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Cultural Resources

First Street

Overview | Archaeology | Fieldwork | Artifacts


First Street, part of a busy working class Newark neighborhood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, included:

  • a few houses, built before 1860, stood on the blocks between New Street and Sussex Avenue,
  • factories, located at the eastern end of the street beyond Sussex Avenue in 1873, included a knife factory, hat factory, and tannery, and
  • industries lined the Morris Canal, which can be seen on the map just one block east of First Street and Sussex Avenue.

The 1873 Hopkins Atlas of Newark shows development on the southern end of First Street. These blocks lay between a residential neighborhood to the south near Warren Street and the factories closer to the Morris Canal. The red outlines show the lots that archaeologists excavated in 2003-2005.

hopkins atlas map
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This close-up from the 1873 Hopkins map shows the block between New Street and Central Avenue and a section, outlined in red that was studied. James Herrmann, Michael Fagan, and James Daley owned houses on three of the five lots.
This close-up from the 1873 Hopkins map shows the lots at the corner of Sussex Avenue and First Street. One existing house belonged to Mr. Cogen (Keogan in city directories), one house - the Walker House - was not yet been built and a third structure on the corner lot that is unlabeled was a saloon.

With industry expanding in the city, workers needed housing. By the late 1880s several new houses had been constructed along First Street, and by the end of the century nearly 30 houses had been built on these blocks. Still, the neighborhood was not as crowded as other parts of the city, and open space could be found, with empty lots among the houses and Branch Brook Park nearby.

Harper's Magazine drawing
This drawing from Harper's Magazine in 1879 shows what the First Street neighborhood may have looked like with new housing. There were factories with their smokestacks billowing nearby, but the area had a rural feeling.

Scarlett and Scarlett of Newark produced a map in 1887 that shows all of the vacant lots that had been previously studied (outlined in red) with houses. The map also shows a large patent leather factory at the north end of First Street.

1887 Scarlett map
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This section of the 1887 Scarlett map outlined in red shows the houses at 24, 26, 28, 30 and 32 First Street. The line down the middle of the street in front of the houses represents a water pipeline, which means that the houses may have had running water by this time - but they lacked city sewers.
This close-up of the 1887 Scarlett map outlined in red shows the houses at 102, 104, and 106 First Street. The lines down the middle of the street in front of the houses show that they could have hooked up to both water and sewers by this time. James Smith Jr. Patent Leather Mfg. Co. was located just across Sussex Avenue from those homes.

Most of the houses were occupied by just one, two or sometimes three families. Families would often take in relatives or boarders to help pay the bills, and even though every room was occupied, the neighborhood never had the kind of overcrowded tenements that characterized poorer parts of Newark. The First Street houses provided homes to Irish and German immigrants; to native-born families with Irish, German, and English backgrounds; and, by 1900, to African Americans from Virginia.

Family members who were old enough had jobs primarily in the numerous large factories that were Newark's claim to fame. The city was known for the production of leather (especially patent leather and other specialty goods), shoes, hats, thread, machine parts, even celluloid (an early type of plastic); and for its breweries. Workers commuted to their factory jobs right in the neighborhood or to the many factories all over town on foot or by horse-drawn streetcars and, by 1895, electric trolleys. First Street received its own trolley in 1900.


backyards photo
A photograph taken about 1900 shows houses with a yard in a working-class neighborhood in Newark. Most houses were divided into two or more apartments, and the tenants shared the yard. Though this photograph was meant to show poor families in overcrowded conditions, close neighbors and shared space are characteristics of city life.

Hewes & Philips Machine Works photo
Hewes & Philips Machine Works was adjacent to the Morris Canal. Newark was famous for its manufacturing in the late 19th century. The promise of employment at large factories like this drew families to city neighborhoods like First Street.

In addition to factory workers, some of the men living in the houses on First Street were the skilled workers -- masons, carpenters, and plumbers -- who were helping to build the booming city. A few of the men were listed as laborers, without a specific skill. Some women and older girls worked in factories, or as seamstresses. There were a few shops on these blocks, but at the corner of Sussex Street there was a neighborhood saloon.  
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Newark map

This 1895 bird's-eye-view of Newark shows how large and densely populated the city had grown by the end of the 19th century. The circled study area on First Street shows the beginning merge of the city proper with its western suburbs.

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Newark map

A close-up from the 1895 bird's-eye-view shows the blocks on First Street that are being studied. The area was still not completely built up, and many empty lots remained. Smokestacks of some of the factories ringed the neighborhood.
Household trash discarded by residents and excavated over a hundred years later by archaeologists provided information about the family life for residents of First Street. By matching up trash with actual households from the historic censuses and city directories, we get a glimpse of items used by men, women and children of varied ethnic backgrounds and occupations.

Historic documents, such as property records, censuses, and city directories provide information about who lived in specific houses. One of the earliest houses on the street belonged to the Fagan family, who purchased land here for $600 in 1868. They built and moved into 30 First Street in 1870. The 1880 census listed Michael Fagan as the head of the household. He was born in Ireland around 1820, emigrated to the United States around 1855, and lived at 30 First Street with his wife Mary and their six children until his death in 1893. He was a laborer. Mrs. Fagan kept house, but the oldest daughter, 13-year-old Jane, was a mill girl.

The two eldest sons held jobs as a leather worker and a hardware clerk in 1880. They would later go into business themselves with the Fagan Brothers Coal Yard, located on the same block as their home, at 408-410 Central Avenue. The Fagan family and their descendants remained in residence at 30 First Street until the 1930s.

In contrast to 30 First Street, many houses were leased by their owners. One example was 104 First Street. Built around 1873, the first owners lived there, but the property changed hands several times after 1886 and was rented out as two apartments. Some of earliest African Americans on


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1880 census page
A page from the United States Census taken in 1880, the Fagan household, at number 30 First Street, consisted of Michael and Mary, who were both 46 years old in 1880, and their children Peter, John, Jane, Michael, Joseph and Mary. The census records that Jane, who was only 13, already worked in a silk factory.

1900 census page
A page from the 1900 United States Census shows two separate households at 104 First Street. James and Mary Schenck lived in one apartment; John Whitfield and Frank Sherer in the other. The "B" next to each name is in the column for Color or Race indicating they were counted as Black, African Americans.

First Street lived at 104 First Street. In 1900, they included James Schenck, listed as a 51-year-old hod carrier (a laborer who worked for masons), and his wife Mary, who was 41 and did not report having a job outside the home. There was a second apartment, where John Whitfield and his nephew Frank Sherer shared quarters. Both were listed as African Americans in their twenties from Virginia, working as day laborers. The 1900 census gives more detail than the 1880 census, so we also know that while Mary could read and write, her husband could not, nor could the two young men from Virginia. The census taker noted that the men had all reported several months unemployment the previous year. Perhaps they had recently come to the city because it offered better chances for work.

The censuses and city directories have been combed to piece together a story of who lived in each house and whose trash may have ended up buried in the back yards that the archaeologists excavated.

Archaeology Back to top

Archaeologists decide where to dig. Before water lines and sewers were laid in the streets, residents used well or rain water. Every house collected water in a cistern, and had a backyard outhouse or privy.

With the installation of water hookups, residents no longer needed wells or cisterns. They also hooked up to the sewers and installed indoor water closets, which made backyard privies obsolete.

As the privy pits generally were lined with stone and were cleaned out periodically, residents often used the empty pits for garbage disposal. The trash provided archaeologists with an excellent collection of artifacts - objects from the past - that became clues to their lifestyles.

privy photo
Before sewers, residents used an outhouse, also called a privy. Under this structure was a pit, often lined with wood or stone.

To find out when utilities were available in First Street, researchers used historic maps and records, such as the Annual Reports of the Commissioners of the City of Newark, available at the Newark Public Library.

Water and sewer hookups on First Street were done in stages. By 1885 water pipes had been installed between West Market and Sussex, and by 1891 all of the houses would have had access to sewers. Of course, not every owner hooked up promptly, and some people may have continued to use backyard privies longer than others. Tenants would have to wait for the landlord to pay the fees to hook up to public utilities and then pay to install indoor plumbing.

At home sites that were built before utilities, archaeologists expected to find deposits of 19th-century trash in old privy shafts, and they conducted test excavations in these yards.

excavation photo
Workers excavate a structure in the back yard of number 106 First Street.

The New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) found that eight of the home lots it purchased to widen First Street had abandoned privy shafts with deposits of household trash in the backyards.

Fieldwork Back to top

NJDOT used a backhoe to strip away upper layers of fill soil, down to the old, buried surface layer or to the tops of old pits. They mapped the exposed area and, as new features appeared, they added them to the map.

Once a shaft was located, workers dug a portion of soil by hand with shovels and trowels and sifted it through wire mesh to determine the type of deposit. When workers excavated soils one layer at a time, they uncovered distinct layers from residents' separate dumping episodes. Then they placed artifacts in bags labeled with the address, the number of the excavation unit, and a consecutive number representing the soil layer.

The backyard archaeological sites are registered with the New Jersey State Museum and are given official Smithsonian site numbers. Listed after the street and number are the digits for New Jersey (28), two letters (Ex) for Essex County and a unique number for each site. The assigned numbers are:


backhoe photo
A backhoe that can clear large areas quickly is often used in initial excavations to expose historic backyards. On-site archaeologists carefully watch for historic trash deposits or old privy pits and they stop the machine when they notice them.

soil screening photo
The excavated soil is screened so very small artifacts can be collected.

24 First 28Ex123 26 First 28Ex124
28 First 28Ex125 30 First 28Ex117
32 First 28Ex116 102 First 28Ex113
104 First 28Ex112 106 First 28Ex111

privy pit photo
Archaeologists have marked the outline of one of the two stone-lined privy pits in the corner of the backyard at 30 First Street.

brick and stone structure photo
An unusual brick and stone structure at the back of 106 First Street may have been a rebuilt privy for the saloon.

stone lined pit photo
Archaeologists have partially excavated a stone-lined pit in the backyard of 30 First Street. First they dug one half of a feature in order to find out its contents and to preserve a cross-section of the layers.

excavation photo
Archaeologists make measured drawings as they excavate.

Artifacts Back to top

Documents can tell us a lot about the people of historic First Street. Artifacts give us information about how these residents lived, about differences in lifestyles among the families, and how their lives may have changed over time.

Other materials recovered included food remains and food containers, which showed how much households spent on food and how food preferences differed along ethnic lines. There also were examples of style, such as ceramic and glass dishes and decorative items for home dining; personal items, such as smoking pipes, clothing items and buttons; toys that belonged to the children who grew up in the houses; grooming and hygiene items; and medicine bottles.

porcelain figurine photo
This porcelain religious figurine was recovered from within a shaft structure in the back yard at 104 First Street.

saucer and cups photo
A fancy gilt-edged porcelain cup and saucer and a mug with a lily-of-the-valley molded design made of white granite or ironstone, which was a type of earthenware popular in the 1870s and 80s, were found at 104 First Street.

pipes photo
Artifacts recovered from the Fagan backyard at 30 First Street include the decorated clay pipe bowl at left with a harp and crown decoration, and the whole pipe at the bottom with an eagle decoration. The pipe bowl at the top right was excavated at 104 First Street and has a tobacco leaf design.

toys photo
A porcelain toy bathtub and doll's head were recovered from the back yard of 30 First Street. Two girls grew up as members of the Fagan family in the 1870s and 1880s.
compote photo
Excavations at 104 First Street yielded several fancy items for the home, including this molded glass compote and milk glass lamp base.

Items from stores and saloons are examples of how these establishments fit into the social and economic life of a neighborhood.

Of the two porcelain saucers found in the brick and stone shaft structure at 106 First Street, the one on the left has a painted design. The dishes may have been from the saloon that stood on this lot, or may have belonged to one of the families living above the saloon.

  saucers photo

lamp chimney and medicine bottle photo
A lamp chimney, left, and a medicine bottle, right was found at 104 First Street. The medicine bottle has the pharmacy's name -- P.S. VAN PATTEN NEWARK -- embossed on the glass, but its specific contents are unknown.
water bottle photo
A Saratoga Springs water bottle was found in the backyard of 104 First Street. The bottle may have been discarded by the Koegans, who lived here in the early 1870s.

The archaeological deposits can be used as time capsules to study specific households. For example, from one deposit to another, a change in styles of dishes may reflect a change in household composition, new residents with different cultural backgrounds, or fluctuations in household wealth.

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  Last Updated:  December 4, 2007