Two Entrepreneurs on the Ohio Frontier, 1829
by Frances Trollope
Introductory Note by Andrew Hamilton: Prominent English novelist Frances Trollope, mother of famous novelist Anthony Trollope, lived in America for three and a half years, from 1828 to 1832. Much of her time was spent in Cincinnati, Ohio, effectively on the western frontier. Upon her return to England she published a memoir about her experiences, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832). It became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and remains her best-known book. Like countless other documents, records, and memorials from the past it can profitably be employed to puzzle out confusing problems of race and social organization that currently bedevil the world, providing data and insight into the underlying psychological structure of our people under “pristine” conditions, before the iron curtain of racial, cultural, psychological, and behavioral distortion, mass media domination, and political and social totalitarianism descended on the West in 1917 and 1933.
In these two excerpts from her book we see two Cincinnati entrepreneurs through the author’s eyes. The first is White, the second, a boy, almost certainly Jewish.
THERE WAS ONE MAN whose progress in wealth I watched with much interest and pleasure. When I first became his neighbour, himself, his wife, and four children,(1) were living in one room, with plenty of beef-steaks and onions for breakfast, dinner, and supper, but with very few other comforts. He was one of the finest men I ever saw, full of natural intelligence and activity of mind and body, but he could neither read nor write. He drank but little whiskey, and but rarely chewed tobacco, and was therefore more free from that plague-spot of spitting which rendered male colloquy [conversation, usually formal or mannered] so difficult to endure. He worked for us frequently, and often used to walk into the drawing room and seat himself on the sofa, and tell me all his plans. He made an engagement with the proprietor of the wooded hill before mentioned, by which half the wood he could fell was to be his own. His unwearied industry made this a profitable bargain, and from the proceeds he purchased the materials for building a comfortable frame (or wooden) house; he did the work almost entirely himself. [Shortly before, recall, the family occupied a single room.] He then got a job for cutting rails, and, as he could cut twice as many in a day as any other man in the neighbourhood [shades of Abraham Lincoln], he made a good thing of it. He then let [rented] half his pretty house, which was admirably constructed, with an ample portico, that kept it always cool. His next step was contracting for the building a wooden bridge, and when I left Mohawk he had fitted up his half of the building as an hotel and grocery store; and I have no doubt that every sun that sets sees him a richer man than when it rose. He hopes to make his son a lawyer [already planning his children’s future], and I have little doubt that he will live to see him sit in Congress; when his time arrives, the wood-cutter’s son will rank with any other member of Congress, not of courtesy, but of right, and the idea that his origin is a disadvantage, will never occur to the imagination of the most exalted of his fellow-citizens.
There was one house in the village which was remarkable from its wretchedness. It had an air of indecent poverty about it, which long prevented my attempting an entrance; but at length, upon being told that I could get chicken and eggs there whenever I wanted them, I determined upon venturing. The door being opened to my knock, I very nearly abandoned my almost blunted purpose; I never beheld such a den of filth and misery: a woman, the very image of dirt and disease, held a squalid imp of a baby on her hip bone while she kneaded her dough with her right fist only. A great lanky girl, of twelve years old, was sitting on a barrel, gnawing a corn cob; when I made known my business, the woman answered, “No, not I; I got no chickens to sell, nor eggs neither; but my son will, plenty I expect. Here, Nick (bawling at the bottom of a ladder), “here’s an old woman what wants chickens.” [Elsewhere Trollope mentions Ohioans frequently referred to her as “old woman.” She was 50 at the time, and lived to be 84.] Half a moment brought Nick to the bottom of the ladder, and I found my merchant was one of a ragged crew, whom I had been used to observe in my daily walk, playing marbles in the dust, and swearing lustily; he looked about ten years old.
“Have you chicken to sell, my boy?”
“Yes, and eggs too, more nor [sic] what you’ll buy.”
Having inquired price, condition, and so on, I recollected that I had been used to give the same price at market, the feathers plucked, and the chicken prepared for the table, and I told him that he ought not to charge the same.
“O for that, I expect I can fix ’em as well as ever them was, what you got in market.”
“You fix them?”
“Yes, to be sure, why not?”
“I thought you were too fond of marbles.”
He gave me a keen glance, and said, “You don’t know I. When will you be wanting the chickens?”
He brought them at the time directed, extremely well “fixed,” and I often dealt with him afterward. When I paid him, he always thrust his hand into his breeches pocket, which I presume, as being the keep, was fortified more strongly than the dilapidated outworks, and drew from thence rather more dollars, half-dollars, levies, and fips,(2) than his dirty little hand could well hold. My curiosity was excited, and though I felt an involuntary disgust towards the young Jew, I repeatedly conversed with him. [The fatal fascination; all the more conspicuous since Trollope was acutely status- and class-conscious, regarding virtually all American Whites—never mind somebody like Nick—as being far beneath herself. Leaders must be keenly aware of this fatal attraction Whites (really, all Gentiles) have for Jews, and ruthlessly intercept and break their ability to succumb to it.]
“You are very rich, Nick,” I said to him one day, on his making an ostentatious display of change, as he called it; he sneered with a most unchildish expression of countenance, and replied, “I guess ‘twould be a bad job for I, if that was all I’d got to show.”
I asked him how he managed his business. He told me that he bought eggs by the hundred, and lean chicken by the score, from the wagons that passed their door on the way to market ; that he fatted the latter in coops he had made himself, and could easily double their price, and that his eggs answered well too, when he sold them out by the dozen.
“And do you give the money to your mother?”
“I expect not,” was the answer, with another sharp glance of his ugly blue eyes.
“What do you do with it, Nick?”
His look said plainly, what is that to you? but he only answered, quaintly enough, “I takes care of it.”
How Nick got his first dollar is very doubtful; I was told that when he entered the village store, the person serving always called in another pair of eyes [he was distrusted; “very doubtful” suggests the author suspects the boy may not have come by his initial capital honestly]; but having obtained it, the spirit, activity, and industry, with which he caused it to increase and multiply, would have been delightful in one of Miss Edgeworth’s(3) dear little clean bright-looking boys, who would have carried all he got to his mother; but in Nick it was detestable. No human feeling seemed to warm his young heart, not even the love of self-indulgence, for he was not only ragged and dirty, but looked considerably more than half starved, and I doubt not his dinners and suppers half fed his fat chickens. . . . Probably Nick will be very rich; perhaps he will be president.
1 Demographic note: married, father of four children at this point.
2 Levies: pl. of levy. A Spanish real, a former basic monetary unit of Spanish-America, used in the U.S. especially in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware. Fips: Spanish silver coins worth 1/16 of a Spanish dollar that circulated in the eastern U.S. prior to 1857, also called fippenny bit, fourpence ha’penny, and sixpence.
3 Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849), popular Anglo-Irish novelist. Her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, a well-known author and inventor, had 22 children by four wives. Note that this (particular) reproductive behavior occurred in a talented upper class family. Also, Irish Catholics, Anglo-Irish, and Scotch Irish were three distinct ethnic groups. More than a decade ago an English correspondent informed me that the Anglo-Irish, as historically understood, are extinct, as far as he knew.
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Source: Andrew Hamilton