Binghamton Incubator Archaeological Site
Backstory and Context
Historic documents, such as maps, deeds, and census entries provide a fairly clear picture of divided block during the 19th century. When it was developed as a residential area c. 1840, the two sides of the block initially attracted very different types of families. The Hawley Street side closer to the commercial and governmental center of Binghamton was occupied by native middle and upper class households, while Lisle Avenue attracted working class residents who were often immigrants. The block became more unified socially within the last few decades of the 19th century and the early 20th century as more properties along Hawley Street became working class rental units and ethnic immigrants became more common. During the 20th century, housing along Hawley Street was replaced by industrial and commercial structures, most of which had also been removed for parking lots by 2013.
The Currans were among the few elite residents who stayed on the block and actually expanded their housing along Carroll Street by purchasing an adjoining house lot 1880s. This pattern is not typical of urban residential areas, which were commonly abandoned by the elite and middle class for the suburbs beginning in the late 19th century. It may be related to the sense of place and neighborhood ties that some elite families, such as the Currans, had. Benajah S. Curran, a wealthy lawyer and Mayor of Binghamton, may have initially settled here because of ties to this place. The Curran family seems to have had other properties in the area and Curran also lived with his widowed mother in this general vicinity prior to his marriage. This location was also convenient professionally since Curran was within easy walking distance of the court house. The Curran family’s decision to remain on Carroll Street through the early 20th century, however, was probably based on more than mere practicality since they clearly had the wealth to move to the suburbs and commute. Curran developed his social and political power base while he was a resident of this area. Political ties, attachment to, and memories of, place and home, probably all played a role in the Curran family remaining on the block, reminding us that people’s lives are more complex than common trends, such as suburbanization, would have us believe.
The Herrmanns were one of the immigrant families who moved into this area, taking a mortgage on the house at 120 Hawley Street in 1891. Lorenz Herrmanns ran a tailor shop out of the family home and one of his daughters engaged in a dressmaking business. Historic documents suggest that the family were struggling economically and they eventually lost the house through foreclosure in 1899. This economic struggle can be seen in the trash they left behind in their privy or out house shaft. There are very few dishes or other things related to the preparation or storage of food. Limited economic means, quite simply, would have impacted their ability to purchase consumer goods, including food related items. But it is also likely that female labor was crucial to both the Herrmann’s tailor and dressmaking businesses. Christina Herrmann, Lorenz’s wife, and their daughters may have helped with sewing and other tasks for both businesses. This work would have cut into the time available for cooking and the family may have focused on simple meals that did not require as much cooking equipment. Soups and stews were often favored by poorer families since they used lower cost cuts of meat and required less labor and less constant oversight during cooking. This freed female members of the household to perform other work, including income producing work. Animal bones found in the privy did include soup and stew cuts, as well as thin chops and steaks that would also cook quickly and required little equipment beyond a pan. The Herrmann’s table dishes, such as plates, bowls, and serving pieces, were also very basic and some of these were quite out-of-date and showed a good bit of wear.
Christina Herrmann’s death between 1892 and 1899 probably dealt the family both an emotional and financial blow that may have contributed to their losing their home. During excavations, archaeologists recovered 64 opium bottles from the privy that may be related to Christina’s final illness. Opium was commonly available during the 19th century and was also widely used in an age when medicine could do little to relieve suffering. Addiction was also reasonably common but these 64 small bottles would not scratch the surface of a true addict’s need and it seems more likely they are related to health problems. Whatever the reason for the Herrmann’s purchase of opium, the expense of this and the loss of Christina’s labor with her death, would have been substantial hardships for the family.