A little girl’s diary sheds light on the 1849 city

“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.

CatherinehavensandfatherCatherine 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.”

CatherinediaryexcerptThe 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.”

CatherinediarymarblecemeteryShe 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.”

CatherinediarybrickchurchAnd 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]

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27 Responses to “A little girl’s diary sheds light on the 1849 city”

  1. Any Little Girl Will Love Says:

    […] A little girl's diary sheds light on the 1849 city | Ephemeral New York Catherine dedicates 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, who gives us a wonderful window into the  […]

  2. Mod Betty / RetroRoadmap.comm Says:

    So interesting! Just think, if a girl nowadays wrote about her life now, and it was read almost 100 years later, how much will have changed. Thanks for sharing!

  3. S. Says:

    I’ve read this. It is one of the most delightful books I’ve ever picked up. What a precocious little girl

  4. golandfolre@aol.com Says:

    Sent from my iPhone

  5. On the Market: MoMA Will Raze Folk Art Museum; Shvo Drops $130 M. on Hudson Square Development Site; Drew Barrymore Buys UES Co-op – insiderater.com Says:

    […] Plaza apartment. [DNAinfo]Diary of 10-year-old Brooklynite from 1849 sheds light on changing city. [ENY]Despite outcry, MoMA decides to raze Folk Art Museum after all. [WSJ]Michael Shvo drops $130 million […]

  6. RD Wolff Says:

    That’s the rich girls’ diary living on 9th street and fasionable 5th avenue, the immigrant family’s little girl living in a run-down tenement would likely have jotted down something more like:

    “Today I found some scraps of paper, I shall start a diary! father awoke me at 4am. I was to light the cooking fire but the coal is all but gone and we shant have any more for a fortnight! I shall have cold food when I can find scraps in the wastebin. I must hurry, an hour to walk in the bitter cold and snow to get to the fish canning factory, I hope they pay me the 20 cents they owe me for last week’s 80 hours of work! why, I was so exhausted I fell asleep in church on Sunday and reverend Bunker put me over his knee and paddled me with a board at least a dozen times for that! Then father found out and paddled me fifteen times and told me I deserved more.
    Oh! I must hurry to work dear diary!”

  7. RD Wolff Says:

    That elderly looking old man was her FATHER? he looks more like her grandfather! Something odd there about this old guy being the father of a 10 year old in that photo

  8. neatmessy Says:

    He was 67 when she was born, so he would be about 77 in that photo! http://www.merrycoz.org/havens/HAVENS.HTM

    • RD Wolff Says:

      Mom must have been young enough to be her husband’s daughter then because if dad was 67 when the girl was born, the wife had to be in her 30s or early 40s (menopause you know…)

  9. neatmessy Says:

    Very apt comparison, RD Wolff.

  10. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Catherine writes in her diary that her father “is a very old gentleman” who was born before the Revolutionary War. Her mother is his second wife, and she has step-siblings her mother’s age. Very common in NYC then and now, right?

  11. marylandis Says:

    Catherine was an exact contemporary of Gertrude Tredwell, who was born in the house on Fourth Street that is now The Merchant’s House Museum. Gertrude lived her entire life in the house and died at the age of 93. I wonder if she and Catherine knew each other as children. The Merchant’s House is open to the public. If you enjoyed the book, visit the house to see what a home in Catherine’s neighborhood looked like.

  12. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks so much for reminding me about Gertrude. She and Catherine must have known each other, especially since Catherine did live close to Gertrude on Lafayette Place:


    The Merchant’s House museum–Gertrude’s former home–is one of the city’s small treasures.

  13. Linkage: A Diary of 1840s NYC; City Lets Bronx Landmark Rot – insiderater.com Says:

    […] Joel Zimmer/Curbed Photo Pool] · Read the diary of a 10-year-old in 1849 NYC [ENY] · Dead Williamsburg slumlord owed $2 million [Gothamist] · LIC gallery to feature […]

  14. michnovak Says:

    Catherine (6 Aug 1839-19 Feb 1939) died in Stamford just shy of her 100th birthday! According public trees she never married or had children. She is buried, with her parents and ancestors, at the Presbyterian Church on Shelter Island.

    Catherine Elizabeth’s NY Times obituary reads:
    HAVENS — At Stamford, Conn., on Sunday, Feb. 19, 1939, Catherine Elizabeth Havens, youngest daughter of the late Renssalaer and Catherine Cebra Webb Havens of New York, in the one hundredth year of her age. Service at the First Presbyterian Church on Tuesday morning at 11 o’clock.

    Unfortunately, I have not found any other biographical information (yet).

    Her mother, Catherine Cebra Webb (1801-1897), married Renssalaer Havens (1773-1854) as his second wife in 1818 and the surviving children by his first wife were all close in age to Catherine. An unsourced list lists six children by his first marriage, five surviving into adulthood, and eight by his second, six surviving into adulthood. (The censuses of the time did not yet record relationships to head of house and there are a number of people listed in 1840 [14] and 1850 [13] which may or may not be related — would have to trace all the residents in future censuses to be sure.) He was born on, and later buried with his family on, Shelter Island, NY. The NYC directories lists a number of addresses for the Havens family, which is not surprising in 19c New York as the City as fashionable neighborhoods were very much in flux.

  15. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Wow, thanks for sending this info in! Catherine’s father’s family lived on Shelter Island, she wrote; her father was born before the Revolutionary War.

    To think that his daughter didn’t die until the eve of World War II is incredible. What a span of history.

    • Dave Says:

      Interesting. I’m reading a book right now called “The Manor”, about a 17th century slave plantation on Shelter Island (Long Island, NY) that is still owned by descendants of the original settler. The book includes a family tree showing all the stewards of the manor from 1652. In 1803, a Mary Catherine Havens married the current steward. This must be the connection to the father’s family.

  16. Augusta Leigh Says:

    very sweet diary, but it seems more like she wrote it as an adult thinking back on her youth from memory.

  17. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I’ve thought about that too. She does say at some point that her mother corrected her spelling or grammar in the diary, so maybe that’s why it reads so well. Or perhaps she herself did some editing as an adult, as you suggest.

  18. Lady G. Says:

    Reblogged this on The Realm Of Olde Brooklyn.

  19. A little girl’s very busy New Year’s Day in 1850 | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] diary is a wonderful artifact, describing her home on Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street, her favorite candy stores on Eighth Street, and the afternoons she spends rolling hoops and playing […]

  20. Mary Says:

    Just read this book online and what a lovely read it was. So many fascinating details about life at that time, as well as adding details her mother (born in 1801) remembered. It made me sad when the book ended, as I felt I was listening to a delightful child tell her story. I want to know more!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’m glad you liked it, it’s one of my favorites, such a wonderful glimpse into day to day city life. I also wish we had a volume 2, and 3, and 4 chronicling Catherine’s long life.

  21. Mike Snyderman Says:

    Dear friends, you must realize that this beautiful little girl is a neighbor of the Tredwell children (esp.the youngest Gertrude) and the young honeymooners Mr. & Mrs. Melville (behind Grace Church).

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