Drinking & Gaming in 18th Century New York

“What’s the use of a great city having temptations if fellows don’t yield to them?” 

― P.G. Wodehouse, Carry On, Jeeves

The Province of New York was never considered part of the New England colonies. More than the Hudson River separated them. While New England colonies had strict puritanical laws because they were, uh, founded by Puritans, New York was on a mission of dissipation.

King Charles II

Where did this desire for vice come from? Why, King Charles II and his court during England’s Restoration period. He’d spent the Interregnum in France and absorbed their culture of bon temps, taking an interest in horseracing and gambling. When he brought those pastimes back to England with him, the aristocracy eagerly joined him.

“Unless one gambled freely, it was quite impossible to be counted a gentleman, or, for that matter, a lady of fashion, in the Court of Charles the Second.”1

Gentlemen toasting the King.
“God Save the King,” Charles Williams, 1805 – public domain

At about this time, White’s, Almack’s, Crockford’s, and Cavendish’s came into being. For those who either don’t know London history or haven’t read historical romances, these places were exclusive clubs where gambling and libertine amusements entertained the aristocracy. They were called “gold and silver hells” for this reason.2

The Province of New York

What does King Charles II’s dissipation have to do with Colonial New York, considering it was under Dutch rule at the time?

"New Amsterdam becomes New York." The English captured New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664 and re-named it New York in honor of the Duke of York.
“Fall of New Amsterdam,” Museum of the City of New York, 1914

In a fit of pique over Dutch interference with British shipping, King Charles II gave New Amsterdam—ideally positioned for its harbor—to his brother, the Duke of York. Governor Stuyvesant had little power to resist, having only a small navy against the British. The Dutch capitulated, and New Amsterdam became New York.

Gaming Laws in New York

Satire illustration of gentlemen playing billiards, dogs playing at their feet, some anxious over the outcome.
“Billiards,” Thomas Rowlandson, 1803 – public domain

Until 1741, the good times rolled unchecked in New York. After various fatalities from excessive drinking and gaming (gambling) to threaten the health of society, the New York General Assembly passed a law prohibiting gaming in public houses where strong liquor was served. It went further than that. It also prohibited anyone ‘under the age of twenty-one, or any apprentice, journeyman, servant, or common sailor’ to gamble with dice or cards.3 In this way, gaming became a restricted entertainment for wealthy merchants and the gentry.

By 1772, the ratio of taverns to inhabitants in New York City was one for every fifty-five. They weren’t all the same. Some taverns catered to the wealthy, while others to the middling class, or the poor. In taverns for the ‘lower sort’, it wasn’t uncommon to see a diverse population mixing. Black and white men and women danced and drank together. On the opposite end of the spectrum, taverns for the upper class prohibited gently bred ladies from drinking, let alone, entering.

Colonial Holidays

In the New York social club, St. George’s, they celebrated St. George’s Day. (St. George being the patron saint of England.)

“Friday last being the anniversary of St. George, his Excellency Sir Jeffrey Amherst gave a ball to the gentlemen and ladies of this city at Cranley’s New Assembly Room… TWENTY-THREE TOASTS were drunk and the company parted at dawn in high good humour.” (New York Gazette, 1762)
Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776
Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

Many taverns thrived adjacent to churches. When services let out, congregants walked next door. This contributed to the rise in celebrants of “Saint Monday,” which was a day of rest after a day of rest.

Gaming

Gentlemen sitting around a table playing cards.
“A Pig in a Poke; Whist, Whist,” James Gillray, 1788 – The British Museum Collection Online

As for gaming, colonists enjoyed all matter of games. If a tavern kept billiard tables, allowed card games or dice, or any other wagering games, they could be fined twenty shillings for each offence, and up to three pounds if they allowed any of the prohibited class to gamble. Cheaters and professional gamblers also faced steep fines and/or sanctions for breaking this law.

In 1774, the Continental Congress requested that the American colonies reflect on the severity of their political situation by forgoing music, theater, cockfighting, and horseracing. It went over as well as you can expect for New York’s aristocratic upper class. They generally ignored it.

And lest we forget New York’s pleasure gardens, where drinking, entertaining, and, depending on the venue, horseracing, were enjoyed.

Footnotes:

  1. E. Perkins, Gambling in English Life 10 (1950) (quoting Games and Gamesters of the Restoration (1674-1714) introd. (C. Hartmann ed. 1930)).
  2. S. Tenenbaum, The Incredible Beau Brummell 169 (1967).
  3. E. Singleton, (2008). Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776: Houses, Streets and Country Homes (1902).

Other Sources:


Rescuing Her Rebel is free to newsletter subscribers: In the middle of the Merriweather’s Ball, smuggler and soldier Daniel Greene needs to stash stolen gunpowder and get a second chance at love.
Sign up here: tiny.cc/hallie_rescue

Pleasure Gardens

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

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

Green Dragon Tavern,
Boston, Massachusetts 1773

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

1740 — Spring Garden

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

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

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

1750 — Mead Garden

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

1765 — Ranelagh Garden

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

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

1767 — Vauxhall Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

1 Caldwell, Mark (2005). New York Night: The Mystique and Its History. New York City: Scribner.

2 Bayles, W. Harrison (2020). Old Taverns of New York. Outlook Verlag.

3 Singleton, E. (2008). Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776: Houses, Streets and Country Homes (1902). United States: Lightning Source.


Rescuing Her Rebel is free to newsletter subscribers: In the middle of the Merriweather’s Ball, smuggler and soldier Daniel Greene needs to stash stolen gunpowder and get a second chance at love.
tiny.cc/hallie_rescue