Archive for the ‘Holiday traditions’ Category

What to order from a 1950s Mother’s Day menu from the Gramercy Hotel

May 5, 2022

Vintage menus from New York City hotels reveal a lot about how food choices and dining habits have changed over the years.

Case in point is this Mother’s Day menu from the luxurious Hotel Gramercy Park for May 8, 1955. The menu is for dinner, with dinner starting at noon. It’s a reminder that what we generally call “dinner” today was typically served a lot earlier in the afternoon; this mention of Sunday in New York during the Gilded Age has it that dinner was always served at 1 p.m. A smaller evening meal would be supper.

The menu itself also has a very feminized look to it, with floral images and pink type. In the 1950s, I doubt anyone complained. Today’s customers might take issue with the traditional female feel.

The menu items, though, are quite hearty, with an assortment of old-school appetizers (stuffed celery hearts, seafood cocktail) and 14 entrees (plus a cold buffet) you would expect from a menu in the 1950s. Lobster Newburgh has an old New York backstory, as it supposedly was first served at Gilded Age favorite Delmonico’s in 1876.

The desserts look divine. I wonder how many moms chose the stewed prunes over the layer cake? As for beverages, this might be the oldest mention I’ve seen on a menu of iced coffee.

[Menu: NYPL]

What John Sloan saw on the night before Easter

April 18, 2022

Easter Sunday has just passed, so I wish I came across this painting earlier this week in time to write about it. But maybe it doesn’t matter, because through the eyes and Impressionist brush of John Sloan, this 1907 work is a timeless nocturne of a seemingly ordinary transaction.

We’re probably in Greenwich Village, where Sloan lived and worked. Easter lilies are laid out in front of a shop for passersby to inspect, pick through, and make their selection. These sidewalk shoppers are shrouded in darkness, practically obscured by the black umbrella one carries.

But as they touch the flowers, you can feel the softness of the petals and sense how bright they must have looked illuminated by the artificial light of the store window. The rain-slicked sidewalk and the warm light from the cafe next door makes it an even more potent, sensuous image of the simple act of purchasing flowers on a rainy spring night.

Two decades later, Sloan painted another scene of spring flowers and a wet sidewalk that is equally evocative.

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]

What went on at the Gilded Age ‘Patriarchs balls’ for New York society

February 21, 2022

If the 19th century Gilded Age was still with us, New York society would right now be bracing for the end of the annual winter social season.

Evenings in the boxes at the Academy of Music, French dinners at Delmonico’s, costume balls at Knickerbocker mansions—each week between November and the arrival of Lent offered an intoxicating mix of social events for Gotham’s old-money “uppertens” (aka, the richest 10,000 people in the city).

But there was one type of ball that owes its existence to the clubby exclusiveness fostered during this late 19th century era of consumption and corruption: the Patriarchs Balls.

A ticket to a Patriarchs Ball in 1892

Patriarchs Balls grew out of a group called the Society of the Patriarchs, formed in 1872 by Ward McAllister (below)—the Southern-born social arbiter who became Caroline Astor’s sidekick and gatekeeper as she put her imprint on Gilded Age society.

The Patriarch Balls, given several times in a social season at Delmonico’s, had a specific purpose. “Both Astor and McAllister lamented the ‘fragmentation’ of society and hoped to alleviate it by creating a circle of elite New Yorkers at the top of the city’s social hierarchy,” wrote Sven Beckert in his 2003 book, The Monied Metropolis.

Ward McAllister

“For that purpose they appointed 25 ‘patriarchs’—among them Eugene E. Livingston, Royal Phelps, and William C. Schermerhorn—who each could invite five women and four men to the balls and dinners organized by Caroline Astor.”

Those guests who “passed the scrutiny of the Patriarchs gained admission to the Four Hundred, a figure equal to the number of guests who could fit comfortably into [Caroline Astor’s] ballroom, where an annual ball was held on the third Monday in January,” stated William Grimes, author of Appetite City.

Delmonico’s menu for an 1897 Patriarchs Ball

What actually happened at a Patriarchs Ball? Based on the breathless coverage in the many New York newspapers of the Gilded Age, the events sound a lot like any other ball.

“At 11:30 the guests began to arrive, and dancing was begun at once,” wrote the New York Times on February 14, 1888—the last Patriarchs Ball of the social season. “Round dances only were in order in the large ballroom.” Two orchestras provided the music, and the hall and stairway were decorated with vines and palms. Roses, lilies, and tulips filled Delmonico’s dining rooms.

Coverage of a Patriarchs Ball, 1881 New York Times

“At 12:30 supper was served, and was unusually elaborate,” the Times reported. “Terrapin and truffled capons were among the delicacies.”

Patriarchs Balls continued into the 1890s. But as the division between old money and new rich dissolved and a brutal recession hit the city in 1893, the appetite regular New Yorkers had for this kind of frivolity began to wane.

Patriarchs Ball ticket, 1896

The New York Times covered their last Patriarchs Ball in 1896. In 1897, they simply reported in a small article that one Patriarch, a banker named James Kernochan, was run over on his way to a ball that year “by either a vehicle or a car somewhere on 42nd Street.” (Mr. Kernochan, of 824 Fifth Avenue, was left unconscious.)

McAllister’s fall from grace also contributed to the demise of the Patriarchs. After he published something of a tell-all in 1890, and then spoke to the press about exactly who, supposedly, was part of The Four Hundred, Mrs. Astor and her circle shunned him.

[Top image: Alamy; second image: MCNY 83.20.2; third image: LOC; fourth image: NYPL Menu Collection; fifth image: New York Times headline 1881; sixth image: MCNY 40.108.134]

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]