Sunday, October 25, 2020

A jewel beyond price

‘I availed myself of a regular rainy day to stay at home and prepare books for binding and file my letters. Such a day once in a while is a jewel beyond price.’ This is from the esteemed diaries of Philip Hone, born 240 years ago today, who did much for the economic and cultural life of New York City in the first half of the 19th century.

Hone was born in New York City, the son of a relatively poor German immigrant, on 25 October 1780. He received a local education until, aged 17, he went to work for his elder brother’s business, auctioning newly arrived cargos at the city’s port. He soon proved his worth, and was taken on as a partner. In 1801, he married Catherine Dunscomb, with whom he had six children. The business prospered so well that Hone was able to retire young. In 1821, he took his wife to Europe, attending the coronation of George IV, and subsequently enjoying a grand tour of the Continent. Back in New York City, he founded the Mercantile Library Association and was the first president of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company in the mid 1820s.

At his elegant home, on Broadway, Hone entertained many politicians and celebrities, counting Daniel Webster, Washington Irving, and John Jacob Astor among his friends. In 1826, he was elected mayor, and served one term, later becoming active in the Whig Party. However, he was also very active (often philanthropically) in many different institutions and organisations, across different areas of the city’s economic and cultural life. ’Mostly,’ says The Bowery Boys website, ‘he’s remembered as a cultural ambassador, even commissioning artwork for City Hall, approving of a developing theater district in the not-yet-seedy Bowery and encouraging the city’s growth as an American capitol of arts and sciences.’ In 1849, he was appointed Naval Officer of the Port of New York by President Taylor, a position he held until his death in 1851. A little further information is also available from Wikipedia and American Heritage.

Hone is mostly remembered for the extensive and detailed diary he left behind - some 28 volumes - which is now owned by the New-York Historical Society. The Diary of Philip Hone 1828-1851 was edited by Bayard Tuckerman, and published in two volumes in 1889 by Dodd, Mean and Company. Both volumes (one and two) are freely available at Internet Archive. Ephemeral New York has an illustrated article about the diaries, and there is one long extract about photography available here. Wikipedia notes that Hone’s diaries are said to be the most extensive and detailed of the first half of 19th-century America.

Tuckerman’s introduction provides some background. ‘On the termination of his mayoralty, in 1827, Mr. Hone began to keep a record of various events, chiefly of a business and personal description, for convenience of reference, rather than as a literary occupation. But his interest in the life of his day, combined with a natural gift for expression which demanded gratification, caused this record gradually to assume a more elaborate character. In May, 1828, he found that he had only to go a step further to convert his common-place book into a diary, and this step he determined to take. During the rest of his life the Diary became his favourite exercise and relaxation. He devoted an hour or more daily to chronicling events of interest, to comments on politics, literature, art, the drama, or industrial subjects. He wrote without any view to publication. His thoughts were put down as they occurred to him, without previous preparation or subsequent correction. Their expression was the pleasurable one of an active mind which is relieved by giving form to ideas. The keeping of the Diary became a rooted habit; so that, when infirmity had curtailed other occupations, he adhered to this one almost to the day of his death.’

17 February 1829
‘Died this morning, Simon, the celebrated cook. He was a respectable man, who has for many years been the fashionable cook in New York, and his loss will be felt on all occasions of large dinner and evening parties, unless it should be found that some suitable shoulders should be ready to receive the mantle of this distinguished cuisinier.’

20 April 1829
‘I saw this day two celebrated personages, the Indian chief, Red-Jacket, and the original of the Harvey Birch of Cooper’s “Spy.” The former is a venerable-looking old man, with gray hair, and less of the Indian in his looks and countenance than I would have expected; and the latter is a tall old man, who looks in all respects the character which he has been made to assume.’

25 March 1834
‘I availed myself of a regular rainy day to stay at home and prepare books for binding and file my letters. Such a day once in a while is a jewel beyond price.’

14 January 1837
‘The ship “Wellington,” of 740 tons burden, was launched this day from Bergh’s ship-yards. She is intended for Grinnell, Minturn, & Co.’s London line of packets. The great duke (as the Spaniards used to call him) ought to be highly gratified at this compliment from republican America. How things are changed! A supposed predilection for Old England, charged upon the Federal party thirty years ago, lost them their political ascendency. At that time men were afraid to wear a red watch-ribbon, lest it might be taken for a symbol of Toryism and bring the wearer a broken head; but now the two old women who govern England and America are great cronies, and their subjects better friends than they were before the battle of Concord; and the name of the Prince of Conservatives, the greatest aristocrat in Europe, graces the bows of one of the most noble ships of which America has reason to be proud.’
17 November 1837
‘The terrible abolition question is fated, I fear, to destroy the union of the States, and to endanger the peace and happiness of our western world. Both parties are getting more and more confirmed in their obstinacy, and more intolerant in their prejudices. A recent disgraceful affair has occurred in the town of Alton, State of Illinois, which is calculated to excite the most painful feelings in all those who respect the laws and desire the continuance of national peace and union. Alton is situated on the left bank of the Mississippi, and opposite the slave-holding State of Missouri. An abolition paper was established there, called the “Alton Observer,” which, becoming obnoxious to the slaveholders, was assailed and the establishment destroyed, some time since, by an ungovernable mob; an attempt was recently made to reestablish the paper, which caused another most disgraceful outrage, in which two persons were killed and several wounded.’

20 February 1838
‘I called upon the President this morning, who received me with his usual urbanity. He inquired about my family and other persons of his acquaintance, talked about the weather, his habits and mode of living, but asked no questions about the state of things in New York, and, of course, did not touch upon politics.’

6 March 1838
‘A committee of the House of Representatives has been appointed to investigate the circumstances attending the late duel between Messrs. Graves and Cilley, with power to send for persons and papers. In the Senate, Mr. Prentiss, of Vermont, has introduced a bill to prevent duelling in the District of Columbia, making it death for the survivor, and imposing ten years’ imprisonment upon all persons concerned in sending a challenge.’

25 March 1842
‘We left Philadelphia at nine o’clock this morning, and got home at three. Washington Irving joined us on starting, and made a very pleasant addition to our little party. He is more gay and cheerful than he is wont to be, and talks a great deal, enlivening his conversation with stories of old times, literary reminiscences, and pretty fair jokes. He is evidently much gratified with his unexpected elevation to diplomatic dignity, and is making his preparations to sail for England on his way to Spain, in the packet of the 7th of April.’

1 October 1849
‘Mr. Alexander Duncan, who arrived this morning from Liverpool, is one of the most extraordinary instances of good fortune, so far as money is concerned, that has occurred in this country. In the winter of 1821-22 he was a fellow-passenger of mine on a voyage from Liverpool, in the ship “Amity,” Captain Maxwell. He was then seventeen years of age; a rough, awkward, shaggy-headed Scotch boy, on a voyage to see his relation, the respected John Grieg, of Canandaigua, and to try his fortune in the new “land of cakes.” There were only three of us in the cabin, Mrs. Pritchard, an English lady, being the third. We had a long, stormy passage, and I, of course, became intimate with the young Scotchman; and, unpolished as he was, I took a great liking to him. He was bright, intelligent, and of good principles, and a friendship was formed which continues until the present time.

Young Duncan, after a few weeks with his uncle at Canandaigua, went to Providence, Rhode Island, to finish his education; entered as a sophomore in the college, and improved his time so well, that by the time he graduated he had engaged the affections of a young lady, whom he married, relinquishing one baccalaureate as he assumed another. Mrs. Duncan had two rich uncles, named Butler, immensely rich, and increasing in wealth every day; for they laid up prodigiously and spent nothing, - a method which, they say, accumulates amazingly. One of these worthies died a few years after the niece’s marriage, and made her heiress to all his property. This induced Duncan and his wife to remove to Providence, where they have resided ever since. My fellow-passenger in the “Amity” bids fair to become one of the richest men in tangible productive property in the United States. And the best of all is, that he is a liberal, generous man, who will make a good use of his money; unless, like many others, his immense riches shall make him penurious, as was the case with the person from whom he inherits this mountain of wealth.’

The Diary Junction

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