Woolson on the Men of New York, 1871

Some of Woolson’s first literary work was for the Cleveland newspaper the Herald, owned by her brother-in-law and his father, who helped her to start her career. She moved to New York (as so many writers and artists continue to do) in the winter of 1870-71 and began sending home witty letters about her observations. Here is an excerpt from her first letter, published under the title, “From Our Special Woman Correspondent,” in the Jan. 10, 1871 edition of the Herald. She was always very interested in fashions, and here she trains her eyes on the men of New York, having plenty of fun at their expense.

“The Manhattan uniform consists of three things—clothes, flesh and moustache. A thick dark coat, with huge square shoulders, finished by pantaloons of attenuated delicacy, a large extinguisher of a hat and yellow gloves compose the ‘clothes;’ a full face without a hollow or wrinkle, a round throat and chin without an angle, shapely wrists and plump hands without a visible bone or tendon, compose ‘the flesh;’ a variously shaded brown appendage curving over the upper lip and ferociously waxed at the ends, a la Empereur (sic), composes the ‘moustache.’ It makes no difference what natural peculiarities a man may have when he arrives in the city, or how thin he may be, a few months’ residence will turn him out a fac simile [sic] of ten thousand others, so that if his own mother should see him in the morning, she would before night be quite bewildered by the astonishing family resemblance which all the young men bore to her dear own boy. You meet a gentleman as you walk up Broadway and notice his style with admiration, when suddenly he appears again miraculously from the same direction. You admire him a second time and pass on, only to see him crossing Madison Square; as you walk up Fifth avenue he meets you several times in every block and invariably appears coming around the corner as you mount up the Twenties and Thirties to say nothing of looking out from the windows of all the passing carriages and serenely assisting you in and out of every omnibus with his plump kid gloves. On Sunday this young man of the period multiplies himself by thousands and goes to church, and week day evening he multiplies himself by ten thousand and attends the theatres, to the great bewilderment of those old-fashioned people who still cling to the obsolete doctrine of personal identity. The drooping shoulders, narrow chest, lantern jaws, Adam’s apple throats, knobby wrists and bony fingers so characteristic of the Yankee race outside of Manhattan Island, are seldom seen here, for by some magical process the hollows are filled up and the angles filled in. How much the tailors have to do with his universal rotundity remains a secret, but the fact is palpable that the young men of New York are decidedly plump. The word young, however, is here used in a Pickwickian sense; there are no young men in New York, neither are there any old men, but they are between the two. You cannot trifle with the youths, for really when you take a second glance, they might be almost any age, and you cannot rise up to honor the hoary head, for there are no hoary heads to honor. The ravages of time, if there are any, are quite invisible to the naked eye; the pale, uniform complexion, closely trimmed hair, with a bald spot on the top of the head, waxed moustache and round figures, may belong anywhere from twenty to sixty, and woe to the man who attempts to fix the date. The boys strive to be men, the men strive to be boys and the result is the Manhattan uniform, good for forty years wear, an impenetrable armor against the attacks of time.”

[I will continue to “publish” some excerpts from her New York letters in the coming weeks while I focus on my writing, which has now entered a particularly intense period. I will share some of the results when I can come up for air again.]

4 Comments

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  1. What a hoot! Sounds downright contemporary, like something written by Bill Cunningham, the fashion guy on the street.

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