Comic History of the United States - Bill Nye

Contrasts with the Present Day

Here it may be well to speak briefly of the contrast between the usages and customs of the period preceding the Revolution, and the present day. Some of these customs and regulations have improved with the lapse of time, others undoubtedly have not.

Two millions of people constituted the entire number of whites, while away to the westward the red brother extended indefinitely. Religiously they were Protestants, and essentially they were "a God-fearing people." Taught to obey a power they were afraid of, they naturally turned with delight to the service of a God whose genius in the erection of a boundless and successful hell challenged their admiration and esteem. So, too, their own executions of Divine laws were successful as they gave pain, and the most beautiful features of Christianity,—namely, love and charity,—according to history, were not cultivated very much.

There were in New England at one time twelve offences punishable with death, and in Virginia seventeen. This would indicate that the death-penalty is getting unpopular very fast, and that in the contiguous future humane people will wonder why murder should have called for murder, in this brainy, charitable, and occult age, in which man seems almost able to pry open the future and catch a glimpse of Destiny underneath the great tent that has heretofore held him off by means of death's prohibitory rates.

[Illustration] from Comic History of the U.S.A. by Bill Nye


In Hartford people had to get up when the town watchman rang his bell. The affairs of the family, and private matters too numerous to mention, were regulated by the selectmen. The catalogues of Harvard and Yale were regulated according to the standing of the family as per record in the old country, and not as per bust measurement and merit, as it is to-day.

Scolding women, however, were gagged and tied to their front doors, so that the populace could bite its thumb at them, and hired girls received fifty dollars a year, with the understanding that they were not to have over two days out each week, except Sun day and the days they had to go and see their "sick sisters."

Some cloth-weaving was indulged in, and homespun was the principal material used for clothing. Mrs. Washington had sixteen spinning-wheels in her house. Her husband often wore homespun while at home, and on rainy days sometimes placed a pair of home-made trousers of the barn-door variety in the Presidential chair.

Money was very scarce, and ammunition very valuable. In 1635 musket-balls passed for farthings, and to see a New England peasant making change with the red brother at thirty yards was a common and delightful scene.

The first press was set up in Cambridge in 1639, with the statement that it "had come to stay." Books printed in those days were mostly sermons filled with the most comfortable assurance that the man who let loose his intellect and allowed it to disbelieve some very difficult things would be essentially——well, I hate to say right here in a book what would happen to him.

[Illustration] from Comic History of the U.S.A. by Bill Nye


The first daily paper, called The Federal Orrery, was issued three hundred years after Columbus discovered America. It was not popular, and killed off the news-boys who tried to call it on the streets: so it perished.

There was a public library in New York, from which books were loaned at fourpence ha'penny per week. New York thus became very early the seat of learning, and soon afterwards began to abuse the site where Chicago now stands.

Travel was slow, the people went on horseback or afoot, and when they could go by boat it was regarded as a success. Wagons finally made the trip from New York to Philadelphia in the wild time of forty-eight hours, and the line was called The Flying Dutchman, or some other euphonious name. Benjamin Franklin, whose biography occurs in Chapter XV., was then Postmaster-General.

He was the first bald-headed man of any prominence in the history of America. He and his daughter Sally took a trip in a chaise, looking over the entire system, and going to all offices. Nothing pleased the Postmaster-General like quietly slipping into a place like Sandy Bottom and catching the postmaster reading over the postal cards and committing them to memory.

Calfskin shoes up to the Revolution were the exclusive property of the gentry, and the rest wore cowhide and were extremely glad to mend them themselves. These were greased every week with tallow, and could be worn on either foot with impunity. Rights and lefts were never thought of until after the Revolutionary War, but to-day the American shoe is the most symmetrical, comfortable, and satisfactory shoe made in the world. The British shoe is said to be more comfortable. Possibly for a British foot it is so, but for a foot containing no breathing-apparatus or viscera it is somewhat roomy and clumsy.

[Illustration] from Comic History of the U.S.A. by Bill Nye


Farmers and laborers of those days wore green or red baize in the shape of jackets, and their breeches were made of leather or bed-ticking. Our ancestors dressed plainly, and a man who could not make over two hundred pounds per year was prohibited from dressing up or wearing lace worth over two shillings per yard. It was a pretty sad time for literary men, as they were thus compelled to wear clothing like the common laborers.

Lord Cornwallis once asked his aidy kong why the American poet always had such an air of listening as if for some expected sound. "I give it up," retorted the aidy kong. "It is," said Lord Cornwallis, as he took a large drink from a jug which he had tied to his saddle, "because he is trying to see if he cannot hear his bed-ticking." On the following day he surrendered his army, and went home to spring his bon-mot on George III.

Yet the laws were very stringent in other respects besides apparel. A man was publicly whipped for killing a fowl on the Sabbath in New England. In order to keep a tavern and sell rum, one had to be of good moral character and possess property, which was a good thing. The names of drunkards were posted up in the alehouses, and the keepers forbidden to sell them liquor. No person under twenty years of age could use tobacco in Connecticut without a physician's order, and no one was allowed to use it more than once a day, and then not within ten miles of any house. It was a common thing to see large picnic-parties going out into the backwoods of Connecticut to smoke.

(Will the reader excuse me a moment while I light up a peculiarly black and redolent pipe?)

[Illustration] from Comic History of the U.S.A. by Bill Nye


Only the gentry were called Mr. and Mrs. This included the preacher and his wife. A friend of mine who is one of the gentry of this century got on the trail of his ancestry last spring, and traced them back to where they were not allowed to be called Mr. and Mrs., and, fearing he would fetch up in Scotland Yard if he kept on, he slowly unrolled the bottoms of his trousers, got a job on the railroad, and since then his friends are gradually returning to him. He is well pleased now, and looks humbly gratified even if you call him a gent.

The Scriptures were literally interpreted, and the Old Testament was read every morning, even if the ladies fainted.

The custom yet noticed sometimes in country churches and festive gatherings of placing the males and females on opposite sides of the room was originated not so much as a punishment to both, as to give the men an opportunity to act together when the red brother felt ill at ease.

I am glad the red brother does not molest us nowadays, and make us sit apart that way. Keep away, red brother; remain on your reservation, please, so that the pale-face may sit by the loved one and hold her little soft hand during the sermon.

Church services meant business in those days. People brought their dinners and had a general penitential gorge. Instrumental music was proscribed, as per Amos fifth chapter and twenty-third verse, and the length of prayer was measured by the physical endurance of the performer.

The preacher often boiled his sermon down to four hours, and the sexton up-ended the hourglass each hour. Boys who went to sleep in church were sand-bagged, and grew up to be border murderers.

New York people were essentially Dutch. New York gets her Santa Claus, her doughnuts, crullers, cookies, and many of her odors, from the Dutch. The New York matron ran to fine linen and a polished door-knocker, while the New England housewife spun linsey-woolsey and knit "yarn mittens" for those she loved.

Philadelphia was the largest city in the United States, and was noted for its cleanliness and generally sterling qualities of mind and heart, its Sabbath trance and clean white door-steps.

The Southern Colonies were quite different from those of the North. In place of thickly-settled towns there were large plantations with African villages near the house of the owner. The proprietor was a sort of country squire, living in considerable comfort for those days. He fed and clothed everybody, black or white, who lived on the estate, and waited patiently for the colored people to do his work and keep well, so that they would be more valuable. The colored people were blessed with children at a great rate, so that at this writing, though voteless, they send a large number of members to Congress. This cheers the Southern heart and partially recoups him for his chickens. (See Appendix.)

The South then, as now, cured immense quantities of tobacco, while the North tried to cure those who used it.

Washington was a Virginian. He packed his own flour with his own hands, and it was never inspected. People who knew him said that the only man who ever tried to inspect Washington's flour was buried under a hill of choice watermelons at Mount Vernon.

Along the James and Rappahannock the vast estates often passed from father to son according to the law of entail, and such a thing as a poor man "prior to the war" must have been unknown.

[Illustration] from Comic History of the U.S.A. by Bill Nye


Education, however, flourished more at the North, owing partly to the fact that the people lived more in communities. Governor Berkeley of Virginia was opposed to free schools from the start, and said, "I thank God there are no free schools nor printing-presses here, and I hope we shall not have them these hundred years." His prayer has been answered.