“I am ten years old to-day, and I am going to begin to keep a diary,” wrote Catherine Elizabeth Havens on August 6, 1849.
Catherine only kept her diary for a year. But lucky for us, as an adult, she had the foresight to publish it in 1919.
Now, future generations can peek into what day-to-day city life was like for kids in the mid-19th century.
Well-off kids, that is. The daughter of a businessman (with her father at right), she first lived on exclusive Lafayette Place, then in Brooklyn, where she tells us her brother “liked to go crabbing.”
Her family finally settled on Ninth Street near Fifth Avenue. “It is a beautiful house and has glass sliding doors with birds of Paradise sitting on palm trees painted on them. And back of our dining room is a piazza, and a grape vine, and we have lots of Isabella grapes every fall.”
The city is getting too built up, she writes. “I walk some mornings with my nurse before breakfast from our house in Ninth Street up Fifth Avenue to Twenty-Third Street, and down Broadway home.
“An officer stands in front of the House of Refuge on Madison Square, ready to arrest bad people, and he looks as if he would like to find some.”
Catherine goes to a girls’ school; she likes piano lessons but dislikes history. Her family occasionally attends the “brick church” on Beekman Place and Nassau Street (below). She and her school friends raise $300 to help victims of the Irish potato famine.
Like all super-aware city kids, she knows all the leading attractions. She visits Vauxhall Gardens, mentions a wax figure at Barnum’s Museum, and remembers how moved her father was when he saw Jenny Lind sing at Castle Garden.
She gets cream puffs from Waldick’s Bakery on Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street and chocolate on Broadway and Ninth Street. “Down Broadway, below Eighth Street is Dean’s candy store, and they have molasses candy that is the best in the city.”
She tells us about the sounds of old New York. “Stages run through Bleecker Street and Eighth Street and Ninth Street right past our house, and it puts me right to sleep when I come home from the country to hear them rumble along over the cobblestones again.”
Catherine shops A.T. Stewart’s store on Chambers Street and likes Arnold and Constable on Canal Street, where “they keep elegant silks and satins and velvets, and my mother always goes there to get her best things.”
And she loves playtime in the park. “I roll my hoop and jump the rope in the afternoon, sometimes in the Parade Ground on Washington Square, and sometimes in Union Square.”
The adult Catherine dedicated her published diary to her nieces and nephews, so perhaps she had no children of her own. I would love to know what happened to this thoughtful, literate girl, whose words give us a wonderful window into the pre-Civil War city.
[Third image: The Spangler Farmhouse, once on 14th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue and included in the published version of Catherine's diary]