Job and Home

You are unlikely to find the word “cartman” in your dictionary today, but at one time cartmen were a vital cog in the economy of every city and every nation. Before the advent of railroad freight cars, 18-wheeler tractor-trailers and cargo planes, cartmen were the ones who did the essential work of transporting goods and people.

     The jacket of a history book about New York City’s cartmen from 1667 to 1850 summarized their importance:

“The cartmen — unskilled workers who hauled goods on one-horse carts — were perhaps the most important labor group in the cities of early America … These ubiquitous white- frocked laborers moved almost all of the nation’s possessions, touching the lives of virtually every American.”

     While not generally thought of as such, the occupation of cartman was as universal among Irish immigrants as the other jobs they are most often associated with: digging canals and laying railroad track.

Nicolina Calyo, “The Wood Carter,” 1840, Kenneth B. Newman’s Old Print Shop, New York City. For over two centuries wood carters picked up customers’ firewood at designated piers,delivered on credit and charged only for cartage. During hard winters, the wood carter was a valued friend.

     The history of the cartman (also known as carman) in New York City has been well documented, and we can assume that it followed a similar pattern in the Brooklyn of our ancestors.

     “For two centuries after its incorporation in 1653, the government of New York City regulated and controlled intra-city transportation by licensing a group of workers known as cartmen. These were literally one horse drivers who all used a standardized cart to carry anything from garbage to grain to furniture to human beings. For these two centuries the cartmen held a nearly total monopoly upon all transportation within the city…

      The governance of the carters extended to every aspect of the trade. Like butchers, bakers and grocers who paid an excise tax for licensing, cartmen were allowed to work by officials of the city government provided they applied for annual licensing. The degree of control for cartmen, however, was much higher than in other trades or in the crafts. Not only was the size of cart regulated but its shape and composition as well. This allowed for conformity in measurement and thus insured fair and full loads. By 1749 the city government expanded earlier practices of price-control by setting rates for over one hundred items the cartmen might be expected to carry. These rates and the prohibitions against refusing to provide service to any citizen virtually insured that the carters would be the principal carriers in the city…

     Cartmen were also instructed in the handling of certain materials. The arrival of a grain shipment at city docks meant that all cartmen were to drop their present task to attend to its unloading… Laws were enacted to regulate the sale and cartage of wood, hay, and manure. These laws, passed early in the city’s history and reaffirmed at numerous points in its history, prohibited the purchase and sale of public necessities like wood and hay by the carters. Designed to prevent forestalling and engrossing, the laws carried stiff penalties…

     Inspection was required of each load carted; this, of course, required a staff of inspectors and informants who became city employees.  Often aged or infirm cartmen filled these posts. Cartmen, as part of their contract with the city, picked up the citizens’ garbage on Fridays and Saturdays. Other city services included street and wharf repair and general labor for the city corporation. These demands for public service obtained throughout the colonial and Jacksonian eras. In time, they evolved into regular employment for many carters and formed the basis for the organization of the Departments of Streets and Sanitation…

     During the War of 1812 the city faced a shortage of carters as many regular cartmen went off to war. The shortage was partially covered by permitting boys under twenty-one to cart for the first time. Since frequently these boys were the sons of regular carters, it caused little friction. Additionally, however, the city granted licenses to aliens, most notably to the Irish. When cartmen veterans returned from the war, they found their places filled with newly- arrived Irish. The veterans demanded that the aliens be displaced from their places and denied licenses. The issue became a major political brawl when the city declined to fire Irish carters. Finally, after a number of large petitions arrived, the city moved to restrict the occupation. After 1823 carting was reserved to residents of the city for at least a year and to American citizens. Irish carters were restricted to the less pleasant and lucrative positions of dirt removers…

      By the end of the 1820’s over four hundred carters worked exclusively for the newly-created Department of Sanitation. Together the mayor and Common Council acted as a judiciary before which the carters had occasion to appear to petition for better wages or conditions or to answer the many complaints from the citizens about their misconduct. In the latter area, the most common complaints were for reckless driving, rude behavior and language, rate-gouging, and forestalling wood.  As these complaints make plain, the cartmen, despite their favor from city government, were often quite unpopular within the citizenry.” 

     John Farrell bought his house on Tillary St. in 1839. In the Brooklyn Street Directories from 1841 through 1844 he was listed only as a laborer. Thereafter he was designated a cartman. Owen in the 1841 and 1842 directories was also listed as a cartman, as well as in the 1855 Census.  In the one reference  to Matthew Keenan, in the 1841 Directory, he was listed as a laborer. He was apparently working as a cooper when residing in Parmentier Gardens, but once he moved out to the 9th Ward and had his own house (1849-53) he too was tagged a cartman. Patrick Keenan appeared for the first time in Spooner’s Directory in 1848-49, and was designated as a cartman for most of the rest of his career. There were a few exceptions where he was called either a laborer, a grocer, or a driver, but that was a fairly common variant . So it appears that this family business might have been initiated by Owen and then been picked up by the others as a viable way to advance their income and prospects. This was pretty typical for immigrant families, indeed any family, who found strength in numbers and shared opportunities.

       But developing a livelihood was not the only arena in which the Keenans encouraged and abetted each other. They also shared in the acquisition of real property.

Real Estate

   “Between 1840 and 1845, the population of Brooklyn rose from thirty-six  thousand to over fifty thousand residents.  This marked the first major wave of European immigration that would transform Brooklyn into the third-largest city in the United States by 1860. Irish peasants escaping famine and Germans fleeing the disruption of a failed revolution poured into the city around the middle of the century.”

   As Brooklyn expanded in population there was a great demand for increased housing. Starting in the early 1830’s investors had begun buying up large tracts of farmland surrounding Brooklyn proper and dividing them up into lots for sale.

     “In January (of 1834), after a period of extravagant speculation in city lots, greatly facilitated by the too free issue of paper currency by the banks, it was announced that great numbers of the laboring classes were discharged for want of cash; and so formidable did the danger appear, that a meeting of merchants, mechanics, manufacturers and other citizens of Brooklyn was convened for the purpose of deliberating on  measures necessary to be adopted to avert the pecuniary distress.”

    Some things never change.

     “The sale of building lots in Prospect Heights began in 1834; this was part of a general speculation in land between downtown Brooklyn and Bedford that began in 1833. Real estate speculators, including Charles Hoyt and James E. Underhill, began to sell lots measuring 25 feet by 100 feet that were part of a street plan laid out at about a 45 degree angle to the present street grid…”

     This original grid was oriented towards what was then called Flatbush Turnpike or Old Flatbush Rd. This was originally a Lenape Indian path that was widened by Dutch settlers. It was a meandering road that went up and over Prospect Hill, the second highest elevation in Brooklyn.

     “ (However) It does not appear that buildings were constructed on these lots. The most likely reason for this is that in 1835, the New York State Legislature passed “an act authorizing the appointment of commissioners to lay out streets, avenues, and squares in the city of Brooklyn;” ratified in 1839, their plan extended the city’s street grid to Brooklyn’s outer sections, including Prospect Heights.”


  Although, as David Ment and Mary S. Donovan explain, “the mapping of city streets through the fields and woods of Dutch farmers did not mean that the streets would be opened immediately … it did signify the public expectation of the eventual urbanization of the area and established a structure within which future development would take place.”

     “The new streets opened in Prospect Heights beginning in the 1840s. Fulton Avenue (now Fulton Street), just north of the district, opened in 1842, and replaced the Brooklyn and Jamaica Turnpike. The first streets to open in the district were Carlton Avenue and Dean Streets in 1846. The remainder of the streets opened in the 1850s including Flatbush Avenue which opened in 1852, replacing the old Flatbush Road…”

    Lack of official streets in no way encumbered people from buying house lots and constructing domiciles, however. In 1843, in the Ninth ward, it was reported that there had been 24 houses erected, with two more in progress.  So on April 24, of 1844 Matthew Keenan, who by now had three children (James, Sarah Ann and Matthew TJ) and another on the way, purchased a building lot on Bergen St. in the Prospect Heights area from Cornelius Van Cleef for $50.  This was on the south side of Bergen St. between Grand Ave. and Washington St. (later this was designated #766).

     Two years later, on May 8, 1846, Patrick Keenan bought the adjoining lot (#764) from Cornelius Van Cleef  also for the sum of $50. Though Patrick was probably 8-10 years younger than Matthew, by then he also had two kids, and was obviously following Matthew’s lead. And so the transplanting of the Keenans to the Ninth Ward began.

         To buy a building lot is one thing, but to build a house on it is something entirely different. That would require an accumulation of capital. Fortunately Matthew and Patrick were also establishing themselves as cartman and that presumably provided a steady flow of income from Brooklyn’s ever expanding commerce.

     It appears that Patrick began building a house on Bergen St. around 1847-48 because the 1848-49 Brooklyn Street Directory lists him already living at “Bergen n. Grand”.

     In 1847, however, Matthew  decided to sell his Bergen St. lot. Whether this was from financial necessity or for some other reason having to do with the lot, we will never know. By now he had two more kids, Elizabeth and Catherine, and that could have influenced him. Perhaps he just wanted better access to an opened, improved street. But on March 4 of that year, Matthew sold his lot to Hugh Harley for what he had paid for it ($50) three years earlier. It appears however  that the original deed had never been recorded,  because both the original, as well as the transfer to Hugh Harley were not officially recorded till Sept. 7th of 1847.

     The following summer (June 1, 1848) Matthew purchased another lot on Underhill Ave (just a few blocks away). This would eventually be designated #58.  He purchased it from Charles Christmas for $123.50. Charles Christmas was an Englishman who had moved to Brooklyn around 1820 and become a stockbroker, and obviously dabbled in real estate as well.

     The 1848-49 Spooner Brooklyn Street Directory lists Matthew living on Dean St. near Underhill Ave.  Remember Dean was one of the first streets to be opened (1846) and would have consequently had more houses on it. I imagine that Matthew was renting on Dean while he built his own home around the corner on Underhill Ave. By the following year the Directories show that Matthew was living at “Underhill Ave n. Bergen”.

     What were these family homesteads like? We don’t know for certain, but we can get an idea from several sources. In 1850 the U.S. Census noted the “Value of Real Estate Owned” by each of the head of households interviewed. Starting in 1855 New York State required that their census takers notate the rough valuation of the domiciles they were visiting and describe their construction (i.e. frame or brick). The 1870 Federal Census also required information on the value of both the real estate and the personal estate of its informants.

     In 1850 the house Patrick built was valued at $300. Matthew’s was valued at $900,  so it must have been substantially larger.  By 1855 the house that Patrick built was estimated at $800, probably due to improvements. Unfortunately Matthew’s house was never visited, so we don’t have a comparative evaluation. The Census taker also neglected to evaluate Matthew’s house in 1865, but by 1875 it was composed of two buildings and had a combined value of $3000.

     Another way to get an idea of the configuration of the Brooklyn house is to consult Fire Insurance maps, which often gave information on the buildings set on each lot. Unfortunately these were not published in any clear detail till the 1880’s. However, from those we can extrapolate back to what the original building probably looked like. This is in particular the case for Matthew’s house at #58 Underhill Ave.

      The 1888 Sanborn map presents us with a very clear picture. In that we see that the original house was a 2 story wood frame structure about 20 ft. wide by 25 ft. deep. The roof gable ran in the short dimension. There was a single story addition on the rear that measured about 12 ft. wide by 30 ft. long, and probably had a shed roof , draining into the open courtyard. But of course we don’t know if the addition was original to the house, or added at a later date. The second structure in the rear of the lot, which appears to be about 12 feet deep, is two stories tall and spans the full 25 ft. width of the lot. I believe it was built originally as a carriage house for Matthew’s carts.  That structure is shown on the 1869 map as well .

     In 1939 the New York City Department of Taxation, working with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) began a project to photograph every house in the five boroughs of  New York.  The idea was to use the photos to determine property value assessments. In that collection is a picture of the house that Matthew Keenan built in  1849. The original house would probably  have had wooden shingles on the roof, but otherwise the façade and trim details appear original – though clearly ninety years the worse for wear.

58 Underhill Ave.