New York City Highlights 1850s- 1880s

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1. New York in 1857 was "a huge semi-barbarous metropolis...not well-governed nor ill-governed, but simply not governed at all-with filthy and unlighted streets, no practical or efficient security for either life or property, a police not worthy of the name, and expenses steadily and enormously increasing." (Harper's Weekly, April 11, 1857.)

 In other words it was the most thriving commercial city, the busiest port, in a great, gangling country which was growing up fast. Its population increased by 300,000 in ten years. It was the sieve through which the bulk of European commodities and human beings passed into the fabulous new continent; and linked by railroads and waterways with the West, it served as broker for the products of the plains.

2. To the port of New York came most of the immigrants who flocked to America at the average rate of 235,000 a year during the fifties. About half the city's population in 1860 was foreign-born, 200,000 immigrants from Ireland made it the largest Irish city in the world. More than 2,000 Italians were congested in one squalid section, whence itinerant peddlers sallied into the provinces, and where the less venturesome sold fruit and confections. The city's share of the nation's 150,000 Jews centered in the districts about Chatham Street and the Bowery, occupied chiefly with the clothing business. Some of the million and a quarter German immigrants
settled, as they did in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee and Louisville, in a part of the city where they maintained the social institutions of the Fatherland at the same time that they embraced American customs and interests. Few of the Polish, French, Scandinavian, And English immigrants stayed in the great Atlantic ports, most of them moving on to the West.

3. By 1860 there were more than ten thousand tenement houses in New York. About a twentieth of the population of Boston and New York lived underground in damp, dark rooms among filth and vermin. When, in 1860, New York provided for a system of sanitary police to improve these conditions, the slum owners applied to Tammany for appointments as health inspectors and got
them. The death rate in the city almost doubled that of London.

The tenements were firetraps. Ten people were killed at No. 90 West 45th street. Martin Redman and his family, who lived in one room behind the "Fancy Grocery" and liquor store which they ran, escaped unhurt; but the wives and children of Thomas Bennett and Andrew Wheelan, both of whom were employed in the Sixth Avenue Railroad Company's stables, were burned to ashes.

4. May Day in New York was moving-day, as it had been since the days of the Dutch. The custom originally sprang from a city ordinance which required anyone who was going to move to do it by May 1st, in order that the city directory could be made up on schedule.

During the 'fifties it became so fashionable to move that some fine ladies were ashamed to have it known that they were remaining another year in the old house. We should probably think that the house servants, upon whom most of the labor of moving devolved, earned a full month's wages on May Day, inasmuch as their salaries ranged from as low as four dollars a month for a maid-of-all-work, to a top of sixteen dollars a month for the best cook.

5. A favorite place for the young ladies of New York to take their parents was Cozzens Hotel at West Point, where during the summer months, the cadets at the Military Academy gave a "hop" three times a week.

6. When Central Park in New York was opened in 1860, the Weekly hailed it as a "sylvan miracle, teeming with bowers of romantic loveliness and dripping fountains of clearest crystal." With the coming of cold weather the ponds of the new park were packed with crowds of ten thousand skaters or more.

7. The first convention of baseball clubs was held in New York in 1857. Delegates from sixteen organizations met to establish uniform rules for the game. But even in 1859, when Brooklyn played Philadelphia at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, the Weekly could only report vaguely that "Baseball differs from cricket, especially, in there being no wickets. The bat is held high in the air. When the ball has been struck the 'outs' try to catch it, in which case the striker is 'out'; or, if they cannot do this, to strike the striker with it when he is running, which likewise puts him out. Instead of wickets, there are at this game four or five marks called bases...."

8. The American theater was actively patronized. Despite the financial panic of 1857, the manager of the New York Opera announced that the season of 1857-58 was the best ever. Stage versions of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "Ten Nights in a Barroom," and Rip Van Winkle" were ubiquitous. The ballet aroused enough interest for the Weekly to present his "perfectly reliable" likeness of Emma Livry, a sixteen-year-old French girl, who had Paris at her feet.


1. There was cheering from thousands of throats as the Seventh Regiment of the New York National Guard marched down Broadway beneath waving flags. Amid the shouting and the blowing of trumpets could be faintly heard the snapping of the American Peace Society's backbone as it protested that it did not "lend the slightest countenance to rebellion."

2. The West Point Foundry at Cold Spring, New York, gave up such peaceful manufacturing as machinery for the Jersey City waterworks, and turned to the production of twenty-five guns and seven thousand projectiles a week.

3. stocks in general rose an average of forty per cent in 1862. Brokers set up, shops by the hundreds. The stock of one coal company rose from ten dollars a share before the war to two hundred dollars in 1864 and in a single year paid dividends amounting to two-thirds of its capital. The frenzy was so great that the New York Stock Exchange did not offer sufficient scope to speculators, and in 1862 a man named Gallagher opened a night exchange in the basement of the Fifth Avenue Hotel. So prosperous was this stock-gambling venture that in 1865 a separate building was erected to house it. Then, a few months later when the Ketchum scandal broke, the regular Stock Exchange voted unanimously to suspend any member who attended Gallagher's, and the
Weekly rejoiced at the death of the pestilent institution which "led directly to so many defalcations, frauds, failures, forgeries, and other rascalities."

4. The draft riots in New York in July, 1863, were a formidable symptom of industrial unrest. Congress had recently passed a Conscription Act to swell the army's ranks, and when the first drawing was made on July 11th a number of Irish-American longshoremen were drafted. All might have gone peacefully but for the fact that these longshoremen had struck for higher wages, and their places had been taken by negro strike-breakers. Naturally unwilling to fight for the freedom of a race whose members had taken their jobs, they were in dangerous mood. A mob attacked the conscription office, and violence spread. Soon a gin-soaked mob was burning buildings, hanging negroes from lamp-posts, shooting and beating people to death, and looting stores. Police and militia were powerless. Nearly a thousand people were killed, and the damage to property was counted in millions of dollars.

5. But business still flourished, in spite of such disorders. The government was handing out contracts for uniforms, guns, food, and ships. At W.H. Webb's famous New York shipyard men were at work on naval vessels, and naval contracts were as prosperous as others. A captured blockade-runner, for instance, was sold at auction by the government for $12,000 per month. To be sure, thousands of lives were being lost in this war, but thousands of dollars were dropping into patriotic pockets.


1. Commodore Vanderbilt's New York Central System was going so well by 1871 that it joined with the New Haven road to build the Grand Central Depot at 42nd Street and 4th (now Park) Avenue. It was a monument to Vanderbilt's genius for business organization and a symbol of the wealth which scoundrels like Jay Gould and Daniel Drew used to bribe the legislatures and build their rail

2. Rapid transit was a necessity in the expanding city, and on July 3, 1868, the first elevated railroad train sped along at fifteen m.p.h. from New York's Battery up Greenwich Street to Cortlandt. Within a few years two elevated lines were under construction on either side of the city.

3. As early as 1869 work was begun on a subway in New York, and by 1870 there was an underground tube from Warren to Murray Street, through which a cylindrical car was alternately blown and sucked by a stead-powered blower. For two years adventurous citizens took demonstration rides for twenty-five cents, but the inventor failed to get a franchise and the idea of a subway was
abandoned until the twentieth century.

4. This two-million-dollar marble palace was built in 1869 for A.T. Stewart, the great New York merchant, whose retail store had been patronized by Mrs. Lincoln and whose wholesale establishment was unrivaled in the land. Twelve years earlier Dr. Townsend's mansion had attracted gaping visitors to this same plot on Fifth Avenue. "New York is a series of experiments," commented the Weekly, "and everything which has lived its life and played its part is held to be dead, and is buried, and over it grows a new world." But Stewart's house, "if not swallowed up by an earthquake, will stand as long as the city remains." There is a great bank
building on the corner now, and across the street is the Empire State building. Even Stewart's palace played its part and was buried, though there was no earthquake.

5. A tenement in Mulberry Street was home to eighty people, half of whom were children. Saturated with filth and vermin, strewn with garbage and waste, it was typical of the plague spots which bred typhus, smallpox, and diphtheria in American cities. In 1871 smallpox alone killed more than eight hundred New Yorkers and almost two thousand Philadelphians. As a result of these horrible conditions, health departments were created in numerous municipalities. Sewage disposal was improved, streets were at least partially cleaned, and tenement houses were supervised.

6. The center of financial speculation was Wall Street, home of many of the nation's largest banks. The inflation of the currency following the war, the consequent inflation of credit, and the contemporaneous economic dislocations in Europe and South America combined to place the financial system in a perilous position. The nefarious schemes of men like Gould and his mates accentuated the peril. Immediately after the Erie re-organization, Gould and Fisk organized a corner on the gold market. With the aid of President Grant's brother-in law they persuaded the President to hold back the Treasury's supply of gold while they bought all the available metal on the market. The price soared as the corner approached completion., Then on Black Friday, September 24, 1869, Grant permitted the Treasury to sell gold, and the market crashed. Half of Wall Street was ruined. Fisk lost everything. Gould alone had profited because he got word of the Treasury's plan in time to unload his holdings on Fisk and other unsuspecting friends, while
pretending to buy more himself.

7. Still figuring prominently among New York's foreign population were the Cuban insurrectionists. Their junta held excited meetings in these headquarters at the corner of Rector Street and Broadway. Here propaganda against Spanish rule was supplied for American consumption. Ammunition and arms were collected, money was raised, plans for revolutions were laid. Several expeditions were sent out to the island in hopes that the United States would lend their support, but the nation was not yet ready for empire. That would come later.

8. The process of consolidation and centralization which rearranged American business during the period placed Wall Street squarely at the apex of the commercial structure. The Stock Exchange throve, accordingly. A new building had been built in 1865, but by 1880 it had to be greatly enlarged. In 1865 there were four hundred members, and a seat cost $3,000; in 1881 there were
three times as many members and the price of seats had risen to $34,000.

9. Panic swept Wall Street early in May, 1884. The Marine National Bank closed its doors on the 7th and people learned with astonishment that the failure had resulted from heavy overdrafts by the firm of Grant and Ward.

Grant was the first ex-President who had become a member of the Wall Street clan, and his name had lent dignity to the firm. Ulysses, Junior, was also a partner. But the active member was a young scoundrel named Ferdinand Ward, who used the Grant reputation to borrow huge sums for financing non-existent "government contracts." The president of the Marine Bank became an
accomplice. Fraudulent account-books convinced the Grants that they were growing rich. On May 1st the General thought he was worth two and a half million. When the crash came the Grants found that they had personal assets of about $180, that the firm owed more than sixteen million. The General was old. Ahead there were poverty, disgrace, and disillusioned despair.

10. Most notorious sink of New York's iniquity in the 'eighties was this tumble-down tenement on the north side of Thirty-ninth Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. Known as Hell's Kitchen, it has since given its name to the entire district. In 1881 it was owned by Thomas and Catherine Wilson, both of whom were in Sing Sing at the time for engaging in highway robbery. The resident
hero was Bully Morrison. Drunk or sober, he could lick anybody, and frequently did. Among the other tenants was John Mooney, who, when taken to jail (for beating his drunken wife for a night and a day till she died) found eight of his fellow tenants already behind the bars on assorted charges. Two hundred and eighty-seven criminal indictments were drawn against dwellers in Hell's
Kitchen in two years.

11. The Brooklyn Bridge, designed and built by the Roeblings, was not only one of the greatest engineering achievements of the time, but an artistic triumph as well. It made no attempt to disguise itself behind Gothic ornament. It simply spanned the river with the curving glory of its cables and steel, unequivocally a bridge.


Website: The History
Article Name: New York City Highlights 1850s- 1880s
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: From my collection of books: Adventures of America 1857-1900 A Pictorial Record From Harper's Weekly by John A. Kouwenhoven; Harper & Brothers Publishers-New York (1938)
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