Currier and Ives lithograph, city of New York, 1876. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)


Full Steam Ahead

Just before noon on April 23, 1838, the Sirius, a small paddlewheel steam packet nineteen days out of Cork, limped across the Upper Bay, its coal supply all but exhausted, and made landfall to the cheers of a great crowd gathered at the Battery. A scant four hours later, a second steamer, twice as big and half again as fast, hove into view, belching black smoke. This was the Great Western, fourteen days out of Bristol. She had been chasing Sinus across the Atlantic, and the sight of her churning toward the city touched off even more exuberant rejoicing, as it was now doubly clear that New York had established a maritime steam link to Europe.

Over the next twenty years, a growing fleet of transatlantic steamers would nourish the city’s economic revival, but the newcomers would be English ships, which boded ill for the future of the port’s merchant marine. More disturbing, when Samuel Cunard began twice-monthly steamer service out of Liverpool in 1840, he chose Boston as his line’s terminus. Cunard was heavily subsidized by the British government, and New York editors and lobbyists bombarded Washington with appeals for equivalent support. In 1845 Congress grudgingly agreed to provide subsidies for steamships that carried the mail (and could be used by the navy in time of war). Still, no New York competitor materialized, and though Cunard did extend service to the Hudson, he built his piers in Jersey City.

Finally, in 1848, a city champion emerged. Edward Knight Collins, a well-connected New York packet operator, promised to build the biggest and fastest steamships afloat. Collins won a mail contract from the government, raised over a million dollars from New York merchant bankers, and organized the United States Mail Steamship Company. Commencing a prow-to-prow competition with Cunard, Collins’s captains tore across the Atlantic. Where the Great Western had taken fourteen and a half days on her maiden run in 1838, Collins’s Pacific made Liverpool in a record nine days, twenty hours in 1851. A grateful Congress raised the line’s annual subsidy from $385,000 to $853,000.


The Arrival of the Great Western Steam Ship off New York on Monday 23rd April 1838, artist unknown. Once again, the opening of new connections between the city and the world beyond became an occasion for delirious celebrating. (I. N. Phelps Stokes Collection. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

But Collins never made money. His costs were higher than Cunard’s, in part because English wages were lower, and he was hammered by disasters. In 1854 his Arctic collided with a French steamer off Cape Race and sank with a loss of 318 passengers and crew, including Collins’s own wife and children. In 1858 Congress scuttled the mail subsidy program, largely at the behest of Jefferson Davis and other southerners at odds with New York. Once the federal government left the private enterprise to sink or swim on its own, it promptly sank. The last Collins sailing, in February 1858, marked the end of New York’s bid to establish itself in transatlantic steam shipping. The field—and the future—were left to Cunard and newer British or German entrants. For the present, however, the decision of foreign steamers to make Manhattan their primary port of call, along with a spectacular efflorescence of New York’s sailing fleet, sustained the city’s commanding position as the nation’s premier port.

New York’s trim, square-rigged packets—products of the East River’s thirty-odd yards—had been steadily growing in speed, agility, and size. By 1850 New York shipbuilders routinely constructed packets three times larger than the pioneer Black Bailers. Whenever one of these leviathans slid down the ways, thousands of spectators converged on the scene to watch and applaud. They were the city’s pride and glory, bulwarks of its wealth, instruments of its power. But now they were superseded by still more awesome vessels: the breathtaking “clippers” for which the East River yards gained fame in these years.

The first true clippers were promoted by the city’s traders in China tea, a fragile commodity that fetched exorbitant prices only if brought to market quickly after harvest. In 1844, hoping to shorten the voyage from Canton, which normally took more than a hundred days via the Cape of Good Hope, the firm of A. A. Low and Brothers invested forty-five thousand dollars in a packet-like vessel designed specifically for speed. Named the Houqua after a highly regarded Chinese merchant, she was slender and heavily sparred and canvassed, with a bow that cut rather than butted the waves. Inspired by her example, the South Street firm of Howland and Aspinwall ordered the Rainbow and the black-hulled Sea Witch from the yard of Smith and Dimon. In 1849 Sea Witchcompleted the run from Canton, a distance of fourteen thousand miles, in an astonishing seventy-four days, fourteen hours.

The production of clippers increased steadily over the next decade, and the enormous expense of constructing them led to further consolidation of the trade in a handful of wealthy firms. By the late fifties, with some fifty ships returning to port from China every year, half a dozen New York companies dominated the business completely. After the repeal of the British Navigation Acts, New York clippers managed as well to capture a large share of the carrying trade between China and London. In 1850 one of the Low clippers, Oriental, brought a cargo of tea from Hong Kong to the Thames in a record-breaking ninety-seven days; the proceeds nearly covered her original cost of construction.

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 gave the clippers their most lucrative mission. Inflamed by stories of egg-size nuggets lying about for the taking, men from all over the country headed west. “Nothing else is talked about but the quick fortunes to be made in California,” one New York paper reported that autumn. In 1849, with the Gold Rush in full swing, eighty thousand people converged on eastern ports to book passage on anything that would float for the long and dangerous passage around Cape Horn to San Francisco. Between 1849 and 1852 California’s population ballooned from twenty thousand to 223,000.

The price of milk, coffee, work shirts, boots, and other necessities rose accordingly—a barrel of flour worth six dollars back in Manhattan would fetch two hundred in the goldfields—and merchants in the China trade soon saw that routing their outbound clippers west, around South America with a stop in California, rather than east, around Africa, was the way to maximize returns. Among the earliest China clippers out of New York to Frisco were the Samuel Russell and Sea Witch, each of which returned profits beyond the wildest expectations of its owners. Low and Brothers netted eighty-four thousand dollars on the initial voyage of the Samuel Russell, more than it cost the firm to build her. A load of flour, nails, and steam engine parts sent out on the Sea Witch made $190,000 for Howland and Aspinwall.

Other firms jumped into the business. When news of the strikes reached the William Street store of Joseph Seligman and his brothers, they plunged all they had into small merchandise, sent it posthaste to San Francisco, and made a fast fortune. The Strauss brothers, a family of Bavarian emigres in the dry-goods trade, sent young Levi to San Francisco in 1853 to peddle wares that Jonas and Louis sent him round the Horn.

New York shipbuilders designed scores of clippers for merchants working the California market. Some of the best of the new crop were the work of William Henry Webb, whose yards stretched from sth to 7th streets along the East River—notably the two-thousand-ton Challenge, which flew the checkered flag of N. L. and G. Griswold and was able to make San Francisco in 110 days or less. Webb’s father had taught the art of shipbuilding to Donald McKay of Boston, who now built the Flying Cloud—loveliest of all clippers on the California run—for Grinnell, Minturn, and Company of New York. On her maiden voyage, in 1851, she dropped anchor in San Francisco Bay eightynine days and twenty-one hours after leaving the foot of Maiden Lane, a week under the previous record.

The demand for speedy service to the West Coast tempted some merchants into imperial adventures. Back in 1847 William Aspinwall and a tough river steamboat operator named George “Hell Fire” Law had won federal subsidies to move mail and freight across the Isthmus of Panama. Law’s firm ran steamers from New York, by way of Havana and New Orleans, down to the east coast of Panama. From there their cargoes were conveyed overland by canoe and mule train to Panama City, and thence up to San Francisco on the ships of Aspinwall’s Pacific Mail Company. The entire trip took five weeks, and once the Gold Rush got underway it became fabulously profitable despite the unpleasant trek through the snake-infested, mosquito-plagued Panamanian jungle. Aspinwall’s Panama Railroad, completed in 1855, improved transport considerably, and Panama City became an economic satellite of New York.

Law and Aspinwall’s success whetted the cupidity of Commodore Vanderbilt, who calculated that a route across Nicaragua would be five to seven days faster than the one across Panama. Vanderbilt’s initial plan called digging for a canal, at a cost of thirty-one million dollars, through the twelve miles of jungle and mountains that separated Lake Nicaragua from the Pacific Ocean. When that idea ran afoul of British interests in the region, Vanderbilt set up the Accessory Transit Company and wangled a franchise from the Nicaraguan government to run a macadamized road that, combined with bay and river steamers, connected San Juan del Sur on the Pacific and San Juan del Norte on the Atlantic. The new line’s first passengers and a shipment of gold reached New York from San Francisco in August of 1851; within a few years it was earning Vanderbilt a million dollars a year, despite complaints about his penny-pinching disregard for public health and safety.

In 1855 an American filibuster named William Walker seized control of Nicaragua, installed himself as president, and revoked Vanderbilt’s charter, transferring it to competitors who promised to pay more. This audacity made Walker a hero in New York—some Boweryites went down to join him—but it earned him the enmity of the ruthless and powerful Commodore. Without setting foot outside New York, Vanderbilt underwrote an invasion of Nicaragua by four other Central American republics, and Walker’s hated American Phalanx was overthrown in 1857.

Most New York businessmen worried that such tactics could lead to war with Spain or Great Britain, but armed diplomacy became an acquired taste among some big merchants and railroad financiers, including August Belmont, Prosper M. Wetmore, Royal Phelps, and John A. Dix. Cheered on by such prominent editors as James Gordon Bennett and John Louis O’Sullivan (of the Democratic Review), these “Young Americans” clamored for further expansion, especially in Central America and the Caribbean. It was the Manifest Destiny of the United States, they said, to spread republicanism, Christianity, and progress around the world—by trade if possible, by force if necessary.

In Asia, force seemed particularly appropriate, England having demonstrated its efficacy by ramming unwanted drugs into China during the Opium War. (The Lows and other China traders had also been smuggling in Turkish opium in exchange for tea, using fast little schooners turned out by the East River yards, and after Britain’s success they too expanded their operations.) All New York celebrated when Commodore Matthew C. Perry took the navy’s East India Squadron to Japan in 1853 and bullied the shogun into opening his country to American trade. Perry was almost a native son, having spent a decade at the Brooklyn Navy Yard pioneering the application of steam power to warships. Besides, he was Belmont’s father-in-law. New Yorkers could be forgiven for thinking that Tokyo too was now an economic satellite of Manhattan.

From around the world, commerce poured into New York City. In 1849 over three thousand ships sailed or steamed into the harbor from more than 150 foreign ports—three times the number that had arrived in 1835—and they carried with them half the nation’s imports and departed with nearly one-third its exports. In the Gold Rush decade (1849-59), ship tonnage through the port jumped another 60 percent.

As trade grew, so did the size and tempo of the waterfront. By 1850 a collar of piers, wharves, docks, and slips circled Manhattan below 14th Street—sixty on the East River, another fifty or more on the Hudson. Those along the East River were favored by sleek Liverpool packets and great square-rigged clippers, those on the west by deeper-draw coastal and transatlantic steamships (the Collins Line pier, for example, lay at the foot of Canal Street). East side or west, however, there was never enough room to accommodate the thousands of vessels now moving in and out of the port every year. At its busiest, the harbor looked (to landlubbers anyway) dangerously anarchic: pilots and crews jockeying for berths while schools of sloops and lighters darted in and out among canal boats, schooners, yachts, barges, ferries, and two-thousand-ton steamers that plowed along at speeds approaching twenty miles per hour.

It wasn’t any calmer on shore, either. In 1857, 598 licensed hacks, forty-five hundred carts, and 190 express wagons competed to tote cotton bales from southern packets to steamers heading to Liverpool; lug finished bolts just in from Manchester to storage warehouses, Pearl Street wholesalers, or Broadway retailers; carry ice, coal, or wood to consumers; haul brick, stone, and earth to construction projects; and fetch passengers from ferries and steamer berths. The number of omnibuses shot up from 255 in 1846 to 683 in 1853 (when they carried over a hundred thousand passengers a day). After 1840, cabs too began clattering about town. The din was terrific, what with hundreds of iron horseshoes striking cobblestone pavements, boxes rattling, drivers cursing and fighting. The racket was not much alleviated when, in 1853, the city began to substitute Belgian blocks—bread-loaf-size cut-granite chunks that were better able to withstand iron-rimmed wagon wheels than circular cobblestones and provided firmer footing for horses.

This profusion of conveyances soon swamped the downtown streets. On an average weekday in the mid-fifties, fifteen thousand vehicles rumbled by St. Paul’s at the corner of Broadway and Fulton. “The throng and rush of traffic in the business part of New York is astonishing even for London,” noted a visiting correspondent for the London Times. “There is a perpetual jam and lock of vehicles for nearly two miles along the chief thoroughfare.” Along the riverfronts, West Street and South Street were lined by block after block (as Gleason’s Pictorial Magazine put it in 1857) of bustling “sail-lofts, shipping offices, warehouses of every description, cheap eating-houses, markets, and those indescribable stores, where old cables, junk, anchors, and all sorts of cast-off worldly things, that none but a seaman has a name for, find a refuge.” Like Broadway, these dockside streets were clogged with horsedrawn wagons, carts, and carriages, which by the 1850s often choked off movement altogether.

Decay and disrepair was as pervasive as congestion along both rivers. Pilings wob­bled and shook. Wharves vanished under the waves at high tide, some never to reappear. Rotting piers suddenly gave way, tumbling people and cargoes alike into the water. Pools of effluvia from open sewers and drains, trapped by masses of floating debris, lapped at crumbling bulkheads; except in the dead of winter, the stench and flies could be overpowering. By 1855, almost in defiance of the port’s burgeoning traffic, New York’s waterfront had deteriorated so badly that state investigators found no more than a dozen-odd piers in fair to good repair on either side of Manhattan. The one positive consequence was that wharfage rates remained low, maintaining New York’s strong competitive advantage over ports having better but more expensive facilities. In 1852, for example, it cost one packet $4.88 to unload seventeen hundred bales of cotton at a Hudson River pier over a two-day period; in Boston or Baltimore it would have cost sixty-eight dollars.

If there was short-term method in the madness, the city would pay a long-term price, as the deplorable condition of the Manhattan waterfront prompted new construction on the opposite side of the East River. From Green Point in the north to Red Hook in South Brooklyn, gangs of workmen filled in tidal marshes, built breakwaters, and threw up blocks of docks and warehouses. One of the largest projects was merchant and landowner Daniel Richards’s plan to transform forty acres of Red Hook marshlands into the Atlantic Basin. Surveying began in 1839; the first dock blocks were sunk in 1841; the initial warehouse rose in 1844 under the direction of contractor James S. T. Stranahan; the port’s first steam grain elevator was installed in 1846; and by the end of the decade, its forty acres of basin were capable of sheltering a hundred ships at a time. The docks in turn were covered with twenty acres of four-story brick and stone warehouses, erected by developers like Samuel Ruggles, and enough grain elevators to make it the main terminus for Erie canal boats. In the Brooklyn Navy Yard, meanwhile, the federal government spent two million dollars over a ten-year period on the construction of a massive masonry drydock.

Just as these sea-oriented projects were coming to fruition, new railroads began pumping even vaster quantities of cargo and passengers into the New York maelstrom.


Built in reponse to overcrowding and deterioration along the Manhattan waterfront, the huge Atlantic Basin in Brooklyn became an important destination for grain and other bulky cargoes entering the port from the Erie Canal. From Henry Stiles, History of’the City of Brooklyn.(United States History, Local History and Genealogy Division. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations)


In May 1851, with great fanfare, President Fillmore and a party of civic notables boarded a steamer at the foot of Duane Street and chugged twenty miles upriver to the westbank port of Piermont. There the party transferred to a New York and Erie Rail Road car and proceeded to travel 447 miles to Dunkirk, a hamlet on the shores of Lake Erie.

An ecstatic Common Council hailed completion of the long-delayed line as “emphatically the work of the age,” and for good reason. Incorporated in 1832, the New York and Erie had not only survived the bankruptcy of most of its original backers during the Panic of 1837, but its engineers and immigrant laborers had contrived to run a double track of six-foot gauge over a major mountain system. The economic significance of this linkage was manifest to all. As director and ironmonger William E. Dodge jubilantly exclaimed: “The Empire City and the great West, the Atlantic Ocean and inland seas, are by this ligature of iron made one!”

Also in 1851, a second force of engineers and laborers was driving the Hudson River Rail Road within sight of Albany, having laid 144 miles of track along the bank of the Hudson. Like the Erie, the Hudson Line had overcome more than natural obstacles—including the opposition of powerful Hudson River steamboat operators who had been pouring money into the development of mammoth floating palaces to attract customers, with great success. Roused by the threat of a rival road out of Boston, however, the legislature assented to a charter for the Hudson Line. By the end of 1851 it was scooting passengers from New York to Albany in less than four hours as against seven and a half hours by steamboat. By 1853 its passengers could transfer to a set of interconnecting roads that stretched all the way to Buffalo. Unlike the Erie, moreover, the Hudson Line ran directly into Manhattan. Its cars rolled south down Eleventh Avenue to a massive depot covering the area between 30th and 32nd streets. There, since municipal regulations prohibited steam engines below that point (the danger of explosion still being very real), passengers and freight were transferred to horse cars, which clopped downtown along Tenth, West, and Hudson, stopping at 23rd, 14th, and Christopher, skirting the west side of Hudson Square, and finally terminating at a shed on Chambers Street.

The arrival of the railroad on the city’s West Side, coupled with the increasing preference of steamships for the Hudson River docks, pulled vast numbers of drygoods merchants across town from their Pearl Street quarters. By 1855, speeded by a city-engineered program of street widenings that cleared vast tracts for real estate speculators, some two hundred warehouses had been erected, many handsomely designed in the latest Italianate mode with white marble or brownstone facades. Rents and prices doubled in three months, quickly driving out groggeries and boardinghouses. “From the old worm of Decay,” exulted the Tribune, “flutters forth the gorgeous butterfly of Wealth and Beauty.”

Together, then, the Erie and Hudson lines sustained New York’s overwhelming advantage in the movement of western produce to the East Coast. By the late fifties, the city was handling half again as much rail tonnage as Philadelphia and Baltimore combined. In 1860, counting the still-heavy volume of traffic on the Erie Canal, it received $161 million worth of goods from the West, just about the value of that year’s cotton crop.

A third line, the old New York and Harlem, was meanwhile acquiring a new look. It still ran cars every ten minutes from Union Square up to Harlem village, but in 1840 it bridged the Harlem River at 135th Street and began to push north. Two years later, construction crews had crossed the Bronx River and were driving into Westchester County. By the mid-fifties the Harlem Line had opened a feeder from its Melrose station in the Bronx (at 162nd Street) to Port Morris on the East River near Riker’s Island, and at Woodlawn it had linked up with the New York and New Haven coming down from Connecticut. This vigorous expansion shortened the commute to Manhattan from the Bronx, Connecticut, and Westchester suburbs like White Plains. Harlem Line locomotives ran down the East Side, along Fourth Avenue and through the Murray Hill tunnel. At 32nd Street, passengers switched to horsecars for the short ride to Madison Square Depot, a grand, multitowered station in the newly popular Italianate manner the line had erected in 1845 in the block bounded by Madison and Fourth avenues and 26th and 27th streets. From that point passengers could catch a horsecar directly to Astor House while freight continued on south to a terminal occupying the blocks between Center, Franklin, Elm, and White streets. Built in 1853, it was thought to be the largest structure in the city at the time.

By 1852 the Hudson, Harlem, and New Haven lines were channeling 2.5 million passengers a year into the city. At the same time, carriers like the New Jersey Railroad funneled traffic from Philadelphia and elsewhere into Jersey City. There, at a new terminal built in 1858, people and vehicles transferred to the Sso-ton ferries that carried two thousand passengers plus horses, wagons, and carriages back and forth across the Hudson every ten minutes all day, every fifteen minutes all night. To the east, travelers could ferry across the East River and hook up with the Long Island Rail Road for a railsea voyage to Boston—until 1848, when the New York and New Haven established a direct and far more expeditious overland service.


Building railroads, clippers, and steamships took money—and money was something New York had plenty of. Between 1851 and 1854 alone, $175 million in gold reached the city from California. A good part of it was brought in by the new American Express Company, organized in 1850, or by Henry Wells and William G. Fargo, who left American Express in 1852 and set up their own company “to forward Gold Dust, Bullion, Specie, Packages, Parcels & Freight of all kinds, to and from New York and San Francisco.”

This western bounty induced an upsurge in the banking business, which the state had opened to all comers back in 1838. New banks flowered even more profusely than railroads: twelve in 1851, another thirty by 1853, sixty in all before the middle of the decade. These institutions, in turn, served as depositories for six hundred of the nation’s seven hundred commercial banks, which maintained permanent balances in New York to expedite domestic and foreign transactions.

The efficiency of the banking system improved as well. For years now, it had been the practice of the city’s banks to close their accounts every day by settling up with one another directly—squadrons of clerks and porters rushing to and fro in an atmosphere of comic-opera frenzy, here with checks or notes for payment, there with hand trucks piled high with satchels of specie. But as the number of banks mounted, the financial system, like the streets, approached gridlock, and the need for a more rational approach became apparent. In 1853, accordingly, local bankers created the New York Clearing House, which enabled clerks to do in minutes what had previously taken hours.

More capital, more banks, and more efficient banking enabled New York to pull far ahead of its nearest competitor, Boston, in the moneylending business. By August 1857 local banks carried better than forty million dollars in outstanding loans on their books, a deep reservoir of credit that lubricated the expansion of trade, transportation, and manufacturing throughout the United States. Banking evolved from being an adjunct institution, created and controlled by merchants to facilitate their trading operations, into a distinct business enterprise, with a profit motive all its own.

Growing numbers of merchants—men like Moses Taylor—segued from commerce to finance. Taylor, like many of his contemporaries who amassed fortunes in business, had been born (in 1806) into relative affluence. His father, Jacob Taylor Moses, was a cabinetmaker who had invested successfully in Manhattan land and become John Jacob Astor’s “general agent.” Young Moses apprenticed as a clerk with G. G. and S. S. Rowland, by 1830 the leading house in the Latin American trade. After he proved himself with diligent wharf and countinghouse service, the Howlands allowed him to trade on his own account. In 1832, with his accumulated profits, a loan from his father, and sterling references from Astor and the Howlands, Taylor set up on South Street as a commission merchant specializing in trade with Cuba.

In addition to arranging the transport of sugar from Havana to New York, Taylor advised Cuban planters on how to invest their excess funds and advanced them credit for land and slaves. In the 1840s Taylor turned much of his mercantile work over to Percy Rivington Pyne—successively Taylor’s clerk, partner, and son-in-law—and concentrated on investing.

Taylor first favored cautious, capital-preserving vehicles like bonds, mortgages, real estate (especially wharves and stores near Manhattan’s shore), and trust companies (like the well-established New York Life Insurance and Trust Company). Taylor branched out into gas and telegraph companies, and in the 1850s he became one of a small group of venturesome merchant-financiers who supplied capital to, and gradually assumed control over, many of the coal mines and blast furnaces in Pennsylvania. Taylor, Belmont, and other New Yorkers also became the nation’s premier railroad financiers, with Taylor concentrating on lines in and out of the eastern coal fields. In 1851 one group established the Illinois Central Rail Road, with blueblood Robert Schuyler, Hamilton’s nephew and the country’s leading railroad tycoon, as its first president.

Taylor also moved directly into banking. In 1837 he had become a director of the City Bank of New York, acting as J. J. Astor’s representative. He and the other directors invested in one another’s ventures, and Taylor brought his own associates into the bank’s management. In 1856 Taylor assumed the bank’s presidency.

Entrepreneurs also turned to New York’s capital markets to raise money, jolting the stock market out of the torpor that had gripped it during the recent depression. By the late fifties, hundreds of new brokerage houses had appeared in the city. These firms helped attract leery European capital—badly burned by American defaults during the panic years—back into U.S. businesses. The Barings had refused to participate the boom as late as 1850, but the discovery of gold fired the imagination (and avarice) of investors, just as the Revolutions of 1848 frightened Euroelites into seeking safely distant havens for their money. By 1853 26 percent of all U.S. rail bonds were in the hands of overseas investors, notably English and German. During a typical week in the 1850s, hundreds of thousands of shares in railroads, banks, canals, and coal mines were traded, making New York one of the largest and most sophisticated capital markets in the world.

Speculators and stock manipulators also zoomed in on the glamorous new railroad issues. Jacob Little, the stockbroker who had already won the nickname “Ursa Major,” the “Great Bear,” now dazzled the city with ever more brazen feats of financial legerdemain. Little rigged prices with fake tips, false rumors, phony accounts, and fictitious sales. He outfoxed short sellers by organizing clandestine pools to corner the market, and he fleeced friends as well as enemies by working through other brokers to screen his movements. Not since the days of William Duer, if ever, had Wall Street witnessed such single-minded predation.

Little’s methods inspired a new generation of wheeler-dealers, most notably a country boy named Daniel Drew. Drew got his start in business as a drover, buying cattle from upstate farmers and herding them down to Manhattan to satisfy the growing city’s demand for beef. In 1830, at the age of thirty-three, he became manager of the new Bull’s Head Tavern on Third Avenue at 24th Street. Thrifty and clever with money, Drew became a trusted private banker for the drovers and butchers who met at the Bull’s Head, cashing their notes and extending them credit for a modest 1 percent interest. In 1838 he retired from the cattle business, moved down to Bleecker Street, and set up a banking and brokerage house in the basement of the City Bank building at 40 Wall, directly across from the Merchants’ Exchange.

Over the next twenty years, playing the market with the nerve of a riverboat gambler, Drew accumulated a personal fortune estimated in the millions. He took particular interest in the high-risk “fancies”—wildly fluctuating stocks of troubled companies, typically railroads that had underestimated costs and overestimated traffic. Drew learned to minimize his risks and maximize his profits by purchasing enough stock to get himself named an officer or director of the issuing company. Insider trading violated no laws in this feverish, cynical era, and Drew’s privileged position helped him decide when to buy or sell the company’s stock, as well as to manipulate its market value to his own advantage—something he did on numerous occasions as treasurer of the New York and Erie Railroad. Legend has it that while still a drover, Drew bamboozled Henry Astor by selling him cattle fattened on water just prior to sale; it didn’t happen, but it served as a convenient origin myth for the term “stock watering,” which came into currency to describe the practice of artificially inflating the value of securities.

While Drew himself never succumbed to the temptation, it wasn’t uncommon to see a company straightforwardly looted by its own management. In 1854 directors of the New Haven line discovered that Robert Schuyler, their powerful and distinguished president, had privately printed up twenty thousand shares of bogus New Haven stock, sold them for two million dollars, and pocketed the proceeds. In the ensuing uproar, Schuyler slipped across the Canadian border; neither fugitive financier nor funds were ever recovered.

The results of all this commercial and financial activity, licit and illicit, were soon palpable on Wall Street. Many new banks set up shop in built-to-order Renaissance palazzos—monumental structures made of New Jersey brownstone and cast-iron columns and designed by stylish architects like Richard Upjohn and James Renwick. The new buildings, in addition to keeping up with the latest London fashion in commercial architecture, were more flexible than the now passé Grecian temples. Banks could rent the front rooms to other institutions (private bankers, insurance companies) and still have room in back for the small army of clerks, copyists, and accountants needed to handle their growing paperwork.

Still, the demand for office space kept burgeoning. The members of the Stock and Exchange Board burst out of their quarters in the Merchants’ Exchange and sought new shelters. So did the legions of ever more specialized wholesalers—dealers in cotton, provisions, dry goods, hardware, drugs—and the formal organizations like the New York Produce Exchange (1851), which they established to standardize the grading, inspection, and marketing of their particular commodities. On top of this came the space requirements of brokers, agents, commission merchants, auctioneers, jobbers, and credit reporting firms. Tappan retired from his Mercantile Agency, but the company expanded under his successors Benjamin Douglass and Robert Graham Dun, and indeed attracted rivals, like the Bradstreet Agency.

Insurance companies added to the crush. By 1860 ninety-five insurance outfits protected against losses from fire; seventy-one of them had been founded in the 1850s. A dozen firms covered maritime risks, with fully a third of the city’s business being transacted by the Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company (dominated by the Jones family, which had invested its rentier inheritance in the firm).

The life insurance industry finally took root, as businessmen, scarred by the depression, responded to new hard-sell campaigns. Agents warned that “experience demonstrates that the possession of property is almost equally unstable with that of life,” presented statistics demonstrating that “the merest fraction” of those in mercantile pursuits “leave any property to their surviving relations,” and printed up chilling lists of men who had died shortly after taking out a policy. Using the new domesticity to counteract religious objections that insurance interfered with the workings of Divine Providence, agents pleaded with merchants and professionals not to let their “beloved wife or children” be left “often worse than penniless, to the cold charities of the world.” Eleven life insurance companies soon were thriving in the city, paced by the Mutual Life Insurance Company (1843), which by 1860 had over twelve thousand contracts on its books.


During the 1850s, fattened on trade and gold, New York became the nation’s leading manufacturing center—indeed one of the fastest-growing industrial areas in the world. Testifying to this transformation were the ironworks that hunkered down along the East River and Hudson River waterfronts, attended like economic royalty by flotillas of barges full of New Jersey pig iron and Pennsylvania coal. (In 1854 alone over one million tons of the latter came down the Delaware and Hudson Canal.)

Some of the biggest—the Globe Iron Works, the Morgan Iron Works, and the Delameter Iron Works, each acres in extent and employing hundreds of workers—were creatures of the boom in railroads and steamships, producing entire trestles, thirty-ton marine engines, and the enormous bed-plates on which a ship’s machinery rested. Largest of the lot, an acknowledged wonder of the age, was the sprawling Novelty Iron Works on the East River shore at the foot of 12th Street. Founded in the 1830s by Thomas B. Stillman and Horatio Allen, Novelty was a five-acre maze of buildings that employed as many as twelve hundred workers by the early 1850s. Highly systematized, Novelty was sectioned into eighteen departments, each directed by a foreman who in turn answered to the “front office”—one of the city’s first—staffed by a superintendent and eleven clerks.

Another set of foundries turned out cast iron for warehouses and stores. In the mid-forties James Bogardus, a New York watchmaker and inventor, developed and patented a method for mass-producing prefabricated building elements. Columns, panels, and arches—in any architectural style—were cast from molds, laid on the foundry floor, primed, and assembled into small numbered units. Then, packed in straw, they were loaded on a horse-drawn dray, taken to construction sites, and raised and bolted into place, ready for painting (usually a light earthen color) and the installation of plateglass windows. At first Bogardus’s modular facades were simply fastened to the front of existing brick buildings, converting downtown structures from domestic to commercial use. In 1849, he designed a complete cast-iron facade, for a Broadway drugstore, and in 1850 he patented an all-cast-iron building.1

Bogardus broke the logjam in commercial construction, and his structures—inexpensive to make, easy to erect and maintain, supposedly fireproof—were soon in great demand. Foundries were created or converted to supply them. Daniel D. Badger had moved to New York in 1846 to make iron shutters. Now he relocated his Architectural Iron Works to East 14th Street and Avenue C, where he churned out Corinthian columns, roof cornices, and (from 1852 on) complete cast-iron storefronts. Though Badger dominated the field, competitors flourished as well—notably the Jackson, Cornell, and Etna ironworks—most also located near the rivers for ease of access to coal and pig iron.

There were, however, serious drawbacks to erecting giant industrial plants in Manhattan. Apart from the overcrowded streets and jammed docks, the rapid rise in the price of land (and of taxes tied to assessed valuation) meant that, as of 1855, two-thirds of all fixed capital invested in iron foundries was tied up in real estate, and only onethird in machinery. It still made economic sense for the big foundries to keep close to customers like the shipyards lining the East River from Grand to 12th streets, just as this great maritime complex, which launched one out of every seven steam-powered vessels built in the United States between 1850 and 1860, preferred proximity to its suppliers. But for many growing enterprises, cheaper land and more fluid transportation were the key desiderata. Some big operations like Steinway and Sons’ piano-manufacturing plant (1853) found a satisfactory perch on the northern edge of the built-up city. But for many, it was Brooklyn that proved most enticing.

Sugar refineries were among the first to migrate. Back in the early nineteenth century, when the Havemeyer family operation required but five employees, a little building on Vandam Street had been perfectly adequate. But as Moses Taylor and other merchants funneled vast amounts of Caribbean sugar to the city, and as refinery technology underwent explosive development, the Havemeyers engineered a drastic change in scale and location. In 1858 Frederick C. Havemeyer bought a sizable waterfront tract in Williamsburgh and erected a million-dollar plant complete with its own docks and warehouses. By 1860, the Havemeyers and their thirteen competitors were producing half the nation’s supply, and Brooklyn had become the greatest sugar-refining center in the world.

Other industries followed suit. By the 1850s Brooklyn’s factory district stretched along the shoreline from Greenpoint and Williamsburgh in the north, down past the Navy Yard at Wallabout Bay, and on to South Brooklyn, where the building of the Atlantic Basin and the decision to construct a canal from Gowanus Bay to Douglass Street to drain the surrounding marshland spurred development.

Iron foundries flourished. So did drug companies: Pfizer started up its Williamsburgh plant in 1849, and Squibb opened on Furman Street in 1858. The Brooklyn Flint Glass Works and the Cartlidge porcelain factory paced two newly substantial industries. The city’s distilleries produced over five million gallons of whiskey annually, its steampowered ropeworks thrived, and its white-lead manufacturers turned out more product than anyplace else in the United States.

Queens too proved attractive, especially as new transport increased its accessibility. In 1849 Peter Cooper transplanted his glue factory to a ten-acre site along the Maspeth Avenue Plank Road. And in 1854, Conrad Poppenhusen set up a factory in College Point to produce household goods made of the hard rubber patented in 1839 by Charles Goodyear. Around his Enterprise Rubber Works, Poppenhusen constructed a company town—by draining marshes, bringing in water, streets, and gas, building a road to Flushing, and erecting houses he rented or sold to workmen and their families, whose ranks grew to two thousand by 1860.

To the north, the bucolic Bronx remained heavily forested, divided into sizable estates, with here and there some small farms, and a few minuscule villages and townships along the New York-Boston post road. The advent in 1841 of Jordan L. Mott, inventor of a coal-burning stove, and the arrival in 1842 of the Harlem Railroad opened up a small industrial beachhead. Mott purchased from Gouverneur Morris II a site on the Harlem River bounded by Third Ave and 134th Street. (After the sale he asked if he might name his new settlement Mott Haven. “I don’t care what he calls it,” Morris grumped. “While he is about it, he might as well change the name of the Harlem and call it the Jordan.”) Here Mott erected a sprawling ironworks, with a tall brick smokestack, where his workforce produced stoves, sinks, and ornamental ironwork. He also laid out the Mott Haven Canal to facilitate access to the foundry and purchased additional acres from the Morris family on which to found a community for craftsmen, near what is now Washington Avenue and 160th Street (this time he tactfully chose the name Morrisania). Other, grander operations soon followed, including the Janes and Kirtland Iron Works (on Westchester Avenue between Brook and St. Ann’s avenues); a mammoth plant, it turned out mammoth products, most spectacularly the 8,909,200-pound Capitol dome, which was transported to Washington section by section and set in place by 1863. Still farther north, large New York-owned firms operated out of Yonkers, Bridgeport, and Danbury—manufacturing bricks, stoves, and locomotives—while the output of the Catskills’ leather tanneries, when finished in Manhattan, allowed New York to dominate regional and national markets in yet another industry.

To the south, the agricultural and sea-based economy of Staten Island also began to draw large manufacturing operations to its wide open spaces. By 1860 the pioneer New-York Dyeing and Printing Establishment was employing 160 men, forty women, and eight steam engines to process nearly five million yards of cotton muslin annually, and rival firms had emerged-—like Crabtree and Wilkinson, whose 183 workers turned out 1,520,000 silk handkerchiefs annually. New manufactories made wallpaper, furniture, carriages, and Charles Goodyear’s India rubber cloth. The village of Factoryville boomed. Nearby Tompkinsville benefited from the arrival of the Dejonge brothers’ paper plant, which produced gift, art, commercial, and (a U.S. first) white-coated lithograph paper. Three Staten Island manufacturers devoted themselves to producing and bottling artificially carbonated or “soda” water for dispensation at “soda fountains.”2 On the southwest shore, along the Arthur Kill, discovery of clay and kaolin deposits led to the emergence of a major brick-manufacturing industry. The earliest, largest, and most influential company was founded near Rossville in 1854 by Balthazar Kreischer; by 1860 his sixty employees, housed in the company village of Kreischer ville, were producing a million firebricks annually.

Even Staten Island’s most traditional occupation, oyster gathering, changed scale and structure. Most of the natural shellfish beds in Kill van Kull, Arthur Kill, and Prince’s and Raritan bays had been exhausted as early as the 1810s. To preserve their livelihood and meet increasing demand, watermen imported and transplanted small “seed” or tiny, larval “set” oysters from fertile Virginia beds. By the 1840s oystering had become an extensive business. By the 1850s it was one of the region’s foremost industries, dominated by large commercial firms that, collectively, employed perhaps a thousand men raking and longing the sea bottom with long wooden-handled iron tools, then culling, hauling, shucking, preparing, and cleaning the planting grounds.

Manufacturing also blossomed to the west, across the Hudson River, in a string of New Jersey towns easily accessible to the emerging national rail grid: Elizabeth, Jersey City, Newark, Orange, Passaic, and Paterson. Many manufactories had been transplanted from Manhattan and were still owned and operated by New Yorkers. The Colgate Soap Company moved to Jersey City in 1847. The Hendricks copper factory at Belleville had become one of the largest of its kind. Even so ardent a New York booster as Peter Cooper moved his ironworks to the banks of the Delaware at Trenton, where it would be closer to Pennsylvania anthracite, Jersey ore, and his biggest buyer, the Camden and Amboy Railroad. Cooper’s son, Edward, and Abram Hewitt then expanded the business by combining the whole process of iron manufacture from ore to finished product in one enormous complex, employing over two thousand workers, in the hills of northern New Jersey.

By the mid-fifties, then, considerable numbers of larger companies had situated or resituated themselves in an industrial belt girdling Manhattan, a regional economy that included such powerhouse cities as Brooklyn (fifth in manufacturing) and Newark (ranked sixth). Yet New York City remained number one—with one of every fifteen people employed in U.S. manufactures working on the island of Manhattan—because king-size iron works, factories, and refineries were not the be-all and end-all of industrialization.


As of 1855 roughly two-thirds of the city’s industrial workforce was employed in firms with fewer than a hundred hands, half of them in firms with under twenty-five—big by the standards of 1840, but nonetheless lilliputian alongside a behemoth like Novelty. Even in the iron industry, small- to medium-size firms were the rule. By 1860 New York had 539 iron works with 10,600 employees—an average of twenty per shop—producing gas meters, plumbing fixtures, printing presses, cutlery, iron beds, springs, nails, bolts, and the like. In woodworking, giant companies turning out pianos were far outnumbered by small furniture shops where handfuls of workers turned out cheap tables, cane chairs, sofas, beds, and chests. Shipmaking required huge yards but depended also on the sixty-odd firms that produced sails, blocks, and other marine equipment. All in all, in 1860 Manhattan housed 4,375 manufacturing establishments, which employed 90,204 workers. Most of these were small operations, crammed into the upper stories of buildings used otherwise for trade and commerce (44 percent were in the downtown warehouse district bounded by the Second Ward). Why did New York attract such a bevy of manufacturers?

Partly it was a matter of finance. Banks were still unwilling to lend to small manufacturers. Hence enterprising artisans either paid their own start-up and overhead costs, which limited them to the cheap rental spaces available in the warehouse district, or they relied on loans (and orders) from downtown merchants, who preferred their partners (and investments) close to hand.

Partly it was a matter of markets. For manufactures destined for export, it made sense to locate production facilities near the port, the place where it was easiest to get information about, and ship to, distant markets. When items were destined for Manhattan—and the city consumed most of what it made—it was proximity to local purchasers that dictated the choice.

Partly it was a matter of access to other manufacturers. New York was a warren of interlocking suppliers. Iron foundries produced steam boilers for shipyards, gas tanks for gas companies, architectural ornaments for contractors; and they relied in turn on a network of repairmen, machine shops, and importers of raw materials. Cabinetmakers prized nearness to sawmills, dealers, and auction houses. Papermakers, rag collectors, publishers, printers, and even pencil factories (the country’s biggest was on the East River) developed synergistic relationships. P. J. Lorillard cut and cured tobacco at his plant in the Bronx and packed it downtown on Broome and West Broadway. While there were areas of topographical specialization, most manufacturing areas were a jumble of businesses. In the 1850s, when the blocks south of Houston and west of Broadway began to change from residential to industrial, they filled with foundries, copper and brass shops, locksmiths, China and glass manufactories, cabinetmakers and furniture makers, and the lumber yards that supplied them.

Partly—principally—Manhattan’s was a labor-intensive economy. Most New York workshops relied on skill and muscle, not steam. Powered firms were roughly three times as expensive to establish as unpowered ones, so by 1860 only 18 percent of New York’s shops were engine driven. This was up considerably from the 4 percent using steam a decade earlier, but it still left three-quarters of Manhattan’s workers in firms where people-power was the only source of energy. Not surprisingly, most firms plant­ed themselves close to the low-wage, walk-to-work proletarians who were stacked into the island’s lower wards.

The most characteristic form of metropolitan manufacturing was the transformed textile trade. After 1840 the ailing artisanal system of production, unable to withstand the pressure of low-paid immigrant labor and a new national demand for ready-to-wear men’s clothing, had succumbed to capitalist relations of production. Ready-mades had once been a synonym for slop clothes—cheap flannel shirts and dungarees fit only for sailors, slaves, and backwoodsmen. The tremendous expansion of southern slavery increased demand for such inexpensive products, and the Gold Rush touched off a clothing rush in flannel drawers, overalls, and calico shirts. Falling labor costs also made it possible to manufacture high-quality reproductions of European fashions at half the cost of imports. As the national market for New York ready-mades ballooned, the wholesale value of clothing sold in the city between 1841 and 1853 leapt upward, rising from two and a half to twenty million dollars. By 1855 the garment industry was far and away the city’s largest, embracing 35 percent of all manufacturing employees. In 1860 New York produced roughly 40 percent of the country’s clothes.

Crucial to this rapid expansion was a reorganization of the trade into three distinct but interdependent levels: a small elite of wholesale firms at the top, a large corps of subcontractors who supervised final production in the middle, and, at the bottom, an army of outworkers. Wholesale firms like P. L. Rogers, D. and J. Devlin, and Lewis and Hanford (the nation’s biggest) brought cloth straight from the mills to their own in-house tailors, who cut it to the desired pattern. These “cutters,” aristocrats of the trade, were among the city’s best-paid workers. The constituent parts of garments were then turned over to outworkers, men and women who worked in their own homes or shops sewing the pieces together into a final product. As one cutter could keep many outworkers busy, the ratio of employees was wildly skewed toward the latter. In 1854 Hanford’s had seventy-five insiders and four thousand outsiders; Brooks Brothers (the former custom tailors turned wholesalers) had seventy-eight inside, fifteen hundred outside.

In time, as the volume of business grew, more and more wholesalers subcontracted their finishing work to smaller manufacturers. Many were immigrant artisans who had made the transition from wage-worker to proprietor. It didn’t require much capital. A tailor might get a contract from a wholesaler or a larger shop, do his own cutting at home, and parcel out the sewing to outworkers, thus passing on the costs of space, light, fuel, and even needles and thread. Competition among subcontractors was fierce—vicious—and success depended on holding the wages of outworkers to an absolute minimum. (“If they were compelled to pay living wages for their work,” Horace Greeley observed, “they must stop it altogether.”) Even then, profit margins were slim, and the whole enterprise could easily collapse, tumbling a boss back down into the ranks of his workers.

Everything, in the end, came down to the workers, tens of thousands of them—male tailors and their families as well as unmarried seamstresses. Many of the men had fled Europe aiming to reestablish themselves as traditional artisans, only to discover that too many had come too late for that to be possible. Apprenticeship disappeared. Wages plummeted. The best and luckiest became contractors or cutters; most found themselves irredeemably proletarianized. By the 1850s piece rates in New York were so low that journeyman tailors couldn’t earn enough to stay alive unless they had families and became, in effect, foremen of their own family shops. They negotiated with employers, did the heaviest or most skilled work, and supervised the labor of their wives and children. Working sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, they and their families together might take in ten dollars a week (compared to the twenty dollars an inside male cutter could earn).

Life was even more precarious for single women working as seamstresses, dressmakers, milliners, shirtmakers and collarmakers, embroiderers, tasselmakers, and artificial-flower makers. A woman’s wages reflected the assumption that she didn’t need to support herself but was merely supplementing the income of her husband. Single women and widows, frequently with children to support, made between fifty cents and two dollars a week (unskilled male laborers in other fields got seven dollars a week)—when they could find work at all in this highly seasonal and competitive business. This relegated them to the cheapest rooms in the upper floors of the worst housing, where they often worked without heat or light because firewood and candles were too expensive; they and their children routinely suffered from eyestrain, fatigue, malnutrition, pneumonia, and consumption. Sometimes groups of women banded together, sharing quarters in boardinghouses and turning them into all-female cooperative workshops. Some made ends meet by part-time prostitution. Even Bennett’s Herald, no friend of labor, said in 1853, “We know of no class of workwomen who are more poorly paid for their work or who suffer more privation and hardship.”

The plight of New York garment workers worsened after Isaac Merritt Singer came to the city in the early fifties to build and sell the first practical sewing machine. Raised in upstate New York, where his father was a village millwright, Singer apprenticed at a machinist’s shop, worked briefly in New York in the mid-1830s at Hoe’s press works, then knocked about the country as an actor till discovering his true metier was inventing. In 1850, having produced rock-drilling and type-carving machines, he was solicited by a Boston machine shop owner to help improve the sewing machine, which Elias Howe had invented and patented in 1846. Singer came up with a working model incorporating a foot treadle.

In 1850 Singer moved to New York City, center of the garment industry, to market and manufacture his product. After settling a patent dispute with Howe by pooling their rights, he began production in a twenty-five-by-fifty-foot room over the New Haven Railroad Depot in Centre Street. At first, skilled craftsmen produced almost all the parts by hand, a process that was slow and costly and made each machine unique, thus hard to fix. Then the recently invented milling machine allowed Singer to make precision-measured interchangeable parts and introduce mass-production techniques heretofore employed only in armories. In 1857 I. M. Singer and Company opened a new factory, more advanced than any in Britain, in a six-story building on Mott Street, between Broome and Spring, complete with an up-to-date Badger and Company cast-iron front. Production soared from 2,564 machines in 1856 to thirteen thousand by 1860.

Demand for Singer’s heavy industrial models grew brisk as wholesale clothing manufacturers insisted their subcontractors use them to standardize stitching and increase output: a gentleman’s frock coat took sixteen and a half hours to make by hand, two and a half hours by machine. Contractors in turn demanded that outworkers buy machines. When few seamstresses proved able to afford them, Singer offered another innovation, installment buying, but the women soon discovered that if they fell behind on monthly payments, even if the machine was all but paid for, it was repossessed, and their money was not returned. Most women, and many men, were therefore forced to pay tailors who had managed to acquire machines to do the requisite stitching, shaving their incomes yet farther.3

Some garment manufacturers responded to Singer’s invention by recentralizing production. Detail work (cuffs, buttonholes, sleeves) was put out to homeworkers to sew, and the garments were then assembled by machine operatives in inside shops under tight supervision. Fashion had a hand in this reconcentration, as the new “hoop skirts” required that cloth be sewn onto iron frames made in Connecticut and brought to New York factories for assembly. By 1858 one hoopskirt factory alone employed 350, mainly women, to turn out three thousand skirts a day.

These factories or “sweatshops” tended to hire single girls between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five who lived either with their families or in boardinghouses. Their wages were higher than those of outworkers, and the work was steadier (owners being reluctant to leave costly machines idle); some even had a little money left over to spend on clothes and recreation. The setting had its drawbacks, especially given the power wielded by male foremen, but the factory girls, partly by virtue of their massed numbers, were seldom pliant and docile. Indeed a high-spiritedness characterized the shops at first, with much socializing and bantering, to the point where some bosses complained that “men are considered more reliable and more easily managed.” Employers soon began to impose stricter discipline—Brooks Brothers, for example, forbade all conversation—and as conditions worsened, turnover soared.

Factory production, in turn, increased pressure on small employers, who responded by lowering piece rates, forcing seamstresses to work ever faster and ever longer; fifteen-to-eighteen-hour workdays for seamstresses became common in the 1850s. And machine work proved just as taxing as hand sewing; it simply shifted the strain from arms to hips, while the jarring mechanisms generated altogether new nervous disorders. The Shirt Sewers and Seamstresses Union spoke out against the Singers, but they had come to stay.


As production of commodities soared, local retailers began to adopt radically new marketing techniques to increase the volume and velocity of sales. The vanguard of this revolution was the department store, and the man who introduced it to New York was dry-goods merchant Alexander T. Stewart.

This slight, taciturn man with sandy-gray hair and whiskers, who had done so well during the Panic of 1837, came to realize that retail merchandizing was not keeping pace with the boom-era surge in industrial productivity. Even in larger shops like Brooks Brothers or Lord and Taylor, stock turnover could be glacially slow. According to time-honored custom, each prospective customer who came through the door was engaged by a clerk, and prices, rather than being fixed, depended on the outcome of leisurely dickering. It was Stewart’s genius to see that if he wanted to sell more goods, and to sell them more rapidly, he would have to sell them differently.

As early as 1832 Stewart, like Arthur Tappan, had advertised “regular and uniform prices”—an inspired tactic, as E. L. Godkin remembered half a century later, which made Stewart popular among female shoppers by “delivering them from distrust of their own power as hagglers or bargain-makers.” Over the next dozen-odd years he perfected his appeal to women with periodic price reductions, special sales, auctions, and canny advertising that depicted his establishment as “the most desirable place to which ladies can resort.” It was reported in the newspapers that he even sent salesmen outside to deliver “eulogies on silks, laces, and french muslin” to preferred customers while they sat outside in their carriages, “which must have won their hearts.”

Stewart’s most famous innovation, however, dates from 1846, when he opened a cavernous new store on the east side of Broadway between Chambers and Reade streets. The former site of Washington Hall, headquarters of the Federalist Party, this was now a prime retail location—close to wholesale clothing manufacturers, rail and ferry terminals, fashionable hotels, sumptuous private residences—and Stewart built accordingly. Instead of adhering to the Greek Revival style, he erected a magnificent Italian Renaissance palazzo, five stories tall and sheathed in dazzling white Tuckahoe marble. Its street-level facade, supported by great cast-iron Corinthian pilasters, boasted fifteen huge plate-glass windows. The interior, airy as well as opulent, was organized around a large circular court covered by a domed skylight. Nothing remotely like it had ever been seen in New York before; well-traveled residents knew it had no equal in London or Paris, either. People began to call it the “Marble Palace.”


Stewart’s Marble Palace on Broadway and Chambers Street, 1851, the pioneer department store in the United States. Fifteen years after it opened, Stewart moved to larger quarters uptown and turned the building into a wholesale outlet and warehouse. It still stands, having served (among other things) as the headquarters of the Sun in the early twentieth century. Engraving by J. A. Bogert. (© Collection of The New York Historical Society)

Consistent with his previous experiments in retailing, Stewart encouraged customers to stroll at leisure around the selling floors, inspecting wares laid out on polished mahogany counters and marble shelves, everything clearly tagged with a set price and organized into separate “departments.” He instructed his sales staff, as always, to be helpful but unobtrusive and never to bargain. Above all, he continued to look for ways to make shopping agreeable to women of the propertied classes: by hiring handsome young men as clerks, by advertising aggressively in ladies’ magazines, by staging the first American fashion shows, and by locating a “Ladies’ Parlor” on the second floor featuring full-length Parisian mirrors.

Stewart’s store was a sensational success. Outside, private carriages jammed Broadway; inside, two hundred clerks allegedly took in ten thousand dollars a day, an unheard-of sum (a decade later, in 1859, sales topped nine million, almost twenty thousand dollars per day). Admiring newspapers paid homage to the owner as “Stewart the Great” or “King Stewart.” So did his competitors. During the 1850s one after another of them moved to Broadway—albeit a little to the north, to the five-block-long strip intersected by Canal, Grand, Broome, Spring, Prince, and Houston. Arnold, Constable opened a new “Marble House” facing Canal Street; its brass-buttoned, blue-uniformed porters opened carriage doors and held umbrellas over crinolined customers. Lord and Taylor opted for a palace of cast iron, an elegant emporium that opened a block farther north in 1859. There were other broad-gauged arrivals, such as Brooks Brothers and the Hearn Brothers, but specialized stores flocked to the strip as well. Badger’s ironworks cast a Venetian-style palazzo for E. V. Haughwout, an importer of silver and glass, who also manufactured fine chandeliers and handpainted china. Tiffany and Company, too, chose a Badger iron-and-glass front to show off its “diamond jewelry, watches, clocks, silverware and bronzes,” and assured would-be customers “that they may examine our collections, without incurring the least obligation to make purchases.” Cheny silks, Gunther furs, and W. and J. Sloane carpets were soon displayed in their own retail outlets.

By the mid-fifties throngs of “window-shoppers” were promenading up and down Broadway delighting (as Henry James later remembered) in the goods “heaped up for our fond consumption.” The street became an extension of the stores, a stage for the fashion conscious. Hundreds of people “spend their lives in sauntering through Broadway during fashionable hours seeing and being seen,” the Tribune observed. Most were smartly dressed women, all ribbons and silks and Parisian fashions, who formed “one sheet of bright, quivering colors,” though men were also in evidence, conservatively dressed businessmen as well as dandies with hornlike mustaches, kid gloves, thin trouser legs, and patent leather shoes. At night the effect was almost magical as gas lamps and illuminated store windows captured the streams of pedestrians in their glow and the colored lamps on carriages and omnibuses transformed Broadway into a river of light.


After 1853 omnibus riders could continue north past Houston, past Madison Square, and out beyond the settled fringes of the city, toward the only structure in town that put Stewart’s emporium to shame. Journalist George Foster described the journey: “For some blocks we have been aware, by the accumulation of coffee houses, grog shops, ‘saloons’, peep-shows of living alligators, model-artists and three-headed calves, that we were approaching the newly discovered, Sedgwickean centre of the metropolis. ‘Fortieth street, Crystal Palace’—says the conductor, stopping the cars handily on the crossing.”

Two years earlier, in 1851, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations had opened in London’s fabled Crystal Palace, a soaring, glittering wonder of cast iron and glass. Later that same year, a group of influential New Yorkers—Theodore Sedgwick, August Belmont, Edward Collins, and William Cullen Bryant, plus assorted Schuylers and Livingstons and Hamiltons—resolved to build a rival Crystal Palace on Manhattan, as big as or bigger than the original. The site they chose lay far uptown, in a four-acre site along Sixth Avenue between 40th and 42nd streets (now Bryant Park)—the same field across which, seventy-five years earlier, Washington’s troops had been chased by jeering redcoats.

Construction advanced quickly, and New Yorkers soon had a Crystal Palace to boast about: eighteen hundred tons of iron supporting fifteen thousand panes of translucent enameled glass that peaked in a 123-foot dome, the highest ever built in America. When the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations officially opened on July 14, 1853, tens of thousands of residents and visitors turned out for the occasion. President Franklin Pierce and Charles Lyell, the great English geologist, made speeches hailing the event as the birth of a new era, in which war would be replaced by the heroic advances of science and technology. There was art, too, “to educate and refine the masses” (said the catalog), including a colossal equestrian statue of Washington and thirteen gigantic sculptures of Christ and His Apostles.


The Crystal Palace, 1853, by Nathaniel Currier. The Latting Observatory rises to the left, on the north side of 42nd Street. “In remote districts of this great and growing country,” declared Scientific American, “young men, and old, too, have begun to lay by a few shillings weekly or monthly that they make be enabled to come from the far prairie and backwoods to see the Crystal Palace in New York.” (© Museum of the City of New York)

For the next five years, crowds roamed the building’s halls past shimmering fountains and glaring clusters of gas lights, marveling at the miracles of the age, great and small: scales, meters, guns, lamps, safes, clocks, carriages, scientific instruments, agricultural implements, a Fresnel lighthouse lens, telegraphy and photography equipment, fire engines, ships, and plans for an elevated railroad above Broadway. And machinery, everywhere machinery—machinery to pump water, sew, print, finish wood, refine sugar, set type, make ice cream, and wash gold.

The machine that would have the most dramatic impact on New York’s cityscape—the elevator—was on display in a sideshow area across 42nd Street, in two different versions. One lifted passengers to the first- and second-floor landings of the Latting Observatory, a 350-foot-high viewing structure of iron-braced timber. The second elevator, less spectacular but more momentous, hoisted a mountable platform just high enough to clear the heads of onlookers. The man who mounted it was Elisha Graves Otis, a master mechanic turned inventor. Some years earlier, Otis had produced a machine that made bedsteads, and when the Yonkers bedstead plant where he worked needed an elevator, Otis was asked to install one. He did, and he also added an automatic device to prevent it from falling. Otis was just about to seek his fortune in the California goldfields when an unsolicited order for two “safety” elevators arrived from a Hudson Street manufacturer and Otis realized his fortune lay in New York City. Canceling his trip, he borrowed funds, set up a small shop to make the devices, and then introduced one, with theatrical flair, on 42nd Street. When the elevating platform reached its highest level, an assistant presented the inventor with a dagger on a velvet cushion. Otis cut the cable holding them aloft and, voila, nothing happened, thanks to the invisible safety catches. Three years later E. V. Haughwout and Company installed a passenger version in its new five-story Broadway store, and Manhattan took a decisive step upward.

The Crystal Palace pulled people to New York from across the country. Seventeenyear-old Sam Clemens came all the way from Missouri. Entranced by the “perfect fairy palace—beautiful beyond description,” he reported that it drew an average of six thousand visitors each day, “double the population of Hannibal.” On October 5, 1858, however, a fire broke out in one of the Palace’s storage rooms. Although its cast-iron beams were believed to render the building fireproof, the flames spread quickly through some 750,000 board feet of wood flooring. In the intense heat, the roof and walls literally melted away, and within minutes the entire structure had collapsed in a spectacular shower of sparks and smoke. All of the two thousand visitors inside that day escaped with their lives, but the contents were lost. Scavengers later picked through the rubble looking for souvenirs, and a certain Mrs. Richardson went into business selling “vitrified masses of glass, metals, &c.” They were, she said, relics “of the finest building ever erected in America.”


Before its blazing demise, the Crystal Palace, by boosting New York’s tourist trade, had nourished an ongoing spate of hotel construction. Until mid-century, the premier hostelry had continued to be the elegant Astor House, on Broadway opposite City Hall, just down the street from Stewart’s Marble Palace. But as Manhattan’s commercial center of gravity shifted northwards in the fifties, Astor House came to seem too “downtown.” Spurred by vast ranks of Crystal Palace gazers and burgeoning numbers of commercial travelers, dozens of hotels sprang up. Nineteen deluxe establishments appeared on Broadway alone between 1850 and 1854.

Grandest of these newcomers was the six-story, six-hundred-room St. Nicholas Hotel (1853), whose white marble facade dominated the west side of Broadway between Broome and Spring streets, fourteen blocks above the Astor House. Its guests, upward of eight hundred at a time, were pampered by a million dollars’ worth of walnut wainscotting, frescoed ceilings, and such technological wonders as gas-light chandeliers (supplied by Haughwout’s across the street), hot running water, central heating, annunciators, a telegraph in the lobby, and steam-powered washing machines in the basement. There were opulent parlors for gentlemen and ladies, a richly ornamented reading room, and a stately main dining room where a regiment of liveried servants (mostly Irish) escorted guests to their seats. Downstairs, right next to the hotel’s main entrance, was Phalon’s Hair-Dressing Establishment, the most fashionable place in town for gentlemen to be shaved, barbered, and groomed with grease, scent, and pale rum. It was, said one English visitor in 1853, “like an introduction to the palace of some Eastern prince.”


The St. Nicholas Hotel on Broadway, flagship of the new fleet of hotels built to accommodate the city’s burgeoning tourist trade in the 1850s. Lithograph by F. Heppenheimer. (© Museum of the City of New York)

Other hotels nestled within a few blocks of the St. Nicholas, interspersed among Broadway’s emporiums and theaters—like the Metropolitan (on the corner of Prince, next to Niblo’s Garden), famous for its “sky parlors” that allowed lady guests to observe the well-dressed throngs below. Additional grand establishments situated themselves along Broadway, marking fashion’s uptown progress. James Renwick’s St. Denis held down the corner of 11th Street across from the new and very stylish Grace Church; the Clarendon Hotel, famous for its huge bathtubs, overlooked Union Square; and the wave crested at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street, three blocks below the New York and Harlem’s Madison Square Depot, where in 1859 Amos Eno opened his Fifth Avenue Hotel. Costing two million dollars and employing four hundred servants, the Fifth Avenue was hailed as the most spectacular building of its kind yet erected in the city: “a larger and handsomer building than Buckingham Palace,” raved a correspondent for the London Times who came to New York the following year with the prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). Among other wonders, the Fifth Avenue offered private bathrooms, an unprecedented extravagance, as well as the city’s second passenger elevator (equipped with Otis’s safety device), described variously as a “perpendicular railway intersecting each story” or “a little parlour going up by machinery.”

Visitors of means clearly had no problem finding accommodations in New York City. What they needed—as did less affluent arrivals and even long time residents—was orientation. The cozy republican town had metamorphosed into a bewildering metropolis, and citizens and strangers alike sought ways to grasp its scale and meaning.


In 1845-46, under the direction of E. Porter Belden, 150 artists, craftsmen, sculptors and mechanics collaborated on building a scale model of New York City. It represented Manhattan from 32nd Street down to the Battery and threw in part of Brooklyn for good measure. The model, twenty feet long by twenty-four feet wide, included two hundred thousand miniature buildings, two and a half million windows and doors, and 150,000 teensy chimneys. It was surmounted by a fifteen-foot-high Gothic canopy festooned with a hundred oil paintings depicting the “leading business establishments and places of note in the city.” This wonder, exhibited at the Minerva Room (406 Broadway, between Walker and Canal), became a principal sight for visitors and residents.

Belden went on to publish New York: Past, Present, and Future (1849), one of a large number of prideful, self-congratulatory guidebooks that appeared during the boom years. New York was delighted by its emerging metropolitan status and not shy about trumpeting its virtues. Addressing a national, indeed an international, audience, the volumes—many of which were underwritten by the new monster hotels or prepared for visitors to the Crystal Palace—proclaimed the city’s civic grandeur, its commercial entrepots, its palaces of pleasure, its charitable and educational institutions. In Bunyunesque prose they boasted of the sheer scale of it all: their city had the greatest concentration of wealth and energy and people in America, it was the largest market in America, it had “become so enriched that she may call Ohio her kitchen-garden, Michigan her pastures, and Indiana, Illinois and Iowa her harvest fields.”

In addition to encomiums, the guidebooks offered solid information: where to stay and eat; how to get around the city (with rail and omnibus timetables appended). Beyond providing pathways through the city’s labyrinthine corridors, the books helped readers grasp the city in its entirety by including “panoramic” representations of it as seen (or imagined) from elevated vantage points. C. S. Francis, the publisher who brought out Audubon’s Birds, offered in his New Guide to the Cities of New-York and Brooklyn(1853) a view from atop the recently completed Trinity Church.

Such representations broke with traditional ways of seeing the city. Manhattan had customarily been presented as it appeared from the opposite bank of an adjacent river. In colonial days, the waterways—New York’s commercial lifelines—featured as prominently as the land; in the early nineteenth century, the ensemble was often framed with a pastoral foreground scene in the manner of Thomas Cole. The new panoramic views, however, planted themselves squarely inside the city, generally atop one of its many steeples, presenting a pigeon’s-eye view of the bustling streets below.

In the 1850s the pigeons took wing. Inspired, perhaps, by experiences at the Latting Observatory, where visitors could use telescopes to inspect the island and its surrounds, artists began imagining the city from ever higher perspectives. An 1853 electrotyped woodcut, Bird’s Eye View of the City of New York from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, encompassed the town as a whole. And in John Bachmann’s spectacular fish-eye view, New York & Environs (1859), the Empire City seemed to stretch to the ends of the earth.

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