A world like no other, situated in a magical corner of the city, where the city’s people came together to have a good time in public.
—New York Times, 1899
Castle Garden, also known as Castle Clinton National Monument, has had a varied past. Since its inception in 1808, the sandstone fortress in Manhattan’s Battery Park has been a military fortification, pleasure garden, and America’s first immigration center.
What was there before Castle Garden? Well, nothing in that exact spot. A little to the east along the Battery was the spot for Fort Amsterdam, which changed names to Fort George when the British took over. The fort was demolished after the American Revolution.
Water! Water! is the universal note which is sounded through every part of the city and infuses joy and exultation into the masses.
—Philip Hone, former mayor of New York City, 1842
This is a three-part series on the waterworks project of New York City in the 18th and 19th centuries. If you missed them, here are: part one and part two.
In part two, we left off with the Manhattan Company in the early 19th century slowly adding to their network of poorly fitted, cheap wooden pipes and rapidly growing their highly profitable bank.
Unfortunately, an adequate water supply for a city requires it to be available to everyone. Not only did there have to be enough for drinking, but fire fighting and cleaning muck from stables, seepage from cemeteries, and overflowing privies that added to the unsanitary conditions of a busy and growing city.
The Common Council finally parted ways with the Manhattan Company in 1831 and formed their own municipality. The city took over the waterworks project and spent $1,000 dollars to have an engineer write up a report telling them what they already knew:
With the city expanding, they needed a source of water that could handle the projected population.
This meant that they needed to stop delaying an investment in an aqueduct capable of bringing the “pure and wholesome water” from either the Bronx or Croton Rivers into all parts of the city, including the poorest sections. Unfortunately, building a civic project of this magnitude takes time. The bill approving the use of the Croton River with its greater capacity didn’t happen until 1833.
The previous yellow fever epidemics were horrible enough, but before the completion of the Croton River aqueduct and reservoirs, two major setbacks would overwhelm Manhattan’s agencies and economies.
Ten years passed since a yellow fever epidemic hit New York City. The Board of Health as well as the city’s residents had grown complacent. The only disease prevention practiced was to quarantine ships coming in from locations known to have epidemics. However, this didn’t happen often.
The medical doctors on the Board of Health refused to diagnose an illness until it was absolutely necessary, and even then, they didn’t always offer an honest diagnosis. They weren’t eager to cut off the flow of trade and profit because they feared angry merchants more than they did lying to the public. [Gotham]
It was 1832, and a horrific cholera epidemic rolled across Europe and into London. It was only a matter of time before the horrible disease came to New York Harbor on one of the hundreds of merchant ships that arrived daily.
Those who took their Hippocratic oath seriously grew more and more nervous reading about the escalating spread of disease and deaths in London. They implored the city to clean streets, disinfect latrines, and establish a network of emergency hospitals. It wasn’t done.
On June 15, cholera arrived from Quebec via the St. Lawrence River, through the Erie Canal, and down the Hudson. A laborer became ill, survived, but his children did not. It soon spread like wildfire. The Board of Health maintained there was nothing to fear, calling it the usual “summer” cholera, a regular digestive malady brought on when food spoiled in the summer heat.
The Council and evangelical clergy responded to the growing fear permeating the city by saying:
…that the Plague, should it come, would pass over the virtuous parts of town and descend, like God’s wrath, on its Sin-Infested quarters. [Gotham]
In other words, cholera would choose its victims based on morality.
Sylvester Graham, a minister and dietary reformer, preached that liquor, impure foods, and sexual dissipation undermined the body’s ability to resist cholera.
(It would be another 22 years before John Snow of London would discover the true cause of cholera — not a moral failure, but the bacteria Vibrio cholerae contaminating drinking water.)
By July 2, medical doctors in the city knew there was a greater problem than “summer” cholera. They announced the tally of sickness and death occurring in the city. The Common Council was furious. They didn’t want the public to know there was a health crisis because it would hurt the economy.
The very next day saw an exodus of wealthy residents fleeing the city to escape the epidemic, just as they’d done with the arrival of yellow fever. Sure enough, businesses suffered by the lack of wealthy customers. Of the approximately 100,000 people who couldn’t afford to leave, 3,513 died. It is unknown how had many in total suffered under cholera’s grip. *
There was one other immense responsibility that the Manhattan Company’s waterworks failed to protect against: fire. With their pipes not extending throughout the city, there was little chance of stopping a large-scale fire in its tracks. In the years between parting ways, the city hadn’t had a chance to do much more
Bucket brigades were a thing of the past. Back in 1799, the city imported its first fire fighting engines from Hamburg. More would be purchased in the intervening years. These engines had long hemp hoses that connected to each other, bringing water from the one of the city’s wells, rivers, or cisterns to its destination. Unfortunately, these engines did not produce enough pressure, nor did they reach the upper stories of the newer, taller buildings. All of this would become glaringly obvious during The Great Fire of 1835.
The Great Fire of 1835
The night of December 16, 1835 was met with temperatures dropping seventeen degrees below freezing and blustery winds. It had been so cold of late, the East River was frozen.
At nine that evening, a watchman smelled smoke at the corner of Pearl and Exchange Streets. He, along with other watchmen, found a fire in a five-story warehouse. In a matter of minutes, the fire tore through the roof. They watched in horror as the flames jumped to an adjacent building on the tightly developed street. Within fifteen minutes, the fire destroyed fifty buildings.
Alarms sounded, church bells pealed. The firefighters — whose numbers hadn’t increased with the population’s growth — needed all the help they could get to put out the fires. Worse yet, they were exhausted from fighting fires the last two nights, which also meant that the city’s cisterns were empty.
The conflagration lit the sky so bright, people could see it from as far as New Haven and Philadelphia. Gradually, fire companies from surrounding communities arrived. They took their axes to the frozen rivers, hooked up their hoses on their fires engines, but if any water flowed, it blew back on the firefighters with the wind, or it froze in the hoses.
Over two nights, 674 buildings in downtown Manhattan burned. Almost every structure below Wall Street was lost — all thirteen acres of Manhattan’s original settlement, now mostly a business hub. Miraculously, only two people died. Had the downtown area still been residential, the loss of life would have been staggering.
Imagine how the city would have faired if they’d built a fully functioning waterworks with the ability to bring thousands of gallons of water, at high pressure to every street in the city.
Water, Water Everywhere
Between yellow fever and cholera epidemics, and the Great Fire of 1835, the Common Council realized, albeit late, that they needed to retake control over the city’s waterworks. Though the proposal for the aqueduct system was quoted at a staggering $5 million dollars, the Council had the support of landowners, developers, banks, and insurance companies because they all feared fire. (It would actually cost them $13 million in the end.)
The Common Council submitted a Croton Project Referendum. The aqueduct passed 17,330 to 5,916. The poorer districts voted against the waterworks, fearing they’d be priced out of using it, though that was never the intention.
The city bought back the Manhattan Company’s waterworks, pipes, and water rights. They employed John B. Jervis ** as chief engineer. He managed damming the Croton River in Westchester County, constructing the forty-one mile aqueduct, the receiving reservoir by 79th & 86th Streets and 6th & 7th Avenues that held 180,000 gallons of water, down to the distributing reservoir capable of holding twenty-four million gallons of water at Murray Hill on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. ***
On July 4, 1842, the project was complete. “Pure and wholesome water” flowed into the city, through cast-iron pipes, to every home and business who opted in. The Murray Hill reservoir stood like a proud fortress designed in the Egyptian revival style. Its walls towered thirty-eight feet above street level. A twenty-foot wide promenade ringed the top most portion, enclosed by iron railings.
New York celebrated their new and functioning waterworks on October 14, 1842 during the “Festivals of Connection.” A five-mile procession marched through the city, filling it with boisterous cheers and pealing bells. A hundred-gun salute honored the fifty-foot fountain displayed in front of City Hall Park.
Of course they celebrated! New York City had waited since 1774 for fresh, safe water.
Into the Future
The Croton Aqueduct could not keep up with the growth of the city. About 1939, the municipality added the Catskill and Delaware watersheds to the system.
The Croton Distributing Reservoir at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue was torn down in 1911 and parts of it are still visible in the foundation of the main branch of the New York Public Libary. In 1940, the receiving reservoir was drained and became the Great Lawn in Central Park.
* This is why contemporary politicians thought these diseases were a product of being poor, immoral, or “foreign” [immigrant-caused], as wealthy citizens fled, leaving behind those who couldn’t afford to.
** John B. Jervis cut his engineering teeth on the Erie Canal.
*** You might recognize this address because the location would eventually become the main branch of the New York Public Library (where the two lions guard the entrance). Some of the library’s foundation stones are remnants from the reservoir.
1. Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. Gotham: a History of New York City to 1898. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
6. Willis, Samuel J, and et al. “Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York, for the Years .. : New York (N.Y.). Common Council : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive. New York : The Council, January 1, 1970. https://archive.org/details/manualofcorporat1855newy.
As early as 1748, New York’s well water reportedly was so bad that even horses balked at drinking it.
—Gregory S. Hunter, Historian
This is a three-part series on the waterworks project of New York City in the 18th and 19th centuries. If you missed it, here is part one. Jumping ahead: part three.
Aaron Burr was a hero of the American Revolution. General Washington honored his leadership, his ability to guide 5,000 men safely away from the British as the Americans retreated from New York, by promoting Burr to lieutenant colonel.
This isn’t a story about American Revolutionary heroes. This is the story of greed and bureaucracy in public service where it least belongs but always does. It’s also the story of how a new nation takes shape. There had to be stumbles and oversized egos, but justice prevails… eventually. You just have to be patient. And in the case of NYC water, very patient!
Recap of Part One
In 1774, Manhattan’s Common Council authorized Christopher Colles to install pine water mains under the city’s streets for conveying fresh water from the Collect Pond to all of the city. A steam engine, the first to be built in America, was to be used in pumping large quantities of water into a reservoir. Before the war, all of Manhattan encompassed fourteen miles of road. Once the Revolution came, all construction ceased.
After the War
When the Revolution ended in 1783, the Common Council, the governing body for the city, didn’t resume Colles’ plan. instead, they busied themselves with expanding streets north on the island. More importantly, Collect Pond, Colles’ fresh water source, was no longer fresh. After years of being abused as an industrial dumping ground (tanneries, slaughterhouses, breweries, etc.), the pond was disgustingly polluted. Because of this, homes and businesses relied on cisterns, wells, and natural springs for their water.
Though New Yorkers wanted Colles’ plan revived, using the Bronx River instead of the Collect, the Common Council refused, citing exorbitant costs.
Not Obvious Until It’s Obvious
After the yellow fever epidemic of 1793(the same infamous one that hit Philadelphia that year), the Common Council established a Health Committee. These inspectors patrolled the waterfronts, quarantining sick sailors at Belle Vue Farm, which would soon be called Bellevue Hospital.
Another yellow fever epidemic hit in 1795, after which Mayor Varick concluded that the disease was “most fatal among the poor, immigrants who lived and died in filth and dirt.” [Burrows] Legislation approved a Health Officer for the city and gained another pest house on Bedloe’s Island when Bellevue ran out of beds. The Health Officer had the right to enforce cleaning ordinances. However, the water from the city’s pumps and wells drew from underground springs polluted from streets sullied with raw sewage, runoff from stables, seepage from graveyards, and apparently, free-range pigs.
Another yellow fever epidemic came to Manhattan in 1798. Citizens demanded the government do something about the water quality. Though they got the science of the disease backwards, they at least understood that rank, wet environments invited disease. (Mosquitoes attracted to these environments in warm weather carry yellow fever, not the water itself.) The government refused this next request for an aqueduct (running from the Bronx River into the city), again citing cost. They did, however, agree to drain the Collect, hoping to one day use the land for premium housing.
They didn’t think it through. The drained swamp continued to be a drained swamp beneath landfill. Basements flooded from the underground springs, buildings built atop it sank (The Tombs — prison, in particular), and it stank because of, well, the buried swamp.
Had this unwholesome region been set aside as a public park — abundantly planted with trees which would have sucked up the moisture out of the sodden soil — the city would have made a substantial gain on the double score of beauty and of health.
Thomas Allibon Janvier, 1894
Instead of premium housing, the worst tenement living conditions existed there for the poorest residents, immigrants, and gangs. It became the Five Points neighborhood.
Then, in 1799, the Health Office wrote a report whereupon they discovered:
New York City needed sweeping public health reforms!
Public welfare had to come before the individual’s rights!
The city needed to be supplied with “pure and wholesome water!” [Gerber]
Two hundred and twenty some odd years later, and the ghosts of New York are still rolling their eyes at those politicians.
The Common Council finally approved legislation for the city’s municipal waterworks. The bill explicitly stated that whoever took over the municipality could not do so for profit.
Reader, the municipality would totally be rigged for profit.
The Council issued a charter of incorporation to Aaron Burr as the founder of Manhattan Company. It allowed Manhattan Company to dig wells, divert streams, lay pipes, and anything else they needed to do to bring “pure and wholesome water” to the city.
A Monster is Born
How did the Manhattan Company make a profit off of a city municipality when the Council explicitly decried it?
(Aaron Burr’s unyielding Hamilton obsession pays off.)
Burr and the president of the Chamber of Commerce and the president of the Mechanics Society “argued that the aldermen should abandon their plan in favor of a privately operated water company, a position Alexander Hamilton hammered home to the Council in a separate concurring opinion.” [Burrows]
Burr himself drafted the charter of incorporation. He included a vague clause that one could exploit if one were trying to game the system. He wrote that “any surplus capital could be used for any monied transactions or operations.”
That sounds like they could reinvest in the waterworks if they came into a profit, they could reinvest it through legal avenues, such as trade, insurance and… drum roll, please… BANKING!
The state issued them $2M to start the waterworks company. The Manhattan Company took $100,000 of it to begin work… found themselves with a profit!
Not to give away the ending or anything, but Manhattan Company would one day become Chase Manhattan Bank.
Btw, Burr twisting Hamilton’s argument to make a profit off of a municipality, you could say, wasn’t what Hamilton intended.
[Burr] has lately by a trick established a Bank, a perfect monster in its principle; but a very convenient instrument of profit & influence.
Putting the “No” in InNOvation
Was this a conflict of interest? Only if you cared about fresh water.
The board of directors for the Manhattan Company, Burr at the helm, had no interest in running a waterworks municipality. The banking division of Manhattan Company was too profitable to waste time on their true purpose. Instead of building an aqueduct to the Bronx River, they went back to Colles’ plan and sunk wells at springs near the site of the (landfilled) Collect Pond.
Just one (ok, more than one) problem: between 1786 and 1804, the population of Manhattan tripled. [Bailey] The truly egregious part? Unlike Colles’ plan, they didn’t want to divert money from the bank’s profits on a steam engine (unbelievably new technology in 1774 when Colles proposed it). So in 1799, they ran the pumps hooked up to horses.
Six years after the chartering of the Manhattan Company, they’d only laid six miles of pipes, providing water for a terrifyingly low number of homes — 400 in total. The water wasn’t available for flushing gutters or reaching the city’s markets where it was needed to wash away filth. The Manhattan Company even refused to fix streets their workers had dug up laying pipes.
None of this improved the city’s public health. Yet the Manhattan Company made quite the profit.
Leaves a Bad Taste in Your Mouth
Though the Common Council didn’t split ways with the Manhattan Company, they removed Aaron Burr from the board of directors. His complete fall from grace came swiftly after.
Burr went on to more illustrious affairs that included being Jefferson’s Vice President, and raising a small army in a plot to annex Spanish territory in Louisiana and Mexico to be used toward the establishment of an independent republic. [History.com]
He was arrested and charged with treason.
The Manhattan Company, without Burr, continued to expand the water supply system at whatever pace you call the opposite of a New York minute, doing as little as possible to maintain their charter.
Next Week: Part Three
Will New York City ever get clean water? Well, you already know their water is famed for its quality, but you might not know how it finally happened.
Pour yourself a cold glass of water, make yourself some hot tea, or wash your hands. But come on back. HEA guaranteed.
Had I been born a hatter, people would have come into the world without heads. —Christopher Colles, inventor with good intentions
This is a three-part series on the waterworks project of New York City in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is part one. Here are part two and part three.
The story of Manhattan can’t be told without talking about water. Which I do a lot on this blog… but for good reason. It’s not just because Manhattan is an island and therefore surrounded by all that wet stuff, but the sheer magnitude of population growth once it was colonized, and the fact that humans can’t live without drinking water.
You’d think the colonizers would have made drinking water a priority. You’d also think Europeans would have been as intelligent as the indigenous people already there to know you can’t trash an environment and expect it to remain pristine. After all, it’s not like the colonizers came from another planet. Sadly, that’s exactly what happened. The trashing, not the intergalactic colonizing.
Nature’s Natural Reservoir
If we go back to the beginning, to both the Lenape and and the start of this blog, I waxed poetically about Collect Pond for being a freshwater source on an island surrounded by briny rivers, a beautiful place for colonizers to picnic and boat in the summer, skate in the winter, and then dump industrial waste all year long.
For a while, the pond held itself in check. Tea Water Pumpsall over the city delivered fresh water in wells dug to the same groundwater springs that fed the pond. Though, the farther one got from the Collect, the brinier and filthier the water. If folks wanted and could afford the freshest water, they paid Tea-Water Men to deliver it in casks.
All of this worked until it didn’t. Profound, I know. When it became obvious that there was a problem, a potentially huge problem, the New York Provincial Assembly passed a bill in 1742 aimed specifically at ensuring there was sufficient water in the city for fighting fires.
[This was after the fires from the Conspiracy of 1741, which was blamed on the Black population, though it was really white people acting out of fear of their enslaved population rising up against them. Racist is as racist does.]
Oops. They forgot about fresh, clean drinking water, not just the delivery of water.
Love That Dirty Water
That filthy water I mentioned? In short, it was caused by runoff. Have a dead pig? Leave it in the street to decompose and join the stream of refuse and human waste slowly making its way down to…
Who knows? The entire city was a stinking cesspool. Something needed to be done to save the residents of Manhattan from themselves.
Steam Engines in America
In 1774, New York City found a solution in Irish-born inventor, engineer and perennial schlimazel*, Christopher Colles.
After arriving in Philadelphia and lecturing at the American Philosophical Society — a think tank started by Benjamin Franklin — the APS turned him down when he asked for a stipend to build a steam engine. Eventually, a local distillery hired him to build one for pumping water into cooling tanks. A noble purpose, especially by colonial American standards. Those folks loved their ale.
Colles’ steam engine is considered the first steam engine built in America. [Koeppel] By the way, Colles didn’t invent the steam engine. He endeavored to improve on Jonathan Hornblower’s English model.
On April 22, 1774, coincidentally the same day as the New York Tea Party (like Boston, but in New York), Colles presented his plan to the Common Council — the alderman of the city with legislative power — to save Manhattan from its drinking water problem:
In short, Colles wanted to use a steam engine to pump water into a reservoir capable of holding 1,200,000 gallons of water for both drinking and fire fighting. In doing so, he intended to lay a network of pipes made of pitch pine logs bored out six inches and connected with iron rings. They were to be buried four feet under the street, and by gravity, convey a supply of fresh water throughout the fourteen miles of road that made up Manhattan.
After three months of deliberation, the Common Council approved Colles’ proposal. However, it didn’t quite happen as planned.
Manhattan, We Have A Problem
One stipulation from the Common Council was that Colles had to dig a well and prove good water came from it before he could go ahead building his steam engine and laying pipes. Not the problem.
Colles built his reservoir to hold 2,000,000 gallons of water. His steam engine worked ten strokes a minute — not as good as Hornblower’s, but not terrible. And they’d cast the cylinders in February 1775. Getting close to the problem.
The City of New York signed a contract with both Isaac Mann Sr. and Jr. from Albany, New York to purchase 60,000 feet of logs, fourteen to twenty feet long, without shakes or large knots. They were to be shipped down the Hudson later that year. Getting a lot closer to the problem.
April 1775 came, and so did the Battles of Lexington and Concord. There’s the problem.
For all his determination, Colles didn’t quit even as Manhattan emptied of businesses and families in preparation of what… or who… was to come.
General Washington arrived in New York in April 1776 and fortified the city against the British. This was the breaking point of Colles’ project. He and his family fled the city for safety.
By the time the war was over in 1783, there was nothing left of Colles’ project. It would take over sixty years, many preventable deaths, and city-destroying fires before Manhattan had enough clean water to provide for her residents.
Burr Makes It to the Room Where It Happened
In the intervening years — after the war but before killing Alexander Hamilton — Aaron Burr conned the leaders of Manhattan and made a fortune before losing it all. And yes, this has everything to do with delivering fresh water to Manhattan. Next week: Part Two!
Schlimazel: Yiddish, meaning an unlucky person; if a schlemiel trips, he lands on a schlimazel.
Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. Gotham: a History of New York City to 1898. New York ; Oxford: Oxford university press, 1999.
Koeppel, Gerard T. Water for Gotham: a History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
This post refers to men’s fashion of the 18th century. Please see the footnote below regarding gender terminology.
Everyone — at least in the US — recognizes the subject of the portrait on the right as George Washington, first United States president. Everyone — who hasn’t spent time researching this because they have real hobbies — assumes he’s wearing a white wig because of the frothy hairstyle and the time period. Everyone — including me from a few minutes ago, before I learned this — is wrong. (Thanks, Hollywood!)
Wigs were a big deal beginning in the 17th century. This fashion held until about 1800, which is a very long time for a trend to run its course. What happened in the intervening years? And what made all those men flip their wigs?
As Bald as a Billiard Ball
Heredity and/or other biological conditions, such as auto-immune diseases and the effects of stress on our hormones, cause hair loss. However, these are not the reasons for the wig-wearing craze that began in the 17th century. The sores and hair loss associated with widespread syphilis accelerated the need to cover up.
Summary on syphilis: Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease. Hair loss and sores were only two of the awful symptoms. Though sheaths, or condoms, were available, not enough men wore them, stoking an epidemic in Europe greater than the spread of the Black Death. Syphilis is caused by a specific bacteria and is treated today with antibiotics.
The powdered wig — referred to historically as a peruke or periwig — became a fashion trend when two vain 17th century kings lost the battle with their hair at a young age:
King Louis XIV of France experienced hair loss at the early age of 17, and he hired 48 wigmakers to help combat his thinning locks. His English cousin, King Charles II, began wearing wigs a few years later, when his hair began to prematurely grey — both conditions being syphilitic signals.
Courtiers and noblemen followed their king’s styles, starting a fashion trend that ultimately spread to the merchant class as a symbol of wealth. A single, extravagant wig might cost 25 shillings, or the weekly wage of a laborer. However, men spent upwards of 800 shillings on them yearly. Calculated for inflation, this amount was on par with one of today’s iconic, vintage handbags.
Perukes were made from horse, goat, sheep, or human hair. Day to day maintenance involved powdering with cornstarch scented with orange flowers, rose petals, nutmeg, ambergris, jasmine, orris root, or lavender [Perukes, Pomade, and Powder: Hair Care in the 1700s] to cover odors and filth. Special combs and pomades were used to maintain the wig’s shape.
Occasionally wigs needed delousing. While this may sound objectionable to today’s reader, it was better than the alternative, which was regular infestations of lice in one’s natural hair. Wigs solved this problem because a shaved head made wigs fit properly and a lousy place for lice to live (pun intended, of course). A wigmaker took care of the delousing for their patrons by boiling and nitpicking the wig.
Rockin’ the Rococo
In the beginning of the wig craze, the longer and fuller the wig, the better. Like most fashions, this changed over time.
Wig fashion at the beginning of the 18th century was shoulder-length and full.
By the mid-18th century, buckled side-rolls were popular with nobility and soldiers.
Macaronis preferred wigs with the height and lavishness of the French court.
Little known fact: the song “Yankee Doodle” pre-dates the American Revolution by a good 15 – 20 years. A British military surgeon wrote the song to “mock the disheveled, disorganized colonial ‘Yankees’ with whom they served in the French and Indian War.” [Yankee Doodle]
By the time the Revolution came to Concord, men in America began switching to powdering their hair instead of wearing wigs. In fact, George Washington didn’t wear wigs. He pomaded and powdered his red hair. (This guy over here is Colonel James Hamilton and he prefers pink, a color worn by all genders in the 18th century.)
Wigs became less popular in the latter half of the 18th century. During the Age of Enlightenment, leading up to the American and French revolutions, philosophers questioned leadership based on the circumstances of one’s birth versus the new theory of democracy. Wigs, equated with the nobility, fell out of fashion.
British men were the last to stop wearing wigs. In Britain, the Duty on Hair Powder Act of 1795 meant to subsidize wars with France brought the fashion trend to an end. The tax cost wig-wearers one guinea.
According to author Jenny Uglow, those who chose to pay the guinea hair powder tax were nicknamed “guinea-pigs” by reformist Whigs who chose instead to cut their hair short (the “French” cut) and go without a wig as an expression of solidarity with the French.
Terminology regarding gender in 18th century American and British cultures, as recorded in history, was limited to the binary. Though the gender spectrum exists across cultures and throughout history — including American and British cultures of the time, it did not become a discourse with distinct terminology until the 1950s. These posts reflect binary gender and those who identified in the record as that gender. If I’ve made an error, I welcome feedback as an opportunity to learn.
“As long as primates have been around, there’s probably been myopia —Dr. Ivan Schwab, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of California, Davis. 
For humans, the rates of myopia (nearsightedness) have increased alongside the invention of the printing press and later the political fallout of the Reformation.
As literacy rates rose, so did the need for corrective lenses. Not that literacy, or rather education, is bad for the eyes—genes and nutrition also play a role. However, close work such as reading or computer use puts a strain on the eyes, contributing to vision problems.
It’s a good thing lenses and the way we employ them have advanced over the years.
The magnifying glass came about a long time ago. Using convex lenses whose edges curve outward, they are used to magnify an object or focus light to ignite a fire. In 424 BCE, Aristophanes’ play, The Clouds, a character did just that.
The next advancement came in 1000 CE. Quartz, beryl, or glass shaped like a stone and polished were used as reading stones. Placing these on top of text magnified letters.
Venetian glassmakers in the 13th century produced the first spectacles. By sending these along the Silk Road, among other Italian items to sell, they brought vision correction to Asia. Unlike modern eyeglasses, these spectacles were heavy and very breakable.
Spectacles changed very little for the next 500 years. It took until the 18th century with the prevalence of cheap newspapers and more opportunities for non-clergy to be educated, for Europeans to finally demand better and more stylish options.
Around 1700, lenses were being made round and large, staying on by pinching the nose. The French called them pince-nez.
By 1730, design rapidly changed when Edward Scarlett (1688-1743), optician to King George, produced spectacles of differing strengths and with ‘arms’.  His spectacles could be purchased over the counter, or ground to one’s specifications. In fact, he used a set of lenses with different focal lengths to fit the right spectacles to the customer.
Frames of this era were typically made from whalebone, tortoiseshell, or horn. These materials were both strong and flexible.
During the Georgian era, when men commonly worn wigs, wig spectacles came into fashion. These frames were double-hinged, jointed on the sides meant to be worn over a wig. The shape of the frame didn’t fit the head without one.
By the middle of the 18th century, Benjamin Martin (1704-1782) invented the stylish Martin’s Margins. These were silver-framed with spring-loaded arms to stay on better, and round lenses rimmed with dark horn or tortoiseshell to help protect the eye from sunlight.
While Benjamin Franklin is often praised for the invention of the bifocal around 1760, they were in fact being produced in London at this time. His half split lenses, half for distance and the other half for close work. Bifocals like Franklin’s were very important to artists and craftsmen who needed the range for their work.
Lorgnettes came along in the last quarter of the 18th century. They were spectacles one held in front of the face with a handle that doubled as its case. To fit, the bridge of the nose folded at a hinge to slip inside the handle. They became wildly popular with theatre-goers. These are closely related to the quizzing glass in that they were a lens held by a handle, but quizzing glasses were fancier, more like jewelry pieces. They came a little later, at the dawn of the 19th century.
Eyewear protecting eyes from bright sunlight goes all the way back to prehistory with the Inuit and their walrus ivory “glasses” which contained no glass at all. They fit like goggles against the eyes with slits in the middle to reduce the sun’s glare. They also helped in focusing the eyes.
Some credit James Ayscough (1720-1759) with the use of modern tinted lenses for protection against sunlight, but that wasn’t his goal. He was experimenting with blue and green lenses for corrective purposes. It was the Venetians, again, who designed and used spectacles to protect the eyes from sunlight. They made green-tinted sunglasses, which had no UV protection for use against the bright glint of sunlight on water.
In Case You’re Wondering
It wasn’t until the 19th century that ophthalmologists performed eye exams. Before then, a lens-grinder offered lenses with varying focal lengths to choose from.
Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. —Benjamin Franklin…maybe
Have you ever gone into a stationery or craft shop just to check out the latest pens for their colors, the way they feel in hand, or glidability? (Yes, I made up “glidability.” Don’t be one of those “language is static” people because I’m sure Shakespeare would want a word with thee.)
Speaking of writers writing with quills… Today’s topic is quills, pencils, and erasers, for all your 18th century writing needs.
The 18th century, like the century before it, and before that one too, was limited to quills and pencils. There were styluses, but I’m not going to get into those ancient tools here, just as I’m not going to delve into advances made in the 19th century.
The Mighty Quill
Writers have used quills to write since the Dark Ages. In fact, quills remained in use well after better options became available. Using feathers from common birds such as geese, crows, and swans, quills were cheap to make, and the materials easily acquired. Unfortunately, they had their downsides. If it wasn’t for broken shafts or tips going blunt, the ink spluttered, staining hands and leaving splatters on pages.
Can you collect a feather from the yard and begin writing?
Apparently, not. To turn a feathers into quills:
… [they] were dried, sometimes in hot sand, the exterior membrane was removed, and the remaining tubular structure was either used immediately or hardened by various means, including dipping in acid to make the quill’s point stronger and longer lasting. The quill was finished by three basic strokes of a pen knife.
Incidentally, the word for pen comes from penna, which is Latin for feather.
Get the Lead Out
In 1564, a storm hit Borrowdale, England and toppled a tree. The locals noticed the roots were encased in a solid black substance which scientists of the day mistakenly called “Black Lead.” In fact, it was not lead at all but graphite, a pure carbon molecule.*
So, did a “lead” pencil ever exist?
No. The closest lead has ever come to being used for writing was the lead stylus from Roman and Egyptian ancient times, which I promised not to discuss in this post, yet here we are.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, England’s mines produced the highest quality graphite. Countries in Europe and North America imported pencils produced in England. Until, of course, the importing country and England faced each other across battlefields.
The Napoleonic Wars forced the French to come up with an alternative to the English pencil. Since graphite mined in France wasn’t nearly as high in quality, the French sought a new technique. Nicholas Jacques Conte, a French army officer, developed a mixture, combining graphite, clay and water. By changing the ratio of the three ingredients, French manufacturers were able to produce pencils with varying degrees of hardness.
Likewise, the United States experienced a scarcity of pencils during the War of 1812. With British and European imports drying up in the States, William Munroe, a cabinetmaker in Massachusetts, seized the opportunity to make the first pencils produced here.
Let’s return to the 18th century before we do something wild like invent the steel nib.
The Accidental Eraser
From the beginning of pencil use, a stale wad of bread served as an eraser. The first use of a rubber eraser, however, occurred by chance in 1770 when Edward Nairne, an English engineer, accidentally picked up a piece of rubber instead of bread, and found it did a better job of erasing his mistakes. It would take many years before pencils came with erasers attached.
The next time you pick up a pencil, or a quill if you have one lying around, give a moment’s pause to appreciate the longevity of our writerly technology.
(Another day, we’ll take a look at inks and things.)
* Diamonds are also pure carbon, but the arrangement of the carbon structure designates it as either a very hard substance or something soft and flaky.
During the early days of New Amsterdam, when a ship arrived, it anchored off the East River. Small boats which could handle the shallow river’s muddy edge conveyed the cargo and passengers to shore.
They needed a better option.
The Dutch did not build wharves on the East River because of its shallow depth, which was impossible for merchant vessels. It also had the tendency to flood area marshes at high tide, making it less than ideal for warehouses and other businesses that relied on shipping. The government offered citizens an incentive by the government to buy up waterfront lots on the East River on the condition that they fill in the shallow water with landfill to make a “‘wharf or street’ of a specified width at the outer edge, but the remainder of the filled land would become theirs to build on.”1 None of the slips were dug out from the riverbed.
Land-making accomplished two goals. First, it extended the shoreline beyond the shallow water near the natural shore so that ships could dock at landside wharves instead of anchoring far out in the East River. Second, the waterfront’s close proximity to the trade ships led to the construction of markets, storefronts, warehouses, and other commercial structures which were conveniently close to landings where farmers could moor their boats and unload livestock and produce for sale. In this way, land-making had a crucial impact on the development of New York’s burgeoning economy.
Diggers leveled some of Manhattan’s hills, and carters brought the fill to the river’s edge. Log cribbing was used to hold back the fill. Developers brought in Pine and Hemlock from the Hudson Valley.
The timbers were stacked horizontally, one on top of another, and notched together in a manner similar to how the walls of a log house are built. This technique was a typical way of building wharves in North America from the early 18th through the late 19th centuries.
The inlets created by the landfill were long arms reaching from the land, creating “alleyways of water.” [NYT] These slips were about two blocks long and about as wide. In this way, larger ships could easily tie up close to the warehouses constructed for this very purpose.
Some of the cargo brought in during the 18th century was coffee, spices, foods like green bananas, and both necessary and luxury items enjoyed by the colonists.
The Twelve Slips
Between the 17th and 18th centuries, the inhabitants of Manhattan built out twelve slips. Some names for the slips reflected those who owned the land, but others reflected the trade that took place in the markets set up on or near the slips.
Whitehall Slip next to Battery at the base of Whitehall St.
When the American Revolution ended, George Washington boarded a barge at Whitehall Slip that carried him across to New Jersey. This was the first leg of his farewell procession, taking him home to Mount Vernon in 1783. Along the way, he formally resigned his commission as commander-in-chief.
Exchange Slip at the bottom of Broad Street.
Coenties Slip, at Coenties Alley near Broad Street.
Conraet Ten Eyck, a tanner and shoemaker, was an early Dutch landowner. He was nicknamed Coentje, or “Coonchy” to the British. The nickname and spelling stuck.
Old Slip, at the bottom of William Street.
Old Slip goes back at least as far as its first appearance on a map in 1691. Its most famous moment in American history came a hundred years later when, in 1792, the 90-ton merchant brig Betsy sailed out of Old Slip to become the first ship to carry the American flag around the world.2
Coffee House Slip, at the bottom of Wall Street.
In 1774, Manhattan held a Tea Party which did not rival Boston’s. The Nancy, loaded with tea, was refused to dock. The captain rowed to shore and stayed at a tavern for two days, then took his ship back to England. And that is why you rarely hear about this event.
Burling Slip, at the bottom of John Street. (Once known as Rodman’s Slip)
Peck Slip, at the base of Ferry Street.
Market boats full of produce and livestock sailed from Long Island, where they were farmed, to Peck Slip. These items were sold at a public market built nearby. There were also warehouses and brick residences for market-men and ship owners.
James Slip, at the end of James Street.
Market Slip at the bottom of Market Street.
Pike Slip at the bottom of Pike St.
Rutgers Slip, at the end of Rutgers Street.
This slip was named for Henry Rutgers (1745-1830), whose father owned most of the Lower East Side in the early colonial era. He was an organizer for the Sons of Liberty and fought in the American Revolution.
The End of the Slips
Why wasn’t the Hudson River used as a port in colonial New York?
It wasn’t an ideal choice for sailing ships. Not only was the shore rocky, but it was also too windy and the currents too strong in places. A few wharves existed on the Hudson in the 18th century [Montrésor’s map, 1775], but it wasn’t until the 19th century, with the advent of the steamship, that the Hudson became a busy landing.
At the same time, Manhattan needed more buildable land as its needs expanded. The city began to fill in the slips on the East River. The last slip ended its run in 1900.
Today, the only part of the slips to still exist are their names on street signs.
I’ll be honest here. I have no idea why I wanted to know more about Guy Fawkes Day. That was last week, or about 274 days ago in 2021 time. Maybe I was looking for holidays people celebrated in colonial America? Why I needed to know this for the book I am writing will forever remain a mystery.
My loss time; your gain.
The 5th of November
Guy Fawkes was a Catholic in a time when the king of England, King James I, considered Catholicism a superstition and religious tolerance a waste of his time. Guy and his gang came up with a plan. On November 5, 1605, they were to don masks and blow up Parliament on Opening Day. Reader, it was not a success.
To celebrate the king’s survival of the attempt on his life, the people of London lit bonfires like they just won the Super Bowl.
As the celebration became a yearly event—by an Act of Parliament, revelers added props to the festivities, including but not limited to effigies of the Pope, Devil, and a sundry of political figures. The anti-Catholic dangers of popery sentiments, obviously, remained.
In Colonial America
When colonists took up residence in New York and New England, they brought the good times with them, adding in the fun of poor kids begging for pennies.
[Side note: this is also a feature of the Jewish holiday of Purim in which masks are also worn and one religion wanted to do away with another. Sadly, these holidays are at opposite ends of the year, so the crossover stops there. Except, now I want to dress up as Guy Fawkes for next Purim.]
The earliest known Guy Fawkes/Pope’s Night celebration in the colonies took place in 1623 in Plymouth. Drunken sailors built up huge bonfires and burned down several houses, to no one’s surprise.
A hundred years later, things settled down… somewhat. They replaced bonfires by parading the effigies through town and then brought to a specific location to be set on fire. Mostly, this night was celebrated by the “lower sort.” The sailors, laborers, apprentices, artisans, servants, and slaves. Except women. Or at least, women didn’t make the historical record. I, for one, would have loved standing at the back of the crowd just to watch those drunk fools from a safe distance.
A letter to the editor of the Boston Weekly Post-Boy in 1745 laid it out in so many words:
I found an answer for our long-winded friend: Because the celebration was anti-Papal, town leaders allowed these wild celebrations to happen.
Connection the American Revolution??
Not the answer you were expecting, but twenty years later, those Rabble and Dregs in Boston became the leaders of the Sons of Liberty.
So, did Guy Fawkes Day, or Pope’s Night end because we won the Revolution?
Hold up. Not so fast.
It’s 1775, and General Washington wants to gain control of Quebec and convince Catholic French Canadians to form an alliance with the Americans in fighting the British. That wasn’t going to happen if the Continental Army went around singing anti-Catholic songs. General Washington forbid his troops to continue their “childish custom” and “improper” behavior.
Even though it was a British victory, Benedict Arnold fought heroically for the Continental Army. In fact, this battle was when he received the injury that set him on a course for treason.
Interestingly, winning the Revolution didn’t dampen our taste for chaos and drunken bonfires (see Super Bowl above). So, for many years we supplanted Benedict Arnold into Guy Fawkes’ honor and celebrated our own brand of anti-treason…
…Until Halloween became a more popular holiday in the 19th century.