Writing the 18th Century

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.
—Benjamin Franklin…maybe

A cartoon of Shakespeare holding a quill and a scroll of paper.
Shakespeare with his quill. Source: Pixabay

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.

Quill in an ink pot
Source: RawPixel

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

A feather in the grass
Source: Hallie Alexander, 2021

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.

The Ingenious Pen

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?
Two slabs of wood with a flat slab of graphite sandwiched between them. The wood appears to be chiseled to a point, revealing a tip of graphite.
The oldest pencil in the world, found in timbered house built in 1630. Source: Faber-Castell

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

three gum erasers piled on top of each other
Art gum rubber erasers

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.)

Footnote:

* 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.

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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Slips on the East River

Ships sailing toward New Amsterdam from the East River.
New Amsterdam, 1700. Slips extending from the mainland.
Source: NYPL Digital Collections

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.

Why Slips?

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.

Basic map of New York showing the slips along the East River.
Map of the “made and swampland of New York,” 1856. Source: Boston Public Library

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.

Archaeological Study of Rutgers Slip, 2009

Construction

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.

Archeological Discovery at Burling Slip, 2011
Black and white photograph with warehouses in the background and a slip in the foreground. South Street from Maiden Lane to Burling Slip, New York City, February 23, 1891
Burling Slip, 1891. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

View of Market Slip taken from the corner of Cherry St. 1859
View of Market Slip, 1859. Source: NYPL Digital Collections
  1. 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.
  2. Exchange Slip at the bottom of Broad Street.
  3. 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.
  4. 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
  5. 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.
  6. Fly Market Slip, at the base of Maiden Lane.
  7. Burling Slip, at the bottom of John Street. (Once known as Rodman’s Slip)
  8. 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.
  9. James Slip, at the end of James Street.
  10. Market Slip at the bottom of Market Street.
  11. Pike Slip at the bottom of Pike St.
  12. 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.

Street Signs: Coenties Slip and Pearl Street in the Fraunces Tavern Block Historic District.
Source: Forgotten New York

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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Guy Fawkes Day In America

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.

Bonfire with man jumping over it in the middle of a city street.
(Photo via Eazydee | Twitter)

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.

Guy Fawkes stylized mask with goatee.
Guy Fawkes Mask. Source: Creative Commons

[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.

South End Forever. North End Forever. Extraordinary Verses on Pope-Night. (A fragment of a song sheet.)
Pope Night Verses, 1768. Boston. Source: Public Domain

A letter to the editor of the Boston Weekly Post-Boy in 1745 laid it out in so many words:

Why the enormity above all others should be winked at, and the Inhabitants of the Town with their Dwellings left to the mercy of a rude and intoxicated Rabble, the very Dregs of the People, black and white, and why no more has been done to prevent or suppress such Riotous proceedings, which have been long growing upon us [ed: like this sentence!], and as long bewailed by all sober persons, must be humbly left to our betters to say.

— A letter to the editor of the Boston Weekly Post-Boy, 1745

I found an answer for our long-winded friend: Because the celebration was anti-Papal, town leaders allowed these wild celebrations to happen.

A conveyance and a parade to burn Guy Fawkes in effigy.
Detail from a 1768 broadside depicting Pope Night in Boston.
Source: Public Domain
Is that a triceratops on the right? What is happening here?

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.

A parade of re-enactors of the American Revolution carrying a Benedict Arnold effigy to where it will burn.
Annual Burning of Benedict Arnold.
Source: AtlasObscura

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.

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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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:

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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Tea Water Pumps

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?

Drinking Tea

Three ladies and a gentleman sit around a table drinking tea and socializing. Painting.
Tea Time by Edward Percy Moran, c. 1890. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

Etching: A small boy sits on the side of a street pump. A man in the distance walks away with a bucket. Pump on Greenwhich Street, Blow Canal.
Rogers, William Allen, 1894. Source: NYPL

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 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

WPA poster. History of Civic Services in the City of NewYork. Water Supply. No 2. Below it says: 1750 "All except the very poor bought their supplies for drinking from vendors who filled their barrels at the three or food good wells called."
Bock, Vera, WPA, 1936. Source: Library of Congress.

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

Tea-Water Men

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.

At a little distance there is a large spring of good water, which the inhabitants take for their tea and for the use of the kitchen. … Those who are less delicate on this point, make use of the water from wells in town, though it be very bad.”

— P. Kalm, 1748

*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 pleasure gardens, opened as a resort.

Ladies sitting beside a large tree painting or looking at the scenery. A spring in the background. A horse and cart in front of the tree. Photograph.
(Not New York, but this is what I imagine the garden by the springs looked like.)
American homes and gardens, 1907. Source: Smithsonian Libraries/Wikimedia Commons

Footnotes:

All refer to Koeppel, G. T.

Sources:

  • Bock, Vera, Artist. History of civic services in the city of New York Water supply No. 2: The tea water pump garden. [New York: Federal Art Project , Pt. 4, 1936] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <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, G. T. (2001). Water for Gotham: A History. United Kingdom: Princeton University Press.
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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Underground Waterways: NYC

Man fishing, rod in hand, fish dangling from the tip of his fishing rod.
Fishing. Source: Hallie Alexander, 2021.

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.

Manhattan’s Terrain

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.

The image shows a canal with buildings on either side. There are small rowboats in the water. Two men stand at a dock.
Broad Street, 1640. Source: NYPL

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.

Collect Pond

The hilly area around the Collect Pond.
Collect Pond by By Archibald Robertson. Source: Met Museum

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 engineers of those days evidently believed that the leveling of the hills, down the sides of which coursed the rivulets … would exterminate the stream. But they were mistaken.”

— 1883, New York Times
Three men stand around an iron fence in the courtyard of the Tombs. It is a stone building with grates on the windows.
The Tombs, 1850-1930. Source: NYPL

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

Down a manhole. The walls of the tunnel are brick. There is a river running below.
Minetta Brook, underground. Source: Untapped Cities, photo credit: Allison Meier

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.

Old, plain buildings, fire escapes, etc.
Minetta Street, 1925. Source: NYPL
(Notice how the road turns at the far end. That is the original course of the brook.)

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 in his US Army, Civil War uniform.

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]

The pressures of 19th century growth forced the city planning commission to develop an aggressive plan that would encompass the whole of old Mannahatta. A massive 2,028 block grid stretched 13.4 miles and took nearly 60 years to complete.

Steemit / @voronoi

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.

A full map of Manhattan. A grid is laid over the majority of the island which includes all the waterways known in 1865.
Sanitary & Topographical Map of the City and Island of New York Prepared for the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens Association. Under the direction of Egbert L. Viele, Topographical Engineer, 1865. Source: Public Domain
Key to the map. Green with darker green tufts is marshland. Orange indicates manmade. A paler green with hashmarks is meadow. A dark line drawn down a street indicates the presence of sewers. Blue is waterway.
Key to Viele’s map.
A segment of Manhattan by Pearl Street that shows off all of the facets of the key.
Detail of Viele’s map showing waterways under streets, meadows, landfill, and sewers.

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.

An old city hardware store with a sign out front.
Hardware Store, 1941. Source: NYPL

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.

Japanese style illustration of a carp.
Carp. Source: RawPixel

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.

Footnotes:

  1. Watercourses
  2. When There Was Water, Water Everywhere
  3. An Ancient Stream Under a Manhattan Building Leads to a Dispute

Sources:

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Jews in Colonial New York — Part 2

If you missed Part 1 of Jews in Colonial New York, please head on over there first.

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.

Painting of Oliver Cromwell in armor.
A Painting of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper, 1656. Source: Wikimedia

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)

Painting of a British courtroom with robed men seated on the floor level and in the gallery.
Court of Common Pleas, Westminster Hall, Thomas Rowlandson, 1808. Source: Wikimedia

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.

Denization: An obsolete term, dating back to the 13th century in British controlled countries in which a foreigner, through letters patent, became a denizen. This was not full citizenship, meaning they were not subjects of the Crown, though they were allowed to own land.
Source: Hallie Alexander, 2021
Naturalization: A foreigner’s ability to gain full citizenship of a country
Source: Hallie Alexander, 2021

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:

“that no public worship is tolerated by act of Assembly but to those that profess faith in Christ, and therefore the Jews’ worship not to be allowed.”

A print of the Mill Street Synagogue. A small building with a picket fence in front of it.
Mill Street Synagogue

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)

Yellowed map of Manhattan 1695. there are few streets drawn, some property listed out by numbers with a legend in the corner.
Try as I might, I could not find #14, The Jew’s Synagogue, on the map.

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.

Partial Naturalization

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.

Voting Rights

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)

voting rights for
all freeholders of competent estate. 

~No exceptions~ 

Image of a scroll with a checkmark with a quill beside it.
Source: Hallie Alexander, 2021

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!

“Announcing the Founding,” Secretary of the 1777 Convention, Robert Benson, mounted a barrel in front of the courthouse and read the document to assembled citizens.
New York’s First Constitution 1777, Darley, Felix, 1877. Source: NYPL

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.

Footnotes:

* 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.

Sources:

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Jews in Colonial New York — Part 1

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.

Dutch people gather in a town square.
New York of 1660. Source: NYPL

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

Menasseh ben Israel by Rembrandt, 1636 (etching). Source: National Portrait Gallery (UK)

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.

A fleet of Dutch merchant ships, sails billowing, flying the Dutch red, white, and blue flag.
Dutch West India Company. Source: Public Domain

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:

“… After many consultations we have decided and resolved upon a certain petition made by said Portuguese Jews, that they shall have permission to sail to and trade in New Netherland and to live and remain there, provided the poor among them shall not become a burden to the Company, or to the community, but be supported by their own nation. You will govern yourself accordingly.”

Peter Stuyvesant, April 26, 1655.

New Amsterdam

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.

The left page shows handwriting: Isaac Mattahias Gomez. The right page is engraved with Biblia Espanola.
A Sephardic bible, translated into Spanish, printed in 1661.
Source: Gomez Mill House.

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:

All people shall still continue free denizens and enjoy their lands, houses, goods, ships wheresoever they are within this country, and dispose of them as they please.

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

A painting of the surrender.British ships in the background.
The fall of New Amsterdam. A woman pleads with Peter Stuyvesant. Source: Wikimedia

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.

Next, we’ll explore the nuances of British control up through the American Revolution in Jews in Colonial New York – Part 2.

Ships approach the fortress at the tip of New York City. A Union Jack flies above the fort.
A view of Fort George with the city of New York. Source: John Carwitham, 1731.

Footnotes:

  1. Civil Status of the Jews in Colonial New York

Sources:

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Bowry Lane

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.

Native American dwellings on Manhattan Island, before the Dutch settlement.
Source: John Gilmary Shea, 1886.

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.”

Dutch Bouwerij

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.”

Map of New Amsterdam. Fort at the tip of Manhattan, the Broad Way extending straight up to the “Road to the Bouwerijs” along the East River, 1644.

Enslaved Africans

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.

Ancient View of the Present Junction of Pearl & Chatham Streets
Ancient View of the Present Junction of Pearl & Chatham Streets, 1861. Source: NYPL

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.

Montrésor, John, Peter Andrews, and Andrew Dury. A plan of the city of New-York & its environs to Greenwich, on the North or Hudsons River, and to Crown Point, on the East or Sound River, shewing the several streets, publick buildings, docks, fort & battery, with the true form & course of the commanding grounds, with and without the town. Survey'd in the winter,i.e. 1766. [London; Sold by A. Dury, 1775]
Montrésor, John, Peter Andrews, and Andrew Dury, 1766. Source: Library of Congress

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 house is brick, painted dark red. There are Chinese characters below the third floor windows.
Edward Mooney House at 18 Bowery.
Source: Wikimedia

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 architectural style of the house is Early Federal, reflecting strongly its Georgian antecedents in construction, proportions and design details. It is three stories in height, with s finished-garret beneath a gambrel roof, Two features of special note which verif,y the documented age of the building are the hand-hewn timbers framing the roof and the broad width of the front windows in proportion to their height. On the exterior, original splayed stone lintels with double keystone blocks are above most of the windows. At the gable end of the house, Which can be viewed from Pell Street, the garret floor is lighted by a central round-headed window. the upper sash of which contains original wooden tracery. It is flanked by a pair of quadrant windows. The gambrel roof on this side is Within a parapet wall connecting:two large chimneys. The interior of the house also discloses many original architectural details including, in the earliest section, window frames and trim, and in the extension, a stairway with an oval-shaped handrail.
From the Landmarks Preservation Commission, August 23, 1966

The Bowery

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.

Image of the Bowery with people walking on the street, horse-drawn carts, and trolleys below an elevated train track in front of the Bowery Savings Bank.
The Bowery 1897-1898. Source: Wikimedia

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:

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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