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Pfaff, Charles Ignatius (1813-1890)


Charles Pfaff's obituary in the New York Times characterizes him as the proprietor of the famous Bohemian "chop house" at 647 Broadway that flourished between 1860 and 1875 ("In and About the City," 2). Born in Baden, Switzerland likely in 1819, Pfaff first arrived in New York in the early 1850s "part of a wave of German immigrants" (Blalock; Martin 18). According to scholar Justin Martin, "Herr Pfaff was a round little man with shaggy eyebrows and chubby fingers. His Old World manner and thickly accented English gave him a courtly and discreet air" (18). Prior to establishing Pfaff's, he had opened and operated two other watering-holes for five years ("In and About" 2). According to Mark Lause, "these moves kept him near his preferred clientele of theatrical managers, actors, actressess, and, particularly, the foreign-born musicians" (49).

In 1859, Charles Pfaff moved his business to its location at 647 Broadway (Blalock). The establishment, known simply as "Pfaff's," was hailed as the "favorite resort of all the prominent actors, authors, artists, musicians, newspaper men, and men-about-town of the time" that was decorated "in a plain, quaint fashion, with an estrade, but the service was clean and the cooking excellent, and it soon made a reputation that brought it hundreds of dollars' worth of daily custom" ("In and About" 2). It was known most for its beer, especially lager. As Martin argues, "Pfaff and his fellow German immigrants had revolutionized beer making in America" that "produced beers that were lighter than English-style stouts and ales" (18). Pfaff also served a diverse sampling of wine and food inspired by his European taste. Walt Whitman even once commented on Pfaff's expansive knowledge of wine saying that "Pfaff never made a mistake—he instinctively apprehended liquors—having his talent, and that talent in curious prolixity" (Blalock).

The everflowing supply of liquor and food, though, was more an added bonus for the Bohemian crowd who built a community here under the guidance of their king, Henry Clapp, with whom Pfaff had developed a relationship as a customer of his previous businesses as scholars such as Lause contend (47). Pfaff reserved a dedicated space within his bar for Clapp and his group of friends and gave Clapp a long table around which a sizeable group of people could gather. While other drinking establishments during this time were decidely gendered with features such as separate entrances for women, Pfaff embraced his female clientele, recognizing the opportunity to cater to women, especially those who became regulars among the Pfaffians such as Ada Clare (Martin 64). Martin contends that Pfaff was a "canny saloon keeper" who "recognized that catering to a group of regulars was simply good business." Over time, Clapp's coterie would become Pfaff's favorite customers, a sentiment that was reciprocated by them, as well (28). As Artist Elihu Vedder contends, Pfaff enjoyed the Bohemian circle's patronage beyond the revenue they brought to his establishment: "I really believe Pfaff himself loved the Boys. The time came when he retired to the country well off; but then the time also came when he returned and started another place further up-town. I saw him in his new place... He said he was well off, but that he could not stand the country; he had to do something; but then he said, 'It isn't the same thing; dere's no more boys left enny more.'" (226). An example of Pfaff's dedication to his Bohemian group is that he was was known for allowing "his odd customers to carry a tab, exercising a generosity that went beyond that of the canny businessman aware that 'his' bohemians drew others into his place" (Lause 49).

Pfaff also did not just provide the space for this group of Bohemians to meet, but he became part of the very spirit of their gatherings. According to Lause, Pfaff also was among the group of individuals that Henry Clapp gathered to try and restart the Saturday Press in August of 1865, which illustrates his dedication to the group (115). In May 1876, Pfaff moved his business to its final spot on 24th Street near Broadway where Walt Whitman visited him years later according to Vedder (pg #). This location and perhaps the clientele did not prove as remunerative as the old spot and, after losing money, Pfaff gave up the business entirely in 1887. The Times alleges that his death in 1890 was hastened by financial worries. Though he made "a great deal of money at the Broadway place, [he] . . . lent and spent it as freely as he made it" and had difficulty calling in the loans when he required funds (2). Remembered as a "model host" who "personally looked after the comfort of each of his guests," Pfaff served an irreplaceable role in the life of Clapp's Bohemians ("In and About" 2).