Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 19th Century’

Scenes of a young Manhattan, at work and play

August 26, 2013

There’s not very much information out there on an artist named Louis Augier.

I’m not even sure he was actually in New York in the first half of the 19th century, the time period these depictions were supposedly created.

Augierstpaulschapel1831

But his life-like, detailed images of the new city of New York (above, “New York in 1831,” showing St. Paul’s Chapel on Lower Broadway) in the 1810s through the 1850s are captivating.

In the absence of photos, they seem to tell us how upper-crust residents lived (below, Bowling Green in 1831).

Augierbowlinggreen1831

No doubt these images are cleaned-up versions of the way the city really looked: there’s no trash in the streets, no poverty, no problems bigger than a traffic jam.

Augiercityhall1819

Social realism they are not. Still, we see the fashions the city’s elite wore, the way their homes looked, and how they got around (those omnibuses in the top image look a little rickety).

And they seem to enjoy the same thing New Yorkers of today love doing: strolling along the streets of their neighborhoods, which look strangely similar now as it did then (above: City Hall, 1819).

Manhattan’s 19th century temperance fountains

May 4, 2013

Temperancefountaintompkinssquare2Just as abortion and the death penalty are hot-button issues today, temperance divided Americans in the 19th century.

The millions of members of the American Temperance Society, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and other groups believed that banning alcohol could eliminate major social problems like poverty and crime.

These organizations were pretty powerful. But it was hard to persuade people to give up booze when alcoholic beverages were often safer to drink than water.

That’s where the temperance fountain comes in.

“The premise behind the fountains was that the availability of cool drinking water would make alcohol less tempting,” wrote Therese Loeb Kreuzer in a 2012 article in The Villager.

Temperancefountaintomkinssquare3“In the 19th century, temperance fountains could be found in cities and towns from coast to coast. Now few of them remain.”

Two still stand in Manhattan. One is in Tompkins Square Park, a strange place for a temperance fountain considering that the area was packed with beer-loving Germans at the time.

Donated by a wealthy temperance crusader who had it cast in 1888, it features a bronze figure of the Greek Goddess Hebe, cupbearer to the Gods, on top of a pedestal supported by four columns.

Blocks away on the west side of Union Square is New York’s second remaining temperance fountain. Paid for by another rich temperance convert and dating to 1881, it’s a figure of Charity that really works the innocent mother and children angle.

Temperancefountainunionsquare“Bronze dragonflies and butterflies frolic above the lions,” wrote Kreuzer in The Villager. “Then comes a richly sculpted band of acanthus leaves and birds. The ensemble is topped by a figure of a mother dressed like the Virgin Mary in a Renaissance painting. She holds a child in her right arm, while dispensing water from a jug to another child who looks at her adoringly.”

Both statues are the legacies of the movement that gave us Prohibition—and speakeasies—in the 1920s.

[Top two photos: Wikipedia]

Three centuries and three views of the Bowery

March 7, 2013

“In pre-Colonial days, the Bowery was a country lane, running between the ‘bouweries’ (farms) of the Dutch burghers,” the caption to this 1888 photo reminds us. It’s part of the fascinating photo collection New York Then and Now, published by Dover in 1976.

The 19th century history of the Bowery is well known: it went from premier entertainment district to a skid row of cheap theaters, flophouses, and eponymous bums.

Bowerycanal1888

What’s interesting in the above photo of Bowery at Canal Street is that the tracks of the Third Avenue El, constructed in 1878, are on each side of the street.

“In 1915 the structure and stations were rebuilt, with the addition of an express track, and were moved to the center of the street, providing more light for pedestrians and stores,” the book explains.

Boweryandcanal1975

Here is the same intersection in 1975. No more elevated; no more horses and wagons. Chinatown has edged in, yet most of the tenements that existed 87 years earlier are still there.

And so is the faded ad for “Carriage Materials” on the east side of the street!

Bowerycanalst2013

The carriage materials ad has been painted over by 2013, and some of the old tenements and the big wooden water tower on the far right are gone too.

The intersection of Bowery and Canal Streets looks like one more bustling traffic-choked corner.

A mystery chapel in a Canal Street subway station

February 4, 2013

Canalstreetmosaic2The only thing that makes waiting for the subway less aggravating is spotting one of these colorful mosaics lining the platform.

They’re mini history lessons depicting some hallmark of the area from when the station was built, say a noteworthy building, like City Hall.

But the Canal Street 1 train platform, with mosaics of a chapel and spire, poses a mystery.

StjohnschapelIn the vicinity of the Varick Street station, no church exists.

It did at one time—and it was a beauty. The lovely St. John’s Chapel was built in 1807 (predating the street grid!) as a parish of Trinity Church, and it became the centerpiece of a luxurious residential enclave called St. John’s Park.

Well-to-do families built Georgian row houses around a small genteel park, and the neighborhood remained fashionable through the 1840s (below, in a 1905 painting by Edward Lamson Henry).

St. John’s Park began losing its appeal in the 1850s, when wealthy New Yorkers chose to relocate uptown. Then a railway terminal replaced the park in 1868, turning the enclave into one of factories and tenements.

Stjohnsparkandchapel

Lovely St. John’s Chapel, with its sandstone portico and columns and 200-foot oak spire and clock dominating the skyline for over 100 years, was torn down in 1918.

All that remains today is the subway mosaic, a small patch of green at the Holland Tunnel entrance—and a forgotten lane in Tribeca bearing the St. John’s name.

When Charles Dickens toured the city in 1842

November 19, 2012

By the time he was 29 years old, Charles Dickens was a wildly popular author in his native England as well as the United States.

He’d already published Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, among other novels, poems, and plays.

So in January 1842, he did what any best-selling writer would do: he went on tour, sailing to America to visit the young country and make a stop in the teeming city of New York.

Unfortunately, he was less than impressed. The tour “quickly degenerated into an experience of mutual disdain and recriminations,” explains a New York Times article.

“Dickens disliked the intrusiveness of the American public, who stared at him and his wife, and the press, which reported his every move.”

In New York, he dined at Delmonico’s, visited alms houses and lunatic asylums, checked out the infamous Tombs prison and amusement garden Niblo’s, and hung out at a dance hall called Almack’s popular with the city’s black population.

He was shocked by the poverty he encountered in the notorious Five Points neighborhood, which he considered to be worse than London’s East End.

“This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth,” Dickens wrote in American Notes, which recounted his trip.

“Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruits here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors, have counterparts at home, and all the wide world over.”

“Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays.”

Despite his disillusionment, Dickens returned to New York in 1868 to give a series of lectures at Steinway Hall on 14th Street.

He was treated like a rock star (lecture tickets were tough to get, as the sketch above shows) and came away with a positive view of the city and country.

“How astounded I have been by the amazing changes that I have seen around me on every side…changes in the rise of vast new cities, changes in the growth of older cities almost out of recognition, changes in the graces and amenities of life, changes in the Press, without whose advancement no advancement can be made anywhere.”

[1827 Five Points sketch, via the NYPL Digital Collection]

New Yorkers at the polls on Election Day 1856

November 6, 2012

There’s a lot going on in this sketch, giving us a glimpse of what New Yorkers (well, New York men, that is) experienced when they went to the polls for the 1856 election.

This pre–Civil War election presented three candidates. Democrats backed James Buchanan, the Republicans supported Californian John Fremont, and former president and New Yorker Millard Fillmore was the man representing the American Party–aka the Know Nothing Party.

New York went for Fremont, but Buchanan won the country.

[Sketch: The NYPL Digital Collection]

New York’s two classes: “the poor and the rich”

October 4, 2012

We hear a lot about the growing divide between the rich and poor in the U.S., but also in New York.

Middle-class enclaves are disappearing. Moderate-income residents can’t afford the city’s crazy-high housing prices.

None of this would be news to New Yorkers in the late 19th century.

“Strangers coming to New York are struck by the fact that there are but two classes in the city—the poor and the rich,” states James D.McCabe in his 1872 book Lights and Shadows of New York Life.

“The middle class, which is so numerous in other cities, hardly exists at all here,” writes McCabe.

“The reason of this is plain to the initiated. Living in New York is so expensive that persons of moderate means reside in the suburbs, some of them as far as forty miles in the country.”

A later chapter in the book, from which the excerpt above was taken, may sound strangely familiar to residents today.

[First and third images: NYPL Digital Collection, 1869]

When western Canal Street had a “Suicide Slip”

September 20, 2012

Canal Street really was a canal back in the early 19th century; it carried filthy water from polluted Collect Pond, near Lafayette Street, and emptied it into the Hudson.

After the canal was filled in and made a road in 1820, the far western edge of newly named Canal Street served a more ghoulish purpose.

“The Street took its name naturally from the little stream which was called a canal,” writes Charles Hemstreet in his 1899 book Nooks and Corners of Old New York.

“The locality at the foot of the street has received the local title of “Suicide Slip” because of the number of persons in recent years who have ended their lives by jumping into Hudson River at that point.”

The Historical Guide to the City of New York also marks this as a suicide spot. “The small park at West and Canal Streets was once called Suicide Slip,” it states mysteriously.

Chatham Square: home to the city’s whorearchy

February 16, 2012

In the 1820s, it was an open-air market for horses and dry goods bordering a genteel neighborhood of row houses (as seen here, in an illustration looking back on 1812).

By the 1850s, Chatham Square was kind of the Times Square of its day, a seedy district of flophouses, taverns, cheap merchants, and the city’s first tattoo parlors on the outskirts of the East Side’s notorious Five Points slum.

How seedy was it? Describing the prostitution rampant there in his book City of Eros, Timothy J. Gilfoyle writes:

“Along its western edge, the Bowery and Chatham Square were a bourse of sex. The patrician George Templeton Strong claimed that after nightfall, amid the theaters, saloons, dance halls, and cheap lodging houses, the thoroughfare overflowed with ‘members of the whorearchy in most slatternly deshabille.’

“Once elegant eighteenth-century residences like that of the merchant Edward Mooney at 18 Bowery now served as brothels.”

Like everything in New York, the red-light districts change as well. Prohibition, the Depression, a growing Chinatown, and slum clearance all remade Chatham Square into a messy but not sleazy intersection off the Bowery.

It’s now known as Kimlau Square, which honors American servicemen of Chinese ancestry who died for their country.

[Above photo: an 1853 Daguerreotype of Chatham Street, now Park Row, looking toward the Square]

The filthiest part of an old-law city tenement

January 30, 2012

That would be the air shaft—the slender opening between tenements that developers built to satisfy an 1879 requirement mandating a window facing outdoors in every room.

These shafts did provide a bit of air and light. Unfortunately, they also functioned as dumps, with tenants tossing their waste down the air shaft, rendering them funnels of filth and disease.

Just how disgusting was it? This passage conveys it well. It’s from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty’s Smith’s account (based on her own childhood) of a young girl growing up in a Williamsburg slum:

“The airshaft was a horrible invention. Even with the windows tightly sealed, it served as a sounding box and you could hear everybody’s business. Rats scurried around the bottom. There was always the danger of fire. A match absently tossed into the airshaft by a drunken teamster set the house afire in a moment.

“There were vile things cluttering up the bottom. Since the bottoms couldn’t be reached by man (the windows being too small to admit the passage of a body), it served as a fearful repository for things that people wanted to put out of their lives. Rusted razor blades and bloody clothes were the most innocent items.

“Once Francie looked down into the airshaft. She thought of what the priest said about Purgatory and figured it must be like the airshaft bottom only on a larger scale.”