Posts Tagged ‘Poor in New York’

Gilded Age New York City’s “Beggars’ Paradise”

January 23, 2017

New York City’s fortunes rose after the Civil War—the metropolis became the financial capital of the nation, powered by Wall Street and the center of a mighty shipping and manufacturing sector.


But with so much money changing hands, a problem emerged: an uptick in beggars on the city’s most pedestrian-heavy cross streets.

beggarsparadidepleasegivemeapenny“Twenty-third and Fourteenth street constitute the ‘Beggars’ Paradise,’ the former by day and the latter by night,” wrote journalist James B. McCabe in 1881’s New York by Sunlight and Gaslight.

A beggar could be one of the many tramps who bedded down on park benches for the night, out of sight from the police.

But the category included anonymous, under-the-radar New Yorkers, kids and adults, who populated the late 19th century city.

“The same cripples, hand-organ men, Italian men and women, and professional boy beggars who infest twenty-third Street by day change their quarters to fourteenth street, when the darkness settles down over the city, and the blaze of the electric lights bursts forth over the latter thoroughfare.”

beggarnyplstreetbeggarFourteenth Street’s electric blaze came from the nightly shows at nearby theaters.

But 23rd Street was more lucrative during the day thanks to its fashionable and luxurious stores and hotels, like Stern Brothers and the Fifth Avenue Hotel across Madison Square.

“These beggars constitute an intolerable nuisance, and some of them are characters in their own way,” wrote McCabe.

He described the men who challenge “every passer by with pitiable looks,” collect coins, and then hightail it to a saloon or hand it over to a “pal” waiting out of sight.

beggarsparadisehandorganmannyplWhile benevolent societies and missions tried to help the “deserving” poor, these institutions couldn’t help unfortunate folks who fell into the hands of con men.

“The most systematic beggar is a man paralyzed from his waist downward. He sits in a four-wheeled wagon, and is drawn to a fresh station each day. He works the thoroughfare between Fourth and Eighth Avenues, on both sides.”

“The creature who wheels the wagon and watches the contributors, is an elderly man with a vicious face.”

“He makes his companion settle up three or four times a day, and is liberal with his oaths if his share does not equal the amount he expected,” added McCabe.

[Top photo: MCNY:; second image: New York by Sunlight and Gaslight; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL]

When New Yorkers pitched in for “Bundle Day”

February 11, 2013

The idea came from a businessman in St. Louis. In 1911, a banker named Ben Altheimer launched that city’s first Bundle Day—a day set aside to collect and give out clothes to the poor and unemployed.


Bundle Day spread to New York in 1915. A Bundle Day committee, part of the Mayor’s Committee on Unemployment, was formed, headed by women with last names like Vanderbilt, Astor, and Hewitt.

They convinced pastors to mention Bundle Day in their sermons, and they printed tags to be handed out to parishioners that requested they donate “bundles” of garments for men, women, and children.


Railroad stations, department stores, and express companies agreed to transport the bundles. Police stations and schools were serving as drop-off locations, wrote The New York Times on January 31, 1915.

“[Sic] no coat or wrap could be so ragged that it would not be welcome, and [sic] no pair of shoes so hopelessly worn that it should be omitted from a bundle,” the committee announced. They had recruited teams of unemployed cobblers and other tradesmen to transform old garments, paying them 15 cents an hour, so nothing would go to waste.


Bundle Day was scheduled for February 4, and based on newspaper articles, it seemed to have lasted at least a week—and served lots of New Yorkers. The unemployment rate then was an estimated 16.2 percent.

“More than 100 women, shivering from the sharp, biting wind, stood in line yesterday morning at Bundle Day headquarters, 208 and 210 Fifth Avenue, waiting to receive the warm clothing that were being passed out as rapidly as possible by scores of attendants,” wrote the Times on February 10.

“Scores of other applicants, several of them invalid old men, were without coats, and stood shivering in lightweight tattered summer clothing. When possible these were provided for first.”

So what happened to Bundle Day? It appeared to have been held in the city for several years, then died out at some point; the last newspaper articles about it date to the early 1920s.

[Photos: George Bain Collection, Library of Congress]