December 1991

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in 19th Century Rochester


Robert G. Koch

In The Rochester I Know, Henry Clune writes: "…the sere and yellow pages of the [local] weather record books offer quite convincing testimony that the 'brutal' Rochester winters, which now put so many Rochesterians to southern flight, were equally 'brutal' in the good old (winter) days so charmingly depicted on Currier & Ives calendars."

In short, people "Dreaming of a White Christmas" in Rochester may not be disappointed. But one colorful Currier & Ives touch erased by the Age of the Automobile is the horse-drawn sleigh. On a sunny winter day in 1888, an observer reported that, "Elegant [sleighs] filled with handsomely dressed ladies and gentlemen and rosy-cheeked children" filled East Avenue. Among the "turn-outs" mentioned were an "open bob-sleigh, decorated with foxtail plumes and silver mountings, and drawn by a pair of sorrels…, [a] landau-sleigh, with yellow and green plumes, drawn by a pair of greys; and [another]…sleigh, ornamented with green and black plumes and silver trimmings, with a silver screen to catch the snow flying from the hoofs of his pair of bays." Sleigh bells tinkled and sleigh runners creaked through the snow. Sometimes, especially at night, sleighing parties gathered at an outlying hotel or farmhouse for "clam chowder, chicken pie and pulled molasses candy…"

In 1823, in village Rochester, a wife wrote her absent husband: "Our Jan'y thaw is over & now it is good sleighing again[. T]he beaux & belles are improving it with life & spirit." And a few days later, she reported having "just returned from Pittsford where we went for a sleigh ride—the snow being very deep—paths hardly broken—a very good ride…" By the early 1840s there could be as many as 1500 sleighs in Rochester on a single day.

About that time, another wife, again to a husband away on business, this time in Florida, wrote during the Christmas season: "We have no snow & the Judge's fine sleigh is provokingly idle. by the way, how [do] Mr Anderson's snow shoes accommodate themselves to the Florida swamps." The following year, Christmas 1839, she wrote again to the still absent husband: "The children have enjoyed Christmas exceedingly. Nelly yesterday wished St. Nicholas would put that which she WANTED MOST INTO HER STOCKING—'that is father.'"

Incidentally, while Christmas stockings are mentioned here, Christmas trees were not yet a feature of the holiday in Rochester. In 1841 nurseryman George Ellwanger, who the previous year received his American citizenship and began in business with Patrick Barry, joined other German immigrants to erect the city's first Christmas tree. "Hundreds of older Americans gathered to watch the strange ceremony, in front of the little German Lutheran Church on Grove Street, at which the tree was lighted up with candles." The tree soon became a common part of public and domestic Christmas celebrations. So much so that patrols guarded the parks during the Depression of 1895 to keep poor families from acquiring trees illegally.

Then and earlier, weather could complicate life. In 1805 a Livingston County man returning from a trip to the mill perished with his team of horses along the road and others in the area froze to death that winter. In 1812, a discouraged farmer wrote: "The wintering of our stock will cost us half as much as it is worth, and my brother has had the blues for six months." in 1842 a local banker wrote, about "a regular old fashioned Easterly Storm—the Snow," he continues, "bids fair to be very deep—which I fear will make hard times for the Poor who are already suffering. [P]rovisions are exceedingly low—Mutton is from 1 1/2 to 2 cents per pound…Turkeys & chickens 4 Cents a pound, Beef from 2 to 2 1/2 cents a pound—flour $3.50 a barrel, Oats from 10-12 cents a bushel. Almost everything is very low except fuel…"

A musical staple of our Christmas seasons, Handel's Messiah, was slow to achieve traditional status. In 1851 Jenny Lind sang arias from it in concert, as did other visiting artists. By the 1880s the earlier Rochester Oratorio Society included it in a spring festival. The annual holiday season Messiah would settle in after 1900. A century ago, however, similarly splendid music was a tradition at many Rochester churches, including the midnight Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Nor was A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens always an American and now, at GeVa, a Rochester tradition. But in March 1868 a Corinthian Hall audience of about 800 from Rochester, nearby towns, and even from Canada, faced an imminent flood threat from an ice jam on the Genesee and a $2 ticket price (thought exorbitant at the time) to hear Dickens himself render it, and the trial scene from The Pickwick Papers.

© 1991, Robert G. Koch
Index to articles by Robert G. Koch
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