Tuesday, May 31, 2011

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.’"

One of New York's neediest areas in 1885 was near the pier to Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt Island) in the East River. The cigar-shaped 120-acre isle beneath the Queensborough Bridge extends 1.75 miles and is 750 feet across at its widest point. The city of New York purchased the island from the Blackwell family in 1828.

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.

As manageress of the Mission Coffee House, Mrs. E.O. Conger sold refreshment (commutation) cards at a 10% discount. (I'm researching the origin of these cards and hope to have more info soon.)

This refreshment card worked the same as they do now . . . A waitress would hand the customer a check (bill) with his menu items listed. He/she would take it to the cashier who would punch the monetary amount out of the card. The customer would then keep the card for the next meal or until all the numbers were punched. This system served the purpose of giving a discount to return patrons and it relieved the need of carrying cash and perhaps being tempted to go into another establishment for some other liquid refreshment. The Mission Coffee House cards could be used for $3.30 worth of meals. This could keep a customer in meals for a week.

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
Anita Mae Draper is retired from the Canadian Armed Forces and lives on the prairie of southeast Saskatchewan, Canada with her hubby of 30 plus years and 2 of their 4 kids. In 2005, Anita Mae decided to return to writing and make it a priority in her life. She writes old west stories set on the prairies of Saskatchewan, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. Her characters are strong because the land demands it. Anita Mae likes to write characters who sit up and notice when that special person God’s chosen just for them walks by. The story is all about the courtship between the two main characters. But it won’t be an easy path. And if they don’t know about God at the beginning of the book, they will by the end. Anita Mae has semi-finaled in the Historical Romance category of the ACFW's 2011 Genesis contest and finaled in the Inspirational category of the 2011 Daphne du Maurier, the 2011 Fool for Love, the 2011 Duel on the Delta and 2009 Linda Howard Award of Excellence contests. She’s currently waiting to hear the phone ring and have someone say they want to buy Emma’s Outlaw. Meanwhile, she’s working on another story and trying to keep her imagination in check. A pathological picture taker, she usually has a photo or two of her western world on her blog at http://anitamaedraper.blogspot.com/


  1. Most of this is new to me Anita, and I'm very impressed and interested.
    First, you used two of my favorite words... lunatic and asylum.

    Seriously, these mission houses are fascinating. Thanks for 'serving' up a slice of history today. I'd love to do some snooping on my own the next time I go to NYC, but first I have to find out what's available.

  2. Hey Deb, I thought for sure you'd be the one with stories to tell. I'm shocked. There goes my plan to regale Inkyland with back-squirming tales to make their hair stand on end.

    As a native New Yorker you must've heard some stories, huh?

    I know you're drawn to lunatics because you hang around me.

    And you write about asylums which is also where the lunatics come in, no?

    So I won't let you off the hook this easy. However, here's the hint of a story to get you going... there is one famous person who stayed in Blackwell's Island lunatic asylum for a short time. Guess who?

    Anita Mae.

  3. Very cool post, Anita. Blackwell's Island is where Nellie Bly went undercover as a patient for ten days to expose how the patients were treated.

  4. Aha, Suzie, she did indeed.

    Working undercover for New York World in 1887, Elizabeth Cochrane Seamen aka Nellie Bly expressed strange behavior in a public setting, was declared “undoubtedly insane” and committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

    She was released after 10 days at the request of New York World and went on to write numerous shocking articles which she gathered into a book called Ten Days in a Madhouse. Her book resulted in a Grand Jury investigation into the ‘human rat-trap’ conditions of the asylum from inedible meals to the torturous methods employed by staff.

    The asylum was closed in 1894 and all that remains is the domed octagonal structure.

    I remember seeing a show back in the '70s - Mod Squad perhaps - where one of the main characters did the same thing. Except when it came time for the big release, it was much harder than anyone thought. Scary stuff.

    Good job, Suzie. Anyone else?

    Anita Mae.

  5. Anita, remember when we did our Inkspots post? Mine was on Nellie Bly. That's why I knew about this. I don't know about any other famous people there, so I hope you can drop names and clue me in. Lol!

  6. But Nellie is the only one I know about, Suzie. And here I thought you'd googled the answer. LOL

    I apologize for that. I'd forgotten about our posts on female heroines. She was truly one of a kind, wasn't she?

    Here's the link to your Nellie Bly post in case anyone wants to read more about the fascinating woman. I think your post calls her 'Pink'. :)

    Anita Mae.

  7. Fascinating post, Anita Mae. I knew nothing about the asylum or the mission work. Bless those folks who offered something other than a "rum pit" to the hungry (both physically and spiritually).

    I have no clue who else might've stayed at the asylum. Any more hints?

  8. Oh Anita, you silly girl. You have nothing to apologize for. How could you possibly be expected to remember every single post any of us have written? I *think* I remember who your Inkspot was. And I do remember Susie D's, Lisa's, Connie's, and Gina's. But I sure don't remember all of them. Nor do I remember all of the posts I've written myself.

    So, she was the famous person you were thinking of. Does that mean you know of no others? Maybe we will have to google this to see if there's an answer. I'll let you know if I come up with anyone else.

  9. Hey Susie, nope no more hints because I don't know anyone else. I was hoping Seeker Ruthy would come over with some info but she said the whole Blackwell Island asylum thing is a blight on New York's past.

    I hope I didn't offend anyone with my post. I just wanted to show the need for an alternative to the liquor holes and someone to give released felons a second chance.

    It seems the more I research coffee houses, the more I learn about missions. :)


  10. Cool stuff, Anita. What a mission. I'd love to know what happened to some of the people who came through there.

    Deb, do you have an asylum in a story? I was working on one where the heroine has a sister in one. I've been thinking I might have to go to Colonial Williamsburg to see the one there.

  11. Very interesting, Anita. I was just reading a historical mystery series that took place in NY right about this time. Now I feel like I time warped back in. Since I'm probably the most history-challenged of the group, that's quite an accomplishment!

  12. Anita, your research skills never fail to impress and astound me! This was awesome!
    No cool stories, although I do recall the Nellie Bly undercover assignment. How terrifying that would have been!

  13. CJ, Deb's current wip takes place in an asylum. It's a gothic romance and she's handled the setting very well although she's only shown me the first chapter. However, the whole time I was reading it I was very much aware of the cold, dark rooms.

  14. Hey Barb, that sounds intriguing. What's the series?

  15. Niki, it probably was very terrifying.

    I think I mentioned once before how much I relate to the John Conlee song, I Don't Remember Loving You (starting half way through):
    I don’t remember loving you
    I heard you mention children did you say there’s one or two
    You say I quit my job and then I drank myself insane

    You said I ran down the highway screaming out your name
    Now that’s not the sort of thing that I would do
    No I don’t remember loving you

    I don’t remember loving you
    I absolutely positively know that can’t be true
    But everyone I know here in this place is very strange
    If you hand me my crayons I’ll be glad to take your name
    In case I run across the guy you knew
    But I don’t remember loving you

    With all the things in my childhood, I used to wonder what would happen if I just decided to give up and not care. To sit down and not move. To exist without the responsibility of living.

    How many people are institutionalized because that's what they did?

    And thanks for the accolades. I really appreciate you saying it. :)

    Anita Mae.


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