The girls leading New York’s maypole dances

May 4, 2015

Depending on your age and social class, May Day in the New York of a century ago meant either labor demonstrations or maypoles.

For kids, especially little girls, maypoles were the thing. These tall wood poles, symbolic of trees, were decorated with strips of ribbon, which each girl would hold while moving in a circle around the pole.

Maypoledancecentralpark1905

This rejoicing of the return of spring has its roots in Northern European cultures. Since so many New Yorkers came from this part of the world at the time, the tradition carried over.

Maypolecentralpark1912bain

Central Park was a popular site for Maypole dances. But the neighborhood parks springing up at the time also hosted them, usually for poorer kids with much less decorative poles.

Their pole isn’t as fancy and instead of ribbon they’re using string, but these girls in Seward Park in 1890 refused to be left out of the tradition.

Maypolesewardpark1890

Maypole processions were a common sight in city neighborhoods, and they were led by girls, as this New York Times article from 1886 explains:

“On the morning of the eventful day the May Queen, decked out in her summer best and her hair garlanded with flowers, leads a procession of her associates to the park,” wrote the Times.

Maypoleeastside1898The May Queen was picked by popular vote in the neighborhood.

“Her especial favorite among the small boys, graciously permitted to accompany the party, carries the May pole.”

“The parents of some of the children accompany the party ostensibly to keep the peace, but in reality because they enjoy themselves fully as much as the children do.”

“Throughout the month of May, these little parties are a familiar sight on the streets.”

[Top image: NYPL; second, Bain Collection, LOC; third and fourth, NYPL]

The beloved city poet you’ve never heard of

May 4, 2015

FitzgreenhalleckheadshotAt the time of his death in 1867, he was one of the most popular writers in the city: a critically acclaimed poet, satirist, and social commentator whose work was published in leading periodicals and recited by schoolkids.

But chances are you’ve never heard of Fitz-Green Halleck (right), a forgotten man of New York letters.

Born in Connecticut in 1790, Halleck, like so many aspiring writers before and after him, moved to New York at age 21.

He made a name for himself as part of the Knickerbocker group, which included the city’s early 19th century literary hotshots like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper.

FitzgreenhalleckcentralparkHe also met Joseph Rodman Drake, the scion of a wealthy New York family (below).

Drake was a medical student who collaborated with Halleck on a series of satirical verses published in the New York Evening Post.

It’s widely presumed that Halleck was in love with Drake. Upon Drake’s marriage, Halleck wrote his sister:

“[Drake] is perhaps the handsomest man in New York, a face like an angel, a form like an Apollo; and, as I well knew that his person was the true index of his mind, I felt myself during the ceremony as committing a crime in aiding and assisting such a sacrifice.”

FitzgreenhalleckjosephrodmandrakeDrake died shortly after of tuberculosis. Halleck continued writing, earning the nickname “The American Byron” in the 1830s.

He also secured a job as John Jacob Astor’s personal secretary, which allowed Halleck access to the city’s social scene—and also an annuity upon Astor’s death that gave him an income independent of his art.

His poems tended to be overwrought and fanciful, but they were popular in his day, especially “Fanny,” from 1819 (below).

Halleck kicked around the bohemian scene at Pfaff’s, the bar at Bleecker Street and Broadway.

FitzgreenhalleckfannyexcerptHe moved back and forth between New York and Connecticut, living with his sister but never marrying.

By the 1860s, he’d earned a place in the city’s established literary scene.

In 1877, ten years after his death, he was still so popular that his statue commemorating him went up along Central Park’s Literary Walk.

Fitzgreenhalleckstatueunveiled

“President Rutherford B. Hayes dedicated his statue in 1877 before an estimated crowd of 10,000,” states poetryfoundation.org (right).

He’s the only American writer there, part of an esteemed club featuring William Shakespeare, Robert Burns, and Sir Walter Scott.

Fame was fleeting. Today, no one remembers his name or his work.

[Fourth image: gayatlcp.com; fifth image, NYPL]

Behind the Starbucks sign on Lexington Avenue

May 2, 2015

When the Starbucks at 655 Lexington Avenue shut its doors for a renovation recently, the windows were papered up and the store sign came down . . . revealing this wonderful relic of another Manhattan.

Therecordcentresign

Remember record stores? The Record Centre seems to have been a mini-chain with four Manhattan locations, including two in the West Village.

Thanks to Ephemeral Reader James R. for spotting the sign and taking the photo.

A close-up look down Cortlandt Street in 1908

April 27, 2015

“Cortlandt Street, New York, showing the Singer Building,” reads the caption of this postcard.

Cortlandtstreetpostcard1

What a time capsule we’re looking at from what appears to be West Street. Not only is there no more Singer Building (brand new in 1908, demolished in 1968), but the small-scale walkups on the right were obliterated to make way for the World Trade Center in the early 1970s.

Cortlandt Street at this time had not yet earned its wonderful nickname, “Radio Row.”

Cortlandtstreet1908bandw

That’s the platform for the Ninth Avenue El, which ran up Greenwich Street. Compare the postcard to the actual photo it comes from.

Shorpy has the enlarged image here, so you can gaze at old New York in incredible detail.

A tough painter depicts a tender New York

April 27, 2015

George Luks arrived in New York from Philadelphia in 1896.

Passionate and energetic, he was one of many young painters (along with artist friends he met in Philly, like Everett Shinn and William Glackens) whose work focused on the tenderness of the city’s underbelly.

[“The Bread Line”]

766px-'The_Bread_Line'_by_George_Benjamin_Luks,_Dayton_Art_Institute

“One of the dynamic, young group of American Realists known as the Ashcan School, [Luks] was a tough character who in art and life embraced the gritty side of turn-of-the-century New York,” states the Brooklyn Museum.

Macho and combative, he first worked as an illustrator at the New York World, honing his skills outside of his newspaper job by painting peddlers, poor older women, street kids, and other down and out New Yorkers—as well as impressionist-like scenes of the city at play and at street markets.

[“Madison Square,” 1915]

Luks_madison-square

In 1908, he’d gained notoriety as a member of the Eight, a group of social realist painters whose dark, gripping work attracted controversy.

Artistic styles change fast, and soon, Luks’ urban realism was out of fashion.

“Ironically perhaps, by the time Luks exhibited at the Armory Show in 1913, his formerly radical subject matter and style were overshadowed by the developing abstract movement,” states one gallery site.

george-benjamin-luks-spring-morning-new-york-1922.jpg.png

[“Spring Morning in New York,” 1922]

220px-George_Luks_I“Luks would teach at the Art Students League in New York from 1920 to 1924 and go on to establish the George Luks School of Painting in New York,” on East 22nd Street.

His death in 1933, at age 66, was characteristically dramatic. On October 29, Luks (at left) was found in the early morning hours slumped in a doorway, beaten to death after a barroom brawl.

A missing Brooklyn woman transfixes the city

April 27, 2015

JessieMcCannWhen 23-year-old Jessie McCann didn’t return after work to her family’s Brooklyn home on December 4, 1913, newspapers jumped on the story.

After all, Jessie’s disappearance had all the elements that would draw in readers: money, romantic intrigue, and mental illness.

The daughter of a food wholesaler who counted Mayor Ardolph Kline as a friend, Jessie lived with her family in a comfortable home at 438 East 21st Street in Flatbush (21st Street, below).

Like many privileged young women of her era, Jessie pursued work as a teacher and social worker at settlement houses.

McCannheadlinefoundNYTThe day she vanished, she left for work at the Home for Destitute Children on Sterling Place in Brooklyn . . . but never showed up.

“Miss Jessie McCann . . . is 5 foot 7 inches tall, of slender physique, weighing not more than 120 pounds,” wrote the New York Times on December 9, 1913.

“She had a light complexion with brown hair and blue eyes. . . . she wore a brown satin dress with a cutaway coat and a velvet Tam ‘o Shanter hat with an orange plume.”

And also like many of her privileged peers, she was described as having a “nervous” disposition. She suffered from “melancholia,” according to her family, and was being treated by a doctor.

 McCannflatbush21ststreetJessie’s disappearance made headlines for weeks, and the press pounced on every clue. Why was she last seen Thursday afternoon on Wall Street in Manhattan? Could she really have been spotted wandering around Zeller’s drugstore on Coney Island?

The family shot down rumors that she eloped. But a romantic angle emerged: a Columbia student came forward to say that he was Jessie’s fiance.

Her family dismissed the man’s claim, insisting that Jessie thought of men as “nuisances” and was “not of a romantic disposition.”

But police confirmed through her friends that she and the Columbia student were secretly engaged, and that he had sent her a letter the morning she vanished, telling her that they could not get married until he finished his studies in three years.

JessieMcCannheadlineveningtelegram

The weeks went on, detectives continued to investigate, and her family offered a $1,000 reward. Sightings of Jessie as far away as Chicago didn’t pan out.

JessieMcCannfoundheadlineNYTFinally, on January 5, the headlines changed: Jessie had been found, her body washed ashore on Coney Island.

Based on how decomposed it was, police believe she drowned the very day she went missing, a suicide victim despondent over her fiance’s postponing their marriage.

Her family insisted it had to be an accident, though they admitted “her nerves were unstrung.”

The shadowy corners of a city street in 1930

April 20, 2015

“Corner Shadows,” by printmaker Martin Lewis, depicts a Depression-era city of lamp light, back streets, and regular New Yorkers absorbed in their own thoughts, even in a crowd.

Martinlewiscornershadows

It’s not clear what corner of the city we’re on, but the drugstore across the way hints that it’s ordinary and nondescript, a working class neighborhood perhaps.

Look close, and you can see ads for Ex-Lax, soda, and seltzer, plus a counter occupied by a few lonely souls.

Much of Lewis’ extraordinary drypoint prints give us a similar New York noir . . . sometimes with a bit of playfulness.

A thief called the “cleverest woman in America”

April 20, 2015

AnniereillybyrnesbookmugshotWith its growing wealth and a police force more focused on patronage than professionalism, New York in the mid- to late 19th century was a thief’s paradise.

One female Irish immigrant was so successful at robbing the homes of the well off, she earned the nickname “the cleverest woman of her line in America.”

Her name was Anne Reilly. Born in Ireland in 1844, she came to New York and worked as a maid and nanny.

Her job made stealing relatively easy. Bright, charming, and able to speak three languages, “. . . she makes a great fuss over the children, and gains the good-will of the lady of the house,” before stealing all the valuables, wrote Thomas Byrnes, New York’s notorious chief of detectives in his 1886 in his book Professional Criminals of America.

AnniereillypickpocketUnder the alias of Kate Connelly, Kate Manning, or Kate Cooley, “Little” Annie plied her trade in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and other Northeastern cities, falling in with a group of professional con women and sneak thieves headed by Marm Mandelbaum, who lived on Clinton Street.

After small stints in prison, in 1880 she was finally sentenced to doing real time—three years—on Blackwell’s Island for robbing a Second Avenue home of a Mrs. Evangeline Swartz.

Anniereillynytimes1879She went back to her old ways upon release, getting a job as a servant at the New York Hotel and stealing thousands of dollars in jewelry from guests’ rooms. She also tried to make off with a watch from a Macon Street, Brooklyn, jeweler named Charles Jennings.

ThomasbyrnesThose crimes scored her time in the Kings County Penitentiary, where the official record of her life and misdeeds appears to end.

“This woman is well worth knowing,” Byrnes (at left) wrote. “She has stolen more property in the last 15 years than any other four women in America.” The four women include her three aliases.

[Article clippings: New York Times]

Step into the remains of a Gilded Age hotel

April 20, 2015

Hollandhouse“Every window in the Holland House, at Fifth Avenue and 30th Street, was glowing with light last night when the doors were opened to hundreds of visitors bidden to see the beauties of the new hostelry,” wrote the New York Times in a gushing review of the newest kid on a luxury block on December 6, 1891.

In a Gilded Age city resplendent with so many sumptuous hotels, the Holland House quickly became the place to live, dine, and enjoy a stretch of Fifth Avenue lined with the mansions of wealthy New Yorkers.

And former mansions, as New York’s richest residents were steadily relocating their residences uptown.

Hollandhouse1905

“The Holland House presents many novelties—and extremely attractive ones too . . .” stated the Times.

“In the main hall, leading from the Fifth Avenue entrance, the walls and the carved staircase are of Sienna marble.”

Hollandhousestaircase“There are 350 guest rooms in the hotel, and from the bridal suites down are all beautifully furnished and decorated,” wrote the Times.

The writer of the article also noted the novel wine cellar, the banquet and drawing rooms, the restaurant, and the staff of 180 employees.

Holland House offered sumptuous accommodations through the teens, hosting president Taft (and an army of Secret Service guards) in 1912.

HollandhouseornamentationBut the hotel was eclipsed not long after it opened when the Waldorf and the Astoria Hotels went up a few blocks north on 34th Street.

In 1897, the two joined forces to become the city’s premier hotel, turning the area into kind of a luxury hotel row which played host to the most exclusive balls and parties, like the legendary Bradley Martin Ball.

Today, unlike the original Waldorf-Astoria, Holland House still stands.

Hollandhouse2015Its facade is remarkably unchanged, and mysteriously there is a marble staircase and ornamental motifs in marble visible in the lobby.

The building manager says they are originals.

If so, they’re some of the last remnants of Gilded Age glamour on this once exclusive stretch of Fifth Avenue.

Glowing beauty of the Brooklyn Bridge at night

April 13, 2015

Now this is enchantment: the globes of light from the bridge deck, the boat lights illuminating the East River, the twinkling skyline of lower Manhattan.

Brooklynbridgenightpostcard

“This view shows the well known Brooklyn Bridge in the foreground, and the most prominent of New York’s skyscrapers in the distance,” reads the back of this postcard.

“This scene is probably more familiar than any other to the multitude of people living in Greater New York.”


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