NEW ORLEANS – There are few better places to spend a warm spring day than in the shade in Jackson Square. But at the Historic New Orleans Collection, they know how different this Square was on April 30, 1812, when Louisiana became a state.
"It was a parade ground. It would have been pretty dusty,” said John Magill, curator and historian at the Historic New Orleans Collection.
“And it wasn't called Jackson Square,” added John Lawrence, director of Museum Programs for the Collection.
“It was Place d'Arms by the French and Plaza d'Armas by the Spanish,” Magill explained.
But New Orleans was said to be as fashionable as Paris 200 years ago.
"New Orleans was a luxury-loving city,” Magill said. “It was often commented on that people who could afford it had well furnished houses, they were well-dressed. Pierre Clement Laussat, in 1803, complained that he needed a pay raise because it was so expensive for him to live in New Orleans."
If it sounds like the historians think New Orleans was a pretty fancy place 200 years ago, none of them would like to actually go back in time and live there.
"You would have had to do without air conditioning for one thing, and can you imagine living in Louisiana without air conditioning, without any sort of mosquito control?" asked Priscilla Lawrence, the executive director of the Historic New Orleans Collection.
You can walk the same streets today, but back in 1812, you would have wanted to stay on the sidewalks, since the streets were sewers.
"Unpaved, it was muddy when it rained, dusty when it was not raining,” Magill said. “You would have gutters along either side of the street to help drain off water down the sides of the streets.
“They were not especially clean,” explained Lawrence.
“Because, you know, horses were a major form of transportation. But we did have well-paved sidewalks," Magill added.
Even the homes like the Historic New Orleans Collection headquarters in the French Quarter that were built over 200 years ago looked and smelled much different in 1812 than today, especially with the era's heavy clothing.
"You wonder what those suits smelled like then. That damp wool, and cigar smoke,” said Magill.
“During colder weather, when houses were closed up, they would probably just take on the scent of people who didn't necessarily wash that often, and there was no plumbing at the time. People used privies outdoors, but frequently there would be pots in the house."
Chickens were raised in courtyards, and rooms were interchangeable, used for what suited the residents at the moment. At night, they were dark, since fireplaces and candles only gave about the same illumination as a fifteen watt light bulb.
"But I think a lot of what exists in houses today, people from 1812 would be aghast at as well. They would probably be appalled if they went out in the street and smelled automobile exhaust,” said Magill.
Drive-by shootings are a concern today, but 200 years ago you might make an appointment to be shot, and own dueling pistols.
"You wanted to have something like that, probably a case with a couple of them, in case someone insulted you. You could call for him to provide satisfaction,” said Jason Wiese of the HNOC’s Williams Research Center.
“It seems crazy, doesn't it? But was fairly common. Andrew Jackson fought several duels.”
A major hurricane devastated New Orleans in 1812, and before long, rivalries between American and French residents grew so fierce that three separate city governments were formed.
"We had one mayor who was over at the Cabildo, and we had three separate City Councils."
You can imagine election day back then.
For more on the Historic New Orleans Collection’s holdings, visit hnoc.org or call 504.523.4662.