A Bowery tinsmith paints his city of memory

Born in 1801, William Chappel was a Manhattan native who made a modest living as a tinsmith and resided with his wife and kids at 165 Bowery opposite the Bowery Theatre.

[“The Buttermilk Peddler,” location unknown]


He was also an amateur painter (and the father of a more renowned artist, Alonzo Chappel). The elder Chappel’s depictions of day-to-day street life offer a fascinating peek at New Yorkers at work and at play in the city of approximately 1810.

At that time, Gotham’s population stood at less than 100,000, most residents lived in 2- or 3-story wooden houses, the urban core barely stretched past Canal Street, and conveniences such as clean water and mass transit were still pipe dreams.

[“The Baker’s Wagon,” Hester Street]


Even without the amenities New Yorkers are long used to, life in the 1810 city isn’t so far off from the metropolis of today.

Peddlers sell food—buttermilk, strawberries, baked pears, bread. A watchman, one of the leather-helmeted patrolmen who predate the city’s first police force, walks his beat. Boats ferry people to Brooklyn from a dock at the end of Catherine Street.

[“City Watchman,” Elizabeth Street]


Well-dressed women head to a tea party. Bathers wade into the cool water at Dandy Point, at today’s 13th Street. Shoppers buy meat and fish at a marketplace called the Fly (from the Dutch “Vly”) Market. Volunteer firemen attract admirers as they wash their engines on the Bowery.

[“Firemen’s Washing Day,” The Bowery]


Chappel’s work in currently on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which notes that the 27 small oil paintings on display were all done in the 1870s, decades after the time period they depict.

[“Tea Party,” Forsyth and Canal Streets]


“Chappel’s images defy easy categorization because his practice and motivation remain elusive,” states a summary of the exhibit mounted beside the paintings.”

“Did Chappel produce these works, in all their minute detail, from older sketches or from youthful memories?”

[Bathing Party, 13th Street at East River]


“One thing is certain: Chappel’s scenes offer a rare glimpse of early nineteenth-century New York and its diverse working-class communities as it began its tumultuous ascent to the United States’ financial capital.”

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12 Responses to “A Bowery tinsmith paints his city of memory”

  1. mikeland82 Says:

    Great entry, thank you for drawing my attention to this artist,[ and his fascinating paintings.

  2. Dymoon Says:

    Reblogged this on dymoonblog.

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    You’re welcome! You must see the exhibit at the Met, I think it runs until May.

    • Ruth Rosenthal Says:

      I just went to the Met to see this exhibit (after seeing your blog entry). Once again, thanks for bringing my attention to another NY artist.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        So glad you went! It’s in that small American wing area on the mezzanine and a little dark, but not crowded, so there’s time to linger.

  4. voluntariopr Says:

    Think that bathing scene might have been at a spot known as Baptism Beach so named because a lot of full immersion baptisms took place there. It was just off Colears Hook.

  5. voluntariopr Says:

    Or, it could have been at anyone of these places. http://www.scoutingny.com/manhattans-east-20th-street-beach/
    Wow, who would have thunk it. ? Beaches in Manhattan would put a dent in those bus lines to the Hamptons.

  6. Dandy Point: the 1820s city’s popular swim spot | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] If they didn’t cool off at one of the city’s lovely pleasure gardens, they may have gone to Dandy Point—a popular East River recreation spot at today’s East 13th Street, depicted here by William Chappel. […]

  7. A ship captain built this 1830 Allen Street house | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] With a decade of the city order, roads, building lots, and then houses went up on the former De Lancey estate. By the 1820s, the area was filling up with tidy 2- and 3-story homes. […]

  8. The famous tea water pumps of 1700s New York | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Selling the tea water from these choice street corner pumps by wagon via “tea water men” became big business, as seen in the above painting depicting an 18th century residential street. […]

  9. How New York became a metropolis of stoops | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] [Second image: NYPL; third image: painting by William Chappel] […]

  10. Tracing Berenice Abbott’s steps in today’s Bowery | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] not. This storied main drag that had a brief fling as an elite address in the early 19th century before becoming synonymous with tawdry entertainment, flophouses, and cheap bars now resembles many […]

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