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:

Rescuing Her Rebel: Lydia's father intends to make a match for her at the winter ball while he ambushes his enemy — the man Lydia loves.


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Law Enforcement in 18th Century New York

Law enforcement in colonial New York worked similarly to law enforcement in England. It was the responsibility of the local government to protect its citizens.

There were three main categories of criminal behavior dealt with by the courts in colonial New York: thefts, acts of personal violence, and disruptions of public order. Without an effective police force, which didn’t come about until the 19th century, these crimes put tremendous strain on the welfare of the community and individuals responsible for law enforcement. There was a severe shortage of able night-watchmen, constables, sheriffs, jail-keepers, and justices of the peace.

Night-watchman: A man carrying a lantern on a staff is followed by his dog through town
Night-watchman: Wikimedia Commons

Sheriffs, appointed by the governor, enforced the laws, collecting taxes, supervising elections, and taking care of the legal business of the county government. Constables, elected by the people, could make arrests, serve warrants, and testify in court. Night-watchmen were merely responsible for patrolling the city at night, looking for fires, crimes, or riots.

Peacekeeping

There were three forms of peacekeeping in colonial New York. The first of which included the obligation of the citizens to take their turn as watchmen. If they didn’t want to do it, they had the option to pay for a substitute. Other times, the government paid constables to do the job, but they lacked authority and resources to prevent crimes and maintain order. Their only real choice was to apprehend a criminal in the act. The third option occurred during times of war. The governor sent militia to take over the watch. However, this was an expensive and unpopular choice.

Master of the forge, mid-18th century
Blacksmith, mid-18th century. Source: Diderot’s Encyclopedia

Paid constables were often hired from among artisans and tradesmen. With little pay and a lot of responsibilities between their regular profession and work in law enforcement, it was hardly worth the dangers the job presented. Since there weren’t enough constables, they were rarely able to subdue suspects who resisted arrest, especially when the suspect resorted to violence.

Law Enforcement Stretched Too Thin

An angry mob chases after the stamp collector
Andrew Oliver, Stamp Collector Attacked by the mob. Source: James H. Stark

In 1765, a mob of over 200 men ousted four families from their homes in Dutchess County in protest of the Stamp Act. Nothing was done about the 200 men since it was too difficult to arrest all 200, let alone ten. Law enforcement lacked the resources to stop the unrest.

A Lack of Quality Law Officers

Because of the dangers implicit in the job, and the lack of resources, many New Yorkers preferred to pay a fine than serve as law officers. If they couldn’t afford the fine, they took the job but were often negligent in their duties by, for example, not showing up to testify in court. Another problem law enforcement faced was the inclusion of those with questionable integrity. They would take bribes to release prisoners or fix juries; extort money from prisoners in exchange for preferential treatment; assault innocent citizens without just cause; charged suspects excessive fees — food and lodgings were paid by suspects held in jail; committed a variety of crimes without consequences; and used the office to advance their personal interests.

A Lack of Quality Prisons

Jack Sheppard escaping from prison by climbing down with a sheet
Prison escape. Source: unknown

Prisons in the Province of New York were not fortified places. For those awaiting trial, many escaped. The sheriffs were faced with a dilemma. They were criminally liable if suspects escaped, but were not given enough jail-keepers or more secure jails to do their job. Further, if a suspect crossed county lines, they could not be apprehended because arrest warrants issued by county.

A Lack of Quality Judges

William Hogarth, The Bench, 1758. Source: Wikimedia Commons.]

If a suspect didn’t escape prison or evaded recapture, they would appear before a judge. Depending on who was sitting on that particular bench could make a big difference in the suspect’s case. There is much evidence to indicate that judges of colonial New York were, on the whole, an ignorant lot, ill-suited to hold office, and often anxious to abuse the power which such office afforded them. (Greenberg, Douglas)

In 1763, fifty-nine percent of justices of the peace in New York had no legal training. Some could neither read nor write! One can only imagine their ability to uphold the law. In fact, 36% of criminal cases in court records from 18th century New York were never resolved.

In Conclusion…

The Province of New York wasn’t lawless, but it had its challenges. Law Enforcement was neither setup to succeed, nor respected for its authority. As a historical romance writer, these facts give me a lot of fodder with which to torment my characters.

Sources:

Rescuing Her Rebel: Lydia's father intends to make a match for her at the winter ball while he ambushes his enemy — the man Lydia loves.


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Pleasure Gardens

This week, as I plan some fun for my characters, I’m visiting the old pleasure gardens of New York. While London’s Covent Garden had her ladies, as well as markets and a variety of entertainments, the pleasure gardens of 18th century Manhattan were private, walled-off parks one had to pay an admission fee to enter. That is, they were not public venues run by the city.

A quick note about green spaces in the 18th century: Manhattan provided “common” fields that were used for public markets, grazing livestock, and military parades. These spaces were not meant for relaxation or entertainment. Wealthy colonists wanted more from their city. Those who had business acumen rose to the challenge.

Green Dragon Tavern,
Boston, Massachusetts 1773

Our journey begins with the urban taverns in colonial America. These drinking establishments quickly became places to meet and be social. Many had adjacent gardens. “By attaching the earliest commercial pleasure gardens to pre-existing ‘open’ spas and taverns, New York City’s businessmen minimized their financial risks while also providing demanding clientele yet another reason to visit their establishment.”1

1740 — Spring Garden

Shortly after, in 1740, came the Spring Garden—so named for its seasonal operation—on what would now be Broadway, Fulton, Nassau, and Ann streets. Not only did it feature a tavern, but offered Georgian-style geometric gravel paths through cultivated shrubbery. If you could pay the fee, about two shillings, you were welcome.

A pleasure garden with a gazebo, wide lawn, a pond, lots of people milling about.
This is actually the New York Palace Garden, 1858. There are very few images of New York’s pleasure gardens from the 18th century. (Source: NYPL)

The Spring Garden tavern hosted balls, magic shows, tumbling acts, feats of strength (including a Female Samson), and musical concerts. These entertainments, as well as the bucolic atmosphere, were a welcome relief and cultural respite to the citizens of Manhattan, especially as the city grew and became more crowded.

1750 — Mead Garden

Adam Vandenberg was a very successful promoter who owned and ran a tavern called the Drovers’ Inn, a pleasure garden called Mead Garden, and a horse race-course all situated on his farm, Church Farm, by the Hudson River. [Astor House would eventually be built on this site.] In March of 1743, there was a race between a mare named Ragged Kate belonging to Mr. Peter De Lancey, and a horse named Monk belonging to the Honorary William Montagu Esq, for £200.2

1765 — Ranelagh Garden

Ranelagh (pronounced “Ran-lee”) Garden, named for its London counterpart, occupied a wooded rise of ground just north of the northernmost city houses, not far from the smaller Vauxhall Garden. The two gardens directly competed in the form of fireworks exhibitions. Each offered limited engagements, bigger and bolder spectacles, and “never seen before” designs.

At the request of several gentlemen and ladies there will be a concert twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, 6.30 p.m. (Ranelagh Garden Concert). Small fireworks will be played off and  the best entertainment as usual, notwithstanding the artful insinuations of some ill-minded people to the contrary.
Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776
Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

1767 — Vauxhall Garden

Portrait of Samuel Fraunces, 1770-1785, unknown.
Portrait of Samuel Fraunces (circa-1770-1785), unknown artist.
(Source: Wikimedia)

In 1767, the owner of the Queen’s Head Tavern on Pearl Street, known today as Fraunces Tavern for its most famous proprietor, Samuel Fraunces, brought Vauxhall Garden to Manhattan. It was originally located at Spring Hill, a villa on the Hudson River not far from Mead Garden. Like its namesake in London, Vauxhall offered a variety of entertainments: tea or coffee in the afternoon, summer concerts, shady trees and hedges, a variety of flowers, an outdoor wax museum, and at night, a fireworks show.

Vauxhall Gardens have been newly fitted up in a very genteel pleasing Manner... now open for the Reception of Ladies, Gentlemen, etc., and will be illuminated every evening in the Week; Coffee, Tea, and Hot Rolls at any hour in the day, neat Wines and other Liquors, with Cakes, as usual... also Dinners or Suppers, dressed in the most Elegant manner on timely Notice.
Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776
Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

Vauxhall was considered a summer resort at the “most rural retreat any way near this city” (advertisement, New York Gazette, 1766), though in actuality, it was all of a mile from the tip of Manhattan.

A map layout of  Vauxhall Garden.
Vauxhall Garden: originally on Greenwich Street, it moved to Broadway and the Bowery in 1803. (Source: Wikimedia)

It operated until the American Revolution when much of it was destroyed. When Fraunces sold it in 1773, before the War, it had “two large gardens, a house with four rooms per floor and twelve fireplaces, and a dining hall that was 56 feet long and 26 feet wide, with a kitchen below.”3

As the city expanded, many of these gardens were demolished for commercial buildings. Ranelagh became the New York Hospital with Royal Governor Tryon witnessing the laying of the corner-stone. Vauxhall became the Cupula Iron Furnace. Not that it was the end of New York’s pleasure gardens, but the industrial revolution and urban spread created a shift in how New Yorkers lived, worked, and relaxed.

Spoiler Alert:
New Yorkers still needed a green space to retreat from the city. Plans for developing Central Park began in 1840. But that’s a rabbit hole for another day.

View of Central Park
Central Park, New York 1875 (Source: NYPL)

Footnotes:

  1. Caldwell, Mark (2005). New York Night: The Mystique and Its History. New York City: Scribner.
  2. Bayles, W. Harrison (2020). Old Taverns of New York. Outlook Verlag.
  3. Singleton, E. (2008). Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776: Houses, Streets and Country Homes (1902). United States: Lightning Source.

Sources:

Rescuing Her Rebel: Lydia's father intends to make a match for her at the winter ball while he ambushes his enemy — the man Lydia loves.


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Maiden Lane

Down Maiden Lane, where clover grew,
Sweet-scented in the early air,
Where sparkling rills went shining through
Their grassy banks, so green, so fair,
Blithe little maids from Holland land
Went tripping, laughing each to each,
To bathe the flax, or spread a band
Of linen in the sun to bleach… 

“In Sun or ShadeLouise Morgan Sill, 1906.

Maiden Lane, in New York’s financial district, stretches from the South Street Seaport to the World Trade Center Site. Over three hundred years ago, when New York was New Amsterdam, a rippling brook wended the same path as the lane. Known as Maagde Paatje, it was named for the women who washed their clothes there. It was also a place where lovers met and gadded about the pebbly brook.

An illustration from the 1921 book A History of the United States by Henry Eldridge Bourne. A brookside path with the name of Maiden Lane followed a valley to the East River

When the British took over Manhattan, they changed the name to English as Maiden Lane. In 1696, the path was paved with cobbles, but the stream continued to flow down the center of it until 1827 when it was engineered to flow under the streets. It still runs under Lower Manhattan today.

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Collect Pond

Once upon a time, a forested countryside expanded into a lush valley that emptied into a sizable and deep freshwater pond fed by underground springs, emptying into salt marshes that would one day become meadows, reaching all the way to the Hudson River.

Can you imagine this? If you are standing in Foley Square near Chinatown in Lower Manhattan today, close your eyes and transport yourself back 400 years.

Lower Manhattan of 1609 - lush and green, compared to 2009 - all city
The Old Collect
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Love, Liberty, and Quarantine: The Story of Bedloe’s Island

In 1956, the United States Congress officially named the outcrop of land surrounded by New York Bay, and home of the Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island. For almost 300 years prior to this, it was called Bedloe’s Island for Isaac Bedloe, a Dutch colonist, merchant, and shipowner born in New Amsterdam. By the time he purchased it, the Dutch had already forced out the Lenape Indians who had used the island for seasonal hunting and fishing for hundreds of years. Because of its vast oyster beds, the Lenape called it Oyster Island.

That makes for a neat, linear history of a small holding of the Borough of Manhattan situated in the middle of New Jersey waters. There is so much more to tell.

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The Sons of Neptune

Prior to 1765, a secret society composed of a diverse, radical group of sailors in the American colonies formed. They called themselves the Sons of Neptune.

The Press Gang, 1770

During peacetime, the Royal Navy sent press gangs through dockside neighborhoods searching for able-bodied men to join their crew. It was imperative to the British Empire to have as strong a naval force as possible to maintain their dominance around the world. That being said, merchant sailors earned higher pay than the navy, and few went willingly into impressment.

Impressment, to the Sons of Neptune, was a prime example of British tyranny. Their response to it launched America’s rebellion.

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The Burning of Fairfield, Connecticut 1779

In A Widow’s Guide to Scandal (July 2020), the town where the heroine lives is threatened with destruction by the British. I based the fictional attack in my book on the very real attack on Fairfield, Connecticut by the British in 1779. I first learned about this event of the American Revolution when I lived in Fairfield and attended a Town Green Walking Tour presented by the Fairfield History Museum.

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Think You Know Bagels?

When I was little, we lived in a suburban community northwest of Baltimore. We were Jewish, some of my neighbors were Jewish, most of my activities took place at the local Jewish Community Center. I didn’t know I was different from most of the population until I went to elementary school.

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A Quick Guide to Becoming a Female Artist in the 18th Century

Note: I intend for the word “female” to cover those who identified and were accepted as female. I do not mean to police the term in any way.

Lately, I’ve been curious about the lives of female artists in the 18th century, painters in particular. They are a hard lot to track down.

In 1971, feminist art historian, Linda Nochlin, wrote, “Why have there been no great women artists?”

Continue reading “A Quick Guide to Becoming a Female Artist in the 18th Century”