Manners and Customs Among the Dutch In Early New York City

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I am indebted for the following ideas of "Men and Manners once," as seen in the middle state of life generally, by facts imparted to me by the aged, to wit: The Dutch kept five festivals, of peculiar notoriety, in the year, say Kerstrydt, (Christmas;) Nieuw jar, (New Year,) a great day of cake; Paas, (the Passover;) Pinxter, (i.e. Whitsuntide;) and San Claas, (i.e. Saint Nicholas, or Christ-kinkle day.) The negroes on Long island on some of those days, came in great crowds to Brooklyn, and held their field frolics. The observances of New Year day (Nieuw jar) is an occasion of much good feeling and hospitality, come down to the present generation from their Dutch forefathers.

No other city in the Union ever aims at the like general interchange of visits. Cakes, wines and punch abound in every house; and, from morning till night, houses are open to receive the calls of acquaintances, and to pass the mutual salutations of a "happy new year," &c. It was the general practice of families in middle life to spin and make much of their domestic wear at home.

Short gowns and petticoats were the general in-door dresses. Young women who dressed gay, to go abroad to visit, or to church, never failed to take off that dress, and put on their home-made, as soon as they got home; even on Sunday evenings, when they expected company, or even their beaux, it was their best recommendation to seem thus frugal, and ready for any domestic avocation. The boys and young men of a family always changed their dress for a common dress in the same way. There was no custom of offering drink to their guests; when punch was offered, it was in great bowls.

Dutch dances were very common; the supper on such occasions was a pot of chocolate and bread. The Rev. Dr. Laidlie, who arrived in 1764, did much to preach them into disuse. He was very exact in his piety, and was the first minister of the Dutch Reformed Church who was called to preach in the English language. The negroes used to dance in the markets, where they used tom-toms, horns, &C., for music. They used often to sell negro slaves at the coffee-house. All marriages had to be published beforehand, three weeks at the churches, or else, to avoid that, they had to purchase a license of the governor, a seemingly singular surveillance for a great military chief. We may presume he cared little for the fact, beyond his fee.

Before the Revolution, tradesmen of good repute worked hard; there were none, as masters, mere lookers-on; they hardly expected to be rich; their chief concern, in summer, was to make enough ahead to lay up carefully for a living in severe winter. Wood was even a serious concern to such, when only 2s. 6d. to 3s. a load. None of the stores or tradesmen's shops then aimed at any rivalry, as now. There were no glaring allurements at windows, no over-reaching sign, no big bulk windows; they were content to sell things at honest profits, and to trust to an earned reputation for their share of business. It was the Englishmen from Britain who brought in the painted glass and display. They also brought in the use of open shops at night, an expensive and needless service, for who sells more in day and night, where all are competitors, than they would in one day, if all were closed at night? In former days, the same class who applied diligently in business hours, were accustomed to close their shops and stores at an early hour, and to go abroad for exercise and recreation, or to gardens, &c. All was done on foot, for chaises and horses were few.

The candidates for the Assembly, usually from the city, kept open houses in each ward for one week, producing much excitement among those who thought more of the regale than the public weal.

Physicians in that day were moderate in their charges, although their personal labor was great. They had to make all their calls on foot, none thought of riding. Drs. Baylie and McKnight, when old, were the first who are remembered as riding to their patients. Dr. Attwood is remembered as the physician who had the hardihood to proclaim himself as a man midwife; it was deemed a scandal to some delicate ears, and Mrs. Grany Brown, with her fees of two or three dollars, was still deemed the choice of all who thought women should be modest.

Moving day was, as now, the first of May from time immemorial. They held no fairs, but they often went to the Philadelphia fairs, once celebrated. At the New Year and Christmas festivals, it was the custom to go out to the ice on Beekman's and such like swamps, to shoot at turkeys; every one paid a price for his shot, as at a mark, and if he hit it so as to draw blood, it was his for a New Year or Christmas dinner. A fine subject this for Dr. Laidlie's preaching and reformation. At funerals, the Dutch gave hot wine in winter, and in summer they gave wine sangaree. I have noticed a singular custom among Dutch families, a father gives a bundle of goose quills to a son, telling hime to give one to each of his male posterity.

I saw one in the possession of Mr. James Bogert, which had a scroll appended, saying: "This quill, given by Petrus Byranck to James Bogert, in 1789, was a present, in 1689, from his grandfather, from Holland."

It is now deemed a rule of high life in New York, that ladies should not attend funerals; it was not always so. Having been surprised at the change, and not being aware of any sufficient reason why females should have an exemption from personal attention to departed friends, from which their male relatives could not, I have been curious to inquire into the facts in the case. I find that females among the Friends attend funerals, and also among some other religious communities. I have been well assured that, before the Revolution, the genteelest families had ladies to their funerals, and especially if it was a female's. On such occasions, "burnt wine" was handed about in tankards, often of silver. On one occasion, the case of the wife of Daniel Phoenix, the City Treasurer, all the pallbearers were ladies, and this fact occurred since the Revolution.

Many aged persons have spoken to me of the former delightful practice of families sitting out on their "stoops," in the shades of the evening, and there saluting the passing friends, or talking across the narrow streets with neighbors. It was one of the grand links of union in the Knickerbocker social compact. It endeared and made social neighbors made intercourse on easy terms. It was only to say come, sit down. It helped the young to easy introductions, and made courtships of readier attainment. I give some facts to illustrate the above remarks, deduced from the family of B__, with which I am personally acquainted. It shows primitive Dutch manners. His grandfather died at the age of sixty-three, in 1782, holding the office of alderman eleven years, and once chosen mayor and declined. Such a man, in easy circumstances in life, following the true Dutch ton, had all his family to breakfast, all the year round, at day-light. Before the breakfast, he universally smoked his pipe. His family always dined at twelve exactly.; At that time, the kettle was invariably set on the fire for tea, of Bohea, which was always as punctually furnished at three o'clock. Then the old people went abroad, on purpose to visit relatives, changing the families each night in succession, over and over again, all the year round. The regale at every such house was expected, as matter of course, to be chocolate supper and soft waffles. Afterward, when green tea came in as a new luxury, loaf-sugar also came with it; this was broken in large lumps, and laid severally by each cup, and was nibbled or bitten, as needed. The family before referred to actually continued the practice till as late as seventeen years ago, with a steady determination in the patriarch to resist the modern innovation of dissolved sugar while he lived.

Besides the foregoing facts, I have had them abundantly confirmed by others. While they occupied the stoops in the evening, you could see, every here and there, an old Knickerbocker, with his long pipe, fuming away his cares, and ready on any occasion, to offer another for the use of any passing friend who would sit down and join him. The ideal picture has every lineament of contented comfort and cheerful repose, something much more composed and happy than the bustling anxiety of over-business "in the moderns."

The cleanliness of Dutch housewifery was always extreme; everything had to submit to scrubbing and scouring; dirt in no form could be endured by them, and, as water was in the city, where it was generally sold, still it was in perpetual requisition. It was their honest pride to see a well-furnished dresser, showing copper and pewter in shining splendor, as if for ornament, rather than for use. In all this they widely differed from the Germans, a people with whom they have been erroneously and often confounded. Roost-fowls and ducks are not more different; as water draws one, it repels the other. It was common in families then to cleanse their own chimneys, without the aid of hired sweeps, and all tradesmen, &c. were accustomed to saw their own fuel. No man in middle circumstances of life ever scrupled to carry home his one hundred weight of meal from the market; it would have been his shame to have avoided it. A greater change in the state of society cannot be named than that of hired persons.

Hired women, from being formerly lowly in dress, wearing short gowns of green baize, and petticoats of linsey-woolsey, and receiving but half a dollar a week, have, since they have trebled that wages, got to all the pride and vanity of showing out to strangers as well-dressed ladies. The cheapness of foreign finery gives them the ready means of wasting all their wages in decorations. So true it is, that the Quarterly Review has preserved one fact of menial impudence, in the case of the New York girl, telling her mistress, before her guest, "the more you ring, the more I won't come."

General La Fayette, too, left us a compliment of dubious import, on his late formal entree at New York, when, seeing such crowds of well-dressed people, and no remains of such as he had seen in the period of the Revolution, a people whose dress was adapted to their condition he exclaimed, "But where is the people?" emphatically meaning, where is the useful class of citizens, the hewers of wood and drawers of water. Before the Revolution, all men who worked in any employ, always wore his leathern apron before him, never took it off to go in the street, and never had on a long coat. We are glad to witness the rise of new feelings among the Dutch descendants, tending to cherish, by anniversary remembrances, the love and reverence they owe their sires. For this object, as they have "banding day," they resort tot heir tutelary protector, Saint Nicholas, on such occasions decorating themselves, or hall, with orange-colored ribbons, and inscribing "Oranje Boven," and garnishing their tables with "Malck and suppawn, with sullities," and their hands with long-stemmed pipes. We are sorry we do not know the history, better than we do, of a Saint so popular as he is, with only his name of St. Claes to help him. He seems to be the most merry and jocose in all the calendar. The boys all welcome him as "the bountiful Saint Nick," and as "D Palrom Van Kindervieugd"_i.e., the patron of childerous joy. All we know from Knickerbocker, is what the figure of Hudson Guede Vrouw represented him, as attired in a low-brimmed hat, a large pair of Flemish Trunk-hose, and a very long pipe. In 1765 the best families in New York entered into certain sumptuary laws, to restrain the usual expenses and pomp of funerals.

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Website: The History
Article Name: Manners and Customs Among the Dutch In Early New York City
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: From my collection of books: Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York by D.T.Valentine 1853
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