Impressions of Washington

In her later years, socialite Marian Campbell Gouverneur wrote a memoir, which provides an interesting glimpse into early Washington. (Photo source: Project Gutenberg)

Impressions of Washington: Marian Campbell Gouvernuer, 1845

Marian Campbell Gouvernuer was a New Yorker who made her life in Washington in the second half of the 19th century. Her memoir As I Remember covers a period of eighty years, much of it taking place in Washington, but of particular interest is the chapter describing Gouvernuer’s first visit to Washington in 1845.

Gouvernuer gives a snapshot of the capital in very distinct time of the city — still a young city and still immersed in that peculiar institution of slavery. This description, especially concerning the haphazard city planning, falls well in line with previous Impressions of Washington we've posted on the blog. She also gives an enlightening summary of the commercial life in Washington.

Though he wasn't a big fan of the term, William Howard Russell gained international reknown as one of the first war correspondents when reporting of conflicts for The Times newspaper. In 1861, his duties brought him to Washington. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Impressions of Washington: William Howard Russell, 1861

William Howard Russell (1820 – 1907) was a reporter for The Times of the UK; he is considered the first war correspondent. In 1861, this intrepid reporter was sent to our very own capital to cover the Civil War. He recorded his arrival in his diary, which was later published and remains available to see exactly what this Irishman thought of Washington. Spoiler alert, he quite liked it!

March 25, 1861

I looked out and saw a vast mass of white marble towering above us on the left, stretching out in colonnaded porticoes, and long flanks of windowed masonry, and surmounted by an unfinished cupola, from which scaffold and cranes raised their black arms. This was the Capitol. To the right was a cleared space of mud, sand, and fields, studded with wooden sheds and huts, beyond which, again, could be seen rudimentary streets of small red brick houses, and some church-spires above them.

Impressions of Washington: Frances Few, 1808

Development of Pierre L'Enfant's Plan for the City of Washington was still in its infancy when Frances Few visited Washington in the early 1800s. (Source: Library of Congress)

Frances Few, of a prominent New York family, spent the winter of 1808-1809 in Washington, D.C. with her aunt. She had a lot to say! Initially, Miss Few is very pleased with the city and its parties. But as the 19-year-old’s stay wore on, she was decidedly less impressed with the city and its politics. Check out her comments after the jump!

November 30, 1861 entry in Maximilian Hartman's diary

Impressions of Washington: Union Soldier Maximilian Hartman, 1861

As you might remember from Nathanial Hawthorne’s impressions of Washington, the D.C. area was full of soldiers during the Civil War. Luckily for us, we can actually read an account from one of the soldiers thanks to the diary of Maximilian Hartman. A German tailor, Hartman immigrated to the U.S. to live with his brother in Pennsylvania. In 1861, both brothers joined up with the Union Army and headed south, eventually being stationed in Washington.

While many others from the time period had lambasted the capital city as a backwater, Maximilian was quite impressed.

Mark Twain, 1871 portrait by Matthew Brady. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Impressions of Washington: The Gilded Age, 1873

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.

This is not the face of someone who enjoyed her stay in Washington, D.C.

Impressions of Washington: Abigail Adams, 1800

When 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

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

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.

Portrait of Lead Belly, National Press Club, Washington, D.C., between 1938 and 1948 (Photo: William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress)

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

Huddie 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.

This is why we can't have nice things. (Painting by Tom Freeman. Source: The White House Historical Association.)

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

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.

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

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.