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The People Of Society In The Colonial Era

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Social lines were very strongly marked, the intensely aristocratic make-up of the town being in striking contrast to the democratic equality typical of a young American city of the same size nowadays. The manorial lords stood first in rank and influence, and in the respect universally accorded them. They lived at ease in the roomy mansions on their great tenant-farmed estates; and they also usually owned fine houses in either New York or Albany, and sometimes in both. Their houses were really extremely comfortable, and were built with a certain stately simplicity of style which contrasted very favorably with the mean or pretentious architecture of most New York buildings dating back to the early or middle portions of the present century. They were filled with many rooms, wherein a host of kinsmen, friends, and retainers might dwell; and they had great halls, broad verandas, heavy mahogany railed staircases, and huge open fireplaces, which in winter were crammed with roaring logs. The furniture was handsome, but stiff and heavy; the books were few; and there were masses of silver plate on the sideboards of the large dining-rooms. The gentry carried swords, and dressed in the artificial, picturesque fashion of the English upper classes; whereas the commonalty went about their work in smocks or leather aprons.

 Near Trinity Church was the "mall," or promenade for the fashionable set of the little colonial town. By an unwritten law none but the members of the ruling class used it; and no fine afternoons it was filled with a gaily dressed throng of young men and pretty girls, the latter attended by their negro waiting maids. Prominent in the crowd, were the scarlet coats of the officers from the English regiments, constantly quartered in New York because of the recurring French wars. The owners of these coats moved with an air of easy metropolitan superiority, a certain insolently patronizing condescension, which always awakened both the admiration and the jealous anger of the provincial aristocrats. 1 The leading colonial families stood on the same social plane with the English country gentlemen of wealth, and were often connected by marriage with the English nobility; but they could never forget and were never permitted by their English friends to forget that after all they were nothing but provincials, and that provincials could not stand quite on an equality with the old world people.

The New York gentry, both of town and country, were fond of horse-racing, and kept many well-bred horses. They drove out in chariots or huge clumsy coaches with their coats of arms blazoned on the panels, the ship of the Livingston's, the lance of the De Lanceys, the burning castle of the Morrises, and the other armorial bearings of the families of note being known to all men throughout the province. On a journey the gentry either went by water in their own sloops or else in these coaches, with liveried postilions and outriders; and when one of the manorial lords came to town, his approach always caused much excitement, the negroes, children, and white work-people gathering to gaze at the lumbering, handsomely painted coach, drawn by four huge Flemish horses, the owner sitting inside with powdered wig and cocked hat, scarlet or somber velvet coat, and silver hilted sword. In the town itself sedan chairs were in common use.

 There was a little theater where performances were given, now by a company of professional actors, and again by the officers of the garrison regiments; and to these performances as well as to the balls and other merrymakings the ladies sometimes went in chariots or sedan chairs and sometimes on their own daintily shod feet. The people of note usually sent their negro servants, each dressed in the livery of his master, in advance to secure good seats. There was much dancing and frolicking, besides formal dinners and picnics; sailing parties, and in winter skating parties and long sleigh rides were favorite amusements; all classes took part eagerly in the shooting matches. The dinners were rather heavy entertainments, with much solemn toast-drinking; and they often ended with boisterous conviviality,-for most of the men drank hard, and prided themselves on their wine cellars. Christmas and New Year's day were great festivals, the latter being observed in Dutch fashion,-the gentlemen calling at all the houses of their acquaintance, where they feasted and drank wine. Another Dutch festival of universal observance was Pinkster, held in the springide. It grew to be especially the negroes' day, all of the blacks of the city and neighboring country gathering to celebrate it. There was a great fair, with merrymaking and games of all kinds on the Common, where the City Hall park now is; while the whites also assembled to look on, and sometimes to take part in the fun. Most of the house servants were negro slaves.


Website: The History
Article Name: The People of Society In The Colonial Era
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: *Permission has been granted to by to use an excerpt from Chapter 8 of the book "A Sketch of the City's Social, Political, and Commercial Progress from the First Dutch Settlement to Recent Times" by Theodore Roosevelt, 1906
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