How Pearl Street supposedly got its name

Pearl Street—called Paerlstraet by the Dutch—was one of the earliest roads laid out in the fledgling colony of New Amsterdam. And how it really got its name just might be an enduring mystery.

One story has it that the street was named after its abundance of oysters, “for the pearly shells left there by tides,” according to Edward Robb Ellis’ The Epic of New York City.

In The Big Oyster, however, author Mark Kurlansky says that Indians left piles of oyster shells at the water’s edge, which Pearl Street used to run alongside—before landfill extended the shoreline of Manhattan Island.

The theory that New Yorkers seem to repeat most, however, is that Pearl Street earned its moniker because it was paved with oyster shells, which glistened like pearls in the sun.

Perhaps there’s some truth to each story—and just how much may be lost to the ages.

[Pearl Street illustration: from the NYPL digital collection]

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5 Responses to “How Pearl Street supposedly got its name”

  1. Parnassus Says:

    Doris Townshend in “The Streets of New Haven” (apparently the companion volume to “The Sidewalks of New York”) affirms your last suggestion for New Haven’s Pearl Street. She adds that the shells were crushed before use as paving material. The only problem I see is that the material was presumably used for not just one street, so why was that one selected for the honor? Still, it seems reasonable, especially if there are no other gem-like (or ladies’ name) street names in the vicinity.

    Sparking pavement has made a comeback more recently by adding crushed glass to the asphalt, creating a look that seems cool at first, but which I find rather distracting. You see a lot of this in Taipei city.
    –Road to Parnassus

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    Thanks P. Apparently Pearl Street NYC was paved with oyster shells…but after it was named Pearl Street. Who knows? I like the idea of shells looking like pearls in the sun though!

  3. focusoninfinity Says:

    In the Revolution, did Mr. Robinson, head of British intelligence, own a home in NYC? If he did, can you show where it was; and anything else about it?

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