Just as the country has traditionally represented a pure and wholesome life, cities everywhere are most often depicted harboring sin and wickedness on every street corner. As the focus of the 19th c. American economy shifted away from farms to factories, young men became increasingly eager to leave rural homes for the proverbial bright lights of the big city. Cautionary tracts were quick to appear, doubtless far more popular with worried parents than ambitious youth. The warning below comes from The Temptations of City Life: A Voice to Young Men Seeking a Home and Fortune, in Large Towns and Cities (New York, 1849):
"On almost every corner, some saloon brilliantly lighted, opens its attractive portals. It is furnished on a scale of the richest luxury, with splendid mirror, costly divans, easy lounges, and tables covered with late journals and pictorial works. Paintings of great artistic merit, arranged on the walls, and exhibiting the nude and seductive forms of female beauty, appeal to the ardent passions of youth; and corresponding music in sweetest strains steals upon his senses. Often, to add to the attractions of these places, varying entertainments, of the buffoon, danseuse, and the ballad-singer, are furnished. Captivated by such scenes, unsuspecting youth repeats his visits, finds other similar resorts, and finally is in the habit of being abroad every night, and is found at his boarding-house only for his meals and late lodgings. He visits all the distinguished saloons, refectories, bowling-alleys, theatres, gambling-hells, and other abodes of affiliated infamy."
As we've written here before, old diaries and journals are finding their voices (and readers) thanks to the new social media. I discovered the above excerpt on the blog of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA; the Society is currently publishing a 19th c. daily diary in their collection in its own blog. Clerk and the City: A Young Man's Search for Love & Culture on the Streets of Philadelphia features an annotated entry each day from Nathan Beekley, a young clerk in 1849. Nathan seems to find the big bad city a quite sociable place, since his entries often include "the pleasure of seeing" various young ladies, and he seems much more interested in them than his job. Fun reading for us history nerds! You can also follow Nathan on Twitter, @TheIronClerk.
Above: Unknown Young Woman Lacing Her Corset, c. 1890
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.