New York

A 19th century mayor’s fascinating social diary

Philip Hone served as New York’s mayor only from 1826 to 1827.

But Hone—the son of a carpenter who made a fortune in the auction business as a young man—spent the next two decades serving the city in another way.

From 1828 to his death in 1851, Hone kept a diary (free to access) chronicling the political and social changes of the growing metropolis.

His diary offers a fascinating glimpse of the daily life of New York filtered through the mind of a reflective writer, whose thoughts about culture and politics echo some of the same conversations we continue to have today.

“The old custom of visiting on New Year’s Day, and the happy greetings which have so long been given on that occasion, have been well kept up this year,” Hone wrote January 2, 1831.

“I am glad of it; few of those good old customs remain which mark the overflow of unsophisticated good feeling, and I rejoice whenever I can recognize any part of the wreck which the innovations of fashion have left afloat.”

The same year, he also noted the city’s “new University”—today’s NYU (above, in 1850)—and dined often with friends like Washington Irving at the Washington Hotel, at the southern tip of Broadway.

In 1836 he marked the one-year anniversary of the “great fire”—an 1835 blaze that destroyed much of downtown (left). “To the honor of the merchants, and as an evidence of the prosperity of the city, the whole is rebuilt with more splendor than before.”

Hone noted a party he went to in a mansion lighted by gas, when most homes were lit by candlelight. The gas “gave out suddenly in the midst of a cotillion; this accident occasioned great merriment to the company, and some embarrassment to the host and hostess, but a fresh supply of gas was obtained, and in short time the fair dancers were again ‘tripping it on the light fantastic toe.’”

The financial ruin brought on by the Panic of 1837 didn’t change Hone’s circumstances, but their effects were seen across the city. “No goods are selling, no business stirring, no boxes encumber the sidewalks of Pearl Street….”

Hone was a regular theater-goer, and he wrote about opening night at a new venue. “The National is the prettiest theatre in the United States; but it is not Broadway, and the New Yorkers are the strangest people in the world for their predilection for fashionable locations.” (at left, when it was destroyed in 1839.)

Before moving to Broadway and Great Jones Street, he lived in a townhouse on Broadway opposite City Hall next to the American Hotel (below). He worshipped at Trinity Church.

On Good Friday 1839 he wrote, “I went, as usual, to church this morning, and afterward into Wall Street [at right, in 1846], where the din of business drowns the sound of the bell’s invitation to worship, and the gravity of devotion is put out of countenance by the restless, anxious looks of speculative men of ‘this world.’”

Hone, a Whig, wrote about the politicians of the day; his dining partners included John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren (left, in 1828). He noted a reception held for the arrival of Henry Clay.

Hone also wrote of “the Irish and other foreigners” and other “discontented men” for fomenting labor troubles on the wharves in 1836.

He recorded the names of steamships that crossed the Atlantic; an amazing feat in his day and even toured ships when they were docked at the Battery or North River.

He took excursions to the country suburb of Hoboken, died at friends’ estates in Manhattanville, West Farms in the Bronx, and Flushing. He and his adored wife and children went to many “fancy balls.”

While having dinner at his home with William Astor and other distinguished New Yorkers in December 1838, he experienced something sadly common in the city at the time.

The doorbell rang, and an abandoned infant with its name pinned to its gown was at the doorstep. Hone described the baby as probably a week old and “one of the sweetest babies I ever saw.”

“It did not cry during the time we had it but lay in a placid, dozing state, and occasionally, on the approach of the light, opened its little, sparkling eyes, and seemed satisfied with the company into which it had been strangely introduced,” wrote Hone.

“Poor little innocent—abandoned by its natural protector, and thrown at its entrance into life upon the sympathy of a selfish world….” Hone wrote that he thought about taking the child into his own home, but his dinner guests convinced him otherwise, and the “little wanderer” was brought to the city almshouse.

This part of Hone’s diary brings me to tears. But the horrible tragedy of infant abandonment touched Hone (at left, near the end of his life) enough to include it in his diary, so I included it here too.

[All images: NYPL Digital Collections]
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