Here to return to
IN the earliest days of New Netherland there were no burgers because, as the name implies, burghers are town-dwellers, and for a number of years after the coming of the Dutch nothing worthy to be called a town existed in the colony. In the middle of the seventeenth century a traveler wrote from New Netherland that there were only three towns on the Hudson Fort Orange, Rondout, and New Amsterdam and that the rest were mere villages or settlements.
These centers were at first trading-posts, and it is as idle to judge of the manners, customs, and dress prevailing in them by those of Holland at the same epoch, as to judge San Francisco in the mining days of 1849 by Boston and New York at the same date. These early traders and settlers brought with them the character and traditions of home; but their way of life was perforce modified by the crude conditions into which they plunged. The picturesque farmhouses of Long Island and the crow-gables of New Amsterdam were not built in a day. Savages must be subdued and land cleared and planted before the evolution of the dwelling could fairly begin. Primitive community life lingered long even on Manhattan Island. As late as 1649 the farmers petitioned for a free pasturage between their plantation of Schepmoes and the fence of the Great Bowerie Number One. The City Hall Park region bounded by Broadway, Nassau, Ann, and Chambers Streets continued very late to be recognized as village commons where the cattle were pastured. The cowherd drove the cows afield and home again at milking-time, and it was his business to sound his horn at every gate announcing the safe return of the cows. Correspondingly in the morning the harsh summons called the cattle from every yard to join the procession toward the meadows.
When Tienhoven, Stuyvesant’s secretary, sent out information for the benefit of ‘those planning to take up land in New Netherland, he suggested that those who had not means to build at first might shelter themselves by digging a pit six or seven feet deep as large as needed, covering the floor and walls with timber and placing over it a roof of spars covered with bark or green sods. Even with this rude housing he suggests planting at once a garden with all sorts of pot-herbs and maize, or Indian corn, which might serve as food for man and beast alike. Naturally these pioneer conditions of living lasted longer in the farming region than at New Amsterdam, where as early as 1640 we see simple but comfortable little houses clustered in the shelter of the fort, and gathered close about the stone tavern, the West India Company’s stores, and the Church of St. Nicholas. The gallows and pillory, in full view, seemed to serve notice that law and order had asserted themselves and that settlers might safely solidify their houses and holdings.
In 1648 the building of wooden chimneys was forbidden, and roofs of reed were replaced with more solid and less inflammable material. The constant threat of fire led to drastic regulations for the cleaning of chimneys. It was ordered that “if anyone prove negligent he shall, whenever the Firewardens find the chimneys foul, forthwith without any contradiction, pay them a fine of three guilders for every flue found on examination to be dirty, to be expended for fire ladders, hooks and buckets, which shall be procured and provided at the earliest and most convenient opportunity.”
The early settlers found much difficulty in enforcing public sanitation, for, in spite of the worldwide reputation of the Dutch for indoor cleanliness, we find the burghers in 1658 bitterly reproached for throwing their rubbish, filth, dead animals, and the like into the streets “to the great inconvenience of the community and dangers arising from it.” The burgomasters and schepens ordained that all such refuse be brought to dumping-grounds near the City Hall and the gallows or to other designated places. Failure to observe this rule was punishable by fines or severer penalties.
As prosperity increased, all conditions of living improved. Many ships from Holland brought loads of brick and tiles as ballast, and the houses began to assume the typical Dutch aspect. They were still built chiefly of wood, but with a gable end of brick facing the street. The steep roofs seldom had eave-troughs, at least in the early days, and mention is made in deeds of “free-drip.”
The house was supplied, as the chronicler tells us, with “an abundance of large doors and small windows on every floor, the date of its erection was curiously designated by iron figures on the front, and on the top of the roof was perched a fierce little weather-cock to let the family into the important secret which way the wind blew.” The front doors were usually divided, as in the old houses in Holland, into an upper and lower half hung on heavy hinges. The door opened with a latch, and bore a brass knocker wrought frequently in the device of an animal’s head.
Only on formal occasions was this door thrown open or the fore-room to which it gave access used, for the life of the family, as in all primitive communities, was centered in the kitchen. Here in winter roared the great fires up the wide-throated chimneys. Here children and negro servants gathered in groups and told stories of the old home and the new. Here the women knit their stockings and here the burghers smoked when the day’s work was done. But the fore-room, or voorhuis, though seldom occupied, was dear to the soul of the vrouw of New Netherland. Here stood all the treasures too valuable or too fragile for daily use: the kast, or chest, stored with household linen, the cabinet filled with Delft plates from Holland, and generally the carved four-poster covered with feather beds of prime goose-feathers and hung with gay chintz.
A shrewd observer has said that luxury implies waste while comfort lives in thrift. We are safe in assuming that comfort rather than luxury prevailed in New Netherland and that the highly colored pictures of elegant life on the shores of the Hudson represent a very late phase, when the Dutch influence still prevailed under English protection. The earlier settlers were a far simpler people, whose floors were scrubbed and sanded instead of carpeted, who used hour-glasses instead of clocks, and who set their four-poster beds in the rooms where visitors were formally received.
It was of course the “great burghers” who set the social as well as the official tone in New Amsterdam.1 It was they who owned the finest houses, who imported tables and chests of ebony inlaid with ivory. It was they whose wives were bravely fitted out with petticoats, over which an upper garment was looped to display the velvet, cloth, silk, or satin which marked the social position and material wealth of the wearer. The burgher himself went clad, according to his wealth, in cloaks of cloth or velvet, embroidered or silk-lined; but he always wore wide boots and wide breeches and a coat adorned with an abundance of buttons, the whole topped by a broad-brimmed hat adorned with buckles and feathers and seldom removed in the house. The dress of the farmers was simpler than that of the town-dwellers or burghers. It consisted generally of wide breeches, a hemdrok or shirt-coat made of wool or cotton, an overfrock called a paltsrok, a low flat collar, the usual wide-brimmed hat, and shoes of leather on Sundays, and of wood on week-days for work on the bouwerie. The children of burghers and farmers alike were clad in miniature copies of the garb of their elders, doubtless in many cases wearing the same garments made over by removing the outworn portions. It was a question of warmth rather than fashion which confronted the settlers and their children.
To those of us who believe that the state exists for the protection of the home and the home for the protection of the child, it is neither futile nor frivolous to consider at some length what life had to offer to the small colonists. Little Sarah Rapaelje, “the first-born Christian daughter in New Netherland,” was soon surrounded by a circle of boys and girls. Cornelis Maasen and his wife came over in 1631, and their first child was born on the voyage. Following this little Hendrick came Martin, Maas, Steyntje, and Tobias. We have already noted the two little motherless daughters of Domine Michaelius who were so hard put to it for a nurse. A little later came Domine Megapolensis with his children Hellegond, Dirrick, Jan, and Samuel, running from eight to fourteen years in age. The patroon had directed that they be furnished with clothing “in such small and compact parcels as can be properly stowed away on the ship.”
With the era of permanent settlers in New Netherland, cradles came to be in demand. In the region of New Amsterdam the familiar hooded variety was brought from Holland, while farther especially among the poorer folk birch bark was fashioned into a sleeping-place for the babies. For the older children trundle-beds fitting under the big four-posters of the elders and rolled out at night were much in use, since the difficulty of heating made economy of bedroom-space a necessity. This treke-bed and its protecting four-poster, however, probably came later than the built-in sloep-bank, little more than a bunk in the side of the wall concealed by a curtain and softened by thick feather-beds.
However rude the sleeping-place of the babies, the old home lullabies soothed them to slumber. Dearest and most familiar was the following:
Thus to pictures of pigs in the bean patch and cows in the clover, ducks in the water and calves in the meadow, the little ones fell peacefully to sleep, oblivious of the wild beasts and wilder men lurking in the primeval forests around the little clearing where the pioneers were making a home for themselves and their children.
When the babies’ eyelids unclosed in the morning they opened on a busy scene, for whatever anxious vigils the father and mother might have kept through the night, toil began with the dawn. The boys were set to gathering firewood and drawing water, while the goede vrouw was busily preparing a substantial morning meal of suppawn and sausage before her husband began the day’s work of loading beaver-skins or tilling the ground or hewing timber. A pioneer life means hard work for children as well as for their elders, and in the early years there was little time for play on the part of the youthful New Netherlanders. As prosperity advanced and as negro servants were introduced, the privileges of childhood were extended and we find accounts of their sliding on their slees or sleds down the hills of Fort Orange and skating at New Amsterdam on the Collect Pond, which took its name from the Dutch kalk, or lime, and was so called from the heaps of oyster-shells accumulated by the Indians. The skates were of the type used in Holland, very long with curves at the front and rear, and, when metal could not be obtained, formed of ox-bone.
With an appetite bred of out-of-door work and play, and a breakfast hour at five or six in the morning, the children were hungry for the homely and substantial dinner when it eventually appeared at early noon. Whatever social visits were planned took place at the supper, which occurred between three o’clock and six. The tea-table, the chronicler tells us,
was crowned with a huge earthen dish, well stored with slices of fat pork and fried trout, cut up into morsels and swimming in gravy. The company, being seated round the genial board and each furnished with a fork, evinced their dexterity in launching at the fattest pieces in this mighty dish in much the same manner as sailors harpoon porpoises at sea, or our Indians spear salmon in the lakes.
Sometimes the table was graced with immense apple pies, or saucers full of preserved peaches or pears; but it was always sure to boast an enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat and called doughnuts or olykoeks.... The tea was served out of a majestic Delft tea-pot ornamented with paintings of fat little Dutch shepherds and shepherdesses tending pigs, with boats sailing in the air and houses built in the clouds.... To sweeten the beverage a lump of sugar was laid beside each cup and the company alternately nibbled and sipped with great decorum.
In the houses of the richer colonists, as prosperity advanced, shell-shaped silver boxes for sugar, called “bite and stir” boxes, were set on the table and, according to one authority, the lumps of sugar were of the nature of toffy with molasses added to the sugar.
The feast ended, the young folk went their homeward way lighted by the moon, or, late in the century, on dark nights by a lantern hung on a pole from every seventh house. When the curfew rang from the belfry “eight o’clock,” lights were put out and all was made fast for the night, while the children’s minds were set at rest by the tramp of the klopperman, who shook his rattle at each door as he passed from house to house through the dark hours, assuring the burghers that all was well and that no marauders were about.
If winter offered sports and pastimes, spring, summer, and autumn had each its own pleasures, fishing and clam digging, shooting and trapping, games with ball and slings, berry picking, and the gathering of peaches which fell so thickly that the very hogs refused them. The market days in New Amsterdam offered a long procession of delights to the young colonists. But merriest of all were the holidays which were observed in New Netherland after much the same fashion as in the old home.
I do not know how to account for the fact that while the struggle of the Dutch people with the Papacy had been as bitter as that of England and the throwing off of the yoke by the Dutch fully as decided, they still retained the holidays which the Puritans eschewed as dangerous remnants of superstition. Perhaps it was on the principle of robbing Satan of his hoofs and horns but keeping his cheerful scarlet costume, or perhaps they thought, as Rowland Hill remarked, that “it was poor policy to leave all the good times to the Devil.” In any case it was all grist to the children’s mill.
On the 1st of January all was arranged for the greeting of the New Year. Mighty bowls of punch were brewed, cordials prepared from long-cherished family recipes were brought out, and the women, in their best apparel, seated themselves in the seldom-used ontvangkamer, where wine was handed to their callers to be received with the wish of a “Happy New Year!” While these stately ceremonies were in progress the young people amused themselves with turkey-shooting, sleigh-riding, skating, and dancing.
After New Year’s Day the most characteristic national and local holiday was Pinkster, coming in the seventh week after Paasch, or Easter, and falling generally in late May or early June. The orchards were then white with blossoms and the grass thick with dandelions and spring flowers. Children set out early to gather boughs from the green woods. These boughs they sprinkled with water and left over the doors of late sleepers that the sluggards might be drenched on opening the door. At first all was innocent merriment, gathering of Pinkster flowers, and picnicking; but for some unexplained reason this festival was gradually relegated to the negroes. Apple-jack was freely consumed, barbaric dances began, and fun so far degenerated into license that the white people and their children shunned the festivity.
The Kermis, an Old World festival, was one of those early introduced at New Amsterdam. It originated centuries before and had taken its name from the kerk mis or church mass. In the olden days it was celebrated with pomp and solemnity, but it early developed a more festive character. Booths and stalls were erected for a market, and dances and processions were organized. The first stroke of the clock at noon opened at the same moment the market and the first dance. The last stroke saw white crosses nailed on all the bridges across the canal and on the market place. It was indeed a festive appearance that the market presented, with its double stalls filled with eggs and gherkins, its booths hung with dried fish, its poffertjeskraam dispensing the tempting batter-cakes, and its wafelkraamen offering the more costly and aristocratic waffles. The youths and maidens were given full license to parade arm in arm along the streets singing “Hossen, hossen, hossen!” and making the town ring with their mirth and laughter. The first Kermis held at New Amsterdam was in October, 1659. Booths were arranged on the parade ground, and barter and sale and merrymaking went on gaily for six weeks, to the unspeakable joy of the little Hendricks and Jans and Annetjes who wandered from booth to booth.
But keen as the
delight of the Dutch children may have been, there was in their minds the hope
of even better things to come a few weeks later, at their own especial,
particular, undisputed feast of St. Nicholas, the beloved Santa Claus, patron
saint of children in general and of young Netherlanders in particular. The 6th
of December was the day dedicated to this genial benefactor, and on the
eventful night a white sheet was spread on the floor. Around this stood the
children singing songs of welcome, of which the most popular was the familiar
If the Saint would
ride forth thus accoutered and if he would do what they asked of him, the
children explained that they would be his good friends, as for that matter they
always had been, and would serve him as long as they lived. At last the fateful
moment arrived. A shower of sweets was hurled. through the open door and amid
the general scramble appeared the Saint in full vestments. attended by a
servant known as Knecht Ruprecht,
and, after the Dutch settlements in America, a, black man, who added much to
the fascination and. excitement of the occasion. He held in one hand an open
sack into which to put particularly ill-behaved children, while in the other
hand he carried a bunch of rods, which he shook vigorously from time to time.
The good Saint meanwhile. smilingly distributed to the children the parcels
that he had brought, and, after these had all been. opened and the presents had
been sufficiently, admired, the children dropped into their trundle-beds to
dream of all the glories of the day.
When the dust-sheet and litter of wrappings had been removed, the older people gathered around a table spread with a white cloth and set out with chocolate punch and a dish of steaming hot chestnuts, while the inevitable pipe, ornamented with a head of St. Nicholas, made its appearance and the evening ended with dancing and song in honor of the “goed heilig man.”
Besides these stated anniversaries, home life had. its more intimate festivities such as those celebrating the birth of a child, whose christening was made quite a solemn event. Every church owned its doop-becken or dipping bowl from which the water was taken to be dropped on the baby’s head. One beautiful bowl of silver dating from the year 1695 is still in existence in a New York church. About a week after the birth of the little New Netherlander, the neighbors were summoned to rejoice with the proud father and mother. In the early days of the colony and in the farming region, these gatherings were as rude and simple as they were under similar conditions in Holland. The men were invited at noon to partake of a long pipe and a bottle of gin and bitters. The women arrived later to find spread for their entertainment dishes of rusks spread with aniseed and known as muisjes or mice, accompanied by eggnog. As society grew more sophisticated in the colony, these simple gatherings gave place to the elaborate caudle parties, where the caudle was served in silver bowls hung about with spoons that each guest might ladle out for himself into a china cup the rich compound of lemons, raisins, and spiced wine.
It is evident that there was no lack of material good cheer among the colonists of New Netherland, and we may be sure that the boys and girls secured their share of substantials and dainties. I fear they were rather rough and rude, these young burghers, for all the reports which we have of them show them always in conflict with law and order. The boys especially, owing to deficient schooling facilities, were quite out of hand. They set dogs upon the night watchman at New Amsterdam and shouted “Indians!” to frighten him in his rounds. They tore the clothes from each other’s backs in the schoolroom where the unfortunate master was striving to keep order. In Fort Orange sliding became so fast and furious that the legislators were obliged to threaten the confiscation of the slees’ and it was no doubt with a keen realization of the behavior of their offspring that the inhabitants of Flatbush inserted these words in the articles of agreement with the new schoolmaster: “He shall demean himself patient and friendly towards the children and be active and attentive to their improvement.”
However little learning from books entered into the lives of the young colonists, much that was stimulating to the imagination came to them by word of mouth from the wilden, from the negroes, and from their elders as they sat about the blazing fire in the twilight, or schemerlicht. Then the tales were told of phantom ships, of ghosts walking on the cliffs of the Highlands, and of the unlucky wight who found his death in the river where he had sworn to plunge in spite of the Devil, a spot which still bears the name of Spuyten Duyvil in memory of the rash boast.
We may find it hard to reconcile the reputation of the Dutch as a phlegmatic and unimaginative people with the fact that they and their children endowed the Hudson with more glamour, more of the supernatural and of elfin lore than haunts any other waterway in America. Does the explanation perhaps lie in the fact that the Dutch colonists, coming from a small country situated on a level plain where the landscape was open as far as the eye could see, and left no room for mystery, were suddenly transplanted to a region shut in between overhanging cliffs where lightning flashed and thunder rolled from mountain wall to mountain wall, where thick forests obscured the view, and strange aboriginal savages hid in the underbrush? Was it not the sense of wonder springing from this change in their accustomed surroundings that peopled the dim depths of the hinterland with shapes of elf and goblin, of demons and superhuman presences?
At any rate the spirit of mystery lurked on the outskirts of the Dutch settlements, and the youthful burghers along the Hudson were fed full on tales, mostly of a terrifying nature, drawn from the folklore of three races, the Dutch, the Indians, and the Africans, with some few strands interwoven from local legend and tradition that had already grown up along the banks of the Hudson.
It was a simple but by no means a pitiable life that was led in those days by burghers and farmers alike on the shores of this great river. Never does the esteemed Diedrich Knickerbocker come nearer the truth than when he says: “Happy would it have been for New Amsterdam could it always have existed in this state of blissful ignorance and lowly simplicity; but alas! the days of childhood are too sweet to last Cities, like men, grow out of them in time and are doomed alike to grow into the bustle, the cares and the miseries of the world.”___________________________
1 In 1657 the burgomasters and schepens were authorized to create a great burger-recht the members of which should be in a sense a privileged class. It was set forth that “whereas in all beginnings some thing or person must be the first so that afterward a distinction may take place, in like manner it must be in establishing the great and small citizenship.” For which reason the line of great burghers was drawn as follows: first, those who had been members of the supreme government; second, the burgomasters and schepens of the city past and present; third, ministers of the gospel; fourth, officers of the militia from the staff to the ensign included. The privileges of this caste were open to the male descendants of each class; but as they could be secured by others outside the sacred circle on payment of fifty guilders it is difficult to understand wherein the exclusiveness lay. The small burghers were decreed to be those who had lived in the city for a year and six weeks and had kept fire and light, those born within the town, and those who had married the daughters of citizens. A payment of twenty guilders was exacted of all such. This effort to promote class distinctions was soon abandoned. In 1668 the distinction was abolished and every burgher, on payment of fifty guilders, was declared entitled to all burgher privileges.