Albany 50 years ago -- more than 100 years ago

north pearl and state 1800s illustration by james eights

I AM an Albany Knickerbocker -- a Dutchman of purest Belgic blood -- and I justly claim to be heard, as the last as well as the most loyal of the fading cocked-hat generation, who mourn over the barbarisms of despotic Fashion and the hot haste of society in these degenerate days, when steam and iron have usurped the power of honest breath and muscle, and the lightning has become the obedient chariot of thought.

You can fit many cycles of death and rebirth in 400 years.

We were thinking about that as we read through this piece from a 1857 edition of Harper's: "Albany Fifty Years Ago." It's based on the recollections of James Eights, a "natural scientist" and illustrator who grew up in the city, as told to Benson John Lossing, a noted writer and editor at the time. (Here's a stripped down version of the text hosted by the Internet Archive. Do an in-page search for "ALBANY FIFTY YEARS AGO.")

The article is structured as a pictorial walk-through of Albany near the beginning of the 19th century, as Eights remembered it. It's packed with laments about then-modern fashion ("The lady had 'lost her waist') and "social retrogression," recollections of gossip and plotting ("How many plans which controlled the destinies of the Empire State may have been matured in these daily social councils!"), the retelling of pranks and jokes, and the noting of historical events ("Nowhere did the death of [Alexander] Hamilton make a more profound impression than in Albany, and nowhere was the hatred toward Burr, his destroyer, more intense.").

It's kind of fascinating reading through all these memories of a place that had already been made new at least once or twice by the time Eights recalled it. But some of the threads stretch into our modern day, in names and streets that still exist. It makes us wonder about the ways the old, old history of Albany still influences the place, maybe in ways no one living today even realizes.

From the close of the piece:

A little while and I shall be like those old buildings-prone among the buried things of the Past; and yet a little while, and you, too, will be a forgotten item on the day-book of the living. But it is better to laugh than to weep, and so I will close my sermon here at the end of the text. Here is a glass of fine old Rhenish, imported by my friend Barent Bleecker. We may never meet again on the earth; so with the sparkling goblets in our hands, I will say, God bless you! Adieu!

From: Benson J. Lossing, "Albany Fifty Years Ago," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 82 (March 1857): 451-463

[via Daniel Nester -- Thanks!]

Comments

An easier way to view the full essay is on the Making of America site hosted by Cornell. You can click through each page here:
http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=harp;cc=harp;rgn=full%20text;idno=harp0014-4;didno=harp0014-4;view=image;seq=0461;node=harp0014-4%3A3

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