19th Century Mission Coffee House
by Anita Mae Draper
This is a continuation of my 19th Century Coffee Taverns post which detailed the workings of the British coffee public houses of the later part of the 19th century. In this post, I'd like to open the door of one American coffee house of the same period.
Much like their British counterparts, the coffee houses of North America were started by churches and Bible societies intent on spreading and living the gospel. They physically followed the scripture in Matthew 25:44,45 (NIV) “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’"
In 1832, the main building of the Blackwell's Penitentiary was erected. A few years later in 1839, New York's first publicly funded lunatic asylum opened on Blackwell Island, which happened to be the first mental institution in the United States. In 1854, the Small-pox Hospital was erected to accommodate one hundred patients - the only hospital in New York devoted to small-pox cases. And then during the 1860's before the New York Foundling Hospital opened, New York's foundlings were entrusted in the care of poor women living in the Almshouse on Blackwell's Island.
|Blackwell's Island Lunatic Asylum|
So what does this all have to do with a coffee house? Well, according to the The Coffee Public-House News and Temperance Hotel Journal, Dec 16, 1885, there were 42 'liquor saloons' within 3 squares of the pier where released convicts, and convalescents landed from Blackwell's Island. A Mar 4, 1884 New York Times article confirms saying "There were 47 rum-holes put where they could be reached by discharged prisoners from Blackwell's Island. They were no sooner landed when they were ensnared in these dens of iniquity.”
In 1879 the New York Bible and Fruit Mission hoped to combat this problem and offer an alternative to those very people coming off the island. Their new building contained a coffee house with meals (restaurant) on the main floor "where meals were served all hours of the day with prices within the reach of the poor". It was reported that people from all classes and in all states of health stopped at the coffee house for a meal or rest.
In one year the Mission Coffee House served 79,925 people which ranged from free meals supported by donations to meals for the hospital patients.
Along with the meals, the building contained a chapel and provided cheap lodging and free access to a reading room and bath. All patrons were invited to the meetings in which there were 196 conversions over the course of one year.
Mission coffee houses like this served a real need in the community. The main opposition seemed to be the people who said the food was good, but keep religion out of the building. If not for that, it would seem to be a success story, except like the coffee-public houses in Britain, the cheap, non-profit meals took their toll and by 1890, the mission was almost $2,000 in debt. My research hasn't uncovered what happened to it after that.
Blackwell's Island/Roosevelt Island fascinates me. Do you have any stories to tell about it, either first or second hand?
The Coffee Public-House News and Temperance Hotel Journal, Dec 16, 1885
View Roosevelt Island on Qwiki