Albany, 1795: “They live retired in their houses with their wives”

As we were discussing yesterday, in 1800, François Alexandre Frédéric de La Rochefoucauld, under the title of Duke de La Rochefoucauld Liancourt, published his Travels through the United States of North America, the Country of the Iroquois, and Upper Canada, In the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797. Albany came up a few times.

After talking quite a bit about the state of shipping in Albany in the mid 1790s, Rochefoucauld gives a general description of the old city of Albany:

Albany contains six thousand inhabitants, two thousand of whom are slaves, as the laws of the State of New York permit slavery. The old houses are built in the Dutch style, with the gable-end to the street; the pyramidal part rising in steps, and terminating in a chimney decorated with figures, or in some iron puppets. All the buildings, which have been erected within these last ten years, are constructed of bricks in the English style, wide and large.

The revenue of the city amounts to about thirty-five thousand dollars a year. It possesses a great quantity of land in the neighbouring country, and also sells the quays on the river at two dollars and half per foot, and a ground-rent of one shilling, which is irredeemable. This revenue is partly owing to the economy of the administrators, who have hitherto endeavoured rather to enrich the city than to embellish it, and render it more convenient. The Senate is, at present, composed of young men, who promise to take care of these articles. But, from the ignorance, apathy, and antiquated ideas, which prevail in this city, it is much to be apprehended, lest the results of their exertions should prove but very trifling for a long time to come. I almost incline to think, that young people here are old born.

A bank, which was instituted here four years ago, promotes the trade of Albany; it consists of six hundred shares of four hundred dollars each, only half of which have hitherto been paid. The yearly dividend is nine per cent, besides what is deducted for the expence of the building in which the bank is kept.

There is in Albany a Dutch Lutheran church of a Gothic and very peculiar construction; the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, German Protestants, and Methodists, possess also churches in this town.

The price of land, in the vicinity of Albany, is from sixty-three to seventy-five dollars per acre. Some lands near the river are still dearer. These are remarkably good; but those, which are situated more backwards, are but of a middling quality. Agriculture is not attended to with peculiar care; the farms lie half in grass and half in corn. No country had ever stronger incitements to perfect its agriculture and industry; for none was ever furnished with outlets more safe and less expensive.

Some manufactories have been established at a small distance from the town, among which is a glass-house, in which both window glass and bottles are made. The former is pretty smooth, and the manufactory is carried on with much activity. Mr. Caldhowell [James Caldwell] possesses also near the town extensive works, where tobacco, mustard, starch, and cocoa-mills, are turned by water, and even every accessory labour is performed by the aid of water machinery. The tobacco-mill is the most important part of these works; about one hundred and fifty thousand pounds are yearly manufactured.

The Duke goes on to relate how when Caldwell’s works burned down in July 1794, both his friends and the state legislature stepped up with assistance to ensure he could rebuild, and that volunteer labor helped to rebuild his works, which employed fifty persons at the time, “some of whom receive one hundred dollars a year; children, nine years old, can earn from six shillings to one dollar a week.” He goes on to note that elsewhere there were tanning yards, corn, oil, paper and fulling-mills, where common day-laborers could receive four shillings and sixpence per day, and up to seven shillings in harvest season.

The Duke, who was of course in exile from post-Revolution France, seems not to have been a fan of the denizens of Albany. While having nothing but good to say about the Schuylers and Van Rensselaers, who no doubt hosted him during his journey, his views of the average citizens is in line with what others observed from the time:

Hospitality to strangers seems not to be a prominent feature in the character of the inhabitants of Albany; the few, with whom we got acquainted, looked extremely dull and melancholy. They live retired in their houses with their wives, who sometimes are pretty, but rather aukward in their manners; and with whom their husband scarcely exchange thirty words a day, although they never address them but with the introductory appellation of “my love.” Exceptions, undoubtedly, exist in regard to the charms of the ladies, as well as to the conduct and conversation of the husbands; but, it is asserted, they are very few.


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