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.