* Note on spelling: These buildings for the performing arts in colonial America are spelled “theatre” because they were built before the Revolution and therefore spelled in the British way.
Theatre has been important to English society since… well, at least Shakespeare… I assume. I didn’t go that far back in my research. But I can tell you that once the English set down roots in the American colonies, actors began performing.
The First Theatres
In the early years, actors performed plays and operas in taverns, barns, and warehouses. By 1716, professional actors from England had arrived, and Williamsburg, Virginia built the first theatre solely committed to performing. It was called the “Play House.” Actors put on English plays, frequently Shakespeare, until 1745 when the theatre was demolished and its frame was used to construct a town hall.1
New York’s first theatre, a small, two-story wooden structure, came a little later in 1732 on Nassau Street. It found its largest competition in the Royal Oak Tavern on Broadway, near Bowling Green.
Interior of an American Theatre
A typical colonial theatre was shaped like a large rectangular room. The stage, a platform about five feet off the ground, took up one third of the room. Benches, known as the pit, filled the rest of the floor.
It cost four shillings for the middling class to sit on the hard benches of the pit. They were allowed to bring their own cushions and foot warmers to make their experience more comfortable. The pit never permitted women.
Along the sides of the theatre, wealthy patrons paid five shillings to sit in boxes, much like the second Theatre Royal in Covent Garden (1674-1791).
And the last seating area, the gallery, students, sailors, and slaves watched the performances from above for two shillings each.
The Playhouse Experience
Eighteenth century theatres were surprisingly loud and bright. Chandeliers and oil lamps illuminated them, offering the same level of brightness to both the performers and the audience. This made the space less dramatic and intimate, which lent to exuberant chatting.
A typical evening at a theatre lasted five hours. There was continuous entertainment, from Shakespeare plays, ballad operas, to musical performances.
The John Street Theatre
The John Street Theatre is commonly referred to as the city’s first permanent playhouse. It’s also considered the birthplace of American theatre because the first American-born playwright staged his play there.
The theatre was active from 1767-1798. It had two tiers of box seats, a pit, and a gallery. The dressing rooms were located in a shed at the back of the building. It sat 750 guests, which was far larger than the Theatre on Nassau Street.
This is the theatre the British took over during their occupancy of New York in 1777. They renamed it “Theatre Royal” for the Covent Garden theatre. The British wanted to keep morale high for their soldiers living far from home. Major John Andre, hanged for spying and his dealings with Benedict Arnold, directed extravagant performances there. Not only did he act, he also painted his own scenery.
Six years after the British evacuated New York at the end of the war, in 1789, President George Washington enjoyed performances at the John Street Theatre. A few years later, Eliza Arnold took the stage as a cast member. She was Edgar Allan Poe’s mother.
Many consider New York City water as some of the best tap water in the country. It’s certainly responsible for their amazing bagels and pizza. So when Pehr Kalm, all known as Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist, traveled through New York City in 1748, and declared, “There is no good water to be met within the town itself,” what was he talking about?
In the 18th century, the only potable water New York City residents could drink came from the only freshwater source on the island, Collect Pond. If you recall, the East and Hudson Rivers are tidal estuaries, making the water too salty to drink. Luckily, for early New Yorkers, they established tea-water pumps in various locations throughout the inhabited wards of the city. Unfortunately, the further away the pump was from Collect Pond’s underground springs, the more brackish the water tasted.
Why was it called “tea-water?” Because it wasn’t good enough to drink plain, but was passable as water used for tea. Of course, you can always make beer with it.
Comfort’s Notorious Tea-Water Pump
The best place for procuring water was Comfort’s Tea-Water pump (near today’s Greenwich and Liberty Streets). Comfort’s well was deep enough to reach a clean freshwater spring. Enslaved people were sent there to fill kegs every morning and evening. While Comfort’s well was superior to other public wells, it was also notorious for the disorderly house next door. Hughson’s tavern scandalously offered entertainment and liquor to a mixed crowd of enslaved people, and other men and women of different races.
Comfort’s Tea-Water Pump came to an abrupt end in 1741 in the aftermath of the Conspiracy of 1741, also called the Great Negro Plot. Mysterious fires were set across the city, and white slave owners feared a coming massacre. The evidence was dubious and witnesses had their own agenda. In the end, nearly 100 likely innocent people, mostly Black, were hanged, exiled, or burned at the stake.
After, the Common Council passed a law requiring Black people (enslaved, servant, or free) to get their water from their local well. This reduced the ability for enslaved people to congregate and plan an uprising. It also meant poorer quality water.
Public Water Pumps
The fires during the alleged Great Negro Plot encouraged the Provincial Assembly to pass a law in 1742 for the upkeep of the city’s wells and pumps, aimed specifically at ensuring a sufficient supply of water to fight fires.1 These laws specified that the alderman and his assistant managed the wells in their ward. They appointed an overseer for repair and maintenance, and based on property values, residents paid an assessment tax. The law also put in place fines for vandalism to the wells, such as cutting ropes or breaking pump handles.
The taxes and fines collected by the city allowed for “the sinking of new wells, installation of pumps, and continued maintenance.”2
Dr. Alexander Hamilton, a Scottish born physician traveling through New York in 1744, noted in his journal that wealthy residents received large casks of water from hired “Tea-Water Men.” For forty-five shillings a year, they carted water from the Tea Water Pump (near today’s Baxter and Mulberry streets), near to where Comfort’s had been.
*The* Tea-Water Pump
The Hardenbrooks, who installed in a well and pump on their land, must have seen an opportunity when Comfort’s pump closed. The Tea-Water Pump became New York’s single source of good water for the rest of the colonial period.3 Right before the Revolution, the Tea-Water Pump Garden, like other nearby pleasuregardens, opened as a resort.
All refer to Koeppel, G. T.
Bock, Vera, Artist. History of civic services in the city of New York Water supply No. 2: The tea water pump garden. New York City New York, 1936. [New York: Federal Art Project , Pt. 4, 1936] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/98518656/.
The Catskill Aqueduct and Earlier Water Supplies of the City of New York: With Elementary Chapters on the Source and Uses of Water and the Building of Aqueducts, and an Outline for an Allegorical Pageant. (1917). United States: (n.p.).
Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York. (1918). (n.p.): (n.p.).
Koeppel, Gerard T. Water for Gotham: a History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Coming up with this blog post was the ultimate dive down a rabbit hole. While searching for information on tunnels below Manhattan, hoping to find some that predated the legendary and possibly mythical cow tunnels, I came across an article about fishing in a basement below Second Avenue in the 1950s. How could I not investigate this matter for you, dear reader? And by you, I mean me. Us. The hopelessly curious.
While some of what I found touches on 18th century Manhattan, much of it references the 19th century to present times.
Let’s begin at the beginning. When the Lenape inhabited the island of Manhattan, it was lush with forests, “streams, kills, rivers, brooks, ponds, lakes, burns, brakes, and springs.”1 Then the Dutch arrived in 1625 and began systematically rearranging nature to suit their purposes of creating a sustainable town — sustainable to European-style living. They dug canals reminiscent of their beloved Amsterdam. Just like Amsterdam’s canals, eventually they became polluted by residents dumping refuse into them.
When the British took over in 1664, they had no interest in rehabilitating the canals. They filled them in and built over them, as well as other waterways. This started out as a good idea to expand and make the land more habitable. However, that wasn’t always the outcome.
To the west of the famous Tea Water Pump, where drinking water was delivered by the barrel to residents in Lower Manhattan, lay the Collect Pond. Over the course of the 18th century, the pond became polluted by run-off from nearby industries (tanneries, cattle farms, etc.). It was time to bury the pond as it no longer served its purpose and was taking up valuable real estate. In 1819, developers built an elegant neighborhood called Paradise Square atop the filled in pond. It’s elegance didn’t last.
The fancy homes began to sink into the land within ten years, and as it did, methane from the rotting wildlife beneath the fill escaped. No longer a place where the wealthy wished to live, the area fell to slums and tenements, becoming the notorious Five Points. In fact, The New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention, better known as the Tombs, built over the original deepest part of the pond, sank shortly after its opening. The cells were compared to dungeons of the worst conditions due in part by the pond’s haunting remnants.
Minetta Brook, under today’s Greenwich Village, flowed from the western section of Washington Square Park where its course took it to the Hudson River. Marshland around the brook eventually became tobacco farms. By the time the Yellow Fever epidemic swept the country in 1797, these farms were converted to cemeteries.
Eventually, the city moved the cemetery’s lots to another location, building a neighborhood called Little Africa, the city’s first free black community, in its place. Like the Collect Pond, the area where the Minetta Brook had freely flowed turned into slums and became an uptown version of Five Points.
Some believed that there was a connection between fever outbreaks and the communities built over buried waterways. I would argue that this might be a case of causality vs. correlation. Slums, overcrowded by those who couldn’t afford medical care or better sanitation, may have hastened the prevalence of fast-spreading diseases. It didn’t help that they lived on land with rotting material beneath.
Egbert Ludovicus Viele
Colonel Viele served in the US Army in the Civil War. Before the war, he’d seen how poor sanitation caused illness and was a proponent of the theory that building over buried waterways was the cause. As a civil engineer and surveyor, he set out to map the island’s streams and ponds. It illuminated “what the island looked like before it was filled in.”2
[Egbert Ludovicus Viele. Source: Library of Congress]
Viele’s map shows all the known, original waterways as well as the city’s grid system. Since it is impossible to know how these waterways might affect construction today, structural engineers still use the 1865 map before beginning any job in Manhattan.
Fishing in the Basement
Finally, we go fishing. In the 1950s, New York experienced another regrowth. New, heavier buildings with deeper foundations replaced smaller buildings. This caused underground waterways to reroute again.
Then, in 1955, two hurricanes swept through New York within ten days of each other: Hurricane Connie and Hurricane Diane. As you might guess, these caused unprecedented flooding and destruction.
Between the rerouted waterways and the flooding from the hurricanes came a story that took place on Second Avenue and 53rd Street under Gasnick Supply Company, a hardware store. Mr. Gasnick described his experience in an article in the New York Times on August 22, 1971.
Let’s allow Mr. Gasnick to tell his story:
"...We had a lantern to pierce the cellar darkness and fifteen feet below I clearly saw the stream bubbling and pushing about, five feet wide and up-on its either side, dark green mossed rocks. This lively riverlet was revealed to us exactly as it must have appeared to a Manhattan Indian many years ago.
"With plum-bob and line, I cast in and found the stream to be over six feet deep. The spray splashed up-wards from time to time and standing on the basement floor, I felt its tingling coolness.
"One day I was curious enough to try my hand at fishing. I had an old-fashioned dropline and baited a hook with a piece of sperm-candle. I jiggled the hook for about five minutes and then felt a teasing nibble. Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing.
"Feeling a tug, I hauled up in excitement and there was a carp skipping before me, an almost three pounder. I was brave enough to have it pan-broiled and buttered in our upstairs kitchen and shared it with my brother..."
Today, both Gasnick Supply Company and the building are gone. There have been no other reports of fishing in basements in New York City, though in 2007, Giles the author of Urbablurb, a short-lived New York blog, claimed he saw a 19th century clapboard house in Brooklyn with a sealed up well in the basement floor.
Fish Tale or Not?
Maybe. Possibly? I’d like to think Gasnick caught his fish.
Could Carp live their whole lives in New York City’s underground waterways? Not likely. What would they eat? Their diet consists mainly of algae and plant matter, which would have a hard time growing without sunlight. Carp migrating from a backyard pond after the flooding from the hurricanes is a more likely theory.
A conservation ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society argued that it was “unclear whether water still flowed in many of the underground streambeds, because most of the water that once drained into them now flows into storm drains instead.”3 And yet, after heavy rainfall, these underground streams still cause basement flooding, sinking foundations, and backyard sinkholes.
The Last Tribute
Two Fifth Avenue is a high-rise apartment building completed in 1952. I checked. It’s still there. The building is located across from the Washington Square Triumphal Arch, and until 2011, the high-rise’s lobby displayed a glass pipe revealing silted water bubbling up from the buried Minetta Brook. As a triubte to the underground waterways, it was the last of its kind. Sadly, after a renovation, it was never replaced.
Before we look at Jewish rights under British rule in the colony of New York, we must look at Jewish rights in England to get a feel for the coming changes.
This was a precarious time during the Interregnum with Oliver Cromwell installed as the Lord Protector*. Between Cromwell and the leaders that followed him, they never put forth a statute authorizing the settlement of Jews in England. Nor were they prohibited either. Because of this, Jewish rights under British rule remained uncertain and insecure.
As we’ll see, ambivalence is not the same as religious tolerance.
English Law & Antisemitism
Lord Edward Coke, as Chief Justice, was considered one of the greatest jurists of his time. In his legal commentaries, he mixed theology with law**, and considered Jews (and any other group who did not identify as Christians) infidels and perpetual enemies of Christians, and therefore had no rights whatsoever which a court of justice could enforce. (Kohler)
In 1673 this principle was invoked to prevent a Jewish plaintiff from recovering a debt admitted to be due to him, the defendant claiming that a perpetual enemy had no standing in a court of justice. (Kohler)
While many judges used Coke’s principles when arguing a case, some dismissed it.
This is where laws and rights regarding Jews (and other foreigners) diverge between England and the colony of New York. As we discovered in Part 1, when New Netherland passed into British hands, there was ambiguity on England’s part in how to categorize the takeover. If the Crown considered New York a conquered land, the leaders in New York could write their own laws. However, if it was an “acquisition by discovery,” the laws of England prevailed. All this is to say, some of England’s laws carried over to New York, and some laws were created by the General Assembly of New York, a colonial governing body who answered to the Crown.
Naturalization and Denization
Over the next sixty years, the Crown and General Assembly passed a variety of laws regarding naturalization and denization.
In 1683, the colonial Assembly passed a general naturalization act limited to those professing Christianity. Coke’s jurisprudence remained a powerful influence; the Crown did not include Jews with the right of naturalized citizenship. Despite this, Jewish residents did not give up on their quest to build a synagogue, and they petitioned Governor Dongan two years later “for liberty to exercise their religion.” In a time when they were denied naturalization, they had the chutzpah (or the Ladino equivalent) to ask for what they wanted, anyway.
Petitioning for a Synagogue
Governor Dongan handed off the request to the Mayor and Common Council of New York who decided:
In the intervening years, Jews continued to gather and worship in their homes. However, somehow, a synagogue must have existed by 1692 because it was mentioned in a court proceeding. Next, it appeared on Chaplain Miller’s map in 1695 as the Jews’ Synagogue — the correct name of the synagogue is Congregation Shearith Israel, and it is still an active synagogue today. The first legal document reflecting its existence appeared among the New York City public records in 1700 where a property is described as bounded on one side “by the house and ground of John Harpending, now commonly known by the name of the Jews’ Synagogue.” Some scholars consider Miller’s map “questionable” due to Miller losing his notes before drawing up the map. (Hershkowitz)
It is important to mention that Shearith Israel considers their founding in 1654 when the first group of Jews arrived in New Amsterdam. Whether or not they had a building, if they gathered to worship, they existed.
Some Jewish residents gained naturalization in 1715 when the colonial Assembly passed another naturalization act. This time, it included Protestants and “all persons alive who inhabited the colony before November 1, 1683.” Obviously, this did not include all Jews.
Amending the Oath of Abjuration
There were other considerations beyond naturalization that were important to Jews. If a person wished to take public office, they had to take an Oath of Abjuration swearing they would not take arms against the king. The phrasing included “on the true faith of a Christian,” which denied Jews’ political rights.
In 1723, Parliament recognized Jews as his Majesty’s subjects and omitted the phrase. This allowed Jews to lawfully swear in English courts. However, it wasn’t until 1727 that the colonial Assembly passed a general act omitting the phrase in New York.
A major setback occurred in 1737 that reminds me of the voter suppression wave sweeping America right now. Adolph Philipse ran against Cornelius Van Horne for a seat in the General Assembly. He lost to Philipse 399 to 413, causing a controversy over who had the right to vote in that election. The lawyers handling the situation referred to New York law and decided that “all freeholders of competent estate, without excepting the descendants of Abraham” could vote. The lawyer representing Van Horne successfully appealed to the laws of England and to anti-semetic prejudice. (Varga)
In the end, Philipse was still declared the winner, and Jews lost the right to vote and to be admitted as witnesses again. (Kohler) [Prior to this case, the requirement to vote in New York was a freehold worth at least £40.]
1740 brought a little hope for Jewish residents. The Naturalization Act of 1740 passed by Parliament gave special provisions for Jewish citizens. If a Jew resided in a colony for at least seven years, they could be naturalized by swearing an oath of allegiance before a local magistrate. This gave them full civil rights while it still withheld various political rights.
Finally, the first Constitution of the State of New York adopted in 1777 gave Jews and other disenfranchised minorities “absolute equality with all other subjects.” (Kohler) The State of New York was a leader in religious liberty by rejecting Lord Coke’s antisemitism!
So, it’s time for white antisemitic supremacists to remember the principles America was founded on: absolute equality (still working on this one) and a rejection of Lord Coke’s principles based on combining church and state. Keep the Bible away from my rights!
Thank you for reading to the end. I know this has been a lot to digest. I welcome your comments, not your hate.
* Lord Protector is a title used in British constitutional law for the head of state. It is also a particular title for the British heads of state in respect to the established church. (Source: Wikipedia)
** Separating church and state is a pillar of American constitutional law for a reason. And Lord Coke is that reason. He was also the inspiration behind our third, fourth, and sixteenth amendments.
Most of my blogs center on 18th century New York because that is the period and location in which the books I’m writing take place. This post will take us to back to just before 1654, when the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam. By going back that far, it will give us context for the Jewish experience in the 18th century. More than land changed hands from the Lenape to the Dutch to the British. Religious tolerance and rights also shifted.
The first Dutch settlement in New Netherland was claimed in 1614 under the direction of the Dutch West India Company. Ten years later, the directors of the Company founded New Amsterdam and sent merchants and stockholders to settle there. By 1654, the first Jewish merchants arrived, and some of them may have even been directors themselves.1
Sephardic Jews Under Dutch Rule
In the 15th century, Spain and Portugal expelled Jews during the Inquisition. Many went to Holland, where they enjoyed religious toleration and full political rights. These Jews were known as Sephardic (Hebrew for Spanish) because they came from the Iberian Peninsula. However, they had to abide by certain restrictions placed on them. The Dutch forbid them to write or speak disparagingly of the Christian religion, convert Christians to Judaism, nor were they allowed to intermarry among Christians.
Jews were also forbidden to engage in retail trade. In many European countries, retail was the domain of the Christian burghers. However, this exclusion did not extend to imports and exports. As such, Jews played an influential role in the Company with their merchant businesses. Many left Holland with the Company and settled in Brazil until the Portuguese took control in 1654, expelling the Dutch.
Does that date sound familiar? It should. The first Jews on record to arrive in New Amsterdam were refugees from Brazil.
Lastly, under Dutch rule, Jews could only legally pray in private. It would be many years before the founding of the first synagogue in the New World. In fact, it wasn’t until 1671 when the first Sephardic synagogue in Holland was allowed to be built.
While there were individuals who wished the Company would enact intolerance rules toward the Jews, Peter Stuyvesant, the Director General of the colony of New Netherland, instructed otherwise:
Jews settling in New Amsterdam remained under Dutch protection and enjoyed the same rights and privileges as those in Holland. Considering the treatment of Jews in other parts of Europe, it could have been worse — a frequent refrain in Jewish history. Jews in Holland and her colonies were a separate class, but with the same political rights.
Shortly after settling, Jews gained the right to purchase land for themselves. Then they were permitted to purchase land for a Jewish cemetery, a first step in laying down roots.
Then the English took New Amsterdam in 1664, renaming it for the Duke of York.
The articles of capitulation provided that:
The Treaty of Breda in 1667 confirmed that the legal status of the Jewish residents would continue under the new British rule.
Was it so simple? Yes, and no.
English Colonial Rule
Under English colonial law, conquered territories did not have to follow English law; they could create their own set of laws for the new British subjects. Some argued, however, that New York was an “acquisition by discovery,” and therefore subject to the laws of England. After all, the Duke of York acquired New Amsterdam — not conquered it — because the Dutch chose not to fight when the British showed up. Therefore, the land passed into English hands.
What did this mean for the Jews? It’s complicated.
If you had asked me which street in Manhattan is the oldest, I would have answered, “The Broad Way.” And I would have been wrong. Before Chinatown and Five Points, before the street became known as “The Bowery,” it was Bowry Lane, a prior footpath shaped by the Lenape.
The Lenape used the path to travel to and from trading and gathering places, and Collect Pond, the only source of freshwater in Manhattan. (The East and Hudson Rivers are tidal estuaries—or brackish, not fresh.) The Lenape term for the path was Wickquasgeck, which either means “Path to the trading place” or “Birch-bark country.”
As the Dutch stripped land for the colonists to become self-sufficient in their new environment, they named the path for the farms, or bouwerijs, on it.
In 1625, the Dutch West India Company sent Crijn Fredericksz, an engineer, to Manhattan to survey the land for a fort, roads, farms, and property lines. In doing so, the Broad Way—broad enough for carriages passing in both directions—extended from the southernmost tip of the island where the Dutch built their fort, straight up to the “Road to the Bouwerij.”
In 1626, the first enslaved Africans arrived in New Amsterdam. Within two decades, many were granted freedom and parcels of land along Bowry Lane.
Now older and manumitted, free Africans were, for the most part, no longer considered “useful” to colonists. But the colonists still found a way to use them: by living on the farthest land from the fort, the free Africans served as the first line of defense against attacks by Native Americans and the British coming from the north.
Manhattan Changes Hands
When the British took over in 1664, Bowry Lane was already the major road out of Manhattan. It connected to the Boston Post Road, which still exists today, and was literally a posting road that led from New York to Boston.
In the early part of the 18th century, Bowry Lane was paved, and sidewalks installed. A map from 1766 labels the entire length of road as “the Bowry Lane.” However, after the American Revolution, the northern section was renamed for William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, for his pro-American stance during the war.
The Oldest Home in Manhattan
While New York City became more populated with people and buildings, Bowry Lane remained farms and large estates. To accommodate a greater need for meat, the city established the first public slaughterhouse on the land around Collect Pond, which sits very close to Bowry Lane. Prior to this, slaughterhouses weren’t allowed in the city due to their noise, smells, and effluent matter. Unfortunately, this was the beginning of the end to Collect Pond as a source of non-polluted freshwater.
The slaughterhouses were important to Edward Mooney, who was not only important in the “meat business,” but also represented the city’s butchers in the Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. Wanting to leave near his place of business, he purchased a parcel of land from the Delancey estate at the auction from the Commissioners of Forfeiture in 1785.
During and after the war, Americans confiscated land from loyalists to pay for the war effort. The inhabitants were allowed to take their clothes, some furniture, and provisions for three months. As such, James Delancey, who remained loyal to the British Crown, forfeited his estate. On this land, Mooney built a house at 18 Bowery, and it still stands today.
The 19th century brought tremendous change to Manhattan and the Bowery, in particular with the influx of immigrants. Over the next two hundred and fifty years, the Bowery would continue to thrive and fail many times over.
Purim was last week. (I’m not great at planning posts, obviously.) For my non-Jewish readers, it’s a holiday to celebrate the Jews surviving yet another genocidal attempt (this time, 5th century BCE Persia) by a right-wing, fascist sociopath (this time, Haman). No matter the country, we have a track record of being ‘othered’ for not fully fitting in, hated/killed for not fully fitting in, and surviving all that bullshit. We’re the adamantium of peoples.
It’s why every holiday we bow our heads and say:
Modern American Purim
I love Purim because of it is one day of dressing up in costume, the hamantashen (cookies), and getting drunk until you can’t tell the difference between Mordecai (good guy) and Haman (bad guy) — I’ve never actually done this one, but my childhood Orthodox rabbi would wear a Papa Smurf costume and drink slivovitz through the megillah reading (another mitzvah). Yeah, those were my formative years.
So, why is dressing up on Purim a big deal? Esther hid her true identity as a Jew and revealed this to her husband, the king who was completely in lust with her, in time to stop Haman’s genocide. (If you think Esther deliberately seduced her husband — who picked her out of a lineup of women [ugh, gross] — to save the Jews, and that all of this sets feminism back over 2400 years, and why would I celebrate it?
Bringing down the patriarchy with the tools available to the powerless.
18th Century Purim in the Dutch Atlantic
Let’s move up 2000-ish years to the 18th century to how the colonized world celebrated Purim. A little background info first: The Spanish Inquisition (and subsequent Portuguese Inquisition) drove the Jews of Spain and Portugal to countries who embraced religious freedom. The Netherlands was one of these countries. When the Dutch began colonizing, they offered prominent positions in these lands to those who contributed positively to the empire. They sent many Jews to build up the merchant trade in the Atlantic World. In doing so, they became slave-owners like their Christian counterparts.
This brings us to Suriname and Curacao in the late 18th and early 19th century. Remember when I said we celebrate Purim for one day? Suriname and Curacao had their own rules… or lack thereof. There, Jews, along with the Christian and Afro-Caribbean communities, both free and enslaved, celebrated Purim together for a week of debauchery, Carnival style.* Christian theologians of the time called it bacchanalia Judaeorum, or Jewish carnival. (Ben-Ur)
4 Rules to Celebrate Purim
How did Jews get away with what would seem like an un-Godly celebration? Well, the Book of Esther, or Megillah, never mentions God, which makes the holiday a little more secular than religious, from a Jewish perspective. Further, there are only four rules to celebrate, the rest is conjecture:
Listen to the reading of the Megillah
Sending treats to friends
Have a feast
Give to the poor
Regarding costumes, there are numerous arguments about why we do it. One theory looks to the Conversos — the Jews who hid their true identity by outwardly converting to Christianity under the Inquisition, but inwardly remained Jews. (Not all Dutch Jews falsely converted. They just left the Iberian peninsula.)
By wearing masks and costumes, the line between Jews and non-Jews, the enslaved and the slavers blurred. Not only were costumes worn, they were often inversions of the social structure. Men dressed like women, women dressed like men, slaves pretended to be free, and Christians who weren’t so thrilled about Jews**, joined in the fun.
Who wouldn’t want to celebrate a week of inebriation, inversion, and not working?
In Suriname and Curacao, African dance had been outlawed, but during Purim celebrations, their dancing was permissible. So was their drumming. Also added to the mix of celebration were Creole and Catholic elements.
As early as 1711, Suriname’s colonial legislators complained of the great numbers of slaves in Jodensavane [“Jews’ Savannah”] who gathered on Jewish holidays to “drum, dance, and play,” activities that caused “many disorders.”
Celebrating Purim in a Slave Society
In early modern West Africa, masquerades and communal dances constituted crucial life-cycle rituals, including initiations. Taking part in masked Purim celebrations may have been a means by which slaves could inculcate ancestral values to their immediate community and transmit those to their descendants.
Celebrating Purim in a Slave Society
Of course, we can’t know for certain why Africans and their descendents chose to participate in Purim. As there is no written record, the above quotation is speculation.
Unfortunately, after the holiday, all the laws and rules of “normal” society returned, and Africans were enslaved once again.
* There is the theory that in order for Jews about this time to fit into their new-to-them countries — like Italy where they lived in ghettos, forcibly separated from Christians — they adapted the free-wheeling fun of Carnival (a Christian celebration before the asceticism of Lent) to fit the Purim narrative. That’s why some Purim customs seem like a stretch in connecting to Esther’s story… and why hamantashen are shaped like “Haman’s hat.” So far as I can find, tricorn hats were popular in 18th century Western culture and not a Persian accessory, like ever.
** Even though they had “legal privileges unparalleled among Jews elsewhere in the Atlantic world.” (Ben-Ur)
The first Jews to arrive in New Amsterdam (what would become New York in 1664) came to escape the continuation of the Inquisition when Portugal wrested control of Brazil from the Dutch in 1654. There were six women among the twenty-three refugees, and only two of their names survived in the record because they were widowed heads of households — Ricke Nunes and Judith Mercado.
For the most part, “at a time when Jews elsewhere were so often locked away behind ghetto walls, colonial Jews found a remarkable degree of toleration and diversity.”1
The lives of colonial Jewish women, like their Christian neighbors, centered on the household as well as religious life, allowing the rhythms and cycles of sacred times to govern their days. They also dressed the same in their bonnets and gowns, practiced needlework, and wealthier wives employed servants and owned slaves to help with chores and childrearing.
Jewish law does not require women to pray in synagogue. Before coming to America, they rarely attended. However, once in America, they chose to attend like Christian housewives. The first synagogue in colonial America, Shearith Israel, was founded in 1654 (it would take 2 years before a cemetery became necessary) and still serves the community in Manhattan to this day.
At home, Jewish housewives made sure kashrut — dietary laws — were followed, including separate dishes for meat and dairy. They were also responsible for teaching their children Jewish culture and traditions. But it must be mentioned that Jewish households, then as now, ran the gamut of observing every Jewish law to disregarding what didn’t serve them.
The average age for a Jewish woman to marry for the first time in the 18th century was twenty-three. Men, needing a means to support a future family, took time to establish themselves. They were therefore about ten years older when they married.
Because the Jewish community in America was relatively small (by 1776, there were about 2500 Jews in colonial America, hailing from all over the world), spouses were chosen locally or as far away as the Caribbean or in England. When marriages straddled the Atlantic, they offered a commercial advantage to merchant families, creating profitable networks.
Unfortunately, as happens too often in history, Jews in British Jamaica were blamed for being “too successful,” causing anti-Jewish sentiment. In 1695, the Jamaican assembly passed an additional tax on Jews.
Education & Business
Many Jewish women were literate, having been educated by private tutors or having attended a school maintained by the Jewish community. In fact, Shearith Israel opened their first school in 1731. Even poor children attended by financial contributions left in wills.
We find further evidence of literate Jewish women in family documents, letters, and wills. Abigail Franks, born in colonial America in 1688, left a substantial quantity of letters written to her son while he lived in London.
Many Jewish widows acted as the executors of these wills, suggesting they had some business experience by assisting their husbands. They regularly received property and money that the law of coverture denied their Christian neighbors.
Though it was rare for a woman to own a business in her own right, it wasn’t impossible. Grace Levy Hays (1690-1740) kept a retail store. Esther Pinheiro on Nevis, a British colony and the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, owned several ships in her own right and partnered with merchants in Boston between the years 1710 and 1728.
Jewish women in colonial America also built cottage industries selling jams and pickles, taking in washing, and running kosher boarding houses.
If it weren’t for colonial American Jewish women who held business in their own right, wrote letters deemed worthy enough to be saved, or became heads of households after the death of their husbands, more of their names and accomplishments would be erased from the historical record.
Nadell, P. (2019). America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today. United States: W. W. Norton.
The history of optical projections goes all the way back to playing with shadows. Obviously such a point in time isn’t on record, but one can only assume, based on human behavior, that the shadow, as it does all living beings, intrigued early humans.
As a stupendous example of shadow fascination, one of my Doodles of Mayhem™, the perspicacious Willow, has been known, while on a brisk walk, to chase the shadow of a bird on the pavement before her, and face-plant in an attempt to catch her prey.
Around 1420, Giovanni de Fontana recorded the first use of an optical projection by lantern. He included an image of a man holding a lantern, projecting the image of the devil on a wall. The lantern shows a small cut-out of the devil, while the wall shows a much larger version. Fontana describes it as a nocturnal appearance for terrifying viewers.1
[The text reads: Apperentia nocturna ad terorem videntium.]
The Romans invented the camera obscura, or dark chamber, though the term has only been in use since 1604. It works by allowing a bright light, usually sunlight, through a pinhole or lens in the wall. Through this whole, the image projects onto the opposite wall. The camera obscura, sometimes referred to as a pinhole camera, is actually a predecessor of the modern photographic camera.
The image from a camera obscura is projected upside down, reversed left to right, and has a very low luminosity.2 The reason for the image appearing upside down is due to the crossing of the light’s rays through the hole. (See image above.)
The camera obscura was useful in studying solar eclipses without damaging the eyes. Artists also used it to enhance accuracy in their designs.
In the 18th century, it evolved for entertaining purposes.
The magic lantern takes the technology of the camera obscura and advances it to the next level, using moving glass slides with painted images on them. In this way, it was the predecessor to the slide show. Early images included a gun in which a red, fiery discharge shoots out before the bullet does.
Later, projectionists stacked glass slides together for depictions like a ship at sea during a storm. The scene would start with a calm sea, slowly increasing in movement by manipulating the individual slides until the ship bounced dangerously on the waves.
Images from the magic lantern were projected onto smoke and moved about the room, creating the illusion of flying ghosts. These phantasmagoria (horror) shows were meant to frighten audiences.
The peep show, which had a very different connotation then than it does now, was another popular form of entertainment for colonists. Taking the experience to a personal level, the magic lantern’s glass slides, like the camera obscura before it, were constructed inside a box with a viewing hole. These new scenes depicted depth and movement by manipulating lenses and light. The peep show was the predecessor of the stereoscope.
Remember Mr. John Bonnin from my Living Monsters and Curiosity blog post? He’d surely be offended if you didn’t, considering he was his greatest promoter.
I realize this gets confusing, but in 1748, Mr. Bonnin used the mechanics of the peep show and projected the images onto a screen using mirrors, instead of a viewing in a box. This way, he could draw a large crowd at once to show off his “Philosophical Optical Machine.” In this way, he brought “most of the famous palaces and gardens in England, France, and Italy[,] … the siege of Barcelona, and the cities of Rome, Naples, and Venice.”3
For the colonists who were homesick or had never been to England, this gave them a chance to imagine walking through the pleasure gardens and palaces of London. These included Kensington, Hampton-Court, Vaux Hall, Ranelagh House, among others.
These shows were so popular, they ran from “eight o’clock in the morning and continued showing until nine at night.”
Here is a terrific example of a peep show scene: Six overlapping hand-colored engraved panels. Approx. 6½x8x15 when extended in apparatus. Scene depicts garden fountains, gates and a flower garden surrounded by tall hedges. Numerous people are also depicted, including a musician, children, lovers embracing, etc.
If you’d like to make your own peep show, here is a tutorial:
Just like their European cousins, American colonists enjoyed cabinets of curiosities, public shows, and really anything that might entertain, educate, or, to be honest, offend my 21st century sensibilities.1 It wasn’t just about seeing the exhibits; it was about being the first and then having the pleasure of talking about them after.
The elite of New York might assemble in their stately homes to discuss paintings and vases, but they also might join the lesser classes in taverns and private homes to view traveling exhibits the world had never seen before.
The Greatest (Colonial) Showman
There is no good way for me to introduce Mr. John Bonnin, 18th century advertiser and showman of curiosities, except by his own words:
What were colonists coming to view in his home near the New Dutch Church, a couple of streets north of city hall? Why, porcupines of various colors and crab fishes.
Two years prior to the rainbow porcupine, he exhibited the “greatest curiosity in nature.” Mr. Bonnin’s own advertisement claimed it was beyond “our power to fully describe.” The crab fish must have looked fairly special, for I cannot find an image to go along with it. Apparently it was a petrified fish sandwiched between crab shells.
Mr. Bonnin, of course, had competition.
Mr. John Rawdon, hairdresser of Broad Street, which curved from the East River near the bottom of Manhattan up to City Hall, exhibited a “wonderful electrical fish.”
Roger Magrah showed off his four foot long “living” alligator to anyone willing to pay the admittance fee.
And, lastly, Captain Seymour of the ship, Fame, thought he could do better than the others by bringing home two lionesses and two ostriches from the African coast. However, the ostriches did not survive the passage. I dread to think what else was among his cargo.
Waxworks, as well as Punch and Judy puppet shows, were very popular not just for entertainment but for colonists to familiarize themselves with the Royal Family of various European countries. As traveling exhibits, they were shown for a limited time, typically in taverns, from seven in the morning until six at night.
There is one unfortunate event that occurred involving an extensive waxwork collection that came to an abrupt and embroiled end.
Mrs. Wright was an “ingenious” artist and mother who worked from home. Her sculptures were said to be very lifelike, which I can only imagine took a lot of time to produce. I don’t know what kind of mother she was, nor what kind of help she had in raising them, or even how old they were. And, without these details, I am making a wild assumption based on the available facts.
All that is to say, while she was “abroad” with her children left at home, one of them set fire to a curtain surrounding one of her sculptures. Neighbors and fire-engines saved the house and most of their valuables, however the entirety of her waxworks succumbed to the flames.
Two months later, she exhibited two new sculpture sets, one being the murder of Cain by Abel, the other, the Treachery of Delilah to Sampson.
Go ahead, I won’t judge. I think Mrs. Wright was deep in her feels and had some things to work out.
Peep Shows and Magic Lanterns! I promise this is safe for all eyes. We will examine optical entertainments of the time.
It is important to know the range of what entertained colonists, however offensive material will never appear in my fiction, therefore my blog won’t be the place to read about them either. This also isn’t the right space to examine the social, political, or just plain ignorant things 18th century folks found entertaining. I recommend the Singleton book in my sources to begin your research.
The same Hedy Lamarr who invented wi-fi in 1941.
Bushman, R. L. (2011). The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. United Kingdom: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
Scribner, V. (2019). Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society. United States: NYU Press.
Singleton, E. (1902). Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776: Houses, Streets, and Country Homes, with Chapters on Fashions, Furniture, China, Plate, and Manners. United States: D. Appleton.