The forgotten men waiting on a Bowery breadline

Bowler hats, thin shoes, and shabby coats that need a good washing—what the men on this Bowery breadline in 1910 are wearing tells us everything we need to know about them.

The bars they’ve lined up next to are advertising Ehret’s and Schaefer beer, both once manufactured in Manhattan (Schaefer eventually relocated to Brooklyn.)

[George Bain Collection/LOC]

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17 Responses to “The forgotten men waiting on a Bowery breadline”

  1. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    These dusty gents in your photograph cudda been qued to get a toot-on before Prohibition went into effect.

    My own Great-Grandpa was a drinker The last day booze was For Sale, he drove his rickety buck-board to pick up a last, crockery jug. He also filled himself full too. Upon returning to the homeplace, the ‘Drunken Embarrassment’, misjudged his wagon-wide turn and tipped the ole thing at a severe angle. The jug rolled out, hit a rock and bled whiskey into the ditch. Great-Grandpa, (knowing time-was-of-the-essence,) cracked the whip over his old nag’s rump, circled the barn and raced back into town, hitting only the high ruts in the road. Proudly, he later claimed to be the last customer before the saloon closed.

    I inherited his ‘Volstead Pup.’ It is a small, slender, glass decanter of the era, molded in the form of a long necked dog. The removeable head bears a canine face resembling that of Rep. Congressman Andrew Volstead, who fostered the U.S. Prohibition Law of 1919 / a.k.a.: ‘The Volstead Act.’ When you pour fluid from this bottle into the dog’s head / shot glass — legend has it, the pup makes a sorrowful sound like the gurgling cry of allllllllllllll the thirsty alcholics.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I have never heard of a Volstead Pup but I just Googled it and there they are–what an artifact of another era! Thanks Audrey.

  2. The forgotten men waiting on a Bowery breadline | Real Estate Marketplace Says:

    […] Source: FS – NYC Real Estate The forgotten men waiting on a Bowery breadline […]

  3. Zoé Says:

    Where did women go Ephemeral? The settlement houses? (They seemed to cater to women & children more; whilst the YMCA on 3rd St – later the 3rd st Men’s Shelter – catered to men). Certainly there must have been women in need of food also. (And in old European photos one sees mostly women & children – no?).

  4. ksbeth Says:

    powerful photo

  5. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I’ve seen many images of women and children (including infants) of the era at the Lodging House on 26th Street. The photos are tough to look at, like this one:

    • Zoé Says:

      What was “The Lodging house” exactly? (Obviously different than a Settlement House – by the name). There was that home for pregnant young women also (forget its name).

  6. David H Lippman Says:

    It was a more formal world until well after World War II. Look at rare photographs of laborers in the 19th century, breadlines during the Great Depression, and people attending baseball games in the 1950s and 1960s. The men are all wearing suits and ties. All of them.

    • Zoé Says:

      Great observation David! It was a matter of honour & pride. Symbolising you cared about yourself & how others percieved you. Even in this bread line. (*Especially* in a bread line). How bittersweet.

      My grandmother – born late 19th c. – asked me *why* I wore my tattered faded jeans w/ colourful patches & embroidery. (Lol – she was the one who had taught me the embroidery from age six). I explained it was “the fashion now”. (Early 70s). I was about twelve/thirteen so she *got* that explanation. She’d been a custom dressmaker in Berlin so got the “fashion” (“mode”) part. Sort of. I don’t think she understood why we *wanted* to look like The Artful Dodger – when we didn’t have to.

      It was worse a few years later when we didn’t even want to sew up the torn seams etc. in our clothes! (Late 1970s downtown NYC). She’d passed by then but my mum was puzzled about why I picked out the stitches she’d repaired without my knowledge. (How really thoughtless & unappreciative of me – looking back…).

      My dad never wore a hat. (Not in the 50s/early 60s when it was still expected). When he worked in the City at the NBC building (before going freelance) men used to give him those tiny hats from shops that came in an equally tiny hatbox & meant that person had bought a hat for you as a gift which you had to go in & have made or choose your size. He never took them in to get his hat & my tiny bear got a lovely grey fedora. (Which I wish I still had. It was *perfect*).

      I’m still not used to seeing men dressed exactly like their two year olds as they walk hand in hand. Or men in shorts when they go anywhere except beach or barbecue. All the grown boys & men I knew – my brothers & their friends & my friends – wore long trousers. Levis & Levi cords (or those flat front black cotton ones downtown in the 80s). Or those red or black Lees for the graffiti artists I knew. It was *very* uncool to wear shorts then… I’m sure a lot of readers will recall (1970s/80s). Even in the middle of summer.

  7. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    The Municipal Lodging House was built to house homeless men, women, and children in 1909. (It stood where the VA hospital is now overlooking the East River.) What to do about the poor and homeless was a huge issue in the late 19th century. Until then, the homeless were allowed to sleep the night in the basements of police stations–a strange arrangement to our sensibilities in 2018. The almshouses and institutions on the East River islands took some, and the rest slept on the street or Bowery flophouses. Clearly homelessness is as big an issue now as it was then.

    • Zoé Says:

      When I grew up in Westport (CT) in the 60s the one homeless man – an alcoholic – sometimes slept in the police station. (It was on the town green where he was often seen).

      He was called by his name (which I won’t give here) sometimes w/ the addition of “… the town drunk”. It was like the scenario in fictional Mayberry (Andy Griffith show); including the police station aspect. And a local Italian deli giving him food etc. Everyone knew him.

      Later (in a recent hometown blog post) I heard that he had an apartment or cottage; but I never heard that at the time. So perhaps he just slept there because they found him drunk in public (?).

    • Zoé Says:

      PS: I’m remembering some of your earlier posts on that now. And the Jakob Riis photos. Inc. “Street Arabs” as homeless children were often called. (A name which angers me. Either they associated “Arabs” w/ Bedouin & mistakenly thought semi-Nomadic Bedouin were ‘homeless’. Or when they saw Syrians in Palestine etc. sitting on the ground cross legged in front of their shops w/ some handwork etc – it reminded them of homeless people on city streets of European & American cities. Or the racist ‘dirty Arab’ stereotype. Something a British boy actually said in front of me in 1977 when I dined at my friend’s family’s house!).

  8. Tom B Says:

    These old pictures of the Breadlines have been replaced by the new EBT Debit Card.

    • Zoé Says:

      Exactly. And food banks for those who don’t qualify for SNAP benefits (via EBT cards).

      Although some people who recieve SNAP such as people w/ disabilty & the elderly who live independently now – may have had to live in institutions then. And possibly lined up for food in those.

  9. This Bowery theater gave performers “the hook” | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Miner’s Theatre burned down in 1929, just as vaudeville was ending its run as America’s favorite lowbrow entertainment…and the sin-and-spectacle Bowery was becoming the city’s 20th century skid row. […]

  10. Lady G. Says:

    They probably didn’t want their picture taken, considering they were on the breadline. Most are looking away from the camera, and no way was that camera discreet like a cellphone then. lol

    • David H Lippman Says:

      Being on “relief” at that time was an incredible source of embarrassment to working men. The Daily News of the period had all kinds of stories of “hardship” of the various schemes men and women did to avoid being seen begging, standing on soup lines, or doing miserable jobs.

      The Daily News had one story about a cafe violin player who lost his job, and claimed he got a better one with an orchestra, until his wife saw him playing on a street corner, obviously for people to throw pennies in his bag. So she got him a hat, saying that the “orchestra violinist” could look better. He got more tips with the hat and also moved some distance from his neighborhood.

      It was a horrific time…teachers went without pay for weeks. Cops were ordered to charge into crowds of striking workers demanding pay or unemployed men demanding jobs, and beat the hell out of them. The next week, some of the cops would get laid off for budget cuts. One kid lay passed out on his desk at school. The teacher asked him why he was asleep, and the kid said he hadn’t eaten…”It wasn’t my turn today.”

      It’s hard for modern Americans to really understand the horrors of a time when bank savings were unprotected, unemployment insurance, Social Security and Medicare did not exist, and cities could not perform their functions. Garbage was not collected in some cities, for example. Rich people were edgy, turning their homes into fortresses, shipping gold overseas. Today’s senior citizens grew up in the 50s and 60s, so they don’t personally remember that desperation.

      Historian William Manchester wrote in his brilliant book “The Glory and the Dream” that if FDR had simply been another Hoover (or worse, FDR had been shot by Giuseppe Zangara and his running mate, Cactus Jack Garner was president instead), we would have fallen to a right-wing coup, like many other nations in Europe and Latin America.

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