The evolution of the Bowery Boy

In the early 1800s, when the Bowery became the theater and entertainment district of New York, the Bowery Boy of the time was more of a stylish young city guy than outright thug. A New York Times article entitled “Passing of the Old Bowery,” published in 1905, describes him as such:

“The Bowery Boy of those days was more or less of a dandy, so far as oiled hair, grandiloquent manners, and showy clothes go to make a dandy. He was aggressive, and always ready for a spree, regardless of consequences.”

By the 1860s, as the Bowery grew rougher and New York was rocked by the draft riots, the Bowery Boy had became an anti-Catholic, nativist gang member. Incredible New York, published in 1951, explains:

“He had already become a dubious hero of American folklore when the draft riots made him a civic menace, and respectable New York determined to do away with him. The Bowery Boy was not an adolescent. He was a mature tough of bellicose nature, with a taste for easily concealed lethal weapons: brass knuckles, a razor-sharp knife, a short length of iron pipe, a gun.

“In his leisure hours, on parade, he looked like a fancy-dan. He wore a tall beaver hat, an inordinately long black frock coat, loud, checked bell-bottomed pants, a vivid, floppy kerchief knotted under his collar. . . . The Bowery Boy was a plug-ugly always ready for a row, and he resented nothing more than the intrusion of outsiders into his favorite haunts.”

By the end of the century, the Bowery Boys had disappeared . . . only to be revived in the 1940s and 1950s as a streetwise yet loveable group of ruffians in the Bowery Boys movies.

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