Archive for the ‘Holiday traditions’ Category

First day of school in New York: then and now

September 5, 2016

On September 8, public schools across the city will reopen their doors after summer break.

That’s about a week earlier than opening day in 1915, when kids headed back to “elementary, high, and training schools” on September 13.


A moved-up first day isn’t the only difference between opening day in 2016 and opening day today.

In 1915, about 800,000 kids attended public school in New York City. Department of Education stats from 2015 put that number at just over a million students.


Unlike their contemporary counterparts, teachers in 1915 were not unionized. Most were female, and once they became pregnant, they were fired.

This was actually an improvement over the previous longstanding, perfectly legal practice of booting teachers once they married. That rule was challenged in court in 1904.

Openingdaynycschoolsbain1915 girls

One thing hasn’t changed: overcrowding. In 1915, school “congestion” was so bad, thousands of kids were forced to go part-time while some schools, like Morris High School in the Bronx, held two sessions a day to accommodate everyone, according to the New York Times.


Oh, and (most) kids look just as excited on opening day 1915 as they typically do at back to school time—with what look like new clothes, hair ribbons, school bags, and caps for the boys, as these Library of Congress/George Bain images reveal.

A massive menu at the Manhattan Beach Hotel

August 18, 2016

Despite the hopes of its Gilded Age developer, the spectacular oceanside resort of Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn never developed the cachet of old money Newport or elegant Long Branch.


But the upper-class guests who made the Queen Anne–style Manhattan Beach Hotel a premier sand and surf destination after it opened in 1877 certainly dined well.


This menu from the 1905 summer season reveals hundreds of dishes, from shellfish to soups to salads to “Long Island vegetables,” perhaps a nod to Kings  County’s vegetable-producing past.


Calf’s head, calf brains, sweetbreads—the hotel guests liked their organ meats. Dessert doesn’t disappoint either. Look, they offer charlotte russe, a much-missed lost food of New York City.


By the time this menu (view it in its four-page entirety) was printed, Manhattan Beach’s glory days were behind it.


The enormous resort was demolished in 1912, not long before its rivals, the Brighton Beach Hotel and the Oriental Hotel, also met the wrecking ball.

[Menu: NYPL; photo: Getty Images]

Taking a spin on Coney Island’s “Witching Waves”

August 12, 2016

The variety and creativity of amusements at turn-of-the-century Coney Island was astounding. This 1910 postcard shows one of the most popular rides, the Witching Waves.


Invented by the same man who patented the revolving door and installed at Luna Park, “it consisted of a large oval course with a flexible metal floor whose hidden reciprocating levers could induce a moving wave-like motion,” explains Coney Island site

“While the actual floor didn’t move, the continuously moving wave propelled two seated small scooter-like cars forward while patrons steered.”

[Postcard: MCNY]

Why city monuments blazed with light in 1909

July 25, 2016

HudsonfultonwashsquarearchImagine New York’s most iconic monuments—the Washington Square Arch, City Hall, the East River bridges—illuminated all at once in a dazzling nighttime spectacle of electric light.

That’s exactly what happened in autumn 1909, when the city threw an incredible celebration to honor two men who helped shape the metropolis as we know it today.

The Hudson-Fulton Celebration tipped its hat to the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river that now carries his name.

It also honored Robert Fulton’s journey up the Hudson River on his steamboat. (This actually took place in 1807, but no matter.)

Hudson’s reputation, like that of many famous men from the age of exploration, has taking a beating of late. But their achievements were key in opening up settlement and trade in North America and cementing New York as a capital of commerce.


With all this in mind, city officials and titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan decided to throw a two-week fiesta from September 25 to October 11, 1909.

Traditional festivities were planned: parades, speeches, a naval flotilla, fireworks, and a historical pageant that went from West 110th Street to Washington Square.


More over-the-top ways to celebrate thrilled the city. A 63-foot replica of the Half Moon, Hudson’s ship, was launched in the Netherlands and sailed to the city. Wilbur Wright flew his plane over the Hudson River, from Governors Island to Grant’s Tomb.

And electric light, which had recently transformed the city into a modern 24-hour metropolis of streetlights, marquees, and incandescent bulbs, illuminated many city monuments and buildings.


“Decorative illumination will be carried further in the Hudson-Fulton Celebration than ever before in a public festival,” wrote the New York Times on September 21.


“Incandescent bulbs by the million will decorate the big bridges and the public buildings throughout the greater city, while many of the tall commercial buildings will be brilliantly illuminated.”

HudsonfultoncardFor the naval flotilla, “the long line of warships will be outlined in flame, while the culminating point of brilliance will be reached Saturday night, Oct. 9., when beacon fires will burn on every hilltop and in many other available places from the Narrows from the head of navigation on the Hudson.”

To my knowledge, New York has never illuminated itself  quite the same way since.

[Images: Museum of the City of New York]

Moving the Brighton Beach Hotel was amazing

July 11, 2016

When the Hotel Brighton opened in the new seaside resort of Brighton Beach in 1878, this three-story, 174-room Victorian-style hotel became an upper middle class paradise.


An elegant pavilion led guests to the sandy beach and rolling surf. The hotel’s restaurants and banquet halls served an incredible array of seafood and shellfish. The Brighton Beach Music Hall hosted famous performers and bands.

Amid all of this seaside fun and frolic, there was one problem.


The hotel was built a little too close to the ocean. Ten years later, the Atlantic Ocean was practically lapping at the Brighton’s fanciful piazzas.

“The sea has steadily encroached upon the land at Brighton Beach for years . . . Old Neptune has gobbled up a nice bit of real estate with a 500-foot sea frontage and a depth of 500 feet, to which the hotel people hold a title deed,” quipped the Evening World in April 1888.

The decision was made to move the hotel. Considering that it weighed an estimated eight million pounds, relocating the massive structure was going to take some thought.


The plan the hotel adopted was to put it on wheels—the wheels of 112 rail cars, that is.

On April 3, after months of preparation, the big move began. “The first step taken was to drive piles under the entire front of the hotel,” stated one architectural publication.


“As already mentioned, the waves had torn away the sand, so that the building literally hung half way over the water.”

Brightonbeachhotelaftermove“It was no small undertaking to build 24 railroad tracks on those piles and to lift the structure, so as to make it rest intact and absolutely level on the flat cars.”

It took 10 days for six locomotives to slowly drag the hotel about 600 feet inland.

In June, the hotel opened for the season. “The contrast between the hotel on its present site and the building resting upon piles with the ocean flowing beneath it, as it did last summer, is decidedly striking,” commented the Evening World on June 27.

[First image: MCNY; second image:; third image: LOC; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image:]

A dangerous way to sleep during a city heat wave

July 7, 2016

If you’ve ever lived in a tenement apartment, then you know nothing traps heat like those narrow, airless spaces.

To avoid roasting during a heat wave, tenement dwellers (two-thirds of the city lived in them in 1900, incredibly) sometimes took desperate measures, like sleeping on the roof or bedding down on the beach at Coney Island, on a pier, or in Central Park.


And of course, you could always lay out a blanket and pillow on the fire escape. None were especially safe options, but for poor people in a pre–air conditioned New York, you took your chances.

[Undated photo: Bettman/Corbis]

Overlooking the sea at a Gilded Age beach resort

July 4, 2016

When wealthy New Yorkers in the Gilded Age sought to escape the “heated term,” as summer was called, they certainly didn’t board a ferry to Coney Island with the masses.


The “watering place” many of the new rich fled to was Long Branch, New Jersey, where enormous hotels and cottages (aka, mansions) housed the new rich, as well as actors, artists, and seven U.S. presidents.

In 1869, Winslow Homer, who sketched scenes there for leading magazines early in his career, captured one summer moment in “Long Branch, New Jersey,” the name of the lovely painting above.

LongbranchhomersketchIn both the painting and the sketch at left, a white flag has been raised, indicating that the bathing hour for proper ladies had begun.

In the painting, two well-dressed women shield themselves from the sun in a sky so blue, it could be the Mediterranean. Long Branch was actually known as the American Boulogne, after a seaside town in northern France.

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]


“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]


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]


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.



“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”]


“[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

“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.


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]


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


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]


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]


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]