The tramp: a new kind of homeless in the 1870s

November 2, 2015

On December 28, 1873, after a terrible economic recession descended on New York—bringing with it unemployment and eviction—the New York Times sounded the alarm on a new urban threat.


“At the present time there is supposed to be at least 3,000 vagrants in this City, while there is a large number who travel from place to place, either begging as they go along, or doing odd jobs for their meals,” warned the front page article.

Trampsfrankleslies1877“These tramps are always pretending to look for work, but it is very rare that they will accept it if offered, unless to get a chance to steal something.”

Tramps had arrived in New York—ragged, disconnected men who appeared on sidewalks and park benches in high numbers, scaring residents who felt they were “an army of the poor threatening respectable society,” states The Poor Among Us.

“The threat created by tramps was certainly exaggerated, but the underlying problem was real.”

Tramp1890snyplTramps “first appeared in the 1870s,” wrote Luc Sante in Low Life. “Many of them were probably Civil War veterans who hadn’t been able to adjust.”

“In the years when Central Park was new, tramps would hide out there, living in its sylvan recesses. They attracted notice as a public nuisance with their penchant for lying prone on the pavement and draining the lees from empty beer kegs set out in front of saloons.”

Tramps lived in 5 cent lodging houses or on police station floors—the  homeless shelters of the Gilded Age for those with absolutely no where else to go.

Trampsongbook1894As the 19th century went on, Tramps became the face of homelessness in the city.

Charities directed their efforts toward decreasing the number of homeless children and women, who the public felt were more deserving of aid.

“By the end of the 19th century, however, the typical homeless person was a tramp,” states The Poor Among Us.

Tramps could be found all over downtown. Flop houses catered to them. City officials built farm colonies where they could be put to work. They became colorful characters in vaudeville and early movies.

Trampsingersargeant1904-1906Though their numbers were reduced during World War I in New York, they never really went away from the city for long, of course.

These were the “forgotten” men living in Central Park Hooverville shanties during the Depression, the Bowery bums drinking and standing around trash can fires through the postwar decades, and the homeless of today, begging on sidewalks and parks or edged into the shadows under bridges and inside subway stations.

[Top image: Jacob Riis, 1890; Harper’s Weekly; NYPL Digital Gallery; NYPL Digital Gallery; John Singer Sargent, 1906]

An East 10th Street townhouse inspired by India

November 2, 2015

The building materials of New York’s row houses don’t vary very much: brownstone, brick, mason, glass.


But teakwood? This hearty wood native to South Asia is a rarity in the city, which makes the gorgeous 1887 townhouse at 7 East 10th Street so noteworthy.

TeakwoodhouseacrossstreetThe house itself isn’t remarkable, but the beautifully carved teakwood on the bay window and trim attracts many admirers.

Who made the house such a show stopper? Lockwood De Forest, an artist and decorator who worked with Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Asian-inspired artifacts were a popular design motif at the time, and De Forest himself was enamored with Indian woodcarving, arranging for craftsmen in India to make wood carvings that could be shipped to America.

While Asian decorative elements were often found inside late 19th century parlors, De Forest made the unusual decision to incorporate them outside on the facade.


“His elaborately carved teakwood projecting bay and trim on the otherwise ordinary town house is one of this city’s marvels, both for its intricate artistry and for its having so heartily survived the elements all these years,” wrote Francis Morrone in Architectural Guidebook to New York City.


For reasons lost to history, teakwood trim also ended up next door at 9 East 10th Street, built in 1888, a building called the Ava.

In 1900, House Beautiful magazine called it the “most beautiful Indian house in America,” according to These days, the dazzling and well-preserved home is owned by New York University.

Haunting desolation on South Street in the 1930s

October 26, 2015

South Street was a still and empty place of tenement dwellers overshadowed by the Brooklyn Bridge in “South Street Stoop,” painted in 1935 by O. Louis Guglielmi.


“[Guglielmi’s] dreamlike works were critical commentaries on the social injustices of capitalism,” states Bruce Weber, author of Paintings in New York.

“The son of Italian immigrants, Guglielmi had grown up in Harlem and experienced  his own financial difficulties in the early 1930s and applied for federal relief. Beginning in 1935, he received a regular government paycheck as a member of the easel division of the Works Progress Administration.”

Body parts wash ashore the East Side in 1897

October 26, 2015

GuldensuppenackThe upper half of the torso and arms were found first, on June 26, 1897, by boys playing on a pier off East 11th Street.

The rest of the torso came ashore near High Bridge. The legs showed up off the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The body was that of a well-built man who had been alive just a few days before, according to the medical examiner. But who was he?

The gruesome details gripped the tabloids, which investigated the story along with the police.

Clues soon emerged, thanks to tabloid reporters bent on solving the murder—and selling more papers. The man had strangely soft hands, and his body parts were wrapped in a distinctive oil cloth with a red and gold floral pattern.

GuldensuppethornjailDetectives traced the seller of the cloth, who pointed police in the direction of a Danish midwife named Augusta Nack (above).

Workers at the Murray Hill Turkish Baths on 42nd Street identified the body as that of William Guldensuppe, a German masseur.

Guldensuppe was a tenant in a West 39th Street building owned by Nack. Apparently Nack was also living with a barber named Martin Thorn (left), and the three were involved in a love triangle.

By July, police had arrested Nack and Thorn, thanks to a confession Thorn gave to a barber friend.

According to the confession, Guldensuppe had beaten Thorn senseless after he found him in bed with Nack. So Thorn decided to kill his rival by luring him to a house in Queens.

GuldensuppenackjeffersonmarketAfter shooting him in the back of the head with Nack in the house as well, Thorn said that “we threw him into the bath-tub, and while he was breathing heavily I cut off his head with a razor, and stripped the body.”

Thorn sawed the body, put the head in plaster, and wrapped body parts in the oilcloth, then threw everything into the East River while taking the ferry back to Manhattan with Nack.

GuldensuppenacknewspaperIn December 1897, a jury found the couple guilty. On August 2, Thorn was electrocuted at Sing Sing. Nack served 10 years in prison upstate, then fell into obscurity.

This “trial of the century” earned its name not only because of the bloody details—but the way the press inserted themselves into the story and made 1897 a banner year of yellow journalism.

[Top photo: New York Times; second: LOC; third: New York World; fourth:]

Three ghostly faded ads in Downtown Brooklyn

October 26, 2015

GhostsignschandleradToday, Downtown Brooklyn is a bustling shopping destination.

But Fulton Street and surrounding thoroughfares are nothing like what they were in their late 19th and early 20th century heyday, when the neighborhood was packed with shops and department stores catering to middle- and upper-class tastes.


Luckily we have ghost signs on the sides of old buildings to remind us of businesses that no longer exist.

Case in point: the Chandler Piano Company, founded on Montague Street in 1869 and headquartered at 222 Livingston Street since 1907.


This remarkably preserved ad emerged last year when the building it hid behind met the wrecking ball. At the roof, you can just make out the words “Chandler-Ebel Music Co.,” the name of one of founder Frank Chandler’s music businesses.

GhostadpomeroyadTrusses, stockings . . . and artificial legs? Pomeroy Surgical Appliances made a business selling these and other scary-sounding devices at 208 Livingston Street and 584 Fulton Street.

The ad on Livingston has that wonderful old-fashioned hand sign, pointing customers right to the convenient elevator.

This J. Michaels faded ad, dwarfed by a residential tower near Smith Street, doesn’t look like much.


But the company has a long Kings County history: it sold furniture on Smith Street (apparently once a big furniture showroom hub) from 1886 until 1996.

I’m not so sure everyone who shopped at the store agreed that they were “great” as the ad claims. In 1972, the Department of Consumer Affairs sued the company for selling “defective and shoddy” furniture to low-income customers.

Trying to cross bustling Herald Square in 1902

October 19, 2015

Pedestrians, streetcars, horse-drawn wagons, elevated trains . . . getting from one side of Sixth Avenue to the other appears to be tricky at Herald Square just after the turn of the century.


I’m not sure if it’s exactly 1902. That’s the year Macy’s, in the upper left obscured by the Saks building in the center, moved from 14th Street to Herald Square.

And it’s probably not yet 1910, when automobiles began appearing more frequently, and mustaches like the one the man in the gray suit sports were on their way out of style.

The last remnant of a colonial Brooklyn road

October 19, 2015

Redhooklanestreetsign2Red Hook Lane is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stretch of road off bustling Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn.

This one-block lane is the last remnant of colonial-era Red Hook Lane, a Canarsie Indian trail that became the route from the heights of Brooklyn town through Dutch farmland to the swampy Red Hook waterfront.

Enlarge this 1760s map and you can just make out “Red Hook Lane” beneath Flatbush Avenue, where it says “Brookland Parish.”


It has Revolutionary War significance too. Red Hook Lane, an important Continental Army artery, is where George Washington watched the British outflank the Patriots at Gowanus Pass during the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776.

Redhooklanesouth“Old Red Hook Lane was originally 25 feet wide, and ran from Boerum Place diagonally across Atlantic Avenue, between Court Street and Boerum Place, running near the old engine house on Pacific Street,” according to an 1894 New York Times piece.

“Then, turning, it cut the southeast corner of Pacific Street and Court Street. From there it passed along from Tompkins Place, and then to Henry Street.”

Incompatible with the urbanization of Brooklyn and an orderly street grid, Red Hook Lane (looking south, above) was slowly swallowed up by the growing city. (Red Hook in 1875, below).


A few curious reminders of its past glory remain. The odd angles of the buildings at 228 Atlantic Avenue and 234 State Street apparently reflect the path Red Hook Lane once took.

And signs for the Red Hook Lane Heritage Trail in Red Hook mark approximately where the old road used to be.


New York is dazzled by its first luxury hotel

October 19, 2015

In 1836 Manhattan, houses were lit by candles. Floors were generally made out of wood. Private bathrooms? Decades away.


Yet all of these things could be had at the Astor House (above, in 1874), the city’s first luxury hotel, at Broadway between Vesey and Barclay Streets.

Built by multimillionaire John Jacob Astor, this 360-room granite palace dazzled New Yorkers, few of whom had the means to spend a night there or dine in the hotel’s for-men-only restaurant, enclosed under a rotunda in a center courtyard (below, in 1899).

Astorhouserotunda1899“It can never be a success—it is altogether too far uptown,” Astor’s associates warned him, forgetting the he was a real estate pro who foresaw the northward march of the city.

The hotel wasn’t just a huge success, it became an emblem of the growing Empire City.

And what amenities! An in-house gas plant provided gas lighting. A plumbing system offered hot and cold running water to each floor. Rooms had private water closets. A car ferried guests to Madison Square Garden.


President Lincoln stayed there twice: first when he came to New York to deliver his famous speech as a presidential candidate at Cooper Union in 1860, then in 1861, on the way to his inauguration. He made an impromptu speech at the hotel during his second stay, as memorialized in the Harper’s Weekly cover below.

Astorhouseharpersweekly2With City Hall and Barnum’s American Museum across the street, the Astor House booked plenty of politicians. artists, and entertainers, such as Jenny Lind, Mathew Brady, Daniel Webster, Jefferson Davis, and Henry Clay.

Even as the city inched uptown and sumptuous hotels threatened the Astor’s status, it remained a beloved fixture—until John Jacob Astor’s descendants fought over the property and the subway arrived.

In 1913, the Greek Revival beauty, with its Doric columns and pink granite, was torn down because subway construction threatened its foundation.


It was replaced by—what else?—office space aptly called the Astor House Building.

[Photos: NYPL Digital Gallery]

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]

Hard times on Depression-era East 61st Street

October 12, 2015

Last week, Yale University launched an interactive digitized photo archive packed with 170,000 incredible photos taken during the Depression.


The images, shot by various photographers, are also part of the Library of Congress. They cover faces and places across the nation—including ordinary residents of New York City working, playing, and rushing on their run.

But one subset of photos, shot by Walker Evans in 1938, is particularly haunting. These 40 or so images focus on one gritty tenement block on East 61st Street, and the unglamorous people who live there.


This isn’t the East 61st Street of Bloomingdale’s or Fifth Avenue. This is the East 61st Street between Third and First Avenues, a poor neighborhood known at the turn of the century as Battle Row.


In the middle of the Depression, East 61st Street looks like a regular workaday part of New York City—thanks in part to the corner cafeteria, an idling beer truck, and laundry-laden fire escape (below).


The people seem ordinary too. Kids play on the stoop, men and women gather to talk, a lone woman hangs out a window. A solitary older gentleman sits on his stoop forlornly.


Who were they? The photos reveal their quiet humanity, and their stony faces hint at hard times. They certainly don’t look like they enjoyed having Evans hang around with his camera.


Above, a resident is moving in or out of one building—via a horse-drawn wooden cart. And are those Belgian blocks paving the road?

Evans and his camera lurked around other parts of Manhattan in the 1930s as well, like on the subway, where he surreptitiously shot random subway riders staring, reading, or lost in their daydreams.


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