The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side explores the history of immigration in New York City with a variety of tours and exhibits centered along a row of former tenement houses on Orchard Street. The museum employs an innovative approach that uses a combination of historical preservation and historical narrative to connect visitors to the experience of immigration and instill an appreciation of the role that it has played in shaping American life.
Although the museum has since expanded, it was originally housed in a five-story tenement building at 97 Orchard Street that was constructed in 1863. To visit, you need to sign up for one of the assorted guided tours, which will take you through a particular floor of the building that has been arranged to show how the different groups of immigrants that inhabited the neighborhood over the years lived. The “Shop Life” tour, for example, looks at the various stores that occupied the basement of the building, which has been fixed up as an 1870s-era German saloon (my review). The 4th floor tour focuses on Irish immigrants, and so on. The building was originally divided into twenty apartments in addition to the two basement-level store fronts and it is estimated that over seven thousand immigrants lived there at one time or another, so there are a lot of stories to tell!
In any case, the reason that I am blogging about the Tenement Museum here is that they posted this on their Instagram account the other day:
A photo posted by The Tenement Museum (@thetenementmuseum) on
As the caption indicates, the museum is presently expanding and discovered an old coin in the walls at 103 Orchard Street. Intrigued, I contacted to them to find out if they had found any other numismatic material over the years.
The Tenement Museum has about 10,000 items in their collection, which includes objects discovered and preserved from the former tenements at 91, 97, and 103 Orchard Street, and historical objects that have been donated or acquired to use for its tours and exhibitions. The artifacts found range from wooden toys to animal bones. We visited to take a look at the eight coins that were found in the buildings (there are additional coins and tokens that came in as donations), which ranged in date from 1876 to 1929. The oldest, an 1876 ‘Indian Head’ cent pictured below, was found in a rat’s nest under the floorboards.
Seven out of the eight coins in the collection were pennies, which is hardly surprising given that higher value coins were less likely to go missing. There was a wooden privy in the back court of 97 Orchard Street that sat above a mortared-brick vault filled with water that was periodically drained into the sewer system. When archaeologists excavated the back yard in the 1990s, the narrow vault yielded a trove of artifacts, including a 1909 Lincoln cent.
This was the first year that this famed coin designed by Victor David Brenner was minted. Lincoln’s portrait was added at that time to celebrate the centenary of his birth, and this was the first US coin to feature a president and the motto ‘In God We Trust.’ The new penny struck a chord with the public and became a popular keepsake. How this one ended up the privy, we will never know, but it is an interesting bit of Americana. The other coins were two Indian Head cents (1893, 1906), and four more Lincoln cents (1910, 1912, 1926, 1927).
At right is the obverse of the 1908 ‘Liberty Head’ nickel that workers discovered in the walls the other day. As work on the buildings is ongoing, we suspect that more coins will be uncovered in the future and we will update this post if and when we hear about something new (see update below). In the meantime, I would encourage anyone to do a guided tour or check out one of the many other events at the museum.
Thanks to curator David Favaloro (left) and collections manager Danielle Swanson (right) for hosting us!
On October 5, 1858, the New York Crystal Palace burned to the ground in just forty minutes after a fire broke out in the northeast corner of the building just after five o’clock in the evening. The American Institute, a civic organization dedicated to “encouraging and promoting domestic industry,” was holding its annual fair, and about two thousand visitors were in the building at the time. The New York Herald (October 6, 1858) reported that despite scenes of “indescribable confusion,” remarkably no one was killed in the fast-moving blaze.
Although the enormous structure was mostly made of iron and glass, the pitch pine that was used as flooring and in much of the framework “afforded a most inflammable pabulum for the conflagration to feed upon.” In a particularly evocative passage the Herald noted that at one point “the whole palace was like a burning coal, and vomiting up fire at a rate that would have done credit to Vesuvius.” The vivid scene was captured in a hand-colored lithograph by Currier and Ives in which you can make out a company of red-shirted New York City firemen arriving in the foreground to vainly battle the roaring blaze.
The New York version of the Crystal Palace was constructed to host an “Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations” in 1853, which was an American effort to replicate The Great Exhibition of 1851 held in London’s Hyde Park. The building was designed by architects Georg Carstensen and Charles Gildemeister in the shape of a Greek cross with arms measuring 365 feet in length and capped with a 100-foot diameter dome at its center. For the architecturally inclined a full description of the building with plates can be found here. The building was located on a site between Fifth and Sixth Avenues on 42nd Street, in what is today Bryant Park. It was completed in June 1853, at which time this large medal was struck to commemorate the occasion.
The obverse shows the Crystal Palace in all its glory while the reverse depicts a globe surrounded by allegorical figures bearing the varied attributes of industry. The beatified figure of Europe reigns supreme at the top while a man in native dress looks up at her from below. As the title and imagery implies, the exhibition was intended to highlight the industrial and artistic achievements of the United States, and the supposed march of civilization. The exhibition proved popular and it provided a model of sorts for the string of World’s Fairs that were subsequently staged around the country. Between July and November, over a million people visited the Crystal Palace to take in the exhibits and enjoy the varied entertainments that were on offer. One of the more unusual attractions on the grounds was the Latting Observatory, a 315-foot tower built adjacent to the exhibition building.
As depicted in this medal struck by G. H. Lovett, the Observatory was an iron-braced wooden structure with stores at its base and three landings from which visitors were treated to a panoramic view of the growing city. The tower did not live to see the fiery demise of its neighbor, as this structure was itself consumed by flames a few years prior to the spectacular Crystal Palace fire. It was not until the New York World Building was completed in 1890 that another structure in the city surpassed three hundred feet in height.
Despite the ostensible success of the initial exhibition, the Crystal Palace was something of an ongoing problem for the city and its owners as the building was simply too big to be of much practical use beyond the occasional event. For all of the remarkable happenings and superlatives that graced the short-lived structure, the Herald‘s description makes it clear that its dramatic and destructive final act on October 5, 1858 might have left the biggest impression.
One of the most overlooked aspects of both numismatic and printing history in the United States is the ephemeral genre of serials known as “counterfeit detectors.” These publications flourished in the antebellum era, when a chronic lack of coinage led individual banks and businesses to issue diverse forms of paper money. A trickle of notes issued by private banks in the late eighteenth century turned into a veritable flood by the 1820s as an ever-greater number of banks issued increasingly large amounts to satisfy the needs of the growing populace and economy. These privately issued bank notes were a kind of representative money that promised the holder that the paper could be redeemed at the bank for specie, i.e. gold and silver, on demand. In practice this was not always the case as a given bank’s ability to ‘make good’ its circulating notes was often questionable.
While this newfound capital helped to fuel the United States’ runaway growth, the sheer number of different designs and varying quality of the notes created a chaotic currency situation that was ripe for abuse. Perhaps the biggest problem was the integrity of the note-issuing banks themselves, which ranged from prudent and well-capitalized institutions to unsafe and even outrightly fraudulent ones that printed notes with no intention of ever redeeming them. Rampant counterfeiting only further confounded matters, and the public was put in the essentially impossible position of attempting to assess whether or not a given note was genuine, and even if so, what it exactly it was worth for an incredible range of currencies.
In an attempt to bring some clarity to this confusing situation, publishers printed broadsides and circulars that listed commonly counterfeited notes. Newspapers, most notably the Baltimore-based Niles Register (1811-1836), also featured financial columns that advised readers about the soundness of various banks, reported exchange rates, and took note of counterfeiting activities around the country. Yet it was not until 1819 that The American, a New York City newspaper, began to regularly publish a table entitled “Bank Note Exchange,” which gave the going rates for assorted notes and listed known counterfeits. The table at left is reproduced from the July 14 edition and indicates that it was updated every Tuesday and Friday by Martin Lee, a broker with offices at 44 Wall Street. A rating of “par” indicated that the note was equal to its printed value, while a number followed by “do” indicated the rate at which the note was discounted, which typically was related to either the perceived soundness of the issuing bank or its distance from the city. The column shows that notes issued by banks in Baltimore, for example, were discounted 3 percent, making a ten-dollar Baltimore bank note worth $9.70 in New York. Banks further afield suffered from even steeper discounts, and the geographic disparities created opportunities for “bill brokers” and “note shavers” to acquire and transfer the notes around the country at a profit. By the early 1820s, bank note tables became increasingly common in American newspapers, and often included notices about known counterfeit and so-called “spurious” notes that were issued by fraudulent banks. These bank note tables and columns were the precursor to a genre of newspapers that emerged in the late 1820s that focused almost entirely on the legitimacy and value of paper money in circulation.
William H. Dillistin’s Bank Note Reporters and Counterfeit Detectors, 1826-1866 (1949) represents the only serious study of these popular publications to date. As delineated by Dillistin, these serials had two essential purposes: (1) “to show the rate of discount at which uncurrent notes would be purchased or exchanged for specie in the more important business centers,” and (2) “to furnish a brief description of counterfeit, spurious, altered, and raised notes.” The noted New York printer and Quaker Mahlon Day (1790-1854) was the first to publish a bank note list and record of counterfeits at regular intervals, beginning a biweekly broadsheet in 1826 called the New York Bank-Note List and Counterfeit Detecter. Because each new issue superseded prior editions with updated information, they were typically discarded and few examples have survived relative to the numbers in which they were printed. A survey of major libraries for Day’s New York Bank-Note List and Counterfeit Detecter, which was published continuously from 1826 to 1851, turns up only a few dozen extant issues. When Dillistin produced his 1949 study, the earliest that he discovered was an August 1830 edition at the Huntington Library. Looking through a sheaf of counterfeit detectors donated to the ANS the other day, I discovered an even earlier date.
The April 14, 1828 edition of the New York Bank-Note List and Counterfeit Detecter is a four-page folio approximately 20 by 13 inches in size. Underneath the title, an inscription reads: “Published by Mahlon Day, at the New Juvenile Bookstore, No. 376, Pearl Street.” Indeed, Day is perhaps better known today for his pioneering role in publishing children’s books, but combating counterfeiting also proved to be a profitable business. A notice lists the price of a subscription to the paper as two dollars per annum, and indicates that the serial was “entered according to an Act of Congress the 30th day of October, 1826,” which raises the possibility that there might be even earlier extant issues that could come to light.
The first page lists the value of notes for over one hundred banks around the country in the city of New York at that time, indicating whether particular notes were circulating on par with their nominal value or at a discount. Bankrupt banks were straightforwardly labeled as “broke,” while in many cases the value of given bank’s notes were listed as “uncer,” i.e. uncertain.
The remaining three pages of the paper were taken up with what purports to be “A Complete List of Counterfeit Bills, of Altered Notes, and those with Spurious Signers, throughout the United States,” organized by geography and denomination. The list offers a window into the principal means by which counterfeiters operated. The most straightforward method was to simply reproduce a genuine note as best as possible. The Counterfeit Detecter sometimes described a bogus bill in detail, explaining for example that a twenty-dollar note attributed to the Charleston Branch of the Bank of the United States was “fainter than the genuine, particularly the eagle and work around it,” and that it was “shorter than the genuine note.” Other known counterfeits were simply listed, as in this excerpt from the section on New York City banks. Here one sees a listing for a counterfeit $2 note from the Merchant’s Bank dated March 1, 1826, The ANS actually holds an example of this particular note, which although crudely made, we did not regard as a counterfeit until reading this counterfeit detecter.
Day’s Detecter also shows that wholesale counterfeits were less common than the practice of “raising” bank notes, which involved changing the denomination of a genuine bill. The New York City excerpt above indicated $1 notes of the Manhattan Bank were being altered into $2 notes and that $1 notes of the Merchant’s Bank were being changed into $3 notes. In the specimen below, a genuine one-dollar note issued by the Northern Bank of New York has been raised to a value of ten dollars, the telltale signs being the discoloration around the engraved numbers, which were rubbed or cut out and then replaced with the higher value.
Note the dark spots around where the numbers have been altered. While this counterfeit was not particularly well crafted, I chose it as an example because the tampering was so easy to see. Better executed raised notes were very difficult to detect without the kind of specialized information that counterfeit detectors provided. Another technique for altering notes was to change the name on worthless paper issued by a broken bank to that of a sound institution. Day’s Counterfeit Detecter thus also lists “spurious” notes, which refers to either currency issued by plausibly-named but non-existent banks or those notes that were purely fraudulent, bearing no resemblance to any genuine notes. That notes for a completely fictional bank could and indeed did circulate suggests something of the confusion that reigned in the monetary system and the appeal of something like this serial that helped individuals and businesses navigate the bewildering mix of paper money in circulation.
The two-and-a-half pages devoted to counterfeits list over eight hundred fraudulent notes, which casts some light on the scope of the problem; and it was one that was only getting worse as banks and bank notes proliferated amidst the Market Revolution. A short notice “To our Patrons and Friends” on the back page of Day’s paper informed readers that the publication would soon be increasing in size and promised “an improved general appearance,” and asked “the community for a continuance of their favors.” By 1830, it was an eight-page publication and in 1837 Day’s Counterfeit Detecter expanded to sixteen pages. Clearly Mahlon Day had struck upon a popular and profitable idea, and it would not be long before competition in counterfeit detection began to heat up. Interestingly enough, the back page of the paper contains and advertisement for Sylvester J. Sylvester, a broker who would shortly become Day’s biggest rival and whose endeavors we will cover in part II of this series.
Joseph Cowell (1792-1863) was a British comedian and theatrical entrepreneur who performed on both sides of the Atlantic. His memoir, Thirty Years Passed Among the Players(1844), offers a fascinating window into the nineteenth-century entertainment industry, and includes some interesting anecdotes relating to numismatics as well. Born Joseph Hawkins Witchett, he started out as a sailor before a series of mishaps and adventures led him to a life on the stage. Adopting the stage name Cowell, Joe first appeared on stage in London, where he gained renown as a comedian and became a favorite at the famed Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
This eventually brought Cowell to the attention of Stephen Price and Edmund Simpson, the lessees and managers of New York City’s Park Theatre. When it initially opened January 1798, it was simply known as “The Theatre” as it lacked any real competition. This particular building is actually well-known to numismatists as it features on the much-debated “Theatre at New York” token.
In John Kleeburg’s definitive essay on the token, he shows that it is the work of Benjamin Jacob, a Birmingham diemaker who copied the design from an illustration of the theatre under construction that was published in the 1797 edition of Longworth’s American Almanack . The theatre struggled during its early years, but eventually found its feet in the 1810s and 1820s under the able management of Simpson and Price.
The formula that proved most successful was simply to import the best talent they could find from Britain each season, a strategy that brought the likes of James W. Wallack (1818-19), Edmund Kean (1820-21), and other stars across the Atlantic. The original Park Theatre burned to the ground in May 1820, but a new theatre financed by John Jacob Astor was constructed on the same site.
This ‘Second’ Park Theatre opened on September 1, 1821, and the star of the season was the English actor Junius Brutus Booth. The other principal import that fall was Joseph Cowell, whose initial impressions of the city and the theatre were not encouraging. On first viewing the Park, he dryly described it as “the most prison-like-looking place I had ever seen appropriated to such a purpose.” But it was his initial experience with the monetary system that really soured his welcome to the United States.
Cowell came off the ship eager for a meal, but found that New York City in those days was not exactly accommodating for travelers. With “thirteen or fourteen English shillings” in his pockets, he roamed the streets look for a place to eat:
After wandering about I knew not whither, “oppressed with two weak evils,” fatigue and hunger, I entered what in London would be called a chandler’s shop, put some money on the counter, and inquired if they would sell me for that coin some bread and butter and a tempting red herring or two I saw in a barrel at the door.
“Why, what coin is it!” said a fellow in a red-flannel shirt and a straw hat.
“English shillings,” I replied.
“No,” said the fellow, “I know nothing about English shillings, nor English anything, nor I don’t want to.”
I thought, under all the circumstances, and from the appearance of the brute, it might be imprudent to extol or explain their value, and therefore I “cast one longing, lingering look behind” at the red herrings in the barrel, and turned the corner of the street, where I encountered two young men picking their teeth, for which I have never forgiven them.
Cowell blamed the difficulty of this encounter on the late war with England, which he believed was “still rankling the minds of the lower orders of Americans.” He then went in search of a place to exchange his shillings, eventually heading up Broadway and coming upon “a dingy-looking cellar” with a sign reading: “Exchange Office. Foreign gold and silver bought here.” Cowell depicted the scene as follows:
I descended three or four wooden steps, and handed my handful of silver to one of “God’s chosen people,” and, after its undergoing a most severe ringing and rubbing, the (I have no doubt) honest Israelite handed me three dirty, ragged one-dollar bills, which, he said, “s’help me God is petter as gould.” As all I wanted then was that they should be better than silver, my politics at that time didn’t cavil at the currency, and I hastily retraced my steps to the red-shirted herring dealer, and, placing one of the dirty scraps of paper on the counter, I exclaimed, with an air of confidence, “There, sir, will that answer your purpose?” He was nearly of the Jew’s opinion, for he declared that it was “as good as gold,” and I gave him a large order, and made my first meal in the United States seated on a barrel, in a grocery at the foot of Wall-street.
There is a lot to unpack here, from the casual anti-Semitism to the larger workings of the American monetary system. The essential problem was that the United States at the time lacked the domestic sources of gold and silver necessary to produce enough coins to satisfy its growing populace. The 1820 census showed that the population was nearing ten million, but the U.S. Mint only produced two million silver coins that year in all denominations (10¢, 25¢, and 50¢) and the only gold coins minted were a quarter of a million half eagles ($5). This was obviously not anywhere near enough coinage, so the balance of circulating money consisted of Spanish silver coins and, particularly in urban contexts, paper money. The “dirty dollars” that Cowell exchanged his shillings for would have looked something like this two-dollar bank note from the Franklin Bank of New York City:
At the time, banks issued what was essentially their own currency, which was printed with variable quality and rather quickly became ragged as it circulated. Paper money was also easily counterfeited, and the issuing banks were themselves often suspect, making for a confusing swirl that could leave the unsophisticated bereft. Cowell’s aside that “his politics at the time didn’t cavil” at paper money suggests that he later became an advocate of “hard money” (i.e. specie), perhaps due to some bad experiences with the paper kind.
As historians like Shane White and Timothy Gilfoyle, among others, have shown, new arrivals to the city were often marks for various sorts of unscrupulous characters looking to turn a quick buck. Many of New York City’s so-called “exchange offices” existed in the grey area at the margins of the financial industry, making their money in quasi-legal lottery and stock schemes. As their name suggests, they also functioned as domestic and international currency bureaus, giving out local paper money for foreign coin or bank notes from elsewhere in the United States, at widely variable rates. Whether or not he got a fair exchange from the stereotypical Jewish money changer he encountered, Cowell ended his first day in New York City flat broke through more traditional means.
After his meal, Cowell dropped in for an unimpressed look at the evening’s entertainment at the Park Theatre. Later, he found his way to the bar and treated some new American friends to a few rounds of grog and cigars. He eventually became so incapacitated that he was robbed of all of his “moveables,” which included his “hat, cravat, watch, snuffbox, handkerchief, and the balance of the dirty dollars.” Cowell was subsequently carried down to the harbor, tossed into a row boat, and delivered to the ship he had arrived on as “a gentleman very unwell.”
Despite Cowell’s inauspicious start, he had a very long and successful career in the United States. He made his debut at the Park Theatre on October 30, 1821, and was particularly well received for his performance as Crack in the musical The Turnpike Gate. Cowell went on to become one of the most popular stock players at the Park when the theatre was at the apogee of its profitability and influence in the 1820s. He ably managed a variety of companies and theatres around the country, and spent some time in the circus as well. Cowell married three times and many of his descendants, most notably Sam Cowell and Kate Bateman, became luminaries in Anglo-American theatre. He reprised the role of Crack for his final performance in New York City in 1863 before retiring to London. Cowell’s memoir is a wonderful read that offers a compelling look at the world of popular entertainment while also observantly noting and commenting on the particulars of everyday life in the United States.
Historians of the United States have traditionally shown little curiosity about American money in anything more than an abstract sense. In a salutary exception, Shane White, the author of several noted books on African-American history, published an article in last fall’s Journal of the Early Republicthat looked at the intersection of race and money in nineteenth-century New York City. The chaotic monetary system of the antebellum United States and the panoply of paper money in circulation, no small part of which was counterfeit, created a variety of problems for ordinary people engaged in commerce. Everyday transactions could turn into fraught affairs as the parties negotiated over the value and validity of the money being proffered. Matters only became more charged when race was added to the mix.
As detailed in the landmark exhibition at the New-York Historical Society a few years back, New York City has a long, and generally overlooked, history as a capital of slavery. In 1790, one in five white households in the city owned a slave, and although there was a growing free black community, it was not until over a half-century after the American Revolution that the state of New York formally abolished slavery on July 4, 1827.
The city was home to the American Anti-Slavery Society, which distributed the copper token above, and abolitionist sentiment was certainly on the rise in the 1830s and 1840s. And yet racism was hardly in abeyance, and the asymmetrical power relationship between white and black was something that African-Americans had to confront and deal with on a daily basis.
Shane White focuses on how this power dynamic played out in the course everyday monetary transactions, making use of a wealth of material drawn from legal records in the Municipal Archives. One commonality that emerges is of the problems that black businesses had dealing with white customers, who variously ran up and out on charges, tried to pay with counterfeit money, or otherwise abused black owners. The resulting conflict all too often resulted in violence, as with the following episode detailed in the article:
One evening in February 1835, William Dunbar tried to pay his bill of one shilling in a cook cellar in Cherry Street with a three-dollar note. Aaron Jacobs, the black proprietor of the establishment not only refused to accept it, claiming it was from a ‘‘broken bank,’’ but also would not return the note to his customer, making it clear that he intended to hand it over to the police the next day. Furious, Dunbar pulled out a loaded pistol, pointed the weapon at Jacobs, and squeezed the trigger. Although the cap exploded, fortunately for the black man, the pistol did not fire. Dunbar told the authorities that he had ‘‘no explanation to give that he was drunk & don’t know what he had done.’’
But African-Americans were not always on the losing side in these conflicts, and the article documents the way that the resolute black restaurateur Thomas Downing ably dealt with patrons attempting to pass counterfeit notes like the one below.
White also shows how some African Americans turned the complicated monetary system to their advantage. The titular “first con” refers to the the practice of “burning,” a scam wherein black men took money off white “marks” by offering to change their bank notes for silver and gold coins at friendly rates. Gangs of black “burners” often employed white confederates, and lurked around the city’s docks and exchange offices, looking for new arrivals with fat pocketbooks. A variety of tricks were used to induce the mark to take out their money, but once they did the burners simply grabbed the cash and ran. This rather crude con first emerged in the 1830s, but the article traces how the scam was refined over the years. For the full and fascinating story, click on the link below.