Archive for the ‘Fashion and shopping’ Category

What an 1895 photo of a Midtown shop tells us

April 25, 2016

This is Charles Westphalen and his wife, Anna, with their two young boys outside their German specialty food store on Seventh Avenue and 31st Street.

Charles Westphalen and Co

It’s 1895. Charles, in his 30s, is the son of German immigrants who arrived in New York in the 1830s—part of the first great wave of German immigration that reshaped the city.

The specialty food shop the couple ran was their livelihood for many years. Tea and coffee must have been big items; they’re named on the store awning.

Pennstation1911Jars with cloth tops, canned goods, what looks like fresh fruit and vegetables as well as a crate of soap powder can be seen.

It’s something like the corner bodega of today’s New York but aimed at Germans looking for a taste of their homeland.

You won’t find a trace of Charles Westphalen’s store today, however.

He was forced to move, along with other businesses occupying the block, in the early 1900s to make way for Penn Station.

[Thanks to H.W. for sending this photo of his great-grandfather, great-grandmother, and grandfather (the tow-headed toddler) and sharing his family history.]

The story behind three faded ads in Manhattan

April 11, 2016

If you look up enough while walking through the city, you see a fair number of these weathered ads, partly erased by rain and grime.

Fadedadeast20scloseup

Deciphering what they say isn’t always easy. Take this ad at 23 East 20th Street. “Furs” is still legible, but the name of the company is tricky.

It looks like M. Handin & Grapkin—which is close, as sure enough a company with the name Drapkin appears to have gone into the furrier business as early as 1909.

The wonderful faded sign site 14to42.net says that M. Handin and Drapkin were located in this building around 1909, and the faded ad could be more than a century old.

Fadedadeast12thst

This building on East 12th Street and University Place is a faded sign spotter’s dream. “Student Clothes” up top is easy enough to read.

Walter Grutchfield’s photo is better than mine, and his caption explains that the company occupied this building from 1924 to 1929.

Fadedadwest84thstreet

To get this view of this faded ad at 324 West 84th Street, you have to stand inside the 15th floor apartment of the building next door.

The address is barely legible—and though 324 is an apartment house today, as early as 1918 it was the Hotel Ramsby.

The left side of the ad must have listed room rates, forever lost to the ages.

Hauling clothes in the Garment District in 1955

March 21, 2016

Around the time this 1955 photo was taken, the vast majority of clothes for sale in the United States was made in the states too.

Specifically, they were made in the square mile south of Midtown long known as the Garment District.

Garmentdistrict1955

Today, only 5 percent of clothes are made in America. And while you still see factories and showrooms in the Garment District, the narrow, dark streets here compose a ghost town compared to what they were 60 years ago.

At least some faded ads continue to hold their own on former factory buildings.

[Photo: LOC/Al Ravenna]

A desperate Mrs. Lincoln visits New York in 1867

March 14, 2016

Marylincolnmathewbrady1861On September 17, 1867, a woman checked into a room in the posh St. Denis Hotel (below) on Broadway and 11th Street.

Her reservation was made under the name Mrs. Clarke. But with her real name written on her luggage, she was quickly recognized as presidential widow Mary Todd Lincoln.

This was hardly Mrs. Lincoln’s first trip to the city. After her husband was elected in 1860, she was a frequent visitor to New York.

Her trips weren’t about politics, however. She was mainly in Gotham to shop the city’s many expensive stores—like A. T. Stewart, Lord and Taylor, and Tiffany & Co.

MarylincolnstdenishotelMrs. Lincoln was what today would be called a shopaholic. Perhaps she bought so many things to dull the pain after her 11-year-old son Willie died in 1862. Or maybe she felt that the president’s wife had to look her best at all times.

“I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity,” Mrs. Lincoln told her seamstress and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley, during her husband’s 1864 reelection campaign.

Her extravagant spending was what brought her back to New York in 1867. She had fallen deeply in debt since her husband was assassinated two years earlier and she was forced to leave the White House for Chicago.

The struggling Mrs. Lincoln had the idea to sell some of her wardrobe items and jewelry, hoping it would ease her troubles.

MarylincolnkeckleyKeckley (left) arrived in New York the next day to assist Mrs. Lincoln with the sale. The two women moved to the Union Place Hotel, because the St. Denis would not allow Keckley, who was African-American, to stay on the same floor as her friend.

They went to a diamond broker first, and then “Elizabeth and Mary invited second-hand clothing dealers to their hotel to inspect Mary’s wardrobe for sale,” wrote Catherine Clinton for the New York State Archives Partnership Trust.

“Both women then prowled shops on Seventh Avenue, hoping to trade old clothes for new greenbacks.” But “gossip began to circulate about this mystery woman wrapped in widow’s weeds who was peddling her wardrobe.”

After the diamond broker betrayed her trust by having her letters published in the New York World, the press savaged her “old clothes sale” (though the New York Times also felt that family members of former presidents should be better provided for).

MarylincolnstdenistodayPublic opinion was against her. Even worse, her items drummed up no interest. She fled back to Chicago to her rented rooms.

Her financial situation continued to fall apart, as did her mind. She was committed to an Illinois asylum in 1875 but made periodic trips to New York to address her health before dying in 1882.

[The St. Denis Hotel today, which was on the route President Lincoln’s funeral procession took through New York in April 1865]

How bicycles helped liberate women in the 1890s

February 29, 2016

Cyclingclaremont1896When the cycling fad hit New York in the 1870s and 1880s, it was danger-courting men who mostly took up the wheel—scorching down city streets and joining cycling clubs for group jaunts to the far reaches of New York and Brooklyn.

But with the invention of what was called the “safety bicycle,” which had wheels closer to the ground and pedals that powered the back wheel rather than the front, cycling became less a risky activity and more of an exhilarating way to get around.

CyclingforladiesbrentanosThat’s when women began cycling in large numbers.

The sense of freedom these “steel steers” offered is credited with paving the way for the women’s rights gains of the 20th century.

For starters, cycling helped change women’s fashion. It was impossible for the bright, sporty New Woman of the 1890s to ride while weighed down with petticoats and a corset like the women of her mother’s generation wore.

CyclingdividedskirtWomen began wearing looser-fitting cycling suits with slimmer “divided” skirts (below right), which gave way to less confining everyday fashion.

“From wheeling to walking is but a step, and a sensible dressing being now firmly established in the cycling world, it is beginning to creep into the walking costume, and we are told that the skirts of those gowns are to be shorter,” wrote the New York Times in 1895.

Less restrictive clothes served as a metaphor for the New Woman’s less restricted social life. Cycling became something she could do alone or in a group without a chaperone.

Physical activity also had an impact. Previous generations of women were not encouraged to exercise; they were supposed to project physical frailty.

Cyclingriversidedrive1896Biking required some level of exertion, however, and that changed the feminine ideal to one of action and strength.

The shift from an ideal of weakness to empowerment didn’t immediately give women the right to vote or instantly open up higher education to them.

But it appears to have helped move things in that direction.

Cyclingharpersbazaarcover“The bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance,” said Susan B. Anthony, who helped launch the equal rights movement in the mid–19th century well before the bicycle came along and women began riding through Central Park, Riverside Drive, and Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, three popular venues.

“I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

[Photos: Women riders in Upper Manhattan, MCNY]

1880s New York’s most insane fancy ball costume

January 18, 2016

When Kate Feering Strong (below) received her invitation to Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt’s “fancy dress” ball, scheduled for March 26, 1883, she decided not to settle for a more traditional costume—like a Medieval princess or fairy tale character.

Katefeeringstrongcatcostume

Nope, Miss Strong went as a cat—complete with an actual (dead) white feline as a head piece and a gown sewn with the body parts of real kitties.

“The overskirt was made entirely of white cats’ tails sewed on a dark background,” commented the New York Times.

Mrsvanderbilt'schateauThe ball was arguably the most incredible social event of the year, and it also served as kind of a housewarming for the new Fifth Avenue Vanderbilt mansion.

“The bodice is formed of rows of white cats’ heads and the head-dress was a stiffened white cat’s skin, the head over the forehead of the wearer and the tail pendant behind. A blue ribbon with ‘Puss’ inscribed upon it, which hung a bell, worn around the neck completed the dress.”

Here are some of the other outrageous and ostentatious costumes, including the battery-powered “electric light,” worn by Mrs. Vanderbilt’s sister-in-law.

From wealthy socialite to women’s rights activist

November 23, 2015

AlvabelmontyoungWhen she was known as Alva Vanderbilt, she was one of the wealthiest women in New York City.

And as a young wife and mother in the 1870s and 1880s, Alva was determined to spend big bucks to secure a place for her family in the city’s stuffy, old money society run by Mrs. Caroline Astor.

To become part of the so-called Astor 400, she built a magnificent French renaissance mansion at Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, modestly christened Petite Chateau (below).

Alvavanderbiltcostumeparty1883

She then threw a housewarming party in the form of a masquerade ball and invited 1,200 of New York’s richest residents, who feasted and danced while dressed as kings and queens. (Alva, right, as a “Venetian renaissance lady.”)

And when she couldn’t score a box seat at the Academy of Music on 14th Street, the city’s premier opera house at the time, she convinced other new rich New Yorkers to pitch in money to build the more opulent Metropolitan Opera House, which opened in 1883.

After finally breaking into formal society, she divorced her husband in 1895 and married another enormously rich man, Oliver H.P. Belmont.

For the next decade, she resumed life as a society matron, entertaining and building incredible mansions in New York and Newport, Rhode Island.

AlvavanderbiltlepetitechateauAfter Belmont died in 1908, however, Alva traded mansions and balls for activism. Instead of putting her money toward estates and entertaining, she began funding causes that advanced women’s rights.

That year, she founded the Political Equality Association and gave millions in support of the fight for suffrage both in the United States and in Great Britain.

Inspired by dedicated suffragists like Alice Paul and Emmeline Pankhurst, she helped launch the National Women’s Party, and she opened her mansion doors in New York City and Newport for rallies and events. (Above: 1912 Suffragist Parade, New York City.)

Alvavanderbiltsuffrageparade1912

Her devotion to women’s rights expanded even after 1920. She helped support working women’s groups. The former wife of two famous capitalists even helped keep Socialist magazine the Masses financially viable.

Alvavanderbilt1920She was living in France in 1932 when she suffered a stroke. At her funeral in early 1933, friends and family draped a banner across the coffin that read “failure is impossible,” per her instructions.

The woman who early in her life dedicated herself to becoming part of an American aristocracy made women’s rights around the world her lasting legacy.

Three ghostly faded ads in Downtown Brooklyn

October 26, 2015

GhostsignschandleradToday, Downtown Brooklyn is a bustling shopping destination.

But Fulton Street and surrounding thoroughfares are nothing like what they were in their late 19th and early 20th century heyday, when the neighborhood was packed with shops and department stores catering to middle- and upper-class tastes.

Ghostsignschandlerpiano

Luckily we have ghost signs on the sides of old buildings to remind us of businesses that no longer exist.

Case in point: the Chandler Piano Company, founded on Montague Street in 1869 and headquartered at 222 Livingston Street since 1907.

Ghostadpomeroy

This remarkably preserved ad emerged last year when the building it hid behind met the wrecking ball. At the roof, you can just make out the words “Chandler-Ebel Music Co.,” the name of one of founder Frank Chandler’s music businesses.

GhostadpomeroyadTrusses, stockings . . . and artificial legs? Pomeroy Surgical Appliances made a business selling these and other scary-sounding devices at 208 Livingston Street and 584 Fulton Street.

The ad on Livingston has that wonderful old-fashioned hand sign, pointing customers right to the convenient elevator.

This J. Michaels faded ad, dwarfed by a residential tower near Smith Street, doesn’t look like much.

Ghostsignjmichaels

But the company has a long Kings County history: it sold furniture on Smith Street (apparently once a big furniture showroom hub) from 1886 until 1996.

I’m not so sure everyone who shopped at the store agreed that they were “great” as the ad claims. In 1972, the Department of Consumer Affairs sued the company for selling “defective and shoddy” furniture to low-income customers.

Trying to cross bustling Herald Square in 1902

October 19, 2015

Pedestrians, streetcars, horse-drawn wagons, elevated trains . . . getting from one side of Sixth Avenue to the other appears to be tricky at Herald Square just after the turn of the century.

Heraldsquarepostcard3

I’m not sure if it’s exactly 1902. That’s the year Macy’s, in the upper left obscured by the Saks building in the center, moved from 14th Street to Herald Square.

And it’s probably not yet 1910, when automobiles began appearing more frequently, and mustaches like the one the man in the gray suit sports were on their way out of style.

Vintage signs from 1960s and 1970s New York

October 5, 2015

They’re an endangered species, these 1960s and 1970s store signs, with their old-school cursive lettering and often sporting a kaleidoscope of colors.

Murraysturgeonsign

The sign for Murray’s Sturgeon Shop is a gorgeous example.

Short, sweet, and stylized, the sign looks very 1960s, though Murray’s has been in the smoked fish business on Broadway and 89th Street since 1946.

Stanleyhardwaresign

The Weinstein & Holtzman Hardware sign bursts with magnificent color on Park Row near City Hall. They’ve been selling paint and tools sine 1920.

Hardware stores all over New York have some wonderful vintage signs.

I can’t find any information on when Truemart Discount Fabrics, on Seventh Avenue and 25th Street, opened.

Truemartfabricssign

But that old-school sign! It’s a relic of lower Seventh Avenue’s low-rent past, influenced by the Fashion Institute of Technology across the street.

Anthonywinessign

The sign for Anthony Liquors, Inc. on Spring Street in Nolita isn’t splashy, but the typeface is unique. I wonder if other store signs in what once was Little Italy had the same type.

Johnsshoerepairsign

I’ve always liked the sturdy, simple sign for John’s Shoe Repair on Irving Place, and the confident line underscoring the name John, done in script.

I hope they can keep going in a city that doesn’t have much use for neighborhood shoe repair places.


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