Drinking & Gaming in 18th Century New York

“What’s the use of a great city having temptations if fellows don’t yield to them?” 

― P.G. Wodehouse, Carry On, Jeeves

The Province of New York was never considered part of the New England colonies. More than the Hudson River separated them. While New England colonies had strict puritanical laws because they were, uh, founded by Puritans, New York was on a mission of dissipation.

King Charles II

Where did this desire for vice come from? Why, King Charles II and his court during England’s Restoration period. He’d spent the Interregnum in France and absorbed their culture of bon temps, taking an interest in horseracing and gambling. When he brought those pastimes back to England with him, the aristocracy eagerly joined him.

“Unless one gambled freely, it was quite impossible to be counted a gentleman, or, for that matter, a lady of fashion, in the Court of Charles the Second.”1

Gentlemen toasting the King.
“God Save the King,” Charles Williams, 1805 – public domain

At about this time, White’s, Almack’s, Crockford’s, and Cavendish’s came into being. For those who either don’t know London history or haven’t read historical romances, these places were exclusive clubs where gambling and libertine amusements entertained the aristocracy. They were called “gold and silver hells” for this reason.2

The Province of New York

What does King Charles II’s dissipation have to do with Colonial New York, considering it was under Dutch rule at the time?

"New Amsterdam becomes New York." The English captured New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664 and re-named it New York in honor of the Duke of York.
“Fall of New Amsterdam,” Museum of the City of New York, 1914

In a fit of pique over Dutch interference with British shipping, King Charles II gave New Amsterdam—ideally positioned for its harbor—to his brother, the Duke of York. Governor Stuyvesant had little power to resist, having only a small navy against the British. The Dutch capitulated, and New Amsterdam became New York.

Gaming Laws in New York

Satire illustration of gentlemen playing billiards, dogs playing at their feet, some anxious over the outcome.
“Billiards,” Thomas Rowlandson, 1803 – public domain

Until 1741, the good times rolled unchecked in New York. After various fatalities from excessive drinking and gaming (gambling) to threaten the health of society, the New York General Assembly passed a law prohibiting gaming in public houses where strong liquor was served. It went further than that. It also prohibited anyone ‘under the age of twenty-one, or any apprentice, journeyman, servant, or common sailor’ to gamble with dice or cards.3 In this way, gaming became a restricted entertainment for wealthy merchants and the gentry.

By 1772, the ratio of taverns to inhabitants in New York City was one for every fifty-five. They weren’t all the same. Some taverns catered to the wealthy, while others to the middling class, or the poor. In taverns for the ‘lower sort’, it wasn’t uncommon to see a diverse population mixing. Black and white men and women danced and drank together. On the opposite end of the spectrum, taverns for the upper class prohibited gently bred ladies from drinking, let alone, entering.

Colonial Holidays

In the New York social club, St. George’s, they celebrated St. George’s Day. (St. George being the patron saint of England.)

“Friday last being the anniversary of St. George, his Excellency Sir Jeffrey Amherst gave a ball to the gentlemen and ladies of this city at Cranley’s New Assembly Room… TWENTY-THREE TOASTS were drunk and the company parted at dawn in high good humour.” (New York Gazette, 1762)
Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776
Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

Many taverns thrived adjacent to churches. When services let out, congregants walked next door. This contributed to the rise in celebrants of “Saint Monday,” which was a day of rest after a day of rest.

Gaming

Gentlemen sitting around a table playing cards.
“A Pig in a Poke; Whist, Whist,” James Gillray, 1788 – The British Museum Collection Online

As for gaming, colonists enjoyed all matter of games. If a tavern kept billiard tables, allowed card games or dice, or any other wagering games, they could be fined twenty shillings for each offence, and up to three pounds if they allowed any of the prohibited class to gamble. Cheaters and professional gamblers also faced steep fines and/or sanctions for breaking this law.

In 1774, the Continental Congress requested that the American colonies reflect on the severity of their political situation by forgoing music, theater, cockfighting, and horseracing. It went over as well as you can expect for New York’s aristocratic upper class. They generally ignored it.

And lest we forget New York’s pleasure gardens, where drinking, entertaining, and, depending on the venue, horseracing, were enjoyed.

Footnotes:

  1. E. Perkins, Gambling in English Life 10 (1950) (quoting Games and Gamesters of the Restoration (1674-1714) introd. (C. Hartmann ed. 1930)).
  2. S. Tenenbaum, The Incredible Beau Brummell 169 (1967).
  3. E. Singleton, (2008). Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776: Houses, Streets and Country Homes (1902).

Other Sources:

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