Everyday Life and Mannerisms of Antebellum America
Isaac Weld in 1795 once wrote that “everyone smokes and some chew in America." Weld as well as many Europeans were appalled by the way many Americans used tobacco. It was a gross, disgusting habit. If I came from a European nation, such as France or England, I would be overwhelmed and greatly disgusted by American’s drunkenness, disgusting habits, common language and social interaction.
Although very disgusted, I would be curious to see more because American society was unique during the antebellum period. America was a new country and free to change anyway it wanted without strict rules from an authoritarian government. To many Europeans, Americans were probably living the life they wanted to have for themselves.
Old lifestyles, like rigid Puritanism, were waning and a new disorderly lifestyle was taking over in America with the increase of wealth and consumerism. Even Andrew Jackson lead a “wild, undisciplined life and gained reputation as the most roaring, rollicking, game-cocking, horse-racing, card-playing, mischievous fellow, that ever lived in Salisbury." The rowdy lifestyle almost seems to be the desired lifestyle of most Americans.
Rowdy men were envied, because of their wild, story-filled backgrounds and slick personalities. Europeans were appalled and in awe of this rowdy, dirty and crude mannerism and everyday life of the American people.
Drunkenness and disorder were rising problems in America. The market revolution brought more wealth to the people. With more wealth, the people were able to have more leisure and able to buy more luxuries, like alcohol. The village tavern became a place of social gatherings in practically every American town.
In 1827, Rochester, New York had nearly one hundred taverns to sell liquor to eight thousand residents. Taverns enticed Americans to fight, gamble, smoke and drink all night. Women drank just as well as men, but not as much.
During the early 19th century, Americans were drinking far more and with higher alcohol contents than any other period in American history. Up until 1820, drinking was thought to be needed for sociability. This widespread alcoholism is probably due to the immense amount of change in the economy and society.
Increasingly unpopular, alcoholism soon provoked society to reform and take action against the ‘demon rum.’ The temperance movement began during the antebellum period to teach alcoholics that alcohol costed them not only “their physical health, their family happiness, and their personal honor, but also their jobs and savings." In the early 1800's, alcoholism was an apparent American characteristic and disgusted many Europeans. Fortunately, society saw alcoholism as a moral and social problem and tried to correct it with reform.
Disgusting habits, such as tobacco use and spitting, were common practice in America. Tobacco use was widespread, because it was very cheap. Pipes, snuff, and chew were all used to intake tobacco. The most disgusting habit was that of chewing tobacco and European visitors hated it.
Chewing tobacco created more need for further tobacco use. Soon, it became proper to chew or smoke tobacco in almost every public place, and even during work. “In all the public places of America, multitudes of men engaged in the odious practise of chewing and expectorating." Charles Dickens was very appalled by the habit of chewing tobacco.
Since chewing increased salivation, chewers began spitting everywhere to relieve their mouths of excess juices. Churches, courtrooms, and other public buildings were not off-limits to spitting. In 1827, Margaret Hall described the floor of the Virginia House of Burgesses as being “actually flooded with their horrible spitting." Also disgusting was the lack of bathing or sanitation in America.
During the early 19th century, most Americans were working outside on farms. During the workday, they acquired manure spattered boots and dirty clothes that smelt of dried sweat from the day or week’s work. Americans hardly washed baby diapers, emptied their chamber pots, or cleaned their horse-manure covered streets.
The mob of people, that streamed through the White House after Andrew Jackson took the oath of office, perfectly represents the dirtiness of the people. “The mob constituted one uninterrupted stream of mud and filth,” and the “men with boots heavy with mud stood on the damask satin-covered chairs to get a better look at the wild shenanigans." Spitting, chewing tobacco, smoking, not bathing or washing anything was the way many Americans lived during the early 1800's. Europeans may have lived in unsanitary towns, but they bathed more often and used perfumes to cover themselves with a pleasant fragrant.
Common English & Slang
The use of common language in America by the wealthy was shocking to foreign aristocrats. In Europe, slang language was improper and, therefore vulgar and low-class. Wealthy English and French aristocrats used rhetoric, which was developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Rhetoric is composed of highly proper language. Thus, upper class gentlemen and upper middling class were taught rhetoric in England and in France. In America, the Founding Fathers used grammatical speech because of their dislike of the English rhetoric spoken by their former rulers. However, the speech of the Founding Fathers was still more proper unlike the rest of the American population.
Thomas Jefferson believed that men of stature should have eloquence in their speech, because it can defend the people, and enforces good council. The Founding Fathers believed that civilized speech demanded power and that language should not be used as a mark of status but a tool to save the nation. However, the pressure from the public was too great. At Jackson’s inauguration ceremony, a large mob of commoners had arrived to praise the new president of the people. Upon seeing Jackson arrive, the people screamed “Huzza! Huzza! Huzza!"
It was clear that the speech of the people had taken over all aspects of America. Plain speech became common place in politics, law, church, and business. The use of slang and common language by every class in America was shocking and unbelievable to many Europeans. It was stunning to wealthy European aristocrats to hear improperly spoken language and made many look down upon the Americans.
Social Interactions & Isolationism
During the antebellum period, the people were starved for social interaction. After the Revolution, the American people had a new country to make and mold into whatever they desired. Spirits were high, but with so much land to wander, poverty, and isolation, many people became depressed and gloomy.
Isolationism fueled the desire for more social interactions, but with the constantly changing society, it was very tough to create any lasting relationships. In the small towns of the northeastern countryside, families constantly moved and never stayed very long to acquire long-term relationships.
Those that did stay in one spot did tend to make frequent social occasions with other families. Lyndon Freeman, a New Englander, recalls that families “found occasions to meet together ... to have a social chat." In New England, women were accustomed to make calls on other families. They would often visit each other daily to have tea and small chats.
In the countryside, the people would go months without ever seeing a new face. In the Southern and Western states, social interaction was less frequent because of large distances between towns. Unlike the closely clustered Northern settlements, the South and West had a smaller population spread out across a vast region of land. Thus, isolationism and gloominess were a frequent characteristic of many people during the times.
Europeans would have found most Americans to be expressionless, dull and gloomy. Europeans found Americans to be lacking holidays, not showing any intimacy or sexuality, were sometimes violent, and were increasingly drunk and disorderly. To a European, the American everyday life was boring, lacked any major social interactions, and was crude due to the very popular use of alcohol.
In conclusion, the everyday life and mannerisms of the American people during the antebellum period was appalling to most Europeans. The Americans had disgusting habits, drinking problems, spoke in slang-filled common English, and lacked any interesting social interaction. Although very crude and gloomy, Europeans were still curious of Americans because of their immense susceptibility to new changes. They wanted to see if America could survive in their new expansive world. They were shocked by the rowdy drunk and disorderly of the American people, but impressed at the new ideas, innovations, and other social and moral changes that were growing out of Antebellum America.