Knickerbocker's History of New York/Book VII/Chapter II

Chapter IIEdit

From what I have recounted in the foregoing chapter, I would not have it imagined that the great Peter was a tyrannical potentate, ruling with a rod of iron. On the contrary, where the dignity of office permitted, he abounded in generosity and condescension. If he refused the brawling multitude the right of misrule, he at least endeavored to rule them in righteousness. To spread abundance in the land, he obliged the bakers to give thirteen loaves to the dozen--a golden rule which remains a monument of his beneficence. So far from indulging in unreasonable austerity, he delighted to see the poor and the laboring man rejoice; and for this purpose he was a great promoter of holidays. Under his reign there was a great cracking of eggs at Paas or Easter; Whitsuntide or Pinxter also flourished in all its bloom; and never were stockings better filled on the eve of the blessed St. Nicholas.

New Year's Day, however, was his favorite festival, and was ushered in by the ringing of bells and firing of guns. On that genial day the fountains of hospitality were broken up, and the whole community was deluged with cherry-brandy, true hollands, and mulled cider; every house was a temple to the jolly god; and many a provident vagabond got drunk out of pure economy, taking in liquor enough gratis to serve him half a year afterwards.

The great assemblage, however, was at the governor's house, whither repaired all the burghers of New Amsterdam with their wives and daughters, pranked out in their best attire. On this occasion the good Peter was devoutly observant of the pious Dutch rite of kissing the women-kind for a happy new year; and it is traditional that Antony the trumpeter, who acted as gentleman usher, took toll of all who were young and handsome, as they passed through the ante-chamber. This venerable custom, thus happily introduced, was followed with such zeal by high and low that on New Year's Day, during the reign of Peter Stuyvesant, New Amsterdam was the most thoroughly be-kissed community in all Christendom.

Another great measure of Peter Stuyvesant for public improvement was the distribution of fiddles throughout the land. These were placed in the hands of veteran negroes, who were despatched as missionaries to every part of the province. This measure, it is said, was first suggested by Antony the Trumpeter, and the effect was marvelous. Instead of those "indignation meetings" set on foot in the time of William the Testy, where men met together to rail at public abuses, groan over the evils of the times, and make each other miserable, there were joyous gatherings of the two sexes to dance and make merry. Now were instituted "quilting bees," and "husking bees," and other rural assemblages, where, under the inspiring influence of the fiddle, toil was enlivened by gayety and followed up by the dance. "Raising bees" also were frequent, where houses sprang up at the wagging of the fiddle-stick, as the walls of Thebes sprang up of yore to the sound of the lyre of Amphion.

Jolly autumn, which pours its treasures over hill and dale, was in those days a season for the lifting of the heel as well as the heart; labor came dancing in the train of abundance, and frolic prevailed throughout the land. Happy days! when the yeomanry of the Nieuw Nederlands were merry rather than wise; and when the notes of the fiddle, those harbingers of good humor and good will, resounded at the close of the day from every hamlet along the Hudson!

Nor was it in rural communities alone that Peter Stuyvesant introduced his favorite engine of civilization. Under his rule the fiddle acquired that potent sway in New Amsterdam which it has ever since retained. Weekly assemblages were held, not in heated ball-rooms at midnight hours, but on Saturday afternoons, by the golden light of the sun, on the green lawn of the Battery; with Antony the Trumpeter for master of ceremonies. Here would the good Peter take his seat under the spreading trees, among the old burghers and their wives, and watch the mazes of the dance. Here would he smoke his pipe, crack his joke, and forget the rugged toils of war, in the sweet oblivious festivities of peace, giving a nod of approbation to those of the young men who shuffled and kicked most vigorously; and now and then a hearty smack, in all honesty of soul, to the buxom lass who held out longest, and tired down every competitor--infallible proof of her being the best dancer.

Once, it is true, the harmony of these meetings was in danger of interruption. A young belle, just returned from a visit to Holland, who of course led the fashions, made her appearance in not more than half-a-dozen petticoats, and these of alarming shortness. A whisper and a flutter ran through the assembly. The young men of course were lost in admiration, but the old ladies were shocked in the extreme, especially those who had marriageable daughters; the young ladies blushed and felt excessively for the "poor thing," and even the governor himself appeared to be in some kind of perturbation.

To complete the confusion of the good folk she undertook, in the course of a jig, to describe some figures in algebra taught her by a dancing-master at Rotterdam. Unfortunately, at the highest flourish of her feet, some vagabond zephyr obtruded his services, and a display of the graces took place, at which all the ladies present were thrown into great consternation; several grave country members were not a little moved, and the good Peter Stuyvesant himself was grievously scandalized.

The shortness of the female dresses, which had continued in fashion ever since the days of William Kieft, had long offended his eye; and though extremely averse to meddling with the petticoats of the ladies, yet he immediately recommended that every one should be furnished with a flounce to the bottom. He likewise ordered that the ladies, and indeed the gentlemen, should use no other step in dancing than "shuffle and turn," and "double trouble;" and forbade, under pain of his high displeasure, any young lady thenceforth to attempt what was termed "exhibiting the graces."

These were the only restrictions he ever imposed upon the sex, and these were considered by them as tyrannical oppressions, and resisted with that becoming spirit manifested by the gentle sex whenever their privileges are invaded. In fact, Antony Van Corlear, who, as has been shown, was a sagacious man, experienced in the ways of women, took a private occasion to intimate to the governor that a conspiracy was forming among the young vrouws of New Amsterdam; and that, if the matter were pushed any further, there was danger of their leaving off petticoats altogether; whereupon the good Peter shrugged his shoulders, dropped the subject, and ever after suffered the women to wear their petticoats, and cut their capers as high as they pleased, a privilege which they have jealously maintained in the Manhattoes unto the present day.