Olden Times: Life in Brooklyn a Century Ago

 The address of the evening was by Judah B. Voorhees upon "The Habits, Customs and manners of the Olden Times." The speaker was listened to with the closest of attention throughout. He said:

We now live in a prosperous era. Evidences of great progress and accompanying wealth, coupled with luxury abound on all sides. The municipality in which we live is a marvel of rapid development. Within three score years it has grown from a little village or hamlet of a few hundred houses to the third city of the Union. Our citizens, as well as the Society of Old Brooklynites, are proud of the fact and desirous of advancing her to a still more commanding position among the cities of the United States. Amid the strife of business we have but little time for reviewing the past. And yet a glance backward at those early days, which many of us here assembled remember in our youth, form what to us is the past of the Brooklyn of today and will affjord most gratifying recompense in the testimony it will afford as to the simplicity of the habits, manners and customs of our thrifty progenitors, no matter from what country they emigrated, and who made it possible for us to enjoy the comforts which surround us today. Compare them with the ways of our times and the comparison will be of unusual interest to those now present.

Let us go back about a century to the days when Brueckelin was a little hamlet clustered around the Fulton Ferry. Beyond its limited confines were farms extending to the boundary lines of Kings County. Most of the inhabitants of the thriving village and adjoining farmers were the direct descendants of hardy, fearless Hollanders who loved liberty and tiring of the thralldom of despotism, had landed in this country, not by force, but with the implements of husbandry. These early settlers were not criminals seeking refuge from the punishment which their lawlessness at home merited and which our laws at the present day wink at. Nor were they speculators intent upon forming combinations or trusts in the necessaries of life. Still less was it their object to speculate in gold and silver and thus amass immense fortunes, which many do at the present day. They sought freedom.

The story of the great American continent had charmed them in their homes beyond the sea and they came to honestly strive for the plenty, which was said to exist here. They were men and women of conscience whose love of principle and unswerving devotion to liberty helped to give us the best form of government in the world and now enjoyed by a people who represent every nation on the face of the earth, as was illustrated by the Centennial celebration of 1876 at Philadelphia and the recent Centennial celebration in New York, in which city a President was inaugurated one hundred years ago. If we could look back and see the noble band of pilgrims who first landed on our shores and see how they braved the horrors of the deep rather than submit tot he tyranny of foreign potentates on account of their views, and settled in a wilderness surrounded by savages, and see the progress they made in this country previous to the adoption of the Constitution, which has now been in existence for upward of a century, and see what few old Dutch habits, manners and customs now exist in our midst.

While in Holland, the home of some of our ancestors, last year I was greatly amused by observing their manners, habits and customs, as well as the cleanliness of their homes, and also of the large cities which I then visited. men, women and children in the rural district never entered their home with their shoes on; they were always left on the outside. The good housewife never allowed any dust or dirt to accumulate and were models of neatness. History has but little to say of the customs and habits of these settlers of two centuries ago, but doubtless Brooklyn's residents sixty or seventy years ago preserved much the same customs as their ancestors. This much, however, is known: the prevalent language spoken in the family was that of Holland. The fashionable fads of today were unknown. There were then no noonday calls, the duties of housewife and mother kept them in their homes instead of visiting those of others. There were no parties, turning night into day, and the resonant strains of "We Won't go Home Until Morning" disturbed not the peaceful atmosphere of early dawn, as they arose from the throats of homeward bound revelers laboring under the effects of bad whisky. Thousands of dollars were not lavished on balls, in gilded halls where the rarest delicacies loaded the supper tables and choicest champagnes washed them down. No theater parties, clad in the purple and fine linen of the day, sat in boxes to display their charms, diamonds, or exhibit the skill of tailors and modistes. There was no vencer of hypocrisy upon the social intercourse of those early times.

All the people were as one family. The wives would call upon their neighbors in the afternoon, bringing some light sewing or knitting with them, and spending the afternoon in gossip. They would be joined in the evening by their lords and masters. A bounteous table would be spread with solid, substantial food, and partaken of with zest, for dyspepsia was unknown to the partakers. The evening was spent amid song and story, and occasionally dancing was indulged in until about 10 o'clock, when good night was said. There was no ceremony then, but genial, whole souled hospitality. The tea party of the time was simple and unostentatious, the invited were verbally asked. One did not receive an expensive card with some letters in the corner, calling for a formal acceptance. No elaborate hand painted menu was to be found upon the festive board. A fortune was not exemplified in the plate, which bore the luxuries for the palate, and the house was not turned into a conservatory of rare flowers and exotics, no colored lackey opened the door for the guests. There were none of these meaningless ceremonials, but in its stead genuine, unaffected friendship. Wit and humor replaced the stilted compliments of our times, and it was not unfashionable to enjoy a hearty laugh. After the feast old and young joined in games and danced to the music of a violin, generally in the hands of a darky.

The fun was wholesome, the pleasure was indeed a relaxation after the day's toil. The notes from the fiddle kept the dancers' feet in motion just as well as the full bands of Cappa, Gilmore, Inness or Berstein do now. The ball rooms, such as they were at that time, then monopolized the dancing and the gentlemen subscribed a dollar or so each, to provide coaches for the ladies. The full dress of the male portion was double breasted swallow tail coat of blue cloth and brass buttons, with a rolling collar; ruffled blouses were also worn, and a vest and pantaloons of a color the same as the coat, with dancing pumps, completed the costume. You could then tell a guest from a waiter, not as now, when for one I cannot tell a guest from a waiter, except it may be that the clothes of the former are a little more dressy than those of the latter. As for the ladies their dresses were of inexpensive fabrics made in a simple style, by local dressmakers. No expensive costumes, imported from Paris, were known, and diamonds were likewise unknown. Simplicity ruled. And be it said that the matrons and maids were not a whit less attractive in those days than their costly robed sisters of the present day enforcing the poet's line "Beauty unadorned is adorned the most."

The youth of the family, male and female, were given a common school education, and, in addition, learned the mystery of sewing strips of old cloth together, preparatory to supplying a new rag carpet for some room in the house. Like the other youngsters of my childhood, I too remember my pound ball, which netted me the sum of 1 penny, a large coin, now obsolete. This hasty glance at some of the customs, habits and manners of the olden times, if it serve no other purpose, must impress upon our minds a saintary lesson of the efficacy of simplicity in life. it has shown us that moderate wealth, honesty and true brotherly love go hand in hand. Twenty and thirty acres and a few thousand dollars were productive of more comfort in life than is possible with a million now. It would be well if the people of today would take this lesson of the past to heart; the burdens of life would be appreciably lightened, and happiness would be far more easily attained.


Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Olden Times: Life in Brooklyn a Century Ago
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


Brooklyn Daily Eagle October 4, 1889
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