day one (Dec. 21 – 22, 1838)

Fanny Kemble's Journey

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Philadelphia to Portsmouth VA

On Friday morning [December 21, 1838] we started from Philadelphia, by railroad, for Baltimore. It is a curious fact enough, that half the routes that are traveled in America are either temporary or unfinished—one reason, among several, for the multitudinous accidents which befall wayfarers. At the very outset of our journey, and within scarce a mile of Philadelphia, we crossed the Schuylkill, over a bridge, one of the principal piers of which is yet incomplete, and the whole building (a covered wooden one, of handsome dimensions) filled with workmen, yet occupied about its construction. But the Americans are impetuous in the way of improvement, and have all the impatience of children about the trying of a new thing, often greatly retarding their own progress by hurrying unduly the completion of their works, or using them in a perilous state of incompleteness.

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Our road lay for a considerable length of time through flat low meadows that skirt the Delaware, which at this season of the year, covered with snow and bare of vegetation, presented a most dreary aspect. We passed through Wilmington (Delaware), and crossed a small stream called the Brandywine, the scenery along the banks of which is very beautiful. For its historical associations I refer you to the life of Washington. I cannot say that the aspect of the town of Wilmington, as viewed from the railroad cars, presented any very exquisite points of beauty; I shall therefore indulge in a few observations upon these same railroad cars just here.

And first, I cannot but think that it would be infinitely more consonant with comfort, convenience, and common sense, if persons obliged to travel during the intense cold of an American winter (in the Northern states), were to clothe themselves according to the exigency of the weather, and so do away with the present deleterious custom of warming close and crowded carriages with sheet iron stoves, heated with anthracite coal. No words can describe the foulness of the atmosphere, thus robbed of all vitality by the vicious properties of that dreadful combustible, and tainted besides with the poison emitted at every respiration from so many pairs of human lungs. These are facts which the merest tyro in physiological science knows, and the utter disregard of which on the part of the Americans renders them the amazement of every traveler from countries where the preservation of health is considered worth the care of a rational creature. I once traveled to Harrisburg in a railroad car, fitted up to carry sixty-four persons, in the midst of which glowed a large stove. The trip was certainly a delectable one. Nor is there any remedy for this: an attempt to open a window is met by a universal scowl and shudder; and indeed it is but incurring the risk of one's death of cold, instead of one's death of heat. The windows, in fact, form the walls on each side of the carriage, which looks like a long greenhouse upon wheels; the seats, which each contain two persons (a pretty tight fit too), are placed down the whole length of the vehicle, one behind the other, leaving a species of aisle in the middle for the uneasy (a large portion of the traveling community here) to fidget up and down, for the tobacco chewers to spit in, and for a whole tribe of little itinerant fruit and cake sellers to rush through, distributing their wares at every place where the train stops. Of course nobody can well sit immediately in the opening of a window when the thermometer is twelve degrees below zero; yet this, or suffocation in foul air, is the only alternative. I generally prefer being half frozen to death to the latter mode of martyrdom.

Attached to the Baltimore cars was a separate apartment for women. It was of comfortable dimensions, and without a stove; and here I betook myself with my children, escaping from the pestilential atmosphere of the other compartment, and performing our journey with ease enough. My only trial here was one which I have to encounter m whatever direction I travel in America, and which, though apparently a trivial matter in itself, has caused me infinite trouble, and no little compassion for the rising generation of the United States—I allude to the ignorant and fatal practice of the women of stuffing their children from morning till night with every species of trash which comes to hand . . . . I once took the liberty of asking a young woman who was traveling in the same carriage with me, and stuffing her child incessantly with heavy cakes, which she also attempted to make mine eat, her reason for this system,—she replied, it was to "keep her baby good." I looked at her own sallow cheeks and rickety teeth, and could not forbear suggesting to her how much she was injuring her poor child's health. She stared in astonishment, and pursued the process, no doubt wondering what I meant, and how I could be so cruel as not to allow poundcake to my child. Indeed, as may easily be supposed, it becomes a matter of no little difficulty to enforce my own rigid discipline in the midst of the various offers of dainties which tempt my poor little girl at every turn; but I persevere, nevertheless, and am not seldom rewarded by the admiration which her appearance of health and strength excites wherever she goes.

I remember being excessively amused at the woeful condition of an unfortunate gentleman on board one of the Philadelphia boats, whose sickly looking wife, exhausted with her vain attempts to quiet three sickly looking children, had in despair given them into his charge. The miserable man furnished each of them with a lump of cake, and during the temporary lull caused by this diversion, took occasion to make acquaintance with my child, to whom he tendered the same indulgence. Upon my refusing it for her, he exclaimed in astonishment—"Why, madam, don't you allow the little girl cake?"

"No, sir."

"What does she eat, pray?" (as if people lived upon cake generally).

"Bread and milk, and bread and meat."

"What! no butter? no tea or coffee?"

"None whatever."

"Ah!" sighed the poor man, as the chorus of woe arose again from his own progeny, the cake having disappeared down their throats, "I suppose that's why she looks so healthy."

I supposed so, too, but did not inquire whether the gentleman extended his inference.

We pursued our way from Wilmington to Havre de Grace on the railroad, and crossed one or two inlets from the Chesapeake, of considerable width, upon bridges of a most perilous construction, and which, indeed, have given way once or twice in various parts already. They consist merely of wooden piles driven into the river, across which the iron rails are laid, only just raising the train above the level of the water. To traverse with an immense train, at full steam-speed, one of these creeks, nearly a mile in width, is far from agreeable, let one be never so little nervous; and it was with infinite cordiality each time that I greeted the first bush that hung over the water, indicating our approach to terra firma. At Havre de Grace we crossed the Susquehanna in a steamboat, which cut its way through the ice an inch in thickness with marvelous ease and swiftness, and landed us on the other side, where we again entered the railroad carriages to pursue our road.

We arrived in Baltimore at about half past two, and went immediately on board the Alabama steamboat, which was to convey us to Portsmouth, and which started about three quarters of an hour after, carrying us down the Chesapeake Bay to the shores of Virginia. We obtained an unutterably hard beefsteak for our dinner, having had nothing on the road, but found ourselves but little fortified by the sight of what we really could not swallow. Between six and seven, however, occurred that most comprehensive repast, a steamboat tea; after which, and the ceremony of choosing our berths, I betook myself to the reading of Oliver Twist till half past eleven at night. I wonder if Mr. Dickens had any sensible perception of the benedictions which flew to him from the bosom of the broad Chesapeake as I closed his book; I am afraid not. Helen says: "It is pity well-wishing has no body," so it is that gratitude, admiration, and moral approbation have none, for the sake of such a writer, and yet he might, peradventure, be smothered.

I had a comical squabble with the stewardess—a dirty, funny, good-humored old Negress, who was driven almost wild by my exorbitant demands for towels, of which she assured me one was a quite ample allowance. Mine, alas! were deep down in my trunk, beyond all possibility of getting at, even if I could have got at the trunk, which I very much doubt. Now I counted no less than seven handsome looking glasses on board of this steamboat, where one towel was considered all that was requisite, not even for each individual, but for each washing room. This addiction to ornament, and neglect of comfort and convenience, is a strong characteristic of Americans at present, luxuries often abounding where decencies cannot be procured. It is the necessary result of a young civilization, and reminds me a little of Rosamond's purple jar, or Sir Joshua Reynolds's charming picture of the naked child, with a court cap full of flowers and feathers stuck on her head.

After a very wretched night on board the boat, we landed at about nine o'clock [Saturday, December 22, 1838] at Portsmouth, Virginia. I must not omit to mention that my morning ablutions were as much excepted to by the old Negress as those of the preceding evening. Indeed, she seemed perfectly indignant at the forbearance of one lady, who withdrew from the dressing room, on finding me there, exclaiming: "Go in, go in, I tell you; they always washes two at a time in them rooms."

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