Mrs. Child Condemns “the rage for travelling”

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

By the 1830s, many thousands of Americans were traveling on stagecoaches, canalboats, steamboats and railroads, for both business and pleasure. Most American applauded the opportunities provided by the new technologies and the expanding system of roads. New Englander Lydia Maria Child, the well−known author of cookbooks and advice books, was not so sure. She was afraid that families were spending too much money on costly and frivolous traveling.

Transcription of Primary Source

There is one kind of extravagance rapidly increasing in this country, which, in its effects on our purses and our habits, is one of the worst kinds of extravagance; I mean the rage for travelling…

And are not we becoming luxurious and idle? Look at our steamboats, and stages, and taverns! There you will find mechanics*, who have left debts and employment to take care of themselves, while they go to take a peep at the great canal, or the opera−dancers. There you will find domestics all agog for their wages−worth of travelling; why should they look out for ‘a rainy day?’…There you will find mothers, who have left the children at home with Betsey, while they go to improve their minds at the Mountain House, or the Springs…

The money you pay for stages and steamboats is the smallest of the items. There are clothes bought which would not otherwise be bought…children are perhaps left with domestics, or strangers;…your substance is wasted in your absence by those who have no self−interest to prompt them to carefulness; you form an acquaintance with a multitude of people, who will be sure to take your house in their way, when they travel next year; and finally, you become so accustomed to excitement, that home appears insipid, and it requires no small effort to return to the quiet routine of your duties…

I once knew a family which formed a striking illustration of my remarks. The man was a farmer, and his wife was an active, capable woman, with more of ambition than sound policy. Being in debt, they resolved to take fashionable boarders* from Boston, during the summer season. These boarders, at the time of their arrival, were projecting a jaunt to the Springs; and they talked of Lake George crystals, and Canadian music, and English officers, and ‘dark blue Ontario,’ with its beautiful little brood of lakelets, as Wordsworth would call them; and how one lady was dressed superbly at Saratoga; and how another was scandalized for always happening to drop her fan in the vicinity of the wealthiest beaux*. All this fired the quiet imagination of the good farmer’s wife; and no sooner had the boarders departed to enjoy themselves in spite of heat, and dust, and fever−and−ague*, than she stated her determination to follow them. ‘Why have we not as good a right to travel, as they have?’ said she; ‘they have paid us money enough to go to Niagara with; and it really is a shame for people to live and die so ignorant of their own country.’… ‘But what will you do with the children?’ ‘Sally is a very smart girl; I am sure she will take as good care of them as if I were at home.’

To make a long story short, the farmer and his wife concluded to go to Quebec, just to show they had a right to put themselves to inconvenience, if they pleased. They went; spent all their money; had a watch stolen from them in the steamboat; were dreadfully sea−sick off Point Judith; came home tired, and dusty; found the babe sick, because Sally had stood at the door with it, one chilly, damp morning, while she was feeding the chickens; and the eldest girl screaming and screeching at the thoughts of going to bed, because Sally, in order to bring her under her authority, had told her a frightful ‘raw−head−and−bloody−bones’ story; the horse had broken into the garden, and made wretched work with the vegetables; and fifty pounds of butter had become fit for the grease−pot, because the hoops of the firkin* had sprung, and Sally had so much to do, that she never thought of going to see whether the butter was covered with brine*.

After six or eight weeks, the children were pretty well restored to orderly habits; and the wife, being really a notable and prudent woman, resolved to make up for her lost butter and vegetables, by doing without help through the winter. When summer came, they should have boarders, she said; and sure enough, they had boarders in plenty; but not profitable ones. There were forty cousins, at whose houses they had stopped; and twenty people who had been very polite to them on the way; and it being such a pleasant season, and travelling so cheap, every one of these people felt they had a right to take a journey; and they could not help passing a day or two with their friends at the farm. One after another came, till the farmer could bear it no longer. ‘I tell you what, wife,” said he, ‘I am going to jail as fast as a man can go. If there is no other way of putting a stop to this, I’ll sell every bed in the house, except the one we sleep on.’

And sure enough, he actually did this; and when the forty−first cousin came down on a friendly visit, on account of what her other cousins had told her about the cheapness of travelling, she was told they should be very happy to sleep on the floor, for the sake of accommodating her, for a night or two; but the truth was, they had but one bed in the house. This honest couple are now busy in paying off their debts, and laying by something for their old age. He facetiously tells how he went to New York to have his watch stolen, and his boots blacked like a looking glass; and she shows her Lake George diamond ring, and tells how the steamboat was crowded, and how afraid she was the boiler would burst, and always ends by saying, ‘After all, it was a toil of pleasure.’

However, it is not our farmers, who are in the greatest danger of this species of extravagance…It is from adventurers, swindlers, broken down traders,—all that rapidly increasing class of idlers, too genteel to work, and too proud to beg,—that we have most reason to dread examples of extravagance. A very respectable tavern−keeper has lately been driven to establish a rule, that no customer shall be allowed to rise from the table till he pays for his meal. ‘I know it is rude to give such orders to honest men,’ said he, ‘and three years ago I would as soon cut off my hand as have done it; but now, travelling is so cheap, that all sorts of characters are on the move; and I find more than half of them will get away, if they can, without paying a cent.’

Glossary

  • beaux − fashionable men who attend the ladies
  • boarders − persons who are provided with regular meals and lodging usually for payment
  • brine − heavily salted water used as a preservative
  • fever−and−ague − an illness causing alternating bouts of high fever and then chills
  • firkin − a small cask or barrel
  • mechanic − person whose occupation is to construct machines, or goods, wares, instruments, furniture and the like; a blacksmith, a cabinetmaker or a printer is an example of a mechanic

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Catalog Number: Old Sturbridge Village

Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife (Boston: Carter and Hendee 1832), 99−103. Edited by Old Sturbridge Village.