Life Above Bleecker

In 1845, with the great mid-century boom just getting underway, only two men—John Jacob Astor and Peter G. Stuyvesant—possessed estates whose value topped the million-dollar mark. So many and so great were the fortunes accumulated over the next decade, however, that by the mid-fifties New York was home to dozens of so-called millionaires—a new word for a new social reality.

“Wealth,” mused George Templeton Strong, “is rushing in upon us like a freshet,” and it was clear who had navigated the current most successfully. In 1856 9,122 individuals were assessed for tax purposes as having a net worth of at least ten thousand dollars. Of this group, which collectively possessed the overwhelming bulk of the city’s wealth, close to half engaged in mercantile pursuits, with merchants, auctioneers, brokers, and agents being far and away the richest New Yorkers in this, their Golden Age. Rentiers and others who profited from soaring land values did well too, making up about a fifth of the top taxpayers. Roughly another fifth owned goods-producing firms, a category that embraced ironmasters like Peter Cooper and contractors like Alexander Masterson, the Scots stoneyard owner who erected the Customs House. A tenth of the rich were professionals, though many owed their ranking more to capital than credentials, having parlayed substantial fortunes and family connections into lucrative careers in law, doing probate and trust work, or in medicine, attending to fellow patricians.

New York’s economic elite had ballooned in size and complexity as well as wealth. The city teemed with bankers, brokers, importers, exporters, manufacturers, insurance tycoons, blueblood professionals, real estate moguls, department-store lords, railroad barons, and publishing magnates. So diverse a constellation was sometimes hard to recognize as a discrete social entity, riven as it was by divergent interests and styles.

Industrialists, for example, tended to be dependent upon but antagonistic to mer­chants. The latter demanded high prices for raw materials, paid low prices for the manufacturers’ products, offered credit on harsh terms, and promoted free trade. Culturally, moreover, genteel wholesalers had little in common with manufacturers, many of whom came from artisanal backgrounds and worked on a daily basis with grubby proletarians.

Respectable old clans like the Beekmans, Livingstons, Stuyvesants, DePeysters, and Schermerhorns, for their part, claimed that recently acquired wealth didn’t count for as much as riches that were properly patinaed, and that nouveaux like the Vanderbilts, Laws, and Stewarts did not belong in their category, much less their company. To help keep them out, hostesses like Mrs. James D. Roosevelt, Mrs. Hamilton Fish, Mrs. Henry Brevoort, and Mrs. William Schermerhorn—whose invitations still signified social acceptance—relied on Isaac Brown, the sexton of Grace Church who doubled as society’s majordomo. Brown screened their guest lists, using his formidable grasp of Knickerbocker bloodlines to sort social aspirants into “old family, good stock” or “new men.”

“Old stock” families wishing to wall themselves off from vulgar “new men” had other gatekeeping institutions besides Sexton Brown. The Society of St. Nicholas and the Union Club were joined by the New York Yacht Club (1844), whose cachet was assured in 1851 when John Cox Stevens took the yacht America to England and beat Britain’s best while Queen Victoria and Prince Albert looked on. Another newcomer, the Century Association (1847), was in theory open to talent and accomplishment in every field—“Artists, Literary Men, Scientists, Physicians, Officers of the Army and Navy, members of the Bench and Bar, Engineers, Clergymen, Representatives of the Press, Merchants and men of leisure.” In practice, by the mid-fifties, the bulk of the Century’s members were merchants, bankers, railroad executives, insurance officials, and leading lawyers and physicians. Some Centurions fancied their club the American equivalent of the august French Academy, but while gentleman authors like Lewis Gaylord Clark of the Knickerbocker set were indeed on board, on the whole the Century’s clubhouse tended more toward hearty masculinity than intellectual discourse.

Some of the rich even tried on the trappings of aristocracy, riffling through the pages of Gwilt Mapleson’s American Hand Book of Heraldry in search of noble forebears. There was a certain appropriateness in making lineage a prerequisite for status, as kinfolk had supplied the capital for many of the elite’s enterprises. Roughly seven of every ten New Yorkers whose wealth was assessed at over a hundred thousand dollars—men like Moses H. Grinnell, Robert B. Minturn, Samuel Shaw Howland, and Abiel Abbot Low—had inherited substantial fortunes and thus stood on the shoulders of their forebears.

On the other hand, most of those forebears weren’t New Yorkers. Forty-three percent of the top taxpayers in 1856 had been born in other parts of the United States (especially New England and upstate New York). And fully 25 percent had come from foreign countries (especially England, Ireland, and Germany), making the overseas contingent nearly as big as the fewer than one-third born in the metropolis. Manhattan had an old guard, but it had been swamped by outsiders. Requiring a civic ancestry might make sense for provincial Boston’s upper class, but in cosmopolitan New York it would exclude two-thirds of the rich, and the miffed might decide to form alternative, competing power centers.

Most old residents, therefore, accepted the newcomers in time. The Union Club blackballed A. T. Stewart—an Irishman, it was pointed out, and a mere shopkeeperwrit-large to boot—then invited him in, a few years later, when his wealth and prominence could no longer be denied. The Yacht Club snubbed Cornelius Vanderbilt, notorious for his swearing, womanizing, and general disdain for bourgeois domesticity. Vanderbilt’s revenge was to build the first American-owned, oceangoing steam yacht, the North Star, furnished with a plush saloon in the style of Louis XV. After a decent interval, the club relented.

The old monied even accepted August Belmont. Favored by an unrivaled knowledge of high finance and access to Rothshild credit, the German-Jewish Belmont had amassed a major fortune since his arrival in 1837. One of the leading private bankers in the country, he had also become one of the most colorful figures on the New York social scene. He was multilingual, handsome, and suave, a connoisseur of food and wine and art and horses and dogs. He hosted fancy soirees and led a pack of young uptown bachelors in late-night adventures around town. He limped romantically, the result of a duel over the attentions of a certain Mrs. Coles. His position improved even further in 1849 when he married nineteen-year-old Caroline Perry, daughter of Commodore Matthew Perry. Jewishness was not yet a bar to genteel status—the Hendrickses were honored members of the Union and St. Nicholas—but polite society took comfort from the fact that the wedding occurred in an Episcopal church (not to mention that he gave the bride an entire city block as a wedding present).

Other such alliances—such as the 1853 nuptials of William Backhouse Astor and Caroline Webster Schermerhorn—further blurred the distinction between arrivistes and aristocrats. Sniping at social climbers would continue, to be sure, as when Episcopal Bishop William Kip tartly observed that “wealth came in and created social distinctions which took the place of family, and thus society became vulgarized.” But New York’s pragmatic patricians accommodated newcomers and thereby made themselves a more durable and coherent elite.

But what to call themselves? Some were quite happy to be known as “aristocrats,” though this was still a fighting word in republican America. Others preferred more neutral, though still hierarchical, language: “best society,” “higher classes,” and (given the craze for things French) “ban ton.” “Bourgeoisie” had some appeal, though it had disparaging connotations: one local informant told Francis Grund, Viennese-born author of Aristocracy in America, that the “aristocracy here is itself nothing but a wealthy overgrown bourgeoisie, composed of a few families who have been more successful in trade than the rest.” The most New York City-specific solution was a numerological one. The phrase “upper ten thousand” (often awkwardly abbreviated as “uppertendom”) was originated by social arbiter Nathaniel Parker Willis and ratified by Charles Astor Bristed, Cambridge-educated grandson of John Jacob Astor, who used The Upper Ten Thousand as the tide for his 1852 sketch of elite life in New York City.

Membership in uppertendom required but two things: having a lot of money and spending it in approved ways. Willis’s checklist of appropriate consumption patterns awarded upperten status to those “who keep carriages, live above Bleecker, are subscribers to the opera, go to Grace Church, have a town house and country house, give balls and parties.” There were rival definitions, but all focused on measurable 'margin-top:12.0pt;margin-right:0cm;margin-bottom: 4.8pt;margin-left:0cm;text-indent:.1pt;line-height:normal'>“FLED BY DIGNIFIED DEGREES UP BROADWAY”

“Startled and disgusted with the near approach of plebeian trade,” one observer noted in 1853, New York’s wealthiest “fled by dignified degrees up Broadway.” By the midfifties private residences had virtually disappeared from once fashionable blocks around lower Broadway, Greenwich Street, and Park Place. Amos Eno, the hotel builder, stuck it out on Greenwich (his daughter recalled) “until we were surrounded by immigrant boarding houses, and then went uptown to live.” Yachtsman John Cox Stevens had incautiously erected an extravagant Greek Revival mansion on a corner of the Columbia College campus in 1846, only to see the the area became a black and Irish slum. In 1856 Cox tore down his “palace” and built warehouses on the site; that same year Columbia College itself headed north to 49th Street.

Neighborhoods thought immune from urban squalor as recently as the 1820s and 1830s became undesirable in the 1840s and 1850s. St. John’s Park denizens fled in droves, especially after Vanderbilt’s Hudson River Railroad ran tracks down its west side in 1851. A few blocks to the east, so many beer halls and tobacco shops had spilled off Broadway onto Bleecker and Bond streets that those addresses, as one paper put it in 1853, could no longer be considered “the ultima thule of aristocracy.” Even in the Astor Place district, Charles Astor Bristed wrote sadly, “the dwellings are interspersed with shops; elegant mansions are beginning to be elbowed by dentists and boarding houses, and to assume an appearance of having been in the aristocratic precincts.”

Willis had warned wealthy New Yorkers that they must settle “above Bleecker” to be socially acceptable. But how far above Bleecker? One answer was the brand-new neighborhood around Union Square Park, the three-and-a-half-acre elliptical oasis laid out in the 1830s on the northern frontier of the city at the instigation of developer Sam Ruggles. Building, halted by the panic, began anew with recovery. The park itself was fitted up with a fountain, gas lights, birdhouses named for prominent municipal buildings, and a bronze equestrian statue of Washington on the exact spot where he’d been received by citizens on Evacuation Day in 1783. In 1848 the Herald announced that 14th Street, the square’s southern boundary, was “now nearly the center of the fashion-able faubourgs.”

Gramercy Park, another panic-stalled Ruggles project, took off as well. By the midfifties the discreet little square was snugly enveloped by expensive residences. Among the wealthy new arrivals were Peter Cooper, Cyrus Field, James Harper (who relocated his mayor’s lamps to the front of Number 4), and George Templeton Strong, who had married Ellen Ruggles, the developer’s daughter.

But it was Fifth Avenue, a block west of Union Square, that drew the very wealthiest New Yorkers. When Henry Brevoort had built his mansion on 9th Street in 1834, the “avenue” was a near-deserted country lane running up from Washington Square to the municipal parade-ground on 23rd Street. In 1847 the city replaced the parade-ground with Madison Square, a seven-acre park that by the early fifties was being touted in the press as a sure bet to become “the most fashionable part of our rapidly increasing city.” A parade of commodious row houses and ornate mansions advanced quickly up Fifth, lodging the likes of August Belmont, Moses Grinnell, and William Lenox. By the end of the fifties, when Caroline Schermerhorn Astor convinced her husband, William Backhouse Astor Jr., to erect a mansion (with a capacious ballroom) between 33rd and 34th streets, next door to that of his brother, John Jacob Astor III, it qualified as the richest thoroughfare in America.


Union Square, 1849, looking south across 4th Street. Lithograph by Sarony & Major. On the square’s east side, between 15th and 16th streets, is the row of fancy bow-fronted residences erected by Samuel B. Ruggles. (© Museum of the City of New York)

Upperten housing was as distinctive for its architecture as its location. Economic depression had put paid to the reigning Greek Revival style, and returning prosperity brought to the fore designers captivated by the Italian Renaissance. A. T. Stewart’s Marble Palace had been the first New York structure inspired by fifteenth-century palazzos, a style with which Londoners and Parisians had been experimenting for a decade. Now Herman Thome, who had lived stylishly in France, engaged Stewart’s architects, Trench and Snook, to design him an Italianate residence. Completed in 1848, the freestanding mansion, sited on 16th Street just off fashionable Fifth, was an instant hit. Magazines and guidebooks raved about its courtyard, carriage drive, and Tuscan portico, and with startling speed other detached mansions boasting rusticated basements and winter gardens went up within a few blocks of Thome’s.

Equally startling, most of the new structures were made of a triassic sandstone, which, thanks to the presence of hematite iron ore, turned from pink to chocolate as it weathered. Brownstone, as it was called, was a familiar building material in New York City—St. Paul’s (1766) had used it along with Manhattan schist—but until now it had mainly been a substitute for marble or limestone, reserved for basements, stoops, and details. Suddenly it became a luxury item, deemed more dignified than brick or wood and more in tune with the current romantic aesthetic favoring “natural” darks over “artificial” whites.

The soft brown stone also allowed for richly carved facades and lavish ornamentation, to the delight of the wealthy, who were sick of simplicity and republican restraint. Federal houses now seemed dowdy, while brownstones (as one magazine observed) allowed their owners to “make a gratifying display of knowledge and taste.” This wondrous material, moreover, was relatively inexpensive, thanks to new steam-cutting technology, and readily available from nearby Paterson, New Jersey, and Portland, Connecticut. Soon nearly every architect and builder in the city was putting up Italianate brownstone mansions for rich clients, and four- or five-story brownstone row houses for the merely affluent. Marching up Fifth and its adjacent avenues, these buildings created block after chocolate block of monumental streetscapes, and by the 1850s it was agreed that, as one magazine put it, “the prevailing tint of New York is fixed.”

As uppertens clambered uptown, they drew their institutions up with them. The Union Club relocated to a Florentine mansion on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 21st Street, while the Century settled into a clubhouse on East 15th Street, just off Union Square. But churches remained the anchors of choice.

In 1839 the wardens of Trinity Church, fearing their building was about to collapse, had pulled it down and begun work on what would be the third Episcopal house of worship to occupy that site since 1699. Designed by Richard Upjohn, an up-andcoming young architect, and completed in 1846, the new structure of reddish-brown sandstone was a paragon of the “pointed” or spiritualized Gothic style newly popular among “high church” adherents. Its “very ornaments,” one writer enthused, “remind one of the joys of a life beyond the grave.”

But the flight of the propertied classes out of lower Manhattan meant that Trinity could no longer claim to be the ne plus ultra of city churches. That distinction now belonged to Grace Episcopal, housed on Broadway at 10th Street in a Gothic masterpiece designed by James Renwick. Situated only a few blocks below the refined precincts of Union Square, Grace served a congregation notable for long pedigrees and deep pockets. Pews sold for as much as sixteen hundred dollars, and it became the preferred setting for baptisms, weddings, and funerals among well-to-do New Yorkers. (The cachet of the nearby Church of the Ascension got a huge boost when August Belmont married Commodore Perry’s daughter in its sanctuary.)

As in the past, the Presbyterian wing of respectable society came closest to matching Episcopalians in wealth and influence, and several Presbyterian congregations, almost as exclusive as Grace, also struck out for uptown. In 1845 a high-powered group that included James Brown and Henry Raymond called a meeting, subscribed the money, purchased a site, hired Richard Upjohn, and put up a church on University Place at 10th Street. Pew for pew, the congregation was probably the wealthiest in New York. The very next year, led by the redoubtably rich James Lenox, First Presbyterian abandoned Wall Street for an imposing Gothic edifice and tree-shaded grounds on Fifth Avenue between 11th and 12th streets. A decade later, in 1857, the venerable Brick Presbyterian auctioned off its valuable lot across from City Hall Park, shifted all unclaimed bodies from its vaults to Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, and resettled on the brow of Murray Hill, at Fifth Avenue and 37th Street. Brick’s old building was razed and replaced by the headquarters of the New York Times.

Other wealthy New Yorkers attended the Unitarian Church of All Souls on the corner of Fourth Avenue and 20th Street, close to Gramercy Park. Erected in 1855 at a cost of over a hundred thousand dollars, All Souls was vaguely Romanesque in appearance, with alternating bands of black and white stone and a 106-foot dome that towered over the neighborhood—the irreverent called it the Church of the Holy Zebra—and prominent pewholders were attracted by its dynamic minister, Henry Bellows.


The rich were prepared to abandon downtown Manhattan, but not the city itself. Though surrounded by vast open spaces, newly accessible by speedier transport, most of the wealthy preferred to cluster together, living literally side by side, cooped up in narrow row houses on relatively tiny lots. The urbane inclinations bequeathed by the Dutch remained vibrant as ever.

A minority, however, did defect to the countryside, seduced by the siren song of Andrew Jackson Downing. A Newburgh-based landscape gardener for the Hudson Valley gentry, Downing wrote a series of books in the forties advocating villa living as an antidote to “the too great bustle and excitement of our commercial cities.” Villas—asymmetrical, natural-hued country mansions—really belonged on properties of several hundred acres, Downing admitted. But he allowed that one might opt for a smaller villa (with as few as three servants) if grouped with others around a common park, in the manner of English “romantic suburbs.” When Downing died in 1852, his close friend Alexander Jackson Davis took up the campaign for rural residency. Hitherto a Greek Revival man, Davis nimbly embraced the Gothic and received several commissions for baronial homes in quasi-rustic settings.

In Brooklyn, Edwin Clark Litchfield, a lawyer who made a fortune in midwestern railroad development, had Davis erect Grace Hall, a grand Italianate villa, on the crest of Prospect Heights from where he could survey his square mile of virtually vacant land. Costly villas and sloping lawns also began to dot the Bronx (Richard March Hoe’s Brightside in Hunt’s Point), Riverdale (actor Edwin Forrest’s Font Hill), Queens’s East River shore (a cluster at Ravenswood), and far-off hillsides in Staten Island.

In New Jersey one venturesome contingent of affluent New Yorkers experimented with Downingesque suburban living. In the mid-1850s, aided by Davis, Llewellyn Haskell, a wealthy drug merchant, built Llewellyn Park, a collection of villas set along curving roads ranged around a fifty-acre park called the Ramble. Situated in the Jersey foothills of the Orange Mountains, the elaborately landscaped suburb succeeded, but there would be no more planned communities in this era. Those willing to leave Manhattan preferred to settle in nearby, already established villages made newly accessible by rail, and depot towns such as Mott Haven, Morrisania, Tremont, and Fordham experienced substantial growth during the 1850s. Deeper Westchester was deemed inconvenient; it took ninety minutes to do the nineteen miles to Bronxville.

Outlying villages in Queens were even less enticing to uppertens, though real estate speculators hoping to boom Maspeth, Newtown, and Flushing tried hard to woo them. Even when bumpy stagecoach rides over plank roads gave way to rail connections direct from the Hunter’s Point ferry landing, these county towns remained too far out. As one commuter complained in 1854: “The inability to get to a meeting or a lecture—to a place of amusement, or to do a little shopping are tolerable; but to be half a day in getting to and from business is a bore.”

The only suburb that really enticed elite New Yorkers lay a scant ten minutes away, in Brooklyn Heights, and Pierrepont’s genteel bastion on the cliffs overlooking the East River was no romantic confection, but rather a Manhattan clone. Its gridded, tree-lined streets were reassuringly covered with brick and brownstone row houses, in up-to-date styles with modern conveniences, and punctuated by churches designed by Renwick, Upjohn, and Minard Lafever.

Brooklyn was also a tax haven: its promoters publicized it as an offshore financial refuge from Manhattan. This in turn generated some proposals for annexation, the solution Philadelphia authorities embraced in 1854 to recapture runaway taxpayers. (One New York state senator proposed physically uniting the two islands by filling up the East River with gravel and covering the cost of the enterprise by selling the newmade land at high prices.) But it was Brooklyn, not New York, that resorted to annexation. Absorbing neighboring Williamsburgh and Bushwick in 1855, it became the nation’s third most populous city. Brooklyn not only bolstered its status as an independent municipality but emerged as a credible competitor to Manhattan itself, complete with its own imposing City Hall; construction, halted by the panic, had recommenced in 1845 and been completed by 1849.

Though most of Brooklyn’s newly rich merchants and financiers joined old established families on the Heights, more venturesome types pioneered other exclusive locations. Just to the south lay the Heights’ fashionable offshoot of Cobble Hill, where in short order the assessed value of houses almost matched those of its progenitor. To the east lay “the Hill,” where General Greene’s Fort Putnam—renamed Fort Greene in the War of 1812—had been replaced by Washington Park, thanks largely to a campaign waged by Eagle editor Walter Whitman.

Those who found the Hill too close to the Navy Yard could opt for Bedford Corners. A sleepy Dutch village as late as 1850, it first became accessible via the Long Island Rail Road along Atlantic Avenue. Then, after 1854, the Brooklyn City Railroad Company began running forty-passenger horsecars along the recently opened Fulton Avenue (now Street) and Myrtle Avenue. Large rural landowners like the Lefferts and the Lotts began to sell off property to speculators, who subdivided it for individuals or small developers. Ads in the New York Times soon proclaimed the availability of “villa plots” and residences complete with stables, gardens, and “all modern improvements,” just thirty minutes from downtown Brooklyn.

Farther than this uppertens seldom went. Developers in the 1850s tried promoting Fort Hamilton, Bushwick, and East New York as suburban retreats—promising trees, parks, nuisance clauses, minimum plot sizes, an escape from city taxes and dirt, and a good investment to boot. But these were too far away, scattered amid small farming communities like Flatbush, Flatlands, New Lots, New Utrecht, and Gravesend. Cannier developers, like Park Slope’s Edwin Litchfield, patiently accumulated property and bided their time.

Brooklyn did have one Downing-type suburb, which griddish New Yorkers liked. The spectacular if belated success of Green-Wood Cemetery proved that while they didn’t want to spend their lives in such locations, they had no objection to spending eternity there. With its landscaped terrain, pastoral winding paths, weeping statues, and plots enclosed by iron railings, Green-Wood was a romantic suburb for the deceased. Indeed early suggestions that it be called the Necropolis had been rejected precisely because the word would have conveyed “an idea of city form and show.” The quick as well as the dead flocked to Green-Wood. On pleasant days hundreds of carriages headed for the Hills of Gowanus, taking the Hamilton Avenue ferry that Henry E. Pierrepont had started up in 1846, then crossed Gowanus Creek over the Hamilton Avenue toll bridge. By the early 1850s Green-Wood had become, in effect, the preeminent park for both Brooklyn and Manhattan.

In the summertime, uppertens pursuing relief from city heat would press on far­ther still. Their carriages headed south—often on Sundays, to the dismay of Gravesend’s religious element—toward the exclusive hotels and beaches of Coney Island. There they spent the Lord’s day watching the waves from porch chairs, eating clam chowder, or hunting snipe and duck near the marshes. But Coney Island couldn’t solve the more difficult dilemma confronting society’s upper echelons: how to maintain class cohesion when once compact precincts had been scattered into far-flung enclaves.

Traditional customs like New Year’s Day visits were becoming increasingly unwieldy. “The extent of the visiting circle in New York has become too great for the operations of one day,” Philip Hone lamented as early as 1840. The grand promenade hour along Broadway served as a partial substitute. In the late afternoon, reporter George Foster observed in 1849, the street became “a perfect Mississippi, with a double current up and down” of bourgeois ladies and gentlemen acknowledging—or not acknowledging—one another in prescribed ways. This ritual did help define and police social boundaries. But it remained awkwardly open to disruption—performed as it was on a very public stage—by any rowdies who declined to accept their assigned roles as awed spectators.

Uppertens began to rely more heavily on the summer season and the summer resort, and as a result, Saratoga Springs blossomed in the boom. Far from the hoi polloi—and Coney Island, even the Catskills, were no longer far away enough—the city’s elite constructed a town-away-from-town, a place to mix and mingle among themselves. At first the notion of spending an entire summer lolling in leisure grated on still-sensitive republican nerves, so Saratoga’s properties as a restorative health spa were emphasized (the “Bath of America,” Willis called it). In the 1850s such scruples dropped away, and visitors to the elegant United States Hotel devoted themselves to matchmaking, horse racing, gambling, and gamboling in what was universally agreed to be the nation’s most brilliantly fashionable resort. So popular did it become that by decade’s end, New York’s crème de la crème—the Fish, Rhinelander, Lenox, Schermerhorn, Taylor, and Belmont families—began moving on to Newport, Rhode Island, settling into a growing number of “country houses” there.

Uppertens routinely traveled to Europe, too. The entire family might go, or just the wives and children, or bourgeois scions would decamp by themselves on extensive grand tours. Foreign travel provided the extra bonus of allowing the New York rich to keep abreast of the forms of display currently fashionable among Europe’s titled aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie—forms they set about duplicating the minute they got home.


The elite’s retreat from downtown Manhattan was also a farewell to older standards of reticence and restraint. By 1850 prosperous New Yorkers, particularly younger ones, were wallowing in luxury with a nonchalance unknown among prior generations. Much of this took place in private, behind Italianate walls, but some uppertens didn’t hesitate to flaunt their wealth. They adopted theatrical forms of conspicuous display, which provided yet another reason to live in town, not the suburbs.

“The first thing, as a general rule, that a young Gothamite does is to get a horse; the second, to get a wife,” wrote Charles Astor Bristed, only half jokingly, about elite New York males’ passion for fine horses. Young men loved harnessing their blood chestnut colts and beautiful bays, then heading over to Third Avenue, Manhattan’s de facto exer­cise and racing track. From where the town’s cobblestones ended, Third’s newly macadamized surface, flanked by soft earthen trails for trotters, ran north for nearly five uninterrupted miles to Harlem Bridge. Every day from three o’clock until dark, fast horses and fast men climbed steadily up the gradual hills, then quick-timed to the bottom, where convivial taverns awaited, as well as blacksmiths and coachmakers who could repair a broken wheel or replace a lost shoe. Trotting—taken up by the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt and magazinist Robert Bonner—remained a passion for Bowery B’hoys as well, and impromptu, interclass drag races were not unheard of.

Private equipages, modest in the early 1830s, grew increasingly ostentatious. (Carriage showrooms and harness shops took over the tiny hamlet of Great Kill, on a creek at what is now 42nd Street, and the area above it renamed the Longacre, after London’s equestrian hub.) Four-in-hand carriages were everywhere, their horses driven “chequered”—steeds of matching color arrayed diagonally. In winter, fancy cutters and family sleighs were de rigueur, and wealthy families, wrapped in bearskin robes, rode up to Wintergreen’s in Yorkville for sherry flips. “One would hardly believe he was in a republican country,” said one guidebook author, “to see the escutcheoned panels of the carriages, the liveried coachmen, and the supercilious air of the occupants of the vehicles, as they go pompously and flaringly by.”

Bourgeois brownstones were showy too, but their exteriors were sobriety itself compared to their extravagant interiors. Affluent New Yorkers might easily spend ten thousand dollars on furniture for a single room, reported Lydia Maria Child. “Foreign artistic upholsterers assert that there will soon be more houses in New York furnished according to the fortune and taste of noblemen, than there are either in Paris or London.” Henry Parish’s mansion off Union Square had half a dozen period reception rooms decorated with Italian statuary, Gobelin tapestries, and Sevres porcelain. The mistress of a hundred-thousand-dollar mansion on Fifth Avenue slept in a bed inlaid with pearls and draped with satin and lace.

Portraits of family members, living or dead, often lined these walls, signifying (or confecting) tradition, but more and more elites began collecting old masters to adorn their parlors or private galleries. To serve them, especially after the American Art-Union was scuttled, European dealers began setting up branch offices—the House of Goupil dispatched Michael Knoedler from Paris to New York in 1846—which stimulated the growth of American dealerships as well.

Wealthy households were rich in mechanical marvels, too. An ad for a dwelling off Union Square in 1846 ticked off the new essentials: “Croton water, range, boiler, bath, water closets,. . . furnace, dumb waiter from basement to attic, gas, and every other improvement introduced into modern built houses of the first class.” Water taps, now on every floor, splashed into marble washbasins. Bathing and toilet facilities (virtually unknown outside the major hotels before 1842) supplanted chamber pots and privies. Central heating arrived: cellar furnaces fired with Pennsylvania coal forced hot air through pipes and tin ducts up to cast iron or brass registers (though the upstairs bedrooms still relied on fireplace coal grates).

Maintaining these mechanical marvels required lots of labor power. In the case of central heating, a servant had to rake out the furnace, throw away the ashes, stoke it with coal twice a day, and bank the cinders at night. Fuel and ash had to be carried to and from the new stoves, and the icebox water pan needed emptying. Furniture also demanded upkeep. The very wealthiest families might have six or eight servants, including a cook, butler, waiter, parlor maid, upstairs maid, laundress, houseman, and coachman, though most elites had less than half this number.

The upper class adorned their persons with as much care as they did their houses, though men and women now took different stances on the question of fashion. Most businessmen did not devote undue time or attention to clothing, and indeed considered those who paid attention to fashion as ne’er-do-wells or fools. They simply wrapped themselves in loosely cut waistcoats and frock coats of increasingly somber hue: nineteen out of twenty were of black broadcloth, with claret or mulberry acceptable for weddings. Dark stovepipe hats dignified most heads, while at the neck bourgeois gentlemen sported a “modern high & pointed shirt collar, that fearful sight to an approaching enemy” (or so said Walt Whitman, he of the open-necked shirt). The business suit had arrived—a class costume tailor-made for sedentary activities, in contrast to eighteenthcentury gentrywear, which had befitted more active pursuits like hunting, riding, dueling, and dancing. Only when businessmen donned militia uniforms were they allowed to dazzle and display their physical attractions.

One subset of male New Yorkers did keep the older love of plumage alive. “Dandies”—usually sons of the wealthy—promenaded on Broadway and attended fashionable events dressed in up-to-the-minute Euromodes, with an attention to detail (monocles, canes, gold chains) that contemporaries considered effeminate. Dandies were also pioneers, however, as they began sporting mustaches in the 1840s, a full decade before luxuriant beards became generally acceptable.

Most of the pleasures and burdens of dressing up fell to the ladies. In public, genteel women still went about virtually veiled, muffled head to limb in bonnets, shawls, skirts, and gloves, all of muted colors. In two venues only did women discard such selfeffacement and display their silks and satins: when promenading on Broadway; and at Easter-time, when some fine ladies began showing off their new dresses in an unofficial after-church stroll along uppertendom’s Fifth Avenue.

At home or church, however, as at dinner parties, balls, the opera, and summer spas, wealthy New York women demonstrated clear mastery of the latest French fashions. Fabrics grew steadily more voluptuous (gauze, tulle, organdy, brocade, velvet) and their colors more intense (crimson, maroon, purple). Hemlines on stylish gowns and dresses fell steadily as skirts ballooned outward on layer after layer of petticoats—as many as fourteen. Changing tastes (and the arrival of the sewing machine) required and supplied more and more ruffles, fringes, flounces, lace, and artificial flowers, and sent dressmakers into a frenzy of braiding, pleating, puffing, and tucking. By the late fifties skirts ran to six feet in diameter (department stores widened their aisles accordingly), and a cotton dress required thirty to forty yards of material on the average; counting petticoats and other undergarments, the total could reach a hundred yards or more, eight times what it would have been half a century earlier.

Society women escaped utter immobilization only through the introduction of the cage crinoline, an undergarment into which were sewn narrow steel hoops capable of supporting the massed weight of the garments above. A godsend in helping one walk, the crinoline could all too easily get tangled up in carriage wheels, and wind gusts could blow a woman off her feet. Even more problematic were the tightly laced corsets that produced the stylish eighteen-inch waist, along with headaches, fainting spells, and assorted internal disorders.

The vast consumption of assorted fabrics was a great boon to the city’s dry-goods trade but a breathtaking expense to the consumer. James Fenimore Cooper, writing to his wife in the winter of 1850, described a party where one woman wore “a dress that cost, including jewels, thirty thousand dollars”—a fantastic sum at a time when skilled mechanics and craftsmen took home between $1.25 and $2.00 a day in wages.

Jewelery embellished many a costume—Mrs. Belmont attended the opera wearing a gold crown decorated with “clusters and flowers of emeralds and rubies, spangled with dew-drops of diamonds”—and among those hastening to supply these new needs were two young New Englanders, Charles L. Tiffany and John P. Young. Back in 1837 they had opened a stationery and dry-goods shop on Broadway, then slowly switched to more spectacular offerings as the boom took off. At first Tiffany and Young offered only imported goods: English silver and Continental crystal, gold jewelry, and Swiss watches. In 1848, a year of European revolutions, the firm purchased the jewels of Maria Amelia, wife of the recently deposed French king, and put them on display, winning for Tiffany the title “King of Diamonds.” That same year the firm’s new goldsmithing shop began producing its own jewelry, and three years farther on the company acquired New York City’s leading silver manufacturer (and adopted its “Tiffany blue” packaging). By 1854 it had moved to an Italianate white marble palazzo at 550 Broadway, just north of Prince, in the heart of the elite shopping district.

Once properly bejewelled, only a touch of perfume was needed—and by 1858 there were six perfume manufacturers in the city, advertising their wares via scent-soaked cards—and mademoiselle was ready for a ball at Delmonico’s. There she could flaunt her shoulders, display alluring décolletage and voluptuous (if possibly padded) curves, and set her crinoline swinging, revealing a flash of ankle. This was all the more likely as the tempo of dances quickened in the 1840s, with tearing polkas now complementing the waltzes and quadrilles. As George Templeton Strong informed his diary in December 1845 after a gathering at Mrs. Mary Jones’s: “Polka for the first time brought under my inspection. It’s a kind of insane Tartar jig performed to a disagreeable music of an uncivilized character.”

The marriages that flowed from these mating rituals were not prearranged; indeed romantic love had never been more highly touted. However, by excluding all but young men of appropriate status and wealth, upper-class families practically guaranteed their daughters’ choices would be appropriate. In 1856 37 percent of New York’s wealthiest were directly interrelated.

At-home festivities had increased in number and opulence since Mr. and Mrs. Henry Brevoort had set the pace with their famous 1840 costume ball. The grandest affaire de luxe of the new era was the costume ball that took place in 1854 in the Lafayette Place mansion of Mrs. William Colford Schermerhorn. Sparing no expense, that redoubtable lady redecorated her house to resemble the Versailles Palace in the age of Louis XV, then invited six hundred of the city’s richest citizens to dress up like French courtiers for an evening of dining and dancing.

France set the trends in cuisine as well, with Delmonico’s as transmission belt. The Beaver Street establishment remained the preferred setting for balls, assemblies, and family dinners until well into the 1850s. In 1856 the restaurant added an uptown venue on Broadway and Chambers Street. At lunch the new eatery soon drew local influentials like A. T. Stewart (whose store was across the street) and Henry Raymond (whose Times would settle across the park). In the evening, famines strolled down from upper Broadway for social dining. At either location, those eager to explore the creations of Robert Beauvilliers and Careme could be sure Delmonico’s was offering the latest in Parisian dining.

Upper-class entertainments were rehoused in new settings. Wealthy audiences packed into the grand new Lyceum Theater, on Broome and Broadway, where James William Wallack had established a resident company in 1852 and begun staging English productions with his son, Lester Wallack, as leading man. Laura Keene, a local actress who had worked for Wallack, launched her own company in 1856 in a new playhouse on Broadway just below Bleecker. Her polished productions in the 1858-59 season included the drama Our American Cousin, which would be upstaged by tragedy half a decade later when taken on the road to Washington, D.C.

As a bulwark of refinement, however, nothing held out more promise than the establishment of a new opera house in Astor Place. Although they had long shied away from it as an expression of aristocratic decadence, upper-class New Yorkers finally acquired a taste for opera. This was thanks partly to the lyricism of Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti, and other contemporary composers, and partly to the impact of visiting European singers who began flocking to New York via the speedy new steamships and dazzling audiences at the Park Theater and Niblo’s Gardens. Equally weighty was upperten’s expectation that an opera house would provide, in Nathaniel Parker Willis’s words, “a substitute for a general drawing room—a refined attraction which the illmannered would not be likely to frequent, and around which the higher classes might gather, for the easier interchange of courtesies, and for that closer view which aides the candidacy of acquaintance.”

Designed by Isaiah Rogers (architect of the Astor House, among other buildings), the new Astor Opera House pioneered a frankly elitist organization of theatrical space. The pit was “aristocratized” (Willis’s term) by replacing the usual benches with fixed, upholstered, and numbered chairs sold only by subscription. Above the pit rose two tiers of open boxes, also reserved exclusively for subscribers, where patrons could see and be seen by the entire assembly. A gallery at the very top of the house provided general-admission benches for five hundred people; accessible by a single narrow staircase, this plebeian “cockloft” was almost completely quarantined from the genteel zones below. On opening night in November 1847, amid blazing jewels and rustling silk, New York’s haut monde signaled their approval by turning out en masse for a performance of Ernani. (Brooklynites quickly set to creating equivalent venues, among them the Athenaeum [1853], the Philharmonic Society [1857], and the Academy of Music [1859-61].)

New York’s upper classes now lacked but one thing: a house organ to provide respectful coverage of their doings. Society reportage remained monopolized by James Gordon Bennett’s sardonic reflections in the Herald until 1846, when Nathaniel Parker Willis and his old Mirror partner, George Pope Morris, launched the Home Journal (later Town and Country). The Home Journal announced its intention of keeping New York City’s “more refined individuals” apprised of all that was “new, charming, or instructive in the brilliant circle of city life.” Home Journal featured talk of the town columns like “Prittle Prattle,” “The Season and Society,” and “Uptown Correspondence,” the latter done with the aid of wealthy society ladies (whose lives a grateful Willis then chronicled in serial features). The magazine also provided dramatic and musical reviews, literary notices, and, for gendemen, digests of the week’s news condensed “in small compass.” To report the doings of England’s haut monde, it excerpt­ed London society journals, and French affairs were covered in “Parisian Chit-Chat,” much of it translated (possibly by Edgar Allan Poe) from New York City’s own Frenchlanguage paper, the Courrier des Etats-Unis.

On the whole, uppertendom was quite comfortable with success and indulged in fine wines, fast horses, and voguish clothing with no discernible traces of guilt. Yet in certain quarters, republican suspicions of aristocratic luxury retained considerable sway. Cold-water Yankees had long differed with pleasure-loving Knickerbockers about the proper use of wealth, and still did. Nor had old-stock spokesmen quite resigned themselves to the new monied’s ascendancy, and lampooning the pretensions of Fifth Avenue vulgarians became itself a mark of respectability. James K. Paulding, Irving’s collaborator on Salmagundi, dryly observed that when invited to dinner “I ate out of a set of China, my lady assured me cost seven hundred dollars, and drank out of glasses that cost a guinea a piece. In short, there was nothing on the table of which I did not learn the value.”

Industrialists too tended to decry the growth of luxury, in part because they saw themselves as useful producers, in contrast to superfluous financiers. Peter Cooper, one of New York’s richest men, continued to live at Fourth Avenue and 28th Street even after the New York and Harlem Rail Road began parking cattle cars in front of his house. Even after he moved to Gramercy Park in 1850, Cooper disdained ostentation, dressed simply, and limited the family to two servants; when his wife bought an elaborate carriage, he exchanged it for a more frugal model.

Principled objections to high living required principled rejoinders, and some prestigious churchmen endeavored to supply them. The Rev. Henry W. Bellows, minister of All Souls, editor of the Christian Enquirer, and a founder of the Century Association, addressed such issues in The Moral Significance of the Crystal Palace (1853) and other widely touted tracts. Bellows had no brief for the mere pursuit of money, and he blasted aristocratic foppery. He insisted, on the other hand, that the enterprise of self-interested Christian businessmen had brought wealth and progress to the republic, that the desire for material goods would promote hard work among the poor, and that possessing goods was as morally beneficial as pursuing them. Poverty, to his way of thinking, had nothing to recommend it.

Even Nathaniel Parker Willis agreed that a proper aristocracy had to rest on more than wealth and fashion. He reminded readers that refinement was the true hallmark of respectability, and he called for creation of “a class whose opinion is entitled to undeniable weight—a class whose judgement is made up from elevated standards.” Without the authority conferred by refinement, no local elite would be ever be able to provide a “breakwater” to the dangers posed by the “ignorant and vicious classes.”

Nevertheless, many of the city’s haute bourgeoisie found it uncomfortably hard to reconcile upperten lifestyles with their still-cherished beliefs in political equality (for white men), equality of opportunity, the fairness of market relationships, the possibility of social mobility, and the purported insignificance of class divisions in republican America.

Uppertendom seemed even more problematic to the petite bourgeoisie, newly enlarged and newly self-conscious, which the boom had summoned into being. New York’s middling strata would split on the luxury issue, some opting for fierce republican disapproval, others for fawning emulation. Most, however, sought to carve out a position that, while drawing the line at aristocratic frippery, nevertheless sought to find some common ground with the city’s most powerful people, ground they discerned in the theory and practice of “respectability.”


A state census completed in 1855 fixed the population of New York City at just under 630,000 people, about 215,000 of whom were gainfully employed. Perhaps 30 percent of these were members of a many-layered middle class, though the 30 percent figure varies markedly depending on which social clusters get classified as middle class, something on which observers did not (and still don’t) agree.

Nearly everyone placed professionals in the middle class—after setting aside those few whose wealth and connections placed them in uppertendom. This group included traditional practitioners like doctors, lawyers, clergy, and teachers, and newcomers like the members of the American Society of Civil Engineers (1852) and the American Institute of Architects (1857). Lesser merchants, along with small independent businessmen, were usually considered another middle-class contingent: clothiers, grocers, barbers, druggists, shopkeepers, restaurateurs, undertakers, and dealers in commodities as varied as books, cattle, oysters, coal, or stone.

Clerical workers, though employees, were generally but not always accorded (lower) middle status. Some of these—bank tellers, accountants, bookkeepers, cashiers, and copyists like Bartleby—handled the surging paperwork in the city’s (by 1856) seventy-five banks, ninety insurance companies, and brokerage houses (130 on Wall and William streets alone). Another set acted as management assistants, staffing the headquarters of railroad, shipping, publishing, mining, or manufacturing companies. Thus the Novelty Iron Works had eighteen departments, and each was headed by a foreman who reported to a “front office” presided over by a superintendent and eleven clerks. A third complement served in the great retail establishments and thus included the two hundred clerks and salespeople who worked the floors at Brooks’ Brothers Broadway emporium. Taken together, the nearly fourteen thousand clerical workers constituted New York City’s third largest workforce category after servants and laborers.

It proved hardest of all to situate those in the upper ranks of the artisanal economy: “mechanics of the better class” or small contractors and manufacturers. In 1855, when one Yorkville resident said his community was “mostly made up from the middle class,” he referred not only to neighboring merchants, brokers, bookkeepers, and clerks but also to master masons, carpenters, printers, and bookbinders. Other contemporaries, however, set skilled workers apart from professionals, managers, and clerical workers, pointing to marked contrasts in their work and lives.

Middle-class workspaces differed sharply from artisanal workshops. In the financial district, men spent their days in quiet, clean, even elegant “offices” (a word that began to replace “countinghouse” in the 1850s, the same decade in which dealers in office supplies first appeared in city directories). One of New York’s earliest offices erected as such was the Trinity Building (1853). A five-story, double-width structure, enormous for the time, it replaced an eighteenth-century sugar house just north of Trinity Church. The commercial Trinity, like the ecclesiastical one, was an Upjohn-designed edifice whose very architecture proclaimed its occupants genteel.

Inside such buildings—and retail equivalents like Stewart’s Marble Palace—clerks and professionals seldom encountered manual workers. The same was true outside, on the streets and in the lunch-hour restaurants of the financial or shopping districts. As they made their way home on omnibuses and commuter trains, middling people again traveled in different circles from the bulk of walk-to-work laborers. Even in the industrial world, firms began to carve out separate workspaces for nonmanual employees, accessible by separate entrances.

Middle-class employees dressed differently from manual laborers. Salesmen in fancy retail stores were expected to be indistinguishable from patrons, both in clothing and bearing. Cashiers and bookkeepers not only had to look the part but could afford to, as salaried workers were usually better compensated than artisans and laborers. True, some old-fashioned firms still paid clerks less, considering them merchants-in-training. But most office workers were Bartlebys now—permanent wage-workers—solaced with annual salaries that could run as high as two thousand dollars. Professionals, lesser merchants, and small proprietors could earn considerably more.

These higher incomes allowed many to attain a modest version of haut bourgeois status. In the colonial era, the middling sorts had stood far closer to poor plebeians than to aristocratic elites. The new middle class repositioned itself much closer to the upper echelons, starting with how and where its members lived.

Middle-class families couldn’t afford mansions or grand row houses, but thousands managed to purchase or rent a red brick dwelling, or even a brownstone with showy facade, albeit a narrower model. Where the bon ton enjoyed twenty-five-foot fronts, upper-middle-class residents settled for twenty- or eighteen-foot widths, while lowermiddle-class buyers squeezed into structures but fourteen to twelve and a half feet wide. Still, most could afford amenities—indoor plumbing, Croton water, cast-iron stoves, gas lights, and plaster walls—that would have been considered the height of opulence only a decade or two earlier (and were still out of reach of the majority of their fellow citizens).

Middling families could live “above Bleecker” too—not in the upperten enclaves running up Manhattan’s spine but along the flanking avenues and streets that lay between the wealthy center and the working-class riverfronts. The most affordable opportunities lay far uptown, in areas still under construction. These once distant venues had become newly accessible with the rapid spread of street railways, hastened by the invention in 1852 of a grooved rail that lay flush with the pavement. By decade’s end horsecars were rolling smoothly up and down Third, Sixth, Eighth, and Ninth avenues and crosstown at 8th, 14th, and 23rd streets. They carried a hundred thousand passengers a day, and allowed middle-class commuters to get downtown in less than forty-five minutes, though traveling conditions were admittedly less than optimal. “The seats being more than filled,” one paper observed, “the passengers are placed in rows down the middle, where they hang on by the straps, like smoked hams in a corner grocery.” Nevertheless rapid transit promoted rapid infill of Manhattan’s open spaces. By 1860 the island was solidly blanketed with residences as far north as 42nd Street. In another four years, over half the city’s population would live above 14th Street—the northern frontier as recently as the mid-1840s.

Middling sorts were a major presence in the new territories. On the west side they settled from west Greenwich Village and Clement Moore’s Chelsea up to the moderately priced brownstone row houses William B. Astor erected in the mid-40s between Broadway and Ninth Avenue. On the east side, old-fashioned but respectable three- or four-story brickfronts were to be had in the 20s, east of Third Avenue, and “handsome dwellings” between 30th and 45th streets could be rented for three to four hundred dol­lars per annum—beyond the means of most clerks but within the budget of a frugal professional family of four.

Even uptown, however, many middle-class New Yorkers could not afford a home of their own and had to settle for sharing space with others. “Part of a house to let”—read one 1854 ad, describing an opportunity in the west 303 near Ninth Avenue—“the upper part of a first-class house with modern improvements to a small genteel family.” Such quarters might be rented for $160 to $300 in the 1850s, too high for a mechanic making a thousand a year, but accessible to a middle-class person making twice that.

Others turned to boardinghouses. Doctors, lawyers, professors, and lower merchants—especially when single or married without children—might place an ad stating their preferences in the Herald, Tribune, or Times, or peruse there the communiques from proprietors seeking appropriate renters (“family must be small and of the highest respectability”). Boardinghouses ran the gamut from former mansions of Knickerbocker patricians, replete with furnished parlors, pianofortes, and “all modern improvements,” to dingy and warren-like barracks offering lodging, meals, threadbare carpets, and cockroaches to dry-goods clerks.

All of them had their drawbacks, however, said Thomas Butler Gunn in his humorous but instructive Physiology of New York Boarding Houses (1857). These ranged from landladies trying to palm off unmarried daughters, to thunderous snorers in adjoining apartments, to pious gatekeepers who locked up at eleven and refused to give out latchkeys. Even in the best of circumstances, multifamily dwellings were ultimately inconsistent with the middle-class desire for a “genuine home.” As one little girl replied when asked where her parents lived: “They don’t live; they BOARD.”

For those priced out of domesticity in Manhattan, a proper independence could be purchased at the cost of trekking greater distances. Some made their way north to the growing railway communities of Mott Haven, Morrisania, and Fordham. But far greater numbers of clerks, shopowners, teachers, and youthful professionals migrated east to Brooklyn. After 1853 a steamboat ferry connected Wall and Montague streets, supplementing the older Fulton Ferry to downtown Brooklyn and the South Ferry to Atlantic Avenue (where it linked with the LIRR). By the mid-1850s the giant Union Ferry Company had consolidated most such nautical operations, and its vessels, carrying as many as six hundred passengers at a penny a ride, shuttled an estimated seventy thousand commuters to and from Manhattan each day.

A building frenzy struck Brooklyn in the 1850s (to which Whitman and his brothers made their small contribution). Twenty-six hundred new structures—balloonframe houses and inexpensive row houses—went up during 1851 alone. Middle-class people filtered into the interstices of affluent Brooklyn Heights. Others migrated to South Brooklyn (embracing parts of today’s Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, and Carroll Gardens), where it was possible for a dry-goods clerk to rent a narrow row house with a large back yard for two hundred dollars a year. Bolder souls could travel farther east to the brownstones of Fort Greene or to East New York, where in 1853 ads proclaimed: “Now every family can own a home.” Far to the south lay the respectable community of Fort Hamilton, with its own episcopal St. John’s Church; here, in the 1840s, Robert E. Lee was a vestryman and Thomas (later Stonewall) Jackson was baptized.

Middle-class communities, like wealthy enclaves, sought ecclesiastical anchors. In mixed-class districts they often made use of churches established by their more affluent neighbors. On Brooklyn Heights professionals and clerks might join an Episcopalian stronghold of the older-monied elite, whose fortunes flowed from land. Or they might associate themselves with the richest of the mercantile elite who worshiped along with the Low family at the Unitarian Church of the Saviour, Minard Lafever’s brownstone Gothic masterpiece. But the middle class had an anchor of its very own in Brooklyn Heights—the largest and most influential church in all Brooklyn, all New York, and some said all the nation.

Plymouth Church was a breakaway from Brooklyn’s first Congregational venue, the Church of the Pilgrims, a conservative bastion of New Englanders led by the Rev. Richard Salter Storrs. In search of a more potent pastor, Plymouth’s founders reached across the country to Indianapolis, where they found Henry Ward Beecher, himself of New England stock, and brought him east to serve.

When Beecher arrived in 1847, Plymouth consisted of fewer than two dozen members, but soon his bravura preaching was pulling in crowds (including an enraptured Walt Whitman). A large-framed man, Beecher had a powerful voice and was a master of the anecdotal and colloquial: some called him a combination of St. Paul and Phineas T. Barnum. When Plymouth burned down in January 1849, it was rebuilt according to Beecher’s specifications—along lines pioneered by Charles Grandison Finney—with a central platform instead of a pulpit and with seats arranged in a giant semicircle. This format would allow his “social and personal magnetism” to work better, Beecher said. “I want the audience to surround me,” he told the architect, “so that I shall be in the centre of the crowd, and have the people surge all about me.”

The barnlike sanctuary on Orange Street was completed in January 1850—barely adequate, it turned out, for within another few years Plymouth’s membership stood at twelve hundred, there was a waiting list of over two thousand, and the deacons had figured out how to distribute the communion bread and wine to fifteen hundred worshipers in under ten minutes. So many people came over from Manhattan to hear Beecher that on Sundays the Fulton Street Ferry came to be known as “Beecher’s Ferry.” His ministerial range was magnified, moreover, by New York’s national-circulation newspapers, which covered Beecher consistently, and by the Independent, a Congregational journal for which he himself wrote regularly.

Beecher was successful because his message suited the membership. Although Plymouth’s trustees included a few of Brooklyn’s wealthiest merchants, its congregants and visitors were predominantly middle class. Many (perhaps three-fourths) were newly arrived in Brooklyn and New York. Like Rufus Griswold, clerk in a business house, they were doing well in the marketplace but feeling socially isolated, fearful of wandering into wicked ways. Griswold immediately felt “at home” in Beecher’s church, in part because the minister’s liberal, barely denominational Protestantism presented virtually no doctrinal barriers to admission.

Beecher’s lack of concern for old dogmas and rigid creeds appealed to young men and women who themselves had broken with their past. His amiable and urbane theology also offered a comforting contrast to the faith of their parents, with its emphasis on human depravity and damnation. Beecher did not try to frighten them with strident Calvinist warnings about the wrath of Jehovah. He spoke instead of human perfectibility, a benevolent Deity, and the beauty of the natural order.

Beecher insisted, moreover, on Christians’ responsibility for their fellows, a position with great appeal for those who wanted to be socially respectable and socially responsible. Plymouth thus provided a welcome contrast to elite churches like Grace Episcopal, which middle-class spokesmen like journalist James Parton lambasted as little more than ecclesiastical clubs, designed “for the accommodation of persons of ten thousand a year, and upward.”

Beecher, like Finney before him, believed that people could and should contribute both to their own salvation and to society’s. Indeed he went Finney one better. The older evangelist (whom Beecher invited to preach at Plymouth in 1849) sought social reform through conversion, not legislation; he declined to “get up a Christian party in politics.” Beecher, however, engaged in direct political action. Each year, just before Plymouth’s sale of pews, he restated his outspoken support for abolition and women’s rights, so that congregants would have no cause for later complaint about their investment.

Beecher also helped parishioners negotiate the oft-conflicting claims of morality and business. He vigorously denounced speculative and corrupt practices and demanded that trade be conducted according to the highest standards. Yet he insisted that “religion and commerce stand together,” with “one working from a divine nature, and the other from a selfish; but both together conferring benefaction.” He also helped his flock deal with the prosperity attending their worldly success. Counseling against either extravagance or penuriousness, he defended frugality and discipline, while reassuring his audiences that affluence as such presented no obstacle to God’s grace and might well be a sign of divine approbation. A love of true beauty—as opposed to superficial fashion—was evidence of inner refinement. And true refinement—not mere aristocratic display—was evidence of Christian grace.


Middle-class New Yorkers who set out to demonstrate refinement by acquiring beautiful commodities found handcrafted luxury items unaffordable. Mass-produced versions, however, were well within their reach—and satisfyingly beyond the grasp of cruder classes below. Their parlors now bloomed with framed chromolithographs, machine-woven floral carpets, machine-pressed glassware, mahogany bureaus, wallpaper, ottomans, sofas, chairs, tables, and books. Perhaps even a modest upright piano.

Commodities were problematic, however. Those in the middling ranks who really did hanker to keep pace with the rich were doomed to be outspent and outclassed, their imitation luxuries branding them an imitation bourgeoisie. Those who made a point of denouncing “profligacy and waste in the upper classes” (as middle-class tribune Horace Greeley put it) worried that they themselves might be succumbing to what Greeley called “the shameless ostentation which reigns in our dwellings and furniture, the boundless luxury which presides at our entertainments, [and] the premature exposure of our young men to the contact of a vicious and rotten civilization.”

In either case it was imperative to demonstrate that goods signified grace, not vulgarity. And the best way to do so was by acting in a refined manner—displaying graceful manners, polished conversation, a self-assured bearing, a genteel sensibility. Assuming such virtues, however, especially for those new to citified or bourgeois ways, required study and practice. Fortunately, a small army of experts was ready and eager to advise them. The publishing industry churned out etiquette books—over one hundred between 1830 and 1860—aimed at upwardly striving urbanites or those who were wealthy but socially challenged urbanites. The courtesy-book authors, along with popular fiction writers, codified and inculcated standards of polite behavior, counseling novices how to dress, how to dine, how to walk, how (and how often) to bathe. Magazine editor Nathaniel Parker Willis also set out to “instruct” and “refine” readers in what he called the “vital middle class” that lay between “wealth and poverty.” Willis offered articles on posture and dress, answers to questions about social do’s and don’t’s, and endless exhortations to embrace “TASTEand ELEGANCE.”

Parlors were crucial performance spaces. Here neophytes, by paying and receiving visits properly, could display their newfound delicacy of feeling, capacity for embarrassment, and rigorous self-control—acting “naturally” all the while, as if to the manners born. Hundreds of rules governed these events. You arrived at the stroke of the clock—“if you are a moment later, your character is gone”—and presented your calling card. On entering the house, you never thumped into the parlor, breathing hard, but prepared yourself first in an offstage dressing room, until “every part of your person and dress” was “in perfect order.” Next, your entrance: “A graceful bearing, a light step, an elegant bend to common acquaintance . . . are all requisite to a lady.” Gentlemen, for their part, were warned against offering their seat to the newly arrived lady—body warmth was offensive—and instructed to avoid “ill-bred” or “indecent” subjects of conversation. At table, as in conversation, all participated in making other players look good; should one spill wine on one’s dress, one was not to “exhibit peculiar or violent emotion,” and others were to tactfully ignore the faux pas.

Death was the final performance, and mourning manuals—advice books on bereavement—counseled that the capacity to experience deep grief was a sign of true gentility. As never before, the bourgeoisie (haute and petite alike) wept over their dead and developed a sentimental reverence for keepsakes, relics, “locks of shining hair.” 1846 witnessed the invention of the Frederick and Trump corpse cooler, indispensable for the expanding profession of undertaker who prepared the deceased—affixing cosmetics, wiring limbs in a “natural” position, inserting false teeth—until a polite visitor could give the formerly vulgar corpse the ultimate accolade: “He looks asleep.” Widows (though not widowers) were expected to wear mourning for two years, just as, in general, the burdens of refinement fell most heavily on women. It was a virtual prerequisite for middle-class (as for upperten) status that the male breadwinner spare his wife from work outside the household. She was installed instead as priestess of the home, where her task was to provide a serenely pastoral sanctuary from the urban jungle. In theory this was achieved by effortless emanations of her character; in fact it took a tremendous amount of hard work.

Usually the middle-class housewife had help, though seldom as much as was available to wealthy women. In 1855 New York had thirty-one thousand domestics, the largest category of women workers. This vast pool allowed one family out of every four to employ at least one servant. The ability to command at least some labor power—perhaps a cook or maid—became another virtually defining characteristic of middle classness.

To help the housewife manage these servants, a host of advisers was standing by. Often the how-to books and ladies’ magazines counseled mistresses to take a tough line vis-a-vis their employees. Complaints about refractory or inexperienced help became common coin, a way respectable women could instantly establish a class camaraderie. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was heard to say that one day she’d surely be hanged for “breaking the pate of some stupid Hibernian for burning my meat or pudding on some company occasion.”

Advice books also aided women in managing other aspects of their increasingly complex households. Housewifery was becoming a “profession,” wrote Catharine Beecher, Henry Ward Beecher’s sister, and she along with other writers would help women master it. They discussed how to do (or oversee) the cleaning, cooking, health care, and childrearing and how to sort out the new technology of stoves, illuminants, furnaces, and sewing machines.


“The Miseries of Mistresses,” cartoon views of the “servant problem” fromffaiper’s Netv Monthly Magazine of 1867. Among middle- and upper-class New Yorkers, the alleged foibles of Irish maids like “Bridget” and “Peggy” were a running joke. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

As women’s work expanded, it became less valued, in part because it was unpaid, in part because, as home was meant to be the antithesis of the workplace, labor there was not something to be acknowledged. Indeed the success of women’s work was often measured by its invisibility. The veiling of domestic labor’s contribution was accompanied by an insistence on women’s importance as civilizing agents. Home, one minister wrote, was the place where “fighters, with their passions galled, and their minds scarred with wrong—their hates, disappointments, grudges, and hard-worn ambitions—may come in, to be quieted and civilized.” Housewives, that is, were expected to instruct their husbands in matters of sensibility, in part by crafting an environment that exerted a refining and spiritualizing influence.

As women guided their husbands, so they molded their children, lavishing increasing nurturance on fewer offspring. It was the father’s duty to pay for formal schooling. It was the mother’s to impart the character traits, table manners, conversation styles, dress codes, and spiritual wherewithal required to retain and transmit the family’s position in the middle class. In shaping their children, it was argued, women shaped the country. Mothers, said one minister, would decide “whether we shall be a nation of refined and high minded Christians” or “a fierce race of semi-barbarians.”

Middle-class men were not entirely irrelevant to the civilizing process. They enrolled in literary discussion societies, went to concerts, and attended lyceum lectures, which in the mid-fifties almost surpassed theaters in popularity. Clerks flocked to talks sponsored by the Mercantile Library Association, which, still going strong, had over four thousand members by 1853. Formal associations were equally decorous. The International Order of Odd Fellows, which had once featured convivial gatherings in taverns, now forbade drinking and promoted individual self-improvement.

In physical pursuits, too, middle-class men hewed to respectable activities. Some exercised at gyms (by 1860 there were seven in operation). Others attended regattas, trotting meets, and pedestrian races. But it was on the new frontier of participatory sports that a handful of New Yorkers, in search of an appropriate after-work pastime, invented a game that would sweep the country, and eventually the world.

Cricket, played informally in the city since the Revolution, got organized, in a small way, with the formation of the St. George Cricket Club in 1839-40. The members were all Englishmen, mostly merchants and agents of English import houses, along with some skilled craftsmen. But the sport grew very slowly in the 1840s and 1850s. Despite the Times’s praise of it as a “manly, healthy and invigorating exercise,” its complexity, professionalism, and English associations limited its appeal.

In 1842, however, white-collar workers who lived near Madison Square and Murray Hill came up with an alternative. In a vacant lot at 27th and Madison Avenue they began playing a version of the children’s game known variously as one-old-cat, stool ball, bat and ball, base ball, or rounders—the latter being the others’ English forerunner. Popular since its arrival early in the century, rounders and its cognates involved four bases in diamond formation and a “feeder” who tossed balls to a “striker.” After several years of informal play, Alexander Joy Cartwright, a shipping clerk who later opened a bookstore and stationery shop, proposed to his fellows that they constitute themselves the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. The group—almost all of them businessmen, professionals, or clerks like Cartwright—drew up a constitution and wrote down a set of formal rules for the game. After being forced out of their playing field by resurgent uptown development, the Knickerbockers rented a site at the Elysian Fields across the Hudson in Hoboken. In June 1846, using the new rules, they took on their first challenger, a group called the New York Club.

Slowly the game caught on. The Gothams (originally the Washingtonians) began play in the early 1850s at the St. George Cricket Club’s ground in Harlem. By 1854 the Eagles and Empires had taken the field, as had, across the river in South Brooklyn, the Excelsiors. Like the Knickerbockers, most of these clubs were comprised of middleclass men and were more fraternal organizations than competitive teams. Club members met off as well as on the field, with postgame collations at their favorite hotel or restaurant, and in the winter at suppers, promenades, skating parties, soirees, and an annual ball. Most games were intramural, with only an occasional match game, initiated by written challenge, the winner of which got to keep the game ball in its trophy case. The clubs insisted on decorum and gentlemanly behavior, emphasizing their self-control in contrast to working-class raucousness.

In the late fifties the game took off. By 1858 there were seventy-one clubs in Brooklyn and twenty-five in Manhattan; others on Long Island and New Jersey brought the metropolitan area total to 125.1858 saw the establishment of a National Association of Base Ball Players to refine rules, resolve disputes, and control the game’s development. The title may have seemed a bit grandiose, as the constituents were all local teams, but the wording was fair enough, for Brooklyn and New York City had between them become the acknowledged capital of the sport. For a time, the “New York” game was rivaled by “Philadelphia” and “Massachusetts” varieties. But all the leading sports journals—like Porter’s Spirit of the Times and the New York Clipper—were located here, and they gave tremendous nationwide coverage to epic contests played by “New York” rules; among these was the first intercity all-star match, in 1858, in which New York beat Brooklyn in a best-two-out-of-three series at the Fashion Course (to which tens of thousands paid admission, another first). With over a million readers devouring such stories, and sports papers issuing series on the history of the game, and baseball editor Henry Chadwick of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle devising a scoring system, the metropolitan version of the game soon became standard throughout the nation. In yet another indication of the city’s imperial outreach and cultural clout, its native sport had become the national pastime.

Even as it careened toward a more competitive, commercial format, baseball remained predominantly a middle-class affair. In the late fifties roughly a quarter of the players were businessmen and professionals. Half were clerks and small proprietors (occupationally based teams of schoolteachers, physicians, even clergymen had become popular). But the percentage of artisanal ballplayers had also risen rapidly. Skilled workers now constituted a quarter of the players in Manhattan and an even larger component in Brooklyn, though virtually no laborers had time for baseball. But if by 1860 baseball had become a sport that straddled cultural boundaries, it is a sign of the degree to which the game had been indelibly molded by its middle-class progenitors that newcomers like butchers and volunteer firemen, who leaned toward more rowdy pursuits, accepted the rules, conventions, and even the adherence to decorum laid down by their predecessors. The spread of baseball, some thought, was a triumph of the civilizing process.

The respectable classes had carved out a social and psychological location for themselves vis-à-vis the uppertens, by stressing their shared gentility while disavowing undesirable aristocratic elements. But in moving closer to the city’s elite they distanced themselves culturally as well as physically from the less respectable orders. They could play ball with artisans who accepted their standards of propriety but had only scorn for mechanics who did not. With refinement open to all, they reasoned, the lower sorts had only themselves to blame for their vulgarity.

By mid-century organs of middle-class opinion like Harper’s Monthly were making ever more condescending references to manual laborers: their sun-darkened skin, tattered clothes, rough hands, mental sluggishness, even their “bestial” character. The widening cultural divide was enormously exacerbated by the fact that, in an astonishingly short period of time, the class landscape had been drastically rearranged. Most merchants, professionals, shopkeepers, and clericals could consider themselves socially superior, not simply because the city’s laboring force still worked with its hands but because, augmented by a torrent of immigrants, it had become overwhelmingly alien in tongue and habit.

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