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The New York City Skyline, 17th and 18th Centuries

By Sophia Nolas

In 1609, Henry Hudson sailed up the river now called the Hudson River. Even before that, in 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano sailed past the island now known as Manhattan[1]. These memorable events certainly are milestones in the road to the modern New York City skyline. But more specifically, they demonstrate the ways that people interact, even initially, with the island of Manhattan. It is, first of all, an island[2].

Image 1: “The British Headquarters Map, circa 1782, is the best record of Mannahatta's early topography and ecology. The National Archives of the UK, ref. MR1/463. " from the Welikia Project, http://welikia.org/about/how-it-all-began/. Shows the topography of Manhattan Island.

These well-known stories of the interactions European sailors had with Manhattan at the very beginning demonstrate that the water from and over which they viewed the island played a key
role in their experience of the skyline itself. Here, the skyline of Manhattan (specifically the view from today’s Brooklyn Heights) will be examined during the 17th and 18th centuries across the water that underlines it.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, there were two primary means of representing the skyline, each with its own unique function and audience. The first type of representation was the panorama. The term “panorama” was invented in 1791 and referred to a kind of depiction of a city that showed the image of the whole skyline, as if the viewer were actually looking at it[3]

Image 2:  “Nieuw Amsterdam op t Eylant Manhattans,” ca. 1700, the J. Clarence Davies Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. http://collections.mcny.org/Explore/Highlights/J.%20Clarence%20Davies%20collection/

An example of a panorama is Image 2, a print used to encourage people to settle in the colony of New Amsterdam.[4] Panoramas were public as well as commercial images, showing a town or city in the best light possible. They portrayed the civic pride of a community, and commodified this pride in an object that would encourage tourism, or, in the case of New Amsterdam, emigration. Panoramas were not always completely accurate depictions of the landscape; that is, artistic liberties were taken, decorative elements added in, and unappealing aspects of a community subtracted out. Despite this unreliability, they still show a lot about the skyline at the time of their creation. A comparison of many different panoramas can describe the real layout of the city or town; if the same building is in the same place in more than one panorama it is likely that it existed in the skyline in actual fact. More interestingly, panoramas can represent the things that were most highly valued by the artists and patrons of the panoramas, as well as the society that they were aimed to appeal to and which created them.

The second primary form of representing a town or city was the town plan, often with an inset prospect. The town plan is basically a map, showing the contours of the city and the streets within it, from a bird’s eye view. Inset adjacent to the plan, there would often be a prospect, the type of skyline depiction that existed before the panorama was invented.

Image 3: Hugo Allard, “Novi Belgii Novaeque Angllae Nec Non Partis Virginlae Tabula multis in locis emendata,” ca. 1651, the J. Clarence Davies collection of the Museum of the City of New York. http://collections.mcny.org/Explore/Highlights/J.%20Clarence%20Davies%20collection/
An example of a town plan is Image 3,  the Jansson-Visscher map, produced circa 1650. Inset in the bottom right corner of the map is a prospect that very closely resembles the print of New Amsterdam seen in Image 2. Also note Image 4,  a town plan of New York in 1776, has an inset prospect, and inset images of various significant buildings from the town as well. [5]

Image 4: John Montresor and Peter Andrews, fl., “New York in 1776,” “Issued as a supplement to Harper's Weekly, February 19, 1876. Contains illustrations of churches, public buildings, etc.” From the J. Clarence Davies Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. http://collections.mcny.org/Explore/Highlights/J. Clarence Davies collection. Shows a Map with inset panorama of New York in 1776.

These town plans doubled as maps, which helped Dutch and then British people navigate, initially for trade and later for war, the island of Manhattan that they both hoped to colonize. The inset gives a view of a key skyline in the map, adding an artistic element, or aesthetic value, to an image that might otherwise be considered only significant for its usefulness.
In William R. Taylor’s essay “New York and the Origin of the Skyline: The Visual City as Text” he comments that throughout the city’s history, “each period seemed to develop a favored perspective,” and the view of choice for the 18th century was “the city as it looked when one approached it by sea from the harbor.”[6]

Image 5: Balthasar Friedrich Leizelt, “La Nouvelle Yorck," 1775, From the J. Clarence Davies Collection of the Museum of the City of New York, http://collections.mcny.org/Explore/Highlights/J. Clarence Davies collection/

According to Taylor, there are several unifying characteristics of the representations of the skyline in the early period. The visualizations of the cities tended to show the entire city, emphasize framing, and display a large amount of sky above the skyline. They established human scale by adding people or animals into the image, demonstrated the commercial wealth of seaports through the inclusion of many ships and sea-side commercial buildings, and measured the size of the city against the countryside by including the nature that surrounded the town.[7] The city was also often depicted across water, from a rural setting which was pictured in the foreground.
For example, take a look at Image 6, which is a print from 1733. The island of Manhattan is seen from a position in the rural foreground, and across a river cluttered with ships. The stylistic choices, seen specifically in this panorama and generally in most panoramas of the 17th and 18th centuries, are descended from older, European styles.
Image 6: “New York,” 1733, print, the J. Clarence Davies Collection of the Museum of the City of New York, 
http://collections.mcny.org/Explore/Highlights/J. Clarence Davies collection/. Shows a panorama of New York in 1733. 
The artistic styles of both the Netherlands and Britain carry over into the artistic styles of early America because many of the artists who created these panoramas were from, had patrons from, or aimed towards audiences in these countries[8]. The topic of artistic similarities is discussed in greater depth elsewhere on this website.
When looking at the panoramas of the 17th and 18th centuries one aspect that is highly noticeable is the water. The characteristic view of this period, according to Taylor, is the skyline seen from over the water. The water is both a bottom frame for the skyline, as well as a place for the ships that represent commerce.

Visually, the water compliments the sky. Both are blue, and both are mostly devoid of shapes, such as the buildings that dominate the land. In this way the water, like the sky, is able to balance the composition between full and empty space. The top and bottom levels of the panorama, those of sky and water, sandwich the land between them. The land, the middle level, is where the human influence on the skyline is primarily seen. And yet, even in this earliest time period, the city gradually encroaches onto both blue levels. The buildings reach up toward the sky, some of the taller ones even breaking into the sky level. Ships sail on the river, separating the continuity of the water level.

That is a very artistic description for a very practical representation. Yes, these panoramas were meant to be visually attractive, both to appeal to prospective settlers and funders as well as to induce people to purchase the prints to decorate their houses. However, they also served practical and symbolic purposes as well. The town plans, after all, which were used primarily as maps of war and of trade, had inset prospects that closely resembled the propagandistic panoramas whose artistic value has just been considered.

Image 7: Bernard Ratzer and Thomas Kitchin, "Plan of the City of New York, In North America Surveyed in the Years 1766 & 1767", 1767-1774, the J. Clarence Davies Collection of the Museum of the City of New York, http://collections.mcny.org/Explore/Highlights/Currier/J.-Clarence-Davies-collection, accessed 12/3/14.

These insets did not have objectively practical value, and yet were included in practical items. Certainly, they would have been useful to orient a traveler to the arrival at the city.[9] However, a simple sketch of the silhouette of the skyline or the shapes of the buildings would suffice for this purpose, and instead of that, a complex, artistically interesting, and aesthetically planned panorama is inset. Somehow, therefore, the vision of the skyline itself must have acquired some kind of intrinsic value. And with it, the water that is such a prominent aspect of all of the panoramas must also have some kind of value that is not necessarily obvious at first glance, or described fully as simply an artistic and aesthetically pleasing composition.

To reach an understanding of the significance of the water, look to the extremely prominent ships. These ships were used for transportation, both between the American colonies and the European powers, transporting people, goods, and money. The fact that the ships existed in the river near Manhattan Island shows that it was an important center for trade and ideas, a place that had a promising future. Of course, including these omens of a good future was most likely a calculated decision on the part of the artists and their patrons, who wanted to make the city seem as thriving and prosperous as possible, in order to encourage even further prosperity and settlement. And yet it also reveals a part of the reality of the situation of the island; it was heavily reliant on international and intercontinental trade.

It is clear that the water is a significant part of the skyline in the panoramas of the 17th and 18th centuries.



Image 8: “The south prospect of the city of New York in America,” 1761, from the Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b16927/. Notice the incredible amounts of ships of varying sizes and types that fill the river, almost more noticeable than the buildings on Manhattan Island themselves.

Within the water portion of the panoramas depicting the skyline, there is a flurry of ships and boats sailing in the river, a human incursion into the realm of the blue nature (see Image 8). Symbolically, they can represent movement, economic and military strength, or even the point of view of the traveler who nears Manhattan Island and views its skyline for the first time. They also represent the real ships that sailed on the river during the 17th and 18th centuries. The context of these ships is inseparable from their image and representation; specifically, the European sailing ships that inhabited those early Manhattan waters.
The European ships were heavily influenced by the traditions of European powers that directed their construction, and that were often their targeted consumers.[10] See in Image 9, where a ship sailing near Manhattan Island is spectacularly flying a British flag. Since the early European settlers in Manhattan were isolated and had limited resources, they often fell back on extant European models of ships.

Image 9: I. Carwithan, “A View of Fort George with the City of New York. Engraving by I. Carwithan, c. 1730,”
 c. 1730, from the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division,
http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel02.html.

Shipbuilding in general is very conservative, because lives and property rest on the ability of the shipbuilder and the integrity of the ship. If the ship is poorly built, property would be destroyed, many sailors would die, and the shipbuilder’s reputation would be ruined; he would probably never work again.[11] Old forms, therefore, were maintained as much as possible.

Image 10: Jan Jansson, “Appears in the author's Nieuwen Atlas, vol. 5. Amsterdam: J. Jansson, 1650,” 1650, Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, http://maps.bpl.org/id/14692. This map, which is contemporary to the ships described here illustrates the change in scale of voyage that the ships of this period were forced to evolve to deal with.

Yet during this early colonial period, new constraints and needs were placed on ships: they had to be capable of traveling across an ocean, between Europe and America (see image 10).
[12] And since colonists in America were so separate from Europe, unique forms of American ships began to emerge, ships that especially emphasized speed. Speed was emphasized, of course, only in proportion to capacity and seaworthiness, two characteristics without which a ship could not sail.[13] Here some context into the shipbuilding situation during the period will be discussed, in order to fully understand the ships themselves and their importance within the skyline.
In early American shipbuilding, that is, during the 17th and early 18th centuries, there was very little specialization; that is, the same craft would have been used for many jobs. Most jobs during this period were not permanent, so the same craft would have to fulfill whatever was required of it by the job available at the time.[14] A striking example of this is the fact that merchant ships were often converted to men-of-war, or naval ships, as the need arose.[15] This blurs the boundary between the individual types of ships, and also shows a key departure from the European models by American shipbuilders. Most American-built ships, especially after the American Revolution, emphasized speed and were very small in general. In the records that remain, there are 7 different classifications of colonial ships: ships, sloops, pinks, brigantines, shallops, ketches, and barks; after 1717 schooners are listed as well. It is unclear what type of craft these classifications actually refer to, though, because very few American plans or models survive. They probably were ships much like their European counterparts. Specifically, most American crafts of this period were sloops.[16]

Image 11: Howard I. Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships, (New York: Bonanza Books), page 12.

A sketch of a sloop can be seen in Image 11. It is a comparatively small vessel, with high maneuverability and capacity for speed, rather than ability to house many different guns and store large amounts of goods.

In Europe, in contrast, ships were only getting bigger and bigger. In the period between 1677 and 1745, the dimensions of each class, rated by the minimum number of guns it could carry, was standardized. Therefore, it is clear that over this period the ships dramatically increased in size in proportion to number of guns carried on board. This trend was the cause of the eventual downfall of the Dutch navy, who only had shallow harbors available for their ships.[17] The standard ship at the time was a three-master, with number of sails greatly increasing. Masts are the tall beams from which sails are hung; different types of ships have different numbers of masts, and different numbers and types of sails carried by each mast. The increase in number of sails allowed for better performance when winds were contrary, as well as efficiency when winds were fair.[18]

For an example of this type of vessel, see Image 12, which depicts a ship that is probably the Saint-Louis, but is certainly a Dutch-built galleon in the French navy.[19] The engraving is from 1626, and corresponds to the construction of another vessel, the Vasa, which has been recently discovered, and the existence of which confirms the accuracy of this depiction of the galleon of a similar time and design.[20]
Image 12: From Alexander McKee, “The Influence of British naval strategy on ship design: 1400-1850.” In
A History of Seafaring, edited by George F. Bass, 225-252. (New York: Walker and Company, 1972), page 247.

To be clear, there was not as stark a difference between the European and the American ships as has been presented above. Certainly, these differences existed. But both worlds were very closely connected through trade, war, piracy, and shared cultural history throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Ships that demonstrated American construction methods were present in Europe, and ships that were quintessentially European sailed between American ports.

So far has been presented a very brief, broad summary of the state of sea-going vessels during this time period. This background will help to understand the context of the ships at this time period, which can be related to the skyline that they inhabited. The Manhattan Island skyline, seen from today’s Brooklyn Heights, was consistently portrayed with a dense population of ships in the river in front of the skyline. The portrayal of the skyline in this period of the 17th and 18th centuries is fascinatingly done in the image of the panorama of Saint Mémin, which can be found elsewhere on this site. A small excerpt of this panorama can be seen in Image 13.

Image 13: Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin, “A View of the City of New York from Brooklyn Heights in 1798," engraving, 1798, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Although the ships had artistic and symbolic meaning, they also had a realistic and contextual meaning that can best be seen through the lens of individual vessel types.

The Atlantic Ocean: Ships of Exploration and Emigration

During the 17th and 18th centuries, ship types that were slowly perfected for a specific purpose suddenly became obsolete. The European ships of the era preceding this were designed to sail short distances, in the relatively shallow Mediterranean Sea. As trade was opened with America, however, ships were required to possess different qualities and capabilities, which would allow them to cross the Atlantic Ocean[21]. The burden of creating these new ships was picked up by people who wanted to expand their businesses to the new continent, or who wanted to move their lives there. It is clear that the European travelers who first documented the skyline, and created the “characteristic view” mentioned earlier, were sailing up the East River with several particular goals in mind: to exploit the resources and land of the area for business, personal profit, or new homes. This provides an insight into the skyline: perhaps the skyline represents what exists just as much as it represents what could exist.
Image 14:  Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World, (USA: Doubleday, 2004), inset after page 254. “The somber view of New Amsterdam that Van der Donck presented to the Dutch government in his effort to convince it to take over the colony.” The content of this image of the skyline was clearly very influenced by its tone, its intention, which was to convince its audience of a certain truth about the skyline of the island, and motivate them to an action. In this way, it is a mix of both the reality of the subject matter as well as a propaganda piece.
Ships that were depicted in the skyline were as much real as they were symbolic. In this light, it is useful to look closer at the individual types of ships which would have appeared in the East River during the 17th and 18th centuries, and perhaps by seeing the specific functions of the ships at the time, an understanding of their symbolism may be achieved.
The second ever recorded European-style sailing ship built in America was built by the Dutch on Manhattan Island.
Image 15: Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World, (USA: Doubleday, 2004), inset after page 112. “The earliest view of Dutch Manhattan, dated to two years after Peter Minuit’s purchase, shows the fort, windmill, a cluster of dwellings, and Indians as a regular presence.” To be clear, there were ships built on and near Manhattan Island before the Dutch and other European colonial powers began to construct them in America. As this print evidences, the people who lived on and near the island before the Europeans arrived, the Lenape people, certainly created ships as well. However, this project traces the skyline of the European city that was eventually built on Manhattan Island and became New York City, and therefore the origins of the ships in the skyline will be traced to the earliest European ships recorded on the island rather than the earliest ships that ever existed on the island.
A group of people had come in 1614 from Holland in a ship called the Tiger, which burned down once they reached Manhattan Island. So to replace it, they built a jacht, the “Onnest” in 1615-1616, most likely in a traditional Dutch style.
It was used to explore the surroundings, including Manhattan Island, Long Island Sound, and Delaware Bay. Then it sailed back to Holland with a cargo full of furs.[22] This single ship is a perfect example of the uses of shipping in the early 17th century. It was used to explore the new area, carry people to America (or, in this case, take the place of a ship that had done that), and carry raw materials back to 
Europe.

Image 16: Michael McInneshin. “Week 6: Commodities Exchanged.” History 356, Early
Modern Empires, from La Salle.
http://www.lasalle.edu/~mcinneshin/356/week06.htm.
Accessed: 11/26/14. 
This is an image of a fluyt ship, built in the Netherlands in the 16th and
17th centuries, and may
have been a model for the Dutch jacht built on Manhattan Island.

In the 18th Century, there was a trend in shipbuilding towards a more “workmanlike” appearance, which put the emphasis on strength and seaworthiness rather than the visual appeal through carvings and gildings that were present in European ships of the 17th Century.[23] This trend probably occurred because of the increased strain put on the ships of the 18th century by the repeated crossings of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the threat of capture by privateers and pirates. Looking good was becoming less important than surviving and doing well commercially.

The merchants came to Manhattan for fish, and incidentally traded with Native Americans for furs because they could. Then, in the 17th Century, they began to trade more enthusiastically for furs with the Native Americans, even beginning to move into the West of the continent in order to cut out the middleman and get directly to the supply.[24] Because of the increase in interest in trade with North America, the port of Manhattan Island served as an important hub for international trade, which can be seen through the large number of ships that constantly travel across the panoramas painted at the time.[25]

Image 21:  “A view of the city of New York from Long Island,” around 1778, the Library of Congress, http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b52070/.

In the words of a 2005 exhibition at the New York Historical Society, it was “enslaved Africans built whatever New Amsterdam needed.”[26] By the 1740s, 20% of the people living in New York were slaves. Two out of every 5 households owned at least one slave. When the British finally left the city after the American Revolution in 1783, they took many freed slaves with them--but the black population, both slave and free, continued to rise in New York City. Although it would be very appropriate to include an image here of the changing demographics of the city, from until the very end of the 18th century, “not a single image of black New Yorkers survives.”[27] The panoramic skyline view of the 17th and 18th centuries does not show the people most responsible for its physical presence, the slaves who built the forts and docks and roads and ships.

So although the slaves, and the slave ships which brought them to New York, might not be prominent parts of the panoramic depictions of the city, they are integral parts of the creation and existence of the skyline. And the ships which brought them to New York would have certainly been known by the viewers of the period, so that ships in the panoramas would call them to mind. These ships were built for the competing goals of size and speed. Their patrons wanted them to have plenty of interior space to be able to fit as many people as possible into the ship to be sold. They also needed a large ability for speed, so that the trip from Africa to America would be as short as possible, to cost fewer lives, so there would be more people to sell once they reached New York. Also, they had to be constantly wary of the threat of attack by privateers and pirates, which will be discussed below. Since slave ships did not have room for many guns, they would be easy targets for this kind of vulture unless they moved quickly.[28] Europeans at the time saw the slave trade as simply another form of commerce. Therefore, as horrifying as this may be, to European artists and viewers of the time, the slave ship would have represented bustling commerce just as much as any other type of merchant ship.

During the 17th and 18th Centuries, there were many innovations in military ships due to the changes in scope and type of warfare. Because shipbuilding was such a costly and risky enterprise, small-scale models and design plans would first be submitted to the Admiralty for approval, before actual ships were built.[29] For an example of a such a model, of a galleon ship from around 1634, see Image 17.

Image 17: From Alexander McKee, “The Influence of British naval strategy on ship design: 1400-1850.” In A History of Seafaring, edited by George F. Bass, 225-252. New York: Walker and Company, 1972, pg. 247. 

Military ships in the 18th century began to increase in size and amount of guns they carried. The ships were internally reinforced so that more guns could be more easily used, despite the fact that this somewhat destabilized the ships. A new type of fighting emerged parallel to the new innovations in shipbuilding, wherein ships would line up in a rigid straight-line formation, and fire broadsides onto the foe (see Images 18 and 19 for a visual of this formation).[30]

Images 18 and 19: Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World, (USA: Doubleday, 2004), inset before page 257. “English and Dutch ships arrayed in “line of battle” formation during the Second Anglo-Dutch War.”
While the size and number of guns carried by the ships increased, so did the range of firing capabilities of the guns; not by varying the gun type, but by varying the type of missile fired. The same gun could fire anti-person weapons such as grapeshot (musket balls wrapped around a coiled iron core); anti-mast/spar weapons such as canisters (containers holding small canon balls); and anti-rigging weapons such as chain/sliding bar shot. The emphasis in battle was placed on gun bombardment to subdue the enemy. Previous methods of warfare, such as boarding an enemy ship by an army of soldiers, fell out of use. Guns themselves rarely sank ships, although because the ships were made of wood, fires were a constant concern of ship designers.[31] The intricacies and dangers of ship building and sailing were belied by their serene images and appearances in depictions. Even in battle representations, ships would be shown with all masts up and sails out, gliding proudly over the water (as can be seen in Images 18 and 19). This desire to capture the idea, rather than the reality, of a ship, is similar in some ways to the desire to capture the idea of the skyline, rather than its harsh reality.

n the men-of-war discussed above, strength was prioritized above speed. Strength allowed them to fulfill their purpose: battle. Other classes of ships, however, prioritized speed over strength. The privateers and the slavers were two such types.[32] The privateer was a private vessel, armed and manned by the owner. Its captain and crew aimed to capture enemy merchant ships in wartime as “prizes” for profit. The only thing that separated them from pirates was a “letter-of-marque,” or an official document from the government with which they were affiliated, which bonded the ship with the government and legalized any prizes that they won on the seas.[33]

Privateers would attack the enemy unprepared, and attack merchant rather than naval vessels. Since they would attack enemies with less weaponry, and therefore faced less of a chance of damage to themselves, the privateers valued the virtue of speed much higher than that of strength and guns.

For example, see Image 20, which is a depiction of the privateer Rattlesnake that was built in the late 18th century in America. It has several unique design elements, but the overall theme is that it was built for speed and maneuverability.[34]They did not carry many guns, but they carried more than the merchant ships or slavers that they would target.[35] Sailing across the Atlantic during the 17th and 18th centuries had high stakes, with life and death riding on the ability of a ship to avoid disaster and enemies, as well as to succeed at its individual goals.

Image 20: Howard I. Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships, (New York: Bonanza Books), pg. 141.
What did the inclusion of these ships mean, as a part of the skyline, to the viewers during the 17th and 18th centuries? What is the meaning of the sailing ships of these kinds to viewers today? Ships were a prominent part of the panoramas of the 17th and 18th centuries (see the panorama inset at the bottom of the map in Image 22)
Image 22: Bernard Ratzer and Thomas Kitchin, "Plan of the City of New York, In North America Surveyed in the Years 1766 & 1767", 1767-1774, the J. Clarence Davies Collection of the Museum of the City of New York, http://collections.mcny.org/Explore/Highlights/Currier/J.-Clarence-Davies-collection, accessed 12/3/14. 

This is the incredibly fascinating map done by Bernard Ratzer. In it is visible both the map of Manhattan Island used by the colonial British armies for navigation, as well as an inset prospect of the skyline of Manhattan Island. In the foreground can be seen a small piece of the land from which it was sketched, and then the most prominent part of the skyline itself are the 7 or 8 large ships which sail in the river. The masts of these stand even taller than the buildings of the skyline themselves, dominating both the river and sky portion of the skyline view.

and as such are crucial parts to understanding the nature of the skyline at that time. It is easy enough to notice them in the skyline, but without properly examining their uses and meanings during the 17th and 18th centuries, it would be difficult to reach an understanding of their symbolic and artistic meaning within the depiction of the skyline. They may have been included simply because they were there. Even if that were the only reason they were included, however, they could have also been able to stand in for the values which they were used for; trade, travel, and war. These values were known to viewers in the 17th and 18th centuries, but modern students of the skyline must take a closer view of the uses and meanings of the ships.

Trade

Ships in the 17th century were used for exploration and commerce and as the vessels from which the skyline itself was first seen. In both the 17th and 18th centuries, ships were used to interact with the rest of the world, intercontinentally for the first time. This is especially true in the 18th century, when American trade, specifically from the port on the island of Manhattan, began to reach China and the East rather than just Europe.

In 1783, after the American Revolution, the British cut off trade between American merchants and along British trade routes by implementing high monetary penalties and tariffs for American traders who hoped to trade with Europe or West India. So American merchants began to reach for East Indian and Chinese markets. This British-enforced exclusion from older, European markets greatly influenced the early spread of American trade to a global scale.[36]On the 22nd of February, 1784, the Empress of China became the first vessel to ever sail from a port in the United States to China. It returned to New York on May 11, 1785, and opened up a new trade route for the many American merchants who followed in its path.[37] For example, the vessel Experiment, a very small sloop ship, sailed from New York to China in 1785 and back in 1786. A depiction of her arrival in New York’s South Street Seaport can be seen in Image 23.[38]

Image 23: From McKay, Richard C., South Street: A Maritime History of New York. (NY: Haskell House Publishers Ltd., 1971). Inset between pages 8 and 9. It is an image of the sloop Experiment’s arrival in New York City after its voyage to China.

In response to this new type of traffic, South Street Seaport, the port at the tip of Manhattan Island where shipping was increasingly concentrated, began to grow to accommodate the ships necessary for this type of long voyage. Further, in 1789, the first Congress of the United States of America met in New York City and some of its first legislations were to encourage American shipping.[39] The American shipping industry rapidly grew from its simple fur-trade origins to a global enterprise in raw materials, goods, and slaves.

Since the ships were used so significantly for trade, in the minds of the viewers of the panoramic depictions of the skyline during the 17th and 18th centuries they could have stood in as symbols for trade.

That is, a viewer during the 17th or 18th centuries who saw a panorama (such as Image 24)

Image 24: Des Barres, Joseph F. W. (Joseph Frederick Wallet), “New York, with the entrance of the North and East rivers,” engraving, 1777,

 from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs online catalog, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004671524/.

that depicted the skyline with a river full of ships would have immediately reached the conclusion that the city depicted was an important port for trade and commerce. In this way, the inclusion of the ships in the depictions of the skyline during this period could be motivated by a desire to emphasize the importance of the city for commercial purposes.

Travel

Ships included in depictions of the skyline of Manhattan Island also were used for intercontinental transport -- an entirely new activity for the Europeans who would have made up the audience and patrons for such a panorama. European and American ships were crossing the Atlantic Ocean and encircling the globe with unprecedented ease. It became even commonplace in less than two centuries; when the British cut off trade with America in 1783, America suffered economically in a way it would not have if the Ocean crossing were a rare and difficult occurrence. Therefore, the ships present in panoramas of the 17th and 18th centuries could have represented not only international trade but also international travel and exploration.

Military

The ships were also certainly used for military purposes. Look at Image 9; the ship portrayed demonstrates a prominent political association by clearly displaying the British flag. Ships would not have sailed without reference to some government and by extension some military unless they were pirates. This is why during the 17th and 18th centuries privateers were so common; even enemy 

commercial ships were still associated with the power of 

Image 9:  I. Carwithan, “A View of Fort George with the City country whose flag they flew,  and were still considered 

of New York. Engraving by I. Carwithan, c. 1730,” c. 1730, from enemy ships, even if they did not even have any outwardly the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division,            combatant intentions.
http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel02.html.                         Some of the most important military strategies of the time involved naval maneuvers, such as the lines of attack seen in Images 18 and 19.

Images 18 and 19: Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World, (USA: Doubleday, 2004), inset before page 257. “English and Dutch ships arrayed in “line of battle” formation during the Second Anglo-Dutch War.”
The military pursuits occasionally mingled with the capitalist ones when privateers sailed with letters-of-marque that allowed them to capture and use any enemy ship that they encountered. Further, every merchant ship was obliged to carry a sizeable amount of weaponry in order to avoid being captured themselves by either privateers or pirates. Therefore, to the viewer of the 17th or 18th centuries the ships in the bottom layer of the panoramas could have represented the military strength of New York City.

Symbols

The ships were most likely designed as symbols of trade, travel, or military. Panoramas of the 17th and 18th centuries were calculated creations; they did not simply print whatever it was they actually saw when they observed the city, rather they emphasized the elements that they wanted to resonate with viewers. Viewers of the time therefore would have understood the elements in a panorama as both realistic and symbolic.




Image 25: Des Barres, Joseph F. W. (Joseph Frederick Wallet), “New York, with the entrance of the North and East rivers,” engraving, 1777,

 from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs online catalog, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004671524/.

Beyond the symbolic value that the portrayed ships hold by association with their real-life counterparts, with the pursuits they were used for, there is also an aesthetic element to the inclusion of ships in the panoramas depicting Manhattan Island (see Image 25). There is something about the rising masts of the ship with billowing sails that just invokes a feeling of the possibility and adventure that arises from the ability to cross incredible distances that would be impassible any other way, as well as the promise of leaving behind something old in order to find something new. The ships are very dynamic elements of the panoramas, providing unique opposition to the static rising of the buildings into the sky. So as the sturdy buildings begin to reach into the top blue layer, the nimble ships continue to occupy the bottom blue layer, providing a kind of artistic balance to a representation that is so clearly also propagandistic and intentional.

Images 26 and 27:  Taken by Sophia Nolas, on 9/14/14.
Images 26 and 27 of Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights, taken on September 14th, apply many of the conventions of 17th and 18th century depictions of the same view; that is, they include generous amounts of sky and water, as well as a small amount of the land of Brooklyn in the foreground. One of the most interesting and relevant parts of these photographs is the presence of a sailing ship evoking the kind of ship that would have sailed the river in the 17th and 18th centuries. Once the keys to international travel, trade, and war, these ships are now relics. Could this ship, most likely a replica, be the only part of the earliest New York skyline to survive to this day?

There is only one other part of the early, 17th and 18th century skyline that survives today. This building, shown below from a photograph of its 1907 opening after the completion of restorations in Image 28, is known as Fraunces Tavern.[40] This building, built in 1719 on 54 Pearl Street, today holds a museum for its history and the history of New York City at the time of its construction.

Image 28: “54 Pearl Street History.” Fraunces Tavern Museum, Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York, Inc.
2002-2014. Accessed: 11/11/14.
http://frauncestavernmuseum.org/history-and-education/history-of-fraunces-tavern/

While this is a fascinating historical landmark, it is only one building, and while it would have been visible in the skyline of Manhattan from Brooklyn in the 17th and 18th centuries (see the Saint-Mémin panorama discussed elsewhere on this site), today its 3-story height is nowhere near comparable to the height of its neighbors, and therefore is difficult to see in the Manhattan skyline.

It is fair to say, therefore, that the only really significant part of the New York City skyline of the 17th and 18th centuries that is visible today are the replicas and restorations of the ships that sailed in those historic waters, and today underline the skyline of the modern city. This lends complexity to the understanding of the ships to the skyline. Since the ships were often used for commercial and military purposes, the inclusion of many ships in the panoramas symbolized the power of the Manhattan ports. However, the sailing ships that are present in today’s East River do not have the same values attached to them, since economic, travel, and military ends are no longer met by 3-masted sailing ships. So, if they are no longer useful, why are they there at all? Perhaps they fulfill some desire to connect with the past, or nostalgia for historical artifacts. Perhaps they have in themselves a beautiful quality that reaches above their simple purpose for use. Since they clearly signify different things to modern audiences, why is it that they still sail on the river and are captured instinctually by modern photographers?[41] More generally, what is it about the New York City skyline that makes it so desirable to find a view of it? These are the types of questions whose answers have been sought throughout this website, and yet remain unclear. Knowledge of the historical context, symbolism, as well as artistic representations of the New York City skyline must be cultivated toward the goal of answering this type of question.

[1] Henry Moscow Moscow, The Street Book: An Encyclopedia of Manhattan’s Street Names and Their Origins (USA: Fordham University Press, 1990), 7.

[2] Julia M. Colton, Annals of Old Manhattan, (New York: Brentano’s, 1901), 5. The author suggests that the name of the island “Manhattan” may have originated in a Native American dialect from a word that “signif[ies] an island: Menatan, any small island; Menates, the small island; Menate, or Manhatte, a small island.”

[3] Ralph Hyde, Gilded Scenes and Shining Prospects: Panoramic Views of British Towns, 1575- 1900 (USA: Yale Center for British Art, 1985).

[4] Russel Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World (USA: Doubleday, 2004), picture inserts.

[5] This town plan was “issued as a supplement to Harper's Weekly, February 19, 1876. Contains illustrations of churches, public buildings, etc.” and shows New York in 1776. “Highlights: The J. Clarence Davies collection,” Museum of the City of New York, 10/21/14, http://collections.mcny.org/Explore/Highlights/J.-Clarence-Davies-collection.

[6] William R. Taylor, New York and the Origin of the Skyline: The Visual City as Text, Prospects, 13 (1988), pp 225-248.

[7] In “New York and the Origin of the Skyline,” Taylor also argues that the creation of an aesthetic of a skyline, or viewing the skyline of a city as having an inherent beautiful quality, is a modern invention. I think, however, that this point requires further consideration.

[8] The topic of European influence on the styles of early American panoramas will be considered in depth in other places on this website[SN3] .

[9] Wayne Attoe, Skylines (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1981), 43. Attoe argues that “Orientation and anticipation seem to be inseparable aspects of approach to a skyline.” Seeing the skyline as you draw nearer to it is one of the essential ways people experience skylines, and the skyline itself can help orient people as they approach the skyline.

[10] Howard I. Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships (New York: Bonanza Books), 10.

[11] Howard I. Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships (New York: Bonanza Books), 4. As quoted by Chapelle, “On your decision depend the lives and property of men;” a phrase that well summarizes the responsibility of shipbuilders and designers.

[12] Alexander McKee, “The Influence of British naval strategy on ship design: 1400-1850,” In A History of Seafaring ed. George F. Bass, 225-252 (New York: Walker and Company, 1972), 226.

[13] Howard I. Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships (New York: Bonanza Books), 4-5.

[14] Howard I. Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships (New York: Bonanza Books), 16.

[15] Howard I. Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships (New York: Bonanza Books), 19.

[16] Howard I. Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships (New York: Bonanza Books), 11.

[17] Alexander McKee, “The Influence of British naval strategy on ship design: 1400-1850,” In A History of Seafaring ed. George F. Bass, 225-252 (New York: Walker and Company, 1972), 234.

[18] Alexander McKee, “The Influence of British naval strategy on ship design: 1400-1850,” In A History of Seafaring ed. George F. Bass, 225-252 (New York: Walker and Company, 1972), 235.

[19] Enrico Scandurra, “The Maritime Republics: Medieval and Renaissance ships in Italy,” In A History of Seafaring ed. George F. Bass, 205-224 (New York: Walker and Company, 1972), 216. A galleon is an innovative ship designed to be an offshoot of the galley. The galley was the ideal Mediterranean vessel, but it was unsuited to intercontinental travel. The galleon, therefore, was designed to be “both fast under sail and capable of carrying a large cargo.” It had 3 or more masts, 2 or more decks, and could hold up to 800 sailors and soldiers on board. It was a large, bulky ship, which while strong and formidable in war, was useless in a storm and too large to rest in many ports at the time.

[20] Alexander McKee, “The Influence of British naval strategy on ship design: 1400-1850,” In A History of Seafaring ed. George F. Bass, 225-252 (New York: Walker and Company, 1972), 247.

[21] Alexander McKee, “The Influence of British naval strategy on ship design: 1400-1850,” In A History of Seafaring ed. George F. Bass, 225-252 (New York: Walker and Company, 1972), 226.

[22] Howard I. Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships (New York: Bonanza Books), 6.

[23] Alexander McKee, “The Influence of British naval strategy on ship design: 1400-1850,” In A History of Seafaring ed. George F. Bass, 225-252 (New York: Walker and Company, 1972), 234.

[24] Robert C. Wheeler, “Waterways open the New World: The North American Fur Trade,” In A History of Seafaring, edited by George F. Bass, 281-286 (New York: Walker and Company, 1972), 282-283.

[25] Howard I. Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships (New York: Bonanza Books), 8. Chapelle here suggests that the birth of the American shipbuilding industry was due to the demand for ships that could travel intercontinentally placed by the West India Trading Company’s interest in trading in New England.

[26] “Slavery in New York,” New York Historical Society. Exhibition dates October 7, 2005--March 26, 2006. Accessed Online November 4, 2014. slaveryinnewyork.org.

[27] “Slavery in New York,” New York Historical Society. Exhibition dates October 7, 2005--March 26, 2006. Accessed Online November 4, 2014. slaveryinnewyork.org.

[28] Rediker, Marcus, The Slave Ship. (USA: Penguin Group, 2007). 51.

[29] Alexander McKee, “The Influence of British naval strategy on ship design: 1400-1850,” In A History of Seafaring ed. George F. Bass, 225-252 (New York: Walker and Company, 1972), 233.

[30] Alexander McKee, “The Influence of British naval strategy on ship design: 1400-1850,” In A History of Seafaring ed. George F. Bass, 225-252 (New York: Walker and Company, 1972), 234.

[31] Alexander McKee, “The Influence of British naval strategy on ship design: 1400-1850,” In A History of Seafaring ed. George F. Bass, 225-252 (New York: Walker and Company, 1972), 235.

[32] Howard I. Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships (New York: Bonanza Books), 130. Chapelle argues that the slave ship was an offshoot type of the privateer ship.

[33] Howard I. Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships (New York: Bonanza Books), 130.

[34] Howard I. Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships (New York: Bonanza Books), 142.

[35] Howard I. Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships (New York: Bonanza Books), 133.

[36] McKay, Richard C., South Street: A Maritime History of New York (NY: Haskell House

Publishers Ltd., 1971). 10.

[37] McKay, Richard C., South Street: A Maritime History of New York. (NY: Haskell House

Publishers Ltd., 1971). 5.

[38] McKay, Richard C., South Street: A Maritime History of New York. (NY: Haskell House

Publishers Ltd., 1971). 7-9.

[39] McKay, Richard C., South Street: A Maritime History of New York. (NY: Haskell House Publishers Ltd., 1971). 15.

[40] Image from: “54 Pearl Street History.” Fraunces Tavern Museum, Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York, Inc. 2002-2014. Accessed: 11 November 2014. http://frauncestavernmuseum.org/history-and-education/history-of-fraunces-tavern/

[41] A further discussion of possible personal meanings can be found elsewhere on this site, where the views of modern-day tourists and residents on the skyline are discussed.