Not only a shorthand (or a metonym) for the “influential financial interests” of the American financial industry, centered in New York City, Wall Street is also a street in lower Manhattan that runs east from Broadway to South Street on the East River, through the historical center of the Financial District. Wall Street was the first permanent home of the New York Stock Exchange; over time Wall Street also became the name of the surrounding geographic neighborhood, and several major U.S. stock and other exchanges remain headquartered there, including NASDAQ, AMEX, NYMEX and NYBOT.
There are two schools of thought about how Wall Street got that name. The accepted reason in the U.S. derives from the fact that during the 17th century, Wall Street formed the northern boundary of the New Amsterdam settlement. In the 1640s basic picket and plank fences denoted plots and residences in the colony. Later, on behalf of the Dutch West India Company, Peter Stuyvesant led the Dutch in the construction of a stronger stockade. The wall was created, and strengthened over time, as a defense against attack from various Native American tribes, New England colonists and the British, who dismantled the wall in 1699.
In Holland, the street’s name is believed to refer to the Walloons, a general term by the Dutch for all French-speaking people. By 1630 the total population of New Netherland was about 300, many being French-speaking Walloons. It is estimated about 270 lived in the area surrounding Fort Amsterdam, primarily working as farmers. The Dutch word for Walloon is Waal, thus “De Waal Straat” or “Wall Street.”
In the late 18th century, there was a buttonwood tree at the foot of Wall Street under which traders and speculators would gather to trade informally. In 1792, the traders formalized their association with the Buttonwood Agreement. This was the origin of the New York Stock Exchange.
In 1789, Federal Hall on Wall Street was the scene of the United States' first presidential inauguration. George Washington took the oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall overlooking Wall Street on April 30, 1789. This was also the location of the passing of the Bill of Rights.
Business Reference Services of the Library’s Science, Technology and Business Division has put together a guide of selected references on the history of Wall Street. Print and Internet resources, as well as tips on searching the Library’s catalog and Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, are included.