Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

Surf Avenue lit up by electricity and moonlight

August 6, 2018

It’s a full moon on this summer night along Surf Avenue at Coney Island. It’s the late 1920s, electricity is illuminating restaurant and theater marquees; cars and trolleys cruise the road.

There’s a Nedick’s, the old hot dog chain, and a chop suey place, serving that invented Chinese dish. The moon shines bright over the Cyclone, which must have been just built; it dates to 1927.

[Postcard: MCNY; X2011.34.2119]

Is this the oldest photograph taken in Brooklyn?

July 23, 2018

This Dutch-style farmhouse doesn’t look like it’s in great shape. But the man in the top hat is standing proudly in front of it on uneven ground beside an enormous tree.

That man and a second man to the left are posing beside what’s described as “the First Meserole House” in Wallabout, Brooklyn, states the Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861.

This daguerreotype dates to 1848, according to the Museum of the City of New York. That could make it one of the oldest photographic images of Brooklyn, if not the oldest.

1848 is almost two centuries after the first French Huguenot Meserole family member arrived in Kings County. One of the original five families of Greenpoint, the Meseroles were very influential in the development of Brooklyn. (Meserole Avenue is exhibit A.)

Based on the image, it’s impossible to know exactly where it is in today’s Wallabout. But the house might not actually be Wallabout (above, in an 1840 map) at all.

Greenpointers.com notes that the Meserole farmhouse once stood at 723 Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint—which became the Meserole Theater in the 20th century, and now houses a Rite-Aid.

[Image: MCNY: 42.121; map of Brooklyn 1840: David Rumsey Map Collection]

A teen swims from Manhattan to Coney Island

June 18, 2018

Most contemporary New Yorkers would think twice about swimming in the city’s waterways.

But a century ago, marathon swim contests captivated the city, with thousands of fans cheering on competitive swimmers who tested their endurance in New York Harbor and the city’s rivers.

One of these competitors was 17-year-old Rose Pitonof. Born in 1895, the “swimming marvel,” as the New York Times later called her, won swim races in her home city of Boston.

That was pretty impressive in an era when most people didn’t know how to swim, and it was still controversial for women to pursue any kind of athletics.

On September 19, 1910, Pitonof attempted to swim the 17 miles from East 23rd Street in Manhattan to Coney Island’s Steeplechase Pier.

According to the New York Sun, she completed the course—which took her down to the harbor and then to Norton’s Point on the western end of Coney Island (where Sea Gate is today) in five hours and six minutes.

She did the same course a year later and won again, swimming 21 miles as she navigated three bridges amid choppy East River waters while doing the breast stroke.

“Coney Island never held a more enthusiastic or demonstrative crowd than that which welcomed the girl swimmer at Steeplechase Pier yesterday afternoon,” wrote the New York Times on August 14, 1911.

“From the time she first made her appearance around Norton’s Point thousands gathered along the shore to watch her progress and cheer her on to victory, and all bathing was suspended for practically the last hour of her swim.”

“At the finish of the swim she appeared in no way fatigued, and her only nourishment was a cup of coffee and a chicken sandwich.”

Pitonof wasn’t just an athlete—she was a performer too, and she worked the vaudeville circuit demonstrating high dives and other tricks.

She attempted a few more long-distance swims in the 1910s, including an English Channel swim (which another teen swim sensation from Manhattan completed) and a route from Sandy Hook to New York, but was unable to finish either.

She died in 1984, a generation before the launch of the Rose Pitonof Swim, an annual event that recreates her record-breaking journey from the East 20s to Coney Island.

The Brooklyn high school pants protest of 1942

May 21, 2018

“Should high school girls, particularly students of Abraham Lincoln High School on Ocean Parkway . . . be permitted to wear slacks to class?”

The question was asked by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in March 1942, in an article about 16-year-old Beverly Bernstein (below). Bernstein was suspended from Lincoln for showing up to class wearing blue gabardine slacks.

“She wore them to school, along with a lipstick-red sweater,” the Eagle wrote, explaining that she was then sent to the office of the dean of girls, who apparently issued the suspension.

Outraged classmates showed their support by coming to school the next day in pants.

“Girls show up in slacks at Abraham Lincoln High School, in Brooklyn,in protest because a classmate, Beverly Bernstein, was suspended the day before for wearing slacks,” reads the caption on this Daily News/Getty Images photo.

These rule-breaking wartime students also circulated a petition, stating that girls should be allowed to wear pants because “they are better than skirts in the event of an air raid” and to “conserve silk stockings.”

Boys signed the petition as well, according to the Eagle.

The next day, the Eagle reported that Lincoln’s longtime principal decided that although he disapproved of slacks on girls, “if the girls wear them, we won’t get excited about it.”

This wasn’t the only Brooklyn high school student protest. In 1950, thousands of students across the borough walked out of class to support teacher pay raises.

Like Midwood and Madison, Lincoln is one of those legendary Brooklyn high schools with an impressive roster of graduates since opening in 1930—including Arthur Miller, Joseph Heller, Mel Brooks, and Neil Diamond.

[Second photo: New York Daily News]

Sun, surf, suits, and straw hats at Coney in 1925

May 14, 2018

Nothing says summer in New York like a postcard scene of the sand and surf at Coney Island.

This one dates to 1925. Considering how few bathers are on the sand, plus all of the men in suits strolling along the boardwalk, I’m guessing it’s early in the season. But not too early, since they’re decked out in straw hats.

[MCNY; F2011.33.1080]

This parking garage was once a silent film studio

May 7, 2018

I’ve always loved the bright neon 20th Century Garage sign at 318 East 48th Street.

But I had no idea that the garage behind the sign was once a movie studio—where famous silent screen stars churned out the comedies and melodramas early 20th century audiences couldn’t get enough of.

On the first floor was the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation, opened around 1916.

Her name might not be well-known today, but Norma Talmadge (left) was an A-list actress in the teens and early 1920s.

Talmadge was a plucky young woman who often played the lead in dramas and romantic comedies; she got her start doing bit parts at the Vitagraph studio in Flatbush while still a student at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn.

On the second floor, Norma’s sister Constance made her films.

 

Constance Talmadge, also a bit player at Vitagraph, was a star in her own right. She played “Mountain Girl” in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance and became a popular comedic actress.

Also in the same building was the Comique Film Corporation, where Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton made slapstick films like The Butcher Boy.

The thread uniting all these stars was Norma’s much older husband, Joseph Schenck—a producer who brought his different movie concerns under one roof for a brief time until 1921, according to Hollywood on the Hudson.

After that, Schenck and his stars decamped to Hollywood. New York’s brief run as the movie-making capital of the country was coming to an end.

Norma and Constance’s careers didn’t last much longer either. Once talkies hit the scene, the two were edged out and mostly retired from screen roles. Reportedly they made lots of cash from their movie days, getting a cut of the box office.

It’s been a century since the garage was a film studio—but imagine the glamour in that warehouse all those years ago!

[Fourth photo: The Real Deal]

Girls’ High School is a Gothic dream in Bed-Stuy

March 26, 2018

“It is the ambition of every Brooklyn girl after graduating from the public schools to enter the Girls’ High School, where she may enjoy the advantages of advanced education, and be prepared for college or for more immediate concerns of life.”

That was the lead in a New York Times story about Girls’ High in 1895, when Brooklyn was a separate city known for its strong support of public schools.

The postcard at the top of the page gives us Girls’ High as a Victorian Gothic dream building, opened in 1886 at Nostrand Avenue and Halsey Street.

So proud of the school was the newly unified city that they put it on a postcard.

Today the combined Boys and Girls High School is on Fulton Street, and the old Girls’ building is an adult learning center.

[First image: NYPL; second image: 6tocelebrate.org]

The bizarre 1916 plan to fill in the East River

February 12, 2018

“At first glance, a project to reclaim 50 square miles of land from New York Bay, to add 100 miles of new waterfront for docks, to fill in the East River, and to prepare New York for a population of 20 million seems somewhat stupendous, does it not?”

That’s the lead sentence in a fascinating article published in Popular Science in 1916, written with great enthusiasm by an engineer, Dr. T. Kennard Thomson.

Thomson had big dreams for New York City, and he laid them out in this article—his vision of making Greater New York a “Really Greater New York.”

The craziest idea? To turn the East River into a landfill extension of Manhattan, so “it would not be much harder to get to Brooklyn than to cross Broadway.” A new East River from Flushing Bay to Jamaica Bay would then be built.

Also nuts is the plan to lengthen Lower Manhattan so it just about touches Staten Island, and rework the Harlem River so it extends in a straight line from Hell Gate to the Hudson.

The point of his Really Greater New York? To rake in more money.

“Imagine the value of this new land for docks, warehouses, and business blocks! The tax assessments alone would make a fortune!” Thomson writes.

But like moving sidewalks, a West Side airport, and 100-story housing developments in Harlem, and an even weirder 1934 plan to fill in the Hudson River, this is another bizarre plan for the city that never came to pass.

[Images: Popular Science]

Old New York’s sleigh carnival began in January

December 31, 2017

Imagine a city where every January, when winter is at its most brutal and bone-chilling, New Yorkers parked their stages and omnibuses and excitedly hitched their horses to sleighs (like these in Central Park in the 1860s).

What was dubbed the “sleighing carnival” was an annual event in the 19th century metropolis (below, on Wall Street in 1834).

Once snow was on the ground and it was packed hard into the road, large sleighs were brought out for public transportation; “light” sleighs appeared too, kind of a personal carriage for joyriding, according to the Carriage Journal.

Joyriding meant going fast and thrilling passengers, as visitors to the city noted.

One of these visitors was Boston resident Sarah Kemble Knight, who wrote in her 1704 travel diary that New Yorkers’ winter fun involved “riding sleys about three or four miles out of town” in the Bowery.

While out with friends, “I believe we mett 50 or 60 sleys that day—they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’d turn out of the path for none except a loaden cart,” Knight wrote.

By the 19th century, the appearance of sleighs became a carnival, one of speed, fun, and thrills.

In 1830, after a heavy snow fell in early January and temperatures plunged, “the New York carnival began, and the beautiful light-looking sleighs made their appearance,” wrote James Stuart in his 1833 UK travel memoir, Three Years in North America.

New York ladies apparently loved flying through the city on runners.

“The rapidity with which they are driven, at the rate of 10 or 12 miles an hour, is very delightful, and so exciting, that the most delicate females of New York think an evening drive, of 10 or 20 miles, even in the hardest frost, conducive to their amusement and health.”

The sleighing carnival last through the end of the century. (Above left, in Prospect Park.) Snow arrived in New York mid-January 1892, recalls the Carriage Journal, “and a regular sleighing carnival was the result.”

“The popular hours were from 3 to 5 p.m., during which thousands of sleighs thronged the Park and every imaginable vehicle that could possibly be used for pleasure riding was brought out.”

“Where all came from was a matter for surprise.”

[Top image: Currier & Ives, 1860s; second image: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY 45.271.1; seventh image: NYPL]

Greetings from Thanksgivings past in New York

November 20, 2017

Do you send greeting cards wishing friends and family a happy Thanksgiving? Probably not—especially when a text or Facebook post will do.

But New Yorkers a century ago sent out these penny postcards emblazoned with turkeys, Pilgrims, pumpkins, corn, American flags, cherubic children, and other Thanksgiving images.

The New York Public Library has a large collection of these early 1900s cards in their digital gallery. All were sent to New Yorkers (Brooklyn and Manhattan primarily).

And none have ZIP codes—those didn’t come until 1963!

[NYPL Digital Collection from 1907-1909]