The Story of New Netherland/Chapter 17
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Chapter XVII: Social Life in New Netherland
IN no country of Europe was human existence more intensely social than the Netherlands, where the climate and soil compelled people to live much indoors. A thousand contrivances, designed to make sedentary life enjoyable, were in use, while art bloomed as in a garden. The Dutchman’s fireside was famous for comforts unknown in sunnier lands, and his house, a true home, was a museum of delights. The tell-tale etymology of most of our homely words, descriptive of textiles, costumes, house furnishings and equipment, betray their Dutch origin. Our underclothing, beds, furniture, kitchen belongings, and parlor necessities, from the “stovey,” to warm our feet, to the easel, or little donkey, to hold our pictures, recall in their names the country of their origin.
Man makes a camp, but woman the home. In Holland the whole system of school training, from Finsterwolde to Flushing and from Scheveningen to Winterswijk, was built on the idea of the equal but not identical education for both sexes. Mutual helpfulness between man and woman was expected on the farm and in the shop. The girls went to the public schools along with the boys, and all alike to the age of twelve. After that, the burghers and well-to-do people made their daughters study to be thoroughly practical in home and business. Economy, administration, the kneeping of accounts, and the management of farm, garden, dairy, shop, and household were according to rigid training. Success was the prize of audition. Legitimate rivalry was encouraged and cultivated. A young woman was led to find her enjoyment in preparing herself to be not only a good wife and mother, but a wise conserver of her husband’s property and fortune. The popular art, proverbs, and literature illustrate this, but matter-of-fact local records illuminate it.
All Dutch history shows how nobly the women were helpmates of the men in managing those hospitals, orphanages, and retreats for aged couples, and homes for old men and women, which made the glory of Holland. Women as well as men won the independence of the Fatherland. Compelled during their eighty years of struggle for freedom to provide for thousands of widows, orphans, cripples, wounded soldiers, and victims of the Inquisition, the Dutch people in their little country developed a vast and minute system of charity, the like of which was not to be found in Europe, and which is as yet unexcelled. In no lands were the laws more favorable to women. Such development had its roots far back in the Middle Ages.
To New Netherland the woman brought her inherited habit and her strict training: first, to make of temporary quarters — the straw shack, the bark house, or the hut of boards — a home, and then, to transform it into a dwelling rich in comforts. Unceasing industry, thrift, and hatred of waste, as of dirt and laziness, enabled the settler in a year of good harvests to begin wealth, or in poor times to bear bravely enforced poverty. Or, if at Wiltwijk, Schenectady, or on Staten Island, the savages laid the settlement in ashes reddened with blood, nothing exhibits Dutch pluck and endurance better than the return again of the desolate to cast their seed into the ground and rebuild their homes. In no case did savagery ultimately triumph.
The Dutch never took kindly to the axe or the log cabin. In succession to their first creditable houses of bark, after the Iroquois model, they had frame houses of sawn timber, for they very early set up sawmills. But the typical house in New Netherland consisted of two brick walls, gabled and crow-stepped, with the intervening space of timber. Thus they combined the solidity of stone with the interior dryness of the wooden dwelling.
After the first frontier novelties of experience were over, the Dutch shack, dugout, or wooden house was rebuilt of stone or brick. Besides early baking their own clay into stone (baksteen), much brick, and probably most of the glazed tiles and material for wall chequering, was brought from Holland as ship’s ballast. Thus in the majority of cases the front and rear walls, or gabled ends, were of mineral material, the whole intervening space except the chimney being of wood, and often strengthened with iron rods. One of the gables faced the street, and the other the garden, with a stoop, or porch, at each end, the front one having seats and railings. When such a house got too old, it was common, as I have often seen, “to tear out everything but the frame,” and, between the old thick gable ends of brick or stone, to rebuild with modern timber, in new interior arrangements.
The door was divided crosswise into two parts, upper and lower, the former to let in air and light, and the latter to keep out the pigs, chickens, and marauders of all sorts. The Dutch bisected door goes back to feudal days, when every comer might be challenged before being given entrance. Of similar warlike origin was the projecting second story, which, overlapping by its extension the doorway beneath, allowed the defender above to guard against attack by fire or weapon. In many old Dutch houses in the Mohawk and Hudson valleys this feature served admirably against hostile Indians. In the later frame dwelling, ancient history and survival are suggested by a conventional moulding which reveals the projection of a few inches only. The bricks, near the gables, wrought in the form of crow-steps, or top-pieces serving as chimneys, were laid in curious triangular or chequered patterns, just as one sees in Friesland today. Indeed, the keen-eyed visitor to Holland can recognize the original model and features of many old house in Kingston and Schenectady. The ancestral traits reappear in the domestic architecture of the New World as infallibly as the noses mouths, eyes, and hair common to the grandparents, parents, and grandchildren in the same towns.
At one point there was a notable departure from the model in Patria, and that was in the windows, which on Manhattan and in old Dorp for example, were small. In Holland, even though the panes of glass be very small and the hour, fronts narrow, the window spaces are and were large. This is because in Holland windows have, from mediæval times been taxed by number. Much of the war revenue was thus raised. In New Netherland no such reason existed permanently, and a sash of many panes, being cheaper and less liable to break, was used. Thus the house lights were modest in size as compared with the large window in Patria.
On the outside, fastened into the bricks, were “ankers,” or iron clamps, hammered into figure showing dates. If it were possible to have weather-vane, cock, arrow, monogram, family cress or arms on the gable top, it was sure to be there. The blacksmith, or anchor-smith, was an important person in the New Netherland village. He was usually an artist, more or less ambitious, for he made floriated patterns of hinges or braces that might branch out over most of the area of the upper or lower leaf of the door. He enjoyed pounding out colossal figures, 1, 6, or 7, and other digital numerals, for the ornamentation of the house front. He was probably also the maker of the big church doorlock. On his anvil he beat out the key, brazing on the bit or web, rounding on his anvil’s beak a bow and forging it to the shank, and filing out the wards. He also was responsible for the church weather-vane, which in frontier days, instead of stamped gilded metal, representing a cock, lamb, beaver, or other emblem of doctrine or virtue, was usually cut or punched out of sheet iron.
The anchor-smith followed mason and carpenter in the building of a house. He equipped the fireplace with a cast-iron jamb, andirons, and the great swinging pot-holder with chain and hangers. Often the iron jamb or back was a easting containing dates, emblems, mottoes, scriptural or other quotations, proverbs, or poems. Only in late days, when the Dutchmen learned from the Japanese to make Delft ware, and applied their knowledge to tiles, were those miniature Bible panoramas set up to adorn the front and sides, creating a fashion which was borrowed by the New Englanders. Delft tiles served as the picture galleries at which our American painters, Trumbull, Allston, Vanderlyn, and others, received their first impressions and stimulus to art. Often these tiles had on them mere outlines of biblical events, with numbers showing the text which one must look up in order to understand the pictorial illusion. On others the designs were suggestions rather than pictures, mere “lesson helps.”
The fireplace was literally the focus of the house and the home. It was big enough usually to accommodate the whole family, should they want all at once to get inside to look up its black throat, to see whether Santa Claus or Kris Kringle were coming. Inside its length, up and down, were usually steps or projections on which the chimney sweep or cleaner, usually a boy not too fat, could steady his feet while brushing or scraping off the soot or the stalactites of pine tar. Hickory was the best fuel, however, and kept the chimney neater. The inner hearth was most often of brick, but the broad outer hearthstone consisted frequently of one slab of noble length and width. The back log, gloried in and celebrated in song and proverb, was so huge that in many cases the house was purposely built against the side of a hill, in order that the kitchen door might be level with the ground. A heavy section of tree trunk, sawed to the right length, was hauled in by a horse, rolled and set as the background of the fire, while corncobs, brush, and fagots blazed in front.
Here, after the serious work of preparing the food was over, the family sat for rest, worship, chat and gossip, jokes and merriment, and no people were wittier, brighter, or more full of fun than the Dutch. In winter the long evenings were given up to stories, finger games, with lullaby for baby and pipe for papa, and then, at the right time, cider, apples, nuts, and refreshments as desired. For the real old folks the hearth was the place of memory, but for the young it was the seed-bed of dreams. In the darting tongues of the blase and the deep glow of the embers lad and lassie saw the castles of the future, and the aged pictures of the past.
Carpets and matting were, for the most part, unknown. Instead of these hiders of dirt and holders of germs, the floor was scrubbed until it shone, and then sprinkled with white sand, which was made into fanciful patterns with the end of a broomstick, a custom which one sees in the back country in Holland to-day. Such a floor dressing, swept off and renewed every week, made life for the vermin so disagreeable that they kept out and away. In the homes of the well-to-do rugs were common.
The “threshold covenant” was an ancient and serious thing with the Dutch. In other words, the front door was opened only on great occasions of joy, or when a bride or a corpse was to cross the line dividing outdoors from indoors. For every-day use, and for everybody in general, the kitchen door was the proper entrance. Often the hallway was from front to rear, the sitting-room being at the back and the parlor in front. In small houses, numbering fewer apartments than the fingers on one hand, the bedrooms were in the wall, or were like cupboards, shut up during the day and opened at night, and climbed up and into by means of a short step-ladder. In a word, just as one still sees in the old homeland to-day, and recognizes on the canvases, from Ostade to Israels, so, within my remembrance, were the interiors in Dutch America. To the Domine of the congregation it was the matron’s pride to show all, from cellar to attic, with the wondrous store of house-linen and table equipment.
The beds were made of hay or straw, corn leaves or silk moss, hair or feathers, sewed into “ticking,” — which is an English word of Dutch origin. Sassafras wood was at first much in demand for supposed protection from unwelcome bed mates, securing, it was believed, to each person the exclusive use of his own cuticle. As civilization advanced, the bunk, or box lined with dry leaves, spruce boughs, or pine needles gave way to the four-poster bed, and in later times favorite imported woods were in fashion. Long after Manhattan was swapped off for Surinam, with its forests of mahogany, this timber became plentiful and in fashion for furniture. To take the chill off the pure linen sheets, long-handled brass bed-warmers were used. Polished until their basins shone like gold, these hung on the walls by day as part of the decoration of the room, to become hand-stoves at night. Except what one’s own caloric and the thick folds of quilt, blanket, or comfortable furnished, the bed-warmer was usually the only source of heat allowed in the sleeping-chamber, though later luxury allowed wood stoves. As a rule, all the family, the parents up in the heights of piled feather beds or mattresses, and children in the trundle beds beneath, slept in pure cold air, for the great open chimney was a capital ventilator. “When hearts are light and life is new,” slumber after prayers was usually too sudden and too sound to know much of the variations of the thermometer. The Dutchmen took sleep as a serious thing, enjoyed plenty of it, and believed in it as one of life’s best blessings. How beautiful is the evening prayer in the liturgy of the Dutch Church, — “Temper our sleep that it be not disorderly, that we retrain spotless both in body and soul, nay, that our sleep itself may be to Thy glory.”
Marriage, which begins the family, was the greatest event in a Dutch home. The New Netherlanders believed in a big company and well-loaded tables, to which all within the circle of their acquaintance, albeit well graded, were invited though on this one occasion, rich and poor, if blood relatives, met on a common basis. Usually the black slaves or servants were allowed the privilege of seeing the ceremony. The Domine, in his gown and bands, was never happier than at this binding of hearts for the making of a home, and for the enlargement of all sweet human relationships and influences. The marriage ritual of the Dutch, like the national art, is as full of realism as is a canvas of Rembrandt or Jan Steen. It starts out, as does its catechism, with the idea of comfort and consolation. It faces the fact that the nuptial bond doubles at once both joys and sorrows. It relates the Genesis story of Eden, with its ocean-deep, poetic truth, and it recalls the Gospel narrative of Cana in Galilee, promising also divine aid and protection. The Almighty Father himself gave Eve to Adam to be his wife, “witnessing thereby that He doth yet, as with his hand, bring unto every man his wife.” In biblical phrase, the groom was told to lead, instruct, comfort, protect, and love his wife and maintain his “household honestly and likewise have something to give to the poor.” The bride was warned against exercising dominion over the husband. Then the vital questions were asked, responses made, and the benison bestowed. It was the usual custom at weddings to take up a collection for the benefit of the poor.
Whatever else was absent, flowers of the gayest hue were in evidence, and decorations were plentiful. The crowning joys for the guests were at the table, with eatables and drinkables got ready days in advance. There were no wedding journeys in colonial days, and sometimes the practical jokes played on bride and groom by the lower classes were rough and uncanny. there being even less opportunity to escape tormentors than young folks have in our day.
When the windows of heaven opened and the cradle rocked with new treasures, or, in paternal phrase, the couple was “visited” from heaven, christening and public name-giving usually took place in the church within a few days, and often on the following Sunday if the mother was able to be present. Brave were the women then, and small families were rare. Many a Dutch proverb tells how safe, how healthful, and how blessed is normal humanity that shirks no pain or care, and how good is the “love that lightens all distress” for womankind. As artificial foods were next, to unknown, mothers fed their offspring front nature’s pure fountains, and the babies thrived on the real nourishment, which no machinery or substitute for mother’s milk can give. The solemn ritual of the Church transfigured even common life, and spread a halo over the cradle.
Nine tenths of all the girls’ names, and most of the boys’, ended in ie, a tender and affectionate diminutive, which in English has become y. Gertje, Grietje, Annetje, Elsje — that is, Gertrude, or Gertie, Margaret or Maggie, Ann or Annie, and Alice or Elsie — were usually among their own near kindred so addressed or referred to even to the end of their days. The boys dropped their pendants earlier. Family names were not in universal use in Europe until after the Reformation. Then and thereafter, as the Bible became, in Northern Europe, not only a household book, but an encyclopædia, girls received other names besides Mary and Elizabeth, and boys’ names, besides those given in christening, John, Peter, and Paul, were known. Dutch sons added s or se, sen or zoon, to their father’s baptismal name to show that they were Johnson, Williamson, Wilkins, etc., that is, the son of John or William, or little William. Hence we have Janse Petersen, etc. For family cognomens they adjoined the names of their trade or occupation, as in Dirck de Bakker, that is, Theodore the baker; or (if a potter or baker of clay marbles) “Knicker bocker”; or the place whence they came. De means “the,” and van signifies “from.” Hence the frequency of these prefixes. The dam, the dike, field, morass, sand, wharf, city, town, village, or church, reappear in names, such as van Dam, van Dyke, van Antwerp, etc., just as on the business signs of some returned Dutchmen in Holland, one may read Jan van America, Hendrijk van Chicago, etc. The prefix van should, almost invariably, be written with a small v; for in very few cases among the seventeenth-century emigrants did van mean anything else than from. It was rarely a real part of the family name.
Domine Bogardus’s Bible was older than the “revised version” of the States-General. Dated 1543 and handsomely printed, it is a massive volume a foot and a half long, one foot wide, and half a foot thick. Its covers are half an inch in thickness, and are bound on the corners with heavy brass mountings ornamented. One can understand why a book is said to be bound in “boards,” which now means pasteboard, but formerly was real timber. Of the hundreds of Dutch Bibles I have examined, apart from their valuable historical entries, the striking feature in many of the larger editions is the excellence of the woodcuts and the clearness of the maps, these latter showing America — with its northwest coast as yet unknown — and some the mythical “Verrazano’s Sea.” The hooded and rosy-checked maidens wore in chatelaine fashion their Bibles at their girdles, held by silver chain and waist hood, or sheathed in velvet or silk bags.
It was around the Church and the Bible that the best life in New Netherland centred, and from these sources it was nourished.
Social morality in New Netherland was of a high standard. Divorces were unknown. The opinion is practically unanimous among those who have studied the local records and Church discipline in American colonial days, that no colonies, Puritan or Cavalier, North or South, excelled, even if they equaled, in morality the Continental settlers, Walloon, Dutch, and Huguenot, who began the Middle States of the American Union.