Advice on Settling in New York in 1820

What was life like for a foreigner in the United States in the early 1820s? This was one of many questions I looked into when writing Napoleon in America. Fortunately, many early 19th-century writers provided answers. One of them was William Cobbett, a farmer, journalist and politician described by historian A.J.P. Taylor as the second greatest Englishman (after Samuel Johnson) ever to have lived. (1) Cobbett resided in the United States from 1792 to 1800, and again from 1817 to 1819, where he settled on a farm on Long Island. In 1820, “a farmer, whose lease will expire this year, and who says that he has four children, and that his capital may possibly amount to five thousand pounds,” asked Cobbett about emigrating from Britain to America. Here’s the answer Cobbett gave in his Political Register, a weekly newspaper that he published from 1802 until his death in 1835.

The Bay of New York Taken from Brooklyn Heights by William Guy Wall, 1820-1825. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Edward W. C. Arnold Collection of New York Prints, Maps, and Pictures, Bequest of Edward W. C. Arnold, 1954

The Bay of New York Taken from Brooklyn Heights by William Guy Wall, 1820-1825. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Edward W. C. Arnold Collection of New York Prints, Maps, and Pictures, Bequest of Edward W. C. Arnold, 1954

Where to go

You ask me, first, whether I would advise you to go to America; second, what part of it I would advise you to go to; and, third, what I would advise you to do with your money, when you get there.

As to the first, I give you no advice at all. I never have advised any one to go to America, and I never shall. I would wish every one to stay and take his chance with his country; for richer, for poorer; for better, for worse. …

With regard to the part of America which it is best to settle in, it is such perfect madness for Englishmen to think of going into a wilderness, that I shall suppose you quite incapable of entertaining any such notion. Somewhere on the borders of the Atlantic is the place for you. … [T]he City of New York is inhabited, in great part, by English, Scotch and Irish, and…it resembles an English town, in point of manners and customs, much more than any other place that I have seen in America.

Fish and game

The neighbourhood of New York is abundant, also, in bays, inlets and other beauties and conveniences produced by water. Fish, of all sorts, and in abundance beyond conception, caught at a few yards from a man’s own door. In innumerable instances, the farmer, or country gentleman, has only to keep a little net in the water to be furnished at any hours in the day, with several sorts of excellent fish. I have seen eels, lobsters, flounders and a half-a-dozen other sorts taken out at a time, and brought forth, for breakfast. A little boat going a few yards from the shore, with a man, having a grapple in his hand, brings you oysters at any time of the day and any season of the year.…

As to game, and wild water fowl, there are no bounds as to the quantity, if any one has a mind to pursue them. There is another advantage attending New York and its neighbourhood; and that is, a speedy and constant communication with England. There is, I believe, upon an average, one stout ship a day either coming in, or going out, from or to Liverpool or London.…

Money

As to what a man ought to do with his money, the advice I give to you is that which I have always given to Englishmen with money in their pockets; namely, not to lay it out, or any part of it, in house, land or trade, or farming, for one whole year from the day of your landing. … Money yields seven per cent, lawful interest of the state of New York. And that interest you can also obtain upon landed security of the best possible description without any deduction for those accursed things called Stamps, and without any of the delays of the law. If you have a liking for the public securities of the United States, they give you six per cent; and, pray mark this well, you are in both cases, paid in SPECIE. There are no Bank Restriction Acts there; and the National Debt is so small (and is gradually diminishing) that it is impossible that any one should ever think of a tax upon the funds or a reduction upon the interest. … Your five thousand pounds make twenty two thousand five hundred dollars. … A dollar is four shillings and sixpence sterling; and a cent is the hundredth part of a dollar; or little more than an English half-penny. …

Furnishing a house

To furnish a house does not cost above half as much as it costs to furnish a house in England. … How cheap wood is there, you may guess from this fact: that I used to give twelve cents and a half, which is an English sixpence-half-penny, for pine boards an inch thick, twelve feet long, and nine inches wide! And these are to be gotten at any time and in any quantity, at any place, within forty or fifty miles of New York, the expenses of carriage being hardly worth naming. Goose feathers, which, in England, sell for five or six English shillings a pound, are there to be bought for two and sixpence; and for much less if you go a little back into the country. All articles that go from England are to be bought cheaper at New York than in London; and the most elegant furniture, in wood, is made at New York, for less than half the London price.

Then, as to horses and carriages. The former may be nearly the same price as in England; but the latter, figure for figure, do not cost nearly so much as in England; while the durability of the American carriages, and their lightness (both these latter qualities owing to the vast superiority of the woods which are used in America), render the American carriages not a fourth part of the price of those in England.

A very neat and convenient house, with several acres of land to it, always including an orchard, a real orchard, and generally of peaches as well as of pears and apples, of the finest sorts, may always be had, at a distance from five to ten miles from the city of New York, for about two hundred dollars a year. …

Food and drink

The hog meat is far superior to any thing of the kind known in England. There is more than one reason for this; but the chief reason is that the pigs are fatted with that delightful thing, the Indian Corn, which is eaten in all its stages of growth by man, woman and child. The beef in America is as full fine as in England…. Butter is cheaper than in England. Cheese full as good, upon an average, as the English cheese, is at about two thirds of the English average price. Spices of all sorts, at a quarter part of the English price. Tea, at less than half the English price. Sugar, the same. Coffee at a third of the English price. The chocolate in England is at about six shillings a pound, at New York it is about fourteen pence, English money. Candles and soap, at about half the English price; and, if you choose to make them yourself, they cost still less. Wax candles are very little dearer there than tallow mould candles are in London. Salt for an eighth part of the English price. Beer, if you brew it yourself, will not cost you more than about eight-pence English money, a gallon. I mean strong beer; for nobody will drink small beer in that country. Claret wine, from six pence to eight pence English, a quart. Port wine, from a shilling to sixteen pence a quart. Madeira wine from two shillings to three shillings a quart, and, as to spirits, if you should be so beastly as to use them, you may have them for eighteen pence, English money, a gallon.

The taxman

No tax on the house, on the land, on your horses, or on any thing else. But there would come a taxgatherer, once in the year, and only once, to take from you three or four pounds sterling for the support of the Government, the repairs of the excellent highways, the maintenance of schools in your township, and the relief of the poor! … Plenty of churches and of meeting-houses, to one, or all of which you might belong, if you pleased, and to the support of which you might pay, if you pleased. But if you did not please, you might go to them when you liked, without paying any thing at all.

Fruit

Fruit is a thing not to be overlooked; and here the abundance is such, that the difficulty is to restrain one’s self from eating. For, besides the apples and pears and peaches and cherries, which are so abundant, except in the cities themselves, that they are hardly deemed to be property, you can buy at New York, during several months of the year, pine-apples, which are brought there in ship loads, at the price of from an English sixpence to an English eighteen-pence, each. I have very often seen a carter, at New York, going along gnawing a pine-apple. As to melons, which are so great a rarity in England, you have them, if you are not too lazy to drop a few seeds in to the ground, laying about your garden in hundreds, and that, too, of a much finer flavour than they can be produced in England. …

Servants

You want not more than one servant woman, and her wages will be about fifty dollars a year…. Suppose you to have a boy, besides, to look after a couple of cows or a horse or two, you may have him for about forty dollars, or, say fifty. … Your rent and servant’s wages will amount to three hundred a year. … You will, of course, bake your own bread. You will fat your own pigs, too, to be sure; and you will rear your own poultry…. It is not as in this country, where we have constantly to feed these animals; for if you have an orchard or any thing of space in America you never think of feeding fowls, except in the very hard weather, or except for the purpose of fatting them. …[Y]ou scarcely see a farm house, however small and pitiful the farm may be, without a flock of turkeys about it in the month of October. …

Dress

As to dress, all English goods are cheaper at New York than in any part of England! … All coarse goods, whether cotton or woollen or linen; all bedding stuff; can be made there so cheap that our manufacturers with their present taxes to pay cannot meet them in the same market; unless they sell their goods at a loss. But besides these articles of dress, the women in America are supplied with China crapes, Levantine silks, French silks, French laces of all sorts, parasols, all the things that go to the making of caps, hats and bonnets, and they are supplied with these at so cheap a rate that even the servant girls in New York are seen sweeping down the doorways dressed in China crapes: nay even the black girls are frequently seen wearing them. So that…the most gay promenades in and about London, and even the boxes of our licenced and degraded theatres, are, in point of female dresses, perfect beggary compared with the every day exhibition in the “Broad way” of New York; where the very look of every creature you meet gives evidence of the existence of no taxation without representation. …

Shoes and hats

And then as to shoes, the climate is so fine that there are not more than about twenty-five dirty days in a year; and those are wet, rather than dirty. … As to hats…they cost about the same sum that hats do here, but for that same sum you have a hat about three times as good. The hats being made there, in great part, at least, of real beaver fur, and not of wool and glue. Your head is covered completely without your feeling a weight upon it enough to squeeze your brains out. In summertime people wear white hats, some of which are made there. The most elegant come from the Spanish and Italian dominions, and these, not having passed under the grip of an English tax-gatherer, you have for a quarter part of the price that you can buy them in England.

Live like a rich man

Now, take a review of what I have said here, and you will find that the whole of your expenses, even if you keep two servants, two horses, two cows and a table such as nothing short of a tax-eater or a great land-owner can keep in England, will not exceed seven hundred dollars a year. … You may live in this manner any where at from five to ten miles of the city of New York.…

But what about the people?

[T]he people in and about New York, taken altogether, are those that an Englishman would like best. They are neither puritans nor libertines; they are neither niggardly nor wasteful. They are free and easy in their manners; open in all their transactions, and hospitable to a degree of which, unhappily, an Englishman who has never been there, cannot have the most distant idea. We are so harassed here by the tax-gatherer. We are so pinched; we see so much misery constantly before our eyes; the dread of future want is so constantly hanging about our minds, that all that is worthy of the name of hospitality has taken its flight from our country. (2)

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  1. AJP Taylor, An Old Man’s Diary (London, 1984), p. 96.
  2. Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, Vol. 35, No. 19 (London, January 15, 1820), pp. 583-598.

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The most gay promenades in and about London, and even the boxes of our licenced and degraded theatres, are, in point of female dresses, perfect beggary compared with the every day exhibition in the “Broad way” of New York; where the very look of every creature you meet gives evidence of the existence of no taxation without representation.

William Cobbett