Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1850s’

A lurid best-seller shocks 1850s New York

February 13, 2017

hotcornkatyIt was deemed “filthy” by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Brooklyn preacher and moral crusader Henry Ward Beecher praised it, then quickly retracted his recommendation once he actually took a look at it.

Henry James, a young boy when it was published, was forbidden to read this “tabooed book” by his father—and of course became obsessed with getting a copy, he recalled years later.

What kind of book could stir such outrage—and become a runaway best-seller—in the New York City of 1853?

hotcorncover1853Hot Corn: Life Scenes in New York Illustrated, was a collection of short stories that had originally run in the New-York Tribune.

The stories chronicled the interconnected lives of several poor kids and adults living in the wretched Five Points slum in the antebellum city.

The main character was young Katy (top), a Five Points resident and “hot corn” girl—one of hundreds of vendors who stood on New York corners hawking this favorite street food of the early 19th century.

(“Hot corn, hot corn, here’s your lily-white hot corn/hot corn, all hot, just came out of the boiling pot” was a hot corn girl’s signature refrain.)

hotcornpolicebeatingThere was also “Wild Maggie,” her drunk father, a ragpicker’s daughter named Madelina, and Katy’s alcoholic mother, who lives off the pennies Katy makes selling corn.

Interspersed in the drama are lurid descriptions of the real streets of Five Points as well as the efforts on the part of the missions that had recently set up there, hoping to ease the lives of residents with charity, offers of work, and religious moralizing.

Hot Corn was such a hit that it immediately spawned three plays. P.T. Barnum staged a rendition, and another version ran at the Bowery Theatre—becoming the second most popular play in the 1850s after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, another novel-turned-drama.

hotcornmancookingcornNo one was reading Hot Corn for its literary merits, of course. The tawdry yet sentimental tales of poverty, broken families, and alcoholism gave respectable book-buyers a scandalous look into slum life.

The stories milk every emotion. Omnibuses run people over, characters end up in jail or in Green-Wood Cemetery, rats run wild, and there’s at least one marriage and deathbed scene.

The message about the evils of alcohol found an audience as well. The temperance movement was gaining steam at this point in the 19th century, even in a city that centered around saloons and taverns.

hotcorndeathbedsceneDespite its massive popularity, Hot Corn disappeared from booksellers’ shelves by the end of the decade.

Consider it one in a long line of lurid dramas exposing the underbelly of New York life or the hidden world of a not-well-known subculture, from the Horatio Alger stories of the late 19th century to Rent on Broadway.

[All illustrations all come from the text, which you can download for free via Google]

The 1852 stable-turned-synagogue in the Village

August 12, 2016

In a neighborhood filled with architectural anomalies, the little house with the front yard at 11 East 11th Street has a curious 164-year history. In that time, it went from stable to brothel to garage to private home before becoming a synagogue half a century ago.

11east11thstreet

First things first. The house was built in 1852 as a carriage house for George Wood, a wealthy lawyer who that same year constructed a stately mansion next door at 45 Fifth Avenue.

11east11thstreetsideIn that antebellum era, lower Fifth Avenue was a cream-of-the-crop street lined with freestanding mansions.

The families who occupied these impressive homes needed places to keep their horses, so they put up stables nearby set back from the road with a front yard for hitching.

The 19th century went on, and the richest residents moved northward. By the 1860s, Wood’s former carriage house had become a “disorderly house” raided a few times by the police, reported New York Times.

11east11thstreetnytjuly211867At the century’s end, development changed the face of lower Fifth Avenue. Most of the grand mansions were remodeled or replaced by apartment residences; the carriage houses were demolished.

Yet Wood’s stable, with its tidy front yard, survived. With the arrival of the automobile era, it was turned into a garage with a loft, reported the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

11east11thstnypl195111 East 11th Street “now has window arrangements typical of the 1920s,” the GVSHP wrote.”It has been roughcast in stucco with diamond-shaped tile patterns set in the parapet, which is crowned by a stone coping stepped up at the ends above small, square blocks.”

In the next decades, the little house served as a private residence and a “light protector” for the bigger Van Rensselaer Hotel next door.

In 1959, the Conservative Congregation of Fifth Avenue—which had been holding services in a hotel—made the former stable with the ginko tree out front its synagogue.

11east11thstreetfaraway

This year, looks like the house and property have been approved for a renovatation.

[Newspaper article: NYT July 21, 1867; fourth photo: 1951, NYPL]

The curious fireplace in McSorley’s back room

July 11, 2016

Mcsorleys2016McSorley’s Bar on East Seventh Street in the East Village is the keeper of wonderful old New York relics.

There are framed newspaper clippings from the 19th century, Harry Houdini’s handcuffs, a collection of wishbones left by soldiers who never returned from World War I, and of course, that pot-bellied stove that has kept generations of drinkers toasty.

In the back room is another curious artifact: a fireplace that spells out “Bible House” in gold capital letters under the wood mantel.

McSorleysbiblehouse

What was Bible House? In the late 19th and early 20th century, you wouldn’t have to ask.

This six-story building at Astor Place and East Ninth Street between Third and Fourth Avenues was the imposing headquarters of the American Bible Society, an organization devoted to printing and distributing millions of bibles.

McSorleysbiblehouse1890

Bible House, the city’s first cast-iron building, went up in 1853, replacing the group’s older headquarters on Nassau Street.

Along with the Astor Library (now The Public Theater) and the newly formed Cooper Institute, Bible House helped make Astor Place a hub of intellectual and literary activity.

McSorleysbiblehousecu

Because of its size and appearance, Bible House became a tourist attraction of its own in the late 19th century. The printing rooms inside ultimately cranking out 77 million bibles. Yet as the neighborhood’s fortunes slipped in the ensuing decades, so did the building.

McSorleysbiblehouse1955MCNY

In 1956, after Bible House was torn down and replaced by a Cooper Union building, McSorley’s apparently salvaged this artifact, preserving it amid the sawdust floors and dusty frames in the bar’s back room.

Hat tip again to Dean at the History Author Show for this story! [Third image: King’s Handbook of New York via the Village Alliance; fifth image: MCNY]

A peek into a New York boyhood in the 1850s

May 19, 2014

Letterstophilcover1982“It seems hard to believe that Twenty-third Street—which is the first street in the city of which I remember anything, could have changed in so short a time,” wrote Edward Eugene “Gene” Schermerhorn in an 1886 letter to his young nephew, Phil.

“The rural scenes, the open spaces, have vanished; and the small and quiet residences, many of them built entirely of wood, have given place to huge piles of brick and stone, and to iron and plate-glass fronts of the stores which now line the street.”

It was the first of 10 letters Gene would address to his nephew, recently collected in a thin, enchanting volume, Letters to Phil, published by New York Bound in 1982.

Each chronicles his memories between 1848 and 1856 of a small-scale New York that had yet to experience the enormous growth that made it an international capital by the 1880s.

NYC1842mapGene’s city had a population of about 500,000 and a northern boundary barely exceeding 14th Street. A descendent of a prosperous family that came to Manhattan in the 17th century, he shows what it was like to be a curious, privileged boy before the Civil War.

“Twenty-third Street and in fact all the streets in the neighborhood were unpaved,” he wrote. “There was plenty of room, plenty of dirt (clean dirt), and plenty of boys; what more could be desired!”

Gene writes of the games he and his friends played: marbles, “base ball,” and kite-flying. The also chased the pigs that ran around Sixth Avenue.

His Manhattan was a rural paradise. “Up town at this time was almost inaccessible. Of course there was no Central Park. Third Avenue was open to Harlem passing through Yorkville which was quite a large village  about 86th Street. . . .”

Harlemlane

Chelsea was located to the west of Gene’s home; Murray Hill, to the east. “Eighth Avenue was open to Harlem, and in connection with the Harlem Lane (now St. Nicholas Ave.) was the great road for fast driving.”

Madisoncottage2The business district, at City Hall, contained “none of those magnificent buildings now so common in the lower part of the city. A building of any kind six stories high was very rare.”

Downtown had all the theaters, as well as Barnum’s Museum. “It was a delight to go there on Saturday afternoons.”

The rough side of town was at Broadway and Houston Street, the site of St. Thomas’ church. “[Sic] Opposite to it was a row of small two-storied wooden houses; many of them low grog shops—a very bad neighborhood.”

Gene and his brother skated on ponds at 32nd and Broadway and Sixth Avenue and 57th. They headed over to Park Avenue south of 42nd Street on Saturdays and “played among the rocks and watch[ed] the trains.”

“Sometimes we would walk in the region which is now the Central Park. It was a very rough and rocky place, with plenty of woods and scattered trees and very few houses except ‘Squatters’ shanties.”

New York’s industry centered around transportation. The East River housed “Dry Docks” and shipyards. “On the Bowery at 6th Street was the ‘Hay Scale’ where the loads of hay brought in on that side of the city were weighed.

Gothaminn1870

“Facing this was the ‘Gotham Inn,’ quite a noted sporting tavern. On the corner of 3rd Avenue and 13th Street stood an old pear tree, which was planted on Gov. Stuyvesant’s farm in 1647.”

Gene gives a wonderful account of a free-range boyhood in a slower-paced city. But what he did with his life isn’t clear. He apparently never married; he may have lived a life of leisure. He died in 1922.

His nephew Phil is also a mystery. His 1952 obituary in The New York Times, however, says he lived on East 78th Street, was survived by a wife, and became a painter.

[Map of NYC in 1842; images from the NYPL Digital Gallery]

Moving to a rundown Mercer Street home in 1965

August 9, 2012

105 Mercer Street (in 2012, right) has had an illustrious history.

Built in 1819 for a seamstress, the three-story brick house became a brothel in the mid–1800s—about the time the city’s elite relocated uptown, and the area around Houston Street turned into a red-light district.

By 1900, the prostitutes were gone, and light manufacturing arrived. Mercer and the surrounding Belgian Block streets were choked with trucks, workmen, and debris.

That’s the way it remained in 1965, when a 23-year-old jewelry designer (at left) searching for a cheap place to live and work decided 105 was going to be her home.

“I first walked around the Village, looking for an apartment there, but it was too crowded,” she recalls, almost 50 years later.

“I headed over toward Bond and Great Jones Streets, which had great spaces. Problem was, it was too close to the Bowery, a dangerous place.

So I wandered south of Houston Street. The term Soho hadn’t been invented yet, and I had no idea what this area was called. It felt empty and removed, a relief from the formality of uptown, where I’d been living.

“Number 105 caught my eye. It was in bad shape. There were no windows or windowpanes on the second and third floors. An ugly fire escape hung off the facade. Rats and cats roamed the sidewalk. But I wanted it.

“The area was deserted except for workers shouting to each other in Spanish. I asked around and found out who the landlord was, a real estate guy who owned loft buildings nearby.

“At his office I explained that I was interested in renting 105. He was already renting some of his lofts to artists, but he didn’t know what to do with 105, so he’d just left it empty.

“Naturally he thought I was insane: a young woman on her own asking to move into this shell of a building. The first floor was used by a metal stamping company, so I offered him $150 a month for a five-year lease for the top two floors. We struck a deal.

“There was no kitchen, no bathroom. Each floor was open, littered with chunks of plaster and decades of debris. The owner put in gas, electric, water, and a toilet and sink. Then I moved in.

“You can’t imagine how different Mercer Street was in 1965. No businesses existed, save for Fanelli’s, which was a local bar for drunks, and a bodega on Prince Street.

“During the day, it was loud, and all the trucks backed onto the sidewalks made it tricky to walk around.

“By nightfall, it was eerily quiet. The only sounds came from the occasional homeless guy living in a cardboard box. I always made sure I got home by 7 or 8 p.m. to avoid problems.

“Artists had begun moving into the area. Yet there was no scene or cafes or galleries. Everyone laid low. There was a sense that we were getting a great deal now, but all these buildings would be demolished, and we’d have to move on.

“I lived at 105 for about four years. It was liberating and freeing to have my own space, to do what I wanted. Early on I paid a guy to take a chunk out of the roof, and then I went to a Canal Street supply store and had a piece of clear plastic cut for a skylight.

“I invited a stray cat to live with me, but he didn’t get rid of the rats. I learned to live with them. After all, they were there first.

“Just married and expecting a baby in 1969, I put an ad in The New York Times looking for someone to buy out my lease.

“I couldn’t believe how many people called! Mercer Street was still deserted and empty. Of course, that would change soon.

“The people who called about my ad had seen the future. They knew the newly coined Soho neighborhood was about to arrive—and they wanted to be part of it.”

[105 Mercer Street in 1934 and entryway photo from 1976: NYPL Digital Collection. Lower left: in 2009]

The Russian baths on posh “La Fayette Place”

September 22, 2011

“Dr. Edward Guttmann (1828-1896), a German immigrant who arrived in New York in 1854 to practice medicine, founded the Russian Baths on Lafayette Place in the mid-1850s,” states the caption to this 1870s lithograph by John Lawrence Giles.

It’s in a wonderful book of prints called Impressions of New York, by Marilyn Symmes.

“The print, made to publicize the establishment (after Guttmann had sold the business), shows of the facility’s interior amenities to prospective gentleman customers.”

These baths, on what was then called La Fayette Place, a posh residential neighborhood in the 1830s and 1840s, “were most popular with well-off Russian-Jewish immigrants, as it both reminded them of their homeland and reinforced a sense of community in their new country.”

The mystery of Chelsea’s Van Dolsom Row

August 18, 2011

The Clement Clark Moore house, an Underground Railroad stop . . . Chelsea’s leafy streets are packed with New York history.

Another example: the three handsome brownstones with lovely wide windows at numbers 322, 324, and 326 West 20th Street, about halfway between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

A plaque affixed to one notes that they make up Van Dolsom Row and date to 1858.

Very cool . . . but who was Van Dolsom?

There’s no mention of anyone with this name in several different archives. Yet someone prominent enough to warrant a plaque or his descendants ought to be noted somewhere.

Perhaps Van Dolsom is simply a misspelling of Van Dolson—the surname of a Dutch settler who came to New York before 1648.

Forgotten New York also turns up the possibility of a spelling error.

A busy shopping district downtown in 1855

November 10, 2010

This lovely print of then-bustling Liberty Street is a promotion for Witte & Brunswig, importers of French and German “fancy goods.”

“The printmaker included several anecdotal details: a pigtailed Chinese man (lower right); a black man fashionably attired in plaid trousers, leaning against a lamp post (near lower right); and, cleverly, a man wearing placards advertising his own commercial lithography business (toward the lower left)” writes Marilyn Symmes in Impressions of New York.

So who are the “friends” this ad addresses? Probably other German immigrants, according to Symmes. At this time, Germans made up the second largest group of immigrants in the city (first: the Irish).

Central Park: almost built on the Upper East Side

April 26, 2010

They would have had to call it something besides Central Park, of course.

But the great new park planned for the city in the middle of the 19th century came pretty close to being created on the Upper East Side.

The idea of a park was first suggested in the 1840s, and by 1851, one site seriously considered was Jones’ Wood, 150 acres of dense forest overlooking the East River (above sketch from the NYPL).

Once a summer retreat for New York’s wealthy, Jones’ Wood was being used as a sort of amusement area for working-class residents, featuring beer gardens and dancing.

City authorities thought it would make an ideal retreat from the ills of urban life. But others, anticipating the city’s growth northward, realized it was better to put the new park in a central location.

Though the city approved both sites in 1853, only Central Park was developed, opening in 1859.

Jones’ Wood was slowly parceled out and turned into a residential and commercial area, with the remaining land falling victim to a fire in 1894.

It’s now the location of Upper East Side neighborhoods Lenox Hill and Yorkville.