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HUMOROUS ACCOUNT OF A CUSTOM
Attributed to the Pen of Dr. Franklin. ALTHOUGH the following article has not yet appeared in any collection of the works of this great philosopher, we are inclined to receive the general opinion, (from the plainness of the style, and the humour which characterizes it,) to be the peformance of Dr. Franklin.
My wish is to give you some account of the people of these new States, but I am far from being qualified for the purpose, having as yet seen little more than the cities of New York and Philadelphia. I have discovered but few additional singularities among them. Their customs and manners are nearly the same with those of England, which they have long been used to copy. For, previous to the Revolution, the Americans were from their infancy taught to look up to the English as patterns of perfection in all things. I have observed, however, one custom, which, for aught I know, is peculiar to this country; an account of it will serve to fill up the remainder of this sheet, and may afford you some amusement.
When a young couple are about to enter into the matrimonial state, a never-failing article in the marriage treaty is, that the lady'shall have and enjoy the free and unmolested exercise of the rights of white-washing, with all its ceremonials, privileges and appurtenances. A young woman would 'forego the most advantageous connexion, and even disappoint the warmest wish of her heart, rather than resign the invaluable right. You would wonder what This privilege of white-washing is : I will endeavour to give you some idea of the ceremony, as I have seen it performed.
There is no season of the year in which the lady may not claim her privilege, if she pleases; but the
latter end of May is most generally fixed upon for the purpose. The attentive husband may judge by certain prognostics when the storm is nigh at hand. When the lady is unusually fretful, finds fault with the servants, is discontented with the children, and complains much of the filthiness of every thing about her, these are signs which ought not to be neglected; yet they are not decisive, as they sometimes come on and go off again without producing any farther effect. But if, when the husband rises in the morning, he should observe in the yard a wheel-barrow with a quantity of lime in it, or should see certain buckets with lime dissolved in water, there is then no time to be lost; he immediately locks up the apartment or closet where his papers or his private property is kept, and putting the key in his pocket, betakes himself'to flight : for a husband, however beloved, becomes a perfect nuisance during this season of female rage,' his authority is superseded, his commission is suspended, and the very scullion, who cleans the brasses in the kitchen, becomes of more consideration and importance than him. He has nothing for it but to abdicate, and run from an evil which he can neither prevent nor mollisy.
The husband gone, the ceremony begins. The walls are in a few minutes stripped of their furniture; paintings, prints, looking-glasses, lie in a huddled heap about the streets; the curtains are torn from the testers, the beds crammed into the windows; chairs and tables, bedsteads and cradles, crowd the yard; and the garden fence bends beneath the weight of carpets, blankets, cloth cloaks, old coats, and ragged breeches. Here may be seen the lumber of the kithen, forming a dark and confused mass : for the fore-ground of the picture, gridirops and frying pans, rusty shovels and broken tongs, spits and pots, and the fractured remains of rush-bottomed chairs. There a closet has disgorged its bowels, cracked tumblers, broken wine-glasses, phials of forgotten physic, papers of unknown powders, seeds and dried herbs, handfuls of old corks, tops of tea-pots, and stoppers of departed decanters; from the rag-hole in the garret to the rat-hole in the cellar, no plase escapes unrummaged. It would seem as if the day of general doom was come, and the utensils of the house were dragged forth to judgment. In this tempest the words of Lear naturally present themselves, and might, with some alteration, be made strictly applicable :
" Let the great gods,
- Close pent up guilt,
This ceremony completed, and the house tho. roughly evacuated, the next operation is to smear tho walls and ceilings of every room and closet with brushes dipped in a solution of lime called whitewash; to pour buckets of water over every floor, and scratch all the partitions and wainscots with rough brushes wet with soap-suds, and dipped in stonecutter's sand. The windows by no means escapo the general deluge. A servant scrambles out upon the pent-house, ai the risk of her neck, anıl with a mug in her hand, and a bucket within reach, she dashes away innumerable gallons of water against the glass panes; to the great annoyance of the passengers in the street
I have been told that an action at law was once brought against one of these water-nymphs by a person who had a new suit of clothes spoiled by this operation; but after long argument, it was determined by the whole court that the action would not lie, inasınuch as the defendant was in the exercise of a legal right, and not answerable for the consequences ; and so the poor gentleman was doubly non suited ;
for he lost not only his suit of clothes, but his suit at law.
These smearings and scratchings, washings and dashings, being duly performed, the next ceremonial is to cleanse and replace the distracted furniture. You may have seen a house-raising or a ship-launch, when all the hands within reach are collected together : recollect if you can the hurry, bustle, confu. sion, and noise of such a scene, and you will have some idea of this cleaning match. The misfortune is, that the sole object is to make things clean; it matters not how many useful, ornamental, or valuable articles are mutilated, or suffer death under the operation; a mahogany chair and carved frame un. dergo the same discipline; they are to be made clean at all events; but their preservation is not worthy of attention. For instance, a fine large engraving is laid flat upon the floor ; smaller prints are piled upon it, and the superincumbent weight cracks the glasses of the lower tier; but this is of no consequence. A valuable picture is placed leaning against the sharp corner of a table; others are made to lean against that, until the pressure of the whole forces the corner of the table through the canvass of the first. The frame and glass of a fine print are to be cleaned; the spirit and oil used on this occasion are suffered to leak through and spoil the engraving: ne matter, if the glass is clean, and the frame shine, it is sufficient; the rest is not worthy of consideration. An able Arithmetician has made an accurate calculation, founded on long experience, and has discovered, that the losses and destruction incident to two white-washings are equal to one removal, and three removals equal to one fire.
The cleaning frolic over, matters begin to resume their pristine appearance. The storm ahates, and all would be well again, but it is impossible that so great a convulsion, in so small a community, should not produce some farther effects. For two or three weeks after the operation the family are usually afflicted with sore throats or sore eyes, occasioned by the caustic quality of the lime, or with severe
colds from the exhalations of wet floors or damp walls.
I know a gentleman, who was fond of accounting for every thing in a philosophical way. He considers this, which I have called a custom, å real periodical disease, peculiar to the climate. His train of reasoning is ingenious and whimsical; but I am not at leisure to give you a detail. The result was, that he found the distemper to be incurable ; but after much study he conceived he had discovered a method to divert the evil he could not subdue. For this purpose he caused a small building, about twelve feet square, to be erected in his garden, and furnished with some ordinary chairs and tables ; and a few prints of the cheapest sort were hung against the walls. His hope was, that when the white-washing frenzy seized the females of bis family, they might repair to this apartment, and scrub, and swear, and scour, to their heart's content; and so spend the violence of the disease on this out-post, while he enjoyed himself in quiet at head quarters. But the experiment did not answer his expectations; it was impossible it should, since a principal part of the gratification consists in the lady having an uncontrolled right to torment her husband at least once a year, and 10 turn him out of doors, and take the reins of government into her own hands.
There is a much better contrivance than this of the philosopher's; which is, to cover the walls of the house with paper : this is generally done; and, though it cannot abolish, it at least shortens the period of female dominion. The paper is decorated with flowers of various fancies, and made so ornamental, that the women have admitted the fashion without perceiving the design.
There is also another alleviation of the husband's distress; he generally has the privilege of a small room or closet for his books and papers, the key of which he is allowed to keep. This is considered as a privileged place, and stands like the land of Goshen amid the plagues of Egypt But then he must be ex: tremely cautious, and ever on his guard; for should