Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1890s’

What if the city really did rename the Bowery?

August 23, 2012

The first attempt to change the name of the city’s oldest thoroughfare appears to have been in 1895.

A New York Times article reported a rumor that the Bowery, an English corruption of the Dutch term for farm, bouwerie, would soon be known as Parkhurst Avenue.

It had to be a joke. Parkhurst was Charles Parkhurst, a social reformer who battled the Tammany-backed gangs and saloons that made up the tacky, crime-ridden Bowery in the late 19th century.

The next try at a less low-rent moniker, according to a Times piece from 1897, was Piccadilly. Why Piccadilly? It was never explained—but the proposal didn’t gain any ground.

Another stab at a new name to shed the Bowery stigma happened in 1916. Business owners who wanted a “fresh start” suggested Central Broadway and Cooper Avenue. Dignified, yes, but very dull.

Again, the suggestions went no where. After that, Bowery merchants and residents seem to have thrown in the towel and accepted that their street would always be the city’s skid row.

[Photo: Bowery in 1910, NYPL Digital Collection]

The Lantern: an 1890s downtown writers club

January 24, 2012

The Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s. The Bohemian crowd at Pfaff’s in the 1850s.

New York writers have always organized formal and informal clubs where they could share their wit and their work—over alcohol, of course.

The Lantern Club was one of these. Now just a footnote in the city’s literary history, the Lantern (sometimes called the Lanthorn) was founded in 1893. Its headquarters, an old house on William Street near the newspaper offices of Park Row, was fashioned to resemble a ship cabin.

Prominent members included Stephen Crane (left, in 1899), the young, struggling author of Bowery tale Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt occasionally dropped by.

Crane and his cohorts didn’t just sit around and booze. They actually shared their work during regular literary banquets held every Saturday evening.

“Each week at the banquet, one of the members read a short story he had written,” writes Stanley Wertheim in A Stephan Crane Encyclopedia.

“Only negative criticism was permitted, and ‘the highest tribute that a story could receive was complete silence.’”

Stephen Crane died in 1900 of tuberculosis at age 29. When the Lantern bit the dust, however, is a mystery.

New Yorkers wonder: Is cycling safe for ladies?

December 12, 2011

The new pastime of bicycle riding exploded in popularity with genteel New Yorkers in the 1880s and 1890s (like these Riverside Park riders below).

“Wheelman” clubs popped up in different neighborhoods, and riders took to city streets—especially the new lanes built just for cycling, like the one from Prospect Park to Coney Island along Ocean Parkway.

Still, a debate raged: Is the fad too dangerous for women? Finally, in 1893, a newspaper consulted the experts and got an answer: It’s safe.

“The use of bicycles by the weaker sex has been sufficiently long and widespread to make it possible to deduce conclusions from experience and the evident multiplication of women riders seemed to indicate that the matter had been decisively settled in the affirmative,” announced The New York Times.

One doctor thought it was good for “nervous affections.” Another said riding was “thorough exercise of muscles without undue strain.”

A third made the point that it offered a better workout that most women got at the time: operating a sewing machine.

Finally, according to one expert at Woman’s Hospital, a prestigious institution then located at Lexington Avenue and 37th Street: “[cycling] was better, as a rule, then to ride a horse, which is too violent for many women, and much superior to carriage riding, which, indeed, could hardly be called exercise at all.”

[illustration at left: from New York's The Ladies' Standard magazine, 1897, courtesy of the NYPL digital collection]

The city law that turned corner bars into brothels

November 28, 2011

This is the story of the spectacular failure of a law, a precursor to Prohibition, that interfered with New Yorkers’ fondness for local taverns.

In the 1890s, the temperance movement, already making progress nationally, was bearing down hard on New York City.

Progressive reformers and groups like the Anti-Saloon League lobbied city leaders to curb, if not end, the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the city.

The result was the Raines Law, passed in 1896, “which raised licensing fees for saloons and prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays, except in restaurants and hotels with ten or more beds,” explains Michael A. Lerner’s Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City.

How did bar owners beat the law? They began serving “meals” of pretzels with drinks, which city magistrates ruled “were enough of a meal to excuse many saloons from the Sunday closing laws,” writes Lerner.

“The statute also encouraged the proliferation of seedy ‘Raines Law hotels,’ created by saloon owners who partitioned back rooms and upper floors of their bars into ‘bedrooms’ to meet the new licensing requirements.

“Not only did this innovation allow Sunday drinking in the city to continue unabated; it also prompted saloon owners to rent out their back ‘bedrooms’ to prostitutes to meet the higher cost of these new licensing fees.”

More than 1,000 Raines Law hotels were established, allowing drinking and prostitution to thrive in a way Progressive reformers had never imagined.

[Images of New York bars in the 1890s from the NYPL Digital Collection]

Harpo Marx: a poor street kid on East 93rd Street

November 21, 2011

As many New Yorkers know, the Marx Brothers, including Adolph “Harpo” Marx, grew up in a crowded tenement at 179 East 93rd Street, off Third Avenue.

That’s in upscale Carnegie Hill today. But in the 1890s, during Harpo’s childhood, it was “a small Jewish neighborhood squeezed in between the Irish to the north and the Germans to the South in Yorkville,” he writes in 1961′s Harpo Speaks…About New York.

His recollections offer a glimpse into life as a poor Manhattan street kid circa 1900, when ethnic background determined everything.

“If you were caught trying to sneak through a foreign block, the first thing the Irishers or Germans would ask was “Hey kid! What Streeter?” he recalls. “I learned it saved time and trouble to tell the truth. I was a 93rd Streeter, I would confess.”

“The worst thing you could do was run from Other Streeters. But if you didn’t have anything to fork over for ransom you were just dead.”

“I learned never to leave my block without some kind of boodle in my pocket—a dead tennis ball, an empty thread spool, a penny, anything.”

Life in New York at that time wasn’t all about being bullied. After quitting P.S. 86 when he was eight, Harpo watched tennis games in Central Park, went sledding with a dishpan, and swam off the East River docks.

He also dodged the ticket takers on trolley cars so he get around without paying the fare, and he watched Giants games for free at Coogan’s Bluff above the Polo Grounds near 155th Street.

And he learned to tell time by “the only timepiece available to our family, the clock on the tower of Ehret’s Brewery (above) at 93rd and Second Avenue, which we could see from the front window, if Grandpa hadn’t pulled the shade.”

[Image of Ehret's Brewery: Beerhistory.org]

The milk stations that saved the lives of city kids

November 3, 2011

After raking in a fortune as co-owner of Macy’s, Nathan Straus devoted himself to making life better for New York’s poor tenement dwellers.

In the depression years of 1892 and 1893, he gave away food and coal to thousands, and he built homeless shelters.

He also turned his sights toward what was dubbed the “white peril,” the raw, bacteria-ridden milk city children routinely drank—milk Straus and many experts believed was linked to New York’s high childhood mortality rate (two of Straus’ own kids had died young).

“Straus was convinced that the discoveries of Louis Pasteur offered the best hope for a remedy to the milk problem,” states jewishvirtuallibrary.org.

So in 1893 he built his own pasteurization plant on East Third Street, then opened 18 milk stations in the city, “which sold his sterilized milk for only a few cents and made free milk available to those unable to afford even that.”

Milk stations popped up everywhere: City Hall Park, Mott Street, Cherry Street, Washington Street, East 66th Street, Lenox Avenue, and eventually Columbus Circle (above, circa 1930), run by William Randolph Hearst’s wife.

When Straus showed health officials that childhood mortality rates had been drastically cut in neighborhoods with milk stations, the city—and soon all cities—banned the sale of raw milk.

Central Park and Prospect Park had their own milk stations: the dairies.

A windy, slushy Union Square in 1892

October 31, 2011

Frederick Childe Hassam’s “Winter in Union Square,” painted from 17th Street near Hassam’s studio, kind of resembles what Union Square looked like on Saturday.

Hassam frequently depicted New York streets in severe weather, like this one of pedestrians battling rain in Union Square.

A pretty girl’s mysterious morphine overdose

August 26, 2011

In January 1891, Helen Potts was a brunette beauty at the Comstock School, an elite finishing school at 32 West 40th Street.

One night, the 19-year-old complained of a headache. She took a quinine pill a medical student had prescribed for her. Within hours, after waking momentarily and telling classmates she was having fantastic dreams, she was dead.

Reporters, captivated by the mysterious death of a wealthy good girl, began digging around. What they found dominated newspaper headlines for years.

Turns out that Helen and the med student, Carlyle W. Harris, had secretly wed a year earlier.

Harris must have regretted it, because he rather quickly stopped seeing Helen—who soon told him she was pregnant.

After an abortion (or “operation,” as The New York Times put it in this article), Helen enrolled at the Comstock School. The following January, her life was over.

In 1892, Harris was hauled into court. Prosecutors insisted that he put a lethal dose of morphine in Helen’s quinine pill so he could be free of her.

After a three-week sensational trial, which hinged on whether Helen’s body showed signs of an opium overdose, Harris was convicted of murder.

He was electrocuted at Sing Sing in May 1893, insistent that he was innocent.

Lovely posters advertising the New York Herald

May 2, 2011

In the late 19th century, the city supported close to 20 English-language daily newspapers, with the New York Herald one of the most popular.

The Herald’s winning formula? A sensationalist tone, reliance on illustrations, and coverage of fashion, arts, and culture.

Yep, all the lifestyle fluff newspapers today need to attract readers.

Perhaps these sweet, apparently hand-drawn posters advertising the coming Sunday edition had something to do with it though.

Cartoons, new fiction, and illustrations of Central Park plus new routes concerning the cycling craze: good reading on a May Sunday in the mid-1890s.

[posters from the New York Public Library Digital Collection]

A few of the city’s top pop hits of the 1890s

January 19, 2011

As far as I know, there was no equivalent of the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of the 19th century. So it’s tough to know just how popular these tunes were.

But “Sidewalks of New York” is still a city anthem:

Down in front of Casey’s old brown wooden stoop
On a summer’s evening we formed a merry group
Boys and girls together we would sing and waltz
While Tony played the organ on the sidewalks of New York
East Side, West Side, all around the town
The tots sang “ring-around-rosie,” “London Bridge is falling down”
Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O’Rourke
Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York

The “New York and Coney Island Cycle March Two-Step” blends two trends—bicycles and Coney Island:

Now for a song as we go wheeling on,
And for the glorious “bike” we’ll shout,
It’s up to date in all that’s new and great,
This wonder that we sing about.
Your golf and polo and baseball will do,
Your Yacht and fishing may be fine,
They can’t compare, with pleasure rare,
That wheeling gives to all mankind.

This 1895 patriotic ditty seems to recall Civil War–era Brooklyn, its own city at the time, of course:

Up with the flag!
The flag that long has waved over Brooklyn’s city fair
To keep her sons in union strong
To bid them heed the motto there:
“Right makes might!”
Then up with right and down with wrong
Up with the flag and let it wave
Unhurt by factions with’ring blast
Oh Brooklyn’s loyal sons be brave
And nail it to the mast


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