Colonial Theatres

* 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.

Last week arrived here a company of comedians from Philadelphia, who we hear have taken a convenient room ... [on] Nassau Street, where they intend to perform as long as the season lasts, provided that they meet with suitable encouragement.
Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776
Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

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. 

A longitudinal section through a playhouse drawn by Christopher Wren, believed to be Wren’s plan for the second Theatre Royal on Drury Lane. 1: Proscenium arch. 2: Four pairs of shutters across the stage. 3: Pit. 4: Galleries. 5: Boxes. Source: Wikimedia

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. 

John Street Theatre. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

Name Dropping

Elizabeth “Eliza” Arnold Hopkins Poe (1787 – December 8, 1811). Source: Wikimedia

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.

Footnote:

  1. https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/first-european-theater-in-north-america

Sources:

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Jewish Women in Colonial America

Tall ships sailing toward New Amsterdam. Windmills and Dutch houses in the distance.
Johannes Vingboons, Memory of The Netherlands. Source: Public Domain

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

Daily Life

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.

A plaque that reads: The first cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, Shearith Israel, in the city of New York. 1656-1833
Shearith Israel, first cemetery. Source: Public Domain

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.

Marriage

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.

A Jewish couple standing under the chuppah are blessed by the rabbi, surrounded by friends and family.
Daniel Moritz Oppenheim (1801-1882), 18th Century Jewish Wedding

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. 

Abigail Franks wearing a blue gown with ruffles.
Portrait of Abigail Franks (c. 1696-1756), circa 1735. Source: Public Domain

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.

Jarred pickles covered with cloth and tied with twine.
Pickles

Conclusion

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.

Footnotes:

  1. Nadell, P. (2019). America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today. United States: W. W. Norton.

Sources:

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Magic Lanterns & Peep Shows

Two hands form the shadow of a rabbit.
Hand shadow of a rabbit. Source: Public Domain

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.]

Camera Obscura

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.

Reads, "Fig 7. Camera obscura". The images shows a building's image through a hole in the side of a building where the image is projected upside down on an interior wall. An X shows the crossing of the light's rays.
Source: http://www.essentialvermeer.com/camera_obscura/co_one.html

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.)

To Be Seen: By desire of several Gentlemen and Ladies, The Solar or Camera Obscura Microscope which has given such general satisfaction, and so great a Concourse of Gentlemen and Ladies continually attend to see it…House of Mr. John Kip in Broad Street, where the Sun will serve all the Day long…
Source: Singleton / Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

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.

Magic Lantern

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.

A set of 4 images of children playing in the snow. 1 sledding, 2 building a snowman, 3 snowball fight, 4 ice skating
Source: Digital Museum

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.

A crowd is frightened by images of the devil and a death's head floating above them in the dark.
Ghostly illusions by magic lantern. 18th c. Source: Library of Congress

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.

Peep Show

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. 

Man stands at his peep show box. Three children in front of it, looking into the holes. An older lady waits in a chair.
Theodor Hosemann, 1835. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

“Instead of the common Chat, there is nothing scarce mentioned now but the most entertaining parts of Europe.”

― Mr. Bonnin, New York Gazette

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.

New York Gazette: 
We hear that Mr. Bonnin is so crowded with company to view his perspectives that he can scarce get even so much time as to eat, drink, or say his prayers, from the time he gets out of bed till he repairs to it again.

1748
Source: Singleton / Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

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.

Peep show of a garden scene, as described.
Mid 18th Century Peep Show of a Garden Scene,
c. 1750. Mart. Engelbrecht

Your Turn

If you’d like to make your own peep show, here is a tutorial:

https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/make-your-own-paper-peepshow

If you do make one, please send me a pic and I’ll it add here!
hallie [@] halliealexanderauthor [.] com

Footnotes:

  1.  http://www.magiclantern.org.uk/history/
  2. http://www.essentialvermeer.com/camera_obscura/co_one.html
  3. John Bonnin

Sources:

  • About Magic Lanterns
  • F.W., “Peep-Show Prints,” Bulletin of the New-York Public Library 25, no. 6 (June 1921), p 364.
  • Optical Instruments Used with Prints in the Eighteenth Century
  • 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.
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Living Monsters & Curiosities

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:

“There’s no Body can set up the least Face for Politeness and Conversation, without having been to Mr. Bonnin.”

― Mr. Bonnin, New York Gazette

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.

To Be Seen: A curious live Porcupine armed with Darts which resemble Writing Pens, tho of different colors, and which he shoots at any Adversary with ease when angry or attacked tho otherwise of great good humor and Gentleness.
John Bonnin’s advertisement for a colorful porcupine.
Source: Singleton / Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

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.

Competitive Curiosities

Electrical Fish: Those who choose to gratify their curiosity by viewing this very extraordinary production of nature, at the small expense of two shillings each, are desired to attend speedily.
John Rowdon’s advertisement for an electrical fish.
Source: Singleton / Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

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

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.

18th century waxworks: Musée de la Révolution française.
Source: Wikimedia

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.

Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr2 in the title roles of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949). Source: Paramount, Public Domain

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.

Next Week

Peep Shows and Magic Lanterns! I promise this is safe for all eyes. We will examine optical entertainments of the time.

18th Century Peep Show: Victoria and Albert Museum Online

Footnotes:

  1. 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.
  2. The same Hedy Lamarr who invented wi-fi in 1941.

Sources:

  • 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.
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