Sunday, March 1, 2009

Working for the Weekend

It’s the weekend. My favorite time of the week; a time for sleeping late, brunch, concerts, movies, restaurants, and of course the Smithsonian. Ah yes, how would the both the Washingtonian and tourist live without the Smithsonian? Not completed until 1846, how did they ever live without it?

For starters, visiting government buildings was quite popular among visitors. One could check out the new inventions at the Patent Office located where the Old Post Office building stands. Over at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, one could study the portraits of Native American chiefs painted by Charles Bird King. But all that gets dull after awhile, and through my researching I’m left with two conclusions on public pastimes prior to the Smithsonian: there was the theatre and there was horse racing.

At the turn of the 19th century DC was a fairly rural community, just beginning to sprout up. The town’s population totaled at just a little over 8,000—that’s not promising for those who love the nightlife. Despite the small population, by 1805 the District managed to have one theatre, the Washington Theatre. The theatre was located on the northeast corner of 11th and C Streets and was described by Londoner Francis Trollope as small, dirty, and lacking décor. She was appalled by the coarse manners of American men, who would stretch out over the box seats, constantly chewing and spitting tobacco. Indeed, the night Ms. Trollope visited she witnessed one man in a fit of vomiting, commenting that no one around him seemed bothered in the slightest. Sadly, the theatre burnt down in 1820. It was rebuilt in the same location and managed by Italian musician Gaetano Carusi. The Washington Theatre, known as Carusi’s Saloon or the City Assembly Rooms, later played host to President John Quincy Adams’s inaugural ball.

On to horse racing. It is believed that the earliest racetrack was an oval located between 17th and 20th Streets, across from Pennsylvania Avenue and in to Lafayette Park. It was operating as early as 1797. A short time later, another track opened in what is now the South Petworth area, just west of the Soldiers Home. Both of these tracks are believed to have been run John Tayloe, DC’s wealthiest resident (of the Octagon House no less) and avid horse breeder. So popular was racing, that the Washington Jockey Club was founded in 1821 to regulate the races. The Club established gate tolls, types of heats to be run, entry fees, and appointment of the judges. Incidentally, the Jockey Club outlawed gambling in any form. Their attempt at morality failed, as they were wholly unable to stop wagering. Bet you didn’t know there was a racetrack that close to the White House!

Sources: Robert Harrigan, Pastimes in Washington(Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 2002).

Campbell Gibson, “Population of the 100 Largest Cities” (US Census Bureau: 1998).

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