M. Edgar Richards‘ essay “Improvements of the Age” was the last of twelve student orations listed on the program for the July 3, 1851, commencement of Penn’s College Class of 1851. The seven page manuscript of Richard’s tongue-in-cheek commmentary on mid-nineteenth century progress is available here as both facsimile and transcription.
Improvements of the Age
This age is decidedly one of improvement. The restless spirit and indomitable patience and perseverance [sic] of the American nation are admirable calculated to overcome all obstacles in the way of improvement. Suggest but the impossibility of anything and people will exert all their ingenuity and strain every nerve to accomplish it.
Our country is all together a great one and has been rapidly improving ever since its first colonization. Our ancestors consisted of a mere handful liable to be cut off at any moment by the savages, and now Uncle Sam is one of the largest and most spunky nations on the face of the globe, and takes the lead in everything, and dancing on leaving the thickheaded lookers-on to hold the candle. Our motto is “Go ahead,” “Keep moving,” acknowledge no superior in anything, drink nothing but lager, and if our article is not the best, the tongues of our artists crack it up the higher to make up for the deficiency.
In medicine we stand unrivalled. Who is not proud of our Philadelphia medical students? Those youthful and sapient sons of Escalapius who carry large canes. And as to patients: why the ease and facility with which they are helped out of this world of sorrow and misery is marvellous [sic]. And after they have “overturned the pail” or “stepped out” of this world their comfort and pleasure are most carefully looked after when they are planted under the sod. The statistics of an eastern town among other things tending to show the activity and improvements of the place, gravely suggests that it bids fair to have one of the most pleasant graveyards in the state. In fact the beauty of the resting place offers so many inducements that people die for the sake of coming back in their ghostly capacity to see their beautiful graves, and read the flattery inscribed on their tombstones and the puffs in the newspapers.
Our institutions are too free and liberal to throw any obstacles in the way of those who would exercise a little brief authority, and he who wishes to enjoy a high seat in the synagogue straightway announces his party and principles, puts on his electioneering working clothes and stumps it. If he has a good strong voice and a great lack of what is called modest merit, his chance of being elected is considered good.
Uncle Sam though enjoying plenty of room to shake himself, has no false delicacy in matters of territory, but when he perceives his relatives a little crowded for want of room, he casts his eyes about him for some country he thinks will answer their purposes, cuts off a nice large slice and annexes it immediately. He is then very apt to get very short and savage if any nation makes any insinuating remarks as to his right, stirs up his volunteers, and the consequence is that some grumbling neighbor finds that Brother Jonathan is very sensitive to remarks and not to be trifled with.
It is not sufficient that improvements have reached that height that will answer all the ends and purposes of man. They must be perfection or they will fail to give satisfaction. This is admirably illustrated by the Eastern States in the manufacture of their celebrated clocks. By their ingenuity and perseverance they have brought the manufacture of these articles to such a degree of perfection that time has become a secondary object, and the clocks are covered over with advertisements of pills, hair tonics and panaceas and their [sic] are thrown into our doors, the clock answering as an inducement to prevent the advertisements being kicked out, and the bore of reading them being considered as ample compensation for the value of the clock.
But our Yankee is not satisfied yet. Not content with using the means and powers with which a bounteous nature has endowed us our knowing mortal taxes his invention to supply any supposed deficiency of nature. Dare but to whisper a scarcity of pork and you are carried away by an avalanche of hickory hams. Complain of want of spices and wooden nutmegs are hailed down upon you.
Steam has taken the place of all natural motive power as the only element that has strength and activity sufficient to keep pace with the giant strides of improvement. The idea of travelling like our plodding ancestors at any speed consistant [sic] with safety to life or limb is rejected with contempt as partaking too largely of the spirit of the canal boat, that symbol of the amiable qualities of Job, transmitted to a race of people who eat, drink and sleep with a velocity commensurate with their locomotive propensities. But steam has not yet reached its ultimatum of usefulness. In a few years we will have our omnibusses [sic], drays and furniture cars flying along by steam, and instead of the old fashioned horse and carriage every family will keep a small locomotive. The time honoured [sic] race of coachmen b are destined to become extinct and our Lorry [illegible] like our knights of old will live only in song and the memory of lager beer men.
But now the question naturally arises, whether after we have applied steam to everything inanimate, we will not for want the sake of economy and convenience apply it to ourselves and become a nation of locomotives. Our papers will become filled with notices that Mr. So + So will [sic]coming in town at the rate of 200 miles per hour unfortunately collapsed a flue and burst his boiler. Or, that we are sorry to state that while Mr. Smith was proceeding down street under a full head of steam he came violently in collision with Miss Jones. doing considerable damage to her head gear and cow catcher. No insurance Here was a pause – a crash – and such a bustle?
In short there is nothing that falls into our hands that we do not improve.
Not only the French world of fashions but also that of the Turkies has fallen into the all improving hands of the age, and the “short skirt is now becoming all the rage. But this is not to be wondered at for some improved poetiring [sic] machine predicted it long ago:
“When coats, hats and jackets are taken
By our precious acquisitive spouses
Our confidence well may be shaken
In respect to retaining our trousers?”
Our gallant editors are vieing [sic] with each other who shall say the prettiest things of it through their columns and the demand for silk and satin has improved to such a degree, that the “poor lords of creation” look on in helpless despair and entertain serious doubts as to their right to propriety of their own clothing.
But the improvement is one of the age and it is useless for poor man to contend against the powers that be. It only remains for him to submit with the best grace he can, hand over the inexpressibles and say — nothing.
The ladies always have prevailed and always will prevail in everything they undertake, be the matter foreign or domestic, civil or political and by some misterious [sic] means they always contrive to have the right side.
To be sure there were some a ungracious remarks made some time ago in relation to female Rights but what is the consequence? The Rights do not exist in name but they most assuredly do in reality, and though the right of suffrage is still solely possessed by the Sovereign lords there is a powerful undercurrent of female influence which exercises a powerful control over the same sovereigns.
However they have the satisfaction of knowing that what is done by the ladies is always well done and that in the handsomest manner, and if they will adopt the new costume they do but follow the tendency to perfection manifested by the improvements of the age for then all our fair rose buds of creation will become full Bloomers.M. Edgar Richards
June 25th 1851
University of Pennsylvania
Commencement, July 3rd 1851