Life in Old New York, by Washington Irving
from Knickerbocker's History of New
In those good old days of simplicity and sunshine, a passion for
cleanliness was the leading principle in domestic economy, and the
universal test of an able housewife.
The front door was never opened, except for marriages, funerals, New
Year's Day, the festival of St. Nicholas, or some such great occasion.
It was ornamented with a gorgeous brass knocker, which was curiously
wrought,—sometimes in the device of a dog, and sometimes in that of a
lion's head,—and daily burnished with such religious zeal that it was
often worn out by the very precautions taken for its preservation.
The whole house was constantly in a state of inundation, [Footnote:
Inundation: a flood.] under the discipline of mops and brooms and
scrubbing brushes; and the good housewives of those days were a kind of
amphibious [Footnote: Amphibious: able to live in water and on land.]
animal, delighting exceedingly to be dabbling in water,—insomuch that
an historian of the day gravely tells us that many of his townswomen
grew to have webbed fingers, "like unto ducks."
The grand parlor was the sanctum, where the passion for cleaning was
indulged without control. No one was permitted to enter this sacred
apartment, except the mistress and her confidential maid, who visited it
once a week for the purpose of giving it a thorough cleaning. On these
occasions they always took the precaution of leaving their shoes at the
door, and entering devoutly [Footnote: Entering devoutly, etc. What
Oriental custom is the author alluding to?] in their stocking feet.
After scrubbing the floor, sprinkling it with fine white sand,—which
was curiously stroked with a broom into angles and curves and
rhomboids,—after washing the windows, rubbing and polishing the
furniture, and putting a new branch of evergreens in the fireplace, the
windows were again closed to keep out the flies, and the room was kept
carefully locked, until the revolution of time brought round the weekly
As to the family, they always entered in at the gate, and generally
lived in the kitchen. To have seen a numerous household assembled round
the fire, one would have imagined that he was transported to those happy
days of primeval simplicity which float before our imaginations like
The fireplaces were of a truly patriarchal magnitude, where the whole
family, old and young, master and servant, black and white,—nay, even
the very cat and dog,—enjoyed a community of privilege, and had each a
right to a corner. Here the old burgher would sit in perfect silence,
puffing his pipe, looking in the fire with half-shut eyes, and thinking
of nothing, for hours together; the good wife on the opposite side,
would employ herself diligently in spinning yarn or knitting stockings.
The young folks would crowd around the hearth, listening with breathless
attention to some old crone of a negro, who was the oracle of the
family, and who, perched like a raven in a corner of the chimney, would
croak forth, for a long winter afternoon, a string of incredible stories
about New England witches, grisly ghosts, and bloody encounters among
In these happy days, fashionable parties were generally confined to the
higher classes, or noblesse; that is to say, such as kept their own
cows, and drove their own wagons. The company usually assembled at three
o'clock, and went away about six, unless it was in winter time, when the
fashionable hours were a little earlier, that the ladies might reach
home before dark.
The tea table was crowned with a huge earthen dish, well stored with
slices of fat pork, fried brown, cut up into morsels, and swimming in
gravy. The company seated round the genial board, evinced their
dexterity in launching their forks at the fattest pieces in this mighty
dish,—in much the same manner that sailors harpoon porpoises at sea,
or our Indians spear salmon in the lakes.
Sometimes the table was graced with immense apple pies, or saucers full
of preserved peaches and pears; but it was always sure to boast an
enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog's fat and called
doughnuts or olykocks, a delicious kind of cake, at present little known
in this city, except in genuine Dutch families.
The tea was served out of a majestic Delft teapot, ornamented with
paintings of fat little Dutch shepherds and shepherdesses tending
pigs,—with boats sailing in the air, and houses built in the clouds,
and sundry other ingenious Dutch fancies. The beaux distinguished
themselves by their adroitness in replenishing this pot from a huge
copper teakettle. To sweeten the beverage, a lump of sugar was laid
beside each cup, and the company alternately nibbled and sipped with
great decorum; until an improvement was introduced by a shrewd and
economic old lady, which was to suspend, by a string from the ceiling, a
large lump directly over the tea table, so that it could be swung from
mouth to mouth.
At these primitive tea parties, the utmost propriety and dignity
prevailed,—no flirting nor coquetting; no romping of young ladies; no
self-satisfied struttings of wealthy gentlemen, with their brains in
their pockets, nor amusing conceits and monkey divertisements [Footnote:
Divertisements: diversions, amusements.] of smart young gentlemen, with
no brains at all.
On the contrary, the young ladies seated themselves demurely in their
rush-bottomed chairs, and knit their own woolen stockings; nor ever
opened their lips, excepting to say yah, Mynheer, or yah, Vroww,
[Footnote: Yay, Mynheer: "yes, sir." Yay, Vrow: "yes, madam."] to any
question that was asked them; behaving in all things like decent,
well-educated damsels. As to the gentlemen, each of them tranquilly
smoked his pipe, and seemed lost in contemplation of the blue and white
tiles with which the fireplaces were decorated; wherein sundry passages
of Scripture were piously portrayed. Tobit [Footnote: Tobit. The Book of
Tobit is part of the Apocrypha.] and his dog figured to great advantage;
Haman [Footnote: Haman is the king's counselor in the Book of Esther.]
swung conspicuously on his gibbet; and Jonah appeared most manfully
leaping from the whale's mouth, like Harlequin [Footnote: Harlequin: the
clown in early Italian and later French comedy.] through a barrel of
The parties broke up without noise and without confusion. They were
carried home by their own carriages, that is to say, by the vehicles
nature had provided them, excepting such of the wealthy as could afford
to keep a wagon.
[Footnote: Are there any parts of the country where the traditions of
the "best parlor" are still kept? Does the early life in New York appear
to you attractive or uninteresting? Does the description seem like
ridicule? The descendants of the old Dutch families resented Irving's
way of making fun of their ancestors. Point out passages which might
justify this complaint. Compare this sketch with "A Pine Tree Shilling"
in the style of writing, method of description, and humor.]
Louise de la Ramee