Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Big Bad City Tempts Young Men, 1849

Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Susan reporting:

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 SocietyWorcester, 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


Charles Bazalgette said...

A much earlier book, which I have drawn on extensively, is the marvellous 'The London Tradesman, being a Compendious view of All the Trades, Professions, Arts both Liberal and Mechanic, now practised in the Cities of London and Westminster, by Robert Campbell, Esq.' published about 1740. It has similar cautionary advice for apprentices coming to the big bad city. Remarks such as:"Some of the Button-Makers perform the Work; but it is chiefly done by Women, upon the Hand, who make a very handsome Livelihood of it, if they are not initiated into the Mystery of Gin-Drinking." Campbell’s book is liberally laced with warnings against the evils of Women, Drink and Gambling, with which pleasures of course the average apprentice would want to lose no time in becoming acquainted on his arrival in London.

Amy said...

That is a really great quote, I'm going to check both of those sites out. I read an interesting book on the history of prostitution in the US called The Lost Sisterhood by Ruth Rosen that this quote made me think of.

Recycled Cottage & Garden said...

I have a question that is slightly off topic but related to the photo today. Surely in previous eras there were single women who lived alone or at least with no other women present, like a widow or single daughter, etc. Most corsets I have seen lace up the back and need to be pulled fairly tight. How did single women do this? Is there a trick, did they forgo corsets or were there front lacing ones they used instead? Just a thought that occurred to me as I got dressed this morning...alone.

Charles Bazalgette said...

I'm dying to hear the answer to that one! Maybe they had a hook on the wall or something.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

ladyhawthorne, your question about stays and corsets does seem a perplexing one to us modern folk! For earlier corsets, or stays, the back lacing is a single cord that zig-zags up the back, and fastens with a kind of slip knot. The kind of stays worn by an "average" woman without servants would not have been super-tightly laced, either. The goal was a firm shape, not a tiny waist. With a lifetime of practice, women could indeed lace these by themselves. I've seen the interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg put on their stays themselves without any difficulty at all - coordinated historically inclined ladies that they are. :)

As for 19th c corsets, like the one in the picture above: if you look closely, you'll see that there are several metal clasps on the front of the corset. While the back lacing adjusted the tightness of the corset, the front opening with the clasps made it comparatively easy to put on and off.

I sense a future blog here on getting dressed!

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