Sydney George Fisher’s Men, Women, & Manners in Colonial Times, written in 1898, depicts the general history and customs of Colonial America through a heavily biased lens. The book is divided up regionally, clearly showing all of the many reasons people immigrated to the Americas, and how that affected their dispositions and customs by region. While this book is very entertaining, the history that was correct is relayed through a partial viewpoint, and some of its assertions are hard to take seriously. This book is very worth the read, but more for the insight on how people in the nineteenth century viewed our colonial history than for the actual history relayed in the book itself.
Although much of the history relayed in the book is technically correct, Fisher’s biased portrayal of historical figures and regions is comical. Modern historical accounts tend to be fairer to these people, presenting facts and letting readers form their own opinions. Fisher, on the other hand, forms his opinion for the reader. For example, Fisher calls John Smith “a lying braggart, an adventurer, a Gascon, and a beggar” (Fisher 24), claims that the puritans “pried into people’s history and business in a way that was very offensive to strangers and travelers – a habit which has since been known as Yankee inquisitiveness” (Fisher 205), and brands Rhode Island the “Isle of Errors” (Fisher 303). Prejudicial language appears on nearly every page. These descriptions of the peoples of Colonial America, although amusing, do not paint an unbiased picture of what it was really like to live in these times. The narrative is more indicative of the attitudes and ideas of the time the book was written than of the times it is talking about.
Many of the customs set out in the book are hard to accept as true. Most notable of these customs is the purported South Carolinian custom of gouging out other people’s eyes for fun. Fisher assures us that it was a common practice, essentially similar to young children roughhousing and yelling “uncle” when they have had enough. Supposedly, these gentlemen would press on their friend’s eye until the friend said the code word of “King’s Cruse”, but it was a mark of terrible weakness to use the code word, no one would say it, and many lost an eye this way. It seems completely ludicrous that this practice would be widespread enough to warrant inclusion in a book on colonial customs, and there seems to be no supporting evidence that this practice was as widespread as Fisher claims.
Men, Women, & Manners in Colonial Times is an entertaining read. Although there are several problems with the book as a historical account of Colonial Times, the book is an entertaining picture of the 1898 view of our history. The wildly off the mark depiction of our history in Men, Women, & Manners in Colonial Times makes one wonder how modern books on history will be received a hundred years from today. If they are as entertaining as this book, at least they will have stood the test of time.