Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1890s’

Harpo Marx: a poor street kid on East 93rd Street

November 21, 2011

As many New Yorkers know, the Marx Brothers, including Adolph “Harpo” Marx, grew up in a crowded tenement at 179 East 93rd Street, off Third Avenue.

That’s in upscale Carnegie Hill today. But in the 1890s, during Harpo’s childhood, it was “a small Jewish neighborhood squeezed in between the Irish to the north and the Germans to the South in Yorkville,” he writes in 1961’s Harpo Speaks…About New York.

His recollections offer a glimpse into life as a poor Manhattan street kid circa 1900, when ethnic background determined everything.

“If you were caught trying to sneak through a foreign block, the first thing the Irishers or Germans would ask was “Hey kid! What Streeter?” he recalls. “I learned it saved time and trouble to tell the truth. I was a 93rd Streeter, I would confess.”

“The worst thing you could do was run from Other Streeters. But if you didn’t have anything to fork over for ransom you were just dead.”

“I learned never to leave my block without some kind of boodle in my pocket—a dead tennis ball, an empty thread spool, a penny, anything.”

Life in New York at that time wasn’t all about being bullied. After quitting P.S. 86 when he was eight, Harpo watched tennis games in Central Park, went sledding with a dishpan, and swam off the East River docks.

He also dodged the ticket takers on trolley cars so he get around without paying the fare, and he watched Giants games for free at Coogan’s Bluff above the Polo Grounds near 155th Street.

And he learned to tell time by “the only timepiece available to our family, the clock on the tower of Ehret’s Brewery (above) at 93rd and Second Avenue, which we could see from the front window, if Grandpa hadn’t pulled the shade.”

[Image of Ehret’s Brewery:]

The milk stations that saved the lives of city kids

November 3, 2011

After raking in a fortune as co-owner of Macy’s, Nathan Straus devoted himself to making life better for New York’s poor tenement dwellers.

In the depression years of 1892 and 1893, he gave away food and coal to thousands, and he built homeless shelters.

He also turned his sights toward what was dubbed the “white peril,” the raw, bacteria-ridden milk city children routinely drank—milk Straus and many experts believed was linked to New York’s high childhood mortality rate (two of Straus’ own kids had died young).

“Straus was convinced that the discoveries of Louis Pasteur offered the best hope for a remedy to the milk problem,” states

So in 1893 he built his own pasteurization plant on East Third Street, then opened 18 milk stations in the city, “which sold his sterilized milk for only a few cents and made free milk available to those unable to afford even that.”

Milk stations popped up everywhere: City Hall Park, Mott Street, Cherry Street, Washington Street, East 66th Street, Lenox Avenue, and eventually Columbus Circle (above, circa 1930), run by William Randolph Hearst’s wife.

When Straus showed health officials that childhood mortality rates had been drastically cut in neighborhoods with milk stations, the city—and soon all cities—banned the sale of raw milk.

Central Park and Prospect Park had their own milk stations: the dairies.

A windy, slushy Union Square in 1892

October 31, 2011

Frederick Childe Hassam’s “Winter in Union Square,” painted from 17th Street near Hassam’s studio, kind of resembles what Union Square looked like on Saturday.

Hassam frequently depicted New York streets in severe weather, like this one of pedestrians battling rain in Union Square.

A pretty girl’s mysterious morphine overdose

August 26, 2011

In January 1891, Helen Potts was a brunette beauty at the Comstock School, an elite finishing school at 32 West 40th Street.

One night, the 19-year-old complained of a headache. She took a quinine pill a medical student had prescribed for her. Within hours, after waking momentarily and telling classmates she was having fantastic dreams, she was dead.

Reporters, captivated by the mysterious death of a wealthy good girl, began digging around. What they found dominated newspaper headlines for years.

Turns out that Helen and the med student, Carlyle W. Harris, had secretly wed a year earlier.

Harris must have regretted it, because he rather quickly stopped seeing Helen—who soon told him she was pregnant.

After an abortion (or “operation,” as The New York Times put it in this article), Helen enrolled at the Comstock School. The following January, her life was over.

In 1892, Harris was hauled into court. Prosecutors insisted that he put a lethal dose of morphine in Helen’s quinine pill so he could be free of her.

After a three-week sensational trial, which hinged on whether Helen’s body showed signs of an opium overdose, Harris was convicted of murder.

He was electrocuted at Sing Sing in May 1893, insistent that he was innocent.

Lovely posters advertising the New York Herald

May 2, 2011

In the late 19th century, the city supported close to 20 English-language daily newspapers, with the New York Herald one of the most popular.

The Herald’s winning formula? A sensationalist tone, reliance on illustrations, and coverage of fashion, arts, and culture.

Yep, all the lifestyle fluff newspapers today need to attract readers.

Perhaps these sweet, apparently hand-drawn posters advertising the coming Sunday edition had something to do with it though.

Cartoons, new fiction, and illustrations of Central Park plus new routes concerning the cycling craze: good reading on a May Sunday in the mid-1890s.

[posters from the New York Public Library Digital Collection]

A few of the city’s top pop hits of the 1890s

January 19, 2011

As far as I know, there was no equivalent of the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of the 19th century. So it’s tough to know just how popular these tunes were.

But “Sidewalks of New York” is still a city anthem:

Down in front of Casey’s old brown wooden stoop
On a summer’s evening we formed a merry group
Boys and girls together we would sing and waltz
While Tony played the organ on the sidewalks of New York
East Side, West Side, all around the town
The tots sang “ring-around-rosie,” “London Bridge is falling down”
Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O’Rourke
Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York

The “New York and Coney Island Cycle March Two-Step” blends two trends—bicycles and Coney Island:

Now for a song as we go wheeling on,
And for the glorious “bike” we’ll shout,
It’s up to date in all that’s new and great,
This wonder that we sing about.
Your golf and polo and baseball will do,
Your Yacht and fishing may be fine,
They can’t compare, with pleasure rare,
That wheeling gives to all mankind.

This 1895 patriotic ditty seems to recall Civil War–era Brooklyn, its own city at the time, of course:

Up with the flag!
The flag that long has waved over Brooklyn’s city fair
To keep her sons in union strong
To bid them heed the motto there:
“Right makes might!”
Then up with right and down with wrong
Up with the flag and let it wave
Unhurt by factions with’ring blast
Oh Brooklyn’s loyal sons be brave
And nail it to the mast

“Twilight in New York”

January 10, 2011

I’m not sure where this is, but Italian-American painter Alessandro Guaccimanni lived near Madison Square in the 1890s.

This ultra-fashionable neighborhood in Gilded Age New York is the setting of some of his other equally haunting and moody works. But it could be Union Square, even beside Central Park.

The lovely nymphs of 704 Broadway

December 20, 2010

While hordes of Christmas shoppers weave through the sidewalks below, these two figures, several floors up at gorgeous and ornate 704-706 Broadway, watch silently.

Guess how much the penthouse in this building went for in 2007.

New York’s costumed bicycle parade of 1896

October 26, 2010

It’s an event that sounds part Critical Mass–style ride on the newly elegant Upper West Side, part goofy Halloween costume party for the city’s emerging leisure class.

Sponsored by the Evening Telegram in June 1896, the hugely popular Saturday afternoon bike parade started at 66th Street and the Boulevard (Broadway).

Thousands of riders decked out in costume cycled up to 108th Street, then turned on to Riverside Drive. From there they went to Claremont Avenue, back to Riverside, and down to 66th Street to finish.

“The Evening Telegram has offered prizes for the best costumed and most graceful lady rider, the best costumed and most graceful gentleman rider, the best decorated costume, the most grotesque or fancy costume, and for the best appearing bicycle club,” reported The New York Times the day before the parade.

So who won? I vote for the guy in the cowboy hat and fake beard in the back.

When heat waves cut down city residents

July 7, 2010

New York is no stranger to brutal heat waves. But thanks to air conditioning, newspapers no longer have to print a daily list of “heat prostrations,” which included dozens of citizens overcome by hot weather.

A check of The New York Times archive drew story after story on a specific heat spell, plus a list of people felled by heatstroke.

[“On the Docks After a Hot Day,” an 1868 illustration from the NYPL]

An article about an 89-degree day in June 1899 listed these casualties: 

“Isaac Shapiro, fifty-eight years old, of 292 Division Street, was overcome in front of his home. He was removed to Gouverneur Hospital.

“James O’Mara, twenty years old, living in a lodging house at Broome Street and the Bowery, was driving a truck at 117 Spring Street when he was overcome by the heat. He was removed to St. Vincent’s Hospital.

“An unknown woman, poorly dressed and about sixty years old, was found unconscious last night at Locust Avenue and  133rd Street by Policeman McGrath of the East 138th Street Station. The woman seemed to have been overcome by heat. She was taken to Harlem Hospital.”