Nassau Street History in New York City

If you will go to the southern extremity of Printing House Square, on the east side of the City Hall Park, you will see the opening of a narrow street between the offices of the Tribune and Times newspapers. This is Nassau street. It runs parallel with Broadway, and terminates at Wall street. It is about half a mile in length, and is one of the narrowest and most inconvenient streets in the city, being less than fifty feet in width. The houses on each side are tall and sombre looking, and the street is almost always in the shadow. The roadway is hardly wide enough for two vehicles to pass abreast, and the sidewalks could never by any possible chance contain a crowd. Indeed, the street is seldom thronged, and the people you meet there seem to be possessed of but one desire—to get out of it as fast as possible. A stranger would, at the first glance, unhesitatingly pronounce it an inconvenient as well as a disagreeable thoroughfare, and yet the truth is that it is one of the most important streets in the city in respect of the amount and variety of the traffic carried on within its limits.

It would be hard to describe its architecture. Scarcely any two houses are built alike. At the lower end, in the vicinity of Wall street, iron, marble, and brown stone structures flourish, but above the Post-office the buildings are a study. The most of them are old, but all show signs of vigorous life, and from cellar to attic they are jammed full of busy, scheming, toiling men.


Along the street are some of the best known and most trusted banking houses of the city, and millions of dollars are represented in their daily transactions. The great Post-office receives and sends out whole tons of matter every twenty-four hours. The bulk of the periodical, and a large part of the book-trade are carried on here through the agency of the great news companies. Real estate men flourish here. Struggling lawyers seem to think this street the road to success, for here they cluster by the score. You may buy here diamonds of the purest water, and others that had better be kept out of water. The most valuable of watches may be obtained here; also the most genuine pinchbeck timepieces. If one is a judge of the article he is buying, he may frequently purchase to advantage in Nassau street, but as a rule he must examine his purchase closely before paying for it, and be sure he receives what he has selected. The variety of the pursuits carried on here may be ascertained only by a diligent perusal of the signs that line the street. Perhaps in no other thoroughfare is there to be seen such a multitude of signs. The fronts of the houses are covered with them. They appear in nearly every window, and the walls of the halls of the buildings, and even the steps themselves are covered with them. Every device of the sign maker has been exhausted here, and they tell their stories with more or less emphasis, according to the ingenuity exercised upon them. They tell you of “Counsellors at Law,” Publishers, Artists, Dealers in Foreign and American Engravings, Jewellers, Engravers on Wood and Steel, Printers, Stock Brokers, Gold Beaters, Restaurant Keepers, Dealers in Cheap Watches, Agents of Literary Bureaux, Translators of Foreign Languages, Fruit Sellers, Boarding House Brokers, Matrimonial Agents, Book Sellers, Dealers in Indecent Publications, and a host of others too numerous to mention.

Go into one of the numerous buildings, and a surprise awaits you. You might spend half a day in exploring it. It rivals the Tower of Babel in height, and is alive with little closets called “offices.” How people doing business here are ever found by those having dealings with them is a mystery. Many, indeed, come here to avoid being found, for Nassau street is the headquarters of those who carry on their business by circulars, and under assumed names. It is a good hiding place, and one in which a culprit might safely defy the far-reaching arm of Justice.

Along the street, and mostly in the cellars, cluster the “Old Book Stores” of New York, of which I shall have more to say hereafter, and they add not a little to the singular character of the street. The proprietors are generally men who have been here for years, and who know the locality well. Many curious tales could they tell of their cramped and dingy thoroughfare, tales that in vivid interest and dramatic force would set up half a dozen novelists.

The Post-office draws all sorts of people into the street, and it is interesting to watch them as they come and go. But, as has been said, no one stays here long; no one thinks of lounging in Nassau street. Every one goes at the top of his speed, and bumps and thumps are given and taken with a coolness and patience known only to the New Yorker. You may even knock a man off his legs, and send him rolling into the gutter, and he will smile, pick himself up again, and think no more of the matter. On Broadway the same man would not fail to resent such an assault as an intentional insult. Every one here is full of unrest; every one seems pre-occupied with his own affairs, and totally oblivious to all that is passing around him. In no part of the great city are you so fully impressed with the shortness and value of time. Even in the eating houses, where the denizens of the street seek their noontide meal, you see the same haste that is manifest on the street. The waiters seem terribly agitated and excited, they fairly fly to do your bidding, pushing and bumping each other with a force that often sends their loads of dishes clattering to the floor. The man at the desk can hardly count your change fast enough. The guests bolt their food, gulp their liquors, and dart through the green baize doors as if their lives depended upon their speed.

So all day long they pour in and out of the marble banks, in and out of the great Post-office, in and out of the dingy offices—the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the honest dealer and the sharper. Few know their neighbors here, fewer care for them; and gigantic successes and dreary failures find their way into the street, adding year by year to its romance and to its mystery. At night the street is dark and deserted. Yet away up in some of the lofty buildings, the lights shining through the dingy windows tell you that some busy brain is still scheming and struggling—whether honestly or dishonestly, who can tell?


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