Author Archives: Anne DiFabio

Thomas Nast takes down Tammany: A cartoonist’s crusade against a political boss

As the election cycle gets into full-swing, so do the pundits, journalists, and political cartoonists.  While modern readers intrinsically link newspapers and political cartoons, the use of cartoons in the American media was minimal until Thomas Nast popularized them in the 1860s and 1870s.  Known today as the father of American political cartoons, Nast gained fame as a cartoonist for Harper’s Magazine.  Today he is best remembered for his cartoons about Boss Tweed and the Tammany Ring.

Unknown.  Thomas Nast at his Desk. ca. 1880.  Museum of the City of New York.  99.124.1.

Unknown. Thomas Nast at his Desk. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. 99.124.1.

[William M. Tweed.] Sarony & Co., ca. 1869.  40.366.30.  Portrait Archive.  Museum of the City of New York.

[William M. Tweed.] Sarony & Co., ca. 1869. 40.366.30. Portrait Archive. Museum of the City of New York.

Tammany Hall was a New York City political organization that originated in the late 18th century.  It became the Democratic Party’s political “machine” and thus controlled the party’s nominations.  William M. Tweed, more commonly known as Boss Tweed, was a New York politician who became Tammany’s leader in the late 1860’s.  As the party’s boss, he was able to appoint several city officials and essentially controlled the city government.  As a result, he had access to an enormous amount of public money, which he used to enrich himself and his closest friends and allies through a variety of money laundering and profit sharing operations.  It is estimated that he defrauded the city out of anywhere from $30 million to $200 million dollars (equivalent to $365 million to $2.4 billion today).

Tweed certainly had his supporters, including the large Irish immigrant population that made up his base.  Under his lead, however, Tammany’s corruption was so vast and glaring – Tweed became known for wearing a large diamond in his shirtfront and lived in a mansion on Fifth Avenue – that he earned a wide range of critics.  One of his most vocal critics was Thomas Nast, who featured Tweed and his cronies in many of his cartoons, particularly in 1870 and 1871.

Thomas Nast was a German immigrant who began his career illustrating newspapers and magazines, but eventually began creating political cartoons.  Rising through the social and economic ranks, Nast embodied the American dream.  He was a staunch advocate for municipal reform, and Tweed’s corruption fundamentally insulted his sense of equity.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902). The Power Behind the Throne "He Cannot Call His Soul His Own." 1870. Museum of the City of New York. 99.124.7.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902). The Power Behind the Throne “He Cannot Call His Soul His Own.” 1870. Museum of the City of New York. 99.124.7.

Never afraid to take on issues of right and wrong, Nast became the scourge of Tweed and Tammany.  His influence was so great primarily because of the visual nature of his work.  Most of Tweed’s constituents were illiterate, so while they couldn’t read the scathing articles written about Tweed in The New York Times, they could understand Nast’s cartoons.  Legend has it that Tweed was so threatened by Nast, he gave orders to “stop them damn pictures!”

Thomas Nast (1840-1902). Too Thin, 1871. Museum of the City of New York. 99.124.15.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902). Too Thin, 1871. Museum of the City of New York. 99.124.15.

In an attempt to “stop them damn pictures” Tweed sent a representative to Nast under the guise that a group of European benefactors wanted to offer him $100,000 (nearly $1.8 million today) to study art in Europe.  Nast feigned interest and was able to increase the offer to $500,000, only to turn it down on the basis that he had long-ago made up his mind to put the Tweed ring behind bars.

Failing to bribe Nast, Tweed and his cronies went after Harper’s, threatening to have the Board of Elections boycott Harper’s textbooks, a significant financial threat.  The board at Harper’s chose to support Nast, who created a series of cartoons depicting Tweed as a thief.

Wholesale and Retail

Thomas Nast (1840-1902). Wholesale and Retail. 1871. Museum of the City of New York. 99.124.5.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902). Two Great Questions. 1871. Museum of the City of New York. x2011.5.533.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902). Two Great Questions. 1871. Museum of the City of New York. x2011.5.533.

One can understand Tweed’s concern.  Nast’s portrayal of Tweed as enormously bloated helped demonstrate the political leader’s corruption.  His images captured public attention and helped incite public outrage.  While he couldn’t force people to act or vote in a certain way, Nast influenced public opinion of Tweed and Tammany.

And the public responded.  The 1871 election greatly weakened the Tweed Ring, with the public voting many Tammany candidates out of office, an event credited in part to Nast’s cartoons.  While this had a huge impact on New York politics in general, it also pushed Nast to the forefront of his medium.  He became the man who could topple political regimes.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902). Victory Over Corruption. 1871. Museum of the City of New York. x2011.5.528.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902). Victory Over Corruption. 1871. Museum of the City of New York. x2011.5.528.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902).  "What Are You Laughing At? To The Victor Belong the Spoils." 1871.  Museum of the City of New York.  99.124.2.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902). “What Are You Laughing At? To The Victor Belong the Spoils.” 1871. Museum of the City of New York. 99.124.2.

Following the 1871 election, a host of fraud, forgery, and larceny charges were brought against Tweed and his allies.  Many, including Tweed himself, were sent to prison.  In 1875, however, Tweed escaped and set sail to Spain where he was eventually extradited after a Spanish officer recognized him from a Nast cartoon.  Tweed was sent back to a New York jail, where he remained until his death in 1878.

Fulton Ferry and the Creation of New York’s First Suburb

Ferries have made a bit of a comeback lately with the East River Ferry, Governor’s Island Ferry, and even a ferry to Ikea in Brooklyn.  The first ferry route between Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, however, was established in the 1630s, just a few years after the settling of New York by the Dutch.  While Cornelius Dircksen Hoagland may have been the first to run a ferry between the two boroughs, Robert Fulton and his brother-in-law William Cutting popularized it in more modern times.

Fulton Ferry House in 1746, ca. 1850. South Street Seaport Museum, Print Collection.

Manhattan and Brooklyn  have always been dependent on one another (a large percentage of Hoagland’s passengers were farmers bringing daily produce into Manhattan).  Manhattan residents were moving to Brooklyn as far back as the 1600s, but the introduction of the Fulton Ferry,  which opened in 1814, cemented Brooklyn as New York’s first suburb.

George Hayward. Fulton Ferry Boat Over, 1859. South Street Seaport Museum, Print Collection.

Unlike ferries in the past, the Fulton Ferry provided not only regular service, but steam vessels between the two boroughs.  The result was a 12-20 minute passage, which was short enough to enable people to live in Brooklyn and commute daily into Manhattan.   Population growth in Brooklyn expanded rapidly around this time; the population sprang from 1,603 in 1796 to 186,000 in 1854, of which 35,000 used the ferry daily.  Not only did the population grow, but business did as well.  As Russel Granger from Whitman’s Brooklyn wrote, “Coal yards, hotels, oyster houses, an iron foundry, a marble yard, a wood yard, a flour mill, an ice house, banks and distilleries provided the ancillary businesses to make the Fulton Landing one of the most thriving ports on the eastern seaboard before the Civil War.”

Fulton Ferry Terminal with the Brooklyn Bridge under construction in the background, ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.8404.

Fulton Ferry Commutation Ticket, 1837. South Street Seaport Museum. 1981.22.

With these numbers came the chance to make big money, which is exactly what the ferry aimed to do.  The Fulton Ferry (now renamed the Union Ferry) slowly reduced its fare to knock out its competition, only to double its rates once its competition was destroyed.  New Yorkers are no strangers to fare hikes, but doubling the rate caused significant outrage.

Fulton Ferry House, 1856. South Street Seaport Museum, Print Collection.

The ferry eventually fell victim to changes in technology, with the Brooklyn Bridge striking a severe blow to its popularity.  Although it survived another 40 years after the Bridge’s construction, the ferry finally ceased operation in 1924.  Brooklyn and New York wouldn’t be connected by ferry again until 2006.

Oysters: From Rags to Riches

Today, it’s hard to find an oyster for less than $2 a pop, but until the turn of the 20th century, oysters were so plentiful in New York, rich and poor alike enjoyed them.  New Yorkers ate them raw, pickled, stewed, baked, roasted, and fried.  They were so abundant, their shells were used to pave streets (hence the name Pearl Street), as fertilizer, and as a cement-like substance used in construction.

A. B. Waud. Oyster Stands in Fulton Market, 1870. South Street Seaport Museum, Print Collection.

With over 350 square miles of oyster beds, oysters were always popular in the Harbor, dating back to the era of the Lenape Indians.  However, they weren’t  an unlimited resource–conservation efforts began in the mid 1600s, precipitated by fear of overfishing, and as with many disputes over a natural resource, tensions occasionally ran high.  The “Oyster Wars” of the 19th century saw bitter rivalries over fishing beds.  The rivalry was most heated between New Jersey and Staten Island fishermen, with arguments lasting into the 1890s.

Oyster Markets Near Christopher Street, 1898. Museum of the City of New York, 41.62.20.

Oystering in New York had its heyday from 1880 until about 1910, with “boat stores” popping up along the shore line.  From these “boat stores,” oysters would be carted off to various parts of the city to be sold; seemingly, you could find them anywhere, the Fulton Fish Market, restaurants, saloons, one’s own kitchen, and food carts throughout the city (they were sold on street corners, much as hot dogs are today).

Thomas H. McAllister. [Oyster Stand], ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.10037.

Berenice Abbott. Oyster Houses, 1937. Museum of the City of New York,

At its peak, roughly 765 million oysters passed through “Oyster Row,” generating millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.   However, rapid industrialization and urbanization in the late 19thcentury polluted many of the beds in the New York area, causing a decline in numbers.  Furthermore, several outbreaks of typhoid fever and cholera were linked to polluted oyster beds, forcing the City Health Commissioner to close all oyster beds in the New York Harbor area in 1927.

Advertisement for F. T. Braman, ca. 1900. South Street Seaport Museum, Trade Card Collection, X2005.25.14.

Although it disappeared for a few decades, oystering is popping up again in and around New York.  The New York Harbor School and other New York organizations and government agencies are making efforts to restore the oyster population in New York Harbor.  For more about these efforts, come down to the South Street Seaport Museum this Thursday evening (October 18, 2012) for the premier of Shell Shocked, a new documentary film detailing the efforts to restore the city’s oyster population.

Saving the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse

April 16, 1912 was supposed to have been a joyous day for Seamen’s Church Institute.  That evening, they were scheduled to celebrate laying the cornerstone of their new building at 25 South Street.  Earlier that day, however, news arrived of the sinking of Titanic, and excitement over the new building was overshadowed by a nation mourning the loss of over 1,500 people.  The group in attendance at the ceremony made a plan to build a lighthouse on top of the building to commemorate the heroism displayed by many in the tragedy, as well as remember those who lost their lives.

New York Herald, 1912. Surviving Crew Receives Clothing, 1912. Courtesy of The Seamen's Church Institute Archives.

Building this lighthouse turned into a nationwide effort as people banded together in solidarity after the tragedy; it seemed that everyone donated to the cause.  Wealthy socialites like Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt wrote checks and schoolchildren donated pennies and nickels .  One year to the day after the sinking, the lighthouse was dedicated in front of a crowd of over 300.

Invitation to the Dedication of the TitanicMemorial Lighthouse, 1913. Courtesy of Seamen's Church Institute Archives.

Dedication of the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse, 1913. Courtesy of Seamen's Church Institute Archives.

Although it served as a memorial, the lighthouse had a practical use as well.  Designed by Warren & Wetmore (the architects of Grand Central Station), its signature green light (the only lighthouse in the country to use that color) could be seen by vessels 10 miles out in the Narrows, helping guide ships into port.  A time ball was dropped every day at 12 noon, which ships in the harbor, as well as local residents and workers in Lower Manhattan, could use to set their watches.

Samuel H. Gottscho (1875-1971). New York City Views. Detail of the Titanic Memorial on Seamen’s Church Institute, 1932. Museum of the City of New York,

In 1967, Seamen’s Church Institute moved to new headquarters at 15 State Street and their original building, along with the lighthouse, was set to be demolished.  A group of concerned preservationists led by Frederick Fried, Friends of South Street Seaport, and the South Street Seaport Museum, banded together to persuade the demolition company to donate the lighthouse to the Museum.  It now anchors a small park at the intersection of Fulton St. and Water St., at the entrance of the Historic Seaport District.  Not only does it serve as a reminder of Titanic’s tragic story, it also documents the role of an important institution in the port’s history, provides a visible welcome to the Seaport, and reminds us of the need to preserve landmarks and artifacts.

Titanic Memorial Lighthouse where it stands today; unbeknownst to this woman, she's sitting under history!

Plaque on the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse.

For more information about Seamen’s Church Institute and their work helping the surviving crew from Titanic, check out the SCI Archive’s digital exhibition.

If you’d like to learn more about Titanic or to see the lighthouse in person, visit the South Street Seaport Museum, where today, April 10, 2012, the one hundredth anniversary of RMS Titanic’s launch on her maiden – and only – voyage, the Museum opens Titanic at 100: Myth and Memory, an exhibition that examines both the disaster and a century’s worth of fascination with the ship’s dramatic story.

South Street Seaport’s Library and Archive

Greetings from the South Street Seaport Museum’s library and archive!  In October of last year the Museum of the City of New York assumed the operation of the South Street Seaport Museum.  Organizing and cataloging items in the Seaport Museum’s library and archive is one of many projects undertaken in the new administration.  I left my position on the digital team and moved downtown where I’m now working with Carol, the project archivist at the Seaport Museum. She and I are hard at work tackling various projects.

So far, we’ve begun work cataloging and re-housing the photography collection, which contains thousands of negatives, slides, and prints of ships at port, docked at the South Street Seaport, and at sail in New York Harbor, as well as more general marine topics.

Sailing ship, ca. 1900. South Street Seaport Museum. Photography Collection.

Fisherman, ca. 1915. South Street Seaport Museum. Joe Cantalupo Fishing Schooner Collection.

Carol created and arranged the Passenger Liner collection, one of the larger collections in the archives. Programs, photographs, passenger lists, schedules, and promotional brochures are among the many items found in this collection.

Luggage Tags, ca. 1955. South Street Seaport Museum. Passenger Liner Collection.

Matchbooks, ca. 1930-1950. South Street Seaport Museum. Passenger Liner Collection.

We’ve also started to inventory and survey a very large collection of ship plans.  There are over 30,000 drawings and while we’ve just begun to see what’s here, we’ve already found great objects, including an almost complete set of plans for J. P. Morgan’s yacht, Corsair.  In the center of the plan you can see a white square, which is an alteration to the design made a day after the original was drafted, perhaps to conform to Morgan’s taste.

Position of Fire Place for the Yacht Corsair (detail), 1920. South Street Seaport Museum. W & A Fletcher Collection.

Part of this process includes cleaning.  Some plans date as far back as the 1870’s,  and occasionally they are in need of basic treatment to remove dirt.  Soiled objects are cleaned with an archival paper cleaner, which is rubbed against the object’s surface, much like one would use an eraser (visible in the first image).  Below is a particularly dramatic illustration of a drawing “before and after.”

Beam Strap for Engine No. 92, 1879. South Street Seaport Museum. W & A Fletcher Collection.

Beam Strap for Engine No. 92, 1879. South Street Seaport Museum. W & A Fletcher Collection.

Beam Strap for Engine No. 92, 1879. South Street Seaport Museum. W & A Fletcher Collection.

Stay tuned for more updates and stories of our finds in the South Street Seaport Museum’s archives!

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

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

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

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.