New York City, no stranger to superlatives, has countless reasons to boast of its pedigreed past; our list of firsts is long and lustrous. We lay claim to the first mixed drink, a Martini, which was handed to a happy client at Pieter Laurenzen Kock’s tavern at 1 Broadway. There is no recorded proof of who served the delicious drink (probably Pieter) or to whom, but we are sure it was shaken before 1664 when all this was still Nieuw Amsterdam. But it wasn’t called a Martini back then, wasn’t even called a cocktail – that word was invented here too, slightly outside of the city, in Betsy Flanagan’s tavern on the post road between Tarrytown and White Plains. General George Washington’s troops provided the gin and the French fighting for our Revolution brought the vermouth. Betsy herself mixed it up with a feather from the tail of pet red rooster in July of 1781. The tale is a bit apocryphal, but that’s how Betsy and George would have wanted it.
From indispensable intoxicants to bathroom essentials, the world’s first toilet paper was invented and advertised here in 1857 by Joseph C. Gayetty. A pearl-colored manila paper woven from hemp, its primary sales pitch was: “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper – a perfectly pure article for the toilet and for the prevention of piles.” Sales, assuredly, were substantial. What the inhabitants of this foul-smelling city, once nicknamed The Big Onion, used prior to Gayetty’s roll of wonders is left up to the imagination of the reader.
In elementary school we all learn about the Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights movement, Rosa Parks, and her refusal to give up her seat on board a Montgomery, AL bus in 1955. Her defiance was certainly historical, but by no means was it the first act of recorded and justified civil disobedience in this country. In fact, the first ever act of forced desegregation happened here, 99 years earlier, when a 24-year-old black schoolteacher named Elizabeth Jennings was denied a seat and fare on a Third Avenue Railway car (back then still a horse-drawn carriage). Miss Jennings took the driver and the company to court, and in February of 1855, with up-and-coming 21-year-old Chester Alan Arthur representing her (later on he would become the 21st president), she won $225, the presiding judge declaring that the public transportation systems “were common carriers, and as such were bound to carry all respectable persons; that colored persons, if sober, well-behaved and free from disease, had the same right as others; and could neither be excluded by any rules of the company, nor by force or violence." (Brooklyn Daily Eagle
, February, 1855)
We draw attention to such historical and forgotten firsts that occurred here, among our streets and on our sidewalks and by our buildings, not to compare ourselves against such lofty goals as the first cocktail, roll of toilet paper, or act of civil disobedience. Neither are we trying to minimize incredible events that continue to happen here every day, under the popular current or buried in the police report, in comparison with the magnitude of the past.. All we want to do is have our moment in the present: to provide historical and topical stories of our New York City; to spur the minds and memories of our readers; and then, just as quickly, be forgotten in the rush of information in this, the most hyperactive of ages. Just like Pieter Laurenzen Kock, Betsy Flanagan, Joseph C. Gayetty and Elizabeth Jennings. We look forward to being lost in our history. Welcome to our first column.