Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Rebecca Gratz on the Transportation Revolution in Antebellum America

In 1848 Rebecca wrote that her brother Ben's ward Mary Boswell, in from Kentucky, had been invited to a "Fancy Ball" in New York City:

"Whether Mary will go or not, I cannot tell -- she went a few weeks ago (when her Uncle Jo had some business there) to an Opera. Since the Railroad affords such easy travelling--an 100 miles to a frolic is no such great affair -- five hours will suffice. When we had to travel in stages [by stagecoach], it took some time to make up one's mind for the journey -- and two days were necessary to complete it."

That -- in a nutshell -- describes the great revolution in land transportation which took place during the thirty years preceding the Civil War: from two days to New York by stage to five hours by train for Philadelphians. And the trains could carry freight as well.

Mary Boswell, who had studied voice, had probably gone to New York for an Italian opera, a musical form which had gained popularity with American audiences in the first half of the nineteenth century. Hearing her sing arias from Italian operas gave Rebecca a taste for another phenomenon with which she had been unfamiliar in her youth.

(The letter quoted is in The Letters of Rebecca Gratz, which is accessible through Google Books.)

1 comment:

  1. The last time I went to NYC by train I left at 6:50am...changed trains in Trenton, and arrived at Penn Station at 9:40...almost 3 hours...so it is easy to see that the 5 hour trip in 1848 must have seemed phenomenal to them!!!!


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