American Domestic Manners: The Accounts of Two Travelers

I

WHEN travelers go into strange countries, they bring back wonderful stories of their adventures. But the most interesting tales always are about the habits and manner of life of the uncouth creatures that inhabit these unknown lands.

The domestic manners of the Americans have always made extremely popular reading. I have before me two magazines— Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine for May, 1832; and the Atlantic Monthly for May, 1922. The first takes up the life of the eighteen-twenties in that wild part of the United States east of the Mississippi; the latter depicts the habits of the rough but sturdy inhabitants of the Great Southwest in the nineteen-twenties.

One Frances Trollope, ‘instigated’ (as‘Christopher North’says) ‘by the devil and Miss Fanny Wright, was induced, with the approbation of her husband, to accompany that lady to the United States. It appears that Miss Wright — to whom, in spite of all her failings, it is impossible to deny the praise of active benevolence — had embarked in some project for emancipating negroes; and with this viewhad formed an establishment in the state of Tennessee, in which, by judicious preparation, the slaves were not only to become free, but to astonish the world by issuing forth in the character of scholars and gentlemen.’

Mrs. Trollope came from London, and published the results of her two years’ observation in two volumes which are reviewed in Blackwood’s.

Mr, Roderick Peattie, instigated, we suspect, by some unfulfilled hope, ventures from Chicago, across the raging Mississippi, into the land of oil wells, of tanks, of producers and plainsmen, of Indians and ‘niggers.’ His observations are published in the May Atlantic.

‘ Tanks of the size of city gas tanks are set in rows through the fields. ... It is difficult to describe the gaunt and haggard landscape where these monsterlike tanks arise.’ But difficulties do not daunt, nor monsters frighten, this intrepid traveler. He pushes on. ‘After driving through Stone Bluff, I went over the Turkey Mountain road to Red Wing. Later I made Broken Arrow, Coweta, and Choska Bottoms. Coming up over Turkey Mountain, one could see Tulsa on the plains, rising with its skyscrapers like some Babylonian temple in the wilderness.’

The last frontier has been conquered, and in the Wilderness of the West are the Wonderful Monsters of the Petroleum Age, and the Bizarre Babylonian Beauties of the Queen of Oil.

Perhaps, now, others from Chicago or Indianapolis may venture forth, as Dickens followed Mrs. Trollope; and we may have a real survey of the Southwest, and some Southwestern Notes, to bring about the friendly feeling between alien peoples that comes from a sympathetic understanding of their domestic habits.

Mrs. Trollope landed in New Orleans, and journeyed up the Mississippi on one of those floating palaces of the eighteen-twenties. The scenery along the Mississippi was very poor; but on the Ohio it was better.

Our modern explorer finds much that is dreary in the Oklahoma landscape, but it has its redeeming features— the birds and flowers.

‘Oklahoma is a state of birds and flowers. Nowhere have I heard more birds, more kinds of birds, singing at once, than in the hayfields here in full sun.’ And these, as we say in Oklahoma, are ‘some birds.’

‘One hears its [the meadow lark’s] shrill note from the Pullman above the roar of the train, the first morning in the plains.’

A friend of mine, back in the days when I too lived in Arcady, that is east of the ‘Mississip,’ told me that, as soon as one crossed that mighty stream, he became a confirmed liar. I have lived many years in this land of boasters, but I have never heard anyone claim that our meadow larks could roar louder than a Frisco train. I think the ingenuous traveler mistook one of the airplanes, which the rich oil-producers travel in, for a lark! That sound was simply a driller going to work.

But, after we have enjoyed the scenery, we get back to the Domestic Manners of the Indigenous Inhabitants. Mrs. Trollope evidently was forced to eat in the common salle-à-manger of her floating palace.

‘The total want of all the usual courtesies of the table; the voracious rapidity with which the viands were seized and devoured; the strange uncouth phrases and pronunciation; the loathsome spitting, from the contamination of which it was absolutely impossible to protect our dresses; the frightful manner of feeding with their knives, till the whole blade seemed to enter into the mouth; and the still more frightful manner of cleaning the teeth afterwards with a pocketknife—’

My ancestors lived in the Ohio Valley, and perhaps may have been on that same boat. Shall I be pardoned if I draw the veil upon this horrific scene? The reviewer in Blackwood’s, commenting upon the sufferings of English travelers in the American Wilderness, says, ‘ they cannot bring themselves to pardon the transatlantic innovation of picking teeth with a pocketknife, instead of table-fork, according to the ancient and recognized precedent in the hostelries of Leeds and Birmingham.’

Our modern traveler makes no mention of the table manners of the West. Perhaps we no longer ‘ swaller ’ our knives. I do not know. Perhaps we have become expert, and so our peculiarities are not noticed. My friend, Judge West, told me of an experience in the James Hotel, in the early days of the Cushing field. He had finished his dinner and was toying with his dessert, when a solicitous waitress delicately inquired, ‘Ain’t I give you no knife?’ ‘Oh, yes,’said the diner. ‘Excuse me; I seen you eatin’ with your fork; I thought I ain’t give you no knife.’ However, I think the story apocryphal.

But in Tulsa, the ‘Babylonian temple in the wilderness,’ are strange sights. Here it is that the ‘operators’ (that is, oil-producers) congregate for their revels. And what pagan revels! ‘It is not unusual for a man to drive in two hundred miles from the field, for a bath and a Sunday evening of civilization.’

Two hundred miles for a bath, and the soothing strains of the victrola! Someone, in the dark ages before the Eighteenth Amendment, wrote a book called A Thousand Miles from a Lemon (was it Frank Stockton?), to indicate the entire absence of civilization. But since there is only water, the symbol shall be ‘two hundred miles from a bath.’

But let us follow our transatlantic traveler from her disconcerting meal. The boat arrived at Cincinnati, and Mrs. Trollope escaped. But alas! to one of her sensitive nature, her fate must have been worse than that of Sinbad in the City of Magicians.

‘We were soon settled in our new dwelling, which looked neat and comfortable enough; but we speedily found that it was devoid of nearly all the accommodation that Europeans conceive necessary to decency and comfort. No pump, no cistern, no drain of any kind, no dustman’s carts or any other visible means of getting rid of the rubbish, which vanishes with such celerity in London, that one has no time to think of its existence; but which accumulated so rapidly at Cincinnati that I sent for my landlord to know in what manner refuse of all kinds was to be disposed of.

“‘Your Help will just have to fix them all into the middle of the street, but you must mind, old woman, that it is the middle. I expect you don’t know as we have got a law what forbids throwing such things at the sides of the streets; they must all be cast right into the middle, and the pigs soon takes them off.” In truth, the pigs are constantly seen doing Herculean service in this way through every quarter of the city.’

That was all Mrs. Trollope saw in Cincinnati in 1830. Yet it was then the centre of a cultured society. There were mansions in those days on Third Street, on Fourth Street, on Eastern Row, now Broadway.

And as to drains, I believe the first bathtub, with running water and drains, was used in Cincinnati — before such a thing was even heard of in London or New York.

Mrs. Trollope would be forgotten but for her son Anthony; and her magnum opus is read only by the searcher for literary curiosities. Yet, when she lived in Cincinnati, a clergyman named Lyman Beecher moved there, to become President of Lane Seminary. He had a daughter named Harriet. Miss Wright and Mrs. Trollope traveled halfway round the world to free the slaves, but the pigs scared t hem away. Harriet Beecher, not being used to the delicate life of London, stayed, perforce. And as Harriet Beecher Stowe, she too wrote a book, as Mrs. Trollope did, of ‘life among the lowly.’ And there were two little girls there, Alice and Phœbe Cary. Perhaps she could have seen them, if it had not been for the pigs.

But we must not forget Mr. Peattie, our Atlantic traveler. Let us take him around Tulsa, the Queen of the West of the nineteen-twenties. Instead of the pigs of the eighteen-twenties, he sees the vulgarians of to-day.

‘Every town in Oklahoma has its men who have become rich through drilling; but Tulsa leads; it is their Mecca. They are an interesting class. Their reddened faces speak of a life in the open. Now they have retired to expensive homes in Tulsa, representing their various conceptions of opulence (and some of these are strange to behold), where they may sit on the front porch, collarless, in their stocking-feet, while their wives have donned boudoircaps and rolled to town behind six cylinders, to buy whatever hits their fancy.’

These oil-producers must, indeed, be an interesting study to the trained observers from Chicago and the East, especially as almost all of the ‘producers’ are from New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

‘From my room in one town, I was able to hear the church choir practising. They were executing a rather difficult cantata.’ (I rather imagine the use of the word ‘executing’ is intentional. But let it pass.) ‘Considering the temperature of the evening, their devotion was great. At the end of the evening, the singing became rather fainthearted. Someone, however, started up, —

‘When the Roll is Called up Yonder,
When the Roll is Called up Yonder,
When the Roll is Called up Yonder,
I ’ll be There.’

‘The half-hearted singing swelled into an uproar. We were back to the primitive again. It. was like a Christianized savage breaking into a Voodoo chant.’

I presume the Choral Society of Chicago (if there is one), after deliberately executing Bach’s Mass in B flat, relieves itself by singing some simple versicle of Amy Lowell, set to music by Richard Strauss.

II

More oil is produced in the MidContinent Field (Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas) than anywhere in the world. In twenty years, oil from the Southwest has revolutionized the transportation of the world.

May we not pause a while to boast? When Disraeli made possible the opening of the Suez Canal, and changed the trade currents of the world, Mrs. Trollope would only have seen an affected little Jew proudly carrying a message to the Queen. But the world looked on, and saw the passing of an era. It saw the opening-up of India, of China, and the awakening of the East. It saw the old sailing ships passing from the seas; it saw trade quickened; great cities rising. It saw even the old London Town of Mrs. Trollope’s ‘dustmen’ become the centre of the world.

The traveler from Chicago comes to the oil fields of America. He sees redfaced men who wear no collars; he sees women who wear boudoir-caps in automobiles; he sees monster structures that hold oil; he hears birds that shriek louder than locomotives. But always the oil goes silently out through the great pipes to the ends of the earth. The world looks on and sees trade quickened; it sees steel boats, which, with oil for fuel, can cruise the Seven Seas; it sees millions of carriages that run like the wind; and great ships in the air that go faster than the wind. It sees the Allies hastened to victory on ‘a sea of oil.’ It sees the passing of an era, and America the centre of the world.

Well, we have boasted, and let anyone deny.

If the only English travelers in the United States had been Mrs. Trollope and Dickens, where would be the entente between us and England today? If the only traveler from Chicago were Mr. Peattic of the May Atlantic, then the Southwest could no more hope to be brightened by the face of the cultured East.

Our farmers are drifters. ‘These are the people who are to be seen along any of the main highways, in rickety prairie schooners, traveling — God knows where. . . . The hardest thing is to see the children, — poor little beings, — under-nourished mentally and physically, their mouths drawn in the hard firm lines that tell a terrible story.’

Mr. Peat tie does not here describe some isolated travelers, but they ‘are to be seen along any of the main highways.’

It is, indeed, a wonder that Oklahoma is permitted to remain in the Union. I have lived in Tulsa a great many years. I have driven the roads for hundreds of miles. I have seen a few of these drifters—but only a few. The children call them ‘gypsies.’ (Do you remember them in your childhood?)

I have seen these travelers on the roads of Ohio, of Illinois, of Pennsylvania. They are going ‘God knows where.’ They are not typical of any part of the United States. But there is a drifter who is becoming prevalent, and I believe he is just as omnipresent east of the Mississippi as west. He is the tin-can tourist, who cranks up his Ford, and away he goes. And he takes his bedding and his children, too.

III

The value of an observer consists in the accuracy of his observations.

‘On leaving the town [Tulsa], we crossed the Arkansas River in flood. It is hundreds of yards wide, and yet one could almost ford it.’ If Mr. Peattie will ford the Arkansas in flood-time, he will gain as much notoriety as the gentleman (was it Blondin?) who crossed Niagara on a wire.

As most people use gasoline in one form or another (I believe it is used as a substitute beverage in the East), there is a natural curiosity as to how the oil from which it is produced is taken from the ground. Mr. Peattie gratifies this desire for information. ‘Once the decision is made to drill, a rig gang can erect a 72-foot derrick in a few hours. A huge bit is then dropped from the top of the derrick. Like an arrow it sticks in the ground, and the well is “spudded in.”’

It must be, indeed, a wonderful sight to see these huge thousand-pound steel bits drop ‘like an arrow’ from the top of a 72-foot derrick, and stick in the ground. Mr. Peattie says that oil is found where there is a doming in the rocks. What happens when this bit hits a rock is not stated. Does it stick in the rock, or bounce off? And if it bounces off, what happens when it hits a geologist? A great many oil-producers have craved the pleasure of dropping one of these bits on the dome of a geologist; but the laws are severe.

There have been cases where these bits have dropped — never from the top of the derrick, because they have never been hoisted that high, but while they were being swung in the derrick. And usually the derrick has come down with them, and the drillers have been carried back to town in sections.

The weight of these bits is so great that they are lifted and dropped, lifted and dropped, rhythmically, only a few feet. First, a hole is dug and a section of pipe is driven into the ground, and in that drive-pipe the bit is worked up and down until the hole is started. The explanation of the working of the bit is not difficult to understand; and, if it is once seen, it can never be forgotten.

If one were to go into a steel mill, and then say that a steel plate is made by heating iron to the consistency of dough, and rolling it out with a wooden rolling-pin, it would be just as accurate as the dropping of a bit, 72-feet, ’like an arrow,’ to stick in the ground.

IV

But to return to Blackwood’s for May, 1832.

I think old Christopher North wrote the article in the May Blackwood’s, reviewing the books of Mrs. Trollope. I don’t think anyone else could have done them justice. I shall therefore quote a paragraph and, to save space and time, shall change a word occasionally, putting the original in parentheses beside it; the one paragraph will thus serve for the travelers of 1832, and 1922.

‘Though the discrepancies of the statements in the works of Eastern American (British) travelers, with regard to the West (United States) be confessedly irreconcilable with fair and impartial observation, still there exist few instances in which we feel disposed to attribute the blunders and inconsistencies of these writers to intentional misrepresentation. There is no other country in the world, perhaps, in which, to the eye of an Eastern American (Englishman), a little prejudice may so easily pervert the whole coloring and proportions of the picture which it presents. He finds in the West (America) so much that is admirable, mingled with so much that is offensive . . . and is alternately shocked and gratified by so much arrogance, energy, intelligence, weakness, folly, wisdom, and impertinence, that the character of the impression produced by this apparently incongruous aggregate must depend in great measure on the peculiar temperament of the observer.’

But while these studies of our life by observers from that happy land east of the Mississippi enrage us to the point of murder, we should be thankful that it is not worse. Old Christopher cautions the Americans against excessive anger, by reminding them that the English themselves have been maligned, and have suffered in dignified silence.

‘Let her [America] only observe how wonderfully cool John [Bull] is under the misrepresentations of foreign travelers. The Chevalier Pillet has declared to the world that the domestic relations of Englishmen are made the cover of the most disgusting and degrading pollution, and that every English lady keeps her private brandy bottle, on the contents of which she gets drunk at least once a day. A Monsieur Charles Nodier, of whose book we remember to have written a review many years ago in this very magazine, among other statements equally veracious, scrupled not to assert, seipso teste, that Scottish ladies always go barefoot; and that though, on occasions of ceremony, shoes are certainly to be seen, the toes of a northern spinster feel exceedingly awkward under their compression, and she uniformly seizes the earliest opportunity of kicking them off.’

Let us be thankful that the Atlantic has spared us as much as it has. It has been charitable with our womenfolks. Knowing the chivalry and shootingirons of the West, perhaps it is well.

The rum bottle is gone; peace to its ashes. And if our men take off their shoes, our women put on their boudoircaps, And so the proprieties are equalized.

Let us hope that this is not the last study of the habits of the Americans, to appear. In time, we may get to know how we all live in this great country; and thus the bonds of the Republic shall be safely cemented.

V

We of the West would learn something of the strange people of the East. If Tulsa is a Babylonian Temple in the Wilderness, is Chicago a Babylonian Temple on the Lake, and New York one set in the Sea? Are we all alike or different?

Has Chicago no millionaires who sit in the Front Rooms of their apartments without their collars, and perhaps without their shoes? Who knows? They conceal their crime. Here we sin openly. Which is worse? Yea, your apartment houses are like whited sepulchres — fair to look upon without, but within — full of boudoir-caps and cast-off shoes.

Nay, friends and critics, weigh not so much the mustard and the cummin. Let us look to weightier matters. The story of the Southwest is not the story of a few raw millionaires, but the story of a changing world.

Twenty years ago oil was oil, and that was all. It was used to light the winter evenings. Steel was king. Then the odor of oil was abroad in the land. In Kansas, in Oklahoma, in Texas, men began to drill. Soon bits were heard ‘dropping from every derrick,’and oil began to flow. Did the East stand superciliously by, because there were drifters on Oklahoma roads, and the dust rushed by in clouds? It did not. The East came West. To-day in Tulsa three fourths of the population is from the East. Men have come here and have founded, not businesses only, but families.

Tulsa has grown from ten to ninety thousand in less than a quarter of a century. But numbers alone do not make a city. Schools, churches, fine homes, streets, buildings; hard roads, fine farms; music, art, literature: these things are here as fully as in the East.

The skyline of Tulsa may look like a Babylonian Temple. Set on a hill, one building piled on another, until all culminates in the wonderful white tower of the Cosden Building, it is indeed a sight to inspire the traveler from afar. But there is no wilderness.

And the squalor of the tenant farmers: it is here. But are the little children worse off out in the open, than in the crowded tenements of the West Side of Chicago, or the East Side of New York?

It is not poverty, it is not wealth, it is not vulgarity or culture, ostentation or humility, which distinguishes one city from another, whatever its size, or one part of the country from another. We are all tarred with the same stick.

Frankly, we Americans enjoy ourselves. Yes, we enjoy ourselves. When we look about us, we do not wonder that we have done so little, but that we have done so much. We are pleased with the work of our hands. We look at our work, and see that it is good. There is much that is bad, but we are kind to ourselves and overlook that.

If little things are to be written about, let them be written about as little things. What always has enraged us Americans, and what always will enrage us, is to have the little things played up as the only things in our lives.

The Main Street School of Literature describes the little things as the only things in American life outside the centres of the intelligentsia. Littleness is everywhere; but so is bigness. Do we need a traveler from Greenwich Village to tell us of the splendor of our sunsets, or the wonders of the dawn? Do we need a traveler from Chicago to tell us of our poverty and of our vulgar wealth?

The injustice of Main Street to the small American town, is the injustice of the May Atlantic to the Southwest. It is not what it says, but what it leaves out. It is the utter disproportion in values, which leaves the reader with just as erroneous an impression as if there were a deliberate propaganda of falsification. I must go back to Blackwood’s of 1832, and quote what is said about the accounts of travelers in America, to illustrate what is meant.

‘By merely throwing out of view one class of qualities which distinguish this singular people, and fixing attention on another, it becomes abundantly possible to communicate an impression of the national character which is utterly unjust, though every statement from which conclusions have been drawn be substantially correct. The charge, therefore, that those travelers who have inordinately praised the Americans are quite as obnoxious as those who have followed an opposite course, consists less in the suggestio falsi than in the suppressio veri. Yet even this crime, we are charitably inclined to believe, has not often been willfully committed. For so constituted is the mind of man, so much is the judgment of the wisest among us influenced by prejudice unknown to itself, that we are rarely able to take a wide and impartial view of all the circumstances and relations of a question, essential to a sound conclusion.’

And so we always have been enraged, and we always shall be enraged, when we are written up as strange creatures when we are not. The English might bear with patience the strictures of Chevalier Pillet, and Monsieur Nodier; they were strangers. But when one of the family misinterprets us, we are always ready to fight.

Whether it be Sinclair Lewis writing of the Northwest, or W. L. George writing of the Southwest, we can always calm ourselves with the blessed assurance that what is written of the West is written also of the East; what is written of the North is written also of the South. For in this wide land we are one — one in our poverty, and in our wealth; in our culture and in our vulgarity; in our boasting and in our humility.

Whether it be Gopher Prairie, or Tulsa, or Chicago, or New York, we find only what we bring.