Title: Brooklyniana, No. 35
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: August 30, 1862
Publication information: Brooklyn Standard 30 August 1862: [unknown].
Source: Our transcription is based on Emory Holloway, ed. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1921. pp. 300–304. The date of the article is from Joel Myerson. Walt Whitman: A Descriptive Bibliography, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00235
Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Janel Cayer, Ashley Lawson, Liz McClurg, John Schwaninger, and Sarah Walker
A Series of Local Articles, on Past and Present.
Domestic Life of the early settlers of Brooklyn.—Scarcity of time pieces.—The houses and their interior arrangements.
THE Dutch foundations of Brooklyn and of the towns of Kings County were laid so strongly and deeply by the first immigrants from Holland, and by the course of events during the period from 1620 to the close of the century, that they will without doubt continue to have a profound influence on the character of our region for ages and ages to come.
It will probably be better understood a long while hence that these Dutch foundations have been of equal importance with the English constituents of our national stock; although the latter, so far, are much the most talked of.
Long Island, though settled at this Western end by the Dutch aforesaid, was always an object of envy to the English. In 1635, the latter, under the protection of Lord Stirling, attempted to make a settlement a ways down on the Island, but Governor Kieft2 sent a force from New Amsterdam and drove them away.3
Upon the English finally taking possession, there was no great change in the political status of the country here, beyond the formal wielding of power in the name of the British Monarch, instead of that of the Dutch Stadtholder.4 And as to any social or domestic change, it was positively unknown. And it is with reference to the latter, the social life of the colony, that we now make a few remarks.
The reader must not suppose, either, that the domestic life of the colony of New Amsterdam was concentrated mainly on Manhattan Island, as it is at present. On the contrary, there were for many years considerably more actual inhabitants here in Brooklyn, Wallabout, Flatbush, New Utrecht and Bushwick than in all the rest of the colony of New York Island on the main land put together. So that a sketch of the peculiarities of the early domestic life of the Dutch settlers applies emphatically to this region of ours hereabout.
Nor is it so very long ago since the domestic habits of the people and families have changed to what is now the fashion. Up to a comparatively late date, you could here and there meet with old families that, in many respects, preserved the usages, furniture, simplicity, &c., of former times.
At the very first, the houses were mostly one story huts of logs. "But as the forests became cleared away, and the colony increased, the style of living experienced a material change, and the settlers commenced to build their houses of brick and stone. For some time (we are indebted for this and the following paragraphs to Mary L. Booth's excellent "History of the City of New York,"5) the bricks were imported from Holland; in the administration of Stuyvesant,6 however, some enterprising citizens established a brick-yard on New York island; and the material became henceforth popular in the colony. The northern part of the island furnished abundance of stone. Many of the wooden houses had checker-work fronts, or rather gable ends of small black and yellow Dutch bricks, with the date of their erection inserted in iron figures, facing the street. Most of the houses, indeed, fronted the same way; the roofs were tiled or shingled, and invariably surmounted with a weathercock. The windows were small and the doors large; the latter were divided horizontally, so that, the upper half being swung open, the burgher could lean on the lower and smoke his pipe in peaceful occupation. Not less comfortable were the social 'stoops,' and the low projecting eaves, beneath which the friendly neighbors congregated at twilight to smoke their long pipes and discuss the price of beaver-skins. These institutions have come down to our own time, and are still known and appreciated in the suburbs of the city.
"Every house was surrounded by a garden, varying in size according to the locality, but usually large enough to furnish accommodations for a horse, a cow, a couple of pigs, a score of barn-door fowls, a patch of cabbages, and a bed of tulips. . . .
"Carpets, too, were almost unknown in the Colony up to the period of the Revolution. Now and then a piece of drugget ostentatiously dignified by the name of carpet, and made to serve for the purpose of a crumb-cloth, was found in the houses of the wealthiest burghers, but even these were not in general use. The snow-white floor was sprinkled with fine sand, which was curiously stroked with a broom into fantastic curves and angles. This adornment pertained especially to the parlor; a room that was only used upon state occasions. The first carpet said to have been introduced into the colony was found in the house of the pirate, Kidd,7 this was merely a good-sized Turkey rug, worth about twenty-five dollars.
"The most ornamental piece of furniture was usually the bed, with its heavy curtains and valance of camlet and killeminster. Matresses were as yet unheard of; in their stead was used a substantial bed of live geese feathers, with a lighter one of down for a covering. These beds were the pride of the notable Dutch matrons; in these and the well-filled chests of homemade linen lay their claims to skill in housewifery.
"The beds and pillows were encased in check coverings; the sheets were of home-spun linen, and over the whole was thrown a patch-work bed-quilt, made of bits of calico cut in every conceivable shape, and tortured into the most grotesque patterns that could possibly be invented by human ingenuity.
"In a corner of the room stood a huge oaken, iron-bound chest, filled to overflowing with household linen, spun by the feminine part of the family, which they always delighted in displaying before visitors. At a later date, this gave place to the 'chest of drawers' of our grandmothers' times—huge piles of drawers, placed one upon the other, and reaching to the ceiling, with brass rings over the key-holes to serve as knobs.— The escritore, too, with its combination of writing desk, drawers and mysterious pigeon-holes, came into use about the same time; but both of these were unknown to the genuine Knickerbockers.8
". . . . Glass-ware was almost unknown; punch was drank9 in turns by the company, from a huge bowl, and beer from a tankard of silver. Sideboards were not introduced until after the Revolution, and were exclusively of English origin.
"Sofas, couches, lounges, and that peculiarly American institution, the rocking-chair, were things unknown to our Dutch ancestors. The [Their] best chairs were of Russia leather, profusely ornamented with double and triple rows of brass nails, and so straight and high-backed as to preclude the possibility of a moment's repose. Besides these, the parlor was commonly decorated with one or two chairs with embroidered back and seats, the work of the daughters of the family. . . .
[No ¶] "Mahogany had not yet come into use; nearly all the furniture was made of oak, maple or nutwood. . . . [¶] Some half-dozen clocks were to be found in the settlement, with about the same number of silver watches; but as these were scarcely ever known to go, their existence was of very little practical consequence. No watchmaker had yet found it to his interest to emigrate, and the science of horology was at a low ebb in the colony. The flight of time long continued to be marked by sun-dials and hour-glasses; indeed, it is only since the revolution [Revolution] that clocks have become to be in [come into] general use. . . .
" . . . . Pictures were plentiful, if we may believe the catalogues of household furniture of the olden times; but these pictures were wretched engravings of Dutch cities and naval engagements, with family portraits at five shillings a head, which were hung at regular intervals upon the parlor walls. The window curtains were generally of flowered chintz, of inferior quality, simply run upon a string. . . .
"Stoves were never dreamed of by the worthy Knickerbockers, but in their stead they had the cheerful fireplace—sometimes in the corner, sometimes extending almost across the length of the room—with [its] huge back-logs [back-log,] and glowing fire of hickory wood. The shovel and tongs stood in each corner, keeping guard over the brass-mounted andirons which supported the blazing pile. In front was the brass fender, with its elaborate ornaments; and a curiously wrought fire-screen stood in the corner. Marble mantels had never yet been thought of, but the chimney pieces were inlaid with parti-colored Dutch tiles, representing all sorts of scriptural and apocryphal stories. The kitchen fire-places were less pretentious, and of immense size, so large that they would almost have sufficed to roast an ox whole. Over the fire swung the hooks and trammels, designed for the reception of immense iron cooking pots, long since superseded by the modern stoves and ranges. The children and negroes grouped in the spacious chimney corners, cracking nuts and telling stories by the light of the blazing pine knots, while the 'vrouws' turned the spinning-wheel, and the burghers smoked their long pipes and silently watched the wreaths of smoke as they curled above their heads. At nine they regularly said their prayers, commended themselves to the protection of the good Saint Nicholas, and went to bed to rise with the dawn.
1. As Holloway notes, this article should actually be numbered 37. Numbers 19–36 of the series comprised a reprinting of Gabriel Furman's "Notes, Geographical and Historical, relating to the Town of Brooklyn on Long island." Holloway also remarks, "I have substituted Arabic numerals for the Roman, which began with this chapter." [back]
2. Willem Kieft replaced Wouter Van Twiller as Director-General of New Amsterdam in 1637. [back]
3. In 1636, at the request of Charles I, the Plymouth Company transferred to William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, their patent for Long Island. The earl's agent granted a party of English settlers the right to settle at present-day Manhasset Bay on Long Island in 1640. After a brief imprisonment by the Dutch, the company relocated to Southampton. [back]
4. The Stadtholder was the chief magistrate of Holland. [back]
5. "History of the City of New York from its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time," New York, 1860 (copyright, 1859), pp. 176–186. Whatever was the real reason for the reprinting of Furman's history of Brooklyn as a part of the "Brooklyniana" series, it probably prompted likewise the present rather lengthy excerpt from the Booth narrative of New York. Obviously Whitman's determination to avoid all quotatins and literary allusions affected only his verse, a fact which emphasizes the distinction he made between his two forms of expression, prose and poetry.
The present quotation is made with less careful exactness than we could wish, even in a newspaper. I have supplied quotation marks and series of points to indicate with precision the limits and the hiatuses of the quotation, and have indicated in brackets all variations in spelling, diction, and capitalization. The first sentence within the quotation marks has been somewhat compressed and altered by Whitman, but the others are as given above. [Holloway's note][back]
6. Governor Peter Stuyvesant was the last Dutch governor of New Netherland, serving from 1647 until the British took control of the colony in 1664. [back]
7. William Kidd (1645–1701) was a Scottish-born sailor from New York who was, perhaps unfairly, tried and executed for piracy. [back]
8. "Knickerbocker" (from Washington Irving's popular fictional narrator, Diedrich Knickerbocker) was an affectionate though somewhat comic term applied to an early Dutch settler or descendant. [back]
9. Sic in Booth and in Whitman. [Holloway's note] [back]