Through the Eye of the Needle
W. D. Howells
Part 1 out of 4
Produced by Suzanne Shell, Mary Musser, Charles Franks
and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
THROUGH THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE
WITH AN INTRODUCTION
W. D. HOWELLS
Aristides Homos, an Emissary of the Altrurian Commonwealth, visited the
United States during the summer of 1893 and the fall and winter
following. For some weeks or months he was the guest of a well-known
man of letters at a hotel in one of our mountain resorts; in the early
autumn he spent several days at the great Columbian Exhibition in
Chicago; and later he came to New York, where he remained until he
sailed, rather suddenly, for Altruria, taking the circuitous route by
which he came. He seems to have written pretty constantly throughout his
sojourn with us to an intimate friend in his own country, giving freely
his impressions of our civilization. His letters from New York appear to
have been especially full, and, in offering the present synopsis of these
to the American reader, it will not be impertinent to note certain
peculiarities of the Altrurian attitude which the temperament of the
writer has somewhat modified. He is entangled in his social sophistries
regarding all the competitive civilizations; he cannot apparently do full
justice to the superior heroism of charity and self-sacrifice as
practised in countries where people live _upon_ each other as the
Americans do, instead of _for_ each other as the Altrurians do; but
he has some glimmerings of the beauty of our living, and he has
undoubtedly the wish to be fair to our ideals. He is unable to value our
devotion to the spirit of Christianity amid the practices which seem to
deny it; but he evidently wishes to recognize the possibility of such a
thing. He at least accords us the virtues of our defects, and, among
the many visitors who have censured us, he has not seen us with his
censures prepared to fit the instances; in fact, the very reverse has
been his method.
Many of the instances which he fits with his censures are such as he
could no longer note, if he came among us again. That habit of
celebrating the munificence of the charitable rich, on which he spends
his sarcasm, has fallen from us through the mere superabundance of
occasion. Our rich people give so continuously for all manner of good
objects that it would be impossible for our press, however vigilant, to
note the successive benefactions, and millions are now daily bestowed
upon needy educational institutions, of which no mention whatever is made
in the newspapers. If a millionaire is now and then surprised in a good
action by a reporter of uncommon diligence, he is able by an appeal to
their common humanity to prevail with the witness to spare him the
revolting publicity which it must be confessed would once have followed
his discovery; the right hand which is full to overflowing is now as
skilled as the empty right hand in keeping the left hand ignorant of its
doings. This has happened through the general decay of snobbishness among
us, perhaps. It is certain that there is no longer the passion for a
knowledge of the rich, and the smart, which made us ridiculous to Mr.
Homos. Ten or twelve years ago, our newspapers abounded in intelligence
of the coming and going of social leaders, of their dinners and lunches
and teas, of their receptions and balls, and the guests who were bidden
to them. But this sort of unwholesome and exciting gossip, which was
formerly devoured by their readers with inappeasable voracity, is no
longer supplied, simply because the taste for it has wholly passed away.
Much the same might be said of the social hospitalities which raised our
visitor's surprise. For example, many people are now asked to dinner who
really need a dinner, and not merely those who revolt from the notion of
dinner with loathing, and go to it with abhorrence. At the tables of our
highest social leaders one now meets on a perfect equality persons of
interesting minds and uncommon gifts who would once have been excluded
because they were hungry, or were not in the hostess's set, or had not a
new gown or a dress-suit. This contributes greatly to the pleasure of the
time, and promotes the increasing kindliness between the rich and poor
for which our status is above all things notable.
The accusation which our critic brings that the American spirit has been
almost Europeanized away, in its social forms, would be less grounded in
the observance of a later visitor. The customs of good society must be
the same everywhere in some measure, but the student of the competitive
world would now find European hospitality Americanized, rather than.
American hospitality Europeanized. The careful research which has been
made into our social origins has resulted in bringing back many of the
aboriginal usages; and, with the return of the old American spirit of
fraternity, many of the earlier dishes as well as amenities have been
restored. A Thanksgiving dinner in the year 1906 would have been found
more like a Thanksgiving dinner in 1806 than the dinner to which Mr.
Homos was asked in 1893, and which he has studied so interestingly,
though not quite without some faults of taste and discretion. The
prodigious change for the better in some material aspects of our status
which has taken place in the last twelve years could nowhere be so well
noted as in the picture he gives us of the housing of our people in 1893.
His study of the evolution of the apartment-house from the old
flat-house, and the still older single dwelling, is very curious, and,
upon the whole, not incorrect. But neither of these last differed so
much from the first as the apartment-house now differs from the
apartment-house of his day. There are now no dark rooms opening on
airless pits for the family, or black closets and dismal basements for
the servants. Every room has abundant light and perfect ventilation, and
as nearly a southern exposure as possible. The appointments of the houses
are no longer in the spirit of profuse and vulgar luxury which it must be
allowed once characterized them. They are simply but tastefully finished,
they are absolutely fireproof, and, with their less expensive decoration,
the rents have been so far lowered that in any good position a quarter of
nine or ten rooms, with as many baths, can be had for from three thousand
to fifteen thousand dollars. This fact alone must attract to our
metropolis the best of our population, the bone and sinew which have no
longer any use for themselves where they have been expended in rearing
colossal fortunes, and now demand a metropolitan repose.
The apartments are much better fitted for a family of generous size than
those which Mr. Homos observed. Children, who were once almost unheard
of, and quite unheard, in apartment-houses, increasingly abound under
favor of the gospel of race preservation. The elevators are full of them,
and in the grassy courts round which the houses are built, the little
ones play all day long, or paddle in the fountains, warmed with
steam-pipes in the winter, and cooled to an agreeable temperature in a
summer which has almost lost its terrors for the stay-at-home New-Yorker.
Each child has his or her little plot of ground in the roof-garden, where
they are taught the once wellnigh forgotten art of agriculture.
The improvement of the tenement-house has gone hand in hand with that of
the apartment-house. As nearly as the rate of interest on the landlord's
investment will allow, the housing of the poor approaches in comfort that
of the rich. Their children are still more numerous, and the playgrounds
supplied them in every open space and on every pier are visited
constantly by the better-to-do children, who exchange with them lessons
of form and fashion for the scarcely less valuable instruction in
practical life which the poorer little ones are able to give. The rents
in the tenement houses are reduced even more notably than those in the
apartment-houses, so that now, with the constant increase in wages, the
tenants are able to pay their rents promptly. The evictions once so
common are very rare; it is doubtful whether a nightly or daily walk in
the poorer quarters of the town would develop, in the coldest weather,
half a dozen cases of families set out on the sidewalk with their
household goods about them.
The Altrurian Emissary visited this country when it was on the verge of
the period of great economic depression extending from 1894 to 1898, but,
after the Spanish War, Providence marked the divine approval of our
victory in that contest by renewing in unexampled measure the prosperity
of the Republic. With the downfall of the trusts, and the release of our
industrial and commercial forces to unrestricted activity, the condition
of every form of labor has been immeasurably improved, and it is now
united with capital in bonds of the closest affection. But in no phase
has its fate been so brightened as in that of domestic service. This has
occurred not merely through the rise of wages, but through a greater
knowledge between the employing and employed. When, a few years since, it
became practically impossible for mothers of families to get help from
the intelligence-offices, and ladies were obliged through lack of cooks
and chambermaids to do the work of the kitchen and the chamber and
parlor, they learned to realize what such work was, how poorly paid, how
badly lodged, how meanly fed. From this practical knowledge it was
impossible for them to retreat to their old supremacy and indifference as
mistresses. The servant problem was solved, once for all, by humanity,
and it is doubtful whether, if Mr. Homos returned to us now, he would
give offence by preaching the example of the Altrurian ladies, or would
be shocked by the contempt and ignorance of American women where other
women who did their household drudgery were concerned.
As women from having no help have learned how to use their helpers,
certain other hardships have been the means of good. The flattened wheel
of the trolley, banging the track day and night, and tormenting the
waking and sleeping ear, was, oddly enough, the inspiration of reforms
which have made our city the quietest in the world. The trolleys now pass
unheard; the elevated train glides by overhead with only a modulated
murmur; the subway is a retreat fit for meditation and prayer, where the
passenger can possess his soul in a peace to be found nowhere else; the
automobile, which was unknown in the day of the Altrurian Emissary, whirs
softly through the most crowded thoroughfare, far below the speed limit,
with a sigh of gentle satisfaction in its own harmlessness, and, "like
the sweet South, taking and giving odor." The streets that he saw so
filthy and unkempt in 1893 are now at least as clean as they are quiet.
Asphalt has universally replaced the cobble-stones and Belgian blocks of
his day, and, though it is everywhere full of holes, it is still asphalt,
and may some time be put in repair.
There is a note of exaggeration in his characterization of our men which
the reader must regret. They are not now the intellectual inferior of our
women, or at least not so much the inferiors. Since his day they have
made a vast advance in the knowledge and love of literature. With the
multitude of our periodicals, and the swarm of our fictions selling from
a hundred thousand to half a million each, even our business-men cannot
wholly escape culture, and they have become more and more cultured, so
that now you frequently hear them asking what this or that book is all
about. With the mention of them, the reader will naturally recur to the
work of their useful and devoted lives--the accumulation of money. It is
this accumulation, this heaping-up of riches, which the Altrurian
Emissary accuses in the love-story closing his study of our conditions,
but which he might not now so totally condemn.
As we have intimated, he has more than once guarded against a rash
conclusion, to which the logical habit of the Altrurian mind might have
betrayed him. If he could revisit us we are sure that he would have still
greater reason to congratulate himself on his forbearance, and would
doubtless profit by the lesson which events must teach all but the most
hopeless doctrinaires. The evil of even a small war (and soldiers
themselves do not deny that wars, large or small, are evil) has, as we
have noted, been overruled for good in the sort of Golden Age, or Age on
a Gold Basis, which we have long been enjoying. If our good-fortune
should be continued to us in reward of our public and private virtue,
the fact would suggest to so candid an observer that in economics, as in
other things, the rule proves the exception, and that as good times have
hitherto always been succeeded by bad times, it stands to reason that
our present period of prosperity will never be followed by a period of
It would seem from the story continued by another hand in the second part
of this work, that Altruria itself is not absolutely logical in its
events, which are subject to some of the anomalies governing in our own
affairs. A people living in conditions which some of our dreamers would
consider ideal, are forced to discourage foreign emigration, against
their rule of universal hospitality, and in at least one notable instance
are obliged to protect themselves against what they believe an evil
example by using compulsion with the wrongdoers, though the theory of
their life is entirely opposed to anything of the kind. Perhaps, however,
we are not to trust to this other hand at all times, since it is a
woman's hand, and is not to be credited with the firm and unerring touch
of a man's. The story, as she completes it, is the story of the
Altrurian's love for an American woman, and will be primarily interesting
for that reason. Like the Altrurian's narrative, it is here compiled from
a succession of letters, which in her case were written to a friend in
America, as his were written to a friend in Altruria. But it can by no
means have the sociological value which the record of his observations
among ourselves will have for the thoughtful reader. It is at best the
record of desultory and imperfect glimpses of a civilization
fundamentally alien to her own, such as would attract an enthusiastic
nature, but would leave it finally in a sort of misgiving as to the
reality of the things seen and heard. Some such misgiving attended the
inquiries of those who met the Altrurian during his sojourn with us, but
it is a pity that a more absolute conclusion should not have been the
effect of this lively lady's knowledge of the ideal country of her
adoption. It is, however, an interesting psychological result, and it
continues the tradition of all the observers of ideal conditions from Sir
Thomas More down to William Morris. Either we have no terms for
conditions so unlike our own that they cannot be reported to us with
absolute intelligence, or else there is in every experience of them an
essential vagueness and uncertainty.
Through the Eye of the Needle
If I spoke with Altrurian breadth of the way New-Yorkers live, my dear
Cyril, I should begin by saying that the New-Yorkers did not live at all.
But outside of our happy country one learns to distinguish, and to allow
that there are several degrees of living, all indeed hateful to us, if we
knew them, and yet none without some saving grace in it. You would say
that in conditions where men were embattled against one another by the
greed and the envy and the ambition which these conditions perpetually
appeal to here, there could be no grace in life; but we must remember
that men have always been better than their conditions, and that
otherwise they would have remained savages without the instinct or the
wish to advance. Indeed, our own state is testimony of a potential
civility in all states, which we must keep in mind when we judge the
peoples of the plutocratic world, and especially the American people, who
are above all others the devotees and exemplars of the plutocratic ideal,
without limitation by any aristocracy, theocracy, or monarchy. They are
purely commercial, and the thing that cannot be bought and sold has
logically no place in their life. But life is not logical outside of
Altruria; we are the only people in the world, my dear Cyril, who are
privileged to live reasonably; and again I say we must put by our own
criterions if we wish to understand the Americans, or to recognize that
measure of loveliness which their warped and stunted and perverted lives
certainly show, in spite of theory and in spite of conscience, even. I
can make this clear to you, I think, by a single instance, say that of
the American who sees a case of distress, and longs to relieve it. If he
is rich, he can give relief with a good conscience, except for the harm
that may come to his beneficiary from being helped; but if he is not
rich, or not finally rich, and especially if he has a family dependent
upon him, he cannot give in anything like the measure Christ bade us give
without wronging those dear to him, immediately or remotely. That is to
say, in conditions which oblige every man to look out for himself, a man
cannot be a Christian without remorse; he cannot do a generous action
without self-reproach; he cannot be nobly unselfish without the fear of
being a fool. You would think that this predicament must deprave, and so
without doubt it does; and yet it is not wholly depraving. It often has
its effect in character of a rare and pathetic sublimity; and many
Americans take all the cruel risks of doing good, reckless of the evil
that may befall them, and defiant of the upbraidings of their own hearts.
This is something that we Altrurians can scarcely understand: it is like
the munificence of a savage who has killed a deer and shares it with his
starving tribesmen, forgetful of the hungering little ones who wait his
return from the chase with food; for life in plutocratic countries is
still a chase, and the game is wary and sparse, as the terrible average
of failures witnesses.
Of course, I do not mean that Americans may not give at all without
sensible risk, or that giving among them is always followed by a logical
regret; but, as I said, life with them is in no wise logical. They even
applaud one another for their charities, which they measure by the amount
given, rather than by the love that goes with the giving. The widow's
mite has little credit with them, but the rich man's million has an
acclaim that reverberates through their newspapers long after his gift is
made. It is only the poor in America who do charity as we do, by giving
help where it is needed; the Americans are mostly too busy, if they are
at all prosperous, to give anything but money; and the more money they
give, the more charitable they esteem themselves. From time to time some
man with twenty or thirty millions gives one of them away, usually to a
public institution of some sort, where it will have no effect with the
people who are underpaid for their work or cannot get work; and then his
deed is famed throughout the continent as a thing really beyond praise.
Yet any one who thinks about it must know that he never earned the
millions he kept, or the millions he gave, but somehow made them from the
labor of others; that, with all the wealth left him, he cannot miss the
fortune he lavishes, any more than if the check which conveyed it were a
withered leaf, and not in any wise so much as an ordinary working-man
might feel the bestowal of a postage-stamp.
But in this study of the plutocratic mind, always so fascinating to me, I
am getting altogether away from what I meant to tell you. I meant to tell
you not how Americans live in the spirit, illogically, blindly, and
blunderingly, but how they live in the body, and more especially how they
house themselves in this city of New York. A great many of them do not
house themselves at all, but that is a class which we cannot now
consider, and I will speak only of those who have some sort of a roof
over their heads.
Formerly the New-Yorker lived in one of three different ways: in private
houses, or boarding-houses, or hotels; there were few restaurants or
public tables outside of the hotels, and those who had lodgings and took
their meals at eating-houses were but a small proportion of the whole
number. The old classification still holds in a measure, but within the
last thirty years, or ever since the Civil War, when the enormous
commercial expansion of the country began, several different ways of
living have been opened. The first and most noticeable of these is
housekeeping in flats, or apartments of three or four rooms or more, on
the same floor, as in all the countries of Europe except England; though
the flat is now making itself known in London, too. Before the war, the
New-Yorker who kept house did so in a separate house, three or four
stories in height, with a street door of its own. Its pattern within was
fixed by long usage, and seldom varied; without, it was of brown-stone
before, and brick behind, with an open space there for drying clothes,
which was sometimes gardened or planted with trees and vines. The rear of
the city blocks which these houses formed was more attractive than the
front, as you may still see in the vast succession of monotonous
cross-streets not yet invaded by poverty or business; and often the
perspective of these rears is picturesque and pleasing. But with the
sudden growth of the population when peace came, and through the
acquaintance the hordes of American tourists had made with European
fashions of living, it became easy, or at least simple, to divide the
floors of many of these private dwellings into apartments, each with its
own kitchen and all the apparatus of housekeeping. The apartments then
had the street entrance and the stairways in common, and they had in
common the cellar and the furnace for heating; they had in common the
disadvantage of being badly aired and badly lighted. They were dark,
cramped, and uncomfortable, but they were cheaper than separate houses,
and they were more homelike than boarding-houses or hotels. Large numbers
of them still remain in use, and when people began to live in flats, in
conformity with the law of evolution, many buildings were put up and
subdivided into apartments in imitation of the old dwellings which had
But the apartment as the New-Yorkers now mostly have it, was at the same
time evolving from another direction. The poorer class of New York
work-people had for a long period before the war lived, as they still
live, in vast edifices, once thought prodigiously tall, which were called
tenement-houses. In these a family of five or ten persons is commonly
packed in two or three rooms, and even in one room, where they eat and
sleep, without the amenities and often without the decencies of life, and
of course without light and air. The buildings in case of fire are
death-traps; but the law obliges the owners to provide some apparent
means of escape, which they do in the form of iron balconies and ladders,
giving that festive air to their facades which I have already noted. The
bare and dirty entries and staircases are really ramifications of the
filthy streets without, and each tenement opens upon a landing as if it
opened upon a public thoroughfare. The rents extorted from the inmates is
sometimes a hundred per cent., and is nearly always cruelly out of
proportion to the value of the houses, not to speak of the wretched
shelter afforded; and when the rent is not paid the family in arrears is
set with all its poor household gear upon the sidewalk, in a pitiless
indifference to the season and the weather, which you could not realize
without seeing it, and which is incredible even of plutocratic nature. Of
course, landlordism, which you have read so much of, is at its worst
in the case of the tenement-houses. But you must understand that
comparatively few people in New York own the roofs that shelter them. By
far the greater number live, however they live, in houses owned by
others, by a class who prosper and grow rich, or richer, simply by owning
the roofs over other men's heads. The landlords have, of course, no human
relation with their tenants, and really no business relations, for all
the affairs between them are transacted by agents. Some have the
reputation of being better than others; but they all live, or expect to
live, without work, on their rents. They are very much respected for it;
the rents are considered a just return from the money invested. You must
try to conceive of this as an actual fact, and not merely as a
statistical statement. I know it will not be easy for you; it is not easy
for me, though I have it constantly before my face.
The tenement-house, such as it is, is the original of the
apartment-house, which perpetuates some of its most characteristic
features on a scale and in material undreamed of in the simple philosophy
of the inventor of the tenement-house. The worst of these features is
the want of light and air, but as much more space and as many more rooms
are conceded as the tenant will pay for. The apartment-house, however,
soars to heights that the tenement-house never half reached, and is
sometimes ten stories high. It is built fireproof, very often, and is
generally equipped with an elevator, which runs night and day, and makes
one level of all the floors. The cheaper sort, or those which have
departed less from the tenement-house original, have no elevators, but
the street door in all is kept shut and locked, and is opened only by the
tenant's latch-key or by the janitor having charge of the whole building.
In the finer houses there is a page whose sole duty it is to open and
shut this door, and who is usually brass-buttoned to one blinding effect
of livery with the elevator-boy. Where this page or hall-boy is found,
the elevator carries you to the door of any apartment you seek; where he
is not found, there is a bell and a speaking-tube in the lower entry, for
each apartment, and you ring up the occupant and talk to him as many
stories off as he happens to be. But people who can afford to indulge
their pride will not live in this sort of apartment-house, and the
rents in them are much lower than in the finer sort. The finer sort are
vulgarly fine for the most part, with a gaudy splendor of mosaic
pavement, marble stairs, frescoed ceilings, painted walls, and cabinet
wood-work. But there are many that are fine in a good taste, in the
things that are common to the inmates. Their fittings for housekeeping
are of all degrees of perfection, and, except for the want of light and
air, life in them has a high degree of gross luxury. They are heated
throughout with pipes of steam or hot water, and they are sometimes
lighted with both gas and electricity, which the inmate uses at will,
though of course at his own cost. Outside, they are the despair of
architecture, for no style has yet been invented which enables the artist
to characterize them with beauty, and wherever they lift their vast bulks
they deform the whole neighborhood, throwing the other buildings out of
scale, and making it impossible for future edifices to assimilate
themselves to the intruder.
There is no end to the apartment-houses for multitude, and there is no
street or avenue free from them. Of course, the better sort are to be
found on the fashionable avenues and the finer cross-streets, but others
follow the course of the horse-car lines on the eastern and western
avenues, and the elevated roads on the avenues which these have invaded.
In such places they are shops below and apartments above, and I cannot
see that the inmates seem at all sensible that they are unfitly housed in
them. People are born and married, and live and die in the midst of an
uproar so frantic that you would think they would go mad of it; and I
believe the physicians really attribute something of the growing
prevalence of neurotic disorders to the wear and tear of the nerves from
the rush of the trains passing almost momently, and the perpetual jarring
of the earth and air from their swift transit. I once spent an evening in
one of these apartments, which a friend had taken for a few weeks last
spring (you can get them out of season for any length of time), and as
the weather had begun to be warm, we had the windows open, and so we had
the full effect of the railroad operated under them. My friend had become
accustomed to it, but for me it was an affliction which I cannot give you
any notion of. The trains seemed to be in the room with us, and I sat as
if I had a locomotive in my lap. Their shrieks and groans burst every
sentence I began, and if I had not been master of that visible speech
which we use so much at home I never should have known what my friend was
saying. I cannot tell you how this brutal clamor insulted me, and made
the mere exchange of thought a part of the squalid struggle which is the
plutocratic conception of life; I came away after a few hours of it,
bewildered and bruised, as if I had been beaten upon with hammers.
Some of the apartments on the elevated lines are very good, as such
things go; they are certainly costly enough to be good; and they are
inhabited by people who can afford to leave them during the hot season
when the noise is at its worst; but most of them belong to people who
must dwell in them summer and winter, for want of money and leisure to
get out of them, and who must suffer incessantly from the noise I could
not endure for a few hours. In health it is bad enough, but in sickness
it must be horrible beyond all parallel. Imagine a mother with a dying
child in such a place; or a wife bending over the pillow of her husband
to catch the last faint whisper of farewell, as a train of five or six
cars goes roaring by the open window! What horror! What profanation!
The noise is bad everywhere in New York, but in some of the finer
apartment-houses on the better streets you are as well out of it as you
can be anywhere in the city. I have been a guest in these at different
times, and in one of them I am such a frequent guest that I may be said
to know its life intimately. In fact, my hostess (women transact society
so exclusively in America that you seldom think of your host) in the
apartment I mean to speak of, invited me to explore it one night when I
dined with her, so that I might, as she said, tell my friends when I got
back to Altruria how people lived in America; and I cannot feel that I
am violating her hospitality in telling you now. She is that Mrs. Makely
whom I met last summer in the mountains, and whom you thought so strange
a type from the account of her I gave you, but who is not altogether
uncommon here. I confess that, with all her faults, I like her, and I
like to go to her house. She is, in fact, a very good woman, perfectly
selfish by tradition, as the American women must be, and wildly generous
by nature, as they nearly always are; and infinitely superior to her
husband in cultivation, as is commonly the case with them. As he knows
nothing but business, he thinks it is the only thing worth knowing, and
he looks down on the tastes and interests of her more intellectual life
with amiable contempt, as something almost comic. She respects business,
too, and so she does not despise his ignorance as you would suppose; it
is at least the ignorance of a business-man, who must have something in
him beyond her ken, or else he would not be able to make money as he
With your greater sense of humor, I think you would be amused if you
could see his smile of placid self-satisfaction as he listens to our
discussion of questions and problems which no more enter his daily life
than they enter the daily life of an Eskimo; but I do not find it
altogether amusing myself, and I could not well forgive it, if I did not
know that he was at heart so simple and good, in spite of his
commerciality. But he is sweet and kind, as the American men so often
are, and he thinks his wife is the delightfulest creature in the world,
as the American husband nearly always does. They have several times asked
me to dine with them _en famille;_ and, as a matter of form, he
keeps me a little while with him after dinner, when she has left the
table, and smokes his cigar, after wondering why we do not smoke in
Altruria; but I can see that he is impatient to get to her in their
drawing-room, where we find her reading a book in the crimson light of
the canopied lamp, and where he presently falls silent, perfectly happy
to be near her. The drawing-room is of a good size itself, and it has a
room opening out of it called the library, with a case of books in it,
and Mrs. Makely's piano-forte. The place is rather too richly and densely
rugged, and there is rather more curtaining and shading of the windows
than we should like; but Mrs. Makely is too well up-to-date, as she would
say, to have much of the bric-a-brac about which she tells me used to
clutter people's houses here. There are some pretty good pictures on the
walls, and a few vases and bronzes, and she says she has produced a
greater effect of space by quelling the furniture--she means, having few
pieces and having them as small as possible. There is a little stand with
her afternoon tea-set in one corner, and there is a pretty writing-desk
in the library; I remember a sofa and some easy-chairs, but not too
many of them. She has a table near one of the windows, with books and
papers on it. She tells me that she sees herself that the place is kept
just as she wishes it, for she has rather a passion for neatness,
and you never can trust servants not to stand the books on their heads or
study a vulgar symmetry in the arrangements. She never allows them in
there, she says, except when they are at work under her eye; and she
never allows anybody there except her guests, and her husband after he
has smoked. Of course, her dog must be there; and one evening after her
husband fell asleep in the arm-chair near her, the dog fell asleep on
the fleece at her feet, and we heard them softly breathing in unison.
She made a pretty little mocking mouth when the sound first became
audible, and said that she ought really to have sent Mr. Makely out with
the dog, for the dog ought to have the air every day, and she had
been kept indoors; but sometimes Mr. Makely came home from business so
tired that she hated to send him out, even for the dog's sake, though he
was so apt to become dyspeptic. "They won't let you have dogs in some of
the apartment-houses, but I tore up the first lease that had that clause
in it, and I told Mr. Makely that I would rather live in a house all my
days than any flat where my dog wasn't as welcome as I was. Of course,
they're rather troublesome."
The Makelys had no children, but it is seldom that the occupants of
apartment-houses of a good class have children, though there is no clause
in the lease against them. I verified this fact from Mrs. Makely herself,
by actual inquiry, for in all the times that I had gone up and down in
the elevator to her apartment I had never seen any children. She seemed
at first to think I was joking, and not to like it, but when she found
that I was in earnest she said that she did not suppose all the families
living under that roof had more than four or five children among them.
She said that it would be inconvenient; and I could not allege the
tenement-houses in the poor quarters of the city, where children seemed
to swarm, for it is but too probable that they do not regard convenience
in such places, and that neither parents nor children are more
comfortable for their presence.
Comfort is the American ideal, in a certain way, and comfort is certainly
what is studied in such an apartment as the Makelys inhabit. We got to
talking about it, and the ease of life in such conditions, and it was
then she made me that offer to show me her flat, and let me report to the
Altrurians concerning it. She is all impulse, and she asked, How would I
like to see it _now?_ and when I said I should be delighted, she
spoke to her husband, and told him that she was going to show me through
the flat. He roused himself promptly, and went before us, at her bidding,
to turn up the electrics in the passages and rooms, and then she led the
way out through the dining-room.
"This and the parlors count three, and the kitchen here is the fourth
room of the eight," she said, and as she spoke she pushed open the door
of a small room, blazing with light and dense with the fumes of the
dinner and the dish-washing which was now going on in a closet opening
out of the kitchen.
She showed me the set range, at one side, and the refrigerator in an
alcove, which she said went with the flat, and, "Lena," she said to the
cook, "this is the Altrurian gentleman I was telling you about, and I
want him to see your kitchen. Can I take him into your room?"
The cook said, "Oh yes, ma'am," and she gave me a good stare, while Mrs.
Makely went to the kitchen window and made me observe that it let in the
outside air, though the court that it opened into was so dark that one
had to keep the electrics going in the kitchen night and day. "Of course,
it's an expense," she said, as she closed the kitchen door after us. She
added, in a low, rapid tone, "You must excuse my introducing the cook.
She has read all about you in the papers--you didn't know, I suppose,
that there were reporters that day of your delightful talk in the
mountains, but I had them--and she was wild, when she heard you were
coming, and made me promise to let her have a sight of you somehow. She
says she wants to go and live in Altruria, and if you would like to take
home a cook, or a servant of any kind, you wouldn't have much trouble.
Now here," she ran on, without a moment's pause, while she flung open
another door, "is what you won't find in every apartment-house, even very
good ones, and that's a back elevator. Sometimes there are only stairs,
and they make the poor things climb the whole way up from the basement,
when they come in, and all your marketing has to be brought up that way,
too; sometimes they send it up on a kind of dumb-waiter, in the cheap
places, and you give your orders to the market-men down below through a
speaking-tube. But here we have none of that bother, and this elevator is
for the kitchen and housekeeping part of the flat. The grocer's and the
butcher's man, and anybody who has packages for you, or trunks, or that
sort of thing, use it, and, of course, it's for the servants, and they
appreciate not having to walk up as much as anybody."
"Oh yes," I said, and she shut the elevator door and opened another a
little beyond it.
"This is our guest chamber," she continued, as she ushered me into a very
pretty room, charmingly furnished. "It isn't very light by day, for it
opens on a court, like the kitchen and the servants' room here," and with
that she whipped out of the guest chamber and into another doorway across
the corridor. This room was very much narrower, but there were two small
beds in it, very neat and clean, with some furnishings that were in
keeping, and a good carpet under foot. Mrs. Makely was clearly proud of
it, and expected me to applaud it; but I waited for her to speak, which
upon the whole she probably liked as well.
"I only keep two servants, because in a flat there isn't really room for
more, and I put out the wash and get in cleaning-women when it's needed.
I like to use my servants well, because it pays, and I hate to see
anybody imposed upon. Some people put in a double-decker, as they call
it--a bedstead with two tiers, like the berths on a ship; but I think
that's a shame, and I give them two regular beds, even if it does crowd
them a little more and the beds have to be rather narrow. This room has
outside air, from the court, and, though it's always dark, it's very
pleasant, as you see." I did not say that I did not see, and this
sufficed Mrs. Makely.
"Now," she said, "I'll show you _our_ rooms," and she flew down the
corridor towards two doors that stood open side by side and flashed into
them before me. Her husband was already in the first she entered, smiling
in supreme content with his wife, his belongings, and himself.
"This is a southern exposure, and it has a perfect gush of sun from
morning till night. Some of the flats have the kitchen at the end, and
that's stupid; you can have a kitchen in any sort of hole, for you can
keep on the electrics, and with them the air is perfectly good. As soon
as I saw these chambers, and found out that they would let you keep a
dog, I told Mr. Makely to sign the lease instantly, and I would see to
She looked at me, and I praised the room and its dainty tastefulness to
her heart's content, so that she said: "Well, it's some satisfaction to
show you anything, Mr. Homos, you are so appreciative. I'm sure you'll
give a good account of us to the Altrurians. Well, now we'll go back to
the pa--drawing-room. This is the end of the story."
"Well," said her husband, with a wink at me, "I thought it was to be
continued in our next," and he nodded towards the door that opened from
his wife's bower into the room adjoining.
"Why, you poor old fellow!" she shouted. "I forgot all about _your_
room," and she dashed into it before us and began to show it off. It was
equipped with every bachelor luxury, and with every appliance for health
and comfort. "And here," she said, "he can smoke, or anything, as long as
he keeps the door shut. Oh, good gracious! I forgot the bath-room," and
they both united in showing me this, with its tiled floor and walls and
its porcelain tub; and then Mrs. Makely flew up the corridor before us.
"Put out the electrics, Dick!" she called back over her shoulder.
When we were again seated in the drawing-room, which she had been so near
calling a parlor, she continued to bubble over with delight in herself
and her apartment. "Now, isn't it about perfect?" she urged, and I had to
own that it was indeed very convenient and very charming; and in the
rapture of the moment she invited me to criticise it.
"I see very little to criticise," I said, "from your point of view; but I
hope you won't think it indiscreet if I ask a few questions?"
She laughed. "Ask anything, Mr. Homos! I hope I got hardened to your
questions in the mountains."
"She said you used to get off some pretty tough ones," said her husband,
helpless to take his eyes from her, although he spoke to me.
"It is about your servants," I began.
"Oh, of course! Perfectly characteristic! Go on."
"You told me that they had no natural light either in the kitchen or
their bedroom. Do they never see the light of day?"
The lady laughed heartily. "The waitress is in the front of the house
several hours every morning at her work, and they both have an afternoon
off once a week. Some people only let them go once a fortnight; but I
think they are human beings as well as we are, and I let them go every
"But, except for that afternoon once a week, your cook lives in
"Electric-light is very healthy, and it doesn't heat the air!" the lady
triumphed, "I can assure you that she thinks she's very well off; and so
she is." I felt a little temper in her voice, and I was silent, until she
asked me, rather stiffly, "Is there any _other_ inquiry you would
like to make?"
"Yes," I said, "but I do not think you would like it."
"Now, I assure you, Mr. Homos, you were never more mistaken in your life.
I perfectly delight in your naivete. I know that the Altrurians don't
think as we do about some things, and I don't expect it. What is it you
would like to ask?"
"Well, why should you require your servants to go down on a different
elevator from yourselves?"
"Why, good gracious!" cried the lady.--"aren't they different from us in
_every_ way? To be sure, they dress up in their ridiculous best when
they go out, but you couldn't expect us to let them use the _front_
elevator? I don't want to go up and down with my own cook, and I
certainly don't with my neighbor's cook!"
"Yes, I suppose you would feel that an infringement of your social
dignity. But if you found yourself beside a cook in a horse-car or other
public conveyance, you would not feel personally affronted?"
"No, that is a very different thing. That is something we cannot control.
But, thank goodness, we can control our elevator, and if I were in a
house where I had to ride up and down with the servants I would no
more stay in it than I would in one where I couldn't keep a dog. I should
consider it a perfect outrage. I cannot understand you, Mr. Homos! You
are a gentleman, and you must have the traditions of a gentleman,
and yet you ask me such a thing as that!"
I saw a cast in her husband's eye which I took for a hint not to press
the matter, and so I thought I had better say, "It is only that in
Altruria we hold serving in peculiar honor."
"Well," said the lady, scornfully, "if you went and got your servants
from an intelligence-office, and had to look up their references, you
wouldn't hold them in very much honor. I tell you they look out for their
interests as sharply as we do for ours, and it's nothing between us but a
"Business," suggested her husband.
"Yes," she assented, as if this clinched the matter.
"That's what I'm always telling you, Dolly, and yet you _will_ try
to make them your friends, as soon as you get them into your house. You
want them to love you, and you know that sentiment hasn't got anything
to do with it."
"Well, I can't help it, Dick. I can't live with a person without trying
to like them and wanting them to like me. And then, when the ungrateful
things are saucy, or leave me in the lurch as they do half the time, it
almost breaks my heart. But I'm thankful to say that in these hard times
they won't be apt to leave a good place without a good reason."
"Are there many seeking employment?" I asked this because I thought it
was safe ground.
"Well, they just stand around in the office as _thick!_" said the
lady. "And the Americans are trying to get places as well as the
foreigners. But I won't have Americans. They are too uppish, and they are
never half so well trained as the Swedes or the Irish. They still expect
to be treated as one of the family. I suppose," she continued, with a
lingering ire in her voice, "that in Altruria you do treat them as one of
"We have no servants, in the American sense," I answered, as
inoffensively as I could.
Mrs. Makely irrelevantly returned to the question that had first provoked
her indignation. "And I should like to know how much worse it is to have
a back elevator for the servants than it is to have the basement door for
the servants, as you always do when you live in a separate house?"
"I should think it was no worse," I admitted, and I thought this a good
chance to turn the talk from the dangerous channel it had taken. "I wish,
Mrs. Makely, you would tell me something about the way people live in
separate houses in New York."
She was instantly pacified. "Why, I should be delighted. I only wish my
friend Mrs. Bellington Strange was back from Europe; then I could show
you a model house. I mean to take you there, as soon as she gets home.
She's a kind of Altrurian herself, you know. She was my dearest friend at
school, and it almost broke my heart when she married Mr. Strange, so
much older, and her inferior in every way. But she's got his money now,
and oh, the good she does do with it! I know you'll like each other, Mr.
Homos. I do wish Eva was at home!"
I said that I should be very glad to meet an American Altrurian, but that
now I wished she would tell me about the normal New York house, and what
was its animating principle, beginning with the basement door.
She laughed and said, "Why, it's just like any other house!"
I can never insist enough, my dear Cyril, upon the illogicality of
American life. You know what the plutocratic principle is, and what the
plutocratic civilization should logically be. But the plutocratic
civilization is much better than it should logically be, bad as it is;
for the personal equation constantly modifies it, and renders it far less
dreadful than you would reasonably expect. That is, the potentialities of
goodness implanted in the human heart by the Creator forbid the
plutocratic man to be what the plutocratic scheme of life implies. He is
often merciful, kindly, and generous, as I have told you already, in
spite of conditions absolutely egotistical. You would think that the
Americans would be abashed in view of the fact that their morality is
often in contravention of their economic principles, but apparently they
are not so, and I believe that for the most part they are not aware of
the fact. Nevertheless, the fact is there, and you must keep it in mind,
if you would conceive of them rightly. You can in no other way account
for the contradictions which you will find in my experiences among them;
and these are often so bewildering that I have to take myself in hand,
from time to time, and ask myself what mad world I have fallen into, and
whether, after all, it is not a ridiculous nightmare. I am not sure that,
when I return and we talk these things over together, I shall be able to
overcome your doubts of my honesty, and I think that when I no longer
have them before my eyes I shall begin to doubt my own memory. But for
the present I can only set down what I at least seem to see, and trust
you to accept it, if you cannot understand it.
Perhaps I can aid you by suggesting that, logically, the Americans should
be what the Altrurians are, since their polity embodies our belief that
all men are born equal, with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit
of happiness; but that illogically they are what the Europeans are, since
they still cling to the economical ideals of Europe, and hold that men
are born socially unequal, and deny them the liberty and happiness which
can come from equality alone. It is in their public life and civic life
that Altruria prevails; it is in their social and domestic life that
Europe prevails; and here, I think, is the severest penalty they must pay
for excluding women from political affairs; for women are at once the
best and the worst Americans: the best because their hearts are the
purest, the worst because their heads are the idlest. "Another
contradiction!" you will say, and I cannot deny it; for, with all their
cultivation, the American women have no real intellectual interests, but
only intellectual fads; and while they certainly think a great deal, they
reflect little, or not at all. The inventions and improvements which
have made their household work easy, the wealth that has released them in
such vast numbers from work altogether, has not enlarged them to the
sphere of duties which our Altrurian women share with us, but has left
them, with their quickened intelligences, the prey of the trivialities
which engross the European women, and which have formed the life of the
sex hitherto in every country where women have an economical and social
freedom without the political freedom that can alone give it dignity and
import. They have a great deal of beauty, and they are inconsequently
charming; I need not tell you that they are romantic and heroic, or that
they would go to the stake for a principle, if they could find one, as
willingly as any martyr of the past; but they have not much more
perspective than children, and their reading and their talk about reading
seem not to have broadened their mental horizons beyond the old sunrise
and the old sunset of the kitchen and the parlor.
In fine, the American house as it is, the American household, is what the
American woman makes it and wills it to be, whether she wishes it to be
so or not; for I often find that the American woman wills things that she
in no wise wishes. What the normal New York house is, however, I had
great difficulty in getting Mrs. Makely to tell me, for, as she said
quite frankly, she could not imagine my not knowing. She asked me if I
really wanted her to begin at the beginning, and, when I said that I did,
she took a little more time to laugh at the idea, and then she said, "I
suppose you mean a brown-stone, four-story house in the middle of a
"Yes, I think that is what I mean," I said.
"Well," she began, "those high steps that they all have, unless they're
English-basement houses, really give them another story, for people used
to dine in the front room of their basements. You've noticed the little
front yard, about as big as a handkerchief, generally, and the steps
leading down to the iron gate, which is kept locked, and the basement
door inside the gate? Well, that's what you might call the back elevator
of a house, for it serves the same purpose: the supplies are brought in
there, and market-men go in and out, and the ashes, and the swill, and
the servants--that you object to so much. We have no alleys in New York,
the blocks are so narrow, north and south; and, of course, we have no
back doors; so we have to put the garbage out on the sidewalk--and it's
nasty enough, goodness knows. Underneath the sidewalk there are bins
where people keep their coal and kindling. You've noticed the gratings in
I said yes, and I was ashamed to own that at first I had thought them
some sort of registers for tempering the cold in winter; this would have
appeared ridiculous in the last degree to my hostess, for the Americans
have as yet no conception of publicly modifying the climate, as we do.
"Back of what used to be the dining-room, and what is now used for a
laundry, generally, is the kitchen, with closets between, of course, and
then the back yard, which some people make very pleasant with shrubs and
vines; the kitchen is usually dark and close, and the girls can only get
a breath of fresh air in the yard; I like to see them; but generally it's
taken up with clothes-lines, for people in houses nearly all have their
washing done at home. Over the kitchen is the dining-room, which takes up
the whole of the first floor, with the pantry, and it almost always has a
bay-window out of it; of course, that overhangs the kitchen, and darkens
it a little more, but it makes the dining-room so pleasant. I tell my
husband that I should be almost willing to live in a house again, just on
account of the dining-room bay-window. I had it full of flowers in pots,
for the southern sun came in; and then the yard was so nice for the dog;
you didn't have to take him out for exercise, yourself; he chased the
cats there and got plenty of it. I must say that the cats on the back
fences were a drawback at night; to be sure, we have them here, too; it's
seven stories down, but you do hear them, along in the spring. The
parlor, or drawing-room, is usually rather long, and runs from the
dining-room to the front of the house, though where the house is very
deep they have a sort of middle room, or back parlor. Dick, get some
paper and draw it. Wouldn't you like to see a plan of the floor?"
I said that I should, and she bade her husband make it like their old
house in West Thirty-third Street. We all looked at it together.
"This is the front door," Mrs. Makely explained, "where people come in,
and then begins the misery of a house--stairs! They mostly go up
straight, but sometimes they have them curve a little, and in the new
houses the architects have all sorts of little dodges for squaring them
and putting landings. Then, on the second floor--draw it, Dick--you have
two nice, large chambers, with plenty of light and air, before and
behind. I do miss the light and air in a flat, there's no denying it."
"You'll go back to a house yet, Dolly," said her husband.
"Never!" she almost shrieked, and he winked at me, as if it were the best
joke in the world. "Never, as long as houses have stairs!"
"Put in an elevator," he suggested.
"Well, that is what Eveleth Strange has, and she lets the servants use
it, too," and Mrs. Makely said, with a look at me: "I suppose that would
please you, Mr. Homos. Well, there's a nice side-room over the front door
here, and a bath-room at the rear. Then you have more stairs, and large
chambers, and two side-rooms. That makes plenty of chambers for a small
family. I used to give two of the third-story rooms to my two girls. I
ought really to have made them sleep in one; it seemed such a shame to
let the cook have a whole large room to herself; but I had nothing else
to do with it, and she did take such comfort in it, poor old thing! You
see, the rooms came wrong in our house, for it fronted north, and I had
to give the girls sunny rooms or else give them front rooms, so that it
was as broad as it was long. I declare, I was perplexed about it the
whole time we lived there, it seemed so perfectly anomalous."
"And what is an English-basement house like?" I ventured to ask, in
interruption of the retrospective melancholy she had fallen into.
"Oh, _never_ live in an English-basement house, if you value your
spine!" cried the lady. "An English-basement house is nothing _but_
stairs. In the first place, it's only one room wide, and it's a story
higher than the high-stoop house. It's one room forward and one back, the
whole way up; and in an English-basement it's always _up_, and
_never_ down. If I had my way, there wouldn't one stone be left upon
another in the English-basements in New York."
I have suffered Mrs. Makely to be nearly as explicit to you as she was to
me; for the kind of house she described is of the form ordinarily
prevailing in all American cities, and you can form some idea from it how
city people live here. I ought perhaps to tell you that such a house is
fitted with every housekeeping convenience, and that there is hot and
cold water throughout, and gas everywhere. It has fireplaces in all the
rooms, where fires are often kept burning for pleasure; but it is really
heated from a furnace in the basement, through large pipes carried to the
different stories, and opening into them by some such registers as we
use. The separate houses sometimes have steam-heating, but not often.
They each have their drainage into the sewer of the street, and this is
trapped and trapped again, as in the houses of our old plutocratic
cities, to keep the poison of the sewer from getting into the houses.
You will be curious to know something concerning the cost of living in
such a house, and you may be sure that I did not fail to question Mrs.
Makely on this point. She was at once very volubly communicative; she
told me all she knew, and, as her husband said, a great deal more.
"Why, of course," she began, "you can spend all you have in New York, if
you like, and people do spend fortunes every year. But I suppose you mean
the average cost of living in a brown-stone house, in a good block, that
rents for $1800 or $2000 a year, with a family of three or four children,
and two servants. Well, what should you say, Dick?"
"Ten or twelve thousand a year--fifteen," answered her husband.
"Yes, fully that," she answered, with an effect of disappointment in his
figures. "We had just ourselves, and we never spent less than seven, and
we didn't dress, and we didn't entertain, either, to speak of. But you
have to live on a certain scale, and generally you live up to your
"Quite," said Mr. Makely.
"I don't know what makes it cost so. Provisions are cheap enough, and
they say people live in as good style for a third less in London. There
used to be a superstition that you could live for less in a flat, and
they always talk to you about the cost of a furnace, and a man to tend it
and keep the snow shovelled off your sidewalk, but that is all stuff.
Five hundred dollars will make up the whole difference, and more. You pay
quite as much rent for a decent flat, and then you don't get half the
room. No, if it wasn't for the stairs, I wouldn't live in a flat for an
instant. But that makes all the difference."
"And the young people," I urged--"those who are just starting in
life--how do they manage? Say when the husband has $1500 or $2000 a
"Poor things!" she returned. "I don't know how they manage. They board
till they go distracted, or they dry up and blow away; or else the wife
has a little money, too, and they take a small flat and ruin themselves.
Of course, they want to live nicely and like other people."
"But if they didn't?"
"Why, then they could live delightfully. My husband says he often wishes
he was a master-mechanic in New York, with a thousand a year, and a flat
for twelve dollars a month; he would have the best time in the world."
Her husband nodded his acquiescence. "Fighting-cock wouldn't be in it,"
he said. "Trouble is, we all want to do the swell thing."
"But you can't all do it," I ventured, "and, from what I see of the
simple, out-of-the-way neighborhoods in my walks, you don't all try."
"Why, no," he said. "Some of us were talking about that the other night
at the club, and one of the fellows was saying that he believed there was
as much old-fashioned, quiet, almost countrified life in New York, among
the great mass of the people, as you'd find in any city in the world.
Said you met old codgers that took care of their own furnaces, just as
you would in a town of five thousand inhabitants."
"Yes, that's all very well," said his wife; "but they wouldn't be nice
people. Nice people want to live nicely. And so they live beyond their
means or else they scrimp and suffer. I don't know which is worst."
"But there is no obligation to do either?" I asked.
"Oh yes, there is," she returned. "If you've been born in a certain way,
and brought up in a certain way, you can't get out of it. You simply
can't. You have got to keep in it till you drop. Or a woman has."
"That means the woman's husband, too," said Mr. Makely, with his wink for
me. "Always die together."
In fact, there is the same competition in the social world as in the
business world; and it is the ambition of every American to live in some
such house as the New York house; and as soon as a village begins to
grow into a town, such houses are built. Still, the immensely greater
number of the Americans necessarily live so simply and cheaply that such
a house would be almost as strange to them as to an Altrurian. But while
we should regard its furnishings as vulgar and unwholesome, most
Americans would admire and covet its rich rugs or carpets, its papered
walls, and thickly curtained windows, and all its foolish ornamentation,
and most American women would long to have a house like the ordinary
high-stoop New York house, that they might break their backs over its
stairs, and become invalids, and have servants about them to harass them
and hate them.
Of course, I put it too strongly, for there is often, illogically, a
great deal of love between the American women and their domestics, though
why there should be any at all I cannot explain, except by reference to
that mysterious personal equation which modifies all conditions here. You
will have made your reflection that the servants, as they are cruelly
called (I have heard them called so in their hearing, and wondered they
did not fly tooth and nail at the throat that uttered the insult), form
really no part of the house, but are aliens in the household and the
family life. In spite of this fact, much kindness grows up between them
and the family, and they do not always slight the work that I cannot
understand their ever having any heart in. Often they do slight it, and
they insist unsparingly upon the scanty privileges which their mistresses
seem to think a monstrous invasion of their own rights. The habit of
oppression grows upon the oppressor, and you would find tender-hearted
women here, gentle friends, devoted wives, loving mothers, who would be
willing that their domestics should remain indoors, week in and week out,
and, where they are confined in the ridiculous American flat, never see
the light of day. In fact, though the Americans do not know it, and would
be shocked to be told it, their servants are really slaves, who are none
the less slaves because they cannot be beaten, or bought and sold except
by the week or month, and for the price which they fix themselves, and
themselves receive in the form of wages. They are social outlaws, so far
as the society of the family they serve is concerned, and they are
restricted in the visits they receive and pay among themselves. They are
given the worst rooms in the house, and they are fed with the food that
they have prepared, only when it comes cold from the family table; in the
wealthier houses, where many of them are kept, they are supplied with a
coarser and cheaper victual bought and cooked for them apart from that
provided for the family. They are subject, at all hours, to the pleasure
or caprice of the master or mistress. Every circumstance of their life is
an affront to that just self-respect which even Americans allow is the
right of every human being. With the rich, they are said to be sometimes
indolent, dishonest, mendacious, and all that Plato long ago explained
that slaves must be; but in the middle-class families they are mostly
faithful, diligent, and reliable in a degree that would put to shame most
men who hold positions of trust, and would leave many ladies whom they
relieve of work without ground for comparison.
After Mrs. Makely had told me about the New York house, we began to talk
of the domestic service, and I ventured to hint some of the things that I
have so plainly said to you. She frankly consented to my whole view of
the matter, for if she wishes to make an effect or gain a point she has a
magnanimity that stops at nothing short of self-devotion. "I know it,"
she said. "You are perfectly right; but here we are, and what are we to
do? What do you do in Altruria, I should like to know?"
I said that in Altruria we all worked, and that personal service was
honored among us like medical attendance in America; I did not know what
other comparison to make; but I said that any one in health would think
it as unwholesome and as immoral to let another serve him as to let a
doctor physic him. At this Mrs. Makely and her husband laughed so that I
found myself unable to go on for some moments, till Mrs. Makely, with a
final shriek, shouted to him: "Dick, do stop, or I shall die! Excuse me,
Mr. Homos, but you are so deliciously funny, and I know you're just
joking. You _won't_ mind my laughing? Do go on."
I tried to give her some notion as to how we manage, in our common life,
which we have simplified so much beyond anything that this barbarous
people dream of; and she grew a little soberer as I went on, and seemed
at least to believe that I was not, as her husband said, stuffing them;
but she ended, as they always do here, by saying that it might be all
very well in Altruria, but it would never do in America, and that it was
contrary to human nature to have so many things done in common. "Now,
I'll tell you," she said. "After we broke up housekeeping in Thirty-third
Street, we stored our furniture--"
"Excuse me," I said. "How--stored?"
"Oh, I dare say you never store your furniture in Altruria. But here we
have hundreds of storage warehouses of all sorts and sizes, packed with
furniture that people put into them when they go to Europe, or get sick
to death of servants and the whole bother of house-keeping; and that's
what we did; and then, as my husband says, we browsed about for a year
or two. First, we tried hotelling it, and we took a hotel apartment
furnished, and dined at the hotel table, until I certainly thought I
should go off, I got so tired of it. Then we hired a suite in one of the
family hotels that there are so many of, and got out enough of our
things to furnish it, and had our meals in our rooms; they let you do
that for the same price, often they are _glad_ to have you, for the
dining-room is so packed. But everything got to tasting just the same as
everything else, and my husband had the dyspepsia so bad he couldn't half
attend to business, and I suffered from indigestion myself, cooped up in
a few small rooms, that way; and the dog almost died; and finally we gave
that up, and took an apartment, and got out our things--the storage cost
as much as the rent of a small house--and put them into it, and had a
caterer send in the meals as they do in Europe. But it isn't the same
here as it is in Europe, and we got so sick of it in a month that I
thought I should scream when I saw the same old dishes coming on the
table, day after day. We had to keep one servant--excuse me, Mr. Homos:
_domestic_--anyway, to look after the table and the parlor and
chamber work, and my husband said we might as well be hung for a sheep as
a lamb, and so we got in a cook; and, bad as it is, it's twenty million
times better than anything else you can do. Servants are a plague, but
you have got to have them, and so I have resigned myself to the will of
Providence. If they don't like it, neither do I, and so I fancy it's
about as broad as it's long." I have found this is a favorite phrase of
Mrs. Makely's, and that it seems to give her a great deal of comfort.
"And you don't feel that there's any harm in it?" I ventured to ask.
"Harm in it?" she repeated. "Why, aren't the poor things glad to get the
work? What would they do without it?"
"From what I see of your conditions I should be afraid that they would
starve," I said.
"Yes, they can't all get places in shops or restaurants, and they have to
do something, or starve, as you say," she said; and she seemed to think
what I had said was a concession to her position.
"But if it were your own case?" I suggested. "If you had no alternatives
but starvation and domestic service, you would think there was harm in
it, even although you were glad to take a servant's place?"
I saw her flush, and she answered, haughtily, "You must excuse me if I
refuse to imagine myself taking a servant's place, even for the sake of
"And you are quite right," I said. "Your American instinct is too strong
to brook even in imagination the indignities which seem daily, hourly,
and momently inflicted upon servants in your system."
To my great astonishment she seemed delighted by this conclusion. "Yes,"
she said, and she smiled radiantly, "and now you understand how it is
that American girls won't go out to service, though the pay is so much
better and they are so much better housed and fed--and everything.
Besides," she added, with an irrelevance which always amuses her husband,
though I should be alarmed by it for her sanity if I did not find it so
characteristic of women here, who seem to be mentally characterized by
the illogicality of the civilization, "they're not half so good as the
foreign servants. They've been brought up in homes of their own, and
they're uppish, and they have no idea of anything but third-rate
boarding-house cooking, and they're always hoping to get married, so
that, really, you have no peace of your life with them."
"And it never seems to you that the whole relation is wrong?" I asked.
"That between maid and mistress, the hirer and the hireling."
"Why, good gracious!" she burst out. "Didn't Christ himself say that the
laborer was worthy of his hire? And how would you get your work done, if
you didn't pay for it?"
"It might be done for you, when you could not do it yourself, from
"From affection!" she returned, with the deepest derision. "Well, I
rather think I _shall_ have to do it myself if I want it done
from affection! But I suppose you think I _ought_ to do it
myself, as the Altrurian ladies do! I can tell you that in America it
would be impossible for a lady to do her own work, and there are no
intelligence-offices where you can find girls that want to work for love.
It's as broad as it's long."
"It's simply business," her husband said.
They were right, my dear friend, and I was wrong, strange as it must
appear to you. The tie of service, which we think as sacred as the tie of
blood, can be here only a business relation, and in these conditions
service must forever be grudgingly given and grudgingly paid. There is
something in it, I do not quite know what, for I can never place myself
precisely in an American's place, that degrades the poor creatures who
serve, so that they must not only be social outcasts, but must leave such
a taint of dishonor on their work that one cannot even do it for one's
self without a sense of outraged dignity. You might account for this in
Europe, where ages of prescriptive wrong have distorted the relation out
of all human wholesomeness and Christian loveliness; but in America,
where many, and perhaps most, of those who keep servants and call them so
are but a single generation from fathers who earned their bread by the
sweat of their brows, and from mothers who nobly served in all household
offices, it is in the last degree bewildering. I can only account for it
by that bedevilment of the entire American ideal through the retention of
the English economy when the English polity was rejected. But at the
heart of America there is this ridiculous contradiction, and it must
remain there until the whole country is Altrurianized. There is no other
hope; but I did not now urge this point, and we turned to talk of other
things, related to the matters we had been discussing.
"The men," said Mrs. Makely, "get out of the whole bother very nicely, as
long as they are single, and even when they're married they are apt to
run off to the club when there's a prolonged upheaval in the kitchen."
"_I_ don't, Dolly," suggested her husband.
"No, _you_ don't, Dick," she returned, fondly. "But there are not
many like you."
He went on, with a wink at me, "I never live at the club, except in
summer, when you go away to the mountains."
"Well, you know I can't very well take you with me," she said.
"Oh, I couldn't leave my business, anyway," he said, and he laughed.
I had noticed the vast and splendid club-houses in the best places in the
city, and I had often wondered about their life, which seemed to me a
blind groping towards our own, though only upon terms that forbade it to
those who most needed it. The clubs here are not like our groups, the
free association of sympathetic people, though one is a little more
literary, or commercial, or scientific, or political than another; but
the entrance to each is more or less jealously guarded; there is an
initiation-fee, and there are annual dues, which are usually heavy enough
to exclude all but the professional and business classes, though there
are, of course, successful artists and authors in them. During the past
winter I visited some of the most characteristic, where I dined and
supped with the members, or came alone when one of these put me down, for
a fortnight or a month.
They are equipped with kitchens and cellars, and their wines and dishes
are of the best. Each is, in fact, like a luxurious private house on a
large scale; outwardly they are palaces, and inwardly they have every
feature and function of a princely residence complete, even to a certain
number of guest-chambers, where members may pass the night, or stay
indefinitely in some cases, and actually live at the club. The club,
however, is known only to the cities and larger towns, in this highly
developed form; to the ordinary, simple American of the country, or of
the country town of five or ten thousand people, a New York club would be
as strange as it would be to any Altrurian.
"Do many of the husbands left behind in the summer live at the club?" I
"All that _have_ a club do," he said. "Often there's a very good
table d'hote dinner that you couldn't begin to get for the same price
anywhere else; and there are a lot of good fellows there, and you can
come pretty near forgetting that you're homeless, or even that you're
He laughed, and his wife said: "You ought to be ashamed, Dick; and me
worrying about you all the time I'm away, and wondering what the cook
gives you here. Yes," she continued, addressing me, "that's the worst
thing about the clubs. They make the men so comfortable that they say
it's one of the principal obstacles to early marriages. The young men try
to get lodgings near them, so that they can take their meals there, and
they know they get much better things to eat than they could have in a
house of their own at a great deal more expense, and so they simply don't
think of getting married. Of course," she said, with that wonderful,
unintentional, or at least unconscious, frankness of hers, "I don't blame
the clubs altogether. There's no use denying that girls are expensively
brought up, and that a young man has to think twice before taking one of
them out of the kind of home she's used to and putting her into the kind
of home he can give her. If the clubs have killed early marriages,
the women have created the clubs."
"Do women go much to them?" I asked, choosing this question as a safe
"_Much_!" she screamed. "They don't go at all! They _can't_!
They won't _let_ us! To be sure, there are some that have rooms
where ladies can go with their friends who are members, and have lunch or
dinner; but as for seeing the inside of the club-house proper, where
these great creatures"--she indicated her husband--"are sitting up,
smoking and telling stories, it isn't to be dreamed of."
Her husband laughed. "You wouldn't like the smoking, Dolly."
"Nor the stories, some of them," she retorted.
"Oh, the stories are always first-rate," he said, and he laughed more
"And they never gossip at the clubs, Mr. Homos--never!" she added.
"Well, hardly ever," said her husband, with an intonation that I did not
understand. It seemed to be some sort of catch-phrase.
"All I know," said Mrs. Makely, "is that I like to have my husband belong
to his club. It's a nice place for him in summer; and very often in
winter, when I'm dull, or going out somewhere that he hates, he can go
down to his club and smoke a cigar, and come home just about the time I
get in, and it's much better than worrying through the evening with a
book. He hates books, poor Dick!" She looked fondly at him, as if this
were one of the greatest merits in the world. "But I confess I shouldn't
like him to be a mere club man, like some of them."
"But how?" I asked.
"Why, belonging to five or six, or more, even; and spending their whole
time at them, when they're not at business."
There was a pause, and Mr. Makely put on an air of modest worth, which he
carried off with his usual wink towards me. I said, finally, "And if the
ladies are not admitted to the men's clubs, why don't they have clubs of
"Oh, they have--several, I believe. But who wants to go and meet a lot of
women? You meet enough of them in society, goodness knows. You hardly
meet any one else, especially at afternoon teas. They bore you to death."
Mrs. Makely's nerves seemed to lie in the direction of a prolongation of
this subject, and I asked my next question a little away from it. "I wish
you would tell me, Mrs. Makely, something about your way of provisioning
your household. You said that the grocer's and butcher's man came up to
the kitchen with your supplies--"
"Yes, and the milkman and the iceman; the iceman always puts the ice into
the refrigerator; it's very convenient, and quite like your own house."
"But you go out and select the things yourself the day before, or in the
"Oh, not at all! The men come and the cook gives the order; she knows
pretty well what we want on the different days, and I never meddle with
it from one week's end to the other, unless we have friends. The
tradespeople send in their bills at the end of the month, and that's all
there is of it." Her husband gave me one of his queer looks, and she went
on: "When we were younger, and just beginning housekeeping, I used to go
out and order the things myself; I used even to go to the big markets,
and half kill myself trying to get things a little cheaper at one place
and another, and waste more car-fare and lay up more doctor's bills than
it would all come to, ten times over. I used to fret my life out,
remembering the prices; but now, thank goodness, that's all over. I don't
know any more what beef is a pound than my husband does; if a thing isn't
good, I send it straight back, and that puts them on their honor, you
know, and they have to give me the best of everything. The bills average
about the same, from month to month; a little more if we have company
but if they're too outrageous, I make a fuss with the cook, and she
scolds the men, and then it goes better for a while. Still, it's a great
I confess that I did not see what the bother was, but I had not the
courage to ask, for I had already conceived a wholesome dread of the
mystery of an American lady's nerves. So I merely suggested, "And that is
the way that people usually manage?"
"Why," she said, "I suppose that some old-fashioned people still do their
marketing, and people that have to look to their outgoes, and know what
every mouthful costs them. But their lives are not worth having. Eveleth
Strange does it--or she did do it when she was in the country; I dare say
she won't when she gets back--just from a sense of duty, and because she
says that a housekeeper ought to know about her expenses. But I ask her
who will care whether she knows or not; and as for giving the money to
the poor that she saves by spending economically, I tell her that the
butchers and the grocers have to live, too, as well as the poor, and so
it's as broad as it's long."
I could not make out whether Mr. Makely approved of his wife's philosophy
or not; I do not believe he thought much about it. The money probably
came easily with him, and he let it go easily, as an American likes to
do. There is nothing penurious or sordid about this curious people, so
fierce in the pursuit of riches. When these are once gained, they seem to
have no value to the man who has won them, and he has generally no object
in life but to see his womankind spend them.
This is the season of the famous Thanksgiving, which has now become the
national holiday, but has no longer any savor in it of the grim
Puritanism it sprang from. It is now appointed by the president and the
governors of the several states, in proclamations enjoining a pious
gratitude upon the people for their continued prosperity as a nation, and
a public acknowledgment of the divine blessings. The blessings are
supposed to be of the material sort, grouped in the popular imagination
as good times, and it is hard to see what they are when hordes of men and
women of every occupation are feeling the pinch of poverty in their
different degrees. It is not merely those who have always the wolf at
their doors who are now suffering, but those whom the wolf never
threatened before; those who amuse as well as those who serve the rich
are alike anxious and fearful, where they are not already in actual want;
thousands of poor players, as well as hundreds of thousands of poor
laborers, are out of employment, and the winter threatens to be one of
dire misery. Yet you would not imagine from the smiling face of things,
as you would see it in the better parts of this great city, that there
was a heavy heart or an empty stomach anywhere below it. In fact, people
here are so used to seeing other people in want that it no longer affects
them as reality; it is merely dramatic, or hardly so lifelike as that--it
is merely histrionic. It is rendered still more spectacular to the
imaginations of the fortunate by the melodrama of charity they are
invited to take part in by endless appeals, and their fancy is flattered
by the notion that they are curing the distress they are only slightly
relieving by a gift from their superfluity. The charity, of course, is
better than nothing, but it is a fleeting mockery of the trouble, at the
best. If it were proposed that the city should subsidize a theatre a
which the idle players could get employment in producing good plays at a
moderate cost to the people, the notion would not be considered more
ridiculous than that of founding municipal works for the different sorts
of idle workers; and it would not be thought half so nefarious, for the
proposition to give work by the collectivity is supposed to be in
contravention of the sacred principle of monopolistic competition so
dear to the American economist, and it would be denounced as an
approximation to the surrender of the city to anarchism and destruction
But as I have so often said, the American life is in no wise logical, and
you will not be surprised, though you may be shocked or amused, to learn
that the festival of Thanksgiving is now so generally devoted to
witnessing a game of football between the elevens of two great
universities that the services at the churches are very scantily
attended. The Americans are practical, if they are not logical, and this
preference of football to prayer and praise on Thanksgiving-day has gone
so far that now a principal church in the city holds its services on
Thanksgiving-eve, so that the worshippers may not be tempted to keep away
from their favorite game.
There is always a heavy dinner at home after the game, to console the
friends of those who have lost and to heighten the joy of the winning
side, among the comfortable people. The poor recognize the day largely
as a sort of carnival. They go about in masquerade on the eastern
avenues, and the children of the foreign races who populate that quarter
penetrate the better streets, blowing horns and begging of the passers.
They have probably no more sense of its difference from the old carnival
of Catholic Europe than from the still older Saturnalia of pagan times.
Perhaps you will say that a masquerade is no more pagan than a football
game; and I confess that I have a pleasure in that innocent
misapprehension of the holiday on the East Side. I am not more censorious
of it than I am of the displays of festival cheer at the provision-stores
or green-groceries throughout the city at this time. They are almost as
numerous on the avenues as the drinking-saloons, and, thanks to them, the
tasteful housekeeping is at least convenient in a high degree. The waste
is inevitable with the system of separate kitchens, and it is not in
provisions alone, but in labor and in time, a hundred cooks doing the
work of one; but the Americans have no conception of our co-operative
housekeeping, and so the folly goes on.
Meantime the provision-stores add much to their effect of crazy gayety on
the avenues. The variety and harmony of colors is very great, and this
morning I stood so long admiring the arrangement in one of them that I am
afraid I rendered myself a little suspicious to the policeman guarding
the liquor-store on the nearest corner; there seems always to be a
policeman assigned to this duty. The display was on either side of the
provisioner's door, and began, on one hand, with a basal line of pumpkins
well out on the sidewalk. Then it was built up with the soft white and
cool green of cauliflowers and open boxes of red and white grapes, to the
window that flourished in banks of celery and rosy apples. On the other
side, gray-green squashes formed the foundation, and the wall was sloped
upward with the delicious salads you can find here, the dark red of
beets, the yellow of carrots, and the blue of cabbages. The association
of colors was very artistic, and even the line of mutton carcasses
overhead, with each a brace of grouse or half a dozen quail in its
embrace, and flanked with long sides of beef at the four ends of the
line, was picturesque, though the sight of the carnage at the
provision-stores here would always be dreadful to an Altrurian; in the
great markets it is intolerable. This sort of business is mostly in the
hands of the Germans, who have a good eye for such effects as may be
studied in it; but the fruiterers are nearly all Italians, and their
stalls are charming. I always like, too, the cheeriness of the chestnut
and peanut ovens of the Italians; the pleasant smell and friendly smoke
that rise from them suggest a simple and homelike life which there are so
any things in this great, weary, heedless city to make one forget.
But I am allowing myself to wander too far from Mrs. Makely and her
letter, which reached me only two days before Thanksgiving.
"MY DEAR MR. HOMOS,--Will you give me the pleasure of your company at
dinner, on Thanksgiving-day, at eight o'clock, very informally. My
friend, Mrs. Bellington Strange, has unexpectedly returned from Europe
within the week, and I am asking a few friends, whom I can trust to
excuse this very short notice, to meet her.
With Mr. Makely's best regards,
November the twenty sixth,
Eighteen hundred and
I must tell you that it has been a fad with the ladies here to spell out
their dates, and, though the fashion is waning, Mrs. Makely is a woman
who would remain in such an absurdity among the very last. I will let you
make your own conclusions concerning this, for though, as an Altrurian, I
cannot respect her, I like her so much, and have so often enjoyed her
generous hospitality, that I cannot bring myself to criticise her except
by the implication of the facts. She is anomalous, but, to our way of
thinking, all the Americans I have met are anomalous, and she has the
merits that you would not logically attribute to her character. Of
course, I cannot feel that her evident regard for me is the least of
these, though I like to think that it is founded on more reason than the
I have by this time become far too well versed in the polite
insincerities of the plutocratic world to imagine that, because she asked
me to come to her dinner very informally, I was not to come in all the
state I could put into my dress. You know what the evening dress of men
is here, from the costumes in our museum, and you can well believe that I
never put on those ridiculous black trousers without a sense of their
grotesqueness--that scrap of waistcoat reduced to a mere rim, so as to
show the whole white breadth of the starched shirt-bosom, and that coat
chopped away till it seems nothing but tails and lapels. It is true that
I might go out to dinner in our national costume; in fact, Mrs. Makely
has often begged me to wear it, for she says the Chinese wear theirs; but
I have not cared to make the sensation which I must if I wore it; my
outlandish views of life and my frank study of their customs signalize me
quite sufficiently among the Americans.
At the hour named I appeared in Mrs. Makely's drawing-room in all the
formality that I knew her invitation, to come very informally, really
meant. I found myself the first, as I nearly always do, but I had only
time for a word or two with my hostess before the others began to come.
She hastily explained that as soon as she knew Mrs. Strange was in New
York she had despatched a note telling her that I was still here; and
that as she could not get settled in time to dine at home, she must come
and take Thanksgiving dinner with her. "She will have to go out with Mr.
Makely; but I am going to put you next to her at table, for I want you
both to have a good time. But don't you forget that you are going to take
I said that I should certainly not forget it, and I showed her the
envelope with my name on the outside, and hers on a card inside, which
the serving-man at the door had given me in the hall, as the first token
that the dinner was to be unceremonious.
She laughed, and said: "I've had the luck to pick up two or three other
agreeable people that I know will be glad to meet you. Usually it's such
a scratch lot at Thanksgiving, for everybody dines at home that can, and
you have to trust to the highways and the byways for your guests, if you
give a dinner. But I did want to bring Mrs. Strange and you together, and
so I chanced it. Of course, it's a sent-in dinner, as you must have
inferred from the man at the door; I've given my servants a holiday, and
had Claret's people do the whole thing. It's as broad as it's long, and,
as my husband says, you might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb; and
it saves bother. Everybody will know it's sent in, so that nobody will be
deceived. There'll be a turkey in it somewhere, and cranberry sauce; I've
insisted on that; but it won't be a regular American Thanksgiving dinner,
and I'm rather sorry, on your account, for I wanted you to see one, and I
meant to have had you here, just with ourselves; but Eveleth Strange's
coming back put a new face on things, and so I've gone in for this
affair, which isn't at all what you would like. That's the reason I tell
you at once it's sent in."
I am so often at a loss for the connection in Mrs. Makely's ideas that I
am more patient with her incoherent jargon than you will be, I am afraid.
It went on to much the effect that I have tried to report until the
moment she took the hand of the guest who came next. They arrived, until
there were eight of us in all, Mrs. Strange coming last, with excuses for
being late. I had somehow figured her as a person rather mystical and
recluse in appearance, perhaps on account of her name, and I had imagined
her tall and superb. But she was, really, rather small, though not below
the woman's average, and she had a face more round than otherwise, with a
sort of business-like earnestness, but a very charming smile, and
presently, as I saw, an American sense of humor. She had brown hair and
gray eyes, and teeth not too regular to be monotonous; her mouth was very
sweet, whether she laughed or sat gravely silent. She at once affected me
like a person who had been sobered beyond her nature by responsibilities,
and had steadily strengthened under the experiences of life. She was
dressed with a sort of personal taste, in a rich gown of black lace,
which came up to her throat; and she did not subject me to that
embarrassment I always feel in the presence of a lady who is much
decolletee, when I sit next her or face to face with her: I cannot always
look at her without a sense of taking an immodest advantage. Sometimes I
find a kind of pathos in this sacrifice of fashion, which affects me as
if the poor lady were wearing that sort of gown because she thought she
really ought, and then I keep my eyes firmly on hers, or avert them
altogether; but there are other cases which have not this appealing
quality. Yet in the very worst of the cases it would be a mistake to
suppose that there was a display personally meant of the display
personally made. Even then it would be found that the gown was worn so
because the dressmaker had made it so, and, whether she had made it
in this country or in Europe, that she had made it in compliance with a
European custom. In fact, all the society customs of the Americans follow
some European original, and usually some English original; and it is only
fair to say that in this particular custom they do not go to the English
We did not go out to dinner at Mrs. Makely's by the rules of English
precedence, because there are nominally no ranks here, and we could not;
but I am sure it will not be long before the Americans will begin playing
at precedence just as they now play at the other forms of aristocratic
society. For the present, however, there was nothing for us to do but to
proceed, when dinner was served, in such order as offered itself, after
Mr. Makely gave his arm to Mrs. Strange; though, of course, the white
shoulders of the other ladies went gleaming out before the white
shoulders of Mrs. Makely shone beside my black ones. I have now become so
used to these observances that they no longer affect me as they once did,
and as I suppose my account of them must affect you, painfully,
comically. But I have always the sense of having a part in amateur
theatricals, and I do not see how the Americans can fail to have the same
sense, for there is nothing spontaneous in them, and nothing that has
grown even dramatically out of their own life.
Often when I admire the perfection of the stage-setting, it is with a
vague feeling that I am derelict in not offering it an explicit applause.
In fact, this is permitted in some sort and measure, as now when we sat
down at Mrs. Makely's exquisite table, and the ladies frankly recognized
her touch in it. One of them found a phrase for it at once, and
pronounced it a symphony in chrysanthemums; for the color and the
character of these flowers played through all the appointments of the
table, and rose to a magnificent finale in the vast group in the middle
of the board, infinite in their caprices of tint and design. Another lady
said that it was a dream, and then Mrs. Makely said, "No, a memory," and
confessed that she had studied the effect from her recollection of some
tables at a chrysanthemum show held here year before last, which seemed
failures because they were so simply and crudely adapted in the china and
napery to merely one kind and color of the flower.
"Then," she added, "I wanted to do something very chrysanthemummy,
because it seems to me the Thanksgiving flower, and belongs to
Thanksgiving quite as much as holly belongs to Christmas."
Everybody applauded her intention, and they hungrily fell to upon the
excellent oysters, with her warning that we had better make the most of
everything in its turn, for she had conformed her dinner to the brevity
of the notice she had given her guests.
Just what the dinner was I will try to tell you, for I think that it will
interest you to know what people here think a very simple dinner. That
is, people of any degree of fashion; for the unfashionable Americans, who
are innumerably in the majority, have, no more than the Altrurians, seen
such a dinner as Mrs. Makely's. This sort generally sit down to a single
dish of meat, with two or three vegetables, and they drink tea or coffee,
or water only, with their dinner. Even when they have company, as they
say, the things are all put on the table at once; and the average of
Americans who have seen a dinner served in courses, after the Russian
manner, invariable in the fine world here, is not greater than those who
have seen a serving-man in livery. Among these the host piles up his
guest's plate with meat and vegetables, and it is passed from hand to
hand till it reaches him; his drink arrives from the hostess by the same
means. One maid serves the table in a better class, and two maids in a
class still better; it is only when you reach people of very decided form
that you find a man in a black coat behind your chair; Mrs. Makely,
mindful of the informality of her dinner in everything, had two men.
I should say the difference between the Altrurians and the unfashionable
Americans, in view of such a dinner as she gave us, would be that, while
it would seem to us abominable for its extravagance, and revolting in its
appeals to appetite, it would seem to most of such Americans altogether
admirable and enviable, and would appeal to their ambition to give such a
dinner themselves as soon as ever they could.
Well, with our oysters we had a delicate French wine, though I am told
that formerly Spanish wines were served. A delicious soup followed the
oysters, and then we had fish with sliced cucumbers dressed with oil and
vinegar, like a salad; and I suppose you will ask what we could possibly
have eaten more. But this was only the beginning, and next there came a
course of sweetbreads with green peas. With this the champagne began at
once to flow, for Mrs. Makely was nothing if not original, and she had
champagne very promptly. One of the gentlemen praised her for it, and
said you could not have it too soon, and he had secretly hoped it would
have begun with the oysters. Next, we had a remove--a tenderloin of beef,
with mushrooms, fresh, and not of the canned sort which it is usually
accompanied with. This fact won our hostess more compliments from the
gentlemen, which could not have gratified her more if she had dressed and
cooked the dish herself. She insisted upon our trying the stewed
terrapin, for, if it did come in a little by the neck and shoulders, it
was still in place at a Thanksgiving dinner, because it was so American;
and the stuffed peppers, which, if they were not American, were at least
Mexican, and originated in the kitchen of a sister republic. There were
one or two other side-dishes, and, with all, the burgundy began to be
Mr. Makely said that claret all came now from California, no matter what
French chateau they named it after, but burgundy you could not err in.
His guests were now drinking the different wines, and to much the same
effect, I should think, as if they had mixed them all in one cup; though
I ought to say that several of the ladies took no wine, and kept me in
countenance after the first taste I was obliged to take of each, in order
to pacify my host.
You must know that all the time there were plates of radishes, olives,
celery, and roasted almonds set about that every one ate of without much
reference to the courses. The talking and the feasting were at their
height, but there was a little flagging of the appetite, perhaps, when it
received the stimulus of a water-ice flavored with rum. After eating it I
immediately experienced an extraordinary revival of my hunger (I am
ashamed to confess that I was gorging myself like the rest), but I
quailed inwardly when one of the men-servants set down before Mr. Makely
a roast turkey that looked as large as an ostrich. It was received with
cries of joy, and one of the gentlemen said, "Ah, Mrs. Makely, I was
waiting to see how you would interpolate the turkey, but you never fail.
I knew you would get it in somewhere. But where," he added, in a
burlesque whisper, behind his hand, "are the--"
"Canvasback duck?" she asked, and at that moment the servant set before
the anxious inquirer a platter of these renowned birds, which you know
something of already from the report our emissaries have given of their
cult among the Americans.
Every one laughed, and after the gentleman had made a despairing flourish
over them with a carving-knife in emulation of Mr. Makely's emblematic
attempt upon the turkey, both were taken away and carved at a sideboard.
They were then served in slices, the turkey with cranberry sauce, and the
ducks with currant jelly; and I noticed that no one took so much of the
turkey that he could not suffer himself to be helped also to the duck. I
must tell you that there a salad with the duck, and after that there was
an ice-cream, with fruit and all manner of candied fruits, and candies,
different kinds of cheese, coffee, and liqueurs to drink after the
"Well, now," Mrs. Makely proclaimed, in high delight with her triumph, "I
must let you imagine the pumpkin-pie. I meant to have it, because it
isn't really Thanksgiving without it. But I couldn't, for the life of me,
see where it would come in."
The sally of the hostess made them all laugh, and they began to talk
about the genuine American character of the holiday, and what a fine
thing it was to have something truly national. They praised Mrs. Makely
for thinking of so many American dishes, and the facetious gentleman said
that she rendered no greater tribute than was due to the overruling
Providence which had so abundantly bestowed them upon the Americans as a
people. "You must have been glad, Mrs. Strange," he said to the lady at
my side, "to get back to our American oysters. There seems nothing else
so potent to bring us home from Europe."
"I'm afraid," she answered, "that I don't care so much for the American
oyster as I should. But I am certainly glad to get back."
"In time for the turkey, perhaps?"
"No, I care no more for the turkey than for the oyster of my native
land," said the lady.
"Ah, well, say the canvasback duck, then? The canvasback duck is no
alien. He is as thoroughly American as the turkey, or as any of us."
"No, I should not have missed him, either," persisted the lady.
"What could one have missed," the gentleman said, with a bow to the
hostess, "in the dinner Mrs. Makely has given us? If there had been
nothing, I should not have missed it," and when the laugh at his drolling
had subsided he asked Mrs. Strange: "Then, if it is not too indiscreet,
might I inquire what in the world has lured you again to our shores, if
it was not the oyster, nor the turkey, nor yet the canvasback?"
"The American dinner-party," said the lady, with the same burlesque.
"Well," he consented, "I think I understand you. It is different from the
English dinner-party in being a festivity rather than a solemnity;
though, after all, the American dinner is only a condition of the English
dinner. Do you find us much changed, Mrs. Strange?"
"I think we are every year a little more European," said the lady. "One
notices it on getting home."
"I supposed we were so European already," returned the gentleman, "that
a European landing among us would think he had got back to his
starting-point in a sort of vicious circle. I am myself so thoroughly
Europeanized in all my feelings and instincts that, do you know, Mrs.
Makely, if I may confess it without offence--"
"Oh, by all means!" cried the hostess.
"When that vast bird which we have been praising, that colossal roast
turkey, appeared, I felt a shudder go through my delicate substance, such
as a refined Englishman might have experienced at the sight, and I said
to myself, quite as if I were not one of you, 'Good Heavens! now they
will begin talking through their noses and eating with their knives.'
It's what I might have expected!"
It was impossible not to feel that this gentleman was talking at me; if
the Americans have a foreign guest, they always talk at him more or less;
and I was not surprised when he said, "I think our friend, Mr. Homos,
will conceive my fine revolt from the crude period of our existence which
the roast turkey marks as distinctly as the graffiti of the cave-dweller
proclaim his epoch."
"No," I protested, "I am afraid that I have not the documents for the
interpretation of your emotion. I hope you will take pity on my ignorance
and tell me just what you mean."
The others said they none of them knew, either, and would like to know,
and the gentleman began by saying that he had been going over the matter
in his mind on his way to dinner, and he had really been trying to lead
up to it ever since we sat down. "I've been struck, first of all, by the
fact, in our evolution, that we haven't socially evolved from ourselves;
we've evolved from the Europeans, from the English. I don't think you'll
find a single society rite with us now that had its origin in our
peculiar national life, if we have a peculiar national life; I doubt it,
sometimes. If you begin with the earliest thing in the day, if you begin
with breakfast, as society gives breakfasts, you have an English
breakfast, though American people and provisions."
"I must say, I think they're both much nicer," said Mrs. Makely.
"Ah, there I am with you! We borrow the form, but we infuse the spirit. I
am talking about the form, though. Then, if you come to the society
lunch, which is almost indistinguishable from the society breakfast, you
have the English lunch, which is really an undersized English dinner.
The afternoon tea is English again, with its troops of eager females and
stray, reluctant males; though I believe there are rather more men at the
English teas, owing to the larger leisure class in England. The afternoon
tea and the 'at home' are as nearly alike as the breakfast and the lunch.
Then, in the course of time, we arrive at the great society function,
the dinner; and what is the dinner with us but the dinner of our
"It is livelier," suggested Mrs. Makely, again.
"Livelier, I grant you, but I am still speaking of the form, and not of
the spirit. The evening reception, which is gradually fading away, as a
separate rite, with its supper and its dance, we now have as the English
have it, for the people who have not been asked to dinner. The ball,
which brings us round to breakfast again, is again the ball of our
Anglo-Saxon kin beyond the seas. In short, from the society point of view
we are in everything their mere rinsings."
"Nothing of the kind!" cried Mrs. Makely. "I won't let you say such a
thing! On Thanksgiving-day, too! Why, there is the Thanksgiving dinner
itself! If that isn't purely American, I should like to know what is."
"It is purely American, but it is strictly domestic; it is not society.
Nobody but some great soul like you, Mrs. Makely, would have the courage
to ask anybody to a Thanksgiving dinner, and even you ask only such
easy-going house-friends as we are proud to be. You wouldn't think of
giving a dinner-party on Thanksgiving?"
"No, I certainly shouldn't. I should think it was very presuming; and you
are all as nice as you can be to have come to-day; I am not the only
great soul at the table. But that is neither here nor there. Thanksgiving
is a purely American thing, and it's more popular than ever. A few years
ago you never heard of it outside of New England."
The gentleman laughed. "You are perfectly right, Mrs. Makely, as you
always are. Thanksgiving is purely American. So is the corn-husking, so
is the apple-bee, so is the sugar-party, so is the spelling-match, so is
the church-sociable; but none of these have had their evolution in our
society entertainments. The New Year's call was also purely American, but
that is now as extinct as the dodo, though I believe the other American
festivities are still known in the rural districts."
"Yes," said Mrs. Makely, "and I think it's a great shame that we can't
have some of them in a refined form in society. I once went to a
sugar-party up in New Hampshire when I was a girl, and I never enjoyed
myself so much in my life. I should like to make up a party to go to one
somewhere in the Catskills in March. Will you all go? It would be
something to show Mr. Homos. I should like to show him something really
American before he goes home. There's nothing American left in society!"
"You forget the American woman," suggested the gentleman. "She is always
American, and she is always in society."
"Yes," returned our hostess, with a thoughtful air, "you're quite right
in that. One always meets more women than men in society. But it's
because the men are so lazy, and so comfortable at their clubs, they
won't go. They enjoy themselves well enough in society after they get
there, as I tell my husband when he grumbles over having to dress."
"Well," said the gentleman, "a great many things, the day-time things, we
really can't come to, because we don't belong to the aristocratic class,
as you ladies do, and we are busy down-town. But I don't think we are
reluctant about dinner; and the young fellows are nearly always willing
to go to a ball, if the supper's good and it's a house where they don't
feel obliged to dance. But what do _you_ think, Mr. Homos?" he
asked. "How does your observation coincide with my experience?"
I answered that I hardly felt myself qualified to speak, for though I had
assisted at the different kinds of society rites he had mentioned, thanks
to the hospitality of my friends in New York, I knew the English
functions only from a very brief stay in England on my way here, and from
what I had read of them in English fiction and in the relations of our
emissaries. He inquired into our emissary system, and the company
appeared greatly interested in such account of it as I could briefly
"Well," he said, "that would do while you kept it to yourselves; but now
that your country is known to the plutocratic world, your public
documents will be apt to come back to the countries your emissaries have
visited, and make trouble. The first thing you know some of our bright
reporters will get on to one of your emissaries, and interview him, and
then we shall get what you think of us at first hands. By-the-by, have
you seen any of those primitive social delights which Mrs. Makely regrets
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