Notes of A Traveler: New York 1834


Whoever visits New-York feels as he does in a watch-maker's shop; everybody goes there for the true time, and feels on leaving it as if he had been wound up or regulated a new and better than he could have done it himself. He hears a clicking, as it were, on all sides of him, and finds every thing he looks at in movement, and not a nook or corner but what is brim-full of business. Apparently there is no inactivity; that is, no person is quiescent both in body and mind at once. The reason of this is, that the lazy are excited by the perpetual motion of the busy, or at least compelled to bestir themselves to avoid being run over. If a man has any sympathetic excitability, he will inevitably step quicker in Broadway than in an ox-path in the country; and if he have none, a regard for his flesh and bones will make him keep pace with the crowd with which he moves, avoid collision with that which he meets, and hurry over the cross-walks to escape the carts and omnibuses.

Another great reason why there is so much excitement about New-York is, that the principal vehicles for traveling are seen by so large a portion of the population. Little impression was produced on the public in former days, when the stage-coaches took off most of the travelers by night or at irregular hours: but what can be more animating than to witness the departure or arrival of the steamboats? At six and seven in the morning boats start for all quarters of the compass, like so many carrier-pigeons, released from one point to take the courses they choose. When the hour arrives, the hissing and roaring of the steam-pipe suddenly ceases, the departing travelers spring on board, their remaining friends fly for the shore, the wheels move as if by instinct, and boats tear friend from friend. No row-boat is left behind, as formerly, to accommodate those who lag behind: the day of toleration for the lazy has passed; and all the comfort they receive, when they beg a moment's delay, is an assurance that they will be "in time for the next boat." But in spite of all such warnings, we find the ancient race of the Loiterers not quite extinct. They are found at every steamboat-landing in the country punctually at their time; that is, half a minute at least too late: and if the moment for starting should be delayed until to-morrow or next week, they still would so contrive it as to keep up their consistency.

This spirit of delay once detained one of my traveling companions a little too long, and separated us for a part of the route, on the enjoyment of which we had indulged anticipations, loading one of us with a double portion of luggage, and at the same time depriving the other of a change of raiment. I once saw an orange-seller hurry on shore at the signal for starting, without waiting to give change to a customer, whose money he held under pretence that he had no time; and in another instance a man, who meditated a similar trick on his porter, was pulled back by him for pay, and detained on shore, while his spouse was taken to another city without him.

One would think, from the activity of the New-York merchant, that he must be wholly absorbed in the pursuit of wealth: but on becoming acquainted with the facts, you often find that he only redoubles his activity in business hours to gain time for some other employment which he prefers. Not a small proportion of the whole number are connected with some society for the promotion of the good of their fellow-citizens as fellow-men, in morals, intelligence, religion, or some other important interests. This is by no means true of all, nor of so many as would be desirable, as is proved by the fact, that numbers are members of two, three, and sometimes more associations. They take their intelligence and activity with them wherever they go; and therefore in their society or committee-rooms, with the aid of their commercial punctuality, clear-sightedness, and promptitude, generally act with judgment, good effect, and a saving of time, which could not be expected from men of different habits. The amount of business performed by the active merchants of this city in benevolent societies would astonish any one, if it were possible to present a clear estimate of it. And on the other hand, an account of the money annually contributed by them for the promotion of similar objects would form an amount probably greater than might be easily believed. In all this the purest motives have a large share of influence. It is only necessary to know individuals personally to perceive that many are actuated not merely by generosity, but by Christian principle; and the prospects of good to the city, the country, and the world, from the extension of the spirit of benevolence among the influential men of this city, are very encouraging. Examples of the kind encourage imitation, while they reward those who furnish them; and every year sees one individual and another embarking in the delightful career of disinterested beneficence, and new exertions made by those who have become more interested or encouraged by what they have already effected.

It is highly gratifying also to perceive that the education and employments of multitudes of the young, who are to occupy important stations in society hereafter, are preparing them for more general and extensive labors for the same great objects. The present societies, created and directed by the fathers, have afforded their sons, among other advantages, that most important one of useful and improving employment for their leisure. In multitudes of instances they have led to the formation of characters amiable for their philanthropy, valuable for their intelligence and purity, and promising by their practical knowledge, and the excellent influence they already exercise in their youthful sphere. Thousands of them are at this moment active and responsible members of societies, whose express objects are the good of others: and while it is a most agreeable sight to witness their labors in literary associations, Sabbath-schools, Bible, Tract, and Temperance societies, it is no less gratifying to trace out the influence which systematic beneficence produces upon their habits, minds, and affections, and diffuses among their family and social circles. And how important are these influences in a population of nearly 250,000! But a view of what has been done, and what is doing in this great city by the good and the intelligent, leads the mind to consider what ought to be or may yet be effected.

And surely, with all the advantages offered by New-York for the procuring and the diffusion of knowledge, more should be undertaken for the benefit of public intelligence. This city should be the centre of learning for the Union. No other place in the country can possibly enjoy the advantages she has to become such; yet some of our cities and villages have turned to so much better account what means they have possessed, that they have become literary in a tenfold greater proportion. The public schools are the best large ones in the country, excepting those of Boston; and in some departments are far superior to them. Some of the private schools are good: but the vast majority, particularly of the fashionable ones, are miserably defective. Columbia College and the University are very respectable institutions for the higher branches of learning, while the Mercantile Library Association, the Apprentices' Library, the City Library, the Addendum, &c., afford valuable means of self-instruction to their various classes of readers. Unfortunately, the talents of the learned are kept too much out of sight, and are of course too much underrated by the public, who scarcely know that they exist. Attempts have been made, from time to time, to establish monthly magazines of different descriptions, but they have never flourished well; for writers of acknowledged talent cannot be procured without a reasonable reward, and the publishers are not often disposed to hazard a large sum on an uncertainty. If such men, however, were employed in writing for publication, how much better it would be for the country than to leave them in the retirement of their families or of their professions.

There is, therefore, yet much to be done by the inhabitants of New-York for the promotion of knowledge; and to the rising generation, I think, we may safely look for it, as well as for the execution of still more extensive projects of benevolence. And on this hope we may rely without the charge of being visionary in any degree; for the means are daily increasing, and the hands are multiplying and strengthening by which it is to be accomplished.

But I have been wandering from my subject, and can seek an excuse for indulging in such elevating topics only in the ennobling view presented by the Bay of New-York, to the traveler who crosses it in one of the great steamboats which daily skim over its surface. Were the shores but of an elevation corresponding with the other features of the scene, there would be nothing to regret by the friend of the picturesque. Staten Island approaches nearer than any other part of the surrounding land to what we might wish to see on every side, and presents a pleasing swell, with a variety of lines and hues in its enclosures and crops, the village, and the spacious Quarantine edifices. There are some pretty spots, with pleasant shades, enjoying a view of a water scene, animated by the frequent passage of the finest steamboats.

These vessels have now become improved and refined, apparently almost to the grade of rational beings. They seem to a passenger on board half conscious of the promises held out by the newspapers of their speed and punctuality, of the hour when their arrival may be expected, and the anxiety of those who await them; and quite familiar with the shoals and landing-places. You feel their emotions, at least their straining and labor under your feet. When you observe their movements from a distance, they appear still more as if endued with life and thought. A boat, with a beautiful model and elegant proportions, comes flying over the water almost without disturbing it, rounds a point, and directs her rapid course towards a landing-place. You see that her speed is known, and that her punctuality has been established by long and regular practice: for the persons who have come from a distance to embark have yet scarcely reached the shore, or are just appearing in view; and the landlord remains at his door until she has reached a certain spot, and then leaves it just in time to meet her by a leisurely walk.

There is no hurry, because there is no irregularity and no uncertainty. She cuts the water, but with as little spray as a knife makes in dividing a loaf of bread. There is merely a little rising of the surface under the bow, the wheels scarcely splash the sides of the boat as they revolve, and the water joins again under the stern, leaving only a smooth cicatrice upon the surface. She approaches the shore like a hound nosing out his own kennel; her wheels desist, and she floats on silently as a feather. For a moment she stops to press against the wharf, and the post to which she is daily fastened: the wheels move gently back, and she is in her place. A little mustering is seen forward, about as much as is witnessed at a horse-shoeing at a country blacksmith's, and she is again on her way. Not a loud word has been spoken; yet in that busy moment, Mr. Smith's family have landed, with their fourteen trunks; Thomas Brown has saluted his wife, and bidden farewell till to-morrow; one has landed to shoot or fish in the neighborhood, another has shipped his horse and gig for his own stable in the city, or a basket of beans for the market, while farewell is waved by friends and acquaintances to merchants, fishermen, and others, and the correspondence of the neighborhood is thrown upon deck in the little mailbag. Away flies the boat, followed with a few nods and gazes, to return again at the fixed hour, and renew the scene.


Website: The History
Article Name: Notes of A Traveler: New York 1834
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Things as they are; or, Notes of a traveler through some of the middle and northern states by Theodore Dwight; Harper & Brothers-New York, 1834.
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