Friday, June 28, 2013

New York City and the birth of the television industry, experimental broadcasts from the city's greatest landmarks

An illustration from Science & Invention, one of Hugo Gernsback's many technology journals, demonstrating the possibilities of his 'telephot' system. (Courtesy The Verge)

PODCAST It's the beginning of The Bowery Boys Summer TV Mini-Series, three podcasts devoted to New York City's illustrious history with broadcast television -- from Sarnoff to Seinfeld!

 In our first show, we go back to the start of the invention of the television and the city's role in both the creation of the complicated technology and the early formation of programming.

We begin with the Electro Importing Co. and the imagination of one of the greatest names in science fiction.  Then head into scientific realities -- the failures of mechanical televisions and the brutal patent wars between RCA's David Sarnoff and one of the great inventors of television, Philo Farnsworth.

 In victory, Sarnoff claimed the mantel of 'father of television' at the 1939 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens.  It's but one of many great New York City's beloved landmarks with ties to television's early history, from the heights of the Empire State Building to even a floor at Wanamaker's Department Store.

Video telephones in the West Village. Spectacularly strange television displays at Madison Square Garden. News broadcasts in Grand Central Terminal.  And we even go drinking with a few stars at McSorley's Old Ale House!

ALSO: Why is Greg singing Cole Porter?

To get this week's episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to straight from here:
The Bowery Boys: New York City and the Birth of Television 1909-48

A couple clarifications: Hugo Gernsback's experimental station WRNY at the Hotel Roosevelt operated radio frequencies in 1925 and tried out television broadcasts in August 1928.  I use both dates inter-changeably at one point.

RCA had 13 sets from 4 different models of televisions at their World's Fair pavilion.  I think Tom said 12 sets. Maybe one of them was that plastic see-thru version (see below)?

David Sarnoff speaking at the 1939 World's Fair, presenting the 'debut' of television. Although, of course, television had been around in some form or another in New York for over ten years by that time.

A diagram from 1928 outlining the mechanical television process, as described in the Hugh Gernsback-owned journal Radio News:

The first televised Major League baseball was broadcast by W2XBS on August 26, 1939, a game at Ebbets Field between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds.  It would also be the first television broadcast of the Dodgers losing a game! (source)

From the Dumont studios in the Wanamaker's Department Store, 1946 (courtesy Eyes of a Generation):

There are almost no recordings of early American television.  The audio snippet from this week's show comes from this 1949 RCA promotional video:


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Stay tuned for the Bowery Boys Summer TV Mini-Series! The history of making television in New York City

Above: In 1953, Fran Allison prepares for an NBC production of 'St. George and the Dragon', one of the first programs ever broadcast in color.  The NBC studio was at the Colonial Theatre at Broadway and 63rd Street. (Courtesy NBCU Photobank)

This summer we're giving you three new podcasts specifically devoted to New York City and the history of television.  That's over 100 years of history, from its early development by New York inventors and broadcast mogul to famous stars and iconic programs.  David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Big Bird, Bill Cosby and Sarah Jessica Parker will figure in there somewhere!

Our official 'Summer TV mini-series' starts this Friday with a brand new episode about the early days of the television medium in New York City -- the people and places that brought the small screen into people's homes across America.

Two more shows will follow in July and August.  Join us, will you?  We're movin' on up!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Shower time: Drive-thru horse washes in Herald Square

I'm grateful to see horses getting a little love in the waning years of regular horse-drawn vehicles in New York. But never realized they had their own drive-thru horse wash!

This 1912 horse recuperation station was made possible by William J. Gane, the proprietor of a few Herald Square moving picture houses and a 'pioneer exhibitor', according to one source..  He personally funded these way-stations for heated horses at Broadway and 33rd Street.

"A horse fell down across the street one afternoon in June, and it looked like it was going to die," Gane told the New York Sun. "They sent for a policeman to shoot the poor beast, but some of my men happened to be using a hose ... and I had them pour water over the horses's head and back for half an hour.  The policeman didn't have anything to do, for the horse scrambled to his feet and went on."

The New York Water Department initially fined Gane $10 a day for the waste of water, yet he obstinately refused to stop providing the street-side shower service.  He then installed the makeshift shower-head (pictured above) and the city left him alone.

Although some had sanitation concerns, others in the neighborhood thought the shower station good for business.  The Sun even trumpeted the benefits in the headline "Water Troughs in Front of Saloons Good For Business, Say Proprietors."

"I like myself when I'm through with work," said the man operating the horse showers, "and I suppose the horses might feel the same way about it."

 Photo courtesy the Library of Congress

Monday, June 24, 2013

Henry Ward Beecher, on the 200th anniversary of his birth

If anybody could be called a patron saint of Brooklyn, one of the nominees would be Henry Ward Beecher, born 200 years ago today.  In 1847, he arrived in Brooklyn at the behest of a new congregation and, within a few years, his pulpit there at Plymouth Church would draw thousands.  Perhaps Beecher would also be called Brooklyn's second great tourist attraction, after Green-Wood Cemetery (which opened nine years earlier and where Beecher is buried today).

Beecher is known for his famous sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, his relatively progressive views on abolition, and his famous friendships with people like Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Henry David Thoreau.  But his reputation was besmirched in 1870 in a shocking adultery scandal involving the wife of newspaper editor Theodore Tilton and even free love advocate and scandal magnet Victoria Woodhull!

Celebrate Beecher's two-hundredth birthday with a visit to is monument facing into the plaza at Brooklyn Borough Hall and short walk to Plymouth Church at 75 Hicks Street.  And listen to my podcast recorded back in 2008!  You can find it in the Bowery Boys Archives on iTunes (here), download it at this link or play it here below, via SoundCloud!

At top: the Beecher statue created by John Quincy Adams Ward, as it looked in the 1890s with horsecars and elevated railroads in the background.  At left: Beecher's carte de visite

Friday, June 21, 2013

'Mad Men' ends this Sunday, and 'Copper' begins, but war and assassinations unite both

WARNING The article contains a couple light spoilers about the current season 'Mad Men' on AMC and a few on last season's 'Copper' on BBC America.  

While 1968 comes to a close on Sunday night with the season finale of 'Mad Men', another version of New York history returns on another channel.

'Copper', starting season two on BBC America, will open in the early months of 1865, in the wake of a failed attack by Confederates that past November.  Just as in this season's 'Mad Men', set in a year of two assassinations, you can only begin watching a show set in early 1865 with the anticipated dread of one future tragedy.

If it makes you feel better, keep it all in the world of pop culture and imagine the events of Steven Spielberg's 'Lincoln' occurring simultaneously to those on 'Copper'.   Abraham Lincoln, fresh into his second term, was only just employing often cynical efforts to get the Fourteenth Amendment passed as the war between the states wound to its eventual completion.

Lincoln was still a divisive figure.  In 1864, New York City, a Democratic stranglehold, had voted to replace him with George B. McClellan.  Indeed, the city has such affection for McClellan Sr. that, fifty years later, they installed his son George B. McClellan Jr. as mayor.  For many in New York, Lincoln represented a strike against common prosperity, flagrantly destroying America's future -- both literally, on the battlefields, and figuratively, with the freeing of slaves, weakening Southern commerce (and New York's Southern interests).

Below: A stereoscope photograph of Five Points in 1865 (NYPL)

'Copper' follows the adventures of streetwise police officer Kevin Corcoran through the streets of Five Points, interacting with both the disreputable characters of that neighborhood (including one sassy brothel owner) and few genteel sorts from Fifth Avenue.  Between thwarting criminals and Confederate plots, Corky also found his amnesiac wife in an asylum.  He also seems to have developed a morphine problem.

What's might we see in Season Two in regards to New York? 1865 was the year the city got serious about cleaning itself up physically -- construction of city sewers was commissioned in this year -- even as its government infrastructure was getting ever more corrupt (as in, Tweed was now the 'Boss').

The new episode is set on the date February 5, 1865.  The new New York Stock Exchange opened a few days before that date, reinforcing New York's real center of power. The consequences of a long war were still ever-present; that February 4th, on Governor's Island, a Union deserter was even executed.. And there's still loose ends from that ugly Confederate 'Greek fire' business, namely the captive Robert Cobb Kennedy, held in old Fort Lafayette.

But the most tumultuous event of the year came with Lincoln's assassination, throwing the entire country -- and especially the city -- into chaos.

Two political assassinations played central roles in this season of 'Mad Men', and some professional ones too.

Season Six was a full-on assault on the early '60s complacency of the show's initial premise.  In prior seasons, New York City was almost solely depicted via bars and restaurants.  In this season, we got grimy squatters apartments, rat infested walk-ups and allusions to race riots in far-off neighborhoods.

The sky-high haven of  Don and Megan Draper was invaded by imposters, glamorous lesbians and even the encroaching sounds of a dangerous city.  This was a season of menace, the usual bedroom/boardroom operatic antics, scored with the violent tones of the Vietnam War and a cynical presidential campaign forever in the background.

Maybe that's why some of Don's storyline this year felt so labored. Why should we care so much about his perpetual indiscretions when the world around him has shifted? How can we keep focused on him?  Characters like Joan Holloway (above, fetching in orange) used the changing times to her seeming advantage.  Pete Campbell, once again, tripped over himself.  Peggy was forever caught between the old and the new, from her lifestyle and career to even her romantic interests.

And then we got an enigmatic new character, one who I fully expect to see hanging out at Stonewall in the summer of 1969, his Greek coffee cups replaced with watered-down cocktails.   I mean, will the creators of 'Mad Men' be able to resist it?

As always, you can follow along with me on Twitter at @Boweryboys during the live airing of New York City history-based shows like AMC's 'Mad Men' and BBC America's 'Copper' (along with 'Boardwalk Empire', later this year).  As the season finale of 'Mad Men' and the season premiere of 'Copper' are on at the same time this Sunday (10pm EST), I'll be Tweeting along with 'Mad Men' first, then immediately following with 'Copper'.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Odds and Ends: New Penn Station, 'AIDS in New York'

The interior of Penn Station, 1935, by Berenice Abbott (NYPL)

Enthusiasm is rising for the New Penn Station project, which would move Madison Square Garden from its present location and bring out the train station from the basement, a payback of sorts by the Municipal Art Society after the original Penn Station was torn down 50 years ago.

A major construction project for New York, and some of the proposals look gorgeous.  But if they tear down MSG, to modern eyes a true unpleasant structure, could there be a movement in 50 years to rebuilt that too?  [Municipal Art Society]

AIDS In New York: The First Five Years, the sobering new show at the New York Historical Society, looks at the most bewildering and frightening days of the AIDS epidemic. It's a great overview, both measured and heartfelt, of a terrifying period in New York City history.  Three galleries take you from patients and doctors to politicians and a confused and enraged populace. Brief but very effective, especially the photography.  Some might flinch at the exhibit's abrupt ending; the show leaves you dazed in the year 1985, just as scientists zero in on the cause, but nowhere near a solution.   [New York Historical Society]

Other stories on the blogs:

The best thing on the Internet this week: pictures from Staten Island in the 1980s by Christine Osinski. [Slate]

The Landmarks Preservation Commission is recognizing Gay Pride Month except, of course, for the fact that they've never landmarked a single LGBT site. [Off the Grid]

Earthquake insurance? There are at least three fault lines within New York's city limits, including one under 125th Street: [Ephemeral New York]

RIP to the wonderful James Gandolfini.  I'm not sure what the status of this project is currently, but in 2011, Gandolfini was announced as an executive producer to Oliver Stone's adaptation of Robert Caro's The Power Broker, the barn-burning biographer about Robert Moses. Was he considering the role for himself? One can only imagine how great that would have been. [New York Observer]

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Bowery Boys podcast started six years ago today! Here's every single topic, in reverse order, from #152 to #2

Six years ago today, Tom and I sat down to record our first episode of what would become The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast. 

 We've recorded 152 episodes over that time, covering a broad spectrum of the city's history. Here's the intros from every single one of those shows (with a couple exceptions). How many of these have you listened to?

Heard any that you missed? You can find every episode on iTunes (in our regular and archive feeds), on podcast players like Stitcher, Podfeed and Player.FM, or you can get them straight from our RSS feeds (here and here, open using an RSS-friendly browser).


Note. There are two episodes that didn't have proper introductions (#88 Ellis Island and #4 Famous Dogs of New York), and there's one episode I actually get the number wrong! But I'll let you figure out which one that is.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Presenting Mrs. Randolph Fitzhugh, Kaleidoscope woman, society church thief: "I am being hounded to prison by men"

The former St. Bartholomew's on Madison Avenue and 44th Street, burgled by one Mrs. Randolph Fitzhugh. [LOC]

NOTE: I revised this article this afternoon which some additional information just discovered, making this story ever stranger! New information includes Mrs. Fitzhugh's real name, details about her baby, her length of stay in the Tombs, and information on another arrest at St. Patrick's.

The papers called her 'woman of mystery' and a 'woman enigma'. Later on, she would garner a new nickname -- the Kaleidoscope woman.

Rarely had a female criminal so confused New York law enforcement as the unusual Southern woman arrested in early 1913 for stealing from society ladies prominent New York churches.

She called herself Mrs. Randolph Fitzhugh, a Southern woman with a demeanor as such that she could spirit into any number of prominent churches and snatch up a host of items, including a diamond bracelet at the Church of the Transfiguration and a $500 gold mesh bag at St. Bartholomew's (at its previous building on Madison and East 44th Street, see above).

The revelation of this crimes was most strange.  The owner of the bag received a letter from the Hotel Flanders (6th Ave/W.46th Street) claiming a woman carrying that bag was staying there. Fitzhugh was staying at the hotel with an infant; later witnesses claimed the hotel was holding the baby for an "unpaid rent bill."

To those in the hotel, Mrs. Fitzhugh claimed she was only "renting the child" due to some troubles in Washington DC. The baby was taken to an acquaintance in Brooklyn, and Mrs. Fitzhugh arrested.

The story with Mrs. Fitzhugh (her real name was Catherine Fennell or Northrup) wasn't her crime but her reaction to prosecutions.  She plead guilty to avoid a sentence at Auburn Correctional Facility.  But she didn't stop with that.

A reporter from the New York Evening World interviewed the convicted from her cell at the Tombs where she had been a prisoner for almost seven months.

She told a remarkable tale of a runaway betrothed to the previously-named Randolph Fitzhugh.  It was apparently a controversial marriage, for when he died, her family rejected her. She was then arrested for stealing from a department store.  "All I had done is charge some goods to an intimate friend of mine who had an account at the store . I had often done it before and she gave me carte blanche."

She then claimed to have married and had a child, although she "never bothered to take good care of our marriage certificate" and was later sued by the man.  Most likely the child was hers, but the 'renting' business is still a mystery.  She used the child in later testimony to claim that she took the solace of random churches because she believed somebody was trying to kidnap her baby.

She then exploded with emotion at the Evening World reporter.  "I tell you I am being hounded to prison by men--men--men.  It is 'The Butterfly on the Wheel' all over again! I cannot get justice from men."  The phrase 'butterfly on the wheel' is from Alexander Pope's 'Epistle to Dr. Arbutnot', meaning a concerted effort in appearance to break to the will of something insignificant.

Whatever is going on with Mrs. Fitzhugh -- bad luck, desperation, mental illness -- it's easy to sympathize with her from our vantage a century later.  She feared the prison system, knowing it would change her forever, knowing she might never break from it.  She was instead put to a lighter sentence at Bedford Hills in Westchester County.  But she issued a grave warning.

"I am not a common woman.  I understand that almost every inmate of that Bedford place is such a woman. To be thrown with them may embitter me to such an extent that I shall ever after revenge myself on society and turn a really clever, unscrupulous thief.  I may and very likely shall become a professional thief."

Indeed, she lived up to her word.  After she was released, she returned to a life of crime.  She was arrested once again in February 1915 in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral.

And later that year, from her perch at the Holland House at 5th Avenue and 30th Street, Mrs. Fitzhugh again plundered neighborhood churches, stealing from the Catholic parish St. Leo's Church on 28th Street.

To avoid suspicion -- although this seems to have failed -- Mrs. Fitzhugh changed costumes "six to eight times a day" and was known to hotel staff as the Kaleidoscope woman due to her ever-different garments.

Somehow, Mrs. Fitzhugh had befriended a film actress and was living in her flat at the Holland House.  Most likely, it was the clothing of this unnamed actress that Mrs. Fitzhugh was wearing.  "Her bills, according to the management of the hotel, had been always promptly paid." [source]

From there I'm able to find anymore information about Mrs. Fitzhugh, the Kaleidoscope lady. She disappears from the criminal record under that name. But I'll continue to look, because she strangely fascinates me.

Friday, June 14, 2013

#FF: Here's a few of our favorite history blogs

Above: The new Superman movie might be great, who knows? But it doesn't have Linda Lavin in it, like the 1966 Broadway musical 'It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's Superman' which played at the Alvin Theatre (today's Neil Simon Theatre).  Encores! recently did a revival of this forgotten musical gem earlier this year. 

We have an entire blogroll down at the right of the page of good history and New York-related blogs we recommend. But here's five that I've been regularly enjoying:

Daytonian In Manhattan
What's it about:  Going through the history of New York City, one building at a time
One recent post: On the West Village apartment building The Hampton --Nos. 80-82 Perry Street
Sample quote:  Guiseppi Verrazzano, known as “The Big Man,” to his patrons, tried to take cover, “but toppled over with a bullet in his heart,” said The Evening World the following day.

New York Historical Society: From the Stacks
What's it about: Peeling back history, from the perspective of artifacts from the Historical Society collection
One recent post: The Shantytown: Nineteenth-Century Manhattan's 'Straggling Suburbs'
Sample quote:  Even the animal inhabitants had changed: while goats and chickens still ruled the roost, the inhabitants no longer kept pigs. In 1859 New York City made it illegal to keep pigs below 86th Street and apparently the Dutch Hill residents abided by the law.

Scouting New York
What's it about: Nick Carr's experiences as a movie location scout, leading him to secret places other New Yorkers don't get to go
One recent post: The Ruins of old Union Square
Sample quote:  But for anyone else like myself who’s been to Union Square a million times and never stopped to look, learning about the red frames is an eye-opening experience

Brooklyn Historical Society Blog
What's it about: Like the NYHS blog, it highlights the treasures from their collection, filled with oddities and fun photographs
One recent post: A Reflection on Brooklyn Businesses
Sample quote: One longtime anchor of the district is the Macy’s department store at 422 Fulton Street. Longtime residents of the borough will recall that the cast-iron building is the former home of Abraham and Straus department store, known as A&S

Frank Jump's Fading Ads
What's it about: The remnants of old advertisements, still seen around New York City and in other cities. What's incredible is that he and his friends are still finding them all over the place!
One recent post: Jamaica Fountain Fixture Co - Soda Fountains - Store Fixtures - Jamaica, Queens

Picture courtesy NYPL archives

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Why are there so many Henry Streets in New York City?

Manhattan's Henry Street looking south, 1935, photo by Berenice Abbott (NYPL)

Since Manhattan and Brooklyn developed as two separate cities before they were intertwined within consolidated New York City in 1898, it's not surprising to see similar street names in both boroughs, deriving from different origins.  But the Henrys being honored in these street names are quite different:

Henry Street (Manhattan) is named for Henry Rutgers, the Revolutionary War hero and the financial savior of Queen's College in New Jersey, who thanked him by renaming themselves Rutgers College (later University).  You'll find a Rutgers Street in the Lower East Side too; in fact, it intersects with Henry Street. I wonder if he had a middle name?

This of course the Henry Street of  Henry Street Settlement, the pivotal health and social services provider which opened on this street in 1895.

Henry Street (Brooklyn), however, is named for Dr. Thomas W. Henry, a prominent physician in the 1820s who treated the early aristocracy of Brooklyn Heights.  Although Henry was president of the Medical Society of the County of Kings from 1831-32, it doesn't seem like he was a name for the annals of medical history.  The reason he got his own street has to do with one of the families he treated -- the Middaghs.

Lady Middagh, as legend has it, wanted more colorful names for her neighborhood and led a movement to rename certain streets for pieces of fruit -- which is why Brooklyn Heights has a Cranberry Street, an Orange Street and a Pineapple Street.

Despite her aversion to pompous street names, one street is actually named for her own family (Middagh Street) and, of course, one for her beloved doctor.

North Henry Street (Brooklyn) was just regular Henry Street in the independent town of Greenpoint.  But that changed in 1855, when Greenpoint -- and its neighbors Williamsburg(h) and Bushwick -- were annexed into the city of Brooklyn.  Dozens of old street names were changed when the annexation took place. Here's a lengthy list of other altered names.  Since the southern Henry Street was the 'original' Henry Street of Brooklyn, this one got a North stuck to it.

It's not clear to me which Henry this is named after, but it's possible that it took its name from Revolutionary War hero Patrick Henry.  If so, it would have shared this trait with one of Brooklyn's greatest politicians, Patrick Henry McCarren, who represented the Williamsburg(h) and Greenpoint areas during the years of the Gilded Age.

Interestingly, none of these Brooklyn Henry Streets are named after Henry Ward Beecher, although his pulpit at Plymouth Church sits near the 'original' Henry Street.

Henry Place (Staten Island) is in the neighborhood of South Beach.  I'm not sure of the origin of the name, but one possibility could be a farmer named Henry Bedell, whose mill gives its name to Mill Creek, or even Henry Hudson, who landed here in 1609 before heading over to Mannahatta.

But according to this census report from 1930, Staten Island had a great many more streets named for Henry!  As this borough was a collection of small villages -- and still feels that way in some areas there today -- there were various Henrys that had to be eliminated for the ease of mail delivery and mapping.

If you have any information on the more unknown Henry Streets, any speculation, or if I missed any Henry Streets, please leave a comment below or email me at

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Astor House came tumbling down one century ago

The Astor House was New York City's first great hotel, opened in 1836 by John Jacob Astor himself, a premier accommodation for the city throughout the 19th century.  But by 1913, it was time to tear it down.

It was a symbolic moment for many older New Yorkers.  As you can tell from the image above, the ancient hotel had a new neighbor:  the Woolworth Building, a symbol of the 'new' New York City.  As dozens of more modern hotels opened uptown, the old Astor was greatly reduced, with whole sections partitioned for other uses.

For a little comparison, here's how the building looked in the 1890s, already minimized in its appearance:

Hotels were now flocking to the Times Square area. In fact, so to did the Astor name, with the beautiful Hotel Astor opening there in 1904.

The hotel might have survived a little longer if not for new subway construction in the area, endangering the foundation of the old building.  On May 29, 1913, the hotel closed its doors, and over the next few weeks, the southern section of the Astor House was torn down.  But not without a bevy of reminiscences from old New Yorkers, and a little teeth-gnashing too of a colder, modern city overtaking the gentle comforts of the old.

And then, there's this dramatic article from the New York Tribune, depicting a literal farewell between the Astor and its neighbor to the south, St. Paul's Church:

While this spelled doom for a certain memory of New York, those who liked firesales of sorts could take comfort in liquidation sales from famous shops which operated from the old Astor Hotel, such as the Hilton Company:

This is what the space looked like within a couple months.  By the way, that's the old Post Office to the right of the picture, a structure that would last another quarter century before it too was demolished in 1939:

In 1915, it was replaced with the Astor House Building, a small suite of office spaces that remains on that street corner to this day.  It's where the Staples store is

All pictures courtesy New York Public Library. By the way, have you check out their incredible new search function?

Friday, June 7, 2013

NYC's wartime doughnut history, from Irving's olykoeks to the Union Square battleship and a $25,000 doughnut

A doughnut eating contest from 1922. I'm not sure this is from New York City, but how could I overlook this hilarious picture? (LOC)

Today is National Doughnut Day which is not a real holiday or something that people should not celebrate very emphatically. However you will be surprised to learn that this day traces its roots to the Salvation Army and World War I.

To provide for the American troops fighting in France in 1917-18, Salvation Army workers set up small tents or 'huts', providing the comforts of home, with nourishing meals, a quiet place to write letters or to get clothing mended.  There were actually several dozen of these Salvation Army huts already set up in the United States near military bases so the tradition was simply transferred over to Europe when the war began, with workers often setting up huts in abandoned or even bombed-out buildings.

At right: Keep those lassies on the job, making the doughnuts! A recruitment poster from 1918 (LOC)

What brings greater pleasure than a baked good? But the Salvation Army couldn't transport large baking ovens, so they improvised with the doughnut, deep-frying dough on small portable stoves.

The round pastry was not invented by the Salvation Army.  Indeed, Washington Irving himself is credited with the first mention of the doughnut in print back in 1809. Regaling on old Dutch custom, he writes "[I]t was always sure to boast of an enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog's fat, and called dough-nuts, or oly koeks: a delicious kind of cake, at present known scarce to this city, except in genuine Dutch families."

Above: A scene from the Knickerbocker Kitchen in 1864 (NYPL)

Due to their ease of preparation, doughnuts became associated with wartime cuisine.  But even the original Dutch 'oly koeks' made a wartime return as well, brought back as a fund-raiser during the Civil War, sold during the 1964 Metropolitan Fair in the Knickerbocker Kitchen, a sort-of theme restaurant where Dutch delights were sold.  Interestingly, the Knickerbocker pavilion was located just off of Union Square. Many decades later, the doughnut would return to Union Square for yet another war-related pageant.

 In 1917, during World War I, the U.S. Navy set up a curious recruitment tool in Union Square -- a life size wooden battleship called, appropriately, the USS Recruit.

Once the war was over, the Salvation Army thought it would be a kind gesture to those New Yorkers were fought in the war to recreate their welcoming war huts. And it made natural sense to set one up here in Union Square, next to the wooden battleship and conveniently located near their headquarters on West 14th Street (still there today).

The Salvation Army's Union Square hut opened for business January 12, 1919, with a grand ceremony around the USS Recruit and military officers from the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Inside Salvation Army workers were busily preparing the doughnuts, using the same tools as on the battlefield.  It was led by Adjutant Violet McAllister, one of the original "doughnut sweethearts" of the war, with "flour on her nose and a great white apron over her khaki uniform.

That day over 1,000 doughnuts were prepared, many for soldiers returning from the war.  In emulation of the war front huts, the Union Square edition was "open every day for reading, writing and gossip, with doughnut and coffee for 10 cents for all men in uniform." [source]

Above: Silent film star and New Yorker Martha Mansfield sells doughnuts for $1 apiece on the streets of New York during a fundraiser for the Salvation Army. (LOC)

To those at home, observing the battles of World War I from afar, the doughnut became a symbol of the war effort (although the word doughboy is not related.)  A month before the Treaty of Versailles was signed, Salvation Army volunteers sold doughnuts on street corners throughout the city and even auctioned off doughnuts on the steps of the Sub-Treasury Building (today's Federal Hall), with one doughnut being sold for $25,000!

By 1920, the battleship -- and I assume the doughnut hut as well -- were dismantled.  In 1938, two decades after World War I, the Salvation Army started National Doughnut Day as a fundraiser and in honor of its phalanx of busy doughnut makers.

New Yorkers of course no longer needed to associate this food with wartime activities as the pastry soon sprang up at every lunch corner and automat in town.

Below: Mayfair Doughnut under the elevated at 32-36 Greenwich Street (courtesy NYPL)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Detonations and flying cheese: Annotated news from 1913

I present this little news item from the June 6, 1913 New York Tribune in its entirety:

1)  The idea of bombs exploding all over the city is shocking to us today.  But in fact the threat of makeshift bombs were sometimes employed in extortion plots such as those by the Black Hand.  Most of these bombs were homemade and many never detonated. When they did, they were usually used to kill particular individuals.  The police department even had a Bureau of Combustibles; in 1913 they reported 125 such explosive devices.

2)  This bomb was placed at 268 Washington Street.  That stretch of Washington no longer exists today, but it would have been located in today TriBeCa neighborhood.  The building which sat at this address predictably held grocers of various sorts.

3)  Notably this address is indeed in "the heart of the fruit district," Washington Market, where the city went to get one's produce right off the trains from St. John's Freight Depot.

4)  Garlick & Co. was a produce "commission merchant," i.e. a grocery middle-man who buys or sells items for a percentage of the price, obviously a familiar concept today.  

5) The spectacularly-named victim, Bongiorno Zammaturo, was unharmed. I have a feeling the Tribune has gotten his last name wrong. Zammataro is a more frequent variation of this name.

6) This particular Greenwich Street Police Station, where officer Aichman reports, was closed by the police department five years after this incident for "lack of business."  Another police station of Greenwich Street was active by the 1930s as the man who kidnapped and killed the baby of Charles Lindbergh was taken there.

7) The damage "amounted to scarcely $100" = $2,348.00 according to the Inflation Calculator.\

8) An intact flying "twelve-pound Edam cheese" is the comic star of the show of this article.  For those not versed in delicious cheeses, Webster's describes Edam as "a mild Dutch cheese of yellow color and fine flavor, made in balls weighing three or four pounds, and usually colored crimson outside."  It's that outside shell that turned this little cheese into a virtual cannonball, explaining why it "landed intact".

By the way, did you know that New York state was America's leading cheese maker in the mid-19th century, although by the time of this article, major cheese manufacturing was centered in the northern Midwest.

Below: An advertisement from April 1913, for cheese "with all the cream"

IN OTHER NEWS THAT DAY: The big local news of that day was the announcement that New York district attorney Charles S. Whitman was running for mayor to replace William Jay Gaynor who was not running again (and in fact would die in office that September).  Whitman became a national hero during the gangland murder trial that eventually convicted Charles Becker.  

As it turns out, Whitman wouldn't run for mayor; instead, he ran for governor in 1914 -- and won.


Edit: I originally ran this ad in context of the article above, thinking it was Manhattan's Washington Street, although it clearly says Brooklyn.  My apologies.  However since this ad was so interesting I thought I would keep it here anyway.  I find the pricing structure particularly interesting:

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

'My American Revolution': Imagining 1776 surrounding us

BOWERY BOYS BOOK OF THE MONTH Each month I'll pick a book -- either brand new or old, fiction or non-fiction -- that offers an intriguing take on New York City history, something that uses history in a way that's uniquely unconventional or exposes a previously unseen corner of our city's complicated past.  Then over the next month, I'll run an article or two about some of historical themes that are brought up in the selection. 

My American Revolution
by Robert Sullivan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Is it possible to see evidence of the Revolutionary War upon the present landscape of New York City?  Well, not really, but then that's what makes "My American Revolution" by Robert Sullivan such rollicking, curmudgeonly fun.

As he proved in his 2008 book 'Rats', Sullivan has no trouble extracting stories from difficult situations. In 'My American Revolution', the challenge isn't as unsanitary as rooting around for vermin, but it proves equally elusive -- re-tracing the steps of America's forefathers as their paths wound through New York and New Jersey during the Revolutionary War.

This region's role in the war of 1776 is sometimes overshadowed by the grander battles of Bunker Hill, Yorktown or Lexington and Concord, and possibly with some justification -- the earliest battles here were failures for the Continental Army.  But New Jersey provides some of the most profound imagery of the war, while New York, already a broken war-torn landscape by the end of 1776, will provide refrain of war's end with George Washington's arrival in New York and his subsequent inauguration here as the first President of the United States.

Sullivan has written a travelogue of lost courses, attempting to follow the footsteps of Washington and others. More importantly, his interest leads him to the many others who have attempted this in the past.

'My American Revolution' is a celebration of Revolutionary War reenacting in all its forms, nobly wrought, pop cultural or otherwise. He begins with the greatest reenactment of all time -- the famous "Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, painted in a faraway gallery in Germany.

Its enduring appeal has influenced other artists, but more importantly has inspired decades of actual reenactment on the Delaware River.  Sullivan digs into the curious, sometimes cheesy tales of past faux George Washingtons, including one (the "flamboyant" St. John Terrell) who was accused of using the annual crossing emulation as a way to promote his line of movie theaters. At right: Terrell in 1956, courtesy David Hanauer.

The war has inspired an entire world of bizarre recreations, from a 1932 reenactment of Washington's swearing-in in Bryant Park (using a model of Federal Hall) to an emulation of the Battle of Brooklyn using kids on bicycles.  Somebody once recreated David Bushnell's early submarine named the Turtle.  Given its shape, the recreated version was called the Acorn.  There are even reenactments of reenactments.

But the boldest reenactments are by Sullivan himself, who gamely attempts to walk in the footsteps of Washington's Continental Army as they fled through New Jersey and later even tries to remount Washington's boat ride into Manhattan.

Below: The miniature Federal Hall built in Bryant Park, 1932

That last attempt at re-creating the past slams right into our modern era of homeland security. Throughout, Sullivan finds ways to connect with theses past events and the impossibility of ever re-doing them exactly due to an ever-changing city.

There is still solid evidence of the opening chords of American independence -- from a flagpole in Brooklyn Heights to the streets of downtown Manhattan -- but 'My American Revolution' mostly proves the most faithful reproduction is in the mind.

This book was recommended by a reader. (Thanks Mark!)  If you have a suggestion for a recent book relating to New York City history that we will consider for this fall, just send me an email at