Synonymous with the financial markets, Wall Street, spanning just eight blocks across Lower Manhattan, has long been a street of outsized importance. But for centuries, Wall Street has been one of New York’s most important streets for a different reason, long before it became home to the two largest stock exchanges in the world (the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ) and anchored New York’s reputation as the world’s financial capital.
The Dutch came in 1624 looking to settle in the New World, landing upon the New York Harbor, one of the world’s largest natural harbors. Colonizing land occupied by the native Lenape people, the Dutch established their provincial capital on the southern tip of Manhattan. To protect their colony, a picket fence was erected, demarcating the northern border in the 1640s. But Peter Stuyvesant, Dutch general of “New Amsterdam” fearing British attacks, built a solid wall 9 feet tall with slave and indentured servant labor in 1652. The street that went along the wall was aptly named “de Waalstraat.” Unfortunately for the Dutch the British simply invaded from the sea and took over “New Amsterdam” in 1664, renaming it “New York.” The wall on Wall Street lasted until 1699 when it was finally demolished, and construction on a City Hall began that year.
By 1700, only 200 Lenape remained. Meanwhile, New York’s port became the landing place for many slaves shipped from Africa. It was only natural that in 1711, the city created a slave market at the corner of Pearl and Wall Street. For over 50 years, Wall Street was the hub of the slave trade in New York, the start of its economic importance.
The latter half of the 18th century brought the Revolutionary War. New York, which had been a loyalist haven, had flirted briefly about remaining independent from the newly formed United States of America. That was shut down by Alexander Hamilton, and in 1788, City Hall was renamed Federal Hall, as New York City became the nation’s first capital. It was here that George Washington was inaugurated the first president of the United States of America.
Beneath the shade of a buttonwood tree on Wall Street, legend has it that a group of investors gathered to trade securities. The group of 24 stockbrokers signed an agreement called the “Buttonwood Agreement” in 1792, creating a more structured market. Even in these early days, the traders wanted to shield themselves from government oversight and create an exclusive circle devoid of any outsiders. The New York Stock Exchange was born.
With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, New York City became the only major port on the east coast which had direct access to the Midwest, via the Great Lakes. As New York grew in economic importance, Wall Street became the financial hub. It was the place where “Old World capital and New World ambition” met, and soon enough, New York was breathing down on London’s neck.
The Gilded Age was a wonderful time for Wall Street and New York. Riches were descending to the city as it began to grow upwards. Meanwhile, the financial systems we know today began to emerge. Charles Dow created his first stock average in 1884, the precursor to his Dow Jones Industrial Average, which would become the benchmark of the market. With this, the Wall Street Journal was born, a creation of Dow’s with Edward Jones and Charles Bergstresser. The New York Stock Exchange opened a new building in 1903, with an expansive trading floor with a 72-foot ceiling. In 1913, an iconic building went up at 23 Wall Street, one that became known as “The Corner” or “House of Morgan,” as the headquarters of JP Morgan. This building was the site of an anarchist bombing in 1920, which killed 38 and hundreds injured, 143 seriously. The bombing did fuel fears of the “Red Scare” of the time.
The glamour and glory of the Gilded Age came to a screeching halt on October 24, 1929. The shaky foundation beneath the “Roaring Twenties,” a decade of speculation and excess, finally collapsed. Long operating without the “interference” of the government, the government finally held the reign on the wild horse. But as the economy gradually improved, the government relaxed its hold in the following decades. As Ronald Reagan would say, it was time “we’re going to turn the bull loose.”
Through the ebbs and flows of the market, Wall Street has been the home of the endless game of cat and mouse, between government regulation and the financial industry, the 1% and the 99%, up and down, bull and bear. It is filled with optimism and greed, cynicism and despair, where capitalism and corruption inevitably converge. Wall Street started may have just started as a street with a wall; since then, it has remained important, as 5 words push investors ever forward with ambition: “this time will be different.”