Tuesday, May 24, 2011

BBC History Magazine: New Orleans in 1858

My travel guide to New Orleans in 1858 is out today in this month's BBC History Magazine (June 2011). This was a fun piece to write, not least because it threw up some interesting research questions. Much of the material I had to hand because of Southern Queen, but it also caused me to have to think about some peculiar specifics.
The issue of hotels, and the price of rooms, was a good case in point. Throughout the antebellum period, the St. Charles and St. Louis hotels were the most famous establishments in the city, renowned for their opulence. But both of them burnt down numerous times, so how to make sure they were standing in 1858? Thank goodness for John Kendall's classic History of New Orleans, published in 1922, which devotes a whole chapter to "Hotel Life in New Orleans." Also useful for contextual detail was Norman's New Orleans and Environs, a pioneering guide to the city published in 1845.

But what about room rates? This proved particularly tricky, until I came across this wonderful passage from intrepid traveler Frederika Bremer's account of her time in New Orleans in Homes of the New World (1853):
This was the Hotel St. Charles, and here we at first took up our quarters. But when I found that for a cold little room, with an immense bed, up three flights of stairs, with the privilege of the great saloon, where I would not go if I could help it, and the privilege of eating a variety of meals, which I could not eat without making myself ill, and at hours that did not suit me—when I found that for all this magnificence I must pay three dollars per day, without being able with it all to enjoy one pleasant hour, I became anxious to find another home.
I am now living in a private boarding-house, with a respectable widow. I have a large, handsome room, carpeted, and with a fire-place, and two large windows looking out into a market-place planted with young trees still green, and with a grass-plot in the centre. This is La Fayette Square. It is a beautiful and very quiet place. I esteem myself quite happy in my dwelling, for which I pay, together with my board, only ten dollars per week, which is low for New Orleans.
And finally, here's a selection of contemporary illustrations of New Orleans - sights that would have been seen by every visitor to the city in 1858:

Canal Street in 1857, from Ballou's Pictorial (August 1, 1857)
The intersection of Canal Street and Royal Street, November 18, 1860
The French Quarter, Harper's Weekly, March 30, 1861
The Levee, Harper's Weekly, March 30, 1861
UPDATE: Full-text now available here.

No comments: