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Tontine Coffee-House Records

Call Number

MS 631


1738-1879 (bulk 1791-1871), inclusive



3 Linear feet (2 boxes, 13 bound volumes)

Language of Materials

The documents in the collection are in English.


The Tontine Coffee-House Records consist of documentation of a business association that operated through the use of a tontine for over 80 years. The loose papers include correspondence, receipts, papers concerning the estates of Dr. John Charlton and his wife, accounting statements, records of unpaid dividends, sketches, the Tontine Constitution, lists of nominees and shareholders, wills, records of exchanges of shares, lease agreements, papers concerning heir claims to shares, property records, and declarations of trust. Bound volumes include records of minutes, accounts, share transfers, expenditures, dividend receipts, ship arrivals, and the original plan of the tontine arrangement.

Historical Note

A tontine is a group investment that combines elements of a life annuity, life insurance, and a dead pool. The word "tontine" derives from the 17th century Neapolitan banker Lorenzo de Tonti, who is considered the inventor of the system.

In the version of the tontine as arranged under the Tontine Coffee-House, 203 shares (considered legally-transferable personal estate) were sold for $200 each to fund the establishment of a coffee house. Each shareholder selected a nominee of his choice, often young children. During the natural life of a particular shareholder's nominee, the shareholder was entitled to an equal division of profits derived from the coffee house. When that nominee died, the shareholder stopped receiving his dividends and was out of the tontine. His dividends were re-divided amongst the remaining shareholders. Therefore, as the number of nominees decreased, each remaining shareholder received more money. When the number of nominees was reduced to seven, the Tontine Coffee-House was to be dissolved and the remaining shareholders were to receive an equal division of the shares and assets derived from the property. Nominees did not receive payments of any kind and their only tie to the establishment was the use of their names. However, being chosen as a nominee was seen as an encouragement for long life.

Five trustees elected by the shareholders managed the affairs of the Tontine Coffee-House. When death reduced the number of trustees to less than three, five new trustees were elected.

New York merchants founded the Tontine Association in 1790 as a center for the merchant community. Until that time, there was no ideal place where merchants could congregate, and they would have to travel a significant distance for their daily coffee. Between 1792 and 1794, the Tontine Coffee-House was constructed on the northwest corner of Water Street and Wall Street. Initially the building operated as a coffeehouse, but the merchants quickly realized the building could generate greater profits for the tontine if leased out to more profitable businesses. By 1834 the Court of the Chancery legally made this a reality, and the Tontine Coffee-House would operate as a tavern, a hotel, and a newspaper publishing headquarters over the course of its existence. Nine years later, the coffeehouse changed its name to the Tontine Building. The Merchants' Exchange also operated in the building until 1825, when construction of the exchange on Wall Street was completed. The original building survived the Great Fire of 1835, but was demolished 20 years later to make way for a larger Tontine Building.

The Association dissolved after November 18, 1870 with the death of the 8th nominee. The remaining seven nominees were Maria Bayard, William Bayard, Robert Benson Jr., David Murray Hoffman, Gouverneur Kemble, Horatio Gates Stevens, and Mary Ray (widow of New York Governor John A. King). Frederic De Peyster, Chairman of the association and past president of the New-York Historical Society, stood to receive a significant portion of the tontine's assets as owner of one share depending on the life of David Murray Hoffman.


The records are organized into seven series:

Missing Title

  1. Series I. Organizational records, 1793-1871
  2. Series II. Financial records, 1791-1872
  3. Series III. Minutes, 1813-1871
  4. Series IV. Real estate, 1738-1876, Undated
  5. Series V. Tontine Ship Journal, 1812-1815
  6. Series VI. Correspondence, 1794-1871
  7. Series VII. Legal, 1835-1879

Scope and Content Note

The Tontine Coffee-House Records serve as the historical memory of the organization. Specifically, the records establish evidence of business transactions and legality allowing this association of capitalists to operate. The Tontine Coffee-House Records are of unique scholarly value because they provide a glimpse into the world of wealthy 18th and 19th century New York merchants (many who were important New York figures) and the peculiar arrangement of the tontine.

The collection's greatest strength is its meticulous financial records, which include transfers, dividend receipts, expenditure lists, and general vendor receipts. The dividends are important because they demonstrate the wealth of the shareholders and the stakes each of them had in the arrangement. The receipts and expenditures provide insight into what was tangibly needed to sustain the Tontine Building. The records are more about the official business of the Coffee-House rather than the informal business that took place there.

Notable items include the Tontine Ship Journal, which recorded aspects of trade such as the contents of cargo, weather and tide information, port of departure, and number of days at sea. It also contains information about the War of 1812, including general news, ship captures, and information on the blockade of the port. The printed copies of the Tontine Constitution list every shareholder, their occupations, their nominees, and the nominees' date of birth and parentage.

The collection is physically divided between manuscripts and bound volumes. The boxes can be located with the call phrase Tontine Coffee House Records, the volumes with the call phrase BV Tontine, and the Tontine Ship Journal with call phrase BV Tontine Journal.

Access Restrictions

Materials in this collection may be stored offsite. For more information on making arrangements to consult them, please visit

Use Restrictions

Taking images of documents from the library collections for reference purposes by using hand-held cameras and in accordance with the library's photography guidelines is encouraged. As an alternative, patrons may request up to 20 images per day from staff.

Application to use images from this collection for publication should be made in writing to: Department of Rights and Reproductions, The New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, NY 10024-5194, Phone: (212) 873-3400 ext. 282.

Copyrights and other proprietary rights may subsist in individuals and entities other than the New-York Historical Society, in which case the patron is responsible for securing permission from those parties. For fuller information about rights and reproductions from N-YHS visit:

Preferred Citation

This collection should be cited as Tontine Coffee-House Records, The New-York Historical Society.

Location of Materials

Materials in this collection may be stored offsite. For more information on making arrangements to consult them, please visit


Donation by James T. Horn, 1934.

Collection processed by

Gregory Tavormina

About this Guide

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on 2023-08-21 15:49:57 -0400.
Language: Description is in English.

Edition of this Guide

This version was derived from tontine.xml


New-York Historical Society
New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024