One girl’s 1899 travel diary of New York City

On a January day, 12-year-old Naomi King and her parents left their Indiana home for a vacation in New York City.

naomisternbrothers1899nypl

After arriving and meeting up with Naomi’s older sister Josie, a Manhattan resident, the family settled into the West 118th Street home of their host, a Mrs. Purdy.

naomicentralparkmallThrough early February they did what most first-time tourists do: they visited museums and Central Park (left), window-shopped stores, took in the Bowery, and saw the seashore at Coney Island.

What makes King’s visit so unique is that it occurred in January 1899.

And because King kept a travel diary (part of the Archives & Manuscripts Collection at the NYPL), contemporary readers get to experience the Gilded Age city as it appeared through her impressionable eyes.

naomicentralparkbandLike any trend-driven tween, King wrote about the clothes displayed in stores like Stern’s (top image) in the Ladies Mile shopping district.

“We got off [the Broadway car] at 23rd Street and Josie took us to the Stern Brothers, one of the large and select dry goods houses where we saw the latest fashions,” she wrote.

She saw “all the new spring styles [and] the new spring color: amethyst, purple, or violet in all shades [and] stripes extending to gentlemen’s cravats in Roman colors.”

naomizoo1895mcny93-1-1-18316The family strolled the mall in Central Park “under the arches of the beautiful trees whose branches interlaced overhead” and saw the bandstand (above) “where Sousa’s celebrated band plays all during the summer. . . . “

They were impressed by the lions (left) and hippos at the zoo. “Beside [the lions was] the royal Bengal tiger and his mate next to him in a separate cage, while a horrid hyena paced up and down his cage.”

King and her parents gawked at the mansions of Fifth Avenue. “We passed Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s mansion, Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt’s elegant residence (below right). . . . “

naomiwkvanderbiltmansion“A little farther on we saw old Mr. Vanderbilt’s residence and a wealthy gentleman Mr. Rockefeller whose mansion is even finer than the Vanderbilts.'”

For reasons that aren’t clear, the family visited some of the city’s notorious charitable institutions, which King wrote about movingly.

On Randall’s Island at the House of Refuge (below), kind of a 19th century reform school, she saw boys working in the institution’s laundry department.

naomihouseofrefugemcny91-69-1811915

“We passed however a large hall of locked cells which the larger boys sleep,” she wrote. “They lock them up to prevent making their escape.”

Also on Randall’s Island, she was distraught by a hospital for abandoned babies—a terrible problem in the post–Civil War city.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcover“We . . . went to the baby residence, the home of the little waifs who were picked up out of the city’s ash barrels and dark alleyways. They looked so frail in their white  cot beds. . . . There are so many babies and yet not one little face that looked like another.”

What became of King after her visit I wish I knew.

But her travel diary stands as a testament to the wonder and tragedy of New York on the cusp of the 20th century.

The Gilded Age in New York includes these excerpts from King’s diary—as well as diary excerpts from other New Yorkers of the era. Many thanks to the NYPL for permission to cite the text in the book.

[Top three photos: NYPL Digital Collection; fourth photo, MCNY: 93.1.1.18316; sixth photo, MCNY: 91.69.1811915]

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6 Responses to “One girl’s 1899 travel diary of New York City”

  1. marylandis Says:

    Can’t wait to see the book. Congratulations!

  2. Suburban kid (@suburbankid76) Says:

    Any other details of Ms King? (Parents names or hometown?). I found a Neomi R. King in Indianapolis in the 1900 census. Had three older sisters at home in their 20s, so another older one away in NYC would be possible. Father’s occupation “Insurance”, so no obvious clue about visiting charities.

  3. Anne Boylan Says:

    Nice post. I found “Neomi” King, age 13, in the 1900 census of Indianapolis (E. 10th Street) living with her parents & 3 of her sisters, Amy, Grace, and Helen. She’s also in the 1910 census, living in Indianapolis with another sister, Nellie Barth, Nellie’s husband and their children, and Naomi’s and Nellie’s sister Amy. She’s working as a stenographer on a steam railroad. No luck with the 1920 census or a marriage record.

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Great sleuthing. I don’t have any info on her, unfortunately. I think a deep dive is needed.

  5. JSA Says:

    The Sterns’s building in the postcard at the top of this post still exists as part of the trio of buildings Home Depot occupies. I believe its the westmost section…the 3rd floor arched window has disappeared, but the cornice is exactly the same.

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