At this period in its history, New Orleans was still a small town extending about a mile along the turn of the river, from Fort St. Charles to Fort St. Louis. Three suburbs skirted the fossé and the dilapidated palisades of the original city (now the French Quarter); the Faubourg Ste. Marie on the south in the region that is now the commercial section; the Faubourg Trémé on the west above Rampart to the cypress swamps of Bayou St. John; and the Faubourg Marigny on the east below Esplanade, on the lands of Bernard de Marigny. In this entire area there were twelve to fourteen hundred buildings, housing a population of approximately 10,000 - 4000 whites, 2500 free Negroes, and the remainder slaves.
The Place d'Armes (Jackson Square), slightly larger then, opened on the river. Facing the square and the Mississippi stood the most imposing building in town, the twin-towered St. Louis Cathedral. Quite as magnificent was the Principal or Hôtel de Ville (Cabildo) beside the church, back of which stood the Calaboose or prison. Other public buildings were the Ursuline Convent, the Custom House, two hospitals, a barracks, and a government house.
The buildings on Levee (Decatur), Chartres, and Royal Streets were constructed of brick, faced with lime or stucco, and had roofs of tile and slate. Those in the rear were made of cypress with shingle roofs, and were so combustible that an ordinance had to be passed forbidding the further erection of timber buildings. As a precaution against flooding during rainstorms the houses were set on pillars, leaving a kind of cellar on the surface of the ground. Flights of stairs, vestiges of which remain to this day in the Vieux Carré, encroached upon the banquette, a sidewalk four or five feet wide, constructed of bricks with a retaining wall of cypress planks.
Visitors to the city at this time were unanimous in their condemnation of the unpaved streets which, though well laid out, were little better than muddy canals. The city blocks were three hundred and twenty feet long; the streets were thirty-seven feet wide and were lined with ditches to carry off the seepage from the levee. Advantage was taken in the construction of the sewerage system of the curious phenomenon of water draining away from the river. Criss-cross ditches, when flooded by means of sluices in the levee, carried the refuse of the town to the swamps and Lake Pontchartrain. The system proved a failure, however, because of the indolence of the garbage men (four carts were detailed for removing filth from the streets), who permitted the conduits to become clogged. As a result, the slop and garbage thrown in the gutters created a stench that was only dispelled by flushing rains. The blocks after a hard rain were completely surrounded by water, and as a consequence came to be called îlets. The streets were lighted by means of lanterns hung from hooks attached to corner buildings. They swung in the wind, were put out by rain, and at best afforded poor light. What with the pitfalls, the uneven banquettes, and the detours occasioned by lakes of standing water, walking was an adventure. On more than one occasion high-born ladies went to balls with their skirts lifted high and their party shoes and stockings in their hands.
Fire-fighting must have been a thrilling and terrifying affair. The Dépôt des Pompes (engine house) was located at the Cabildo and housed four engines, twelve dozen buckets, twelve ladders, ten grappling irons and chains, ten gaffs, twelve shovels, twelve pickaxes, and ten sledgehammers. From twelve to twenty-two men served each machine, all volunteers, with an additional company of 'sappers' whose duty it was to tear down buildings if the fire threatened to spread. When a fire broke out it was announced to the town by the watchman who stood on the porch of the St. Louis Cathedral for that purpose. He rang the alarm bell of the church and waved a flag to indicate to the people the direction of the fire. All policemen who could be spared were obliged to aid in the fire-fighting, as were the townspeople met on the way. A reward of fifty dollars to the engine company first reaching the fire encouraged speed.
The police force, which was frequently reorganized in an effort to preserve law and order, continued inadequate, judging from the complaints made to the City Fathers about the numerous pigsties permitted within the city limits, the removal of ground from places reserved for the town, and the reckless driving of Negro cart drivers, who violated the ordinance against standing while driving. Censure was also brought on the City Guard when a murdered man found in the Faubourg Ste. Marie was buried by 'charitable persons' after the police had left him lying in the streets for three days. To improve the efficiency of the force in catching desperados stalking the streets at night a sentry box was placed every four blocks, around which watchmen, carrying swords and lances, were to patrol in the 'greatest silence,' since the noise that they had hitherto made enabled the prowlers to know of their whereabouts.
Two cotton mills and a crude sugar refinery were the main industries of the city. Seafaring craft anchored at the levee near the Place d'Armes, and barges and flatboats from the Mississippi. Valley tied up at the Batture, ten steps from Tchoupitoulas Street. Three banks, the first of which opened in 1805 on Royal between Conti and St. Louis Streets (now the Patio Royal), administered to the business needs of New Orleans.
Described by travelers as a Babylon where Creoles, English, Spanish, French, Germans, Italians, and Americans did little else than dance, drink, and gamble, New Orleans soon gained notoriety as a 'wide-open' town. Every sort of entertainment was afforded the citizenry, from bearand bull-baiting to Voodoo rites conducted by the Negroes in Congo Square (now Beauregard Square). In fact, such was the gaiety of New Orleans on Sundays that horrified visitors were wont to think it a 'convenient religion' which, while it administered to the needs of the soul, took care that it did not 'interfere with the more important pleasure of the body.'
The mania for dancing kept a public ball going twice a week during the winter, adults attending one day and children the other. Dancing lasted from seven until 'cock-crowing the next morning.' Quadroon balls, at which ladies of slight color and of extraordinary beauty entertained the jeunesse dorée of the town, were gay affairs compared to the sedate balls held by the white women of society. Latin temperament ran high, and swords or pistols were often resorted to when a question of honor arose. Concubinage between whites and blacks was an established custom, but New Orleans 'society,' with its roots imbedded in European culture and elegance, ran its course sedate and unperturbed.
In addition to these amusements the general public found entertainment at the French theaters on St. Philip and St. Peter Streets. They were open three times a week, drawing the greatest crowds on Sunday. Their presentations, as they were announced in the newspapers, competed for public favor with exhibitions of elephants and displays of fireworks.