In the spring of 1869, a two-column-inch piece titled “The Great New York Fire in 1835” began appearing in newspapers around the country. Written as a reminiscence “clipped from the columns of the Philadelphia Inquirer,” the piece was actually an advertisement for Aetna Insurance, describing the moment when Aetna’s president had first informed his board of directors of the dramatic losses the company had suffered in an enormous fire that had struck downtown Manhattan in December 1835. The ad didn’t bother to describe the fire itself: the bitterly cold temperatures that froze the water in their firemen’s hoses, the destruction of the nearly 23 blocks and 700 buildings in the city’s prosperous mercantile district, the estimates of damage that ranged from $18 to $20 million ($529 to $588 million today). Instead, the ad focused on the firm’s response to the crisis. Having placed all of Aetna’s stocks and bonds on the table before his board, the ad recounted, the president announced what they must do: “[g]o to New York and pay the losses, if it takes every dollar, and my own fortune besides.” Inspired by the president’s sacrifice, the Board resolved to contribute their own personal fortunes as well. A year later, the ad concluded, the company had restored its capital and then some, burnishing its reputation in the process. Impressed readers were directed to contact their local Aetna representative.
Aetna was not the only insurance company that used the Great New York Fire of 1835 to promote its own services. Two years earlier, the Hartford Insurance Company had produced its own ad, nearly an entire broadsheet in length, describing the history of insurance and reporting that the Hartford had been “one of the few that paid all its losses, and, Phoenix-like, arose from the ashes of the great New York fire in 1835.” By 1915, the Hartford was running an ad with the headline “How would you like to travel 108 miles by sleigh in zero weather?,” describing how the firm’s president had done exactly that on the night of December 16, 1835, to make “immediate payment” in the wake of “the great New York fire.” Personal reminiscences, obituaries, and serialized novellas also used the 1835 New York fire as a benchmark. Just as today we have the Kennedy assassination, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, and the attacks of 9/11, Americans of the 19th and early 20th centuries had the Great New York Fire of 1835 as a cultural touchstone: a traumatic event in the nation’s collective memory, recounted and mythologized with fierce pride and possessiveness.
How did the blaze that broke out in Manhattan in December 1835 acquire its cultural significance? When did it become not simply a great fire, but The Great New York Fire of 1835? Disasters are not born with monikers: turning an unfortunate incident into A Great Event takes work. The legal historian Michele Landis Dauber has argued that the economic privations Americans experienced in the 1930s only became a singular event, The Great Depression, thanks to New Deal advocates’ creative and strategic use of artwork, photographs, personal letters, and statistics, designed to underscore the severity and extent of Americans’ distress. A similar transformation, I believe, took place in the wake of the 1835 New York fire. Newspapers eager to profit from the public’s taste for sensational coverage plastered stories of despicable looting and astonishing heroics on their front pages. Merchant committees sprang up to document their losses, publishing tidy charts of figures that assigned a dollar amount to their suffering. Aspiring artists quickly generated images of the fire and its devastation for sale and reproduction, catering to a growing public appetite for images of disaster. And canny politicians, seeking monetary relief in Albany and in Congress, took advantage of this coverage to draw attention to the city’s plight, ultimately succeeding in winning unprecedented financial relief for the fire’s merchant victims.
Several of the items key to this transformation are stored in the New-York Historical Society’s archives. James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald, for instance, a penny press newspaper launched only months before the fire, became the first American paper to include illustrations when it published its first woodcut image on December 21st, depicting the burnt-out ruins of New York’s Merchant Exchange. (By January, it was advertising copies of this same wood cut for sale at its office for one penny apiece.) Benjamin Day’s New York Sun, meanwhile, printed 30,000 copies of an extra edition devoted to the fire, running its presses nonstop for 24 hours to satisfy demand. These papers were deliberately pitched at New York’s working classes, but interest in the fire was shared by urban elites as well. A series of several paintings by the Italian immigrant Nicolino Calyo depict the fire and its aftermath from different vantage points in Manhattan and Brooklyn, contrasting the awful terror of the flames with the orderly discipline of the fire companies and the calm deportment of Brooklyn’s onlookers. The printmaker William James Bennett used two of Calyo’s paintings as the basis for his own copperplate engravings, which were subsequently sold by Lewis P. Clover for $5 each. To promote these prints, Clover published a page-long advertisement, describing the fire and warning that its “beautiful ruins” were “fast disappearing,” so that “in a few years, they will linger as a dream in the memory of the present generation, and the recollection of the most disastrous fire that ever befel [sic] this city will, like all earthly things, pass into oblivion.” Even the landscape painter Thomas Cole was likely inspired by the blaze: “Destruction,” the fourth in his well-known five-painting series The Course of Empire, depicting the sacking and burning of a once-monumental civilization, was completed in New York in the fall of 1836, only months after the 1835 fire.
The aggressive marketing behind these representations of New York’s 1835 fire, coupled with Americans’ craving for sensational news coverage and images of disaster, helped to turn the fire that had struck New York that December from a destructive event into a cultural landmark: The Great New York Fire of 1835. This status, in turn, helped both to cement the memory of the blaze in the minds of New Yorkers and to convince the rest of the country of the fire’s extraordinary significance, turning the blaze into a point of reference that needed no explanation nearly a century after the last flames had been put out.
This post is by Dr. Jane Manners, Bernard and Irene Schwartz Fellow, 2018-2019.