Archive for the ‘Holiday traditions’ Category

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.

Old New York’s sleigh carnival began in January

December 31, 2017

Imagine a city where every January, when winter is at its most brutal and bone-chilling, New Yorkers parked their stages and omnibuses and excitedly hitched their horses to sleighs (like these in Central Park in the 1860s).

What was dubbed the “sleighing carnival” was an annual event in the 19th century metropolis (below, on Wall Street in 1834).

Once snow was on the ground and it was packed hard into the road, large sleighs were brought out for public transportation; “light” sleighs appeared too, kind of a personal carriage for joyriding, according to the Carriage Journal.

Joyriding meant going fast and thrilling passengers, as visitors to the city noted.

One of these visitors was Boston resident Sarah Kemble Knight, who wrote in her 1704 travel diary that New Yorkers’ winter fun involved “riding sleys about three or four miles out of town” in the Bowery.

While out with friends, “I believe we mett 50 or 60 sleys that day—they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’d turn out of the path for none except a loaden cart,” Knight wrote.

By the 19th century, the appearance of sleighs became a carnival, one of speed, fun, and thrills.

In 1830, after a heavy snow fell in early January and temperatures plunged, “the New York carnival began, and the beautiful light-looking sleighs made their appearance,” wrote James Stuart in his 1833 UK travel memoir, Three Years in North America.

New York ladies apparently loved flying through the city on runners.

“The rapidity with which they are driven, at the rate of 10 or 12 miles an hour, is very delightful, and so exciting, that the most delicate females of New York think an evening drive, of 10 or 20 miles, even in the hardest frost, conducive to their amusement and health.”

The sleighing carnival last through the end of the century. (Above left, in Prospect Park.) Snow arrived in New York mid-January 1892, recalls the Carriage Journal, “and a regular sleighing carnival was the result.”

“The popular hours were from 3 to 5 p.m., during which thousands of sleighs thronged the Park and every imaginable vehicle that could possibly be used for pleasure riding was brought out.”

“Where all came from was a matter for surprise.”

[Top image: Currier & Ives, 1860s; second image: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY 45.271.1; seventh image: NYPL]

A Harlem hotel’s holiday gift for New York City

December 24, 2017

This piece of Harlem street art on the side of the Park Avenue Hotel at 125th Street says it all. Season’s Greetings from Ephemeral New York!

This photo is a good six or seven years old, but Google tells me the mural is still there. Can anyone confirm?

Where was the original WPIX yule log filmed?

December 24, 2017

WPIX Channel 11’s strangely mesmerizing Yule Log is a Christmas tradition for New Yorkers from the 1960s to the 1980s.

So it was quite a disappointment to discover that the yule log so many of us grew up on was actually shot in a fireplace in California.

The original 16mm footage, a 17-second loop first shown on Christmas in 1966, was actually and appropriately filmed in a fireplace at Gracie Mansion, where Mayor John Lindsay lived at the time.

But when Channel 11 wanted to upgrade the deteriorating film to 35mm in 1970, they got a definitive no from the Lindsay administration.

“Unfortunately, when WPIX shot the original Gracie Mansion footage, to capture the log in all its flaming glory, the crew decided to remove the protective screen and a stray spark damaged a valuable antique rug,” explains a story on WPIX’s website, pix11.com.

“Needless to say, the Mayor’s office was not receptive to the idea of letting WPIX come back and re-shoot the footage.”

A fireplace was located in Palo Alto, California and new footage shot—but really, there wasn’t one townhouse owner who could lend his or her fireplace to the film crew so the Yule Log could be from New York, for New York?

[Photos: Wikipedia]

Christmas in the tenements in the Gilded Age

December 11, 2017

On the Lower East Side, “during these late December evenings, the holiday atmosphere is beginning to make itself felt.”

“It is a region of narrow streets with tall five-story, even seven-story, tenements lining either side of the way and running thick as a river with a busy and toilsome throng.”

So wrote Theodore Dreiser (below photo) around the turn of the last century, in a dispatch chronicling New York’s poorest, who lived between Franklin and 14th Streets.

Dreiser was a Midwestern transplant who moved to Gotham in 1894 to pursue a literary career. He himself lived in shabby apartments as he worked as a journalist, writing short prose pieces like this holiday-themed piece that gave a sensitive yet unsentimental portrayal of Christmas among the struggling.

“The ways are already lined with carts of of special Christmas goods, such as toys, candies, Christmas tree ornaments, feathers, ribbons, jewelry, purses, fruit, and in a few wagons small Christmas greens” like holly wreaths and mistletoe, wrote Dreiser.

“Work has not stopped in the factories or stores, and yet these streets are literally packed with people, of all ages, sizes and nationalities, and the buying is lively.”

“Meats are selling in some of the cheaper butcher shops for ten, fifteen, and twenty cents a pound, picked chickens in barrels at fifteen and twenty.”

“A whole section of Elizabeth Street is given up to the sale of stale fish at ten and fifteen cents a pound, and the crowd of Italians, Jews and Bohemians who are taking advantage of these modest prices is swarming over the sidewalk and into the gutters.”

“The street, with its mass of life, lingers in this condition until six o’clock, when the great shops and factories turn loose their horde of workers. Then into the glare of these electric-lighted streets the army of shop girls and boys begins to pour. . . .”

“The street cars which ply this area are packed as only the New York street car companies can pack their patrons, and that in cold, old, dirty and even vile cars.”

Dreiser had much to say about the houses of these hordes.

“Up the dark stairways they are pouring into tier upon tier of human hives. . . . Small, dark one-, two-, and three-room apartments where yet on this Christmas evening [they] are still at work sewing pants, making flowers, curling feathers, or doing any other of a hundred tenement tasks to help out the income supplied by the one or two who work out.”

Dreiser visits a family of Bohemians on Elizabeth Street who curl feathers at home for 40 cents a day, and he explains their circumstances: rent is $3 per week, food, clothes, and coal, and gas cost $6 more.

“However, on this Christmas Eve it has been deemed a duty to have some diversion, and so, although the round of weary labor may not be thus easily relaxed, the wife has been deputed to do the Christmas shopping and has gone forth into the crowded East Side street,” returning with a meat bone, vegetables, small candles, and a few toys for the children in the household on Christmas morning.

“Thus it runs, mostly, throughout the entire region on this joyous occasion, a wealth of feeling and desire expressing itself through the thinnest and most meager material forms.”

“Horses, wagons, fire engines, dolls—these are what the thousands upon thousands of children whose faces are pressed closely against the commonplace window panes are dreaming about, and the longing that is thereby expressed is the strongest evidence of the indissoluble link which binds these weakest and most wretched elements of society to the best and most successful.”

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more photos and stories of what a New York Christmas was like for the poor, rich, and emerging middle classes.

[Photos: NYPL, LOC]

Greetings from Thanksgivings past in New York

November 20, 2017

Do you send greeting cards wishing friends and family a happy Thanksgiving? Probably not—especially when a text or Facebook post will do.

But New Yorkers a century ago sent out these penny postcards emblazoned with turkeys, Pilgrims, pumpkins, corn, American flags, cherubic children, and other Thanksgiving images.

The New York Public Library has a large collection of these early 1900s cards in their digital gallery. All were sent to New Yorkers (Brooklyn and Manhattan primarily).

And none have ZIP codes—those didn’t come until 1963!

[NYPL Digital Collection from 1907-1909]

“Chiller Theatre” used to scare a lot of city kids

October 30, 2017

Wonderama was for the Sunday morning cartoon crowd. The PIX video game came on after school. The Yule Log ran on Christmas Day, as millions of presents were being torn open in New York City homes from the 1960s to the 1980s.

And for anyone excited about Halloween or horror flicks in general, there was Chiller Theater, WPIX/channel 11’s homegrown Saturday night scary movie show from the 1960s to 1982.

Every week, low-budget films about aliens and monsters thrilled anyone old enough to stay up late and watch. Even the opening montage, which you can relive here, could give kids nightmares.

An Impressionist paints New York’s sand and surf

August 21, 2017

Impressionist artist Edward Henry Potthast, born in Cincinnati in 1857, never married and had no children.

[“Coney Island,” 1910]

But this devoted painter who made art his entire life (he even died in his studio overlooking Central Park) seemed to find deep delight in depicting scenes of families, especially young mothers and children, enjoying the sand and surf at the city’s seaside pleasure outposts.

[“Summer Day, Brighton Beach” date unknown]

After studying art in Europe, Potthast permanently relocated to Manhattan in the 1890s, working as an illustrator for monthly publications such as Scribner’s and Harper’s while painting and exhibiting his own work.

[“Saturday Afternoon, Rockaway Beach” 1915]

He lived and worked at the Gainsborough, a building of artists’ studios on Central Park South that opened in 1908. “After his move to New York, Potthast made scenes of people enjoying leisurely holidays at the beach and rocky harbor views his specialty,” states this biography.

[“Manhattan Beach” date unknown]

Although he painted scenes of bright sunny skies and sparkling blue water in out-of-state locales in Massachusetts and Maine, “[s]uch was his love of the beach that, when he resided in New York, he would journey out on fair days to Coney Island or Far Rockaway with his easel, paintbox, and a few panels.”

[“Brighton Beach” date unknown]

While Coney Island and the Rockaways have been popular with painters since these resorts began attracting massive crowds in the late 19th century, Potthast’s beach scenes don’t resemble not the tawdry Coney Island of Reginald Marsh or the foreboding Coney of Alfred Henry Maurer.

[“Brighton Beach” date unknown]

Instead, they show the gentle and genteel side of the city’s beaches in the 1910s—vivid with color, activity, and a dreamy innocence that makes one wish they could be instantly transported there, away from the complexities of contemporary life.

[“Rockaway Beach” 1910]

A happy Fourth of July card, 1911 style

July 3, 2017

Uncle Sam, drums, bugles, a pistol, flags, and lots of fireworks—that’s Independence Day as seen by card manufacturers in 1911.

This card, from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery, was sent from a son in San Francisco to his father, a Mr. Charles Anderson, who lived at 44 West 125th Street. This is 1911, so no ZIP code needed.