The 1820s organization formed to improve the character of New York servants

November 28, 2022

Working as a domestic servant in 19th century New York City had plenty of challenges.

Sure, servants received room and board in addition to their wages, and they usually had at least Sunday afternoon off. But living in another family’s home was isolating and lonely—particularly if you didn’t speak English or weren’t accustomed to urban life.

The work could be physically difficult, too. Climbing up and down staircases carrying wood or coal for fireplaces, airing out heavy bed linens every morning, wringing wet laundry, and scrubbing pots and pans…day after day, this was true labor.

So it’s hardly surprising that the families who hired servants often had a hard time keeping them. In the late 19th century, the problem of finding and maintaining hard-working, loyal servants was summed up as “the servant question,” or more appropriately, “the servant girl question,” since most maids, cooks, and other servants were overwhelmingly young and female.

Wealthy Gilded Age wives often discussed the servant girl question among themselves. But employers in the early 19th century turned to another resource: a newly formed organization that tried to guide servants to have better character and morals, and to not change families so often.

Called the Society for the Encouragement of Faithful Domestic Servants, this wonderfully named organization officially formed in New York City in 1826. The Society took its inspiration from a similar group in London, known as “The Society for Improving the Character and Usefulness of Domestic Servants,” according to the group’s first annual report.

The name of the London group better sums up much of what the New York chapter was all about. “No one can be ignorant, at least no house-keeper needs to be told, that we are very dependent upon our Domestic Servants for a large share of our daily comforts,” the report began.

“Indeed, it may be safely asserted, that if all the other arrangements and connexions of a family are as happy as fall generally to the lot of humanity, bad Servants are alone sufficient, if not to destroy, at least to mar, much of the calm happiness of domestic life.”

The report called out the tendency of servants to have a “love of incessant change,” in other words, moving on to another servant job or different type of work. “This restlessness of mind, and love of change, is especially true of the young and unwary female servant,” the report stated.

By changing employment, they “become impatient of control, or of advice, negligent of their duty, and, after wandering from place to place, deteriorating at every change, they not infrequently end their days in the miserable haunts of vice.”

The group advised employers how to manage their servants, and they also acted as an employment agency, matching qualified servants to households that needed them. This appears to be a crucial part of the group’s mission, as the “rapid growth of our city” has made it difficult to find enough people willing to do servant work.

[Fourth floor maids’ room at the Merchant House Museum]

They also awarded bonus money to faithful servants—from $3 to $10, depending on how long the servant stayed with their employer. (After one year of faithful service, servants were awarded a bible.)

For such a mission-oriented group, the Society didn’t last very long. By 1830, the organization dissolved, according to Leslie Harris’ In the Shadow of Slavery—noting that the group’s founding in 1826 coincided with the end of slavery in New York in 1827 as well as the first great wave of Irish immigrants, who typically took positions in domestic service.

What took the place of the Society when it came to guide servants and their employers? No one specific organization, it seems. No wonder servant issues escalated throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

[Top image: MCNY, 1847: 56.300.1320; second image: Google; third image: MCNY, 1890: 45.335.21]

A vision of a colonial-era country mansion inside an East Side apartment lobby

November 28, 2022

Imagine the Upper East Side along the East River from the 1700s until roughly the Civil War.

In a time of booming population and rapid development, this stretch of Gotham remained sparsely populated, dotted with grand old estate houses surrounded by woods, streams, and mostly unspoiled countryside.

The Astors, Rikers, and Gracies are among the Old New York families who built unpretentious, comfortable wood-frame estate houses here, with characteristic wide porches to better enjoy the river breezes and beautiful views.

Almost all of these estates homes have disappeared, the pretty houses and spacious grounds subsumed by the march of urbanization through the end of the 19th century.

But one 1960s apartment building has found a way to memorialize the country life that existed on its footprint a century earlier.

The building is the Pavilion (below), a white-brick, luxury rental with a fountain in front of its circular driveway. It’s exactly the kind of postwar apartment house you wouldn’t expect to have a floor-to-ceiling lobby mural marking a long-gone era in Manhattan history.

Yet there it is behind the front desk: the image of an 18th or 19th century estate house overlooking a gentle East River, a sailboat on the water, pavilion on the grounds, and trees swaying in the breeze.

The artist behind the mural isn’t named, and a simple plaque states “nearby country mansion and pavilion, circa 1850.”

It’s a wonderful old-school vision inside a modern apartment house. But whose mansion was it?

The Pavilion is at 500 East 77th Street, between York Avenue and Cherokee Place. The nearest estate house in pre-Civil War Manhattan was the Riker Mansion, once “at the foot of 75th Street East River,” per the caption on the above illustration, from 1866.

The mural, then, likely honors the Riker mansion. But the porches are dissimilar, and the Riker mansion appears to have a third floor of dormer windows in the 1866 illustration.

Perhaps the artist took liberties with the image of the mansion, combining features from other illustrations—and from Gracie Mansion on 88th Street and East End Avenue, the only one of these country houses to still exist (above)—to create a composite representation of a type of house and way of life that is lost to the ages.

[Top image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL]

Waiting for Thanksgiving dinner at a Bronx orphanage

November 21, 2022

Thanksgiving in early 20th century New York City wasn’t just celebrated in private homes and expensive hotel restaurants. Institutions of all kinds across Gotham also honored the holiday with their own commemorative dinners.

Hospitals, facilities for the poor, sick, and aged, and even city prisons served up a special Thanksgiving meal—usually along with speeches by important guests and often religious sermons.

Orphanages also celebrated Thanksgiving. This photo (above) shows more than 100 young residents sitting at long, linen-draped tables inside the girls’ dining room at the Roman Catholic Orphan Society in the Bronx. The orphanage was built in 1902, relocated from an older building on Fifth Avenue in Midtown.

A boys’ dining room operated in a building next door. Together, both the girls’ and boys’ buildings could house up to 1,600 residents at a time, according to nycago.org.

These uniform-clad, unsmiling girls look like they’re on their best behavior. I wish we knew exactly what their Thanksgiving menu offered…and what their adult lives were like.

You won’t find this handsome orphanage (above, in 1914) in the Bronx anymore. By the 1920s, thanks to a sizable reduction in the number or orphan residents, both buildings were abandoned and sold. The Bronx VA Hospital took its place.

[Photos: New-York Historical Society]

An immigrant printmaker and painter gives color and light to Depression-era New York City

November 21, 2022

Max Arthur Cohn was a prolific 20th century artist of many mediums. But whether a silkscreen print, oil painting, mural, or lithograph, Cohn’s work imbues nuanced scenes of midcentury New York City with bursts of color and Ashcan-inspired realism.

(“Rainy Day/Victor Food Shop,” date unknown, seriograph)

His early years echo those of so many early 20th century immigrants. Born in London in 1903 to Russian parents, Cohn and his family settled in America two years later, moving to Cleveland and then Kingston, New York. At 17, he landed his first art-related job in New York City: making commercial silkscreens.

(“New York Street Scene,” 1935, oil)

Silkscreening seemed to become Cohn’s creative focus. At the Art Students League—where he studied under John Sloan—he’s thought to have made his first artistic screenprint, according to the Annex Galleries. In 1940, he founded the National Serigraph Society (a serigraph is another word for a silkscreen print) and exhibited his prints in New York galleries.

Cohn, who spent much of his long life residing in Gotham, is also credited with teaching a young Andy Warhol the silkscreening process in the 1960s, according to Sotheby’s.

(“Washington Square,” 1928, oil)

During the Depression, Cohn found employment at the Works Progress Administration. The small stipend the WPA paid to artists must have been welcome support during these lean years of national financial uncertainty.

“In 1934, as part of the New Deal, he was selected as one of the artists for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) and from 1936-1939 the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Easel Project,” states arts agency fineleaf.net.

(“Hooverville Depression Scene,” 1938, oil)

The work featured in this post don’t reflect Cohn’s later artistic style, which became more abstract. Instead, they reveal an artist with a sensitivity to New York City’s rhythms and moods from the 1920s to 1940s.

I’ve read a fair amount about Cohn, and what strikes me most is that he doesn’t seem to belong to any one school. Art historians have described him as a pointillist, modernist, and American scene artist. I see the influence of the post-Impressionists and the Ashcan School, sometimes with a Hopper-esque quality as well.

(“New York City Subway,” 1940s, oil)

There’s no need to categorize him. However you’d describe his style, Cohn—who died in 1998 at age 95—gives us a long-gone midcentury Manhattan of oil drums, el trains, and corner gas stations bathed in magical color.

[First, second, and third images: Invaluable; fourth image: Milwaukee Museum Mile; fifth image: 1stDibs]

When Longacre Square became Times Square

November 14, 2022

I’m not sure what year this postcard dates to, but the image offers a few clues. For starters, that’s the then-new New York Times building in the center of the image. The opening of the Times headquarters in 1904 triggered the name change from Longacre Square to Times Square.

On the right there’s another notable building, with porthole windows across a mansard roof. This was the Hotel Astor, constructed in 1905 and at the time one of the most luxurious hotels in the city. What you can’t see is its fabulous roof garden—a dreamy place to go in a city largely without air conditioning.

Times Square in 1905 isn’t quite the crossroads of the world just yet. But with a major newspaper anchoring the square, plus a plethora of hotels, and theaters already occupying this junction, it’s well on its way.

[Postcard: MCNY; X2011.34.878]

Stop and admire the Chelsea Hotel’s beautiful iron balconies

November 14, 2022

There’s a lot to love about the Chelsea Hotel: the Queen Anne (or Victorian Gothic?) style, its backstory as a failed early cooperative apartment house, the enchanting main staircase and lobby fireplace, and its cultural relevance as a home for artists, writers, and free thinkers throughout the 20th century.

But there’s one feature I can’t get past: the magnificent floral-ornamented iron balconies gracing the circa-1883 building—seven rows of delicate leaves and flowers spread across the hotel’s red brick facade.

The floral motifs bring the beauty and softness of the natural world to the harsh brick and mortar cityscape of West 23rd Street.

The balconies “lend an atmosphere of charm to this high brick facade,” as the 1966 report designating the Chelsea a historic landmark put it.

What I didn’t realize after so many years of admiring the balconies is that they were made by Cornell Ironworks—whose name I’d often seen on manhole covers and cast iron buildings across Manhattan.

The company’s roots go back to 1828. But in the late 19th century, Cornell became “one of the largest manufacturing operations in New York City, employing 1,200 at its peak,” noted a historical timeline from dasma.com. “In the 1880s, the firm provide[d] circular stairs and ironwork for the Brooklyn Bridge and the iron base and stairways for the Statue of Liberty.”

Cornell also supplied the cast iron for many of the great department stores of Gilded Age New York City, from the A.T. Stewart store on 10th Street and Broadway to the Arnold, Constable Dry Goods establishment on Fifth Avenue and 19th Street, according to Walter Grutchfield.

The Chelsea Hotel has undergone lots of big changes over the past decade or so. Recently I took a walk through the new, spiffed up lobby and public rooms. While many of the art and architectural distinctions of the interior remain, the space lacks the intentional shabbiness and artistic colony feel of the pre-renovation hotel.

But you don’t need to go inside the Chelsea Hotel to enjoy its magic. Just stand outside on 23rd Street and look at the iron balconies—works of art created by a storied city manufacturer for a hotel clientele that appreciated artistic magic.

How an authentic Swedish cottage from 1875 ended up in Central Park

November 14, 2022

One of the wonderful things about Central Park is the enormous variety of buildings spread out among its 843 acres of pastures, hills, and woodlands.

On the northwestern end of the park, the remains of a stone fort dating to 1814 harken back to a sparsely settled Manhattan. At the southeastern end is a former arsenal-turned-office space completed in 1851. On the western side near 79th Street is a circa-1872 miniature castle with the best views in the city.

But there’s one structure almost as old as Central Park itself that’s always been a curiosity: the Swedish Cottage, near Belvedere Castle and the Shakespeare Garden on the park’s west side.

Almost all of the structures in Central Park either predate the park or were built specifically for it. So how did an authentic Swedish log cabin, one with gothic-style arched windows and a steep peaked roof, end up in New York’s premier city green space?

Its journey begins in Sweden in 1875.

“Designed by architect Magnus Isæus to serve as the Swedish Pavilion for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, the building was constructed in Sweden of oiled pine and cedar, then dismantled, packed in crates, and shipped to Philadelphia, where it was erected by Swedish craftsman on the Exposition grounds,” wrote Cynthia S. Brenwall and Martin Filler in 2019’s The Central Park: Original Designs for the New York’s Greatest Treasure.

Rather than a cottage, the building was actually a Swedish schoolhouse. It was a hit at the Exhibition—an event described as the first World’s Fair ever to be held in America.

“Furnished with desks and chalkboards and staffed by Swedish teachers, the pavilion was a popular attraction that served as an example of Scandinavian building design to the American public,” stated Brenwall and Filler.

Visitors to the Exhibition enjoyed this one-room Swedish schoolhouse. That included one very distinguished visitor: Frederick Law Olmsted, a co-designer of Central Park. Apparently he was so captured by it, he paid $1500 to buy it and have it shipped to Central Park, where it was reassembled in its current location in 1877, according to New York City, by Robert Kahn. (Above image: the cottage in 1880)

Finding a use for the Swedish Cottage, as it was now called, took some time. Over the years it served as a park restroom, a nature center, and civil defense headquarters during World War II, noted Kahn.

Since 1947, it’s been the home of the Marionette Theater, with a permanent theater built inside the cottage in 1973, per centralpark.com. Though the cottage has undergone renovation over the years, this authentic pine and cedar cabin that charmed Olmsted has since entertained thousands of city kids and their families.

[Third photo: MCNY, 1880; X2010.11.1559]

A glorious birds-eye view of early 1900s Brooklyn at night

November 7, 2022

Sometimes a simple penny postcard really can blow you away. Behold this turn-of-the-century nocturne downtown in the county of Kings, with office windows glowing with amber light and trolley cars making their way.

The one building I can make out with clarity is Brooklyn Borough Hall at the far left, with the clock and domed tower. Completed in 1848, it was formerly called City Hall.

[MCNY; 2004.36.3]

The ghost photographer who became a sensation in Gilded Age New York City

November 7, 2022

In the early 1860s, William Mumler was a Boston-based silver engraver who peddled homemade medicine and dabbled in photography. He might have remained out of the public eye if something seemingly otherworldly hadn’t appeared in one of his photos.

“While taking self-portraits for practice, one of Mumler’s prints came back with an unexplainable aberration,” explained Dave Roos at History.com. Although he was the only person in the room when the shot was taken, a figure could be seen at his side, “a girl who was ‘made of light,'” stated Roos.

This self-portrait launched Mumler’s short but infamous career as a “spirit photographer,” taking photos of living people and capturing the ghosts of dead loved ones in the images—typically behind the living person or in some kind of embrace.

Anyone who claims to be a ghost photographer today would be met with raised eyebrows. But in the middle of the 19th century, a movement called Spiritualism swept across the nation. Self-proclaimed mediums promised people that they could communicate with deceased family members, offering to perform seances and convey messages from the other side (for a fee, that is).

The possibility of seeing the likeness of dead loved ones in a photo, as Mumler offered, was hard for many grieving people to resist. That was especially true during the Civil War, which claimed thousands of lives and left so many Americans in mourning.

With photography a relatively new and mysterious practice, people were even more willing to believe Mumler’s claims. “These ghostly renderings became so popular that spiritualists hailed these photographs as scientific evidence of their beliefs,” stated the Getty Museum, which owns several Mumler spirit photos. “Even Mary Todd Lincoln had her photograph taken by Mumler.” (Fourth image)

But fellow photographers became suspicious. “Manipulating images was a known part of the photographic artform and other photographers were openly experimenting with double exposures and superimposed negatives, all of which could create the effect of Mumler’s spirit photography,” wrote Roos.

Mumler’s answer to his skeptics in Boston was to relocate to New York City. In 1869 he opened a studio at 630 Broadway, between Bleecker and Houston Streets, continuing his spirit photography business.

Unlike in Boston, however, New York officials were onto Mumler. Mayor Abraham Oakey Hall ordered an investigation and asked a city marshal to sit for a photo under a fake name.

“After the taking of the picture the negative was shown to [the city marshal], with a dim, indistinct outline of a ghostly face staring out of one corner; and he was told that the picture represented the spirit of his father-in-law,” stated an 1869 article in The Illustrated Photographer.

The marshal, however, “failed to recognize the worthy old gentleman, and emphatically declared that the picture neither represented his father-in-law, nor any of his relations, nor yet any person whom he had ever seen,” stated the publication.

Mumler went on trial for fraud later that year, with several photographers, as well as P. T. Barnum, testifying against him. In the end, he was acquitted, since the prosecution could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the images were fakes.

Back in Boston, Mumler continued to work as a photographer; he passed away in 1884 at age 51. Though he is still associated with spirit photography, he eventually lent his name to a process he invented that made it possible to print photos on newspaper, stated Roos, which changed the face of journalism.

[Photos 1, 2, and 5: Getty Museum; Photo 3: Wikipedia; photo 4: Massachusetts Historical Society]

A forgotten war memorial in Madison Square Park honors the “glorious dead”

November 7, 2022

New York is a time capsule of war memorials. Solemn doughboy statues, heavy bronze plaques inscribed with names, and dramatic sculptures personifying courage and mortality honor all the city residents over the years who lost their lives in combat.

Some of these memorials are so inconspicuous, they’ve been pretty much forgotten. Case in point is this simple metal plaque on a concrete plinth in Madison Square Park honoring America’s “glorious dead.”

Located on the east side of the Park at about 25th Street, the plaque is partially hidden by fallen leaves from the tree planted at the same time it was installed.

The organization responsible for the tree and plaque is the Young Australia League—a group formed in 1906 in Perth as a soccer league that embraced Australian patriotism and pride. In March 1929, a group of 159 young Australians from the YAL came to New York City as part of a “sightseeing and goodwill” trip of the United States, according to this Brooklyn newspaper article.

Strangely, the marker doesn’t specify who the glorious dead are. But since the plaque came to the park in 1929, the intent was likely to honor the 116,708 American military personnel who perished from any cause during the Great War.

Though small and hard to find, the plaque is in good company in Madison Square Park. The Admiral Farragut statue, honoring the Union Army leader of “damn the torpedoes…full speed ahead” fame, sits inside the northwest corner of the park.

And the military grave site and 51-foot obelisk memorial to General William Jenkins Worth—who died during the Mexican-American War in 1849—rises nearby at Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and 25th Street.