The Historical Spectator.

What an American House Sounded Like in 1860

From a very amusing piece in Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine. The premise is simple: two editors have sat down to sift through the slush pile of manuscripts submitted to their magazine. In this submission, as the writer explains, she has recorded everything that was said in her vicinity while she was writing. We know of no more vivid description of what a large middle-class household actually sounded like in 1860.It can be mined for a wealth of tiny details about everyday life: that butchers also sold produce, for example, or that it was so common as to be stereotypical for a Northern family to have a servant with an Irish accent.

“Here’s a letter from Mrs. J—.”

My dear Sir: Although I am a married woman with ten children, and a limited income, I had last week the audacity to attempt to write a story. I had a good plot, plenty of interesting incidents, and meant to draw my characters from real life. I have one unfortunate peculiarity; I write down all that is said by those around me, and as I cannot take one hour to shut myself up alone, this peculiarity bothers me considerably. I no sooner take up my pen, than every child has a separate want, and the servants ask forty questions in as many minutes. I send the story as it was written. I have put in parentheses, when reading it over, all the sentences not connected with the story, so you will have no trouble in having a fair copy made. I have not time to do it myself, but I am sure you will like the story. Even if I had time to copy it, the same fault would again disfigure the pages.

Yours respectfully, Mrs. M. A. J——.

Love in a Cottage.

The sun was setting; his parting rays (the butcher’s here, mum!) gilding the spires of (Ma, the butcher’s got apples, won’t you get some?) the little church which (Charlie’s pinching me, ma!) stood in the main street of (Mary, dear, there’s no button on this wristband!) the village of (Harrie’s tumbled down stairs, ma!) Rosedale.

It was a scene (Ma, Joe says he won’t go to the post-office!) of calm delight (My dear, the baby’s awake!) and peaceful serenity. (Ma, the baby’s screeching like an Indian!) The little brook (There’s no potatoes, mum!) which wound (Ma, is there any cake?) round the (Gracious, Mary, do stop scribbling, and go to the baby!) little village, murmured (Oh, ma, there’s a spider on your cap!) its grateful song of (Dolly’s upset all the custard for dinner!) praise to the (Oh, ma, see what a big grasshopper I’ve caught!) trees which bend (I’m off, Mary!) so lovingly (Good-by!) over it. (Ma, the baby’s climbing out of the cradle!)

From one of the prettiest (Ma, where’s my boots?) of the cottages, as the sun (If ye plaze, mum, the butcher’s clane forgot the ingens!) slowly sank below the (Oh, ma, Jenny said a bad word!) horizon, there came out a (Ma, Johnny’s chopping wood with pa’s razors!) young man, whose (Oh, ma, Lizzie’s torn a big hole in her frock!) frank, open expression (The man’s come about the pump, mum!) and manly courage (The baby’s upset the cradle!) impressed (Ma, Johnny’s cut himself with the razor!) you favorably at (The baker’s bill, mum!) once.

“What a mess! Put it aside for consideration, Fred. It may be worth separating, but we can’t take time for it to-day.”

Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1860.