GOTHAMIST: How New Yorkers Lived 150 Years Ago
From our partners at Gothamist: Ever wonder what this website would look like if it were written in the 1860s? Well, first of all, it’d probably only be a weekly, and when we complained about the cost of mass transit, we’d be talking pennies a ride! Anyway, back then, more than 814,000 people were living in New York City’s Manhattan, many in the slums of Five Points, with communities starting to emerge in the wilderness above 42nd Street. Scroll through for a look at what life in New York City was like 150 years ago…
BICYCLING was starting to become more widespread. While early versions were built in the first half of the 19th century, two Frenchmen added mechanical crank pedals and the “velocipede” was born. Made entirely of either wood or metal (including the tires), these were also called “boneshakers” and one of the recommended manufacturers was Mercer and Monod (54 William Street).
An 1869 book said of M&M velocipede, “The steering post is inclined backward which bring the handle within easy reach of the body, and the whole machine under perfect control; and gives it a particularly rakish and natty appearance upon the road… The defect of this machine is its weight, which is about seventy pounds… A good rider on this machine can obtain a speed of ten or twelve miles an hour.”
Of course, this was a luxury for those who could afford the $100-$150 machine (around $1,600-$2,400 today!). With velocipedes hitting the streets, schools were opening to educate riders. A Scientific American reporter visited a facility 928 Broadway where, “on any week-day evening,” “upward of a hundred and fifty gentlemen—doctors, bankers, merchants and representatives from almost every profession—engaged in this training school preparatory…. We frequently drop into the ‘Velocinasium’ to witness the novel amusement which the exhibition always affords. [T]wo well-known stock brokers, jaded by the excitement of Wall Street, with their coats off and faces burning with zeal, gyrating around the room in the most eccentric manner.”
BASEBALL was a popular past time for “shopkeepers, clerks and skilled craftsmen (especially butchers),” according to Gotham. By 1867, there were over a hundred amateur clubs in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Notably, it was William Cammeyer, Williamsburg resident, who opened the Union Grounds, the first enclosed baseball field in 1862. The enclosed field allowed Cammeyer, who owned the New York Mutuals, to charge admission.
BOXING was a popular sport for the middle- and lower classes to watch or participate in—and much of it was dominated by the criminal underworld, who either boxed, oversaw matches or owned saloons where matches were held. The upper classes did attend as spectators (gentry who followed the sport were “the fancy,” which became the word “fan”). Interestingly, one of the most infamous saloonkeepers who held boxing matches, Kit Burns, was force to close his establishment, Sportsman’s Hall, in 1870 because it also held dog fights. The organization that shut it down? The ASPCA, founded in 1866.
And COLLEGE FOOTBALL got its start with a game just across the river, between Rutgers University and Princeton in 1869 (Rutgers won). Columbia University joined intercollegiate sports in 1867, by forming a baseball team (football would come in 1875).
While many popular novels of the time were from Britain (like ‘Alice in Wonderland’), there was an uniquely American phenomenon that allowed for affordable forays into fiction: The DIME NOVEL. In 1860, New York publisher Irwin P. Beadle published the first dime novel, ‘Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter.’
As The Bowery Boys explains, it was “128 pages of Hudson River Valley drama written by Ann S. Stephens, a 19th century serial writer whose breathless stories would define the genre and, by extention, the story trappings of the 20th century pulp genres. Stephens’ sad tale recounts the illicit affair between a hunter living in Manhattan and a Mohawk woman. Their bi-racial child ends up living in white culture, while Malaeska is first made a servant and then banished.”
The year 1860 also saw a revised edition of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass,’ one of many revised versions of the 1855 poetry collection. The publishers of the 1860 edition went bankrupt and almost couldn’t pay Whitman. Another edition was published in 1867; Whitman thought it would be the last, but a few more came after that.