Impressions of Washington

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Impressions of Washington: The Gilded Age, 1873

Mark Twain, 1871 portrait by Matthew Brady. (Photo source: Wikipedia)In 1873, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner published their novel The Gilded Age, both as a parody of contemporary popular novels and to criticize political and economic corruption. In chapter 24, Twain and Warner take the reader on a virtual tour of the nation’s capital. They didn't paint a pretty picture.

You are assailed by a long rank of hackmen, who shake their whips in your face as you step out upon the sidewalk; you enter what they regard as a “carriage” in the capital, and you wonder why they do not take it out of service and put it in the museum. You reach your hotel presently- of course you have gone to the wrong one. There are a hundred and eighteen bad hotels, and only one good one. The most renowned and popular hotel of them all is perhaps the worst one known to history.

The city at large… is a wide stretch of cheap little brick houses, with here and there a noble architectural pile lifting itself out of the midst- government buildings, these. …You will wonder at the shortsightedness of the city fathers, when you come to inspect the streets, in that they do not dilute the mud a little more and use them for canals.

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Impressions of Washington: Abigail Adams, 1800

Abigail AdamsWhen Abigail Adams came to Washington, D.C. on November 16, 1800, she arrived at an infant city, sparse and not fully formed.  Having just left the comforts of old Philadelphia, this must have been quite a shock. To make matters worse, her trip south had seen been rough. So, it’s safe to assume that she was in an irritable mood, when she finally made it to D.C.

We should probably keep that in mind while reading her appraisal of the city because she was pretty harsh. The First Lady called the capital ‘a city only in name,’ and pulled no punches in her description of Georgetown

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Impressions of Washington: A Georgetown Fourth of July in the 1850s

Fourth of July fireworks over National Mall. (Photo source: Library of Congress on Flickr)With the Fourth of July festivities just around the corner, area residents are preparing for the merriment in all sorts of ways.

What is your pleasure? Grilling out at Gravelly Point? A backyard gathering with family and friends? Braving the crowds on the National Mall to watch the fireworks? Or maybe you are more of the stay-at-home type. If so, we recommend watching the A Capitol Fourth concert on WETA Television. We hear it’s really good.

Well, 150 years ago, there weren’t so many options but Washingtonians still put on quite a celebration for the nation’s birthday.

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Impressions of Washington: Lead Belly's "Bourgeois Blues"

Lead Belly, National Press Club, Washington, D.C., between 1938 and 1948Huddie William Ledbetter (January 20, 1888 – December 6, 1949), better known as Lead Belly, was a legendary folk and blues musician known for his virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar, powerful vocals and the huge catalog of folk standards he introduced. Inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, artists from Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin to Nirvana and the White Stripes have covered his songs and recognized his musical influence.

Somewhat less remembered, even locally, is Lead Belly's "Bourgeois Blues," a song written about his first visit to Washington, D.C. in 1937 — an incisive indictment of the city’s racial segregation conveyed in 3 minutes of rippling 12-string blues.

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Impressions of Washington: By the Light of the White House being Engulfed in Flames

Painting by Tom Freeman. Source: The White House Historical Association.Washington, D.C. has had many visitors since it’s inception, but it cannot be said that everyone was a huge fan. Actually, in 1814, there were quite a number of people who were a bit upset with the Capitol. You might have heard of them… The British?

Yes, on August 24, 1814, the British attacked and burned Washington, D.C. One of their number, George Robert Gleig, apparently found enough time whilst attacking the city at night in the middle of a hurricane to take in the sights and form some opinions.

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Impressions of Washington: "The head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva"

Self portrait by Charles Dickens during his American tour in 1842. The women in the bottom left is his sister, Fanny. (Source: Wikipedia)  Self portrait by Charles Dickens during his American tour in 1842. The women in the bottom left is his sister, Fanny. (Source: Wikipedia) When Charles Dickens visited Washington in 1842, he had a lot to say. But, perhaps nothing caught his eye -- and ire -- as much as Washingtonians' obvious love of chewing tobacco.

As Washington may be called the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva, the time is come when I must confess, without any disguise, that the prevalence of those two odious practices of chewing and expectorating began about this time to be anything but agreeable, and soon became most offensive and sickening.

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Impressions of Washington: A German Visitor to the Smithsonian in 1874

The Smithsonian Institution Castle as it appeared c.1870. (Photo source: Brady-Handy Photograph Collection at Library of Congress.)It's always interesting to read what visitors and residents of Washington have had to say about our fair city over the years.

In 1873, the Kölnische Zeitung (Cologne Daily News) asked German anthropologist Friedrich Ratzel to take a trip to the United States and write a series of articles about life in America. He reached Washington in the winter of 1874 and, as a scientist, was particularly interested in the Smithsonian building. See what he had to say.

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