Archive for the ‘Fashion and shopping’ Category

The 1877 “palace of trade” opens on Ladies Mile

March 25, 2019

Ask old-school New Yorkers where B. Altman & Company used to be, and they’ll sigh before telling you it was on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.

That palazzo-inspired building, home to the luxury department store from 1906 until its bankruptcy in 1990. still stands.

But so does the magnificent, block-long, cast-iron “palace of trade” Benjamin Altman opened in 1877 in stages at 615-629 Sixth Avenue. (Above and below right)

That’s the year when this “merchant prince” outgrew his first dry goods store on East 10th Street and Third Avenue and joined the growing number of retailers occupying spectacular buildings on Ladies Mile, the Gilded Age’s shopping district.

Altman was something of an unusual character among the other major store owners of the time.

His parents immigrated to the Lower East Side from Bavaria in 1835, and he learned the dry goods trade by working at his family’s modest store on Attorney Street before launching his eponymous Third Avenue store.

Quiet and described as reclusive, Altman never married (though he did help raise and support his nieces and nephews).

He was a serious art enthusiast who donated his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the foundation he launched in 1913 just before his death continues to fund educational organizations.

Unlike other retail barons, Altman wasn’t a showman. It was his talent for merchandising and his understanding of the new consumerism that helped make his store so popular.

His innovations paved the way for the department store of today. Altman’s was the first to feature “designated areas for displaying clothing for customers of all ages, as well as a diverse variety of household items at fixed prices,” wrote Jeanne Abrams in a 2011 series on immigrant entrepreneurs.

“Altman made it a point to outdo his competitors in style and elegance, and the store featured an impressive central court, a glass-domed rotunda, mahogany woodwork, and carpeted elevators,” she explained.

“B. Altman & Company’s reputation for excellent service, reliability, and the latest in fashion, which included luxurious silks, velvets, and satins, many imported from France, made the store a favored shopping stop for affluent New Yorkers.”

Then there was the delivery service. Wealthy women weren’t expected to carry their own packages, so Altman pioneered home delivery with liveried drivers in maroon wagons working out of a stable (above) built at 135 West 18th Street.

He understood the needs of his elite customers so well that he provided a separate store entrance on West 18th Street (maybe this door at left?) for the most elite of them.

That way, they wouldn’t have to enter the store on Sixth Avenue and deal with the riffraff coming off the Sixth Avenue elevated, which had a stop on the corner.

Altman could also see the future—and it wasn’t on Ladies Mile. After Macy’s packed up and relocated to 34th Street in 1902, Altman followed suit.

More than 140 years later, his extravagant Sixth Avenue store serves as a Container Store, part of a shopping district very different from the fashion-heavy one that attracted throngs of well-heeled Gilded Age shoppers.

[Second image: Department Store Museum; Third image: Wikipedia; Fourth image: Manhattan Sideways; Sixth image, 1948: MCNY X2010.7.1.9378]

A travel writer under the spell of 1820s New York

February 18, 2019

Frances Milton “Fanny” Trollope was decidedly unimpressed by America when this wife and mother visited the young nation in the late 1820s.

She arrived with her sons in 1827 from her home country of England, stepping off in New Orleans and settling for a time in Cincinnati. Her British husband had financial difficulties, and she hoped to take advantage of the opportunities she believed America offered.

When her efforts failed, she left Ohio and set out for various East Coast cities. The travel log she published back in England in 1832 was titled Domestic Manners of the Americans.

The book was a monster hit on both sides of the Atlantic, though it earned American disdain.

It’s hard not to see why. According to Trollope, American roads were primitive, manners lacking, and culture nonexistent. She also called out the hypocrisy of a nation that heralded freedom yet enslaved African Americans.

But when it came to the seven weeks she spent in New York City, Trollope was almost starstruck.

“I have never seen the Bay of Naples, I can therefore make no comparison, but my imagination is incapable of conceiving any thing of the kind more beautiful than the harbour of New-York,” she wrote of her arrival by boat from New Jersey. (Above, South Street at Maiden Lane in 1827)

“Situated on an island, which I think it will one day cover, it rises, like Venice, from the sea, and like that fairest of cities in the days of her glory, receives into its lap tribute of all the riches of the earth.”

She noted the “beautiful” public promenade along the Battery (above left, in 1861) and “splendid” Broadway, with its “handsome shops, neat awnings, excellent troittoir, and well-dressed pedestrians.”

“Hudson Square (at right) and its neighborhood is, I believe, the most fashionable part of town,” Trollope wrote about this elegant enclave renamed St. John’s Park (at left).

She also praised the city’s night life. “At night the shops, which are open till very late, are brilliantly illuminated with gas, and all the population seems as much alive as London or Paris.”

During her stay she visited the three major theaters and pronounced the Bowery Theatre (at left in 1826) “superior in its beauty” to the Park or the Chatham.

She also visited theaters and churches where black New Yorkers went and worshipped, writing about the many free African Americans in the city.

According to Trollope, stylish women in New York wore only French fashions; houses were made of a rich brown stone called “Jersey freestone,” streets were well paved, everyone had plenty of ice to cool their food, and the villas in Bloomingdale, the West Side village far from the actual city, were beautiful.

She also praised the 19th century version of taxi drivers (at left, in the 1830s), even the one who ripped her off.

“The hackney-coaches are the best in the world,” she proclaimed, though admitting that she was way overcharged by one unscrupulous driver who took her for a tourist.

That didn’t change her feeling that Manhattan was the greatest urban space in the nation, and perhaps the world.

“[I] must still declare that I think New-York one of the finest cities I ever saw, and as much superior to every other in the Union (Philadelphia not excepted) as London to Liverpool, Paris to Rouen. Its advantages of position are perhaps unequaled anywhere.”

Here’s another female travel writer’s descriptive take on the colonial city she visited in 1704.

[First image: Wikipedia; second image: View of South Street From Maiden Lane, New York City” by William James Bennett/MET Museum; third image: NYPL; fourth image: unknown; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: NYPL; seventh image: “The Bay of New York Taken from Brooklyn Heights” by William Guy Wall/MET Musuem]

The mysterious furrier of West 46th Street

December 31, 2018

West 46th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues is shadowy and gritty; it’s a low-slung block of restaurants and small shops occupying converted brownstones and renovated office buildings.

Because it’s one of those unusually frozen in time blocks, it’s a stretch with many mysteries. One I’ve always wondered about has to do with the box-like structure with big windows at number 34-36.

Built in 1914 as a loft, the building’s entrance has what looks like a frieze with scenes of a charioteer and crowds of women and children, something right out of ancient Greece.

It’s a strange and mysterious scene. But even more mysterious to me is the sign in a small second floor window: furs.

West 46th Street is a little north of the city’s former fur district, where furriers and fur manufacturers reigned through much of the 20th century.

It didn’t take long to locate the furrier who occupied this storefront and find out that he worked here as far back as 1916. William C. Emerick advertised his “furs of the quality sort” in Harper’s Bazaar (above right) back then, 103 years ago.

In 1920, he also appeared in a fur trade journal (above center).

I don’t know when Emerick left the premises, but amazingly, his furs sign remains, slightly faded but perfectly legible.

Ghost signs of New York’s small business past

December 24, 2018

All the turnover lately among the small shops of New York City has one upside: Store signs from decades ago that had been long buried come back into view—like these two signs spotted by Ephemeral New York readers.

The first is at 7105 18th Avenue in Bensonhurst. Up until recently, it was covered by a sign containing Chinese letters, a reflection of the influx of Chinese immigrants in this corner of Brooklyn.

But when that sign came down, this understated one for Charlie & Brothers Fish Market emerged. The building dates back to the 1930s, and the sign looks like it could be that old too.

Apparently the store had been a fish market until the 1990s under a different name, Mola. Who was Charlie?

Just as mysterious is this sign on Seventh Avenue and 56th Street, for an establishment called Wilson’s.

The small store is surrounded by the usual Midtown jumble of tourist spots, cafes, and electronics shops. The entire building has construction scaffolding around it, so it probably won’t be with us much longer. What remains of Wilson’s is destined to be bulldozed with the larger building it’s part of.

[Thanks to Eric V. and Amy S. for these photos!]

This is what New York was like at Christmas 1882

December 24, 2018

During the city’s first 150 or so years, the residents of the colony that would become New York didn’t celebrate Christmas the way we celebrate it now: by buying gifts, decorating a tree, and telling stories about Santa Claus coming down chimneys.

In fact, New Yorkers weren’t celebrating Christmas at all. The Dutch holiday of St. Nicholas Day, on December 6, and then New Year’s Day, were the festive holidays of the month.

By the Gilded Age, however, Christmas as we know it was in full swing. And one writer who wrote a book about life in New York detailed the crazy consumerism, excessive eating, and general celebratory mood that constitute the modern Christmas season.

“For weeks before the great day of the feast the city is in gala attire,” wrote James McCabe, author of New York by Gaslight, from 1882.

“The stores present a brighter and more attractive appearance than at any other season of the year, the streets are filled with larger throngs, and the stages, street cars, and trains of the Elevated roads are more crowded than ever.” (Above, a painting of shoppers by Alice Barber Stephens, in 1896.)

McCabe noted the “huge piles of Christmas trees” on street corners that find “ready purchasers.”

The Christmas tree, introduced in the 1830s and 1840s, had become a staple of every home by this time. (Above left, a card from a New York business from the era.)

The cross streets in Manhattan that constituted the biggest shopping districts—Broadway, 14th Street (at right in 1899, next to the old Macy’s store), 23rd Street, and Grand Street among them—”are all driving a thriving trade.”

“It’s the money spending time of the year, and those who are out mean business,” he wrote of the crowds jostling on sidewalks. “Here is a woman with a bundle of toys in her arms, surmounted by a huge turkey for the Christmas dinner. There goes a man struggling under the weight of a Christmas tree, and sweeping his way through the mass with its thick, sharp branches.”

“Boys with penny whistles, young men with tin horns, render the streets discordant with their noise,” he notes, also describing the “half naked” kids gazing into shop windows “with wistful eyes.” They “will not be forgotten on the morrow.” (Above, a parade of expressmen with packages on their wagons to deliver.)

McCabe noted the window displays seen during the day and the electric lights ablaze inside stores once darkness fell. Inside homes, passersby could see families decorating their Christmas trees. “Something of this may be seen from the cars of the Elevated roads, as you whirl by second-story windows of the houses along the route.”

(Above, a montage by Thomas Nast of sentimental family scenes at Christmas 1863, from Harper’s Weekly.)

About the elevated trains, which were built atop several avenues in Manhattan in the 1870s: “In the cars it is almost impossible to move, because of the great bundles of merchandise. You stumble over huge turkeys and market-baskets filled to overflowing with all manner of eatables….”

Those turkeys and other feast foods could be found at the city’s great markets, like Washington Market in today’s Tribeca.

On Christmas Eve the market stays open past 11 p.m., selling “long rows of turkeys” hanging from the hooks of stalls, as well as sugar-cured hams.

After the feast was purchased, Christmas Eve turned into Christmas day. (A market scene, at left)

“When the bell of old Trinity tolls the last stroke of the hour of midnight, there is a momentary hush in the streets, and then rolling down from their lofty height, through the dark thoroughfares and over the silent waters of the bay, come the rich, glad tones of the chimes, filling the air with a burst of melody,” McCabe wrote.

McCabe wrote about the poor of the city, explaining that the “numerous charitable and benevolent institutions spread bountiful tables for their inmates….the hearts of the little ones are gladdened with toys, trinkets, and other presents suited to their needs and years.” (A dinner for the poor, below right)

“Even the prisoners in the Tombs and on Blackwell’s Island are not forgotten, and the Christmas dinner spread for them sheds a little light and hope into their otherwise gloomy existence.”

What else was similar? Matinees. “All the theaters give special performances, termed ‘matinees,’ in the afternoon. The houses are thronged, and the managers pocket large receipts. At night, balls, festivals, and entertainments of all kinds, close the day.”

[Top image: NYPL; second image: MCNY; 43.425.12; third image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY 2010.11.8795; fifth image: Thomas Nast from Harper’s Weekly, 1863, NYPL; sixth image: NYPL; seventh image: NYPL; eighth image: MCNY 37.351.16; ninth image: MCNY]

The Bowery roots of a famous uptown gift store

December 10, 2018

When the store that eventually became Hammacher Schlemmer first opened its doors on the Bowery in 1848, it was a hardware emporium selling hard-to-find items and supplies for men in the cabinet-making and piano-building trades.

(Below, in an undated photo at 209 Bowery, off Rivington Street. Zoom in to see the store neighbors: an oyster house and Tony Pastor’s famed Opera House!)

Not long after, William Schlemmer, the nephew of one of the owners, (he began selling tools in front of the store for $2 a week when he was 12), rose up the ranks and eventually bought out his uncle.

Albert Hammacher, a German immigrant who also worked at the store as a youngster (also for $2 a week—not bad wages in a city where the average yearly salary for a working-class man was in the $300 range), became a principal of the company as well.

(Below, still at 209 Bowery but with a much fancier storefront and some very serious-looking employees, undated photo)

What followed over the next century was a name change, two moves (first to Fourth Avenue and 13th Street in 1904 and then to newly fashionable East 57th Street in 1926, at right), and a refocusing of the company’s merchandise.

Instead of hardware exclusively, Hammacher Schlemmer sold innovative items of the era, from “horseless carriages” to pop-up toasters to electric razors.

Today, Hammacher Schlemmer is still on East 57th Street, and their store windows continue to feature the most eclectic and bizarre presents for everyone on your holiday gift list.

The 7-person tricycle for $20K, maybe?

[Photos: Hammacher Schlemmer]

The well-dressed Christmas shoppers of 1910

November 26, 2018

We don’t know their names. But judging by their elaborate hats, tailored coats, and that thick fur muff one is holding, these two Christmas shoppers are part of the upper crust in New York’s turn of the century city.

News photographer snapped the photo sometime between 1910 and 1915. He was probably on or near Sixth Avenue, one end of the Gilded Age’s posh and stylish Ladies Mile shopping district.

There, Bain took other photos of holiday shoppers, Christmas tree vendors, and wide-eyed kids staring into toy store windows and dreaming.

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]

A mysterious store sign reappears in Flatiron

April 23, 2018

The upside of new construction is that old bits and pieces of the city come back into view.

At 1165 Broadway, a landmarked 1867 building (below, in 1900) currently being transformed into coop, a shadowy color sign has reappeared.

“Smith’s” the sign says. The logo next to it reads “Guaranteed never to rip” and includes an image of the biblical Samson and a lion. A smaller tagline reads “wear like Samsons . . . made?” That fourth word is hard to figure out.

So what was Smith’s selling? The phrase “guaranteed never to rip” was used in ads for cheap suits decades ago. But the mention of Samson, known not for cheap suits but his ability to rip a lion in half, makes this ad a mystery.

[Second image: NYPL]