Monthly Archives: July 2012

Novelty, Simplicity, Buoyancy, and Pliancy

Novelty, simplicity, buoyancy, and pliancy – aren’t these all features we seek in every aspect of our day-to-day life?  Helen Traphagen certainly felt these attributes were important when she set about designing and patenting the “Victoria Inflated Skirt” in 1857.  The sketch below is an attachment to a patent granted by the United States Secretary of the Interior for a “new and useful improvement in ‘Ladies Skirts’.”

Illustration of “Air Expanded Skirt,” excerpt from [Patent for an Improvement on Ladies Skirts], 1857, in the Documents Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 36.406.1

The sketch is titled “Air Expanded Skirt” and the garment is indeed just that.  When I first saw this sketch, I was half-hoping that the skirt was some sort of flotation device, created with the purpose of aiding the wearer if she were perhaps to trip and fall off a bridge or over the side of a ship into a body of water while wearing the numerous layers of clothing common for the time.  However, the description affixed to the patent states: “The nature of [the] invention consists of attaching to the body of a skirt, or petticoat, a series of air tight tubes, to be inflated with air, for the purpose of expanding the surface of the skirt, to give a ‘set’ to the dress similar to that affected by the use of hoops, cords, and other devices now in use.”

The description goes on to describe the various functions of the undergarment, matching the lettered components in the illustration above to their respective purpose.  “A” is the petticoat, or skirt, itself.  “B” components are a series of horizontal “air tight tubes, formed of rubber cloth, oiled silk, or other suitable material,” which are made in equal circumference to the skirt itself, with the purpose of bringing the skirt to its full measure of expansion.  “C” components consist of series of vertical tubes, made of the same material as “B” components, connecting the “B” components to one another, and allowing for the entire apparatus to be inflated at once.  “D” component is the valve by which the tubes are inflated, by mouth, and then stoppered so that the air is retained in the tubes, keeping the skirt expanded. The patent goes on to explain that air-inflated hoops are much more preferable to cords, hoops, canes, or steel springs, which can be “oppressive to the wearer” due to their rigidity and weight.  After viewing this short film, showing members of the Costumes and Textiles Department dressing a mannequin in a dress from later in the 19th century, I know I would have been looking for anything to help me feel less oppressed by my clothing.

Once Ms. Traphagen had obtained her patent, she began marketing her invention as the “Victoria Inflated Skirt.”   The handbill below explains the name of the product by mentioning that the British Queen, Victoria, was so pleased with the product, she included it in her own wardrobe.  The advertisement mentions the benefits of the inflated skirt to the comfort of the wearer, and goes on to explain it also “imparts that light and easy buoyancy so indispensable to the graceful effect of feminine apparel.”

The Victoria Inflated Skirt, ca. 1857, in the Documents Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 36.406.3.

These objects, however, left me wondering whether this petticoat was ever mass produced in the United States.  At the time of publishing the handbill, a business by the name of Pantecnicon of Fashions was taking pre-orders, but the skirt does not seem to have been readily available.  While a search of the New York Times archives mentions the invention of an “Umbrella Greatcoat” in 1854, which could be inflated by blowing air into it to expand the skirt of the coat out beyond the legs and feet, I did not see any mention of an inflated skirt.  I spoke with Phyllis Magidson, the Museum’s Costumes and Textiles Curator, and she had never laid eyes upon such a skirt, either.  She said that such an invention spoke to the popularity of full skirts during the time period, and also to the known problem of how cumbersome the supports for full skirts were.  While there were many attempts to minimize the amount of weight carried by women in support of their garments, the crinoline was by far the most broadly used.   Magidson also pointed out that this invention, which honors the Queen of England in its name,  predated the Prince of Wales visit in 1860, when the United States formally began to reestablish a connection with England for the first time since the Revolutionary War.

If you’d like to see images of the types of dresses this inflatable skirt would be supporting, be sure to check out some of Charles Frederick Worth’s earlier designs, available through this online exhibition.

The Bowery

Walk the Bowery under the El at night and all you feel is a sort of cold guilt. Touched for a dime, you try to drop the coin and not touch the hand, because the hand is dirty; you try to avoid the glance, because the glance accuses. This is not so much personal menace as universal — the cold menace of unresolved human suffering and poverty and the advanced stages of the disease alcoholism. On a summer night the drunks sleep in the open. The sidewalk is a free bed, and there are no lice. Pedestrians step along and over and around the still forms as though walking on a battlefield among the dead. Standing sentinel at each sleeper’s head is the empty bottle from which he drained his release  . . . The glib barker on the sightseeing bus tells his passengers that this is the ‘street of lost souls,’ but the Bowery does not think of itself as lost; it meets its peculiar problem in its own way — plenty of gin mills, plenty of flophouses, plenty of indifference and always, at the end of the line, Bellevue.

E. B. White “Here is New York” 1948

From the early days of Manhattan, a path used by the Lenape tribe meandered the length of the island. When the Dutch settled here, the path, called Bowerij Road, became the main access point to the wilds beyond a small collection of farms. (The word bowery is an anglicized form of the Dutch word bowerij meaning farm.) For the next hundred years or so famous families like the Stuyvesants, DeLanceys, and Beekmans were connected by the road.  As the print below shows the area was remembered as an idyllic countryside.

George P. Hall and Son. Broadway & the Bowery. 1831. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.1948.

Yet by the 1880’s the upper class had migrated  further uptown to the more fashionable districts. Instead of bucolic farmlands the area was now full of tenements, vaudeville theaters, and brothels. The Bowery’s reputation as the center of sin and vice in New York City had been cemented.  Bars like The Slide, McGurk’s Suicide Hall, and Columbia Hall (more commonly referred to as Paresis Hall after the mental illness that comes during the late stages of syphilis) plied customers with cheap booze and a wide  selection of willing participants for every kind of debauchery imaginable. For three cents you could get whiskey, for seven cents a bed in a cramped flophouse of questionable sanitation and for as little as 50 cents you could buy some time with a prostitute a few blocks over on Eldridge Street.  As early as the 1890’s tourists and wealthy adventurers from uptown would go slumming to see how the other half lived.

Jacob A. (Jacob August) Riis (1849-1914) | Richard Hoe Lawrence | Henry G. (Henry Granger) Piffard (1842-1910). A Seven-cent Lodging House in the Bowery. ca. 1895. Museum of the City of New York.

By the 1930’s and 1940’s the Bowery had faded into missions to help the overwhelming homeless population which swelled due to the Depression. A New York Times article from 1935 claimed there were “…10,000  of them (bums), one estimate has it, and 90 percent of them from out of town. The bums are the chief sight of the Bowery now.” More than ever, the Bowery was seen as the Skid Row of New York City.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). “El,” Second and Third Avenue Lines. April 24, 1936.

Yet some things did not change, such as bars offering copious amounts of alcohol to both the “bums” that lived in the area and wealthy patrons from uptown. When Sammy’s Bowery Follies opened in 1934, photographer Erika Stone captured a series of images now immortalized in public memory as the Bowery. For a really good article about why Sammy’s Bowery Follies matters historically read this tribute written on its closing in 1970.

Erika Stone. Bowery Bums, NYC, 1942. 1942. Museum of the City of New York. 2012.3.7.

Erika Stone. Ethel, the Bowery Queen, Sammy’s, NYC, 1946. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. 2012.3.8

Erika Stone. Bowery Beauty, Sammy’s on the Bowery, NYC, 1946. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. 2012.3.3.

Erika Stone. Test of Strength, Sammy’s on the Bowery, NYC, 1946. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. 2012.3.4.

By the 1970’s the Bowery was full of decaying buildings and had become a mecca for artists and musicians drawn by cheap rent. The punk scene thrived with bands like the Ramones and Bad Brains playing CBGB’s.

Walking along the Bowery now, there is little to suggest its history. The streets are full of high-end fashion boutiques, luxury apartments,  and perhaps most incongruously a 7-11. These changes are the latest in the cycle of gentrification of the Bowery. Even as early as 1905,  the New York Times was lamenting the death of the Bowery, it’s intriguing to think of what will be the next step of the cycle.

Officer Stanley Kronzak, North Brooklyn Beat from 1936-1954

Like most of New York City, the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods of north Brooklyn have changed considerably in the last 75 years.

New York City Patrolman’s Log Books, 1936-1954, in the Stanley Kronzak Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 94.90.20A – 94.90.20II.

I obtained a unique glimpse into these neighborhoods’ past through the patrol notebooks of Officer Stanley Kronzak of the New York City Police Department.  Officer Kronzak was born in Pinsk, Russia, in 1908, and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1911.  He joined the police force in 1936 and was assigned to the 87th Precinct, which can no longer be found on current police precinct maps.  Based on the locations  referenced in his logs, Kronzak’s beat appears to have fallen in the eastern section of north Williamsburg and south Greenpoint, coinciding with parts of present day 90th and 94th precincts.  The notebooks cover the years of 1936 – 1954, and include Officer Kronzak’s record of each day’s events.

In most cases, Kronzak’s days were fairly routine.  On November 29, 1936, he noted the following, “Conditions reported… No door on street lamp – cable exposed – Cooper Park, pole#2W2C.”

Woodhull & Gale. Shelter House, Cooper Park, ca. 1915. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.7666.

Wurts Brothers. Grand Street and Graham Avenue, N.E. corner. Old buildings, Graham Avenue elevation, 1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.7192.

On June 15, 1948, he recorded that he escorted a man of “719 Grand Street [with] store receipts to Bank at Grand and Graham,” and later in the day escorted the Grand Theater receipts to the same bank.  On many days, Kronzak simply recorded the time, with the statement, “nothing to report.”

Excerpt from “The ‘Wick: Published to Encourage Thrift, by the Bushwick Savings Bank,” 1949, in the Stanley Kronzak Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 90.94.18.

Officer Kronzak is pictured to the left in “The ‘Wick,” a publication of the Bushwick Savings Bank, the same bank mentioned in the excerpt above.  The bank remains standing on the corner of Graham and Grand and though the stone facade still bears the name “Bushwick Saving Bank,”  it now houses a Chase bank.

Letter of Recognition to Officer Stanley Kronzak from Police Commissioner Lewis J. Valentine, 1942, in the Stanley Kronzak Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 90.94.13.

On April 17th, 1942, things got a little more exciting.  At approximately 1:15 PM, two men held up Vincent Perecelli’s bar and grill at 193 Frost Street.  The men made off with $333 from Mr. Perecelli’s pockets.  The two men ran from the premises and Mr. Perecelli began shouting “Hold up!”  The perpetrators first attempted to flee the scene in an automobile driven by a third man, but as Perecelli pursued them, the driver abandoned it and the robbers took off on foot.  Two detectives nearby heard the calls and apprehended one man. The other two, however, remained at large.   The detectives alerted a nearby patrol car.   Officer Kronzak was one of the two patrolmen in that police car. He gave chase and apprehended one of the robbers, recovering the stolen money and two loaded revolvers.  Following this event, Officer Kronzak received a letter commending his performance from the New York City Police Commissioner.

The image below shows the 15th Anniversary Dinner of his police academy class.  Kronzak is the man about half-way back, directly in front of a pitcher of beer on the banquet table, and is the only man in the whole photo wearing a bow-tie.  Officer Kronzak served on the police force for another five years following the dinner shown here, retiring in 1956 after 20 years of service and going on to work for a trucking company.

Techni-Photo Studio, Fifteenth Reunion of the Police Academy Class of March 1936, 1951. Museum of the City of New York. 90.94.11.

Many thanks to our intern, Richard, who assisted with matching photographs from our collection to the locations mentioned in Officer Kronzak’s logs.  Click on these links to view more images of the areas Kronzak patrolled in the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

Summer in the City

Now that summer is in full swing, we look back at the ways New Yorkers have either escaped or embraced the heat.

The Drive in Central Park was a place to see and be seen, particularly for the wealthiest New Yorkers, who dressed in their finest attire and rode carriages through the park.

Byron Company. Central Park: The Drive, Summer. 1894. Museum of the City of New York.

At the turn of the century, long black stockings typically accompanied women’s bathing suits (or bathing gowns, as they were called). Bathing suits became less restrictive a few years later, when women began participating in competitive swimming.

Byron Company. Sports, Bathing, Midland Beach. 1898. Museum of the City of New York.

Before air conditioning, it was not uncommon for tenement dwellers to put their mattresses on the roof and sleep through the season’s hottest nights.

John Sloan. Roofs, Summer Night. 1906. Museum of the City of New York. 82.200.1

The Jackie Robinson Pool originally opened as the Colonial Park Pool in Harlem on August 8, 1936. It was one of 11 swimming pools opened throughout the city that year and funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal agency created to combat the Great Depression.

Sid Grossman. Federal Art Project. Colonial Park Swimming Pool, Harlem. 1939. Museum of the City of New York.

Some New Yorkers preferred water hoses to swimming pools.

United States. Office of War Information. Children spraying a hose from a porch. 1944. Museum of the City of New York. 90.28.88

Every summer, Coney Island’s boardwalk bustles with city dwellers seeking a respite from the heat.

Andrew Herman. Federal Art Project. Feeding Ice-Cream to the Dog. 1939. Museum of the City of New York.

Nathan’s Famous opened in Coney Island at Surf and Stillwell Avenues in 1916, where it still stands today and attracts scores of New Yorkers and tourists alike.

Andrew Herman. Federal Art Project. Nathan’s Hot Dog Stand, Coney Island. 1939. Museum of the City of New York.

Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park began hosting an annual poolside beauty contest called Modern Venus in 1913. Beauty contests flourished as bathing suits became skimpier.

Reginald Marsh. Modern Venus Contest at Steeplechase Park. 1939. Museum of the City of New York.

After World War II, folk singers began congregating in Washington Square. The singers and their audience clashed with some residents of the neighborhood, who thought they were a nuisance. In 1947, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation started issuing permits for public performances in city parks. In 1961, Parks Commissioner Newbold Morris rejected folk singers’ applications to play in Washington Square. Protests ensued, culminating in a fight between the musicians and their supporters and the police seeking to clear the crowds. In the end, a compromise was reached, with folk singers being allowed in the park on Sunday afternoons.

Frederick Kelly. Musicians – Washington Square. 1962. Museum of the City of New York. 01.59.22

Some people, like the man below, embrace the “if you can’t beat the heat, join it” philosophy.

Benedict J. Fernandez. Male Beauty, Coney Island, 1970. Museum of the City of New York. 99.150.23

Skully, also known by variants like “skellie,” is a children’s street game played with bottle caps. Its popularity among youth began to fade in the 1980s.

Joseph Rodriguez. Game of Skellie, East Harlem, 1987. Museum of the City of New York. 2007.8.1

A telltale sign that summer has arrived is hearing the music from ice cream trucks. Ice cream vendors have used noise to attract customers since the late 1800s. But not everybody welcomes the familiar melody of ice cream trucks. In 2005, Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to ban the music in the city’s noise code. An outright ban was unsuccessful, but now vendors are only allowed to play music when their vehicle is in motion.

Gerard Vezzuso. Young boys at ice cream truck, Staten Island NY, 1999. Museum of the City of New York. 01.26.8

Walt Whitman’s New York

Walt Whitman, one of America’s most celebrated writers, was born into a working-class Long Island family on May 31, 1819. Four years later, the family moved to Brooklyn. Whitman cherished his memory of Revolutionary War hero General Lafayette visiting New York in August 1824. According to Whitman, Lafayette picked him out of the crowd, lifted him up, and carried him.

Anthony Imbert del. Samuel Maverick sc. Landing of Gen. Lafayette, at Castle Garden, New York, 16th August 1824. 1824. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.1744

After Whitman’s formal education ended when he was 11, he worked at a Brooklyn law firm and later at various newspapers. These positions afforded Whitman the opportunity for self-education and encouraged his interest in politics. Whitman openly supported the Free-Soil Party, formed in 1848 to oppose the extension of slavery into the Western territories. This would eventually cost him his job at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, as his convictions clashed with those of Issac Van Anden, the newspaper’s publisher.

N. Currier. Grand Democratic Free Soil Banner. 1848. Museum of the City of New York. 56.300.1060

In 1855, Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, paying for the publication out of his own pocket, designing the cover, and even setting some of the type himself in his friend’s print shop on Cranberry and Fulton Streets in Brooklyn. Many biographers and critics cite July 4, 1855 as the publication date, but The Walt Whitman Archive notes that advertisements for Leaves of Grass began appearing in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in late June.

Josephine Barry. Birthplace of “Leaves of Grass” Cranberry & Fulton Sts, Bklyn. 1949. Museum of the City of New York. 75.43.94

Whitman’s 1856 poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” drew heavily upon his childhood experience crossing the East River. Originally published as “Sun-Down Poem” in the second edition of Leaves of Grass, the poem explored the daily commute of a New York ferry passenger. Whitman would later remark in his autobiographical 1882 publication Specimen Days that “I have always had a passion for ferries; to me they afford inimitable, streaming, never-failing, living poems.”

Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Ferry House Foot of Fulton Street, Brooklyn, in 1850. ca. 1906. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.1935

Arthur Hosking. Fulton Ferry. Pier No. 17. Fulton Ferry where Walt Whitman used to come and go on the East River. Banker’s Trust tower in the distance. 1920. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.18.194

Complementing his passion for ferries, Whitman had an affection for transportation workers. He visited those who were injured on the job at New York Hospital on Broadway between Worth and Duane Streets. After the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman also visited wounded soldiers at the hospital and wrote about them in a series of articles called “City Photographs”, published in the New York Leader in 1862.

John Robert Murray del. William Satchwell Leney sct. View of the New York Hospital. ca. 1820. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.1902

Whitman, already in his forties at the outset of the Civil War, watched as New Yorkers marched off to the battlefields. “First O Songs for a Prelude” recounts his observation of the city during war:

(O superb! O Manhattan, my own, my peerless!                                                                   O strongest you in the hour of danger, in crisis! O truer than steel!!)                    How you sprang – how you threw off the costumes of peace with             indifferent hand,                                                                                                                            How your soft opera-music changed, and the drum and fife were                        heard in their stead,                                                                                                                     How you led to the war, (that shall serve for our prelude, songs                                  of soldiers,)                                                                                                                                      How Manhattan drum-taps led.

The Seventh Regiment assembled below Cooper Union, on their departure to the Civil War. 1861. Museum of the City of New York Photo Archive. X2010.11.13988

Whitman held an ardent admiration for Abraham Lincoln. He even said that “After my dear, dear mother, I guess Lincoln gets almost nearer me than anybody else.” When news of Lincoln’s assassination reached Whitman, he began working on an elegy, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”, published in Sequel to Drum-Taps in the fall of 1865.

Currier & Ives. Abraham Lincoln. ca. 1865. Museum of the City of New York. 56.300.979

Beginning in 1879 and continuing until 1890, Whitman offered lectures commemorating Lincoln’s assassination. In spite of his failing health he traveled from his home in New Jersey to Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, and Pennsylvania to deliver the “Death of Lincoln” lecture. On April 14, 1887, Whitman spoke at Madison Square Theatre. Among those in attendance, noted by the New York Times  in an article published the following day, were Andrew Carnegie, Augustus St. Gaudens,  Frances Hodgson Burnett, James Russell Lowell, and John Burroughs. Afterward, Whitman held a reception for his friends at the Westminster Hotel. The evening netted $600 for Whitman, roughly the equivalent of $14,000 today.

Westminster Hotel, New York. ca. 1895. Museum of the City of New York Photo Archive. X2010.11.2240

It was also his last visit to the city. Walt Whitman died on March 26, 1892 at the age of 72 in his house on 328 Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey.

George C. Cox. Walt Whitman. ca. 1890. Museum of the City of New York. 57.182.10