A Delightful Wander Down Wall Street: Dickens Style

Preface

I have endeavored in this Ghostly little article, to raise the Ghost of an history, which shall not put my readers out of humor with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt your devices pleasantly, and everyone wish to share it.

Stave One

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Wall Street was Dutch: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. And the wall itself was built to keep the blasted British at bay. Peter Stuyvesant, or “Peg Leg Pete”, or even “Old Silver Nails”, as he came to be known after the separation of his lower leg by a particularly nasty cannonball on Saint Martin in the early part of the year 1644, served as director-general of the colony of New Amsterdam, and was responsible for the implementation of the original wall; which, I might be inclined to admit, was much more like a fence than any wall-like structure I’ve yet to see in my many years of wall observation and analysis.

Source: NYC Public Library
Source: NYC Public Library

Indeed, the original “Wall” of Wall Street, was so feeble, it was once subject to a rather nasty attack by the local swine, yes, hogs. After the procuring of a keeper of the porkers proved profitless, Peg Leg Pete bemoaned the destruction being wrought by the porcine pestilence in an official letter to the city, composing:

“We cannot, consistently with duty, omit calling your Worships’ attention to the injurious and intolerable destruction, which we, to our great dissatisfaction, daily behold the hogs committing on the newly finished works of the fort, whence the ruin thereof will certainly ensue.”*

However, the four legged menaces were not the only source of destruction for our Wall Street’s namesake fence-like structure. Indeed, the residents of New Amsterdam themselves, upon beginning to shiver in the winter cold, decided that the immediate gratification of warmth from their hearths was of much greater benefit than the protective structure on their northern border, and began pilfering planks to add to their selfish stoves, miserly ovens, and hoggish fire pits — proving themselves to be as hoggish as the aforementioned hogs!

Stave Two

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And now let us wander a little further forward in the history of this finance phantasma; indeed, quite a bit farther forward — as we are wont to do in such tales that take little care for time nor space, and seem to jump around with almost no regard for either, guiding the reader to our new moment in the narrative with something as simple as a title or as complex as entire pages devoted to the journey in chronology. Dear reader, I promise to attempt not to lose you in this journey, but instead serve as a faithful (if at times slightly meandering) guide.

And so here we find ourselves in the same place, but an altogether different epoch. We have flown through time and landed in the 18th century, May 17 of the year 1792 — to be quite precise. It is upon this date that the Buttonwood Agreement took place. This agreement created an institution, with which I’m sure you have at least some passing familiarity. ‘What is this establishment?’ you query? Why, the New York Stock & Exchange Board, of course. Now, more simply, and elegantly, in your humble narrator’s opinion, designated the New York Stock Exchange.

Endorsed in ink — most probably with pens of the quilled variety — by the Founding and Subsequent Fathers, numbering 24, under a buttonwood tree outside 68 Wall Street (the wall of our previous stave a thing of distant memory now), the Buttonwood Agreement read as follows:

We the Subscribers, Brokers for the Purchase and Sale of the Public Stock, do hereby solemnly promise and pledge ourselves to each other, that we will not buy or sell from this day for any person whatsoever, any kind of Public Stock, at a less rate than one quarter percent Commission on the Specie value and that we will give preference to each other in our Negotiations. In Testimony whereof we have set our hands this 17th day of May at New York, 1792.”

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Source: Museum of American Finance

The Buttonwood Agreement Itself!

And while the agreement, and much of the trading of stocks, was conducted under this particularly renowned tree, there was also much trading to be done inside the Tontine Coffee House, and other such establishments along Wall and Water Street. For it would be many years before the bustling scenes of a trading floor as we can so vividly picture them today would become the norm of stockbroker business and goings on.

And for the birthplace of that frenetic vagary we so associate with the New York Stock Exchange, we must blunder through time haphazardly once more. Join me in Stave Three, in the year 1864. I promise we needn’t travel geographically any tiring distance, since our temporal wayfaring is so extensive.

Stave Three

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We now find ourselves in the latter half of the 19th century, just up the road from our be-leafed buttonwood tree, and inside of a rather stately building sat upon 18 Broad Street. And while there was no fancying ‘it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten its way out again’ (as my favorite of Dickens’s houses is remembered to have been described), this was no melancholy tavern and no melancholy event.

The soul of 18 Broad Street, historically known as ‘the Long Room,’ was described as “…a cockpit 145 feet long and 45 feet wide in which trading ran nonstop from 8:30a.m. to 5p.m.” This was the inception of unceasing trades. Deviating from the previous standard of a twice daily auction format, a ‘circus-like atmosphere prevailed’, described by the Bowery Boys History as, “…a claustrophobic display of activity that could be witnessed by curious onlookers from above.” For the geography of the Long Room foreshadowed the modern trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, with a corybantic display of traders busying themselves with ever important buys and sells, while curious onlookers peered down from above, observing the hive of commercial enterprise.

Stave Four

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For our fourth stave, we must make quick work of time, traveling both back and forth, in rapid succession, to visit two of the greatest misfortunes in this history of this lower Manhattan locality. And while the peculiar personality of each report may seem to you a more probable result of ‘an undigested bit of beef! a blot of mustard! a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato!’ than the truths of the matters, I assure you, there is not more gravy than of grave about these tales, for many did perish in the disasters I am about to recount.   

The culmination of the year 1835 was the fated moment of the most catastrophic conflagration in the history of Manhattan. Originating in a warehouse five stories tall (I reference here the stories of the sort one often finds in buildings, signifying levels, or floors, rather than the stories the likes of which I am now recounting) on 25 Merchant Street on December the 16th, the flames quickly surged in scope, overtaking the areas hued in red in the representation below.

Source: Bowery Boys History
Source: Bowery Boys History

 

As much of the center of commerce of the city, and indeed, the nation, was consumed in the blaze, it was reported the flames could be seen from Philadelphia, 23 leagues away (or 80 miles for we modern Americans who conceptualize such units of measure more readily).

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Burning of the Merchant’s Exchange by Nicolino Calyo (Source: Museum of the City of New York)

This remains the most devastating fire in the long and incendiary history of this sordid city. And subsequently, as the city began to rebuild, masonry became preferable to carpentry, as the Cathedral to Commerce that now stands at 57 Wall Street — as well as up and down our ever-evolving Wall Street — began to take shape. The objective was to obviate further catastrophe courtesy of combustion, by erecting all future edifices of stone. However, even buildings made of marble must have windows ensconced in glass, making them not entirely impervious to future bombardments.

Nearly a century later, on the 16th of September, in the year 1920, Wall Street was bustling with noontime traffic. The engines of commerce churned on, and people, horses, cars and carriages filled the street outside the headquarters of J.P. Morgan & Co. On this fateful afternoon, an anonymous man led a carriage, drawn by a presumably quite innocent, though ill-fated, horse, and set it to rest 100 feet east of Broad Street. The wagon, as it was soon horrifically discovered, contained 100 pounds of dynamite, which discharged with great force, killing over 30 people, and injuring upwards of 400. The identity of the driver of the wagon and its snuffed out filly, was never discovered, and the culprits of this catastrophe (and their motives) remain a mystery to this day.

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Source: Museum of the City of New York

However, if you take a wander down Wall Street today, almost a century later, and let your perambulations pass the place where the blast occurred, you can still spot, no endeavoring of feret eyes required, the damage done by this duplicitous disaster, as J.P. Morgan & Co. refused repairs, leaving the damage as a sign of defiance.

A survivor of the day, a woman of 22 years by the name of Ella Parry was interviewed by the Evening World and recounted,

The glass of our windows fell into the office and the ceiling fell all about us. Where I had just been sitting was covered with heavy plaster. I did not wait to get my hat, but with others rushed into the street.

Stave Five

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It is a ‘fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.’ Thus, our final traipse through time takes us to a much more jovial scene on almost the same spot, only two years before the bombing of 1920. For only two years earlier, in 1918, for the sake of those of you not inclined to do the math — though shame on you and your arithmetic laziness, subtraction of this sort shouldn’t require explanation, but I digress… in 1918, a rather infamous image was taken of a rather momentous occasion:

The performance of the silent film stars Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks outside of the United Sub Treasury Building, or today’s Federal Hall.

Tens of thousands of the denizens of the fair city of New York crowded the surrounding streets to witness the antics of these world renowned entertainers.

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Source: Wall Street Archives

But wherefore did these mustachioed thespians come to scale not only the architecture, but one another? — as evidenced in the image above. It was all in service of the war effort.

As the posters proclaimed “If you can’t enlist – invest!”, and the venerable government of the United States was doing all that was within its power to ensure the funding of our military efforts, which led them to eventually begin to enlist the support of some rather infamous characters, the jokesters pictured above included. For Chaplin and Fairbanks were trotting out their tomfoolery, and even using their voices — something rather novel and terribly exciting, as they were motion picture stars, but at the time film stars were harmonically hushed, so to hear the likes of Chaplin and Fairbanks engage their vocal chords was quite a draw, indeed —  in order to drum up support for Liberty Bonds.

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Source: The Archives, Windsor McCay (Middle)

For at this point in the history of our great nation, most Americans had never purchased a bond, and so some rather cunning marketing was required to edify the populus of their democratic duty, and drum up a bit of debt-based deliverance.  And Chaplin rose to the promotional occasion with aplomb, traversing his newly adopted land (himself being born on British soil) to promote Liberty Bonds, and aid the war effort.

Be that as it may, our bowler hat wearing, mustachioed dapper dandy of a character may not have been entirely altruistic in his performative philanthropy, as his consequent motion picture, A Dog’s Life, penned, performed, and produced by Chaplin himself, would open in theatres five days following his big day at Federal Hall.

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As our dear Dickens reminds us, “We are all fellow passengers to the grave.” And therefore, respected readers, while this may not have put a scrap of investment advice in your pockets, I dearly hope that this entertainment has done you good, and will do you good, and I say, please share it!

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Special thanks to Marie with Lower Manhattan tours, the Museum of Finance, and The Bowery Boys History for much of the inspiration for these traipsings and rovings of yesteryear.


*Actual quote from Peter Stuyvesant.







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