Tag Archives: women

Breeches on Broadway

With Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Kinky Boots, and Matilda currently on stage, Broadway has placed a spotlight on issues of cross-dressing and gender identity. While processing the Museum of the City of New York’s Broadway Production Files as part of a project funded by an IMLS Museums for America grant, I’ve come across plays that have made me realize how much of our theatrical culture has included elements of drag and gender confusion, whether for comic or dramatic effect.

Mickey Rooney in drag for the musical revue Sugar Babies, 1979. From the Theater Collection, The Museum of the City of New York. 85.58.2.

Mickey Rooney in drag for the musical revue Sugar Babies, 1979. From the Theater Collection, The Museum of the City of New York. 85.58.2.

Cross-dressing has had a long and frequently controversial history in theater. While it was often used to draw laughs from the audience, traditionally with males impersonating female characters, even comedies can have a serious subtext. They permit a way of examining various facets of gender without overtly threatening social norms. Women were banned from the stage primarily for reasons of maintaining female chastity until the 17th century, when female singers were cast in male roles in operas. The term “breeches role,” referring to a role in which an actress appears in male clothing, originated during this period – breeches being the standard male garments worn at the time. Women wore these breeches to make them look the part of a masculine role, but the tightly fitted clothing still accentuated the feminine calves and contours that audiences found alluring. While males impersonating females on stage traditionally served as comedic relief or to cross sexual  boundaries and gender-specific behavior in a way that was acceptable to the audience, females impersonating males were required to act boyishly but still retain acceptable feminine attributes. This tradition lasted well into the twentieth century, and still holds precedence today. Women were cast in male roles because of their androgynous physicality and because females were better envisioned playing weak, fragile, or effeminate male characters.

This is exemplified in the play L’Aiglon by Edmond Rostand about the life of Napoleon’s son Napoleon II of France, Duke of Reichstadt. The play premiered in Paris in 1900 starring Sarah Bernhardt as the title character and in New York at the Knickerbocker Theatre in 1901 starring Maude Adams. The role of Napoleon II (who was nicknamed L’Aiglon, or “little eagle”) was played only by women, who portrayed L’Aiglon according to descriptions that characterized him as vulnerable and effeminate. Bernhardt had already become famous for cross-dressing while playing Hamlet on Broadway that same year.

Sarah Bernhardt in the title role of L'Aiglon, 1917. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 28.67.23

Sarah Bernhardt in the title role of L’Aiglon, 1917. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 28.67.23

Bernhardt commented on this in a Boston Transcript’s April 1, 1901 issue: “There is one reason why I think a woman is better suited to play parts like L’Aiglon and Hamlet than a man. These roles portray youths of twenty or twenty-one with the minds of men of forty. A boy of twenty cannot understand the philosophy of Hamlet nor the poetic enthusiasm of L’Aiglon…an older man…does not look the boy, nor has he the ready adaptability of the woman who can combine the light carriage of youth with the mature thought of the man.” She apparently had a method form of acting while putting on L’Aiglon, wearing men’s clothing off-stage and even at home to immerse herself in the part.

Miss Elsie de Wolfe, actress and prominent figure in New York City society at

Maude Adams as L'Aiglon, 1900. From the Theater Collection. The Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.127.

Maude Adams as L’Aiglon, 1900. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, F2013.41.127.

the time, commented on the differences she saw between Bernhardt’s L’Aiglon and Maude Adams’s in a September 17, 1900 issue of the New York Times: “Miss Adams sees in the Prince a weakling, which he was, a man without force or will; a dreamer. In her performance I think we will get the poetical side. And she is correct in her views. Hers will be the historical character. With Bernhardt you get a suggestion of power that did not belong to the man. It pervades everything she does – voice, bearing, and action.”

Blanche Marie Louise Oelrichs, at one time wife to actor John Barrymore and sister-in-law to actress Ethel Barrymore, played L’Aiglon in 1927 at the Cosmopolitan Theatre. Oelrichs wrote and acted under the pseudonym Michael Strange as an act of defiance against social norms.

Michael Strange as L'Aiglon and Effie Shannon as Marie Louise, 1927. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 50.178.678.

Michael Strange as L’Aiglon and Effie Shannon as Marie Louise, 1927. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 50.178.678.

Later in life, she and the author of the children’s book Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown, formed a long-term romantic relationship. While Bernhardt and Adams are known for shaping the role, Strange is best known for looking the part with her famous androgynous features.

Eva La Gallienne joined the ranks of female stars playing L’Aiglon at the Broadhurst Theatre in 1934. In an article of the San Bernardino County Sun published that same year, Miss Le Gallienne stated that along with Peter Pan, L’Aiglon was a role that, as a stage-struck young girl, she had written down on a list of parts she intended to play before she was thirty-five. She was thirty-four when she was cast as L’Aiglon, and said of her success that, “you can do anything if only you want to enough.”

Eva Le Gallienne as L’Aiglon and Ethel Barrymore as Marie Louise. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 37.350.32.

Eva Le Gallienne as L’Aiglon and Ethel Barrymore as Marie Louise. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 37.350.32.

The actresses playing L’Aiglon used the role in different ways to denaturalize gender as a dichotomy and instead blur the opposition between the two genders to show that there was a great deal of the female in this male role. While these women made great strides to challenge gender norms and achieve success in a male role, there still existed gender stereotypes connecting femininity with fragility and immaturity. Characters like Hamlet and L’Aiglon were considered inappropriate models for manhood and were therefore played by females. Whether it’s L’Aiglon or Hedwig and the Angry Inch, theater creates a space for the audience to acknowledge and question these stereotypes.

The Political Campaign

Certificate of Registration, 1897, in the Politics and Government Collection.  Museum of the City of New York. 38.176.

Certificate of Registration, 1897, in the Politics and Government Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 38.176.

In honor of the 57th inauguration of the President of the United States, I decided to take a look at how campaigning for political office and the democratic process is represented in the collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Geraldine Ferraro, America's First Woman Vice President, 1984, in the Political and Civic Button Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 96.24.

Geraldine Ferraro, America’s First Woman Vice President, 1984, in the Political and Civic Button Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 96.24.

Those of you who frequent our online Collections Portal may have noticed the recent addition of hundreds of political and civic buttons and badges to our online content.  This collection is representative of the wide array of politicians, offices, and agendas encountered in New York City politics.

The collection includes political campaign buttons for female candidates running for local positions, such as Bella Abzug, as well as material associated with New Yorkers such as Geraldine Ferraro and Hilary Clinton who held local political positions, and went on to run (though unsuccessfully, in these instances) for political office at the national level.

Candidates have approached the electorate with any number of slogans and agendas, ranging from improved waterways to a clean government.

For Congress, Edw. R. Gilman, ca.1905, in the Political and Civic Button Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 96.184.204.

For Congress, Edw. R. Gilman, ca.1905, in the Political and Civic Button Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 96.184.204.

Vote for Brush and a Clean City Government, ca.1895, in the Political and Civic Buttons Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 96.184.193.

The Emigrant's Lament, ca. 1860's, in the Political Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 41.361

The Emigrant’s Lament, ca. 1860′s, in the Politics and Government Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 41.361

The collection holds buttons related to mayoral campaigns, including those of Seth Low, John Purroy Mitchel, and David Dinkins; and gubernatorial campaigns, including candidates Nelson A. Rockefeller and Theodore Roosevelt.

New York’s diverse population is also represented in the political process, dating back to complaints related to inconsistent granting of the right to vote to immigrants, as depicted by the broadside to the left from our two-dimensional paper ephemera Politics and Government Collection; to a Spanish language campaign button for Rudy Giuliani.

Grand Sachem - John R. Voorhis - Society of Tammany or Columbian Order, 1917, in the Political and Civic Buttons and Badges Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 52.314.23.

Grand Sachem – John R. Voorhis – Society of Tammany or Columbian Order, 1917, in the Political and Civic Buttons and Badges Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 52.314.23.

One political organization well known for its alignment with the immigrant vote and its influence over New York City politics through much of the 19th century is the Tammany Society or Colombian Order, commonly referred to as “Tammany Hall.”  The Museum holds a wide array of objects in the collection associated with the Tammany Hall political machine, including ribbon badges such as the one pictured to the right, over 250 original sketches for political cartoons by Rollin Kirby, excerpts from Harper’s Weekly, and two dimensional ephemera such as programs and invitations for events.

No matter your political affiliation, the Museum of the City of New York’s collection holds a wide array of objects documenting the vibrancy of this city’s political history.

The Curse of the Roeblings? The Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge

Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho (1875-1971). Lower New York from foot of Manhattan Bridge. ca. 1930. museum of the City of New York. 88.1.5.12.

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most iconic symbols of New York. Try imagining the skyline without the looming Gothic towers. Now try to imagine no bridges over the East River to connect the separate cities of Brooklyn and Manhattan and having to rely on overcrowded, unreliable, and generally unsafe ferries. This was the reality of 1850s New York.  Yet the Brooklyn Bridge almost didn’t happen. Amid rumors of curses on the designer’s family, corruption, and death came amazing technological innovations and people doing incredible things.

The idea of putting a bridge across the East River wasn’t a new idea even in 1850. Plans were discussed, made, and scrapped regularly with strident opposition on basically every element, including the very big question of whether it was even possible to traverse the East River.  And, if it was, then at 1,600 feet across, it’d be the longest span of bridge in the world at that time.

To say that German immigrant John A. Roebling was born to meet this challenge would be a gross overstatement and cliche, but in this case it seems to work. He had created new forms of steel cables that aided his designs of technically brilliant bridges in Cincinnati and Niagara Falls.  In 1867, his plans for the “East River and Brooklyn Bridge” (its previous official name) were accepted by the Tammany Hall-controlled New York Bridge Company and he was named Chief Engineer.

John M. August Will (1834-1910). Sketch of View of Bridge from Sand St. Brooklyn. 1873. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.1986.

But, on June 28, 1869, as John A. Roebling was measuring possible locations for the towers of the bridge near the Fulton Ferry, a boat hit his foot and crushed his toes. Within a month, he died of tetanus.  His son and partner, 32 year-old Washington Roebling, overcame his grief and took over his father’s position as the Chief Engineer, determined to finish what they had started. This would not be the last tragedy or death that would befall the Roebling family, or the construction of the bridge.

Under Washington Roebling’s supervision the construction began in earnest on January 2, 1870. The first step was building caissons, which are watertight structures with a series of airlocks to provide dry underwater space for workers to dig the foundation into solid rock.  Roebling and his men worked in conditions described by Master Mechanic E.F. Farrington: ” The temperature in the caissons was about 80 [degrees], and the workmen, with half-naked bodies, seen in dim, uncertain light brought vividly to life Dante’s ‘Inferno’.”  But beyond bringing to life poetic masterpieces, there were far more real problems to contend with – fires and explosions plagued the caissons as did the deadly “caisson disease” now known as “the bends” or more technically, decompression sickness.  During the construction of the bridge, over one hundred men contracted and were killed or severely debilitated by caisson disease, including Washington Roebling.

S. A. (Silas A.) Holmes (1819 or 20-1886). New York Caisson nearly down. 1872. Museum of the City of New York. 57.15.4.

In early 1872,  after working 12 straight hours in the caisson, Roebling rose to the surface from the compressed air too quickly and according to some reports, promptly passed out. This began his lifelong battle with the disease that would cause him pain, partial paralysis, temporary loss of his voice and sight, and all sorts of other terrible symptoms that led him to be an invalid for rest of the construction of the bridge and most of his life, forcing him to become bedridden, threatening his position as Chief Engineer.

However, all was not lost.  Using a telescope from the bedroom window of his house on 106 Columbia Street in Brooklyn, Washington would give notes and directions to his wife Emily to take to the engineers on the bridge. Emily had taught herself the math and science to help her husband throughout the project, and now she was using her knowledge to oversee construction while also speaking to distributors, politicians, and all levels of workers, making so many important decisions that it was not long before some begin to think of her as the de facto Chief Engineer, going so far as to believe she was the true intelligence behind the bridge’s design and completion. Indeed, even the New York Times gave her credit right after the bridge opened (and keep in mind, this was at the height of the Gilded Age, when it was still debated if women could even actually learn).

But another 11 years passed as the bridge inched  slowly toward completion. There was fraud with sub par material, political and public outcry about the bridge being constantly delayed, and constant newspaper columns complaining about it going over budget. (For an 1878 article titled “Are We Wasting Money?”  that suggests that destroying the towers of the bridge would really be, in fact, the best way to proceed, click here.).  Adding to the drama was a last minute move by Mayor Seth Low to dismiss Washington Roebling from his position as Chief Engineer, due to his inability to personally oversee the construction. The motion came to down to narrow vote, 10-7, keeping Roebling as Chief Engineer.  The construction continued, under supervision of Roebling and his wife.

Unknown. Brooklyn Bridge under Construction. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.8424.

C.W. Pach. 1878. Showing Foot Bridge [of East River Bridge] and Anchor Bars (in part). Museum of the City of the New York. 57.15.16.

Unknown. Brooklyn Bridge under construction. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.8384

S. A. (Silas A.) Holmes (1819 or 20-1886). New York and Brooklyn Bridge. ca. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.14280.

J. A. LeRoy. Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.8439.

Unknown. 1881. Men walking on cables during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.8463.

Unknown. Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.8412

16 years after the first plans were drawn, 15 million dollars ($340,000,000 in today’s money) spent, and 27 lives lost, the Brooklyn Bridge finally and officially opened on May 24th, 1883. On the first day alone, over 50,000 people crossed the bridge on foot. Emily Roebling was the first person to cross the bridge in a carriage, carrying a rooster, symbolizing victory,  in her lap. Washington Roebling reportedly never set foot on the bridge he created.

View more images of the Brooklyn Bridge from the Museum’s collections by clicking here. These images are all available in various sizes as museum quality archival prints. If you see something you want to hang on your wall, email us at reproductions@mcny.org.

Bird’s-Eye View of the Great New York and Brooklyn Bridge and Grand Display of Fireworks on the Opening Night. 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.1752.

Novelty, Simplicity, Buoyancy, and Pliancy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lincoln’s last play; or, the continuing fascination with “Our American Cousin”

A distant cousin stands to inherit a large British estate on the brink of financial ruin. Sound familiar?  The main storyline from the phenomenally popular British series “Downton Abbey” shares its roots with the 19th century play, Our American Cousin, in which an American travels to England to survey his British cousins and his inheritance.  This past Sunday marked the 100-year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the event that jump starts intrigues at Downton; and Saturday was the 147th anniversary of the most famous performance of Our American Cousin:  the night of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, April 14, 1865.

"Our American Cousin", August 11, 1860. Broadway Production Files, Museum of the City of New York. F2012.41.18

Written by English playwright Tom Taylor, Our American Cousin premiered in New York in the fall of 1858.  It starred Joseph Jefferson as the rough and rustic American Asa Trenchard who arrives at the British Trenchard estate as the last named heir.  Servants gossip, villains emerge from the shadows, and true love conquers in the end. A comedy with a melodramatic structure, much of the show’s humor was originally intended to spring from Asa’s crude and uncouth manners as an American in England. However, the ad-libs of Jefferson’s friend, E. A. Sothern as the foppish and silly Lord Dundreary, soon eclipsed the American cousin.

With expansive sideburns and dandified attire, Sothern transformed Lord Dundreary’s role from a bit part into a top billing character.  Sothern became almost synonymous with the role and was able to perform it in several sequels and spin-offs.  “Dundrearies” entered the popular lexicon as a term to describe the facial hair Sothern chose for the character.  Not a hundred years after throwing off British rule, it is perhaps no surprise that the idiotic sayings of a ridiculous Englishman were thought humorous by American audiences.

Sheet music cover for "The Laura Keene Schottish", 1856. Theater Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 40.160.1064

Neither Jefferson nor Sothern performed for Lincoln the night of April 14th, but Laura Keene, who played the show’s original heroine, Florence Trenchard,  was on the stage.

In fact, it was Keene’s company that premiered the show in New York at the theater she managed on Broadway.  A single mother with two young daughters, Keene came to the United States from England in 1852 with an invitation to perform with James William Wallack’s New York based stock company. By 1857 she had formed her own company, leased theaters in Baltimore, San Francisco and New York,  and built  her own theater at 622 Broadway.   One of her theater’s biggest hits was Our American Cousin.  Below is an a page from the Laura Keene’s Theatre’s ledger for a performance of the play two years after its debut.

Account book for Laura Keene's Theatre, p. 186, August 11, 1860. Theater Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 39.500.153

Notes in the upper left corner provide information on the weather the night of the performance.  It was threatening rain on the evening of August 11, 1860, but that didn’t stop the audiences.

Our American Cousin wasn’t just the last play President Lincoln saw.  It  was one of the great commercial successes of its day.  It made a star our of E. A. Sothern and cemented the reputation of Laura Keene, America’s first successful theatrical businesswoman.   And 150 years later, the plot line still is still capable of capturing the imagination of a wide audience.  The images and information I was able to fit into this short blog post really are, if you’ll permit the allusion, just the tip of the iceberg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 Skidoo

Today crowds gather around the Flatiron Building to admire its architecture and place in New York history, but back in the early part of the 20th century, men gathered there for a vastly different reason.  As many New Yorkers know, the Flatiron sits at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, directly across from Madison Park; the layout of the streets and the park, combined with the building’s placement, can create gusts of wind strong enough to lift women’s skirts.

I am seeing great things, ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.106.

Back in an era when showing any part of one’s legs was risqué, men would gather on 23rd Street hoping to catch a glimpse of a woman’s ankle or maybe even a little more.  A contemporary viewer may not conclude that the man in the postcard to the left is admiring the woman’s ankle; I initially thought he was looking at her posterior, but a fellow cataloger clued me in.

While it isn’t used heavily today, some say the phrase “23 skidoo” came from this phenomenon.  Popular in the early part of the 20th century, getting the “23 skidoo” refers to either leaving an area quickly or being forced to leave.  Apparently, the effect of the wind at this intersection was well known and crowds of men would gather in hopes of seeing some skin.  As Andrew S. Dolkart in his online article Birth of the Skyscraper: Romantic Symbols describes, so many men loitered in this area that police would eventually come to 23rd Street to usher the crowd away:

In the early twentieth century, men would hang out on the corner here on Twenty-third Street and watch the wind blowing women’s dresses up so that they could catch a little bit of ankle. This entered into popular culture and there are hundreds of postcards and illustrations of women with their dresses blowing up in front of the Flatiron Building.

Souvenir Post Card Company. Greetings from 23rd St. New York, The Haunt of Pretty Girls, ca. 1907. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.109.

Some of the hundreds of postcards and illustrations Dolkart refers to are held within the Museum’s collection.  The coy women in the postcard to the right also allude to the Flatiron’s effect and the crowds that gathered there.   Though the postcard suggests they welcome the attention,  I wonder how many women walking on 23rd Street truly wanted to send their well wishes.

-Anne DiFabio

Locker Room Grooming, 1904

In 1904, there was much rejoicing uptown over the opening of a women-only gym situated between Barnard College and Teachers College.  The New York Times noted that the men at Columbia’s gymnasium, who had been allowing the co-eds use of their facilities, would no longer have to put up with “hairpins, combs…and the dyestuffs” from women’s bathing suits clogging up their pool.

This state-of-the-art building featured bowling alleys, rowing machines, shower
baths, and “corrective exercise rooms” as illustrated in this completely candid image of students performing calisthenic and gymnastic feats:

Byron Company. Education, Gymnasium at Teachers' College, 1904. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.17347

But one of the more advanced features was discovered by our team of catalogers, when they came across the following image and tried to hypothesize about what activity the woman might be engaging in.  Was she communicating with a forbidden lover in the basement via air duct?

Byron Company. Teachers College, 1904. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.3332

A perusal of Gotham Comes of Age found a mention of a “much popular hair-drying room” installed at the gym, and the 1904 article in the New York Times proclaimed that “the feature in the new gymnasium upon which the girls are most profuse in their encomiums is the novel hair-drying room, located in the basement.”

According to the Times the steam and hot air pipes would raise the temperature in the room to 150 degrees, presumably producing an effect akin to trying to dry one’s hair in a sauna and a steam room at the same time.  The only other reference I could find to this sort of contraption was a 1915 installation at the women’s gymnasium at the University of Iowa, which used hot air circulated from the boiler room by electric fan.

We’d love to hear from any hairdo historians out there who have insight into these contraptions.