A New York Times retrospective published on February 10, 1895 describes generally how Purim was celebrated in the city before the Civil War – which turns out to be not all that different from how we celebrate it today – and, in particular, focuses on the origins of the Purim Association of the City of New York (1862-1902):
Prior to the founding of this society, it was a general custom in Hebrew circles in the city to keep open house on Purim Day, and the young people made merry by disguising themselves in all sorts of comical costumes and visiting their friends so attired.
The Purim festival…is looked upon as a sort of carnival day, and even at the present many east side Jews commemorate it by donning all sorts of outlandish masks and dresses. It was this custom that gave the impetus to this little coterie of ten to make this holiday the time for a grand masquerade ball, and from the very start, these affairs became a social event of the season….
This unusual Purim story begins with Myer Samuel Isaacs (1841-1904), the eldest son of the Rev. Dr. Samuel M. Isaacs who, upon his arrival here in 1839, became the second English-speaking Orthodox rabbi in the United States. The Isaacs family became founding members of the Board of Delegates of American Israelites, perhaps the leading Jewish civil rights organization of its time.
Real estate lawyer, judge, and philanthropist, Myer Isaacs was deeply committed to both Jewish communal work and the municipal affairs of New York City. He founded the Hebrew Free School Association, the United Hebrew Charities, the Montefiore Home, and the Hebrew Technical Institute; served as the first president of the Baron de Hirsch Fund and as a member of the Central Committee of the Alliance Israélite Universelle; helped organize the Citizens’ Union; and advocated for the rights of Jews in Eretz Yisrael, Europe, Turkey, and Morocco. He also established Seward Park on the Lower East Side of New York and was a personal friend of Teddy Roosevelt.
However, it was as publisher and co-editor of The Jewish Messenger that he ran an editorial in the paper’s January 13, 1860 edition urging that “Purim should be selected as the occasion of a good fancy dress ball, the proceeds to be donated to charity.”
This idea, based upon the traditional Purim ritual of matanot la’evyonim (giving gifts to the poor), stimulated the founding of the Purim Association, which Myer served as its first president. The purpose of the Purim Association was perhaps best summarized by the March 15, 1883 Purim Gazette issued years later by the Association:
Annually the Purim Association invokes the aid of the citizens of New York on behalf of some well-deserving charity, and the financial success of the Purim balls furnishes the best proof that the appeals are not in vain. The ever-ready response of the people testified to the deep interest of the community in maintaining all institutions which alleviate suffering and improve the condition of the need and deserving poor.
On March 17, 1862, in the midst of the raging Civil War, a group of nine or ten (reports vary) wealthy Jewish young men conducted the first Purim ball, which was held at Irving Hall on Shushan Purim. More than 1,300 tickets at five dollars each were sold, with the proceeds split between Jews’ Hospital and the Hebrew Benevolent Society. As the celebrants were about to attend the midnight Purim banquet, news came that Union troops had captured New Orleans and Confederate president Jefferson Davis had been killed. The crowd responded with great cheers and the playing of martial music. (Although the Union did take New Orleans, reports of Davis’s death were premature, and he actually died in 1889 in, of all places, New Orleans.)