Frances Trollope, an English novelist and the mother of a more famous one, had only just arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi in November of 1827, and already she disapproved. Looking around her, all she could see was “desolation,” “degradation,” “mud banks, monstrous bulrushes, and now and then a huge crocodile luxuriating in the slime.” Proceeding by steamboat up the river, she found a good deal more to dislike.
Her major complaint about the steamboat journey was one we can easily sympathize with: the marginalization of women. Like all steamboats, this one had a large and well-appointed cabin on the upper deck for the well-heeled passengers – but that cabin was available only to men. Women had to make do with a small, almost windowless room on the lower deck, and were allowed in the main cabin only to eat. And the men! They chewed and spat tobacco everywhere, on the floor, on the tables, and on the dresses of any woman unlucky enough to be standing near them. “I would infinitely prefer,” declared Mrs. Trollope, “sharing the apartment of a party of well-conditioned pigs to being confined in their cabin.”
Dinner, not only on a steamboat, but in hotels along the river as well, was an ordeal to be dreaded. She was appalled by “the total want of all the usual courtesies of the table, the voracious rapidity with which the viands were seized and devoured…the loathsome spitting, from which it was absolutely impossible to protect our dresses, the frightful manner of feeding with their knives, till the whole blade seemed to enter into the mouth, and the still more frightful manner of cleaning the teeth afterwards with a pocket knife.”
The segregation of the sexes in these new states was so complete that women did not eat with men even on grand public occasions. At a Washington’s Birthday ball in Cincinnati, the men ate in the dining room, while the women remained in the ballroom and ate their dinners off plates on their laps. Quite reasonably, Mrs. Trollope blamed this segregation for the “total and universal want of manners” she encountered, both among men and among women. “They appear to me to have clear heads and active intellects;…but there is no charm, no grace in their conversation. ” The women she met were schooled in stupidity, “guarded by a sevenfold shield of habitual insignificance.”
Among the many 19th-century Europeans who attempted to describe the American scene, it is only Mrs. Trollope who has left us such a deeply observed and indignant portrait of the lives of women. And, being a European, she could only attribute the deficiencies of American social life to the lack of an aristocracy. Her chief object in publishing Domestic Manners of the Americans, she said, was to show “how greatly the advantage is on the side of those who are governed by the few, instead of by the many,” and to convince her countrymen to avoid the “jarring tumult and universal degradation which invariably follow the wild scheme of placing all power in the hands of the populace.”
Further reading: Read the book! It’s wonderful!Share