Archive for the ‘Holiday traditions’ Category

New Year’s Eve in post-Civil War New York City

December 27, 2021

It’s 1865 in New York City. The Civil War is over, families are together, and the holiday season is a firmly commercialized event.

Still, I’m not sure what to make of this illustration, from the digital collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Several children stand in front of a store display, their eyes trained on the toys. Meanwhile, a well-dressed woman and girl stand slightly to the side, watching the other kids delight in the window display.

An image of the haves meeting the have nots? It’s a strangely disquieting illustration, with no one else on the sidewalks on what the caption tells us is New Year’s Eve.

[MCNY, 1865, MNY5788]

A stunning Christmas feast served to guests at a posh Gilded Age hotel

December 20, 2021

I’m not sure what’s going on with the Hotel Wolcott these days. Prior to 2020, this pink brick and limestone landmark on 31st Street off Fifth Avenue catered to tourists looking for an inexpensive place to bed down in Manhattan. After Covid hit, the Wolcott stopped accepting “transient hotel guests.”

The Wolcott at 31st Street and Fifth Avenue, about 1910

In the Wolcott’s Gilded Age heyday, however, the hotel’s clientele were a lot higher on the social ladder. Opened in 1904 in the hopping theater and shopping district near Herald Square that was fast supplanting the rough and ready Tenderloin, this Beaux-Arts beauty hosted notables like Edith Wharton and Isadora Duncan.

The Wolcott menu front cover

The Wolcott operated on what was known as the “European plan,” which meant that meals were not included in the room price. So when the hotel dining room put together this mind-blowing Christmas dinner menu for December 25, 1905, hotel guests had to pay extra.

What a feast it was! The menu featured more than a hundred options, starting with an array of oysters and clams and then 25 or so relishes (lots of caviar and “chow-chow”), soups (turtle, of course; it’s an old New York favorite), and fish (codfish tongues?) before getting to the official entrees.

If beef, ham, or chicken isn’t your idea of a Christmas dinner main course, the Wolcott offered plenty of game options, like grouse, woodcock, and partridge.

A chef in the Wolcott kitchen, 1917

The vegetable choices were quite extensive, and that list included different varieties of potatoes, including “French fried”—perhaps an early mention of the classic side we’re so used to with a burger today.

The dessert course went old-school with plum pudding. But look at all those ice cream options! Fruit, cheese, and then coffee and tea rounded out the feast. I wonder what “Wolcott special milk” is?

The menu reveals some things about life among the upper classes in Gilded Age New York. Unlike today’s pared-down, curated restaurant menu, variety seems to have been important. French dishes were certainly popular, likely thanks to the influence of Delmonico’s, which by 1905 had moved up to 44th Street and was still a leading option in a city where dining out was becoming more of a regular thing.

How the hotel’s dining staff managed to obtain and store all of these food choices is mind-boggling. Chefs must have been down at the city’s great food markets, like Washington Market, early in the morning, and an army of cooks likely chopping, peeling, and cleaning all day.

One thing remains the same, though: Christmas dinner was meant to be a celebration, just as it is today.

[Top image: MCNY, x2011.34.303; Second image: NYPL

An Impressionist painter’s Christmas in Madison Square Park

December 6, 2021

Paul Cornoyer’s work has been featured in Ephemeral New York in several earlier posts; this Impressionist artist originally from St. Louis was captivated by the Gilded Age city’s energy and vitality, as well as the beauty of its parks.

Cornoyer depicted Madison Square Park many times. But to my knowledge, “Christmas in Madison Square Park” is the only painting of his that captures what appears to be New York City’s first official park Christmas tree.

The tree—a 60-footer from the Adirondacks—made its debut in Madison Square on December 21, 1912, lit with 1,200 colored lights donated by the Edison company. It was such a hit, decorated Christmas trees soon became the norm in many city parks and squares.

I haven’t been able to confirm the date of the painting. Cornoyer moved to New York City in 1899 and spent several years here, so if the tree in this nocturne isn’t the very first park Christmas tree, it’s likely to be one of the firsts.

What a beauty it is, next to what could be the tower of Madison Square Garden in the blue glow of a winter’s night!

The modest 1924 beginning of Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Parade

November 22, 2021

New Yorkers know what to expect from Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: towering balloon characters, marching bands, elaborate floats, and Santa Claus waving from his sleigh as the procession inches from Central Park West and 77th Street to Macy’s iconic Herald Square store.

It’s a beloved holiday tradition, but it’s notably different than the much more humble inaugural parade Macy’s held in 1924.

For starters, though the first parade was held on November 27—which was Thanksgiving Day in 1924—Macy’s called it a Christmas Parade. Store employees apparently came up with the idea.

“Earlier that year, a group of Macy’s employees who were largely first-generation immigrants had asked the company to put on a parade to celebrate two things: The upcoming Christmas season, and the pride they felt in their new country,” according to Better Homes & Gardens.

Macy’s corporate leaders may have liked the idea for another reason. “Macy’s hoped its ‘Christmas Parade’ would whet the appetites of consumers for a holiday shopping feast,” wrote history.com.

The first parade took a much longer route, starting at Convent Avenue and 145th Street and making its way to the flagship Macy’s on 34th Street. Opened in 1902 after Macy’s long reign on the 14th Street end of Ladies Mile, the massive shopping mecca was a mere 22 years old at the time.

Macy’s took out newspaper ads to let New York know about the parade, promising a “marathon of mirth,” per history.com. That tagline was often used to advertise vaudeville shows, and indeed, the first parade had something of a vaudeville-like feel. (Below, the small ad the Brooklyn Eagle ran announcing the upcoming parade.)

“While the parade route may not have extended over 26 miles, its 6-mile length certainly made for a long hike for those marching from Harlem to Herald Square,” the site continued. “The spectators who stood four and five people deep, however, could watch it all in just a matter of minutes since the modest street pageant stretched the length of only two city blocks.”

What about the entertainment? The parade had no balloon floats yet, but three floats pulled by horses were themed around Mother Goose characters, such as Little Miss Muffet (second photo). Macy’s employees also dressed up as clowns, cowboys, princesses, and knights, lending the parade a circus-like, stage show aura.

Animals were also featured, conveniently borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. “Live animals including camels, goats, elephants, and donkeys were part of the parade that inaugural year,” stated a 2011 New York Daily News piece.

While Santa Claus was at the rear of the parade, he didn’t disappear once the procession ended on 34th Street. “By noontime, the parade finally arrived at its end in front of Macy’s Herald Square store where 10,000 people cheered Santa as he descended from his sleigh,” wrote history.com.

Once he emerged from his sleigh, the site explained that Santa “scaled a ladder and sat on a gold throne mounted on top of the marquee above the store’s new 34th Street entrance near Seventh Avenue.”

Though the parade wasn’t widely covered the next day in the papers (above, a grainy photo from the Daily News of the parade on Broadway), it was a smashing success. Macy’s was so pleased, they vowed to do it again on Thanksgiving 1925.

In the 1920s it became an annual event, but not without big changes. The zoo animals were replaced by balloon floats (above, in 1926) and then actual balloon characters as we know them today. Felix the Cat was the first one, in 1927; unfortunately Felix collided with an electrical wire in New Jersey in 1931 and was no more.

The parade route was shortened, the crowds got huge, balloons were no longer released into the air after the parade ended, and the first TV broadcast in 1947 turned it into a national celebration marking the beginning of the holiday shopping season.

[Top photo: Macy’s via bhg.com; second and third photos: Macy’s; fourth image: newspapers.com; fourth and fifth images: newspapers.com; sixth and seventh images: Macy’s]

A bizarre August tradition along old New York City’s waterfronts

July 29, 2021

The lazy dog days of summer along the waterfronts of late 19th century New York could could also be dangerous, thanks in part to a strange old tradition called “launching day.”

Boys at Rutgers Slip in 1908

On either August 1 or the first Friday in August (sources differ on exactly when it was held and how long it lasted), boys (and some men) along the city’s rivers would pick up another boy or man and launch them into the water.

“Yesterday was what the boys along the water front call ‘Launching Day,'” wrote the New York World on August 3, 1897. “They throw each other into the river, clothes and all, saying, ‘Now swim and give yourself a bath.'”

“Splinter Beach” by George Bellows, 1916

The origins of launching day aren’t clear, but one Brooklyn newspaper stated in 1902 that it “has been a summer event ever since Robert Fulton launched the first steamboat into the Hudson in 1807.”

Launching Day was apparently held in Brooklyn as well. “Tomorrow will also be a fine day for the little boys along the river front who will observe ‘Launching Day,'” reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on July 31, 1897, a Saturday. “This juvenile holiday will, in all probability, last for three days, as some little boys do not like to be thrown overboard in their Sunday togs.”

Boys on a Brooklyn pier

It all sounds pretty innocent. On hot summer days boys all over the city without access to swimming pools or beaches cooled off by wading into the East and Hudson Rivers. Near South Street they dove off the docks at Market and Dover Streets; in Yorkville and East Harlem they swam into the water near treacherous Hell Gate.

The problem with Launching Day, though, was that many people didn’t know how to swim in the 19th century city. Inevitably, newspapers carried tragic stories the next day about people who ended up in the water and never resurfaced.

1911 New York Evening World headline

“August 1 has been known about the waterfront for many years as ‘Launching Day,'” wrote the New-York Herald on August 2, 1900. “Anybody who ventures on a pier is in danger of being thrown into the water….John Kriete, 21 years old, an iceman of 312 East 84th Street, pushed a workman, George Krause, of the same address, overboard at East 100th Street yesterday and fell in afterward himself. Kriete was drowned.”

“In Brooklyn the drowned body of Thomas McGullen, the 10-year-old son of John McGullen of No. 70 Hicks Street, was taken from the water at Henry Street,” wrote the New-York Tribune on August 2, 1903. “He was pushed off the pier by his playmates, who were celebrating ‘launching.’ They thought he could swim.”

The action along an East River dock

Exactly when launching day died out I’m not sure. But by the 1930s, newspapers interviewed people who recalled the tradition.

In the Daily News in 1934, a police reporter wrote: “I’ve known how to swim for 30 years because I was one of the West Side kids who used the Hudson River. We don’t have it now but then we had an annual ‘Launching Day’….Everybody near the water got thrown in, clothes and all. You had to swim or else.”

[Top photo: George Bain Collection/LOC; second image: George Bellows; Third photo: New-York Historical Society; Fourth image: New York Evening World; Fifth image: NYPL]

All the arches that were built (and then bulldozed) in Madison Square

May 31, 2021

Arch fever at Madison Square Park started in 1889. That’s the year a pair of elaborate wood arches festooned with American flags were built to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration.

One arch went up outside the 23rd Street and Broadway entrance to the park (above photo), and the other was constructed on the 26th Street side (below). The city threw an impressive party for the first president, but after the festivities honoring Washington ended, the two arches were reduced to rubble.

But arches in general were quite popular all over the Beaux-Arts city through the end of the Gilded Age. So 10 years later, another arch was unveiled beside the Fifth Avenue Hotel at 24th Street and Broadway.

This impressive structure was the Dewey Arch (above), named for Admiral George Dewey, whose victory at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War earned him national hero status. Dewey was coming to New York to be honored with a parade and a flotilla of ships, and city officials hoped to welcome him in triumphant style.

The ostentatious arch reflected that spirit. “The Dewey Arch, designed by architect Charles R. Lamb, was based on the Arch of Titus in Rome and was produced by 28 sculptors,” wrote flatirondistrict.nyc. “It was topped by a quadriga, a chariot pulled by four horses running abreast. This one, in keeping with the occasion, depicted four seahorses pulling a ship.”

After the Dewey celebration, calls went out to turn this temporary arch (made from staff, a mixture of plaster and wood shavings) into a permanent one. Unfortunately, the Dewey Arch was “carted away” later that year, already picked apart by vandals, according to Daniel B. Schneider in The New York Times FYI column in 1999. The public lost interest in Dewey by then anyway.

But Madison Square Park wasn’t done with arches yet. In 1918, a fourth arch, called the Victory Arch, would be unveiled at Fifth Avenue and 24th Street. The Victory Arch was the brainchild of Mayor John Hylan, a way to honor the fallen soldiers from World War I as well as the men who were returning from Europe.

“The $80,000 triple arch was designed by Thomas Hastings in temporary materials and modeled after the Arch of Constantine in Rome, with relief panels commemorating important battles, war service organizations, and industrial might—like munitions makers,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1994.

As with the Dewey Arch, many New Yorkers wanted the Victory Arch to be permanent. Of course, it had plenty of critics as well. “Fiorello H. LaGuardia, as a candidate for President of the Board of Alderman in 1919, denounced the project as the ‘Altar of Extravagance,’ stated Gray.

By 1919, thousands of doughboys had marched through the Victory Arch during the many parades held by the city. It must have been quite a shock, then, to watch the arch be demolished in the summer of 1920—a victim of “bureaucratic infighting,” according to Allison McNearney in The Daily Beast.

Madison Square Park remains archless a century later—but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

[First image: MCNY, X2010.11.11029; second image: MCNY, X2010.11.11015; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY X2010.28.827]

The Brooklyn Bridge is celebrating its birthday

May 17, 2021

Work began in 1870 and was finally completed 13 years later (at a cost of $15 million and with more than 20 worker deaths). Now, the Brooklyn Bridge is marking its 138th birthday on May 24.

What better way to honor an icon than with a brilliant lithograph produced by a Pearl Street publisher depicting the fireworks, ship parade, and procession of 150,000 pedestrians walking across this engineering marvel for the first time on May 24, 1883? After politicians, including President Chester A. Arthur, gave speeches, the bridge was opened to the public just before midnight.

“From high water to roadway 120 ft—from high water to centre of span 135 ft—from roadway to top 158 ft—width of Bridge 85 ft—with tracks for steam cars, roadway for carriages, and walks for foot passengers, and an elevated promenade commanding a view of extraordinary beauty and extant,” the caption reads.

[Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

A lethal hotel fire at the St. Patrick’s Day parade

March 8, 2021

When the Windsor Hotel was going up in the early 1870s, it was one of the modern new buildings transforming sleepy Fifth Avenue above 42nd Street into the “storied splendor of the future of New York City,” as the New York Times excitedly wrote at the time.

“The Windsor is to be a first class hotel in every respect, and not to be excelled in general arrangements, size of rooms, attendance and completeness by any establishment of the kind,” stated the Times in May 1872, in a glowing review of the plans for the 500-room, seven-story hotel, which was set to open a year later at Fifth and 47th Street.

The timing couldn’t have been better for the Windsor. Not only was Fifth Avenue all the way up to 59th Street at Central Park booming during the Gilded Age, but hotel living was becoming a popular alternative to owning a single-family mansion for many wealthy New Yorkers.

Yet 26 years later, a carelessly tossed cigarette would reduce to hotel to smoldering rubble—and crowds lining Fifth Avenue to watch the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade (below, in 1904) found themselves witnesses to desperate hotel guests jumping to their deaths to escape the flames.

The fire started around 3 in the afternoon on March 17, 1899. A hotel guest reportedly lit his cigarette or cigar with a match in the second-floor parlor, then tossed the match out the window. But instead of falling to the street, the lit match was blown into a curtain. Almost instantly, the fire spread across the drapes and to the wall, according to the Times the day after the blaze.

The fire moved fast inside the hotel. But outside was a festive scene, with paraders “marching gayly up Fifth Avenue in front of the hotel, and thousands of people keeping time to the lilt of Irish tunes, while hundreds watched from the windows of the hotel the passing troops and waving flags,” the Times reported.

The head waiter at the Windsor, John Foy—who tried to stamp out the flames when they were still confined to the drapes—raced outside to the street yelling fire, but his cries were “drowned out by the music.” He tried to alert a policeman but was told to get back.

Finally the flames engulfed the second-floor parlor, and the smoke began to attract the attention of parade watchers before the fire exploded upward.

“Women turned pale and screamed, little ones shrank back sobbing, and men felt the sweat break upon their brows, as the heads of panic-stricken people protruded from the hotel windows…calling for help in tones that made the hearers sick,” the Times reported.

Guests trapped in their rooms had one escape route: they could climb out the window via the safety rope installed in every room—this is what passed for a fire safety exit at the time. But many people who started down the ropes ended up letting go because of the friction of the rough rope against their hands—and they subsequently plunged to the sidewalk, the Times wrote.

Firemen came to the scene quickly, but “milling thousands” of parade watchers prevented the firemen from getting inside the building easily. By the time they did, the Windsor ‘was blazing like an oil-soaked rag in a pitch barrel,” according to a Popular Science article that reexamined the fire in 1928.

The final death toll was estimated to be 86. Many of the bodies suffered so much trauma, they went unidentified and buried in an unmarked mass grave in Kensico cemetery in Westchester.

“The Windsor, although it was the most fashionable residence hotel in the city, was a veritable tinder box, ‘built to be burned,’ fire chief John Kenyon said, per Popular Science. “It has no fire escapes, no standpipes, no fire buckets. In short, it represented the worst type of the old-style ‘quick burner.'” Kenyon was a lieutenant at the time of the fire, but as FDNY chief in 1907 he was responsible for the first high-pressure hydrant system in the city.

This terrible tragedy loomed large for decades. It was even turned into a song—dedicated to Helen Gould, widow of financier/robber baron Jay Gould, who lived near the hotel and turned her “double house” mansion into a makeshift hospital to treat the injured. But over time, the Windsor receded in the city’s collective memory.

Yet there is a recent poignant twist to the story: In 2014, the unidentified victims who perished in the fire and were interred in Valhalla finally got a black granite monument to mark the mass grave. “They’re all unidentified and cemeteries are about memorialization,” Chet Day, Kensico’s president, told local paper lohud in 2014. “I felt something had to be done.”

[Top image: MCNY 91.69.15; second image: New-York Historical Society; third image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY X2010.11.9345; fifth image: MCNY X2010.11.9340; sixth image: MCNYX2010.11.9354; seventh image: MCNY X2010.11.9350; eighth image: Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins University]

A cigar box label’s charming New Year’s greeting

December 28, 2020

When I first saw this Happy New Year greeting, I thought Schumacher & Ettlinger must be a cigar company, with offices on 19th Street and Fourth Avenue, as the image states.

Instead, Schumacher & Ettlinger appear to be a lithography company that produced labels for cigar boxes. Makes sense based on their address; Fourth Avenue (Park Avenue South today, of course) was in the city’s publishing and booksellers’ district…close to what became known as Booksellers’ Row in the 20th century.

The first box label carries the date 1893, and the second one doesn’t appear to have a copyright date. Whenever they were produced, I’m sure the person gifted with a box of cigars for the New Year was quite charmed.

[First image: MCNY 40.70.487; second image: MCNY 40.70.486]

A Christmas feast at Midtown’s new Hotel Pabst

December 21, 2020

Never heard of the Hotel Pabst? You’re not alone. The nine-story tower with a steel skeleton swathed in limestone only existed from 1899 to 1902—built on the slender triangle formed by Broadway, Seventh Avenue, and 42nd Street at Longacre Square.

Hotel Pabst in Longacre Square

Run by the Pabst Brewing Company as part of a short-term effort to acquire hotels, the elegant hostelry at the upper reaches of the city’s theater district and lobster palaces was replaced by the New York Times‘ headquarters in 1904 (and Longacre Square became Times Square).

The spicy cover of the Hotel Pabst’s Christmas menu

The Pabst didn’t last, and no one alive today would remember it. But it needs to be noted that on December 25, 1900, the hotel sure cooked up a spectacular Christmas dinner.

The eye-popping Christmas dinner menu has been preserved by the New York Public Library in their Buttolph Collection of Menus. Between the carte de jour oyster offerings to the 20-plus desserts (plum pudding! Cream puffs!) are a dozen or so courses that must have taken an army of chefs to prepare.

Many of the dishes are the typical heavy fare of a hotel menu in New York of the era: terrapin a la Maryland, quail, stuffed turkey, filet of sole, prime beef, and lamb chops.

There’s a fair number of items borrowed from French menus, which makes sense, as French cuisine was seen as the most elegant at the time.

Some of the dishes are completely foreign to contemporary American tastes, however. Cold game pie, Philadelphia squabs, and reed ducks, anyone?

One thing stands out, though: Christmas dinner at a hotel in 1900 was certainly a feast. By the time you finished your Nesselrode pudding and revived yourself with your Turkish coffee, buttons must have been popping off your clothes!

[Top photo: MCNY 93.1.1.6427; menu: NYPL Buttolph Collection of Menus]