A stunning family portrait of Gilded Age privilege

September 26, 2016

This is Cornelia Ward Hall, wife of businessman John H. Hall, and their four children, in a rich and magnificent 1880 portrait by Italian painter Michele Gordigiani.

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Who was Hall? A very well-off wife and mother living in New York at the height of the Gilded Age—one who apparently kept a lower profile than some of her peers.

The portrait doesn’t tell us much about Hall and her family specifically. But in the painting, they represent the era’s twin preoccupations with material wealth and family values: a mother and wife outfitted in the finest clothes and jewels surrounded by her beautiful children.

Think of her as a domestic goddess of the late 19th century, who ruled the home and nurtured her children, as the painting makes clear.

[“Mrs. Cornelia Ward Hall and Her Children” is part of the collection at the Museum of the City of New York; 61.155.1]

Brooklyn’s “most perfect” 1886 apartment house

September 26, 2016

Charles Pratt was a stupendously wealthy kerosene-refinery owner who left his mark in Brooklyn with grand mansions on Clinton Avenue, donations to churches, and the founding of Pratt Institute in 1887.

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But a few years earlier, he gained notoriety for another philanthropic endeavor: building affordable apartments for the families of the men who worked for his Astral Oil Works along the Greenpoint waterfront.

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It goes without saying that livable flats were in great demand. New York has always had a shortage of housing and space for its middle- and working-class residents, and this true even in the booming city of Brooklyn in the late 19th century.

pratt“Not that there are not enough houses to supply tenants who desire to pay a monthly rental of $50 or over, but there is a lack of convenient houses to be had at a rental of less than $30,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in December 1886.

“At the present high price of ground in New York and Brooklyn it is doubtful if any number of small, cheap houses for the accommodation of persons of small means will ever be constructed.”

That’s where Pratt came in. Distressed by the crowded tenements available to working men and women and inspired by model housing built in London, he invested his own funds to build the Astral Apartments, a block-long, six-story edifice of brick and terracotta on Franklin Street meant to ease “the problem of how to live decently and economically,” as the Eagle put it.

astraltripadvisorWhen the Astral (“of the stars”) was unveiled, the design and amenities blew everyone away. Every room in the 120 three- to five-room units had a window—which meant light and ventilation, two precious commodities in the 19th century city.

For $10-$25 a month, tenants got extra closets, a coal box, sink, range, and a water closet in each flat, plus a lecture room in the basement and a spacious play area in the back.

thegildedageinnewyorkcover-1Interestingly, the Astral was slow to fill up; potential tenants apparently thought the building looked too much like a barracks or institution, according to one 1895 source.

But that didn’t stop the praise. The Astral “is the most perfect type of an apartment house in the world,” the Eagle stated. “Give the workingman and woman a chance to save a portion of their [sic] wages, and they will find means for educating their children and improving their personal welfare.”

Read more about the Gilded Age industrialists-turned-philanthropists who set out to improve housing for poor and working class New Yorkers in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, in stores Tuesday!

[First and third photos: Wikipedia; second image: American Architect and Architecture, 1895; fourth photo: TripAdvisor]

The mess halls for inmates on Blackwell’s Island

September 26, 2016

It could not have been easy to be an inmate—as it was called in the 19th century—on Blackwell’s Island.

The thin strip of land in the East River, bought by the city in 1828, was were New York brought its undesirables: criminals biding their time in the Penitentiary, sick people sent to the Hospital for Incurables, Lunatic Asylum, or the Small-Pox Hospital, the homeless and disorderly sentenced to the Workhouse.

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I’m not sure where these circa-1896 photos were taken, but based on the age and appearance of the diners (and the information provided by the Museum of the City of New York in the caption), they may give us a glimpse into the Almshouse.

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There were actually two Almshouses, one for men, one for women. “None but the aged and infirm, who are destitute, are admitted,” wrote James D. McCabe in 1872’s Lights and Shadows of New York Life. “Each newcomer is bathed immediately upon his or her arrival, and clad in the plain but comfortable garments provided by the establishment.”

Staff determined how much and what kind of work each newcomer could do, McCabe wrote. In 1870, 1,114 people lived there, he added—these are probably some of them.

[Top photo: MCNY 93.1.1.4918; second photo: MCNY 93.1.1.4917]

The three most beautiful bridges in the world

September 19, 2016

They’re like sisters: the oldest, the Brooklyn Bridge, gets all the accolades. The Williamsburg Bridge came next; at the time it opened in 1903, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.

This steel span has lots of charms, but it was destined to be in the Brooklyn Bridge’s shadow.

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Youngest sister the Manhattan Bridge opened in 1909. It once had an approach modeled after a bridge in Paris and the colonnades on the Manhattan side modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome. These days, this workhorse bridge doesn’t get the love its sisters are used to.

The meaning behind Grand Central’s chandeliers

September 19, 2016

grandcentralchandeliervanderbilthallDropping from Vanderbilt Hall and other parts of Grand Central Terminal like heavenly jewels are spherical chandeliers—each with its light bulbs bare and exposed.

There’s a reason for this, and it stretches all the way back to the building’s construction and design at the turn of the last century.

The Vanderbilt family, which built this third version of Grand Central at 42nd Street, were “immensely proud of Grand Central’s status as one of the world’s first all-electric buildings,” states History.com.

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Previously, train stations and the engines that went in and out of them were smoky and sooty, making them unpleasant—not to mention unsafe.

“In fact, their pride greatly influenced the station’s interior designs. When it first opened, every one of the stations chandeliers and lighting fixtures featured bare, exposed light bulbs—more than 4,000 of them.”

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The chandeliers have changed over time; in 2008, the incandescent glow was replaced by fluorescent bulbs. But they continue to pay homage to the forward-thinking vision of the Vanderbilts and the era of quieter, cleaner, unadorned electricity.

Grand Central Terminal (never call it Station!) is a treasure of beautiful interiors. If you’ve ever noticed an acorn and leaf motif, that’s the Vanderbilt family again.

The yellow trolley cars of Columbus Circle

September 12, 2016

In the 1930s, New York was still a city of trolley cars—like the yellow trolleys whizzing (or lumbering?) through Columbus Circle in this 1931 postcard.

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By 1956, the last Brooklyn trolley lines bit the dust, victims of the popularity and ease of cars and buses as well as the difficulty of maintaining tracks on city streets.

But this postcard freezes the New York trolley in time, with embedded metal rails crisscrossing one of Manhattan’s few traffic circles.

Looking east, we’re at the doorstep of Central Park, and steps away from the wealth and glamour of then-new hotels like the Pierre and Sherry-Netherland on Fifth Avenue.

Where fashionable Gilded Age ladies lunched

September 12, 2016

Let’s say you’re a well-off New York woman in the late 19th century, and you’re on an excursion to Ladies Mile—the area roughly between Broadway and Sixth Avenue and 10th and 23rd Streets where the city’s chicest emporiums and boutiques were located.

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Shopping is time-consuming, and your stomach starts growling. Where could you grab a bite to eat or a snack?

maillardstheatermagazinead1908Social rules at the time made it almost impossible to sit down at a restaurant, as most eateries either banned or discouraged women unaccompanied by men (you might be mistaken for a prostitute).

You certainly couldn’t sit at the counter at a saloon or club, as these were off-limits to women as well.

Your options, then? Going to one of the new women’s lunch rooms or tea rooms, sometimes in the department store itself. Or you could visit a confectionery—a fancy sweets shop that served a light lunch and treats.

Maillard’s Confectionery, on 23rd Street inside the posh Fifth Avenue Hotel, was one of the most fashionable. Billing itself as “an ideal luncheon restaurant for ladies,” the shop was “an Edwardian fantasy” according to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets.

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This description of a new Maillard’s on Fifth Avenue and 35th Street that opened in 1908 (as department stores relocated uptown, so did the restaurants catering to female shoppers) gives an idea of what was on the menu.

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“The lunches, as of old, will be light and dainty with the Maillard chocolate and cocoa, coffee or tea. Wines will not be served,” stated Brooklyn Life in October 1908.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverLife for New York women after the Civil War was decidedly not coed, with ladies generally expected to stick to and find fulfillment in what was dubbed the domestic sphere.

Find out more about how women’s roles began to change in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: MCNY: 93.1.1.18170; second image: The Theatre Magazine Advertiser, 1908; third photo: MCNY: 93.1.1.18409; ; fourth photo: MCNY: X2011.34.3811]

Subway riding in the 1940s with Stanley Kubrick

September 12, 2016

In March 1947, the popular national biweekly publication Look published a stark, six-page photo feature called “Life and Love on the New York Subway.”

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The photographer behind the powerful and poetic images? Future film director Stanley Kubrick—at the time a teenage correspondent for the magazine who sold photo features on everything from city dogs to shoeshine boys to the life of a New York showgirl.

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Like street photographers before him (think Walker Evans during the Depression), Kubrick decided to take his camera underground and shoot the people riding the trains.

He hoped to reveal the emotion and humanity behind the typical subway rider’s facade of disinterest and indifference, to capture romance, humor, vulnerability, and loneliness.

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He explained how he did it in an interview with Camera magazine a year later.

“Kubrick rode the lines for two weeks,” the article stated. “Most of his traveling to and fro was done at night, as more unusual activities were likely to take place then.”

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Kubrick used no flash, and apparently his subjects didn’t know they were caught on film.

“These are truly unusual studies and expressions of life in a subway. Running true to form, drunks, love makers, sleepers, wanderers, and lonesome people were caught, wholly unaware of the fact that they were being photographed.”

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His images are striking in their ordinariness, not unlike the faces of subway riders under the streets of New York City today. Train interiors and platforms haven’t changed either.

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But taking pictures on a train in the 1940s posed challenges.

“Regardless of what he saw he couldn’t shoot until the car stopped in a station because of the motion and vibration of the moving train. Kubrick finally did get his pictures, and no one but a subway guard seemed to mind.”

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The kicker of the Camera story foretells the future. “Stan is also very serious about cinematography, and is about to start filming a sound production written and financed by himself, and several friends.”

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These photos and hundreds more from Kubrick can be viewed via Museum of the City of New York digital collections.

[All photos from the MCNY. Accession numbers: photo 1: X2011.4.11107.61A; photo 2: X2011.411107.55C; photo 3: X2011.4.11107.45F; photo 4: X2011.4.10292.63D; photo 5: C2011.4.10292.100C; photo 6: X2011.4.11107.125; photo 7: X2011.4.11107.92E; photo 8: X2011.4.11107.49F]

Walking along Madison Square after the rain

September 9, 2016

I don’t know the name of this painting, but the artist, Paul Cornoyer, often depicted Madison Square and other well-traveled hubs of the Gilded Age city, especially after a rainstorm.

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Doesn’t look like Madison Square? It must be the arch and colonnades that are throwing things off. It’s all part of the Dewey Arch, erected at Fifth Avenue and about 25th Street for a parade honoring Admiral George Dewey, victorious in the Philippines in 1898.

The triumphant arch only stood for a year. After the 1899 parade, money was supposed to be raised to make the arch permanent—like Washington Square’s new marble arch. Instead, it was bulldozed in 1900.

The rich activists of New York’s “mink brigade”

September 9, 2016

Thanks to the labor movement and the push for women’s suffrage, New York in the first two decades of the 20th century was a hotbed of strikes and rallies—with thousands of women doing the organizing and walking picket lines.

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Most of these activists were working-class women, often young immigrants, who toiled for low wages in dangerous sweatshops.

Marching alongside them and helping to finance their efforts were a group of extraordinary wealthy ladies who took their lumps from the press, later dubbed the “mink brigade.”

annemorganThese were the wives and daughters of the city’s richest men, women who used their bank accounts to stir up social change rather than entertain at society balls.

Two well-known members of the so-called mink brigade were Anne Morgan (left), daughter of financier J.P. Morgan, and former society queen bee Alva Belmont,  ex-wife of W.K. Vanderbilt and widow of banker Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont.

Through an organization called the Women’s Trade Union League, Morgan and Belmont helped mobilize and support a strike by workers from the Triangle Waist Company (yep, that Triangle company).

That walkout eventually led to a citywide garment workers’ strike in November 1909 known as the “Uprising of the 20,000” (top photo).

“The socialites’ presence generated both money and praise for the strikers,” states Women’s America: Refocusing the Past.

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“The move proved politically wise for the suffrage cause as well, because the constant proselytizing of suffrage zealot Alva Belmont, who often bailed strikers out of jail, got young workers talking about the vote.”

alvabelmontandfriendBy all accounts, Morgan and Belmont (in the photo at right, she’s in the mink) were serious about the causes they espoused and sincere in their efforts.

They paid fines for strikers and used their prominence to raise money. Their presence on the actual picket lines kept police brutality at bay.

Called off in 1910, the Uprising of the 20,000 was a partial success, with most sweatshop owners meeting the workers’ demands.

And suffrage, of course, was soon to be a nationwide win. Derided as monied meddlers during their day, the mink brigade turned out to be on the right side of history.

[Third image: New York Times headline December 9, 1909]