Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

A glorious birds-eye view of early 1900s Brooklyn at night

November 7, 2022

Sometimes a simple penny postcard really can blow you away. Behold this turn-of-the-century nocturne downtown in the county of Kings, with office windows glowing with amber light and trolley cars making their way.

The one building I can make out with clarity is Brooklyn Borough Hall at the far left, with the clock and domed tower. Completed in 1848, it was formerly called City Hall.

[MCNY; 2004.36.3]

This Brooklyn corner store has one of the last vintage soda signs

October 24, 2022

They used to be all over New York City on practically every block: simple deli or drugstore signs that featured the name of the store along with iconic emblems for national soda brands.

Officially, they’re called “privilege signs,” because by offering the store the free sign, the brand had the privilege of free advertising. The store benefited as well, since the logos for Coke, Pepsi, or another brand brought in thirsty or hungry customers looking for a product they recognized.

Slowly these privilege signs have disappeared, and today, it’s rare to come across one. Which is why I stopped in my tracks when I spotted this vintage beauty for Millys Mini Market on Berry and South Second Streets in Williamsburg. Sadly, it’s one of the last of a dwindling breed.

Over the years Ephemeral New York has featured some last remaining privilege signs. I can’t guarantee any of them still exist, but if you’re an old-school sign enthusiast, check them out here.

A 1905 Brooklyn school building so lovely, it’s on a postcard

August 29, 2022

New York City was once so proud of the new schools that went up across all five boroughs during the school-building frenzy at the turn of the 20th century, several schools made it onto postcards.

That pride extended to trade schools as well. This red brick French Renaissance beauty on Park Slope’s Seventh Avenue between Fourth and Fifth Streets opened in 1905 as Brooklyn Manual Training, or Manual Training High School. (Note the streetcar tracks!)

That first year, 1,900 boys and girls took academic courses as well as classes in dressmaking, mechanical drawing, printing, joinery, blacksmithing, or other trades. Night classes were offered for working students; 900 enrolled in night school in 1905.

I’m not sure when Manual Training ceased to exist. But the handsome building is still at its original site—renamed the John Jay Educational Campus, which seems to be subdivided into several schools.

[Image: NYPL Digital Collections]

Two views to New York from the countryside of Brooklyn Heights

August 12, 2022

Imagine Brooklyn Heights with a sandy beach, a smattering of spaced-apart houses, and rocky bluffs providing a peaceful, unobstructed view of the sailing ships and side-by-side buildings of booming Manhattan.

“New York From Brooklyn Heights,” by Thomas Kelah Wharton

You’d have to go all the way back to the early 19th century to experience these in Brooklyn Heights, which even then was becoming something of a suburb to New York: a residential district with laid-out streets and ferry service for commuters. Plenty of land also awaited wealthy Gothamites looking for a place to put up a summer estate.

The first painting, “New York From Brooklyn Heights,” is by English-born artist Thomas Kelah Wharton, according to Bruce Weber’s The Paintings of New York, 1800-1950. It’s not clear when Wharton completed his view from the Heights, but the engraving was done in 1834, per Weber.

“New York From Near the Heights of Brooklyn,” by William Guy Wall

“New York From Near the Heights of Brooklyn” was painted by William Guy Wall around 1820, estimates the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (It’s one of two watercolors Wall collaborated on with another painter, John Hill, with the other showing the view of the city from Weehawken.)

Wall, from Ireland, gives us “the eastern face of New York City from the former ‘Bergen’s Hill’ in what is now Brooklyn Heights, looking west-northwest across the East River,” according to the Met.

The population of Brooklyn came to about 11,000 in 1820—practically a country hamlet compared to New York City’s 123,000 residents. Who could have predicted at the time that Brooklyn would became a major city that rivaled New York, and that by the end of the century the two would join forces as part of one united metropolis?

A midcentury painter’s magical nocturne of the Brooklyn Bridge

July 22, 2022

“Brooklyn Bridge” is a curiously plain title for a painting that shrouds much of the bridge, the river, and the piers around it in a Turner-esque swirl of industrial smoke, thick clouds, and the blue glow of dusk or dawn.

Light illuminates small pockets surrounding the bridge’s iconic towers: a tugboat’s smokestack, a wood building on an empty pier, and a retreating human figure turned away from the East River.

The painter is Frank Mason, an artist of many landscapes, seascapes, and portraits who studied at the Art Students League, where he later taught. “Brooklyn Bridge” was painted in 1950, a pivotal year for the bridge, when trolley service crossing back and forth from Manhattan to Brooklyn was discontinued.

Mason’s primary interest probably isn’t the Bridge’s historical timeline. He seems captivated by the light and color at a certain time of night, and it’s easy to understand why. His evocative nocturne becomes more enchanting every time to you view it.


A writer recalls “the beauty of it all” after a visit to 1890s Manhattan Beach

July 22, 2022

During summer in the early 1890s, a huge electric sign dominated the side of the St. Germain Hotel, at Broadway and 22nd Street. The St. Germain stood on the sliver of land that would be home to the Flatiron building less than a decade later. But at that time, nothing obstructed the ad—which faced the fashionable hotels, streetcar lines, and shopping emporiums of Madison Square.

The sign’s flashing colored lights advertised the pleasures of Manhattan Beach, one of Brooklyn’s seaside resorts created in the 1870s. “Swept by Ocean Breezes,” the ad blazed several stories in the air. A list of attractions—the Manhattan and Oriental Hotels, “Sousa’s Band,” and “Pains Fireworks”—lit up the New York night.

The electric sign hoped to lure sweltering city residents to this middle class resort, a more genteel version of Coney Island on the same Brooklyn peninsula. But it also captivated Theodore Dreiser, who was new in New York City after a stint as a journalist in the Midwest.

The Manhattan Beach Hotel, 1900

By 1900, Dreiser would publish Sister Carrie, his first novel, and establish himself as a leading American author. Now, he was an anonymous observer without means, struggling to make a living writing for New York’s newspapers while living in shabby rooms in Greenwich Village.

“Walking up or down Broadway of a hot summer night, this sign was an inspiration and an invitation,” Dreiser recalled in The Color of a Great City, his collection of vignettes about life in Gotham before and after the turn of the 20th century. “I had heard as much about Atlantic City and Coney Island, but this blazing sign lifted Manhattan Beach into rivalry with fairyland.”

Theodore Dreiser, around 1900

So one Sunday, Dreiser and his brother headed to Manhattan Beach. The two took the 34th Street ferry, which brought the “seaward-moving throng” to a railroad connection in Long Island City and then to the beach.

“The boat on which we crossed was packed to suffocation,” he wrote. “Indeed, 34th Street near the ferry was packed with people carrying bags and parasols and all but fighting each other to gain access to the dozen or more ticket windows.”

“The clerk and his prettiest girl, the actress and her admirer, the actor and his playmate, brokers, small and exclusive tradesmen, men of obvious political or commercial position, their wives, daughters, relatives, and friends, all were outbound toward this much above average resort.”

At Manhattan Beach, Dreiser was awestruck. He marveled at the “great hotels, held and contained all summer long all that was best and most leisurely and pleasure-loving in New York’s great middle class of that day….”

Oriental Hotel, 1903

His attention to detail served him well when describing what the male guests wore. “I never saw so many prosperous-looking people in one place, more with better and smarter clothes, even though they were a little showy. The straw hat with its blue or striped ribbon, the flannel suit with its accompanying white shoes, light cane, the pearl-gray derby, the check suit, the diamond and pearl pin in necktie, the silk shirt. What a cool, summery, airy-fairy realm!”

The women in bathing outfits impressed him as well. “It seemed to me that the fabled days of the Greeks had returned. These were nymphs, nereids, sirens in truth. Old Triton might well have raised his head above the blue waves and sounded his spiral horn.”

Guests strolling beside the beach, 1895

When Dreiser had moved to Manhattan, he was caught off guard by the great riches of the upper classes and the deep poverty of the poor—conditions that had become more or less accepted by Gilded Age residents. He brought a sensitivity to class struggles in his writings about Manhattan Beach, as he observed the thousands of finely dressed guests enjoying dining room feasts, music pavilions, rocking chairs on the verandas, and the nightly fireworks over the beach.

“The wealth, as I saw it then, that permitted this!”

He was also struck by the resort’s flimsy beauty. “But the beauty of it all, the wonder, the airy, insubstantial, almost transparent quality of it all! Never before had I seen the sea, and here it was before me, a great, blue, rocking floor, its distant horizon dotted with white sails and the smoke of but faintly visible steamers dissolving in the clear air above them….And as dusk came on, the lights of the lighthouses, and later the glimmer of the stars above the water, added an impressive and to me melancholy quality to it all. It was so insubstantial and yet so beautiful.”

Diving into the water with the Oriental Hotel in the background, 1897

His visit to Manhattan Beach that day in the early 1890s ended. Twenty-five years later, Dreiser wrote that he went back to the site of the once-fabled resort.

“But of that old, sweet, fair, summery life not a trace,” he stated. “Gone were the great hotels, the wall, the flowers, the parklike nature of the scene. In 25 years the beautiful circular pavilion had fallen into the sea and a part of the grounds of the great Manhattan Hotel had been eaten away by winter storms….Even the great Oriental, hanging on for a few years and struggling to accommodate itself to new conditions, had been torn down.”

A family takes to the sand in bathing suits armed with an umbrella

Open since the 1870s, the Manhattan Beach Hotel was demolished in 1911, according to The Oriental Hotel, hosting guests since 1880, met the wrecking ball in 1916. Manhattan Beach the resort was over, but Manhattan Beach the neighborhood was seized by developers, who built homes and sidewalks. Manhattan Beach Park, a small beach, continues to be open to the public.

“Only the beach remained, and even that was changed with new conditions,” Dreiser wrote, explaining the newly planted trees along divided new streets, “sold to those who craved the freshness of this seaside isle.”

[Second image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY, 1887, MNY111867; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY, MNY62849; seventh image: MCNY, MNY62850; eighth image: MCNY, MNY62854]

The first roller coaster in America was at Coney Island

July 14, 2022

During its golden era around the turn of the last century, Coney Island was a roller coaster pioneer—from the Flip-Flap Railway in the 1890s to the Loop-the-Loop in 1901 to the Giant Racer in 1911. (The Cyclone was a latecomer when it replaced the Giant Racer in 1927, according to

But even before these coasters thrilled visitors, Coney Island was home to a ride that’s considered to be the first roller coaster in the United States: the “Switchback Railway.” How wild was it? By contemporary roller coaster standards, it sounds pretty tame.

“Passengers rode a train on undulating tracks over a wooden structure 600 feet long,” explains “The train started at a height of 50 feet on one end and ran downhill by gravity until its momentum died. Passengers then left the train and attendants pushed the car over a switch to a higher level. The passengers returned to their sideways facing seats and rode back to the original starting point.”

Clearly it doesn’t compare to the Cyclone’s 85-foot plunge. But then again, it wasn’t intended to generate adrenaline-pumping excitement. “It wasn’t supposed to be a thrill ride, just a tour of the beach, with people sitting sideways for the best view,” stated Robert Cartmell, described as an expert of roller coasters and author of “The Roller Coaster Book” in the June 17, 1984 edition of Newsday.

The Switchback Railway was an immediate hit, according to Cartmell, and it made tons of money for La Marcus Thompson, the man who built it. (Thompson charged five cents per ride.) Yet within months, it was closed for good—a victim of its own success.

“Someone got the bright idea of facing the seats forward and turning it into a thrill ride,” stated Cartmell. “They opened better rides down the street, and they built the track in a loop and added an engine to pull the cars back to the top.”

For a brief moment in time, the Switchback was the most exciting ride at Coney.

[Top image: Granger; second image: Wikipedia; third image: MCNY x2011.34.2098; fourth image: MCNY x2011.34.2091]

A teenage immigrant who became a “sweatshop girl” tells her life story

July 14, 2022

Amid the fortune making and social swirling of New York’s Gilded Age, more than 12 million immigrants came to the United States. Seventy percent of those newcomers took their first steps on American soil via Castle Garden or Ellis Island, Gotham’s two immigration processing depots.

In the early 1900s, Sadie Frowne was one of these new arrivals. A few years later, this 16-year-old’s story of surviving in New York—”The Life Story of a Polish Sweatshop Girl”—made it into a fascinating 1906 book called The Lives of Undistinguished Americans.

The broad strokes of Sadie’s story are not unlike those of other poor immigrants, left to find their way in a chaotic, unwelcoming city desperate for their labor. What sets her experience apart are the details she reveals: the smell of the steamship across the Atlantic, the budgeting she did on the Lower East Side to save her meager earnings, and the friendships and love she found to replace her family.

Immigrant women at Ellis Island, 1910

Sadie begins her tale in a Polish village in the late 19th century. Her parents operated a small grocery shop, and they also “worked in the fields,” using two back rooms of the store as their home.

When she was 10, she lost her father. “After he died troubles began, for the rent of our shop was about $6 a month and then there were food and clothes to provide,” said Sadie. “We needed little, it is true, but even soup, black bread, and onion we could not always get.”

Sadie’s mother, who she describes as “a tall, handsome, dark-complexioned woman with red cheeks” and was “much looked up to by the people, who used to come and asked her for advice,” thought she and her daughter should try their luck in America, “where we heard it was much easier to make money.”

Arriving in New York Harbor

An aunt who lived in New York “took up a subscription” among friends and relatives so the two would have the money for passage.

“We came by steerage on a steamship in a very dark place that smelt dreadfully,” said Sadie. Twelve harrowing days later, “at last the voyage was over, and we came up and saw the beautiful bay and the big woman with the spikes on her head and the lamp that is lighted at night in her hand.”

After being fetched by her aunt (likely at Ellis Island, which opened in 1892 and replaced Castle Garden), Sadie found a position as a servant. “I was only a little over thirteen years of age and a greenhorn, so I received $9 a month in board and lodging, which I thought was doing well.” Sadie’s mother started work at a factory “making white goods,” or undergarments, at $9 a week.

Mr. Goldstein’s sweatshop, 30 Suffolk Street in 1908

Sadie describes her mother as a lively woman who wanted to see the sights in New York. But that led her to contract “hasty consumption”—a virulent strain of tuberculosis. “Two doctors attended to her, but they could do nothing, and at last she died, and I was left alone,” stated Sadie.

This teenager’s survival instincts had to kick in. “So I went to work in Allen Street (Manhattan) in what they call a sweatshop, making skirts by machine. I was new at the work and the foreman scolded me a great deal.” She sewed six days a week and pocketed $4 per payday.

Sadie and another sweatshop girl, Ella, shared a room on Allen Street, which cost them $1.50 a week. The arrangement worked, and by budgeting the cost of food carefully, they saved money. “It cost me $2 a week to live, and I had a dollar a week to spend on clothing and pleasure, and saved the other dollar. I went to night school, but it was hard work learning at first as I did not know much English.”

After two years in the Allen Street room—which had a dirty, noisy elevated train overhead—Sadie moved to Brownsville, which the book describes as “the Jewish sweatshop district of Brooklyn.” Her new job, at a factory that manufactured underskirts, paid her $4.50 a week, and then $5.50.

Her workday started at 7 in the morning and ran to 6 at night. “The machines go like mad all day, because the faster you work the more money you get,” she said. “All the time we are working the boss walks about examining the finished garments and making us do them over again if they are not just right.”

Some male employees harassed her, touching her hair and making jokes. But one man, Henry, defended her, and he became her sweetheart. “Henry has seen me home every night for a long time and makes love to me. He wants me to marry him, but I am not 17 yet, and I think that is too young. He is only 19, so we can wait.”

At the end of the workday and on her Sundays off, Sadie believed that “you must go out and get air, have pleasure.” She and Henry go to Coney Island’s dance halls, or Ulmer Park—a Coney beer garden. She also enjoys theater and reading romance novels. “I have many friends and we often have jolly parties. Many of the young men like to talk to me, but I don’t go out with anyone except Henry.”

Toward the end of her story, Sadie stated that her workplace recently went on strike, with the backing of her union. “We struck for shorter hours, and after being out four weeks won the fight. We only have to work nine and a half hours a day and we get the same pay as before….The next strike is going to be for a raise of wages, which we all ought to have.”

“So the union does good after all in spite of what some people say against it—that it just takes our money and does nothing. But though I belong to the union I am not a Socialist or Anarchist. I don’t know exactly what these things mean.”

Sadie’s story ends here, on the brink of marriage and foreshadowing a decade of social change for the thousands of sweatshop and factory workers like herself. What could have become of this plucky, pleasure-loving, sensible girl? I bet she had a rich, fulfilling American life.

Here’s another story of a young immigrant girl arriving in New York City in the Gilded Age, per The Lives of Undistinguished Americans.

[Top photo: Lewis Hine/NYPL Digital Collections; second photo: Bain Collection/LOC; third image: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper; fourth photo: Lewis Hine/LOC; fifth image: The Lives of Undistinguished Americans; sixth image: NYPL Digital Collections; seventh image: Bain Collection/LOC]

This magical Coney Island building was home to an early New York restaurant chain

June 27, 2022

It’s a Spanish Colonial–style festival of terra cotta: an imaginative building with a beach-white facade, enormous arched entryways, and colorful images of seashells, fish, seaweed, ships, and Neptune himself looking out over the Coney Island boardwalk.

With such rich ornamentation and design, you’d think the dreamlike structure at West 21st Street served as a movie theater, a casino, perhaps an arcade featuring some of the outrageous exhibits Coney Island was famous for in the early 20th century.

But the building was actually home to a pioneering restaurant called Childs—one of New York’s first restaurant chains and a forerunner of the kind of clean, reliable, and inexpensive eateries found all over the city today. (Here’s an early menu.)

To get a sense of how integral Childs was to Gotham’s restaurant culture, go back to New York City after the Civil War, when dining in a restaurant (rather than cooking meals at home, or eating at a tavern if you were traveling) was something reserved only for the wealthy.

As the Gilded Age progressed, restaurants began opening to middle class and working-class residents as well. These were the army of clerks, shop girls, factory workers, and others who powered the industrialized city. But not all of the new lunch counters and saloons they patronized were inviting, nor were they always sanitary.

Then in 1889, brothers Samuel and William Childs opened the first Childs restaurant downtown on Cortlandt Street. Within a decade, dozens more Childs outlets opened up, all with “white-tiled walls and floors, white marble table-tops, and waitresses dressed in starched white uniforms, to convey a sense of cleanliness,” explains a 2003 Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) report.

The chain was a runaway success and expanded even further. “Originally intended to provide a basic, clean environment for wholesome food and reasonable prices, the company eventually varied its restaurant designs and menus to reflect the unique location of each outlet,” states the LPC report.

This Coney Island boardwalk Childs opened in a prime location in 1923. The site was close to Steeplechase Park, according to Andrew Dolkart’s Guide to New York City Landmarks. Steeplechase closed in the 1960s, but its most iconic ride, the Parachute Jump, still looms large nearby.

Childs vacated Coney Island in the 1950s. The chain gave rise to countless imitators, and eventually the company was sold and stores across the city shut down. The building on the boardwalk became a candy factory, which operated there until the early 2000s.

Since its designation as a historic landmark in 2003, the site has served as a short-lived roller rink, then was transformed back into a restaurant space. It now sits empty. Still, the nautical-themed facade—so appropriate for the boardwalk of the nation’s most fantastical beach resort—continues to dazzle.

Other former Childs outlets can be found throughout the city. One is now a McDonald’s on Sixth Avenue and 28th Street—at least it was last time I looked.

[Fourth image: NYPL Digital Collection]

5 wildly different sign styles outside New York’s subway entrances

June 20, 2022

The New York City subway system has 472 stations, according to the MTA. Some of these stations made up the original IRT line that debuted in October 1904; others opened in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, and beyond (looking at you, Second Avenue Q train).

190th Street/Fort Tryon Park

The nice thing about a subway system constructed in different decades is that there’s no one uniform subway sign above ground outside station entrances. The wide range of sign styles reflects the era the station opened and/or the feel of the surrounding neighborhood. Each has a different magic.

Fifth Avenue/59th Street

At the 190th Street IND station at Fort Tryon Park is this subway sign (top photo), with what looks like hand-cut lettering. The station opened in 1911, and I don’t know when the sign appeared. But it’s certainly a vintage beauty in an exceedingly beautiful section of Upper Manhattan.

Lexington Avenue/51st Street

These twin lantern-like subway signs outside Central Park give off a more old-timey vibe. You can find them at the Fifth Avenue and 59th Street N/R station. When illuminated at night, they’re enchanting.

Downtown Brooklyn

The Jazz Age comes alive thanks to this subway signage at the 6 train station on Lexington Avenue and 51st Street (third image). The chrome and lettering seem very Art Deco—as does the building beside it, the former RCA Building/General Electric Building, built between 1929-1931.

The subway signs lit up in green in Downtown Brooklyn look like they’re giving off radiation! It’s all part of the sleek, unusual design that feels very 1930s or 1940s to me.

The last photo features a more elegant, business-like sign design, perhaps from Lower Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn again. It’s the only one that doesn’t appear to be a lamp, though it’s possible it might light up when the skies darken. Sharp-eyed ENY readers identified the location at One Hanson Place, the address of the circa-1929 former Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower.