One simply cannot discuss the history of the West Village without emphasizing the importance of tobacco. Christopher Street has thick roots buried deep in the old tobacco fields that lay forgotten beneath its current urban visage: a tobacco-laced olfactive narrative that stretches back 400 years to the origins of Greenwich Village and the arrival of the Dutch in New Amsterdam. Farmers, tobacconists, smoke enthusiasts… this is the olfactive story of Christopher Street and tobacco.
They Have Tobacco Farming Nuns There?!?!
The story of tobacco begins in 1629, when Wouter Van Twiller, a member of the Dutch East India Company, was first granted 200 acres of land in New Amsterdam, including the current locale of Christopher Street. By 1633, Van Twiller, then third director general of New Amsterdam, would open a tobacco plantation on his land, a place he named Bossen Bouwery (“Farm in the Woods”).
Van Twiller remained in New Amsterdam (and at Bossen Bouwery) until 1638, at which time he was called back to Holland. Before leaving, he split his property into two parts, allocating a portion to Francis Lastley and the rest to Jan Van Rotterdam. The boundary separating these two plots (conveniently known as “the road along Jan Van Rotterdam’s to the Strand”) followed exactly the modern day trajectory of Christopher Street. Although not referred to as Christopher Street until some time later, the road as we know it was born.
Then, in 1664, control over the island of Manhattan passed from the Dutch to the English. Goodbye New Amsterdam. Hello New York. As a result of this transfer of power, many of the Dutch lands (like the above mentioned plots) were suddenly put into play. Most significantly, in 1708, Queen Anne of England had a large portion of land south of Christopher Street donated to Trinity Church. The road itself would act as the northern border of Trinity Church Farm by the middle of the 18th century. During this time, tobacco continued to be farmed. In fact, dig far enough back into the archives of Trinity Church Farm (and the later area the church donated to establish St. Luke’s in The Fields), and you might just find an oil painting or two of nuns working the fields, tobacco leaf gathered up into the folds of their habits.
As of 1740, the area surrounding Christopher Street looked as pictured above, made up of several other privately held farms as well as the infamous 300 acre estate of wealthy commodore, Sir Peter Warren. Christopher Street would exist as a farm road until 1817, when it was officially opened and regulated. So nearly 200 years of planting and processing tobacco.
Of course, those farming tobacco needed places where they could sell their goods. Tobacco was, after all, a coveted luxury good, and the tobacco trade quite lucrative. Again, for these purposes, Christopher Street was an ideal spot. Conveniently designed as an artery to the waterfront, the location allowed for easy loading of cargo bound for Europe or elsewhere in the Colonies. It also provided access to three established marketplaces (namely Jefferson, Greenwich, and the short-lived Weehawken Market).
As these markets folded, they would be replaced with retail cigar shops and tobacconists, many surviving long past the Village’s farmland days (i.e. one of Christopher Street‘s most iconic properties – Village Cigars). These tobacco merchants represent yet another chapter in the long lexicon of merchants who have lined the blocks of Christopher Street.
Previous ingredient stories (lime, bergamot, “dance on skin“…) have touched on some of the spaces attracting crowds to Christopher Street, and any one of these locations could be used as entreé into a discussion about the smoke-filled rooms of the Village. Take for example, the infamous tea rooms and speakeasies of the 20’s and 30’s like Romany Marie’s (20 Christopher Street) or Bonnie’s Stone Wall (53 Christopher Street). These hotspots played host to the likes of docking sailors, fashionable flappers, and notorious bootleggers with their Lucky Strikes, fancy cigarette holders, and smuggled cigars. Regardless of which era you choose to explore, it’s quite clear that some of Christopher Street‘s most interesting conversations happened under a cloud of tobacco smoke.
More About Fragrance & Tobacco
Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) is a flowering plant native to the Americas. The plant produces trumpet-like blossoms of a pink, white, red, or pale green color that possess a sweet tobacco scent with a subtle jasmine-like echo. While steam distillation of flowers and leaves produces both a concrete and absolute suitable for fragrance formulation, in modern perfumery the use of tobacco has mostly been replaced by the use of synthetic alternatives (or at least stripped of any remnants of nicotine before incorporation) due to strict regulatory restrictions and the high cost of the material.
As an alternative, tsome instead opt to use tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata) to conjure hints of tobacco. Native to South America, the egg-sized fruit of this plant are dried and cured in rum to produce coumarin crystals. The sweet, balsamic scent of these crystals is often described as smelling of marzipan and tobacco – perhaps because of its past usage in snuff scenting. In my opinion, the odor of tonka bean is reminiscent of a pipe tobacco that’s maybe been lightly flavored, especially when compared to the earthier tones of a tobacco absolute. Another alternative material used, IBQ (as mentioned in the post on leather) also has a tobacco-like quality, though it tends to smell more like the inside of an old leather snuff pouch.
All three materials were blended in crafting Christopher Street, and then combined with a touch of galbanum as an olfactive wink-wink to those Villagers smoking “them funny cigarettes.” The final tobacco accord first presents itself as a wisp of smoke in the top of the fragrance, with lingering tendrils that then permeate into the heart, before retreating to a softer, hazier plumage that casually wafts in the base. Like the history that inspired it, some aspect of its aroma remains with you as the entire Christopher Street fragrance narrative unfolds.