Category Archives: Photo Archive

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.

Happy 25th Birthday to the Internet

Last week the Internet turned a quarter of a century old.  On March 12, 1989, a British computer scientist named Sir Tim Berners-Lee proposed what he called an “information management” system that allowed already linked computers to share data. Before that, there was the APRANET, which stood for Advanced Research Project Agency Network. It originated in the 1960s out of the Department of Defense and was largely a Cold War initiative that allowed communication between educational and research facilities across the country. Like that system, Berners-Lee’s information system was primarily text based. It wasn’t until Web browsers emerged in the 1990s, allowing users to view graphics online, that adoption of the technology skyrocketed.

A precursor to the interwebs. Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) National City Bank. Tube system, central exchange. ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.1070

A precursor to the interwebs. Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) National City Bank. Tube system, central exchange. ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.1070

The Pew Research Internet Project recently released data about the impact of the Internet on the daily lives of Americans. Some of the most striking facts:

  • 87% of adults in the USA use the Internet, up from 14% in 1995.
  • 90% of users believe the Internet is a positive force in their lives; 76% believe it is positive for society in general.
  • 58% of American adults own a smartphone, up from 35% just three years ago.

The rise of the Internet has had a profound effect on cultural heritage institutions and how they approach providing access to their collections. Not long ago, visitors had to travel to a museum or an archive in order to get a glimpse of art, manuscripts, or artifacts. Now, those precious objects are just a URL away.

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). [Columns of Pennsylvania Station.] ca. 1940. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.16802

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). [Columns of Pennsylvania Station.] ca. 1940. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.16802

The Museum of the City of New York holds more than three quarters of a million objects in its collections: photographs, negatives, prints, maps, manuscripts, ephemera, costumes, furniture, paintings, drawings, and all kinds of other items relating to New York City, its history, and its inhabitants. In 2008 the City Museum received a grant from the Leon Levy Foundation to begin digitizing its collection of Wurts Bros. negatives. In the six years since then, we’ve made more and more of the Museum’s collections accessible to users across the globe. We’ve been helped along the way by too many people and organizations to name, but some of the ones to whom we’re grateful include Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Charina Endowment Fund, the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, Orange Logic, Analogous, Michael Ulsaker, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. They’ve all provided funding and / or services that helped us get collections online.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Broadway to the Battery, May 4, 1938. Museum of the City of New York. 40.140.16

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Broadway to the Battery, May 4, 1938. Museum of the City of New York. 40.140.16

The Museum began by digitizing the photography collections that were the most popular and in-demand: works by Berenice Abbott, the Byron Company, Samuel H. Gottscho, Jacob Riis, and the Wurts Bros. In December 2010 we launched on online Collections Portal with around 30,000 of these photographs. Since then, we built our own in-house state of the art digital lab where we’re able to photograph a wide variety of object types. There are now more than 135,000 images online, including our Martin Wong Graffiti Collection, part of which is also on view at the Museum in the exhibition City as Canvas; paintings from our marine and portrait paintings collections; garments made by couturiers Charles Worth and Mainbocher; photographs taken by a teenaged Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine; and much, much more. We have one of the most extensive collections anywhere of imagery of New York City’s streets; many New Yorkers are able to see what the block where they live looked like in the past and use the magnifying glass tool to examine the minutest details, such as signs in shop windows. (If you find the building or the street where you live, let us know in the comment section!)

Edmund V. Gillon.  [Looking east on Broadway from Bedford Avenue and South 6th Street.] ca. 1975. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.3.1.262

Edmund V. Gillon.
[Looking east on Broadway from Bedford Avenue and South 6th Street.] ca. 1975. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.3.1.262

To date, more than half a million visitors from nearly every country in the world (a shout out to our users from Malawi, Liberia, Greenland, and St. Vincent & Grenadines) have come to the Collections Portal, collectively viewing nearly 6 million pages.

Our digital team is currently made up of two catalogers, two photographers, and one IT manager. They take the pictures, create the metadata that allows users to find what they’re looking for, and look after nearly 200 terabytes of digital image files. An entire department of archivists, curators, and collection specialists care for the objects before they ever even make it to the lab for photography. Neither this blog nor the Collections Portal would be possible without the fine work of all these people. And we wouldn’t be able to bring all of it together on the Web without the Internet, so many happy returns of the day!

Copy stand and camera in the City Museum's onsite, state-of-the-art digital photograph studio.

Copy stand and camera in the City Museum’s onsite, state-of-the-art digital photograph studio. Photo by Mia Moffett.

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.

Three spirits and a merry Christmas

It’s Christmas Eve. An old man sitting close to his fire is visited by his former business partner, his formerly alive business partner.  Covered in chains and looking very much the worse for death, Jacob Marley (of the lending firm Scrooge and Marley) warns his breathing partner of the consequences of a life lived without love, charity, and friendship. Ebenezer Scrooge (of Scrooge and Marley) says “Bah, humbug!”

Joan Marcus. [ as Scrooge and as Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol.] 1994. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.1679

Joan Marcus. [ Walter Charles as Scrooge and Jeff Keller as the Ghost of Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol.] 1994. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.1679

J. Gurney & Son. Charles Dickens, 1867. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.368

J. Gurney & Son. Charles Dickens, 1867. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.368

So begins a story of redemption that has entertained countless audiences for the last 170 years.  Author Charles Dickens was only 31 years old when A Christmas Carol was first published in serial form. (At this time, the blogger chooses to  refrain from judging the merit of her own accomplishments by the age of 31, and recommends that readers do the same. ) This was the winter of 1843; the author still had Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities to write in the years ahead, but he already had the character of Oliver Twist and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby to his credit.  The year before A Christmas Carol, Dickens visited New York City for the first time. He returned again in 1867, touring the country and no doubt performing readings from his wildly popular Christmas tale.

An instant hit, Scrooge’s night with Christmas spirits past, present, and future, was presented by Dickens himself as part of his readings repertoire.  By the turn of the century, full scale theatrical productions where standard touring fare in England. Several musical adaptations appeared throughout the United States in the 1970s. The first appearance of Scrooge on the Broadway stage was in 1979 in a musical re-imaging of the story called Comin’ Uptown. The show starred Gregory Hines as a tap-dancing Harlem slumlord.

[Gregory Hines in dressing room as in Scrooge from Comin' Uptown.] 1979. Museum of the City of New York. 83.60.10

Unknown. [Gregory Hines in dressing room as in Scrooge from Comin' Uptown.] 1979. Museum of the City of New York. 83.60.10

The production closed after only 45 shows, but Hines’s performance was praised. He was nominated for a Tony award that season for best actor in a musical. A Christmas Carol was not seen again on the boards of the Great White Way until Patrick Stewart’s one-man dramatic reading came to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in 1991.

Unknown. [Patrick Stewart in A Christmas Carol.] 1991. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.42.90

Unknown. [Patrick Stewart in A Christmas Carol.] 1991. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.42.90

In 1994, A Christmas Carol: The Musical began a perennial run at Madison Square Garden’s Paramount Theatre. With music by Alan Mencken and lyrics from Lynn Ahrens, the show ran every Christmas season until 2003. Its Scrooges included Frank Langella, Roger Daltry, Tony Randall, F. Murray Abraham, Tim Curry, and Walter Charles (pictured below).

Joan Marcus [ as the Spirit of Christmas Present and Walter Charles as Scrooge.] 1994. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.1680

Joan Marcus [ Michael Mandell as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Walter Charles as Scrooge.] 1994. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.1680

The overly large turkey leg and beer mug seem to have melted the austerity out of Scrooge’s face, to say nothing of the Christmas showgirls.

Joan Marcus. [Walter Charles as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.] 1994. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.1681

Joan Marcus. [Walter Charles as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.] 1994. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.1681

This season, there are at least three different productions running in the New York area including a stripped down, whirling romp from the creator of Broadway’s The 39 Steps.  Though Dickens is dead, dead as a doornail, we honor his spirit every year by re-mounting, adapting, and continually enjoying his most famous ghost story.  So let me end, dear reader, in the spirit of Dickens by wishing you happy holidays, every one.

John Stephenson Company Streetcars

New York would not be the city it is today without the comprehensive public transportation infrastructure developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the major players of this development was the John Stephenson Company, a streetcar manufacturer that not only outfitted the byways of New York, but supplied cities all over the world with public transportation vehicles.

Background

John Stephenson was born in Ireland on July 4, 1809 and immigrated with his parents to the United States two years later. As a teenager he was an apprentice to the coachbuilder Andrew Wade of 347 Broome Street. During his apprenticeship Stephenson built carriages for Abraham Bower, who had introduced the horse-drawn vehicle known as the omnibus to the streets of New York in 1827. Omnibuses were essentially public stagecoaches running along a specified route with a fixed fee for passengers. Upon completion of the apprenticeship in 1831, Stephenson opened his own carriage shop at 667 Broadway. The shop burned to the ground a year later, but Stephenson was not deterred – he reopened for business at 264 Elizabeth Street. By 1836 his business was successful enough to warrant a move to a bigger place –  Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue) between 132nd and 134th Streets. The print below shows the Harlem factory and features one of Stephenson’s standout designs, known as an x-frame or diamond car for the shapes cut by the latticework on the side of the vehicle. The design served more than just an aesthetic purpose: the truss supported the body of the car between two wheeled chassis.

Photolithograph by J. H. Bufford & Co. John Stephenson, Manufacturer of Rail Road Cars, Omnibusses, Post Coaches and Carriages of Every Description. ca. 1837. Museum of the City of New York. 45.293.1

Photolithograph by J. H. Bufford & Co. John Stephenson, Manufacturer of Rail Road Cars, Omnibusses, Post Coaches and Carriages of Every Description. ca. 1837. Museum of the City of New York. 45.293.1

John Stephenson’s business suffered a setback with the onset of the Panic of 1837 and was forced to close in 1842. But the tenacious Stephenson worked hard to pay off his debts and reopened again in 1843, at 47 East 27th Street, where the company would remain until 1898.

The photographs below were taken for the John Stephenson Company and donated to the Museum in 1944 by Mrs. Harry A. Thompson, great niece of John Stephenson and daughter of John A. Tackaberry, Vice President of the John Stephenson Company. The photographs are divided into the following unbound  photograph albums: Omnibuses, Fare-box Cars, Aisle Cars, Summer Cars, Closed Cars, Double-decker Cars, Special Cars, Electric Cars, Cable Cars, and Factory. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs were taken at the John Stephenson Company factory at 47 East 27th Street.

Factory

Stephenson built his factory on 27th Street between Madison and Fourth Avenues, opposite the New York & Harlem Railroad depot at Fourth Avenue and 26th Street. By the time these pictures were taken, the depot had been demolished for the construction of Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden.

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown  photographer. Factory John Stephenson Company factory at 47 East 27th Street. ca. 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.453

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Factory [John Stephenson Company factory at 47 East 27th Street.] ca. 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.453

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Factory John Stephenson Company Factory at 47 East 27th Street. 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.454

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Factory [John Stephenson Company Factory at 47 East 27th Street.] 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.454

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Factory Interior of the John Stephenson Company factory at 47 East 27th Street, cabinet shop. ca. 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.485

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Factory [Interior of the John Stephenson Company factory at 47 East 27th Street, cabinet shop.] ca. 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.485

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Factory Interior of the John Stephenson Company factory at 47 East 27th Street, making a streetcar roof. ca. 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.480

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Factory [Interior of the John Stephenson Company factory at 47 East 27th Street, making a streetcar roof.] ca. 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.480

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Factory Interior of the John Stephenson Company factory at 47 East 27th Street, streetcar near completion. ca. 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.481

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Factory [Interior of the John Stephenson Company factory at 47 East 27th Street, streetcar near completion.] ca. 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.481

Omnibuses

Omnibuses eliminated the need to hire transportation and became so popular that by 1852, over 120,000 passengers utilized them daily in New York.[1]

In 1856, Stephenson manufactured 300 omnibuses for use in New York and other cities around the world [2]. Below is an omnibus destined for Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand.

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Omnibuses Dunedin City & Suburbs streetcar. ca. 1865. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.2

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Omnibuses [Dunedin City & Suburbs streetcar.] ca. 1865. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.2

The Pride of the Nation must have been one of the largest omnibuses ever constructed. Stephenson built the vehicle in 1875 and presented it at the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia.

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Omnibuses The Pride of the Nation streetcar. ca. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.13

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Omnibuses [The Pride of the Nation streetcar.] ca. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.13

Look at how many horses were needed to pull the Pride of the Nation, shown below in Madison Square. The fate of the vehicle is unknown; the omnibus was last seen in 1918 when it departed for a cross-country tour, pulled behind a gasoline tractor.

Photograph taken by J. H. Beal for the John Stephenson Company. Omnibuses The Pride of the Nation streetcar in Madison Square. ca. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.14

Photograph taken by J. H. Beal for the John Stephenson Company. Omnibuses [The Pride of the Nation streetcar in Madison Square.] ca. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.14

In 1832, John Mason improved on the omnibus by laying special tracks in the cobblestone streets of New York, providing a smoother, safer, and more efficient ride. Thus the market for horsecars, also called streetcars, was born. Stephenson supplied this market with different variations of the streetcar seen below.

Fare-box Cars

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Fare-box Cars Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Co. Limited No. 30 Hotham & Melbourne streetcar. 1884-1898. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.28

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Fare-box Cars [Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Co. Limited No. 30 Hotham & Melbourne streetcar.] 1884-1898. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.28

Aisle Cars

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Aisle Cars Irondequoit Park Railroad streetcar, Glen Haven & Irondequoit Bay. 1893-1894. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.94

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Aisle Cars [Irondequoit Park Railroad streetcar, Glen Haven & Irondequoit Bay.] 1893-1894. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.94

Summer Cars

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Summer Cars Bowery Bay Beach streetcar, Steinway via Ravenswood & Astoria. ca. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.133

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Summer Cars [Bowery Bay Beach streetcar, Steinway via Ravenswood & Astoria.] ca. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.133

Closed Cars

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Closed Cars Streetcar No. 147, Central Park, North & East Rivers to the Battery. 1860-1875. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.234

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Closed Cars [Streetcar No. 147, Central Park, North & East Rivers to the Battery.] 1860-1875. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.234

Double-decker Cars

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Double-decker Cars Empresa de Tramways de Lima No. 4 streetcar with knifeboard seating on upper deck. ca. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.272

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Double-decker Cars [Empresa de Tramways de Lima No. 4 streetcar with knifeboard seating on upper deck.] ca. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.272

Special Cars

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Special Cars Streetcar for use in China. ca. 1885. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.293

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Special Cars [Streetcar for use in China.] ca. 1885. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.293

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Special Cars Matamoros - Puebla streetcar for first-class passengers with side entrance. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.300

Photograph taken by Waller for the John Stephenson Company. Special Cars [Matamoros - Puebla streetcar for first-class passengers with side entrance.] ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.300

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Special Cars Matamoros - Puebla streetcar for second-class passengers. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.301

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Special Cars [Matamoros - Puebla streetcar for second-class passengers.] ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.301

Horsecars created their own problems, however: the need to feed, groom, and provide shelter for teams of animals; the enormous amounts of animal waste deposited on the streets; and the working limits of the animals themselves.

Cable Cars

Cable cars flourished from roughly 1880 to about 1890. They were an improvement over horsecars, but were rendered obsolete when Frank J. Sprague successfully electrified a street railway system in Virginia in 1888.

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Cable Cars Kansas City Railway Co. Nos. 18 and 17 streetcars, Woodland Avenue via 8th & 9th to Union Depot. ca. 1885. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.451

Photograph taken for the John Stephenson Company by unknown photographer. Cable Cars [Kansas City Railway Co. Nos. 18 and 17 streetcars, Woodland Avenue via 8th & 9th to Union Depot.] ca. 1885. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.451

Electric Cars

The photograph below shows a streetcar fitted with a Thomson-Houston motor, passing by Union Square.

Photograph taken by the Pach Brothers for the John Stephenson Company. Electric Cars Madison & 4th Avenue to Post Office, Central Park No. 12 streetcar with Thomson-Houston motor. ca. 1890. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.379

Photograph taken by the Pach Brothers for the John Stephenson Company. Electric Cars [Madison & 4th Avenue to Post Office, Central Park No. 12 streetcar with Thomson-Houston motor.] ca. 1890. Museum of the City of New York. 44.295.379

The End of an Era

John Stephenson died in 1893. The same year, another financial panic threatened to put the John Stephenson Company out of business. In 1898, the company moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey and shortly thereafter declared bankruptcy. The John Stephenson Company was taken over by another railroad car manufacturer and continued on until 1919, when the plant was sold and the assets were liquidated.

Around the same time, the last horsecar in New York ran its course on July 17, 1917. The New York Times lamented:

Passing through many changes, the line kept its honored place in the municipal railroad world until yesterday morning, when the last of the dirty old cars, with their faithful horses and husky drivers, were withdrawn, never again to reappear. What glory, therefore, that came to this giant and progressive city for maintaining the last horse-drawn car disappeared forever. We are now no more notable in transportation than Chicago or Philadelphia.

Photographer unknown. Last horse-car trip, Bleecker Street. 1917. Museum of the City of New York Photo Archives. X2010.11.9926

Photographer unknown. [Last horse-car trip, Bleecker Street.] 1917. Museum of the City of New York Photo Archives. X2010.11.9926

1. Randall Bartlett, The Crisis of America’s Cities (Armonk, N.Y. : M.E. Sharpe, 1998), 71.
2. John H. White, Horsecars, Cable Cars, and Omnibuses (New York: Dover Publications, 1974), 15.

The Great Bygone Museum Tour

Museums of New York, July 9, 1939

Museums of New York, [Museum Map and Guide], July 9, 1939, Museum of the City of New York, 98.52.15

004-38_237_1_recto

Verso of ticket to the National Academy of Design’s 22nd Annual Exhibit, 1917, Museum of the City of New York, 38.237.1

Ladies and Gentleman! Step this way! My dear blog readers, please accompany me on a tour to discover the unique and marvelous history of museums in New York City.  Be sure to leave your parasols and walking sticks with the attendant. We will be traveling through Scudder’s cabinets of wonder, to see the Great Ajeeb, and even into the apartment of the fabulous Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and her confidant Juliana Force. My cherished, curious guests! I know you will be delighted to hear that there is a reception at the conclusion of our expedition.

Scudder's American Museum

Scudder’s American Museum, 1825, Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.1895

Let me first lure you to the proprietorship of former sailor Mr. John Scudder, the preeminent naturalist, taxidermist, and scholar of the bizarre and beautiful. He had gallantly taken up the reins of the “American Museum” initially established by Tammany Hall for their very own members in 1791.  (Among other things, the collection included guillotines used during the French Revolution for the demonstration of decapitation on wax models.) Renamed Scudder’s American Museum, it was relocated by the City rent-free to the second floor of New York’s first almshouse in City Hall Park in 1812. Working late? No worries, Scudder’s stayed open by candlelight until 9pm several days a week. Visitors could take in the aroma of live mud turtles and other exotic species and then wander down the hall to rest their eyes on the bed linens of Mary, Queen of Scots. There were over 150,000 objects in Scudder’s domain, not to mention a bona fide zoo and performance hall.

New York Historical Society, ca. 1845, George P. Hall and Son,  Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.1748

New York Historical Society, ca. 1845, George P. Hall and Son, Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.1748

Another resident of a former almshouse in City Hall Park (a center for museums in the mid-19th century) was the New~York Historical Society, established in  1804. Its Board was a preeminent  assemblage of notables, socialites, and politicians whose vigorous collecting contributed to building a valuable repository of many of the United State’s most treasured documents and works of art. To your left you will see the Historical Society in its later quarters uptown on 11th Street and Second Avenue (constructed in 1857) which would remain its home until 1908.

Peale's Museum

Peale’s Museum, 1825, Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.1863

Next stop: 252 Broadway, Mr. Rubens Peale’s Museum (which opened on the same day as the Erie Canal, October 26, 1825). Peale was the direct competitor of our dear Scudder and son of the great Charles Wilson Peale, founder of the Philadelphia Museum. Artist and eccentric, Rubens Peale assembled four floors of paintings, natural wonders, and slightly unnatural wonders (just a few two-headed sheep here and there), cosmoramas (enormous panoramas of exotic locales, one of which is currently on display in the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing), and wax figure displays. Peale specialized in live entertainment and lectures, with subjects ranging from animal magnetism to séances. This was not to say New York’s Peale establishment was pure frivolity and entertainment; these displays and presentations stemmed from a Linnean preservationist’s ardor for the natural world and was in spirit with popular science at that time.

Sleighing in New York

Thomas Benecke, Sleighing in New York, 1855, Museum of the City of New York, 45.271.1

010-43_29_40_recto

Ticket to Barnum’s American Museum, 1867, Museum of the City of New York, 10.43.29.40

Let us now journey three blocks through City Hall Park to Broadway and Ann Street in the year 1841. It seems the colossus otherwise known as P.T.Barnum’s American Museum has engulfed both Scudder’s and Peale’s treasures, amassing both collections under one frenzied roof. Barnum was a master marketer both visually and audibly; his PR consisted of a live band playing on the balcony and the most fantastic typography ever to grace the wheat paste poster. The Museum literally screams at you to come in! Barnum acquired ownership of Peale’s building and kept it running just for contrast against his booming establishment of encyclopedic wonders, which at its peak was open 15 hours a day.  See here the “million curiosities”: live freak shows, bizarre and colorful animals (including “sassy monkeys”), and throngs of specimens in outrageous ‘educational’ display. Peale’s American Museum appeared modest and pedantic in comparison.

[Ruins of Barnum's Museum.]

Ruins of Barnum’s Museum, ca. 1865, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.759

Time to lower our hats and journey past dear Barnum’s in 1865, the year of the great furnace fire that shot through from the basement and took the lives of all its living animals in the most horrific spectacle of all.  The New York Times lamented the end of an incomparable collection.  “No public institution in the country pretended even to rival the geological collection of the museum either in extent or value…. Birds of rarest plumage, fish of most exquisite tint, animals peculiar to every section, minerals characteristic of every region, and peculiarities of all portions of the earth, costly, beautiful curious and strange, were crowded on the dusty shelves of room after room, where they attracted the earnest attention and studious regard of the scholar and the connoisseur.” After the fire, Barnum’s would continue on as a side-show museum and move to a more mobile platform as a traveling circus.
Eden Musee, 59 West 23rd Street.

Byron Company, Eden Musee, 59 West 23rd Street, ca. 1899, Museum of the City of New York, 41.420.413

Ok, enough with the depressing part of the tour. What is this here? A battleship wedged between two buildings on 23rd street?  No need to duck the cannon fire, this is the Eden Museé, an astounding palace of wax figures and automata. Their oily waxen faces were not conversational, but they were considered to be excellent listeners. Eden opened its doors in 1884 and was considered a premier establishment for family entertainment, though its reputation was somewhat diluted when it came to the basement “Crypt” (a motley assortment of execution scenes). A  New York Times review reported it “incomplete,” having only “four or five tableaus.”

Eden Musee, 59 West 23rd Street.

Byron Company, Eden Musee, 59 West 23rd Street, ca. 1907, Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.15517

Meet the Mysterious Ajeeb. He was the preeminent resident and chess champion at the Eden Museé. The wise Ageeb has played chess with Sarah Bernhardt, Edgar Allan Poe, and other notables, including celebrity chess players. Do you dare to challenge him? Be careful not to shake his clockwork hand upon defeat, you may find the warm grasp of his operator Mr. Charles Edward Hooper, who worked inside Ajeeb, quite unsettling.

Museum of Safety Appliances.

Byron Company, Museum of Safety Appliances, 1908, Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.7045

019-81_146B_3

The American Museum of Safety Exposition Booklet, ca. 1914, Museum of the City of New York, 81.146B.3

The Museum of Safety, located in the Engineering Societies’ Building on 29 West 39th Street focused on a different kind of conservation than that of artworks and artifacts. The ‘conservation of human life’ was the foremost concern. No exotic fantasies here, only the stark realities of industrial injury. As accident prevention became a big industry, the exhibitions not only educated workers, but also served as advertisements for safety equipment. The transition into an electrified city of telephone lines and automobiles was not met without some unintended tragedy for those uneducated in the dangers these modern wonders .

[American Museum of Natural History.]

Harroun & Bierstadt, American Museum of Natural History, ca. 1877, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.1234

Now we proceed uptown to visit some of the city’s most beloved and ever-thriving institutions in their most rudimentary state. The 1870s was a golden era for museology in New York City. Philanthropists of the Gilded Age bequeathed great sums to create institutions that would hold their own against European models. Virtually unrecognizable, this view of The American Museum of Natural History (above) depicts the original Victorian Gothic building designed by J. Wrey Mould and built between 1874-1877. At this time the surrounding Central Park looks more like an industrial wasteland than the current wooded landscape and austere skyline, since it was still mostly un-developed farmland.

[Obelisk with Metropolitan Museum of Art.]

Adolph Wittemann, Obelisk with Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1890, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.1512

Here is an early incarnation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although the grid system existed then, many roads remained unpaved and the landscape was largely rural. (Untapped Cities does an excellent job of  describing the secret history of the Met’s architecture). The Egyptian government gifted the obelisk, Cleopatra’s Needle, in 1881 and shipped it from Alexandria on the Steamship Dessoug. There was a grand Masonic ceremony attended by over 9,000 Masons and 50,000 spectators to celebrate the installation.

Buildings, Brooklyn Children's Museum, Brooklyn Ave. & Park Plac

Byron Company, Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Brooklyn Ave. & Park Place, 1924, Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.16737

Please devote a few brief moments to pay homage to this building, known once as the Adams House. This idyllic Victorian mansion was transformed into the original Brooklyn Children’s Museum in Crown Heights, the world’s first children’s museum established in 1899.

Gracie Mansion, first home of the Museum of the City of New York

Gracie Mansion, first home of the Museum of the City of New York, ca. 1923, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.14217

[Gracie Mansion, Interior, Showing Old New York Costumes.]

Arthur Vitols, Byron Company, Gracie Mansion, Interior, Showing Old New York Costumes, The mannequins with old costumes in the Museum of the City of New York when its home was Gracie Mansion at 88th Street & East River, 1927, Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.3.566

Did you know that before Gracie Mansion became the home to New York City’s mayors, it was the original residence for The Museum of the City of New York? Preservationist Henry Collins Brown secured and restored the mansion to include domestic period rooms showcasing the blossoming collection. The City Museum differentiated itself from the New York Historical Society by focusing its acquisitions solely on New York City. Eventually the collection outgrew the historic home and the construction of the building at 1220 Fifth Avenue was spearheaded under the direction of James Speyer and completed with much celebration in 1932.

Juliana R. Force [residence]. Living room to window.

Samuel H. Gottscho, Juliana R. Force Residence. Whitney Museum of American Art, 1932, Museum of the City of New York, 88.1.1.2332

Time to pay a visit to the original Whitney Museum of American Art, originally situated in three adjoining Greenwich Village residencies at 8–12 West 8th Street. It was the first manifestation of The Whitney as a museum as well as the home of its founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and her assistant, Juliana R. Force, who amassed an unprecedented collection of contemporary American Art.

Museum of Modern Art, birds-eye view from 41st floor of Rockefel

Wurts Brothers, Museum of Modern Art, birds-eye view from 41st floor of Rockefeller Center, 1941, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.7.1.8137

Our tour now ends at the Museum of Modern Art. While still standing at the same location since the first permanent building was constructed in 1939, it has doubled in size and gone through several physical incarnations. Entertain yourself with this birds-eye of the then newly constructed MoMA  and then follow me downstairs to an opening reception.

John Vachon, Frank Bauman, Stanley Kubrick, Museum of Modern Art [Art opening.], 1949, Museum of the City of New York, X2011.4.12063.71

John Vachon, Frank Bauman, Stanley Kubrick, Museum of Modern Art [Art opening.], 1949, Museum of the City of New York, X2011.4.12063.71

It’s a Hard Knock Life: The City as Playground

MNY14074

Jacob August Riis, “Shooting Craps: The Game of the Street,” Bootblacks and Newsboys, 1894, Museum of the City of New York, 90.13.1.181.

The image of a group of kids shooting craps in the street has for decades been a quintessential scene of growing up in New York. The history of street games is as old as the city itself but the life of children on these streets has not always been merely about a free-spirited and carefree childhood. The young have been on these streets for a variety of reasons, and little more than a century ago children dwelt there not for play but for work. In too many cases it was home. In the City Museum archives are photos that document the many different forms of street life experienced by children stretching back into the nineteenth century. They  illustrate for modern audiences the evolving notion of “childhood” in our nation, but they also served in their own time as tools for activists who sought to win rights that we all take for granted today.

MNY19190

Byron Company, Brooklyn Car Strike, ca. 1898, Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.1759.

Children earned their own money to contribute to family income. Due to the long working hours for all members of the family, youth who lived independent lives, with no formal education, learned from the streets. Under harsh vocational conditions, they were no strangers to violent social interactions. They often recreated these interactions in rough play and  developed their own social hierarchies in “mini gangs.” 19th century city streets teemed with “street urchins” out at all hours of the day. In New York City laws were established prohibiting playing outdoors in an attempt to tame the rampant street-culture.

Waiting to be let into playground.

Jacob August Riis, Waiting to be let into playground, ca. 1900, Museum of the City of New York, 90.13.4.52.

Activist and photographer Jacob Riis championed the Child-Saving Movement to build supervised play spaces as safe-havens for children. In 1897 Riis was named secretary of the Small Parks Advisory Committee by Mayor William Strong.  Using photography, Riis illustrated the harsh living conditions of impoverished children and also documented the positive effects of the playgrounds and vacation farms that he lobbied for. These spaces were influenced by the ‘sand gardens’ developed in Germany as part of the naturalist movement inspired by Darwin and Fröbel (who introduced kindergarten) to promote physical perfection in a system of strong moral values toward a more promising civic society.

MNY234249

Wurts Bros., Seward Park (the first municipally built playground in the United States), ca. 1905, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.7.1.698.

MNY19974

Byron Company, Hudson-Bank Gymnasium and Play Ground, 1898, Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.8028.

The first playgrounds in New York City featured challenging outdoor gymnasiums, which required hired supervisors to attend.

In her report on the Henry Street Settlement (a social service organization in which she founded to service the poor immigrants living in the Lower East Side), Lillian Wald noted:

“Once, when the playground was filled to capacity, and the sidewalk in front of the house was thronged, the Olympian at the gate endeavored to make it clear that no more could enter. One persistent small girl stood stolidly and when reminded of the
condition said, Yes, teacher, but can’t I get in? I ain’t got no mother.”” (Wald, Lillian D., The House on Henry Street, p. 84)

Vacation playground at 66th Street and 1st Avenue, Manhattan.

Jacob August Riis,Vacation playground at 66th Street and 1st Avenue, Manhattan, August 26th 1902, Museum of the City of New York. 01.41.2.

Although progressive, municipally ordained playgrounds were built to protect children from dangers within the urban environment, they can also be seen as deterrents from the imaginative culture that flourishes with less regulation.  Other ‘play’ spaces included gardens and work areas known as ‘vacation playgrounds’ where urban-dwelling children could experience working with the land–which was considered superior to factory life. Fresh-air play was seen as an important therapy to combat epidemics such as tuberculosis, polio, and diphtheria. Heliotherapy (sun therapy) and hydrotherapy (water cures) were used to treat and prevent childhood disease.

MNY1465 (1)

Arnold Eagle, Federal Art Project, Children Playing in a Vacant Lot, 1935, Museum of the City of New York, 43.131.11.42.

Because of the heavy use of the playgrounds and need for municipal workers to supervise, funding was often a struggle. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) commissioned photographers such as Arnold Eagle to participate in the Federal Arts Project, specifically to document the harsh living conditions in New York City tenements. The photographs were used to support government-funded programs to build and modernize play spaces for impoverished children. Under Robert Moses’ term as Park Commissioner,  the City saw the number of its playgrounds expand from 119 in 1934 to 777 in 1960.

MNY75716

Roy Perry, Cops and Robbers, ca. 1940, Museum of the City of New York, 80.102.188.

At the same time, Roy Perry’s documentary photographs display the harsh conditions many youths during The Great Depression endured, they also depict the unique ability of children to overcome their situations with imagination and ingenuity. To adults, a condemned building or disheveled lot is an eyesore and a symbol of economic failure, but to a child it is an incredible opportunity for exploration.

MNY75697

Roy Perry, Street Scene, Lower East Side, ca. 1940, Museum of the City of New York, 80.102.168.

MNY25011

Arnold Eagle, Federal Art Project, Boys Climbing the Fire Escape of a Deserted Building, 1935, Museum of the City of New York, 43.131.11.397.

Unsupervised play allowed for the development of children’s street culture, a domain in which secret languages, legends, and special games were born. Stickball, punchball, skully, ringolevio, jump rope and craps are just a few of the iconic New York City street games that required nothing more than urban asphalt, a few bottle caps, or a broomstick and cheap rubber ball. The PBS documentary New York Street Games directed by Matt Levy recounts in detail the traditions and cultural importance of these pastimes.

MNY14862

Arnold Eagle, Federal Art Project, Street Children, 1935, Museum of the City of New York, 43.131.11.276.

MNY75684 (1)

Roy Perry, Harlem, Playing Improvised Dart Game on Wooden Street Fence, ca. 1940, Museum of the City of New York, 80.102.156.

MNY75627

Roy Perry, See-Saw, Third Avenue near 44th Street, ca. 1940, Museum of the City of New York, 80.102.125.

MNY225921

Helen Levitt, Children playing on the sidewalk, ca. 1950, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.11650.

Helen Levitt is perhaps the best known observer of New York children’s street culture. Investigating the special language of chalk drawings, she discovered a universe below the eye level of most adults. She recorded the politics, the economy, the wars, and camaraderie staged between children in city streets in her celebrated work  In The Street: chalk drawings and messages, New York City 1938–1948.

MNY83611

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

In a New York magazine article, artist Fab 5 Freddie re-accounts: “Man, I wish I had just one Spalding to have on my shelf—that was so key to so many games. It only cost 50 cents, and you got to play for hours and hours, or until you lost that damn ball…On almost every street you’d see either jump single rope or double Dutch. The girls did that all day. I could jump the single rope, but to do double Dutch—that was unfathomable!” Spike Lee’s 1994 film Crooklyn nostalgically depicts the freedom children had to use the city as their playground before the dangers of crack and gun violence. Although not as visible as in the past, in the outer boroughs street play continues to be a vibrant culture. It will be interesting to look back on the evolution of childhood in New York City through the eye of kids who have smart phones equipped with Facebook, video games, and YouTube, who have a secret language in Twitter instead of chalk.

Click here to see more images of children’s street culture from the City Museum’s collection.

What lies beneath New York- the Minetta Brook

It is difficult to view this image of Manhattan from 1953 and imagine it as the idyllic island of Mannahatta that Henry Hudson first stepped onto in September 1609, but at one time all of the built environment we see was lush, green, and full of streams and natural waterways abundant with fish.

X2010_11_13057

Aerial View of Manhattan. Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Inc. 1953. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.11.13057

There are a few daily reminders of this in our street names.  Canal Street lies above what was once an actual canal, built to drain the Collect Pond, a large body of water that used to exist on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Spring Street is named after a spring that flowed into Lipsenard’s Meadow, a swampy area near Canal Street. While many of these waterways no longer remain, there are a few that still exist, unseen and hidden, but flowing beneath our feet. One of the most interesting of these underground waterways is the Minetta Brook. Minetta’s flow is evidenced in street names such as Minetta Lane and Minetta Street, and the Minetta Triangle at 6th Avenue and Bleecker Street.

Minetta Brook , originally “Bestavaar’s Kill,” was once “a brisk little affair, hurrying along in its well-defined channel, apparently as full of business as it was full of trout. Yes, of trout! They were there in abundance, darting to the higher waters like streaks of smoke and flame, against the foamy rush of a narrow channel, or sulking under the shadow of the bank in quiet pool below….”  (Old Wells and Water-Courses of the Island of Manhattan, by George Everett Hill and George E. Waring, Jr, 1897)

The original path, which it still follows underground, began with two spring-fed forks, one starting at Fifth Avenue and 20th Street and the other starting at Sixth Avenue and 17th Street. They merged in the vicinity of 11th street and Fifth Avenue, continued southwest through Washington Square Park, and joined the Hudson River between West Houston and Charlton Street.  This map from 1852 and the accompanying cropped detail clearly show Minetta Brook, Bestavaar’s Kill at the time, with long-vanished surrounding farm plots.

x2011_5_184

Map of the City of New York showing original high water line and the location of the different Farms and Estates. D.T. Valentine and George Hayward. Ca. 1852. Museum of the City of New York X2011.5.184

x2011_5_184-crop

Detail of map of the City of New York showing original high water line and the location of the different Farms and Estates. D.T. Valentine and George Hayward. Ca. 1852. Museum of the City of New York X2011.5.184

Here is a later map from 1874 depicting a more topographic view of Manhattan, including original water routes and swamps overlaid with the constructed grid plan and expanded waterfront. The current path of the Minetta Brook beneath the city streets is clearly shown.

37_296_1A

Topographical Atlas of the City of New York Including the Annexed Territory. Showing original water courses and made land. Ca. 1874. Egbert L. Viele. Museum of The City of New York. 37.296.1A

37_296_1A-crop

Detail of Topographical Atlas of the City of New York Including the Annexed Territory. Showing original water courses and made land. Ca. 1874. Egbert L. Viele. Museum of The City of New York. 37.296.1A

29_100_1661

Richmond HIl House or Theater. Louis Oram. 1870. Museum of The City of New York. 29.100.1661

The area where the Minetta Brook joins the Hudson River, in the vicinity of present day Varick and Charlton Streets, was once a colonial estate called Richmond Hill where Major Abraham Mortier, paymaster of the British army at the time, constructed a mansion in 1769. Mortier’s estate was most famously used as headquarters by George Washington and Lord Amherst, Commander and Chief of the British Forces during the French and Indian War.  Richmond Hill House would go on to have many more renowned residents such as John Adams and Aaron Burr. In 1831 it was converted to a theater. It was torn down in 1849.

By the 19th century, the area along the Minetta Brook had come to be known as “Little Africa,” due the large numbers of African Americans who had settled there. This pattern dated back to the 1640s when recently freed slaves received land grants along the shores of the brook, which was at that time on the outskirts of New Amsterdam.

2001_59_20

Reflection- Washington Square. Fredrick Kelly. August 29, 1960. Museum of the City of New York. 2001.59.20.

Diverting the path of Minetta Brook and laying the city streets over its banks was no small feat. Washington Square Park was once a swamp fed by the brook. To build the park, the city had to drain the land and reroute the brook. Much of the area around New York University and the West Village would still be on the banks of Minetta Brook had the city not channeled its flow into culverts and sewer tunnels. Most of the streets around the area run parallel to the original path of Minetta because they were laid out with the waterway in mind.

It’s hard to imagine the natural environment still affecting lives in one of the most urban locations in the United States, but the brook does indeed still flow underground, fed by natural sources. To this day, construction crews working in Minetta’s path have to be careful not to unearth it when digging. Many basements in the area have a tendency to flood after a particularly heavy rain. The NYU Law School Library fights a constant battle against Minetta’s underground spring. Located at the south‐west corner of Washington Square Park, there is a continuous flow of groundwater into its basement at an estimated rate of 2‐5 gallons per minute in dry weather, which is pumped into a nearby sewer (more information here).  Sink holes are also a common occurrence along 12th Street in the area where the two forks of Minetta converge.

I was recently fortunate enough to take a walking tour of Minetta’s path led by urban historian and photographer Steve Duncan. He led us from the area around Union Square through Washington Square Park to the Hudson River, popping open manhole covers and revealing the rushing waters of Minetta.  More information about Steve and this incredibly informative tour can be found here.

51_130_005

Minetta Place. Arthur D. Chapman. 1914. Museum of the City of New York. 51.130.5

Today the area surrounding Minetta Lane is lively and full of bars, restaurants, shops and, most importantly, is completely swamp free thanks to the efforts to submerge Minetta’s flow. The natural spring water is now mixed with sewage and carried out to the Newtown Creek sewage treatment plant in Brooklyn.

54_405_1

Minetta Lane. Glenn O. Coleman. 1928. Museum of the City of New York. 54.405.1

Aftermath of a Fire in the Lower East Side

Chartered in 1875, the Manhattan Railway Company operated elevated train lines in Manhattan and the Bronx. In 1879, it leased elevated lines running along Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Avenues from the New York Elevated Railway Company and the Metropolitan Elevated Railway; and in 1891, also leased lines from the Suburban Rapid Transit Company.  Eventually, all three companies were absorbed by the  Manhattan Railway.  During the course of its operations the Manhattan Railway Company photographed the construction of the 74th Street Power Station and numerous substations, capital improvements, and activities and events that affected train service.

Below are images of one such event documented by the company 110 years ago.

Manhattan Railway Company. Houston & Allen St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.155D

Manhattan Railway Company. Houston & Allen St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.155D

In the early morning hours of January 12, 1903, a fire broke out at Houston and Allen Streets, in the basement of a building owned by the leather manufacturer Fayerweather & Ladew.

Manhattan Railway Company. Houston & Allen St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.155A

Manhattan Railway Company. Houston & Allen St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.155A

Firefighters remained on the scene for 13 hours and 45 minutes. In addition to the Fayerweather & Ladew buildings on 159-165 East Houston Street and 207-211 Allen Street, adjacent buildings on Houston, Allen, and Eldridge Streets also sustained damage. These pictures capture the loss and recovery effort in eery detail.

Manhattan Railway Company. Houston & Allen St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.154A

Manhattan Railway Company. Houston & Allen St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.154A

Manhattan Railway Company. Houston & Allen St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.154D

Manhattan Railway Company. Houston & Allen St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.154D

Manhattan Railway Company. Allen & Houston St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.157A

Manhattan Railway Company. Allen & Houston St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.157A

Manhattan Railway Company. Allen & Houston St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.157D

Manhattan Railway Company. Allen & Houston St. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.53.157D

These images are among 1,856 photographs in the  Museum of the City of New York’s Manhattan Railway Company collection, all of which are on the Museum’s Collections Portal. For more winter firefighting images, be sure to check out Susannah Broyles’s excellent post about the Equitable Building fire.

The Mysterious Little Egypt of Coney Island

Show at Coney Island with a man "levitating" a woman on stage.

Byron and Company. Show at Coney Island with a man “levitating” a woman on stage, ca. 1908. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.3425.

“There’s a place in France where the naked ladies dance…”

Although many know this tune (there are surely hundreds of regional interpretations), few know of its origin and its importance to the New York City midway and sideshows of the early nineteenth century.  Best known as “The Streets of Cairo,” it is oftentimes connected to visions of Arabia and Egypt, to snake charmers, belly dancers, and other mysterious notions of Near East mysticism. Although not quite “a place in France,” there were certain locations in New York where the fabled song came to life. “The Streets of Cairo” sideshow was constructed on Surf Avenue, Coney Island, after the success of the Algerian Village at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. Sol Bloom, the entertainment director of the Columbian exposition, claimed to have composed the melody as the theme for the “Algerian” performances. (The song can actually be traced back much further to the 1700s Arabic song “Kradoutja”). Because Bloom did not copyright the song, New York vaudevillian entertainers quickly purloined the tune.

MNY14828

Byron and Company. Crowd wandering through the “Streets of Cairo” show with camels at Coney Island, ca 1896. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.3398.

The Victorian taste for Oriental exoticism was insatiable. It was a time of ardent ethnographic interest; the richly illustrated National Geographic Magazine launched in 1888 and commercial photographs of the region were sold for home entertainment in the form of stereographs and ready-made travel albums. The awe-inspiring sight of the ancient, enigmatic pyramids and startlingly divergent culture was both frightening and alluring. During a time when overseas tourism was reserved for the elite, “The Streets of Cairo” transformed the sands of Coney Island Beach into that of an Arabic desert for the middle and working classes. It is likely that the Atlantic Ocean beyond its walls was a welcomed mirage on sweltering summer days.

Crowd watching a barker at the "Streets of Cairo" show at Coney Island.

Byron and Company. Crowd watching a barker at the “Streets of Cairo” show at Coney Island, ca 1896. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.3393.

The above photograph depicts the carnival “barker.”  Perhaps he is shouting this enticing pitch:

“This way for the Streets of Cairo! One hundred and fifty Oriental beauties! The warmest spectacle on earth! Pre-sen-ting Little Egypt! See her prance, see her wriggle! See her dance the Hootchy Kootchy! Anywhere else but in the ocean breezes of Coney Island she would be consumed by her own fire! Don’t rush! Don’t crowd! Plenty of seats for all!…When she dances, every fiber and every tissue in her entire anatomy shakes like a jar of jelly from your grandmother’s Thanksgiving dinner. Now, gentlemen, I don’t say that she’s hot. But I do say that she is as hot as a red hot stove on the fourth day of July in the hottest county in the state.”
Good Old Coney Island, Edo McCullough

Woman gypsy/dancer posing outside at Coney Island.

Byron and Company. Woman gypsy/dancer posing outside at Coney Island, ca 1896. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.3388.

“Little Egypt” became an adopted stage name for the main dancers of the “Streets of Cairo” exhibit, the most famous of whom were Farida Mazar Spyropoulos, Ashea Wabe, and Fatima Djemille. The “hootchy cootchy” they performed was a caricature of traditional Middle Eastern dance that was more like an early form of burlesque. Although under an ethnographic guise, this risqué performance was perceived as quite provocative at the time.  This oriental cliché quickly became a fad (up to 20 “cootchy shows” would be performed at one time) and “Little Egypt” attained celebrity status. Ashea Wabe made front page news when she was busted for dancing at socialite Herbert Seeley’s Fifth Avenue Bachelor Party in 1896; the scandal came to an unfortunate end in 1906 when she was found dead by asphyxiation, leaving behind a $200,000 fortune.

Woman gypsy/dancer seated in her side-show theatre at Coney Island.

Byron and Company. Woman gypsy/dancer seated in her side-show theatre at Coney Island, ca 1896. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.3386.

This photograph depicts a “Little Egypt” dancer smoking a Hookah in her harem. One can imagine the scent of tobacco and incense in the densely packed theatre. Even at Coney Island, the attire of the audience would have been conservative, with suit jackets and long dresses scarcely baring an ankle or wrist. In stark contrast, the dancer’s gauzy silks and potentially exposed midriff must have been startling.

Byron and Company. A woman in a carnival or side-show with three large pythons, ca 1895. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.14254.

A precedent to “The Streets of Cairo,” female snake charmers added a touch of Eastern mysticism to the classic side show lineup. The snake charming tradition dates back to Ancient Egypt and is still practiced today at the Coney Island Circus Sideshow.

MNY19543

Byron and Company. Arabian Acrobats demonstrating acrobatic feats on the roof of Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre, ca 1908. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.15700.

For those who chose not to make the expedition down to Coney Island for their Oriental fix, the uniquely landscaped roof of Hammerstein’s Victoria (42nd Street at 7th Avenue) served as an alternative. Hammerstein produced a vaudeville adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé that emphasized  the notorious “Dance of the Seven Veils” and ran an astonishing 22 weeks. The above photograph depicts the incredible feats of strength performed by Arabic acrobats, it is possible that a similar display was presented as an opening act.

MNY27448

Byron and Company. The operatic adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” with music by Richard Strauss, presented at the Metropolitan Opera House on January 22, 1907. Museum of the City of New York. 41.420.688.

 In 1907 the Near East dance fad attempted to cross over from sideshow to center stage when the Metropolitan Opera presented Richard Strauss’s interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. It was the most elaborate and expensive production to date, costing nearly $20,000. The famous belly dance and kissing finalé was considered a disgrace and the show closed after the opening night, and would not be performed at the Met again for twenty-seven years.  The  New York Times  headline bluntly states the reaction of the upper class: “How the Audience Took It: Many Disgusted by the Dance and the Kissing of the Head.”

Byron and Company. Beggar among the crowd on Surf Avenue, Coney Island, ca 1896. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.3431.

As the first wave of British and French colonialism came to an end,  the tawdry cultural stereotypes of the Middle East lost popularity in the sideshow  circuit.  Although the Hootchy Cootchy show faded from view as if an apparition, American culture remains deeply entranced by the melody. The next time you hear the infamous tune, peer through the “hole in the wall” to old New York and, if possible, allow yourself to be seduced by Little Egypt.


Streets Of Cairo aka Snake Charmer aka The Poor Little Country Maid from O.Є. on Vimeo.