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.


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.


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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3 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.

  3. Jonathan W. Phillips (former artist in residence CP - 1986-89) Says:

    The Flour Riots of 1837 came from a confluence of circumstances that likely began as a result of the disastrous fire of 1835. That fire destroyed 1/3 of Manhattan. As the insurance district and counting houses were in ashes, the only mechanism for recovery from this disaster was for the banks to create capital (print specie – bank notes of credit backed by the state). The recent election of Andrew Jackson brought to the fore a populist ethos that was for abolishing the Federal Reserve. But, the bankers mostly took care of their own. So while the finance district rebuilt, many smaller businesses lay in ruin. Money was printed for rebuilding, but greater returns lay in speculating on undeveloped land prices. European speculators jumped in. 1836 was a bad crop year. Up the Hudson NY patroon Stephan Rensselaer forgave the tithes owed by tenant farmers, but not all other patroons were so forgiving. Grain prices were driven up. Europe jumped in with cheap grain, but the NY merchants snatched that up and hoarded it to shore up the high prices they had funded locally. A financial panic started in England jumped the Atlantic. Banks were unable to back up their paper. The poor were starving. Tammany politicians blamed the grain merchants. Riot.

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