On a January day, 12-year-old Naomi King and her parents left their Indiana home for a vacation in New York City.
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.
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.
“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.”
The 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). . . . “
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.
“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.
“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: 184.108.40.20616; sixth photo, MCNY: 91.69.1811915]