Friday, February 17, 2012

David Macrae Visits America in 1868 and Writes a Book

In 1868, David Macrae, a Scotsman, came to visit North America. He traveled through Canada, down the eastern seaboard, and across to New Orleans. He then took a steamboat to St. Louis, finally reaching Chicago. His thoughts and sketches were made into a book which sold in Europe but not in the United States. The book “The Americans At Home” can be purchased at or viewed on the Internet.

He thought that Americans were quite boastful to the point of it becoming a national characteristic. Each state appeared to claim that, in the Civil War, it made a greater sacrifice than any other state. “The soldiers of each state were braver and bigger, won more battles, and filled more graves that those of any other state.”  This was just three years after the Great War had ended. Here are some other thoughts from his book.

Philadelphia bragged it had the straightest streets and the largest orphanage in America. New Orleans had the “smoothest drives and the biggest river trade.” Milwaukee had the “best bricks;” New York, the largest population and the finest parks. Boston had the best schools and the “biggest pipe organ.” Chicago had the biggest saints, the biggest sinners, and the biggest pig killing establishments in America. He called Chicago “The Lightning City” because of its amazing growth. Just forty years before he had arrived, Indians had roamed the area. In 1830, there were four taverns, one merchant, one butcher and four Indian traders. In 1868, the population had soared to 300,000. Some of the streets were 7 to 8 miles long and 7,000,000 passengers annually rode on the street railways.

Before coming here, he envisioned that the American lady was a “dry, hard, angular, disagreeably independent, strong-minded female.” He said, he soon discovered that it was not true. He found, to his delight, that American women were in prominent and public positions. In New Jersey he found a lady “Doctoress.” by the name of Fowler, who was a public physician. He heard Miss Anna Dickinson give a public lecture. “In Massachusetts, I saw a female clergyman (clergywoman, I should say), the Rev. Olympia Brown.”

Finally, he said: “American women, as a rule, are just as gentle, as kind, as agreeable, as affectionate, and as lovely as our own.” He did think that American girls were generally too pale and thin and they were always trying to gain weight. One young lady said to him, “I have gained eighteen pounds in flesh since last April.” He reported that every girl knew her weight and was able to give that within ounces. “One of the first things done with a baby when it is born seems to be to hurry it into a pair of scales and have its weight duly registered. It continues to be weighed at short intervals all through its childhood . . . ” This may have also changed a little.

He wrote about the paleness of American women and wanted to blame that on the climate. However, he came to the conclusion that New England girls were pale because of “too much metaphysics, hot bread and pie.”  Every time he sat down to dinner in America there were pies - even in a poor man’s house. Not just one kind of pie but several kinds. “Pie seems indispensable. Take anything away, but leave the pie. American can stand the prohibition of intoxicating drinks; but I believe the prohibition of pie would precipitate a revolution.” (One of our readers in Washington, D.C. will appreciate these comments about pie.)

He made a lot of comments about New York City, especially the “shocking condition of the streets.” He observed that the dirtiest streets of London or Glasgow were “like a drawing-room floor compared with the streets of New York on a slushy day.” Crossing Broadway, he had to “tuck up his pants and wade.” He thought that if the condition worsened, the city would have to establish ferries at all their principal crossings.  (I am sure that has now also changed)

In 1868, he said the population of New York was nearly 2 million which included Brooklyn. The “Scotch” numbered only about 20,000. Most of them were prosperous and had risen to positions of influence and wealth. They did not organize themselves into a political party as did the Irish or Germans. “The Irish make a profession of politics, throw themselves with all the ardour of their race into the political arena, and almost monopolize the public offices.” With corruption abounding in New York, he did not think the results were very flattering.

I find the book very interesting and well written with a measure of sarcasm as well. Perhaps, he was a student of Robert Burns, who was the master of sarcasm. There is an entire chapter on George H. Stuart and the Christian Commission that was active during the Civil War. He spent an evening with Alexander Williamson who had tutored the Lincoln children in the White House and whose son had witnessed the assassination at Ford’s Theater. He met with General Grant and President Johnson. There is also a chapter about Chicago which I will use for a future blog. If you want a first hand view of America in 1868, you might enjoy this book.

Wayne Rethford, President
Scottish American History Club

History Club meets March 3, 2012. Our speaker will be Rob Knuepfer, Jr. who is well known to Rotarians in this area. Paul Harris, founder of Rotary International had some very special connections to Scotland. A visit to his grave will be part of our history tour on March 31.

HISTORY TOUR - March 31. The charter bus will leave the Scottish Home at 9:30 a.m. for the Auditorium Theater. We will be given a tour of the Theater, its past, present and future. It should be a very interesting tour of a Chicago landmark. Somewhere along the way, we will have a box lunch and then visit Mount Hope cemetery. Reservations are now being taken. Cost is $22.50 per person. Call or send an email.

History Club meeting in April is canceled.

1 comment:

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