Archive for the ‘Holiday traditions’ Category

A bizarre August tradition along old New York City’s waterfronts

July 29, 2021

The lazy dog days of summer along the waterfronts of late 19th century New York could could also be dangerous, thanks in part to a strange old tradition called “launching day.”

Boys at Rutgers Slip in 1908

On either August 1 or the first Friday in August (sources differ on exactly when it was held and how long it lasted), boys (and some men) along the city’s rivers would pick up another boy or man and launch them into the water.

“Yesterday was what the boys along the water front call ‘Launching Day,'” wrote the New York World on August 3, 1897. “They throw each other into the river, clothes and all, saying, ‘Now swim and give yourself a bath.'”

“Splinter Beach” by George Bellows, 1916

The origins of launching day aren’t clear, but one Brooklyn newspaper stated in 1902 that it “has been a summer event ever since Robert Fulton launched the first steamboat into the Hudson in 1807.”

Launching Day was apparently held in Brooklyn as well. “Tomorrow will also be a fine day for the little boys along the river front who will observe ‘Launching Day,'” reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on July 31, 1897, a Saturday. “This juvenile holiday will, in all probability, last for three days, as some little boys do not like to be thrown overboard in their Sunday togs.”

Boys on a Brooklyn pier

It all sounds pretty innocent. On hot summer days boys all over the city without access to swimming pools or beaches cooled off by wading into the East and Hudson Rivers. Near South Street they dove off the docks at Market and Dover Streets; in Yorkville and East Harlem they swam into the water near treacherous Hell Gate.

The problem with Launching Day, though, was that many people didn’t know how to swim in the 19th century city. Inevitably, newspapers carried tragic stories the next day about people who ended up in the water and never resurfaced.

1911 New York Evening World headline

“August 1 has been known about the waterfront for many years as ‘Launching Day,'” wrote the New-York Herald on August 2, 1900. “Anybody who ventures on a pier is in danger of being thrown into the water….John Kriete, 21 years old, an iceman of 312 East 84th Street, pushed a workman, George Krause, of the same address, overboard at East 100th Street yesterday and fell in afterward himself. Kriete was drowned.”

“In Brooklyn the drowned body of Thomas McGullen, the 10-year-old son of John McGullen of No. 70 Hicks Street, was taken from the water at Henry Street,” wrote the New-York Tribune on August 2, 1903. “He was pushed off the pier by his playmates, who were celebrating ‘launching.’ They thought he could swim.”

The action along an East River dock

Exactly when launching day died out I’m not sure. But by the 1930s, newspapers interviewed people who recalled the tradition.

In the Daily News in 1934, a police reporter wrote: “I’ve known how to swim for 30 years because I was one of the West Side kids who used the Hudson River. We don’t have it now but then we had an annual ‘Launching Day’….Everybody near the water got thrown in, clothes and all. You had to swim or else.”

[Top photo: George Bain Collection/LOC; second image: George Bellows; Third photo: New-York Historical Society; Fourth image: New York Evening World; Fifth image: NYPL]

All the arches that were built (and then bulldozed) in Madison Square

May 31, 2021

Arch fever at Madison Square Park started in 1889. That’s the year a pair of elaborate wood arches festooned with American flags were built to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration.

One arch went up outside the 23rd Street and Broadway entrance to the park (above photo), and the other was constructed on the 26th Street side (below). The city threw an impressive party for the first president, but after the festivities honoring Washington ended, the two arches were reduced to rubble.

But arches in general were quite popular all over the Beaux-Arts city through the end of the Gilded Age. So 10 years later, another arch was unveiled beside the Fifth Avenue Hotel at 24th Street and Broadway.

This impressive structure was the Dewey Arch (above), named for Admiral George Dewey, whose victory at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War earned him national hero status. Dewey was coming to New York to be honored with a parade and a flotilla of ships, and city officials hoped to welcome him in triumphant style.

The ostentatious arch reflected that spirit. “The Dewey Arch, designed by architect Charles R. Lamb, was based on the Arch of Titus in Rome and was produced by 28 sculptors,” wrote flatirondistrict.nyc. “It was topped by a quadriga, a chariot pulled by four horses running abreast. This one, in keeping with the occasion, depicted four seahorses pulling a ship.”

After the Dewey celebration, calls went out to turn this temporary arch (made from staff, a mixture of plaster and wood shavings) into a permanent one. Unfortunately, the Dewey Arch was “carted away” later that year, already picked apart by vandals, according to Daniel B. Schneider in The New York Times FYI column in 1999. The public lost interest in Dewey by then anyway.

But Madison Square Park wasn’t done with arches yet. In 1918, a fourth arch, called the Victory Arch, would be unveiled at Fifth Avenue and 24th Street. The Victory Arch was the brainchild of Mayor John Hylan, a way to honor the fallen soldiers from World War I as well as the men who were returning from Europe.

“The $80,000 triple arch was designed by Thomas Hastings in temporary materials and modeled after the Arch of Constantine in Rome, with relief panels commemorating important battles, war service organizations, and industrial might—like munitions makers,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1994.

As with the Dewey Arch, many New Yorkers wanted the Victory Arch to be permanent. Of course, it had plenty of critics as well. “Fiorello H. LaGuardia, as a candidate for President of the Board of Alderman in 1919, denounced the project as the ‘Altar of Extravagance,’ stated Gray.

By 1919, thousands of doughboys had marched through the Victory Arch during the many parades held by the city. It must have been quite a shock, then, to watch the arch be demolished in the summer of 1920—a victim of “bureaucratic infighting,” according to Allison McNearney in The Daily Beast.

Madison Square Park remains archless a century later—but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

[First image: MCNY, X2010.11.11029; second image: MCNY, X2010.11.11015; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY X2010.28.827]

The Brooklyn Bridge is celebrating its birthday

May 17, 2021

Work began in 1870 and was finally completed 13 years later (at a cost of $15 million and with more than 20 worker deaths). Now, the Brooklyn Bridge is marking its 138th birthday on May 24.

What better way to honor an icon than with a brilliant lithograph produced by a Pearl Street publisher depicting the fireworks, ship parade, and procession of 150,000 pedestrians walking across this engineering marvel for the first time on May 24, 1883? After politicians, including President Chester A. Arthur, gave speeches, the bridge was opened to the public just before midnight.

“From high water to roadway 120 ft—from high water to centre of span 135 ft—from roadway to top 158 ft—width of Bridge 85 ft—with tracks for steam cars, roadway for carriages, and walks for foot passengers, and an elevated promenade commanding a view of extraordinary beauty and extant,” the caption reads.

[Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

A lethal hotel fire at the St. Patrick’s Day parade

March 8, 2021

When the Windsor Hotel was going up in the early 1870s, it was one of the modern new buildings transforming sleepy Fifth Avenue above 42nd Street into the “storied splendor of the future of New York City,” as the New York Times excitedly wrote at the time.

“The Windsor is to be a first class hotel in every respect, and not to be excelled in general arrangements, size of rooms, attendance and completeness by any establishment of the kind,” stated the Times in May 1872, in a glowing review of the plans for the 500-room, seven-story hotel, which was set to open a year later at Fifth and 47th Street.

The timing couldn’t have been better for the Windsor. Not only was Fifth Avenue all the way up to 59th Street at Central Park booming during the Gilded Age, but hotel living was becoming a popular alternative to owning a single-family mansion for many wealthy New Yorkers.

Yet 26 years later, a carelessly tossed cigarette would reduce to hotel to smoldering rubble—and crowds lining Fifth Avenue to watch the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade (below, in 1904) found themselves witnesses to desperate hotel guests jumping to their deaths to escape the flames.

The fire started around 3 in the afternoon on March 17, 1899. A hotel guest reportedly lit his cigarette or cigar with a match in the second-floor parlor, then tossed the match out the window. But instead of falling to the street, the lit match was blown into a curtain. Almost instantly, the fire spread across the drapes and to the wall, according to the Times the day after the blaze.

The fire moved fast inside the hotel. But outside was a festive scene, with paraders “marching gayly up Fifth Avenue in front of the hotel, and thousands of people keeping time to the lilt of Irish tunes, while hundreds watched from the windows of the hotel the passing troops and waving flags,” the Times reported.

The head waiter at the Windsor, John Foy—who tried to stamp out the flames when they were still confined to the drapes—raced outside to the street yelling fire, but his cries were “drowned out by the music.” He tried to alert a policeman but was told to get back.

Finally the flames engulfed the second-floor parlor, and the smoke began to attract the attention of parade watchers before the fire exploded upward.

“Women turned pale and screamed, little ones shrank back sobbing, and men felt the sweat break upon their brows, as the heads of panic-stricken people protruded from the hotel windows…calling for help in tones that made the hearers sick,” the Times reported.

Guests trapped in their rooms had one escape route: they could climb out the window via the safety rope installed in every room—this is what passed for a fire safety exit at the time. But many people who started down the ropes ended up letting go because of the friction of the rough rope against their hands—and they subsequently plunged to the sidewalk, the Times wrote.

Firemen came to the scene quickly, but “milling thousands” of parade watchers prevented the firemen from getting inside the building easily. By the time they did, the Windsor ‘was blazing like an oil-soaked rag in a pitch barrel,” according to a Popular Science article that reexamined the fire in 1928.

The final death toll was estimated to be 86. Many of the bodies suffered so much trauma, they went unidentified and buried in an unmarked mass grave in Kensico cemetery in Westchester.

“The Windsor, although it was the most fashionable residence hotel in the city, was a veritable tinder box, ‘built to be burned,’ fire chief John Kenyon said, per Popular Science. “It has no fire escapes, no standpipes, no fire buckets. In short, it represented the worst type of the old-style ‘quick burner.'” Kenyon was a lieutenant at the time of the fire, but as FDNY chief in 1907 he was responsible for the first high-pressure hydrant system in the city.

This terrible tragedy loomed large for decades. It was even turned into a song—dedicated to Helen Gould, widow of financier/robber baron Jay Gould, who lived near the hotel and turned her “double house” mansion into a makeshift hospital to treat the injured. But over time, the Windsor receded in the city’s collective memory.

Yet there is a recent poignant twist to the story: In 2014, the unidentified victims who perished in the fire and were interred in Valhalla finally got a black granite monument to mark the mass grave. “They’re all unidentified and cemeteries are about memorialization,” Chet Day, Kensico’s president, told local paper lohud in 2014. “I felt something had to be done.”

[Top image: MCNY 91.69.15; second image: New-York Historical Society; third image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY X2010.11.9345; fifth image: MCNY X2010.11.9340; sixth image: MCNYX2010.11.9354; seventh image: MCNY X2010.11.9350; eighth image: Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins University]

A cigar box label’s charming New Year’s greeting

December 28, 2020

When I first saw this Happy New Year greeting, I thought Schumacher & Ettlinger must be a cigar company, with offices on 19th Street and Fourth Avenue, as the image states.

Instead, Schumacher & Ettlinger appear to be a lithography company that produced labels for cigar boxes. Makes sense based on their address; Fourth Avenue (Park Avenue South today, of course) was in the city’s publishing and booksellers’ district…close to what became known as Booksellers’ Row in the 20th century.

The first box label carries the date 1893, and the second one doesn’t appear to have a copyright date. Whenever they were produced, I’m sure the person gifted with a box of cigars for the New Year was quite charmed.

[First image: MCNY 40.70.487; second image: MCNY 40.70.486]

A Christmas feast at Midtown’s new Hotel Pabst

December 21, 2020

Never heard of the Hotel Pabst? You’re not alone. The nine-story tower with a steel skeleton swathed in limestone only existed from 1899 to 1902—built on the slender triangle formed by Broadway, Seventh Avenue, and 42nd Street at Longacre Square.

Hotel Pabst in Longacre Square

Run by the Pabst Brewing Company as part of a short-term effort to acquire hotels, the elegant hostelry at the upper reaches of the city’s theater district and lobster palaces was replaced by the New York Times‘ headquarters in 1904 (and Longacre Square became Times Square).

The spicy cover of the Hotel Pabst’s Christmas menu

The Pabst didn’t last, and no one alive today would remember it. But it needs to be noted that on December 25, 1900, the hotel sure cooked up a spectacular Christmas dinner.

The eye-popping Christmas dinner menu has been preserved by the New York Public Library in their Buttolph Collection of Menus. Between the carte de jour oyster offerings to the 20-plus desserts (plum pudding! Cream puffs!) are a dozen or so courses that must have taken an army of chefs to prepare.

Many of the dishes are the typical heavy fare of a hotel menu in New York of the era: terrapin a la Maryland, quail, stuffed turkey, filet of sole, prime beef, and lamb chops.

There’s a fair number of items borrowed from French menus, which makes sense, as French cuisine was seen as the most elegant at the time.

Some of the dishes are completely foreign to contemporary American tastes, however. Cold game pie, Philadelphia squabs, and reed ducks, anyone?

One thing stands out, though: Christmas dinner at a hotel in 1900 was certainly a feast. By the time you finished your Nesselrode pudding and revived yourself with your Turkish coffee, buttons must have been popping off your clothes!

[Top photo: MCNY 93.1.1.6427; menu: NYPL Buttolph Collection of Menus]

A food vendor’s Christmas on 14th Street in 1904

December 14, 2020

Ashcan school painter Everett Shinn gravitated toward New York’s underdogs: the lonely, the lost, the dreamers, and those who appear to be battered by life’s elements.

This food vendor pushing his flimsy wood cart during the holiday season appears to fall into the latter category. Painted in 1904, “Fourteenth Street at Christmas Time” gives us a blustery, snowy street crowded with Christmas tree buyers and other shoppers beside the lights from store window displays.

Our vendor, however, stands away from everyone, his body crouched to avoid the frightful weather. His cart glows with the warmth of hot food cooking…but he has no buyers.

When Christmas was in the air in 1908 New York

December 7, 2020

“Christmas in the Air” is the title of this illustration, a black and white rendering of various New Yorkers crossing paths on a city street just before the holiday.

James Montgomery Flagg, a prolific illustrator in the early 20th century (he came up with the Uncle Sam “I Want You” poster), captures different scenarios: men carry packages for the women they are with, a boy in a uniform looks happily at a dollar in front of a well-dressed couple, and a thin man who might have been called a tramp at the time holds out his hand in front of a woman ringing a bell.

The mix of people and feel of these vignettes are from 1908, but they’re really timeless New York street scenes, right?

[Image: MCNY 62.40.16]

How 1910s New Yorkers got their Christmas trees

November 30, 2020

News photographer George Bain spent much of his career taking photos of New Yorkers going about everyday life—and that included prepping for and celebrating Christmas.

In the captions of these 1910s photos, he didn’t explain where these trees started out before they were apparently dumped at Chambers Street, most likely, where the Erie Railroad had a ferry terminal.

They appear to be destined for the parlors of city residents (brought by a team of horses), who wouldn’t consider it Christmas without a beautiful tree to decorate and gather around.

[Photo: LOC]

Don’t forget New York’s other November holiday

November 23, 2020

It’s been a good century or so since New Yorkers celebrated Evacuation Day. But in the late 18th and 19th centuries, this holiday—on November 25—was a major deal, marked by festive dinners, parades, and a deep appreciation of the role the city played in the Revolutionary War.

“Washington’s Grand Entry into New York, November 25, 1783,” Alphonse Bigot

Evacuation Day honors the day in 1783 when the British evacuated New York for good after occupying the city during the War.

“Evacuation Day and Washington’s Triumphal Entry in New York City,” Edmund P. Restein

Just hours after the Red Coats left, a Union Jack flag was taken down from a flagpole at Battery Park and replaced with the Stars and Stripes. George Washington returned to Manhattan, leading the Continental Army through the city and down Broadway flanked by cheering crowds.

[Images: Wikipedia]