The rising price of flour fuels a 19th century riot

1837 would be a rough year. A financial downturn caused in part by speculative lending (hmm, sound familiar?) ushered in a six-year recession nationwide.

Banks closed. Unemployment soared. And in New York City, a $5 hike in the price of flour touched off a riot at Washington and Dey Streets.

Flourriotscolor

It happened in February, as the cost of necessities such as meat and fuel began going up. A barrel of flour (pictured on the right in the political cartoon above) that had run $7 was now $12.

With a recession settling in and a third of the city of 300,000 out of work, New Yorkers were outraged . . . and feeling desperate.

1830snyc

So when a speaker at a rally near City Hall suggested that a Washington Street merchant was hoarding flour and gauging prices, crowds went ballistic.

oak-barrel“As a result, hundreds of people rushed down Broadway to Washington Street where they stormed the premises,” wrote Joanne Reitano in The Restless City.

“Flour barrels were seized and thrown to the crowd who scooped up whatever they could into boxes, baskets, and aprons,” wrote Reitano.

By one account, hundreds of barrels were dumped, along with a thousand bushels of grain.

“The flour sifted onto the street a foot deep. Some of the rioters then attacked other flour stores and only the arrival of the militia stopped the pillage.”

[New York in the 1830s, above]

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2 Responses to “The rising price of flour fuels a 19th century riot”

  1. Joe R Says:

    Isn’t that second image actually the Five Points? If so, that would be probably at least a half mile from Washington and Dey, which are more or less in the middle of the World Trade Center site.

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Joe R, you are correct; I couldn’t find any images of or near Washington and Dey, but I wanted to give some visual sense of what New York looked like in that decade.

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