Question: I am writing a novel set in New York in the 1850’s. Can you suggest books and other resources to use in my research?
The transformation of New York City during the first half of the nineteenth century was both rapid and dramatic. A visitor to New York after the Revolutionary War would find a close-knit settlement at the southern tip of Manhattan rebounding from the devastating British occupation. A visitor returning in the 1850’s would discover a new metropolis comparable to London or Paris. The legendary heartbeat of the city was now palpable.
…the wharfs…are a scene of indescribable bustle from morning to night, with ships arriving and sailing, ships loading and unloading, and emigrants pouring into the town in an almost incessant stream…. (Isabella Byrd, 1854, in Mirror for Gotham, p. 159)
…Nothing and nobody seems to stand still for half a moment in New York, the multitudinous omnibuses which drive like insane vehicles from morning till night appear not to pause to take up their passengers…. (Travels in the U.S. during 1849 and 1850)
Here, was a quarter of a mile of ‘hardware’ warehouses; here, as great a length of ‘cassimeres and woolen good stores; here a few hundred yards of ‘straw-bonnet stores’; and there, a whole street devoted to ‘leather stores’ and leather findings.’ It seemed as if almost every kind of supply had its chief quarter in the city. … New York is not merely a “ commercial city” …she is largely engaged in manufactures of various kinds,—indeed more so than any other city in America. (Mirror for Gotham, pp132-133)
Two general histories of New York that include excellent overviews of antebellum New York are Edward K. Spann’s The New Metropolis: 1840-1857 and Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace’s Gotham. Other useful titles are listed in the sidebar of this site under “resources.”
In a generation, New York had transformed itself from a large mercantile city with an extensive but ill-defined hinterland into a world metropolis. The new metropolis at the mouth of the Hudson had by 1860 become a vast and complicated society whose variety and complexity was beyond human vocabulary to describe and beyond human mind to comprehend. (Edward K. Spann in The New Metropolis: New York City from 1840-1857)
An excellent source of the rudimentary civic data of city life is the contemporary guidebook. An usually extensive range of handbooks were published in anticipation of the 1853 world’s fair. Some presented realistic and textured portrayals of New York—tourists were alerted to street scams, mock auctions, and pickpockets and others described the social divide between fashionable Broadway and the gritty Bowery, the two main avenues of the City.
The Citizen and Strangers’ Pictorial and Business Directory of the City of New York and its Vicinity, edited by Solyman Brown is a fabulous directory of goods brokered, manufactured and sold on Manhattan Island and contains hundreds of pictorial ads from factories and stores.
New York life for the “upper tendom and lower ten thousand,” was a popular phrase of the time, and the themes of “sunshine and shadow” and “darkness and daylight” remained common in novels and guides throughout the century. The legions of homeless children living on the streets hawking matches, candy, hot corn, and newspapers were depicted in Hot Corn: Life Scenes in New York, Stories of “Little Katy, the Rag-Picker’s Daughter” and Other Children of the Streets, The Newsboy: A Novel of the Ubiquitous Newsboys, and similar tales. Maria Cheeseman, the Candy Girl is the true story of a homeless child who was rescued and reunited with relatives in England.
Every week-day in sunshine, rain or snow—she is seen in the streets, from sunrise till night. Her place of resort was along the park, in Chatham Street opposite the Brick Church, or by the Astor House, corner of Vesey Street. Her face was well known to those accustomed to pass those places, and “the candy-girl” had many friends who never knew her name, whence she came, or whither she went. (from Maria Cheeseman; or, The Candy-Girl)
During this period, families of means looked northward for a respite from both the hubbub and riffraff of lower Manhattan. The wealthy separated itself from appalling slums and the business center to build elegant homes around newly created squares and parks. Manhattan Moves Uptown by Charles Lockwood, is an excellent social and architectural account of this expansion northwards that continued into the 20th century.
Toward the late-1850’s, the city was polarized on many fronts. There was hostility between the growing indigent class and prosperous class, as well as skirmishes between abolitionists and proslavery factions. The Financial Panic of 1857 led to riots for food and work and the ever-present fights between feuding gangs often raged out of control. Joel Headley’s The Great Riots of New York 1712-1873 describes the diverse insurrections that ran through New York’s history.
A literary life stirred in the mid-eighteenth century with the emergence of minor literary figures and quickened in the next century with the rise in popularity of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper and Edgar Allan Poe, and in the 1850′s Herman Melville (Bartleby the Scrivener, Moby Dick, Pierre) and Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass). The sales of works of Melville and Whitman, however, did not rival the era’s best sellers, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Hot Corn, and other tales describing the underside of society. Thomas Bender’s The New York Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City from 1750 to the Beginnings of our Own Time provides a fascinating picture of the city’s evolving cultural life.
There are myriad “penny” presses, guidebooks, business directories, newspapers, periodicals, journals, and lithographs published in the 1850′s that deal with the societal complexities that came with New York’s enormous growth in population. Countless moralistic tales from the American Tract Society, sensational novels of the city’s underbelly, excellent literary magazines from Putnam’s and Harper Brothers, among others, published the finest American and foreign writers of the day. The New York Times, Harpers’ Weekly, and Vanity Fair also originated in the mid-1850′s. God in the Street: New York Writing from the Penny Press to Melville by Hans Bergmann is a study of the broad spectrum of literature that was specific to New York life.
On a lighter note, Phineas T. Barnum dazzled New Yorkers with a blitz of publicity for Jenny Lind’s appearance at Castle Garden that brought him great wealth and the distinction of being the country’s first, and perhaps finest, impresario. Read Barnum’s own account in Struggles and Triumphs; Or, Forty Years’ Recollections of P.T. Barnum.
When New York was chosen to host America’s first international trade fair, The Crystal Palace, modeled after the splendid glass building in London, was built. The nearby Latting Observatory was erected so that tourists could climb 300 feet to view the expanding city through a telescope. William C. Richards’ A Day in the Crystal Palace and How to Make the Most of It Being a Popular Companion to the “Official Catalogue,” and a Guide to all the Objects of Special Interest in the New York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations is an in-depth tour through the spectacular building and of the lavish art and goods from the fair’s participating countries.
The long-anticipated Central Park opened to the public in 1858 while it was still under construction. Until then, Arcadian Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn was a popular place for people to picnic and enjoy a respite from the clamoring city streets. The Pocket Map and Visitors’ Guide to Central Park, with an account of the Park and a folding map, was the first of many handbooks, lithographs, and official reports that followed. Although the park had numerous restrictions that favored the affluent, its designer, Frederic Law Olmstead, wrote that it “[was] of great importance as the first real Park made in this country—a democratic development of the highest significance…” The Park and the People: A History of Central Park by Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar is, according to Library Journal, a “masterpiece combining the story of the park, the history of New York, city and state politics, and the people of the city.”
The 1850′s and Beyond
The sources listed above provide a brief overview, merely a feel for a fascinating, tumultuous, and game-changing decade that is too rich and layered to be sufficiently covered in depth here. As New York City left the 1850′s behind, the nation entered into the bloodiest war in its history. Although the battlefields were in the south, the Civil War exacerbated class tensions, culminating in the infamous Draft Riots in 1863, and left a lasting impact on life in the city. The seeds of transformation, from a seaport town to an international metropolis in the decades leading up to the war, however, could never be unsown, and New York continued its meteoric rise, despite domestic conflict, to become the epicenter of the Western world.