For those interested in a taste of bygone city life, the Merchant’s House Museum on Fourth Street offers a glimpse at urban dwelling in the 19th century. Built in 1832, the preserved home was occupied by the affluent Tredwell family for almost a century and is still outfitted with the family’s furniture. It’s also haunted, some say.
Emily Wright, the museum’s communications and programs manager, shares the history of the family, the home and the Irish women who worked in the house and are the subjects of an upcoming St. Patrick’s Day tour.
THE HISTORYThe Erie Canal opened in the 1820s and it was transformative for New York; it helped turn New York from a small port city into a thriving metropolis. You could send goods up the Hudson and out the Erie Canal to the rest of North America, and it changed the face of New York. It brought a lot more people to New York, and a lot more money. Young men who entered this new merchant class of importing and exporting made a tremendous amount of money. So Seabury Tredwell was born on Long Island and he came to New York as a young man and made his fortune as a hardware merchant. In the 19th century, hardware meant anything made out of metal. Not just hammers and nails but also things like picture frames or pots and pans, buttons, anything that might be made of metal. He moved his family to Fourth Street here in 1835. A lot of members of the merchant class were leaving the congested seaport area downtown and moving up to this neighborhood at this time.
THE STAFFWhen New York really started to change and members of this new merchant class began making money, they developed a strong need for servants. Families who just a couple generations before never would have been able to dream of having live-in help all of a sudden could afford to have servants living and working in their homes. The Tredwell’s are no exception. We know from census records that they always had four women in residence on Fourth Street. And the census also tells us that these women primarily were Irish immigrants. It was extremely common to have Irish women working as servants in your home. It was actually so common that Bridget, a traditionally Irish name, became a slang term. Instead of talking about the maids you had in your house you might talk about the Bridgets you employed.
THE WORK The thing that was surprising to me in developing the [St. Patrick’s Day] tour was the amount of agency servants developed because there was such a demand for servants. If you were particularly skilled and you had experience, you really had a surprising amount of say in how much you were paid and time off and things like that…Social life in the 19th century, there were interesting nuances. You would have dinner parties and there were specific rules about how you would serve the food, so you needed a servant who was sort of savvy in that way, who was up on what the trends were so when you were entertaining your friends, your servants would be able to carry it all off without a hitch. And so as a servant if you really knew what you were doing that gave you a surprising amount of power.