Today there is nothing remarkable about the idea of New York as a large, diverse, cosmopolitan city. But to mid-19th century New Yorkers, the rapid growth of New York from a small, walkable city to a bustling, sprawling metropolis must have been a bit disorienting. In 1800, there were 60,515 residents of New York City, and more than half the city’s population lived within one mile of the Battery. In 1840, the population had grown to 312,710, and by 1850, over 500,000. New York had become a busy, dense urban environment filled with a dizzying array of structures, spaces, institutions, subcultures and social types.
In the midst of all this change, two keen observers of the day attempted to decode this new urban environment, with all its charms and vices. In 1846 and 1847, publisher and engraver T. W. Strong published a series of comic cartoon lithographs called “Sketches of New York,” depicting some of the more colorful “types” of antebellum New York. At about the same time, journalist George Foster wrote two lively and engaging nonfictional accounts of life in the big city: New York in Slices, By an Experienced Carver (1849) and New York by Gaslight, with Here and There a Streak of Sunshine (1850). Foster’s work took readers through the streets, markets, theaters, saloons, oyster cellars and houses of prostitution that marked the cityscape. Within these works, both Strong and Foster introduce the Bowery b’hoy and g’hal- the young, single, native-born members of the working class who enthusiastically took part in all the new amusements the Bowery had to offer- and the newsboy, who arrived on the urban scene in the 1830s, along with the “penny press.” Taken together, Foster’s writing and Strong’s illustrations provide compelling portraits of these uniquely New York characters:
“With his trim-fitting black pants…and his red flannel shirt” the “riotous, rollicking” Bowery B’hoy is “always on the lookout for a fire, a fight, or a frolic.” “The governing sentiment, pride and passion of the b’hoy is independence–that he can do as he pleases and is able, under all circumstances, to take care of himself. He abhors dependence, obligation, and exaggerates the feeling of self-reliance so much as to appear, on the surface, rude and boorish.”¹
“The G’hal is independent in her tastes and habit…her very walk has a swing of mischief and defiance in it, and the tones of her voice are loud, hearty and free.” “The newest invention in the costume of the g’hal is the ‘polka.’ This jacket is cut to fit the back and shoulders smoothly, and reaches halfway down the thigh. When neatly cut and fitting to the figure of a plump, healthy and elastic-limbed g’hal, with the full-skirted dress swelling out voluptuously…it certainly has a very exhilarating appearance.”²
The “Newsboy is a trifle profligate; he swears…drinks, fights, and very often stays out all night…though that may be because he has no home to go to.” His uniform is “a slouched cloth cap, dilapidated roundabout and breeches…and a dirty face with hands to match.” Nevertheless, “in speed of foot, power of vociferation, rapidity of utterance, force of character- in fact like everything in New York, he is at the head of his class.”³
1.& 2. George Foster, New York By Gaslight, With Here and There a Streak of Sunshine (New York: DeWitt and Davenport ,1850)
3. George Foster, New York in Slices, By an Experienced Carver, (New York: W.F. Burgess, 1849)
This post was written by Marybeth Kavanagh, Reference Archivist, Department Of Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections.