A Wintry Dionysiaca

This post was written by Joseph Ditta, Reference Librarian.

Pick any contentious global issue. Drinking red wine with fish, perhaps. Or wearing white after Labor Day. Do you hang a paper towel roll over or under? You’re either on one side or the other (always the right side, of course). No shilly-shallying.

How do you feel about snow? Does the sight of the white stuff trigger an adrenalin rush? Or do the words “winter storm watch” make you dread trudging to work? There seems to be a definite (and totally unscientifically proven) correlation between a person’s age and whether or not s/he welcomes winter. One nineteenth-century New Yorker who lived for a good snowfall was Edward Eugene “Gene” Schermerhorn (1842-1922), who brought to life the joyous winters of his youth in a letter to his nephew, Phil, composed and illustrated on January 23, 1887:

Edward Eugene Schermerhorn, "Sleighing on Broadway." {BV Schermerhorn}
Edward Eugene Schermerhorn, “Sleighing on Broadway.” {BV Schermerhorn}

It seems to me that we had a great deal more snow then [i.e., 1848-1856], than we have now: there used to be good sleighing in Broadway for weeks at a time, and all the stage lines ran huge open sleighs, in place of the usual stages. These same sleighs were the means of our having some of the jolliest times we ever had. In the evenings, large parties would get on the sleighs and ride down to the South ferry and back and oh! what fun: such shouting and snow balling and such a good time generally. The sleighs all had at least four horses and sometimes six, eight, or ten. I have known sixteen and twenty on some of the larger ones. People used to crowd in and hang on the outside, while there always seemed room for one more. Someone would shout “Come right up here by the stove.” Of course there was no stove but they would crowd up all the same. On the box were sometimes men dressed in fancy costumes or like old women. I remember once seeing some men with huge tin trumpets eight or ten feet long. Every small boy who could not ride, seemed to feel like taking it out [on] those who could by pelting them with snow-balls; but no one seemed to mind it much.

Little did Gene know that the following year — 1888 — would bring New York’s greatest snowstorm to that date.  He left no written reaction to the twenty-one inches the Great Blizzard dropped on March 12-13, but  he must have relished every blustery minute.

I. Baker, “LIFE IN NEW YORK! (Sleighing in Winter)” (New York: J. Dorival, 1830-1832) {PR-020}

And now for a word from someone who surely would have cursed every flake had he lived as late as 1888. In 1856, diarist George Templeton Strong (1820–1875) viewed the identical scene that Schermerhorn found so thrilling through a decidedly darker lens. Perhaps he got hit by one snowball too many:

Tuesday, January 8, 1856. This is a stern winter. Saturday’s snowstorm was the severest for many years past. The streets are like Jordan, ‘hard roads to travel.’ One has to walk warily over the slippery sidewalks and to plunge madly over crossings ankle-deep in snow, in order to get uptown and down, for the city railroads are still impracticable and walking (with all its discomforts) is not so bad as the great crowded sleigh-caravans that have taken the place of the omnibi. These insane vehicles carry each its hundred sufferers, of whom about half have to stand in the wet straw with their feet freezing and occasionally stamped on by their fellow travelers, their ears and noses tingling in the bitter wind, their hats always on the point of being blown off. When the chariot stops, they tumble forward, and when it starts again, they tumble backward, and when they arrive at the end of their ride, they commonly land up to their knees in a snowdrift, through which they flounder as best they may, to escape the little fast-trotting vehicles that are coming straight at them. Many of the cross streets are still untraveled by anything on wheels or runners, but in Broadway, the Bowery, and other great thoroughfares, there is an orgasm of locomotion. It’s more than a carnival; it’s a wintry dionysiaca.

Paul Girardet after Hippolyte Victor Valentin Sebron, “Winter Scene in Broadway / Scene d’Hiver dans Broadway,” 1857. {PR-020}
Paul Girardet after Hippolyte Victor Valentin Sebron, “Winter Scene in Broadway / Scene d’Hiver dans Broadway,” 1857. {PR-020}

[Many thanks to Barbara Cohen, editor of Letters to Phil: Memories of a New York Boyhood, 1848-1856, who first compared the views of Gene Schermerhorn and George Templeton Strong.]


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