The Tontine Coffee House: Early Home of the NYSE

After the Buttonwood Tree, the first real home of stock trading in New York City was the Tontine Coffee House.

Opened in 1794 at the corner of Wall and Water Streets, the Tontine Coffee House was the center of commercial activity in New York City. Despite the obvious purpose in its name, the Tontine Coffee House was established as a merchants exchange – a place where merchants and brokers could meet and trade goods with one another.  It was conveniently located just a block from the East River piers where cargoes from around the world arrived in port, as evidenced by casks, barrels and crates stacked up in the street in front of the building.  Stockbrokers met there regularly to trade stocks and bonds into the early years of the 19th century.

Funds to build the Coffee House were raised through an investment vehicle called a tontine (named after 17th century Italian banker Lorenzo de Tonti).  A subscriber bought a share for $200 and selected a nominee (usually a young son or daughter) during whose lifetime the investor would share in the profits of the Coffee House.  When that nominee died, so did the subscriber’s investment.  As nominees passed away, the remaining subscribers’ share of dividends increased.  When the number of surviving nominees was reduced to seven, the assets of the Tontine Coffee House were to be divided and distributed among the corresponding seven original subscribers, or more accurately, their estates.  That occurred in 1870. 

Constitution of the Tontine Coffee-House, 1794-96

This pamphlet spells out the terms of the tontine investment and includes a list of all 203 investors and their nominees. Nearly all were merchants, lawyers or statesmen and the list serves as a window into New York City’s business community at the end of the 18th century. Surprisingly, only four signers of the Buttonwood Agreement were investors in the Tontine Coffee House, even though it served as the center of New York City’s young stock market during this period.