Men’s clothing was just as diverse in the 1880s as it is today. Photographs are an excellent but limited source of information, simply because whether or not a person was ever photographed had to do with economic, ethnic, and regional characteristics.
Charles Guillaume Frédéric Boson de Talleyrand-Périgord (1832-1910) was a famous French dandy, and the grandson of Dorothea von Biron. A cavalry officer, he was one of the major figures in French high society in the second half of the 19th century. Boni de Castellane wrote of him:“ A cabotin, brave, amiable, high but without airs-and-graces, he had a supreme elegance, with the air of a grand seigneur, but with a certain something of the actor Gil-Pérès. Quite diplomatic, very ignorant, without taste for things of value, he was full of a “chic” which showed itself in all his sounds, gestures, poses and even the black band of his spectacles. He excelled in the art of paying homage to women who showed themselves attentive to him, like a cat, without good-faith or law. He reigned in Paris over a crowd of personalities from the “grand monde”, just as over more dubious people. A prince as well as a prince of fashion, he held the titles of peer of France and compère of the revue.” See Ask Andy on the history of checked trousers.
It’s hard to underestimate — it’s hard even to fully imagine — the extremes of poverty and wealth in Manhattan in the late 19th century.
The homeless — children and adults — were legion. The city was so crowded with people who could not afford a bed that in the last quarter of the century an unusual practice was put in place. Police stations began to open their doors at nightfall and make basement accommodations available to the poor. In the light of day they were turned out onto the street again.
In the winter months especially the police station basements were very popular. In the photo below, the poor have lined up to wait for the doors to open at the Mulberry Street police station.
Those who worked full time — and that might mean seven days a week, twelve or more hours a day — often resided well below the poverty line as well.
Cash-girls receiving $1.75 a week for work that at certain seasons lengthened their day to sixteen hours were sometimes required to pay for their aprons. A common cause for discharge from stores in which, on account of the oppressive heat and lack of ventilation, “girls fainted day after day and came out looking like corpses,” was too long service. No other fault was found with the discharged saleswomen than that they had been long enough in the employ of the firm to justly expect an increase of salary. The reason was even given with brutal frankness, in some instances. (Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives)
This section of an 1883 map correlates to multiple crimes reported in contemporaneous newspapers. This is not unexpected, as it was one of the poorest neighborhoods and encompassed Mulberry Bend, made famous by Jacob Riis‘s photography documenting the squalid living conditions available to new immigrants.
Opium dens mentioned in the papers in 1883 (the ones I found, at any rate) are marked here in blue ovals; red stars indicate brothels or tenements occupied by prostitutes. Just a block and a half west of the infamous Chatham Square you’ll see the Grand Duke’s Theater at 21 Baxter.
The Grand Duke’s Theater was attached to a stale beer joint, one of the lowest of the low taverns that sold the dregs from beer barrels, and were frequented primarily by the children who lived on the street and cobbled together a living by selling papers or flowers, shining shoes, running errands and petty larceny.
It used to be a familiar sight to see the saloons of Baxter, Mott and Mulberry streets filled with these [homeless] boys. It was only a few years ago that they had their own theatre, “The Grand Duke’s Theatre,” at 21 Baxter street, in the cellar under a stale beer dive, where really clever performances were given of an imitative character, by a company of boys; and which, by the way, was the only theatre which for years defied the efforts of the authorities to collect the license. The admission fee was ten cents, and curiosity seekers came from all parts of the city to witness the really laughable and, in many cases, meritorious character-sketches given within its damp walls. It was subsequently broken up by the police.
Note the casual disdain for the children, and worse, the way their survival is trivialized. No mention of disease or child prostitution, maybe because they thought too much truth would be bad for sales. In 1887 The Grand Duke’s Theater came down, according to the New York Times, to make room for a tenement. They provide a more sober short history:
Once excellent source of information can be found at the historypoverty.org website maintained by the Institute for for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness:
PovertyHistory.org provides an intimate look at the experience of poverty over New York City’s history. The site investigates public policies that have shaped the lives of the poor and homeless and shows how the past continues to influence the present. With comprehensive timelines, analytical maps, striking images, primary sources, and informative essays, this site is geared toward students, teachers, service providers, and policymakers with an interest in the history of these intractable issues.