Item of the Day: Notes on a Journey in America (1818)

Full Title: Notes on a Journey in America, from the Coast of Virginia to the Territory of Illinois. By Morris Birkbeck. London: Printed by Severn & Redington, 1, Skinner Street, Bishopsgate: For Ridgway and Sons, Piccadilly; and to be had of all Other Booksellers, 1818.


I HAVE amused myself during our long, but by no means wearisome journey, by keeping this short record of occurrences and observations, of which I have now finished the revisal.

It contains just the particulars which I wish to communicate to my friends, written, I think, with as much simplicity of intention, as a private letter, but with a little more care, seeing I had the fear of the press before my eyes.

Ther are many for whom I entertain a sincere affection who have not received a line from me since our departure. I have always had more to say than a letter could contain; and now, instead of mutilated scraps, I beg they will accept this little book, and consider it as particularly addressed to them; for it certainly was composed most particularly for their information.

It may be collected from the tenor of these notes, that I am as well satisfied with this country as I had anticipated: and our friends will have sympathized with us in the success of our enterprise; having found a good country, and secured for ouserlves a situation in it, so well adapted to our wishes. But, as friends are not used to gather each other’s sentiments, on interesting topics by inference merely, they have a right to hear from me in direct terms, that my expectations and hopes are thus far more than satisfied with regard to the objects of our removal into this country.

There are advantages before us greater than I had in contemplation; and apparently attainable with less difficulty and sacrifices. I have, therfore nothing to regret in the step I have taken; and in my present knowledge I should find stronger motives for it.


Sept. 1, 1817.

May 28 [1817].

. . . The taverns in the great towns, east of the mountains, which lay in our route, afford nothing in the least corresponding with our habits and notions of convenient accommodation: the only similarity is in the expense.

At these places all is performed on the gregarious plan: every thing is public by day and by night; –for even night in an American inn affords no privacy. Whatever may be the number of guests, they must receive their entertainmen en masse, and they must sleep en masse. Three times a-day the great bell rings, and a hundred persons collect from all quarters, to eat a hurried meal, composed of almost as many dishes. At breakfast you have fish, flesh and foul; bread of every shape and kind, butter, eggs, coffee, tea–every thing, and more than you can think of. Dinner is much like the breakfast, omitting the tea and coffee; and supper is the breakfast repeated. Soon after this meal, you assemble once more, in rooms crowded with beds, something like the wards in a hospital; where, after undressing in public, you are fortunate if you escape a partner in your bed, in addition to the myriads of bugs, which you need not hope to escape.

But the horrors of the kitchen, from whence issue these shoals of dishes, how shall I describe, though I have witnessed them. –It is a dark and sooty hole, where the idea of cleanliness never enterd, swarming with negroes of all sexes and ages, who seem as though they were bred there: without floor, except the rude stones that support a raging fire of pine logs, extending across the entire place; which forbids your approach, and which no being but a negro could face.

In your reception at a western Pennsylvanian tavern there is something of hospitality combined with the mercantile feelings of your host. He is generally a man of property, the head man of the village perhaps, with the title of Colonel, and feels that he confers, rather than receives, a favour by the accommodation he affords; and rude as his establishment may be, he does not perceive that you have a right to complain: what he has you partake of, but he makes no apologies for; and if you shew symptoms of dissatisfaction or disgust, you will fare the worse; whilst a disposition to be pleased and satisfied will be met by a wish to make you so.

At the last stay, our party of eight weary pilgrims, dropping in as the evening closed, alarmed the landlady, who asked the ladies if we were not English, and said, she would rather not wait upon us, –we should be “difficult.” However, she admitted us, and this morning, at parting, she said she liked to wait on “such” English; and begged we would write to our friends and recommend her house. We were often told that we were not “difficult,” like the English; and I am sure our entertainment was the better, because they found us easy to please.




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Filed under 1810's, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Travel

One response to “Item of the Day: Notes on a Journey in America (1818)

  1. Pingback: Morris Birkbeck on American hotels circa 1817: beds full of strangers and bed bugs | bedbugger

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