The Noises of the Night: 1879


Noises of the Night.

It was of old supposed by some people that the night was made for sleep. There were times and places in which a measure of correctness characterized this supposition. Applied to city life it is largely based on error. The city is noisy both by day and by night, and the people who can sleep through the noises are indeed fortunate. There are some whose profession turns night into day and day into night. Even to those who stay awake at night there are noises to which the ears can not be closed.

Prominent among these is that of the night-hawk. This creature must not be confounded with the night-owl, which is a bird of the country. The night-hawk of the city is a predatory bird, and roosts on top of a hack. He is on the look-out for anybody whom he can induce to take passage in his vehicle, but prefers those who are gently inebriated. Hour after hour he drives his vampire-like steeds, with slow and measured tread, along the pavement. A foot pilgrim with hand luggage is a boon to him, if from the country, and unlearned as to hack rates; but a drunkard is a god-send, especially if with full pockets and too far gone in inebriety to resist illegal taxation. In sections of the city where the night-hawk plieth not his trade there are noises of various grades and styles.

Street-cars keep up their racket till after midnight, and begin again so early in the morning that the sleeper is unconscious of any intermission. Cats lift their lofty voices and entertain whole communities with free concerts. In the old days of the volunteer department the fire-bells would arouse the sleepers of a whole city to tell them that somebody’s chimney was on fire. Happily that clangor no longer disturbs us, and when there is a conflagration we hear only the rumble of the engines along the streets.

To the weary sleeper who wants a good night’s rest, it is a nuisance, to be disturbed an hour past midnight by the intoxicated neighbor who can not make his night-key fit the hole in the door. After struggling a while, and profanely soliloquizing in his loudest and thickest tones, he kicks the front door several times with all his might. This brings a night-capped head from an upper window, and a demand for information as to who is there. The response, “itsh mee — lemme in,” brings forth an angry remark to the effect that the inebriate has come to the wrong house. Then the upper window is shut with a slam, which brings several more heads to other windows in the vicinity, each intent on knowing who is firing guns in the street. The tipsy outsider tries several other doors without achieving marked success, and after worrying his neighbors out of more sleep is taken care of by the police and clubbed into peaceful quietude.

As the night progresses the ice-carts furnish their contribution of racket. A procession of them bangs its noisy way along the street, and the drivers hold trumpet-tongued conversation with each other, which they hurl from cart to cart as they ride. Their rumble is hardly done before the milk-men begin. The noise of the ice-cart is solid and solemn, but that of the rattling contents of the milk wagon is ten times as worrisome. The milkman drives along in hot haste, and his tin cans knock against each other as if each were bent on shattering the empty head of all its fellows. After giving weary attention to the milk cans until almost ready to drop asleep from exhaustion the sleeper is startled by another and even more outrageous noise. It is the noise of singing birds. The neighbors keep fowls. The ostentatious rooster mounts a fence and officiously declares to all within reach of the blast of his awful voice that he thinks he begins to discern symptoms of approaching dawn, and that according to his belief it will soon be time to get up. It is in vain to protest. The rooster must have his way. Bootjack’s and inkbottles may be thrown at the midnight cat, who will be silent for a few moments while dodging these missiles. The wicked rooster, whose noise is more penetrating than the combined doxology of forty cats, will not pause for all the missiles of the neighborhood, but keeps right on speaking his little piece, and will not stop until he has faithfully executed his whole contract.

And yet we will not ask for refuge in the deaf and dumb asylum. If the noises of the nights are freighted with objectionable elements, there is much by day to regale the ear as sunshine does the eye. Some of these noctural nuisances are inseparable from the blessings of civilization. Let us rejoice that we are civilized, and take comfort.

The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 21 June 1879

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  A striking evocation of a long-lost world. Ah, the good old days!  No window screens to keep out insects, no fans (except those held in the hand), farm animals vocalising in back-gardens, and heavy drays rumbling in the streets. A golden-age indeed!  It is no wonder that houses of sickness and mourning spread straw on the cobblestones, to mute the din of commerce. We are, of course, more fortunate in our modern, civilised “soundscapes” to-day, with the aeroplanes overhead, the lorries on the motor-ways, and the tiny, tinny, twittering noises arising on the Underground from the bafflingly-named “smart-phones,” which allow one to view less-than-intellectual programmes while annoying one’s fellow-travellers.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


10 thoughts on “The Noises of the Night: 1879

  1. Ann

    Years ago I was told of an English country gentleman who visited London in 1902, probably for King Edward’s Coronation, and not again until 1914. He wrote about the major drop in the noise level in London streets from the change, in that decade, from horse-drawn vehicles with iron-bound wheels to rubber tires on horseless carriages.


    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      That is most distressing! One aims for the “you-are-there” experience, but not, perhaps carried to such realistic lengths. Mrs Daffodil offers her apologies for sharing such vivid writing, but can only suggest a soothing mug of warm cocoa, and cotton-wool tucked neatly into the ears.
      Best wishes,
      Mrs Daffodil


      1. davekingsbury

        You offer such graceful commiserations that I have rescinded my decision and look forward to future communications from you. I have to inform you, however, that the cotton wool was inedible and the cocoa ran out and stained my horsehair bolster …


      2. chriswoodyard Post author

        Mrs Daffodil should have been more specific. A mug of cotton-wool and ears full of cocoa are inadequate for the task at hand, and will, as you observe, stain the bolsters. But Mrs Daffodil is pleased that you will continue to visit in spite of her deficient directions.
        Best wishes,
        Mrs Daffodil


      3. davekingsbury

        You are in no way to blame, dear Madam, because the cross-wiring as I understand they are beginning to call it was in my brain alone. I simply misread your excellent instructions and have only myself to blame for the excessive medical bills!


  2. davekingsbury

    I would recommend Old Mother Numbskull’s Nerve Tonic, which I imbibe by the gallon. Spending all my small stipend upon my failing health leaves me little for legal representation, so you may rest easy in your – if you will permit an invalid a little jest – flowerbed …


  3. Pingback: Home from the Party: 1851 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s