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January 17, 2014

Historical Echoes: Maiden Lane, Where Now Such Waves of Commerce Flow

Mary Tao and Vernon Lovejoy

In the 1600s, a stream flowed near the land now occupied by
the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, running all the way to the East River. At
that time, maidens followed a footpath to the stream’s banks to wash laundry in
its fresh water, earning the path the name Maidens’ Path (or in Dutch—Maagde Paatje). When the English arrived
in 1664, the name of the street changed to Maiden Lane. As New York City
expanded beyond its downtown origins over the years, city planners covered over
the stream—but the street’s name stuck.

Maiden Lane has been featured in poems, films, and
. Even presidents have strolled down this street. Thomas Jefferson roomed
at a boardinghouse on 19 Maiden Lane during his trips to New York City (in 1784
and 1791), and in 1790, while Secretary of State, he rented a “mean
” at 57 Maiden Lane “for 106 pounds per year.” What Jefferson
accomplished during his brief stay that year is a tale for another day.

Over the centuries, Maiden Lane has been witness to major
changes in its surroundings, from the cultural (the emergence of professional
in 1732) to the physical (the Great Fire of 1835, during which much
of Wall Street burned down). This street was one of the first in the city “to
be gas-lit by the
New York Gas-Light Company in the late 1820s.” Maiden Lane became a commercial
area and even briefly had a shopping mall—the New York Arcade, built in 1827.
Maiden Lane developed into the Diamond District in the late 1800s, but with
real estate prices rising and an influx of finance and insurance firms, jewelry
merchants moved north starting in the 1920s. A 1925 real estate guide reported
that the 47th Street area “has almost overnight become New York’s new Maiden

One remaining vestige of its time as a Diamond District is the
Barthman clock,
though not the 1899 original, installed on the sidewalk on the corner of
Broadway and Maiden Lane. The original clock was “mechanical with a
technologically innovative battery backup. It was even illuminated by hidden
lightbulbs after dark.”

The stream still flows, just as it has for hundreds of years—but now it’s flowing under the streets of Lower Manhattan, and it’s nowhere
near as idyllic as described by the 1906 Louise Morgan Sill poem:

Down Maiden Lane, where clover
Sweet-scented in the early air,
Where sparkling rills went shining through
Their grassy banks, so green, so fair,
Blithe little maids from Holland land
Went tripping, laughing each to each,
To bathe the flax, or spread a band
Of linen in the sun to bleach.
More than two centuries ago
They wore this path—a maiden’s lane—
Where now such waves of commerce flow
As never dazed a burgher’s brain.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.


Mary Tao is a research librarian in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Research and Statistics Group.

Vernon Lovejoy was in the Bank’s Communications Group when
this post was written.


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