Daguerreian Society

During the month of July in the year 1855, the following letter was 
written by Nathaniel Parker Willis.  This selection of text is from N. 
Parker Willis, "The Convalescent" (New York: Charles Scribner, 1859) 
pp. 80-86.
- - - - - - - -

                              LETTER X.

     Visit from Old Billy Babcock--His Breakfast and Memories--
        Billy's Daguerreotype--Honoring Gift of a Coat to him
                --Sam B. Ruggles's Impulse, etc. etc.

                                                         JULY, 1855.

AN old slouched hat, with a twine around it, hangs on the gilt peak of 
our dining-room mirror, as you doubtless remember.  It is a venerable 
relic of longevity--old Billy Babcock having worn it across the 
threshold of a second century--cost thirty-seven and a half cents, and 
in constant use from his ninety-ninth to his one hundred and third 
year.  To obtain this brain-bridge between two centuries as a relic, I 
made an even "swop" with him, last summer, (as I described in one of 
these Idlewild letters), little expecting to see again, in this world, 
either the grey old head or my own promoted hat.
   We were lingering over our breakfast, yesterday morning (July 3d), 
the two or three pleasant friends who are with us having run their 
gossip deep into the forenoon, when a shout from the children drew our 
attention to the window, and there came old Billy, stumping along 
through the pine grove with his peeled stick--his rags and perpetual 
smile in happy contradiction as before, but his prominent chin covered 
with a snow-white beard, which gleamed with a very new and becoming 
splendor from the confusion of his unwashed perpetuities.  The 
announcement of who was coming was at once understood--the very bad hat 
on its gilt peak effectually daily-fying the mention and memory of the 
old man--and the first to run and welcome him at the door was a fair 
lady in most amusing contrast to his build and belongings, the elegant 
"La Penserosa," in the prettiest of French caps and flowing negliges, 
her morning toilette as eloquent of the Present as he and his toggery 
of the Past.
   Billy had walked twelve miles that morning (in his one hundred and 
third year, remember!) and had had no breakfast.  He was soon fed and 
made comfortable, and then we ensconced, him in an easy-chair and 
gathered around him--one of our friends, fortunately, being a walking 
hydraulic of History and Statistics, and pumping the far-down memory of 
the old man with the pipe and valve of well-adjusted question and data.  
His memories of Washington and the military operations on the Hudson, 
of the battle of Stony Point and of the hanging of Andre, and his 
impressions of the various great men who figured before his eyes in the 
days now passed over to History, were skillfully drawn up.  Our friend 
(Sam. B. Ruggles) was delighted with the old veteran's pertinacious and 
simple truthfulness, never allowing a question to lead him into an 
admission of what was not perfectly clear in his own mind, and denying 
many suppositions of knowledge which were made for him and which it 
would have added to his consequence to be possessed of. He was honest 
and direct as if he had never thought of being anything else--a saving 
of trouble which was perhaps among the reasons for his lasting so long.
   Mr. Ruggles proposed, after a while, that we should ask the Sun, 
that had shone so long upon Billy, to oblige us with his likeness; and, 
on explaining to the veteran what his old friend Daylight had learned 
to do, of late years, he consented at once, though with an amusing 
expression of reserved faith in the matter.  Up in the mountains, where 
Billy is a vagrant, daguerreotypes were probably never heard of; and he 
evidently thought that he had seen his own shadow long enough to know 
all the sun could do in that line!
   We soon had the ponies at the door, and hoisted in the old man--his 
peeled stick and tattered shirt in alto relievo on the back seat, and 
about a century's difference between his age and that of my boy, who 
sat beside him.  The day was not too warm, and the drive along the 
river to New-burgh was very delightful.  Billy, probably (riding along 
so respectably now), was not even remembering my agonizing encounter 
with him, a year ago, on the same road--the old sinner staggering home 
drunk, in my virtuous trowsers, given him the day before!  I should 
mention, by the way, that my last summer's hat, which came back upon 
the old man's head yesterday, after a year's wear, has a considerably 
altered expression.  He had, as usual, slept out of doors occasionally, 
and the hat, which is his pillow, serves him also for a cold-victual 
basket, and a cushion in wet places; but the wear of this trying 
variety of service was not all.  He had found the crown "too high to go 
through the woods with;" and, cutting off the lower half, he had 
reduced it to the proportions of a soup-plate--more convenient than 
becoming.  I mention it to protect myself from its doing me injustice 
(as I am told the trowsers are doing) in a collection of autographs.
   Miracle as the taking of likenesses by daguerreotype certainly is, 
the process--especially on the scale practised in rural villages--has 
no very startling aspect of sublimity.  The alchemistic hierophant of 
the sun's great mystery--(the man who daguerreotypes you)--goes about 
it with a commonplaceness tedious to endure, ludicrous to remember.  
Billy was simply acquiescent.  His business was to oblige the friend 
who was to give him a dinner and some old clothes after the job was 
over; but as to understanding or believing in likenesses painted that 
way, he was not going even to try.  The look of funny incredulity which 
this feeling of mere acquiescence naturally gave to his features, was 
faithfully copied, of course, in the daguerreotype.  It adds to the 
effectiveness of it as a picture, though it impairs somewhat the 
character of frank simplicity of his every-day expression.
   The daguerreotypist was somewhat embarrassed with a subject in 
shirt-sleeves, the unusual prevalence of white disturbing his 
experience in light and shade.  The various trials, before he could 
satisfy himself, occupied nearly an hour, during the whole of which 
tiresome period and process, Billy sat patient and motionless--wide 
awake, but with not a nerve restless or discomposed.  The man expressed 
his wonder at the self-command of his old sitter and at the steadiness 
with which he looked straight at him as directed while the plate was 
under the action of the light.  Indeed, that the tough system of' the 
centenarian has had no experience of neuralgic wear--that he is a man 
born without nerves--is, I fancy, one of the secrets of his longevity.  
To this and his inexhaustible good-humor may mainly be attributed, I 
have no doubt, his duration under all sorts of hard usage by poverty 
and exposure.
   A man one hundred and three years old, seeing his own likeness for 
the first time, was a dramatic moment, I thought--but Billy evidently 
did not feel the poetry of it.  I held up the naked plate to him, and 
he said, "Why, it is like me !" with a sort of reluctant acknowledgment 
of surprise, but immediately felt about for his hat, "to be going," 
glad it was over.  He was not up to giving his mind the trouble to 
comprehend it, and if I was pleased he was very glad, and I was very 
welcome.  This was what his manner said, as we hobbled him down-stairs 
to the street and got once more under way for home.
   But the sun's taking Billy's likeness was not to be his only honor 
for that day.  We had brought him safely back and refreshed his inner 
man and given him his expected bundle.  The ladies and children were 
about taking leave of him--his long stick in hand and his face turned 
towards the mountains where he is to vagrantize for the summer--when it 
occurred to him to turn and inquire, whether, in that closely-tied and 
yet unexamined bundle, there happened to be a coat.  The old chap's 
sagacity had smelt out the weak spot in my charity.  There was no coat.  
The fact was, I had looked over my slender remainders of that article, 
in making up the parcel, and there was nothing I could well spare 
except a dress coat, for which I have no further occasion in my hermit 
life, but which would scarce be "a fit" for Billy, besides the proba-
Billy-ty of his swopping it for grog at the first wood-chopper's shanty 
in the mountains.  No !  I had it to confess to the old man that his 
feel of the weight of the bundle had told him truly.  It was composed 
only of the light-weighing articles of nether and under wear.  But his 
expression of disappointment was overheard.  "Is it a coat he wants ?"  
exclaimed the Hon. S. P. R., stepping forward and pulling off his own 
(a new summer frock of the latest fashion), and insisting on drawing it 
over the cotton tatters of the veteran's dirty shirt.
   And so walked off a man of a hundred years ago, in the coat of a man 
of a hundred years ahead.  Mr. Ruggles, as we all know, is the look-out 
at the mast-head of the Age--giving to Public Progress, in many ways, 
his far-seeings into the next century to mark its charts by, and know 
its channels and dangers--and, of all men's coats in the world, old 
Billy Babcock were most drolly clad in his!  It was a fossil of the 
Past in the shell of an embryo of the Future--two centuries at least 
between the vibrations (forward) of the pulse which the coat covered at 
morning, and the vibrations (backward) of the pulse which it covered at 
   How long this remarkable old vagrant is likely to live, I should 
scarcely venture to guess.  He "loafs," to and fro, between here and 
Jersey, his four or five generations of descendants (one hundred and 
sixty-five of them, he says, and all poor) scattered along through the 
mountains, and he looks still vigorous enough to outlive the half of 
them, and some of us.  Die when he will now, however, we have his 
likeness--and his hat!  Come and see how the two explain each other, my 
dear Morris, and believe me

Posted for your enjoyment.     Gary W. Ewer     

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