Posts Tagged ‘New York in the late 19th century’

A bizarre August tradition along old New York City’s waterfronts

July 29, 2021

The lazy dog days of summer along the waterfronts of late 19th century New York could could also be dangerous, thanks in part to a strange old tradition called “launching day.”

Boys at Rutgers Slip in 1908

On either August 1 or the first Friday in August (sources differ on exactly when it was held and how long it lasted), boys (and some men) along the city’s rivers would pick up another boy or man and launch them into the water.

“Yesterday was what the boys along the water front call ‘Launching Day,'” wrote the New York World on August 3, 1897. “They throw each other into the river, clothes and all, saying, ‘Now swim and give yourself a bath.'”

“Splinter Beach” by George Bellows, 1916

The origins of launching day aren’t clear, but one Brooklyn newspaper stated in 1902 that it “has been a summer event ever since Robert Fulton launched the first steamboat into the Hudson in 1807.”

Launching Day was apparently held in Brooklyn as well. “Tomorrow will also be a fine day for the little boys along the river front who will observe ‘Launching Day,'” reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on July 31, 1897, a Saturday. “This juvenile holiday will, in all probability, last for three days, as some little boys do not like to be thrown overboard in their Sunday togs.”

Boys on a Brooklyn pier

It all sounds pretty innocent. On hot summer days boys all over the city without access to swimming pools or beaches cooled off by wading into the East and Hudson Rivers. Near South Street they dove off the docks at Market and Dover Streets; in Yorkville and East Harlem they swam into the water near treacherous Hell Gate.

The problem with Launching Day, though, was that many people didn’t know how to swim in the 19th century city. Inevitably, newspapers carried tragic stories the next day about people who ended up in the water and never resurfaced.

1911 New York Evening World headline

“August 1 has been known about the waterfront for many years as ‘Launching Day,'” wrote the New-York Herald on August 2, 1900. “Anybody who ventures on a pier is in danger of being thrown into the water….John Kriete, 21 years old, an iceman of 312 East 84th Street, pushed a workman, George Krause, of the same address, overboard at East 100th Street yesterday and fell in afterward himself. Kriete was drowned.”

“In Brooklyn the drowned body of Thomas McGullen, the 10-year-old son of John McGullen of No. 70 Hicks Street, was taken from the water at Henry Street,” wrote the New-York Tribune on August 2, 1903. “He was pushed off the pier by his playmates, who were celebrating ‘launching.’ They thought he could swim.”

The action along an East River dock

Exactly when launching day died out I’m not sure. But by the 1930s, newspapers interviewed people who recalled the tradition.

In the Daily News in 1934, a police reporter wrote: “I’ve known how to swim for 30 years because I was one of the West Side kids who used the Hudson River. We don’t have it now but then we had an annual ‘Launching Day’….Everybody near the water got thrown in, clothes and all. You had to swim or else.”

[Top photo: George Bain Collection/LOC; second image: George Bellows; Third photo: New-York Historical Society; Fourth image: New York Evening World; Fifth image: NYPL]

New York’s painter of “cheery street urchins”

October 10, 2016

When John George Brown immigrated from England to New York in 1853, he was a struggling portrait painter making a living as a glass cutter.

[“The Gang,” 1894]

brownthegang1894

Brown made his way to Brooklyn, where he was hired by the Flint Glass Company on Broadway.

With money from his day job, he signed on for night classes at the Graham Art School (a precursor of the Brooklyn Museum on Washington Street) and Manhattan’s National Academy of Design.

[“Delivery Boy,” 1863]

browndeliveryboy1863

He impressed one of Flint’s owners with his talent, and after marrying the owner’s daughter and securing his father-in-law’s financial backing (as well as support from a few art dealers), he set up a studio at the Tenth Street Studio Building in Greenwich Village and began painting street kids.

[“Bootblack,” 1866]

brownthebootblack1866

This was the second half of the 19th century, and in the rapidly growing cities of Brooklyn and New York, these “street Arabs,” as they were sometimes known, weren’t hard to find.

The Children’s Aid Society, formed in 1853, estimated that about 3,000 kids lived on city streets, scratching a living as newsboys, bootblacks, vendors, and criminals.

[“The Flower Girl,” 1887]

browntheflowergirl1887

As the urban population exploded in the Gilded Age, so did the population of orphans, half-orphans, and runaways, their numbers estimated in the tens of thousands.

This was a societal problem that certainly didn’t go unnoticed, with benevolence organizations building homes for working kids and successfully urging legislators to pass mandatory school and child labor laws.

[“Extra!” 1889]

brownextra1889

What distinguishes Brown’s depictions of street kids is the rosy, romanticized glow he gave his subjects, which was so at odds with the harsh lives homeless children led.

[“The Sidewalk Dance,” 1894]

brownthesidewalkdance1894

And despite the work of social reformers such as Henry Loring Brace (founder of the Children’s Aid Society) and Jacob Riis, who documented street kids in How the Other Half Lives in 1890, Brown’s “cheery street urchins,” as one biographer put it, were a big hit with the public.

brownselfportrait1908His name may not be well-known to art patrons and sellers today.

Yet his paintings and lithographs—including scenes of the city’s adults at work and play, from grimy longshoreman taking a midday break to more refined people enjoying the sport of “curling” on a lake in Central Park—hang in impressive museums like the Corcoran Gallery and are still in demand.

An engraving of “The Sidewalk Dance” just sold at auction for $468.

[Left: “Self-Portrait,” 1908]