After the Sun Went Down
Barbara Krasner-Khait describes early 19th-century nights.
WE HAVE ALL HEARD Ben Franklin’s famous maxim “Early to bed and early to rise. . . .” While it may have made a man healthy, wealthy, and wise, it begged the question: what else was there to do at night?
As early 19th-century American society progressed from agrarianism to industrialism, nighttime activities — once dictated by lighting and access to it — were redefined. People in the early 1800s witnessed the advancement and benefited from it. They told of their nighttime rituals and events in first-person accounts and through contemporary literature.
Buried in darkness, the household contracted at night into a dim visual world where life centered around the hearth’s flickering and warming flames. Activities were limited to those that didn’t require the best vision. After a long, hard day, family members communed into their intimate circle, their sole opportunity to relax and socialize. There were songs. Women mended or knitted. They had to be careful about reading — a book or paper could easily catch fire from the fireplace or by holding a candle so close to it. Elders told stories and reminisced about the good old days.
The dim light created an inviting ambiance for storytelling. One view of such a scene comes from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, “Another of Ichabod Crane’s fearful pleasures was to pass long winter evenings with the old Dutch wives as they sat spinning by the fire, with a row of apples roasting and spluttering along the hearth, and listen to their marvelous tales of ghosts and goblins...”
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of a family gathered around the hearth in his 1835 short story, The Ambitious Guest, “And here the teamster, on his way to the Portland market, would put up for the night; and, if a bachelor, might sit an hour beyond the usual bedtime, and steal a kiss from the mountain maid at parting. It was one of those primitive taverns where the traveler pays only for food and lodging, but meets with a homely kindness beyond all price.” The youngest children were put to bed in a separate room, but managed to peek out from underneath the covers to at least passively participate in the fireside chat. They could still see Grandmother knitting, secure in the warmest spot around the fire.
Perils of the Dark
While the family made themselves cozy by the fire, the prevailing darkness outside the house was foreboding. Says Jack Larkin, Director of Research and Collections at Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, Massachusetts, “Remember how close the sky was in pre-industrial times. People got lost at night; it was quite frightening.”
Road signs or guideposts at intersections were required by law to be painted white with black lettering so travelers could read them at night.
Night watchmen kept the vigil and proclaimed safety in the streets. But city streets were perilous. Staying out after dark meant the possibility of coming face-to-face with thieves and other unsavory characters. Street lighting was a very welcome advance, for with it came reduction in crime. The first gaslights were developed in the 1830s in Philadelphia, though these were very expensive.
Beyond the Feeble Light
Harriet Beecher Stowe used the phrase “a feeble circle of light” to describe the nighttime light that emanated from the household’s single tallow candle, the only illumination in the house besides that of the fireplace. But as time went on, Americans moved beyond the feeble light. Farm families, who were still making candles themselves, had an extra one or two on hand by the 1830s. And the fast growing whaling industry introduced a new “dusk” so to speak. It produced precious whale oil, the fuel that made it possible for oil lamps to light up city and village homes by 1810.
Americans wanted to, and now could, stay up later. With greater illumination, evening activities became far easier to manage. Reading and work became easier. In cities, theaters and taverns sprang up to take advantage of illuminated later hours. Church meetings began to be held at night, beginning with the evangelistic revivals of the 1820s, followed by Sunday or Wednesday evening sessions in the 1830s and 1840s.
Argand lights, designed by Swiss chemist Aime Argand in 1784, were first introduced in 1798 and still frighteningly dark by our standards, cast a glow of some 20-30 candles in the 1820s and 1830s. An Argand light was a tall glass chimney that enclosed a large tubular wick. Draught allowed into the chimney fanned the flame, producing a much brighter light.
The degree of illumination became a sign of wealth. To have every room illuminated was the ultimate demonstration. As whale oil became less expensive, more people had access to different social and professional lifestyles.
The Social Life
Not every evening was spent around the kitchen fireplace nor fully dependent upon advances in illumination. Americans had spiritual and social needs that were met outside the confines of the home.
A young female mill worker in Lowell, Massachusetts described Shaker life in an 1841 letter: “And not until nine o’clock in the evening were the labors of the day closed, and the people assembled at their religious meetings.” The letter also spoke of “union meetings” arranged as social visits to acquaint people with one another. Just after nine o’clock was when work was put aside, the female members sat along one row of chairs, directly facing a row of males with spitboxes in between them. They talked about “raising sheep and kine, herbs and vegetables, building walls and raising corn, heating the oven and pearing apples, killing rats and gathering nuts, spinning tow and weaving sieves, making preserves and mending brethren’s clothes, — in short, every thing they do will afford some little conversation.” These sessions lasted 30-45 minutes. A bell then rang to signal the end and each member returned to his or her chamber.
In 1824 British immigrant Joseph Pickering, newly arrived in Baltimore, wrote in Inquiries of an Emigrant of his attendance at a large Methodist meeting the evening after Christmas: “The male part of the audience on one side of the meeting, and the female on the other, no pews, but long enclosed seats from one end to the other of the gallery, and below, from the aisles to the sides, and across between them . . . the floors most disgustingly dirty from the effects of tobacco; more than half the males of the age of 14 chew tobacco; and boys of 10 or 12 years may often be seen smoking a cigar.”
When the Boys Meet the Girls
Too busy during the day for social activities, young people looked forward to dances, balls, sleighriding, and skating in the evening. Says Larkin, “Young people were far from closely supervised; they stayed out till 2:00, 5:00 in the morning.” According to one account from Lowell, Massachusetts: “Now we cannot conceive a more pleasant amusement for a clear, cold, frosty winter night, than for a bevy of brave young men and fair young maids to go out, when the sparkling stars and brilliant moon are glittering upon the icicled trees and snow-crusted earth and taking some snow-sleds...”
Merrymaking and Parties
Irving wrote: “He came clattering up to the school door with an invitation to Ichabod to attend a merrymaking or ‘quilting frolic’ to be held that evening at Mynheer Van Tassel’s . . . When the dance was at an end, Ichabod was attracted to a knot of the sager folks, who, with old Van Tassel, sat smoking at one end of the piazza, gossiping over former times, and drawing out long stories about the war.”
Pickering described Christmas night in 1824, “I was pressed to one [party] in the evening with the captain and his wife, a number of fine females and their beaus present; the time was spent with a variety of plays, singing songs, playing on the piano, eating cake, drinking toddy, peach brandy, &c., quite a sociable party, the female part easy and apparently unaffected; broke up early by the request of our host, the next day being Sunday.”
Taverns and Vices
According to Larkin, the tavern was the most important gateway to the primarily male world of drink and disorder, one that encompassed much that was rough-edged and riotous, sometimes cruel and violent. The tavern was the mainstay of a man’s social life, especially before 1830.
Hard drinking, hard smoking, gaming, fighting — all were the purview of the tavern, whether in the city or in the country.
Rum, whiskey, and gin were on-hand for evening events, whether it be a “frolic” or casual get-together of just a few neighbors, warming both men and women on those long, cold, winter nights. In general, women drank less heavily than men as they were more likely to become inebriated by hard cider or alcohol-rich tonics and elixirs.
But by the 1820s the American standard drunkenness began its demise. The American Temperance Society was formed in 1826. Temperance was strongest in New England and decidedly weaker in the south. Taverns became less numerous and had less impact on the community’s social life. By the 1840s, anti-liquor sentiment redefined social activity. Gaming, gambling — all those pastimes connected to the tavern and drinking — became less prominent.