Archive for the ‘Holiday traditions’ Category

A Little Italy painter’s colorful, complex city

April 4, 2016

In October 1972, the cover of New York magazine featured a photo of a working-class man posing with several paintings.

[“Worker’s Holiday—Coney Island,” 1965]

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“This man pumps gas in the Bronx for a living,” the New York headline announced. “He may also be the best primitive painter since Grandma Moses.”

[“New York City,” 1957]

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The smiling man on the cover was Ralph Fasanella. Born in the Bronx and raised in Greenwich Village’s Little Italy, Fasanella had already scored some success as a self-taught painter.

[“San Genarro—Festa,” 1950]

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But the New York cover turned this middle-aged union organizer and gas station owner into something of an artistic late bloomer.

His enormous, carnival-colored paintings and panoramas, finely detailed and conveying the complexity of urban life, became sought-after examples of primitive art.

[“Stickball”]

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“Primitive” was a term he disliked. Social realism might be a more appropriate label for Fasanella’s work, as he captured images of family life, labor unrest, and working-class neighborhoods.

[“New York Going to Work”]

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“[His paintings’] bittersweet mood and crowded space also conveyed something of what the critic John Berger called ‘the violence of the daily necessity of the streets,’ noting ‘the way that the density of the working population makes itself felt,'” wrote the New York Times.

FasanellacoverHis depictions of Italian festivals, the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, and other New York icons burst with color, energy, and authenticity.

“Painting until the wee hours of the morning to the tunes of John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon, Fasanella described himself as a jazz artist,” states aflcio.org.

“He said he painted from his belly and would urge young aspiring artists to reject pretention, to be authentic, to paint what they know and where they came from.”

A New Year’s night in a wintry Gilded Age city

December 28, 2015

Frederick Childe Hassam painted his lovely and mysterious “New Year’s Nocturne” in 1892. He gives us a young urban couple bathed in brilliant light in the dark winter night.

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He’s dressed to the nines in top hat and tails, and she looks elegant in winter white and furs. They’re part of the in crowd, the smart set. Maybe they’re returning from the theater. Perhaps they are on their way to a New Year’s party.

In the shadows, other couples go on their way. Meanwhile, these two have stopped in front of a shop window display. If only we could ask Hassam, one of the great painters of New York’s Gilded Age, what has given them pause.

Santa has been spotted all over Manhattan

December 21, 2015

Santa Claus has come to town many times, and he’s hung out in some unlikely places.

Here’s proof, courtesy of New York’s street photographers. They always capture the weirdness and whimsy of the city…like the time Santa was waiting on the platform at Bleecker Street train in 1976 [Photographer: Richard Kalvar]

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In 1982, Santa was caught poking around Central Park, across the street from the Plaza Hotel. Hopefully he wasn’t lost. [Photographer: Raymond Depardon]

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1968 was a tumultuous year of political and social upheaval, which might explain why he stopped off at this bar (with color TV!) next to a pastry shop. Even Santa needs a little nip now and then. [Photographer: Bruce Gilden]

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Back when the Bowery had actual bums in 1977, Santa spent some time cheering up the down-and-out guys who made their home there. That garbage can probably held a nice warm fire. [Photographer: Susan Meisales]

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Here he is in 1962, refueling at the coffee shop in a Woolworth’s, in a window seat at a booth with a formica counter. It might be Christmas Eve, so he’s in for a long night. [Photographer: unknown]

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New York inspires “The Night Before Christmas”

December 14, 2015

Nightbeforechristmas1901‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”

It’s the Christmas classic that helped create the image of the modern Santa Claus, a “jolly old elf” who arrives on a reindeer-driven sleigh, sneaking down chimneys on Christmas Eve to fill stockings with toys.

First published anonymously in a Troy, New York newspaper in 1823, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” became an instant hit. In the 1830s, it was revealed to have been written by Clement Clarke Moore.

Moore, the descendant of a colonial English family, lived with his wife and children on a vast inherited estate called Chelsea in what was then the hinterlands of Manhattan.

Nightbeforechristmas1886As a theology professor, Moore wrote dry volumes inspired by ancient cultures.

But the whimsical and imaginative “A Visit From St. Nicholas” is surely influenced by life in early 19th century New York City.

The poem “he is said to have composed in 1822, at his father’s imposing tree-shaded country house in old Chelsea Village, at the corner of what is now 23rd Street and Ninth Avenue,” explained a New York Times piece from 1926.

He wrote it, “simply as a Christmas present for his two daughters, making St. Nicholas the hero at the suggestion of a ‘portly, rubicund Dutchman living in the neighborhood.”

ClementclarkemoorehouseLegend has it that Moore wrote the poem on a snowy day while riding in Chelsea in a sleigh.

“His Santa Claus was supposedly based on the family’s plump and jovial Dutch handyman, and it was while being driven home one night that the jingling bells on the horse inspired the poem,” according to When Christmas Comes, by Anne Harvey.

That sleigh ride may have been taken for a last-minute shopping trip to get a holiday turkey for charity. (Above, a drawing of Moore’s Chelsea home, before he subdivided the property and helped develop the residential neighborhood.)

Nightbeforechristmas1900A document that was part of a Santa Claus exhibit at the New-York Historical Society two decades ago showed that “Moore was a slave owner, and some historians have recounted a journey to the market to buy a Christmas turkey, the event said to have inspired the poem, in a sleigh driven by a slave,” reported the New York Times in 1995.

“A Visit From St. Nicholas” borrows the image of an airborne, tobacco-smoking Santa Claus from Moore’s literary contemporary, writer Washington Irving.

“In 1809’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Washington Irving described St. Nick flying over the treetops, bringing presents, smoking a pipe, and ‘laying his finger beside his nose,’ stated the Museum of Play.

The red suit was added later, but otherwise, This version of St. Nicholas/Santa Claus is the one we know today—though I think the pipe has been axed in these smoking-averse times.

Nightbeforechristmas18982Every December for more than a century, the beloved “A Visit From St. Nicholas” is read aloud at the Church of the Intercession on 155th Street.

A candlelight procession then heads up the street to Trinity Cemetery, where Moore and his family members are buried.

If you can’t make it to the reading at the church, give “A Visit From St. Nicholas” a read this season.

[Images of rare 19th-20th century volumes of the poem courtesy of thenightbeforechristmas.com]

The Thanksgiving ragamuffins of old New York

November 23, 2015

It’s one of the strangest holiday traditions in late 19th and early 20th century New York City.

Ragamuffins1915bain

On Thanksgiving day, kids (and often adults as well) used to dress up in costume (cowboys, pirates, and princesses were big) or in their most threadbare clothes and go door to door in the neighborhood, asking, anything for Thanksgiving?

How the tradition started isn’t all that clear. Though New Yorkers had been celebrating Thanksgiving as an official holiday since 1817, it was only nationalized in 1864.

Ragamuffinsbrooklyneagle1902

Somehow, a day to feast on turkey (and later watch football games) became associated with a practice that was part Mardi Gras, part modern-day Halloween.

These ragamuffins, as the kids were called, charmed (and sometimes irritated) New Yorkers; they begged for nickels and pennies and played jokes.

RagamuffinsNYPL1933

In some areas, these “masqueraders” even won prizes for the best getup.

“In the old days,” a policeman recalled in a New York Times article from 1930, “the Hudson Dusters, and the Rangers and the Blue Shirts used to get all dressed up and their girls did, too, and they’d have prizes for the best costume and they’d come uptown for the parade, with horns and bells. And they’d get free drinks in the saloons.”

Ragamuffinsnypl19332

Of course, this old-school tradition couldn’t last. In the 1930s, the schools superintendent discouraged the tradition. Soon, only kids who lived in neighborhoods where the “subway lines end,” as the Times put it, continued to dress up, beg, and play pranks.

Ragamuffinsbain1911

As another policeman the Times spoke to in 1947 remarked, “I remember the fun we had when we used to go out all dressed up for Thanksgiving and the people dropped red pennies out the window.” (Red because they were heated on the stove, intended to burn little kid hands.)

“But they don’t have any real fun like that anymore,” he added.

[Photos: LOC; Brooklyn Daily Eagle; NYPL Digital Collection; NYPL Digital Collection; LOC]

When New York celebrated “Columbus Week”

October 12, 2015

The Columbus Day parade of 2015 is expected to draw a million viewers to the parade route on Fifth Avenue.

Columbusdayparade1892

That’s peanuts compared to the crowds that turned out for Columbus Day parades of decades past. And it’s nothing compared to the Columbus Day—actually Columbus Week—of 1892, the 400th anniversary of the Italian explorer’s washing ashore in the Caribbean.

Columbus Week 1892 was an all-out party, featured a naval parade up the Hudson, fireworks at the Brooklyn Bridge, displays at various city parks, a Catholic school parade of thousands of kids, and a music festival.

Columbusdayparade1892nypl

And of course, there was a grand parade, seen here in two images at Union Square. “Many miles of men in the great Columbus procession,” the New York Times wrote in a headline on October 13.

“Streets turned into arbors of bunting—cascades of gay colors everywhere—model work by the police in handling the greatest crowd New-York ever held.”

[Photos: NYPL Digital Gallery]

Delivering blocks of ice to an overheated city

June 15, 2015

Thanks to many decades of home refrigeration, few New Yorkers remember what it was like getting a block of ice delivered by the iceman, and having to rely on that delivery to help keep cool on summer days.

[The iceman cuts a chunk of ice on the sidewalk, Photo: Museum of the City of New York]

Icemansidgrossmanmcny

“These hot humdrum summer days bring to mind nostalgic memories of the old horse-drawn ice wagon coming down the street,” detailed one New York Times writer in 1960.

“This was the time, of course, before modern life was filled with newfangled machinery . . . memories of such things as ice boxes and drip pans come to mind when we think of the neighborhood iceman turning the corner into our block.”

Icemanattruck

[Delivering his goods in a wagon with an engine, not pulled by horses. Photo: New York Public Library]

Like the milkman or coal delivery man, the iceman was a local fixture, delivering chunks of ice to apartments on his route that had an “ice today” card visible in the window.

“With a slicker-like black cape adorning his back, and a pair of heavy gloves to protect his hands from the load, the iceman would lift the block of ice with a pair of tongs, place it on his back over his shoulder, and perhaps walk up two, three, or even four tenement flights,” continued the Times.

Icemanstreeticevendormulbbendmcny

[The iceman typically delivered to apartments, but this block of ice was left on Mulberry Bend in 1897. MCNY]

“With a heavy sigh, he would drop the block—usually weighing from 20 to 40 pounds—into the bottom of the icebox.”

Icemanicetenement“It was at that moment that the woman of the house usually said to him: ‘I think I’ll need another chunk, about 10 pounds!’ And off he went to go through the entire process once more.”

Cooling off by stealing shards of ice was apparently a popular activity for kids, who would chase the ice wagon down the street and hop into the back without the iceman knowing.

“Once you reached it, the next problem was to climb up, pick up whatever chips of ice your probing fingers could find—and get off fast,” wrote the Times.

“The entire process had to be done quickly, and quietly, to avoid having the driver stop his horse, get off his wagon, and come around to catch the apprentice thief in the art of trying to cool off on a hot summer day.”

The ice delivery companies, though, weren’t necessarily on the side of their customers, as the actions of these greedy ice barons makes clear.

[A block of ice glistens in front of a row of West Side tenements. NYPL]

Getting out of the water at Rockaway Beach

June 8, 2015

Coney Island may be New York’s favorite seaside playground, but at the turn of the century (and for many decades afterward), Rockaway Beach rivaled Coney as the city’s premier beach destination.

Rockawaybeachpostcardmcny

This 1907 postcard, from the Museum of the City of New York’s digital collection, shows us unspoiled sand, tents and hotels for guests, and a young girl in bathing attire that looks extremely uncomfortable by today’s standards.

Rockaway has been rediscovered again, supposedly by hipsters and surfers—but it’s doubtful that anyone will venture into the water in black tights.

Easter menus from New York’s restaurant past

March 30, 2015

EasterdinnermenufrontwindsorEaster dinner was a feast at the luxurious Hotel Windsor in 1893, once on Fifth Avenue and 46th Street.

Judging by the cover of the menu (left), the day’s religious significance was front and center.

Starting with “Easter eggs,” this Gilded Age menu details more than seven hefty courses, ending with a delicious strawberries and cream option.

Mutton kidneys and frizzled beef, on the other hand, sound less than appetizing.

Easterdinnerwindsor1893

Fast-forward to 1955. We’re at the Park Lane Hotel (located on Park Avenue and 48th Street until 1971), and Easter Dinner is now Easter Sunday Brunch, its religious significance not referenced.

The menu is a lot smaller and features brunch favorites New Yorkers indulge in today, such as Eggs Benedict and pancakes (okay, wheat cakes) and sausage.

Easterbrunchhotelparklane1955

Looks like only hot buns, filet of sole, and sausage appear on both menus, which are part of the New York Public Library’s fantastic Buttolph Collection of American menus.

If the Park Lane Hotel still hosts an Easter Brunch, I bet it’s no longer $4.50 a person!

When New York winters were spent on the ice

February 16, 2015

One of the few activities open to both men and women in the 19th century city, ice skating was hugely popular.

“Skating in a moral and social point, is particularly suited to our republican ideas as a people,” stated the handbook published by the Brooklyn Skating Rink Association for the 1868-1869 season.

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Above, skating at Brooklyn’s Union Pond in 1863, once in the town of Williamsburgh on Marcy Avenue.

“The millionaire and the mechanic, the lady of fashion and those of humbler rank, all meet together to enjoy this fascinating and beautiful exercise.”

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How democratic ice skating was is not exactly clear. Ice was plentiful, but you needed the money to buy or rent skates.

And the fashionable attire worn by ladies on the ice, as seen in this Winslow Homer painting from 1861, was not cheap.

Currierandivescentralparkwinter

These sleighs and the handsome teams that pulled them were costly as well, afforded by only the richest New Yorkers.

This Currier & Ives lithograph shows the skaters and the sleighs, sharing a snowy Central Park in what looks like the 1860s.


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