Singular Custom Among The Americans
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
My wish is occasionally to transmit you some account of the people of these new states; but I am far from being qualified for the purpose, having as yet seen little more than the cities of New York and Philadelphia. I have discovered but few national singularities among them. Their customs and manners are nearly the same with those of England, which they have long been used to copy. For, previous to the Revolution, the Americans were from their infancy taught to look up to the English as patterns of perfection in all things. I have observed, however, one custom, which, for aught I know, is peculiar to this country. An account of it may afford considerable amusement to the numerous readers of your respectable miscellany.
When a young couple are about to enter into the matrimonial state, a never-failing article in the marriage-treaty is, that the lady shall have and enjoy the free and unmolested exercise of the right of white-washing, with all its ceremonials, privileges, and appurtenances. A young woman would forego the most advantageous connexion, and even disappoint the warmest wish of her heart, rather than resign the invaluable right. You would wonder what this privilege of white-washing is. I will endeavour to give you some idea of the ceremony as I have seen it performed.
There is no season of the year in which the lady may not claim her privilege, if she pleases; but the latter end of May is most generally fixed upon for the purpose. [A humorous description then follows of spring cleaning.]
There is also another custom peculiar to the city of Philadelphia, and nearly allied to the former. I mean, that of washing the pavement before the doors every Saturday evening. I at first took this to be a regulation of the police ; but, on a further inquiry, I find it is a religious rite, preparatory to the Sabbath, and is, I believe, the only religious rite in which the numerous sectaries of this city perfectly agree. The ceremony begins about sunset, and continues till about ten or eleven at night. It is very difficult for a stranger to walk the streets on those evenings ; he runs a continual risk of having a bucket of dirty water thrown against his legs : but a Philadelphian born is so much accustomed to the danger, that he avoids it with surprising dexterity. It is from this circumstance that a Philadelphian may be known anywhere by his gait. The streets of New York are paved with rough stones ; these indeed are not washed, but the dirt is so thoroughly swept from before the doors, that the stones stand up sharp and prominent, to the great inconvenience of those who are not accustomed to so rough a path. But habit reconciles everything. It is diverting enough to see a Philadelphian at New York ; he walks the streets with as much painful caution, as if his toes were covered with corns, or his feet lamed by the gout ; while a New Yorker, as little approving the masonry of Philadelphia, shuffles along the pavement like a parrot on a mahogany table.
It must be acknowledged that the ablutions I have mentioned are attended with no small inconvenience ; but the women would not be induced, from any consideration, to resign their privilege. Not-withstanding this, I can give you the strongest assurances that the women of America make the most faithful wives, and the most attentive mothers in the world; and I am sure you will join with me in opinion, that if a married man is made miserable only one week the whole year, he will have no great cause to complain of the matrimonial bond.