Archive for December, 2011

“New York City as It Will Be in 1999”

December 29, 2011

Well, not exactly. But aside from the spaceship-like flying machines, the skyscraper-packed island isn’t so far off the mark.

It was published in the New York World on December 30, 1900. The Skyscraper Museum has a fascinating writeup about it, which was part of an exhibit on future New York:

“Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World was one of the most widely read newspapers of its day. The Sunday edition, which could sell as many as half a million or more copies around the United States, was filled with colorful artwork, cartoons, and cultural commentary.

“At the turn of the twentieth century, one of the World‘s most popular illustrators, Louis Biedermann, speculated on the future New York in 1999 in a lavish two-page spread that pictured Manhattan solidly packed with skyscrapers, including behemoth towers at least a hundred-stories tall, sporting landing platforms of airships.

“At a time when there were no controls on high-rise development, Biedermann’s illustration exaggerated present trends and technologies and reflected both the fascination and fears of unconstrained growth.”

Is there a sunken treasure in the East River?

December 29, 2011

There is according to a legend dating back to November 1780.

That’s when the HMS Hussar, a 28-gun British warship, sailed up the East River, reportedly on its way to Rhode Island.

With a crew of about 100, and up to 70 American prisoners of war, the Husser sank in the treacherous waters of Hell Gate—the tidal strait between Astoria and Wards Island that felled hundreds of vessels before being dynamited in the 19th century.

“Hampered by the violent currents, the Hussar’s captain, Maurice Pole, struggled to steer toward shore, but the ship sank somewhere between Port Morris and Montressor’s Island (today North Brother Island),” writes Tom Vanderbilt in a 2002 New York Times piece.

“Most of the crew survived, and the masts, it was said, jutted above water for days before being swept away.”

Immediately, rumors hit that the Hussar, carrying payroll for British troops stationed in New York, went down with 2 to 4 million dollars in gold on board.

Was it true? On one hand, surviving sailors claimed the payroll had been dropped off before the frigate sank.

Still, the British launched three serious expeditions to find the Hussar’s remains after the Revolutionary War, supporting suspicions that something very valuable had gone down with the ship.

Over the centuries, treasure hunters have gone into the murky East River waters to uncover what would be worth about a billion dollars today.

Aside from some pottery and other artifacts, no treasure has been found.

The Hussar’s remains haven’t been located either; they’re thought to have become landfill in the Bronx.

[Top: USGS topographical map; middle, a frigate the Hussar may have resembled; bottom, a 1904 etching of Hell Gate in 1774, from the NYPL Digital Collection]

“New York Riverfront at Night”

December 27, 2011

By day, the turn of the century waterfront must have looked industrial and gritty, the air choked with smoke.

But at night, as this vintage postcard shows, it’s another world. The city is enchanting—lit up by the glow of the moon and electric lights inside and outside buildings.

The tasty food of a colonial Dutch New Year’s Day

December 27, 2011

“New Year is the greatest day in New Amsterdam,” stated Charles Burr Todd in his 1888 book, The Story of the City of New York.

Why so great? It probably had to do with the incredible feast served by each household, as citizens went door to door visiting one another that day.

Here’s an example, according to Todd:

“[In] the centre of the table, spread in the middle of the room, a mighty punch-bowl well reinforced by haunches of cold venison and turkeys roasted whole, and ornamented with cakes, comfits, confectionery, silver tankards, and bekers filled with rare Medeira and foaming ale.”

One type of cake regularly served on New Year’s Day was the olykoek, kind of a doughnut. Try making that on January 1 and see if your New York guests appreciate your effort, as well as the colonial backstory:

“The Dutch olykoeks as described in books about old New York are evidently a mouth-watering concoction,” writes The New York Times in a 1937 article about lost New Years traditions.

“First the yeast of the olykoeks was set to lighten after a noonday dinner. Just before supper this was made into a rich dough [with] the addition of many eggs, much butter, and a flavoring of nutmeg.

At bedtime the dough was kneaded down. Next morning it was shaped into small balls, stuffed with a mixture of chopped apple, raisins, and [sic] peel. These were left to rise until after dinner, when the patient maker set about cooking them in hot fat. The finishing touch was to roll the round balls generously in sugar.”

By the 19th century, calling was a more refined, but no less popular New Year’s activity.

[Top image: “New Year’s Day Among the Ancient Knickerbockers,” from the NYPL Digital Collection; bottom, “Party for New Year’s Day in New Amsterdam” by George Henry Boughton]

The first newsboy to hit the streets of New York

December 27, 2011

The tough job of a newsboy—buying copies of a paper from the publisher, then reselling enough on the street to scratch out a profit—originated in Manhattan in 1833.

That’s when an Irish immigrant kid answered an ad run by the sensationalist New York Sun looking for unemployed men to take on “vending this paper.”

“The first unemployed person to apply for a job selling the Sun was a 10-year-old boy, Bernard Flaherty, born in Cork,” recalls Munsey’s Magazine in 1917.

He couldn’t have realized it at the time, but Barney, as he was known, paved the way for thousands of newsboys after him in the 19th century. It was a gritty, unglamourous way to make a living:

“The majority of these boys live at home, but many of them are wanderers in the streets, selling papers at times, and begging at others,” writes James McCabe in 1873’s Lights and Shadows of New York Life.

“Formerly, these little fellows suffered very much from exposure and hunger. In the cold nights of winter, they slept on the stairways of the newspaper offices, in old boxes and barrels, under door steps, and sometimes sought a ‘warm bed’ on the street gratings of the printing offices, where the warm steam from the vaults below could pass over them.”

No wonder late 19th century social reformers opened “lodging houses” for newsboys and other kids who worked or lived on the streets.

[Photos: New York newsies, 1908 and 1910, from the Library of Congress]

Holiday greetings from a Harlem dive hotel

December 24, 2011

I wonder if tourists ever accidentally book a room at the posh-sounding Park Avenue Hotel, off Park Avenue and 125th Street.

If so, hopefully they’re charmed by the classy seasons greetings mural!

A rich New Yorker becomes the nation’s first saint

December 24, 2011

Born into a prominent Episcopalian family at 8 State Street in 1774, Elizabeth Ann Bayley had lots of material comforts.

Yet she was a spiritual child, and very aware of the city’s impoverished.

She brought food to the poor and visited the sick, continuing to do so after she married and moved to Wall Street.

“The poverty and destitution of New York worried the sensitive girl, who, with her sister-in-law, daily journeyed to homes where help was needed, and where they came to be known as the Protestant sisters of charity,” explains a 1931 New York Times article.

In 1802, she sailed to Italy, where she was introduced to Catholicism—and where her businessman husband, William Seton, died.

Back in New York and struggling financially with five children, she found solace in the church—converting to Catholicism in 1805 at the city’s only Catholic church at the time, St. Peter’s on Barclay Street.

“The last 16 years of her life was given over to good works,” said the Times.

She founded the Sisters of Charity, opening the first Catholic schools and orphanages in the U.S. in New York, Philadelphia, and Maryland.

She died of tuberculosis at 46 in 1821. Pope Paul IV canonized her in 1975—the first U.S.-born saint.

Though her remains are entombed in a shrine in Maryland, a shrine in her name exists at 7 State Street (above), next door to her childhood home.

The mysteries surrounding some tenement names

December 24, 2011

The names chiseled onto city tenement building entrances are often pretty puzzling.

The typical tenement is more than 100 years old. With the original builders long-gone, who can explain where some of these names come from, and why they were chosen?

Like Novelty Court, on Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg. Actually, a little research turned up an explanation: this used to be the site of the Novelty Theater, according to Cinema Treasures, which disappeared from city directories by the 1920s.

A. Segal’s (Secal’s?) Apartments are also in Williamsburg. But who was A. Segal, and why did he put his first initial and last name on his building?

Blennerhasset sounds like Manhasset, a town in Long Island. I’ve never seen the name anywhere else but on this tenement near Columbia University.

Who was Frances, and how would she feel about the terrible shape the building named for her is in, on Lexington Avenue in East Harlem?

“The Green Car” in Washington Square, 1910

December 22, 2011

Painter William Glackens didn’t have to go far to create this depiction of Washington Square at the turn of the last century.

He and his wife moved to 3 Washington Square North in 1904, and he had a studio at 50 Washington Square South.

“In The Green Car, a view to the north from his studio window, Glackens suggests this transition from old to new,” states the caption to this painting at

“In the background is a glimpse of “The Row,” the elegant red-brick, Greek Revival houses that had been built along Washington Square North in the 1830s and 1840s for some of New York’s most prominent old families.”

“In the foreground, a fashionably dressed young woman hails a streetcar, powered by underground electrical cables, which was emblematic of modern developments.”

The elephants that tested the Brooklyn Bridge

December 22, 2011

When the Brooklyn Bridge—under construction for 13 years—was gearing up for opening day in May 1883, 19th century New York’s biggest showman made a proposal.

To test out the bridge, P.T. Barnum offered, he’d walk his troupe of elephants across it.

Authorities turned him down. But a year later, on May 17, 1884, his elephant march (plus other creatures) happened, as this 2004 New Yorker cover cleverly illustrates.

It was a demonstration to the public that the bridge was safe and a brilliant promotional stunt for Barnum’s Museum and touring show.

“To people who looked up from the river at the big arch of electric lights it seemed as if Noah’s Ark were emptying itself over on Long Island,” wrote The New York Times.

“At 9:30 o’clock 21 elephants, 7 camels, and 10 dromedaries issued from the ferry at the foot of Courtlandt-Street. . . . The other elephants shuffled along, raising their trunks and snorting as every train went by. Old Jumbo brought up the rear.”

Jumbo was Barnum’s prized giant African elephant, shown in this sketch arriving by crate to the city. He was already a celebrity in London when Barnum purchased him.