For a long time I used to go down to Pearl Street at the bottom of Manhattan. It was around the time that I had started writing a book about the famous case of the man and the woman who had disappeared from Pearl Street in 1997. The book led to the street and, in time, I became very fond of the street. I would go back to Pearl Street with greater frequency, sometimes every day, though it is not as though I thought the missing couple would return one day but one never knows.
A few years ago, I went to the New York Historical Society library to find out who had lived on Pearl Street a century ago as the search for the missing couple sent me back in time and forward in geography. Fortunately the New-York Directory of 1812 has a cross reference so you can look up the street and then find the people who lived there. There were two who caught my attention, James Armory, whip maker at 244 Pearl Street, and Sarah Wood, bonnet maker, at 357 Pearl Street. I wondered if they had known each other and, more importantly, had they fallen in love. I think it was the opposite nature of their professions, one, the maker of whips, the other of bonnets, that made a romance seem so exciting.
Over the years I would think about Mr. Armory and Ms. Wood often, not as much as the missing couple but a lot. I decided to find out more about them and what they made. I tried researching whip makers on the Internet because I wanted to know what Mr. Armory’s whips and shop would have looked like. Too many Western style whips came up. When I emailed my questions to a prominent whip maker, he wrote, “Buy my book” which I thought was rather harsh. I was not sure if his book would have addressed the matter of East Coast whips.
It turns out that there was a town in the east called “Whip City,” aka Westfield, Massachusetts, because most of the town’s residents in the late l9th century worked in the whip industry. There is one factory left but the factory was closed for a few days. I could not wait to find out about east coast whips so I went back to the Historical Society Library, so calming with the red carpet, the white Ionic columns, and the milk glass, lamp shades. Joseph, the librarian, knew exactly where to find a clue — The Arts and Crafts in New York l800 -04 by Rita S. Gottesman published in 1965. The late Ms. Gottesman, who also wrote two earlier volumes, was a hero. She reprinted all kinds of ads, under headings such as: Clocks and Watches, Fashion and Beauty, even Balloons. There, in the index, was “whip makers.” On the whip maker page was Mr. Armory.
The ad reprinted from The New-York Gazette, January 1, 1800-1804, for Mr. Armory read: “…He has on hand an extensive assortment of ready made horse whips of every description….In addition…he has entered into….neat double and single barrel Guns ….an elegant assortment of sword dart canes…a few Bird nets… “ Then another of his ads went on about having 2000 bundles of rattan for plaiting whips.
When I showed Joseph, the librarian, my findings, he said, “You know, whips were not just for horses. There were slaves then.”
While reading the 1812 Gazette to get the best sense of Mr. Armory and Ms Wood’s world on Pearl Street, I saw many advertisements for boys: “For sale, a Negro Boy, 14 years of age….he is smart and active. Apply 51 South Street.” Another was “.…about l6, apply corner of Broad & Beaver Streets.” There was an ad for a wench.
I became swept away reading about Malaga Raisins, Spermacetti Oil, and Spy Glaffes [they still used “f” for “s” back then] “A very handfome affortment, confifting of Day and Night, Adromatic, Camp, and Perfpective Glaffes….Fuited to the pocket. For Sale at No. 128 Pearl-Street.” And of course, bombazeens and Elephant and Sea-Horse Teeth…” I did not find advertisements for Sarah Wood and her bonnets but I did see that “S.Frifkney – Milliner… Has juft received by the Fair American from London, a very elegant affortment of made and unmade MILLINERY confiffting of all the moft fafhionable Caps, Cloaks, straw and velvet Bonnets —like wife leather girdles….” So that gave a sense of the millinery world.
Pearl Street, and the surrounding streets, in those days was quite a hub of commerce. It is entirely likely that Mr. Armory and Miss Wood had been in the same spot, either knowingly or unknowingly, on one or on many occasions, buying groceries or Madeira or red lead.
“How are you today, Miss Wood? “
“I am just fine, Mr. Armory.”
“Are you buying oranges, lemons, or citrons, Miss Wood?”
“No, I was considering the deer.”
But all the same, I was sure there had been convergence between them.
And they might have met at the play on June 8 “…performed, for the first time in America…the comedy of THE KISS.”
Ms. Wood may have looked up at Mr. Armory — when I think about her, she is always wearing a short-waisted muslin dress and a gingham or straw bonnet tied with a ribbon to the side though, if it were the evening, the bonnet might be velvet. I say that she “looked up at” because I sensed that she was shorter than he was and he, being a whip maker — it seemed he would be tall — but then there are enforcing types of all sizes. She would have long, eyelashes and he would be wearing a fitted waistcoat. He might have been married though he could have been a confirmed bachelor. But I concluded that, because Miss Wood worked, she may have been alone with little children to care for, or she lived with a sister. But as I was figuring this out, I came upon another advertisement:
“NOW OR NEVER. Just arrived, a female ELEPHANT, to be SEEN at No 324 Bway near the head of Pearl-street from Thurs to Sat. Those who wish to gratify their curiosity by viewing this wonderful animal, will do well to call previous to that time, as it will positively be removed the next morning. Perhaps the present generation may never have an opportunity of seeing an Elephant again…”
That is where they met, I concluded. They were both starring at the Elephant. Though my mind would change
on my next trip to Pearl Street. Then, of course, other things would happen.
[To be continued…]
Toni Schlesinger is a New York-based author, journalist, fiction writer, and theater artist who is writing the non-fiction book, “The Mystery of Pearl Street.” Her “Five Flights Up” book (Princeton Architectural Press) is a collection of her award-wining Village Voice “Shelter” columns about New York. Her most recent original play in which she also performed was “The Palace” (2010) at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. www.tonischlesinger.com