Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Here's my 25 favorite books about New York City history. Help me choose 25 more!

Over the weekend, I put together this Riffle list of my favorite 25 book on the subject of New York City history, published over the last one hundred years.

I'll admit that this list reflects what's on my shelf at the moment and is not in any way yet complete. (For instance, I'm obviously sparse on books published before World War II.) But I do highly recommend all of these books as a sort of 'beginners library' on the subject of New York City:


(The two grayed out books above are 'The Tiger The Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall' and 'The Most Famous Man In America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher'.)

Now I'd love to get your ideas to make it a Top 50 book selection, made by the readers and listeners of the Bowery Boys.

Here's the criteria to be considered:  the book must be non-fiction and fairly non-academic, i.e. meant for a general reading audience, published since 1913 . The books can be biographies or memoirs of famous New Yorkers.  I left references off this list -- like the Encyclopedia of New York -- but can put it back on if there's enough outcry.

And, sadly, I've left essays and criticism of this list. My E.B White, Jane Jacobs and Ada Louise Huxtable books are feeling left out.  I'm planning on a follow-up list in coming weeks for those books, and for fiction as well (for those Edward Rutherfurd fans out there!).

You can leave a comment on this page or join our Facebook page and leave your suggestions in the comments there. Or email me (boweryboysnyc@earthlink.net) or even reach out on Twitter (@boweryboys)! I'll compile the 25 best choices from readers and repost this list late next week as 'The 50 Best New York History Books Chosen by Bowery Boys Listeners and Readers'.

Thanks in advance for your selections!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Podcast Rewind: The Murder of Mary Rogers Revisited

Our new podcast which was planned for this week had to be delayed for one week. It'll be ready to listen to next Friday. In the meantime....

A special illustrated version of the podcast on the Murder of Mary Rogers (Episode #66) is now available on our NYC History Archive feed.  Chapter headings with images have been embedded in this show, so if your listening device is compatible, just hit play and a variety of pictures should pop up.  The audio is superior than the original as well. And who doesn't want to revisit a rousing summertime mystery?

For this and our older episodes (Episodes #3-#50, subscribe to The Bowery Boys: NYC History Archive feed, on iTunes, directly from our host page, or directly via our RSS feed.

Here's some unusual facts on the Mary Rogers murder I dug up this week while preparing this episode:

1. The oft-used image of Mary Rogers (pictured at top) is from Joseph Holt Ingraham's 'The Beautiful Cigar Girl', an early morality novel based upon the crime.  Ingraham cranked out novels in his lifetime, over a hundred.  In 1860, after penning a series of Biblical novels, Ingraham killed himself in his church in Mississippi.

2. Edgar Allen Poe's take on the Mary Rogers murder became his short tale 'The Mystery of Marie Roget'.  Poe's story was loosely adapted for the screen in 1942 (see movie poster above), starring Maria Montez as a young actress named Marie Roget. Something tells me they've gone way off script; one of the tag lines was 'Beautiful beast! Maddening ... with her soft caress! Murdering .. with steel-clawed terror"

3. Mary Rogers is more than just a famous murder victim. Mary Rogers is also the name of the last woman executed for murder in Vermont.  She was hanged in 1902 for murdering her husband.  She had tricked him into performing a rope trick he could not free himself from. She then chloroformed him and drowned him in the river.

4. The notorious abortionist Madame Restell is often implicated in the murder of Mary Rogers, although no real connection between the two was ever made.  Restell's lavish Fifth Avenue mansion was located on the spot where one of New York's finest restaurants, La Grenouille, sits today.

5. In 1909, the New York Times announced that they had unearthed a new clue, linking Roger's murder to that of an unknown "tall, swarthy man," found dead wearing a "white shirt, silk vest, dark pantaloons, morocco shoes and worsted hose."  This, too, seems like speculation, however the article (an intriguing read) comes with this startling illustration:

6. In 2001, somebody did a comic book about the murder of Mary Rogers. Check it out here.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Wanamaker's Airship: That one time in 1911 they launched a hydrogen balloon from Astor Place

A view of the balloon launch, looking north towards the Metropolitan Life Tower, which can be seen jutting up in the background. The Met Tower was the world's tallest building in 1911.

Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker turned an abandoned train station in Philadelphia into the lavish department bearing his name in 1876, just in time for America's 100th anniversary.  He would become one of Philadelphia's largest employers, with 5,000 people working in the store, "the most valuable piece of property of its size in the city." [source]

Meanwhile, in New York City, when shoppers weren't flocking to Ladies Mile, they headed to A.T Stewart's equally grand 'Iron Palace' department store in Astor Place, with over thirty departments specializing in every sort of modern necessity, making it one of the largest stores of any kind in America.

Stewart's store was located on Fourth Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets and was called the 'Iron Palace' as it was New York's largest cast-iron building at the time.  (But not the first; that title goes to its neighbor, the American Bible Society building, at 51 Astor Place.)

Below: The original Wanamaker's between 9th and 10th Streets. The building no longer exists.

It would take two decades for Wanamaker to make his way to New York, eventually buying up an old Iron Palace in 1896 and reopening it as New York's first Wanamakers.

But a man who had filled an entire train station in Philadelphia would not simply be content with one lavish store; across the street, between 8th and 9th, he built another in 1902, using one of the world's most revered architects -- Daniel Burnham, who had just completed work on the Flatiron Building.  Customers could go between the buildings using a fanciful 'bridge of progress'.

That is all, of course, to set this scene for the curious publicity stunt which occurred on the rooftop of Wanamaker's on July 8, 1911.  For three days, a large hydrogen balloon (48 feet in diameter) sat tethered upon the rooftop of the new building, filling up with copious amounts of gas for a journey to Philadelphia -- with a planned landing near Wanamaker's other store.

In 1911, that old train-station store would be replaced with a new Wanamaker's in Philadelphia's Center City, also built by Burnham.  No better way to grab headlines for his new store in Philadelphia than to float a gigantic eye-catching object from one store to the other!

The balloon (called the Wanamaker No. 1), imported from Paris, was launched at 6 pm and gracefully floated over the city, across the Hudson, fadeing into the mists of Weehawken.

Unfortunately for the balloon's two pilots, things went immediately awry, the balloon being a tricky one to control.  Instead of floating southwest, it headed due north.  After an hour and a half of wandering blindly through the clouds, the balloon ungraciously came down -- in Nyack, New York.

But it wasn't considered a failure by any means. Wanamaker's wanted a publicity stunt and got one.  The launch made the front page of newspapers.  For a moment, the whole region seemed transfixed.  "Crowds turned out to gaze at the big airship as it passed over the Hudson River villages," crowed the New York Times.

Some even claimed this was the beginning of a new phase in New York travel.  Rooftops could regularly be used to launch airships of all sorts.  "This is the first step towards making the roofs of the Wanamaker buildings in New York and Philadelphia into permanent aerial stations," claimed the Evening World.  "Landing platforms and hangars for balloons and aeroplanes are to be built on the roofs of the department stores in both cities."

Not to be outdone, the following month, Gimbels Department Store would stage a marvelous airplane race over the streets of Manhattan.

By the way, Mr. Wanamaker wasn't even in the country when all this happened.  He rolled into town the following week aboard the White Star liner Oceanic, having celebrated his 73rd birthday in style by traveling to England and meeting King George and Queen Mary.

The original Wanamaker's building is no longer there, but the south building, the one designed by Burnham and the one from which the balloon was launched, still exists today as the home of K-Mart.

Below: That same week, one could run into the store below the balloon and purchase this swell Victrola. This ad is from the July 10, 1911 issue of the Evening World

Pictures courtesy the Library of Congress.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A city of bridges: One century ago, Scientific American predicted a future of elevated sidewalks

Imagine a city where the High Line isn't just a novel park, but the primary form of urban conveyance.

In 1913, with the proliferation of the automobile, it seemed humans were being crowded out at ground level.  People were beginning to think of themselves as removed from the street.  Daredevils were experimenting with flight, and small, single-man crafts began appearing over the skies of Manhattan.  The world's tallest building, the Woolworth Building, had been completed a few months before.  Perhaps the streets themselves could elevate, granting pedestrians a space of their own?

Scientific American suggested the possibilities of a city of elevated layers in its July 26, 1913 issue. "The Elevated Sidewalk: How It Will Solve City Transportation Problems," written by engineer and science writer Henry Harrison Suplee, posits that humans and automobiles are simply incompatible and opposing engines upon ground level, and that one will have to give way to the other.

After all, cars are meant to go fast.  "In nearly every large city today there appears a tendency to enforce traffic regulations intended to permit the most conflicting elements to be operated together and the result is naturally the impeding of the very traffic which it is desired to help."

By keeping people and automobiles on the same plane, one risks lives, sure, but more importantly, it slows progress by keeping the potential of auto motion on a short leash.  Suplee's solution: "Take the foot passengers off the surface of the street entirely, and leave the highways solely for vehicles!"

Below: The elevated lines above the Bowery, 1895 [NYPL]

New York had many precedents for this.  The great passages over the East River (the Brooklyn, the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges) had all been completed with elevated pathways for pedestrians, situated over or alongside those paths for vehicular traffic.  Trains were either elevated overhead along the avenues, or buried underneath the ground.

Suplee doesn't imagine a world were pedestrians become smarter, or any type of place with sophisticated traffic lights or crosswalks.  Instead, elevated sidewalks would hover over the major thoroughfares; "[S]uch sidewalks might be built on Broadway from the Battery to Union Square, there sloping down to the surface level until further extensions were required," he writes.

In a city of skyscrapers, bridges could be constructed several stories above the street.  Store fronts would appear on the second or third floors, while the ground floor would be exclusively used for delivery and store.  Life would essentially reside many feet above the ground.

Bicycles figure nowhere in his model, but he does carve out one exception to his pedestrian only level.  "The power vehicles should be kept absolutely to the surface, and there given unrestricted facilities for speed, weight, and numbers; and the foot levels maintained for absolute freedom for pedestrians, with the possible exception of carriages for small children."

You can read Mr. Suplee's article here.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Ten cool facts about ice cream and New York City history PLUS: where was New York's first frozen yogurt shop?

Lewis Wickes' photograph of a few children enjoying a bit of ice cream on a hot day, 1910. (NYPL)

1. America's first ice cream shop was located on Dock Street** (roughly today's Pearl Street) in 1774.  The British confectioner Philip Lenzi advertised ice cream of "any sort", along with a host of treats, including sugar plums, jams and sweetmeats.

2.  Hanover Square (near Stone and Pearl streets) was the center of commerce in colonial New York, and apparently of confections as well.  In 1777, in the midst of British-occupied New York during the Revolutionary War, Lenzi moved his shop up into Hanover Square next to another ice cream shop owned by Joseph Corree at 120 Hanover Square. [source]

3. George Washington and his wife Martha were huge fans of ice cream.  During the first year of Washington's presidency, back in 1789, when the seat of government resided in New York, Martha would make several batches of it from the Washington's home at One Cherry Street She sometimes complained of the lack of fresh cream, sometimes serving "unusually stale and rancid" desserts at her weekly tea parties.  One well-repeated legend states that the Washington's spent over $700 on ice cream desserts in the summer of 1789.

Above: A 1803 map of Vauxhall Garden, at Broome Street between the Bowery and Broadway, a lovely place to enjoy a bowl of ice cream in early New York

4. Manhattan's pleasure gardens -- early precursors to the modern park -- became instrumental in spreading the joy of ice cream.  The aforementioned Joseph Corree opened the Mount Vernon Garden at Broadway and Leonard Street in 1800, a few months after ice cream-lovin' Washington died at his estate in Mount Vernon.

On top of the many festive entertainments at the garden -- fireworks, theatricals, topiary, tableaux vivant -- Corree also offered ice cream for sale.  Other popular pleasure gardens of the day, such Vauxhall Garden and Niblo's Garden, would follow suit.

5. Delmonico's, before it became the finest name in restaurant dining in New York in the 19th century, got its start as a small confectionery shop on 23 William Street in 1827 which featured ice cream on its menu. (Learn more about Delmonico's from my podcast on its history.)

6. Ice cream vendors were on the streets of New York as early as the 1820s, the best way for less affluent people to enjoy the dessert.  Within a couple decades, of course, the 'pleasure gardens' would lose their patina of class and become playgrounds for poorer New Yorkers.  In 1852, one garden near the Bowery was described as "a sort of ice-creamery, and general rendezvous for the Bowery fashionables." [source]

At right: A Century Magazine illustration from 1901 of a New York ice cream vendor or 'hokey pokey man' (NYPL)

7. Ice cream saloons, by mid-19th century, were aplenty along the main thoroughfares of New York, experimenting with different kinds of production.  One saloon, Parkinson's on Broadway, claims to have invented pistachio ice cream.  Another, the Patent Steam Ice Cream Saloon, named for its steam-operated freezing unit, catered to the women of the middle class, "the wives and daughters of the substantial tradesmen, mechanics and artisans of the day," according to New York by Gas-Light.

A Brooklyn confectioner ad from 1876:

8. The hokey pokey men, the nickname for one-cent ice cream street vendors, were briefly hindered by the Ice Cream Strike of 1913, a walkout by all 2,500 members of the Ice Cream Workers Union in New York, effectively shutting down the production of ice cream, especially in the Lower East Side.  The strike lasted several weeks.

Below: A Macy's ad in 1913 for a home ice-cream maker:

9. Ice Cream Profiteering or Newspaper Self-Promotion?  After the war, many merchants continued to sell massively overpriced ice cream.  The Evening World reported in 1921 that "profits from ice cream range from 500 to 1,000 percent" at a survey of local ice cream vendors.  "In few articles of food has there been found any greater evidence of extortion from the consumer." [source]

A few days later, the newspaper extolled upon its own crack reporting, claiming that ice cream prices were going down because of their investigations.  "Hundreds of manufacturers and retails have already cut prices," the World boasted.

10. Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream was not created anywhere near Scandinavia, but rather in the Bronx, the product of two Polish-Jewish confectioners Reuben and Rose Mattus.  The official reason for the name was "to convey an aura of the old-world traditions and craftsmanship to which he remained dedicated." Reuben later admitted, "We wanted people to take a second look and say, 'Is this imported?'"

The first Haagen-Dazs ice cream shop, which opened in 1976, is located at 120 Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. The store is still going strong.

EXTRA: Frozen yogurt was the original cronut The trendy dessert was first sold over the counter in New York at Bloomingdale's Department Store in the early 1970s.  As far as I can tell, the first actual yogurt store in the city -- the first of many -- was the Dannon Yogurt Store at 207 East 86th Street, opening in February 1975.

That was the year that New Yorkers first went WILD for frozen yogurt, well at least according to the New York Times (but you know how they are with trend stories!)

Yogurt: "It's the biggest thing since hamburgers and chicken," according to one fast-food executive in 1976.

**There were two Dock Streets back in old New York, so it's possible (although more unlikely) the original shop could have been on the other one, which is near today's Water Street and Coenties Slip.

For more sweet New York City history, check out my prior articles on:
-- New York and the history of soda fountains
-- New York, World War I and the history of the doughnut

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A mysterious death at an ice factory, and a headline riddle

This unusual story appeared at the bottom of the front page of the New York World newspaper in July 17, 1913:


Hugo Meissner, assistant engineer of the artificial ice plant at Rochester and Atlantic Avenues, Brooklyn, was found dead today lying on tons of ice in a storage room on the lower floor of the building.  The body was frozen stiff, but an autopsy will be necessary to determine if death was caused by freezing.

The surgeons think he fell and struck on his head at the bottom of the chute and fractured his skull.  In his helpless condition he succumbed from the cold.

Further details from other news sources reveal Meissner to be a machinist for the Atlantic Hygienic Ice Company in the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Ice manufacturing was such a relatively new craft in 1913 that what they refer to here as 'artificial ice' simply means ice manufactured and processed in a plant vs. naturally occurring ice.  They are obviously not referring to synthetic ice (sometimes called artificial ice), which is used for skating rinks.

In the 19th century, ice was harvested from frozen rivers and stored in northern ice houses.  Artificial ice plants began appearing around the 1880s.  This ad from the 1916 Brooklyn Daily Eagle provides a listing of artificial ice makers in New York City.  There was clearly some concern then of artificial ice not being as clean as 'real' ice, as this advertisement stresses its product's purity:

The ice-making industry was near its end in New York City, as refrigeration techniques were improving, and people would soon have devices in their own homes which could make the product.  It didn't help that the ice trade had also been subject in prior decades to mass corruption and price fixing.

As to the details of this poor man's death, the Sun provides further speculation: "Meissner went into the shaft to repair the elevator on Tuesday afternoon......[and] may have been overcome by ammonia** fumes or the change of temperature from that of a warm day to 26 degrees Fahrenheit, thus losing his hold and falling."

His wife Bertha ended up suing the Atlantic Hygienic Ice Company in 1917.  (The sometimes grisly details of the court case can be found here.)  The jury originally awarded her $5,500.00 in damages -- worth almost $100,000 today -- but the ruling was appealed.  In the end, the Atlantic Hygienic Ice Company paid Meissner's widow $750 (or about $13,500 today).

**Ammonia was used in artificial ice making. Early artificial methods sometimes left ammonia residue in ice and led to its less-than-pure reputation.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The neon bible: A chat with 'New York Neon' author Thomas E. Rinaldi about the city's most stylish signs

Bond Clothing Store sign was a mainstay of Times Square in the 1940s and 50s. For more on Bond's unusual transition after that, read my article from 2007 on Bond International Casino. Picture courtesy Life Magazine, Lisa Larsen photographer

New York Neon is the Bowery Boys Book of the Month for July, a superb review of the history of neon signs in New York City and a delectable catalog of some of the finest neon works still in the city today.  My full review is here.

The author Thomas E. Rinaldi also runs a great website on the subject.  I asked him a few questions about the current state of New York's most classic form of signage:

Why does the glow of a neon sign continue to endure and fascinate people over other architectural forms from the same period of the early-mid 20th century? 

Thomas Rinaldi: I think a large part of the appeal of old signs is their rarity.  The odds of any commercial sign lasting more than a few years are incredibly slim; for this reason, old signs really stand out, in a way that turns out to be of widespread appeal.  This is especially true in NYC today, where old signs have added appeal by way of their association with old, independent businesses that have become almost an endangered species in the city of late.

How does New York’s representatives in neon compare to those in other neon-friendly cities like Las Vegas or Los Angeles? 

TR: The old neon signs one finds around New York today are actually very modest compared to those of Vegas or LA, or the kind of "roadside Americana" signs one associates with Route 66.   I find this interesting in and of itself.  Sure, New York had its extravagant signs in places like Times Square.  But most of the neon that went up in New York was relatively humble, for a variety of reasons.

First of all, there are the obvious space constraints of any urban storefront.  While some pretty imaginative storefront signs appeared before WWII, the signs became increasingly spare after the War, partly because of restrictive zoning, partly because of labor costs (most of the New York sign shops were union), and - my belief - partly because of the general postwar trend away from urban centers and toward suburban development and roadside culture.

Below: The neon sign at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village, a facsimile of one that originally appeared here in the 1940s.

Neon lends its appeal to a certain nostalgic image of New York. Are there any uses in classic print, TV or film that stand out to you as particularly striking?

TR: I found that the classic, iconic image of New York neon noir is spread out in little scattered fragments.  There are a handful of classic noir films set in New York in which you'll see neon in the backdrop - films like I Wake Up Screaming and Where The Sidewalk Ends.  But some of the best cinematic depictions of New York's neon heyday aren't noir films at all:  Pillow Talk, for instance, is a goofy comedy, or The Sweet Smell of Success, which is probably the single best go-to for shots of midcentury, neon-festooned New York.

Neon storefront signs were so incredibly ubiquitous in cities like New York that they crop up just about everywhere - in noir films, yes, but not just those set in New York. I would suggest that the popular association of neon with the nocturnal cityscape is not something born unto any one city, medium or genre, but a composite of scattered fragments that add up to a collective ideal.

Below: The trailer to Murder My Sweet, a wild, smoky film noir starring Dick Powell that effectively uses neon to help set the mood. 

It seems the most difficult task you laid out for yourself in ‘New York Neon’ is tracking down the stories of dozens of still-extant individual signs. What’s the secret to many of these classic signs surviving for so long?

TR: To a large extent, it's luck of the draw. But also, I found that old signs tended to be more densely collected in certain kinds of neighborhoods, like the Upper West Side or Greenwich Village. Places that could still sustain little family-owned businesses, even through the period of New York's financial crisis. Places not too rich but not too destitute either. Now, however, they've become scarce even in those neighborhoods.

What’s your personal favorite New York neon sign, both of those presently existing and those from the past?

TR: Depends on what day you ask me!  Ones that usually come to mind, though, are Nathan's Famous and the Wonder Wheel out in Coney, the Dublin House on West 79th Street, Radio City Music Hall and Patsy's Restaurant in Midtown.

The P&G Bar sign, formerly on the Upper West Sign, is my favorite of the signs that have disappeared in recent years. I also really miss the Bright Food Shop's sign in Chelsea.

 There were some great relics that disappeared just a little before my time - places like the Terminal Bar, across from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, or the Penn Bar & Grill, by Penn Station, that I wish I'd photographed. And then there are those that vanished long, long ago - a funny place called the "Barrel Of Fun" nightclub in the West 50s comes to mind, but really, of the thousands and thousands of neon signs that have come and gone from Manhattan alone, the list could go on almost forever.

Below: The old Bright Food Shop sign on Eighth Avenue (Photo courtesy verplanck/Flickr)

Having devoted so much time to the classic beauty of neon, does it make you a little nauseous to even look at LED sign by this point?

TR: Actually, it's sort of the opposite.  Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but I find that LEDs have facilitated some fairly decent, interesting new signs, sort of like the early days of neon all over again - much more creative stuff than the boring, fluorescent-and-vinyl signs that have been the norm for the last few decades. 

Still, LEDs have a tremendously long way to go before they could give us illuminated signage that holds a candle to typical neon storefront signs of the 1930s or 1950s, in terms of creativity and craft.  Whereas neon signs were designed to be repaired rather than replaced, LEDs are essentially disposable, and it's heartbreaking that they've taken such a huge toll on the neon industry around the world.

The flip side is that LEDs are an incredibly versatile artificial light source, so - maybe there's hope for better signs down the road.  But neon is still so unique that I expect it will always have a niche, even though we'll likely be seeing less and less of it in the years to come.

Below: Times Square 1954, photo by Andreas Feinginger (Courtesy Life)

You can hear Rinaldi discuss all things neon at his upcoming talk on Monday, July 22, at the New York Public Library's Mid-Manhattan branch. More information here.

Friday, July 12, 2013

It's the 150th anniversary of the 1863 Civil War Draft Riots. Why should we care?

Police try to restore order in front of the New York Tribune building, a pro-Lincoln publication being attacked by rioters.

Why are there no permanent remembrances of any significant kind in New York City to the Civil War Draft Riots?   It was the most grave, the most tumultuous event in New York City history between the Revolutionary War and September 11, 2001.  Doesn't it merit some mention?

The leading answer, of course, is that New Yorkers don't end up looking very good.  This isn't New York's finest moment; in fact, it's probably its worst.  Many of the hundreds who died during that week were rioters, lawbreakers, killers.  The racism of many was laid bare, exposed brutally.  On the first day of rioting, firemen -- the Black Joke Engine Co. -- were actually complicit in kicking off the violence.  Even the leaders of the period had ulterior motives.

At right: The Black Joke firemen help plunder the draft office

For almost five days, the angered and the desperate rampaged through the streets of New York. The violence was only superficially fueled by anger over the actual conscription act, an excuse to vent other frustrations, some understandable, others reprehensible.  For several days, nobody was safe -- from the moment the Ninth District Draft Office was incinerated on Monday morning to the final sweep of barricaded streets by state militia and federal troops on Thursday night.

It's a complicated, ugly, confused time in New York City history.  But how does a city acknowledge a self-inflicted tragedy?  Who wants to remind America of how duplicitous many New Yorkers were during the Civil War?

The Draft Riots are a nuisance of fact, sometimes serving to obfuscate the sacrifice of the many thousands of New Yorkers who gave their lives in service of the Union Army.  New York holds up its reputation as a melting pot, as a place where people of different ethnicities co-exist, if not always peaceably.  The images of the Draft Riots -- black families fleeing the city in terror, lynched bodies from trees and streetlamps -- serve only to remind you that the spirit of inclusiveness is merely a modern notion and possibly a mirage.

Anniversaries are important.  They reflect how we want to present our past and illustrate our present frame of mind.  On the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, people re-watched the James Cameron movie and took a (strangely morbid) memorial voyage along the same watery path the original ship was to have taken.  On the centennial of the Triangle Factory Fire, hundreds marched through the street and chalked memorials on the sidewalk in front of the homes of the victims.

On America's bicentennial, New York briefly awoke from its bankrupt, gritty slumber to present a shimmering display of patriotism featuring Queen Elizabeth, festive parades, and battalions of ships in the harbor.  Every September, we revisit the horror and suffering of the attacks upon the World Trade Center because the idea of forgetting about it is simply unimaginable.

The Draft Riots fit none of the criteria of something we'd like to remember. It's for that reason we should.

Today we remember the Civil War in iconic terms, good and evil, right and wrong.  The Draft Riots presents a nuanced reinterpretation of that story line.  It places New York City not outside the significance of the battlefield, but squarely within it.  The Union was not united, but an assortment of different viewpoints.  That Lincoln and the Union Army succeeded is even more remarkable when you realize the dissension from within.

For that reason, I hope one day the city of New York will take upon itself to memorize this event in the same way it has so many others.  Until then, I'm at least grateful to those various private institutions around the city who will ensure that future New Yorkers will continue to be stunned, horrified and otherwise amazed at the extraordinary events which took place in this city on July 13-16, 1863.


According to this article from the New York Times in 1963, there were once three temporary plaques placed in significant places for the centennial marking -- at Fifth Avenue between 43rd and 44th (site of the Colored Orphanage), Third Avenue and 46th Street (site of the Ninth District Draft Office) and, oddly, at Tenth Avenue and 46th Street (site of the home of Willy Jones, the first person chosen in the draft lottery).  I do not believe these plaques to still be in existence, but if you know otherwise, please email me.

Here's a few ways to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War Draft Riots over the next few days:

Reading:  I highly recommend Barnet Schecter's "The Devil's Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight To Reconstruct America".  For a more academic analysis, you can also try "The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War," by Ivar Bernstein.

Exhibit: There are no Draft Riot exhibits currently in New York, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art has two must-see shows about the Civil War that would make a fine substitute -- 'The Civil War and American Art'  and 'Photography and the American Civil War'

Discussion: The Museum of the City of New York is presenting a panel discussion on Monday, July 15, with a superb line-up, including Craig Stephen Wilder, filmmaker Ric Burns, historian Joshua Brown and author Kevin Baker.  Check here for more information.

Podcast: Then of course there's our 2011 podcast on the Civil War Draft Riots.  You can find it on iTunes or download it from here.  And I've finally uploaded it onto SoundCloud, so you can listen to it right here!

And if you'd like more information on how the Draft Riots affected the future boroughs of New York City, you can check out my article on Huffington Post: The Many Civil War Draft Riots: Violence From 150 Years Ago, in New York and Beyond.

NOTE: If you know of any events relating to the Draft Riots, please email me and I will include them in the list above. Thanks!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Calm before the storm: Saturday before the Draft Riots, an ominous silence before New York's most violent days


A list of the nine draft offices where lotteries would occur that Monday, July 13th. It would have already begun in Jamaica and at the Ninth District Office that Saturday.

One hundred and fifty years ago today, on July 11, 1863, the first round of lotteries to select able-bodied men for conscription into the Union Army began rolling out in New York.

It was a Saturday.  The day of the week is rather important to history. For on that day -- the day that brought the draft that would inspire the horror of the notorious Draft Riots 48 hours later -- the draft lotteries would arrive without violence.  Nobody in New York would die that day because they were following federal orders or because of the color of their skin.

Below: The draft in New York in simpler times.  When a draft lottery was called two years earlier, in 1861, there was no such tension or violence.  A spirit of patriotism and a lack of cynicism about the war greeted the provost marshals as names were selected. [NYPL]

A few factors went into this surprising peace. Federal and state law enforcement knew there would be some trouble. The newspapers had grumbled about it and anti-draft factions gathered in halls around New York in the preceding days. Draft riots had already erupted in places like Buffalo, New York.

As a result, they decided to roll out the draft slowly, starting in less densely populated areas.  Thus, the first names were read out from the Ninth District draft office at Third Avenue and 46th Street which, in 1863, was neither the most fashionable neighborhood, nor the most squalid.  Being first, however, made it a prime target for agitators when it reopened on Monday.

Anger in New York was delayed.  Many assumed that a Democratic controlled state government and its Democratic governor Horatio Seymour would delay or even block the draft.  Many of those leaders campaigned on that very fact.  Yet as the 'wheel of misfortune' was turned that Saturday morning and names were selected for the draft, the horror began to sink in.

Below: The 69th Regiment leaves New York harbor, April 1861.  A largely Irish regiment, they are one of New York's great military units.  They were so decimated during the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Battle of Gettysburg -- which took place just two weeks before New York's draft -- that they were temporarily disbanded.

This is why Saturday is so important -- the gestating anger that led to the draft riots that Monday broke out in the taverns of lower Manhattan that Saturday night, as news spread of friends and loved ones in other districts whose names had been chosen.

James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald wrote: "Those who heard the scattered groups of laborers and mechanics who congregated in different quarters on Saturday evening, and who canvassed unsparingly the conscription law might have reasonably augured that a tumult was at hand." [source]

In typical understated fashion, the New York Sun remarked, "Considerable feeling and warm discussion was manifested throughout the city as soon as it became generally known that the draft had actually commenced."   Those words were published on July 13, the first and most incendiary day of the draft riots..

Had the draft actually proceeded without incident, those chosen would have received the following letter, reprinted in the same issue of the New York Sun mentioned above:

If you were chosen for the draft, you would have had ten days to "claim an exemption**, find a substitute, or pay the $300" commutation fee. Barring that, you were to report to Rikers Island for immediate training.

Prepping from some dissension on Monday, five hundred soldiers from Governors Island were summoned into the city to stand guard over the draft offices. Little did they know then that a mere 500 men would be no match for the surge of rabid mobs that would greet them on Monday.

** What were the various draft exemptions? The July 13, 1863 issue of the New York Daily Tribune had a list available for its readers which included 1) being the son of a widow or ailing parent; 2) being the only brother of a child dependent on him for support; 3) being the only parent to children under the age of 12; 4) having two family members already serving in the Union army; and 5) "unsuitableness of age," meaning you were too old or too young to serve.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

'New York Neon': A history of the city's most mythical lights

A sizzling 52nd Street in July 1948 (courtesy LOC)

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. 

New York Neon
by Thomas E. Rinaldi
W.W. Norton

Neon has been a most attractive tool for pop American graffiti for well over one hundred years, glowing tubes of foggy color alighting the simple and the sublime, from jagged old signs along Route 66 roadsides to those lining the most flamboyant casinos of Las Vegas.  In Los Angeles, stand-alone neon signs along Sunset Strip typify the glamour of old Hollywood, the buzz of Mildred Pierce's restaurant and the cocktails at the Brown Derby.

New York City also has its share of iconic neon signs -- some of the greatest, in fact -- but amid the blinding lights of an ever-changing modern metropolis, they frequently recede into the background. But no longer. In Thomas Rinaldi's excellent 'New York Neon', these representatives of an elusive, nostalgic past finally receive a warranted inspection.  And I guarantee you that after reading this book, you'll see neon popping up all around you on the city streets. It's always been here.

No city has a more complicated relationship with the neon glow than New York City. Once the material of great advertisements and tony nightclubs, neon became associated with the seedier parts of town by the 1940s and 50s.  Their singular appeal -- handcrafted works, often one-of-a-kind -- initially threatened their existence in a city of heightened sensation.  Fortunately, detective novels, film noir and the embrace of nostalgia saved the idea of neon from total oblivion;  more than any other visual queue, warm neon evokes a sense of a faded city, its melancholy and mystery.

Rinaldi gives a one-stop primer on all things neon, from its early history and development to its present creation by local craftsmen.  He identifies possible moments in time when neon became 'cool' again and speculates on why it may never completely disappear. He writes: "For its sheer charisma, neon will likely live on as a specialty item."

Indeed, New York's romance with neon signage mostly veers from the mainstream today.  The neon spectaculars of Times Square have given way to explosive LED high-definition displays, washing thousands of color gradients over the eyes of stunned tourists.  As Rinaldi illustrates, the survival of neon has depended on small, private businesses; it glows above the doorways of New York's most famous delis, pharmacies and bars.

Above: The nexus of neon was probably at Broadway and 47th Street in its heyday. Here, the 1947 sign of the Latin Quarter nightclub joins the party. (LOC)

And here's where the book comes in most handy, going through every borough to locate some of the finest examples of neon currently existing in the city. The author even finds the origin stories to a few of these treasures, from the pastel silliness of the Papaya King to the haunting glow of a neon crucifix on East 2nd Street.

The great, old taverns of New York are often defined by their neon. Sometimes whole neighborhoods are too, as in the case of Long Island City and its 1936 Pepsi-Cola sign.  But collect it all together into one resource like 'New York Neon', and you'll come to realize that neon has had a lasting effect on the entire city.  Your dreams of New York are likely illuminated in neon.

Times Square will always glow with the latest in lighting technologies. Subway signs and chain stores signage may render everything into a dulling uniformity. But nothing will speak for New York more than the signs of Katz's Deli, or the Chelsea Hotel, or the Odeon Restaurant, or Loew's Paradise.

Later this week: An interview with the author Thomas Rinaldi who also maintains a great blog on the subject.


Monday, July 8, 2013

History in the making: Book worms and comic books edition

"New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance, bringing to a single compact arena the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader and the merchant." -- E. B. White

Book Advice: Out-of-state bookstores are sometimes the best place to find obscure books about New York City.  Not sure why that is exactly; perhaps the demand isn't as great, so real treasures aren't so immediately scooped up by book collectors.

A full half of the New York City history books on my shelf at home are those that I bought in other states, weird out-of-print or otherwise one-of-a-kind, the kind of books you have to own.  Over the weekend, I found the spectacular 1949 copy of 'Here Is New York' by E.B. White pictured above for three dollars at the Dickson Street Bookshop in Fayetteville, Arkansas, along with a few other great finds.  They had several large shelves devoted to New York City history books.

I'm not sure if this old bookstore was open in 1975 when Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham were teaching at the university up the street, but one can imagine a young Hill with those big ole eyeglasses wandering through the towering stacks here.

So yes, my advice, always look for books about New York City in out-of-state book stores. You'll always find a stray treasure.

Classics Illustrated: Of course Tom and I would make excellent subjects for a comic book some day. But until that happens, there's another comic based on the Bowery Boys -- the original ones, the ruffians of the old Sixth Ward -- that deserves your attention.  Cory Levine, Ian Bertram, and Rodrigo Avil├ęs are illustrating the adventures of lower Manhattan life in 1853, uploading three graphic pages a week. Sure you can get it all when it eventually becomes a graphic novel, but don't you often pine for a good serialized comic? Here's your chance: [Bowery Boys comic]

The Big Picture: Baz Luhrmann's 'The Great Gatsby' created 1920s New York City out of thin air.  The skyline wasn't completely fabricated out of imagination, however, as Untapped Cities points out. [Untapped Cities]

Last Stop: You've probably walked by the Hotel Carter in Times Square dozens of times without realizing the secret in its basement. [Scouting New York]

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Independence Day -- insane or otherwise!

A Wrigley's Spearmint chewing gum ad from a 1911 New York Tribune advises you to choose gum, not explosives.

From the New-York tribune. (New York [N.Y.]), 25 June 1911. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Firecracker Lane: New York's explosive shopping district

Woolworth Building, Lower Section of 12 Park Place [Showing Pain's Fireworks.]

12 Park Place, one of the prominent retailers of explosives along 'Firecracker Lane'.  James Pain was known as one of the world's greatest pyrotechnists.  Today the Pain name lives on in a UK fireworks company. (Wurts Brothers, courtesy MCNY)

Looking for a healthy assortment of fireworks to ignite for the Fourth of July holiday? In New York, from the late 19th century until the 1930s, one needed to look no further than one of the city's most heavily trafficked areas near City Hall.

Firecracker Lane was a short row of fireworks dealerships that sat on Park Place between Broadway and Church Street, a couple blocks away from the old Astor House and the congregants of St. Paul's Chapel.

As questionable as that might sound,  fireworks were actually quite common on the streets of New York in the 19th century.  And Park Place was New York's official 'fireworks mart', specializing in "celebration goods," even well into the years that its new neighbor, the Woolworth Building, towered over its shelves of fanciful explosives.

The proprietors of Firecracker Lane could attest to their shops' safety. "Fireworks are not made now as they were years ago and for that reason there is little danger," said one shop owner, adding, "A fire in a fireworks store when once started will make good headway in short order, but there will be no great explosion, no blowing down of walls, nor wiping out of buildings..." What a relief!

Coincidentally, both the Great Fire of 1835 and its modest cousin the Great Explosion of 1845 both ignited many decades before just south of this area.  So proprietors here made doubly sure to reassure people that such conflagrations could never happen because of their merchandise.

Below: Union Square under the sparkle of fireworks on July 4, 1876 (NYPL)

But it was another explosion that was on the minds of New Yorkers during the 4th of July 1901. Just a couple weeks before, across the water in Paterson, NJ, a fireworks factory exploded, killing 17 people. "So great was the force of the blast," reported the New York Times, "that a boy playing in the street a half a block away was lifted from his feet and hurled against an iron fence, and had one of his legs broken."

For this reason, people started avoiding Firecracker Lane, getting to the elevated train station by going the long way around, avoiding the boxes of potentially combustible merchandise stacked along the sidewalks.

Perhaps they were wise to do so. In July 1903, in front of one particular establishment, the Unexcelled Manufacturing Company, at 9 Park Place, a box ignited, showering the street with a terrifying display of rockets and smoke.  "[T]he contents, consisting of rockets, firecrackers and several small bombs, went off with a noise that almost equalled that made by Pain's destroying of Pompeii [referencing a popular Manhattan Beach attraction]."

At right: Another resident of Park Place during the Firecracker Lane period was the young New York Daily News, seen here in the 1920s.

These Firecracker Lane establishment had larger plants in rural areas like Staten Island, but that did not minimize the danger. In 1907, the plant owned by one Park Place shop exploded in Graniteville, Staten Island, killing two children.

Below: Workers (and their families) on a float in New Jersey, representing the Unexcelled Manufacturing Company. During World War I, the company also manufactured signal rockets, flares and other wartime equipment. (Courtesy Great War Postcards)

Believe it or not, you could still buy fireworks on Park Place as late as the 1930s. However the once-bustling Firecracker Lane had been whittled down to just two shops -- the Unexcelled Manufacturing Company and Pain's Fireworks Display, owned by the very man who been responsible for the afore-mentioned Pompeii display, thirty years earlier!

By this time, the city began cracking down on the usage of fireworks, fueled by reports of hundreds of fireworks-related injuries filling city hospitals during Independence Day festivities.   The old Park Place establishments, forced to sell to an ever decreasing number of small towns where fireworks remained legal, could not withstand the scrutiny and eventually closed.

The sale and possession of fireworks were officially prohibited in the state of New York in 1940.  Who protested the loudest? The town of Graniteville, Staten Island!  By 1940, it was a leader in American fireworks production;  it had even produced displays for the 1939-40 New York World's Fair (pictured below).

But after another terrible explosion here in 1942 killed five people, the factory's days were certainly numbered.  By 1945, the last of New York's fireworks factory shut for good.

Below: The World's Fair of 1939-40 (NYPL)