Archive for December, 2008

The lost tradition of New Year’s “calling”

December 30, 2008

Instead of spending New Year’s Day nursing a hangover, 19th century New York gentlemen went “calling,” visiting the homes of ladies with whom they were acquainted. There they had a bit of food and drink, dropped off a calling card, and wished their host a happy New Year before moving on to the next house. Men competed to visit the most ladies; women vied to get the most calling cards.

womensfashions1860s What a fashionable female might have worn while receiving her callers. It’s from the 1867 A.T. Stewart department store catalog. 









By the late 19th century, the tradition was dying out. As the New York Times lamented on January 3, 1888:

“But by far the most noteworthy circumstance in yesterday’s history was the almost complete death of the ancient custom of call-making.

“Some of the ‘old boys,’ however, could be seen yesterday in their spotless kid gloves and shiny ties making the rounds as solemnly as they did 30, 40, or 50 years ago . . . . In none of the brownstone districts yesterday were the familiar sights of other New Year’s Days to be encountered . . . . Not even the acknowledgment of a basket for cards was shown either on Fifth or Madison avenue of the cross streets. 


“Broadway in Winter,” 1857, looking south from Spring Street, by H. Sebron

“Few carriages were observed bearing the gentlemen about on a pilgrimage of good wishes, and as a matter of fact the ladies themselves did not even deem it necessary to inform their friends that they should not receive. It was taken for granted that they would not.”

New Amsterdam’s first paved street

December 30, 2008

That would be Stone Street, a slip of a road winding between South William and Pearl Streets in the Financial District. In the 1640s it was known as Hoogh (High) Straet, one of 17 streets in New Amsterdam that became muddy when it rained. “A bright Englishman decided to pave the street in front of his lot. This was Stone Street, the first paved street in the city,” reported a New York Times article in 1896.

Stone Street suffered in the late 19th century, when the bulk of the shipping industry moved from the East River to the Hudson. This 1920s photo shows a dingy-looking block:




The 20th century wasn’t much kinder to Stone Street, and parts of it were demapped in the 1970s and 1980s to make way for an office building.

But in 1996 it was made into a historic district, and the little mid-1800s structures—put up after the Great Fire of 1835 destroyed almost all of downtown—attracted restaurants and bars. The old-school paving stones (reproductions of the originals) also gave Stone Street a vintage New York vibe. 


Today Stone Street thrives, a teeny restaurant district tucked inside the canyons of Downtown Manhattan.


Times Square all lit up in Technicolor

December 30, 2008

This vintage postcard captures a rain-slicked Times Square bursting with color and light at night. It must be 1951; Ten Tall Men and Across the Wide Missouri were both released that year. 

timessquareatnightThe Automat is on the left. Who knew that its heyday as the place to go for machine-dispensed food and drink anytime of the day or night would soon be drawing to a close?

“One Christmas was so much like another…”

December 24, 2008

So begins Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” a gentle prose poem chronicling a kid’s-eye view of Christmas in a small Welsh town.

Of course, Thomas was not born in New York City, nor did he ever really reside here. But Manhattan is where he died, at St. Vincent’s hospital on West 12th Street in 1953. It happened days after he reportedly announced to his agent’s assistant that he’d had 18 whiskeys—”I think that’s a record”—and wasn’t feeling so hot. He came to St. Vincent’s from his temporary quarters at the Chelsea Hotel, and he never left.


Depending on which biography you read, the official cause of death is alcohol poisoning, pneumonia, or diabetes. It’s probably safe to assume that booze  played a pretty big role, as he was known to knock them back at the White Horse Tavern on West 11th and Hudson. 

Thomas at the White Horse, 1952





If you’ve never read “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” now is as good a time as any: 

Or listen to an audio file; Thomas’ booming voice is like no other. It’s available in two parts:  

For additional information on Thomas or the poem, read this terrific piece by Mona Molarsky at New York:

Building ads do not fade away in SoHo

December 24, 2008

I have no idea how old this Coca-Cola sign is on the side of this SoHo building, but I get the impression that it stubbornly refuses to let the elements wash it off forever.

With the Mini Cooper ad right there, it looks even more ghostly:


It’s tough to read the lettering above this ad for a yarn store, but I think it says JC Yarns:














Until the 1980s, SoHo around lower Broadway used to be a dingy shopping area for material, yarn, and other sewing paraphernalia. RIP, old fabric district.

A Greenwich Village snow angel

December 24, 2008

Meet Florence Smith, an actress and model who hails from the Village. She’s pictured in a 1909 issue of a short-lived magazine called Burr McIntosh Monthly.

I couldn’t uncover any information on her. But who knows? She could have been quite the party girl in her day, hitting up the original Waverly Inn and Beatrice Inn.













This image comes from a neat little tome published in the 1980s called The Picture Book of Greenwich Village by R. Bruce Gaylord. 

Last-minute Christmas deals and steals!

December 22, 2008

Terrific bargains on quality merchandise could be had on 14th Street—74 years ago, that is. Here’s a sampler of some of the department stores whose ads screamed across the pages of the December 19, 1934 Daily News, back when the 14th Street-Union Square area was a department store mecca.

Hearns was once one of New York’s largest department stores, located on the south side of 14th Street between Sixth and Fifth Avenues since 1879. It shut down in the 1950s:

hearnsxmas Toytown! I wonder how many kids got this electric train under the tree in 1934?







I couldn’t find anything about Finlay Straus jewelers; just another chain store that eventually and quietly closed up shop. They had several locations—including one across the street from Hearns:









Not to be outdone by Hearns, Nortons, another department store on the same stretch of 14th Street, pushed their “genuine fur trimmed” coats. These are Depression prices:



Strolling along genteel 125th Street

December 21, 2008

At the turn of the last century, West 125th Street was bustling, urbane—and all-white, according to this penny postcard.

Developed in the 1880s as the next big middle-class neighborhood, Harlem became the victim of a real-estate market crash in 1904 that left hundreds of apartment buildings desperate for tenants. 

A black real estate entrepreneur named Philip Payton helped rent those apartments to African-American residents escaping poorer neighborhoods in Manhattan as well as the Jim Crow South.


That’s Keith & Proctor’s Theater in the center of the postcard, part of a chain of opera houses/vaudville theaters around the city. Entertainment was serious business back then. A 1906 New York Times article entitled “Keith & Proctor’s 125th Street Manager Held for Assault” reports:

“Shortell said he went to the theatre on Thursday night, accompanied by his wife, and paid $2 for two box seats. He says he was unable to find a seat and demanded of Brunelle either seats or tickets for another night. Brunelle, he said, called him a rowdy and had him arrested after pushing him up against the wall.”

The boys of Xavier High School

December 21, 2008

This is just a random page from a copy of Xavier High School’s 1933 yearbook. Xavier, founded in the 1847, is an elite Jesuit high school on West 16th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues that attracts boys from all over the metropolitan area. Until 1971, ROTC was mandatory, hence the military uniforms.

But when were the boys below marked RIP? Perhaps they died young, in World War II. Or maybe the classmate who owned this yearbook wrote the initials recently.


The “Fort Green” fish market

December 17, 2008

It’s tough to tell when this photo was taken. The Williamsburgh bank building on the left means it must have been post-1929. But the hat and suit on the dude walking in front of the fish market dates the photo anytime from then through the 1950s.

Whatever year this depicts, judging by the empty lot and broken windows, things don’t look good. Who’d have thought that people would one day live in that bank building and pay million-dollar prices for the view?


The “Fort Green” misspelling is interesting. It doesn’t seem like the neighborhood was ever spelled without the e on the end; the nabe was named after Nathaniel Greene, a Revolutionary War general from Rhode Island. But a quick check of The New York Times archives shows that the “e” was often dropped in print in the 19th century.