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Village Improvement Societies

by Susan Fenimore Cooper

Putnam's Magazine, Volume IV (New Series), No. 21, pp. 359-366 (September 1869)

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[headings and footnotes added by Hugh C. MacDougall]

Contents

  1. Village Life in Old Europe and New America Contrasted
    1. The Miseries of English Village Life in the 1600s
    2. French Village Life in the 1600s Just as Bad
    3. The Joys of American Village Life in the 1800s
    4. Room for Improvement
  2. The Role of the Village Improvement Society
    1. Keeping Local Government on its Toes; Water Supply
    2. Streets, Trees, and Vegetation
    3. Sidewalks
    4. Street Names
    5. Yards
    6. Benches
    7. Park Grounds
    8. A Brookside Walk in Germany
    9. A Garden-street for Pedestrians in Dresden
    10. Cemeteries
    11. Protection of Birds
  3. How to Organize a Village Improvement Society
Village Life in Old Europe and New America Contrasted
The Miseries of English Village Life in the 1600s

AMONG the substantives in common use, which have very materially changed their meaning within the last two centuries, we may include the word village. This is a common noun which represents, to-day, an entirely different combination of ideas from those which it conveyed to the minds of our ancestors two hundred years ago. The English village, in the reign of the Stuarts, could boast little of the character of "Merry England" in its outer aspect. Hedges and orchards, a little green, and a Maypole there were, perhaps, -- not alway, however, -- and a lowly church, old and ivy-covered, such as George Herbert1 worshipped in, may have appeared in the distance. But these were the pleasing touches in a picture where the foreground was entirely filled up by gloomy and rudely built cottages, too often -- as a general rule, indeed - - mere hovels, scarcely better than the sheds for cattle. Low, dark, and coarsely put together, with earthen or stone floors, and a bit of casement scarcely large enough to let in the sunshine which the good God gives to all, those dwellings must have looked very little like the homes of free-born Christian men. We know, indeed, and thanks to God that it is so, that actual human affection and simple piety have often carried a glow and a blessing into dwellings as dark as those. But as a general rule, the outer aspect of things, and the inner life of the English village of that period, must have been very cheerless. The sole inhabitants of those low-thatched cottages were persons of the lowest grade. Only a generation earlier, some of them had been serfs, attached to the glebe.2 There were serfs in England as late as the reign of Queen Elizabeth of glorious memory. The heavy clouds of ignorance and superstition which covered Europe so densely in the Middle Ages, had not yet entirely rolled away, and these shadows were nowhere darker, or heavier, than over the villages. There were, no doubt, brave and manly hearts, and sweet womanly faces coming and going through those humble cottage doorways, but all active and intelligent spirits invariably crowded into the towns and larger cities. Village life was considered utterly hopeless; it was entirely given up to stagnant ignorance, poverty, and stupidity. Penury and discomfort were the common lot. Even within doors, the few pieces of household furniture of the good wife, the rude bet, the heavy table and settle3, and the utensils for cooking, were not many degrees better than the pottery, the bark, and wickerware, and the calabash of the Indian women of Virginia and Massachusetts. Scarce a ray of the civilization of the great cities, of the Castles and Halls of England, penetrated to her villages. In the days of Shakespeare, and Bacon, and Spenser, your Hobbinol and Lobbinol, and Diggory, your Mopsa and Dorcas4, were all dull and loutish, scarcely knowing B from bullsfoot. All the difference of centuries lay between the burgher of the city and the boor5 of the village.

French Village Life in the 1600s Just as Bad

And the French villages of the same date were no better. When our Huguenot ancestors fled through Normandy and Gascony, driven to the sea-board at the point of the sabre, before the dragonnades of the great Louis and his Jesuit confessors6, what was the character of the villages through which they passed? The houses themselves were perhaps somewhat more substantial in strength of material and workmanship than those of England, but they were equally gloomy, dark, comfortless, and even more filthy. The donkey, the cow, the pig, and the poultry often shared the dwelling with the peasant and his children. The natural gayety of the French character drove the people from such gloomy dwellings abroad into the open air for all their hours of relief. Their recreations were exclusively of a public character; the dance, the merry- making, the village fête were all kept up in the open air. And so were their occupations. Even the women and children toiled in the fields. Like the cattle, the peasants and their families were seldom in the cabin, unless at night. The people were naturally industrious, frugal, quick-witted and cheerful. But the sombre villages into which they crowded for safety were gloomy, squalid, and filthy in the extreme. Jacques Bonhomme,7 the peasant of France, was weighed down by ages of oppression and superstition. In the time of Madame de Sévigné8, the good curé9 of of a village in Brittany received from Paris a handsome present of a clock. The news spread through the parish, and the people came crowding to see the wonder. So great was their amazement on beholding the movement of the works, and hearing the sound of the hammer striking the hour, that they fell on their knees and said an Ave.10 "C'est le bon Dieu!"11 they exclaimed. It was with difficulty the good curé could raise them from their knees. After all, from worshipping the image of a saint to worshipping a clock is but a step -- and no altogether an irrational one. Madame de Sévigné, clear-headed and warm-hearted as she was, only laughed at the story. It should rather have made her weep. But what were the wretched peasants, in their village hovels, to the lady of the Court of the Great Louis?12 It may be doubted if she had ever crossed the threshold of one of the peasants of her barony of Sévigné. Even to walk through one of those squalid, gloomy, filthy villages, would probably have appeared to her impracticable. And yet she was a good, sincere, warm-hearted Christian woman. But, as in England or even more so in France, the distance between human life in the village and human life in the towns seemed immeasurable, impassable.

The Joys of American Village Life in the 1800s

How different is the state of things to-day, and in our own country! Village life as it exists in America is indeed one of the happiest fruits of modern civilization. Our ancestors, familiar with the English and French villages, could never have dreamed of all the many striking differences which would appear two centuries later in the village homes of their own descendants in the New World. The idea would never have occurred to them that the remote village could ever share so freely in the enlightenment and civilization of the capital city. But steam, the great magician, serves the rustic to-day as faithfully as he serves the cockney.13 Comforts, conveniences, new inventions, striking improvements are scarcely known in New York and Philadelphia, before they are brought to the villages, hundreds of miles in the interior. You find there every real advantage of modern life. Your house is lighted by gas -- and, if you choose, it is warmed by steam. The morning paper, with the latest telegram from Paris or London, lies on your dinner-table. The best new books, the latest number of the best magazines, reach you almost as soon as they reach the Central Park. Early vegetables from Bermuda, and early fruits from Cuba, are offered at your door. You may telegraph, if you wish it, to St. Petersburg or Calcutta, by taking up your hat and walking into the next street. This evening you may, perhaps, hear a good lecture, and to-morrow a good concert. The choice musical instrument and the fine engraving may be found in your cottage parlor. What more can any reasonable being ask for, in the way of physical and intellectual accessories of daily life? And in addition to these advantages of modern civilization shared with the cities, there are others of far higher value, belonging more especially to country life. The blessings of pure air and pure water are luxuries, far superior to all the wines of Delmonico14, and all the diamonds of Ball & Black.15 And assuredly to all eyes but those of the blindest cockney, the groves and gardens and fields and brooks and rivers make up a frame-work for one's everyday life rather more pleasing than the dust-heaps, and omnibuses, and shop-windows of Broadway. And, happily for the rustic world, the vices, the whims and extravigances -- the fashionable sin, the pet folly - - of the hour are somewhat less prevalent, somewhat less tyrannical on the greensward than on the pavement. There is more of leisure for thought and culture and good feeling in the country than amid the whirl of a great city. True, healthful refinement of head and heart becomes more easy, more natural under the open sky and amid the fresh breeze of country life. Probably much the largest number of the most pleasant and happiest homes in the land may be found to-day in our villages and rural towns -- homes where truth, purity, the holiest affections, the highest charities and healthful culture are united with a simplicity of life scarcely possible on our extravagant cities. And these advantages, thanks be to God, are not confined to one class. Even the poorest day-laborer in the village, if he be honest and temperate, leads a far happier and easier life than his brother in the cities. The time may come, perhaps, when the cities -- greatly diminished in size -- shall be chiefly abandoned to the drudgeries of business, to commerce and manufactures during the hours of day and deserted at night; when the families of the employers and laborers shall live alike in suburban village homes. In the present state of civilization, every hamlet within a hundred miles of a large city may be considered as one of its suburbs. In former centuries, he was a wise man who left the village for the city. To-day, he is wise who goes to the city as to a market, but has a home in the country.

Room for Improvement

But while this, our nineteenth century, has given such happy development to village life - - and especially so in America -- there is, of course, still room for improvement. We have not yet achieved perfection. There are many finishing touches still needed. And many of these lesser improvements are simple and inexpensive in execution, while they are singularly effective in their results. The general aspect of an American village is cheerful and pleasing. The dwellings have an air of comfort, they turn a friendly face to the street, they are neat and orderly in themselves and their surroundings; their porches and verandahs, their window-blinds without and shades within, their door-yards and their trees, are all pleasing features forming the general rule, to which the exceptions are rare. But while such is the usual state of things, still in every American village we have yet seen there is room for much improvement. And these desirable improvements are many of them simple and easily brought about, requiring only a moderate fund, placed in the hands of judicious persons -- requiring, in short, a local Society for Village Improvement.

The Role of the Village Improvement Society

The work of such a society would vary, of course, with the position, character, size, and actual condition of each particular village. The more characteristic such improvements are, the more closely they are adapted to the particular individual nature of each village, the greater will be their merit. The finishing touches for a village on the prairies, or one on the sea-shore, or one in the Green Mountains, in Oregon, or in Texas, should, of course, vary very greatly in some of their details. But the spirit, the intention, must be everywhere the same. To render the village, in whose service we are working, more healthy, more cheerful, more attractive -- to add to its usefulness, its respectability, its importance, its pleasantness -- to increase, in short, its true civilization, that is to be our aim. To improve our villages becomes a matter of even greater importance than to improve our cities. A very large proportion of American homes are to be found in the villages, and in the smaller towns, which always preserve much of their original rural character. More than half the population of our largest cities have no homes. They crowd into hotels or boarding-houses.16 They are essentially Bohemians. The largest of our cities, especially New York, were long ago called mere Bivouacs17. Half the young men you shall meet to-morrow in Broadway have no homes in the great city. Their legal domicile is in New York; but their true home is still to be found in some village-cottage, where the annual holiday visit aid to father, mother, and sister. Nay, it is so with many a married couple, who have no better home in the busy city than the boarding-house room, but who take flight, with their little ones, every summer, to the parental home, often hundreds of miles from the Battery.18

Keeping Local Government on its Toes; Water Supply

Hygienic improvement should form one of the first subjects for consideration, by the Village Improvement Society. Where a village is incorporated, its Trustees should of course carry out, or forward to the utmost, every work of this kind. But village corporations, like those of the cities, are often inert. The private speculations of A, B, C, often interfere with progress of this kind. Mr. Green will not subscribe to some particular improvement because his own property will not manifestly increase in value by it. Mr. Brown would assist freely if the bridge or the sidewalk were a hundred yards nearer to his own house. A common movement, a general impulse is wanted; and this is what our Society supplies. A permanent, voluntary society of respectable character, composed of influential persons, acts as a general stimulant to torpid corporations and to unmanageable individuals. By talking, writing, speech-making, and printing, it increases the general activity, even in cases where the corporation should be the regular agent. An ample supply of pure water should be the very first step in our work. Pure water is absolutely indispensable for health, for cleanliness, for respectability -- and as a protection against fire an ample supply is far more effectual than all the salamander safes19 in the country. Let water, then, be our first object. A good bath-house, under respectable management, either public or private, should be opened. A proper ventilation of every public building should be brought about, if possible. All pools, or marshes, where stagnant water can accumulate, should be filled up at the earliest day.

Streets, Trees, and Vegetation

The streets and sidewalks, the roads, lanes, paths, the bridges and the wharves -- if such there be -- should be looked after, and improved to the utmost. Good construction and constant neatness are the points to be especially considered. Where there is a bridge, let it be architectural and picturesque, if possible, as well as safe and durable. Give us a stone bridge wherever you can, and plant a creeping vine or two at the base; a Virginia creeper, a clematis, or a trumpet creeper, would greatly improve the beauty of such a bridge, without injuring the stonework. As regards the streets, trees in greater numbers will probably be wanting in some of them. Choose the right sorts, and plant at proper distance -- not so very near as to crowd the branches, and if caterpillars or injurious insects appear, remove them at once. Of course, your streets should be protected by confining all cattle, pigs, poultry, to the grounds of their owners. Fierce war, a war to extermination, must be waged against all weeds found growing in the streets, by the road-sides, in door-yards, or in waste places. This is a step which will do more for the neatness of the village, for the good of its gardens, than perhaps any other you could name. Our farmers and country-people in general would seem to have a peculiar weakness for weeds. But it is a miserable economy which shrinks from giving half a day to uproot, or cut down, weeds which next summer may injure a whole crop. The number of noxious weeds allowed to grow in some of the best streets20 of our most beautiful villages is truly surprising.

Sidewalks

Perhaps the neatest arrangement for village sidewalks, excepting in the business streets, is that already found in some parts of the country -- a narrow strip of pavement, bricks or flags, with a wide border of neatly-cut grass each side of it, and a double row of trees overhanging the walk. The plank sidewalks must soon disappear, as timber becomes so very valuable. And a sidewalk entirely paved -- without the border of grass on each side -- is too much opposed to all rural ideas.

Street Names

And here we would have a word to say on the naming of our village streets. There is work for the Improvement Society in this direction. A Main street there must always be in every village, and as the word expresses the idea, the name is appropriate and natural. But why, pray, should every hamlet have its Broadway? Main street is clearly in much better taste. The names of trees are always pleasing in village streets; maple, elm, chestnut, birch, oak, pine, tamarac, locust, cedar, catalpa, sycamore, and others, have a pleasant sound, and are appropriate wherever such trees are found, either as the natural growth, or in cultivation. The great Quaker, William Penn, seems to have been the first builder of cities who turned to the trees for the names of his streets. The idea may therefore be called American, adapted to the whole country. And these form a class of names of which one never wearies. It is singular that while William Penn made this poetical choice for half his streets, for the other half, cutting them at right angles, his notions were all dry and mathematical; he was the first, I believe, to number the streets from one to one hundred. This numbering the streets is not much to the fancy of many of us. There may be some excuse for this course in a large city growing so rapidly that people have no time to pause and think on the subject. But in a village, the practice becomes absurd and inexcusable. After naming some of our streets from the trees, let us remember the birds who build their nests in them. It must be a luckless village indeed which cannot find scores of nests in its streets, to say nothing of its gardens and neighboring groves. Robin, wren, swallow, sparrow, martin, chicadee, thrush, pewee, or phoebe, oriole, the eagle, the hawk, the heron, the woodpecker, the quail, the grouse -- these and others of the same kind would be appropriate wherever such birds are found. In the same way the names of the wild animals, once tenants of the ground, would have the merit of variety, and natural association, with a sort of historic interest. Beaver, bear, stag, elk, deer, moose, would be appropriate for almost any village. The natural features of the ground, such as lake, river, cliff, rock, brook, hill, spring, offer another class of names. The artificial works suggest others; such as wharf, bank, school, church. And the names of the older families who occupied the site of the village in its earliest days, have an interest of another kind. All these would surely be preferable to numbers one, two, three, or even to Broadway, Pall-Mall, and the Boulevards.

Yards

From the streets we turn to the door-yards. Every member of our Village Improvement Society should stand pledged to keep his, or her, door-yard in the neatest possible condition. First banish every weed. Next keep the grass closely cut, and then plant a few pretty shrubs and flowers, as many as you can without overcrowding the space, always leaving grass enough for a contrast, a framework for your flower pictures.

Benches

In walking through every village -- sometimes at the very heart of the little town -- we shall find here and there spots capable of great improvement, at very little cost -- some point where a tree or two, with a bench beneath their shade, would form a pleasant resting-place for the weary; at some turn in a road, or a street, or where any two roads meet -- at some point which offers a pleasing view, on the outskirts of the village -- beside a spring, beneath a bank, near a picturesque rock, on the bank of a brook, near a bridge -- there is not a village in the country where several such spots might not be pointed out, capable of great improvement in this way. A few trees planted in a group -- not in a row -- unless in an avenue -- with a bench beneath, and creepers climbing over the trunks and branches of the trees, would form an inviting seat for many a weary creature. In Switzerland, and in some parts of Germany, such benches in the shade are quite common; occasionally, they stand near a cross, or some modest monument on which a line or two from some poet, or a verse from Holy Scripture, has been engraved.

Park Grounds

Every village should, of course, have its Green, or playground, or common, or playstow, or pleasaunce -- any thing but a park, unless you can show your fifteen or fifty acres - - where old and young, the grave and the gay, lads and lasses, fathers, mothers, and children may meet together on a summer's evening to breathe the fresh air, and chat with their neighbors. Such a ground need not be large. Even one acre well laid out, and in a good situation, with groups of trees and shrubbery, with winding walks and benches for rest, may be capable of giving great pleasure to the townsfolk. But, of course, four or five acres would afford much more variety. If possible, let there be a neat fountain, or some simple local monument in the centre, to add to the interest; a monument to some worthy public character of the neighborhood, or a stone recording some local event of general interest.

A Brookside Walk in Germany

One of the pleasantest public walks known to the writer may be found in a village of Southern Germany. A little stream, in fact a mere brook, flows near the village. Following the bank of this brook, in all its windings, a broad walk has been made, with a border of turf on either side, varied with groups of trees and clumps of shrubbery, and patches of flowers, and pleasant rustic seats, the whole being included within a narrow strip of ground perhaps fifteen yards in width. On one side lie the open, unfenced fields, on the other is the flowing brook. Along this pleasant path one may wander for more than a mile, enjoying much variety in the simple rustic views opening on either side. The cost of this charming walk must have been trifling, since the amount of land, fit for cultivation, given up to it, can be scarcely more than a few feet in breadth, the useless bank of the brook being included within the fifteen yards devoted to it. It is kept in beautiful condition at very little expense. The peoples of these old countries in Europe are so highly civilized in these respects, that they never injure a tree, or a shrub, or a branch in their public walks. They have too much good sense and good manners for such misdemeanors.

A Garden-street for Pedestrians in Dresden

Many Americans are now at Dresden, a city very rich in its public walks and gardens. One of these walks is so peculiar, that we mention it as a happy instance of the way in which even the oldest towns in Europe, more especially on the Continent, have laid out pleasure- grounds within their city limits. The walk to which we allude is simply an old street, running through part of the town, but now turned throughout its entire length into a garden. It is built up with good houses on either side, each house having its ample door-yard filled with shrubs and flowers. Between these door-yards -- where one would naturally expect to find a paved street - - there is, in fact, a garden. There is a broad gravel walk in the centre, and gravel sidewalks immediately in front of the houses; while trees, and shrubs, and grass, and flowers give to the whole the character of a garden. At the crossings, where other streets cross it at right angles, there are light bars and turnstiles. When it is necessary that a cart or carriage should enter, the bar is removed. But the houses have access to other parallel streets in the rear, for business purposes. This garden-street is a very pleasing feature of Dresden, and might assuredly be imitated in our American towns.

Cemeteries

Wherever spacious church-yards do not exist, there our Village Improvement Society should suggest a quiet, well-kept cemetery, in a retired and pleasing situation, well shaded with trees and shrubbery and divided by neat walks. Every hamlet and rural neighborhood should indeed unite to form such a resting-place for their dead. Those sad and solitary and desolate family grave-yards, often choked with weeds, seen on our farms, are unworthy of our present civilization, and the very last to be adapted to a state of society in which land is constantly changing hands.

Protection of Birds

The protection of the birds becomes another duty for the local Improvement Society. The birds naturally form a happy element in all village life. Very many varieties prefer the neighborhood of man; they gather around the village homes from choice. Even in the open country, as you drive along the highways, you frequently see half a dozen nests in the orchard, or in shade trees near a farmhouse, while the trees, at a greater distance, are apparently untenanted. Many nests are seen in the streets of every village, but where the laws are most faithfully carried out, there the summer concert will be the richest, and the sweetest, and the fullest, there all weary eyes will be most frequently cheered by the sight of those happy little creatures; there your gardens will be most free from noxious insects, there robin, there blue- bird, and song-sparrow, and pewee, and goldfinch, and oriole, and cat-bird, and wren, shall carol their thanks to you from March to November.

How to Organize a Village Improvement Society

The machinery for carrying out the work of a Village Improvement Society is by no means difficult to manage. Let a well-written, well-digested plan be printed. After a few prominent persons are sufficiently interested -- men and women of good sense, good taste, good feeling -- then call a public meeting. Offer your plan for adoption, settle your Constitution and By-Laws, elect your officers, and go to work as soon as possible. The broader the basis of your constituency, the greater will your success be, since the larger the number of hands and heads interested, the more will be the work you accomplish. But it is probable that at the outset there will be, in many villages, great indifference, possibly some positive opposition. Do not heed this. Your object is good, praiseworthy, desirable; move onward, therefore, and begin your work, though it be on a small scale. If you work prudently, before five years are over, the indifference and the opposition will be sensibly weakened; when ten years have passed, the ground will be yours. The whole village will work with you. The good results will be manifest to even the poor blind. Where it is thus necessary to begin with few members, give your attention first to your own door-yard and streets -- improve them in every way you can; set out trees, plant shrubs, destroy the weeds, put up bird-houses. Go to the Trustees of your village, and get their permission to work on some one of those points capable of improvement, to which allusion has already been made. Choose, for instance, a grassy spot, where two or three streets meet; set out three or four good-sized trees in a clump, place a bench beneath them, destroy the weeds, and keep the turf in good condition. Public attention will soon be attracted, and, in the end, public favor must necessarily follow. Every year would increase the number of members and the amount of the fund. It is well in such cases that subscriptions should vary from twenty- five cents to twenty-five dollars annually. The children should be interested, as a means of education. And even the very poor and ignorant should be invited to become members, out of good fellowship, and as a step to general civilization. Only persevere, and you will succeed. Perseverance alone often brings about temporary success, where the object is unworthy. But wherever the object is really deserving and the fruits of a work are good, there perseverance is one of the most effective allies you can desire.

Two or three annual lectures on some subject connected with the work of the Society would be very desirable. Flowers, gardening, shrubbery, trees, the husbandry of woods and groves, fountains, road-making, bridges, sidewalks, pavement, would form subjects, with a hundred others of a similar character. Several public meetings in the course of the year would also be pleasant, meetings where short papers and letters connected with the work of the Society would be read, and short conversational speeches made.

A public ground for summer pic-nics should also be provided, within a short distance from the village -- purchased, planted, and improved by the Society, and a general village gathering held there every year, during the pleasant weather.

Whatever calls the attention of our people from mere money-making, or small politics, whatever provides harmless recreation, subjects for pleasing thought, for healthful action -- whatever, in short, contributes pleasantly to the physical, moral, and intellectual good of the people, and to a true advance in Christian civilization, must assuredly prove a real, substantial benefit to us all.

Footnotes (added by Hugh C. MacDougall)

1. George Herbert (1593-1633) was a rural Anglican priest and a poet.

2. The land (poetic).

3. A long wooden bench.

4. Derogatory terms for rustics in England, some taken from popular 16th century literature.

5.Farmer or peasant (obsolete).

6. In 1685 King Louis XIV of France ruthlessly expelled from the country most French Protestants, known as Huguenots; Susan Fenimore Cooper's mother, Susan DeLancey, was from a Huguenot farmily that had emigrated to America before the Revolution -- a dragonnade refers to persecution carried out with the use of troops (dragoons).

7. A French equivalent of John Doe.

8. Marie de Rabutin-Canal, Marquise de Sévigné (1626-1696) was a famous French intellectual, known primarily through her hundreds of letters.

9. Parish priest (French).

10. Ave Maria prayer.

11. "It is God himself!" (French).

12. Louis XIV of France, reigned 1643-1715.

13. Londoner; more generally, a confirmed city-dweller.

14. Delmonicos, a well-known New York City restaurant.

15. Ball, Black & Co., a famous silverware store in New York City from 1851-1875.

16. Since there were as yet no apartment houses in New York or other large American cities, people who could not afford to buy or rent a whole house, or did not care to maintain one, including many young families with children, lived in boarding-houses.

17. Temporary camping places (French).

18. The southern tip of Manhattan Island.

19. Fireproof -- according to ancient legend the salamander was a creature impervious to fire.

20. Village streets were not, of course, paved at this time.

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