Posts Tagged ‘19th century New York City’

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.

Old Fifth Avenue’s rich, most reclusive siblings

August 22, 2013

WendelfamilydrewuniversityNew York has had lots of crazy-rich families.

But few were as mysterious as the Wendels, siblings born in the 19th century who never married, rarely socialized, and grew old together behind brick walls inside the last private mansion on Fifth Avenue.

Their father made his fortune in fur and real estate. In the 1850s, like other wealthy city residents at the time, he built himself and his family a big house on fashionable, once-residential Fifth Avenue, at 39th Street.

With all their money, you would expect the Wendel siblings—brother John and his six (some sources say seven) sisters—to live it up among high society in late 19th century New York.

Johnwendelhome1856-1934But the siblings kept to themselves, and rumors spread. John, who collected rent from his father’s real-estate holdings, became known as the “recluse of Fifth Avenue.”

“[John] frowned on marriage for his sisters and decreed they should stay out of society, live in the simplest possible style and wear the fashions of their youth,” a newspaper wrote.

The siblings resided “in an antiquated house of mystery amid the cacophonous commerce of midtown Manhattan,” stated a recent article in Drew [University] Magazine (where the photo montage above comes from).

“There, starved of society by a tyrannical brother, the [sic] sisters cuddled lapdogs instead of sweethearts. With stingy allowances and shabby clothes, they slipped into spinsterhood—and perhaps, it was whispered, insanity.”

As the 20th century arrived and Fifth Avenue’s mansions were replaced by office buildings, the Wendel home—without electricity, telephones, or other conveniences—and its occupants fueled rumors.

Wendelplaque3“Spouses meant dispersal of the family fortune, so gossiped the gossips, and thus the seven Wendel sisters were kept moldering in the upper stories of their mansion, as brother John pinched their pennies,” the article explained.

John died in 1914 in his 70s. Over the next decades the sisters began dying off as well (one did get married—in her 60s!).

By the 1930s, Ella was left, seen only at night to give her poodle a chance to run around the backyard (a backyard she constantly turned down huge sums of money for).

Ella died in her sleep at age 80 in 1931. The public finally learned where at least part of the Wendel fortune would go: to Drew University in New Jersey.

Drew inherited the Fifth Avenue property where the Wendel mansion, the last of its kind, was razed in 1934.

The school put up this plaque there in the family’s memory.

Swindlers lying in wait for the city’s immigrants

December 14, 2012

New York’s most recent arrivals—immigrants were processed through Castle Garden at Battery Park, until Ellis Island opened in 1892—had plenty of con artists vying for their attention and cash, according to this 1877 illustration.

It was originally published in Puck, the popular satirical weekly that took on politics and culture (and was headquartered—where else?—at the Puck Building on Lafayette Street).


The artist certainly doesn’t have a lot of faith in New York’s police force. A uniformed man on a bench appears to be asleep, while another in the back is just watching the swindlers lick their chops over a new batch of unsophisticated Europeans to prey on.

The illustration has been preserved by the Balch Institute of Ethnic Research in Philadelphia and came by way of Ephemeral reader AJ Morocco.

Monk Eastman’s notorious Bronx gang fight

May 11, 2011

Even in gang-ridden 19th century New York, with mobsters being rubbed out by rival thugs with guns and other weapons all the time, the old-fashioned fistfight was still used to solve disputes.

That’s what happened in the turf war between criminal Monk Eastman and Paul Kelly, leader of the Five Points Gang.

The simian, wild-haired Eastman (right) controlled Chrystie Street to East 14th Street, wrote Andrew Roth in Infamous Manhattan.

Paul Kelly (below), a dapper Italian with an Irish name, ruled west of Bowery.

Both gangs were under the thumb of Tammany Hall politicos. Tired of their gun battles over disputed neutral territory, Tammany brass organized an old-school fight in a barn in the Bronx in 1903 between the two men.

This “fist duel,” as a 1923 New York Times article dubbed it, didn’t solve a thing.

Eastman and Kelly went at each other in that barn for hours before it was called a draw.

The turf war mostly resolved itself when Eastman was sent to Sing Sing for robbery in 1904, then fought in World War I (he became a decorated soldier).

Kelly had control of the Lower East Side until 1908, when a deadly gun battle—and then Tammany Hall’s desire to clean up the Bowery—reduced his criminal power.

The “kissing bridges” of Manhattan’s East Side

September 15, 2010

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, lots of little streams crisscrossed country-like Manhattan island.

This necessitated small pedestrian bridges—at least three of which earned the moniker “kissing bridge” because they were secluded, scenic, and an ideal place for a colonial couple to indulge in a little PDA.

One kissing bridge crossed over the Sawkill Stream near today’s 77th Street and Second Avenue.

A little to the south was another kissing bridge, at present-day 50th Street and Second Avenue. [Illustration at right, NYPL digital collection]

A third could be found near modern-day Park Row. A stream called Wreck Brook meandered close by.

Whenever a man and woman came upon it, “every gallant Knickerbocker was supposed to express his regard for the lady he met there in the manner indicated,” explains a city historian in a New York Times article from May 1900.

Portraits of nameless Gilded Age New Yorkers

August 26, 2010

You can purchase their photos for a few bucks each at any flea market or junk shop in the city.

But who are these middle- and upper-class New Yorkers, and who did they give their portraits to?


      This well-dressed young woman with the fascinating bustle poses shyly with a houseplant. The photo studio is at 98 Sixth Avenue.

I’m guessing this is a communion photo on the right. I love this boy’s little suit jacket, knickers, and stockings.

The photo studio is at 920 Third Avenue in the East 50s.

Noho’s wonderfully named Shinbone Alley

July 24, 2010

It’s a colorful and curious name for a 19th century alley, isn’t it? 

Perhaps this tiny lane—which starts on the north side of Bleecker Street east of Lafayette Street and ends about 50 feet later—was a rough place where you got your shins kicked in.

Maybe it was the dumping ground for animal bones. [In 1934, photo from the NYPL digital collection]

In any event, it was laid out in 1825, according to a 1957 New York Times article, and in apparently was more substantial back then.

“It winds northward from between 41 and 43 Bleecker Street, and turns westward and again northward, coming out at 1 Bond Street and then on to Great Jones Street,” explains another Times article, from 1897.

“The alley is paved and flagged, and has for years, after nightfall, been the haunt of a crowd of idle young fellows, who give the police a good deal of concern.”

[Shinbone Alley today, now just a driveway ending at the back of Bond Street. Paved with Belgian blocks though.]

Born a slave, now on his way to sainthood

May 11, 2010

Only two city residents, Elizabeth Ann Seton and Francis Xavier Cabrini, have been canonized by the Catholic church. Next may be Pierre Toussaint.

Born a slave in Haiti in 1766, Toussaint came to New York with his master’s family, the Berards, during the Haitian slave revolts of the 1780s.

After the Berard fortune dwindled, he became a society hairdresser, supporting the family until Mrs. Berard freed him on her deathbed.

Deeply devout, Toussaint and his wife spent their lives building orphanages, nursing cholera patients, and raising funds for the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral, on Mott and Prince Streets (below, in 1859).

When he died in 1853, Toussaint was buried in old Saint Patrick’s churchyard. Catholic leaders re-interred his body at the uptown St. Patrick’s in 1990.

Touissant has made it to the second step on the path to sainthood: He’s been deemed Venerable.

Still, he’s a controversial choice. Reportedly some Catholics take him to task for staying with his master’s family rather than joining the slave revolt that forced the Berards to flee Haiti in the first place.

The dates topping New York City buildings

April 28, 2010

Developers in the late 19th century couldn’t get enough of topping their buildings with the year it was constructed—usually on the cornice or upper facade.

And lots of builders couldn’t help but put their own names up there too. Like P. Martino, who put up this tenement in Williamsburg in 1871.

Mr. Gessner built this lovely structure in 1871 on Bleecker Street in the West Village.

St. George Greek Orthodox Church on 55th Street and Eighth Avenue is a modest little chapel, with the Hearst Tower looming behind it. 

What happened to Manhattan’s “Piggery District”

March 13, 2010

Mid-19th century New York City had its genteel side, but mostly it was a collection of rough edges. One long-forgotten hardscrabble neighborhood was the Piggery District, between Sixth and Eighth Avenues in the West 50s.

It was a dirty, smelly, rocky area of hog yards and shanties housing the poor Irish and Dutch families who eked out a living raising and slaughtering pigs.

No one seemed to care about the Piggery District until Central Park opened in 1859. With the city accelerating northward, the neighborhood was deemed a filthy nuisance, and the Department of Health wanted it gone.

That year, the city sent dozens of armed men into the Piggery District to forcibly shut down the offal-boiling places and round up the pigs. 

On at least one occasion, they also ended up ripping apart residents’ homes. A Times article from July 27, 1859 about the raid quoted one woman whose shanty was demolished:

“Very poor revenge,” said she, “to tear down people’s buildings after the pigs is all sent away entirely.”

Here’s another West Side neighborhood that once thrived, then disappeared around the turn of the century.

This Lincoln Center–area neighborhood held out a little longer, but it too is dead and gone.