Early Recollections of Newport, R. I., From the Year 1793 to 1811

By GEORGE G. CHANNING, Newport, R. 1. pp. 284.
“ NEWPORT,” said a summer resident, “is the only place in the United States where you are out of America.” The English crown still decorates the top of its tallest steeple. ; There is a town-crier. It gives one no sense of surprise to hear that the stern-post of Captain Cook’s ship, the old “ Endeavor,” is built into one of the wharves. Where else should it be ? It marks the spot where many other endeavors have gone down.
There are single sidewalks in Newport, which are narrow enough and quaint enough, one would think, to lead an explorer back to the Middle Ages ; and Mr. Channing’s book is like these sidewalks. Yet his memory does not reach back to the brilliant period of Newport, but to its incipient decay ; it was beginning to be old when he was young.
It was said in Puritan days, in Massachusetts, that, if any man lost his religion, he could find it again at some village in Rhode Island. And if there could be anything in those days more varied and peculiar than the two hundred and ten “pestilent heresies” already counted up, it must all have been put away in Rhode Island also, to be kept until Mr. Channing was born. Can it be really true that he remembers smoke-jacks and pewter plates, that he saw men pilloried, and branded, and whipped through the streets at the cart’s tail ? Did people really ring the old vear out and the new year in ? Did watchmen cry the wind and weather at night; and were they cheered by occasional hospitalities on stormy nights, in the form of ginger and cider flip ?
Besides these doubtful felicities of night wanderers, the author recalls other culinary delights, as, for instance “ whitepot.” It was pronounced as if written “whitpot,” and was made of white Indian-meal and new milk, with enough molasses to give it a yellow tinge. He describes social festivities too; subscription assemblies, where the partners for the first two dances were assigned by lot; tea-drinkings where nobody spoke, and all the guests sat round the walls in high-backed chairs. “ Nobody spoke ; it was not thought genteel.” “ Now and then a whisper might be heard, but as a general rule any deviation from the strictest formality was discouraged.” What heights of saintly virtue must men and women have ascended in those days, through penitential exercises like these!
In those days boys wore deep-ruffled shirts, the ruffles falling half-way clown the back. Boots were a great luxury, and were required to come as high as the knee, and be surmounted by yellow tops. “ Twice a year a noted cheap shoemaker from Bristol visited Newport to obtain the length of the feet of every boy and girl.” Young men wore small-clothes and knee-buckles; young women usually wore sheepskin gloves dyed blue. “ O the simplicity of that age, when a thin gold car-hoop and a few strings of gold beads constituted the beginning and end of female finery! ”
Mr. Channing, with a zeal becoming his profession, records with especial delight the ecclesiastical oddities of those days. It was not the custom, it seems, for the leading male parishioners to cuter the house of worship at the beginning, but to wait till the first prayer was over ; thus allowing to the pastor and the female saints one spiritual season unchecked by grosser presences. Church services thus reversed the customs of the old-fashioned English dinner-table, where the ladies and the clergy retired first.
He well remembers Dr. Hopkins, who indeed could hardly have failed to impress himself on boyish memories. For he wore, when on horseback, “ a robe of stuff called, at the time, calamanco, — a glossy woollen material of green color,— which was secured round the waist by a silken girdle. His head-gear was a red cap over a wig. He rode with his arms akimbo.” The Robin-Hood ballads must have seemed very real to the Newport boys when they saw this austere Friar Tuck in Lincoln green riding forth on sunny mornings; but Mr. Channing admits no Maid Marian into the tale, and evidently questions the historic truth of Mrs. Stowe’s tender legends.
It is pleasant to find that the author, true to the instincts of his name, was indignant even in childhood at “the stratagem employed by the vestry [of Trinity Church] to conceal the presence of colored people during service, which was effected by placing a frame with pear-shaped apertures at the side of the organ, through which they could see the minister and congregation, without being seen.”
Who can read without regret, in these pages, of those palmy days of the Moravian Church (now extinct) when they had lovefeasts of chocolate and buns, in which the world’s people might share, on paying fourpence? Was it through such an excess of hospitality that this kindly church died out ? Why did it perish, when many a sect survives to feed its devotees on husks ? But the Moravian Church edifice still exists in Newport, transformed into a school-house, where eager boys gaze aloft at the now inaccessible pulpit, and ponder passionate dreams of breaking into the building during some vacation, and scaling its dizzy height. The name of the structure is now modified by the popular tongue into “ Arabian Meetin’-house,” as if to match the Jewish synagogue in a neighboring street, and as if the descendants of Roger Williams were resolved to include with a fine hospitality all the monotheisms of the world.
Touching schools, Mr. Channing amazes the reader with the statement, that children were in his day furnished by their parents with movable seats made of round blocks of wood of various sizes. With what an altogether jubilant roar and rumble must those sessions have been dismissed ! Every recess-time must have been a ten-strike, for what boy could resist the temptation to set his seat spinning ? The author furthermore records that such was his aversion to the portrait on the outside of Webster’s Spelling-Book, that he once returned a new copy in indignation at seeing the same grim face, — and afterwards invested the amount in sugar-candy. Then the cruel bookseller sarcastically denounced him before the school as having so keen an appetite for knowledge as to have eaten his spelling-book. It must have been a serious matter, that portrait; for it is said that William Cobbett bequeathed to Noah Webster the sum of fifteen dollars “ to enable him to procure a new engraved likeness of himself for the book, that children may no longer be frightened from their studies.” It is an odd coincidence, that time and the editors have not only effaced Mr. Webster’s original features from the outside of his Spelling-Book, but also from the inside of his Dictionary.
We must not, however, linger too long in the seductive paths of this literary Pompeii. The book is full of quaint reminiscences, simply and honestly told. It is egotistic, as it should be, but there is no personal conceit in it; and the chief exploit of his own which he narrates — the saving of a wrecked vessel — was really quite an heroic thing, if local traditions be trusted, and is here very modestly told. These pages display a few of the weaknesses of old age, perhaps, — there are some trivialities and some discursiveness, and we are sometimes taken rather suddenly from liberty-trees to calico frocks, —but they have also the most attractive traits of old age, — amiability and tolerance. To acquire years without prejudices is always beautiful; may the town which Mr, Channing celebrates grow old as gracefully!