Chapter XIII: HISTORY OF COFFEE IN OLD NEW YORK -- All About Coffee, by William H. Ukers

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Chapter XIII


The burghers of New Amsterdam begin to substitute coffee for "must," or beer, at breakfast in 1668—William Penn makes his first purchase of coffee in the green bean from New York merchants in 1683—The King's Arms, the first coffee house—The historic Merchants, sometimes called the "Birthplace of our Union"—The coffee house as a civic forum—The Exchange, Whitehall, Burns, Tontine, and other celebrated coffee houses—The Vauxhall and Ranelagh pleasure gardens

The Dutch founders of New York seem to have introduced tea into New Amsterdam before they brought in coffee. This was somewhere about the middle of the seventeenth century. We find it recorded that about 1668 the burghers succumbed to coffee[91]. Coffee made its way slowly, first in the homes, where it replaced the "must", or beer, at breakfast. Chocolate came about the same time, but was more of a luxury than tea or coffee.

After the surrender of New York to the British in 1674, English manners and customs were rapidly introduced. First tea, and later coffee, were favorite beverages in the homes. By 1683 New York had become so central a market for the green bean, that William Penn, as soon as he found himself comfortably settled in the Pennsylvania Colony, sent over to New York for his coffee supplies[92]. It was not long before a social need arose that only the London style of coffee house could fill.

The coffee houses of early New York, like their prototypes in London, Paris, and other old world capitals, were the centers of the business, political and, to some extent, of the social life of the city. But they never became the forcing-beds of literature that the French and English houses were, principally because the colonists had no professional writers of note.

There is one outstanding feature of the early American coffee houses, particularly of those opened in New York, that is not distinctive of the European houses. The colonists sometimes held court trials in the long, or assembly, room of the early coffee houses; and often held their general assembly and council meetings there.

The Coffee House as a Civic Forum

The early coffee house was an important factor in New York life. What the perpetuation of this public gathering place meant to the citizens is shown by a complaint (evidently designed to revive the declining fortunes of the historic Merchants coffee house) in the New York Journal of October 19, 1775, which, in part, said:

To the Inhabitants of New York:

It gives me concern, in this time of public difficulty and danger, to find we have in this city no place of daily general meeting, where we might hear and communicate intelligence from every quarter and freely confer with one another on every matter that concerns us. Such a place of general meeting is of very great advantage in many respects, especially at such a time as this, besides the satisfaction it affords and the sociable disposition it has a tendency to keep up among us, which was never more wanted than at this time. To answer all these and many other good and useful purposes, coffee houses[Pg 116] have been universally deemed the most convenient places of resort, because, at a small expense of time or money, persons wanted may be found and spoke with, appointments may be made, current news heard, and whatever it most concerns us to know. In all cities, therefore, and large towns that I have seen in the British dominions, sufficient encouragement has been given to support one or more coffee houses in a genteel manner. How comes it then that New York, the most central, and one of the largest and most prosperous cities in British America, cannot support one coffee house? It is a scandal to the city and its inhabitants to be destitute of such a convenience for want of due encouragement. A coffee house, indeed, there is, a very good and comfortable one, extremely well tended and accommodated, but it is frequented but by an inconsiderable number of people; and I have observed with surprise, that but a small part of those who do frequent it, contribute anything at all to the expense of it, but come in and go out without calling for or paying anything to the house. In all the coffee houses in London, it is customary for every one that comes in to call for at least a dish of coffee, or leave the value of one, which is but reasonable, because when the keepers of these houses have been at the expense of setting them up and providing all necessaries for the accommodation of company, every one that comes to receive the benefit of these conveniences ought to contribute something towards the expense of them.

A Friend to the City.

New York's First Coffee House

Some chroniclers of New York's early days are confident that the first coffee house in America was opened in New York; but the earliest authenticated record they have presented is that on November 1, 1696, John Hutchins bought a lot on Broadway, between Trinity churchyard and what is now Cedar Street, and there built a house, naming it the King's Arms. Against this record, Boston can present the statement in Samuel Gardner Drake's History and Antiquities of the City of Boston that Benj. Harris sold books at the "London Coffee House" in 1689.

New York's Pioneer Coffee House, The King's Arms, Opened in 1696 New York's Pioneer Coffee House, The King's Arms, Opened in 1696

This view shows the garden side of the historic old house as it was conducted by John Hutchins, near Trinity Church, on Broadway. The observatory may have been added later

The King's Arms was built of wood, and had a front of yellow brick, said to have been brought from Holland. The building was two stories high, and on the roof was an "observatory," arranged with seats, and[Pg 117] commanding a fine view of the bay, the river, and the city. Here the coffee-house visitors frequently sat in the afternoons. It is not shown in the illustration.

Burns Coffee House as It Appeared About the Middle of the Nineteenth Century Burns Coffee House as It Appeared About the Middle of the Nineteenth Century

It stood for many years on Broadway, opposite Bowling Green, in the old De Lancey House, becoming known in 1763 as the King's Arms, and later the Atlantic Garden House

The sides of the main room on the lower floor were lined with booths, which, for the sake of greater privacy, were screened with green curtains. There a patron could sip his coffee, or a more stimulating drink, and look over his mail in the same exclusiveness affected by the Londoner of the time.

The rooms on the second floor were used for special meetings of merchants, colonial magistrates and overseers, or similar public and private business.

The meeting room, as above described, seems to have been one of the chief features distinguishing a coffee house from a tavern. Although both types of houses had rooms for guests, and served meals, the coffee house was used for business purposes by permanent customers, while the tavern was patronized more by transients. Men met at the coffee house daily to carry on business, and went to the tavern for convivial purposes or lodgings. Before the front door hung the sign of "the lion and the unicorn fighting for the crown."

For many years the King's Arms was the only coffee house in the city; or at least no other seems of sufficient importance to have been mentioned in colonial records. For this reason it was more frequently designated as "the" coffee house than the King's Arms. Contemporary records of the arrest of John Hutchins of the King's Arms, and of Roger Baker, for speaking disrespectfully of King George, mention the King's Head, of which Baker was proprietor. But it is generally believed that this public house was a tavern and not rightfully to be considered as a coffee house. The White Lion, mentioned about 1700, was also a tavern, or inn.

The New Coffee House

Under date of September 22, 1709, the Journal of the General Assembly of the Colony of New York refers to a conference held in the "New Coffee House." About this date the business section of the city had begun to drift eastward from Broadway to the waterfront; and from this[Pg 118] fact it is assumed that the name "New Coffee House" indicates that the King's Arms had been removed from its original location near Cedar Street, or that it may have lost favor and have been superseded in popularity by a newer coffee house. The Journal does not give the location of the "New" coffee house. Whatever the case may be, the name of the King's Arms does not again appear in the records until 1763, and then it had more the character of a tavern, or roadhouse.

The public records from 1709 up to 1729 are silent in regard to coffee houses in New York. In 1725 the pioneer newspaper in the city, the New York Gazette, came into existence; and four years later, 1729, there appeared in it an advertisement stating that "a competent bookkeeper may be heard of" at the "Coffee House." In 1730 another advertisement in the same journal tells of a sale of land by public vendue (auction) to be held at the Exchange coffee house.

The Exchange Coffee House

By reason of its name, the Exchange Coffee House is thought to have been located at the foot of Broad Street, abutting the sea-wall and near the Long Bridge of that day. At that time this section was the business center of the city, and here was a trading exchange.

That the Exchange coffee house was the only one of its kind in New York in 1732 is inferred from the announcement in that year of a meeting of the conference committee of the Council and Assembly "at the Coffee House." In seeming confirmation of this conclusion, is the advertisement in 1733 in the New York Gazette requesting the return of "lost sleeve buttons to Mr. Todd, next door to the Coffee House." The records of the day show that a Robert Todd kept the famous Black Horse tavern which was located in this part of the city.

Again we hear of the Exchange coffee house in 1737, and apparently in the same location, where it is mentioned in an account of the "Negro plot" as being next door to the Fighting Cocks tavern by the Long Bridge, at the foot of Broad Street. Also in this same year it is named as the place of public vendue of land situated on Broadway.

By this time the Exchange coffee house had virtually become the city's official auction room, as well as the place to buy and to drink coffee. Commodities of many kinds were also bought and sold there, both within the house and on the sidewalk before it.

The Merchants Coffee House

In the year 1750, the Exchange coffee house had begun to lose its long-held prestige, and its name was changed to the Gentlemen's Exchange coffee house and tavern. A year later it had migrated to Broadway under the name of the Gentlemens' coffee house and tavern. In 1753 it was moved again, to Hunter's Quay, which was situated on what is now Front Street, somewhere between the present Old Slip and Wall Street. The famous old coffee house seems to have gone out of existence about this time, its passing hastened, no doubt, by the newer enterprise, the Merchants coffee house, which was to become the most celebrated in New York, and, according to some writers, the most historic in America.

It is not certain just when the Merchants coffee house was first opened. As near as can be determined, Daniel Bloom, a mariner, in 1737 bought the Jamaica Pilot Boat tavern from John Dunks and named it the Merchants coffee house. The building was situated on the northwest corner of the present Wall Street and Water (then Queen) Street; and Bloom was its landlord until his death, soon after the year 1750. He was succeeded by Captain James Ackland, who shortly sold it to Luke Roome. The latter disposed of the building in 1758 to Dr. Charles Arding. The doctor leased it to Mrs. Mary Ferrari, who continued as its proprietor until she moved, in 1772, to the newer building diagonally across the street, built by William Brownejohn, on the southeast corner of Wall and Water Streets. Mrs. Ferrari took with her the patronage and the name of the Merchants coffee house, and the old building was not used again as a coffee house.

The building housing the original Merchants coffee house was a two-story structure, with a balcony on the roof, which was typical of the middle eighteenth century architecture in New York. On the first floor were the coffee bar and booths described in connection with the King's Arms coffee house. The second floor had the typical long room for public assembly.

During Bloom's proprietorship the Merchants coffee house had a long, hard struggle[Pg 119] to win the patronage away from the Exchange coffee house, which was flourishing at that time. But, being located near the Meal Market, where the merchants were wont to gather for trading purposes, it gradually became the meeting place of the city, at the expense of the Exchange coffee house, farther down the waterfront.

Merchants Coffee House (at the Right) as It Appeared from 1772 to 1804 Merchants Coffee House (at the Right) as It Appeared from 1772 to 1804

The original coffee house of this name was opened on the northwest corner of Wall and Water Streets about 1737, the business being moved to the southeast corner in 1772

Widow Ferrari presided over the original Merchants coffee house for fourteen years, until she moved across the street. She was a keen business woman. Just before she was ready to open the new coffee house she announced to her old patrons that she would give a house-warming, at which arrack, punch, wine, cold ham, tongue, and other delicacies of the day would be served. The event was duly noted in the newspapers, one stating that "the agreeable situation and the elegance of the new house had occasioned a great resort of company to it."

Mrs. Ferrari continued in charge until May 1, 1776, when Cornelius Bradford became proprietor and sought to build up the patronage, that had dwindled somewhat during the stirring days immediately preceding the Revolution. In his announcement of the change of ownership, he said, "Interesting intelligence will be carefully collected and the greatest attention will be given to the arrival of vessels, when trade and navigation shall resume their former channels." He referred to the complete embargo of trade to Europe which the colonists were enduring. When the American troops withdrew from the city during the Revolution, Bradford went also, to Rhinebeck on the Hudson.

During the British occupation, the Merchants coffee house was a place of great activity. As before, it was the center of trading, and under the British régime it became also the place where the prize ships were sold. The Chamber of Commerce resumed its sessions in the upper long room in 1779, having been suspended since 1775. The Chamber paid fifty pounds rent per annum for the use of the room to Mrs. Smith, the landlady at the time.

In 1781 John Stachan, then proprietor of the Queen's Head tavern, became landlord of the Merchants coffee house, and he promised in a public announcement "to pay attention not only as a Coffee House, but as a tavern, in the truest; and to distinguish the same as the City Tavern and Coffee House, with constant and best attendance. Breakfast from seven to eleven; soups and relishes from eleven to half-past[Pg 120] one. Tea, coffee, etc., in the afternoon, as in England." But when he began charging sixpence for receiving and dispatching letters by man-o'-war to England, he brought a storm about his ears, and was forced to give up the practise. He continued in charge until peace came, and Cornelius Bradford came with it to resume proprietorship of the coffee house.

Bradford changed the name to the New York coffee house, but the public continued to call it by its original name, and the landlord soon gave in. He kept a marine list, giving the names of vessels arriving and departing, recording their ports of sailing. He also opened a register of returning citizens, "where any gentleman now resident in the city," his advertisement stated, "may insert their names and place of residence." This seems to have been the first attempt at a city directory. By his energy Bradford soon made the Merchants coffee house again the business center of the city. When he died, in 1786, he was mourned as one of the leading citizens. His funeral was held at the coffee house over which he had presided so well.

The Merchants coffee house continued to be the principal public gathering place until it was destroyed by fire in 1804. During its existence it had figured prominently in many of the local and national historic events, too numerous to record here in detail.

Some of the famous events were: The reading of the order to the citizens, in 1765, warning them to stop rioting against the Stamp Act; the debates on the subject of not accepting consignments of goods from Great Britain; the demonstration by the Sons of Liberty, sometimes called the "Liberty Boys," made before Captain Lockyer of the tea ship Nancy which had been turned away from Boston and sought to land its cargo in New York in 1774; the general meeting of citizens on May 19, 1774, to discuss a means of communicating with the Massachusetts colony to obtain co-ordinated effort in resisting England's oppression, out of which came the letter suggesting a congress of deputies from the colonies and calling for a "virtuous and spirited Union;" the mass meeting of citizens in the days immediately following the battles at Concord and Lexington in Massachusetts; and the forming of the Committee of One Hundred to administer the public business, making the Merchants coffee house virtually the seat of government.

When the American Army held the city in 1776, the coffee house became the resort of army and navy officers. Its culminating glory came on April 23, 1789, when Washington, the recently elected first president of the United States, was officially greeted at the coffee house by the governor of the State, the mayor of the city, and the lesser municipal officers.

As a meeting place for societies and lodges the Merchants coffee house was long distinguished. In addition to the purely commercial organizations that gathered in its long room, these bodies regularly met there in their early days: The Society of Arts, Agriculture and Economy; Knights of Corsica; New York Committee of Correspondence; New York Marine Society; Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York; Lodge 169, Free and Accepted Masons; Whig Society; Society of the New York Hospital; St. Andrew's Society; Society of the Cincinnati; Society of the Sons of St. Patrick; Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves; Society for the Relief of Distressed Debtors; Black Friars Society; Independent Rangers; and Federal Republicans.

Here also came the men who, in 1784, formed the Bank of New York, the first financial institution in the city; and here was held, in 1790, the first public sale of stocks by sworn brokers. Here, too, was held the organization meeting of subscribers to the Tontine coffee house, which in a few years was to prove a worthy rival.

Some Lesser Known Coffee Houses

Before taking up the story of the famous Tontine coffee house it should be noted that the Merchants coffee house had some prior measure of competition. For four years the Exchange coffee room sought to cater to the wants of the merchants around the foot of Broad Street. It was located in the Royal Exchange, which had been erected in 1752 in place of the old Exchange, and until 1754 had been used as a store. Then William Keen and Alexander Lightfoot got control and started their coffee room, with a ball room attached. The partnership split up in 1756, Lightfoot continuing operations until he died the next year, when his widow tried to[Pg 121] carry it on. In 1758 it had reverted into its original character of a mercantile establishment.

The Tontine Coffee House (Second Building at the Left), Opened in 1792 The Tontine Coffee House (Second Building at the Left), Opened in 1792

This is the original structure, northwest corner of Wall and Water Streets, which was succeeded about 1850 by a five-story building (see page 122) that in turn was replaced by a modern office building

Then there was the Whitehall coffee house, which two men, named Rogers and Humphreys, opened in 1762, with the announcement that "a correspondence is settled in London and Bristol to remit by every opportunity all the public prints and pamphlets as soon as published; and there will be a weekly supply of New York, Boston and other American newspapers." This enterprise had a short life.

The early records of the city infrequently mention the Burns coffee house, sometimes calling it a tavern. It is likely that the place was more an inn than a coffee house. It was kept for a number of years by George Burns, near the Battery, and was located in the historic old De Lancey house, which afterward became the City hotel.

Burns remained the proprietor until 1762, when it was taken over by a Mrs. Steele, who gave it the name of the King's Arms. Edward Barden became the landlord in 1768. In later years it became known as the Atlantic Garden house. Traitor Benedict Arnold is said to have lodged in the old tavern after deserting to the enemy.

The Bank coffee house belonged to a later generation, and had few of the characteristics of the earlier coffee houses. It was opened in 1814 by William Niblo, of Niblo's Garden fame, and stood at the corner of William and Pine Streets, at the rear of the Bank of New York. The coffee house endured for probably ten years, and became the gathering place of a coterie of prominent merchants, who formed a sort of club. The Bank coffee house became celebrated for its dinners and dinner parties.

Fraunces' tavern, best known as the place where Washington bade farewell to his army officers, was, as its name states, a tavern, and can not be properly classed as a coffee house. While coffee was served, and there was a long room for gatherings, little, if any, business was done there by merchants. It was largely a meeting place for citizens bent on a "good time."

Then there was the New England and Quebec coffee house, which was also a tavern.

[Pg 122]

The Tontine Building of 1850 The Tontine Building of 1850

Northwest corner of Wall and Water Streets; an omnibus of the Broadway-Wall-Street Ferry line is passing

The Tontine Coffee House

The last of the celebrated coffee houses of New York bore the name, Tontine coffee house. For several years after the burning of the Merchants coffee house, in 1804, it was the only one of note in the city.

Feeling that they should have a more commodious coffee house for carrying on their various business enterprises, some 150 merchants organized, in 1791, the Tontine coffee house. This enterprise was based on the plan introduced into France in 1653 by Lorenzo Tonti, with slight variations. According to the New York Tontine plan, each holder's share reverted automatically to the surviving shareholders in the association, instead of to his heirs. There were 157 original shareholders, and 203 shares of stock valued at £200 each.

Niblo's Garden, Broadway and Prince Street, 1828 Niblo's Garden, Broadway and Prince Street, 1828

The directors bought the house and lot on the northwest corner of Wall and Water Streets, where the original Merchants coffee house stood, paying £1,970. They next acquired the adjoining lots on Wall and Water Streets, paying £2,510 for the former, and £1,000 for the latter.

The cornerstone of the new coffee house was laid June 5, 1792; and a year later to the day, 120 gentlemen sat down to a banquet in the completed coffee house to celebrate the event of the year before. John Hyde was the first landlord. The house had cost $43,000.

Coffee Relics of Dutch New York Coffee Relics of Dutch New York

Spice-grinder boat, coffee roaster, and coffee pots at the Van Cortlandt Museum

A contemporary account of how the Tontine coffee house looked in 1794 is supplied by an Englishman visiting New York at the time:

The Tontine tavern and coffee house is a handsome large brick building; you ascend six or eight steps under a portico, into a large public room, which is the Stock Exchange of New York, where all bargains are made. Here are two books kept, as at Lloyd's [in London] of every ship's arrival and clearance. This house was built for the accommodation of the merchants by Tontine shares of two hundred pounds each. It is kept by Mr. Hyde, formerly a woolen[Pg 123] draper in London. You can lodge and board there at a common table, and you pay ten shillings currency a day, whether you dine out or not.

New York's Vauxhall Garden of 1803 New York's Vauxhall Garden of 1803

From an old print

The stock market made its headquarters in the Tontine coffee house in 1817, and the early organization was elaborated and became the New York Stock and Exchange Board. It was removed in 1827 to the Merchants Exchange Building, where it remained until that place was destroyed by fire in 1835.

It was stipulated in the original articles of the Tontine Association that the house was to be kept and used as a coffee house, and this agreement was adhered to up to the year 1834, when, by permission of the Court of Chancery, the premises were let for general business-office purposes. This change was due to the competition offered by the Merchants Exchange, a short distance up Wall Street, which had been opened soon after the completion of the Tontine coffee house building.

As the city grew, the business-office quarters of the original Tontine coffee house became inadequate; and about the year 1850 a new five-story building, costing some $60,000, succeeded it. By this time the building had lost its old coffee-house characteristics. This new Tontine structure is said to have been the first real office building in New York City. Today the site is occupied by a large modern office building, which still retains the name of Tontine. It was owned by John B. and Charles A. O'Donohue, well known New York coffee merchants, until 1920, when it was sold for $1,000,000 to the Federal Sugar Refining Company.

The Tontine coffee house did not figure so prominently in the historic events of the nation and city as did its neighbor, the Merchants coffee house. However, it became the Mecca for visitors from all parts of the country, who did not consider their sojourn in the city complete until they had at least inspected what was then one of the most pretentious buildings in New York. Chroniclers of the Tontine coffee house always say that most of the leaders of the nation, together with distinguished visitors from abroad, had foregathered in the large room of the old coffee house at some time during their careers.

It was on the walls of the Tontine coffee house that bulletins were posted on Hamilton's struggle for life after the fatal duel forced on him by Aaron Burr.

The changing of the Tontine coffee house into a purely mercantile building marked the end of the coffee-house era in New[Pg 124] York. Exchanges and office buildings had come into existence to take the place of the business features of the coffee houses; clubs were organized to take care of the social functions; and restaurants and hotels had sprung up to cater to the needs for beverages and food.

New York's Pleasure Gardens

There was a fairly successful attempt made to introduce the London pleasure-garden idea into New York. First, tea gardens were added to several of the taverns already provided with ball rooms. Then, on the outskirts of the city, were opened the Vauxhall and the Ranelagh gardens, so named after their famous London prototypes. The first Vauxhall garden (there were three of this name) was on Greenwich Street, between Warren and Chambers Streets. It fronted on the North River, affording a beautiful view up the Hudson. Starting as the Bowling Green garden, it changed to Vauxhall in 1750.

Ranelagh was on Broadway, between Duane and Worth Streets, on the site where later the New York Hospital was erected. From advertisements of the period (1765–69) we learn that there were band concerts twice a week at the Ranelagh. The gardens were "for breakfasting as well as the evening entertainment of ladies and gentlemen." There was a commodious hall in the garden for dancing. Ranelagh lasted twenty years. Coffee, tea, and hot rolls could be had in the pleasure gardens at any hour of the day. Fireworks were featured at both Ranelagh and Vauxhall gardens. The second Vauxhall was near the intersection of the present Mulberry and Grand Streets, in 1798; the third was on Bowery Road, near Astor Place, in 1803. The Astor library was built upon its site in 1853.

William Niblo, previously proprietor of the Bank coffee house in Pine Street, opened, in 1828, a pleasure garden, that he named Sans Souci, on the site of a circus building called the Stadium at Broadway and Prince Street. In the center of the garden remained the stadium, which was devoted to theatrical performances of "a gay and attractive character." Later, he built a more pretentious theater that fronted on Broadway. The interior of the garden was "spacious, and adorned with shrubbery and walks, lighted with festoons of lamps." It was generally known as Niblo's garden.

Among other well known pleasure gardens of old New York were Contoit's, later the New York garden, and Cherry gardens, on old Cherry Hill.

Tavern and Grocers' Signs Used in Old New York Tavern and Grocers' Signs Used in Old New York

Left, Smith Richards, grocer and confectioner, "at the sign of the tea canister and two sugar loaves" (1773); center, the King's Arms, originally Burns coffee house (1767); right, George Webster, Grocer, "at the sign of the three sugar loaves"

[Pg 125]

Chapter XIII: HISTORY OF COFFEE IN OLD NEW YORK -- All About Coffee, by William H. Ukers

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