How to outsmart the heat in summer 1899

July 21, 2014

MCNYsodawateradToday we survive summer heat waves with air conditioning and gelato runs.

But the “can’t-get-aways” of the 19th century city had to rely on other ways to keep cool, reports this cheeky New York Times Illustrated Magazine article from July 23, 1899.

One tactic was to loiter near electric fans: in offices, barber shops, and restaurants.

“When [fan loiterers] find a fan that suits them they plant themselves, so to speak, and remain as long as possible in placid enjoyment of the breezes furnished by other people’s money,” wrote the Times.

Fountains, Madison Sq. Park on hot day

“Every proprietor of an electric fan becomes acquainted during the heated term with these electric fan fiends.”

Some people engaged in “violent exercise.” These are the “misguided people who, given a temperature of a hundred in the shade, will choose a century run on a bicycle as the most enjoyable way of passing the time.”

Golf, baseball, and tennis “also have their enthusiastic hot-weather devotees, as a visit to Central Park any afternoon will testify.”

Ritzcarltonroofgarden

Socializing on a roof garden was an option, or heading to the mall at Central Park to hear free music, or splashing around “gleefully as dolphins” in the fountain at City Hall Park—though the latter was reserved for newsboys.

You could always catch a cool breeze by riding streetcars, transferring from car to car to the farthest and coolest parts of the city.

“The happiest man of the season is one who has just discovered that he can ride from the Battery up to Hastings-on-Hudson for 8 cents,” states the Times.

Streetcarnyc1906Then there was the “soda water habit,” which caused afflicted people to guzzle all kinds of creamy, bubbly concoctions and risk “dyspepsia.”

Finally, the article took New Yorkers to task for dressing inappropriately.

“Young professional men get an idea that dignity is a matter of dress, and go about on hot days wearing high silk hats and frock coats that give one a high fever only to look at them.

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“It is true that lanky young men with very lean calves affect knickerbockers in Summer, and stout elderly women appear in light, airy muslins that would be suitable for slender girls of sixteen, but beyond this, and the general appearance of straw hats and shirt waists, there are few indications in the dress of New Yorkers that Summer is with us.”

[Photos: soda water ad, NYPL; splashing in the fountain at Madison Square Park, LOC; the roof garden at the Ritz-Carlton, NYPL; a street car with open windows, NYPL; a free summer concert on the mall, NYC Parks Department]

A map of the trendy 1983 East Village art scene

July 21, 2014

“East Village galleries are multiplying like white rats,” wrote Carlo McCormick in the East Village Eye in October 1983.

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“What was once a small handful of peculiarly out-of-place storefronts that even this rag ignored is now an ever-increasing network of more credible and slicker galleries being written about by the likes of the Voice, the N. Y. Times, Art News, Arts Magazine, and Art in America plus a host of Japanese and European magazines that always seem to know what’s going on here before we do.”

Eastvillageeye1983artmap

While the 1980s East Village art scene went bust before it could live up to the promise laid out in the article, this accompanying map gives a small sense of the neighborhood 31 years ago.

Another East Village Eye guide from 1985 runs down the club scene and bars where you’d be drinking if you lived there in the Reagan era.

Hmm, how many of these addresses are now fro-yo shops or bank branches?

What a 19th century manhole cover has to say

July 21, 2014

New York sidewalks and streets are a treasure of old manhole covers. Some are utilitarian, others decorative, but most are emblazoned with the name of the ironworks where they were made.

Dempseymanholecover5th

But this one, on the sidewalk on 11th Street east of Fifth Avenue, is more like a cast-iron advertisement for the M. J. Dempsey Foundry, located on West 55th Street.

Dempsey made furnace grates, coal hole covers, boiler castings, and dumping grates. It’s a small reminder of the great infrastructure advances (steam heat, coal delivery, furnaces) that helped make the city an manufacturing and industrial powerhouse.

Fifth Avenue and the original Waldorf-Astoria

July 17, 2014

In late 19th century New York, Fifth Avenue reigned as Millionaires Row. But by the time this postcard was produced around 1910, the stretch of Fifth Avenue north of 32nd Street was shedding its reputation as a wealthy residential enclave.

The rich were migrating northward. Posh mansions were being razed to make way for commercial buildings, like offices and hotels.

Fifthavenue32ndstpostcard

No hotel was as extravagant as the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the building on the left with the flag.

Waldorfastoria34thstreetviewBuilt as separate hotels in the early 1890s on the site of two former Astor family mansions, it was combined in 1897.

Times Shutter features a similar postcard, with some info about the hotel (it was the largest in the world, a gathering place for the rich and ostentatious, and the first to allow unchaperoned women!) as well a photo of the same stretch of Fifth today.

Today, the hotel is gone (the Empire State Building took its place two decades later), as is two-way traffic and that lovely streetlight on the left.

Gone too is Fifth Avenue with a quaint, unhurried feel.

[Another view of the Waldorf-Astoria, from 34th Street, right]

A Village poet and the hospital she’s named for

July 17, 2014

Ednastvincentmillay1Edna St. Vincent Millay is an emblem of 1920s Greenwich Village.

Bohemian, free-love advocate, and a writer of passionate, sometimes cynical lyrical poetry, Millay lived in various places in the Village beginning in 1917, most famously at 75 1/2 Bedford Street.

Considering how connected she is to the Village, it’s still surprising to learn that Millay, born and raised in Maine, was actually named after another Greenwich Village icon: St. Vincent’s Hospital.

Giving her the middle name St. Vincent was a way to honor the hospital that saved her uncle’s life just before Millay was born in 1892.

EdnastvincentmillayarchWorking as a stevedore on a ship, he became trapped below deck for days without food or water.

When he was found, he was brought to St. Vincent’s and nursed back to health.

Shortly after Millay was born, her aunt wrote this in a letter to her uncle, “the Vincent is for St. Vincent’s Hospital, the one that cared so well for our darling brother,”  according to Nancy Milford’s wonderful biography of Millay, Savage Beauty.

Millay referenced the city around her in her poems: riding the Staten Island ferry, the “fruit-carts and clam-carts” of MacDougal Street. She died in her upstate home in 1950.

Stvincents1931byroncompany

Founded in 1849 and closed abruptly in 2010, St. Vincent’s (above, in 1931) was bulldozed out of its longtime location at Seventh Avenue and 11th Street over the past year.

Swingset and sandbox on the East River in 1901

July 17, 2014

Ashcan School painter Maurice Prendergast was known for his bold, colorful depictions of leisure and play in European and American cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This view of the East River looks like a tapestry or a mosaic.

Mauriceprendergasttheeastriver1

Is it showing Carl Schurz Park, on the Upper East Side? The way the land across the river looks, plus the small houses, could be Queens.

The ices vendor setting up on East 110th Street

July 14, 2014

The ices offered by this street vendor are probably not artisanal or organic. But I bet they hit the spot on a hot summer day.

Icemanoneast110thst

Photographer John Albok captured the cones and syrups of one man’s cart in East Harlem in 1938, a neighborhood of Italians at the time with a small but growing influx of Hispanics.

The link from the Museum of the City of New York describes them as piraguas—the Puerto Rican treat sold by many vendors today.

[Photo: MCNY Collections Portal]

The anonymous men who built Central Park

July 14, 2014

When Central Park opened in stages in 1859 through the 1860s, designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux scored much of the credit for the park’s beauty and brilliance.

Centralparkbuilding1859nypl

But what about all the anonymous men who did the physical work—the laborers tasked with taking 843 rocky, swampy acres and reshaping it a man-made oasis of nature?

[Below, finishing the staircase at Bethesda Terrace]

Centralparkbethesdastairs1862nyplHere’s a little of what we know about them. “By the spring of 1858, more than three thousand men were busy dredging, clearing, grading, and planting—laboriously remodeling every feature of the rugged landscape,” wrote Ric Burns and James Sanders in New York: an Illustrated History.

“There were German gardeners, Italian stonecutters, and an army of masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, and road-building teams.”

Most of the low-level laborers were Irish and German, “often paid only a dollar a day and drawn, Olmsted said, from the ‘poorest, or what is generally considered the most dangerous, class of the great city’s population.'”

Centralparkpipesreservoir1862nypl“To prevent any trouble with the Irish, African Americans were excluded from the workforce entirely,” state Burns and Sanders.

It was grueling, dangerous work. Boulders had to be blasted out of the ground with gunpowder, then loaded onto horse-drawn trucks; “blasting foremen” were paid an extra 25 cents a day, according to The Park and the People, by Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar.

[Above: the pipes running under the new reservoir]

Centralparkarsenal1862from6thnyplAfter the ground was ready, “workmen installed ninety-five miles of underground pipe, creating an artificial drainage system—itself a masterpiece of sanitary engineering—then set to work relandscaping the entire site with 6 million bricks, 65,000 cubic yards of gravel, 25,000 trees, and a quarter of a million shrubs,” wrote Burns and Sanders.

Pavers working on the park’s walks and drives were also paid more than day laborers, as were stonecutters, who ended up making $2.25 a day in 1860—an improvement over the wages paid in the late 1850s, on the heels of the Panic of 1857.

[Above: the view of the Arsenal from 6th Avenue]

Where did this army of workers live? “A park laborer’s average income might pay the rent for one room with sleeping closets in a Lower East Side tenement or for an uptown shanty,” write Rosenzweig and Blackmar.

Centralparkpromenadenypl

Though many lived downtown in boardinghouses or with other laborers’ families, “the relative absence of park workers from the city directory, however, suggests both their transience and their concentration in uptown wards.”

[Images: NYPL Digital Gallery]

A little girl goes missing in 1960s Chelsea

July 14, 2014

EdithkiecoriusphotoIt was February 1961, Washington’s birthday. Four-year-old Edith Kiecorius had taken the subway from her Brooklyn home with her widowed mother and brother to visit her uncle in Manhattan.

Her uncle’s apartment was on Eighth Avenue near 18th Street, in the “deteriorating” neighborhood of Chelsea, as one newspaper described it at the time.

Edith spent the afternoon playing outside on the sidewalk. Her uncle left her alone for a few minutes to buy cigarettes, and by the time he came back around 4 pm, the little girl in a purple snowsuit had vanished.

In an era without Amber Alerts or even 911, police seemed to pull out all the stops to find her. Over the next week, they set up special hotlines for anyone who may have seen her; they searched rooftops, sewers, and the bottom of the Hudson.

Edithkiecoriuspolicegetty

“Detectives leafed through records of mental hospitals for women recently released and checked death lists,” reported the New York Times, as the police felt the person who took her might have “a frustrated mother instinct.”

Edithk307west20thstOn February 27, Edith’s body was found on a bed in a one-room flat at 307 West 20th Street (at left today), a “dingy Chelsea rooming house,” as a front-page Times piece put it. She’d been sexually assaulted and beaten to death.

The killer was captured a few days later. Fred Thompson, a 59-year-old drifter who had just rented the room in the West 20th Street house. He admitted to cops that while in a drunken stupor, he lured Edith to his room by telling her that he had his “own little girl” she could play with.

He assaulted and beat her, then left her in the room while he spent days drinking on the Bowery. When he learned that police had found Edith’s body and that he was the prime suspect, he fled to Philadelphia and then to a New Jersey chicken farm.

Edithkfredthompsonnyt“Assistant Chief Inspector James J. Walsh of the New York City police said after questioning Thompson he had said, ‘I know I deserve my full punishment for what I did,'” the Times wrote.

“Asked what he meant by ‘full punishment,’ Thompson was quoted as saying ‘life imprisonment or the electric chair.'”

Thompson was tried and found guilty later that year; the verdict carried a mandatory death sentence.

But according to one source, Thompson, above, was instead institutionalized for the rest of his life.

[Second photo: Getty Images; Fourth photo: NYTimes]

Leaping off the roof and into the Hudson River

July 10, 2014

Was it safe to swim in the Hudson River in 1948? Probably not, but that didn’t stop this boy from jumping three stories from a pier while his friends watched from the roof.

Boyleapingintohudsonruthorkin2

It’s a wonderful image captured by photographer Ruth Orkin, perfectly titled “Boy Jumping Into Hudson River.”

Orkin was a commercial photographer and filmmaker who moved to New York in 1943. An archive of her images can be browsed here.

[©estate of Ruth Orkin]


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