Excavations at Five Points site, lower Manhattan, New York City (Photo: Dennis Seckler).

Foley Square–Five Points
Lower Manhattan, New York City
Edwards and Kelcey Engineers, Inc. and the U.S. General Services Administration, Region 2

The site of a new courthouse at Foley Square in lower Manhattan was once part of the infamous neighborhood known as Five Points. The archeological investigation of the site provided the opportunity to study a place portrayed as New York City’s most dire nineteenth-century slum. JMA analyzed nearly 850,000 artifacts recovered from 22 abandoned privies and cisterns on fourteen historic properties. While the excavation revealed overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions, the artifacts suggested that residents set their tables with matching dishes, drank tea from imported English ceramics, ate meals that included a good deal of meat, cured their ailments with a variety of medicines, and decorated their apartments with plants, china figurines, and handmade rugs. The artifact analysis did not reveal the abject poverty assumed for Five Points. It would appear that the newly arrived Eastern-European and Irish immigrants, who lived on opposite sides of the block, used consumer goods to maintain respectability in spite of difficult living conditions.

Many of the Irish residents were laborers, but there was also evidence of cottage industries including the making of jewelry with faux gems, toothbrushes with scrap bone, rugs with remnant cloth, and the burning of shells into lime. Most of the Eastern Europeans were Jewish tailors and secondhand clothing dealers. Differences in diet and choices of consumer goods suggest that the Eastern-European Jews and Irish residents maintained their ethnic identities in their new homes. There were also several artifact assemblages from public places including a saloon, an eating house, and a brothel. In addition to liquor and beer bottles, artifacts from the saloon included small plates for the free lunch that was served and master ink bottles for decanting ink into smaller umbrella-shaped bottles. Artifacts from the brothel included the contents of a sewing box, bird feeders, and glass urinals made especially for women confined to bed, possibly with venereal disease. Like other working-class neighborhoods in other cities, Five Points was a mixed residential-commercial district where one wave of newly arrived immigrants after another began their lives in the city.

To Top