Where’s the bathroom? Uncovering the Almshouse Privy at Tweed Courthouse

Studying historical records can give us only so much information about a specific place. Archaeology offers a unique perspective on the details of everyday life that written records do not fully capture, such as: Where was the bathroom? Privies, or outhouses, were standard for rich and poor alike until indoor plumbing became accessible and also fashionable in 19th century New York.

Today, when archaeologists excavate in New York City, they often uncover the remains of old privies. These remains, in addition to nightsoil (the polite term for human excrement), often include objects lost in the bathroom, garbage tossed into the privy while it was in use, or garbage used to fill in the privy when it was no longer in use and are therefore rich sources of information about a given time period.

One such privy was excavated in City Hall Park by Hartgen Archaeological Associates, Inc. in 2000 and 2001.  This project was conducted under the guidelines of the Landmarks Law of 1965 and the 1977 City Environmental Quality Review Act, laws that require assessment of archaeological resources on city properties that could be impacted by construction work.

Excavating a late 18th to early 19th century privy on the Tweed Courthouse grounds.

Excavating a late 18th to early 19th century privy on the Tweed Courthouse grounds.

These excavations were concentrated on the area around Tweed Court House (built between 1861 and 1881), in the north west section of City Hall Park. This area has long been a center of civic activity in New York City. In 1735, an almshouse occupied the site and housed the homeless, sick, and other New Yorkers unable to care for themselves. This was the first institution of its kind in New York City, and existed in City Hall Park until residents were moved uptown in 1816.

Chamber pot found in the almshouse privy.

Fragments of a ceramic whiteware chamber pot excavated from the almshouse privy.

In one part of the excavation, a privy relating the 18th century almshouse was uncovered. Items such as the shell-edged plate (below) and plain chamber pot (above) that were found on the site are some of the most common ceramics archaeologists unearth relating to this period. They would have been accessible to New Yorkers from all walks of life as they were some of the most affordable housewares available at the time.

Ceramic pearlware dish with green shell-edged design.  Shell-edged dishes were one of the cheapest wares with color decoration during the late 18th to  mid 18th century.

Ceramic pearlware dish with green shell-edged design. As one of the cheapest tablewares with color decoration during the late 18th to mid 19th century, shell-edged plates were frugal and fashionable.  These fragments were excavated from the Almshouse privy.

Archaeologists determined that this privy was in use during the 1780s. One way they know this is though production dates for items such as the ceramics above. Another helpful dating tool is numismatics, such as this Spanish coin (below). It was minted in 1781, so excavators know that the privy must have been in use sometime after this date.

Corulus III Coin (1781) Archaeologists found this colonial Spanish coin at the bottom of the Almshouse privy.  View of back side.

Corulus III Coin (1781) Archaeologists found this colonial Spanish coin at the bottom of the Almshouse privy. View of back side.

Corulus III Coin (1781) Archaeologists found this colonial Spanish coin at the bottom of the Almshouse privy.  View of face side.

Corulus III Coin (1781) Archaeologists found this colonial Spanish coin at the bottom of the Almshouse privy. View of face side.

How does a Spanish coin end up in colonial New York toilet? Post your theory in the comments!

These artifacts, and many more, are being cataloged and digitized at the Museum of the City of New York as preparation for public access and long term care at the Landmarks Preservation Commission Archaeological Repository. Research inquiries can be directed to archaeology@mcny.org. More information on the project can be found here.

Alice in Wonderland: La Gallienne’s Living Pictures

White Studio (New York, N.Y.). [Eva Le Gallienne as the White Queen, Josephine Hutchinson as Alice, and Leona Roberts as the Red Queen in "Alice in Wonderland".]. 1932. Museum of the City of New York. 37.350.26.

White Studio (New York, N.Y.). [Eva Le Gallienne as the White Queen, Josephine Hutchinson as Alice, and Leona Roberts as the Red Queen in "Alice in Wonderland".]. 1932. Museum of the City of New York. 37.350.26.

the black and white queen sleeping

Sir John Tenniel. The White and Red Queen Sleeping. Illustration for Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. 1865.

Actress, producer, and director Eva Le Gallienne built a reputation for taking classic works of literature and bringing them to life in the theater. In her 1932 production of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, this was applied in extraordinary proportions (quite literally). Because Alice was such a beloved childhood staple, Le Gallienne decided upon a visual interpretation that literally translated the original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel. The script, written with Florida Freibus, was adapted faithfully from text. The resulting product had a magical effect, as if the engravings had been conjured to life. Alice’s costumes and sets shifted seamlessly together, creating a world where drawings moved across the pages of a book on their own.

White Studio (New York, N.Y.). [Josephine Hutchinson as Alice in "Alice in Wonderland".]. 1932. Museum of the City of New York. 37.350.26.

White Studio (New York, N.Y.). [Josephine Hutchinson as Alice in "Alice in Wonderland".]. 1932. Museum of the City of New York. 37.350.31.

sir-john-tenniel-alice

Sir John Tenniel. Alice Pushes through the Mirror. Illustration for Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. 1865.

Between 1932-1933 there were 127 performances at Le Galliene’s own Civic Repertory  Theatre. It became her most personally cherished piece, and was revived in 1947 and again upon its 50 year anniversary in 1982 with an 84-year old Eva playing The White Queen.

[Eva Le Gallienne as the White Queen and Josephine Hutchinson as

White Studio. [Eva Le Gallienne as the White Queen and Josephine Hutchinson as Alice in "Alice in Wonderland".]. 1947. Museum of the City of New York. 37.350.24.

Sir John Tenniel. Alice “a-dressing” the White Queen. Illustration for Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. 1865.

Le Gallienne was a genius at scouting fresh talent for collaborators, and this production was no exception. In 1931 she commissioned fashion illustrator Irene Scharaff as costume and set designer. Irene Scharaff’s brilliance is strikingly apparent in this first effort on the stage (later she would go on to win five Academy Awards as costume designer for such famous productions as Cleopatra, West Side Story, and Funny Girl.) Together Le Galliene and Scharaff engineered a moving background 400 yards long that unwound throughout the production on two giant rolling drums. Moving platforms also operated in the front. Cut-out spaces allowed the actors and marionettes to move in time, weaving in and out of the scenery. The original 1932 production was operated entirely by man-power; the 1982 revival utilized machines.

[Josephine Hutchinson as Alice, Burgess Meredith as Tweedledee,

White Studio (New York, N.Y.). [Josephine Hutchinson as Alice, Burgess Meredith as Tweedledee, and Landon Herrick as Tweedledum in "Alice in Wonderland".]. 1932. Museum of the City of New York. 37.350.27.

[Marionette operators for the Walrus and Carpenter characters in

White Studio (New York, N.Y.). [Marionette operators for the Walrus and Carpenter characters in "Alice in Wonderland".]. 1947. Museum of the City of New York. 37.350.16.

[Marionettes for the Walrus and Carpenter characters in "Alice i

White Studio (New York, N.Y.). [Marionettes for the Walrus and Carpenter characters in "Alice in Wonderland".]. 1932-1947. Museum of the City of New York. 37.350.17.

Sharaff collaborated with master marionette maker Remo Bufano to devise costumes, sculptural masks, and puppets. Masks made from papier maché strove to replicate the exact crosshatching line work of the Tenniel illustrations, creating the one-dimensional appearance of a paper collage. The colors were largely restricted to black and white to match the backdrop, adding red, green, and yellow highlights selectively. The proportions of the characters were painstakingly replicated for each scene, evolving with the growing and shrinking of Alice throughout the story. For some characters, up to three actors of various statures were hired.

[Howard Da Silva as the White Knight and Josephine Hutchinson as

White Studio (New York, N.Y.). [Howard Da Silva as the White Knight and Josephine Hutchinson as Alice in "Alice in Wonderland".]. 1932. Museum of the City of New York. 37.350.25.

Eva Le Gallienne performed the White Queen, a role that required one of the more complicated and cumbersome costumes in the entire production. The heavy costume consisted of numerous balloon tires of descending size. If this was not enough, she also was strapped to a harness in order to fly over the audience in acrobatic scenes (children would reach up to brush their hands against her in awe). Later in her memoir she attributed the success of her role as The White Queen to her mentors, the Frattelini clowns who took her under their wings when she briefly joined the circus as a young woman in France.

[Kate Burton as Alice with the pig in "Alice in Wonderland".]

Martha Swope. [Kate Burton as Alice with the pig in "Alice in Wonderland".]. 1982. Museum of the City of New York. 86.43.11.

In 1982 Le Gallienne returned to her role for the 1982 revival, just one month before her 84th birthday. The cost to bring Alice back to the stage was much higher in the 1980s, costing an exorbitant $2 million, as opposed to $2,000 in 1932.  Le Galliene is quoted in a New York Times article: ” ‘Alice’ was one of the things I was most proud of,” she said. ”The production was ahead of its time and I don’t think it dates at all. Classics don’t date.” Though scenery and costumes were again celebrated, unfortunately the acting fell flat, garnering negative reviews that lead to an early closing after just 22 performances. It would be Le Gallienne’s last appearance on stage.

These theater photographs were digitized with the generous support of the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Visit the Museum’s online Collections Portal to see more.

Flops: when good theater goes bad

Broadway is a magical place. Through the dreams, combined talents, and sheer luck of a group of people, audiences are transported into another world brought to life right before them. At least that’s the plan. Sometimes things go horribly, splendidly wrong. While cataloging images of the theater production files at the Museum of the City of New York, a project generously funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services, we have come across some productions that have truly earned the moniker of “flop”.

In 1929, a young unknown actor was cast in the pre-Broadway tour of Blind Window, produced by the legendary David Belasco.  The Baltimore Sun had this to say about the actor who played one half of a murderously and madly in love convict couple: “Clark Gabel [sic] does excellent work as convict No. 27.” The misspelling of Clark Gable’s name, both in the newspaper and more embarrassingly in the Playbill, was only the first of many clues as to why this production closed after only 24 shows before even reaching Broadway. (Six years later Clark Gable won the Oscar for It Happened One Night.)

White Studio (New York, N.Y.). Clark Gable and Beth Merrill in "Blind Window". 1929. Museum of the City of New York. 37.399.764.

White Studio (New York, N.Y.). Clark Gable and Beth Merrill in “Blind Window”. 1929. Museum of the City of New York. 37.399.764.

White Studio (New York, N.Y.). [Clark Gable and Beth Merrill in "Blind Window".]. 1929. Museum of the City of New York. 37.399.778

White Studio (New York, N.Y.). [Clark Gable and Beth Merrill in "Blind Window".]. 1929. Museum of the City of New York. 37.399.778.

Clark Gable isn’t the only (now) celebrated actor to find himself in this position. In 1962, a young Stephen Sondheim – fresh on the heels of the success of West Side Story and Gypsy, was having some trouble with his newest musical – Anyone Can Whistle (previously called The Natives are Restless then Side Show). Backers were hard to find, the story wasn’t quite working, and the lead actress, Angela Lansbury, had misgivings about the whole thing.  Despite delaying the opening several weeks to try to fix the problems, Anyone Can Whistle played only 12 previews and 9 performances.

 

Friedman-Abeles. ["Anyone Can Whistle" theater still.] 1964. Museum of the City of New York. 68.80.4120.

Friedman-Abeles. ["Anyone Can Whistle" theater still.] 1964. Museum of the City of New York. 68.80.4120.

 In what sounds like a recipe for a palpable hit (to borrow a phrase from Sondheim), in 1966 the beloved Truman Capote novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s was turned into a musical. Riding on the wave of popularity from the Audrey Hepburn film version of it just a few years earlier, and with a book by Edward Albee (!) and featuring Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain – stars at the top of their games- what could possibly go wrong?

Unknown. Richard Chamberlain and Mary Tyler Moore during a rehearsal for "Breakfast at Tiffany's". 1966. Museum of the City of New York. 81.54.3968.

United Press International. Richard Chamberlain and Mary Tyler Moore during a rehearsal for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. 1966. Museum of the City of New York. 81.54.3968.

 

United Press International. [Mary Tyler Moore during a rehearsal for "Breakfast at Tiffany's".]. 1966. Museum of the City of New York. 81.54.3969.

Apparently so many things. The score and script were under constant revision, audiences and critics hated seeing Mary Tyler Moore in a darker version of Holly Golightly, and things got so bad that the producer, David Merrick, took the drastic step of closing the show after only 4 previews (his words) “rather than subject the drama critics and the public to an excruciatingly boring evening.”

Friedman-Abeles. [Richard Chamberlain as Jeff Claypool and Mary Tyler Moore as Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's".] 1966. Museum of the City of New York. 81.54.3946

Friedman-Abeles. [Richard Chamberlain as Jeff Claypool in "Breakfast at Tiffany's".] 1966. Museum of the City of New York. 81.54.3952.

In 1982, the hit songwriting duo of Betty Comden and Adolph Green (On the Town, The Band Wagon and many, many others) answered the question that was burning on no one’s mind – what happened to Nora after the end of Henrik Ibsen’s classic A Doll’s House? A musical sequel to A Doll’s House, creatively entitled A Doll’s Life: what could possibly go wrong? Again, a whole lot. Jokingly called A Doll’s Death, the show played only 18 previews and five performances. However, despite the short run, the musical still managed to receive three Tony nominations.

Unknown. Betsy Joslyn as Nora and Peter Gallagher as Otto in "A Doll's Life".] 1982. Museum of the City of New York. 92.52.39.97

Unknown photographer. Betsy Joslyn as Nora and Peter Gallagher as Otto in “A Doll’s Life”.] 1982. Museum of the City of New York. 92.52.39.97

So next time you find yourself judging the creative teams behind this season’s under-performing shows, remember: the next Clark Gable may be in the cast! To look at all the theatrical productions we’ve digitized so far, including both huge hits and more flops, please visit our Collections Portal here.

 

Conner and Kubrick’s New York

Illustrator McCauley “Mac” Conner, born in 1913 and still active today at the age of 101, continues to reside in New York City. He arrived during World War II and stayed on to forge his career at a time when the city served as the hub of a burgeoning publishing and advertising industry. From the late 1940s through the early 1960s, Conner enjoyed great success as an illustrator for advertisements and for fiction stories appearing in several women’s and general interest magazines. Mac Conner: A New York Life, on view at the City Museum through January 19, 2015, features over 70 never-before-exhibited original paintings and offers a window into this particular moment of New York City history.

Illustration for "Where's Mary Smith?" in Good Housekeeping, June 1950 Gouache and gesso on masonite © Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist

Illustration for “Where’s Mary Smith?” in Good Housekeeping, June 1950
Gouache and gesso on masonite
© Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist

Conner is a keen observer of people, which manifests in the details of gesture and dress that he incorporates into his illustrations. It is this aspect of the process that attracts him, and that he feels distinguishes his work from that of an artist. “I was never interested in landscapes and that kind of thing,” Conner notes. “I was never an artist, in other words. I liked to paint people.” An artist, he explains, “gets a thrill out of painting that tree or that valley. And I never got my thrills that way. I got my thrills from people doing things, the way [a person] stands … they all had their characteristics, and I liked to paint them.”

A similar sensibility informs the photographs of a young Stanley Kubrick, who worked in the same era as a staff photographer for LOOK magazine. From 1945-1950, before gaining notoriety as a film director, Kubrick captured candid moments of everyday life on the streets of New York City. Both Conner and Kubrick were tasked with providing striking images that would grab the attention of readers, but they differed in their approaches and intent—in part because they provided imagery to distinct types of publications.

Illustration for "How Do You Love Me" in Woman's Home Companion, August 1950 Gouache on illustration board © Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist

Illustration for “How Do You Love Me” in Woman’s Home Companion, August 1950
Gouache on illustration board
© Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist

Street Conversations [Woman walking down the street.] ©SK Film Archives/Museum of the City of New York.

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK magazine. Street Conversations [Woman walking down the street]. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10296.50


Conner, like Kubrick, worked on assignment. He was a mainstay illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and This Week Magazine—a newspaper supplement that at its height appeared in 42 papers nationwide and could have brought Conner an audience of as many as 13 million people. But much of his work accompanied stories published in leading women’s magazines, notably the group known as the “Seven Sisters” (McCall’s, Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, Better Homes & Gardens, Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, and Woman’s Day).

Stanley Kubrick. 1949. Vaughn Monroe [Woman reading Billboard magazine.] ©SK Film Archives/Museum of the City of New York.

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK magazine. Vaughn Monroe [Woman reading Billboard magazine]. 1949. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11807.126F

Publications aimed at women were not new; indeed, Good Housekeeping and Ladies’ Home Journal were among those that debuted in the late 19th century. But the proliferation and success of these publications in the middle decades of the 20th century coincided with post-war affluence and an explosion in consumerism—and they provided a powerful boon to advertisers who recognized that women comprised a powerful class of consumers.

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK magazine, 1947. The 5 and 10 [Women shopping at Woolworth's.]

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK magazine. The 5 and 10 [Women shopping at Woolworth's]. 1947. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10254.25E

Daily life inspired and informed Conner’s paintings, which illustrated incidents in fictional narratives. Kubrick found his actual subject in the everyday, generating images that would be published in one of the nation’s preeminent photojournalism publications. Conner’s paintings reflected cultural trends and mores, whereas LOOK magazine deliberately focused on topical political, social, and cultural issues. Kubrick’s photographs from the Museum’s collection, paired with Conner’s illustrations, provide perspective on the atmosphere and style of the times expressed by Conner’s imagery.

Conner illustrated many stories that unfold in New York City, and his depictions both align with and depart from the reality that Kubrick’s photos convey. To situate the leading image of Arthur Gordon’s “Let’s Take a Trip Up the Nile,” published in This Week Magazine on November 5, 1950, Conner capitalized on the ubiquity of fire escapes—and the privacy they afforded young couples.

Illustration for "Let's Take a Trip Up the Nile" in This Week Magazine, November 5, 1950 Gouache and graphite on illustration board  © Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist

Illustration for “Let’s Take a Trip Up the Nile” in This Week Magazine, November 5, 1950. Gouache and graphite on illustration board.
© Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK magazine, 1946.Park Benches - Love is Everywhere [Couple flirting on a fire escape.] ©SK Film Archives/Museum of the City of New York.

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK magazine. Park Benches – Love is Everywhere [Couple flirting on a fire escape]. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10347.11

Conner portrays an idealized, chaste couple in a carefully constructed scene that is likely based on actuality but modified to enhance the overall design. Kubrick explores similar formal devices, such as the perspective from above and the use of angular elements to create a visually interesting composition. But where Conner’s illustration permits the viewer to passively observe everyman and everywoman—in essence, offering a representative image of mid-century New York City—Kubrick’s lens interrupts and surprises two individuals, intrusively capturing a specific moment in time.

The narrator of “The Girl Who Was Crazy About Jimmy Durante,” a story by Philip Gould that appeared in the September 1953 issue of Woman’s Day, shares Conner and Kubrick’s predilection for people-watching. Conner illustrated this story, and Kubrick’s photograph of the New York City subway reveals his real-life inspiration.

Illustration for "The Girl Who Was Crazy About Jimmy Durante" in Woman's Day, September 1953 Gouache and ink on illustration board © Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist

Illustration for “The Girl Who Was Crazy About Jimmy Durante” in Woman’s Day, September 1953. Gouache
and ink on illustration board.
© Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK magazine, 1946. Life and Love on the New York City Subway [Passengers on a subway.]

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK magazine. Life and Love on the New York City Subway [Passengers on a subway]. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11107.100A

Across from Kubrick sits an attractive, smiling, well-dressed woman next to a man deeply engrossed in his newspaper. Each individual engages with an object or with a person outside the camera’s frame; none recognize the voyeuristic presence of the camera/viewer. Conner builds on these components, populating his invented train car with paper-reading gentlemen who convey a sense of quiet rush hour crowds and create a largely gray mass of color that fills most of the canvas. Conner enables the reader to adopt the protagonist’s point of view through this swath of gray-jacketed men and catch a glimpse of the vibrant young lady, fairly sparkling in their midst, who has so captured the narrator’s fancy.

The story’s teller notes all of the details of the young lady’s dress—and how becoming they are to her—and speculates about the details of her life. “She looked too young to be some big executive’s privileged private secretary,” he muses, concluding that she might work along Madison Avenue at one of the advertising agencies. “Have you ever walked along Madison Avenue at dusk?” he queries of the reader. “I wasn’t living in New York before I went in the Army, but I knew some New Yorkers then who used to get that faraway look in their eyes like the rest of us, and now I know what they were daydreaming about, where they wished they were. Madison Avenue at dusk, with all the pretty girls from all the offices and modeling agencies streaming out of the stately buildings on their way home. All the pretty young American girls, still fresh and bright after a long day, their hair shining, their clothes just right.” Kubrick immortalized a transient moment such as the narrator describes: two well-heeled young ladies leaving a large office building on 34th Street, two blocks off Madison.

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK magazine, 1946. People Mugging [Women walking out of a building.] ©SK Film Archives/Museum of the City of New York.

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK magazine. People Mugging [Women walking out of a building]. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10303.114

Like the girls the narrator describes, the women in Conner’s illustrations are impeccably dressed, icons of contemporary style. He based these details in part on simple observation, but he also cites the influence of his agent’s wife, Jessie Neeley, who kept him informed of changing trends in glove lengths, hairstyles, and the cuts of dresses.

Illustration for "Strictly Respectable" in Redbook, August 1953. Gouache on illustration board © Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist

Illustration for “Strictly Respectable” in Redbook, August 1953.
Gouache on illustration board
© Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist

Conner’s depictions of women are reflections of what he saw, but they also set the fashion. Guest curator Terry Brown relates that “it was not uncommon for ladies to go in to a hairdresser, hold out an illustration torn out of a magazine, and say ‘I want my hair to look like that!’” Conner’s women carry purses that match their gloves, display painted nails, and wear the latest fashions, like the wasp-waisted dresses that emphasized the female form and celebrated the end of fabric rationing following World War II. Importantly, his representations offered a model to which women could aspire that was also plausibly within their reach.

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK magazine, 1946. Women Trying on Hats [Woman trying on a hat in a department store.] ©SK Film Archives/Museum of the City of New York.

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK magazine. Women Trying on Hats [Woman trying on a hat in a department store]. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10345.46

These publications were a consumer item that in turn advertised products: everything from home decor and lingerie to food items, complete with recipes and lush photographs of the savory results. But they also sold concepts—of family values, of “American-ness,” of womanhood. While the text in the stories often reinforced predominant stereotypes of appropriate gender roles, Conner’s illustrations imbue his female protagonists with agency. (And women are nearly always his protagonists, even if he portrays a moment when a male character speaks.) The curator in the exhibition text describes this characteristic as “a heightened—but self-possessed—femininity.”

Illustration for "The Good Husband" in Collier's, February 4, 1955. Gouache and pastel on illustration board. © Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist

Illustration for “The Good Husband” in Collier’s, February 4, 1955. Gouache and pastel on illustration board.
© Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist

Kubrick’s photographs show stylish women on the street, whose discerning fashion sense informed Conner’s work, as well as ladies who frequented stores in pursuit of this seemingly artless elegance. Conner’s is a version of womanliness that fits within the prescribed gender roles of mid-century society while also allowing women individuality, creativity, and power over their self-presentation—a vision that continues to inspire today.

Clowns!

Clowns inspire laughter and happiness in some people, and fear or aversion in many others. They have been around for more than 4,000 years and in nearly as many places and cultures, entertaining or frightening Egyptian pharaohs, Chinese imperial courts, ancient Greek and Roman audiences, and Aztec rulers, to name just a few. In this blog post, we take a look at clowns of the circus and stage as represented in the City Museum’s collections.

James T. Powers began performing in 1880 at the age of 18. His stage career lasted over 55 years, owing to his versatility as an actor, comedian and light-opera singer. He played the character Biggs in the musical comedy The Circus Girl, and donned a variety of roles for the part: barber, wrestler and clown. The New York Times complained that the production was unoriginal in a review published on April 27, 1897: “Even its lively circus scene, that is so happily treated that one really feels he is at the circus while it is in progress, has been done over and over again, in one way or another.”

Sarony. James T. Powers. 1898. Museum of the City of New York. 46.246.238

Sarony. James T. Powers. 1898. Museum of the City of New York. 46.246.238

Powers returned to the role of Biggs in the revival staged the following year, which received more favorable reviews from the press.

Rotograph Co. (New York, N.Y.). Jas. T. Powers "Clown". 1904-1911. Museum of the City of New York. 57.46.24

Rotograph Co. (New York, N.Y.). Jas. T. Powers “Clown”. 1904-1911. Museum of the City of New York. 57.46.24

While Powers performed regularly as Biggs the clown on the New York stage, other clowns traveled on railroads across the United States with circus companies like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, in an effort to bring the show to as many Americans as possible.

Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Magazine and Daily Review. 1926. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Magazine and Daily Review. 1926. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Circuses proved to be lucrative, and businessmen seeking a higher return on investment began to expand the shows. Circus venues grew in size, rendering individual dialog inaudible. Clowns adapted by modifying their roles in the ring. The 1926 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Magazine and Daily Review noted: “The one, the only, the inimitable clown that used to be, a character of such importance that his name was heralded in lithographic splendor, is gone, but a horde of just as clever and more vigilant cut-ups has replaced him… The reason is quite obvious. The arena is so large that no one clown can be the cynosure of all eyes…”

Talking clown has gone - replaced by comic horde. Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Magazine and Daily Review. 1926. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Talking clown has gone – replaced by comical horde. Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Magazine and Daily Review. 1926. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

In spite of the magazine’s claim that the circus “has forced personal appeal to yield to organization and ensemble,” it chose a single, standout clown each year for a feature story. On of these, Paul Jerome, shown below in the 1936 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus magazine and program, performed with the circus company for more than 25 years.

Paul Jerome returns to Clown Alley. 1936. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Paul Jerome. 1936. Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Felix Adler took up clowning as a teenager and worked for Ringling Bros. He served in World War I and often entertained fellow military personnel. After the war he returned to Ringling Bros. and never missed a performance, from 1919 to 1946.

Felix Adler. 1937. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Felix Adler. 1937. Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

The actor Dennis King played the role of Funny in the 1946 revival of Leonid Andreyev’s play, He Who Gets Slapped. (The character’s name was He in the original 1922 production.) Funny begins as a nameless man, betrayed by his wife and his best friend, who runs away to join a circus and become a clown. His role in the circus is to have his face slapped for the amusement of the audience, hence the title of the play.

United Press International. Dennis King as Funny in "He Who Gets Slapped". 1946. Museum of the City of New York. 81.54.2396

United Press International. [Dennis King as Funny in "He Who Gets Slapped".] 1946. Museum of the City of New York. 81.54.2396

The entertainer Bobby Barry performed with King in He Who Gets Slapped. The same year he also played the part of Bozo in Burlesque, and was described by The Billboard as the “diminutive comic husband” of “beefy gal” Gail Garber.

Photo Ideas Inc. Bobby Barry as Bozo and Gail Garber as Gussie in "Burlesque". 1946-1948. Museum of the City of New York. 49.98.10

Photo Ideas Inc. [Bobby Barry as Bozo and Gail Garber as Gussie in "Burlesque".] 1946-1948. Museum of the City of New York. 49.98.10

Lou Jacobs was born Johann Ludwig Jacob in 1903 in Germany. He immigrated to the United States in 1923 and initially found work as a contortionist. He joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in 1925 and worked as a clown until declining health forced him to retire in 1985. During the 60 years he performed, Jacobs was arguably the most famous, instantly recognizable clown in the world and even appeared on a United States Postal Service stamp in 1966. He died in 1992 at the age of 89 but is still remembered today for his contributions to clowning.

Stanley Kubrick for Look magazine. Circus Story: Clown. 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11376.1

Stanley Kubrick for Look magazine. Circus Story: Clown. 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11376.1

Emmett Kelly, Jr. was the son of famous clown Emmett Kelly, who created the endearing character “Weary Willie.” When Emmett Kelly, Jr. adopted his father’s character and debuted at the Kodak Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, he was dogged by comments like “He’ll never be as good as his father.” But he took those criticisms in stride and continued to perform until his death in 2006.

Draw me. Emmett Kelly Jr. Star Spangled Circus program. 1974. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Draw me. Emmett Kelly Jr. Star Spangled Circus program. 1974. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Avner Eisenberg opened his one-man show Avner the Eccentric at the Lamb’s Theatre in 1984. The show received a glowing review from the New York Times: “He never says a word – he makes some sounds, mostly on a kazoo – but we read his face as if it were a cartoon balloon. Balancing a chair on his chin, he hears the applause and says, ‘If you think this is hard, let me do something bigger,’ and replaces the chair with a teetering 10- foot ladder.”

Photographer unknown. Avner the Eccentric. 1984. Museum of the City of New York. 95.139.157

Photographer unknown. Avner the Eccentric. 1984. Museum of the City of New York. 95.139.157

Avner the Eccentric still writes, directs, and performs his own material, in addition to teaching master classes in clowning and developing workshops for students and professionals in healthcare, education, and counseling.

Simo Neri. Avner the Eccentric. 1984. Museum of the City of New York. 95.139.158

Simo Neri. [Avner the Eccentric.] 1984. Museum of the City of New York. 95.139.158

So many people are frightened of clowns, there is a word to describe it: coulrophobia. Even though the term is thought to have been coined in the 1980s, fear of clowns has probably existed as long as clowns themselves. But clowns also captivate and fascinate people, a fact not lost on showman Irvin Feld, who created the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown College in 1968 to foster new talent. To date nearly 1,300 people have graduated to become clowns.

Such a Foolish Wish by Dudley T. Fisher, Jr. 1937. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Such a Foolish Wish by Dudley T. Fisher, Jr. 1937. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

 

Announcing an Archaeology Partnership: MCNY + LPC

The Museum of the City of New York is thrilled to announce a partnership with Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to document archaeological collections owned by the City of New York.

On many days, you can spot archaeologists working alongside construction workers in New York City. They help ensure that important evidence of New York City’s past is not overlooked as the City grows and changes. After excavations are finished, the artifacts unearthed need to be stored and cared for either in an archaeological repository, a university, or a museum. Over the past 40 years, the City has accumulated hundreds of thousands of artifacts. The City Museum has just embarked on a partnership with the LPC that  will make sure they are cataloged, photographed, and ready to share with the public online and at LPC’s new archaeological repository.

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Vessels recovered from Lower Manhattan as part of the Stadt Huys project

Because of New York City’s lengthy and dense occupation, archaeologists find a wide range of ceramics, glass, nails, shell, and animal bone. These artifacts relate to all economic classes and have often been imported from all over the world. City Museum archaeologists have already cataloged ceramics dating from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries in just the first few boxes!

Tea cup excavated from Lott Family Farm

Tea cup excavated from Lott Family Farm

Since the late 19th century the study New York’s archaeological past has been recorded as part of Bulletins by New York State Museum. Early archaeological collectors Reginald Pelham Bolton and later George Gustav Heye scoured the City’s empty fields and construction sites looking for evidence of earlier times.

Early 20th Century finds from Upper Manhattan. Image courtesy MCNY

Early 20th Century finds from Upper Manhattan

In late 1979, construction was about to commence on Broad Street in Lower Manhattan and a group of archaeologists petitioned for the opportunity to excavate this area. Thanks to their efforts, the Stadt Huys block project uncovered New York’s first City Hall and some of the best evidence of 17th and 18th century New York City life. Since then, the city has required excavation on all city-owned property before development, as part of the environmental review process, resulting in archaeological collections from across the five boroughs.

The City Museum has begun to catalog and digitally photograph these collections, with the eventual goal of launching a unified online public database that will provide access to researchers, archeologists, scholars, educators, museum curators, and the public. The project will help set standards for the long term preservation and care of these collections and eventually bring them together in one searchable database that will provide online access as new finds are uncovered in the future.

In addition to cataloging the collections, the City museum plans to incorporate archaeological objects into adult and children’s programming and display new “discoveries” as they are cataloged by museum staff.

Stay tuned for posts on what we discover as work progresses!

Dorothy Dignam and Gramercy Park

This week we will have a guest post from yet another one of our fabulous summer interns, Mickey Dennis, a student at Washington State University, who is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Public History.  Mickey was with us nearly full time for two months, so he had the opportunity to really dig into some of our collections.  I turn it over to him now to share what he learned while processing the Dorothy Dignam Collection on Gramercy Park.

Dorothy Dignam started her career in the advertising business in Chicago in the 1920s. She was a prominent force throughout the advertising and copywriting fields, especially in fashion, beauty, and homemaking, during a period where men dominated the scene. Scenes from Mad Men might spring to mind. She relocated to New York City, eventually moving into No. 18 Gramercy Park and becoming an active member in the Gramercy Park community. She became the assistant editor for the Gramercy Graphic and wrote articles for local papers. Throughout the rest of her life, she collected newspapers and magazines that had articles about former and current residents, local events and buildings, and anything else that related to the quiet and exclusive community.  She also wrote segments for other publications, such as the “Special to the Villager,” pictured below.

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Gramercy Park Paragraphs, December 1954, in the Dorothy Dignam Collection on Gramercy Park. Museum of the City of New York. PRO2014.3, folder15.

Reproduction of "Gramercy Park," George Bellows (1882-1925) from unknown publication, in the Dorothy Dignam Collection on Gramercy Park. Museum of the City of New York. PRO2014.3, folder 2.

Reproduction of “Gramercy Park,” George Bellows (1882-1925) from unknown publication, in the Dorothy Dignam Collection on Gramercy Park. Museum of the City of New York. PRO2014.3, folder 2.

As a newcomer myself to New York City – by way of growing up in Illinois, undergraduate school in Missouri, and graduate work in Washington – Gramercy Park was an unknown place to me. I’m still not even sure I pronounce it correctly 100% of the time. [That's ok, Mickey - just remember it's "GRAMurSEE," not "GraMERCY " - but you had it mastered by the end of the internship!] So when I originally sat down to process Dorothy Dignam’s Collection on Gramercy Park, I was completely unfamiliar with the park and its surrounding neighborhood.

Lands of Samuel B. Ruggles in the Twelth Ward in the City of New York, ca.1831. Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.2973.

Lands of Samuel B. Ruggles in the Twelth Ward in the City of New York, ca.1831. Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.2973.

In 1831, Samuel Ruggles purchased the “Gramercy Farm” from James Duane, son of Mayor James Duane and a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant. This included the Krom Moerasje, which is the Dutch term for “crooked little swamp” and the origins of the area’s name. Ruggles filled the swamp and began developing it. He laid out an eventual 60 plots around “Gramercy Square” and deeded rights of the square to the property owners surrounding it. Because of Ruggles’s actions, Gramercy Park is one of only two private parks in New York City; the other is located in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens.  Residents of the Gramercy Park neighborhood must pay an annual fee in order to receive a key to enter the park. Key access is largely limited to owners of the original lots and members and guests of organizations which reside on the park such as the Players Club and National Arts Club.

Gramercy Park by John Falter (1910-1982), cover of Saturday Evening Post, February 11, 1950, in the Dorothy Dignam Collection on Gramercy Park. Museum of the City of New York. PRO2014.3, folder 1.

Gramercy Park by John Falter (1910-1982), cover of Saturday Evening Post, February 11, 1950, in the Dorothy Dignam Collection on Gramercy Park. Museum of the City of New York. PRO2014.3, folder 1.

According to Dignam’s notes on the verso of the Saturday Evening Post cover below, Falter painted the image from the window from the National Arts Club. The New York Times has even written an article about the exclusivity of the park.  However, it is not just the park itself that gives this area so much lore. Celebrities, dignitaries, artists, writers, and other prominent people have called Gramercy Park home, including: O. Henry, Samuel Tilden, Washington Irving, George Bellows, Gregory Peck, John Steinbeck, John Barrymore, Thomas Edison, Jimmy Fallon, Julia Roberts, and even John F. Kennedy.

 

Gramercy Park is located near many notable New York City landmarks. The Flatiron Building and Madison Square Park are a short stroll from Gramercy Park. Delmonico’s, which held numerous dinners for prestigious clubs and people and was synonymous with fine dining during the late 1800s and early 1900s, had a location in the area, and the Columbia University Club called the neighborhood home between 1910-1915.

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Gramercy Graphic, September 1952, in the Dorothy Dignam Collection on Gramercy Park. Museum of the City of New York. PRO2014.3, folder 4.

Many residents of the Gramercy Park neighborhood  subscribed to the Gramercy Graphic. This was the neighborhood’s own monthly publication that reported on neighborhood improvement, human interest stories of former and current residents, and local events. One can really get a sense of how residents envisioned their neighborhood after reading the “From Our Office Window” section of the Gramercy Graphic each month. In most months’ editions, the editors are very concerned about the noise level of cars, construction, and people as well as the dangers of ne’er-do-wells that stand on the sidewalk in front of businesses. They wanted to create a secluded area of peace and quiet within the commotion of New York City. Although the hustle and bustle is extraordinarily interesting and exciting, after spending the summer living in the city, I can’t exactly blame them.

Click here to see more images of Gramercy Park from the Museum’s Collections, and if that reference to Mad Men piqued your interest, be sure to check out the Museum’s upcoming exhibition, Mac Conner: A New York Life, opening this Friday September 10th.

Victoria and Tennessee Claflin, the sisters’ tale continues….

In the previous installation about the life of the Claflin sisters here, we saw the meteoric rise of Victoria and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, who shocked Gilded Age New Yorkers by becoming the first lady stock brokers in the city. The tale continues…

In Victoria’s quest for even more firsts, on January 10, 1871, she was the first woman to speak in front of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives about women’s suffrage. Tennie accompanied her as she deftly argued (Demosthenes guiding her way again) that the Constitution nowhere denies the vote for women, but instead gives the right to all citizens – a designation that should include women.  Her speech was so well-received that she became a national voice for suffrage along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The politicians were not moved, however, and voted to table the discussion…until 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified.

With a taste for politics, Victoria declared that she was going to run for president of United States in 1872.

This was the beginning of Victoria’s rise in popularity as a public speaker. Her lectures routinely sold out venues like the Academy of Music as thousands crowded in to listen to her extoll the themes found within Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. There were usually equal amounts of cheering and booing, but there was no question that she could put on a show. During a lecture at Steinway Hall, she went off-script and defined her stance on Free Love:

  “Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”

Unsurprisingly, this shocked the entire audience and was all over the papers in record time.  The cartoonist Thomas Nast, taking a break from destroying Tammany Hall, went as far as to call her “Mrs. Satan” in Harper’s Weekly, former beau Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt had long since distanced himself from the sisters, and what the public once thought was a novelty was turning into a threat.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) for Harper's Weekly. "Get Thee Behind Me, (Mrs.) Satan!".  1872. Museum of the City of New York. 99.124.22.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) for Harper’s Weekly. “Get Thee Behind Me, (Mrs.) Satan!”. 1872. Museum of the City of New York. 99.124.22.

At the same time, Victoria’s presidential campaign was gaining momentum. She had been endorsed by the Equal Rights Party (founded by Tennie and herself) and she had named the former slave turned politician Frederick Douglass as her vice presidential nominee. He was disinclined to respond to the nomination and instead actively campaigned for her rival, Ulysses S. Grant. But what better publicity for the Equal Rights Party to nominate a white woman and an African-American man? That said, it seems unlikely that Victoria ever thought she had a real chance at this election. Even if by some miraculous event she had gotten the votes, she wouldn’t have been eligible, because at 34 she was a year shy of the minimum 35 years required by the Constitution. But, just like opening a stock brokerage, she was again, “plant[ing] the Flag of women’s rebellion in the center of the continent.”

Convention in Apollo Hall, New York City, Victoria Claflin Woodhull Nominated for the President of the United States, 1872. Reprinted in One Moral Standard for All: Extracts from the lives of Victoria Clafin Woodhull and Tennessee Clafin. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.16.7.

Convention in Apollo Hall, New York City, Victoria Claflin Woodhull Nominated for the President of the United States, 1872. Reprinted in One Moral Standard for All: Extracts from the lives of Victoria Clafin Woodhull and Tennessee Clafin. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.16.7.

After the Free Love speech, other attacks to her reputation began to gain traction. So much so that the sisters’ funds were drained, political and social allies were few, and times were getting desperate in the Claflin home.  So Victoria played her last card. Using very true  gossip she got from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she published all the sordid details of the Beecher – Tilton Affair accusing popular Brooklyn preacher Henry Ward Beecher of not only adultery with a married woman, but being a hypocrite and practicing the same free love ideals that he preached against weekly. (For more details about this salacious affair, read Lindsay’s fantastic blog post.)

Immediately after the issue came out, the sisters were arrested on charges of obscenity, thanks to the overzealous efforts of Anthony Comstock, the self-appointed anti-smut vigilante who created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. For six months he made it his life mission to jail the Claflin sisters – he had them arrested eight times (including on election night – when Ulysses S. Grant won reelection). During this time, Victoria and Tennie still had speaking engagements. The City Museum has a poster for a speech that Victoria had to go to extra lengths to give.  Or as she said: “I soon presented the appearance of an old and decrepit Quaker lady. In this costume I confidently entered the hall, passing a half-dozen or more United States marshals, who stood guarding the entrances and warning the people that there was to be no lecture there that night—so certain they were of arresting me. But I passed them all safely, one of them even essaying to assist me on through the crowd”.

Victoria C. Woodhull and Tennie C. Claflin, the distinguished lady bankers of New York. ca. 1873. Museum of the City of New York. 54.29.10

Victoria C. Woodhull and Tennie C. Claflin, the distinguished lady bankers of New York. ca. 1873. Museum of the City of New York. 54.29.10

Eventually cleared of all the charges from Comstock and others, the sisters were broke, friendless, and voiceless after the Weekly went under. Ironically, Vanderbilt may have once again helped the sisters, this time by dying in January 1877. The story goes that the Vanderbilt heirs wanted the sisters indisposed during the fight among Cornelius Vanderbilt’s family over the inheritance of his fortunes, so they may have helped finance the sisters’ 1877 move to England, where they both both found wealthy, titled husbands with whom to spend the rest of their days.

For a more complete look at the Claflin sisters, check out the endlessly entertaining The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age by Myra MacPherson.

Carl Van Vechten and Modern New York

A guest post this week from the City Museum’s Curator of Architecture and Design, Donald Albrecht.

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964). Fania Marinoff, July 8, 1936. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.350

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964). Fania Marinoff, July 8, 1936. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.350

Earlier this year, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Edward White’s book The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. Little known today, Van Vechten was a prolific novelist, critic, photographer, and promoter of all things modern, most actively engaged in the city’s cultural life during the 1920s and ‘30s. The City Museum is rich in Van Vechten materials; its collections include about 2,200 photographs taken by him and 3,000 Christmas cards sent to him and his wife, film and theater actress Fania Marinoff. Taken together, they chronicle Van Vechten’s influential circles of friends and colleagues—a hybrid mash-up that defines the modern America at the heart of White’s new book. Images and correspondence in the City Museum’s collection range from Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes to writer Zelda Fitzgerald (wife of F. Scott), and playwright Eugene O’Neill.

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964). Langston Hughes, June 11, 1942. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.309

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964). Langston Hughes, June 11, 1942. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.309

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964). Gertrude Stein, November 4, 1934. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.405

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964). Gertrude Stein, November 4, 1934. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.405

Carl Van Vechten was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1880. After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1903, Van Vechten worked as a newspaper journalist, moving on to loftier cultural horizons—New York—in 1906. His journalism career in the city involved important stints at the city’s newspapers, including the New York Times. He served as a music and dance critic who promoted cutting-edge personalities and trends, as well as a correspondent in Paris, where he met Gertrude Stein. (In the 1930s Van Vechten would help realize the American premiere of the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, written by Stein with music by Virgil Thomson.) Through his job at the Times, Van Vechten also met Mabel Dodge, whose fashionable Greenwich Village gatherings of leading artists and writers Van Vechten soon joined. Inspired by Dodge, Van Vechten created his own salon of luminaries at his and Marinoff’s Upper West Side apartment. Though they competed for the title of “most avant-garde trailblazer” over the years, Dodge and Van Vechten remained friends, even after Dodge relocated from New York to Taos, New Mexico, after World War I.

Around 1920 Van Vechten gave up journalism for fiction and over the next decade wrote hotly debated novels about Jazz Age Manhattan. His 1923 book The Blind Bow-Boy, for example, is a classic of gay camp and a public expression of Van Vechten’s sexual orientation; while he and Marinoff were married from 1914 until Van Vechten’s death in 1964, he had numerous homosexual relationships. In 1926, Van Vechten wrote his most controversial novel, the provocatively titled Nigger Heaven, which grew out of his experiences as a promoter of many African-American artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Van Vechten’s role in the Harlem Renaissance remains a controversial topic. To some he’s a valuable bridge between white and black New Yorkers, to others he’s an outsider who patronized and exploited his African-American subjects. Parties, Van Vechten’s last novel, was published in 1930, a year after the Stock Market Crash. His literary swansong, it is a paean to his time, according to a New Yorker profile, at the epicenter of the city’s “unbuttoned bohemian life.”

Carl Van Vechten (1884-1964). Billie Holiday, March 23, 1949. Museum of the City of New York. 58.38.24

Carl Van Vechten (1884-1964). Billie Holiday, March 23, 1949. Museum of the City of New York. 58.38.24

Carl Van Vechten abandoned writing altogether in the early 1930s and embraced photography, a field he would pursue until his death. All told, it is estimated that Van Vechten took some 15,000 photographs. Because his inherited wealth offered him financial independence, Van Vechten took pictures for his own pleasure, usually inviting local and visiting celebrities to a studio he set up in his own apartment. While Van Vechten was aware of the stylistic artifice of such contemporary commercial photographers as Edward Steichen and Cecil Beaton, he stood apart from them. He used a small-format camera, and his aesthetic, which included deep and dramatic shadows that sometimes obscured his subjects’ faces, resulted in picture-making that was far more immediate and spontaneous than that of his contemporaries. Using this technique, Van Vechten photographed musicians Billie Holiday and George Gershwin, Hollywood actors Laurence Olivier and Anna May Wong, and writers Sinclair Lewis and Clifford Odets, to name only a few. The sum of Van Vechten’s work, according to photography historian Keith F. Davis, “constitutes the single most integrated vision of American arts and letters produced in his era.”

Carl Van Vechten. George Gershwin, March 28, 1933. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.296

Carl Van Vechten. George Gershwin, March 28, 1933. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.296

All images used with permission from the Van Vechten Trust.

Beating the summer heat with picnics, entertainment, and excursions

I have been enjoying this uncharacteristically cooler summer.  My window air conditioning unit is still sitting on the shelf in the closet, and with just two weeks of August left, I’m expecting it to stay there.  After over a dozen summers in this city, however, my memories of July and August heatwaves are filled with meals consisting solely of chilled food, sitting with my feet in a bathtub of ice water, and planning my leisure time with the single intent to escape – or at least momentarily distract myself from – the heat.  New Yorkers have long shared this summer sentiment, as  documented by materials in our Ephemera Collections, which will take us on a tour of how residents of this city beat the heat before air conditioning was a readily available option.

They had sandwiches for lunch and a bottle filled with punch, ca. 1915, in the Postcard Collection.  Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.556.

They had sandwiches for lunch and a bottle filled with punch, ca. 1915, in the Postcard Collection. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.556.

With all of the city’s many amazing parks, who doesn’t love a summer picnic?  Breakfast, lunch, dinner – any meal is more enjoyable eaten outdoors than in a stuffy apartment, especially when accompanied by punch, as shown in the postcard above.  Employers recognized the benefit of giving their employees a break from sweltering offices for a while, as well.  The James D. Whitmore & Company  certainly steps up the game a bit for their staff picnic with this engraved program, below.  The event was held at “New Washington Park,” between 69th and 70th Streets at the East River – a space now occupied by New York Presbyterian Hospital.

Fifth Annual Afternoon and Evening Picnic, Employees of James D. Whitmore Co., 1881, in the Collection on Social Events.  Museum of the City of New York. 95.87.46.

Fifth Annual Afternoon and Evening Picnic, Employees of James D. Whitmore Co., 1881 (exterior and interior views), in the Collection on Social Events. Museum of the City of New York. 95.87.46.

Park Concerts, Season 1899, in the Collection on Culture and Entertainment.  Museum of the City of New York. F2011.101.18.

Park Concerts, Season 1899, in the Collection on Culture and Entertainment. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.101.18.

The city also offers a wide range of outdoor entertainment options, some of which we touched upon earlier this summer in Morgen’s post “Up on the roof, entertainment in plein air.”  With organizations such as SummerStage and Celebrate Brooklyn, two of many performing arts series that bring cultural events to parks and other public spaces in the city, New Yorkers have a wide variety of options for outdoor entertainment, many of which are free.  The program to the left features the musical lineup for a concert at Prospect Park, July 29, 1899. Click here to view the interior of the program.

Some entertainments offered a way to beat the heat indoors, as depicted in this advertisement below for the grand re-opening of  the Manhattan Roller Skating Rink, featuring a “patent cooling apparatus” and ice cream.

Manhattan Roller Skating Rink, 1885, in the Collection on Culture and Entertainment. Museum of the City of New York. 39.240.939.

Manhattan Roller Skating Rink, 1885, in the Collection on Culture and Entertainment. Museum of the City of New York. 39.240.939.

Of course, one way to beat the heat is simply to get out of town.  These days, popular culture loves to characterize the New York summer by the flight of many of its residents to “the Hamptons,”  but excursions to seaside locations have long been a tradition for New Yorkers.  U. S. Congressman John H. Starin purchased Glen Island and several nearby islands in 1879 in Long Island Sound, just north of the Bronx’s Pelham Bay Park, converting them into a summer resort that is often referred to as the first theme park.  The island is now owned and operated by Westchester County, though it is also home to a privately operated entertainment facility.

Starin's Glen Island, New Rochelle Harbor, Long Island Sound, ca. 1885, in the Collection on Culture and Entertainment.  Museum of the City of New York. 40.275.86

Starin’s Glen Island, New Rochelle Harbor, Long Island Sound, ca. 1885, in the Collection on Culture and Entertainment. Museum of the City of New York. 40.275.86

Iron Steamboat Company, 1883, in the Collection on City Infrastructure.  Museum of the City of New York. 54.252.2.

Iron Steamboat Company, 1883, in the Collection on City Infrastructure. Museum of the City of New York. 54.252.2.

While ferries ran daily to resorts such as Starin’s, where one would stay for several days at a time, the city was also full of companies that ran day drips to various beaches such as Coney Island and Brighton Beach, still popular destinations today.

Some companies offered boat excursions simply for the sake of getting a fresh breeze out on the water, such as this one on the Steamer Massachusetts.

Excursion, Steamer Massachusetts, ca. 1880, in the Collection on City Infrastructure.  Museum of the City of New York. 50.161.40

Excursion, Steamer Massachusetts, ca. 1880, in the Collection on City Infrastructure. Museum of the City of New York. 50.161.40

Manhattan Beach, another popular summer bathing destination, was accessible by a number of combinations of rail, trolley, and ferry.

Manhattan Beach Railway, 1878, in the Collection on City Infrastructure.  Museum of the City of New York. 43.425.47.

New York & Manhattan Beach Railway, 1878, in the Collection on City Infrastructure. Museum of the City of New York. 43.425.57.

You can see more images of New Yorkers picnicking, enjoying outdoor entertainment, and taking advantage of the city’s beaches on the Collections Portal, but don’t live vicariously through history – get out and enjoy the last bit of summer yourself!

High resolution images of these selections, and many more, will soon be available via the Museum’s online Collections Portal, thanks to the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

neh_logo_horizontal_rgbAny views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.