Archive for the ‘Fashion and shopping’ Category

A touch of Art Nouveau on a former Fifth Avenue Gilded Age mansion

June 16, 2022

When Andrew Carnegie decided to build a mansion for himself and his family on Fifth Avenue and 91st Street, he told his architects to construct “the most modest, plainest, and most roomy house in New York,” according to a 1971 Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

The mansion, completed in 1903, did not disappoint the industrialist-turned-philanthropist. At four stories and with 64 rooms surrounded on two sides by gardens, it was certainly roomy.

And while modest and plain are in the eye of the beholder, Carnegie’s Georgian-style house displayed more modesty and restraint than many of the pompous marble and stone castles going up on Fifth Avenue at the time.

But even an elegant mansion built in the style of an English country manor is likely to be influenced by the new design trends coming out of Europe at the turn of the century. The glass and iron canopy over the front entrance, with its curvy shape and floral motifs, seems to be a nod to Art Nouveau.

Though it never made a huge splash in New York City, Art Nouveau design prevailed in many European cities in the early 1900s. Buildings, clothing, and objects were designed with graceful, flowing lines and curlicues that mimicked flower stems, petals, and other forms found in nature.

The canopy is described as “Tiffany-style” by Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel’s The Landmarks of New York, Fifth Edition. Based on early images and the 1910 postcard, above, it appears to be part of the original house Carnegie occupied until his death in 1919. (His wife resided in the home until she passed away in 1946.)

Whether the craftsman who created it was inspired by Art Nouveau or approached it with a different influence, the canopy adds a delightful touch to a Gilded Age mansion that since 1976 has been the home of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, according to The Landmarks of New York.

Very fitting that a world-class design museum occupies a mansion that inside and outside reflects such design and style.

[Third image: MCNY x2011.34.2869]

Looking for remnants of Paisley Place, a lost row of back houses in Chelsea

June 6, 2022

Like many downtown neighborhoods, Chelsea has its share of back houses—a second smaller house or former carriage house built behind a main home and accessed only by an often hidden alleyway.

Now imagine not just one back house but an entire row of them forming a community where a group of people lived and worked for decades, almost locked within a city block. That’s kind of the story of Paisley Place, which got it start after yellow fever hit New York City in October 1822.

With an epidemic raging, city residents fled. “The banker closed his doors; the merchant packed his goods; and churches no longer echoed words of divine truth,” stated Valentine’s Manuel of 1863. “Many hundreds of citizens abandoned their homes and accustomed occupations, that they might seek safety beyond the reach of pestilence, putting their trust in broad rivers and green fields.”

A good number of these fleeing residents relocated to the village of Greenwich, putting down roots there and transforming it into an urban part of the city within a few decades.

Southampton Road making its way through Chelsea on the John Randel survey map from 1811

One group of immigrant artisans—Scottish-born weavers who carved out a niche by supplying New York with hand-woven linens—went a little farther north. These tradesmen and their families set up a new community in today’s Chelsea off a small country lane called Southampton Road. (above map).

“A convenient nook by the side of this quiet lane was chosen by a considerable number of Scotch weavers as their place of retirement from the impending dangers,” according to Valentine’s. “They erected their modest dwellings in a row, set up their frames, spread their webs…and gave their new home the name ‘Paisley Place.'”

This 1857-1862 street map shows a row of three houses in the middle of the block marked “weavers.”

Southampton Road, which once wound its way from about West 14th Street and Eighth Avenue to West 21st Street and Sixth Avenue, soon ceased to exist as Chelsea urbanized and conformed to the street grid. The houses of Paisley Place then became “buried in the heart of the block between 16th and 17th Streets and Sixth and Seventh Avenues,” wrote the Evening World.

Through the decades, the weavers carried out their trade. Paisley Place consisted of “a double row of rear wooden houses entered by alleys at 115-117 West 16th Street and 112-114 West 17th Street,” per The Historical Guide to the City of New York, published in 1905.

A similar map also from 1857-1862 marks another back house with “weaver”

More is known about their houses than the weavers themselves. “The little colony mingled only slightly with the scores of other nationalities of early New York,” stated another Evening World piece.

By the 1860s, the weavers became something of a curiosity, the subject of newspaper articles and magazine sketches. After 1900 the people of Paisley Place were gone; they either died or moved on when their hand-weaving skills were no longer needed in the era of industrialization.

Their homes hidden inside a modern city block held on a little longer. “The Scotch weavers are gone, but the houses which they built still hold their long accustomed place on the line of the vanished Southampton Road,” stated a Brooklyn Standard Union article from 1902.

17th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues

The writer of the Standard Union article noted that two remaining wooden houses had a “quaint picturesqueness [that] was of a sort to warm the heart of the antiquarian.”

Today, 17th Street doesn’t seem to carry any traces of this former community, and no remnants remain of the wood houses that would be in the middle of this tightly packed block. This antiquarian, however, wishes that something of their lives was left behind.

[Top image: Valentine’s Manual, NYPL; second image: John Randel survey map; third and fourth images: NYPL]

Springtime in New York City once meant horse-drawn flower carts

March 21, 2022

If you want potted flowers in contemporary New York City, you head to a garden center or farmers market. In an earlier Gotham, however, you waited for the flower carts to come, laden with petunias and begonias and other beautiful varieties for replanting in front yards, back yards, and on terraces.

Artist Henry Ives Cobb Jr. was moved enough to capture this scene, somewhere on Fifth Avenue. The date is unclear, but it looks like the flower cart is the only vehicle still pulled by a horse.

[Kaminski Auctions]

A ghostly store sign returns to view on Avenue B

March 14, 2022

Humble, homemade-looking store signs used to be more prevalent in Manhattan. Now, one of these unadorned signs—for an unbranded cosmetics and gift shop—is back in view at the tenement storefront at 205 Avenue B.

Nothing about this former store seems to exist in archives or old neighborhood photos, making the sign a ghostly remnant of a very modest-looking local business.

How far back in East Village history does this sign go? I’m not sure, but the store may have been selling makeup and gifts up until about 40 years ago. The sign reappeared sometime after Raul Candy Store closed in 2019, 38 years after setting up shop at 205 Avenue B in 1981, per EV Grieve.

h/t: Ghost Signs NYC

The favorite way the Gilded Age elite enjoyed Central Park in the 1860s

February 28, 2022

Central Park was conceived as a respite from the noise and pollution of the industrial city—a tranquil landscape where New Yorkers could relax and refresh in a natural environment.

But in the first years of the park’s existence in the 1860s, it was the wealthy who enjoyed it the most. After all, in the early Gilded Age, they were the ones who had the leisure time to spare and the vehicles to bring them to this green space far from the center of the city.

So how did they use the park? By driving—or being driven. With fancy carriages and a coachman or two handling the road, New York ladies and gentlemen spent late afternoons traversing the park’s many drives. Sometimes a Gilded Age sportsman would take the reins on his own trotting horse.

“Another notable feature of former days was the driving in Central Park,” according to the book Fifth Avenue, from 1915. “Here might be seen old Commodore Vanderbilt, driving his famous trotter, ‘Dexter’; Robert Bonner, speeding ‘Maude S.’; Thomas Kilpatrick, Frank Work, Russell Sage, and other horsemen driving to their private quarter- or half-mile courses in Harlem; leaders of society or dowagers in their gilded coaches; and even maidens of the ‘Four Hundred’ driving their phaetons.”

[Image: Currier & Ives after Thomas Worth]

A Herald Square faded ad for a haberdashery takes you to the 1920s

February 28, 2022

When Weber & Heilbroner moved into the Marbridge Building at 34th Street and Sixth Avenue in 1923, this men’s clothing company had already established itself as a leading haberdashery—with stores throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle earlier that year.

Could this enormous faded ad looming over Sixth Avenue for the Marbridge store date back that far?

It’s hard to believe, but it certainly is appropriately faded and has an old-timey feel, with the words under the company name reading “Stein-Bloch Clothes in the New York Manner.” (Stein-Bloch was a manufacturer of men’s suits and coats.)

Weber & Heilbroner stores shut down for good in the 1970s, but this glorious ad in Herald Square refuses to let New York forget the men’s hats, suits, and overcoats they were known for through the 20th century.

Ephemeral New York explores the servants of the Gilded Age in a new podcast

February 21, 2022

Gilded Age new rich and old money families had one thing in common: they all employed an army of servants to clean their mansions, mind their children, prepare their meals, drive their carriages, and take care of any other task members of elite society deemed necessary. But who were these butlers, chambermaids, laundresses, cooks, valets, and coachmen—and what was life like for them?

In a new episode of the history podcast The Gilded Gentleman, host Carl Raymond (writer, editor, and social and cultural historian) has invited me to take a look at the roles and responsibilities of domestic staff in grand mansions and more modest homes. We’ll explore what servants did—and who they really were. The episode pays tribute to the “invisible magicians” without whom the dinners, balls, and daily workings of households of the Gilded Age would never have been possible. 

The episode debuts on Tuesday, February 22. You can download it and subscribe to The Gilded Gentleman on Apple or your favorite podcast player. The Gilded Gentleman podcast is produced by The Bowery Boys.

[Photo: MCNY 1900, MNY204627]

The two very different mansions where Mrs. Astor hosted New York society

January 24, 2022

In the 1880s, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor asserted her position as the grand dame of of New York society. Mrs. Astor, as she became known, presided over a November through February social season for the city’s old-money elite who could trace their lineage to the colonial era.

Mrs. Astor’s understated mansion, 350 Fifth Avenue at 34th Street

You’d think that a woman with her money and influence would host her weekly dinners and fabulous annual ball in a spectacular palace. But the “mansion” where she lived for most of her married life as she ascended the throne of society was surprisingly understated.

The house, on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, was built in 1856 on former farmland owned by the Astor family. The family gifted it to Mrs. Astor and her husband, William Backhouse Astor, after the couple married.

Mrs. Astor’s portrait greeted guests at 350 Fifth Avenue

On that lot the couple built a “plain four-story town house,” as Eric Homberger, author of Mrs. Astor’s New York, described it. “At 50 by 107 feet, and with Nova Scotia freestone used in window dressings, architraves, cornices, Corinthian columns, and a double stoop, the building certainly had an imposing air,” stated Homberger.

A fenced-in garden on the left side of Mrs. Astor’s house (350 Fifth Avenue) was shared with the neighboring house on the block, constructed and occupied by William’s brother, John Jacob Astor III (338 Fifth Avenue). The area was the most fashionable residential part of the city in the Gilded Age.

Mrs. Astor’s first ballroom, 1894

Though the exterior wasn’t impressive, the interior, however, was a different story. In Incredible New York, author Lloyd Harris explains what guests of Mrs. Astor’s annual January ball would experience as they made their way inside the house, which was “ablaze with lights.”

“Through a wide hall, guests proceeded to the first of three connected drawing rooms, where their hostess received them, standing before the life-size portrait (above) which she had recently commissioned from [portrait painter] Carolus Duran.

Mrs. Astor’s house, overshadowed by the new Waldorf Hotel in 1893

“Cordially greeted by this scintillant idol, her guests made their way through two more thronged drawing rooms to the spacious art gallery which served as a ballroom. Lander’s costly orchestra was playing in the musicians’ gallery, and the walls were hung with works of art which had acquired fame, if not merit, from Mrs. Astor’s favor.”

Supper would then be served in a “grand dining room from an immense table,” wrote Harris. The upper floors aren’t described, but with five children and his and hers bedrooms (the Astors spent very little time together), it must have been roomy.

Mrs. Astor’s second Fifth Avenue mansion bears a better resemblance to the kind of luxurious Gilded Age house you would expect.

Mrs. Astor’s second and last Fifth Avenue mansion, at 65th Street, was a marble palace.

In the early 1890s, her brother-in-law razed his mansion and built the Waldorf Hotel in its place. (The hotel was intentionally designed to overshadow Mrs. Astor’s house—these two Astor families didn’t get along, as you can imagine.)

The now-widowed Mrs. Astor and her son then sold her house at 350 Fifth Avenue and moved to a stunning French Renaissance double mansion at 840 and 841 Fifth Avenue, at 65th Street. Designed by Richard Hunt, the new mansion was Mrs. Astor’s final residence in New York City, situated on posh upper Fifth Avenue. She died there in 1908, and it was demolished in 1926.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society; second image: Metmuseum.org; third and fourth images: MCNY; fifth image: Wikipedia]

The crossroads of Gilded Age life, as seen by a little-known New York painter

January 24, 2022

By 1895, just about all of Manhattan was urbanized. Central Park, completed only 30 years earlier far north of the main city, was now centrally located. In three years, the consolidation of Greater New York would be complete, and the city would take the shape we know today.

But the heart of the Gilded Age city was still Madison Square, a crossroads of business, shopping, nightlife, and culture. Above, artist Theodore Robinson painted the corner of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street with all the action and activity to be expected in the mid-1890s.

Missing from Robinson’s painting is the Flatiron Building, of course; the iconic skyscraper didn’t open until 1902. But to the left in the foreground is the Fifth Avenue Hotel, the meeting place of business and political movers and shakers. Farther up is Marble Collegiate Church, built in the 1850s and one of the city’s oldest most elite congregations.

Horses power carriages along the paved avenue. Skirt hems skim the sidewalks. You can practically hear the conversation between the smartly dressed young man and the driver. Streetcars travel up and down 23rd Street, ferrying daytime shoppers to grand department stores like Stern Brothers and nighttime theatergoers.

Robinson is a new name for me. Born in Vermont, he came to New York in the 1870s and returned again after stints in Europe, according to the National Gallery of Art. His depiction of Union Square (above), also an important Gilded Age location, seems closer to his pioneering Impressionist style.

Robinson died in New York in 1896 at age 43 after a lifelong fight with severe asthma, per a New York Times review of an exhibit held in 2005. His name isn’t well known, but his work capturing the street life of the Gilded Age lets us feel the energy and excitement of the city on the cusp of the 20th century.

An Irish servant girl’s passionate reply to her Gilded Age wealthy employers

January 23, 2022

Think about the army of servants a wealthy New York City household would typically have in the Gilded Age. Cooks, coachmen, valets, butlers, grooms, laundresses, and others cleaned parlors and bedrooms, prepared meals, drove the carriage, laid out clothes, polished the silverware, watched the children, and took care of almost every household need.

Servants taking out ads for employment at the New York Herald office, 1874

Sure it made life for the rich family easier, and it offered a relatively decent source of income to poor newcomers. (Room, board, and a half-day Sunday helped sweeten the deal.) Also, employing numerous servants was a status symbol in an era when appearances of wealth meant everything.

Yet along with a house full of servants came servant problems. In the Gilded Age, these problems coalesced under one hotly debated topic: “The Servant Question.”

Trade card for the Lustro company on Duane Street during the Gilded Age

The Servant Question—sometimes called “The Servant Girl Question”—was the subject of endless newspaper and magazine articles in the late 19th century.

The question was really a mix of questions of concern to well-off women, who were typically tasked with managing their family’s servant staff: Why is it so hard to find competent servants? Should you be kind or strict? Is the servant the problem—or is it the mistress of the house to blame because of her poor management skills?

On January 20, 1895, the New York Times launched an article series, “Competent Domestics,” exploring the issue. Twelve society women—including Mrs. Russell Sage (wife of the financier) and Mrs. Charles Parkhurst (wife of the well-known social reformer and pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church) weighed in.

“I never allow my servants an afternoon off during the week,” said Mrs. Walter Lester Carr, wife of a prominent doctor. “Why should I lose so much time and put myself to a great deal of inconvenience in doing the work myself?”

Mrs. Robert McArthur, wife of the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church on 57th Street, put the blame elsewhere. “I think if people would treat servants less like animals or a part of their household furniture they would get along better with them. I know people who say, ‘keep servants down as much as you can, and you will get more out of them.'”

The one thing glaringly missing from the article was the voice of an actual servant. Soon one sent in a letter to the editor, which the Times printed on February 17.

“What an Irish Girl Thinks” was the headline. Written without details about where she worked or who she worked for, this Irish servant—one of thousands of Irish girls and women (often derided as “Bridgets”) who served in a domestic capacity because other positions tended to be shut off to them in the 19th century—gave a passionate reply.

“So much has been said lately through your paper on the servant question that I venture to ask you to be kind enough to listen to a servant’s view of the case,” the girl wrote. “That our faults have been told and retold is certainly a fact. Some of those faults I am willing to admit; others I deny.”

The servant girl stated that there are good and bad mistresses: “good, kind, conscientious mistresses, whom every word and action command respect from their servants and who never have and never will have any trouble in getting good servants.”

“But there is another class who look upon their servants as a lot of inferior beings, put into this world for the sole purpose of drudging for them from morning till night, and who are afraid that if they treat their servants with anything like respect it will lower them one step on the social ladder, which they found so very difficult to climb.”

“If such people would only remember that we are human beings, flesh and blood, just as they are, but lacking all their advantages, educations, etc., which go a great way to help people overcome their faults, they would have better servants.”

“Tradesmen, laborers, in fact everybody who work for a living, look forward to the end of their day’s work; but the New York servant—’No.’ She can sit inside her prison bars (basement gates), and dare not go out and get a breath of God’s fresh air, which might help her temper, and benefit her mistress for the next day’s work. I call that a mild form of slavery and those people came into this world a century too late.”

The end of the Irish girl’s letter offers a hint of modesty—and an acknowledgement of her lowly status in the Gilded Age city.

Servants at the New York Herald office looking for “situations”

“I will apologize for the length of my letter, and hope you will give it a place in your valuable journal. But for all the errors, grammatical or otherwise, which it contains, the fact that I’m a servant, and nothing better of my class is expected is the only apology I will offer.”

We know what happened to the servant question: it resolved itself as the practice of employing 8, 10, 15 or more servants per household ended. After the turn of the century, rich New Yorkers began moving into luxury apartments and didn’t need an enormous staff to manage. Immigration quotas also likely played a role in reducing household staff, since the ready supply of cheap labor was scaled back.

Servants at the Salvation Army Home on Gramercy Park, undated

But what happened to this Irish servant who wrote the letter? Like so many other Irish immigrant girls and women in the city at the time, perhaps she lived out her life as a chambermaid, laundress, or cook—socializing at a nearby parish, sending money to family back home, and hopefully finding a family that appreciated her.

[Top image: LOC; second image: MCNY, MN137316; third image: MCNY 1900, MNY204627; fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh images: NYT; eighth image: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper via Clarkart.edu; ninth image: New-York Historical Society, undated]