Posts Tagged ‘East 14th Street Piano Row’

Deconstructing a 1905 view of East 14th Street

August 23, 2021

Not much from the 19th century remains today on East 14th Street between Fifth Avenue and University Place. On the north side, a 1960s white brick apartment residence dominates the block; on the south, two black-glass buildings frame a string of chain stores.

14th Street looking West toward Fifth Avenue, about 1905

But what a different scene it was around around 1905 (above), when a publishing company produced this postcard! This difference between then and now reveals a lot about the changes that came to this stretch of 14th Street just west of Union Square.

For starters, the sign on the right for “Biddles Piano” is a reminder that the block was firmly in New York’s first piano district, and 14th Street near Union Square was piano row.

In the late 19th century, having a piano in your brownstone parlor was a status symbol; player pianos later came on the market and became wildly popular. Steinway & Sons led the way on 14th Street in 1864, opening a showroom at Fourth Avenue. More piano company showrooms followed, including Estey, Steck, Wheelock, and Biddle.

The “no pain” sign on the lower left is also a relic of an era when dentistry was an emerging profession, and getting a tooth extracted even in a dentist’s office was a risky venture. People at the turn of the century were terrified of the possibility of pain, so dentists made a point of advertising no-pain procedures.

The sign for Japanese Art on the left reflects the Gilded Age craze for “Oriental” or Eastern art and design. Men wear straw hats and women stroll the street in white shirtwaists. It’s probably a warm day, and the brownstones on the right have their window shades down—the closest thing to air conditioning at the time.

The lone streetlight would have made this a much darker block than we’re used to today. Refuse cans (or are they ash barrels?) wait at the curb for pickup, perhaps by a White Wings street cleaning crew. Carts and wagons move through the street. If you needed to know the time, you would glance at the clock at the top of the building on the right at the corner of Fifth.

Looking past Fifth toward Sixth Avenue, trees can be seen on the north side of the street. That would be the Van Beuren Homestead, two circa-1830 brownstones surrounded by gardens and a patch of what was once farmland. (Imagine, a farm with a cow and chickens on the prime Gilded Age retail strip of Ladies Mile!)

Here, the lone survivor of the old New York family that built this homestead lived until 1908 while the urban city, with its 10-story limestone buildings and the Sixth Avenue Elevated, edged closer with each passing year.

[Top image: MCNY X2011.34.334]