Hidden History

The Tontine Coffee House

The birthplace of the New York Stock Exchange.

The Tontine Coffee House

In May 1792, the Buttonwood Agreement, a document signed by the first 24 stockbrokers in New York City, created what is now known as the New York Stock Exchange. The agreement was a kind of place name—it has been agreed upon underneath a buttonwood tree (also known as an American sycamore) outside of 68 Wall Street.

The signers of the agreement needed a place to conduct their business, and a coffee house seemed as good a place as any. So the Tontine Coffehouse, named after Neapolitan banker Lorenzo di Tonti, would become the first indoor home for the New York Stock Exchange. The funds to build the coffee house were generated by soliciting subscribers to buy $200 shares ($4,761.90 in modern day currency). As the members died, so did their initial investment and the profits were shared with one less member. When the original investors went from the original 203 to just seven in 1870, the assets of the coffeehouse were divided and distributed equally among their estates. This investment vehicle combined the features of a group annuity with the random nature of a lottery.

The Tontine coffeehouse opened in 1794 on the corner of Wall and Water streets. The business conducted in the building was not only limited to the buying and selling of stocks, which took place on the second floor. In Mirror for Gotham Bayard Still quotes an English traveler commenting in 1807:

“The Tontine Coffee House was filled with underwriters, brokers, merchants, traders, and politicians; selling, purchasing, trafficking, or insuring; some reading, others eagerly inquiring the news […] The steps and balcony of the coffee-house were crowded with people bidding, or listening to the several auctioneers, who had elevated themselves upon a hogshead of sugar, a puncheon of rum, or a bale of cotton; and with Stentorian voices were exclaiming, “Once, twice. Once, twice.” “Another cent.” “Thank ye gentlemen.” […] The coffee-house slip, and the corners of Wall and Pearl-streets, were jammed up with carts, drays, and wheelbarrows […] Everything was in motion; all was life, bustle and activity…”

As you can see, the coffeehouse served as a club and a meeting space. It hosted diverse events in the city’s infancy. After-hours securities trading and gambling even took place. Individuals from all areas of New York City society met and conducted economic and civil affairs in its walls, there were no restrictions based on socioeconomic class.

When a new ship arrived in New York Harbor, the captain would first come to the Tontine to register his cargo. This unfortunately included enslaved Africans. During this time the slave trade was a large part of the New York City trading business and residents here made huge profits from the suffering of others. The practice continued even after all slaves were officially freed in New York on July 4th, 1827.

The trading at the Tontine continued until 1817, when the stockbrokers drafted a new constitution, renaming the organization “The New York Stock & Exchange,” and moved over to 40 Wall Street. The Tontine became a tavern and then, in 1832, a hotel. The building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1835. The fire burned from December 16, 1835 and ended the next day. It covered fifty-two acres and destroyed more than 530 buildings in lower Manhattan. The fire helped initiate new stone buildings that were less prone to burning and created a more unified fire department. The fire also prompted the construction of the Old Croton Aqueduct, a needed municipal water supply, and was responsible for moving most insurance companies, who decided it wasn’t worth the risk to build in Manhattan, to Hartford, Connecticut.