Welcome to Part Two of The Great New York-Boston Rivalry. In Part One we discussed the early troubles stemming from colonization and war. Here we will discuss economic and culture clashes. Yes, there’s even a bit of baseball involved (you’ll see).
New York Becomes America’s Greatest Port
By 1790, New York City was the largest and wealthiest city in America, becoming fat from the shipping trade. Although Boston is technically closer to England than New York, with a thorough rail system through the Northeast, it couldn’t compete with New York’s natural attributes and location.
As stated in Part One, New York City has one of the finest harbors in the world, and an estuary (The North River, now called The Hudson) that could handle large ships up to Albany. New York dominated trade, importing from the southern states and the Caribbean, processing the goods, and shipping them overseas. In reverse, they took in goods from across the ocean and disbursed them to the country’s interior. This made NYC and its neighboring areas like Jersey City and modern day Brooklyn and Staten Island (NYC was only Manhattan Island at the time) thrive, and put heavy pressure on Boston merchants. A new endeavor in upstate New York was about to make things even worse for Boston.
On October 26th, 1825, the Erie Canal opened for use. The Canal linked Albany, NY with Buffalo, NY and Lake Erie. Before the canal, the only way to move goods to the frontier was by ox and wagon. Now merchants could ship their wares all the way through the Great Lakes, and received their resources like iron and coal. The Erie Canal effectively opened America, and New York was the door.
In response, Boston and New England focused its economy on shipbuilding, using lumber from Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, fishing, whaling, and—for some reason–candy (still a major industry in Boston). Boston continued to dominate the Northeast, but even their extensive rails couldn’t compete with the Erie Canal and New York’s own growing rail system.
One result was that many of New England’s merchants moved to New York. This migration of “Yankees” caused a new level of striation among the city’s upper classes. The old-stock Dutch and Huguenot families like the Stuyvestants, De Lanceys, Schermerhorns, and Van Cortlandts—called “Knickerbockers” after Washington Irving’s stories—retained the highest rank. Below them were the English families from the New England conquest, and below them were the new, invasive “Yankees.”
Of course, the wealthy made up only a small population of the city, what was often referred to as The Upper Ten-Thousand. In a city that reached over 1,000,000 people by 1860 (compared to Boston’s 178,000), they were an elite class, treading on the backs of immigrants and unlucky.
Culture Shock: Boston Brahmins vs Broadway and The Bowery
Boston has a great legacy of education and progressive thought from colonial days until now. The upper class of Boston—known as Boston Brahmins—cut an ideal of the proper and reserved gentleman-scholar. They followed the model of the English Aristocracy in dress and mannerisms, and pursued philosophy and intellectual discourse as recreation.
Boston was also the birthplace of Transcendentalism, one of the first philosophical and literary movements in American history. Closely relatedly to Unitarianism (the dominant Bostonian religion of the time) Transcendentalism emphasized the inherent goodness of Man and Nature, and the importance of self-reliance and individuality. Authors such as Thoreau, Emerson, and Fuller—all born in or around Boston, created a powerful literary tradition that still stands today (much to the dismay of college English majors).
It should be noted that Nathaniel Hawthorne—another great New England authors of the time—was not a Transcendentalist by any measure.
Meanwhile, New York developed a culture that included literature (Irving, Halleck, Melville, Poe, Whitman), but especially the theater. New York had two theater traditions. One centered around “sophisticated” work such as opera and Shakespearean plays. These were almost exclusively for the Upper Ten-thousand, and slowly moved up Broadway as the wealthy moved further uptown.
Not far from Broadway was a second stretch of theaters for the working class far different from the beauty and sophistication of Niblo’s Garden and other Broadway venues. It was along a crowded, bustling street known as The Bowery.
Just east of the infamous Five Points area, the Bowery was the playground of the common folk (though often attracting the wealthy). Their entertainment would’ve shocked the reserved Boston Brahmins. German beer gardens, Irish saloons, houses of ill repute, gambling halls and theaters that showed broad farces, lined the streets. Music and cheer came from every saloon and groggery along the way. The Bowery B’hoy became an icon of the city, with his soaped down locks, red woolen shirts, and rough cigars chomped down between their teeth. Most were affiliated with local gangs or firewagons. Brawls were common and seen as recreation.
The combination of different ethnicities and cultures gave the Bowery–and New York–a culture unlike anywhere. Both Broadway and the Bowery remain hubs of New York entertainment today.
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The Great Baseball Debate
Baseball as we know it today was not the same game it was in the 19th century. Derived from a combination of several games, including Rounders and One ol’ Cat, “base-ball” developed in the late 1830s.
Contrary to popular myth, it was NOT invented by Abner Doubleday. The first recorded modern baseball game took place in 1838, in Ontario, but the game seems to have been played for a long time before that.
The first official rules came from a New Yorker named Alexander Cartwright, for his NYC baseball club, The Knickerbockers, in 1845. The original game is similar to our version, and over 150 years, it evolved into the modern form (The Designated Hitter being the last major rule change).
In direct competition to the Knickerbocker Rules was the “Massachusetts Game.” The Mass Game was more open, with no foul territory and the striker (batter) set halfway between First and Home Base. Of their rules, the only two that were incorporated into modern ball is that the ball must be pitched overhand, and fielders are not allowed to throw the ball at runners to get them out (pegging).
Foreshadowing the rivalry and Yankee dominance over the Red Sox (yes, I’m biased, but it’s my damn blog) by the end of the Civil War, the Knickerbocker Rules had near completely wiped out the Massachusetts Game. Few today even know of its existence.
While Boston and New England dominated New York during colonial times, it was eventually New York that surpassed its lobster-loving neighbor on the Charles. The rivalry grew more complex during the Civil War (NYC actually threatened to secede at one point). Despite disappearing local cultures, the rift exists today, perhaps even more than ever before.
This weekend, I will celebrate the NYC-Boston Rivalry by drinking a Brooklyn Lager and rooting against whatever Boston team is playing. It doesn’t matter what time of year, there’s always room for rivals.
For Further Reading
Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace.
Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. Luc Sante.
Forgotten New York: Views of a Lost Metropolis. Kevin Walsh.
Massachusetts Historical Society
The dozens of museums in New York.
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