Ghost signs of New York’s small business past

December 24, 2018

All the turnover lately among the small shops of New York City has one upside: Store signs from decades ago that had been long buried come back into view—like these two signs spotted by Ephemeral New York readers.

The first is at 7105 18th Avenue in Bensonhurst. Up until recently, it was covered by a sign containing Chinese letters, a reflection of the influx of Chinese immigrants in this corner of Brooklyn.

But when that sign came down, this understated one for Charlie & Brothers Fish Market emerged. The building dates back to the 1930s, and the sign looks like it could be that old too.

Apparently the store had been a fish market until the 1990s under a different name, Mola. Who was Charlie?

Just as mysterious is this sign on Seventh Avenue and 56th Street, for an establishment called Wilson’s.

The small store is surrounded by the usual Midtown jumble of tourist spots, cafes, and electronics shops. The entire building has construction scaffolding around it, so it probably won’t be with us much longer. What remains of Wilson’s is destined to be bulldozed with the larger building it’s part of.

[Thanks to Eric V. and Amy S. for these photos!]

This is what New York was like at Christmas 1882

December 24, 2018

During the city’s first 150 or so years, the residents of the colony that would become New York didn’t celebrate Christmas the way we celebrate it now: by buying gifts, decorating a tree, and telling stories about Santa Claus coming down chimneys.

In fact, New Yorkers weren’t celebrating Christmas at all. The Dutch holiday of St. Nicholas Day, on December 6, and then New Year’s Day, were the festive holidays of the month.

By the Gilded Age, however, Christmas as we know it was in full swing. And one writer who wrote a book about life in New York detailed the crazy consumerism, excessive eating, and general celebratory mood that constitute the modern Christmas season.

“For weeks before the great day of the feast the city is in gala attire,” wrote James McCabe, author of New York by Gaslight, from 1882.

“The stores present a brighter and more attractive appearance than at any other season of the year, the streets are filled with larger throngs, and the stages, street cars, and trains of the Elevated roads are more crowded than ever.” (Above, a painting of shoppers by Alice Barber Stephens, in 1896.)

McCabe noted the “huge piles of Christmas trees” on street corners that find “ready purchasers.”

The Christmas tree, introduced in the 1830s and 1840s, had become a staple of every home by this time. (Above left, a card from a New York business from the era.)

The cross streets in Manhattan that constituted the biggest shopping districts—Broadway, 14th Street (at right in 1899, next to the old Macy’s store), 23rd Street, and Grand Street among them—”are all driving a thriving trade.”

“It’s the money spending time of the year, and those who are out mean business,” he wrote of the crowds jostling on sidewalks. “Here is a woman with a bundle of toys in her arms, surmounted by a huge turkey for the Christmas dinner. There goes a man struggling under the weight of a Christmas tree, and sweeping his way through the mass with its thick, sharp branches.”

“Boys with penny whistles, young men with tin horns, render the streets discordant with their noise,” he notes, also describing the “half naked” kids gazing into shop windows “with wistful eyes.” They “will not be forgotten on the morrow.” (Above, a parade of expressmen with packages on their wagons to deliver.)

McCabe noted the window displays seen during the day and the electric lights ablaze inside stores once darkness fell. Inside homes, passersby could see families decorating their Christmas trees. “Something of this may be seen from the cars of the Elevated roads, as you whirl by second-story windows of the houses along the route.”

(Above, a montage by Thomas Nast of sentimental family scenes at Christmas 1863, from Harper’s Weekly.)

About the elevated trains, which were built atop several avenues in Manhattan in the 1870s: “In the cars it is almost impossible to move, because of the great bundles of merchandise. You stumble over huge turkeys and market-baskets filled to overflowing with all manner of eatables….”

Those turkeys and other feast foods could be found at the city’s great markets, like Washington Market in today’s Tribeca.

On Christmas Eve the market stays open past 11 p.m., selling “long rows of turkeys” hanging from the hooks of stalls, as well as sugar-cured hams.

After the feast was purchased, Christmas Eve turned into Christmas day. (A market scene, at left)

“When the bell of old Trinity tolls the last stroke of the hour of midnight, there is a momentary hush in the streets, and then rolling down from their lofty height, through the dark thoroughfares and over the silent waters of the bay, come the rich, glad tones of the chimes, filling the air with a burst of melody,” McCabe wrote.

McCabe wrote about the poor of the city, explaining that the “numerous charitable and benevolent institutions spread bountiful tables for their inmates….the hearts of the little ones are gladdened with toys, trinkets, and other presents suited to their needs and years.” (A dinner for the poor, below right)

“Even the prisoners in the Tombs and on Blackwell’s Island are not forgotten, and the Christmas dinner spread for them sheds a little light and hope into their otherwise gloomy existence.”

What else was similar? Matinees. “All the theaters give special performances, termed ‘matinees,’ in the afternoon. The houses are thronged, and the managers pocket large receipts. At night, balls, festivals, and entertainments of all kinds, close the day.”

[Top image: NYPL; second image: MCNY; 43.425.12; third image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY 2010.11.8795; fifth image: Thomas Nast from Harper’s Weekly, 1863, NYPL; sixth image: NYPL; seventh image: NYPL; eighth image: MCNY 37.351.16; ninth image: MCNY]

Brooklyn’s secret old-school comic book store

December 17, 2018

Tucked beside the elevated subway tracks on McDonald Avenue in Gravesend is Pinocchio Discounts—just about the best name ever for a comic book and baseball card store that looks like a holdout from a totally different Brooklyn.

My guess is that the sign goes back to the 1970s; I almost expect the cast of Welcome Back, Kotter to be inside.

A Yelp review says the shop has been owned by the same couple for 30 years, but it must be older than 1988. Yelp and Google reviewers give the place a definite thumbs up.

[Thanks to Ephemeral reader D.S. for the top photo. Second photo: Yelp]

A 19th century mayor’s fascinating social diary

December 17, 2018

Philip Hone served as New York’s mayor only from 1826 to 1827.

But Hone—the son of a carpenter who made a fortune in the auction business as a young man—spent the next two decades serving the city in another way.

From 1828 to his death in 1851, Hone kept a diary (free to access) chronicling the political and social changes of the growing metropolis.

His diary offers a fascinating glimpse of the daily life of New York filtered through the mind of a reflective writer, whose thoughts about culture and politics echo some of the same conversations we continue to have today.

“The old custom of visiting on New Year’s Day, and the happy greetings which have so long been given on that occasion, have been well kept up this year,” Hone wrote January 2, 1831.

“I am glad of it; few of those good old customs remain which mark the overflow of unsophisticated good feeling, and I rejoice whenever I can recognize any part of the wreck which the innovations of fashion have left afloat.”

The same year, he also noted the city’s “new University”—today’s NYU (above, in 1850)—and dined often with friends like Washington Irving at the Washington Hotel, at the southern tip of Broadway.

In 1836 he marked the one-year anniversary of the “great fire”—an 1835 blaze that destroyed much of downtown (left). “To the honor of the merchants, and as an evidence of the prosperity of the city, the whole is rebuilt with more splendor than before.”

Hone noted a party he went to in a mansion lighted by gas, when most homes were lit by candlelight. The gas “gave out suddenly in the midst of a cotillion; this accident occasioned great merriment to the company, and some embarrassment to the host and hostess, but a fresh supply of gas was obtained, and in short time the fair dancers were again ‘tripping it on the light fantastic toe.'”

The financial ruin brought on by the Panic of 1837 didn’t change Hone’s circumstances, but their effects were seen across the city. “No goods are selling, no business stirring, no boxes encumber the sidewalks of Pearl Street….”

Hone was a regular theater-goer, and he wrote about opening night at a new venue. “The National is the prettiest theatre in the United States; but it is not Broadway, and the New Yorkers are the strangest people in the world for their predilection for fashionable locations.” (at left, when it was destroyed in 1839.)

Before moving to Broadway and Great Jones Street, he lived in a townhouse on Broadway opposite City Hall next to the American Hotel (below). He worshipped at Trinity Church.

On Good Friday 1839 he wrote, “I went, as usual, to church this morning, and afterward into Wall Street [at right, in 1846], where the din of business drowns the sound of the bell’s invitation to worship, and the gravity of devotion is put out of countenance by the restless, anxious looks of speculative men of ‘this world.'”

Hone, a Whig, wrote about the politicians of the day; his dining partners included John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren (left, in 1828). He noted a reception held for the arrival of Henry Clay.

Hone also wrote of “the Irish and other foreigners” and other “discontented men” for fomenting labor troubles on the wharves in 1836.

He recorded the names of steamships that crossed the Atlantic; an amazing feat in his day and even toured ships when they were docked at the Battery or North River.

He took excursions to the country suburb of Hoboken, dined at friends’ estates in Manhattanville, West Farms in the Bronx, and Flushing. He and his adored wife and children went to many “fancy balls.”

While having dinner at his home with William Astor and other distinguished New Yorkers in December 1838, he experienced something sadly common in the city at the time.

The doorbell rang, and an abandoned infant with its name pinned to its gown was at the doorstep. Hone described the baby as probably a week old and “one of the sweetest babies I ever saw.”

“It did not cry during the time we had it but lay in a placid, dozing state, and occasionally, on the approach of the light, opened its little, sparkling eyes, and seemed satisfied with the company into which it had been strangely introduced,” wrote Hone.

“Poor little innocent—abandoned by its natural protector, and thrown at its entrance into life upon the sympathy of a selfish world….” Hone wrote that he thought about taking the child into his own home, but his dinner guests convinced him otherwise, and the “little wanderer” was brought to the city almshouse.

This part of Hone’s diary brings me to tears. But the horrible tragedy of infant abandonment touched Hone (at left, near the end of his life) enough to include it in his diary, so I included it here too.

[All images: NYPL Digital Collections]

The famous tea water pumps of 1700s New York

December 17, 2018

New York’s love of tea began in the 17th century, when the Dutch imported it to the colony.

By the time the British took over, tea-drinking had become an ingrained social custom, especially for ladies, according to New York City: A Food Biography.

There was one problem though: finding fresh, clean water for brewing the tea.

In the 18th century, residents got their drinking water from “wooden pumps set commonly at street corners, at intervals of about four blocks,” wrote Charles Haswell in his 1896 book, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian of the City of New York.

The pumps drew water from underground springs, but what came out tended to be distasteful and brackish. (It’s part of the reason people in the colonial city also developed a taste for beer, Madeira wine, and spirits.)

Luckily for the ten thousand or so city residents at the time, a couple of the street corner pumps actually produced high-quality, refreshing water.

These special pumps became known as “tea water pumps” because the water that came out of them made high-quality tea.

Perhaps the most famous tea water pump was at Chatham and Roosevelt Streets.

Here “stood the celebrated Tea Water Pump, of which it was alleged by the housekeepers who drew from it, that it made better tea than any other water; it was supplied by a spring from the hill of sand leading up to the juncture of Harmon Street (East Broadway) and the Bowery,” wrote Haswell.

Another legendary tea water pump was in today’s Nolita/Chinatown area, according to one tea website.

“Sometime during the first half of the 1700s, a spring of fresh water between Baxter and Mulberry Streets began to attract popular attention,” states the site.

Yet another was found on the West Side, either at Bethune Street or 10th Avenue and 14th Street, depending on the source. This one was “owned by a Mr. Knapp, who distributed its products from carts at 2 cents a pail,” stated Haswell.

Selling the tea water from these choice street corner pumps by wagon via “tea water men” became big business, as seen in the above painting depicting an 18th century residential street.

“Tea water! Tea water! Come out and get your tea water!” was the cry heard on the street by the vendor, according to the 1935 guide All About Tea.

By 1774, an estimated 3,000 households bought their water this way, according to New York City: a Food Biography.

At the turn of the 19th century, though, even the tea water pump wells were becoming polluted, especially those closest to Collect Pond, now a stinking cesspool polluted by industry.

New York’s love of tea wasn’t going to taper off; tea gardens had even opened up with views of the Hudson for refined ladies and gentlemen. Clearly, a new source of reliably fresh water would be necessary.

These New-York Historical Society images dated 1898 show children posing by old wooden corner street pumps, at left on Trinity Place and on the right on Edgar Street.

[Top image: NYPL; second image: NYPL; third image: Metmuseum.org; fourth and fifth images: New-York Historical Society]

The last house left on State Street’s mansion row

December 10, 2018

State Street is a short downtown stretch with a gentle curve along Battery Park that ends at the foot of Broadway.

Today, one side is lined with glass box buildings that serve the interests of the Financial District; it’s overrun with tourist buses.

But in the late 18th century, State Street had an entirely different feel.

Running along the waterline of Lower Manhattan, it was the city’s most desirable mansion row.

More than 200 years later, only one of those mansions still stands: the James Watson House, built in 1793.

James Watson was a Federalist and the first speaker of the New York State Assembly. He was rich, too; he made his money in imports and exports.

Like other members of the wealthy merchant class, he built himself a home befitting his status.

This was no shoddyite palazzo though. Elegant and in the fashionable Georgian style, according to the Guide to New York City Landmarks, Watson’s home gives us an idea of how the upper class lived in the postcolonial city.

As always, location mattered. With its proximity to the harbor, residents would have remarkable water views. And while the heat baked the rest of the city, the Watsons could open their enormous windows and catch the breeze.

Not only that, but the house was close enough to the harbor so that Watson could keep an eye on his shipping interests, according to nyc-architecture.com.

In 1806, Watson sold his house to merchant and sugar refiner Moses Rogers. It was Rogers who added the Federal-style two-story curved portico, which followed the curve of State Street.

Imagine the loveliness of overlooking the harbor out on that portico. Those impressive columns were likely made from ship masts, states a 1965 Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

As the 19th century continued, State Street remained fashionable.

Robert Fulton bought a mansion here in 1808, and Herman Melville was born around the corner in 1819 on Pearl Street.

By the mid-1800s, though, State Street was changing. (See third image, from 1859.)

Landfill turned the Battery into a recreational area that drew crowds. And when Castle Garden went from concert hall to an immigrant depot center in 1855, the mansions became boarding houses.

In 1888 (fourth image), the Watson House was now the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary, which aided Irish immigrant women.

A remaining building next door (seen above in 1920 and in 1936) was bulldozed decades later, and on the site rose Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic church in 1964.

In the 1960s, the Watson house was restored to its original 18th century beauty. Today, it stands out amid the street’s banking industry glass boxes, a relic of a gentler era.

It’s not a house these days but a shrine to Elizabeth Seton, the first saint born in America and a former resident of State Street. Seton lived on the other side of the Watson house as a child in the 1770s.

[Fourth image: Valentine’s Manual, 1859; fifth image: King’s Handbook, 1892; sixth image: MCNY, 1920: X2010.18.252; sixth image, 1926, LOC]

The remains of a defunct downtown subway exit

December 10, 2018

When Fulton Center opened in 2014, city officials heralded this massive transit hub as a superstation uniting 12 subway lines with a connection to PATH service.

But the extra convenience when it comes to transferring between lines cost New York some of its lovely early subway architecture.

Case in point is this stylized subway exit on the downtown East Side IRT platform.

 

Bronze and with slender ionic columns, this exit once lead to stairs and no leads nowhere. The second photo shows the exit in 2011, as the station was undergoing construction; the turnstiles weren’t pretty, but one could still leave the platform here and get a feel for what the station was like decades ago.

Now, the exit remains—but its passageway is sealed forever.

The remnant of the exit isn’t even accessible as an artifact to look closely at or even touch while you’re waiting for your 4 or 5 train, thanks to the escalator blocking it off.

Where did subway riders who disembarked here and took this exit to the street end up?

Thanks to the exhaustive New York City subway archive at nycsubway.org, it appears to have once taken riders to 195 Broadway, the former AT&T Building. Number 195 is directly across the street from Fulton Place and is noted for its Doric columns.

[Third photo: nycsubway.org, 1999]

The Bowery roots of a famous uptown gift store

December 10, 2018

When the store that eventually became Hammacher Schlemmer first opened its doors on the Bowery in 1848, it was a hardware emporium selling hard-to-find items and supplies for men in the cabinet-making and piano-building trades.

(Below, in an undated photo at 209 Bowery, off Rivington Street. Zoom in to see the store neighbors: an oyster house and Tony Pastor’s famed Opera House!)

Not long after, William Schlemmer, the nephew of one of the owners, (he began selling tools in front of the store for $2 a week when he was 12), rose up the ranks and eventually bought out his uncle.

Albert Hammacher, a German immigrant who also worked at the store as a youngster (also for $2 a week—not bad wages in a city where the average yearly salary for a working-class man was in the $300 range), became a principal of the company as well.

(Below, still at 209 Bowery but with a much fancier storefront and some very serious-looking employees, undated photo)

What followed over the next century was a name change, two moves (first to Fourth Avenue and 13th Street in 1904 and then to newly fashionable East 57th Street in 1926, at right), and a refocusing of the company’s merchandise.

Instead of hardware exclusively, Hammacher Schlemmer sold innovative items of the era, from “horseless carriages” to pop-up toasters to electric razors.

Today, Hammacher Schlemmer is still on East 57th Street, and their store windows continue to feature the most eclectic and bizarre presents for everyone on your holiday gift list.

The 7-person tricycle for $20K, maybe?

[Photos: Hammacher Schlemmer]

Waiting for a train at a dazzling subway station

December 3, 2018

Vaulted ceilings, pendant lighting, mosaic tiles, colored glass that let in natural light—these are some of the spectacular features of the City Hall IRT station, opened in October 1904 and the southernmost station on the original IRT route.

Unfortunately all of this beauty has been shut off to passengers since 1945—when the station was deemed redundant because the Brooklyn Bridge station so close. Also, it just didn’t accommodate the longer trains necessary to carry the vast numbers of city commuters.

How New York did coffee in the 1950s and 1960s

December 3, 2018

If you’re craving coffee in the contemporary city, you’ve got options: your local Starbucks, a mini-chain like Birch or Gregorys, even a corner no-frills bagel cart.

But in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—before ordering coffee meant navigating a dizzying array of blends and milk options—New Yorkers sipped a simple cup of joe at one humble coffee house: Chock Full o’Nuts.

By the 1960s, about 30 Chock Full o’Nuts restaurants dotted the city. They were so ubiquitous, I wonder if any patrons questioned the name and what nuts had to do with it.

Turns out the chain actually began as a shelled nut shop in 1926.

That’s when a Russian immigrant named William Black opened his first nut store in Times Square, according to Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City.

By 1932, Black’s original store under a staircase at Broadway and 43rd Street expanded, and he eventually owned 18 nut shops.

But with the Depression still raging, Black “converted his nut shops into inexpensive cafes where a nickel would buy a cup of quality coffee and a ‘nutted cheese’ sandwich—cream cheese with chopped walnuts on lightly toasted whole wheat raisin bread,” states Savoring Gotham.

The famously delicious cream cheese sandwich would eventually be made with date bread, and the menu expanded to donuts, soup, and pie.

When Chock Full o’Nuts reigned as the number one coffee shop in New York City in 1955, the price of a cup came in at just 15 cents.

Customers appreciated the low price, no-tipping policy, and also the cleanliness. Employees prepared the food using tongs, not their hands.

By then, the chain had introduced their own brand of coffee in supermarkets. The catchy TV jingle about the “heavenly coffee” is forever burned into the brains of every native New Yorker born before 1980.

So what happened, and how did Chock Full o’Nuts fall?

After Black died in 1983, the company didn’t adapt to changing consumer tastes, according to a 1990 Washington Post article. In 1988, the 18 remaining Chock Full o’Nuts restaurants were sold to the management chain Riese Brothers.

The last Chock Full o’Nuts hung on in the 1990s at Madison Avenue and 41st Street. In 2010, the name was revived at a new coffee house on 23rd Street, but it closed two years later.

Chock Full o’Nuts ground coffee can still be purchased in stores, its yellow, green, and black coffee can marked by an image of the New York skyline—a reminder of the restaurant’s place in Gotham’s culinary history.

[Top photo: Chock Full o’Nuts website; second photo: MCNY, 1932, 35.165.49; third photo: Chock Full o’Nuts print by Ken Keeley; fourth photo: Chock Full O’Nuts on Cedar Street, New York Times; fifth photo: Chock Full o’Nuts on Canal Street, MCNY, 1980, 2013.3.2.864]