Along with Plymouth Rock and the Fountain of Youth, few places inspire as much imaginative reverie as the stately columns and shaded side streets of Wall Street. From its earliest beginnings in the early 1600s by Dutch settlers, when the southernmost tip of Manna-Hata Island was newly christened New Amsterdam, the trading post became an instant international magnet for commerce.
Even after the British acquired the land from the Dutch and renamed it New York, the little colony south of a certain wall and a certain street only grew as a place for trade, where merchants of all nationalities and stripes were welcome to buy and sell. Herman Melville, who lived and worked in the area, said it best: “There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf.”
The New York Stock Exchange began in theory under the name the Merchants Exchange in 1792, when a group of merchants and auctioneers signed the famous Buttonwood Agreement under a buttonwood tree at 68 Wall Street. Or at least that is the legend. But it began in earnest a few months later at 82 Wall Street — at the Tontine Coffee House, a handsome brick tavern & coffeehouse founded by those same Buttonwooders as a place to trade. They chose a clever name for their combination of a coffee house and stock exchange: a tontine. A tontine is a cooperative investment pool that functions like a trust, but one that only pays off to its last surviving member, making it both an investment in, and a gamble on, the future.
For decades, the Tontine was the center of New York’s commercial life. Deals were done on the vast trading floor upstairs, over coffee or ale or food downstairs; or auctions were sometimes conducted from the terrace outside. It was a club—a place to receive and send mail and messages. It even survived a double whammy: in 1835, when it was miraculously spared from the Great Fire that completely destroyed the whole area; and in 1836, when Merchants Exchange moved to much grander new quarters at 55 Wall Street (with a giant central trading hall that was then the largest in the world). The Tontine remained popular, not just living on as a tavern, hotel and watering hole, but as the literal first place for news. Positioned right in the midst of what had become New York’s first news and printing district, the Tontine was the place people came to get (and spread) the news first—an asset that lasted for decades more. Even when the original building was demolished in 1855 and a six-story one erected in its place (and now called simply the Tontine Building), news and coffee remained the plat du jour.