Monthly Archives: November 2011

Fitness Crazes of Yesteryear

Fitness crazes are nothing new to Americans, and the 19th century had its own fair share of extreme exercise routines.  As lifestyles became more sedentary and health issues more numerous, 19th century doctors promoted a variety of exercises that would help keep people fit and healthy.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Gymnasium, Girls, 1899. Museum of the City of New York.

Gymnastics, running, and jumping were popular forms of exercise; but other, more unusual routines also became  trendy.  The exercise appropriately named “stepping through your own fingers” instructs one to hold a small piece of wood between his or her forefingers and leap over the wood; if practiced enough, one may even forgo the wood and perform this exercise using only the fingers.  Along a similar line, The Smithsonian Institute’s Conner Prairie quotes William Clarke’s The Boys Own Book’s description of the “Palm Spring” exercise:

[It ] is performed by standing with your face toward a wall and throwing yourself forward, until you support yourself from falling, by the palm of one of the hands being placed with the fingers upwards, against the wall; when in this position, you must recover your former erect station by springing from your hand, without bringing your feet forward.

Endicott & Co. (New York, N.Y.). Dr. Rich's Institute for Physical Education, ca. 1850. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.2583

Some of what became popular in the mid 19th century is still routinely accepted today.  Many of the stretches and gymnastics equipment depicted in the above print are now run-of-the mill. Some exercises in this print, however, may warrant a double take, particularly the man in the middle of the print who appears to be scaling the rafters.  It’s unclear what exactly he’s doing, but it is likely some kind of high-stakes rope climbing.  Readers, if you have any information about this particular form of exercise, please share!

Other early exercises look more like torture to modern eyes.  The Byron Company photographed the Zander Institute’s exercise equipment around the turn of the last century.  Zander’s equipment served two populations: those needing some form of physical therapy and those who found more traditional forms of gymnastics or calisthenics too challenging, but still wanted physical activity.  Women, the elderly, and “frail” people of either sex were ideal candidates for the latter category.  That being said, Zander’s apparatuses appear anything but gentle.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Zander Inst. N.Y., 1908. Museum of the City of New York.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Zander Inst. N.Y., 1908. Museum of the City of New York.

And though 19th century exercises range from the commonplace to the obscure to the strange,  some are just the plain-old cute. Witness the adorable calisthenics of the children below.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). N.Y. Foundling Hospital, 68th St., Exercises, ca. 1899. Museum of the City of New York.

– Anne DiFabio

Carl Van Vechten Looks at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade

In 1924, employees from Macy’s organized the company’s first parade featuring floats and animals from Central Park Zoo. The parade began at 9 in the morning on Thanksgiving Day, November 27, and proceeded from 145th Street and Convent Avenue to the Macy’s store on Broadway and 34th Street, ending at noon. The event was a success, prompting Macy’s to declare in newspapers the following day that the parade would return in 1925. Now a New York City institution, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade marks its 85th anniversary this year.

Carl Van Vechten (1880 – 1964) was primarily known as a writer, America’s first modern dance critic, patron of the Harlem Renaissance and the photographer of many performers and literary figures such as Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, Anna May Wong, and Mahalia Jackson. He also documented daily life in New York City. Below is a selection of the photographs he took of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. To see all of his shots of the parade, visit our Collections Portal.

Carl Van Vechten. Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. November 25, 1937. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.8.235

Carl Van Vechten. Macy's Day Parade. November 25, 1937. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.8.243

Carl Van Vechten. Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. November 22, 1945. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.8.228

Carl Van Vechten. Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. November 28, 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.8.232

Carl Van Vechten. Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. November 28, 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.8.236

Carl Van Vechten. Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. November 28, 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.8.226

Carl Van Vechten. Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. November 28, 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.8.225

All photos are used with permission from the Van Vechten Trust.

The Literary World through the Eyes of a Woman at the turn of the 19th Century

Miss Ella M. Boult, writer and editor, served as assistant editor and secretary to Edmund Clarence Stedman from 1899 until his death in 1908.  Stedman was a journalist on the staffs of the Tribune and the World, as well as a poet, critic, and editor of literary anthologies.    Through her capacity as Stedman’s “right hand man” – as she is referred to by Edward Everett Hale, author, historian and clergyman, in a letter from September 9, 1899 – she became a frequent correspondent with many of the literati of the early 20th century.

Letter to Ella Boult from Edward E. Hale, 1899, in the Ella Boult Papers. Museum of the City of New York. 50.211.12..

Stedman made his home in the Lawrence Park neighborhood of Bronxville in the 1890s, and many other writers and artists soon joined him, establishing the Lawrence Park Artists’ Colony.   Much of the correspondence in the collection is sent between New York City and Lawrence Park.

Letter to Ella Boult from Tudor Jenks, 1903, in the Ella M. Bout Papers. Museum of the City of New York. 50.211.75A.

Miss Boult  migrated between several part-time residences during her life, and Stedman’s home in the Lawrence Park Colony was among those;  many of the individuals she corresponded with either had homes or stayed as guests in the colony.  Several letters in the collection include notes such the one to the left from the author and poet Tudor Jenks, stating “I wish you were back in the Park again.”

Jenks sent the letter above to Miss Boult upon publication of her epic poem The romance of Cinderella; being the true history of Eleanor de Bohun, and her lover, Hallam Beaufort, duke of Somerset: together with divers happenings concerning the mysterious black knight, and other illustrious persons: also setting forth the unnatural and inhuman conduct of the Lady Eleanor’s stepmother, and her two stepsisters, Mistress Rotraut and Mistress Dowsabel.   The book was illustrated by Beatrice Stevens, Miss Boult’s close friend, living companion, and artistic collaborator.

Upon originally learning of Miss Ella Boult and this collection of papers, I immediately (and mistakenly) called to mind an image of an early Peggy Olson from Mad Men; I thought the main difference was simply half a century and a typewriter.  However, not only did Miss Boult correspond with several literary figures in her capacity as Stedman’s secretary,  she formed personal relationships with the likes of Ridgley Torrence, who was instrumental in the advancement of African American theater; John Dos Passos, who is best known for his work the U.S. A Trilogy; and Reginald Birch, illustrator of Little Lord Fauntleroy.   Throughout the collection, these individuals and others consult Miss Boult on editorial and artistic questions regarding their own work, provide congratulations on her writing achievements, and also correspond about personal matters.  An illustrated card from Birch is pictured below.

Illustrated Card from from Reginald Birch, undated, in the Ella M. Bout Papers. Museum of the City of New York. 50.211.76.

This collection provides a unique glimpse not only into the life of a working woman of the early 20th century, but also into the New York literary world.  Despite the gender assumptions of the era, Miss Boult was clearly accepted by a predominantly male literary scene as one of their own.

Special thanks to one of our many summer interns, Marika Plater; without her detailed research into Miss Ella Boult and this collection of papers, this post wouldn’t be possible.

Belasco’s Ghost

New York is haunted by nature of its constant transformation.  Neighborhoods change, leaving only small or hidden remnants of what they were; once thriving communities are slowly eclipsed by others.  But, New York may be haunted in more traditional ways as well.

Byron Company. Portrait, David Belasco, 1902. Museum of the City of New York.

During his long career in theater, David Belasco produced, wrote, and directed over 100 plays, including the original 1900 adaptation of Madame Butterfly, starring Mary Barker as Suzuki and Frank Worthing as Lieutenant Pinkerton.  He was one of the most powerful figures on Broadway, spending nearly every waking hour either in his theater, the Belasco (formerly the Stuyvesant Theatre), or in his study and apartment directly above.  But as rumor has it, even after his 1931 death, Belasco thought he had more to contribute to Broadway.

Byron Company. Stuyvesant (later renamed Belasco Theatre), ca. 1909. Museum of the City of New York. 41.420.395.

Immediately following his death, actors and staff reported sights and sounds they could not explain.  Hardly a shy ghost, he is said to appear almost solid and even speak to actors.  Although he’s commonly spotted as a lone figure, dressed in priestly garb watching rehearsals from the balcony, he is also said to offer praise to the actors, shaking their hands and even pinching the bottoms of several young actresses.   A perfectionist in life, Belasco’s ghost isn’t afraid to show his disapproval.  Over the years, actors claim to have heard moans in the theater’s wings and had their dressing rooms upturned after a particularly bad performance.

Of course, he manifests himself in more traditional ghostly ways as well: unexplained footsteps, doors mysteriously opening in unison, and a supposedly non-functioning elevator, which makes trips to Belasco’s apartment.

Byron Company. The David Belasco All Star Company in Green Room, Stuyvesant Theatre (later renamed the Belasco Theatre, New York, 1909. Museum of the City of New York,

A social man in life, Belasco’s ghost is rumored to have incorporeal guests.  Shortly after his death there were reports of raucous parties in his apartment, but he seems to keep quieter company these days.  A lover of women in life, Belasco continues to carry on affairs in the afterlife.  Several sightings of the “Blue Lady,” the ghost of a showgirl who died after falling down an elevator shaft, have been reported in the theater.

One television and film actress who prefers to remain unnamed told Playbill that she heard her locked dressing room door open while she was taking a shower.   Upon investigating, she found the door still locked, but the bathroom steeped in a blue glow.   The Blue Lady may not be the lone female ghost Belasco is entertaining; the disconnected elevator is rumored to carry phantom visitors directly to his private apartment.

Visitors to the Belasco Theatre need not be anxious though.  One rumor says that Belasco’s spirit stopped appearing after Oh! Calcutta!  was performed on the stage; perhaps he was taken aback by the full-frontal nudity in the production.  If he is still roaming the halls of his theater, however, at least he seems to be a friendly ghost.

Anthony F. Dumas. Belasco's Theatre, 1934. Museum of the City of New York. 75.200.66.Byron Company. Stuyvesant (later renamed Belasco Theatre), ca. 1909. Museum of the City of New York. 41.420.393.

– Anne DiFabio

Photographing the Postcard Collection

Allyson photographing postcards.

Ever wonder how much work goes into digitizing a collection for view on our Collections Portal?  Here at MCNY, the digital team has been hard at work numbering, shooting, and cataloging our collection of 7,691 New York City postcards.   It took about 20 days of photography shooting 400 to 600 postcards each day.  After imaging, the files are sent to our catalogers who research information such as location, date, and publisher. The keywords they apply allow the images to be searchable in our database and online.

Our postcard collection ranges from the 1890s through the 1990s, with particular strength in the early 1900s, when a postcard craze swept the nation, as explained by the Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City:

An accumulation of factors led to an explosion in the popularity of postcards during these years. The American middle class had grown much larger in size, and the excess money it had to spend on nonessential goods was enough to support a large industry […] Photography and printing technology had also advanced to a point that enabled high quality images to be produced in tremendous numbers and they were. Card dealers began to outnumber booksellers. Over 7 billion postcards were mailed worldwide in 1905, almost one billion in the United States alone; and this does not account for those that ended up in collections rather than the mailbox.

The images include popular tourist subjects such as aerial views of  lower Manhattan and major landmarks, but also incorporate some eccentric imagery and views outside of Manhattan,  like the three examples below.

Greetings from the Bronx, ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.1795.

Central Park Menagerie. Feeding a Snake, New York, 1905-1914. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.1588.

Kings County Jail, Raymond Street, ca. 1915. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.1823.

While most of these were purchased as traveler’s cards to be sent to family and friends back home, quite a few were actually sent within New York City  limits.  In an age before you could just send a quick text or email, postcards were a fast and informal way to get in touch with someone who did not yet own a telephone.

Capturing some of the postcards in a digital format proved challenging.  Most were the standard 3 1/2″ by 5″ but some were specialty fold out postcards. Here is an example of a particularly complicated one.  This was a folded paper postcard from the 1939 World’s Fair. When expanded and viewed through a hole in the front of the card, the viewer sees a three dimensional landscape.  Our photographers found that the best way to capture the view was to tie the postcard underneath the lens and allow it hang open while being photographed.

View captured through the lens. New York World's Fair, 1939. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.33.2119.

Front cover of the postcard - by looking through the cutout one can view the telescoping image.

Several other postcards include special fold-out sections that provide a view of the New York City skyline.

Irving Underhill (d. 1960). New York Skyline, 1900. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.3006.

As an added enticement to the consumer, postcard companies often hand applied tinseling or glitter to the views to enliven the image – often incongruously, as in this bedazzled depiction of Grant’s Tomb.

General U. S Grant Monument & Tomb, New York, ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.33.14.

Not every postcard showed exciting and interesting places such as Coney Island and the Empire State Building; here is a postcard showing the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.’s new women’s lunch room:

Lunch room, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.325.

One of our favorite postcards is this multiple choice “busy person’s correspondence card” showing the Empire State Building.

Empire State Building at Night, New York City, 1934-1940. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.3492.

We are in the process of uploading the postcard collection to the Portal. Look for it online in the next week or two.