Wednesday, August 27, 2008

1830s, Here We Come

Traveler James Stuart whiles away the final days of 1829

by David Minor

December of 1829 had been an unusually warm month; the following month remained so for awhile. New York harbor remained free of ice. Visitor James Stuart was able to make quite a few visits to Manhattan from his boarding house in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he and his wife were staying.

Quite often his fellow passengers aboard the Stevens family steamboats were males; men did most of the marketing in the shops and stalls of Manhattan, returning later in the day with their produce and meats. Stuart had heard that even U. S. Chief Justice John Marshall, who occupied his residence on Staten Island when the Supreme Court was not in session, was often seen returning home with his dinner tucked under his arm, even the occasional turkey.

Most New Yorkers ate quite well. Stuart went to meet some friends for dinner once at a Manhattan boarding house. His shoes got dusty on the trip over; he stopped at a boot black’s house on Leonard Street for a polish, and found the man and his wife, “persons of colour” as he described them, “at dinner, consisting of one of the fattest roast geese I had ever seen, with potatoes, and apple-pie.”

In the several months they spent in Hoboken, many Sundays would find the Stuarts attending divine services in Manhattan. He mentions attending services at Episcopal, Presbyterian, Reformed Presbyterian, Baptist and Roman Catholic churches, as well as at several Methodist meetings. He found the various ministers to be equally impressive in their abilities. He was a little surprised when, turning up at the Oliver Street Baptist Church to hear the Reverend Spencer Wallace Cone, to find that he really had to hunt to find a vacant seat. “. . . the tide of Mr Cone's popularity was so great when I heard him, that the regular sitters were in some degree tenacious of their rights.”

It’s not too surprising that Cone was a popular preacher. The Princeton, New Jersey, native, had become an actor, much to the dismay of his devout mother, when he turned twenty. It may have been his presence during a fire that killed 72 people at the Richmond Theatre in the Virginia capital in 1811, including the state’s new governor, that made him decide to leave the stage. Afterwards, during a stint as a newspaper editor and writer, he was inspired by the biography of English divine John Newton to enter the Baptist church. Commanding a rifle company in the War of 1812, during which he witnessed the burning of Washington and the attack on Fort McHenry, he then moved to the nation’s capital. After preaching in the Washington and Philadelphia areas he moved to New York City in 1823 to take up the pastorate at the Baptist Church. Certainly Cone had a wealth of experiences to draw on, and by the time Stuart heard him, knew well how to work up a crowd.

The Stuarts must have done a bit of clothes shopping while they were in the area, probably in expectation of being on the road before long. He notes that most of the work in the fashion trade is done by women, apparently as opposed to the custom in Britain. The visiting couple may also have been refurbishing their outfits for the New Year’s celebrations to come at the end of the month. Well before Times Square was invented.

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