Archive for the ‘Holiday traditions’ Category

The solemn story of Park Avenue’s holiday trees

December 30, 2019

Uptown Park Avenue is an almost unbroken line of stately, impeccable apartment buildings. And every December, it’s also a miles-long line of sparkling holiday trees.

Each year since the end of World War II, the fir trees on Park Avenue’s traffic islands are strung with lights that glow like white or amber jewels in the crisp winter night, a “glittering necklace,” as one 1987 article called it, bathing this stretch of Park in a soft winter glow.

The story behind the trees (and the annual tree-lighting ceremony) is less celebratory and more solemn: “The tradition of lighting trees on Park Avenue began in 1945 when several Park Avenue families wanted a special way to honor those men and women who had died in World War II,” states the website for the nonprofit Fund for Park Avenue, which administers the event.

These families paid for the cost of bringing in fir trees, buying lights, putting together a crew of electricians, and holding the annual ceremony that always included a bugler playing “Taps,” according to a 2005 New York Times article.

It’s since continued every year with the help of other donors. Lovely as the trees are, it’s not an easy venture to organize. Some changes have been made since the early days, when Boy Scouts manually turned on all the lights.

For starters, the holiday lights used to be red, white, green, and blue, but that made it hard for drivers to see traffic lights, so only white remained, stated the Times.

Interestingly, people have tried to steal the trees…which is why each one is now attached to the ground with cables, the Times wrote.

The number of trees and the exact streets they span appears to change as well. And in recent years, service members who fought in other wars haven’t been left out. A Daily News article (above center) from 1963 mentions that soldiers who served in Korea were honored.

“Today the illuminated trees—which appear on the malls between 54th and 97th Streets—remain a symbol of peace and a reminder of the sacrifices made to attain it,” states the Fund. The playing of “Taps” before the trees are lit continues.

[Last photo: Park Avenue in 1964, MCNY X2010.11.14131]

A downtown neon candy store sign is falling apart

December 30, 2019

What in the world is going on with this Loft’s Candies sign? Faded and falling apart, it’s been hanging on for dear life at 88 Nassau Street for several years, after another store sign came down and brought it back into view.

I’m not sure how long it’s been visible again, but it seems that it reappeared long after what remained of the once-renowned Loft Candies company closed its existing stores for good in the mid-1990s.

Not only have the neon red letters long gone dark, but the small, unusual building—at the edge of the Financial District—looks like it’s coming apart at the seams.

An Ephemeral reader who worked downtown for years snapped this recent photo (at top) of the sign; it’s the first time the reader spotted it and was astounded enough to take a picture.

The sign is in worse shape since I captured it in a photo in 2017 (at left). And while I don’t know when the store closed, it didn’t occupy this space until after 1940, since it doesn’t show up in the Department of Records 1940 tax photos database.

As dilapidated as it looks, imagine the Loft company in a sweeter time, say the first half of the 20th century—when its candies were popular all across New York City and ads for their holiday sweets appeared in all the city papers as Christmas approached.

Just think about how wonderful it was to get the “De Luxe Round Gift Box” as a gift, pictured above in the New York Daily News ad from holiday season 1941.

Or imagine the thrill of being a kid and finding a pound of “glass candies” in your stocking on December 25, as the 1914 ad in the Evening World suggested!

[Thanks to NA for snapping the recent photo!]

How New York celebrated Christmas in the 1910s

December 23, 2019

If you like to browse photos of early 20th century New York City, then you’ve seen the work of George Grantham Bain.

Bain wasn’t just a talented news photographer who started one of the first photo agencies. He was also a poetic chronicler of street life in the city, a man with a knack for creating visual narratives of how life was lived in New York—especially when it came to lives of the working men and women, the down and out, and kids.

The Christmas season was a prolific time for Bain, who captured dozens of images in the 1910s showing all the ways the holiday was celebrated in the city by the down and out, the young, and the forgotten.

The top two photos were taken outside a Salvation Army Christmas Dinner held at Grand Central Palace, an exhibition hall on 42nd Street. It was an annual event where 4,000 people, “found places at 60 long tables set on the main floor of the hall and extending practically from one side of it to the other,” wrote the New York Times in 1903.

Some people didn’t sit; they took home their holiday meal in baskets—like the woman in the center of the photo.

The third and fourth images show women and kids posing in front of a Christmas tree at what’s likely the Municipal Lodging House, the public city shelter for homeless men, women, and children at the end of 25th Street on the East Side.

We’re at one of the Newsboys’ Houses in the fifth image, above. Facilities for street kids who worked as newsies, bootblacks, flower sellers, and other jobs children often took were built in the late 19th century and funded by benevolent societies.

Some New Yorkers celebrated Christmas by peddling everything from trees to cheap toys to food, like these vendors under an elevated train.

Meanwhile, others spent the holiday delivering all the gifts picked out of toy stores and department stores. The ropes holding these boxes into the back of this delivery wagon don’t look very secure!

[All photos: Bain Collection/LOC]

Portraits of family bliss in 19th century New York

December 16, 2019

We’re in the season of holiday cards, particularly family photo cards. You might have a pile of them right now—family members, especially kids, appearing joyful in the warm embrace of domestic life.

Well-heeled New York families in the 19th century couldn’t curate their Instagram account to find the right picture representing family tranquility. And while photography studios abounded in the city after the Civil War, photo portraits were posed and formal.

So how did families convey their domestic and material comforts? By commissioning a painted portrait, as the family of Robert Gordon did above, in the parlor of his home at 7 West 33rd Street in 1866.

“The Contest for the Bouquet: The Family of Robert Gordon in Their New York Dining-Room,” was painted by Seymour Joseph Guy. Guy, a British painter, went on to do many more family portraits, called “conversation pieces” because of the narrative elements that help tell the story of the family.

In this case, Mrs. Gordon is clearly the center of domestic life in the household, sending her children off to school after breakfast (likely made by a cook) in a sumptuous Renaissance Revival dining room.

In the second portrait, the narrative elements hint at the larger world outside the domestic sphere. “Christmas-Time, the Blodgett Family,” painted by Eastman Johnson in 1864, shows a wealthy family’s restrained Christmas decor (see the wreath and tree in the background) in the parlor of their home at 27 West 25th Street.

“Depicted during the Civil War, at a time of urban upheaval, the serene interior decorated for Christmas, embodies ‘the best sentiment of home,’ as a critic observed in 1865,” states the description of the painting at Metmuseum.org, the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Only the toy of a caricatured black male dancer held by the young boy hints at pressing issues of racial strife and emancipation.”

The third painting takes us to the New York of 1880, where a wife and mother posed with her four lovely children in a luxurious dressing gown.

The woman in the portrait is Cornelia Ward Hall, wife of businessman John H. Hall; the stunning portrait is by Italian painter Michele Gordigiani. I’m not sure where the Hall family home was, but the parlor decor reflects the fashionable Asian-inspired aesthetic of the era.

Eastman Johnson was also the artist behind the fourth family portrait, depicting three generations of the Hatch family in their home at 49 Park Avenue in 1870-1871. Alfrederick Smith Hatch was a Wall Street broker in the firm of Fisk and Hatch, which helped finance railroads. (He’s the man seated on the right at a desk.)

Considering that Hatch is posing not only with his immediate family but with his father and his mother-in-law, this family portrait gives us a man who wasn’t just abundant in terms of his finances, but also abundant in family members. (I count 11 kids in that parlor!)

Thanksgiving at the new Colored Orphan Asylum

November 25, 2019

Every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the daily newspapers in late 19th century New York ran articles summing up how the holiday was celebrated by the “inmates” in the city’s many institutions.

From the Tombs to the missions to the almshouses of Blackwell’s Island, the papers reported what dishes were served and how the meals were received by inmates and any special guests (like benefactors or religious leaders) alike.

In 1875, The New York Times covered Thanksgiving dinner at the Colored Orphan Asylum.

“At the Colored Orphan Asylum, 143rd Street and 10th Avenue, there are 200 inmates, under the superintendence of Mr. O.K. Hutchinson they yesterday had a pleasant festival.”

“At 12:30 o’clock, the children, who range from two to 12 years of age, were regaled with the following bill of fare, each article being supplied at their pleasure: roast turkey, homemade bread, mashed potatoes, turnips, rice pudding, and apple pie. The afternoon and evening were spent in playing and singing.”

It’s not an especially descriptive writeup—but the colorful illustration at top (from 1874) provides a richer sense of what the dining room of the asylum looked probably looked like a year later on Thanksgiving.

Still, neither the image or the article hint at the terrible backstory of the Colored Orphan Asylum (unlike the captions on the second and third illustrations, both from the 1880s).

In a vile act of racism, the asylum’s longtime home, on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, was burned down during the terrible Draft Riots that rocked New York for days in July 1863.

An 1864 report via nyhistory.org stated that “a ruthless mob of several hundred men, women and children broke down the front door with an axe, and proceeded to ransack the building and set it on fire…. Thankfully, while the mob was focused on gaining entrance, the superintendent of the Asylum, William E. Davis, and the head matron, Jane McClellan, quietly snuck the children out the back.”

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on this shameful part of city history, plus the rise of benevolence that helped fund asylums and institutions.

[Top illustration: Alamy; second and third illustrations: NYPL]

Delmonico’s tasty menu on Evacuation Day, 1883

November 18, 2019

Do you plan to celebrate Evacuation Day on November 25 later this month?

Probably not. This holiday has been almost entirely erased from the calendar, thanks (in part) to the popularity of a certain other late November celebration.

But if you lived in New York in the late 18th century to the early 1900s, Evacuation Day was something to commemorate. It marks the day in 1783 when the British finally left New York for good after (brutally) occupying the city during the Revolutionary War.

On that morning, the Continental Army, led by George Washington, marched and rode from Upper Manhattan down to Broadway all the way to the Battery, where a Union Jack flag was taken down and an American flag raised. A celebratory dinner was also held at Fraunces Tavern.

The flagpole had been greased by the British, sparking a tradition of climbing up greased flagpoles every November 25. New Yorkers also fervently celebrated the day with a parade to the Battery, an annual event that officially ended in 1916.

Perhaps the high point of celebrating Evacuation Day came in 1883, its centennial.

Among other events, New York’s premier restaurant, Delmonico’s, put together an Evacuation Day Banquet menu, which is now part of the Buttolph menu collection at the New York Public Library.

Delmonico’s was on Fifth Avenue and 26th Street at the time, an enclave of Gilded Age luxury in Manhattan.

One of the first restaurants to popularize French cuisine, Delmonico’s printed their menus in French—and though I can’t translate all of the items on it, it’s clear that this was banquet was quite a feast!

[Top image: LOC]

The Gilded Age social season began in November

November 11, 2019

Go back in time to the Gilded Age city. Right about now, in mid-November, the elite members of the Astor 400 were putting the finishing touches on their evening gowns, mansion ballrooms, and calling cards.

That’s because the middle of November marked the beginning of the winter social season. Starting with opening night of the Academy of Music’s opera series on East 14th Street, the next few months would be a swirl of parties the rest of us could only read about. (Newspapers covered these events the way gossip sites cover Red Carpet awards shows today.)

The festivities included the annual horse show later in the the month, debutante and Patriarchs’ balls in December, and then various balls (often costume balls) and charity events—the high point of which was Mrs. Astor’s own ball held annually at the end of January.

The winter social season ended at Lent, when fancy clothes and memories of dancing quadrilles and consuming multi-course meals until early in the morning were packed away.

Not longer after, New York society started readying themselves for the summer social season in the “cottages” of Newport, which began in July.

For more about the Gilded Age and the rise and fall of the society bigwigs who ruled the city’s social world, check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top image: “Old Vanderbilt House,” Everett Shinn; second image: James Hazen Hyde Ball, January 1905 via Find a Grave; third image: unknown]

This 1916 Halloween party photo is truly scary

October 21, 2019

When was the last time you went to a Halloween party and saw someone dressed up in a costume that was actually terrifying?

The people posing in this photo, from a Halloween party in 1916 New York, are giving me nightmares. The masks are spooky; the makeup creepy. And that poor cat!

The caption of the photo gives a tiny bit of info: “Unidentified group of people in Halloween costumes, October 31, 1916. Photographed for Mrs. Reiser.” Who Mrs. Reiser is remains a mystery…perhaps she’s the one who gathered these scary people for a party!

[Photo: New-York Historical Society via Digital Culture of Metropolitan New York]

A swanky New Year’s menu from 1935 New York

December 31, 2018

When Essex House opened on Central Park South in 1931, it was an instant hit with well-to-do, fashionable New Yorkers who didn’t let things like the Great Depression or Prohibition stop their partying.

This menu card, from the Museum of the City of New York, is dated 1935; it shows New Year’s Eve revelers in the hotel’s Colonnades ballroom.

On the back of the card are some of the food offerings for the night: Swedish relish, olives, and salted nuts as appetizers; mignon beef Bearnaise, braised celery au jus, and potatoes royale for the main course. Dessert: petits fours and glace vanilla nesselrode.

[MCNY: 2003.50.2]

A Christmas card from a defunct Ladies Mile store

December 24, 2018

Hugh O’Neill was an Irish-born retailer who eventually ran one of the biggest dry goods emporiums on Sixth Avenue at 21st Street.

His was the impressive domed building in the district once known as Ladies Mile, a late 19th century enclave of fancy emporiums and more middle class department stores roughly between Broadway and Sixth Avenue and 10th to 23rd Streets.

Like any smart store owner, O’Neill happily celebrated the consumerism that took hold in late 19th century New York, and this card gets his sentiments across in a cheeky way.

The O’Neill store is now a high-end condo called The O’Neill Building—apparently some lucky owners get to live in those corner domes!