case in point. As the grandson and great-grandson of Presidents and member of one of the most distinguished families in America, he had every reason to kneel before the world of his forebears in filial piety. Yet when in the 1890s he wrote the history of his ancestral town of Quincy, Massachusetts, he scorned those who idealized New England's colonial past "as a simpler, a purer, and a better time ... sterner and stronger, less selfish and more heroic." Making no effort to avoid value judgments as Elias would later, Adams declared bluntly:

The earlier times in New England were not pleasant times in which to live; the earlier generations were not pleasant generations to live with. One accustomed to the variety, luxuryand refinement of modern life, if carried suddenly back into the admired existence of the past, would, the moment his surprise and amusement had passed away, experience an acute and lasting attack of home-sickness and disgust.13

Sources of disgust, as Adams chronicled them, were ubiquitous: the drunkenness afflicting all ranks of society that came from a steady diet of beer and, later, hard cider,14 supplemented, particularly among laborers, with vast quantities of rum; the brutality of corporal punishment, including routine beatings of children, both at home and school; the chaining of maniacs like dogs; the "primitive simplicity" of the early New England houses, even of the landed gentry, which "had none of the modern appliances of luxury, and scarcely those now accounted essential to proper cleanliness or even decency." Regarding this last point, Adams noted that the most thorough ablutions commended by Cotton Mather in 1726 to candidates for the ministry were "daily to wash your Head and Mouth with Cold Water." In Adams's own town of Quincy, no bathroom existed before 1820, "and it is very questionable whether there was any utensil then made for bathing the person larger than a crockery hand-bowl." In the course of the nineteenth century, Adams believed, Americans had climbed an immense stairway of material, intellectual, and moral progress, so that to live as did his colonial ancestors would be intolerable torture.15

Other writers shared Adams's sense of distance and revulsion from the crudities of life in colonial times. In 1893 Alice Morse Earle, who could also claim prominent New England forebears, chronicled with mixed fascination and horror the region's "rude" colonial folk customs, from "bundling" courting couples, hazing the bride and groom and even putting them to bed, to public executions, wolf and bear baitings, and drinking copious quantities of rum at funerals. In 1925 a third New England Brahmin, George Francis Dow, summarized the response of such historians in declaring, "Our New England ancestors ... had standards of living far below those of today. The common speech was gross in the extreme. Crowded living led to familiarity [and, he suggested shortly, even immorality]. There was more drunkenness, profanity, loose living and petty crime in proportion to the population than at the present time, and by no means did every one go to meeting on Sunday."16

Southern writers of this period were more inclined to enshrine the image of the Old South as a nobler time than the present; yet even some of them agreed that the most common standards of daily conduct were of comparatively recent origin. As the influential novelist and essayist Thomas Nelson Page declared, "While courtesy is a growth of ancient days, delicacy is a refinement of modern times and is scarcely to be traced further back than the eighteenth century."17

Indeed, recent historians have emphasized that in Europe and America alike the eighteenth century saw "a watershed in the history of emotion." By its end a new standard of refinement and feeling emerged prominently. Romantic love assumed new importance in entering marriage, and children were treated with new solicitude. There arose a heightened empathy toward pain and suffering extending to the deaf and blind, the enslaved and deranged, and even to animals, who had earlier been regarded as fit objects on which to inflict pain at will. Emotional control came to be considered an essential aspect of gentility, as the transatlantic popularity of Lord Chesterfield's celebrated Letters testifies. The precise reasons for such a transformation are notoriously difficult to specify. Historians have pointed to a variety of factors to account for it: changes in the character of family life that promoted a new stress on affectionate ties, including, especially in America, a rising birth rate; the rise of Protestantism and particularly eighteenth-century evangelicalism in America, with its encouragement of familial affection and self-discipline; the Enlightenment emphasis upon tolerance and rational, just, and humane treatment of all sentient beings; the erosion of local autonomy with the increase of population and the growth of the modern state; the egalitarian spirit associated with the emergence of liberal Western democracies; the rise of a modern capitalist economy with its gradual displacement of the family economy and redefinition of human relationships in terms of the market. 18 Related especially to these last factors, recent historians of colonial America have called attention to a variety of manifestations of a new sense of self, individual privacy, and personal space, as well as changing patterns of social deference and individual ambition—all of which are inextricably related to the movement from a rank-structured, deferential society to a more market-oriented class society.

Life in a Rank-Ordered Society

The rank-ordered conception of society of colonial America derived especially from England. In this hierarchical (and patriarchial) framework each man took his assigned place according to his "quality" or essence in an accepted order of precedence. Commanding the summit were lord, knight, squire, and gentleman—all of whom had sufficient income so that they were above the requirements of daily labor and could devote themselves to their interests and pleasures. Beneath them in the middling ranks were yeoman, husbandman, small merchant, and craftsman, who controlled their means of production but were obliged to work for a living. Then came the propertyless "lower orders": laborer, servant, sailor, vagrant, beggar, and outlaw. In preindustrial England virtually all the actors in this social drama knew their places and the parts assigned to them. They enacted them in their clothes and deportment, their word and gesture, houses and furnishings, food and drink. Each actor always remained mindful of his relation to his immediate "superiors" and "inferiors," and of the ties of patronage and obligation that linked members up and down the social scale. Except among the gentry, he was far less concerned with those who might be counted his equals. Samuel Johnson summarized this conception of society when he warned of the anarchy that would result if England were not governed by "fixed, invariable external rules of distinction of rank, which create no jealousy, since they are allowed to be accidental." But if the rules were fixed, the aristocracy remained open. It created new places to accommodate the rise of new family fortunes. "Gentility is nothing but ancient riches," declared Sir John Holles as early as the reign of Elizabeth I, and later he purchased his own earldom. By the eighteenth century few English peers could trace their titles back through the male line to a feudal grant; their status rested upon royal recognition of their family property. 19

Colonial British-American society was defined by this set of terms, although the social pyramid was in many respects dramatically different. By the mid-eighteenth century, wealthy merchants and planters stood at the apex in America, unrivaled by any older nobility, even one elevated through "ancient riches" as in England.Toward the base lay a growing number of urban poor, and at the very bottom in the Southern colonies, an immense population of slaves. The shape of the pyramid was further altered by the fact that in America, freeholding families worked 70 percent of the land, reversing the proportions in England, where freeholders controlled only 30 percent and the nobility and gentry leased the remainder to tenants.20

Viewing American society in the rank-ordered terms of England, the colonial landed and commercial gentry sought to emulate the style of their English counterparts and to assume their places at the top of the social hierarchy. They expressed their ambitions by seeking to exert cultural as well as political leadership and eagerly demonstrated their cosmopolitan taste. Beginning with the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia (1706-14), they built a succession of great houses designed especially for lavish formal entertainments, modeled on the town and country houses of England. They followed all English styles closely and demanded the latest London fashions in their household furnishings and clothes. Englishmen visiting the American colonies from the late seventeenth century on repeatedly expressed amazement at the speed and extent of their success. As the English historian John Oldmixon wrote in 1741, "a Gentleman from London would almost think himself at home at Boston, when he observes the Number of People, their Houses, their Furniture, their Tables, their Dress and Conversation, which perhaps is as splendid and showy, as that of the most considerable Tradesman in London."21

Less often remarked is the important history of the houses and furnishings of common people in the colonial period. Folk housing varied by region much more than did the high-style houses of the gentry; but a typical house in the tobacco-growing region of Tidewater Virginia and Maryland in the seventeenth century was a one-story frame dwelling of two rooms, with additional space in the attic. In such tight and relatively undifferentiated quarters, dwellers did not have the luxury of setting aside special spaces for particular tasks or individual use. Nor did they have many specialized pieces of furniture. Household inventories indicate that more than half the families of the time owned personal property valued at sixty pounds or less. Of these families, only one in four owned a table to sit at; only one in three had chairs and benches—and only onein seven both. Most of necessity were "squatters or leaners," slumping on the floor or crouching on boxes and chests in their waking hours. They ate out of bowls held up with one hand, using spoons as their only cutlery. They lacked not only bedrooms; less than one in seven owned a single bedstead. Most took mattresses and blankets and slept on the floor in groups. Such households did not encourage a highly individuated sense of self with its characteristic need for privacy. 22

In the course of the eighteenth century the physical structure of the house of the common folk in the Tidewater changed only slowly in the direction of greater domestic space and its segmentation into distinct spheres of activity—in the case of the very poorest, including slaves, perhaps not at all. Household furnishings such as bedsteads, tables, and chairs increased, subtly altering the relationships of the inhabitants to one another. Yet inventories show that one in five households for which records exist from the 1750s did not own both a table and chairs. A similar proportion still lacked knives and forks. 23

New England had its poor as well, who lived in similar circumstances. Though we still lack the kind of detailed studies we have of the Chesapeake area, the journal kept by Sarah Kemble Knight during a trip she made from Boston to New Haven in late 1704 provides a vivid description of the house of one farmer, his wife, and two children in the Narragansett country:

This little Hutt was one of the wretchedest I ever saw a habitation for human creatures. It was suported with shores enclosed with Clapboards, laid on lengthways, and so much asunder, that the Light come throu' everywhere; the doore tyed on with a cord in ye place of hinges; the floor the bear earth; no windows but such as the thin covering afforded, nor any furniture but a Bedd with a glass Bottle hanging at ye head on't; an earthen cupp, a small pewter Bason, A Bord with sticks to stand on, instead of a table, and a block or two in ye corner instead of chairs ... . Nothwithstanding both the Hutt and its Inhabitance were very clean and tydee.24

Among the more prosperous majority of southern New Englanders who owned and worked their own lands and occupied the"middling" orders of society, the process of segmentation and accumulation was considerably more advanced by the beginning of the eighteenth century. As Robert St. George has recently shown, New England yeoman families based their initial houses on those they had known in the eastern counties of England and gradually developed an "up-and-back" plan. Most seventeenth-century yeomen's houses had between four and eight rooms, dividing domestic space so as to present a "clean social front" in the hall and parlor near the front door, while pushing the kitchen to a rear lean-to and other working and storage areas into lean-tos at the sides and rear, as well as garret and cellar. The yeoman family ate in the hall, with the head of the household seated in a great armchair (if they could afford it) at the end of the table and others arranged near him on benches, stools, or smaller chairs in order of social status. In the parlor especially, the family affirmed its social standing through its display of possessions, a hint of the beginnings of a new consumer culture that would gradually transform the old rank-ordered society. These items included the great bed—not yet regarded as a private and intimate possession to be kept from public view, but arrayed with coverings as elaborate as the family could muster—as well as perhaps a large cupboard displaying the family's silver, pewter, and glassware. In such ways the houses of New England yeomanry grew more segmented, with rooms increasingly assigned specific functions. By the early eighteenth century even separate "dining rooms" and "children's rooms" appear with greater frequency in inventories.25

As the possibilities for material possessions and concern with gentility increased in the eighteenth century, the American colonies offered abundant scope for social ambition—and frequently for comic confusion as well. The script remained that of English rank-ordered society, but actors frequently failed to dress their parts, learn their lines, or keep to their assigned roles. This sort of drama emerges most clearly in first-person narratives of the period, and the remainder of this chapter will consider three of them, which reflect in turn the confounded expectations of a Scottish-born gentleman, the uncertain first steps toward gentility by a rustic Virginian, and the apprenticeship of a canny merchant of appearances in Philadelphia.

Adventures of an Eighteenth-Century Gentleman

The best single portrait of the confusion of gentility and vulgarity in the mid-eighteenth century is by the cultivated Edinburgh-bred physician Alexander Hamilton, who settled in Annapolis in 1739 and left a vivid account of a trip he made from Maryland to Maine and back in 1744. Hamilton traveled as befitted his gentlemanly status. He dressed in elegant clothes, laced hat, and sword and rode on horseback, attended by his personal servant, a slave named Dromo. By no means an arrogant man, he nonetheless expected the quiet deference and honor that were his proper due. Instead, to his irritation, he found himself an object of vulgar curiosity. When he entered the town of Trenton, New Jersey, for example, he "was treated ... with a dish of staring and gaping from the shop doors and windows, and I observed two or three people laying hold of Dromo's stirrups, enquiring, I suppose, who I was and whence I came."26

Other times a hail of questions fell on Hamilton directly. As a sample of many such conversations, he recorded the comic dialogue he enacted with a fellow traveler on the road to Portsmouth, New Hampshire:

He was very inquisitive about where I was going, whence I came, and who I was. His questions were all stated in the rustick civil stile. "Pray sir, if I may be so bold, where are you going?" "Prithee, friend," says I, "where are you going?" "Why, I go along the road here a little way." "So do I, friend," replied I. "But may I presume, sir, whence do you come?" "And from whence do you come, friend?" says I." [sic] "Pardon me, from John Singleton's farm," replied he, "with a bag of oats." "And I come from Maryland," said I, "with a portmanteau and baggage." "Maryland!" said my companion, "where the devil is that there place? I have never heard of it. But pray, sir, may I be so free as to ask your name?" "And may I be so bold as to ask yours, friend?" said I. "Mine is Jerry Jacobs, att your service," replied he. I told him that mine was Bombast Huynhym van Helmont, att his service. "A strange name indeed; belike your a Dutchman, sir—a captain of a ship, belike." "No, friend," says I. "I am a High Germanalchymist." "Bless us! You don't say so; that's a trade I never heard of; what may you deal in sir?" "I sell air," said I. "Air," said he, "damn it, a strange commodity. I'd thank you for some wholesom air to cure my fevers which have held me these two months."27

Such rusticity amused Hamilton still more when it pretended to gentility. In Saybrook, Connecticut, his landlady styled herself Madam Lay, a title of noble rank. Its adoption struck Hamilton as especially ludicrous since the woman looked as common as clay: "the homliest piece both as to mein, make, and dress that ever I saw," "round shouldered ... pale faced and wrinkly," and dressed "in the coarsest home spun cloth." "But," he added dryly, "it is needless to dispute her right to the title since we know many upon whom it is bestowed who have as little right as she."28

At a Newcastle, Delaware, inn Hamilton came upon another bit of social farce performed by a man named William Morison, "a very rough spun, forward, clownish blade, much addicted to swearing, att the same time desirous to pass for a gentleman." Conscious of his lapses in manners, Morison both apologized for and defended them, saying, "'Damn me, gentlemen, excuse me; I am a plain, honest fellow; all is right down plain dealing, by God.'" The landlady, observing Morison's "greasy jacket and breeches and a dirty worsted cap" as well as his crudity, mistook him for a plowman or cart driver and served him a menial's breakfast of cold veal scraps. The would-be gentleman was enraged. "'Damn [me],'" Morison . thundered; only respect for "'the gentleman in company'"—Ham—ilton himself—kept him from hurling the breakfast out the window and breaking the landlady's "table all to pieces should it cost him 100 pounds for damages." Then he pulled his worsted nightcap off his head, clapped on a linen one in its stead, and declared, "'Now, ... I'm upon the border of Pennsylvania and must look like a gentleman; 'tother was good enough for Maryland.'" Eager to regain his status in the eyes of his fellow travelers, Morison blustered that "tho he seemed to be but a plain, homely fellow, yet he would have us know that he was able to afford better than many that went finer: he had good linnen in his bags, a pair of silver buckles, silver clasps, and gold sleeve buttons, two Holland shirts, and some neat nightcaps; and that his little woman att home drank tea twice a day." Morison himself "lived very well," he concluded, "and expectedto live better"—as soon as the "old rogue" who owned a coveted piece of land died and he could gain title to it!29

In effect, Morison appealed to a new measure of social status, one that determined rank not according to fixed "qualities" compounding ancestry, power, learning, and prestige, but instead on the basis of the quantity of a family's wealth. As the new capitalist society began to take shape, gentility itself became something to be purchased, and such items as linen, silver, and tea were for rising men such as himself powerful symbols of its achievement. Though Hamilton clearly viewed Morison as a vulgar braggart and a bumpkin, who could never be a gentleman no matter what his wealth, Morison probably told the story as one in which he triumphantly put the landlady in her place and shone before the rest of the company. Standards of refinement would soon change so dramatically that some of Hamilton's own responses to Morison would be regarded as gross. He described himself, for example, as so amused by a ludicrous dispute between Morison and another traveler that "I retired into a corner of the room to laugh a little, handkerchef fashion, pretending to be busied in blowing my nose; so I slurd a laugh with nose blowing as people sometimes do a fart with coughing."30 As we have seen, to conceal a fart in this way was considered by Renaissance writers on courtesy, including Erasmus, to be a mark of refinement. But the entire subject would become unmentionable a century later.

Just as Hamilton charted the difference between a gentleman and an ambitious yeoman in his account of breakfast with Morison, he measured the even greater gulf between his status and that of a humble ferryman along the Susquehanna by describing the ferryman's family dinner. Yet Hamilton could not even dignify the meal by calling it dinner, speaking of the family instead as "at vittles" and eating "their mess." They sat around a bare table before "a homely ... fish without any kind of sauce," served in "a dirty, deep, wooden dish." Lacking "knife, fork, spoon, plate, or napkin," they ate "with their hands, cramming down skins, scales, and all." Though the family invited Hamilton to eat, "I told them I had no stomach." Both fascinated and disgusted, he could comprehend such an existence only by creating an aesthetic distance, viewing it "as a picture of that primitive simplicity" of ancient times before "luxury and elegance" were known. In fact, the furnishings of the ferryman's table represented a historic improvement over what theirlot might have been only two generations before—at least they had a table to eat off. In any case, as an eighteenth-century gentleman rather than a nineteenth-century middle-class reformer, Hamilton did not propose changing the family's way of life. Accustomed to a world of sharp social distinctions, he assumed that civility and refinement varied according to rank. Of another ferryman, he remarked, "he seemed to be a man of tollerable parts for one in his station," and he lodged the night in the ferry house, sharing the cramped quarters common to all but the gentry: "I went to bed att 9 att night; my landlord, his wife, daughters, and I lay all in one room." The disparity between a ferryman's condition and his own did not trouble him; he was much more impatient with those who refused to conduct themselves appropriately to their station in life.31

From Rusticity to Gentility

Hamilton's graphic sketches of gentility and rusticity in mid-eighteenth-century America are borne out by the recollections of one who started life far lower in the social scale, Devereux Jarratt. 32 Born the son of a Virginia carpenter and small farmer in 1733, Jarratt rose by dint of his ambition and quickness of learning to become a prominent Anglican minister, tract writer, and correspondent of John Wesley. But even as he was ailing and dying in the mid-1790s, he dramatically portrayed the world of his youth more than half a century before. Like Hamilton, Jarratt viewed food and dress as key signs of rank, and though his ancestors always lived "free from real want, and above the frowns of the world," he emphasized the simplicity of his family's lot. His mother made all their clothes, "except our hats and shoes, the latter of which we never put on, but in the winter season."33 Similarly, they grew all their provisions themselves, "except a little sugar, which was rarely used." Tea or coffee, the drink of gentlemen, were altogether unknown to the young Jarratt's family and to all the "simple" folk of their acquaintance. As for "what were called gentle folks," he early learned to keep "at a humble distance" and to regard them shyly "as beings of a superior order." "A periwig, in those days," Jarratt recalled, "was a distinguishing badge of gentle folk—and when I saw a man riding the road, near our house, with a wig on, it would soalarm my fears, and give me such a disagreeable feeling, that, I dare say, I would run off, as for my life."34

The critical step in Jarratt's rise from the ranks of "simple" to "gentle folk" was when he was "called from the ax to the quill" in his nineteenth year. A former neighbor living a hundred miles distant who had heard of Jarratt's skill with books sent word that he would hire him as schoolmaster. Jarratt drew this self-portrait as a young rustic snatching his first token of gentility as he prepared to leave his home community and seek his fortune:

My whole dress and apparel consisted in a pair of coarse breeches, one or two oznaburgs [coarse linen] shirts, a pair of shoes and stockings, an old felt hat, a bear skin coat, which, by the by, was the first coat I ever had made for me, since my childhood. And that I might appear something more than common, in a strange place, and be counted somebody, I got me an old wig, which, perhaps being cast off by the master, had became the property of his slave, and from the slave it was conveyed to me. But people were not obliged, you know, to ask how I came by it, and, I suppose, I was wise enough not to tell therm. 35

Yet so poor was Jarratt's imposture and so great the distance between the worlds of the plowman and the planter that even after two years as a schoolmaster, when he finally went to board with a gentleman's family, "I knew not how to introduce myself ... and what style was proper for accosting persons of their dignity ... . The gentleman took me ... for the son of a very poor man, in the neighbourhood, but the lady, having some hint, I suppose, from the children, rectified the mistake, and cried out, it is the school-master."36

Before he arrived at their house, Jarratt had learned that this lady, Mrs. Cannon, was a severe "New-light" or evangelical, so that "all levities of every kind must be banished from her presence, and every species of ungodliness must expect a sharp reproof from her." Jarratt's response to this news gives us insight not only to his great ambition but to the politics of social relations at this time. Previously as a lodger he had distinguished himself in "merriment, banter, buffoonery and such like." Now he resolved "to act the hypocrite. I had no intention of being religious, but wished to appear so, in orderto gain her good opinion." He found himself locked in nightly sessions with Mrs. Cannon, in which she read aloud lengthy sermons (he was still too poor a reader to take a turn himself). Jarratt feigned "very close attention," sometimes eagerly asking her to read another, while stifling his drowsy incomprehension. Suddenly, after six or eight weeks, a phrase in one of the readings touched home, and he felt profoundly the degree to which he was "a stranger to God and true religion." The resulting change in his conduct, as might be expected, overjoyed Mrs. Cannon. She had made her first convert, and"she was not willing I should go away, till the year was ended, to board any where else."37

The sincerity of Jarratt's conversion is not the issue here; its social context is. It arose out of the need to ingratiate himself with a "benefactress" whose patronage Jarratt correctly intuited could prove vitally important. Indeed, her support enabled him to climb the rungs to a position of gentility himself. He shed his "clownish rusticity" and improved his skills as a reader and speaker so much as to lead, not only the Cannon family prayers, but those of Presbyterians in the community. Eventually, he moved to other, more prestigious positions as tutor, acquired Latin and Greek, traveled to England, where he outshone Oxford and Cambridge graduates in the examinations for ordination, and returned, an Anglican minister, to be selected for the parish of Bath, Virginia. None of this would have been possible without the support of patrons or, on Jarratt's part, a keen social as well as intellectual aptitude. Looking back from the 1790s, Jarratt prized the sharp social barriers he managed to scale. Even while he shook his head at the post-Revolutionary "high republican times," in which "there is more levelling than ought to be, consistent with good government," Jarratt also thanked God, who "raised me from the depths of obscurity and the lowest walks of life, to some degree of eminence and usefulness among men."38

In the Marketplace of Appearances

In this last phrase Jarratt clearly alluded to a newly published book that may well have inspired him to write his memoirs in the first place, Benjamin Franklin's already celebrated Autobiography.39 But Franklin played upon the theme of gentility and rusticity with asubtlety Jarratt could not hope to match. He could paint such scenes as his bumptious arrival in Philadelphia in 1723, a boy of seventeen dressed in working clothes, "dirty from my Journey[,] my Pockets ... stuff'd out with Shirts and Stockings," walking along Market Street holding two enormous rolls under his arms and eating a third, precisely because his ultimate rise to greatness was unquestioned. Even between the occasions when Franklin composed his Autobiography, beginning in 1771 and ending only with his death in 1790, he continued to move far beyond conventional Anglo-American gentility, learning instead how to forge a distinctive American republican identity that embraced simplicity as a sign of virtue. Brilliantly alert to the impressions he created as diplomat to France during the American Revolution, he discarded wigs for a fur cap and his natural hair, his sword for a wooden staff, the court finery expected of statesmen for the plain dress of a philosopher. Emerging out of a rank-ordered hierarchical society, he embodied the transformation to a republican and capitalist one. A critical element in this shift was Franklin's sensitivity to relationships not only with superiors, but with equals, and to a growing, anonymous, urban market.40

Most readers of the Autobiography will immediately recall the passage in which Franklin, having as a youth mightily offended the governmental and religious authorities of Puritan Boston and run away to Philadelphia, described how he established himself as a printer in his new community:

In order to secure my Credit and Character as a Tradesman, I took care not only to be in Reality Industrious and frugal, but to avoid all Appearances of the Contrary. I dressed plainly; I was seen at no Places of idle Diversion; I never went out a-fishing or shooting; a Book, indeed, sometimes debauch'd me from my Work; but that was seldom, snug, and gave no Scandal: and to show that I was not above my Business, I sometimes brought home the Paper I purchas'd at the Stores, thro' the Streets on a Wheelbarrow. Thus being esteem'd an industrious thriving young Man, and paying duly for what I bought, the Merchants who imported Stationery solicited my Custom, others propos'd supplying me with Books, and I went on swimmingly. In the meantime [Franklin's rival] Keimer's Credit and Business declining daily, he was at last forc'd tosell his Printing-House to satisfy his Creditors. He went to Barbados, and there lived some Years, in very poor Circumstances .41

This passage condenses one of the essential concerns of Franklin's Autobiography: how individuals are judged and reputations made and unmade in the geographically and economically mobile world of the eighteenth century. At the outset of this passage, he revealed his awareness and serene acceptance of the gulf between personal character and observable behavior, his keen appreciation that reputation is founded only upon what can be deduced from appearances, whatever one's inner merits might be. As a youth growing up in Puritan Boston, Franklin early learned hard lessons in the importance of public appearances, which no doubt pricked his desire to distinguish between "Reality" and "Appearances." In running away to Philadelphia, he aimed particularly to shed, besides his onerous apprenticeship to his brother James, his unsavory reputation as a political rebel, a social satirist, and an enemy of religion. Personal needs and the evolving opportunities of the culture conjoined as Franklin learned to become an expert manager of impressions: first an apprentice, then a master of self-effacement as a means of advancement. Unlike later thinkers, he displayed not the least anxiety about the nature of this putative "reality" of character apart from appearances or of the difficulties in reading the character of others if appearances could so easily be separated.

While certainly nowhere in the Autobiography did Franklin directly advocate deceit, he was notoriously willing, if he could not "boast of much Success in acquiring the Reality" of a particular virtue, to be more than satisfied by his success "with regard to the Appearance of it."42 In contrast to seventeenth-century Puritans and Quakers who sought to bring outward social rituals in conformity with inner virtues, Franklin's unruffled readiness to content himself with appearances, at least in some instances, adumbrated the emergent etiquette of developing capitalism. Trundling his papers in his wheelbarrow, he adapted his behavior, especially in public, in accordance with his interests in the marketplace. Though he might still "debauch" himself—but only with a book!—in solitude, the cultural dictates of the marketplace had already captured the public domain and were pressing in upon the private. The youthful Franklin strove for a time to keep his private moral accounts in order,but instead of feeling himself under the omniscient eye of a wrathful God like his Puritan forebears, he basked in the glow of the "Powerful Goodness" to whom he prayed. And when he discovered that to achieve moral perfection was harder than he thought and that considering all the effort, he preferred, as he put it in his famous image, a speckled ax to a brightly polished one, that, too, was his own affair. Indeed, he concluded with characteristic irony, it was better to have a few blots on one's moral accounts in order to appease public opinion: "a perfect Character might be attended with the Inconvenience of being envied and hated; and ... a benevolent Man should allow a few Faults in himself, to keep his Friends in Countenance."43

As Franklin learned to negotiate between the requirements of his ambition and the sensitivities of his audiences, he helped pioneer the strategies of etiquette that would be so widely disseminated in nineteenth-century America. With social equals as well as superiors, he curbed his considerable appetite for disputation and acquired

the Habit of expressing myself in Terms of modest Diffidence, never using when I advance any thing that may possibly be disputed, the Words, Certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the Air of Positiveness to an Opinion; but rather say, I conceive, or I apprehend a Thing to be so or so, It appears to me, or I should think it is so or so for such and such Reasons, or I imagine it to be so, or it is so if I am not mistaken. This Habit I believe has been a great Advantage to me, when I have had occasion to inculcate my Opinions and persuade Men into Measures that I have been from time to time engag'd in promoting."44

The "Habit ... of modest Diffidence" had other applications as well. In this watchful, intensely competitive society, not only the assertion of strong opinions but even the promotion of the public good, if performed too directly in one's own name, invited a swarm of envious detractors. Franklin soon learned "the Impropriety of presenting oneself as the Proposer of any useful Project that might be suppos'd to raise one's Reputation in the smallest degree above that of one's Neighbors, when one has need of their Assistance to accomplish that Project." He developed more self-effacing maneuvers, such as presenting his proposal for a public subscription libraryas "a Scheme of a Number of Friends." Keeping accounts on the returns of this investment in reputation, he gleefully reported:

The present little Sacrifice of your Vanity will afterwards be amply repaid. If it remains a while uncertain to whom the Merit belongs, someone more vain than yourself will be en-courag' d to claim it, and then even Envy will be dispos'd to do you Justice, by plucking those assum'd Feathers, and restoring them to their right Owner.45

In such ways Franklin practiced his diplomatic skills, learning to soothe the always truculent envy of others, to flatter it if necessary, rather than to goad it. By such maneuvers, too, he put into practice the market relations described by Adam Smith (who corresponded with Franklin about The Wealth of Nations several years before its publication in 1776):

man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them ... . It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their own self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.46

Not content, however, to leave the workings of Smith's "invisible hand" to the marketplace of society alone, Franklin busied himself behind the scenes to engineer its outcomes.

Franklin's Autobiography was a landmark not only in American literature, but in the history of market and social relations. In both realms it encouraged the rational pursuit of self-interest at the dawning of an age when such a view could seem not hackneyed but novel and exciting. Franklin challenged the older view that, in historian Joyce Appleby's words, "human beings were impulsive, fickle, passionate, unruly, and likely to come to no good end regardless of what they did. Self-interest in market transactions presumed a rationality that was actually complimentary to humannature. Men and women made choices that served them well."47 Though he still spoke with a candor about matters such as his "Intrigues with low women"48 that would trouble refined nineteenth-century readers, his book became a staple of American self-help literature because it captured so shrewdly the terms of the emerging urban capitalist society. In place of a more patriarchical order in which "superiors" and "inferiors" were still clearly linked by ties of obligation and authority enforced by face-to-face contact, there gradually developed a new kind of society in which individuals felt themselves less and less distinctly related to one another except through the workings of the market. Social hierarchy would persist, of course. Indeed, economic divisions did not ease but increased with the beginnings of industrial capitalism in the early nineteenth century. 49 But the transition from a rank-structured society to an impersonal "class" society meant that individuals would experience these divisions and the very notion of social hierarchy in ambiguous new ways. The emerging social order shook loose old titles to offer tantalizing possibilities for individual achievement and anxieties of self-definition.

Copyright © 1990by John F. Kasson

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