Where New Yorkers met for coffee in the 1790s

Tontine Coffee House, meeting-place of New York brokers who formed the NY Stock ExchangeIn late 18th century New York, with a revolt against tea in place and plain water mostly undrinkable, coffee’s popularity surged.

And the city’s love affair with coffee beans began.

Coffee houses soon sprang up. Unlike the cafes of today, these were more like taverns, where the city’s political and merchant elite met to exchange ideas and do business while nursing a cup of joe (and probably stronger drinks as well).

One coffee house on the bustling corner of Wall and Water Streets, the Tontine (the second building on the left, above), bore witness to some of the events and the development of the booming city.


First, the Tontine (above on the left, in 1797) doubled as the original site of the New York Stock Exchange, with trading going on in a second-floor room from the early 1790s until 1817.

On a more gruesome note, the Tontine was where a notice was posted in 1804 informing New Yorkers about the death of Alexander Hamilton, after his infamous duel with Aaron Burr.

Tontine4“When a handwritten notice of Hamilton’s death went up at the Tontine Coffee House, the city was transfixed with horror,” wrote Ron Chernow, by way of the Aaron Burr Association.

Also, it was a place where deals were made on all kinds of goods . . . and that included human beings.

“As soon as a ship’s captain reached the harbor, this is where he came to register his cargo,” explains Mapping the African American Past.

“The goods coming into New York in the 1790s included coffee, tea, sugar and molasses, fine furniture, cloth, cotton, and enslaved men, women, and children.”

Slavery gradually ended in the city between 1799 and 1827.


An Englishman who visited Tontine (up the street from Coffee House Slip, above) recalled it this way:

“[Y]ou ascend six or eight steps under a portico, into a large public room, which is the Stock Exchange of New York, where all bargains are made. . . . You can lodge and board there at a common table, and you pay ten shillings currency a day, whether you dine out or not.”

Sounds not unlike the 18th century equivalent of hanging out at a cafe today, ordering the minimum amount of coffee you can to partake in the free WiFi and comfy communal table.

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11 Responses to “Where New Yorkers met for coffee in the 1790s”

  1. fla George Says:

    Sometimes I feel I was around back then.

  2. ianschoenherr Says:

    For more on this topic, you might want to take a look at OLD NEW YORK COFFEE-HOUSES by John Austin Stevens (Harper’s Monthly, March 1882).

  3. Jack Says:

    Reblogged this on Universal Journal Review.

  4. raybarnhart1968 Says:

    Do you listen to the Bowery Boys Podcast?

  5. Chris Says:

    I wonder why the name “Tontine” was chosen; a “tontine” was a kind of mutual investment scheme in which the last surviving investor received the remaining capital. Perhaps the name was connected to the building’s original use as a stock exchange.

  6. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    The name reflects the mutual investment scheme you reference, a system launched in France in the 17th century by Lorenzo Tonti. The founders of the Tontine Coffee House bought shares, and each share reverted to surviving shareholders after a member died.


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