Saturdays in New York, 1871

Today some of Woolson’s observations on Saturdays in New York, when the ladies are out in force . . .

Saturday in New York is a marked day, possessing such peculiar characteristics that any one could detect it by a glance at the streets even though just awakened from weeks of sickness with no idea of time or place. Let no one suppose, however, that the peculiarity consists in an evident preparation for the day of rest; a careful review and closing up of the week’s business and a cessation of all bustle and gaiety as the sun goes down, according to the venerated rule of New England, where the odor of the exalted cod-fish, the simmering of baking beans and the voices of children undergoing the Saturday scrub, rise in the air and mark the day with unmistakable distinctness.

On this demoralized island, Saturday is one grand rush from dawn to midnight, a brilliant carnival into whose eighteen houses is crowded the whole concentrated essence of the week, when every man, woman and child, every car and stage horse, every ferryboat and steam engine is kept busy to the utmost capacity, as though Satan, envious of the Lord’s Day, had set up a rival institution of his own, and was doing what he could towards emptying the churches on Sunday, by getting a double share of service out of Saturday, the gala day of the week.

There is more buying done on Saturday than at any other time, and all the stores are full from Stewart’s down to the corner grocery. At the superb palace of Lord & Taylor up town; the elegant clerks are obliged to hurry around in a manner but little suited to their aristocratic tastes to supply the demands of the throng of customers, and the impassive wax lady in the corner window stares placidly out upon twice the usual number of admirers flattening their noses against the plate glass in humble homage.

This plaque commemorates “Ladies’ Mile,” the historic shopping district, which today is the Flatiron area.

Looking in the stores one naturally supposes that the ladies have devoted the day to shopping, but go over to the markets and another army marches on to the field laying in supplies apparently for the whole city; visit the libraries, every seat and recess is occupied and the Librarian driven wild by the feminine thirst for knowledge which always prefers the farthest book on the topmost shelf and changes it once a minute. Take a walk for pleasure and meeting the throngs of ladies, you will decide that you were mistaken and THE thing to do on Saturday is to walk up and down Broadway; but when you step into any of the matinees and behold the serried ranks of beauty and fashion, you will give it up and maintain that you have seen one million women since daylight! The New York rule for Saturday is ‘go.’ It does not make much difference where, but keep going, as long as you can stand on your feet.

In the evening the gentlemen turn out and even the stay at homes must have a taste of amusement Saturday night; every place of amusement is crowded from the exquisite in the private box to the newsboy in the upper gallery, who catching the spirit of the scene, fecklessly spends in peanuts the profit of the whole week, and casts the shells thereof downward with careless indifference. On Saturday the dailies offer extras and the weeklies are black with thrilling pictures; on Saturday candy is indulged in to an unlimited extent; on Saturday the crowd on the ferryboats going out is only equalled by the crowd on the ferryboats coming in; everybody is going somewhere and everybody wears his best clothes; après nous le deluge! The matinees on Saturday have a peculiar character of their own, and the actors know it and prepare accordingly; the rustling whispering audiences are composed nine tenths of ladies, who rejoice in the opportunity to express their admiration for their favorite, and give him round after round of delicate kid glove applause in revenge for the enforced silence which custom ordains in the evening. We say “him,” advisedly for the ladies never applaud an actress; as a general rule they “cannot see anything in her.”

–“Gotham.What a Woman Sees and Says,” Cleveland Supplement, Jan. 21, 1872

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