Author Archives: Susannah Broyles

Victoria and Tennessee Claflin, the sisters’ tale continues….

In the previous installation about the life of the Claflin sisters here, we saw the meteoric rise of Victoria and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, who shocked Gilded Age New Yorkers by becoming the first lady stock brokers in the city. The tale continues…

In Victoria’s quest for even more firsts, on January 10, 1871, she was the first woman to speak in front of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives about women’s suffrage. Tennie accompanied her as she deftly argued (Demosthenes guiding her way again) that the Constitution nowhere denies the vote for women, but instead gives the right to all citizens – a designation that should include women.  Her speech was so well-received that she became a national voice for suffrage along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The politicians were not moved, however, and voted to table the discussion…until 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified.

With a taste for politics, Victoria declared that she was going to run for president of United States in 1872.

This was the beginning of Victoria’s rise in popularity as a public speaker. Her lectures routinely sold out venues like the Academy of Music as thousands crowded in to listen to her extoll the themes found within Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. There were usually equal amounts of cheering and booing, but there was no question that she could put on a show. During a lecture at Steinway Hall, she went off-script and defined her stance on Free Love:

  “Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”

Unsurprisingly, this shocked the entire audience and was all over the papers in record time.  The cartoonist Thomas Nast, taking a break from destroying Tammany Hall, went as far as to call her “Mrs. Satan” in Harper’s Weekly, former beau Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt had long since distanced himself from the sisters, and what the public once thought was a novelty was turning into a threat.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) for Harper's Weekly. "Get Thee Behind Me, (Mrs.) Satan!".  1872. Museum of the City of New York. 99.124.22.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) for Harper’s Weekly. “Get Thee Behind Me, (Mrs.) Satan!”. 1872. Museum of the City of New York. 99.124.22.

At the same time, Victoria’s presidential campaign was gaining momentum. She had been endorsed by the Equal Rights Party (founded by Tennie and herself) and she had named the former slave turned politician Frederick Douglass as her vice presidential nominee. He was disinclined to respond to the nomination and instead actively campaigned for her rival, Ulysses S. Grant. But what better publicity for the Equal Rights Party to nominate a white woman and an African-American man? That said, it seems unlikely that Victoria ever thought she had a real chance at this election. Even if by some miraculous event she had gotten the votes, she wouldn’t have been eligible, because at 34 she was a year shy of the minimum 35 years required by the Constitution. But, just like opening a stock brokerage, she was again, “plant[ing] the Flag of women’s rebellion in the center of the continent.”

Convention in Apollo Hall, New York City, Victoria Claflin Woodhull Nominated for the President of the United States, 1872. Reprinted in One Moral Standard for All: Extracts from the lives of Victoria Clafin Woodhull and Tennessee Clafin. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.16.7.

Convention in Apollo Hall, New York City, Victoria Claflin Woodhull Nominated for the President of the United States, 1872. Reprinted in One Moral Standard for All: Extracts from the lives of Victoria Clafin Woodhull and Tennessee Clafin. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.16.7.

After the Free Love speech, other attacks to her reputation began to gain traction. So much so that the sisters’ funds were drained, political and social allies were few, and times were getting desperate in the Claflin home.  So Victoria played her last card. Using very true  gossip she got from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she published all the sordid details of the Beecher – Tilton Affair accusing popular Brooklyn preacher Henry Ward Beecher of not only adultery with a married woman, but being a hypocrite and practicing the same free love ideals that he preached against weekly. (For more details about this salacious affair, read Lindsay’s fantastic blog post.)

Immediately after the issue came out, the sisters were arrested on charges of obscenity, thanks to the overzealous efforts of Anthony Comstock, the self-appointed anti-smut vigilante who created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. For six months he made it his life mission to jail the Claflin sisters – he had them arrested eight times (including on election night – when Ulysses S. Grant won reelection). During this time, Victoria and Tennie still had speaking engagements. The City Museum has a poster for a speech that Victoria had to go to extra lengths to give.  Or as she said: “I soon presented the appearance of an old and decrepit Quaker lady. In this costume I confidently entered the hall, passing a half-dozen or more United States marshals, who stood guarding the entrances and warning the people that there was to be no lecture there that night—so certain they were of arresting me. But I passed them all safely, one of them even essaying to assist me on through the crowd”.

Victoria C. Woodhull and Tennie C. Claflin, the distinguished lady bankers of New York. ca. 1873. Museum of the City of New York. 54.29.10

Victoria C. Woodhull and Tennie C. Claflin, the distinguished lady bankers of New York. ca. 1873. Museum of the City of New York. 54.29.10

Eventually cleared of all the charges from Comstock and others, the sisters were broke, friendless, and voiceless after the Weekly went under. Ironically, Vanderbilt may have once again helped the sisters, this time by dying in January 1877. The story goes that the Vanderbilt heirs wanted the sisters indisposed during the fight among Cornelius Vanderbilt’s family over the inheritance of his fortunes, so they may have helped finance the sisters’ 1877 move to England, where they both both found wealthy, titled husbands with whom to spend the rest of their days.

For a more complete look at the Claflin sisters, check out the endlessly entertaining The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age by Myra MacPherson.

Revolutionary sisters: Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin

If you’ve never heard of Victoria Woodhull or her younger sister Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, you’re not alone. When I first came across them in the Museum’s Portrait Archive, I was immediately intrigued by the designation of “Brokers” on their portraits. The more I researched them, the more interested I became.  They challenged the staunchly Victorian society of 1870’s New York City by opening the first female stock brokerage firm, were the first women to start a newspaper (one dedicated to radical reform, no less), and launched the first presidential campaign for a woman. Welcome to the strange and incredible true lives of Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin.

Unknown photographer. Mrs. Woodhull (Broker). Museum of the city of New York.  F2012.58.41.

Unknown photographer. Mrs. Woodhull (Broker). Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.41.

The sisters had less than auspicious beginnings. Victoria Woodhull (neé Claflin) was born in 1838 in the wilds of Ohio and Tennie was born six years later. Their father was a one-eyed snake oil salesman and their mother a religious fanatic. The girls were soon part of their father’s schemes, earning money as child mediums, healers, and clairvoyants at tent revivals. For much of their childhood they were nomadic, staying in towns long enough to sell medicines and messages from the beyond, leaving before they could be chased out of town.

Unknown photographer. Miss Tennie C. Claflin (Broker). ca. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. 41.366.53.

Unknown photographer. Miss Tennie C. Claflin (Broker). ca. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. 41.366.53.

For the next few decades, the sisters traveled difficult roads: bad marriages and a mentally handicapped child for Victoria, and the rough life of an itinerant faith healer for Tennie. And then one day, according to Victoria, the spirit of Demosthenes (the Greek orator, with whom she believed she communicated with regularly) sent her vision of a house on Great Jones Street in New York City where, the spirit promised her their lives would change for the better.

In 1868, the Claflin sisters invaded Manhattan. As promised, a house on Great Jones Street was procured and they immediately set to work taking over the city. Their first stop? Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt because, well, when you want to get to the top you need allies, especially ones who possess one of the biggest fortunes in the country.

William R. Howell (d. 1890). Cornelius Vanderbilt. ca. 1880-1887. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1269.

William R. Howell (d. 1890). Cornelius Vanderbilt. ca. 1880-1887. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1269.

The sisters met the Commodore at just the right time. He had always been a superstitious man who trusted mediums more than medical doctors. At this time he was still deep in mourning for his beloved first wife. Thankfully, Victoria and Tennie could help with that. Victoria began hosting séances to give Vanderbilt business tips while Tennie focused on magnetic healing. She was apparently so gifted that she became Vanderbilt’s lover. It was serious enough to warrant pet names: he called her ”my little sparrow”; she called him ”the old goat.” There were rumors that he asked her to marry him, but alas it can’t be proven. It was this connection, however, (and Vanderbilt’s finances) that led to the sisters’ next big step.

On February 5, 1870 a large, boisterous crowd gathered outside 44 Broad Street to witness a first in New York’s history: two women opening their very own stock brokerage firm, with the silent backing of Vanderbilt’s fortunes. Woodhull, Claflin & Co. opened at 10 A.M. precisely and was promptly swarmed by men wanting to see how the fairer sex handled business. Newspapers were filled with eyewitness accounts of the first day of business. (See the amazing variety of articles this produced here). But for the most part, the papers championed the “Bewitching Brokers” and “The Lady Bankers,” while calling attention to the regal beauty of Victoria and the feisty flirtiness of Tennie. With their studied social rebellions, short hair, and dresses short enough to show their boots, the sisters were treated as novelties by the press. However novel they were, they were also a success – they supposedly made $700,000 the first six weeks they were in business (a hefty $13 million in today’s dollars).

Miss Tennessee Claflin Receiving Orders for Stock Speculation, 1870. Reprinted in One Moral Standard for All: Extracts from the lives of Victoria Clafin Woodhull and Tennessee Clafin. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.16.7.

Miss Tennessee Claflin Receiving Orders for Stock Speculation, 1870. Reprinted in One Moral Standard for All: Extracts from the lives of Victoria Clafin Woodhull and Tennessee Clafin. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.16.7.

The press and public clamored for stories (positive and negative) about the nonconformist sisters, so for years they were never far from the headlines  and that suited them just fine…even when they were subjects of political cartoons like this.

From the New York  Evening Telegraph, February 18th, 1870. eprinted in One Moral Standard for All: Extracts from the lives of Victoria Clafin Woodhull and Tennessee Clafin. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.16.7.

From the New York Evening Telegraph, February 18th, 1870. Reprinted in One Moral Standard for All: Extracts from the lives of Victoria Clafin Woodhull and Tennessee Clafin. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.16.7.

Keep in mind that this happened in the height of the Gilded Age, when a woman didn’t have a voice, property, or money independent of the men in her life, whether it was her husband, brother, or father. Thanks to a private door in the rear of the building leading to a women-only lounge, Woodhull, Claflin & Co. made it acceptable for women ranging from elite society dowagers to actresses to take control of their money. Most people would be content with this success, but the sisters weren’t satisfied; they had bigger plans. As Victoria later said: “We went unto Wall Street, not particularly because I wanted to be a broker…but because I wanted to plant the Flag of women’s rebellion in the center of the continent.”

Using the profits from Woodhull, Claflin & Co., they started their own weekly newspaper, the not so creatively named Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. It’s within these pages that we can see how modern their ideas were, and still are: sexual education for teenagers, eight hour workdays, fair wages, and gender equality are issues still being argued 144 years later!

Alll of this was a mere stepping stone for their next move. Stay tuned for the continuation of the saga of Victoria Woodhull and Tennie Claflin.

 

Inside the Glamour – Baumgarten Interiors

For a span of a few weeks last winter, I lived in two worlds. My real world consisted of a Brooklyn apartment filled with IKEA furniture, roommates, and the usual litany of complaints about New York City living spaces. But for eight hours a day, five days a week, I was transported back to a time when homes wouldn’t be complete without their own ballrooms, libraries, conservatories, myriad guest bedrooms denoted by what color the walls were painted and, well… you get the idea.

Unknown photographer. Mrs. E. F. Hutton. Drawing room. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.391A.

Unknown photographer. Mrs. E. F. Hutton. Drawing room. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.391A.

The six unbound albums that are loosely referred to as the Baumgarten Interiors, given to the City Museum by the antiquarian taste-maker J. A. Lloyd Hyde in 1935, show some of New York City’s most elaborately decorated homes and offices. The City Museum’s records on this gift don’t offer much in the way of details, but we have pieced together what ties all of these lavish interiors together: they were the work of William Baumgarten and his eponymous interior design company, William Baumgarten & Co. The photographs were taken in the early years of the 20th century and compiled into albums at a later date. Although Baumgarten’s clients had recognizable names such as Astor, Rothschild, and Juilliard,  his own name has faded from public memory.

William Baumgarten was a taste-maker in his own right. Originally a cabinetmaker, after emigrating from Germany in 1865 he began working for the Herter Brothers, very posh interior decorators and cabinet makers. He eventually took over the business and that’s where things get interesting. At the time, interior decorators like Stanford White (of McKim, Mead and White architectural firm fame) would travel to Europe looking for relics in good conditions to decorate the houses of the wealthy. Among the most popular items were tapestries, but there was that annoying fact of a limited supply and growing demand. To combat that, in 1893 Baumgarten created the first tapestry workshop in America; it was in the Bronx and employed 80 people who made high quality copies of the finest 18th and 19th century tapestries.  So it is not surprising to see how prominently displayed tapestries in these pictures.

After looking at a thousand images, I began to see patterns and become intimately acquainted with the au courant interior trends of the early 20th century. I’ve highlighted a few of them, just in case you need decorating tips for your next apartment.

Obviously tapestries work in both a home and an office setting…the more the better.

Unknown photographer. [William C. Whitney Residence. 68th St. & 5th Ave., N.Y.C. Entrance hall.] ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.71A

Unknown photographer. [William C. Whitney Residence. 68th St. & 5th Ave., N.Y.C. Entrance hall.] ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.71A.

Unknown photographer. Mr. F. W. Woolworth's private office, Woolworth Building, N.Y.C.. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.10A

Unknown photographer. Mr. F. W. Woolworth’s private office, Woolworth Building, N.Y.C.. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.10A

Animal hides were another must have.

Unknown photographer. Residence of Mrs. David Heller, 4 East 82nd St., N.Y.C. Music room. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York.  X2013.139.353B.

Unknown photographer. Residence of Mrs. David Heller, 4 East 82nd St., N.Y.C. Music room. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.353B.

Unknown photographer. H. T. Parson, Esq., Solarium view looking south. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.124B.

What’s intriguing is to see how the idea of home has shifted over the decades; these homes are not designed for comfort, but rather a statement of wealth and power. (Remember how much a mansion and costume ball helped cement the Vanderbilts into New York City society?)

Unknown photographer. John Jacob Astor Residence, #840 Fifth Avenue. Drawing room. ca. 1915-1930. museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.90B.

Unknown photographer. John Jacob Astor Residence, #840 Fifth Avenue. Drawing room. ca. 1915-1930. museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.90B.

Because really, who doesn’t need a pipe organ in the entrance hall?

Unknown photographer. Mrs. W. H. Taylor's Apartment 12 W. 96th Street. Entrance hall. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.375B.

Unknown photographer. Mrs. W. H. Taylor’s Apartment 12 W. 96th Street. Entrance hall. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.375B.

Unknown photographer. Mrs. E. F. Hutton. Library. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.387A.

Unknown photographer. Mrs. E. F. Hutton. Library. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.387A.

Unknown photographer. H. T. Parson, Esq., Conservatory off dining room. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City og New York. X2013.139.122

Unknown photographer. H. T. Parson, Esq., Conservatory off dining room. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.122

Please click here to see more images of the glamorous worlds William Baumgarten created in the houses of the elite of New York City and imagine yourself having tea in the conservatory and wiling away the afternoon in your private gallery.

 

Books and the City

New Yorkers love to read. Whether it’s just for a stolen moment at work…

James Godbold for LOOK Magazine. Night Clubs- Copa Showgirls [Showgirl reading backstage.] 1950. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.12052.14.

James Godbold for LOOK Magazine. Night Clubs- Copa Showgirls [Showgirl reading backstage.] 1950. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.12052.14.

or enjoying (or hoping that whatever we’re reading will distract us from) our subway commute…

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11107.53B.

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11107.53B.

or as a handy prop when eating at a restaurant alone (as prizefighter Walter Cartier does)…

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine. Walter Cartier, Prizefighter of Greenwich Village [Walter Cartier eating in a restaurant.]. 1948. X2011.4.11122.88D.

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine. Walter Cartier, Prizefighter of Greenwich Village [Walter Cartier eating in a restaurant.]. 1948. X2011.4.11122.88D.

and, of course, in true New Yorker fashion, wherever we feel like it…

John Albok (1894-1982). Boy reading comics in front of newspaper store, west side of Madison Avenue between 96th and 97th Streets. 1933-1934. Museum of the City of New York. 82.68.11.

John Albok (1894-1982). Boy reading comics in front of newspaper store, west side of Madison Avenue between 96th and 97th Streets. 1933-1934. Museum of the City of New York. 82.68.11.

or, much more comfortably, lying in bed (furry friends optional).

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine. A Dog's Life in the Big City [Women reading in bed with dogs.] 1949. X2011.4.12306.245

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine. A Dog’s Life in the Big City [Women reading in bed with dogs.] 1949.Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.12306.245.

However, in the decades since these pictures were taken, the nature of reading has changed. Kindles, iPads, and even games featuring annoyed fowl compete for our attention, and the commercial landscape of New York City is shifting because of this.

As of last Friday, Rizzoli’s Bookstore has been pushed out of its beautiful 57th Street location. Shakespeare & Company lost their lease on their Broadway storefront last week. St. Mark’s Bookshop is looking for another East Village location due to a massive rent increase. And it’s not just independent bookstores that are feeling the pressure: the Barnes and Noble on 18th Street and 5th Avenue closed quietly last year along with five Borders locations in the city when the parent company went bankrupt.  It seems like a good time to look back at some of the bookstores that have made the city uniquely literary.

At the turn of the last century, Greenwich Village was a bohemian’s paradise. Artists, writers, and hangers-on flocked to the area around Washington Square. The Washington Square Bookshop, run by Egmont Arens (pictured below), was the place for all the original downtown literati’s needs. Arens also established a small publishing company within the store where he published plays  like Two Blind Beggars and One Less Blind; A Tragic Comedy by Philip Moeller and other fare for the Washington Square Players.

Jessie Tarbox Beals. Washington Square Bookshop, 17 West 8th Street. ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. 91.53.19.

Jessie Tarbox Beals. Washington Square Bookshop, 17 West 8th Street. ca. 1918. Museum of the City of New York. 91.53.19.

In the 1920’s, 4th Avenue between Astor Place and 14th Street was the mecca for secondhand books. More than 30 stores specializing in rare, out-of-print, or merely used books lined the streets, earning the area the moniker “Bookseller’s Row”  or sometimes simply “Book Row”.

Andreas Feininger (1906-1999). Secondhand bookstores on Lower Fourth Avenue. ca. 1941-1953. Museum of the City of New York. 55.31.70.

What makes Weiser’s Bookstore (pictured above) unique, however, besides the fact that it was a mainstay of Bookseller’s Row (until it had to move to Broadway in the 1950’s due to increased rent), is that it was known as the best occult bookstore in the city.  But what’s even better is that it still exists…granted, only for established customers with prior appointments, but for those of us who aren’t lucky enough to be on that list, they do have an online store.

Another mainstay of Bookseller’s Row was Biblo-Tannen book store where  owners Jack Tannen and Jack Biblo would legendarily sleep at the store to make sure they were the first ones to go the Salvation Army’s warehouse to find the latest overlooked treasures. That kind of dedication made people like Carl Sandburg loyal customers. The store closed in 1979.

Roy Perry. Browsing at Second Hand Bookstalls, Ninth Street and Fourth Avenue. ca. 1940. Museum of the City of New York. 80.102.136.

Roy Perry. Browsing at Second Hand Bookstalls, Ninth Street and Fourth Avenue. ca. 1940. Museum of the City of New York. 80.102.136.

The decline of Bookseller’s Row started in the 1960’s due to constant rent increases and since the secondhand (or even firsthand) book industry has never been lucrative, the end was fairly quick.  Now only two vestiges of Bookseller’s  Row remain: The Strand and Alabaster Bookshop.

While Bookseller’s Row was browsing heaven for bibliophiles, there were, of course, other options. Brentano’s,  Gotham Book Mart, Books and Company and the Oscar Wilde Bookshop were just some of mainstays that provided for every literary need of New Yorkers.

New York was (and still is) a publishing city where the biggest publishing companies have their corporate offices. For many years Doubleday, Scribner’s, and Barnes and Noble had brick and mortar stores lining Fifth Avenue, offering “a cerebral antidote to Tiffany’s glitter and Bergdorf’s finery,” as the Times put it. These stores were architecturally unique, airy, and had a sense of grandeur that some may have found the secondhand bookstores downtown lacking.

The elegant Scribner’s Building on Fifth Avenue was the pinnacle of bookstore architecture. Ernest Flagg designed the 1913 building to highlight its function as a bookstore. In 1974 art critic Henry Russell Hitchcock, comparing the bookstore’s interiors to Grand Central Terminal, called them “the grandest interior space that had been created in New York.” Earning it extra literary cred is the story that Hemingway and his editor were having a discussion there when his editor unwisely questioned Hemingway’s manhood. Words were exchanged, chest hair was exposed, and because it was Hemingway, fisticuffs ensued. (For a delightful account, click here.) Decades later, a young Patti Smith pored over art books during her lunch break during the five years she was a book clerk there. Scribner’s sold the building in 1988; the store is now a Sephora.

Edmund V. Gillon. [Charles Scribner's Sons Building, 597 Fifth Avenue.] ca. 1977. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.3.2.2001

Edmund V. Gillon. [Charles Scribner's Sons Building, 597 Fifth Avenue.] ca. 1977. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.3.2.2001

So next time you need a book to make your commute tolerable, go to your local neighborhood bookstore. You’ll be helping to save the literary history of New York City.

For more images of bookstores and New Yorkers reading, click here.

The World’s Richest Boy – the Life of William B. Leeds

Let’s face it: we all have baby albums, those pictures documenting our progression from newborns into children that we pray our parents don’t show anyone.  When I came across a photo album entitled The first six years of William B. Leeds, donated to the City Museum by his daughter in 1989, I winced in sympathy for whomever this Mr. Leeds was,  knowing that these baby pictures are soon to be uploaded to our Collection Portal and thus available to anyone with a computer and internet access.

The more I started researching William Bateman Leeds, however, the more fascinated I became with his life. Interchangeably heralded by the press as, “The World’s Richest Boy” or “Poor Little Rich Boy,” Leeds managed a small army of servants by the time he was nine and topped it off by marrying a Greek princess at the age of 19. How can one not be at least a tiny bit intrigued by this young man?

Unknown photographer. 3 Weeks [The first six years of William B. Leeds.]. 1902. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.1.

William B. Leeds, Jr. was born on September 19, 1902 to the so-called “Tin Plate King” William B. Leeds Sr. and the beautiful Nonnie May “Nancy” Stewart. The Leeds were already fabulously wealthy by this point, owing to the business ventures of the senior Leeds (a merger with J. P. Morgan’s  U.S. Steel paid quite handsomely).  From 1902 to around 1908 the family lived at 987 Fifth Avenue and were fixtures of  the most elite of social circles.

Unknown photographer. Exterior [Residence of William B. Leeds 987 5th Avenue, New York.]. ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.2.3.

 The playroom of the young William Leeds, where many of the following pictures were taken, shows the lavish environment in which he was raised.

Unknown photographer. Playroom [Residence of William B. Leeds 987 5th Avenue, New York.] ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.2.17

Unknown photographer. Playroom [Residence of William B. Leeds 987 5th Avenue, New York.] ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.2.17

 Within these protected walls, the young Leeds grew up and, thanks to the album, we can see his progress. One of the  most interesting aspects is how his Christmases become more elaborate year after year. The first was a simple affair due to the fact he was a mere three months old and probably wasn’t expecting much.

Unknown photographer. 3 Months [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1902. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.4.

But each successive year things got a little more spectacular.

Unknown photographer. 2nd Christmas – 15 Months [The first six years of William B. Leeds.]. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.16.

With so many gifts, William had to be photographed twice to be seen with all of them.

Unknown photographer. 3rd Christmas - 27 Months [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1904. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.21.

Unknown photographer. 3rd Christmas – 27 Months [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1904. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.21.

And yet again with so many gifts, he had to be photographed twice.

Unknown photographer. 4th Christmas 1906 [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1906. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.32.

Unknown photographer. 4th Christmas 1906 [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1906. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.32.

And this is perhaps the most awe-inspiring pre-3-D Christmas portrait I’ve ever seen.

Unknown photographer. 6th Christmas [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1908. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.41

Unknown photographer. 6th Christmas [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1908. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.41

And finally, the boy turns into a young man with more serious gifts.

Unknown photographer. 7th Christmas [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1909. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.45.

Unknown photographer. 7th Christmas [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1909. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.45.

William seems to have been a typical child, enjoying playing with his impressive selection of toys and costumes.

Unknown photographer. 3 Years & 3 Mo. 1906 [The first six years of William B. Leeds.]. 1906. Museum of the City of New York.

Unknown photographer. 3 Years & 3 Mo. 1906 [The first six years of William B. Leeds.]. 1906. Museum of the City of New York.

Unknown photographer. 4 Years & 3 Mo. 1907 [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1907. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.36.

Unknown photographer. 4 Years & 3 Mo. 1907 [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1907. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.36.

William’s life, sadly, was not all presents and playing. For some reason, his mother, Nancy, believed her son to be frailer than most and kept him secluded from the outside world for much of his childhood. This was exacerbated when his father died in 1908, and the details of the very generous will were shared with seemingly every newspaper from California to London.  Nine-year-old William was now the the proud inheritor of a cool $30,000,000 to $40,000,000 (nearly a billion dollars in today’s money). Nancy moved the young William into an estate in Montclair, New Jersey, complete with nearly 20 servants, two detectives to follow his every move and deter kidnappers, and a French limousine with a chauffeur and footman to get William to the prestigious Montclair Academy everyday. (To read more about William’s young life, read this article, fittingly titled “Young Leeds Rules Mansion”.)

As for Nancy, she left William in the very capable hands of the servants and detectives and traveled to London to try her luck as a dollar princess (read Lindsay’s fabulous post on what a dollar princess is here.) Soon she was the talk of English society.  She also made headlines when she stated in a 1911 interview, “I think I shall educate William in England. You see, he is fortunately or unfortunately wealthy in his own right. He will grow up to be ‘rich’ and I do not think that the sons of American millionaires are a particular credit to society because in their idleness they become dissipated. They do not work and most of them drink. Hostesses here often have to apologize for the condition of their young men guests, whereas in England no man would ever appear twice in an intoxicated state. Of course, the young men in the social life of England do not work, but they go in for sports and are healthy, strong and normal – and they do not drink as much as the idle young men of America.”

Later that year, she enrolled William at Eton, where she famously gave him an allowance of only 2 pounds every quarter. It should also be noted that she railed against the press for calling attention her son’s wealth, as she pointed out that much of it was locked in trusts and he could only get $500,000 once he turned 35. The press, and the public, didn’t care to listen.

Unknown photographers, The first six years of William B. Leeds [Two portraits of William B. Leeds.] ca. 1909. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.48.

Unknown photographers. The first six years of William B. Leeds [Two portraits of William B. Leeds.] ca. 1909. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.48.

The story doesn’t end there. Nancy became a literal (dollar) princess when she married Prince Christopher of Greece in 1920 after a six year engagement. She later changed her name to the much grander Princess Anastasia of Greece and Denmark.

At this point, our William was busy being a globe-trotting teenager. He had nearly lost his arm due to an infected bug bite in Sumatra, but was on his way to a lifelong love of traveling and yachting. He became a fixture on the gossip pages as the dashing gentleman adventurer, “Billy” Leeds.

In 1921 he traveled to Greece to be with his mother after she was diagnosed with cancer. Two days later he was engaged to the 17 year old Princess Xenia of Greece after knowing her for all of 24 hours. (Nancy was so distraught she cried for three days and nights.) Despite Nancy’s misgivings that they were both too young, they married.

They were the toast of the town wherever they went, especially in Oyster Bay where they lived. Their marriage was filled with constant traveling and William’s adventures with his ever growing fleet of boats. After 9 years, however, the relationship apparently couldn’t withstand the pressure from the constant scrutiny of the gossip pages; the couple divorced in 1930.

Over the next few decades, William was remarried to a woman he rescued from a  sinking rowboat, and they spent much of their time traveling around the world in his yachts.  When World War II struck, he gave his lavish yachts to the government to aid the war effort, which was a highlight of his long history of extravagant philanthropic gestures.

Sadly, William’s end came far too soon. After being diagnosed with cancer, William committed suicide on New Year’s Eve of 1971 on his estate in the Virgin Islands. He was 69.

(For the most detailed collection of information and sources pertaining to the Leeds family, go here.)

Forgotten villages and neighborhoods of Manhattan

Hints about long vanished and forgotten aspects of New York surround us if we know where to look.  The etymology of neighborhood names reveal long lost geographical quirks and the powerful men who have faded from memory but whose names are still spoken on a daily basis on the land they used to own.

For instance,  Greenwich Village was a separate town from the rest of New York  and was named after the plentiful pine forest that in Dutch was “Greenwijck,” and was later anglicized as Greenwich. Kips Bay and Murray Hill were named for the original owners of the land, Jacobus Hendrickson Kip and Robert Murray respectively (the Hill in Murray’s land was at 36th Street and Madison; it has long since been flattened). Chelsea was the name of the manor of British Major Thomas Clarke, built almost 30 years before the American Revolution and in turn named after Sir Thomas More’s estate in London.

While knowing the history of current neighborhoods might help you out at an awkward cocktail party, what’s even cooler is knowing the history of neighborhoods that have been lost through absorption into other neighborhoods, a change in the economic landscape, or even slum clearing; Little Syria, Weeksville, Seneca Village, Crow Hill, Kleindeutschland, Tubby Hook, the Piggery District, and the infamous Five Points have all disappeared from the maps, and in some cases the memory, of New York.

In the 1850’s Bloomingdale (now the Upper West Side) was dotted with the country homes of wealthy citizens interspersed with small farming communities. It was a bucolic and beautiful area.

Eliza Greatorex (1819-1897). Howland Lane, 86th St, Bloomingdale. 1868. Museum of the City of New York. 35.408.30.

Eliza Greatorex (1819-1897). Howland Lane, 86th St, Bloomingdale. 1868. Museum of the City of New York. 35.408.30.

At that time New York City proper was overcrowded, rife with yellow fever, expensive, and dangerous. Intrepid New Yorkers began to realize that they could move to the wilds of Upper Manhattan and create a better life for themselves.  Thanks to a burgeoning public transportation system, they would be able to get to Lower Manhattan easily. (At least that was what this 1870 article in the New York Times argued.)

One of these small communities was Carmansville, located between 142nd and 158th Streets from the Hudson River to Broadway (according to the Iconography of Manhattan by I.N. Phelps Stokes Vol. 6 pg. 654) in present-day Washington Heights. It developed because it had a train stop on the Hudson River Railway at the foot of 152nd Street. But the biggest draw was the natural beauty of the area. According to Resolvid Gardner, speaking to the New York Times in 1909, 1860’s Carmansville was the destination for picnickers and other pleasure seekers who would spend the afternoon fishing in the Harlem River catching boatloads of crabs.

Paul Oscanyan. Carmansville and Hudson River. ca. 1885. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.3802.

Paul Oscanyan. Carmansville and Hudson River. ca. 1885. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.3802.

Carmansville even had its own fire department.

Paul Oscanyan. Carmansville Fire Department. ca. 1891. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.9135.

Paul Oscanyan. Carmansville Fire Department. ca. 1891. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.9135.

The most famous inhabitant of Carmansville was the naturalist and painter John Audubon whose estate, Minniesland, was at the foot of 156th Street.

William Rickarby Miller. Residence of J. J. Audubon Esq. 1858. From J. Clarence Davies Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. 34.100.41.

William Rickarby Miller. Residence of J. J. Audubon Esq. 1858. From J. Clarence Davies Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. 34.100.41.

The only remaining hint that Carmansville ever existed is a playground bearing its name on 152nd Street at Amsterdam Avenue.

Just eighty blocks downtown was the Harsenville community. Founded by the  Harsen family in 1763 at the area now bordered by approximately 81st Street to 68th Street, from the Hudson River to Central Park West. During its heyday it had approximately 500 residents in about 60 buildings and  boasted its own grocers, blacksmiths, and a village school. The center of the community was the Harsen homestead at 72nd and Broadway.

Unknown. Harsen Homestead, 72nd Street. ca. 1888. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.6166.

Unknown. Harsen Homestead, 72nd Street. ca. 1888. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.6166.

The march of modernity, however, was an ever-present threat to the future of both Harsenville and Carmansville, as this illustration from Harper’s Weekly shows.

Charles Stanley Reinhart (1844-1896). The March of Modern Improvement - Destruction of Old Buildings in Upper New York. 1871. Museum of the City of New York. 55.53.2.

Charles Stanley Reinhart (1844-1896). The March of Modern Improvement – Destruction of Old Buildings in Upper New York. 1871. Museum of the City of New York. 55.53.2.

Starting in the early 1870’s, the Harsens began selling their land and within just a few decades, what was a rural farming community was absorbed into the constant development that created the Upper West Side. The one remaining hint that it ever existed? The Harsen House condominium built in 1938 on 72nd Street.

Peremptory Sale. Harsen Estate. 1873. Museum of the City of New York. 43.116.11A.

Peremptory Sale. Harsen Estate. 1873. Museum of the City of New York. 43.116.11A.

New York history is nothing if not cyclical.  Fifty years later just south of where the Harsens lived was a tenement-filled area known as San Juan Hill (forever immortalized as the place where the fictional Tony and Maria fell in love in West Side Story). Instead of being named after the large Puerto Rican population that lived in the area, the name may refer to the influx of African American veterans who moved into the neighborhood after the Spanish American War or the frequent interracial street brawls.  In 1940 the New York City Housing Authority characterized the area as “the worst slum section in the City of New York.”  The entire neighborhood was razed to make way for Lincoln Center, but not before the movie version of West Side Story filmed the Sharks and the Jets rumbling in the old neighborhood.

Lee Sievan (1907-1990). San Juan Hill. 1939. Museum of the City of New York. 92.70.1.

Lee Sievan (1907-1990). San Juan Hill. 1939. Museum of the City of New York. 92.70.1.

The same basic story took place on the East Side between 14th and 23rd Streets from 1st Avenue to the East River.

Large & Peremptory Sale of 79 Desirable Building Lots on 16th, 17th, 19th, 20th, and 21st Streets, and on Avenue B, 1852. 1852. The J. Clarence Davies Collection at the Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.3348.

The first massive gas storage tank was installed in 1843 on the land that was once Peter Stuyvesant’s farm; many more soon followed.  As tends to happen, the gas tanks began to leak, emitting a noxious odor and earning the neighborhood the moniker Gashouse District. Beyond the smell, the neighborhood was run by the creatively-named Gashouse Gang, who, according to Herbert Asbury’s  endlessly entertaining Gangs of New York, averaged around 30 holdups a night.”  In short, it was not a desirable place to be, so of course the rents were cheap and the area became the first stop for recent immigrants.

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) Elevated view of Stuyvesant Square and surrounding neighborhoods. ca. 1920-1935. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.2.23509.

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) Elevated view of Stuyvesant Square and surrounding neighborhoods. ca. 1920-1935. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.2.23509.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Twentieth Street between Second and First Avenues. 1939. Museum of the City of New York. 40.140.264.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Twentieth Street between Second and First Avenues. 1939. Museum of the City of New York. 40.140.264.

By the 1940’s the old Gashouse District was fading and the criminals and underworld figures who were so ingrained in the streets were curtailed (slightly) by the construction of the FDR Drive.  In 1945 3,000 residents were relocated to Upper Manhattan. And then 600 tenement buildings,  three churches, and two theaters were razed to create Metropolitan Life’s idyllic suburban paradise Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village for returning veterans.

Saving the most historic for the end, we have Cherry Hill. Located in what is now called Two Bridges, or more broadly the Lower East Side. In the 1700’s this was one of the most fashionable districts of New York. Old money families had mansions on streets lined with cherry trees.  It was so classy that George Washington lived at Number 1 Cherry Street during the first term of his presidency.

Samuel Hollyer (1826-1919). Washington's House, Cherry Street, 1788.  1901. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.5.38.

Samuel Hollyer (1826-1919). Washington’s House, Cherry Street, 1788. 1901. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.5.38.

But by the 1840’s Cherry Hill, and Cherry Street in particular,  was home to one of the worst tenements in New York. Gotham House was home to over 1,000 people living in terrible conditions. For all the lurid details and horrifying mortality rates, read this New York Times article.

Jacob A. (Jacob August) Riis (1849-1914). Gotham Court, 38 Cherry Street -- Double and Single Alley. ca. 1890. Museum of the City of New York. 90.13.2.12.

Jacob A. (Jacob August) Riis (1849-1914). Gotham Court, 38 Cherry Street — Double and Single Alley. ca. 1890. Museum of the City of New York. 90.13.2.12.

After Jacob Riis highlighted the horrors of Gotham Court in his expose How the Other Half Lives, the building was torn down. Constrained and isolated by both the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges and by the opening of the FDR Drive in the 1940’s, the neighborhood became the home of the Alfred E. Smith public  houses honoring the former governor who grew up nearby.

Neighborhoods are constantly evolving in New York. Even now, you can’t go online without someone lamenting the death of an area. Between gentrification and constantly rising rents it seems like a  modern problem, but really it’s been happening for the past 400 years.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company

South Brooklyn isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of perq-filled employment in the early parts of the last century. If you happened to be working for the Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company, however, it would be a whole different story. Beyond the regular, often brutal work at the shipyard there would have been a constant whir of activities: dancing, games of tug of war, concerts, and team sports to name just a few.  The four albums in the City Museum’s collection from the Morse Dry Dock’s Employee Association paint a (probably highly idealized) picture of what it was like to be an employee of one of the largest ship repair/dry docks in the country at that time.

Founded in the 1880’s by Edward P. Morse, the company soon became known as the leader in steamship construction and the go-to company for maintaining the luxurious yachts of the fabulously wealthy. It also was the largest floating dry dock in the world in the World War I era (a dry dock raises the hulls of boats above water so they can be repaired, as seen below).

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Fire hose drill.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York.  F2013.130.2

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Fire hose drill.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.130.2.

Located in what is now considered Sunset Park, but then was considered Bay Ridge, the shipyard was between 55th and 57th Streets from First Avenue to the water. The complex had nearly 4,000 employees, ranging from welders to office clerks, who kept the whole shipyard sailing smoothly along.

The Morse Dry Dock was a pioneer in company culture and offered progressive benefits to their employees, including health insurance (good perq in a place where fingers routinely got separated from hands), paid sick time, and night classes so employees could improve their job skills.

The Employee Association was the main instigator for all these benefits. Comprised of annually elected employees, its aim was to make the shipyard the best possible place to work.  The Employee Association formed committees devoted to everything from putting on regular concerts and other entertainments  to the Conference Board, which dealt with solving employee complaints. The elections for positions within the Employee Association were shipyard-wide, hotly contested, and included fiery rhetoric and even parades.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Smith's parade of Employees' Association election.]. 1919. museum of the City of New York. F2013.130.4

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Smith's parade of Employees' Association election.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.130.4.

(And just in case you were wondering, Smith sadly did not win a place on the Employee Association.)

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company.  Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Voting in the Machine Shop Employees' Association election.] 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.130.7

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Voting in the Machine Shop Employees' Association election.] 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.130.7.

On another progressive note, women were allowed to vote in these elections, a whole year before the 19th Amendment was ratified.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Morse Dry Dock & Repair Co. Photographs [Women voting in the Main Office.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.132.10.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Morse Dry Dock & Repair Co. Photographs [Women voting in the Main Office.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.132.10.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Morse Dry Dock soccer team.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.133.11.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Morse Dry Dock soccer team.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.133.11.

But the most loved, or at least most documented, aspect of the Employee Association was sports. Above is the semi-pro, championship-winning soccer team, the Brooklyn Morse Dry Dock.  Members of the dry dock staff f0rmed a baseball team, multiple bowling teams, and participated in really just about every team sport out there.  The photographs reveal  the company’s deep investment in these teams: in 1919 the baseball team hired Bill Dahlen, a well-known baseball player for the Brooklyn Superbas (a precursor to the Dodgers), as the manager. He can be seen at the far left of the group shot of the 1919 baseball team.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Morse Dry Dock baseball team at Morse Oval.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.133.9.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Morse Dry Dock baseball team at Morse Oval.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.133.9.

By far the most amusing sport represented in these albums are the tug o’ war competitions staged between departments. (If anyone could tell me why they’re sitting on wooden boards, I’ll be eternally grateful.)

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Tug of war - Boiler makers versus farm gang.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.133.19.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Tug of war - Boiler makers versus farm gang.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.133.19.

The Morse Dry Dock employees also enjoyed boating excursions.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Employees Association excursion.]. 1919. Museum of the city of New York. F2013.133.16

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Employees Association excursion.]. 1919. Museum of the city of New York. F2013.133.16.

And women-only noontime dancing.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Women dancing at noon hour.]. 1920. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.133.30.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Women dancing at noon hour.]. 1920. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.133.30.

However, it wasn’t all fun and games. Morse Dry Dock played an important part in World War I. They were the head contractor for the Navy and were considered  a temporary government site; a company of soldiers was stationed there to protect the shipyard from any possible attack. Thankfully none came.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Flag being raised at the Pipe Fitting Shop.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.131.31.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Flag being raised at the Pipe Fitting Shop.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.131.31.

But like most interesting tales, there was a subplot–all of these benefits and perqs were part of a fight against  the postwar influence of organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World and other unions. The Morse Dry Dock was highly successful at this:  in a 1919 walk-out only 600 men, about 15% of the workforce, left, the lowest percentage of any other local shipbuilding company. This loyalty to the company wouldn’t have happened without the Morse Dry Dock Dial, a publication the New York Times called one of the best “internal house organ” publications and one that helped curb the flow of “Bolshevist propaganda.”

As a companion to the photo albums held in the City Museum’s collection, the Morse Dry Dock Dial (digitized issues are found at the Hagley Digital Archives here) is an interesting, and actually quite amusing, look inside the company. Headed by Bert E. Barnes, formerly of the New York Sun, with other reporters from papers like the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the Philadelphia Record, and covers occasionally drawn by Edward Hopper,  the monthly newspaper furthered the idea that the Dry Dock community was a family. As Barnes wrote in the January 1919 issue, “If any reader has taken a vacation, married, returned an umbrella, paid back a borrowed dollar, bought a horse, automobile or baby carriage, planted a war garden, built a chicken house, robbed a baby’s bank, made a speech, been reduced, promoted, received a raise, won anything, done anything, been in a fight, we’re glad of it, because that’s news.” And the paper followed that edict literally–the detailed gossip raised the collective eyebrows of the Museum’s entire digital team even in this age of online over-sharing. Celebrations of shipyard goals and sports victories, shared baby pictures,  and a small but obvious thread of propaganda run throughout the publication’s pages.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Morse Dry Dock Dial Staff [Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co.]. ca. 1918. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.134.8.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Morse Dry Dock Dial Staff [Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co.]. ca. 1918. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.134.8.

 World War I was the highpoint for the Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. It went out of business in 1963 after merging with other shipyards and changing its name a few times.  While Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company itself may be slowly fading into distant memory, the company culture they championed has taken on new life in this century in companies like Google and Pixar.

Power, corruption, and Tammany Hall: sketches of lesser known New York City mayors, 1869-1913

Today the 109th mayor of New York City will be elected. In honor of this occasion, we delved into our portrait archive to find some of the most fascinating mayors whom you may not know.  So take a trip down memory lane to a time when New York City politics were run by Tammany Hall, where corruption, greed, and good old-fashioned dirty politics were the norm and most mayors were mere figureheads of a vast political machine. Precious few political figures actually sought to fix the system.

J. Gurney & Son. A. Oakey Hall. ca. 1872. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.813

J. Gurney & Son. A. Oakey Hall. ca. 1872. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.813

A. Oakey Hall –  in office 1869 -1872. A. Oakey Hall, by all accounts, should have been a fabulous mayor, and if it weren’t for Boss William M. Tweed, he might have been. He was dapper, debonair, and always so fabulously clothed that his moniker was “Elegant Oakley”. He was basically the 19th century version of Mayor Jimmy Walker. But he was more than a pretty face: he was a brilliant lawyer (he tried his first case in front of the Supreme Court at the age of 24), a prolific journalist, and even wrote and starred in a play. Hall’s political career was just as varied as his pursuits. He was a member of every political party finally settling on being a Tammany democrat when he saw Boss Tweed’s rise to power. Tweed, and thus Tammany, took notice of Hall because they could control him and indeed, control him they did. There are sources that say his cabinet was the most corrupt in all of New York City history, and that’s saying quite a bit.  Yet, there were still persistent rumors that Hall could become President of the United States one day. Sadly for Hall, that came crashing down, however, when he was indicted during the investigation of the Tweed Ring in 1871. After conducting his own legal counsel he was acquitted, but never sought political office again. He later moved to London where his mental health was the subject of many rumors.

Wilhelm. Hugh J. Grant. ca. 1889-1905. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.810

Wilhelm. Hugh J. Grant. ca. 1889-1905. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.810

Hugh Grant- in office 1889-1892. While it’s disappointing that this mayor wasn’t a mild-mannered, bumbling, English romantic hero, like our 20th century movie star with the same name, this Hugh J. Grant, at 31 years old, was the youngest mayor of New York City. (There is continuing controversy over who actually was the youngest mayor; read more here.) Grant had a meteoric rise through the ranks of Tammany in part due to his wealthy background and affable attitude. He is most known for enacting the law that required electrical lines to be buried underground after a terrible blizzard in 1888 knocked out power and communication for days which obviously benefited the City, while conversely turning a blind eye to (and participating in) the ever-present Tammany corruption.

Not everyone liked Grant and his Tammany cronies. On February 14, 1892, crusading reformist and general gadfly of turn-of-the-century New York, Reverend Charles Parkhurst of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, denounced his administration saying, “every effort that is made to improve character in this city, every effort to make men respectable, honest, temperate, and sexually clean is a direct blow between the eyes of the Mayor and his whole gang of drunken and lecherous subordinates.” He went on to call Grant and his political colleagues, “a lying, perjured, rum-soaked, and libidinous lot” of “polluted harpies.” (Taken from Parkhurst’s book Our Fight with Tammany.)

W. J. Gaynor. ca, 1910. Museum of the City of New York. 96.184.20

W. J. Gaynor. ca, 1910. Museum of the City of New York. 96.184.20.

William Jay Gaynor -in office 1910 to 1913. Champion of the underdog, weary of both politicians and reformers, Gaynor was a Brooklyn judge who was known for his creative, colorful, and frequent profanity and his tendency to quote ancient Greek writers in his courtroom. How could you not be fascinated by him? Due to his reforming ways Gaynor was an odd choice for Tammany, but in the 1910 mayoral election he defeated newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. A political outsider, the first time Gaynor went to City Hall was for his inauguration (which he walked to from his Park Slope home – to read about Gaynor’s love of walking, click here). He also turned out to be incorruptible. There were rumors of him literally throwing people out of his office who wanted to buy his support. Tammany was not amused. Gaynor tried to limit police brutality and corruption, abolished tolls on the East River bridges, and supported mass transit. He was also known as a constant letter writer. He would answer letters from correspondents ranging from a rat catcher trying to get out of jury duty to women seeking help finding a husband. (If you really want to get to know Mayor Gaynor’s voice and amazing use of sarcasm, his collection of letters is beyond entertaining. )

Gaynor is the only New York mayor to have an attempt made on his life. On August 9, 1910, Gaynor was setting off on a much needed vacation on the Europe-bound ocean liner Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. He had been posing for photographers and talking to reporters and was still chatting with fellow passengers when a disgruntled, unemployed dock worker, John J. Gallagher, fired three shots at him.  What made this even more dramatic is that the immediate aftermath was caught on film. The story goes that William H. Warnecke, photographer for New York World, was running late and setting up just as the other photographers were leaving, allowing him to document the chaos immediately following the assassination attempt.

Gaynor survived the shooting but died three years later,  the only modern mayor to die in office.

William H. Warnecke. Reprinted by the Bown Brothers. Attempted assassination of Mayor William J. Gaynor. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. 43.119.

William H. Warnecke. Reprinted by the Brown Brothers. Attempted assassination of Mayor William J. Gaynor. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. 43.119.

Unknown. John Purroy Mitchel. ca. 1914. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.844

Unknown. John Purroy Mitchel. ca. 1914. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.844

John Purroy Mitchel – in office 1913-1917. Elected at 35, Mitchel was the second youngest person to serve as mayor of New York and is often called “The Boy Mayor”.  He rose to prominence after helping indict two corrupt borough presidents, and that was just the beginning of his quest to free the city from the holds of Tammany Hall. The public was apparently supportive of this, since Mitchel won the election by the greatest margin of victory in the city’s history. Mitchel immediately went to work fighting police corruption, enacting the first comprehensive zoning laws in the country, and balancing the city’s budget.

Unsurprisingly, Tammany didn’t like the direction Mitchel was taking their city, so they made sure he wouldn’t be a two-term mayor. After a brutally contentious war-time election, Mitchel lost by one of the biggest margins ever recorded. Tammany was back in power.

We Mourn our Loss, John Purroy Mitchel. 1917. 34.100.270U

We Mourn our Loss, John Purroy Mitchel. 1917. 34.100.270U

In keeping with Mitchel’s usual optimism and patriotism, he volunteered for the Air Service to fight in World War I.  Eight months after he lost the election, Mitchel was in Lake Charles, Louisiana doing routine flight training when, during a maneuver, he fell out of his single seat airplane and crashed to the ground, dying immediately. He had forgotten to fasten his seat belt.

Click here to see more images of mayors, both well-known and obscure.

The Central Park Casino

It’s 1929 in an Art Deco ballroom. Dancers glide around, dimly reflected in the black glass ceiling while outside on the terrace, the sound of champagne corks popping intersperses with conversations, laughter, and jazz, all  floating through the night air. Surrounded by Central Park, the Central Park Casino was the place for rich, fabulous, and socially and politically connected citizens of the late 1920s and early 1930s who wanted to party together and ignore the troublesome 18th Amendment. Yet by 1935, the party was over. How did a political rivalry end the revelry at one of the most exclusive Jazz Age nightclubs?

The Central Park Casino began in 1864 as the Ladies’ Refreshment Salon, a quaint Victorian two-room stone cottage designed by Calvert Vaux on East Drive and 72nd Street. Unaccompanied ladies could relax during their excursions around the park and enjoy refreshments at decent prices, free of any threat to their propriety.

Twenty years later, the salon had morphed into a far pricier destination, called The Casino, and was open to both sexes. The name was used to invoke the Italian translation of “little house” rather than denoting a gambling joint. Locals and tourists flocked to the restaurant, where one could get a sirloin steak for 75 cents (just under 20 dollars in today’s money) and choose from an extensive wine list. Because it was in the park and had the then rare attraction of outdoor seating, it was the place to see and be seen.

X2011.34.4545 Charles F. Flower and Raphael Tuck & Sons. Central Park, New York. ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.4545

Charles F. Flower and Raphael Tuck & Sons. Central Park, New York. ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.4545.

Unknown. Casino Cafe in Central Park. ca. 1885. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.1206

Unknown. Casino Cafe in Central Park. ca. 1885. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.1206.

Yet after decades of feeding and refreshing wealthy and hungry park-goers, the Casino fell onto hard times and according to an article from the New Yorker from September 20, 1941 by the early 1920’s  it was being managed in “a somewhat dumpy nite-club style.”

In 1926 New York City was swept up in the Jazz Age.  Speakeasies, dancing, and just a general pursuit of good times engulfed the city. To go with this fun-loving era, New York City elected a new mayor, James “Gentleman Jimmy” or “Beau Jim” Walker, who personified this spirit. Walker was a successful songwriter with the 1905 hit “Will You Still Love Me in December as You do in May?” and was generally much more enthusiastic about the excesses of the Roaring Twenties than being the mayor of New York. This worked out well since Tammany Hall was quite content to manage the city while Walker functioned as its dashing figurehead. Walker reportedly never made it to City Hall before noon and when he did and wasn’t feeling up to the task, he had a private “hangover room,” complete with a bed and an exercise bike (the bike was reportedly never used). (New York Times)

Unknown. Mayor Jimmy Walker walking down a street. ca. 1925-1935. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.866.

Unknown. Mayor Jimmy Walker walking down a street. ca. 1925-1935. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.866.

This is not to say that Walker was a bad mayor. His constituents loved him because he vowed to keep subway ride prices at a nickel, allowed baseball games to be played on Sundays, and promised to improve the parks. Mobsters loved him too since he was such a fan of the nightlife that they ran. On top of that, Walker was a gifted speaker, always ready with a quip, wisecrack or some delightful repartee.  He was New York City’s master of ceremonies.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the next incarnation of the Central Park Casino started with a favor. Sidney Solomon, a noted hotelier,  had introduced Walker to his personal tailor and that, to the always snazzily dressed mayor, was worth quite a bit.  So when Solomon asked to take over the Casino to make it into an “outstanding restaurant instead of the shanty it is now,” Walker (through a series of somewhat sketchy maneuvers) made it happen. After a $500,000 renovation, the Casino added a tulip pavilion, orange terrace, a silver conservatory and, most importantly, a black-glass Art Deco ballroom. There were tables to seat 600 and a parking lot for 300 cars.  Solomon said, very humbly, “it is not just a renovation. It’s something that has never before existed so perfectly in the world.” On the night of June 25, 1929, every seat was taken as the Casino opened to select guests, the so-called “fashionable and fastidious” to whom the restaurant now catered to. It was called “Walker’s Versailles,” where the bandleader would immediately start playing “Will You Still Love Me in December as You do in May?” as soon as Walker and his mistress, the actress Betty Compton, walked in the door.

For the next few months, parties regularly lasted until 3 A.M., with Tammany hotshots mingling with Ziegfeld Follies’ showgirls. To get around the pesky Prohibition laws, patrons would leave their Rolls-Royces stocked with bootleg champagne parked outside. The maître d kept an eye on the drinks at the wealthiest tables and when they ran low, he would signal their chauffeur, standing near the doorway, to restock the alcohol from the stash in the car. It was the most exclusive playground for the most exclusive set.

In the fall of 1929, Walker easily defeated Fiorello La Guardia for a second term as mayor.  While the Casino was still dazzling its well-heeled guests, some people saw it as the epitome of all that was wrong in New York.  After the
October 1929 Stock Market Crash the critics roared louder. Why was it fair that the rich could gorge themselves at an expensive restaurant in the midst of a public park while the poor could barely feed their families? The loudest critic? Robert Moses, Parks Commissioner.

Unknown. Robert Moses in front of a map of New York City. ca. 1925-1940. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.960

Unknown. Robert Moses in front of a map of New York City. ca. 1925-1940. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.960

To be fair, Moses did have a pretty solid point. When he and three friends visited to the Casino, their bill was a staggering $27 (around $475 today). Moses contended that the Casino’s prices were far more expensive than the Plaza Hotel and thus the Casino was inappropriate in a public park. But like all good stories, there was another layer to Moses’s hatred of Walker’s Versailles; Moses’s hatred of Walker himself. This mostly one-sided rivalry began when Walker insulted former Governor Al Smith, who had mentored both men. Moses wanted all physical traces of Walker’s legacy erased, but Walker was doing a fine job of that himself. Walker’s free-wheeling ways had finally caught up with him. Before Walker could be removed from office by Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt on corruption charges, he resigned and sailed to Paris with Betty Compton.

But that wasn’t enough for Moses. In an act of sheer vindictiveness, Moses refused to let Solomon make any changes like lowering the prices to make the Casino accessible to a wider range of patrons.  Instead, Moses began to make  plans to raze the building for a children’s playground. Despite protests from those who saw the historic value of the building, the Appellate Court decided that Moses had the right to demolish the building. On May 6, 1936, just 24 hours after Moses received court permission to tear down the Casino, wrecking crews were at the site.

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). [Destruction of the Central Park Casino.] 1936. Museum of the City of New York, X2010.7.1.16818

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). [Destruction of the Central Park Casino.] 1936. Museum of the City of New York, X2010.7.1.16818.

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). Destruction of the Central Park Casino. 1936. Museum of the City of New York.  X2010.7.1.16820.

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). Destruction of the Central Park Casino. 1936. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.16820.

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). Destruction of the Central Park Casino. 1936. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.16817.

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). Destruction of the Central Park Casino. 1936. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.16817.

In 1937, the Rumsey Playground was built on the same spot as the Casino, but it was never a big success. In the 1980’s the site was razed again and converted into Rumsey Playfield where SummerStage events are now held.  So next time you’re at a performance at SummerStage, close your eyes and imagine yourself among the politicos and showgirls, sipping champagne and dancing to “Will You Still Love Me in December as You do in May?”  in the ballroom at the lost Central Park Casino.

For a collection of New York Times articles about the Casino and the Rumsey Playfield, download this PDF.

Vanderbilt Ball – how a costume ball changed New York elite society

In the spring of 1883, the solemnity of Lent didn’t stand a chance against the social event on the mind of all of New York’s elite society:  Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt’s fancy dress ball. The invitations had been hand delivered by servants in livery, young socialites had been practicing quadrilles (dances performed with four couples in a rectangular formation) for weeks, and “amid the rush and excitement of business, men have found their minds haunted by uncontrollable thoughts as to whether they should appear as Robert Le Diable, Cardinal Richelieu, Otho the Barbarian, or the Count of Monte Cristo, while the ladies have been driven to the verge of distraction in the effort to settle the comparative advantages of ancient, medieval, and modern costumes” (New York Times). The best dressmakers and cobblers had spent months poring over old books making costumes — which were already being breathlessly described by the New York Times — as historically accurate as possible.

Prior to the ball, Gilded Age New York society had been dominated by the Mrs. Astor. (Emphasis, hers – to even ask which Astor was a sure sign that you were thoroughly ignorant in the most basic points of New York’s social hierarchy.) Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor and self-appointed “society expert” Ward McAllister were the authorities in all things upper class. It was up to them to decide if your last name was venerable enough or if your bloodlines were pure enough for entry into the upper ranks of society. They were the champions of old money and tradition.

But New York’s social hierarchy is not known for being static.  Thanks to the meteoric increase in millionaires in New York due to the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution, many of whose fortunes rivaled or even surpassed the oldest of families, Mrs. Astor and Ward McAllister had a whole new challenge in deciding who of the nouveau riche was acceptable.  This led to the creation of the famous List of 400 — the Four Hundred people who were New York’s high society. One family that they deemed wholly unsuitable were the Vanderbilts. The willful crassness of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, the ambitious entrepreneurial shipping and railroad industry mogul, and patriarch of the family, was still the stuff of legends.

Mora (b. 1849). Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt (neé Alva Erskine Smith). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.96.2.2.

Mora (b. 1849). Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt (neé Alva Erskine Smith). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.96.2.2.

The Commodore’s grandson, William Kissam Vanderbilt, married the determined, pugilistic and socially ambitious Alva Erksine Smith from Mobile, Alabama (but schooled in Paris). Alva made it her mission to bring the Vanderbilts into what she thought was their proper place in society, and onto the list of the 400.

Her first move? Building an opulent French château style mansion designed by Richard Morris Hunt at 660 Fifth Avenue at 52nd street that literally overshadowed the dour, albeit luxurious, town homes that lined the avenue.

H.N. Tiemann & Co. 1898. 5th Avenue north from 52nd Street. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.4755

H.N. Tiemann & Co. 1898. 5th Avenue north from 52nd Street. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.4755.

As grand as the mansion was, the ball which served as her housewarming party was even grander. On March 26, 1883 Alva threw one of the most incredible parties that New York had ever seen. With her access to seemingly endless amounts of money, she used every available resource – including the power of the press by inviting journalists to come in and preview the decorations before the ball began – to build excitement  and to make it bigger than any ball before it. According to an apocryphal tale, Alva used what was possibly the simplest weapon in her arsenal to gain admission to the New York 400:  good old fashioned manipulation.  The story goes, that like all marriageable young girls Mrs. Astor’s daughter, Carrie, was anxiously awaiting her invitation and even began practicing for a quadrille with her friends. Then the unthinkable happened: all of her friends got their invitations and hers never came. She immediately got her mother on the case. Due to complex social customs, Alva claimed she could not invite Miss Astor since Mrs. Astor had never called on the Vanderbilt home. Mrs. Astor really had no choice but to drop her visiting card at 660 5th Avenue, thus formally acknowledging the Vanderbilts. The Astors’ invitation was received the next day.

At ten in the evening carriages began arriving at 660 5th Avenue, dropping off nearly 1200 outrageously costumed members of the highest ranks of society. Crowds, held back by police, strained to catch glimpses of debutantes and society stalwarts attired in their costumes as they were escorted into the mansion. Even Mrs. Astor (with her daughter) and Ward McAllister were there.

It is easy to see the casual display of over-the-top excess of the ball in these portraits of attendees in their costumes taken by Mora.

Miss Edith Fish was dressed as the Duchess of Burgundy, with real sapphires, rubies and emeralds studding the front of the dress.

Mora (b.1849). Miss Edith Fish (later Hon. Mrs. Oliver Northcote). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 41.132.45.

Mora (b.1849). Miss Edith Fish (later Hon. Mrs. Oliver Northcote). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 41.132.45.

One of the most amazing costumes was Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II ‘s representation of “Electric Light” which even had a torch that lit up, thanks to batteries hidden in her dress. The dress is actually in the Museum’s costume collection and you can see it as it looked on Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II in the cabinet card below, and how stunning it is in the full color collection image. (To take a closer look at the dress, visit our Worth/Mainbocher online exhibition here.)

Mora (b. 1849). Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II (neé Alice Claypoole Gwynne. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1341.

Mora (b. 1849). Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II (neé Alice Claypoole Gwynne. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1341.

Charles Frederick Worth House of Worth (Firm) Jean-Phillippe Worth (1856-1926). Fancy dress ensemble, "Electric Light," worn by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt at the 1883 Vanderbilt Ball. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 51.284.3A-H

Charles Frederick Worth
House of Worth (Firm)
Jean-Phillippe Worth (1856-1926). Fancy dress ensemble, “Electric Light,” worn by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt at the 1883 Vanderbilt Ball. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 51.284.3A-H

At exactly 11:30 the ball began with the hobby-horse quadrille, the first of five quadrilles where the young people of society danced down the grand staircase in lavish costumes.

Dancers in the Dresden Quadrille wore all-white court costumes evoking the time of Frederick the Great and giving them the eerie and intentional look of living porcelain dolls.

Mora (b.1849). Miss Henrietta Strong (later Mrs. Daniel E. Fearing). 1883. Museum of the city of New York. 41.132.15.

Mora (b.1849). Miss Henrietta Strong (later Mrs. Daniel E. Fearing). 1883. Museum of the city of New York. 41.132.15.

For the Opera Bouffe quadrille, the costumes were just as elaborate. The New York Times described the dress below as, “Miss Bessie Webb appeared as Mme. Le Diable in a red satin dress with a black velvet demon embroidered on it and the entire dress trimmed with demon fringe-that is to say, with a fringe ornamented with the heads and horns of little demons.” It’s not everyday that you hear the term “demon fringe”.

Mora (b.1849). Miss Elizabeth "Bessie" Remsen Webb (later Mrs. George B. Parsons). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 41.132.46

Mora (b.1849). Miss Elizabeth “Bessie” Remsen Webb (later Mrs. George B. Parsons). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 41.132.46.

Speaking of things that you don’t hear or see on a daily basis, this is the costume of a cat that Miss Kate Fearing Strong wore. Miss Strong, who Henry James described as “youthful and precocious,” went as her nickname “Puss”. Somewhat disturbingly, the entire costume consisted of the taxidermied cat head as seen in the image, but also seven cat tails sewn onto her skirt.

Mora (b. 1849). Miss Kate Fearing Strong (later Mrs. Arthur Welman). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1460.

Mora (b. 1849). Miss Kate Fearing Strong (later Mrs. Arthur Welman). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1460.

Continuing with the animal theme, Alva’s sister-in-law went as a hornet, with an imported headdress made of diamonds.

Mora (b. 1849). Mrs. William Seward Webb (neé Lila O. Vanderbilt). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 41.132.63

Mora (b. 1849). Mrs. William Seward Webb (neé Lila O. Vanderbilt). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 41.132.63.

After the last quadrille ended, the ball really began. Dozens of Louis XVIs, a King Lear “in his right mind”, Joan of Arc, Venetian noblewomen and hundreds of other costumed figures danced and drank among the flower filled house, including the third floor gymnasium that had been converted into a forest filled with palm trees and draped with bougainvillaeas and orchids. Dinner was served at 2 in the morning by the chefs of Delmonico’s working with the Vanderbilt’s small army of servants. The dancing continued until the sun was rising, diamonds and other jewels glinting in the changing light. Alva led her guests in one final Virginia reel and just like that, the ball was over. The fantasy world that Alva created turned back into reality as men in powdered wigs stumbled down Fifth Avenue, much to the amusement of children on their way to school.

Mora (b.1849). Mr. Perry Belmont.1883. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.96.2.33.

Mora (b.1849). Mr. Perry Belmont.1883. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.96.2.33.

Mora (b. 1849). Miss [Agnes] Binsse & Mr. [Reginald] Francklyn. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.96.2.7.

Mora (b. 1849). Miss [Agnes] Binsse & Mr. [Reginald] Francklyn. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.96.2.7.

The engaged couple of Agnes Binsse and Reginald Francklyn were dressed as Incroyables, a reference to French society.

Mora (b.1849). Mrs. Herbert C. Pell (neé Catherine "Kitty" L. Kernochan). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 41.132.47

Mora (b.1849). Mrs. Herbert C. Pell (neé Catherine “Kitty” L. Kernochan). 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 41.132.47.

Mora (b. 1849). Mr. Charles Ross. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.96.2.32

Mora (b. 1849). Mr. Charles Ross. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.96.2.32.

Mora (b.1849). Mrs. Henry Lukemeyer. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 41.132.35

Mora (b.1849). Mrs. Henry Lukemeyer. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 41.132.35.

Most contemporary sources put the cost of the ball at $250,000 (nearly 6 million dollars in today’s money), including such costs as $65,000 for champagne and $11,000 for flowers.  It was conspicuous consumption at its finest and it worked. Newspapers across the country reported the most minute details and extolled Alva’s tastes and classiness. (This is not to say that there wasn’t a backlash to the ball. The New York Sun published this very stern article, critiquing the excess when there was so much suffering in the same city.). But as of March 27, 1883 the Vanderbilts were at the top of a new New York society that was not just limited to 400 people.

If you want to learn more about the Gilded Age in New York, come to our Gilded New York exhibition opening this November.