A New England Boyhood (1899)
Edward Everett Hale
LIFE AT HOME
I AM certainly not writing my autobiography; but I cannot give any idea of how boys lived in the decade when I was a boy--that is, in the years
between 1826 and 1836--without giving a chapter to home life as I saw it. In passing I will say that I first remember the figures 1826, thus combined, as I saw them on the cover of Thomas's Almanac of 1827. Here Time, with the figures 1827 on his head, was represented as mowing in a churchyard, where a new stone with the figures 1826 was prominent; 1825, 1824, and the others were on stones somewhat overgrown by grass and sunken in the ground. The conceit seemed to me admirable, and the date fixed itself on my memory.
I was born in a house which stood where Parker's larger lunch-room now fronts the Tremont House. We moved from this house to that on the corner of School Street, lately purchased by Mr. Parker to enlarge his hotel, and in 1828 we moved again to the new house, which was, and is, No. l Tremont Place. It is now two or three stories higher than it was then; but some parts of the interior are not changed. Behind it was a little yard,, with a wood-house, called a " shed," on top of which the clothes were dried. This arrangement was important for our New England childhood.
I was the youngest of four children who made the older half of a large family. By a gap between me and my brother Alexander, - who afterwards was lost in the government service in Pensacola, -"we four" were separated from the "three little ones." It is necessary to explain this in advance, in a history which is rather a history "A young life in Boston than of mine alone.
My father, as I have said, was an experienced teacher in young life, and he never lost his interest in the business of education. My mother had a genius for education, and it is a pity that, at an epoch in her life when she wanted to open a girls' school, she was not permitted to do so. They had read enough of the standard books on education to know how much sense there was in them, and how much nonsense. Such books were about in the house, more or less commented on by us young critics as we grew big enough to dip into them.
At the moment I had no idea that any science or skill was expended on our training. I supposed I was left to the great American proverb which I have already cited: " Go as you please." But I have seen since that the hands were strong which directed this gay team of youngsters, though there was no stimulus we knew of, and though the touch was velvet. An illustration of this was in that wisdom of my father in sending me for four years to school to a simpleton.
The genius of the whole, shown by both my father and mother, came out in the skill which made home the happiest place of all, so that we simply hated any engagement which took us elsewhere, unless we were in the open air. I have said that I disliked school, and that I did not want to go down on the wharves, even with that doubtful bribe of the molasses casks. At home we had an infinite variety of amusements. At home we might have all the other boys, if we wished. At home, in our two stories, we were supreme. The scorn of toys which is reflected in the Edgeworth books had, to a certain extent, its effect on the household. But we had almost everything we wanted for purposes of manufacture or invention. Whalebone, spiral springs, pulleys, and catgut, for perpetual motion or locomotive carriages; rollers and planks for floats-what they were I will explain - all were obtainable. In the yard we had parallel bars and a high cross-pole for climbing. When we became chemists we might have sulphuric acid, nitric acid, litmus paper, or whatever we desired, so our allowance would stand it. I was not more than seven years old when I burned off my eyebrows by igniting gunpowder with my burning-glass. My hair was then so light that nobody missed a little, more or less, above the eyelids. I thought it was wisest not to tell my mother, because it might shock her nerves, and I was a man, thirty years old, before she heard of it. Such playthings as these, with very careful restrictions on the amount of powder, with good blocks for building, quite an assortment of carpenter's tools, a work-bench good enough, printing materials ad libitum from my father's printing-office, furnished endless occupation.
Before I attempt any account of the home life which grew out of such conditions I must make a little excursus to describe the domestic service of those days, quite different from ours. I wish particularly to describe Fullum, who outlived the class to which he belonged, and had, when he died, in 1886, long been its last representative.
The few New England children who still read the Rollo books will have pleasant remembrances of Jonas and Beechnut, in whom Mr. Jacob Abbott has presented for posterity the hired boy of New England country life. In life in a little town like Boston this hired boy might grow to be the hired man, and, as in Fullum's exceptional case, might grow to be a hundred years old, or nearly that, without changing that condition. If that happened his presence in a family became a factor of importance to the growing children. In the case of Fullum, if, as he supposed, he was born in 1790, he was thirty-two years old when, in 1822, he took me in his arms before I was an hour old.
Fullum, then, had been a country lad, who came down from Worcester County to make his fortune. I do not know when, but it was before the time of the short war with England. He expected to be, and was, the hired boy and hired man in one and another Boston family. Early in the business he was in Mr. William Sullivan's service. He was driving Mr. Sullivan out of town, one day, when they found Roxbury Street blocked up by the roof of the old meeting-house, which had been blown into the street by the gale of September, 1815. Afterward he was in Daniel Webster's service, and here also he took care of horses and carriages. He was a born tyrant, and it was always intimated that Mr. Webster did not fancy his rule. Anyway he came from the Websters to us, I suppose when Mr. Webster went to Congress, in the autumn of 1820. And, in one fashion or another, he lived with our family, as a most faithful vassal or tyrant, for sixty-six years from that time. I say " vassal or tyrant," for this was a pure piece of feudalism; and in the feudal system, as I have often had to say, the vassal is often a tyrant, while the master is almost always a slave. So is it that the memories of my boyhood are all mixed up with memories of Fullum.
I have spoken of him in connection with Miss Whitney's school. Here was a faithful man Friday, who would have died for any of us, so strong was his love for us, yet who insisted on rendering his service very much in his own way. If my father designed a wooden horse for me, to be run on four wheels, after the fashion of what were called velocipedes in those days, he would make the drawings, but it would be Fullum's business to take them to the carpenter's and see the horse made. If we were to have heavy hoops from water-casks, Fullum was the person who conducted the negotiation for them. There was no harm in the tutorship to which we were thus intrusted. He never used a profane or impure word while he was with us children; and as he was to us an authority in all matters of gardening, of carpentry, of driving and the care of horses, we came to regard him as, in certain lines, omniscient and omnipotent. If now the reader will bear in mind that this omniscient and omnipotent person, at once the Hercules and the Apollo of our boyhood, could not read, write, or spell so well as any child four years old who had been twelve months at Miss Whitney's school, that reader may understand why a certain scorn of book-learning sometimes stains these pages, otherwise so pure. And if the same reader should know that this same Fullum always spoke in superlatives, and multiplied every figure with which he had to do by hundreds or by thousands, he may have a key to a certain habit of exaggeration which has been detected in the present writer, "They was ten thousand men tryin' to git in. But old Reed, he would n't let um." This would be his way of describing the effort of four or five men to enter some place from which Reed, the one constable of Boston, meant to keep them out.
The reader must excuse this excursus, for I think it necessary. I think it necessary for the civilized child to be kept in touch, in his childhood, with animals and with savages. Fullum was the person through whom savage life touched ours. To Fullum, largely, we owed it that we were neither prigs nor dudes. We had no cats, nor dogs, nor birds; and Fullum's place in these reminiscences is far more important than is that of any pet, any school-master, or any minister. The oldest child of " us four " was but four years and nine months older than the youngest. She had, as I have said, received, and deserved, at Miss Whitney's a medal given to the " most amiable." Next to her came a boy, then another girl, and then this writer. The movements of " us four" had much in common; but at school and in most plays the boys made one unit and the girls another, to report every evening to one another. It is to the boyhood experiences that these pages belong.
But it was a Persian and Median rule of that household, which I recommend to all other households, that after tea there were to be no noisy games. The children must sit down at the table -there was but one-and occupy themselves there till bedtime. It has been well said that the ferocity of infancy is such that, were its strength equal to its will, it would long ago have exterminated the human race. This is true. And it is to be remarked, also, that the strength of infancy, and of boyhood and girlhood, is very great. Thus is it that, unless some strict rules are laid down for limiting its use and the places of its exhibition, and kept after they are laid down, the death of parents, and of all persons who have passed the age of childhood, may be expected at any moment. One of such rules was this of which I have spoken.
Everybody of whom we knew anything dined at one or two o'clock in Boston then. After dinner men went back to their places of business. At six, or possibly as late as seven in the summer, came " tea." After tea, as I have said, the children of this household gathered round the table. Fullum came in and took away the tea things, folded the cloth and put it away. Our mother then drew up her chair to the drawer of the table, probably with a baby .in her arms awaiting the return of its nurse. We four drew up our chairs on the other sides. Then we might do as we chose-teetotum games, cards of all sorts, books, drawing, or evening lessons, if there were any such awful penalty resulting from the sin of Adam and Eve. But nobody might disturb anyone else.
Drawing was the most popular of the occupations, and took the most of our time and thought. The provisions for it were very simple, and there was only the faintest pretence at instruction, There was one particular brand of lead pencils, sold by one particular grocer in West Street at twelve cents a dozen. These were bought by us at this wholesale rate, and kept in the drawer. One piece of India rubber was also kept there for the crowd. As we gathered at the table, a quarter-sheet of foolscap was given to each child and to each guest - as regularly as a bit of butter had been given half an hour before-and one pencil.
The reader must imagine the steady flow of voices. " Who's got the India rubber? " " Here it is under the Transcript." " This horse looks as if he were walking on foot-balls." " Oh, you must n't draw his shoes; you never see his shoes! " "I wish I knew how to draw a chaise." "I don't see how they make pictures of battles. My smoke covers up all the soldiers." Battle pieces, indeed, were, as usual with children, the favorite compositions. We were not so far from the last war with England as the children of to-day are from the Civil War.
Perhaps two of us put together our paper, folded it and pinned it in the fold, and then made a magazine. Of magazines there were two- The New England Herald, composed and edited by the two elders of the group, and The Public Informer, by my sister Lucretia and me. I am afraid that the name " Public Informer " was suggested wickedly to us little ones, when we did not know that those words carry a disagreeable meaning. But when we learned this, afterwards, we did not care. I think some of the Everetts, my uncles, had had a boy newspaper with the same name. When things ran with perfect regularity The New England Herald was read at the breakfast-table one Monday morning, and The Public Informer the next Monday morning. But this was just as it might happen. They were published when the editors pleased, as all journals should be, and months might go by without a number. And there was but one copy of each issue. It would be better if this could be said of some other journals.
Once a year prizes were offered at school for translations or original compositions. We always competed, not to say were made to compete, by the unwritten law of the family. This law was I simply that we could certainly do anything if we wanted to and tried. I remember a long rhythmical version I made of the story of the flood, in Ovid, and another of Phaeton. Where Dryden makes Jupiter say, " Short exhortations need," I remember that my halting line jumbled along into I the ten syllables, "Long exhortations are not needed here." I stinted myself in this translation to four lines before dinner and four lines after tea; and by writing eight lines thus, in fifty days I accomplished the enterprise. I would come home from the swimming school ten minutes earlier because this translation was to be made; and, while Fullum was setting the table for dinner, I would stand at the sideboard. There was always an inkstand on it, with two or three quill pens. I took out the poem from the upper drawer of the sideboard, which I never see to this moment without thinking of Ovid. Then I wrote my four lines, such as they were, put the manuscript away again, and proceeded to dinner.
Other boys and other girls liked to come into such an evening congress as I have described, but nothing was changed in the least because the visitor came, excepting that room was made at the table. He or she had a quarter-sheet of foolscap, like the others.
This literature is connected with that of the world by one reminiscence, which belongs as late as some of the very last of these evening sessions.
One evening my father came in from his room, which was next to that we sat in, with the London Morning Chronicle. He pointed out an article and said: "Read that to them, Edward; it will make them laugh." And I read the first account of Sam Weller as he revealed himself to Mr. Pick-wick. Of course we all laughed, as thousands have done since. But I said sadly: "What a shame that we shall never hear of Sam Weller again! " This must have been in the college vacation of the spring of 1837.
I must not give the idea, however, by speaking of these evenings thus that our lives were specially artistic or literary. They were devoted to play, pure and simple, with no object but having a good time. The principal part of the attics - or, as we called them, garrets-in every house we lived in was surrendered to us boys. In Tremont Place we had the valuable addition of a dark cockloft over the garret chambers. It had no windows, but was all the better place to sit and tell stories in. Then we controlled the stairs to the roof, and we spent a good deal of time, in the summer days, on the ridge-pole. There were not twenty houses in Boston on higher land, so that from this point we commanded a good view of the harbor. I was amused the other day when an infantile correspondent of a New York newspaper asked how Napoleon could have used a telegraph before what is called Mr. Morse's invention, for as early as 1831 we read all the telegraphic signals of all the vessels arriving in Boston harbor, and the occasional semaphoric signals on the lockout on Central Wharf.
About the year 1830, under the pressure of the " march of intellect," were published some books for young children from which the present generation is profiting largely. There were " The Boy's Own Book," "The Girl's Own Book," "The American Girl's Own Book," and "The Young Lady's Own Book," each of them excellent in its way. I think " The Boy's Own Book," which has since been published with the double title "An Encyclopaedia for Boys," led the way in this affair; and I still regard it as rather the best of the series. It had subdivisions for indoor games, outdoor games, gymnastics, chemistry, chess, riddles, riding, walking, and I think driving, boxing, and fencing. Perhaps there were more heads, but these were those which occupied our attention most. Somebody made me a New Year's present of this book in the year 1830 or 1831, and from that moment it was the text-book of the attic, Professor Andrews and President Eliot would feel their hair growing gray, if for five minutes they were obliged to read the chemistry which soaked into us from this book. Whoever wrote it still used the old nomenclature a good deal. We knew nothing of HO, and little of the proportions in which they go into the constitution of things. We read of "oil of vitriol" and "muriatic acid," and had other antiquarian names for agents and reagents. All the same, the book gave us experiments which we could try-taught us how to manufacture fireworks in a fashion, and even suggested to us the painting of our own magic lantern slides. Our apparatus was of the most limited kind. It was a high festival day when one went down to Gibbens's grocer's shop and bought for three cents an empty Florence flask; this was the retort of that simple chemistry. In connection with this, like all other boys of that time known to me, we made what were called electrical machines, which gave us good sparks and Leyden jar shocks quite sufficient to satisfy the guests who visited us.
It is in connection with one of these machines that I remember one of my mother's gospels. I was trying to catch a fly, to give him an electric shock, and she would not permit me. I pleaded in vain that it would not hurt him, but she said: " It would certainly not give him pleasure, and it might give him pain."
My father was a civil engineer, somewhat in advance of his time. He was the first person to propose the railroad system of Massachusetts; and that system would not be what it is, but for his work for it, in season and out of season. I cannot remember the time when we did not have a model railway in the house; in earlier years it was in the parlor, so that he might explain to visitors what was meant by a car running upon rails. I can still see the sad, incredulous look, which I understood then as well as I should now, with which some intelligent person listened kindly, and only in manner implied that it was a pity that so intelligent a man as he should go crazy. His craziness, fortunately, led his associates, and in the year 1831, after endless reverses, a charter was given for the incorporation of the Boston and Worcester Railway. In the earlier proposals for such work it was always suggested that horses should be the moving power. In point of fact the first railway, which carried the Quincy granite from Quincy to the sea, was operated by the weight of the descending trains, which pulled up the empty cars. I was with him, as a little boy, sitting on a box in the chaise, when he drove out once to see the newly laid Quincy track, and I perfectly remember his trying with his foot the steadiness of the rail where it crosses the road to Quincy. His tastes, of course, led ours. There was a lathe in the house, which we were permitted to run under severe conditions; and we very early made our own locomotives, which were propelled by whalebone springs.
But the carriage we liked most was the " float." I have never seen it in the plays of other boys, though perhaps it is well known. For a good float you want a board a foot wide, an inch thick, and four feet long. You want two rollers, which had better be of hard wood, each a foot long and an inch or more in diameter; two inches would be better than one, but you take what you can get; a broomstick furnishes two or three good ones. Placing these rollers two feet apart on the ground, you put the float upon them, with one roller at the end, and the other in the middle. You then seat yourself carefully on the board, having two paddles in your hands, made from shingles. With these two paddles you will find that you can propel yourself over any floor of reasonable smoothness. You can even pass a threshold, and you can run into the most unexpected corners. If you have a companion on another float in the same room, you can have naval battles, or you can go to the assistance of shipwrecked crews. You can go forward or you can go backward, every now and then running a roller out, but skilfully placing it under the float at such an .angle as will direct you in the way in which you wish to go afterwards. For this game or sport you should not have too many companions; you should have a good large attic or barn floor, and you should have unlimited patience. You can make a float, of course, out of a museum door, or out of any plank that happens to be going. I remember once, when we were hard pressed, one of my companions went to sea in a soap box. But what I have described is the ideal float for young people.
We played all the tame games, such as checkers, chess, loto, battledoor and shuttlecock, graces, vingt-et-un, cup and ball, coronella, and the like, but I think under a certain protest. For that matter, I danced under the same protest. I regarded all these as concessions to the social order in which we lived, and I obeyed that social order as I did in going to school. But precisely as I looked upon school with a certain sense of condescension, I think we all looked upon these games as being something provided for an average public, while we supposed that all children of sense invented their own games.
I have never, by the way, seen in print the statement that our teetotum games of that day were a survival of games of the same kind running well back into the dark ages. In the great German museum at Nuremberg I saw such games of as early a date, I think, as the year 1300. Any boy who will look at his teetotum game of to-day, if such things still exist, will probably find that it comes out at 63. This means that 63 is the " grand climacteric," in the old theory of the climacterics; and then, if he will look back, he will find that at 7, 14, 21, 28, and so on are the other climacterics. All this belongs to those happy ages which knew nothing of modern science.
I have stated already the absolute rule that we must report at home before we went anywhere to play after school. I think this rule affected our lives a great deal more than my mother meant it should in laying it down. She simply wanted to know at certain stages of the day where her children were. I do not recollect that she ever forbade our going anywhere, where we wanted to. But practically the rule worked thus: We rushed home from school, very likely with a plan on foot for the Common, or for some combined movement with the other boys. We went into the house to report. There was invariably gingerbread ready for us, which was made in immense quantities for the purpose. This luncheon was ready not only for us, but for any boys we might bring with us. When once we arrived at home the home attractions asserted themselves. There was some chemical experiment to be continued, or there was some locomotive to be displayed to another boy, or there had come in a new number of the Juvenile Miscellany. In a word, we were seduced up into the attic, and up in the attic we were very apt to stay. I once asked my mother what she supposed the mothers of the other boys said who came home with us and partook of luncheon and entered into our affairs. She simply said that that was their lockout, it was not hers. She was perfectly ready to provide luncheon for the crowd. I rather think that the other mothers knew that the boys were well off.
There were but few companions who were admitted into the profoundest mysteries of the attic. Edward Webster was one, who afterward died in command of a regiment in the Mexican War. My cousin John Durivage was one, and there were others whose companionship was not as long or as steady as that of these two. In the year 1829 my brother Nathan, who, as I have said, was my adviser, teacher, companion, and inspirer in everything, being three years older I than myself, went to the newly established English High School for two years. Here his smattering of science and taste for mechanics were fostered, and from such a laboratory as was there he brought home suggestions for our workshop. I have always known that I am thus largely indebted, at second hand, to the suggestions which he received from Mr. Miles and Mr. Sherwin there. And this is not a bad instance of the way in which the power of a great educator extends itself beyond the lives of the pupils whom he has under his eye at school.
My father was editor of the Daily Advertiser; and in that day this meant that he owned the whole printing plant, engaged all the printers, and printed his own newspaper. He was never a practical printer, but, with his taste for mechanics, he understood all the processes of the business. Not unnaturally this grew into his establishing a book printing-office, which did as good work in its time as was done anywhere. The first American edition of Cicero's " Republic," after the discovery of that book in a Pompeian manuscript by Mai, was printed by him. Naturally he went forward into the study of power-press printing, and, at his suggestion, Daniel Treadwell made the first power presses which worked to advantage in this country. In the years between 1820 and 1825 the Boston Mill-dam was constructed, for the purpose of making a water power out of the tide power of the Back Bay. My father then introduced power-press printing there, and that printing-office was maintained until the year 1836. When the time came he was president of the first type foundry in New England, perhaps in America. All the arrangements for these contrivances were, of course, interesting to his sons. So, as I have said, we had type from the printing-office, and we all learned to set type and to arrange it. When, in 1834, my brother went to college, and I was left alone, I used to repair every day to the book office for my printing, and there learned the case and all the processes of imposing scientifically. I used to work off my own books on a hand press. I have never lost the memories of the case, and am rather fond of saying now that, if it were necessary, I could support my family as a compositor.
I would not have gone into this detail but that I am always urging people to let their boys have printing apparatus in early life, because I think it is such a good educator. The absolute accuracy that is necessary is good for a boy. The solid fact that 144 ems will go into a certain space, and will require that space, and that no prayers nor tears, hopes nor fears, will change that solid fact - this is most important. I do not mean the mere convenience to an author of being able to talk familiarly with the compositor who has his book in hand: that is a good thing. But
I mean that human life in general has 'lessons to teach which every compositor requires which few other experiences of life teach so well. I think also that, as a study of English style, the school of Franklin and Horace Greeley is a good one.
For home reading we had the better magazines of that day, including the English New Monthly, which was then under the editorial charge of Campbell. We had the weekly literary 'news- papers which were beginning) such as the New World, edited by Park Benjamin; the Spirit of the Times, which had a great deal of sporting news, the Albion, a weekly which was made up of extracts from good foreign papers. I remember the issue of the last of Scott's novels- " Anne of Geierstein," " Castle Dangerous," and, " Count Robert of Paris." There was a sort of grief in the family, as if a near friend had died, or as if some one had gone crazy, when " Castle Dangerous " and " Count Robert " appeared, because they were so poor. The last part of " Harry and Lucy " was published within our day, and we read of those children almost as if they were personal friends - a good deal as a younger generation has read of Rollo and Jonas, and a certain Susy in the Susy books. Of course the physical science in "Harry and Lucy" had its part in our philosophical experiments. Miss Edgeworth's " Helen " was published within my memory, and we had friends who occasionally brought in letters from the Edgeworths and read them.
We were all instinct with the love of nature and of the country, and of our excursions outside the old peninsula of Boston I will say something in another chapter. But we could hardly have lived without some sort of gardening at home- certainly not under my mother's lead. In the yard at the corner of School Street there was a very, very little space where we could plant seeds, and did. I still regard bur-cucumber as my own discovery, -as I do the berries of Virginia Creeper,-and I look upon it as Sir Stamford Raffles may have looked on Rafflesia. But when we came to Tremont Place there was no such space, and we were obliged to do as they did at Babylon. We each, therefore, had on the " shed," which was made for the drying of clothes, a raisin box filled with earth for our horticultural experiments. You can do a good deal with a raisin box, if you are careful and not too ambitious. Practically I planted morning-glories along one long side, with sweet peas between. These were to climb up on the posts. There is a tradition in the family that, when I was a boy of eight, I threw over a morning-glory to a baby six or eight months old, who was being carried by in the street, whom I married twenty-two years after. I need not say that this tradition, well founded as a matter of art, was invented by myself, has no foundation in fact excepting that "it might have been." Behind the vines divide your box into even parts. The right-hand side is for agriculture: there you will plant your radishes and pepper-grass. The left-hand side is for flowers: here you can put in four rows; for instance, touch-me-nots, flytrap, Venus's looking-glass, and ten-week stocks. I think we generally selected our seeds from something which seemed romantic in the name more than with any reference to what would be produced. I do not mean that one had the same things one summer which he had the year before.
These gardens, covering perhaps a square foot and a half each, were of the greatest interest to us, I remember we were very much amused when some children on the other side of the way, who lived in one of those elegant houses where the Bellevue now stands, whose terraces ran up the grades of the old Beacon Hill, said to us that they envied us our raisin boxes on the shed. From the same shed I observed the annular eclipse of the sun in the spring of 1829.
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