I’m writing from New York City. If I didn’t write sooner, it’s because the sea voyage really weakened me, and because I wanted to have a better understanding of the city before putting pen to paper.
Let me start by saying that I arrived in Rotterdam as planned after an uneventful five-day coach ride. Since you had sent the five chests of pennies ahead with Thurn and Taxis, I didn’t have anything to worry about, and it allowed me to better enjoy the company of the people I met in the relay inns. Upon reaching Rotterdam, I went directly to David and Hannah’s place, and it was a moment of great conviviality. I’d missed them, they’d missed me, and I wanted to know everything about them, and they wanted to know everything about me. I can only say that I’m very impressed with what they’ve done. They have a beautiful home, the counting house is well-appointed, and they seem to have contacted everyone worth knowing with Montefiore’s help, a truly great gentleman. There’s no doubt in my mind that your decision to send David to Rotterdam was the right one, and I can only hope to do as well for you in New York
I left Rotterdam, and I crossed the channel to London where I waited for a ship that took on passengers for New York. I soon found what I was looking for, and I booked passage on a good looking ship about to lift anchor. The ocean crossing took more than three months and was very unpleasant. The captain told us it was the worst weather he’d seen in years. I spent a lot of time turning green and wondering if life was worth living, and when it got too bad, I stayed in my hammock, and that, I’m sure, was what saved my life.
I did, however, have a few days of relief during which time I managed to get my hands on some moldy dry bread and barely drinkable water laced with rum, and having digested this doubtful ration, I was able to observe the world around me with some degree of lucidity. Most of the crew members were of the unrefined variety, but they were competent and helpful. There were several gentlemen who were going to the colonies to strike it rich, but my most interesting encounter was with a fellow named Ephraim Hart. He was especially interesting because he was returning to New York to resume his business activities, and he provided me with much information concerning the ins and outs of life in the colonies. When we arrived, I was in a pitiful state, and Ephraim was kind enough to introduce me to that fine landlady with the big house who has a fireplace in each bedroom, the same one I had fantasized about, remember? Well, it isn’t quite so, but it is a fine house. And Gretel, you’ll be happy to know she’s Ashkenazi and feeds me schmaltzy food, American style, and my ribs are no longer showing.
It’s been two weeks since I’ve arrived, and it’s the first day I feel disposed to write. On the day of my arrival, I managed to get my personal affairs transported to the boarding house, and you’ll be happy to know the five chests containing the thousand pounds of pennies are safe and sound. New York is a garrison town like Hanau, and there are hundreds of English soldiers and sailors roaming the wide avenues. Therefore, you need not worry about me or the money.
There are around fifteen thousand people living here. The city is located on the tip of an island that’s hidden behind a much bigger one that protects it completely from the onslaught of the ocean. The military installations are on the southern tip of the island, and the port facilities are built along the Hudson River on the west side and the East River on the other. One couldn’t dream of a more accessible and well-protected deep-sea water port.
The city is traversed north and south by a main artery called Broadway that runs from the Battery, the British military fortifications at the southern tip, to a fresh water reservoir called Collect Pond, and is approximately one mile long in English units. The city covers an area approximately one mile by one half mile. There are three main streets, Broad, William and Queen, running in a north-south direction. All streets run north-south and east-west, and are therefore perpendicular to each other. Most streets are pebbled and have paved walkways on either side, so one can easily access all parts of the city on foot or on horseback. Community life revolves around houses of worship, and there are many, including an imposing synagogue on Mill Street not far from Broad Street.
On my first outing, I walked to Collect Pond and I was encouraged to follow Boston Road north because of the beautiful colors of autumn. There’s a native tree called the maple that turns all colors this time of year, and it makes for a most spectacular sight. However, as I walked the streets, I couldn’t help but notice that people leave much of their waste on the roadways. They even leave dead horses to rot, and although pigs and wild animals act as scavengers, they only clean up so much. There are pigs, cows and many other animals roaming about because as the city expanded northward from Wall Street, many people used their large plots of land to grow food and raise animals.
Another downside is that one can smell human waste just about everywhere one goes. It would seem that the more responsible home owners dig a hole in the back of their house and build what is called an outhouse, and when the hole is filled, they cover it with earth, dig another hole and move the outhouse accordingly. Others use a simple pail toilet and empty it in out of the way places when people aren’t looking. There are many stories concerning chamber pots and how carelessly they’re emptied. For instance, I’m told it’s wise to hug the walls of buildings when walking in the city at night, for one never knows what can fall from the heavens.
Since there is so much waste being added to the soil, much of the water from the privately dug surface wells tastes bad and smells. A proud Philadelphian once wrote that here in New York ‘people drink a proportion of their own evacuations, as well as that of their horses, cows, pigs, dogs, cats, and other putrid liquids so plentifully dispensed.’ In all fairness, in comparing the two cities, that gentleman didn’t take in consideration the fact that Philadelphia has two rivers bringing it plenty of fresh drinking water, giving it a decided advantage. As for waste disposal in Philadelphia, I’m told it’s not much better than it is here. Its narrow unpaved streets crammed with poorly built houses are strewn with dejections, and the large deep wells dug in strategic parts of the city to accommodate waste produce a pervasive foul odor.
As a way of combating the scarcity of good drinking water, just about everybody, young and old, drinks beer. From the very first days of the colony, the Dutch drank beer and the English followed suite by bringing their brewers and beer making equipment with them. Everybody lives by an old European adage that says one doesn’t get sick if one drinks ale. However, many of the more fortunate English families tend to drink tea and buy their water from water peddlers who go door-to-door with horse drawn wagons laden with huge wooden casks. Obviously, these solutions are out of reach for the working poor. When all is said and done, as a community, New York doesn’t seem to consider having good drinking water to be a priority. When one compares the conditions here with the Judengasse ghetto and its superb sewers and abundant pristine drinking water, one can only wonder.
New York has a great middle class, composed chiefly of tradesmen and merchants. They are all housed in splendid residences, and most, including lawyers and doctors, have built their mansions on William, Broad and Queen Streets. On the other hand, the more humble folk who work for these prosperous citizens are parked along the East River in an area called the flats. It consists of an agglomeration of shacks and lean-to’s built on either side of a street appropriately called Water Street, and even though they can throw their waste directly into the East River, these poor people don’t have access to clean drinking water and don’t always have the pennies needed to buy beer. Their lot isn’t at all enviable.
The mansions and office buildings are built of stone or brick, and the Governor’s House, Trinity Church, St. Paul’s Church, Columbia College and the hospital are all within one block of Broadway. There’s a lot of wealth generated here irrespective of the sanitary conditions that I’ve described, and, not surprisingly, the population is said to double every ten years or so. For the time being, my boarding house located on Broad Street just south of Wall Street will serve me well, for I have access to all manner of businesses in the financial and port districts. It’ll be very easy to rent or buy office space, and you’ll be glad to know, that everything costs a fraction of what it does in Frankfurt. For instance, you can build a large two-story stone building on Broad Street for slightly more than five hundred pounds. According to Ephraim, you could have a five hundred ton capacity ocean-going vessel, all rigged and made of oak that can withstand thirty years of rot, built right here in New York for about the same price. This got me thinking as a banker, and I’m sure you’ll be interested in the suggestions I make further on in this letter.
First, let me tell you more about Philadelphia. It’s bigger than New York and it lies far up the Delaware River. A religious group from England called Quakers, a people known for their peaceful ways and tolerance, settled there. Since they were not tolerated in England, they’re not as loyal to the English crown as their counterparts in New York, and this could be worth remembering as the political storm builds over what is considered unfair taxation by the Mother Country. A large population of Swedes and many Germans from the Frankfurt region have settled there as well. However, because the tolerant Quakers are intolerant when it comes to language and want everybody to learn English, the three groups tend to stand apart.
The Delaware River being a more modest river than the Hudson, and Philadelphia being far upstream, the English have naturally built the bulk of their military facilities in New York City where they have ocean access to the whole coast. Another noteworthy fact is that Philadelphia though a long distance from New York City by sea is quite close to it by land. After crossing the Hudson River from New York City by ferry, it’s a mere two-day stagecoach ride to Philadelphia, and the service has been in operation for years. This situation is unique in the colonies, for all the other capitals remain quite isolated from each other.
Both the Delaware and Hudson River basins are very fertile and have been developed along the same pattern. Following the early Dutch East India Company guidelines, both valleys developed using the patroon system. The idea probably came from the Huguenot refugees who first settled in Rotterdam and later in New Rotterdam. In wanting to encourage settlements, the Dutch granted patroonships that spanned 16 miles in length on one side of the river, or 8 miles if spanning both sides. Later the plot sizes were cut in half in order to accommodate more Dutch Americans in good standing. The title of patroon derived from the word patron and meaning boss in French, grants powers and privileges just like they do to our princes in Europe. The patroon creates civil and criminal courts, appoints local officials, and holds land in perpetuity. In return, he is commissioned by the Governor to establish a settlement of at least fifty families within four years. As tenants working for the patroon, the settlers don’t pay public taxes for the first ten years, but they do compensate the patroon in money, goods, or services as agreed to by all parties. The patroon lives in a luxurious, well-built house of brick or stone, has a retinue of servants, large barns, orchards and gardens, and broad pasture lands. A patroonship has its own village infrastructure that includes a church which records births, baptisms, and marriages. On the one hand, the English encourage this system because the large tracts of land are very productive, but on the other, they forbid the patroons from manufacturing goods for resale. As can be expected, the patroons disregard the interdiction, and continue to operate their foundries and other small industries that produce iron goods, furniture, and cloth. They then float all their excess production, along with all the furs they can get from the natives, downriver to New York where they sell the lot to the citizens and merchants totally disregarding the English interdictions.
The patroons and the merchants have developed a bartering system. They exchange local goods for manufactured goods coming from England, and keep track of how much one owes the other. No matter, there’s a real money problem here, and it lies in the fact there isn’t much silver specie to buy and sell the little things that ordinary people need in everyday life. When Ephraim told me that the Bank of England completely ignored the needs of colonials by refusing to inject silver specie in the colonies, I didn’t quite believe him, but it’s even worse than that. Not only do colonials have little sterling, but the English refuse to accept the plentiful Spanish dollars at par with the Pound, in spite of the fact they both contain the same amount of silver. By establishing an exchange rate of 4 to 1 in favor of the Pound, they are strangling the local economy. That combined with the fact that they ban the importation of non-English goods and discourage the locals from manufacturing their own very much foments ill feelings towards the Mother Country. This doesn’t make for a healthy political situation, and there’s even a growing dissident movement called Sons of Liberty that’s present throughout the colonies, especially in Boston where the English have massacred a number of their sympathizers last year. This Boston Massacre, as it’s decried on the street, has even enflamed the very loyalist Southern Colonies.
I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say about these tensions at a future date, but for now, here are some of my views regarding facilitating trade with Europe. I’ve talked to Ephraim about this, and he thinks that our services are highly needed here in the colonies because although trade is increasing at a rapid rate, credit is hard to get, there’s very little specie and England is maintaining very unjust exchange rates in favor of the pound. But if we disposed to finance a shipment of tobacco to Rotterdam, here’s how it could be done. I would ask a fellow I met, Robert Morris, or someone of his stature, to buy and deliver a load of tobacco consisting of a thousand hogsheads to Rotterdam. A hogshead contains a thousand pounds of tobacco worth a penny per pound and costs around £4. Morris would receive a bill of exchange reflecting a guaranteed price of, let’s say, five pennies per pound payable to him when David took possession of the tobacco in Rotterdam. Morris would then issue his own bill of exchange to the producer in Williamsburg payable when the tobacco is delivered in Rotterdam, and he would also give him written proof that taxes are paid and that the cargo is fully insured. In this scenario the seller in Williamsburg is guaranteed a full penny per pound for his tobacco payable in six months’ time with interest if required, and the merchant Robert Morris is guaranteed five pennies per pound when the shipment arrives in Rotterdam. David in Rotterdam will have by then sold the tobacco well below its market price if need be, let’s say, ten pennies per pound. In a worst case scenario, the producer gets £4000, the shipper makes £16000 (£20000 less £4000), minus expenses, and our counting house make £20000 (£40000 less £20000), minus expenses. All parties make a handsome profit, and we accomplish this with only a slight risk, that of getting rid of the tobacco. But since we have such a huge profit margin to play with, since tobacco is in such high demand, and since it would be sold ahead of time, it could be said there’s no risk at all.
If you wanted to finance shipments going from Rotterdam to New York or London, I have two suggestions, and they have to do with two French products. As you know, before I met you I had been travelling in France, and that’s when I became aware of them. I’m talking about two products the English in England, and especially in the colonies, aren’t familiar with. It has to do with a cloth from Nimes in the south, and an extraordinary wine from the Burgundy area further north.
If Burgundy wines became known, the demand for them would explode, I’m sure. The English are already very fond of Bordeaux clarets, and once they taste these delightful wines from Bourgogne, they’ll surely be overwhelmed. I personally tasted them and know how good they are. But here’s why I think they’re worth investigating further. I’ve heard that wines can now be shipped in bottles instead of casks, an innovation that not only guarantees the original quality of the wines, but allows them to age to their sublime potential before they reach the palates of connoisseurs. In a word, if we found a way to have Burgundy wine bottled, corked and packaged before sending a shipment of it to Rotterdam and London, it would surely become an overnight sensation, and its price would increase exponentially.
As for the cloth, it’s an ingeniously woven cotton fabric manufactured in Genoa, Italy. The cloth got its French name when a Huguenot silk manufacturer from Nîmes bought the Genoa business during the religious persecutions. The cloth had been used for making sails, but in wanting to expand the business, the Frenchman thought of making a fabric suitable for work clothes. He knew exactly what had to be done when he came across an old sample of sail cloth dyed indigo. There was much talk about this white-blue ‘de Nîmes’ cloth when I was in Lyon. In spite of cotton being outlawed by the King, people kept asking for it, claiming it could outlast Indian cotton ten to one. Judging from that experience, I can say with assurance that if you financed a shipment of that fabric to America you would make a mindboggling profit. The cost of working clothes is so high and disproportionate to income in the Colonies that the demand for a cheap, attractive and tough cloth would surely be overwhelming.
Unfortunately, I have no way of looking into those products at this end. It would be necessary for someone to go to France and see about their availability. As far as I know, there are three key cities involved: Nîmes for the cloth and information regarding the bottle corks, Lyon for the bottles, and Beaune for the wine. The three cities are in a north-south axis along the Rhone-Saone River corridor. The corks, the bottles and the wine would come together in Beaune, and from there, the ‘de Nîmes’ cloth and the now-bottled wine would be transported over an excellent old Roman road that goes from Beaune to Basel on the Rhine, and from there the merchandise could be shipped down the Rhine River to Rotterdam or anywhere in between.
I hope you don’t think I’m being bold in making these suggestions. I’m just trying to give you useful information. There are many other possibilities, and I’m sure you’ll advise me. But I’m convinced that indigo, rum and tobacco from the Americas, Burgundy wine and ‘de Nîmes’ cloth from France, and colorful cotton fabrics from England are the sort of exotic merchandises that’ll generate extremely high profits.
There’s something else I have to tell you, and it has to do with a discovery that I’ll refer to as the Atlantic ‘stream’. Don’t fret if you’ve never heard of it, hardly anyone has. It’s an ocean phenomenon that’s been confirmed by a very ingenious fellow called Benjamin Franklin, a Philadelphian who has become the Colonies’ emissary to Europe. For some time now, merchants have been wondering why it takes longer to sail to New York than it does to the southern colonies even though they’re much farther, and this fellow Benjamin figured it out by paying attention to the New England whalers. The whalers kept saying that in order to catch more whales they followed what seemed to be a big river of warm water that flowed right through the Atlantic Ocean. This river was full of plankton, whale food for the uninitiated, and it flowed in an easterly direction. If they followed this river, they were sure to bring back all the whale oil their ships could hold.
Benjamin was listening, and on one of his trips to Europe, he got the captain to agree to zigzag his way across the ocean, thus going in and out of the alleged river of warm water. As he did so, he recorded water temperatures and latitudes, and the result was very convincing. He was able to chart this ‘stream’ of warm water and show that it flowed at a speed of around four knots. He published his findings in England, but since mighty English captains have nothing to learn from lowly colonial whalers, this discovery is still not being exploited by the English. But the fact remains, if one were to sail north or south of it on the westward leg, one could shorten the journey by as much as two weeks, and if one were to sail in it on the eastward leg, there would be much time gained as well. I thought you might find this information useful because I remember you telling me in your tongue-in-cheek way that having a good communications network and knowing things ahead of everybody else could be very profitable.
In closing, let me say that I intend to proceed with the rental of office space on Broad Street. I also took the liberty of having a small quantity of bills of exchange printed using the House of Rothschild name and the HR logo. I’m enclosing a sample for your perusal.
As I await your answer which will arrive in early spring in four or five months from now, I’ll get acquainted with merchants and find out what merchandises are the most profitable to finance. I’ll also make a point of going to Philadelphia and meet with a fellow called Bernard Kratz who’s trying hard to have a synagogue built over there. I’m sure I’ll find out everything there is to know about Philadelphia through him. As I await your reply, regardless of the financial activity I pursue, it won’t involve big sums. When I get your letter, if you’ve decided to go with tobacco, I’ll be ready. Needless to say, a four or five month correspondence delay doesn’t simplify matters, but once I know exactly how you want to proceed, things will get sorted out. Rest assured that I don’t see any major impediments at this end, at this time.