Friday, May 12, 2006

Item of the Day: Weld's Travels (1800)

Full Title: Travels through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, During the Years 1795, 1796, 1797. By Isaac Weld, Junior. Printed in London for John Stockdale, 1800.

[At age 21, Isaac Weld was already a man of the world. An Irishman to the manor born, Weld arrived in Philadelphia in 1795 to begin what became a three year tour of the new American republic. For Weld it was both an exploratory mission and adventure generated by a wish to escape the havoc of Europe mired in war. He traveled through much of the eastern seaboard and Canada, journeying by foot, boat, carriage and canoe through cities, villages, dense forests and wilderness. Weld's accounts provide a unique view of the nascent American culture at the end of the 18th century. Throughout his great adventure, Weld clung to his aristocratic standards and wrote condescendingly if not acerbically of the American people and his experiences. An eager British audience devoured his travel logs as soon as they were published in 1800. Several editions later they were also published in Dutch, French, German and Italian.]

From the Introduction:

If it shall appear to any one, that he has spoken with too much asperity of American men and American manners, the Author begs that such language may not be ascribed to hasty prejudice, and a blind partiality for everything that is European. He crossed the Atlantic strongly prepossessed in favour of the People and the Country, which he was about to visit; and if he returned with sentiments of a different tendency, they resulted solely from a cool and dispassionate observation of what chance presented to his view when abroad.

On his arrival in Philadelphia:

Philadelphia, as you approach by the river, is not seen farther off than three miles, a point of land covered with trees concealing it from the view. On weathering this point it suddenly opens upon you, and at that distance it looks extremely well; but on a nearer approach, the city makes a poor appearance, as nothing is visible from the water but confused heaps of wooden storehouses, crowded upon each other, the chief of which are built upon platforms of artificial ground, and wharfs which project a considerable way into the river. . . . Behind these wharfs, and parallel to the river, runs Water street. This is the first street which you usually enter after landing, and it does not serve to give a stranger a very favourable opinion either of the neatness or commodiousness of the public ways of Philadelphia. . . . Added to this such stenches as times prevail in it, owing in part to the quantity of filth and dirt that is suffered to remain on the pavement, and in part to what is deposited in waste houses, of which there are several in the street, that it is really dreadful to pass through it. It was here that the malignant yellow fever broke out in the year 1793, which made such terrible ravages; and in the summer season, in general the street is found extremely unhealthy. That the inhabitants, after suffering so much from the sickness that originated in it, should remain thus inattentive to the cleanliness of Water street is truly surprising.

In the old parts of the town they are in general small, heavy and inconvenient . . .

As for the public buildings, they are all heavy tasteless piles of red brick, ornamental with the same sort of blue marble as that already mentioned, and which but ill accord together, unless indeed we except the new Bank of the United States, and the presbyterian church in High street.
It is a remark, however, very generally made, not only by foreigners, but also by persons from other parts of the United States, that the Philadelphians are extremely deficient in hospitality and politeness towards strangers. Amongst the uppermost circles in Philadelphia, pride, haughtiness, and ostentation are conspicuous, and it seems as if nothing could make them happier than that an order of nobility should be established, by which they might be exalted above their fellow citizens, as much as they are in their own conceit. In the manners of the people in general there is a coldness and reserve, as if they were suspicious of some designs against them, which chills to the very heart those who come to visit them. In their private societies a tristesse is apparent, near which mirth and gaiety can never approach. It is no unusual thing, in the genteelest houses, to see a large party of from twenty to thirty persons assembled, and seated round a room, without partaking of any amusement than what arises from the conversation, most frequently in whispers, that passes between the two persons who are seated next to each other.

The women, in general, whilst young, are very pretty; but by the time they become mothers of a little family they lose all their beauty, their complexions fade away, their teeth begin to decay, and they hardly appear like the same creatures.

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