Original cover of “New York by Gaslight” (1850)


This week you are reading George C. Foster’s New York by Gas-Light and Other Urban Sketches: With Here and There a Streak of Sunshine first published as a newspaper series of “sketches” in New York City in 1850. It was then collected into the volume you will read. I encourage you to focus on the first half of this book describing nightlife.


This week in class, you learned of the sensational coverage on P.T. Barnum and how he manipulated newspapers and advertising to build America’s first entertainment conglomerate. But what does sensationalism mean, though? Once we get beyond the shock value of these wild stories, what are we learning? How can we as historians look at these strange texts and understand and something new about of the incredible changes New York City and urban districts were experiencing in America in the nineteenth century like urban planning, mass immigration, or class stratification?








New York by Gaslight Guided Reading Questions  

  • The ability to be anonymous in an American City like Philadelphia, New Orleans, or New York was a new invention early Americans increasingly experienced in antebellum America. What role did urban anonymity play in New York by Gaslight? What role does urban anonymity play in creating new forms of popular entertainment and culture?
  • Who is the intended audience for these sketches? Who is reading this? What genre is this? 
  • What is a “walking city?”
  • What is a b’hoy and g’hal? What was their cultural significance?
  • What role did technological developments in printing play in changing leisure and entertainment in New York City?
  • What are you learning about gender and class in mid-nineteenth century mass entertainment from these accounts?
  • What role does sex play in this story? Is it out in the open? Hidden? What seems to be the moral scaffolding here? 
  • As you read this, what kinds of public spaces were available for people in New York City and what kinds of public spaces seem absent from this account? 

Precept Assignment 

Select one sketch about forms of popular entertainment or culture read it closely. Choose one that you found the most exciting or interesting. In one tight paragraph with a clear thesis statement, analyze how this sketch reveals new information about one of the three key themes below:

  • The city as a mysterious space
  • The city as a site of sexual intrigue
  • The city as a site of social stratification (class) and ethnic conflict

Larger Background Information About This Moment 

In 1801 when Thomas Jefferson became president, 2 out of every 3 Americans lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic Ocean. Only 4 roads crossed the Alleghany Mountains. The United States ended at the Mississippi River. There were 16 states, the newest admitted being Tennessee.

The language and style of thought of 19th-c. Americans will seem foreign to you, for the most part. Their emotions and sensitivities seem in some ways constricted and hemmed-in—but mass entertainment culture will also demonstrate several of the steam valves for Victorians, the ways that they expressed their sexuality, desires, curiosities, and much more.

  • New York City’s population reached 500,000 by the mid-nineteenth century. In 1800, the population of the United States was less than 6 million; roughly the same pop. as Ireland at the time
  • By comparison, Mexico had 5 million; England, 11 million (not counting Ireland)
  • Today it is over 324 million
    • In comparative terms, this is the most distinctive feature of American demography—the extremely rapid growth of people of European and African origins (and, of course, the growth resulting from the mixture of those origins). The census at the time did not “count” or include Native Americans.
  • Between 1700 and 2000, the U.S. experienced over a thousand-fold population increase. Compare that with Europe’s five-fold increase in the same time period.
    • ~ 1/5th or 20% of the population was black, the highest proportion of the population to date; (today this figure is about 12.3-13%; the nation’s largest minority group is Hispanic, at 16%)
    • There were about 1 million slaves in the U.S.[1]
    • The average white woman who survived to age 50 had 7 children; our best estimate is that the average slave woman had 9. By the 1990s, the average was 2 children. This increasing control over fertility was, as it turned out, unique among most other countries in the North Atlantic world
    • And the high fertility of the Early Republic produced a much younger general population; the median age in 1800 was around 16; in 1900 it was about 23 years, and in 2010 it was 37.
  • Where are these Americans?
    • 95% of them lived in rural areas (of less than 2500 people). Today, that figure is at an all-time low of less than 2%.[2]
      • Between 1820 and 1850, the sector of the population residing in “urban” places (defined as over 2,500 people) would multiply five-fold, from seven percent of the population to eighteen percent. And this constituted the fastest rate of urbanization in national history
      • In 1800, Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, L.A., Minneapolis and Birmingham barely existed at all, and over the course of the century, older cities would experience new forms of urban life.

Except for lightning, they were unfamiliar with electricity until the end of the century. They knew nothing of cars, antibiotics, modern plumbing, supermarkets, tv, paved highways, or radios. Whether church-going or not, they were—with few exceptions—believers in a patriarchal God, an afterlife, and a literal heaven and hell where the virtuous would be rewarded and sinners punished. They were also confident that the future would bring continuing progress—in morals, technology, the standard of living, and social justice (though their understandings of that term differed amongst themselves). This is the world you should imagine George Foster grew up in before he suddenly found himself in a wondrous place called New York City beneath the gaslight.

Beginning in the colonial era, leases in New York City expired on May 1, dubbed Moving Day. This deadline lasted throughout the nineteenth century. On Moving Day, trade in the city stopped entirely as New Yorkers transferred all their possessions from one location to another in a tumult exacerbated by pervasive housing shortages. Businesses also moved, as illustrated here by the layering of shop signs on the building in the center. In the foreground, a woman is sprawled across the contents of an overturned cart, trapped by a table and chest of drawers. She—like the city in general—has been turned upside down. This work and its companion, The Five Points (2016.797.17), are biting satires of the rough, chaotic aspects of life in the city.


[1] The vast majority of them American-born by the end of the 1700s. Only 8% of the black population was free.

[2] In 1800, only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. By 1900, almost 14 percent were urbanites, although only 12 cities had 1 million or more inhabitants. In 1950, 30 percent of the world’s population resided in urban centers. In 2008, for the first time in history, more than half of all people in the world lived in areas defined as “urban” by national statistical agencies; that’s at least 3.3 billion people.  That means that the entire world was in 2008 at the critical juncture where the United States found itself in 1920. It is expected that 70 percent of the world population will be urban by 2050, and that most urban growth will occur in less developed countries. (Urban Clusters = old definition of 2500 or more; Urbanized Areas now = 50,000 or +)

Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).