Archive for November, 2008

“Army of Beggars Mars Thanksgiving”

November 27, 2008

So read the headline of the New York Times on November 27, 1914. But the article isn’t referring to hungry poor people looking for a handout.

It’s actually about an old Thanksgiving Day tradition popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, when children would dress up as cowboys, Indians, or “ragamuffins” and go door to door asking neighbors, “anything for Thanksgiving?”


As this second article, published in the Times in 1907, makes clear, the ragamuffins were regarded as quite a nuisance. Some neighborhoods scheduled loosely organized ragamuffin parades (Bay Ridge still has one; it’s held earlier in the fall), but it appears that most of the time, kids were on their own. They went out in groups—asking for pennies, playing practical jokes, and of course, getting into fights. 




The ragamuffin tradition supposedly came from Europe, where it was customary to symbolically beg on holidays. I don’t know if this is true, but it seems that at some point begging on Thanksgiving turned into trick or treating on Halloween. And another strange old New York custom was lost to the ages.

Player pianos for sale in Hell’s Kitchen

November 27, 2008

On Tenth Avenue and 52nd Street stands a lovely red brick tenement building with some ghostly signage. “Factory & Warerooms” reads the banner lettering across the facade between the second and third floors.


Then, on the lower left, “Player Pianos.” This building was the home of the Becker Bros. piano factory, founded by Jacob Becker. On, it explains that Becker pianos were “of great merit in which the skill and experience of the makers are clearly evinced.”


The player pianos were also rated pretty highly. “The Becker Bros. player piano is equally meritorious and noted for its simplicity of construction and ease of operation,” the guide says.

A former child star dies on East 10th Street

November 27, 2008

Before “former child star” became synonymous with “totally screwed up,” there was Bobby Driscoll. After winning small parts in some early 1940s movies, nine-year-old Driscoll landed the leads in Disney’s Song of the South and Treasure Island, and he was the live-action model and voice in Peter Pan, among other major roles. 

Driscoll was the boy child star of his day, and he even won a special “outstanding juvenile actor of the year” Oscar in 1950.


Of course, child stars hit puberty, and they typically lose the cuteness that made them so sought after. Reportedly Driscoll was cut loose from Disney in the 1950s when he developed bad acne as a teen. Trying to fit in with regular kids in high school, he got into drugs, and in subsequent years was arrested for possession of marijuana and other minor offenses.

In 1965 he came to New York, falling in with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd and eventually drifting around the East Village. On March 30, 1968 he was found dead in an abandoned building at 371 East 10th Street, between Avenues B and C. He was 31 years old.


The East Village building where Bobby Driscoll spent his final days.

The cause of death was cardiovascular disease brought on by hard drug use. No ID was found on Driscoll’s body, so he was buried in Potter’s Field on Hart Island. Close to two years went by before officials were able to identify who he was.

Mastodons: the oldest known New Yorkers

November 24, 2008

Mastodons were those 10-foot-tall elephant-like creatures with enormous curved tusks. They roamed North America at the end of the last ice age about 18,000 years ago, and because they loved forests and woodlands, it’s no surprise that they made their home in the woods of New York City. Their remains have been found in all five boroughs.

The first fossils turned up in Queens in 1858. More fossils—tusks—were discovered in Inwood in 1885 and 1891. 

Just another 10,000-pound mastodon strolling through the forests of Manhattan in Pleistocene times:


The most recent fossils, a jaw and 14 teeth, were found in 1925 on Payson Avenue and Dyckman Street in Inwood. They were discovered 22 feet below ground while construction workers were excavating a building. “Bones!” a worker called out, after realizing what he’d hit with his shovel. 

A New York Times article a few days after the discovery reported that the bones had the thickness of young tree trunks. The bones were immediately handed over to the Museum of Natural History, but not before 13 of the 14 teeth had already gone missing—probably ending up in the pockets of souvenir collectors.

A faded ad reappears in the East Village

November 24, 2008

When old buildings are rehabbed, long-lost ads come back into view. This one is on Third Avenue in the East Village. Hudson’s was an army-navy emporium located at Third and 13th Street, a place to buy work clothes, camping supplies, and assorted surplus items. 


Opened in 1922, Hudson’s bit the dust in the early 1990s.

The Brooklyn tomb of Charlotte Canda

November 24, 2008

Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery is full of beautiful, intricately carved monuments. But one so impressive, it attracted thousands of visitors in the 19th century was that of Charlotte Canda.

The daughter of an officer in Napoleon’s army who was the headmaster of a school on Lafayette Place in Manhattan, Charlotte met an especially sad, dramatic end: On the night of her 17th birthday, in February 1845, she fell out of a moving carriage on Broadway and Waverly Place, hit her head on the pavement, and died. 

Her grief-stricken family commissioned a massive marble monument in Green-Wood Cemetery with all kinds of Victorian-era touches: Charlotte as an angel standing under a canopy, with church-like spires, carved flowers, and two more angels flanking her tomb, among other flourishes.


Because it was so ornate, her monument was a popular place for strangers to visit. So popular, in fact, a photo of it was made into a trading card as part of what appears to be a series of Green-Wood Cemetery cards. Sounds pretty ghoulish, but late 19th century New Yorkers used to picnic at the cemetery, so it fits with the sensibility of the era.

Here’s what her tomb says about Charlotte. To add to the Victorian drama of it all, her fiance, a French nobleman, killed himself after Charlotte died. He’s buried in a plot next to hers.


Green-Wood Cemetery has better photos of her monument and more detailed information.

Hudson Street’s home for “working girls”

November 20, 2008

It’s 1906. You’re a young woman who has just arrived in New York City. Somehow you find yourself near Abingdon Square, and you need a place to stay. Your best bet: the new Trowmart Inn, a six-story “handsome hostelry” on Hudson and West 12th Streets.

For $4 a week, a girl could have a single room containing a bed, washstand, and table, plus breakfast and dinner. The ideal resident is the young lady who “is of the class who labors for a small wage, and whose parents have no home within the city,” according to a New York Times article about the Trowmart’s opening.

Here’s the Trowmart today, looking pretty much as it did in 1906, sans the young ladies. It’s been a nursing home for several decades and is reportedly slated to become a co-op.


So what set the Trowmart apart from other women’s hotels of the era? Well, it was built by a man named William Martin, who was convinced that girls of marrying age didn’t have a respectable place to be courted by “desirable young men,” and without such a place, they would never get married.

“[Mr. Martin] does not care for any return upon the capital he has invested,” the Times reports. “He will be satisfied if the girls have a happy home, and if a number of marriages accrue each year from the Trowmart Inn.

“Girls of gentleness and refinement do not care to be courted upon the open highway, nor in public parks, and thus the world is filling with spinsters who, according to Mr. Martin, had they a proper place in which to entertain their admirers, would develop into happy, excellent wives and still happier mothers.”

It’s easy to poke fun at a place like this now. But the Trowmart was actually forward-thinking for its time in one way: It imposed no restrictions on the girls who lived there. As long as they worked and paid the bill, they could come and go as they pleased, with no curfew.

The writing on the wall (and the fence post)

November 20, 2008

It’s a nice treat to randomly come across an old tenement building with the names of the intersecting streets spelled out on the structure itself. Like this one here at Tenth Avenue and 17th Street:


It’s even cooler to see a street name carved into an iron fence post, as it is here at St. Mark’s Church on Second Avenue and 10th Street. A little St. Mark’s history and additional images can be found here.



Going to the movies on March 28, 1970

November 20, 2008

According to that week’s issue of the listings magazine Cue, one of your movie options is Airport, the disaster blockbuster starring Burt Lancaster.

Seems like a strange choice for the Easter week feature at Radio City Music Hall. But it’s also odd that Radio City regularly showed movies back then…and doors opened at 7:15 in the morning!


Another film playing in the city: The Boys in the Band, based on the off-Broadway play about a group of gay men attending a birthday party in Manhattan. This month, it was just released on DVD. You definitely can’t see it at the Loew’s State, which shut down several years ago.


Sideshow freaks and human curiosities

November 18, 2008

Legendary Coney Island amusement park Dreamland burned down in 1911, but that didn’t stop its owners from launching the Dreamland Circus Side Show on Surf Avenue soon after.

This 1930s photo shows some of the sideshow’s most famous performers (plus the newest attraction, “Mortado”). Note the Nedick’s on the right—once a big chain of hot dog and orange juice stands.










The granddaddy of all freak show promoters was P.T. Barnum; his museum on Ann Street in lower Manhattan attracted hundreds of thousands of gawkers each year.

“The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth” toured the country, luring crowds with its “peerless prodigies of physical phenomena,” including a bearded lady, sword swallower, and “Egyptian giant.”



Another bizarro Barnum exhibit: babies. Twins, triplets, “quaterns”  . . . it seems 19th century New Yorkers were as fascinated by multiples as we are today.