A romantic, picture-postcard view from inside the Navy Yard in 1851. Note the oxen, presumably for hauling, inside the ship-building shed, and the wonderfully sculptural quality of the mortar shell pyramids (one is reminded of today’s annual sculpture installations along the Dumbo waterfront in Brooklyn Bridge Park).
The Navy Yard was indeed a romantic destination for most of the nineteenth century. The following excerpt from a New York Times article in the 1890s offers an evocative glimpse of the location’s appeal:
The navy yard is in full Summer attire. The grass and trees look as fresh and green as the cool breezes that blow in around the docks can make them. The nasturtiums in front of the office are masses of blossoms and fragrance, and the hollyhocks near the wall surrounding the Admiral’s house are full of brilliant blooms.
Reminiscences of early nineteenth-century life in the Yard also tended toward the romantic, perhaps for good reason. Navy Yard work was coveted, in part due to the comparatively short workday (eight hours instead of the usual twelve expected elsewhere), and also because the daily routine was punctuated with a certain laboring-class civility.
These recollections of a ship’s carpenter, first published in Fincher’s Trades’ Review in the 1860s, paint a rather appealing picture:
In our yard, at half-past eight A. M., Aunt Arlie McVane, a clever, kind-hearted, but awfully uncouth, rough sample of the “Ould Sod,” would make her welcome appearance in the yard with her two great baskets, stowed and checked off with crullers, doughnuts, ginger-bread, turnovers, pies, and a variety of sweet cookies and cakes; and from the time Aunt Arlie’s baskets came in sight until every man and boy, bosses and all, in the yard, had been supplied, always at one cent apiece for any article in the cargo, the pie, cake and cookie trade was a brisk one. Aunt Arlie would usually make the round of the yard and supply all hands in about an hour, bringing the forenoon up to half-past nine, and giving us from ten to fifteen minutes ‘breathing spell during lunch; no one ever hurried during “cake-time.”
After this was over we would fall to again, until interrupted by Johnnie Gogean, the English candy-man, who came in always about half-past ten, with his great board, the size of a medium extension dining-table, slung before him, covered with all sorts of “stick,” and several of sticky, candy, in one-cent lots. Bosses, boys and men—all hands, everybody—invested one to three cents in Johnnie’s sweet wares, and another ten or fifteen minutes is spent in consuming it. Johnnie usually sailed out with a bare board about eleven o’clock, at which time there was a general sailing out of the yard and into convenient grog-shops after whiskey; only we had four or five men among us, and one apprentice—not quite a year my senior—who used to sail out pretty regularly ten times a day on an average; two that went for whiskey only when some one invited them to drink, being too mean to treat themselves; and two more who never went at all.
In the afternoon, about half-past three, we had a cake-lunch, supplied by Uncle JackGrider, an old, crippled, superannuated ship-carpenter. No one else was ever allowed to come in competition with our caterers. Let a foreign candy-board or cake-basket make their appearance inside of the gates of our yard, and they would get chipped out of that directly.
At about five o’clock P. M., always, Johnnie used to put in his second appearance ; and then, having expended money in another stick or two of candy, and ten minutes or so in its consumption, we were ready to drive away again till sun-down; then off home to supper….
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