Saturday, February 7, 2009

Let It Snow

After a recent light snowfall here in Washington–light, at least, by Chicago standards–our new President was heard to marvel that his daughters’ school (which is also my daughter’s school) was closed. "For what?" he asked. "Some ice?" Welcome to Washington, Mr. President. But would you believe there was a time when snow actually improved the quality of the roads around here?

That would have been in the winter of 1804, a time when the roads leading to and from Washington were in fairly execrable shape (and the roads in Washington, then called Washington City, were practically nonexistent). And why would snow have had a beneficial effect? No, it wasn’t because people had four-wheel drive on their carriages; it was because they used sleighs. Instead of bouncing sharply over ruts and rocks, travelers were able to glide smoothly over a pristine expanse of white stuff.

According to Rosalie Calvert, the mistress of a plantation near Bladensburg, MD–now a suburb of DC–"The snow was deep and stayed on the ground a long time, and we had the pleasure of going to Washington by sleigh several times." (She also mentions that it was so cold they were able to cross the Potomac River on horseback; whoever was the first to test that ice must have had more than the ordinary human share of courage.)

Accidents apparently only added to the fun. One night, coming home from Washington, Mrs. Calvert’s sleigh met up with another one: "the road was narrow, our horses very lively, and in passing the other too fast, we overturned in several feet of snow." Not to worry, though: "Before the gentlemen in the other sleigh could come to our aid, we were already on foot and ready to go on our way. This makes for a diversion of sorts and is pleasant." (These quotations are taken from a remarkable collection of Mrs. Calvert’s letters: Mistress of Riversdale, edited by Margaret Law Callcott.)

In February 1804, Betsy Bonaparte of Baltimore–newly married to Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome–also had a mishap in the snow, which turned out to be equally pleasant. On the way to Washington one night, the couple’s coachman was thrown from his seat. "Mr. Bonaparte jumped out," the bride’s uncle reported, "but could not stop the horses ... Finding her danger increased, [Betsy] opened the door, and jumped out into the snow, without receiving any injury."

And far from bringing things to a halt, the snow brought the crowds out in droves. "Our city, especially Market street, exhibited a lively scene yesterday and today," reported a Baltimore newspaper in January 1804, "from the incessant passing and repassing of sleighs and four!!! sleighs and two!! And sleighs and one!" More dangerous than the traffic were the snowball-throwing boys. After Madame Bonaparte was struck by a snowball, her husband reportedly offered a reward of $500 for the perpetrator, and the paper remarked that "several lads ... have been taken up by the constables."

By March, alas, the snows had melted and the roads were back to their usual condition. "I arrived here this morning," Jerome Bonaparte reported from Washington to his wife back in Baltimore. "The road was terrible, the carriage very sturdy, and Mlle. Spear [a relative] always very brave."

Is there a lesson here for our time–other than that snow is a lot less fun than it used to be? Five inches of snow in London recently brought things there to a screeching halt, making even us Washingtonians look pretty macho by comparison. Should city authorities perhaps try spreading the snow around instead of attempting to clear it? Should we all keep a sleigh in the garage, just in case? And a horse or two to pull it, of course.

Obviously not. The only lesson I can draw from all this is that we’re luckier than we think. We take it for granted that we’ll have roads that are decent except for the few days a year when it snows–instead of the other way around. We complain about potholes, or the traffic on I-95, but can we imagine what life was like when the only road between Baltimore and Washington was made of dirt?

One thing about studying the past: it makes you realize that sometimes we’re fortunate to have even the things we complain about.


  1. How fascinating. Is that letter from Jerome to Betsy translated, or did he write it in English?

  2. He wrote the letter in French, and I translated it. The only specimen I've seen of his written English indicates that he wasn't exactly fluent! Actually, he sometimes even makes mistakes in French.

  3. Dear Natalie,
    It is hard to really understand comparisons across time and space. I face problems conveying such to my students when they are reading Sholem Aleichem.