Posts Tagged ‘New York in 1850’

A little girl’s very busy New Year’s Day in 1850

December 29, 2014

Catherinehavens1847“Yesterday was New Year’s Day, and I had lovely presents,” wrote 10-year-old Catherine Havens in her diary, which chronicles a year in the life of a privileged city schoolgirl, on January 2, 1850.

The 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 in Washington Square.

And it also gives contemporary readers a glimpse into what New Year’s Day was like for the city’s elite 165 years ago.

At the time, the colonial Dutch tradition of receiving male callers all day was in still full swing among upper class families, with smartly dressed gentlemen making short (often inebriated) visits to the ladies of a household.


“We had 139 callers, and I have an ivory tablet and write all their names down on it,” wrote Catherine.

“We have to be dressed and ready by 10 o’clock to receive. Some of the gentleman come together and don’t stay more than a minute; but some go into the back room and take some oysters and coffee and cake, and stay and talk.”

Newyearscalling1859harpers“The gentlemen keep dropping in all day and until long after I have gone to bed; and the horses look tired, and the livery men make a lot of money.”

Calling had romantic overtones. “Mr. Woolsey Porter and his brother, Mr. Dwight Porter always come in the evening and sit and talk a long time. They are very fond of one of my sisters.”

Catherine ends her New Year’s Day entry with a thought about the future.


“Next January we shall be half through the nineteenth century. I hope I shall live to see the next century, but I don’t want to be alive when the year 2000 comes, for my Bible teacher says the world is coming to an end then, and perhaps sooner.”

She lived until 1939, almost making it to her 100th birthday.

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

January 9, 2014

“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]

The hottest concert draw in the city in 1850

March 5, 2012

Linsanity has nothing on Lind-mania, the word the press coined for the fervor surrounding Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind’s visit to New York City in September 1850.

A plain-looking 30-year-old who lived in London, Jenny and her beautiful voice wowed Europe in the late 1840s.

P.T. Barnum was visiting London when he heard about Jenny. He struck a deal with her to bring her to America for a 150-city tour.

Her first stop was New York. No one in the U.S. had heard her sing, but 30,000 people greeted her ship as it docked in New York Harbor.

Her first of six city concerts planned for Castle Garden, in Battery Park, was held on September 11. Tickets went for up to $650 a seat—quite a lot in 1850.

The Swedish Nightingale blew away the crowd. “Never in New York City had a singer so captured an audience as Jenny Lind did on that September evening,” writes Fran Capo, coauthor of It Happened in New York City.

“When the performance finally drew to a close, the applause was tumultuous. The audience did not want her to leave the stage. Jenny simply remained silent with her arms across her chest, bowing in acceptance for the admiration shown by the crowd of New Yorkers.”

Jenny and Barnum raked in profits. Jenny gave much of hers away.

“She donated her share of the proceeds from two of her concerts to twelve different New York City charitable organizations, with the lion’s share going to the New York City Fire Department to help support widows and orphans,” says Capo.

History recalls her as a gifted singer and giving woman. Too bad she died before her voice could be recorded.

[Top: Jenny sits for a Mathew Brady portrait; right: a Currier lithograph of her opening night at Castle Garden]

The celebrated seances of the spooky Fox Sisters

May 31, 2011

Claiming to be able to talk to the dead is a skill that can instantly turn you into a celebrity. This was especially true in 1848, when Ouija boards and seances were all the rage.

That’s how the Fox sisters became notorious in New York. Growing up in Rochester, word spread that Katherine and Margaret Fox, then 12 and 15, could communicate with spirits.

How? They would snap their fingers, and this would elicit rapping sounds from the deceased that could be decoded into a message.

Within a few years, the sisters, along with their older sister and manager, Leah, were invited to the city by showman P.T. Barnum.

They quickly became the talk of pre-Civil War New York, serving as mediums for high society.

Among the bold-face names they attracted to their hundreds of seances were journalist and poet William Cullen Bryant, writer James Feinmore Cooper, and Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune.

Though thousands of people believed the sisters and followed their quasi-religion “spiritualism,” skeptics publicly doubted them. The girls eventually quarreled and became alcoholics.

In 1888, Margaret confessed in the New York World that their medium powers were a hoax; the rappings sounds that supposedly came from dead people were created by cracking their joints.

They died before the century’s end, as paupers.