true bubbles & Merry Andrew cards

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Sun Sep 4 20:37:59 UTC 2011

            Sometime ago, JB and I posted some stuff here regarding the
beginnings of the use of house numbers in U. S. cities; specifically Boston
& NYC, of course.  The connection with dialectology isn't obvious, perhaps,
but we can see it.  But lately we have been sneaking about, discussing the
topic behind your backs.

            Trying to elucidate the puzzling fact of very early references
to shops on Water street with numbers above 1000, I tried searching the
EAN/AHN database for "water-street, no." (the numbers seem generally to have
followed the street name, prefaced by "no.")

            One of the fruits of this are a word not in the OED, and a
mystifying phrase.

            JOSEPH ROSE, Living a few Doors East of Peck's Slip, in Water
Street, No. 1046, HAS just imported . . . Tea Cups and Saucers, Bowls,
Plates & Dishes, And Articles of Queen's Ware, With a large and neat
Assortment of CHIMNEY TILES, Also a few Setts of true BUBBLES for proving
the strength of Rum, and what it will bear.

            Royal Gazette, September 6, 1780, p. 2, col. ?

The OED has nothing under "bubble" that satisfies this.

It has:

bubble-trier n. an instrument used for testing the accuracy of the tubes of

a1877    E. H. Knight Pract. Dict. Mech.,   Bubble-trier, an instrument for
testing the delicacy and accuracy of the tubes for holding the spirit in

1890    W. F. Stanley Surveying Instruments 88   The Bubble Trier is a bar
or bed 12 to 20 inches long, with two extended feet ending in points at one
end, and a micrometer screw, the point of which forms a resting foot, at the
other end, thereby forming a tripod.

bubble-tube n. the glass tube of a spirit-level containing spirit and
enclosing an air-bubble.

1888    Lockwood's Dict. Mech. Engin.,   Bubble Tube, or Spirit Glass, the
tube of a spirit-level which contains the enclosed spirit.

1890    W. F. Stanley Surveying Instruments 86   Level Tubes, or Bubble
Tubes as they are technically termed, are used in nearly all important
surveying instruments.

           Also, an ad from a grocer who had just received a shipment of
stuff, which he lists in two columns.  In the midst of a very miscellaneous
stock, he offers Merry Andrew cards.  What the hell were they?  (I know what
a "Merry Andrew" was.)

Because it's an item from a list, there is no context.  I am giving the
items just above and below, which don't clarify anything.

            THOMAS ROACH, In Water-street, No. 942, next but one to the
corner of the Fly-Market, has for sale wholesale and retail, [Madeira,
sherry, port, claret, rum, and groceries, spices; also ". . .

Irish and Scotch snuff,

Chambers best smoaking tobacco,

Merry Andrew cards,

Raisins and currants,

Olives, capers,

Anchovies. . . "]

            New-York Gazette; and W Mercury, September 1, 1777, p. 4

            For those of you who share our fascination with the history of
house numbers: there is no way that Water street was long enough then to
have counted a thousand house lots, starting with no. 1.  What was being
counted is as yet a mystery.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ.
Pr., 1998, but nothing much since then.

The American Dialect Society -

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