Archive for the ‘Holiday traditions’ Category

Waiting for Thanksgiving dinner at a Bronx orphanage

November 21, 2022

Thanksgiving in early 20th century New York City wasn’t just celebrated in private homes and expensive hotel restaurants. Institutions of all kinds across Gotham also honored the holiday with their own commemorative dinners.

Hospitals, facilities for the poor, sick, and aged, and even city prisons served up a special Thanksgiving meal—usually along with speeches by important guests and often religious sermons.

Orphanages also celebrated Thanksgiving. This photo (above) shows more than 100 young residents sitting at long, linen-draped tables inside the girls’ dining room at the Roman Catholic Orphan Society in the Bronx. The orphanage was built in 1902, relocated from an older building on Fifth Avenue in Midtown.

A boys’ dining room operated in a building next door. Together, both the girls’ and boys’ buildings could house up to 1,600 residents at a time, according to nycago.org.

These uniform-clad, unsmiling girls look like they’re on their best behavior. I wish we knew exactly what their Thanksgiving menu offered…and what their adult lives were like.

You won’t find this handsome orphanage (above, in 1914) in the Bronx anymore. By the 1920s, thanks to a sizable reduction in the number or orphan residents, both buildings were abandoned and sold. The Bronx VA Hospital took its place.

[Photos: New-York Historical Society]

A forgotten war memorial in Madison Square Park honors the “glorious dead”

November 7, 2022

New York is a time capsule of war memorials. Solemn doughboy statues, heavy bronze plaques inscribed with names, and dramatic sculptures personifying courage and mortality honor all the city residents over the years who lost their lives in combat.

Some of these memorials are so inconspicuous, they’ve been pretty much forgotten. Case in point is this simple metal plaque on a concrete plinth in Madison Square Park honoring America’s “glorious dead.”

Located on the east side of the Park at about 25th Street, the plaque is partially hidden by fallen leaves from the tree planted at the same time it was installed.

The organization responsible for the tree and plaque is the Young Australia League—a group formed in 1906 in Perth as a soccer league that embraced Australian patriotism and pride. In March 1929, a group of 159 young Australians from the YAL came to New York City as part of a “sightseeing and goodwill” trip of the United States, according to this Brooklyn newspaper article.

Strangely, the marker doesn’t specify who the glorious dead are. But since the plaque came to the park in 1929, the intent was likely to honor the 116,708 American military personnel who perished from any cause during the Great War.

Though small and hard to find, the plaque is in good company in Madison Square Park. The Admiral Farragut statue, honoring the Union Army leader of “damn the torpedoes…full speed ahead” fame, sits inside the northwest corner of the park.

And the military grave site and 51-foot obelisk memorial to General William Jenkins Worth—who died during the Mexican-American War in 1849—rises nearby at Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and 25th Street.

The spooky spider web windows on 57th Street

September 30, 2022

The scary season is upon us, and Halloween-loving New York City residents are decorating their front stoops, windows, and terraces with witches, skeletons, and spider webs. But one East Side apartment building flaunts cast-iron spider webs across its front windows all year long.

The spider web windows are at 340 East 57th Street, a 16-story vision of prewar elegance between First and Second Avenues. Look closely at the service door above: this web has a black spider sitting in it, waiting and watching. It looks particularly Halloween-like with the orangey glow from the inside light.

The building’s architect, Rosario Candela, was one of the legendary designers of Manhattan’s most exclusive residences in the 1920s. I’ve posted about this building before, and I still don’t know if he had a hand in creating those spider web window guards.

If so, I appreciate Candela’s sense of spooky playfulness. Also playful but not quite spooky: the whimsical seahorse reliefs below the second-story windows.

A writer recalls “the beauty of it all” after a visit to 1890s Manhattan Beach

July 22, 2022

During summer in the early 1890s, a huge electric sign dominated the side of the St. Germain Hotel, at Broadway and 22nd Street. The St. Germain stood on the sliver of land that would be home to the Flatiron building less than a decade later. But at that time, nothing obstructed the ad—which faced the fashionable hotels, streetcar lines, and shopping emporiums of Madison Square.

The sign’s flashing colored lights advertised the pleasures of Manhattan Beach, one of Brooklyn’s seaside resorts created in the 1870s. “Swept by Ocean Breezes,” the ad blazed several stories in the air. A list of attractions—the Manhattan and Oriental Hotels, “Sousa’s Band,” and “Pains Fireworks”—lit up the New York night.

The electric sign hoped to lure sweltering city residents to this middle class resort, a more genteel version of Coney Island on the same Brooklyn peninsula. But it also captivated Theodore Dreiser, who was new in New York City after a stint as a journalist in the Midwest.

The Manhattan Beach Hotel, 1900

By 1900, Dreiser would publish Sister Carrie, his first novel, and establish himself as a leading American author. Now, he was an anonymous observer without means, struggling to make a living writing for New York’s newspapers while living in shabby rooms in Greenwich Village.

“Walking up or down Broadway of a hot summer night, this sign was an inspiration and an invitation,” Dreiser recalled in The Color of a Great City, his collection of vignettes about life in Gotham before and after the turn of the 20th century. “I had heard as much about Atlantic City and Coney Island, but this blazing sign lifted Manhattan Beach into rivalry with fairyland.”

Theodore Dreiser, around 1900

So one Sunday, Dreiser and his brother headed to Manhattan Beach. The two took the 34th Street ferry, which brought the “seaward-moving throng” to a railroad connection in Long Island City and then to the beach.

“The boat on which we crossed was packed to suffocation,” he wrote. “Indeed, 34th Street near the ferry was packed with people carrying bags and parasols and all but fighting each other to gain access to the dozen or more ticket windows.”

“The clerk and his prettiest girl, the actress and her admirer, the actor and his playmate, brokers, small and exclusive tradesmen, men of obvious political or commercial position, their wives, daughters, relatives, and friends, all were outbound toward this much above average resort.”

At Manhattan Beach, Dreiser was awestruck. He marveled at the “great hotels, held and contained all summer long all that was best and most leisurely and pleasure-loving in New York’s great middle class of that day….”

Oriental Hotel, 1903

His attention to detail served him well when describing what the male guests wore. “I never saw so many prosperous-looking people in one place, more with better and smarter clothes, even though they were a little showy. The straw hat with its blue or striped ribbon, the flannel suit with its accompanying white shoes, light cane, the pearl-gray derby, the check suit, the diamond and pearl pin in necktie, the silk shirt. What a cool, summery, airy-fairy realm!”

The women in bathing outfits impressed him as well. “It seemed to me that the fabled days of the Greeks had returned. These were nymphs, nereids, sirens in truth. Old Triton might well have raised his head above the blue waves and sounded his spiral horn.”

Guests strolling beside the beach, 1895

When Dreiser had moved to Manhattan, he was caught off guard by the great riches of the upper classes and the deep poverty of the poor—conditions that had become more or less accepted by Gilded Age residents. He brought a sensitivity to class struggles in his writings about Manhattan Beach, as he observed the thousands of finely dressed guests enjoying dining room feasts, music pavilions, rocking chairs on the verandas, and the nightly fireworks over the beach.

“The wealth, as I saw it then, that permitted this!”

He was also struck by the resort’s flimsy beauty. “But the beauty of it all, the wonder, the airy, insubstantial, almost transparent quality of it all! Never before had I seen the sea, and here it was before me, a great, blue, rocking floor, its distant horizon dotted with white sails and the smoke of but faintly visible steamers dissolving in the clear air above them….And as dusk came on, the lights of the lighthouses, and later the glimmer of the stars above the water, added an impressive and to me melancholy quality to it all. It was so insubstantial and yet so beautiful.”

Diving into the water with the Oriental Hotel in the background, 1897

His visit to Manhattan Beach that day in the early 1890s ended. Twenty-five years later, Dreiser wrote that he went back to the site of the once-fabled resort.

“But of that old, sweet, fair, summery life not a trace,” he stated. “Gone were the great hotels, the wall, the flowers, the parklike nature of the scene. In 25 years the beautiful circular pavilion had fallen into the sea and a part of the grounds of the great Manhattan Hotel had been eaten away by winter storms….Even the great Oriental, hanging on for a few years and struggling to accommodate itself to new conditions, had been torn down.”

A family takes to the sand in bathing suits armed with an umbrella

Open since the 1870s, the Manhattan Beach Hotel was demolished in 1911, according to heartofconeyisland.com. The Oriental Hotel, hosting guests since 1880, met the wrecking ball in 1916. Manhattan Beach the resort was over, but Manhattan Beach the neighborhood was seized by developers, who built homes and sidewalks. Manhattan Beach Park, a small beach, continues to be open to the public.

“Only the beach remained, and even that was changed with new conditions,” Dreiser wrote, explaining the newly planted trees along divided new streets, “sold to those who craved the freshness of this seaside isle.”

[Second image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY, 1887, MNY111867; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY, MNY62849; seventh image: MCNY, MNY62850; eighth image: MCNY, MNY62854]

A teenage immigrant who became a “sweatshop girl” tells her life story

July 14, 2022

Amid the fortune making and social swirling of New York’s Gilded Age, more than 12 million immigrants came to the United States. Seventy percent of those newcomers took their first steps on American soil via Castle Garden or Ellis Island, Gotham’s two immigration processing depots.

In the early 1900s, Sadie Frowne was one of these new arrivals. A few years later, this 16-year-old’s story of surviving in New York—”The Life Story of a Polish Sweatshop Girl”—made it into a fascinating 1906 book called The Lives of Undistinguished Americans.

The broad strokes of Sadie’s story are not unlike those of other poor immigrants, left to find their way in a chaotic, unwelcoming city desperate for their labor. What sets her experience apart are the details she reveals: the smell of the steamship across the Atlantic, the budgeting she did on the Lower East Side to save her meager earnings, and the friendships and love she found to replace her family.

Immigrant women at Ellis Island, 1910

Sadie begins her tale in a Polish village in the late 19th century. Her parents operated a small grocery shop, and they also “worked in the fields,” using two back rooms of the store as their home.

When she was 10, she lost her father. “After he died troubles began, for the rent of our shop was about $6 a month and then there were food and clothes to provide,” said Sadie. “We needed little, it is true, but even soup, black bread, and onion we could not always get.”

Sadie’s mother, who she describes as “a tall, handsome, dark-complexioned woman with red cheeks” and was “much looked up to by the people, who used to come and asked her for advice,” thought she and her daughter should try their luck in America, “where we heard it was much easier to make money.”

Arriving in New York Harbor

An aunt who lived in New York “took up a subscription” among friends and relatives so the two would have the money for passage.

“We came by steerage on a steamship in a very dark place that smelt dreadfully,” said Sadie. Twelve harrowing days later, “at last the voyage was over, and we came up and saw the beautiful bay and the big woman with the spikes on her head and the lamp that is lighted at night in her hand.”

After being fetched by her aunt (likely at Ellis Island, which opened in 1892 and replaced Castle Garden), Sadie found a position as a servant. “I was only a little over thirteen years of age and a greenhorn, so I received $9 a month in board and lodging, which I thought was doing well.” Sadie’s mother started work at a factory “making white goods,” or undergarments, at $9 a week.

Mr. Goldstein’s sweatshop, 30 Suffolk Street in 1908

Sadie describes her mother as a lively woman who wanted to see the sights in New York. But that led her to contract “hasty consumption”—a virulent strain of tuberculosis. “Two doctors attended to her, but they could do nothing, and at last she died, and I was left alone,” stated Sadie.

This teenager’s survival instincts had to kick in. “So I went to work in Allen Street (Manhattan) in what they call a sweatshop, making skirts by machine. I was new at the work and the foreman scolded me a great deal.” She sewed six days a week and pocketed $4 per payday.

Sadie and another sweatshop girl, Ella, shared a room on Allen Street, which cost them $1.50 a week. The arrangement worked, and by budgeting the cost of food carefully, they saved money. “It cost me $2 a week to live, and I had a dollar a week to spend on clothing and pleasure, and saved the other dollar. I went to night school, but it was hard work learning at first as I did not know much English.”

After two years in the Allen Street room—which had a dirty, noisy elevated train overhead—Sadie moved to Brownsville, which the book describes as “the Jewish sweatshop district of Brooklyn.” Her new job, at a factory that manufactured underskirts, paid her $4.50 a week, and then $5.50.

Her workday started at 7 in the morning and ran to 6 at night. “The machines go like mad all day, because the faster you work the more money you get,” she said. “All the time we are working the boss walks about examining the finished garments and making us do them over again if they are not just right.”

Some male employees harassed her, touching her hair and making jokes. But one man, Henry, defended her, and he became her sweetheart. “Henry has seen me home every night for a long time and makes love to me. He wants me to marry him, but I am not 17 yet, and I think that is too young. He is only 19, so we can wait.”

At the end of the workday and on her Sundays off, Sadie believed that “you must go out and get air, have pleasure.” She and Henry go to Coney Island’s dance halls, or Ulmer Park—a Coney beer garden. She also enjoys theater and reading romance novels. “I have many friends and we often have jolly parties. Many of the young men like to talk to me, but I don’t go out with anyone except Henry.”

Toward the end of her story, Sadie stated that her workplace recently went on strike, with the backing of her union. “We struck for shorter hours, and after being out four weeks won the fight. We only have to work nine and a half hours a day and we get the same pay as before….The next strike is going to be for a raise of wages, which we all ought to have.”

“So the union does good after all in spite of what some people say against it—that it just takes our money and does nothing. But though I belong to the union I am not a Socialist or Anarchist. I don’t know exactly what these things mean.”

Sadie’s story ends here, on the brink of marriage and foreshadowing a decade of social change for the thousands of sweatshop and factory workers like herself. What could have become of this plucky, pleasure-loving, sensible girl? I bet she had a rich, fulfilling American life.

Here’s another story of a young immigrant girl arriving in New York City in the Gilded Age, per The Lives of Undistinguished Americans.

[Top photo: Lewis Hine/NYPL Digital Collections; second photo: Bain Collection/LOC; third image: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper; fourth photo: Lewis Hine/LOC; fifth image: The Lives of Undistinguished Americans; sixth image: NYPL Digital Collections; seventh image: Bain Collection/LOC]

What a Gilded Age servant girl had to say about Coney Island

June 13, 2022

Her name was Agnes. As a teenager in Germany at the turn of the century she sought more money and opportunity. So she decided to buy a ticket for $55 with her wages as a milliner’s apprentice and sailed from Antwerp to New York City, where three of her siblings had already settled.

After a week of living in a flat on West 34th Street with her sister, she found a job again with a milliner. Her pay came to $4 per week, which she was satisfied with, but she wanted something different. “I wanted more pleasure,” she said in the 1906 book, The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans, which includes her story.

So she went “into the service,” as she put it: she became one of thousands of young women, often new immigrants, who worked as live-in servant girls for the upper middle class and rich in the Gilded Age.

Agnes became a nurse governess, taking care of the children of various employers. While the life of a servant girl could be harsh and lonely, Agnes reported that she was generally treated well; usually she would be one of several servants in the household. “The duties are light; I have two afternoons a week to myself and practically all the clothing I need to wear,” she said of her latest situation in a family of three young kids. “My salary is $25 a month.”

Her wealthy employers brought her along on summer trips to Newport and Long Island. But Agnes preferred Coney Island: the rides, the freedom, and most of all the dancing. Coney Island in the early 1900s was packed with dance halls that attracted poor and working-class women like herself. These shop girls, factory girls, and servant girls could get to Coney by train or boat for a day excursion and a break from the tedium of working for a living.

“I like New York,” she said. “I have a great many friends in New York and I enjoy my outings with them. We go to South Beach or North Beach or Glen Island or Rockaway or Coney Island. If we go on a boat we dance all the way there and all the way back, and we dance nearly all the time we are there.”

“I like Coney Island best of all. It is a wonderful and beautiful place. I took a German friend, a girl who had just come out, down there last week, and when we had been on the razzle-dazzle, the chute and the loop-de-loop, and down in the coal mine and all over the Bowery, and up in the tower and everywhere else, I asked her how she liked it.

Stauch’s dance hall on the Bowery at Coney Island

“She said: ‘Ach, it is just like what I see when I dream of heaven.'”

Agnes generally liked her employers. But she wished she could teach them a thing or two about having fun. “Yet I have heard some of the high people with whom I have been living say that Coney Island is not tony. The trouble is that these high people don’t know how to dance. I have to laugh when I see them at their balls and parties. If only I could get out on the floor and show them how—they would be astonished.”

[Top image: MCNY x2011.34.2113; second image: MCNY x2011.34.2033; third image: Bain Collection/LOC; fourth image: eBay]

The short life of an amusement park dubbed “Harlem’s Coney Island”

June 10, 2022

In the early 1900s, the Fort George Amusement Park in Upper Manhattan attracted huge crowds to its three roller coasters (one called the “Rough Rider” and another “The Tickler”), three merry-go-rounds, and two ferris wheels.

There were concessions as well, plus a casino, hotels, skate rink, vaudeville stage, boat ride, and pony racing track for the enjoyment of the park’s mostly working-class visitors.

What started out as a “trolley park” built by the Third Avenue Trolley Line in 1895, according to an article by the Museum of the City of New York, soon became known as Harlem’s Coney Island—thanks to the rides and attractions high above the steep cliffs beside the Harlem River.

By the 1910s, complaints of crime and noise spelled the beginning of the end for Fort George. In the 1920s, following a fire and strong neighborhood opposition, the park’s days were over. In 1928, the city took the land the park once occupied and turned it into Highbridge Park.

[First image: MCNY F2011.33.1361; second image: MCNY F2011.33.1362]

The sweet side of a New York tenement roof in the summer

June 6, 2022

If you’ve never done it, lying out on a tenement roof on a hot summer day might sound very unappealing. It’s sweaty and sticky, there’s barely a breeze, and you can feel as if you’re on view, within the prying eyes of neighbors or strangers in nearby buildings.

But the way John Sloan depicts it in his 1941 etching “Sunbathers on the Roof,” spending the day on tar beach means being in your own private paradise. The low wall around the rooftop can double as a moat keeping out interlopers; sharing a blanket like this couple does adds to the sensuality and intimacy of reclining together in bathing suits.

These two have things to read, suntans to work on, and an attention-seeking cat (a pet or building stray?) to amuse them. The magnificent city they’ve turned their backs to may as well not even exist; they already have everything they need.

[Smithsonian American Art Museum]

This is how New York celebrated Decoration Day in 1917

May 30, 2022

“Not since 1898 have the Decoration Day parades and ceremonies had the significance which will emphasize them to-day,” wrote The Sun on May 30, 1917. “The city will not only pay tribute to the heroes of the past, but the marching columns of youths and veterans will help stimulate the country to the highest endeavor to gain victory in the world war.”

“Twenty thousand uniformed men will march up Riverside Drive, while 50,000 schoolboys will parade up Fifth Avenue,” the newspaper stated on the front page. “The two parades will start at 9 o’clock in the morning. The Grand Army of the Republic and its accompanied divisions will leave Broadway and 72nd Street, march west to Riverside Drive, then north to Grant’s Tomb, and will be reviewed on the way at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument at 86th Street.”

[Photo: LOC/Bain Collection]

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]