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New York - House Building, Fires, Rents And Mails

( Originally Published 1902 )

THE citizen was ever in dread of fire. Houses built in the Eighteenth Century were principally of wood. The introduction of fire-engines in 1731 was due to Stephen de Lancey and his partner, John Moore. They sent to London in May of that year for two engines " with suction and materials thereto," and upon their arrival a room in the City Hall was arranged for their accommodation. They were used for the first time on Dec. 6th, 1732, when a fire broke out at midnight in a joiner's house. The report says : "it began in the garret where the people were all asleep, and burnt violently ; but by the help of the two fire-engines which came from London in the ship Beaver, the fire was extinguished, after having burnt down that house and damaged the next."

Within a very few years, engines were being manufactured here. In 1739, " A Fire Engine that will deliver 2 Hogsheads of Water in a minute, in a continued Stream is to be Sold by Wm. Lindsay the Maker thereof."

In 1731, a law for the better preventing of fire required two viewers of chimneys and hearths to see that the latter were kept clean. It also ordered every owner of a house that had three fire-places to keep two leather buckets on hand ; and one bucket, if less than three fire-places. The buckets had to be allowed out of the rent by the landlord, whose initials they had to bear. Every brewer had to keep six buckets, and every baker three. One of the frequent fatal fires was reported as follows :

" Mr. Thos. Duncan's house burnt with wife and 4 children, eldest daughter (18) saved by jumping out of a window three stories high into the arms of a gentleman who had encouraged her to this dangerous tho' only expedient. . . . The house with many valuable effects were entirely destroyed ; but by the industry of the inhabitants, who are deservedly celebrated for their zeal and dexterity in extinguishing fires, assisted by the gentlemen of the army and the soldiers now quartered here, it was prevented from extending farther. One Mr. Flanagan, for being too industrious at the above fire, was committed to gaol."

The almanac of 1776 informs us that the city " Fire Engines are kipt at the Fort, four at the City Hall, one at Hanover Square, one near the Chapel, one Maiden Lane, and one at the Alms House. To manage which are one engineer, two assistants ; and from each of the six wards twelve Firemen."

In September, 1749, there was a long article in the Post-Boy from a contributor who wished to help his fellow citizens to provide against the dangers of fire. His arguments give us considerable knowledge of the condition of the houses of the period. The majority of the roofs being shingle, the great danger of conflagration arose from flying embers from other fires. He says :

" The danger is greatly increased for want of a conveniency readily to come at every part of the roof, most houses having only a way to come at the chimney, and some even not that.

The method usually taken is to knock a hole through the roof as near the place afire as they can ; and if they have the good luck to put the fire out, yet is the house greatly damaged. In order to prevent this good servant (fire) from becoming a bad master, I would advise every man to erect a balcony over the ridge of the roof of his house.

" In extreme dry times such a place would be convenient for tubs and pails of water,—for the springs then being low and most part of the wells in the city exhausted and dry, yielding very little water at a time, a considerable stock may be got and kept ready there against a time of need. This balcony may be useful in many ways. All gentlemen of fortune and substance might keep up there, a small garden or fire engine, which costs from £15 to £20. This will enable them to keep their own roofs wet and play upon any contiguous burning house.

"They may sometimes from the tops of their houses for their own diversion, water the gardens with the water already there which by long standing in the sun would be rendered more fit for that purpose than cold water from the well. They may wash the dust from their roofs, and thereby render the water they receive into their cisterns more clean and pure. When they intend their servants should sweep their streets, they may from thence sprinkle and allay the dust. Thus by frequent use, themselves and others may become expert in working of the engines, which will also thereby be kept in good order. . . . There are above 50o persons in this city able to provide a small engine without prejudice to their estate. . . . Further, such a balcony would afford a commodious place for the observations of those versed in astronomy ; having a clear and uninterrupted prospect, freed from intervening objects. These observations generally being made at night, the curious thus employed would be as so many sentinels to discover the first breaking out of any fires in the neighbourhood, which would produce a satisfaction in any man's breast to find him-self thus eminently serviceable to the public. Here a man may sometimes repair and with pleasure behold the beauties of a rising or setting sun ; and by it correct his watch or clock, and have the prospect of the neighbouring gardens, objects on the river, etc., which to some men would be no disagreeable amusement, and all without going from home."

This public-spirited citizen next has a few words to say about methods of building. We gather that the upper part of the roof had a considerable space on which a man with care could walk from end to end and side to side, but this left much to be desired in comfort and safety, for these roofs not being en-closed with rails, and having a considerable slope or descent, a man could walk well enough in the day and in dry weather, but when rendered slippery in wet or frosty weather, those who ventured there risked their lives, especially in the hurry and confusion of fire. The writer therefore recommended his fellow citizens to heed God's ordinance in Deuteronomy xxii, 8. " When thou buildest a new house, then thou shalt make a battlement for thy roof, that thou bring not blood upon thy house if any man fall from thence." He continues :

" How would it cut a man to the heart to see his friend lie bleeding in the street when he might by a small charge and reasonable care have prevented it! If a man is not utterly void of compassion and gratitude to his benefactor, or sympathy for his friend, he must needs feel a sting in his breast upon and after such an unhappy accident ;—besides the great discouragement it gives others to be active on the like occasion. To the honour of the inhabitants of this city, be it spoken, that their dexterity and readiness in extinguishing of fires is singularly remarkable, and generally attended with great success, even beyond what might be hoped for.

"Upon the first touch of the fire bell, how soon do our streets swarm with men from all parts ! and their willingness and expeditious behaviour has even surprised the strangers amongst us who have seen it." [The writer then proceeds to cite many instances of threatening fires that were put out with remarkable skill and bravery, and pays a handsome compliment to the firemen and authorities. He then passes on to show how a man's house may be made reasonably safe. He invokes the Legislature, first, to offer a premium to him who shall make by a limited date one thousand of the best tiles ;] " also a bounty to any merchant importing any quantity in proportion to what parcel he imports. As there is plenty of clay in this province .. . in the space of six years, a sufficient quantity of tile might, by the like encouragement be procured ; especially since the breaking up of the war affords us a number of idle hands. Let me add here for information of some that know it not that several houses in this town have been tiled with very good pantiles made at Albany, as cheap as they could be had from Holland. Witness Mr. Bayard's Sugar House.

He next proposes a tax on all houses roofed with shingles, and a bounty on so much a foot for every house covered with tiles : " Roofs I say, because the gable ends of some houses are decked with shingles against N. E. storms and rains where tiles cannot be used. . . But the flat sort of tile, such as is generally used in the City of London is preferred before the hollow sort as being easiest made and therefore cheap-est." The writer goes on to draw unfavourable comparisons between the houses of his day and those formerly built here :

" The last fire in Duke Street could not have been so soon mastered had it not been for the tiled houses on each side, and a large high roof likewise tiled a little to leeward of the fire was looked on as a check. That very house would have stood but an ordinary chance to have escaped had it been shingled. Here observe the care and circumspection of our forefathers in covering their houses in such a manner as affords daily proofs of their prudence when we their sons are indolent and degenerate ; we must praise their prudence, but our children will blame our folly." [Our reformer next suggests that if there are any objections against pantiles or flat tiles, such as the expense, or lack of time to procure them, even then Nature has sufficiently furnished us with means of security by giving us plenty of very good slate, since there are several places on the North River where there is as much slate to be had as would load a thou-sand ships.]

It may be that the solicitude shown by this writer for the improvement of roofing in New York is not entirely disinterested, for having reached this point of employing slate, he interpolates : " Any mason or others who desire to know the method of cutting and laying on of slate, may be informed by signifying his desire in this paper."

Next comes the question as to the means of raising the premiums to be paid for the manufacture of tiles. Five hundred pounds- would probably suffice and this might be easily raised by taxing shingled houses. Besides this, there might he " a tax on coaches and chaises kept for pleasure generally by able men ; a tax on luxury and extravagances ; a duty on shingles, and other things that might easily bear it ; as an extravagance in dress in particular."

In 1761, it was enacted that houses erected in the city after Jan. 1st, 1 766 should be made of stone or brick, and roofed with tile or slate, under a penalty of L50. The reason given for this law was " the frequent instances of the extensive destruction made by fire in many populous cities. . . . And there being reason to apprehend that great part of this city, from the number of the houses in the same being roofed with shingles is peculiarly exposed to the rage of that dreadful element." The enforcement of this law was, however, deferred till Jan. 1st, 1774. The reason given in 1765 was that " a sufficient quantity of slate or tile cannot at present, be had, or procured, to cover, or roof the houses and buildings that are yearly erected within this city."

It appears that the legislature adopted some of the suggestions of the above writer, for in March, 1774, it was announced that " the money arising from the Act laying a tax on dogs and cats in this city and county, passed last session, is to be given as a bounty for the making of tile for covering houses in this place." An Act was also passed regulating the size of bricks. The consequence was that in April, 1774, the papers stated that the hard sort of bricks had risen from twenty-eight to forty shillings per thou-sand, and the soft sort from sixteen to thirty shillings.

One of the peculiarities of early New York architecture, both without and within the houses, was the use of tiles. This especially struck Madam Knight when she visited the city in 1707. She noticed that the bricks in the houses were of various colours and arranged in patterns, and she remarked upon the tiled hearths and mantel-trees and noticed that the stair-cases were even laid with white tile. This, of course, was Dutch in origin, and the use of this form of deco-ration continued in many of the houses. Although we have seen the complaints that were made against the extensive use of shingles, it is manifest that some of the houses were constructed with the more solid materials. Tiles, both for roofing and for ornamenting the chimney, are frequently advertised.

In 1749, " Scripture tiles with the chapter and some plain white ones" are for sale. In 1766, John Franklin offers " a quantity of yellow brick and best blue glazed Holland roof tiles." Another advertisement of the day reads :

"Plain tyles to cover Buildings, made by Daniel Hendrick-son, at Middletown Point, the same sort as are made use of in and are the Soundest and most lasting covering made use of (except the best light sort of Slate) and are generally preferable to the Boston Slate, being lighter and cheaper. No weather can penetrate if properly laid, and are the safest of any covering against Fire being not subject to fly by any heat. To be sold by J. Edward Prayor near Commissary Lakes, at the North River, New York, or by the above maker, where also may be had in the Spring, choice rubbing Bricks for uniting arches, or any Mouldings for Cornices; will also stand Fire for Ovens or Furnaces."

It has often been remarked how strangely old customs survive. The change of residence on the First of May was as usual in the Eighteenth as in the Twentieth Century. A surprising instance of this occurs in 1734, when the, "printer apologizes for the shortness of the Weekly Journal, he being obliged to follow the custom of the town at May Day, and change his habitation."

Occasionally we get a glimpse of the rent required for certain houses. Thus in 1754, there is to be let " A very large house in King Street, next door to the Hon. Daniel Horsmanden Esq. ; as it stood empty last year, if any good family wants it for the present year, they may have it for £20, paying the tax and keeping it in repair. It used to be let for £48 a year."

Another new brick house in King Street was to be sold about the same date. It rented for £50 per annum. In February, 1764, the editor of the Gazelle noted that he had heard there were more houses to be let in the City than there had been at any time for seven years past. It would appear that the rent question occasionally caused friction in the community. In 1749, we find an interesting address to a Hebrew who had moved into a new neighbourhood and found himself an unwelcome guest because he had made good use of his talents for business. An interesting side light is thrown on local customs in this document :

" To the Israelite of the Tribe of Judah, lately removed near Fudge's Corner.


As it has been a custom for many years past to address new neighbours, we do out of mere form congratulate you into this our neighbourhood, but wish you may not answer the character given you by some people. We are informed you have made it a practice of late years to overbid many persons in their rents, whereby they have been put to great trouble and expense . . . . we are assuredly informed that you was the first person discovered to be guilty of that most scandalous practice.

Alas! J—e, from the gay appearance and haughty spirit of your consort, we imagine your purse will soon be exhausted, we would therefore advise you to use proper means to prevent it before it is too late. We blame you much for hiring your now dwelling-house at so great a rent and for a term of years, when it is probable rents will fall at least one-half, we advise you therefore to pay your rent as it becomes due, otherwise the consequences may prove abortive.

It is become a custom with us to invite our new neighbours members of our club, but as we are informed you are a common disturber, we decline paying you that compliment."

In the same year, it is announced that a number of tenants propose to form a small club contributing 6d. a piece for a ducking-stool for any one who agrees to give a higher rent than the present tenant, in view of the base prevalent practice of raising house-rents by means either of a tenant taking a house over another's head by offering a higher rent, or else the landlord's baser practice of saying so, in order to raise it.

Before closing this chapter, it may be well to enumerate the buildings that existed in the city to-wards the end of the period under review. In 1766, as has already been stated, New York contained 3223 houses. The churches included Trinity Church, St. Paul's Church (which was not yet completed), St. George's Chapel, the Old and the New Dutch Churches, a synagogue, and churches or meeting-houses of the French, Presbyterians, German Calvinists, Seceders, or Scotch Presbyterians, Anabaptists, Moravians, and Quakers. The Lutherans also had two places of worship. Then there was the " Governor's Palace " at Fort George, King's College, the Alms House, Exchange, New Gaol, Hospital at the Battery and the Barracks.

There were five markets, known as Coenties, Old Slip, Fly, Oswego and New. Lastly, there was the City Hall. Here the General Assembly and the Council met, the Supreme Court and the Mayor's Court were held, and a public library was kept. The domestic mail service was good. The post-master of New York had a good deal of business to attend to. He frequently advertises the names of many (sometimes hundreds) of people for whom letters are lying in his office. It seems to have been a custom for him to extend credit for the delivery of these in many cases, since he sometimes announces he can give no more. The following announcement supplies us with the particulars for the year 1753

" The Post Office will be removed on Thursday next to the house of Mr. Alexander Colden, opposite to the Bowling Green in the BroadWay, where the Rev. Mr. Pemberton lately lived ; where letters will be received and delivered out every day (Saturday afternoon till the arrival of the posts and Sundays excepted) from 8 to 12 A. M. and from 2 to 4 P. M. except on post nights when attendance will be given till 10 P. M. And all letters for persons living in town that remain uncalled for on post nights, will, on Monday morning be sent out by a penny post provided for that purpose.

N. B. No credit in future will be given for postage of letters."

Regular communication was kept up with England by packet-boats that plied between New York and Falmouth. The mails carried by these were made up both in London and New York on the second Saturday in every month. New York des-patched mails to Boston every Monday and Thursday ; to Albany, on Monday ; and to Philadelphia, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The names of the Falmouth packets at that date were : The Lord Hyde (Capt. Goddard) ; The Harriott (Capt. Robinson) ; The Duke of Cumberland (Capt. Goodridge) ; and The Earl of Halifax (Capt. Bolderson).

There was a great deal of coming and going between New York and ports in Great Britain. Distinguished officials and members of the English nobility were frequent visitors. We often find notices of titled Britishers who are touring in the Colonies. A distinguished passenger list in 1769 included : the Duchess of Gordon, who had become the wife of Staats Long Morris, of the Morrisania family and had made a trip on horseback with him to the head-waters of the Susquehanna ; Lady Moore; Miss Franks, Miss Burges, Miss Connor, Capt. Davis, Capt. Stanton, and about twenty others.

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