Useful pleasures

Site of the Commercial Bank on Market Square. Detail from Francis W. Brinley’s 1836 map of Perth Amboy.

IN the shaping of character few factors exert more influence than the pastimes of youth. An unpublished memoir by William Whitehead confirms that the days of his life between ages 13 and 18, while unburdened by conventional schooling, were varied by pursuits no less formative in his development or significant for his “future usefulness.”

Fair weather often found him boating on Raritan Bay, its inlets and other waterways, or on rambles in the Perth Amboy hinterland. At home, he resumed the practice of drawing acquired during his Newark boyhood, turning out pen-and-ink scenes sketched from life or copied from engravings. At the urging of friends he ventured into the physical sciences, even dabbling in chemistry experiments. He taught himself land surveying.

An avid reader, Whitehead also crafted compositions of his own. He may later have regarded these as unworthy of notice, but at the time he felt differently. With a couple of young companions he produced something like an underground journal, which for two or three years kept Amboy residents guessing as to who were the culprits.1

Detail of Whitehead’s map of Perth Amboy in 1823, with the old market (#11) and the Commercial Bank (#12).

Not all of his activities were voluntary. He was enlisted with an older boy to whitewash the fence of St. Peter’s Church, but seems not to have minded the task.2 Compulsory service in the family garden had less attraction, especially when the sudden and unexplained departure of a black bondman known only as “master Jack” placed its responsibilities wholly on his shoulders.

Young William also had a paying job, although it evidently left him considerable freedom: he worked as general clerk in the Commercial Bank of New Jersey with a yearly salary of one hundred dollars. Informally apprenticed to his father, he assumed ever greater responsibilities for the bank’s activities.3

When Perth Amboy was first laid out as a colonial capital the planners reserved a market square at its center, the point where Market and High Streets would have intersected. By the 1760s the town had put up a permanent shelter in this area to foster commerce in the prospective “metropolis of the province,” but the structure saw nothing like the volume of trade envisioned and would be removed in 1842.4 Whitehead passed the building frequently, or a remnant of it, as an early map makes clear: a stone’s throw to the north of this emporium, on the west side of High Street just where it enters the square, stood the Commercial Bank.

Detail of a panoramic map of the 1880s. The house circled stood at the northwest corner of Market Square. Photo by Mary Ellen Pavlovsky.

The bank’s history is fragmentary, but Whitehead’s reconstruction of the town in 1823 shows the building’s footprint with a detail missing from the earlier map, in the form of a small extension at the rear. This High Street home and annex seem to have survived long after the bank ceased operations in the 1850s, their shape and construction becoming clearer in later representations. A picturesque “bird’s eye” view of about 1882 suggests the two parts of the former bank building were adjacent but unattached, while more precise maps depict the annex clearly joined to the main building.5

The northwest corner of the square in the 1901 Sanborn-Perris insurance map.

Residential and commercial structures in the early nineteenth century were sometimes indistinguishable. Whitehead’s memoir makes no mention of the bank’s business location, but states that when his father became cashier the family moved into a house on the northwest corner of High Street and the square. Its “rather dilapidated” state in 1823 indicates a structure significantly older than the bank and perhaps unsuitable for banking operations, but such a house could have sufficed for a cashier’s lodgings. At the Newark bank where Whitehead’s father had previously held the same position, his family lived above or behind the banking rooms, and William Whitehead was born in that dwelling in 1810.

View looking north from Market Square. The probable home of William Whitehead’s youth is circled.

An early twentieth-century picture post card offers a rare view northward, roughly from the site of the old market building. It includes a large house on the west side of High Street with a smaller wing at the back. This annex is likely the place from which William Whitehead would daily set his sights on Perth Amboy and the wider world.

Copyright © 2017-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] My narrative of the Perth Amboy years draws largely from the memoir entitled “Childhood and Youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830,” of which a transcription is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, George A. Smathers Library, University of Florida. I have uncovered no trace so far of The Invisible Spy, the anonymous periodical on which Whitehead claims to have collaborated with two young teachers at a local military academy.

[2] This project may have been occasioned by the annual convention of the Diocese of New Jersey held at St. Peter’s in 1825 which prompted other improvements to the church, including repairs to its exterior. “Childhood and Youth,” 20; James Chapman, Historical notices of Saint Peter’s Church, in the City of Perth-Amboy, New Jersey, contained in two discourses delivered in the said Church, June 19th and 26th, 1825, shortly after the erection of a marble tablet in the east wall of the Church, in memory of the first benefactors of the same; with some additions (Elizabeth-Town 1830) 27-28; idem, autograph letter signed from Rev. James Chapman to Thomas N. Stanford, Perth Amboy, 27 May 1825, Thomas Naylor Stanford Papers, MC 608. Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries.

[3] For the bank’s origins and Whitehead’s role, see my post Birth of a bank.

[4] William Dunlap, History of the rise and progress of the arts of design in the United States 2 vols. (New York 1834) 1:245; William A. Whitehead, Contributions to the early history of Perth Amboy and adjoining country (New York 1856) 7-8, 251, 255-6.

[5] The panoramic image comes from a remarkable map–apparently unpublished–by T. M. Fowler, preserved at Kearny Cottage in Perth Amboy. Sanborn insurance maps from 1891 to 1914 reveal only slight modifications in the former bank and its annex. The Commercial Bank did not end its days in this building: sometime between 1836 and 1850, i.e. between the dates of Francis Brinley’s map and of a map of Middlesex County by J. W. Otley and J. Keily, it moved to another corner of the square, on the north side of Market Street. For taking on the challenge of identifying the homes of the Commercial Bank and the Whiteheads I am indebted to Mary Ellen Pavlovsky. Mistakes are entirely my own.

Images: Whitehead, Contributions, map facing 57; Library of Congress (F. W. Brinley map); Kearny Cottage (panoramic map); Princeton University Library (Sanborn map); C. A. Sexton (postcard of City Hall Park, author’s collection).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.