The Pine Furniture of Early New England

Colonial and Early American Lighting

Customs and Fashions in Old New England

One Worcester County murderess was hanged on Boston Common, and to the delight of beholders appeared in a beautiful white satin gown to be "turn'd off."

I think, in reading of the past, that next to executions the most vivid excitement, the most absorbing interest—indeed, the greatest amusement of New Englanders of the half century preceding and that succeeding the Revolutionary War—was found in the lottery. An act of Legislature in 1719 speaks of them as just introduced; but this licensed and highly approved form of gambling quickly had the sanction and participation of the entire community. The most esteemed citizens not only bought tickets, but sold them. Every scheme of public benefit, the raising of every fund for every purpose, was conducted and assisted through a lottery. Harvard, Rhode Island (now Brown University), and Dartmouth College thus increased their endowments. Towns and States thus raised money to pay the public debt. Congregational, Baptist, and Episcopal churches had lotteries "for promoting public worship and the advancement of religion." Canals, turnpikes, bridges, excavations, public buildings were brought to perfection by lotteries. Schools and academies were thus endowed; for instance, the Leicester Academy and the Williamstown Free School. In short, "the interests of literature were supported, the arts encouraged, the wastes of wars repaired, inundations prevented, the burthen of the taxes lessened" by lotteries. Private lotteries were also carried on in great number, as frequent advertisements show; pieces of furniture, wearing apparel, real estate, jewelry, and books being given as prizes. Much deception was practised in those private lotteries.

Though many lotteries were ostensibly for charitable, educational, or other beneficial purposes, the proportion of profit applied to such purposes was small. The Newbury Bridge Lottery sold ten thousand dollars' worth of tickets to raise one thousand dollars. The lottery to assist in rebuilding Faneuil Hall was to secure one-tenth of the value of tickets. Harvard College hoped to have twelve and a half per cent. The glowing advertisements of "Rich Wheels," "Real & Truly Fortunate Offices," "Lucky Numbers," "Full Drawings," appealed to every class; the poorest could buy a quarter of a ticket as a speculation. New England clergymen seemed specially to delight in this gambling excitement.

The evil of the system could not fail to be discovered by intelligent citizens. Judge Sewall, ever thoughtful, wrote his protest to friends when he found advertisements of four lotteries in one issue of the Boston News Letter. Though I have seen lottery tickets signed by John Hancock, he publicly expressed his aversion to the system, and Joel Barker and others wrote in condemnation. By 1830 the whole community seemed to have wakened to a sense of their pernicious and unprofitable effect, and laws were passed prohibiting them.

The sports and diversions herein named, of the first century of the Puritan commonwealth, were, after all, joined in by but a scanty handful of junketers. We see in our picture of the olden times no revellers, but a "crowd of sad-visaged people moving duskily through a dull gray atmosphere," who found, as Carlyle said, that work was enjoyment enough. The Pilgrim Fathers had been saddened with war and pestilence, with superstition, with exile, still they had as a contrast the keen novelty of life in the picturesque new land. The sons had lost all the romance and were more narrow, more intolerant. But we must not think them unhappy because they thought it no time for New England to dance. There be those nowadays who care not for dancing, nor for the playing of games, yet are not unhappy. There be, also, I trow, those who fare not at fairs, and show not at shows, and would fain read sober books or study their Bible as did the Puritans, and yet are cheerful. And perhaps also there is a singular little band of those who love not the play—a few such I wot of Puritan blood—yet are not sorrowful. Hawthorne said: "Happiness may walk soberly in dark attire as well as dance lightsomely in a gala-dress." And I cannot doubt that good Judge Sewall found as true and deep a pleasure—albeit a melancholy one—in slowly leading, sable-gloved and sable-cloaked, the funeral procession of one of the honored deputies through narrow Boston streets, as did roystering Morton in marshalling his drunken revellers at noisy Merrymount.

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This page was last updated on 12 Oct 2005