Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Age of Innocence?

Before I started cataloging postcards, I thought I had a fairly good idea of what was in store for me: numerous souvenir type views of the greatest hits of everything New York City. After cataloging nearly a thousand postcards, this does make up a vast majority of our collection, but what I definitely did not expect was being fascinated by melodramatic, turn-of-the-century  images of love and romance. In these postcards, the longing, confusion, and excitement of summer romances and relationship dramas are brilliantly encapsulated. 

Life Publishing Co. | Detroit Publishing Co. When the Hunting Season Opens. Charles Dana Gibson. 1900. X2011.34.583.

Life Publishing Co. | Detroit Publishing Co. The Dog: Here he has been hanging around us for a month, and we leave to-night. Charles Dana Gibson. 1893. X2011.34.578.

Summer love is not a new trend–vacations, beaches, warm weather sports, and girls in bathing suits have always held appeal. Many of these postcards are images originally drawn by Charles Dana Gibson, an illustrator for Life Magazine, who is credited for the creation of the “Gibson Girl” – the tall, gorgeous, corset-clad, bouffant-haired women who epitomized the ideal of beauty in the early parts of the 20th century. These images show summer love at its best, and the heartbreak that comes when Labor Day arrives.

Life Publishing Co. | Detroit Publishing Co. Here it is Christmas and they began saying good-bye in August. Charles Dana Gibson. 1901. X2011.34.581.

As a contrast to the summer loves of Gibson Girls are the slightly darker, both literally and figuratively, postcards by William Balfour Ker, who was also an illustrator for Life Magazine. From hesitation to making the first move, to what appears to be the beginning of an affair, these scenes make it clear that the beginning of the 20th century was just as scandalous as today.

Life Publishing Co. | Detroit Publishing Co. That Horrible Moment - when, having had the nerve to turn down the light, you find that you haven't the nerve to make the next move. William Balfour Ker. 1906. X2011.34.594.

Life Publishing Co. | Detroit Publishing Co. Another Monopoly. William Balfour Ker. 1899. X2011.34.569.

Showman or Scientist?

While recently on the hunt for the invitation to Truman Capote’s now legendary Black and White Ball, held in the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel in November 1966, I spent some time digging through the Museum’s “Balls and Excursions” and “Social Events” collections.

Nitrous Oxide Gas Entertainment, ca. 1846, in the Social Events Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 34.80.245.

One of the more puzzling objects I came across was the card depicted to the right, advertising “Nitrous Oxide Gas Entertainment.”  Based on the curious poses depicted by the figures on the card, as well as common knowledge about the effects of nitrous oxide, commonly known as “laughing gas,” I immediately wanted to learn more about this unusual source of “entertainment.”

The card itself initially didn’t provide many clues, so I turned to the ever helpful online archive of The New York Times  to learn if this strange event had been documented.  One of the first articles I came across, dated February 8, 1862, is the announcement of “An Interesting Exhibition,” in which a Dr. Colton would be providing “an exhibition of the ‘Laughing Gas’ at the Cooper Institute [that] evening. Twelve gentleman have volunteered to inhale the gas.   To add to the attractions, the full National Band of the Seventh Regiment have been engaged to perform.”

Unknown photographer. Cooper Institute, between 3rd and 4th Avenues, ca. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.83.

Twelve gentleman?  The National Band of the Seventh Regiment?  The Cooper Institute (pictured left), now known as the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, is one of the most selective colleges in the country!   An event which I assumed was marketed as a sideshow appeared to be considered a legitimate scientific lecture.   I looked back to the card, and noticed that “Colton” was handwritten on the verso, leading me to feel pretty confident that this card was distributed to promote one of the same Dr. Colton’s events.

Further research into the Times archives revealed that Gardner Quincy Colton (1814-1898),  in conjunction with dentist Horace Wells, arrived upon the idea of using nitrous oxide as an anesthetic during tooth extraction following one of his exhibitions.  A young man gashed his leg while running around under the influence of the gas, but he noticed no pain until the effects wore off.  The very next day, dentist John Riggs extracted a tooth from Horace Wells while Dr. Colton administered “laughing gas,” a term coined by him.    Colton went on to establish the Colton Dental Association in New York in the 1860′s, and according to his obituary, at the time of his death, he or his assistants had extracted nearly one million teeth aided by the use of nitrous oxide.   In fact, if you examine the image above closely, you’ll see there is a sign reading “Colton’s” above two of the windows, and the awnings read “Colton’s Dental Association.”

Print issued by Currier and Ives. Commodore Nutt, 1861. Museum of the City of New York. 41.419.3.

Despite the clearly legitimate scientific gains achieved by Dr. Colton’s exhibitions, the card still puzzled me to some extent.  When examining the figures depicted on the card, the male inhaling from the rubber bag of gas on the left, and the female in the back right seem much smaller than the other figures.  Was Dr. Colton performing this exhibition on children?  Well, it seems that perhaps the showman in him couldn’t quite sit back and let the scientist move forward with his dental career.  The announcement for Dr. Colton’s exhibition the night of April 8, 1863, advertises that Commodore Nutt, who was a frequent star in the shows of P.T. Barnum (the two are pictured together to the upper right), and later went on to join the performing troupe of General Tom Thumb and Minnie Warren, would be partaking of the laughing gas that evening.  So, perhaps the shorter than average man depicted on the card is intended to be Commodore Nutt, or perhaps it really was a child.  I don’t suppose we’ll ever know the answer to that question, but I do know I’ll have something else to take my mind off the pain the next time a dentist suggests the use of laughing gas before a complicated procedure.

23 Skidoo

Today crowds gather around the Flatiron Building to admire its architecture and place in New York history, but back in the early part of the 20th century, men gathered there for a vastly different reason.  As many New Yorkers know, the Flatiron sits at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, directly across from Madison Park; the layout of the streets and the park, combined with the building’s placement, can create gusts of wind strong enough to lift women’s skirts.

I am seeing great things, ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.106.

Back in an era when showing any part of one’s legs was risqué, men would gather on 23rd Street hoping to catch a glimpse of a woman’s ankle or maybe even a little more.  A contemporary viewer may not conclude that the man in the postcard to the left is admiring the woman’s ankle; I initially thought he was looking at her posterior, but a fellow cataloger clued me in.

While it isn’t used heavily today, some say the phrase “23 skidoo” came from this phenomenon.  Popular in the early part of the 20th century, getting the “23 skidoo” refers to either leaving an area quickly or being forced to leave.  Apparently, the effect of the wind at this intersection was well known and crowds of men would gather in hopes of seeing some skin.  As Andrew S. Dolkart in his online article Birth of the Skyscraper: Romantic Symbols describes, so many men loitered in this area that police would eventually come to 23rd Street to usher the crowd away:

In the early twentieth century, men would hang out on the corner here on Twenty-third Street and watch the wind blowing women’s dresses up so that they could catch a little bit of ankle. This entered into popular culture and there are hundreds of postcards and illustrations of women with their dresses blowing up in front of the Flatiron Building.

Souvenir Post Card Company. Greetings from 23rd St. New York, The Haunt of Pretty Girls, ca. 1907. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.109.

Some of the hundreds of postcards and illustrations Dolkart refers to are held within the Museum’s collection.  The coy women in the postcard to the right also allude to the Flatiron’s effect and the crowds that gathered there.   Though the postcard suggests they welcome the attention,  I wonder how many women walking on 23rd Street truly wanted to send their well wishes.

-Anne DiFabio