Mark Carr, the First NYC Christmas Tree Seller, And a Brief History of New York's Christmas Tree Market
In the mid-19th century, hardly any modern Christmas traditions existed. One that did was the Christmas tree, a pre-Christian ritual incorporated into holiday festivities in German-speaking European countries. In New York, the presence of streetside Christmas trees in the city actually predates Christmas as a national holiday (1870).
It was German immigrants who popularized the Christmas tree tradition in the US. As a huge surge in German immigration began in the 1840s, it’s not surprising that New York’s first Christmas tree market — in fact, the first mass-market sale of Christmas trees in the United States — came along shortly after, in 1851.
A man with a team of horses are transporting a wagon full of Christmas trees in New York, ca. 1910-1915. (Library of Congress)
Woodsman Mark Carr, living in the lush Catskill Mountains, heard tales of families driving outside of town and chopping down evergreen trees to drag into the city. As this is only feasible for wealthy people or for those with a horse or a wagon Carr, Carr thought he’d bring the forest to the city folks.
Unloading Christmas trees, ca. 1910-1915. (Library of Congress)
So a couple weeks before Christmas in 1851, Carr and his sons chopped down a couple dozen fir and spruce trees, shoved them into two ox sleds, carted them over to Manhattan on a ferry and set up shop in the Washington Market paying one dollar for the privilege of taking up a sidewalk at Washington Market with his rather ungainly merchandise.
A Christmas tree seller on Catherine Street, 1941, photo by Beecher Ogden. (Museum of the City of New York)
Holiday revelers were thrilled to be spared the journey out of town, and Carr’s entire stock of evergreens sold out within the day. No surprise this financial opportunity was mimicked by other farmers the next year, and within a few years, the open-air Christmas tree market was born.
Christmas tree sales at Barclay Street, near the site of today’s World Trade Center. (Library of Congress)
Carr, of course, became the Vanderbilt of the Christmas tree, selling trees for decades. Carr’s sons were still selling trees in the city as late as 1898, in a city quite transformed, or as the old House Beautiful magazine put it, “Mark Carr’s little sidewalk stand now rents for several hundred times what he paid for it.”
His innovation may be responsible for a whole host of domestic decoration, delivered fresh to the customer. “It is safe to say that 200,000 Christmas trees will be on the market here this year,” said the New York Times in 1880, “besides many tons of Christmas greens.”
Christmas trees market, ca. 1910-1915. (Library of Congress)
By the 1870s boatloads of evergreen trees from Maine were pulling into New York. The task of moving a forest into crowded Manhattan required additional greased palms.
For decades, well into the 20th century, it was easiest to get the trees near the waterfront. “West Street is now the Christmas tree market in the city,” said the Times in 1908. “Not only is the city’s entire demand supplied practically from this one market, but thousands of Christmas trees are shipped by the West Street dealers to all the surrounding towns and cities in New York State, New Jersey and even to points much further away.”
Within a New York lodging house, ca. 1910-1915. (Library of Congress)
West Street was still the central location of prime Christmas tree sales by the 1930s, but sellers were increasingly bringing their wares onto city streets. Tree markets were a regular seasonal site by the 1950s, with the deterioration of the New York waterfront.