The 19th century “slave market” at Union Square

If you were an actor in the 1860s to 1880s, you spent a lot of time in Union Square.

This was the city’s theater district. The Union Square Theatre, Academy of Music (below right), and other spaces attracted big evening crowds.

Photo studios, play publishers, costume shops, and other theater-focused businesses thrived during the day.

Desperate, out-of-work actors congregated here too, in a section of 14th Street deemed the “slave market,” where managers and theater agents went to fill their casts for an upcoming show.

“Until the 1880s, the south side of Union Square on 14th Street was called the Rialto, after the name of the busy commercial district in Venice,” writes Irving Lewis Allen in City in Slang.

“In the 1860s, actors lounged around the base of the great equestrian statue of George Washington, and there they had what they and passersby called the slave market for those seeking employment through the casting offices in the area.”

A New York Times article from 1921 also explains that the south and east sides of Union Square came to be known as “The Slave Mart”:

“An actor out of engagement would stand around waiting, as the saying was, to ‘sign up’ for the next season. As soon as he had ‘signed up’ he would convey the tidings to his associates and then would be seen no more—until the next season.”

The slave market disappeared when the theater district moved uptown . . . and booking agencies took over the task of filling casts. Out-of-work actors, however, are still plentiful in New York City.

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5 Responses to “The 19th century “slave market” at Union Square”

  1. The Day | - The Local East Village Blog - NYTimes.com Says:

    [...] Ephemeral New York recalls “a section of 14th Street deemed the ‘slave market,’ where managers and theater agents went to fill their casts for an upcoming show.” [...]

  2. marylandis Says:

    This is so interesting. Now instead of a “slave market” we have “cattle calls!”

  3. EV Grieve Etc.: Mourning Edition « NYC Real Estate News Says:

    [...] Late 19th-century life of actors at Union Square (Ephemeral New York) [...]

  4. RED DAVE Says:

    Interesting that on 14th Street, a block and a half west of Union Square, above where the the Guitar Center is now, was a group of really grungy employment agencies that were called the “slave market.” They existed, I think, into the 90s.

  5. Real Estate News NYC via Tigho | EV Grieve Etc.: Mourning Edition - Real Estate News NYC via Tigho Says:

    […] Late 19th-century life of actors at Union Square (Ephemeral New York) […]

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