No Change for a Greenback

“A Pioneer Homestead” by Cornelius Krieghoff, 1854.

Snippets 197. John Muir (1838-1914) was a celebrated naturalist known as “John of the Mountains”, a key figure in the push for the establishment of National Parks in the USA. The following quote is taken from his account of A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, from the 1916 edition edited by William Frederic Bade:

Passed the poor, rickety, thrice-dead village of Jamestown, an incredibly dreary place. Toward the top of the Cumberland grade, about two hours before sundown I came to a log house, and as I had been warned that all the broad plateau of the range for forty or fifty miles was desolate, I began thus early to seek a lodging for the night. Knocking at the door, a motherly old lady replied to my request for supper and bed and breakfast, that I was welcome to the best she had, provided that I had the necessary change to pay my bill. When I told her that unfortunately I had nothing smaller than a five-dollar greenback, she said, “Well, I’m sorry, but cannot afford to keep you. Not long ago ten soldiers came across from North Carolina, and in the morning they offered a greenback that I couldn’t change, and so I got nothing for keeping them, which I was ill able to afford.”

“Very well,” I said, “I’m glad you spoke of this beforehand, for I would rather go hungry than impose on your hospitality.”

As I turned to leave, after bidding her good bye, she, evidently pitying me for my tired looks, called me back and asked me if I would like a drink of milk. This I gladly accepted, thinking that perhaps I might not be successful in getting any other nourishment for a day or two. Then I inquired whether there were any more houses on the road, nearer than North Carolina, forty or fifty miles away. “Yes,” she said, “it’s only two miles to the next house, but beyond that there are no houses that I know of except empty ones whose owners have been killed or driven away during the war.”

Arriving at the last house, my knock at the door was answered by a bright, good-natured, good-looking little woman, who in reply to my request for a night’s lodging and food, said, “Oh, I guess so. I think you can stay. Come in and I ll call my husband.”

“But I must first warn you,” I said, “that I have nothing smaller to offer you than a five-dollar bill for my entertainment. I don’t want you to think that I am trying to impose on your hospitality.”

She then called her husband, a blacksmith, who was at work at his forge. He came out, hammer in hand, bare-breasted, sweaty, begrimed, and covered with shaggy black hair. In reply to his wife’s statement, that this young man wished to stop over night, he quickly replied, “That’s all right; tell him to go into the house.” He was turning to go back to his shop, when his wife added, “But he says he hasn’t any change to pay. He has nothing smaller than a five-dollar bill.” Hesitating only a moment, he turned on his heel and said, “Tell him to go into the house. A man that comes right out like that beforehand is welcome to eat my bread.”

It is notoriously difficult to quantify the value of past sums of money in modern terms, as there are so many different ways of calculating that, but it is fair to say that a five dollar bill in 1867, when the events of this journal took place, was roughtly equivalent to $150 today.  It is therefore unsurprising that people living in an isolated area found it difficult to provide change for a bed and a meal for one night, when presented with a “greenback”.

“A Pioneer Homestead” by Cornelius Krieghoff, 1854.


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The Bottomless Tram

A Devonport tram, undated photograph. Source: tramwaybadgesandbuttons.com.

Quick Quotes 25.  The following quote is from a newspaper report in the Western Morning News, from 14th December 1898:

Between nine and ten o’clock last evening a very usual and rather alarming mishap occurred in Devonport. As a tramcar was being driven down Chapel-street the bottom fell out. There were several passengers inside, and as none were standing all escaped injury. Whilst some were frightened, others readily realized the humour of being suddenly left seated with their feet dangling in space, and rather enjoyed the rue experience. With the floor fell the driver and conductor’s platform, but neither was hurt. The car was at once pulled up and was quickly hauled off the line. It was an old car, and had been standing in the shed for tome time. Last evening it taken out with a view to its being used today relieve the heavy traffic in connection with the fat stock and poultry show at Devonport. The belief is that the bolts by which the floor was attached the body of the car had been weakened by rust.


“Quick Quotes” are some bonus content for the blog. Each time I find an interesting or amusing little quote that does not really need any further explanation or background information, it will appear on Windows into History under this heading. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen. I welcome any comments or suggestions, and will consider guest posts.

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Love, Honour and Obey?

The Wedding Morning, by John Henry Frederick Bacon (1865-1914)

Max of the Month 2.  When reading non-fiction books from the 19th Century, one finds no shortage of great writers who have now been largely forgotten. However, occasionally a writer comes to light whose work is so entertaining, and who was so incredibly popular in his lifetime, that is it almost inconceivable that he is not still a household name. One such author is Max O’Rell.

This month’s quote from the writings of O’Rell is taken from John Bull’s Womankind, published in 1884, which focusses on women in England at the time.  O’Rell was from France, so this was an outsider’s perspective.

Marrying one of John Bull’s daughters is not all honey.

One cannot help wondering how it comes to pass that the English, who for centuries have been reforming their religion in every sense imaginable, have never yet turned their attention to making the language of the Church as choice and euphemistic as is the language of good society. The Protestant Church alone seems to have retained the sole privilege of calling a spade a spade, or something worse still.

At the ordinary services, it does not so much matter. The clergyman is at a certain distance from the congregation, and when he reads you, from the Bible, a story that makes you tremble for fear of what he will read next, you can comfort yourself with the idea that the charming young lady at your side has perhaps not been listening. Besides, that which is addressed to everybody is addressed to nobody; witness, the effect upon Christians of all the sermons that have been preached to them for nearly two thousand years.

But when it comes to going through the marriage ceremony in church, it is quite another matter.

You are standing beside your bride, and close to the clergyman who is facing you. Six or eight bridesmaids, sometimes young girls twelve or fifteen years old, are grouped behind the bride. Breaking the profound silence, the minister thus addresses you, not in Latin, but in plain English: “Dearly beloved brethren, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony; which is an honourable estate …. not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which matrimony was ordained.” And then he goes on to say that it was ordained for the procreation of children, for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication, that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.

That is how the ball opens. It is promising, is it not? You would give the world to sink through the floor, or to be able to seize your dear little wife, and fill her ears with cotton wool. You blush, as you think of the sweet creatures in white, blue, and pink, who are just behind you biting their lips, and wondering what those brute beasts, that have no understanding, have to do with the ceremony, and you feel ready to fall on your knees and implore the forgiveness of the innocent young girl at your side, for having brought her there to hear such things. And that which strikes you with wonder, nay, with amazement, is that just after, when the minister says to her, “Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband. . . . wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health?” she does not indignantly exclaim:

“No, indeed, not for the world!”

Thus have the English, in their rigid puritanism, managed to spoil a ceremony that might, and ought, to remain engraven on the memory among life’s sweetest souvenirs.

Max O’Rell was born Léon Pierre Blouet, but chose a pen name to avoid any embarrassment in his role as a teacher at St Paul’s School in London. He had worked there since 1874, and the same year married his English wife. Such was the success of his writing that he resigned in 1885 to tour, lecture and write full time.  O’Rell wrote more than a dozen books, which fall broadly into two categories: characteristics of different nationalities, and characteristics of women.

The Wedding Morning, by John Henry Frederick Bacon (1865-1914)


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Missing Mail in 1862

A Royal Mail coach and horses, painted by Jacques-Laurent Agasse (1767-1849)

Snippets 196.  In the mid 19th Century the postal service in Britain was not exactly in its infancy, but was certainly undergoing a rapid programme of modernisation.  The Penny Black was introduced in 1840 and the first post boxes started appearing from 1853.  The following article is taken from the Wycombe and Maidenhead Journal, from 1st February 1862, and is a fascinating article, illustrating how incorrect claims of non-deliveries are far from being a modern problem for the Post Office:

Among the incidents connected with the postal system, those which have given the greatest trouble and annoyance to the authorities relate to the non-delivery of letters. If A B writes to C D, and posts the letter, the Postmaster-General is accountable for its safe delivery, and is required to investigate the cause of any mishap. In some distressing cases, letter carriers have been found guilty of purloining; in others, robbery has been committed by persons unconnected with the Post-office. In others, again, vexing though not distressing delays have occurred at some or other of the offices. But many of the cases which have had to be investigated have resulted in proof, after great trouble to the authorities, of absurd blunders committed by the senders and receivers of letters.

The Annual Reports of the Postmaster-General are full of curiosities of this kind. A gentleman at Westmeath complained that a letter containing notes and bills for £400 had not been duly delivered; after a world of trouble and anxiety to the Westmeath postmaster, the letter was found in a drawer belonging to the person to whom it was sent. A gentleman made a complaint that a certain letter had not been delivered to him; on investigation, it was found in his letter-box, which had not been looked into for several days. A firm ought to have received a letter containing half of a £10 note, and remonstrated at the non-delivery; it was found that one of the partners had received it, locked it in his drawer, and forgotten all about it. A person complained that several of his letters were not forthcoming; the letter-box at his door, being examined, was found to be defective; fifteen letters were jammed between the box and door, where some of them had been quietly reposing as much as nine years! A clerk declared that he had posted a certain letter, concerning which anxious inquiries were made; he was requested to take his oath to this fact; while considering whether to do so, he happened to put his hand into a pocket, where he found the letter—unposted. A letter containing halves of two £10 notes was not delivered at the proper time; it had been dropped in the street, picked up by some honest person, and, after a time, transferred to the rightful owner. A cheque for £12, enclosed in a letter, disappeared in a mysterious way; postmasters and letter-carriers were sent to work, and after a time it was found that the cheque had been innocently sold, with other scraps of paper, to a papier-mache manufacturer, to be by him pulped into tea trays or other of his wares. A letter was once delivered to the counter of music shop; it became loosely entangled with roll of music by a customer, then dropped in the street, then picked up by another person, and finally posted a second time.

Some of the curiosities of this kind we will narrate in the language of the Post Office authorities themselves. “A postmaster in Scotland accidentally discovered a boy opening a letter which he had been sent to post, and taking from it a draft. It did not, however, appear that the boy had any dishonest intention; but his attention had been attracted by an engraving on the draft, which he thought would be a pretty bookmark for one of his school books.”

A Royal Mail coach and horses, painted by Jacques-Laurent Agasse (1767-1849)


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The Looby with a Malmsey Nose

Salisbury Meadows by Constable, in Wiltshire, home of the “moon rakers” according to Grose’s dictionary.

Snippets 195.  Francis Grose (1731-1791) was a noted antiquarian who wrote a series of books about medieval antiquities. Financial difficulties inspired him to branch out into other areas of writing, and in 1785 his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was published. Slang was a good choice of topic, as it would be entertaining and have a wide appeal. However, it stands as a useful record of the language in the 18th Century beyond the formal language studied by lexicographers. Previously we looked at some selected terms from letters A to K, so let’s continue with some examples beginning with L and M, chosen (in the spirit of the original publication) for entertainment value as much as anything.

Lazybones: an instrument like a pair of tongs, for old or very fat people to take any thing from the ground without stooping.

Leaky: apt to blab; one who cannot keep a secret is said to be leaky.

Lightning: gin. A flash of lightning; a glass of gin.

Light Troops: lice: the light troops are in full march; the lice are crawling about.

Limbs: Duke of limbs; a tall awkward fellow.

Linen armourers: tailors.

Listener: the ear.

Little breeches: a familiar appellation used to a little boy.

Little clergyman: a young chimney sweeper.

Little snakesman: a little boy who gets into a house through the sink-hole, and then opens the door for his accomplices; he is so called from writhing and twisting like a snake, in order to work himself through the narrow passage.

Loaf: to be in bad loaf; to be in a disagreeable situation, or in trouble.

Locksmith’s daughter: a key.

Lollipops: sweet lozenges purchased by children.

Loo: for the good of the loo; for the benefit of the company or community.

Looby: an awkward, ignorant fellow.

Louse-land: Scotland.

Low tide or low water: when there is no money in the pocket.

Malmsey Nose: a red pimpled snout, rich in carbuncles and rubies.

Marriage music: the squalling and crying of children.

To Milk the Pigeon: to endeavour at impossibilities.

Moon Rakers: Wiltshire men, because it is said that some men of that county, seeing the reflection of the moon in a pond, endeavoured to pull it out with a rake.

Muckworm: a miser.

Mundungus: bad or rank tobacco.

Interesting, isn’t it, that “lollipop” was once considered a slang word!


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Hot Air Balloon Crash

Crystal_PalaceSnippets 194. The Crystal Palace was a famous London landmark, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851.  After the Exhibition it was relocated from Hyde Park to Penge Common, where it stood until it was destroyed by fire in 1936.  For over 80 years it was a useful venue for exhibitions and festivities.  The following news article is from the Dover Express, 11th August 1899:

Part of the Bank Holiday festivities at the Crystal Palace took the form of balloon ascent, the success of which was marred by a mishap, fortunately unaccompanied by personal injury, but sufficiently alarming at the moment to create general excitement and consternation. Mr. Sydney Spencer ascended in a giant balloon, accompanied by two fellow-voyagers. The balloon, which recently made a successful trip across the Channel, rose majestically several hundreds of feet, the wind carrying it over the central transept of the palace. Just when interest was at its height, and the spectacle was being enjoyed by vast concourse of spectators, the ascent was seen to be arrested, and the aerial travellers commenced throwing out ballast. The balloon again ascended for a brief period, but very soon began to descend. One of the seams had given way, and the rent, small at first, quickly became of formidable dimensions, causing the balloon to collapse, and come earthwards with great rapidity. Fortunately, the speed was somewhat arrested by the silk and cords fouling a house just before the car touched ground in Victoria-road, very near to the palace, and the occupants escaped with little worse than a severe shaking. After the mishap, Mr. Spencer, making his way without loss of time into the palace grounds, was able to reassure the assembled crowds by making another ascent in the captive balloon within half-an-hour of the accident.

An eye-witness gives the following account of the mishap: “I was proceeding up the avenue, towards the Crystal Palace, when saw the balloon, and remarked that it was at surprisingly low elevation. Just as it crossed the road, ballast was thrown out. I could then see huge rent in the balloon, extending from near the bottom to half-way up the body. It was descending, but not very rapidly, for there seemed to be still a large amount of gas in the upper part of the chamber. But in a few minutes its shape became more like a parachute, for the silk of the lower part was flying in the wind, and the top looked just like an inverted saucer. Still it seemed that there was gas enough to bring it down safely; but a moment later this hope was dissipated. The balloon was falling through space, amid clouds of its own ballast, and it only remained to speculate whether it would fall on a tree or a house. The actual fall, I should say, would be between 400 ft. and 500 ft. I had just time to dart through Colby-road into Victoria-road when down came the balloon with a crash. It descended with such a rush at last that it was not possible for me to take in the details; but from the position of the remnants it was evident that the aeronauts had had the narrowest escape possible. Had the car struck a roof they could scarcely have escaped with their lives. But it fell quite close to the front of house, and had reached the level of the top of the front door when the mass of silk and cordage, now actually destitute of gas, veered over on to the roof. For a moment there was great ripping of silk; then the cordage caught firmly in the chimney, checked the fall of the car for second, and then jerked the occupants out head over heels on to the lawn. They were all on their feet immediately, looking at one another rather curiously, as though they could not comprehend what had happened. Looking up, they saw the wreckage of the balloon suspended from the chimney, and reaching down to the ground. Mr. Spencer seemed to be the first regain his presence of mind, and set about ascertaining if his companions were injured or not. Then they all shook one another by the hand and congratulated themselves heartily on making such marvellous escape.”


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The Girl Who Struck Gold

From “Oriental and western Siberia”, 1858.

Quick Quotes 24.  The following quote is from Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants, by Lucy Atkinson, published in 1863:

Since our arrival here, there has been a number of balls and parties: we were just in time for the Easter festivities; it was the last week of the fast when we got into Tomsk. First, I went and made the acquaintance of all the notables of the town, they are principally gold seekers. Mr. Astersghoff is one of the wealthiest, and possesses rich mines in the Yenissey, which we shall visit; he showed us some fine specimens of gold, weighing 251b. and 301b. each. These miners have magnificent mansions, and live in great state. We likewise visited the vice-governor, a most amiable and gentlemanly man; he will not be able to hold his office much longer, having married the daughter of a gold-seeker. A government officer is not allowed to work mines of his own, and as he now possesses them he must give up his post. He is just married; his wife was the only daughter of a poor peasant, her mother died whilst she was young; this child used to run about the streets bare-legged until she was a good age. When the rage for gold-seeking was so great, the old peasant thought he would hazard his little savings which he had collected for his daughter’s dowry, so started off one fine day; fortune rewarded his efforts, for he found a mine, which proved to be very rich; he now sent his daughter, of whom he was justly proud, to a school, where she learned to read and write.

The poor fellow did not live long to enjoy the fruits of his labours, he died two years ago, leaving his daughter a rich heiress at the age of fifteen; her education is still being continued; her husband has provided her with teachers, who come daily. A more graceful or beautiful creature it has rarely been my lot to see. She receives her visitors and sits at the head of her table, as though she had been accustomed to her present position from her birth, and yet so modest withal.

During the late 1830s and early 1840s the writer of this quote, Lucy Atkinson (or Lucy Finley, as she was at the time), worked as a governess in St Petersburg, where she met her husband Thomas Atkinson. They were married in 1848 and set off on a grand tour of Siberia and Central Asia, which lasted until 1853.


“Quick Quotes” are some bonus content for the blog. Each time I find an interesting or amusing little quote from and old (verging on forgotten) book, that does not really need any further explanation or background information, it will appear on Windows into History under this heading. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen. I welcome any comments or suggestions, and will consider guest posts.

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