22

Queen of Commerce, Jack of All Trades

American neutrality during the Napoleonic Wars paid off handsomely for New York. Despite persistent losses to belligerent navies and privateers, fifteen or so years of supplying distant combatants transformed the city into the nation’s premier port and marketplace.

In war-ravaged Europe, the demand for American products became almost insatiable. As early as 1795 Noah Webster reported that French purchases of meat, flour, leather, and cloth were opening a new era of affluence for the United States. Between 1795 and 1800, as a result of the Jay Treaty, the value of American exports to Great Britain trebled, while the United States emerged as the single most lucrative overseas market for British exports. The West Indies plantation economies, isolated from Europe, also grew more dependent on supplies of grain, meat, and timber from the mainland. West Indian officials coolly ignored attempts by their home governments to restrict neutral commerce and allowed American ships to come and go without interference.

Thanks to the turmoil in Europe, moreover, the United States captured much of the international carrying trade. Sugar from the West Indies, wine from Madeira, cotton and spices from India, manufactures from Europe—all of them and more crisscrossed the oceans in American bottoms by the turn of the century. From 1795 to 1800 American shipments of Caribbean sugar to Europe doubled—over six hundred U.S. ships engaged in trade with Saint-Domingue alone—while American reexports of European goods to Latin America grew by a factor of seven.

The consequences for New York were astounding. Between the early 1790s and 1807, the value of imports through the city rose from $1.4 million to $7.6 million. By the later 1790s New York had pulled decisively ahead of Philadelphia as the leading port of entry in the United States. In 1806 alone, the value of New York’s imports was almost twice that of Philadelphia’s. More striking still was the jump in exports through New York, which went from around $2.5 million in 1790 to $26 million in 1806, a tenfold increase. By 1799 the port handled nearly one-third the nation’s overseas trade; almost one-fourth its coasting trade also moved through the East River waterfront.

Little or none of this would have happened had Europe been at peace, or had the United States been dragged into war on one side or the other. But neutrality doesn’t explain why New York proved so much more successful than, say, Philadelphia or Boston in responding to heightened foreign demand for American products. How did the city become the principal link between the United States and world markets?

CONNECTIONS

Geography was part of the answer. That New York possessed one of the best harbors in the world—deep, directly accessible to the open sea, and rarely blocked by ice, even in the depths of winter—was an old story. But those assets counted for relatively little until the final decade of the eighteenth century, when merchants began to employ big, deep-draft vessels—brigs, barks, and ships—that could make Philadelphia, one hundred miles from the mouth of Delaware Bay, only on a flood tide. The bottom-line case for New York was simple: larger cargoes could move in and out more rapidly and surely than elsewhere.

This efficiency helped New York reestablish its old commercial partnership with Great Britain. By the early 1790s more ships were leaving Liverpool for New York than for any other American port, and New York had regained its former role as the American terminus of the transatlantic postal “packet” service from Falmouth, providing city merchants with vital mercantile information days, even weeks, ahead of competitors in other seaports. Ratification of the Jay Treaty, followed by the appointment of Rufus King (another pro-British New Yorker) as American ambassador to the Court of St. James, all but sanctified this special neocolonial relationship.

Equally critical was the expansion of New York’s continental hinterlands. In the mid-1790s, following Anthony Wayne’s victory over the Indians at Fallen Timbers and ratification of the Jay Treaty, tens of thousands of settlers began occupying western territories wrested from the Six Nations of the Iroquois after the Revolution. Most were land-hungry New England Yankees, squeezed off their rocky farmsteads by overpopulation and declining yields. Up the Mohawk Valley and over the Adirondacks they raced, aiming for the rich country below Lake Ontario, a few even setting their sights as far west as Ohio.

This migration dwarfed anything of its kind in the previous history of the New World. During the winter of 1794-95 alone, sometwenty thousand migrants flooded through Albany, and that was only a hint of what lay ahead. All told, between 1790 and 1800 the population of New York State rose from 340,000 to 589,000—the great majority of the increase attributable to the rapid occupation of the frontier. By 1810 the state had 959,000 inhabitants, nearly three times as many as when Washington was first inaugurated.

From this vast region’s burgeoning towns and villages—Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Elmira, Ithaca—an ever-widening stream of farm produce cascaded down toward the Atlantic seaboard, where New York merchants hustled it out along well-traveled sea routes to markets in the West Indies and Europe. So relentless was the pressure for improved transportation between the coast and the interior that in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, the legislature granted charters of incorporation to hundreds of bridge and turnpike companies; as early as 1808 New Yorkers had already invested more money in road company stock than had the residents of any other state. The legislature also handed out exclusive franchises for stagecoach service that markedly improved the city’s connections with Albany, Boston, and Philadelphia. In 1792, moreover, the state subsidized two private canal companies, one to link the Hudson with Lake Champlain, the other to connect the Hudson with Lake Ontario. Both did much to facilitate trade and communication, further helping the city establish dominion over an agricultural hinterland that stretched, at its fullest extent, from the upper Connecticut River Valley to the shores of Lake Erie, encompassing sizable portions of northern and western Pennsylvania as well.

For wealthy and well-connected residents of New York City, the rapid settlement of the state’s northern and western territories brought additional rewards from land speculation and development. In 1791 state commissioners, chaired by Governor Clinton, auctioned off 5.5 million acres of Iroquois land for better than a million dollars. Syndicates of city investors grabbed most of it, some purchases dwarfing the grants made by Fletcher and Cornbury a century earlier. Alexander Macomb got his hands on a princely 3.6 million acres; Melancton Smith, Marinus Willett, James Clinton, Jonathan Lawrence, James Kent, and many others came away with thousands of acres apiece.

At almost the same time, New York merchants were gaining control of another agricultural hinterland, this one in the American South. Here the story hinged on cotton rather than foodstuffs. The world’s chief markets for raw cotton were Manchester and other great British textile manufacturing centers, where the production of muslin and broadcloth continued to drive the industrial revolution. Prior to 1790 North America had supplied relatively little of Britain’s voracious demand for cotton, in part because the time-consuming work of removing seeds from the lint made it commercially less attractive than other cash crops. Only scattered shipments passed through New York in the 1780s and early 1790s, city merchants shunning it as a “dull article.”

Then, in 1792 or 1793, a Connecticut inventor named Eli Whitney devised a handcranked mechanism—afterwards called the cotton engine, or “gin”—that did the job quickly and cleanly. Virtually overnight, the production of cotton below the Mason-Dixon line doubled, then doubled again. In 1796 over six million pounds were exported from the United States, the bulk of it to Great Britain. By 1804 cotton exports had climbed to thirty-five million pounds, and British manufacturers were buying more cotton from the United States than from Britain’s own colonial possessions. Cotton suddenly became a major component of American trade with the former mother country, and it was on the way to becoming the nation’s single most valuable export.

New Orleans shipped out more cotton than any other American city because it was cheaper and easier to raft bales down the Mississippi River than to send them overland to eastern ports. However, New York possessed several distinct advantages of its own that enabled its merchants to divert a significant part of that traffic through the East River waterfront of Manhattan.

For one, New York commanded a much stronger regional market. Slave societies couldn’t generate the same level of consumer demand for foreign manufactures as did seaboard cities and midwestern towns, so British buyers coming to New Orleans for cotton found themselves unable to sell their own exports as quickly or profitably as they could along Pearl Street or in Hanover Square. New York’s attractiveness was enhanced by a superior commercial infrastructure and abundant human resources—ships, wharves, storehouses, auction rooms, sailors, cartmen, dockworkers—which made it possible to move mammoth quantities of cotton directly to European mills more efficiently and reliably.

Above all, New York enjoyed financial resources second to none in the country. By the turn of the century Manhattan had more banks and a greater volume of financial transactions than any other American city. New York’s primacy in trade with the British Isles had also made it the nation’s principal market for the bills of exchange that were the lifeblood of international commerce. As cotton production mounted, southern planters relied more heavily on the New York financial market to turn the receipts they received from exporters into cash. Shrewd merchants like Isaac Hicks soon took to advancing money to southerners (at customary rates of interest) and, in the absence of southern banks, to handling transactions between them and northern creditors (for a percentage). From time to time Hicks also acted as an agent for southerners wanting to use the proceeds from cotton sales to speculate in other commodities on the New York market. Using “factors” (resident agents) and correspondents, other city merchants bought cotton outright from planters for shipment back to New York or, more often, directly to Liverpool or Le Havre.

New York also had an unrivaled concentration of insurance firms. During the wartorn nineties, the mounting cost of private insurance for ships and cargoes had prompted a number of wealthy New York merchants to organize marine insurance companies. Three appeared in 1796 alone: Archibald Gracie’s New York Insurance Company, Nicholas Low’s United Insurance Company, and Comfort Sands’s Associated Underwriters—all of which soon expanded their operations to include coverage of houses and lives as well as vessels. Within the first half-dozen years of the next century, five additional insurance firms would be established in the city.

As a hub of speculation too, New York was now far ahead of its rivals. While the pace of activity on the Tontine exchange was glacial by modern standards, rarely exceeding a hundred shares a day, and few businesses as yet relied on issues of stock to raise money, New York brokers nonetheless offered more than stocks to wager on—elections, sporting events, international affairs, even the weather—and siphoned cash from all over the country. As one envious Philadelphia merchant said in the mid-nineties, the “immense capital” pouring into the city lubricated every aspect of trade and commerce and explained why New York “now far exceeds us in her exports and imports.”

The upshot was the renowned “Cotton Triangle,” in which New York brokered the exchange of southern cotton—and, more important, the money from sales of southern cotton—for British manufactures. New York ships ran cotton from Charleston or Mobile or Savannah to Europe, returned to New York with manufactured goods (and immigrants), then worked down the coast again to exchange their goods for more cotton—ringing up, at every turn, substantial profits in sales, freight charges, and commissions. By 1798 cotton already accounted for half of the city’s domestic exports; a decade later one-fourth of the cotton reaching Liverpool from the United States came through the East River waterfront. Eventually, New York superintended so great a share of the South’s output that forty cents of every dollar paid for southern cotton allegedly wound up in the pockets of city merchants.

Once again, New York had hitched its economic well-being to the institution of slavery.

RIDING THE WAVE

The quickened tempo of local commerce drew throngs of aspiring businessmen to Manhattan, and their lean and hungry willingness to take entrepreneurial risks further accelerated the velocity of trade. In 1790 the city directory listed 248 merchants; by 1800 there were over eleven hundred—a fourfold increase.

A large body of newcomers came down from New England, bringing new expertise, capital, and connections—the urban wing, as it were, of the great exodus populating upstate New York and the Ohio country. The brothers Nathaniel and George Griswold arrived from Old Lyme in 1794 and established the firm of N. L. and G. Griswold, whose blue-and-white checkered house flag was known in the West Indies, South America, and China. (Local wags liked to say that a cargo stamped “N.L. & G.G.” meant “No Loss and Great Gain.”) They were joined by Lows from Salem, Grinnells from New Bedford, Goodhues from Salem, and a host of other Connecticut Yankees, including Anson G. Phelps, Elisha Peck, and William E. Dodge—more than enough, all in all, to warrant formation in 1805 of the New England Society in the City of New York. At their annual dinner, the members drank toasts to “the Universal Yankee nation!”

With the New Englanders came additional numbers of Scots, English, Irish, and French immigrants eager to make their fortunes in the city’s surging economy—none more successfully, as it happened, than young John Jacob Astor. Since his arrival in New York shortly after Evacuation Day, Astor had developed a keen interest in the fur trade. He began buying furs in Manhattan and shipping them back to London, soon accumulating enough capital to open his own warehouse in Montreal (still the center of the North American fur trade) as well as to purchase a lot and building on Little Dock Street, in the heart of the business district, for an office and residence. By 1793 he had become the most important fur merchant in the United States. When Britain agreed to abandon its western posts in the Jay Treaty of 1794, Astor moved aggressively into the Great Lakes and began to pull trade away from the St. Lawrence toward the Hudson. Over the next decade his agents ranged as far west as St. Louis, sending thousands of pelts every year back to New York City.

In the mid-1790s, recognizing the limits of European and American demand for furs, Astor also began to participate in the China trade. At first he bought space on Canton-bound ships owned by other merchants, shipping otter, beaver, and fox skins (along with ginseng) and bringing back tea, silk, and porcelain. He consigned these goods to local auction houses, to local retailers, or to Manhattan wholesalers for reshipment to Bordeaux or Hamburg. In the early 1800s Astor began building his own ships and had become the executive manager of a far-flung mercantile empire, with employees and agents in several countries and headquarters in New York. By 1808, when the state legislature chartered his American Fur Company, he had become the city’s first and only millionaire.

Early on, convinced that Manhattan—and Manhattan real estate—had a golden future, Astor began to invest his profits in land. He bought two lots and four half-lots from his brother Henry in 1789. Two years later, he acquired the first of what would become sizable holdings along the waterfront. After the turn of the century, flush with China trade profits, his interest in real estate grew more systematic, more ambitious, and more calculating. Weekends often found him on his horse, scouring the countryside north of the city for parcels—as in 1803, when he bought a seventy-acre farm that ran west of Broadway to the Hudson River between 42nd and 46th streets. That same year, he’ also gained control of Richmond Hill when the high-living Burr, hard pressed for cash, sold Astor the leasehold on 241 lots for $62,500; the following year, with Hamilton in his grave, Burr sold off still more land to Astor before heading into exile. Over the next decade, Astor continued to buy or lease additional parcels just north of the developed city—then sat back to await further developments.

CONCOMITANTS OF COMMERCE

The success of Astor and his fellow businessmen had innumerable ramifications for New York, perhaps the most obvious being the transformation of its waterfront. Ships from all over the world jammed the East River docks during the wartime boom—more ships “than I ever before saw, except on the Thames below London Bridge,” wrote the English traveler William Strickland. “Bales of cotton, wool, and merchandize; barrels of potash, rice, flour, and salt provisions; hogsheads of sugar, chests of tea, puncheons of rum, and pipes of wine; boxes, cases, packs and packages of all sizes and denominations, were strewed upon the wharfs and landing-places, or upon the decks of the shipping,” observed another English visitor, John Lambert.

Presiding over this waterfront whirl were the merchants, great and small, who according to the English actor John Bernard worked harder and lived faster than any he had seen in America:

They breakfasted at eight or half past, and by nine were in their countinghouses, laying out the business of the day; at ten they were on their wharves, with aprons around their waists, rolling hogsheads of rum and molasses; at twelve, at market, flying about as dirty and as diligent as porters; at two, back again to the rolling, heaving, hallooing, and scribbling. At four they went home to dress for dinner; at seven, to the play; at eleven, to supper, with a crew of lusty Bacchanals who would smoke cigars, gulp down brandy, and sing, roar, and shout in the thickening clouds they created, like so many merry devils, till three in the morning. At eight, up again, to scribble, run, and roll hogsheads.

No less dramatic was the increased size and scale of enterprise in the city. As shipping boomed in the 1790s and early 1800s, importers and commission merchants began consolidating capital into partnerships, expanding their operations, and erecting grand new brick warehouses. These massive structures—importer William Lupton’s fourstory building covered two town lots and ran back sixty feet—changed the ambience of the waterfront by crowding out artisanal workshops. A mere eight merchants amassed 75 percent of the property along Front Street between Wall Street and Old Slip, and Pearl Street was well on its way to becoming a solid block of wholesale establishments.

The mounting demand for access to the waterfront prompted the merchants who ran the municipal corporation to extend the shore around Manhattan’s southern tip. In 1798 the city began the filling, grading, and paving of South Street, a new seventy-foot-wide border, and by 1801 new wharves, slips, and piers were under construction from Whitehall to the Fly Market. Spiked wooden poles were drop-hammered into the river bottom to form sea walls, then the water lot they enclosed was filled in with rubbish, earth, and cinder. In some places the traditional sheet piling was supplemented by crib­works—wood-frame, boxlike receptacles filled with loose stone and sunk to the river bottom as a base for larger and sturdier docks.

As in the past, the city enjoined proprietors of adjoining land to carry out these projects, under the direction of municipal surveyors. On completion, the developers received clear title to the filled water lots along with the right to collect the fees from pier users. The Common Council did, however, require that dockside fronting slips be reserved as “publick property,” to ensure that private wharf owners would not be able to jack up food prices by charging monopoly rents to market boats. In 1806, moreover, the city began to develop public basins at its own expense, retaining the right to wharfage.

The increase in traffic coming down the Hudson from the interior prompted commercial development along the west side of Manhattan as well. By 1810 West Street had been created on landfill, its new facilities for docking providing a grand counterpart to South Street across town. By 1807 the Hudson side had fifteen wharves, nearly half the thirty-plus on the East River. By then, too, ships that through the 1790s had still been forced to anchor offshore and transfer their cargoes to smaller boats—lighters—for loading and unloading were now able to pull directly into shore, their bowsprits arcing out over South Street. The result was a circumferential forest of spars, and the “tall masts mingled with the buildings,” John Lambert wrote in 1807, “together with the spires and cupolas of the churches, gave the city an appearance of magnificence.”

Streets adjacent to the eastside docks were equally alive with commercial activity. Bankers and brokers elbowed their way into the blocks nearest the Tontine Coffee House at Wall and Water, epicenter of mercantile transactions (and the site, not coincidentally, of New York’s first hackney station). Insurance companies, accountants, and law firms rented space in subdivided old town houses—one ad placed in 1803 announced the availability of an “Office and Cellar in Pearl Street near the Coffee Houses”—their presence announced by shiny brass plates.

Merchants’ operations also grew more specialized in the 1790s and 1800s. Emerging alongside the all-purpose general traders were new commission merchants, brokers, jobbers, factors, importers, and auctioneers. Many devoted themselves to handling just one or two lines of goods (textiles, drugs, provisions, hardware) or one kind of trade (retail or wholesale, import or export). Businessmen advertised on a much larger scale too, and papers began to carry ever greater quantities of the commercial information merchants needed to operate in an ever larger and more impersonal market. From 1796 a weekly newspaper, the New-York Price-Current, devoted itself entirely to covering these complex affairs.

Business took on a newly organized quality as well. In the twenty-odd years after Evacuation Day, for example, the number of booksellers in the city jumped from five to thirty, and the importance of the New York print market was in turn recognized, in 1802, by formation of a national trade organization, the American Company of Booksellers. In June of that year it held the “first Literary Fair ever in the United States.” Dealers from every part of the country converged on the Long Room of the Coffee House, snapping up half a million books in five days. The New-York Association of Booksellers, a local organization, appeared shortly thereafter.

Book buyers weren’t the only out-of-town merchants to descend on the city. Some came to attend fairs and auctions, others to shop (along with locals) in the expanding retail district above the wharves or in the fine specialty shops that lined lower Broadway, William Street, and Maiden Lane. (There was, however, as yet “no appearance of shop windows as in London,” one English observer noted, “only stores which make no shew till you enter the houses.”)

So many transients arrived, for business as well as pleasure, that taverns and boardinghouses proved unable to accommodate the influx. This dilemma led to the construction of New York’s first hotel in the modern sense—the five-story, 137-room City Hotel, which opened in 1794 on the west side of Broadway just north of Trinity Church. Besides room and board, it offered the facilities for public dining and dancing hitherto provided by taverns. Its gracious accommodations and excellent wine cellars were specifically designed to attract a wealthy clientele, and its “very handsome” street-level shops, elegant barroom, and coffeehouse fronting Broadway became important mercantile gathering spots. So did Pearl Street House (which opened around 1810). Aimed specifically at commercial travelers from around the nation, especially western New York and Ohio, it advertised explicitly that it was not intended “for the accommodation of families or ladies.”

By the first decade of the new century, Manhattan’s downtown district, like its docks, was a pandemonium. Bankers, brokers, and insurance men darted in and out of offices, contending for elbow room in the old Dutch streets with craftsmen, hucksters, slaves, women hurrying to market, and a noisy cavalcade of wagons, carts, and carriages. “Everything in the city is in motion!” exclaimed a French traveler, adding that New York’s opulence reminded him of “ancient Tyre, which contemporary authors called the queen of commerce and the sovereign of the seas.”

DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS

Shipbuilding in New York languished during the British occupation, and by Evacuation Day the old East River yards at Dover and Roosevelt streets were no longer in use. During the 1790s, however, new shipwrights arrived to meet the rising domestic demand for the big, deep-draft vessels needed to link the city with the Far East, Latin America, and Europe. One of the first was London-born Charles Brownne (who managed to evade parliamentary restrictions on the emigration of skilled craftsmen to the United States, perhaps in part by adding ne to his given name of Brown). Another was For man Cheeseman, who started a yard near the foot of present-day Rutgers Street in the 1790s, then joined with Brownne in 1800 to open a larger yard on a parcel bounded by what are now Montgomery, Clinton, Cherry, and Monroe streets. Scotsman Henry Eckford, who learned his trade in Quebec, moved to the United States in 1796, built one vessel in Brooklyn near the ferry in 1801, then joined with Edward Beebe in making boats near the bottom of Jefferson Street. One of Eckford and Beebe’s most famous commissions was the Beaver, commissioned by John Jacob Astor for the China trade and specifically designed for larger cargoes. When the Beaver came down the ways in 1805, it was the equal of anything the great British East India Company had afloat.

As the expanding city engulfed adjacent farmland, the shipyards pushed up to and around Corlear’s Hook, whose fine-sanded beach had long been used for bathing and Baptist immersions. Christian Bergh opened a yard there, and in 1804 Brownne too moved up to a spot near the foot of Stanton Street known as “Manhattan Island”—an oasis of solid ground near the shore but almost isolated from Manhattan proper by salt meadows or marshes. When Brownne moved on again in 1810, Eckford, together with Adam and Noah Brown, would take over the famous “island.”

The revival of shipbuilding was accelerated by government contracts for naval vessels. Forman Cheeseman got one in 1800 to build the frigate President. Shrewd merchants encouraged this federal connection by bankrolling construction of another frigate at the yards of Peck and Carpenter, then handing the ship over to the navy for use against the Barbary pirates. But the biggest beneficiary of government orders lay across the East River in Brooklyn. Back in 1781 John Jackson and his brothers had purchased a crescent-shaped, half-mile-long parcel of land on muddy Wallabout Bay, part of the old Rapalje estate. They eventually built a shipyard on the site and, in 1798, contracted with the navy to build the the john Adams, one of the biggest ships afloat. Three years later, when the Jacksons put their forty-two-acre yard up for sale, the navy bought it for a hefty forty thousand dollars. The Common Council encouraged the sale by granting the U.S. government New York’s rights to the Brooklyn shoreline between the high and low water marks.

Although Brooklyn’s Navy Yard built no new ships during the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars, it did outfit many privateers and helped establish the East River as the site of the nation’s best and most active shipyards. With both sides of the river providing ample work for brass founders, caulkers, joiners, riggers, and sailmakers, the city became a mecca for skilled maritime tradesmen. In 1792 there had been no more than thirty shipwrights and ship carpenters in town; in 1805 there were 117.

The city’s most notable achievement in nautical construction, however, involved not sail but steam. Many people had thought of applying steam power to ships—among them a Connecticut Yankee named John Fitch, who had built a steamboat that successfully paddled up and down the Delaware River in 1787. Fitch won a monopoly from New York state to build and run boats propelled “by the force of fire or steam.” Lacking money for development and promotion, however, he got nowhere. (The legend that he tested another prototype on the Fresh Water Pond in 1797 is almost certainly not true.)

Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, on the other hand, had both cash and connections. An ardent amateur inventor, he had long sought a way to speed travel between the city and Clermont, his Hudson River estate, no miles to the north. In 1798 Livingston, aided by his political ally De Witt Clinton, got the legislature to assign him the monopoly over future steamboat travel, on the condition that he produce, within a year, a vessel capable of running upriver from New York to Albany at an average speed of four miles per hour. Livingston tinkered away but, no engineer and too pigheaded to take advice, botched one prototype after another. In 1801, disheartened, he left for France, charged by President Jefferson with securing permission for U.S. ships to sail past New Orleans up the Mississippi. In Paris, Livingston bought the Mississippi, along with the rest of the Louisiana Territory, and also met the man who would bring his steamboat quest to fruition.

Robert Fulton, a Pennsylvania-born Irish American, had gone to London in 1786 to study painting, then switched to civil engineering. Fulton moved to Paris in 1797, drawn by the promise of government subsidies for technological development. He was working on a torpedo to blow up the English fleet when he met Livingston there in 1802. Livingston was attracted by Fulton’s theoretical knowledge, practical experience, and access to prominent French scientists (he also dressed well and had the manners of a gentleman). Fulton, attracted by Livingston’s money and influence, embraced the New Yorker’s project and in 1803 tried out an experimental steamboat on the Seine, with great success. On the strength of this, an excited Livingston got his monopoly rights extended.

In 1806 Fulton moved to New York City and set out to construct a full scale steamboat. In doing so, he sought out and took the advice of talented local craftsmen. He contracted with shipwright Charles Brownne’s Manhattan Island establishment to build a 146-foot-long, twelve-foot-wide, flat-bottomed, straight-sided vessel. He engaged Scotch millwright Robert McQueen to construct the ironwork paddle mechanism and a local coppersmith to produce the boiler (with metal supplied by importer Harmon Hendricks). From England, Fulton obtained a Boulton and Watt twenty-four-horse-power engine with piston, rods, and air pumps made to his own specifications.

By August 17, 1807, Fulton was ready for his initial voyage. A crowd of New Yorkers trekked two miles up to the Christopher Street dock to watch. The venture seemed comically crackpot, even (given the danger of exploding boilers) excitingly suicidal. But Fulton’s boat departed without mishap, hissing and churning its way northward, steadily overtaking assorted sloops and schooners. By midmorning next day it arrived at Clermont, having averaged a speed of four and a half miles per hour. Livingston came on board, and the partners pressed on to Albany. Arriving the following morning, Fulton immediately hung a placard over the side advertising places for the return trip at seven dollars—more than twice what sloops charged. Only two Frenchmen dared clamber aboard a vehicle that resembled, as one spectator put it, a sawmill mounted on a raft and set afire. Still, on the way back, the riverbanks were filled with kerchief-waving, cheering people and huzzahing West Point cadets.

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Robert Fulton’s sketch of his steamboat on the Hudson River accompanied his application for a patent in 1809. The vessel was not called the Clermont until after the inventor’s death in 1815. (American Society of Mechanical Engineers)

In September Fulton began scheduled service from a dock at the foot of Cortlandt Street. He officially enrolled the vessel as the North River Boat—only later was it renamed the Clermont—but most people simply called it “the steamboat”: there was, at that time, no other in the world.

Well aware that he needed the social sanction of New York gentry as much as their capital, Fulton made steamboating socially acceptable, even fashionable. He revamped his boat, concealing its ugly boiler and furnace. He added a deck awning, sleeping accommodations for fifty-four, and a bar. He fitted up cabins for men and ladies with elegant mahogany furnishings and posted regulations dictating proper comportment. Wealthy passengers flocked aboard.

Fulton meanwhile settled into New York City. In 1808 he married Harriet Livingston, the chancellor’s second cousin, a move rendered socially acceptable, despite Fulton’s plebeian background, by his technological and commercial success. Fulton bought a fine mansion on the corner of Marketfield and State, obtained servants (one a young slave woman), and joined the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen.

By the end of 1812 Fulton had six steamboats in operation, most of them built at Charles Brownne’s yard. (His 1808 contract for Car of Neptune called for having “all the joiners’ work done in the best New York style, and of seasoned stuff.”) He and his partner had also dispatched boat builder Nicholas Roosevelt and a team of New York workmen to Pittsburgh in 1811, having won an exclusive franchise to service the New Orleans Territory. Following plans supplied by Fulton, Roosevelt built the New Orleans, which made its way down the Ohio and Mississippi to the Gulf, outracing a Chickasaw war party. The partners’ dream of monopolizing steam traffic on the Mississippi was soon blocked by local opposition, but by providing planters and farmers in the South and West with the capability of sending their goods up the great inland waterways—reversing the hitherto natural flow of commerce down to New Orleans—they had done New York City an inestimable service.

CAPITALIZING CRAFTS

Alongside these impressive maritime developments came subtler but arguably more profound changes in Manhattan manufacturing. The revitalization and expansion of trading networks, and the city’s emergence as the nation’s premier entrepot, spurred some master craftsmen to revise traditional processes of production. The presence of out-of-town buyers, the ready availability of raw materials, and the general increase in population and wealth all suggested to would-be artisan-entrepreneurs that by expanding production for distant consumers they could reap far greater profits than by catering only to a walk-in, custom-made trade.

When Scotland-born Duncan Phyfe came down to New York in 1792, all of twenty-four years old and just out of his apprenticeship to an Albany cabinetmaker, he faced an uncertain future. The city’s economy was rebounding from the shock of that year’s financial panic, and with the outbreak of war between Britain and France shortly thereafter, local taverns and countinghouses rang with talk of the windfall profits that lay just ahead in neutral commerce. Cabinetmaking was a fiercely competitive line of work, however. There were already scores of cabinetmakers in town, plus scores of chairmakers, carvers, gilders, turners, upholsterers, and practitioners of other closely related crafts. More were on the way too, carried toward the city on gusts of revolution from France, the British Isles, and the West Indies. For young journeymen like Phyfe, merely surviving, let alone getting ahead, didn’t promise to be easy.

One thing in Phyfe’s favor was the latest of those abrupt shifts in taste that periodically shook the Anglo-American markets in art, architecture, and interior design. On the very eve of American independence, British builders and designers had made their own break from the increasingly intricate Greco-Roman motifs characteristic of Georgian country houses and Chippendale furniture. Recent archaeological excavations at Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Paestum had thrown new light on the classical world and inspired more nuanced interpretations of antiquity.

The best of these interpretations came from architect-decorator Robert Adam and a pair of talented cabinetmakers, George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton. Soon after the war, their work—lighter, thinner, more decorative than Chippendale’s—began to attract attention among the propertied classes of the United States as well as England. Its appeal on this side of the Atlantic derived partly from the traditional linkage of classical learning to social status (New York’s Columbia College, for example, still required applicants to prove their competence in ancient Latin and Greek by translating long passages from Cicero and the Gospels). At the same time, however, the purity and restraint of the new classicism seemed tailor-made for a republican political culture, and during the Federalist administrations of George Washington and John Adams its influence became so pervasive in America that it has since been called the Federal style.

Phyfe, who had a nose for opportunity, built up an affluent clientele with adept interpretations of Adam, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton designs (later incorporating French Directoire motifs as well). He was no mere copyist: his workmanship equaled or excelled the best that London or Paris had to offer, and his finely carved lyres, eagles, acanthus leaves, wheat ears, reedings, and moldings were matchless. He wasn’t cheap either. A single cane-bottom mahogany side chair could run as high as twenty dollars—close to a month’s wages for an ordinary workingman. Card tables fetched sixty-five, and a carved rail sofa $122.

A chance encounter in 1798 with John Jacob Astor’s daughter, who touted his work among her friends, sent demand for Phyfe’s work soaring. Orders began pouring in from other parts of the country too, and by the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century well-to-do residents of every state regarded a Duncan Phyfe settee, sofa, or sideboard as the ne plus ultra of refinement; Henri Christophe, the black emperor of Haiti, wanted a Phyfe bed for the royal bedroom. Phyfe had meanwhile become a rich man and was investing heavily in Manhattan and Brooklyn real estate.

One key to Phyfe’s increased output was his reduction of the complexities of cabinetmaking to a sequence of elementary steps, making it possible to replace expensive journeymen with semiskilled workers from abroad. (At his peak he employed as many as a hundred journeymen at a time in his large workshop on Partition Street.) Phyfe maintained high standards, nevertheless, but many of his contemporaries, by simplifying designs and standardizing parts, began to mass-produce cheap “stick furniture,” knowing that New York’s wholesale merchants stood ready to purchase entire inventories for shipment to out-of-city markets. In 1795 one master cabinetmaker was able to dispatch five thousand Windsor chairs to the West Indian market.

Duncan Phyfe wasn’t the only New York artisan to break with traditional practices and make a fortune in the buoyant 17905 and early 1800s. Stephen Allen, an enterprising sailmaker, claimed to have amassed thirty-two thousand dollars between 1796 and 1802 alone. Allen’s breakthrough— a by-product of the wartime shipbuilding boom—came when he began buying his materials (sail duck and bolt-rope, marlin and twine) directly from wholesalers and auctioneers, cutting out the ship chandlers who traditionally supplied the city’s sailmakers.

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Cowperthwaite’s Chair Manufactory in the 1820s. Although his establishment was less famous than Duncan Phyfe’s, Cowperthwaite’s advertisement conveys both the scale and fierce competitiveness of manufacturing in the city. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

The Lorillard brothers took a different path. During the Revolution, old Pierre Lonllard, the Huguenot immigrant who had launched New York’s first tobacco “manufactory” back in 1760, sided with the patriots, fled town, and was killed by Hessian soldiers. His widow held the family and business together until her sons George and Peter were able, in 1792, to move their production operations to the banks of the Bronx River, where they harnessed its water power to turn the wheels of a wooden snuff mill. (In about 1800 they replaced it with one of native field stone, which sits today in the New York Botanical Garden in Bronx Park.) They added a warehouse and homes for workers, and soon they were operating the largest tobacco-producing unit in the United States. Innovative at marketing, they would later print up broadsides advertising their snuffs, cigars, and cut tobacco and send them to every postmaster in the United States (many of whom also ran general stores). The third brother, Jacob, borrowed three thousand dollars from George and Peter and went into the tanning trade. He too opted for increasing production while lowering costs, investing in newly invented leather-rolling machinery and erecting his own bark mill for making tannic acid. Jacob prospered so rapidly that by the early nineteenth century he owned three houses, two leather stores, and forty acres of Manhattan real estate and was ready to move into banking and politics.

On a less spectacular scale, myriad entrepreneurially inclined master tailors and shoemakers cut costs and raised output by reorganizing the labor process of their trades. They purchased leather or cloth on a wholesale basis—either on their own or with the backing of merchant-investors—and distributed it to immigrant journeymen or poor women to turn into low-quality (“slop”) shoes or shirts, paying them a fraction of the piece rates customarily earned by skilled journeymen. (This, of course, required workers to put in longer hours to stay in the same place, forcing shoemakers, for instance, to peg and stitch from five in the morning till eight at night.) By relying on wage-workers who labored either in the large workplaces of master craftsmen or in their own home or basement shops, artisan entrepreneurs were able to churn out an evergrowing volume of clothing and shoes for the slave populations of the American South and the Caribbean, for farmers in the western hinterlands, and for the laboring poor of New York and other seaboard cities. The new entrepreneurs marketed these products as well, either taking to the road themselves or turning the goods over to established merchants to retail.

Once artisan-entrepreneurs entered this world of volatile markets, brutal competition, and a growing influx of cheap British manufactures, their ability to make a profit depended on their ability to hold down labor costs. One of the easiest ways to do this was by circumventing their customary responsibility to train up apprentices in the “mysteries” of their crafts. Taking on many more youths than they could care for, masters paid them low wages and offered cash payments in lieu of room, board, and education. The arrival every year of thousands of immigrants further corroded relations between masters and journeymen by steadily enlarging the pool of “free” labor—men and women who could be hired and fired at will, who required no initial capital investment or long-term care and feeding, and whose desperate need to earn a livelihood allowed employers to pay them subsistence wages.

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Women Working in a Millinery Shop, n.d. by Alexander Anderson. Although it discloses nothing about the organization of the shop, Anderson’s engraving is a reminder that female waged labor figured importantly in the municipal economy. (Print Collection. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

THE END OF SLAVERY

When the English traveler William Strickland visited New York in 1794, he discovered himself in a place that looked like most provincial British cities, except for the thousands of blacks “who may be seen of all shades till the stain is entirely worne out.” “Most of the inferior labor of the town is performed by Blacks,” he added, and on the surface it might well have seemed that slavery had become even more entrenched in the city since 1790. Between 1790 and 1800, as New York’s economy took off and its population leapt toward the sixty-thousand mark, the absolute number of slaves jumped by nearly 25 percent to twenty-five hundred—one of the sharpest such increases on record. After 1790, moreover, the number of white households relying upon some form of black labor more than tripled, and many of them had purchased their human property quite recently. By 1800 three-fourths of New York’s slaveholders had not owned slaves ten years before.

Yet support for the institution of slavery in New York was thinner and more fragile than ever. New slaveowners were by and large the big winners in the economic sweepstakes of the nineties—merchants, lawyers, bankers, brokers, artisan-entrepreneurs, speculators—and their primary interest was domestic service, chiefly by women. Artisans had continued their decades-long retreat from the use of black male labor, preferring to draw as needed on the plentiful numbers of cheap wage-workers who didn’t have to be housed, clothed, or fed. Some masters in more traditional trades like baking and butchering still found slaveowning an attractive proposition, but by 1800 only about one artisan in every seventeen owned slaves, proportionally just half as many as a decade before. The Manumission Society had meanwhile continued to promote its African Free School as evidence that blacks were as capable as whites as becoming “safe and useful members” of society, while its Standing Committee frequently attempted to win freedom for slaves whose masters violated the law against purchasing or selling slaves out of state.

What was more, the proportion of slaves in the black population had declined sharply because the number of free blacks rose from eleven hundred to thirty-five hundred between 1790 and 1800—a threefold increase, the result of a high birthrate, migration from elsewhere in the United States, and the arrival of the “French Negroes” swept up in the West Indian exodus. Once it was a safe assumption that virtually any African American in New York was enslaved. By 1800 well over half the city’s black residents were free, and the impact of this shift on the city’s racial dynamics was profound.

Free blacks harbored and aided runaways, and the number of escapees escalated sharply in the 1790s. Some fled to nearby free states, but many vanished into the city itself. Thus, in 1795, eighteen-year-old Calypso was “seen running with a bundle of cloaths and her shoes in her hand through Pearl and Cherry Streets, then turning into Oliver, then into Rutgers, and finally into Roosevelt Street on the left hand; here were lost her tracts [sic].” Even African-born slaves who could barely speak the local language found refuge there: one fifty-year-old man who “talks bad English” had run away from Flatbush and was, his master complained in the press, rumored to be living in the city, where he “pretends to be free.”

On occasion free blacks actively resisted white dominion. In 1798 Sally Gale stole some items from a store and was chased by Finch, a white man, to a cellar in Hague Street. Here, however, a “Mulatto Man Stood at the Door with some kind of weapon in his hand and Declared he would knock the said Finch’s Brains out if Offered to Come in.” Militant West Indian blacks, in particular, brought their own long experience of concerted resistance to the institution. In 1796 some “French Negroes” started several fires by throwing burning coals wrapped in oiled paper into open cellars. Soon frightening rumors were commonplace about plots to burn the city. Lewis Morris wrote that gentlemen had taken to serving on the watch every night and had succeeded in securing some suspicious blacks, while others had been “shot down owing to their not answering quick.” Even the most obdurate masters must have wondered whether owning one’s cook or butler might not be getting too difficult—too dangerous— to be worthwhile.

Politics also played a role in eroding support for slavery. When the French Revolution broke out, popular enthusiasm for liberty, equality, and fraternity more than once spilled over into demands for emancipation of the slaves—as it did in 1789, when the crowd at the John Street Theater gave a thunderous ovation to an epilogue that linked the liberation of “Afric’s sable Sons” to the cause of international republicanism:

Shall Freedom’s Sons on others put the chain!

Detested thought! soon may we hope to see,

Columbia, Europe, Asia, Afric, FREE,

One Genius reigns through all— ETERNAL LIBERTY.

In the years that followed, the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, the Sailmakers Society, and other organizations representing or allied with the city’s mechanics openly endorsed abolition. The Democratic-Republican party, despite its alliance with southern slaveowners in national politics, absorbed these sentiments—along with radical refugees from Britain who strongly favored emancipation—and party papers like the Argus published antislavery articles by authors who signed themselves “A Consistent Democrat” and “An Invariable Friend to the Equal Rights of Man.” Condemning slavery became all the easier as city artisans retreated from slaveholding and the proportion of slaves in the overall population shrank, calming old anxieties about competition from new-made freemen (by 1800 slaves comprised a scant 4.5 percent of the city’s inhabitants).

Federalists as well found the dynamics of party rivalry propelling them to a more activist position on the slavery question. As anglophiles, they were well aware of the rise of abolitionism in Britain and the moral opprobrium with which transatlantic opinion increasingly regarded slaveholders. After passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, when Federalists needed to prove that they remained genuine friends of liberty, antislavery seemed an attractive and responsible reform. Given that Federalists like John Jay had been conspicuous in the Manumission Society and as advocates of gradual emancipation, it also seemed likely that freed slaves would support them at the polls. (The black vote indeed later provided a margin of victory for Federalists on at least one occasion, and it would be Democratic-Republicans who protested; in 1811, 1814, and 1815 they voted to limit black access to the ballot.)

While the critics of slavery grew stronger, its defenders grew weaker. Resistance to emancipation still ran highest among the Dutch inhabitants of Kings, Queens, and other rural counties where the system remained economically vital. In 1800 nearly 60 percent of the white households in Kings County owned at least one slave, more than had done so in 1700. In towns outside of Brooklyn, between 70 and 80 percent of households held slaves (three out of every four in New Utrecht, for instance). The political influence of Dutch farmers had nonetheless declined because the bulk of farm commodities sent to Manhattan—certainly those destined for export—now came from upstate communities settled by New Englanders, old opponents of slavery, and a reapportionment of the legislature in 1796 gave them greater political clout.

Encouraged by John Jay’s election as governor at the end of 1795, the Manumission Society had in the meantime decided to make another attempt to get a gradual emancipation act through the legislature. A bill to that effect was introduced early in 1796, and after three years of intense public debate and parliamentary maneuvering, the legislature adopted a gradual emancipation plan in January 1799 (approval by the Council of Revision followed in March). In both the Assembly and Senate, delegates from New York City joined forces with their upstate counterparts to overcome opposition by Dutch legislators from Long Island and elsewhere. As Senator Erastus Root recalled, the Dutchmen “raved and swore by dunder and blixen that we were robbing them of their property. We told them that they had none and could hold none in human flesh. . . and we passed the law.”

But this was gradual emancipation, carefully designed to minimize the cost to slaveowners. Not one slave was freed by the new law: all who were currently slaves would remain so for life, and while any of their children born after July 4 of that year would be technically free, they were required to remain in service to their mother’s master until reaching the age of twenty-five (if female) or twenty-eight (if male). Furthermore, masters had five years to turn over ill or elderly slaves to the local overseers of poor without incurring the usual financial obligations for their support. They were likewise allowed to jettison without penalty all slave children over the age of one, a provision that proved popular in the lower six counties of the state, where hundreds of infants were abandoned.

Assured now of slavery’s eventual demise, owners hastened to cut their losses. Many put their slaves on the market at once, and in spite of the ban on out-of-state sales it was soon being reported that the exportation of slaves to the West Indies had increased “to an alarming magnitude,” often under “circumstances of great barbarity.” Other masters allowed slaves to negotiate self-purchase arrangements or promised them early emancipation in exchange for a commitment to trouble-free service for a fixed number of years.

After the passage of the gradual emancipation act, therefore, slavery disintegrated with unexpected speed. Between 1800 and 1810 the number of officially recorded manumissions in the city jumped to 260 while the total number of slaves shrank by 43 percent to just under fifteen hundred. The free black population meanwhile climbed to some seventy-five hundred. By the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century, 84 percent of nearly nine thousand New York blacks were free, as against 33 percent in 1790.

PROGRESS AND POVERTY

Freedom had decided drawbacks. African Americans found themselves pitched into the new wage-labor market, but on unequal terms that ensured they would occupy the bottom of the city’s occupational hierarchy. Some black women, perhaps one out of twenty, were able to secure positions as shopkeepers, fruiterers, bakers, boardinghouse keepers, or hawkers selling buttermilk or hot corn in the city’s streets and markets. Some took in washing as independent entrepreneurs. But the vast majority continued to perform the same heavy domestic work, albeit for wages, that they had done as slaves—and in much the same circumstances too, living in the garrets, cellars, or outbuildings of white households.

Two-thirds of the free black community, however, resided in independent black households, headed by men who for the most part earned their livelihoods as laborers. Perhaps one in four retained artisanal skills from slavery days, and while black men were increasingly excluded from many crafts, some managed to earn a living in shoemaking, baking, butchering, tanning, and carpentry. A few black New Yorkers established themselves as tavern or dance hall keepers, shopowners, peddlers, and service providers. A majority of the city’s two dozen oystermen (and later its oyster shops) and probably all of its two-hundred-odd chimney sweeps, for example, were free blacks, and several freedmen became well-known tobacconists, barbers, and caterers.

Given their limited options, perhaps 40 percent of adult freedmen took to the sea, and there were some appealing aspects to life as a black Jack Tar. During the war years, seafaring jobs were plentiful, and seamen’s wages on risky but profitable “neutral” voyages were three times what they had been previously. Captains offered new sign-ups a portion of their wages in advance—especially important for recently freed slaves. And not only did African Americans receive equal pay for equal work, but maritime custom and the rough egalitarianism of deep-sea tars helped insulate skilled black seamen from white antagonism and broke down racial barriers. Black and white sailors not only lived, worked, and ate together, they often looked alike, wearing their hair in queues secured with eelskin and tattooing themselves with a similar array of anchors, mermaids, and crucifixes.

But if racism weakened at sea, it hardly disappeared—as John Jea, an ex-slave from New York, found out in 1806 when he took a job as ship’s cook (a position, like that of steward, often reserved for blacks). Initially Jea “was very much pleased in going on board the vessel, but the case was soon altered” as brutal white sailors “used to flog, beat, and kick me about, the same as if I had been a dog.”

During their stints on land, many black sailors supplemented their pay by working as day laborers—toting and hauling in warehouses, rigging ships, and unloading cargoes along the docks. While they were at sea, their wives bore the burden of keeping the household together by taking in washing and ironing. If their husbands abandoned them or were lost at sea, they might have to resort to prostitution. Black men too might turn to crime as an available option, and African-American New Yorkers were active in the establishment of a thriving underground market in stolen clothing.

Most freed blacks in New York thus lived a precarious existence in which sudden unemployment, illness, or old age could easily push them into pauperism. In some years, as many as 70 percent of black families in the city received outdoor relief, and the number of those in municipal institutions rose steadily, from nine in 1790 to 72 in 1810: ten in debtor’s prison, seventeen in the public hospital, and forty-five in the almshouse.

They weren’t alone. As the commissioners of the almshouse reported in 1795, the ranks of the truly impoverished included a growing percentage of white immigrants —some 44 percent, in fact, of the 620-odd paupers under their care. Two years later the commissioners observed that the Irish alone accounted for 148 out of the 770 paupers in the almshouse. The problem became steadily worse after the turn of the century. In 1801 the New-York Gazette reported that nine hundred immigrants had entered the port in a four-week period, many “without money, and without health and strength to enable them to earn even the most scanty subsistence.” Camped out in outerward hovels, some were actually “expiring from the want of sustenance.”

Then, too, notwithstanding the general prosperity of the 1790s and early 1800s, more city residents than ever were becoming vulnerable to the seasonal fluctuations of trade that always brought misery to small tradesmen, common laborers, journeymen, seamstresses, and their families. Their “incessant application to labor,” as the Society for the Relief of Distressed Debtors put it as early as 1788, “will not enable them to subsist themselves, and their families, and at the same time, secure a small provision for their support during a temporary failure of supplies.” A writer in the Daily Advertiser in 1791 observed, “Many of our small tradesmen, cartmen, day labourers and others dwell upon the borders of poverty and live from hand to mouth.” In January 1797 “Six Hundred Journeymen Mechanics and Tradesmen now out of Employ” petitioned the city that they were, “in consequence of the season, without work; and many of them, by reason of large families, in want of sufficient FIRE and FOOD.”

The revolution in the organization of work that lay at the bottom of this phenomenon didn’t occur overnight, and the city’s vibrant economy served—up to a point—to cushion its impact. Yet every year the gulf between rich and poor grew wider. At the beginning of Washington’s first term, in 1789, already more wealth was concentrated in fewer hands than at any time prior to independence. The richest 2 percent of the population—a mere eighty-eight individuals—owned almost 25 percent of the city’s total assessed wealth. The richest 20 percent owned nearly 75 percent; the poorest 50 percent owned under 7 percent. By 1800 the richest 20 percent owned almost 80 percent of the city’s wealth. The bottom half owned under 5 percent.

In that bottom half, moreover, were numerous small masters, journeymen, and apprentices for whom the advent of capitalist production had meant not prosperity and respectability but traumatic decline. Instead of the decent independence they could have expected a generation earlier, they now found themselves slipping into the ranks of casual wage-laborers, domestic servants, food hawkers, tea-water men, chimney sweeps, seamen, deckhands, and the other propertyless poor who lived on the margins of society. They had to compete with immigrants and freed blacks for jobs. When too old or too sick for work of any kind, they had to apply to the city for outdoor relief or—perhaps the crudest blow of all to a respectable mechanic’s aspirations of independence—beg for shelter in the almshouse. Given that the number of city households headed by women grew by 30 percent during the 1790s—from one in twelve to one in nine—it appears that quite a few workingmen simply disappeared, perhaps to look for work elsewhere in the country but leaving their wives and children behind. As in the past, women—sick, abandoned, or widowed—outnumbered all other residents of the almshouse.

Worse was yet to come. After 1800 wage rates in New York leveled off, then fell, sinking to eighty cents a day by 1805. The cost of food, fuel, and shelter continued nonetheless to climb, stripping innumerable laboring people of the last hope that they could maintain a decent standard of living. A string of extremely hard winters around the turn of the century deepened the distress caused by a string of yellow fever epidemics. Scarcely a winter now passed in which city officials didn’t have to find food, fuel, and medical care for thousands of destitute residents.

It was becoming more and more apparent, in short, that the expansion of opportunity for some New Yorkers meant its constriction for others.

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