I just read the most charming diary of a young girl named Catherine Havens. Born into a prominent New York family in 1839, Catherine kept a diary from 1849-1850 that gives us a glimpse into the life of a child in mid-century (the nineteenth century, that is) New York as well as the stream-of-consciousness mind of a ten-year-old girl. The following is a compilation of excerpts from the diary. The full text is available at www.merrycoz.org, a website devoted to early 19th-century American works for children.
Catherine lived on Ninth Street near University Place with her family:
We moved from Lafayette Place to Brooklyn when I was four years old, but only lived there one year. My brother liked Brooklyn because he could go crabbing on the river, but I was afraid of the goats, which chased one of my friends one day. So we came back to New York, and my father bought a house in Ninth Street. He bought it of a gentleman who lived next door to us, and who had but one lung, and he lived on raw turnips and sugar. Perhaps that is why he had only one lung. I don’t know. (p. 13)
Back in her day, it was common for children to die in infancy, as Catherine explains:
I think spelling is very funny, I spelt infancy infantsy, and they said it was wrong, but I don’t see why, because if my seven little cousins died when they were infants, they must have died in their infantsy; but infancy makes it seem as if they hadn’t really died, but we just made believe. (17)
Also in Catherine’s day, New York was going through a building boom:
New York is getting very big and building up. 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. Fifth Avenue is very muddy above Eighteenth Street, and there are no blocks of houses as there are downtown, but only two or three on a block. (24)
A child’s justification for her own gluttony:
I have a friend who comes to school with me, named Mary L. She lives on Ninth Street, between Broadway and the Bowery. She and I began our lessons together and sat on a bench that had a little cupboard underneath for our books. She has a nurse named Sarah. Sometimes Ellen and I go there and have tea in her nursery. She has a lot of brothers and they tease us. One time we went, and my mother told us to be polite and not to take preserves and cake but once. But we did, for we had raspberry jam, and we took it six times, but the plates were dolls’ plates, and of course my mother meant tea plates. My brother laughed and said we were tempted beyond what we were able to bear, whatever that means. He says it is in the Bible. (p. 33)
On having her picture taken, on making friends, and on going to church (all in one paragraph!):
I meant to write about the time three years ago, when I went with my father to Brady’s Daguerrean Gallery, corner of Tenth Street and Broadway, to have our picture taken.
My father was seventy-four, and I was seven. It is a very pretty picture, but people won’t believe he isn’t my grandfather. He is sitting down and I am standing beside him, and his arm is around me, and my hand hangs down and shows the gold ring on my fore-finger. He gave it to me at New Year’s to remember him by. I wore it to church and took off my glove so that Jane S., who sits in the pew next to me, would see it, but she never looked at it. We introduced ourselves to each other by holding up our hymn books with our names on the cover, so now we speak. Ellen and I are afraid of the sexton in our church. He looks so fierce and red. (p. 36-37)
On her brother, once a fire-fighter, and only incidentally, on nineteenth-century medical care:
Now I must tell about this brother of mine, for he has gone away off to California. He went last February with five other young gentlemen.
When he was twenty-one years’ old he joined a fire company, and it was called “The Silk Stocking Hose Company” because so many young men of our best families were in it. But they didn’t wear their silk stockings when they ran with the engine, for I remember seeing my brother one night when he came home from a fire and he had on a red flannel shirt and a black hat that looked like pictures of helmets the soldiers wear. He took cold and had pain in his leg, and Dr. Washington came and he asked my mother for a paper of pins and he tore off a row and scratched my brother’s leg with the pins and then painted it with some dark stuff to make it smart, and it cured him. (p. 48-49)
On having her tonsils taken out:
When I was four years old I had my tonsils cut out by Dr. Horace Green, who lives on Clinton Place. My nurse asked him to give them to her, so he put them in a little bottle of alcohol and sealed it up, and she keeps it in the nursery closet, and sometimes she shows it to me to amuse me, but it doesn’t, only I don’t like to hurt her feelings. My grandmother gave me a five-dollar gold piece for sitting so still when they were cut out. (53)
On her mother’s childhood reminiscences:
My mother remembers when the City Hall was being built; and she and Fanny S. used to get pieces of the marble and heated them in their ovens and carried them to school in their muffs to keep their hands warm. She loves to tell about her school days, and I love to hear her. (p. 55-56)
On where to buy candy and confections:
There is a bakery kept by a Mr. Walduck on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street, and they make delicious cream puffs, and when I have three cents to spare, I run down there right after breakfast, before school begins, and buy one and eat it there. On the corner of Broadway and Ninth Street is a chocolate store kept by Felix Effray, and I love to stand at the window and watch the wheel go round. It has three white stone rollers and they grind the chocolate into paste all day long. Down Broadway, below Eighth Street is Dean’s candy store, and they make molasses candy that is the best in the city. Sometimes we go down to Wild’s, that is way down near Spring Street, to get his ice-land moss drops, good for colds.
My mother says Stuart’s candy store down on Greenwich and Chambers Streets used to be the store in her day. When she was a little girl in 1810, old Kinloch Stuart and his wife Agnes made the candy in a little bit of a back room and sold it in the front room, and sometimes they used to let my mother go in and stir it. After they died their sons, R. and L. Stuart, kept up the candy store in the same place, and it is there still. (p. 58-60)
On the lulling sound of stage coaches (among other things):
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 cobble-stones again. There is a line on Fourteenth Street too, and that is the highest uptown.
I roll my hoop and jump the rope in the afternoon, sometimes in the Parade Ground on Washington Square, and sometimes in Union Square. Union Square has a high iron railing around it, and a fountain in the middle. My brother says he remembers when it was a pond and the farmers used to water their horses in it. Our Ninth Street stages run down Broadway to the Battery, and when I go down to the ferry to go to Staten Island they go through Whitehall Street, and just opposite the Bowling Green on Whitehall Street, there is a sign over a store, “Lay and Hatch,” but they don’t sell eggs. (p. 62-63)
On the bygone tradition of “visiting” on New Year’s Day:
January 2, 1850.
Yesterday was New Year’s Day, and I had lovely presents. We had 139 callers, and I have an ivory tablet and I write all their names down in it. We have to be dressed and ready by ten o’clock to receive. Some of the gentlemen 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. My cousin is always the first to come, and sometimes he comes before we are ready, and we find him sitting behind the door, on the end of the sofa, because he is bashful. 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. (p. 64-65)
When Canal Street was actually a canal:
My grandfather had ships that went to Holland and he brought skates home to his children, and they used to skate on the Canal that is now Canal Street and on the pond where the Tombs is now, and my mother says that the poor people used to get a rib of beef and polish it and drill holes in it and fasten it on their shoes to skate on. The Canal ran from Broadway to the North River, and had a picket fence on both sides of it, and there were only three houses on its side, and they were little white wooden houses with green blinds. My grandfather used to tell his children that whichever one would be up early enough in the morning could ride with him before breakfast in his gig as far as the stone bridge, and that was the bridge at Canal Street and Broadway. (p. 86-87)
On eating too much dessert:
This is my father’s birthday. He is 78 years old, and we always celebrate it. We have a very old dinner set of India china, blue and white, and there is a big tureen for soft custard, and a dozen little cups with covers like it that stand around it on a tray of the same china, so among other things we had baked custards in these little cups. I love cup custards, and I ate two before dinner for fear there would not be any left for me, and then I had to eat another at dessert, for fear my sin would find me out, for they all know how fond I am of them, and it made me so sick I can never look at one again. (p. 115-116)
On emigrating to the United States:
We had a new English teacher this year, Miss Abbie Goodell. Her father was the first American missionary to Constantinople, and she was born there. She came to America to be educated at Mt. Holyoke, and now she is to be our teacher. She has beautiful teeth and dark eyes and hair and a little bit of a nose, and her nose is always cold, in our winters; so one of the girls knitted a little mitten for it, and she wears it and ties it on around her head.
She came to America in a vessel loaded with figs, and it took her over two months to come, and she was so seasick all the way that she could not leave her bed, and she says the figs had worms in them, and she used to lie and watch them making cobwebs in the corner of her room, and the cobwebs kept coming nearer and nearer, and she was too sick to move, and by and by they got to her bed and to her hair, and when she got to New York, she had to have some of her hair cut off. (p. 124-125)
On the fashions of her time:
I had my picture taken yesterday, to send to my brother in California. It is not a daguerreotype this time. It is called an ambrotype. I have on a blue and white foulard dress, and it is made with a basque, and the basque is trimmed with blue satin ribbon about an inch wide, box pleated and quilled, and I have on my black lace mitts, and some Valenciennes lace in my sleeves, and my hair is braided and put around my ears. My mother’s wedding lace was Mechlin lace, and there were three yards of it gathered around the neck of her white Canton crepe dress. It was bought at Thomas Morion’s, on William Street, and cost eight dollars a yard. It would seem funny to go down to William Street now to buy lace. (p. 140-141)
Diary of a Little Girl in Old New York, by Catherine Elizabeth Havens; 2nd edition (1920)
Full text available at: http://www.merrycoz.org/havens/HAVENS.HTM