This article is the first installment of a two part series on the evolution of New York culture in the 1840s and 1850s.
In the 1840s, New York City’s Bowery district sat at the center of working class cultural life. Home to theaters, saloons, shops, and street entertainers, the Bowery attracted working men and women from throughout the city for fun, entertainment, drinking, fighting, and elicit pleasure. One of the fixtures of this world were Bowery B’hoys. Products of a dramatic transition in the city’s social and economic framework, Bowery B’hoys and their female companions – G’hals – presided over one of the more colorful subcultures in New York history.
Bowery B’hoys were instantly recognizable by their fashion and behavior. New Yorkers used the term b’hoy since the 1830s to describe a man who enjoyed drinking and other working-class amusements.1 The spelling mimicked the peculiar pronunciation of boy common among Bowery-goers. However, the Bowery B’hoy identified a new social type. The Bowery B’hoy was, in fact, not a boy at all. A young man, easily identified by his appearance, he wore a “black silk hat, smoothly brushed . . . well oiled hair, and lying closely to the skin, long in front, short behind, cravat a-la sailor, with the shirt collar turned elry . . . where the insignia of the [fire] engine company to which the wearer belongs, as a breastpin, black pants . . . heavy boots, and a cigar about half smoked, in the left corner of the mouth . . . He has a peculiar swing, not exactly a swagger, to his walk, which nobody but a Bowery boy can imitate.”2 Bowery B’hoy dress rebuffed both working-class and middle-class styles.
The reasons behind this rejection extended beyond fashion. The Bowery was home to what historian Peter George Buckley termed “a distinct, even oppositional milieu.”3 At the time, the city’s artisans faced increasing pressure as merchants erected larger shops and employed unskilled waged labor. A growing middle class, complete with greater economic clout and evolving cultural sensibilities, challenged traditional workingmen’s culture. The Bowery B’hoy’s style and manner reflected his hostility toward these changes. Independent, patriotic, and gregarious, he fascinated outside observers. The Bowery B’hoy, many noted, “speaks to every acquaintance he meets, and is hail-fellow-well-met with every body, from the mayor to the beggar . . . The Bowery boy is a fair politician, a good judge of horse flesh, tragedy, comic acting, music as well as dancing, and renders himself essentially useful as well as ornamental, at all the fires in his ward.”4 George Foster, author of the best-selling New York by Gas-Light, highlighted that the “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 exaggerated the feeling of self-reliance so much as to appear, on the surface, rude and boorish.5 Historians of antebellum America call this brand of fierce independence artisanal republicanism – that a man’s political rights stem from his skills, work ethic, freedom from dependence upon anyone, and anti-aristocratic attitudes.6 As a native-born worker, the Bowery B’hoy celebrated the virtues of self-reliance and distrusted the city’s growing immigrant population.
Bowery B’hoys’ attitudes carried over to their female companions, Bowery G’hals. Foster declared the Bowery G’hal to be “an industrious, patient, unenvious creature . . . perfectly willing to work for a living, works hard and cheerfully, as any day laborer or journeyman mechanic of the other sex . . . is as independent as [the B’hoy] himself. Her very walk has a swing of mischief and defiance in it . . . Her dress is ‘high,’ and its various ingredients are gotten together in utter defiance of those conventional laws of harmony and taste.”7 Like their male counterparts, Bowery G’hals worked for wages and exuded independence and oppositional style. However, Bowery B’hoys felt the need to defend G’hals from the sexual advances of affluent men frequenting the Bowery. According to the historian Christine Stansell, the B’hoy, through his defense of the Bowery G’hal, exhibited a male working-class version of republican paternalism that was not as egalitarian as Foster and other contemporaries believed.8
The Bowery B’hoy and G’hal reported by New Yorkers in the 1840s mimicked both reality and fiction. The B’hoy reflected actual workingmen of New York’s Bowery who created their own social and cultural forms. However, he was “a stock character that had come to represent . . . a direct challenge to the cultivated tradition in the arts and civility in general.”9 The popularity of the Bowery B’hoy figure stemmed from Benjamin Baker’s immensely popular comic play, A Glance at New York. The play’s star character was Mose, a Bowery B’hoy fireman who attempted to rescue an upstate rube from the city’s fraudsters. Mose and his G’hal girlfriend, Lize, repulsed theater critics, but thrilled audiences.10 Other plays followed, and Mose grew popular throughout the country. The popularity of Mose and the existence of actual Bowery B’hoys stemmed from the same demographic and economic transformations reshaping New York’s social fabric.
By the 1860s, evidence of Bowery B’hoys evaporated from the city. An influx of unskilled European immigrants flooded the labor market, displacing the previous generation’s working class culture. Victims of the transition from artisanal to unskilled production methods and low wages, Bowery B’hoys could no longer claim independence and self-sufficiency. The Bowery B’hoy and the subculture he represented faded from the city.