A travel writer under the spell of 1820s New York

Frances Milton “Fanny” Trollope was decidedly unimpressed by America when this wife and mother visited the young nation in the late 1820s.

She arrived with her sons in 1827 from her home country of England, stepping off in New Orleans and settling for a time in Cincinnati. Her British husband had financial difficulties, and she hoped to take advantage of the opportunities she believed America offered.

When her efforts failed, she left Ohio and set out for various East Coast cities. The travel log she published back in England in 1832 was titled Domestic Manners of the Americans.

The book was a monster hit on both sides of the Atlantic, though it earned American disdain.

It’s hard not to see why. According to Trollope, American roads were primitive, manners lacking, and culture nonexistent. She also called out the hypocrisy of a nation that heralded freedom yet enslaved African Americans.

But when it came to the seven weeks she spent in New York City, Trollope was almost starstruck.

“I have never seen the Bay of Naples, I can therefore make no comparison, but my imagination is incapable of conceiving any thing of the kind more beautiful than the harbour of New-York,” she wrote of her arrival by boat from New Jersey. (Above, South Street at Maiden Lane in 1827)

“Situated on an island, which I think it will one day cover, it rises, like Venice, from the sea, and like that fairest of cities in the days of her glory, receives into its lap tribute of all the riches of the earth.”

She noted the “beautiful” public promenade along the Battery (above left, in 1861) and “splendid” Broadway, with its “handsome shops, neat awnings, excellent troittoir, and well-dressed pedestrians.”

“Hudson Square (at right) and its neighborhood is, I believe, the most fashionable part of town,” Trollope wrote about this elegant enclave renamed St. John’s Park (at left).

She also praised the city’s night life. “At night the shops, which are open till very late, are brilliantly illuminated with gas, and all the population seems as much alive as London or Paris.”

During her stay she visited the three major theaters and pronounced the Bowery Theatre (at left in 1826) “superior in its beauty” to the Park or the Chatham.

She also visited theaters and churches where black New Yorkers went and worshipped, writing about the many free African Americans in the city.

According to Trollope, stylish women in New York wore only French fashions; houses were made of a rich brown stone called “Jersey freestone,” streets were well paved, everyone had plenty of ice to cool their food, and the villas in Bloomingdale, the West Side village far from the actual city, were beautiful.

She also praised the 19th century version of taxi drivers (at left, in the 1830s), even the one who ripped her off.

“The hackney-coaches are the best in the world,” she proclaimed, though admitting that she was way overcharged by one unscrupulous driver who took her for a tourist.

That didn’t change her feeling that Manhattan was the greatest urban space in the nation, and perhaps the world.

“[I] must still declare that I think New-York one of the finest cities I ever saw, and as much superior to every other in the Union (Philadelphia not excepted) as London to Liverpool, Paris to Rouen. Its advantages of position are perhaps unequaled anywhere.”

Here’s another female travel writer’s descriptive take on the colonial city she visited in 1704.

[First image: Wikipedia; second image: View of South Street From Maiden Lane, New York City” by William James Bennett/MET Museum; third image: NYPL; fourth image: unknown; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: NYPL; seventh image: “The Bay of New York Taken from Brooklyn Heights” by William Guy Wall/MET Musuem]

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11 Responses to “A travel writer under the spell of 1820s New York”

  1. keenanpatrick424 Says:

    Trollope’s trip was 4 yrs. before de Tocqueville made his trip. Is her book still available and studied like de Tocqueville’s DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA ?

  2. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    Wasn’t she so smart?!! What great taste and vision! That is astonishing that she would see all the things that have made New York such a stellar city in the very beginning!

  3. Observer Says:

    Interesting that she places Hudson Square in its true geographical location, in today’s TriBeCa, where the Holland Tunnel exit is now, SOUTH of Canal Street.

    This is evidence that Trinity Realty’s lame attempt to brand the Lower West Side or West SoHo, as so many call it, as “Hudson Square” is ridiculous and historically inaccurate.

    Why is Trinity usurping history for its own ends?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      My guess is that the real estate marketers really don’t know or care about Trinity’s long history as a landowner/landlord in New York. And Hudson Square sounds nice, safe, and palatable to potential buyers.

  4. Benjamin Feldman Says:

    Unless I miss my guess, the coach from which the lady is alighting is in front of Niblo’s Garden in its original appearance, incorporating two townhouses on Broadway at #576 and next door, one of which was James Fenimore Cooper’s residence in NYC before he returned to Cooperstown…The Garden opened in 1828 and remained under William Niblo’s name until 1894 despite his retirement from active management in 1860 and his death in 1878. For more, see my biography of Niblo: https://www.amazon.com/East-Eden-William-Pleasure-Garden/dp/1495115461

  5. R Lewis Says:

    I understand that the popularity of her book abroad caused much consternation for Edwin Forrest when he 1st toured Europe (he played into her stereotype of crass Americans), and it led to his competitive anger with refined British actor William Macready. So, a case can be made that Fanny was one of the early root causes of the Astor Place Riots, which at the time was managed by William Niblo (another crass American who married into money).

    • Benjamin P. Feldman Says:

      The history of Niblo’s management of the Astor Place Opera House at the time of the riot is extensively detailed in my biography of Niblo

  6. Merkwaardig (week 9) | www.weyerman.nl Says:

    […] Milton (Fanny) Trollope was niet onder de indruk toen ze in 1820 New York […]

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