Tag Archives: history

Delmonico’s: It’s All About The History

Delmonico's circa 1902

If ever there were an example that gave insight into my own character, this is likely it. Here I am, a week or so from heading to New York City, a city filled with world renown restaurants, and me with the resources to choose which one I could go to. My decision?


Why? Because for a history geek like myself, Delmonico’s is chock full of the ghosts of the past. I get giddy just thinking about it.

Delmonico’s, as a name, has been around for a long time. It  is older than the city in which I currently reside – Seattle. It is older than the state of Washington, older than organized baseball, and older than the American Civil War.

Yes, yes, I know. The current incarnation is a mere recreation, trading off of the name. It is not the original, or even the second coming. If my math is right, the current version of Delmonico’s is actually the fourteenth version, if you count the initial pastry shop that the brothers Delmonico founded in 1827. But it’s the idea that’s grabbed me.

Why? Because Delmonico’s brought restaurant dining to New York, and later the rest of America. I talked before about the culinary landscape of New York City at the time Delmonico’s came into being, and it’s important to understand just what this new type of business added to the city. It was (supposedly) here that  à la carte ordering made its debut in America, as well as the ability to eat your own table, unshared by strangers.

Think about that for a moment – a New York City without restaurants, without a place where you can sit down and be both separate from yet intrinsically part of the food scene of New York City.  The restaurant scene of the Big Apple is a direct descendant of the legacy that Delmonico’s at least inspired, if not outright created.

It was a restaurant visited by the like of Charles Dickens, and the place where Mark Twain celebrated his 70th birthday. It was the place where (purportedly) the Lobster Newberg was invented, along with the Baked Alaska, Eggs Benedict, and, of course, the Delmonico Steak. Delmonico’s is a name weighted with the past, and carries with it the authority of tradition and quality. Why else would the name last through nearly two centuries, with the past 90 years being without an actual Delmonico on site?

I recognize that today’s restaurant is merely trading on the name. But for me, that is enough. It knows its past. And if I can have a meal that connects me to the New York City of 1837, even loosely, then I’m okay with that. I will be there with my friends and loved ones, and for a moment or two, I’ll get to think about what it must have been like to eat at Delmonico’s at its heyday.

How did New Yorkers Eat in the Early 1800′s?

The above picture is a lithograph of a dinner celebrating the life and celebrity of Washington Irving. While I have interesting in the first Knickerbocker, he’s not the purpose of this post. Instead, look at the style of the banquet hall – long tables, shaped like the interior Hogwart’s dining hall. The picture gives a good indication on how the upper class ate in social engagements.

But, as with all banquets, these are the exceptions to every day eating, not the rule.  So what was the food culture of the era of 1825-1863? Let’s set aside Delmonico’s, the first name often brought up when talking about eating in that era. Delmonico’s should be noted, but again, they are the exception, not the rule. The idea of “restaurants” had yet to take off in Gotham.

The first thing we have to remember was that New York City, more than another other city on the planet at that time, was designed as a financial center. The first way this manifested itself was through shipping, which meant merchants, which meant people buying and selling cargo. This also meant that the city attracted business men. It has been reported that on any given day in New York City during this era, one should add an additional 60,000 people to its citizenry, all temporary residents who stayed an average of three days. This people had to be fed somehow, and the primary way was through the hotels and boarding houses where they stayed. Those who put up these boarders were expected, through etiquette and tradition, to feed those who stayed with them.  Hotels were expensive, and often had their meals reflect that status. Boardinghouses were middling to cheap, and the food served at these places were famously poor.

Other places where people could eat included the chophouses I mentioned yesterday, with some of these evolving into eating houses that sat next to or near the various playhouses and theaters that were popping up throughout New York City, including a place called Windust’s that sat next to the Park Theater in 1824. The idea of catching a dinner and a show, has its roots way before the idea of “Broadway” could even be fathomed.

Also around the theaters, and peppered throughout the city were the bakeries who provided the daily bread and pastry fix, to the confectioners, now far removed from their apothecarial past. Then there were the taverns, where drinking was the primary order of the day, and food was provided to keep people drinking. Coffee houses had similar a similar outlook, with the intent of keeping people on site as long as New Yorkers could bear.

And for those who had less money to spend, or no time to get home during the work day, food peddlers provided cheap food directl, calling out their wares which included everything from oysters and clams, to baked beans, strawberries and mint, hot yams, and corn on the cob peddled by the hot-corn girls.

All of this was in place by the time Delmonico’s arrived on the scene, and changed the landscape of the New York Dining scene. But, I’m getting just a bit ahead of myself.

The Macbeth Riot (aka The Astor Place Riots)

In the history of New York, there are many riots of note. There is the Police Riot, the Dead Rabbit Riots, the Flour Riot of 1837, and several others. The reason for the sheer amount of riots is actually a combination of factors, all of which are fairly straight forward. Poverty, lack of policing, the crowding of people together into small locations, all  have played their part to create the metaphorical powder-keg, and all simply needed one event, large or small, to light the fuse. One of the more peculiar events that touched off a riot was a pair of competing productions of Shakespeare’s classic Macbeth.

There were three key items that played into the creation of this riot. The first was the very public feud between two leading actors of the day, American Edwin Forrest and Englishman William Charles Macready. The Second was the jingoistic fervor stoked by the likes of the Nativists. The third was the ever-growing chasm between the rich, who looked towards Europe for their cultural cues, and the lower classes, who, as previously implied, thought that American culture should be dictated by Americans. These three items played off of one another, leading to an explosion of violence that left over twenty people dead.

The actors set the stage long before appearing in New York, beginning over a public disagreement about the interpretation of the character of Hamlet sometime in the early to mid 1840′s, where Forrest, whilst in the audience at a production in Edinburgh, stood up and hissed Macready. Forrest had believed the Macready had hissed Forrest’s performance of Macbeth while in London, but there is little evidence of this. However, several members of the British press did document Forrest’s hissing, and criticized him thoroughly in the press, and harmed his European reputation greatly.  From that point on, the two were rivals.

Both tried to get under each other’s skin, with Macready stocking the audiences in Europe with his friends and fans wherever Forrest played, and jeered him. And when Macready undertook an American tour of various productions, Forrest (whose reputation was far greater in America) would book a show in a different theater in the same town, undercutting Macready’s take in any given town, and often getting less press than Forrest would get.

It was this act of these two actors performing the  in two separate theaters that led them to New York City in May of 1849. Macready’s production of Macbeth was at  the Astor Place Opera House (located on Lafayette Street between Astor Place and East 8th Street), and Forrest was performing Spartacus at the Bowery Theater (which resided the area between Elizabeth, Canal, and Hester streets).

Enter the Nativists, who, none to keen on the English, started handing out placards like the one to the right here. Creating an environment of “Us vs. Them”, and keen to stoke the hatred of the English, the Nativists used the Macready/Forrest feud for their own political gains. The Nativists used the opportunity to point out the class differences between those that visited the Astor Place Opera House and those who frequented the Bowery Theater.  For them, real Americans were the hard-working lower and middle classes, and for them, only American products, even American productions of Macbeth, would do.

In a strange twist of history, the Nativists were helped out by the ever-increasing Irish population of New York, who also could never resist the urge of tweaking the nose of the English. While the Nativists would typically spurn the Catholic immigrants in most cases, when it came to Macready and his production of Macbeth, the Irish and the Nativists were of the same mind.

On May 7, 1849, when Macready took the stage, he would soon learn that the audience was filled, not only with the upper class of New York City, but several of the Bowery B’hoys.  Apparently, the manager of the Opera House, in order to compete against the Bowery Theater, gave away promotional tickets, resulting in two important facts. For one, the size of the audience was now larger than the theater could hold. For two,  most of the promotional  tickets had been taken by people intent on disturbing the theater.

The first act went as scripted, but at the beginning of the second, Macready found himself jeered and taunted, and several dozen of the audience began pelting him with rotten eggs, copper pennies,  potatoes, lemons, and rocks. Macready fled the stage.

The next two nights, he refused to go on stage. This only served to stoke the jeering of the working class men who had wanted to taunt the Englishmen, and now had made habit of appearing outside of the Astor Opera House. Seeking to defuse the situation, on May 10, Macready decided that he should perform. The police were called to maintain order, and the ticket holders were vetted before going in, but still the Nativists had made it inside. By the time the curtains were drawn, there were anywhere between 10,000 to 20,000 outside the theater, and a handful more of rioter on the inside.  The soon surged the stage, but the police were able to remove them from the premises, to the cheers of those outside.

By now, those who frequented the Opera house were looking toward a solution, a method to disperse the large crowd outside the theater. The Seventh Regiment was called in, and arrived on scene at 10pm.  An order was given to shoot over the heads of the crowd, but when carrying out this order, the regiment fired into the crowd instead.  Eighteen died on site, and another four would die from their wounds in the following days.  The mob soon fled.

Over the course of the subsequent weeks, public opinion was divided as to who was responsible. Did the regiment over-react? Was the city government more keen on protecting the interests of the wealthy ? Were the various gangs to blame?

Ten of the rioters were tried in September, 1849, in the Court of General Sessions, New York before Judge Daly. After a trial lasting fifteen days, the jury found all ten guilty. Sentences varied from one month in prison to one year and a fine of $250.00. The members of the regiment were never charged.

However, the Astor Opera House would forever be remembered as a place of mob violence. It never recovered from its reputation, and closed in 1850.

How Downing Street and the History of New York Are Tied Together

By many accounts, George Downing was a right bastard. Samuel Pepys, the noted diarist of London and English bureaucrat said of Downing that he was a ”perfidious rogue” and remarks that “all the world took notice of him for a most ungrateful villain for his pains.”

Yet without this man, this rogue, New York City, as well as the United States, would looked markedly different from how it looks today. For one, without Downing, it would be likely that we would currently be living in the great country of Connecticut.  But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.

Here’s some background – Downing was born in Dublin, but moved to the Massachusetts colony with his parents when he was fifteen years old.  He not only attended Harvard, but was part of its first graduating class in 1642. He was also a Puritan, and he soon found his way to London to help out in Oliver Cromwell’s cause and (later)  government. By 1657, he became a diplomat to The Netherlands, and took up residence in The Hague, where he proceeded to annoy many leaders in the Dutch government and tried to usurp their trade where ever possible.

When Cromwell’s protectorate fell after his death, Downing, clearly seeing which way the wind was blowing, apologized directly to the restored King Charles II, and threw both Cromwell and other Puritans under the proverbial bus, including giving up three of his friends who had helped plan the death of Charles I in 1649. King Charles II, seeing the benefit of having someone with experience in dealing with the Dutch under his thumb, not only allowed Downing to live, but re-instated him as ambassador to the Dutch.

This is where things get a little convoluted, for remember, at this time, New York City was still New Amsterdam, and still “owned”  by the Dutch Wast India Company.

Enter John Winthrop, governor of the Connecticut colony, and son of the deceased head of the Puritan in North America, John Winthrop (the elder) who had been the head of the Massachusetts colony, and was also a good friend of Peter Stuyvesant,  the Dutch Director-General of the colony of New Netherland, and de facto mayor of New Amsterdam. 

Winthrop the Younger, using his father’s friendship as an invitation, paid visit to Stuyvesant in New Amsterdam, and Winthrop was given the courtesy of a visiting head of state.  While Stuyvesant showed Winthrop around, and kept up with  friendly chatter, the governor of the Connecticut colony was taking notes of the size of New Amsterdam’s fort, the amount of guards on duty, and any other perceived tactical weaknesses and strengths that Dutch colony had.  Winthrop then traveled across the Atlantic to Amsterdam, and gave a glowing report of the Dutch Colony to the West India Company.

Then Winthrop traveled to the Hague, to meet up with his cousin, George Downing, and it is said that he handed Downing over all of the notes he had taken about the colony. Soon afterwards, maps detailing the fortifications of New Amsterdam were found the halls of English Government.

Winthrop then went to King Charles II, where Winthrop looked for forgiveness for supporting Cromwell’s crusade, even at a distance, and then asked for a charter  to create a country of Connecticut, and to include all of the lands west of Connecticut, including New York and everything else west all of the way to the Pacific. To the shock of many, including various other British Colonies in North America, Winthrop got it.  When Stuyvesant got wind of the charter, he sent a message to Winthrop, asking for confirmation of respecting an earlier treaty between the two colonies. Winthrop responded with double-speak.

George Downing had other plans, and soon double-crossed his cousin Winthrop. Seeing first hand the amount of money the Dutch brought in from their colonies, Downing proposed to his new King that England should take a similar route.  Downing, and a group of politicians, merchants, and other members of royalty all agreed that they needed  to take a more direct role in overseeing the colonies in America, an approach which was 180 degrees from their previous position under Charles I and later Cromwell.  In doing this, the English government soon reneged on their agreement on the Connecticut charter, and the Government soon set their eyes on New Amsterdam. Three years later, in 1664, Charles II gave the land to his “dearest brother James Duke of York”, and then took the necessary steps of taking the land away from the West India Company.  By September 8, 1664, after a few weeks of negotiation with Peter Stuyvesant, the English entered New Amsterdam, lowered the flag of the Dutch West India company, and raised the cross of St. George.  Soon afterwards, New Amsterdam became New York, named after the Catholic brother of Charles II, James, Duke of York.

For this work, and others, Downing became a baronet in 1663. He had another 20 years or so of service to the English crown, and invested in properties close to the English Parliament, and just south of Saint Jame’s Park. We know this area today as Downing Street, home to one of the most important addresses in England.





Shipping Routes in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Those of you who follow Jason  likely have already seen this, but it is worth a moment of your time if you have a bit of passion for history.

What’s missing is a bit of context, but one easily filled in if your familiar with the past.  So let’s suss this out a bit.

Dutch routes coming from either central Asia or the Malaysian/Indonesian regions are primarily dealing with various spices.

Routes coming from the Central region of the West Coast of India  are primarily dealing with black pepper.

Routes to and from the Caribbean or North East South America are primarily dealing with sugar.

Routes to and from Western Africa around what is today Ghana and the Ivory Coast are primarily dealing with slaves.



The True Story of Bill the Butcher

Picture by Simon Hsu aka Citizen5010 on DeviantArt

In Martin Scorsese’s 2002 movie Gangs of New York,  Daniel Day-Lewis played a character named Bill the Butcher. In the movie, Bill the Butcher was  a Protestant political leader, as well as the head of a gang called the “Nativists”.

Scorsese’s movie was based off of a book written back in 1926, also entitled The Gangs of New York, a non-fiction recounting of the seamier sides of New York City during from around 1830 up until the early 1900′s. The book itself reads like yellow-journalism, with the story being torrid enough to keep one interested, but so fantastic at times that it makes it difficult to believe. I’m not saying the book is untrue, per se, but merely that it’s a product of its time, as it bases many of its accounts on various magazines and newpapers of the era, and not all of them had the journalistic ethics to which were so accustomed to today. There are enough verifiable facts in the book that makes it difficult to discount completely.

Regardless, if the book plays fast and loose with the facts, the movie outright fictionalizes them in order to tell a better, more cohesive story. Scorsese himself would admit to this, and it’s hardly a sin.  But one of the fictional aspects of the movie is Day-Lewis’ character, whose full name was William Cutter.

In real life, (or at least as real as the book will have you believe), there was also a Bill the Butcher, on which the movie Bill the Butcher  was partially based.  His real-life counterpart, however, was named Bill Poole.

If it’s one thing that the book makes clear, it’s the sheer amount of chaos that the urban-poor was part of on a day-to-day basis, and that the gangs were one mean of establishing order in that chaos.  Gangs and their political persuasions helped establish identities and Bill Poole fit into that pattern with near perfection.  Bill was a butcher by trade, and a member of the Bowery Boys, and politically identified as a Know-Nothing. And much like everyone else who was affiliated with a gang, Poole was likely a tremendous thug, one with respected fighting skills and a talent for encouraging mayhem.

He was not the epic man that Daniel Day-Lewis makes him out to be, but he did turn into a legend of sorts, based off of his political position as a leader in the Know-Nothing party, and his infamous last worlds.  After a bar fight where one Lew Baker shot and mortally wounded Poole , the Butcher lasted another fourteen days before giving his last words, “Good-bye boys: I die a true American!”

The Nativist party decided to make a martyr of Poole’s death, and arranged a funeral procession consisting of 5000 men, and it walked down the entire length of Broadway. Soon afterwards, various plays, songs, and poems began to appear in the city, each extolling the virtue of the anti-immigration/anti-Catholic beliefs of Bill Poole, and each play, song, and poem referred to his “final” words in the most dramatic of fashions.

The real Bill the Butcher was not as much as a monster as the movie version. The real Bill was a mobster and thug, and very much a product of his age. His connections made him a small legend when he died, and would have dissolved into obscurity to those of us in the modern era save for the recreation of Draft-Riots era by one of the premier movie directors of our time.




How Wall Street Got Its Name


As with the standard Modus Operandi of any new Dutch Colony, the folks who ran New Amsterdam were looking for a way to protect themselves and their new investment.  Typically this was accomplished by creating a barricade between the people who were the threat, and the people who wanted the threat to be frustrated enough to go away.

By 1652,  England and the Netherlands were no longer friendly, and  Dutch Director-General Peter Stuyvesant determined the best way to keep the English colony to the east (in what is today Connecticut), from getting into this land of milk and beaver-pelts was to create a wall at the north end of the colony.   The wall was built and paid for in 1653, and ran from the Hudson to the East Rivers. The street that paralleled the wall soon was given that creative moniker – WALL STREET (Ed. Note – Place dramatic music sting here.)

The ironic aspect of this history was that the wall itself ended up being worthless. The English never attacked , and two years after the wall had been built, when the colony was attacked by Native Americans, they simply walked up to the wall, headed towards the East River, and then walked around the infamous wall. Apparently  the Dutch never considered that motivated attackers would be unafraid of getting their feet wet.

After the English took over the colony in a bloodless coup in 1664, the wall stood for another generation or so, before it was torn down.  The wall was gone, but the street remained, where it now represents capitalism at both its worst and best.