Walking the Streets
of the Revolutionary City

Food & Lifestyle

March 10, 2014
by Benjamin L. Carp Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

This article was originally published in Journal of the American Revolution, Vol. 1 (Ertel Publishing, 2013).

It was a day of mourning all across America.  The Boston Port Act, which closed the port of Boston as punishment for the Tea Party, took effect on June 1, 1774.  Business ceased precisely at noon at the customs house, the stoop of which had witnessed the Boston Massacre four years before.[1]  A regiment of British troops had encamped on Boston Common, where William Molineux had once organized a thousand women spinning yarn for homespun cloth as a protest against the Townshend Acts.[2]  The wharves that jutted out of Boston’s coastline, the site of the Liberty riot of 1768 and the Tea Party in 1773, were now closed to most entering traffic and would be closed to departing traffic after June 15.

The people of Philadelphia staged a protest in sympathy with Boston.  Shops closed, the bells of Christ Church sounded in mourning, and the ships in the Delaware River flew their flags at half-mast.  “The city wore the aspect of deep distress.”[3]  Two weeks later, thousands of New Yorkers escorted a gallows to the Merchant Coffee House at the foot of Wall Street, and there burned effigies of Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson, Lord North, and Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn.  Within months, Philadelphia would host the first Continental Congress, Boston would endure a winter of occupation, and New Yorkers would divide along political lines.  During the Revolutionary War, more than half a dozen of the eastern seaboard’s largest towns would be occupied by British troops at one time or another.[4]

Green Dragon Tavern, 1773. Original at American Antiquarian Society
Green Dragon Tavern, 1773. Original at American Antiquarian Society

We take cities for granted until something brings them to a halt.  We trust that the taverns will remain lively places to eat, drink, and socialize; that business will bustle in the shops and offices and on the docks; that worshippers will gather in the churches, meetinghouses, and synagogues; and that people will stroll through the streets and other outdoor spaces.  Cities are dynamic, cosmopolitan places, where people come together to trade, socialize, govern, sue, and celebrate.  Yet cities can also be centers of crisis: a raging fire, a riot, an uprising, or a siege can disrupt a city’s normal activities.  If we want to know how British American cities responded to the American Revolution, it helps to understand the cities’ everyday rhythms.

The cities were small, by our standards—indeed, even by the standards of eighteenth-century London, Paris, Mexico City, Beijing, Edo, or Constantinople, the cities were tiny.  Philadelphia, the largest, had just over 32,000 people just before the Revolutionary War; New York, around 25,000; Boston, about 16,500; Charleston, 12,800; and Newport, only about 9,200.  James Hamilton, a governor of Pennsylvania, claimed that “he formerly new every person white & black men women, & children, in the City of Philadelphia, by name,” though he said this was no longer true by 1775.  Cities were situated close to the river or ocean, and they consisted primarily of houses and businesses that were low to the ground and clustered close together.  The highest structures were church steeples or ships’ masts.[5]

People moved through the city in different ways, depending on who they were.  A wealthy merchant, doctor, or lawyer woke up in a mansion, and might ride a carriage around town.  He prayed in a comfortable, well-situated pew, debated philosophy in a private room in an upscale tavern, and might draft laws for the colony in an assembly house.  He was able to travel to the local mercantile exchange, coffeehouse, subscription library, playhouse, or pleasure garden.

A middling retailer or craftsman, on the other hand, woke up in a smaller house, perhaps above his shop.  Cities offered a variety of occupations for skilled artisans working with their hands: milliners, ropemakers, shipwrights, coopers, and printers.  Many owned specialized equipment, such as a printing press or a lathe; others worked in specialized settings, such as a mill, a forge, a ropewalk (you literally “walked” to twist a rope together), or a shipyard.  A craftsman might belong to the local Freemasons’ lodge or a fire company, and he might serve on juries or in minor municipal offices (or buy his way out of them) such as constable or leather sealer.

For everyone else, the city might seem even more restricted.  A laborer might rent a room in a modest dwelling, work at the docks or as a shoemaker, drink rum at a grogshop, and perhaps sit in the gallery at church.  A seaman in port might be prohibited from borrowing on credit, buying liquor, or gambling—some were transient visitors, while others had roots in their port of call.[6]  If a poor person were unfortunate enough to fall behind in loan payments or stole for sustenance, they might find themselves in a workhouse, almshouse, or prison.  Black people, free or enslaved, were even more limited in the places they might go, especially after dark.  Still, blacks saw a great deal of the city—they used the side entrances of wealthy homes, gathered at illegal “disorderly houses” for a drink, sat in the worst seats at church (or met on their own), worked and traded at various points throughout the city, and slept in garrets and outbuildings.

Women experienced a limited city in other ways.  They did not hold seats of legislative or judicial power, and they belonged to no tavern companies, but they still bought and sold in the marketplace, patronized the arts and fashion, maintained their households, took communion at church (usually in greater numbers than men), and worked inside and out of the home.  Though all types of city-dwellers felt consigned to their stations in life, they also interacted—sometimes in combustible ways—in the port towns of America.

Map of New York, 1776. Source: Boston Public Library
Map of New York, 1776. Source: Boston Public Library

Days, weeks, months, and seasons wore different aspects in the cities.  Sundays, of course, were reserved for the Sabbath.  Boston was sufficiently observant that Saturday nights and Sundays plunged the town into silence.  If you belonged to a social club or voluntary association, it usually met in the evening on a particular day of the week, and competing weekly newspapers also came out on different days.  Many congregations also held prayer meetings on particular weekdays.[7]  Philadelphia held market days on Tuesdays and Fridays in 1744: a visiting Virginian “had no small Satisfaction in seeing the pretty Creatures, the young Ladies, traversing the place from Stall to Stall.”  New York markets opened every weekday at sunrise and closed at sunset, and hucksters were forbidden from making purchases before noon (so they didn’t buy up all the produce before local consumers had a chance).[8]

The cities also marked the calendar in grand style: the ships in the harbor fired cannons and the townspeople set off fireworks to celebrate the king’s birthday or a British victory.  City-dwellers also had their own unsanctioned rituals like Pope’s Night in Boston on the fifth of November, when the North End and South End brawled on behalf of their effigies of the Pope.  Election days and the opening of a court session might also be notable days on the calendar.

By and large, however, the cities moved to the rhythms of the natural world.  Work began with the sun and ended with its setting.  Wealthy men might be able to afford an alcohol-soaked dinner in the afternoon, but most people spent the daylight hours working.  Ships arrived in harbor based on the whims of the seas, and a new arrival created a frenzy of work for customs officers (to ensure all duties were paid), stevedores, wholesalers, and retailers.  Similarly, to get a ship ready to depart required barrels, provisions, ship repairs, able seamen, and goods for export.  Yet this work was thoroughly seasonal.  Shorter days in the winter meant a shorter workday, since fuel was expensive; frozen ground also slowed down excavation for buildings and roads.  As far south as Philadelphia, an icy harbor prevented ships from coming and going, while the hurricane season in the Caribbean discouraged this important sector of trade.[9]

Once imported goods arrived on shore, they might spend some time in a warehouse before making their way to retail shops.  Wholesalers extended credit and sold goods to the men and women who worked as retailers (both in the city and in the country).  In the large cities, the milliners, stationers, or watchmakers might expose their merchandise for sale with a large display window.  Consumers (whether they were local or from out of town) demanded the best quality of goods they could afford, and shopkeepers did their best to entice them with the latest selection and polite treatment. A shop patron could buy goods on credit, but sellers sometimes offered discounts for cash purchases.[10]

Above all, the cities existed because of their location on the Atlantic coast—they depended on the British Empire, British banks and merchant houses, the flood of immigrants (both free and enslaved), the Atlantic fisheries, and goods from ports around the world.  Many of the churches and synagogues relied upon support or encouragement from patrons in the Old World, as did libraries and other cultural institutions.  Great Britain and its colonies were knit together by a network of connections, and the cities were crucial nodes in the web.

Because all of the colonial cities were also capitals, the cities were places where a governor would hand down a proclamation, a house of representatives would pass laws and levy taxes, and judges would decide criminal cases and civil suits.  The Philadelphia building we now know as Independence Hall was, during the colonial period, the Pennsylvania State House, and it hosted the assembly as well as the colony’s highest court.  Municipal governments discussed more quotidian matters such as roads, fire prevention, and the regulation of the marketplace.  Such buildings displayed the seals of the king and the province, and they were usually constructed with the intent to impress upon spectators the authority of the Crown and local leaders.

Yet any discussion of urban politics would need to look beyond the statehouse and courthouses.  During a riot over impressment (forcibly conscripting merchant mariners into naval service), for instance, seamen and laborers might take over the waterfront.  Taverns were places for people to read newspapers, discuss local and imperial issues, and do various other sorts of business.  A wealthy household allowed polite men and women to show off their social status (which in turn conveyed political status).  Households were also key places to work out intimate power relationships between parents and children, men and women, and masters and servants or slaves.  Churches also occasionally involved their congregations in controversy: Peter Oliver of Massachusetts was certainly suspicious of the “Black Regiment” of patriotic preachers who raised questions about imperial government.[11]

This dynamic urban landscape was ripe for political disruption.  The aftereffects of the Seven Years War (or the French and Indian War) were felt in the thinly settled western reaches and the small rural towns of the British colonies, of course, but they also powerfully affected the cities.  The Stamp Act of 1765 led Americans to close their ports, courts, and (in some cases) printing presses.   At the Merchant Coffee House in New York City on October 31, 1765 (the day before the Stamp Act was to take effect), the dice were wrapped in crepe and the backgammon boxes were swathed in black, a sign of mourning.[12]  The Townshend duties of 1767 inspired spinning bees and pressure for merchants to sign onto a nonimportation agreement.  Bostonians and New Yorkers engaged in deadly brawls with soldiers in 1770.  The Tea Act spurred protests in Charleston, New York, Philadelphia, and (most famously) in Boston in 1773 and 1774.  The Revolutionary War, when it came, disrupted the cities even further.

[Featured image at top: An east perspective of Philadelphia, 1774. Original at John Carter Brown Library, Brown University]


[1] Massachusetts Spy, June 2, 1774.

[2] G. B. Warden, Boston, 1689–1776 (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1970), 217.

[3] Pennsylvania Journal, June 8, 1774.

[4] Joseph S. Tiedemann, Reluctant Revolutionaries: New York City and the Road to Independence, 1763–1776 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 192.

[5] For this and the next three paragraphs, see Benjamin L. Carp, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 3–4, 225.

[6] Jesse Lemisch, “Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 25, 3 (July 1968): [371–407] 378.

[7] Benjamin L. Carp, Defiance of Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 27.

[8] “Journal of William Black, 1744 (continued),” ed. R. Alonzo Brock, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 1, 4 (1877), 405–6, quoted in Carl Bridenbaugh, Cities in the Wilderness: The First Century of Urban Life in America, 1625–1742 (1938; New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 350–51.

[9] Gary B. Nash, The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 10.

[10] T. H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), chap. 4.

[11] Carp, Rebels Rising; Peter Oliver’s Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion: A Tory View, ed. Douglass Adair and John A. Schutz (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1961), 41–45.

[12] Carp, Rebels Rising, 81–82.

One thought on “Walking the Streets
of the Revolutionary City

  • Ben Carp is the new Carl Bridenbaugh. What a fascinating explanation of why urban spaces mattered in terms of the run up to the American Revolution. I, for one, am convinced that coastal communities were more important than the countryside in terms of galvanizing support for resistance to British authority during the 1760s and early 70s.

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