Monthly Archives: July 2011

Doomed Dirigible Dock

The images in our collection don’t show dirigibles actually docking at the Empire State Building, because no dirigible successfully docked there.  In fact, Christopher Grey in The New York Times gently hints that the idea for a mooring mast may have been a ruse to add a few extra feet to the building.  The tower is 200 feet tall, greatly widening the height difference between the Empire State Building and the second tallest building in the world at that time, the Chrysler Building.

Perhaps it was the idealism and the excitement about new technology of the time, or perhaps it was a polite way to guarantee a few extra feet–either way, the plan didn’t work.  From a modern perspective, it seems poorly thought out at best.  The proposed idea had passengers disembark at the 102nd floor onto a steep set of stairs and into a room about 25 feet across, which would house lounges, baggage rooms, ticket counters, and customs agents.  From there, passengers were led to a terrace about two and a half feet wide and eventually onto an elevator that would take them to the street level.

Nobody researched the cost of such a project, nor was marketing research performed to determine if people were interested in such services; most importantly, there were no feasibility studies.  Therefore, the engineers encountered the major obstacle and ultimate dooming factor of the project only after the mast was built—wind.  At such a high elevation, the wind can create a whirlpool effect and often blows as fast as 30 miles per hour.  Three attempts to connect to the tower failed, primarily due to wind.

This photograph shows the Columbia attempting to dock to the building in 1931.  It made two unsuccessful tries.  The plan was quickly scrapped and soon after NBC began broadcasting from the tower.


Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327

1948 was a good year for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.  The “Big Show” traveled from coast to coast with a coterie of performers and animals, encountering raving fans and sold out shows.

On May 25th of that year, LOOK Magazine ran a story about the circus with accompanying photographs by Stanley Kubrick.  He captured the many aspects of the troupe’s life on the road: rehearsing, playing cards, training animals, and their children at play.

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.73

The images retain the mysticism of the circus; focusing on portraits of the performers, aero stars (possibly the famous Ming Sing group), and the workers who cherished the livelihood of ‘Big Bertha’.

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.136

These images reflect my fascination with circuses from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century.  When I was an undergrad, I noticed that there was an underground revival of the Vaudeville tradition.  There were a few occasions when troupes traveled through our little college town.  These days, it is a romantic notion that people can exist within smaller, untouched pockets of society.  Even so, I like to subscribe to the ideas of those quiet rebellions.

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.23

America’s intrigue with the circus has lasted over 200 years.  Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money.  Everything else is supposed to be bad for you.  But the circus is good for you.  It’s the only spectacle I know that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.”

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.36

Today, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus still tours extensively.  Although the circus now plays to sold out arenas, and is a large corporation, there are still smaller operations that retain the aesthetic and values of the early 20th century circus.  One of the most noted is the Big Apple Circus, which was recently featured in the series Circus on PBS.  It’s a fantastic series, and quite honestly made me want to hop on the road with them!  Maybe next year….

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.39

Gender Bending in 19th Century New York

In the summer of 1836 in New York City, a white man named Robert Haslem met a black woman named Mary Jones on Bleecker Street. The two proceeded down Greene Street (now approximately Minetta Street), where they became intimate. On his way home, Haslem noticed that his wallet was missing; in its place was another man’s wallet. Haslem tracked down the man, who admitted to also having relations with Mary Jones, but was unwilling to report the theft of his wallet to the police. Haslem disclosed his story to the police and an officer went in search of Mary Jones. The officer found her and feigned interest. When she led him down Greene Street and initiated contact, he arrested her. He continued his investigation by searching her and discovered, to his shock, that Mary Jones was actually a man.

Lithograph issued by Henry R. Robinson. The Man - Monster. Artist unknown. Museum of the City of New York. 95.54.11.

Peter Sewally, alias Mary Jones, lived and worked at a Greene Street brothel as a domestic worker. He donned female attire while at the brothel, claiming that the customers enjoyed his feminine appearance. The police officer searched Jones’s room and found more men’s wallets. Sewally had been supplementing his income by dressing as Mary Jones and pickpocketing the men with whom he had encounters.

Sewally was charged with grand larceny and forced to appear in court as Mary Jones. This caused quite a stir among the media and the general public. Indeed, media accounts of Sewally’s trial focused more on his manner of dress than the crime he was charged with. The jury convicted Sewally and sentenced him to five years imprisonment at Sing Sing. Soon afterward, the lithograph above was published in New York City. Its sensational title, “The Man-Monster,” clashes with the graceful portrayal of Sewally clothed in a pretty dress.

For more information about Peter Sewally, please visit these websites:

Peter Sewally – Mary Jones, June 11, 1836

City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920

Marching Ghosts

This striking photograph by Lois Hobart of several ghostly legs and blurred bodies was shot during the New York City Columbus Day Parade of 1945. The camera was set up on a tripod and the image was shot with a very slow shutter speed to blur the marchers as they sped past the photographer down Fifth Avenue.  All that can be seen of them is the one leg positioned on the ground as their other leg and entire bodies are blurred while they swing forward.  This photograph is fascinating because usually people try not to create blurry photographs.  The goal of most photographers is a crisp, in focus photograph.  By blurring the marcher’s movement, Hobart captured the energy and motion of the parade, even though the picture’s subjects are almost completely removed!

This photograph illustrates what Henri Cartier-Bresson referred to as the “decisive moment”: an image in which several elements come together for a fraction of a second while the photographer is pressing the shutter and freezing the moment onto film for eternity.  It’s a moment that can never be replicated and almost seems to be purely chance, but is really the product of great skill on the photographer’s part.  If Hobart had released the shutter a fraction of second sooner or later, either much more or much less of the marchers’ bodies would appear.  They could even be completely removed from the photograph all together.  And, if the marchers were moving even a little faster or slower or if the shutter speed was faster or slower, the photograph would be completely different.  This is the “decisive moment” that  engages you and remains in your memory.

Shot in the middle of Grand Central Station in 1928, this shot also explores the use of long shutter speeds to show the passage of time.   It shows many travelers moving through the station on the way to their trains, most of whom become just small blurs in the foreground.  The only people who are truly visible were standing either completely or mostly still for the duration of the shot.  Any person walking or running through the station to catch a train is only recorded as a haze of legs and feet.  The blurred movement gives the feel and energy of Grand Central Station in transit.