Archive for the ‘Holiday traditions’ Category

A swanky New Year’s menu from 1935 New York

December 31, 2018

When Essex House opened on Central Park South in 1931, it was an instant hit with well-to-do, fashionable New Yorkers who didn’t let things like the Great Depression or Prohibition stop their partying.

This menu card, from the Museum of the City of New York, is dated 1935; it shows New Year’s Eve revelers in the hotel’s Colonnades ballroom.

On the back of the card are some of the food offerings for the night: Swedish relish, olives, and salted nuts as appetizers; mignon beef Bearnaise, braised celery au jus, and potatoes royale for the main course. Dessert: petits fours and glace vanilla nesselrode.

[MCNY: 2003.50.2]

A Christmas card from a defunct Ladies Mile store

December 24, 2018

Hugh O’Neill was an Irish-born retailer who eventually ran one of the biggest dry goods emporiums on Sixth Avenue at 21st Street.

His was the impressive domed building in the district once known as Ladies Mile, a late 19th century enclave of fancy emporiums and more middle class department stores roughly between Broadway and Sixth Avenue and 10th to 23rd Streets.

Like any smart store owner, O’Neill happily celebrated the consumerism that took hold in late 19th century New York, and this card gets his sentiments across in a cheeky way.

The O’Neill store is now a high-end condo called The O’Neill Building—apparently some lucky owners get to live in those corner domes!

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]

A 19th century mayor’s fascinating social diary

December 17, 2018

Philip Hone served as New York’s mayor only from 1826 to 1827.

But Hone—the son of a carpenter who made a fortune in the auction business as a young man—spent the next two decades serving the city in another way.

From 1828 to his death in 1851, Hone kept a diary (free to access) chronicling the political and social changes of the growing metropolis.

His diary offers a fascinating glimpse of the daily life of New York filtered through the mind of a reflective writer, whose thoughts about culture and politics echo some of the same conversations we continue to have today.

“The old custom of visiting on New Year’s Day, and the happy greetings which have so long been given on that occasion, have been well kept up this year,” Hone wrote January 2, 1831.

“I am glad of it; few of those good old customs remain which mark the overflow of unsophisticated good feeling, and I rejoice whenever I can recognize any part of the wreck which the innovations of fashion have left afloat.”

The same year, he also noted the city’s “new University”—today’s NYU (above, in 1850)—and dined often with friends like Washington Irving at the Washington Hotel, at the southern tip of Broadway.

In 1836 he marked the one-year anniversary of the “great fire”—an 1835 blaze that destroyed much of downtown (left). “To the honor of the merchants, and as an evidence of the prosperity of the city, the whole is rebuilt with more splendor than before.”

Hone noted a party he went to in a mansion lighted by gas, when most homes were lit by candlelight. The gas “gave out suddenly in the midst of a cotillion; this accident occasioned great merriment to the company, and some embarrassment to the host and hostess, but a fresh supply of gas was obtained, and in short time the fair dancers were again ‘tripping it on the light fantastic toe.'”

The financial ruin brought on by the Panic of 1837 didn’t change Hone’s circumstances, but their effects were seen across the city. “No goods are selling, no business stirring, no boxes encumber the sidewalks of Pearl Street….”

Hone was a regular theater-goer, and he wrote about opening night at a new venue. “The National is the prettiest theatre in the United States; but it is not Broadway, and the New Yorkers are the strangest people in the world for their predilection for fashionable locations.” (at left, when it was destroyed in 1839.)

Before moving to Broadway and Great Jones Street, he lived in a townhouse on Broadway opposite City Hall next to the American Hotel (below). He worshipped at Trinity Church.

On Good Friday 1839 he wrote, “I went, as usual, to church this morning, and afterward into Wall Street [at right, in 1846], where the din of business drowns the sound of the bell’s invitation to worship, and the gravity of devotion is put out of countenance by the restless, anxious looks of speculative men of ‘this world.'”

Hone, a Whig, wrote about the politicians of the day; his dining partners included John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren (left, in 1828). He noted a reception held for the arrival of Henry Clay.

Hone also wrote of “the Irish and other foreigners” and other “discontented men” for fomenting labor troubles on the wharves in 1836.

He recorded the names of steamships that crossed the Atlantic; an amazing feat in his day and even toured ships when they were docked at the Battery or North River.

He took excursions to the country suburb of Hoboken, dined at friends’ estates in Manhattanville, West Farms in the Bronx, and Flushing. He and his adored wife and children went to many “fancy balls.”

While having dinner at his home with William Astor and other distinguished New Yorkers in December 1838, he experienced something sadly common in the city at the time.

The doorbell rang, and an abandoned infant with its name pinned to its gown was at the doorstep. Hone described the baby as probably a week old and “one of the sweetest babies I ever saw.”

“It did not cry during the time we had it but lay in a placid, dozing state, and occasionally, on the approach of the light, opened its little, sparkling eyes, and seemed satisfied with the company into which it had been strangely introduced,” wrote Hone.

“Poor little innocent—abandoned by its natural protector, and thrown at its entrance into life upon the sympathy of a selfish world….” Hone wrote that he thought about taking the child into his own home, but his dinner guests convinced him otherwise, and the “little wanderer” was brought to the city almshouse.

This part of Hone’s diary brings me to tears. But the horrible tragedy of infant abandonment touched Hone (at left, near the end of his life) enough to include it in his diary, so I included it here too.

[All images: NYPL Digital Collections]

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.

What Halloween looked like in 1970s New York

October 15, 2018

If you were a kid in the New York City of the 1970s, Halloween probably resembled this.

Your mom or dad bought you your costume in a store, and it came with a mask held to your head by a rubber band.

Maybe you were the Bionic Woman, or a character from Planet of the Apes, or someone from Star Wars. Or you dressed up as a more classic Halloween character, like Batman or Cinderella or a witch or a skeleton.

You didn’t go to the Halloween parade in Greenwich Village because you had never heard of it. You went trick or treating in your building or on your block after school, and most likely, no adult went with you.

Afterward, your parents probably took some of your candy stash because they didn’t want you to go crazy and eat it all at once. But you did get to eat it, slowly, over the next week or two.

Even though this was the bad old New York of the 1970s, no one was too worried about Halloween candy contaminated with poison or razor blades.

If you were born too early or too late to experience Halloween 1970s style, you can get a sense of it through some wonderful photos taken that decade by street photographer Larry Racioppo.

Racioppo’s Halloween images are available for viewing via the New York Public Library’s Digital Collection. A few examples are in this post.

I’m not sure where we are in the city, though the photo at right shows a war memorial that appears to be put up by the 12th Street block association…though it’s hard to read.

These black and whites capture a moment in time when many parts of New York were rundown and neglected. But that couldn’t stop kids from savoring the thrill of dressing up on Halloween.

Racioppo’s work captures other scenes of New York, and he even put out a book of his Halloween photos in 1980, available on Amazon as well as through his own site.

All photos © Larry Racioppo

The doctor’s summer home on West 94th Street

June 4, 2018

Today, the rich and distinguished summer in the Hamptons. In the mid-1800s, they summered on the Upper West Side.

The “delightful palazzo” above was the summer mansion of Dr. Valentine Mott, the most prominent physician in 19th century New York—a pioneer of heart surgery who at the age of 75 helped Civil War battlefield hospitals implement anesthesia.

His year-round residence was on fashionable Gramercy Park. But when summer hit, he hightailed it to today’s West 94th Street and the former Bloomingdale Road.

Built in 1855, the country house “was at almost the farthest reach for summer residences away from the city,” according to Old New York in Early Photographs.

Today, the house would be smack in the middle of Broadway. Back then, this was the country; the Upper West Side as we know it today was a collection of estates and small villages in the mid-1800s, like Harsenville and Strycker’s Bay.

Dr. Mott died here in 1865—but his summer house lives on in a photo taken by French-born New York photographer Victor Prevost the year the house was built.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society; second photo: Wikipedia

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]

Toasting the new year at a dimly lit New York bar

December 31, 2017

It’s probably the oldest New Year’s Eve tradition in New York: gathering with others at a saloon or tavern and raising a glass (or flute, cup, or growler) as the clock strikes midnight.

That’s what photographer George Bain captured these festive folks doing circa 1910, inside a dark room under glass chandeliers and decorative wall-mounted plates. If only we knew the bar or restaurant they where they celebrated!

[Photo: Bain Collection/LOC]

A boy remembers New Year’s calling in the 1860s

December 31, 2017

The tradition—a carryover from colonial New Amsterdam—died out with gaslights and elevated trains.

But going “calling” on New Year’s Day was still in full swing in the 1860s, as sculptor James E. Kelly remembers in his memoir of later 19th century New York, Tell Me of Lincoln.

“There was great preparation on all sides for calling and receiving on New Year’s Day,” recalled Kelly. “Parties were made up and lists prepared. Those who had money hired a coach or sleigh, while others less fortunate footed it.”

Kelly lived with his middle-class parents in the West 50s off Eighth Avenue. He and his pals hoofed it on January 1 to the homes of neighbor girls, who waited to receive callers in a very gender-specific and competitive ritual.

“Girls prepared all sorts of refreshments and vied with each other with the number of callers. . . . “Small boys ran from store to store bursting in with yells: ‘Wish you a happy New Year, what are you going to give us?’ The streets were filled with cutters and sleighs with jingle bells—it was joy inspiring.”

“After church, two or three of my friends would gather at my house, and well primed with cake, coffee, or lemonade, we would start out for the day visiting our neighbors and gradually extending our circle.”

“The glow and tingle of the walk was heightened by the gust of warm spice-laden air that greeted us, and as our pretty little girl schoolmates received us at the doors in all their holiday finery.”

“We lined up on the sofa, and they overwhelmed us with  the embarrassment of riches: oranges, cake, apples, lemonade, coffee, doughnuts, raisins, and spice New Year’s cake, etc.”

Kelly and his chums were adolescents, so mingling with girls meant lots of awkwardness—with the girls giggling and tugging at their short dresses and the boys spilling drinks. We “would whack or punch each other on the knees, till we finally mustered up the courage to bid a happy New Year and start for the next house.”

For slightly older men and women, calling served as a socially acceptable way for the sexes to meet and greet and potentially find a match.

“New Year’s morning, with shutters closed, and blinds drawn down, gas lighted, the young ladies prepared to receive their guests. All seemed to reflect the glow and color of the pendant prisms on the chandeliers and candelabra.”

“The girls in full dress with flowers in their hair, clustered around a long table. Its glistening silver coffee urn, liquors, etc., with the usual turkey and other substantial things, which they served to the groups of merry friends who had driven up in their cutters.”

“Among those who received special attention were some young veteran soldiers, whose empty sleeves gave the girls an excuse to hover around and serve them.”

“Most of the guests seemed anxious to make a record for the number of calls they made—as the girls were anxious as to the number of calls they received by counting their visiting cards—but others evidently came to stay judging from the way they clustered around the beautiful young girls.

“One sang by request the then popular song, “Ever of Thee,” while a taller and fairer on accompanied her lightly on the harp.”

Kelly also recalls the demise of calling. “As years went on, some exclusive [families] used to hang out baskets on the door knob to receive cards from the pilgrims of friendship.”

“This sort of frigid acknowledgment soon killed the enthusiasm, and after a few seasons, the joys of New Years calling were no more.”

Now for a little girl’s version of the holiday, here’s an excerpt from an 1850 diary. Want to revive the tradition? Join guests at the Merchant House Museum on January 1.