How 19th century New Yorkers spent Sundays

During the workweek, the city was fast-paced and cutthroat, just as it is today.

But in the 19th century, that workweek generally ran from Monday through Saturday.

Which made Sunday the city’s day of leisure, when the mood of New York drastically changed, explains James McCabe’s Lights and Shadows of New York Life, from 1873.

“On Sunday morning New York puts on its holiday dress. The stores are closed, the streets have a deserted aspect, for the crowds of vehicles, animals, and human beings that fill them on other days are absent.”

Around 10 o’clock, New Yorkers went to church—preferably on Fifth Avenue, so well-to-do residents could promenade on the city’s most fashionable street afterward.

“The toilettes of the ladies show well here, and it is a pleasant place to meet one’s acquaintances,” says McCabe.

Dinner was served at 1 p.m.; servants had the rest of the day off. “After dinner, your New Yorker, male or female, thinks of enjoyment.” That meant more promenading, a drive in Central Park, or if you were working class, a picnic in the park or skating session on one of the frozen lakes.

Concerts were well-attended; saloons had plenty of business too. By sunset, “the Bowery brightens up wonderfully, and after nightfall the street is ablaze with a thousand gaslights. . . . Bowery beer-gardens do a good business.”

And with Sunday over, it was time to start the workweek . . . and do it all over again.

[Top two illustrations: NYPL digital collection]

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5 Responses to “How 19th century New Yorkers spent Sundays”

  1. Parnassus Says:

    What a wonderful picture you present of leisure time in old New York. I think that your reference was from before the Bowery deteriorated, but the “street ablaze with a thousand gaslights” reminded me of the famous song from 1891:

    Oh! the night that I struck New York,
    I went out for a quiet walk;
    Folks who are “on to” the city say,
    Better by far that I took Broadway;
    But I was out to enjoy the sights,
    There was the Bow’ry ablaze with lights;
    I had one of the devil’s own nights!
    I’ll never go there anymore.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    I know, isn’t that a lovely line? Thanks for the lyrics; “I had one of the devil’s own nights” is fantastic.

  3. RieSheridanRose Says:

    Doing a post about entertainment in the 1870s on my blog today, so I will let people know about this fabulous post!

  4. That’s Entertainment! | The Conn Mann Chronicles Says:

    […] found a great post about general leisure time on Sundays. (After all, most people would have to be working the other six days a week–and even Alistair […]

  5. What to order from a 1950s Mother’s Day menu from the Gramercy Hotel | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] “dinner” today was typically served a lot earlier in the afternoon; this mention of Sunday in New York during the Gilded Age has it that dinner was always served at 1 p.m. A smaller evening meal would be […]

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