Archive for the ‘Holiday traditions’ Category

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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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]


“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.”


[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.


[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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.

Times Square at night, as 1941 becomes 1942

December 29, 2014

Wartime New Yorkers still took the time to celebrate the new year, crowding into a Times Square ablaze with light in this Life magazine image.


Life put together a slideshow of other photos that capture New Year’s Eve 1941: military policemen, soldiers and sailors dancing and drinking, and NYPD horses herding the crowd.

A little girl’s very busy New Year’s Day in 1850

December 29, 2014

Catherinehavens1847“Yesterday was New Year’s Day, and I had lovely presents,” wrote 10-year-old Catherine Havens in her diary, which chronicles a year in the life of a privileged city schoolgirl, on January 2, 1850.

The diary is a wonderful artifact, describing her home on Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street, her favorite candy stores on Eighth Street, and the afternoons she spends rolling hoops and playing in Washington Square.

And it also gives contemporary readers a glimpse into what New Year’s Day was like for the city’s elite 165 years ago.

At the time, the colonial Dutch tradition of receiving male callers all day was in still full swing among upper class families, with smartly dressed gentlemen making short (often inebriated) visits to the ladies of a household.


“We had 139 callers, and I have an ivory tablet and write all their names down on it,” wrote Catherine.

“We have to be dressed and ready by 10 o’clock to receive. Some of the gentleman come together and don’t stay more than a minute; but some go into the back room and take some oysters and coffee and cake, and stay and talk.”

Newyearscalling1859harpers“The gentlemen keep dropping in all day and until long after I have gone to bed; and the horses look tired, and the livery men make a lot of money.”

Calling had romantic overtones. “Mr. Woolsey Porter and his brother, Mr. Dwight Porter always come in the evening and sit and talk a long time. They are very fond of one of my sisters.”

Catherine ends her New Year’s Day entry with a thought about the future.


“Next January we shall be half through the nineteenth century. I hope I shall live to see the next century, but I don’t want to be alive when the year 2000 comes, for my Bible teacher says the world is coming to an end then, and perhaps sooner.”

She lived until 1939, almost making it to her 100th birthday.

Celebrating a New York Christmas, 1920s style

December 25, 2014

Or maybe 1930s? It’s hard to tell when this postcard first appeared, but the illustration presents a very sophisticated, Art Deco skyscraper city during Christmastime.


Happy Holidays from Ephemeral New York!

A tasty Christmas menu from 1885 Brooklyn

December 22, 2014

“The Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York was founded by Washington Irving and others, as an organization to commemorate the history and heritage of New York, and to promote good fellowship among the members,” reads the St. Nicholas website.


Since its beginning in 1835, the Society has hosted dinners—and this menu, from the wonderful collection of the New York Public Library—gives us a peek into what was served to commemorate Christmas 1885.

Held in Brooklyn Heights, the dinner was hosted by the “Nassau Island” branch of the Society, an interesting distinction.


The menu (or Spyskaardt, an homage to Brooklyn’s Dutch beginnings) seems very New Amsterdam: turtle soup, oyster pies, roast goose. And sweet breads with peas!


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