Posts Tagged ‘New York Gilded Age’

Summoning the servants in the Frick mansion

April 29, 2019

Today, the former Henry Clay Frick mansion on Fifth Avenue and 70th Street is a spectacular art museum featuring Frick’s extensive collection of Old Masters paintings and 19th century decorative arts, among other treasures.

Frick always intended his mansion to become a museum after both he and his wife (bottom right) died—and as he planned, the museum opened to the public in 1935. (Frick died in 1919; his wife, Adelaide Childs Frick, in 1931.)

Since then, the second-floor family rooms where Frick lived with his wife and daughter, Helen (with her father at left in 1910) have been off-limits to the public, and just about all remnants of the family life of this titan of industry have vanished.

But there is one reminder of the private life of the Frick family, and it’s hiding in plain sight in the museum’s West Gallery.

In the middle of the hall, under Turner’s “The Arrival of a Packet-Boat, Evening,” are five small white buttons built into the wood molding of the wall. (Above, center)

The Fricks pressed these buttons to discreetly summon one of the dozens of servants who resided in the home with them. (The servant quarters were on the third floor.) Each button calls a specific servant or part of the house: butler, housekeeper, secretary, valet, and pantry.

Having buttons like these in every main room was probably totally normal among the extraordinarily rich the late 19th or early 20th century.

A typical wealthy household would employ a small army of servants—including a chef, cook, governess, gardener, driver, laundress, an all-purpose “useful man,” and a team of maids all taking care of different parts of the residence.

Next time you’re browsing the Frick, consider the servant buttons a ghostly reminder of the family that made their incredible art collection public. It’s also an emblem of a way of life that vanished when most rich New Yorkers abandoned single-family mansions for apartment house living by the 1920s.

[Top image: portrait by Edmund Charles Tarbell; second photo: courtesy of Caitlin Henningsen and the Frick Collection; fourth image: MCNY 1919 X2010.28.828]

The first ambulance hits the streets of Manhattan

June 2, 2014

Can you imagine being in pain and riding to the hospital in this?

It’s the first ambulance in the city (and reportedly the nation), launched in 1869 to ferry the sick and injured to Bellevue Hospital.


The idea for an ambulance service came from a Civil War surgeon, who realized that hurt soldiers would be brought to medical tents via flimsy stretchers and carts, which often resulted in further injuries.

EdwarddaltonSo army doctor Edward B. Dalton (right) developed a vehicle with a roof and shock absorbers that could transport casualties quickly and safely.

After the war, Dalton was hired by the Department of Charities and Corrections to start a civilian ambulance corp.

In June 1869, two lightweight, 800-pound vehicles hit the (often unpaved and muddy) streets.

“Ambulances were staffed by a driver and an ‘ambulance surgeon,’ in fact, an intern fresh out of two years of medical school,” states

What was inside? A rolling bed, surgical lamp, pillows, and blankets. Medical supplies included bandages, tourniquets, a stomach pump—plus a straitjacket, handcuffs, a flask of brandy, and drugs like amyl nitrate and morphine!


“In addition, the ambulance surgeon carried a black leather satchel containing hypodermic syringes, tracheotomy tubes, a Nealaton’s probe, catheters and dressings for minor wounds,” writes


Instead of a siren on top, a bell operated by a foot pedal alerted pedestrians that the ambulance needed to get through. Telegraph communications let drivers know where to pick someone up.

NY3dBookIntCover-1In a rapidly growing city, the service was a big success. Five more ambulances were added in 1870, and by 1891, Bellevue had more than 3,000 ambulance calls.

As time went on, ambulances changed. The second photo is from 1895; the third, 1910.

The ambulance corp is another advancement from post-Civil War New York, a time of incredible modernization in the city. Read more about it New York City in the Gilded Age. [Photos: Museum of the City of New York;]

Meet the most “picturesque woman in America”

January 16, 2013

Ritadeacostalydigphoto1913When Rita de Acosta Lydig was a young New York socialite in the late 1890s and early 1900s, there were no paparazzi to chase her around the trendy clubs and restaurants of the Gilded Age city.

Yet her image was all over the place—photographed, sculpted, and painted by artists such as Edward Steichen, Augustus Rodin, and John Singer Sargent.

That’s how Lydig, born in 1875 to a prominent New York family of Spanish and Cuban descent, earned the title “the most picturesque woman in America.”

Ritadecostalydig1911Like many socialites, she had what sounds like a messy romantic life: Lydig divorced twice and had a very public broken engagement. Yet she also possessed “a rare charm and intellectual brilliance as well,” states her 1929 obituary in The New York Times.

Lydig had legendary style and a deep appreciation for the arts, socializing in creative circles here and in Paris and holding salons in her home that attracted artists and actors such as Sarah Bernhardt.

She died in 1929 in her apartment at the Hotel Gotham at Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, her image immortalized in art.

Her lavish collection of clothes and shoes, interestingly, were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[Top photo: Adolf de Meyer; bottom painting: Giovanni Baldini]