Resembling an evergreen stockade, the crossed upright rows of Christmas trees for sale outside Barclay Street Station in Manhattan make a dramatic sight, balanced on their sturdy frames and stretching far into the distance. Taken between 1885 and 1895, these remarkable archive photographs from the Library of Congress record the city’s Christmas tree market.
The New York trade in Christmas trees is said to have started in the 1850s very close to Barclay Street with a woodsman named Mark Carr, who brought trees from his land in Catskill mountains in New York state and sold them in nearby Vesey and Greenwich Streets. The trees were popular, and by the 1870s there was a flourishing market in all types of Christmas evergreen decorations centred around this location, with enormous loads of trees brought here for distribution both to wholesalers and the public.
In an article published on Christmas Day, 1878 and entitled ‘Christmas Green. Where it Comes from and How it is Brought Here’, The New York Tribune describes how the majority of the trees came to New York from Maine, transported by rail. It was estimated a total of 125,000 trees were available for sale in that year and the cost of the trees was according to size, as the reporter explains:
‘Prices have ranged from 50 cents to $1 “a bunch” wholesale; .. the number of trees in this unit varying from two to a dozen, as they range from ten feet in length, to four feet. Larger trees are sold singly, and some choice specimens, 31 feet high are worth from $8 to $12.’
The popularity of ready-made evergreen decorations such as wreaths, garlands and crowns, is noted – ideal for a busy, city clientele who lacked time to make them at home. These decorations were supplied from nearby New Jersey, and an enterprising New Jersey woman is credited as the first person to identify a market for them:
‘It is only a few years since a New Jersey market woman picked a sheet full of ground pine, tied the corners together, brought it with her “truck” to the city, and sold it in the market for 50 cents. This was the beginning of the very considerable business which employs hundreds of people in New-Jersey for several months in each year.’
‘.. the Jersey people have become so skilfull in manufacture, and familiar with the ways and wants of the market that they are practically the decorators of the city, so far as it is decorated with “Christmas green”.’
Details of specific plants used in the decorations are mentioned:
‘The wreaths and other “designs” are made mostly of broad-leaved evergreens, like holly, rhododendron, kalmia and boxwood, although tufts of pine needles, hemlock and cedar twigs, and mosses, green and gray, are used, while the shining green is relieved by red berries of holly and the scarlet and orange pods of bittersweet (celastrus scandens). Small bunches of evergreens, like rhododendron and holly, with tough and persistent leaves, are also brought .. in immense quantities.’
Some of the trees are shown in their final destinations – in outside spaces like Madison Square Gardens, and inside the homes of citizens. When I visited New York in mid-December some years ago and experienced the city decorated for the holidays, evergreen displays were still very much in evidence. Trees, wreaths, and boughs of fir and spruce placed in window boxes outside shops and restaurants all contributed to the memorable seasonal atmosphere.
Horse Christmas trees were a tradition where those kindly disposed towards animals provided troughs of food arranged around a tree which was sometimes dressed with apples and other treats. These horse trees appeared in markets, organised by the traders for their hard working animals, and sometimes by the roadside, provided by volunteers. The troughs and the tree would have acted as a sign for those passing by in need of refreshment.
In one photograph, a sign advertises a Christmas dinner for horses and free coffee for the drivers – delivered by women dressed warmly for the freezing weather. Precise locations for these horse trees aren’t specified, (and might not be in New York), but are a reminder of a ‘Christmas Green’ tradition almost forgotten as transport systems modernised and the horses gradually disappeared.
Prints and Photographs at the Library of Congress
Thanks to the New York Times for its link to this interesting piece – ‘Christmas Green. Where it comes from and how it is brought here.’ published 25th December, 1878 New York Tribune
The area around Barclay Street in New York has a rich horticultural past and was once home to dozens of seed merchants – more about them and their colourful seed catalogues in a previous post here: The Seedsmen of Lower Manhattan
Thomas Kibble Hervey’s The Book of Christmas (1836) examines Christmas and New Year traditions and is widely credited for the resurgence in popularity of the holiday season in Victorian times – previous post here: Bringing in the Green