Tuesday, April 29, 2014

George Washington's inauguration and the 1939 World's Fair


James Earle Fraser's colossal Washington statue out in Queens. (NYPL)

Tomorrow (April 30th) is the 225th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington, sworn in at Federal Hall as the first President of the United States.  It is also the 75th anniversary of the 1939 New York World's Fair.  That was not an accident.

The monumental events of America's founding would be immortalized by the fair in some rather unusual ways 150 years later.  Both April 30th events were occasions of great patriotic ceremony (and both even slightly kitschy) in their own ways.



April 1789
 It took George seven entire days to get to New York from his home in Mount Vernon, as his procession was met every step of the way with throngs of patriotic crowds and flamboyant celebratory displays.

Washington's vice president John Adams had already arrived in New York, on April 21st.  The building which greeted him, the former City Hall building on Wall Street, had been the center of city's government since 1699, when the British used materials from the city's demolished north defense wall to construct it.

The heavily remodeled building which now stood in its place, later to be called Federal Hall, was designed by successful city contractor and former Continental Army engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant.  According to author David McCullough, "it was the first building in America designed to exalt the national spirit, in what would come to be known as the Federal style." (Sadly, this building was ripped down in 1812; the 'Federal Hall' which stands in the same spot today was built as a customs house in 1842.)

L'Enfant would later work on the creation of Washington DC out of Maryland swampland.  He would ultimately be fired from that project -- by George Washington.

George finally arrived in New York two days after Adams, April 23, via a barge from Elizabeth, New Jersey, and was met at the Wall Street pier by the current mayor of New York James Duane and the state's governor George Clinton.

From there, he was taken to his new home on Cherry Street (long demolished, around near the Brooklyn Bridge anchorage today) and spent the day greeting dozens of well-wishers.  That night, Governor Clinton hosted an elaborate dinner in his honor; the pomp and extravagance by this time were probably getting tiresome to the stately Virginian farmer.

Meanwhile Adams spent the week at Federal Hall in Senate chambers, hashing out such things we take for granted -- such as how to even address the new president -- until at last they were ready for the ceremony to begin, on April 30.

According to Ron Chernow, "Washington rose early, sprinkled powder in his hair, and prepared for his great day."  Like some detail from a fairy tale, Washington left his Cherry Street home at noon in a yellow carriage driven by white horses, legions of soldiers marching proudly behind him.

The streets of Manhattan were clogged with people, over ten thousand cramming Broad and Wall streets, as far as the eye could see both ways.  Sitting on the balcony of his own home on Wall Street was Washington's closest confidante Alexander Hamilton, certainly reveling in the moment.

After greeting the Congress, Adams led Washington to the second floor balcony along with Robert Livingston, the Chancellor of New York (the highest judicial office in the state), who held out a bible owned by the St. John's Lodge Freemasons and delivered the oath of office, probably not loud enough for anybody in the street to actually hear.

Washington, even less audibly than Livingston, swore to "faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."  He then possibly threw in a 'so help me God' for good measure (although there are many doubts that this occurred).



New Yorkers went crazy then, firing cannons, screaming and waving flags, playing music and dancing in the streets.  After returning inside to address the new Congress -- by this time with tears in his eyes -- Washington and his entourage went up Broadway to receive on invocation at St. Paul's Church, the scrappy survivor of the great fire the destroyed much of the city in 1776.  Washington would be a regular here for his entire stay in New York; the pew where he planted himself for two years is still on display there (illustrated above).

Martha Washington would not arrive in town for another month, but that didn't stop the parties.  The official inauguration ball took place a week later, on May 7th, at the Assembly Rooms at 115 Broadway.

Although a bit stiff and silent, George was still popular with the ladies and danced "two cotillions and a minuet," often seen with Alexander Hamilton's young bride Eliza. When Martha arrived on May 17, landing at Peck Slip, she was greeted with similarly grand fanfare, and yet another ball was held in her honor.


April 1939
One hundred and fifty years later, the 1939 World's Fair opened in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the second largest American fair up to that time (only St. Louis' 1904 event was larger).

This celebration of human advancement -- as demonstrated through miles of utopian kitsch and strikingly bizarre architecture -- was a reason for Robert Moses to turn the unsightly Corona Ash Dumps into a Queens super-park.  The fair was advertisement as entertainment, with hundreds of modern gadgets displayed as novelties and staples of the future.

But the celebration was planned with the past in mind as well.  It opened on April 30, 1939, coinciding with another great day in New York City history -- Washington's inauguration.  That's how important the city thought the opening of the fair was.  (Life Magazine was a little more cynical; in 1939, they refer to Washington as "the excuse" for the fair.  The purpose, of course, was profits.)

A 61-foot-tall statue of Washington by James Earle Fraser stood mightily over the fair's Constitution Mall, peering perhaps quizzically at Paul Manship's massive sundial sculpture.  A cluster of buildings called the Court of States recalled the Colonial architecture of Washington's day.  Even Federal Hall was recreated.

Below: The World's Fair presented a recreation of Washington's inauguration, except with lots of flag dancing. (NYPL)



A replica of Mount Vernon (sort of) called Washington Hall was the pet project of a New Yorker with presidential ties.

According to the New Yorker, "Mr. Messmore Kendall, is responsible for the Hall.  Mr. Kendall, president of Sons of the American Revolution and owner of the Capitol Theatre, [developed] plans for erecting, entirely at his own expense, a $28,000 building to house a collection of Washington relics. Before the Fair closes, he expects the whole thing will have cost him more than $50,000. He has given more than money to the project; he has given the family cook, so that whenever he wants a home-cooked meal, he has to go all the hell out to Flushing."

The Hall received a host of reenactors who had made their way up from Mount Vernon in emulation of Washington's own footsteps.  On May 6th, a child named Robert E, Lee Williamson opened Washington Hall in a grand ceremony, bringing "three consecutive weeks of neo-Federal quaintness to a close." [source]


The president also sits (sometimes awkwardly) upon a variety of World's Fair merchandise.  Light shows and fireworks unheard of in Washington's time were dedicated in his honor throughout the fair.  He even starred in a popular musical pageant at the fair called American Jubilee, with books and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. 

It was another great president who kicked off the fair 75 years ago.  With 200,000 people in attendance, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave an opening speech extolling the virtues of American ingenuity as he became the first president to be broadcast to television audiences.  Few had televisions in their homes at the time.  But NBC founder David Sarnoff helpfully scattered a few dozen of them throughout the city in a clever publicity stunt.

Roosevelt starts off his speech referencing Washington. "[T]here have been preserved for us many generations later, accounts of his taking of the oath of office on April thirtieth on the balcony of the old Federal Hall. ..... And so we, in New York, have a very personal connection with that thirtieth of April, one hundred and fifty years ago." [Read the whole speech here.]

Defined by the odd Trylon and Perisphere buildings, the fair seems like something truly dreamlike.  The land where the fair once stood now contains the ruins of a New York's other World's Fair, the event from 1964-65.

For this article, I've re-purposed a couple pieces of writing I did on these events a few years ago.  The original pieces can be found here and here.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The hottest place to listen to records in Brooklyn


One hundred years ago today, the Abraham & Straus department store on Fulton Street (today's Brooklyn Macy's location) kicks off the borough's deep affection for record albums with newly designed listening stations, touted in this Brooklyn Daily Eagle advertisement as the best in the city (and it probably was).

As the advertisement proclaims: "With the completion of our ten new rooms we have the coolest, most satisfactory, comfortable and perfect Victrola and Columbia Section in all the city.

A new ventilating system does away with objections that make every the newest of testing rooms very uncomfortable places at best to hear new records or test the machines.

Built of double walls of finest quartered oak and plate glass, the partitions are interlined with the newest and best sound-proofing material known in the modern science of house building..... They are as near sound-proof as possible."

Below: Abraham & Straus on Fulton Street, 1904 (courtesy Brooklyn Public Library)



By 1914, many discs could be played on both Victor Talking Machines and Columbia Grafonolas, so no CD-vs-vinyl format decisions to make!

Among the newest album releases that month were instructional dance albums by Vernon and Irene Castle, starring later that year in the hit Broadway musical Watch Your Step, written by Irving Berlin.  There's also a new album by Victor favorite Enrico Caruso (pictured below on the cover of a 1913 trade magazine):



You can find the advertisement above in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (April 28, 1914 issue).


Friday, April 25, 2014

History in the Making 4/25: In Memory of a Horrible Fire



Above: A dramatic depiction of a fire which took place 160 years ago today. 

W. T. Jennings was a fine gentleman's clothing store located at 231 Broadway, on the site of today's Woolworth Building.  A tremendous fire took the building on the evening of April 25, 1854, causing thousands of dollars in damage and destroying the "hair-dye and wig establishment" next door.

In the image above, you can see the volunteer fire fighters manning a pump at the very edge of City Hall Park.  The Astor House would have been one block to the south.

Eleven men were eventually killed in this horrible blaze, the worst fire-related accident since the Great Explosion of 1845 (which killed 30 people).  It was later discovered that the fire was started by teenager thieves who were subsequently sent to Sing Sing Prison.   However the architect and builders of the structure were censured in a later hearing for creating a so-called fire "death-trap."   Jennings eventually opened another location at 566 Broadway (at Spring Street).  Below: headline from the NYT.




____________________________________



Some historic-themed links of note:

A Robert Moses-Jane Jacobs opera. It's happening, soon. "[T]he story of New York, of cities, and of the struggle between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses will be told like never before."  [Moses Jacobs Opera]

An Alexander Hamilton hip-hop musical. It's happening even sooner! Coming January 2015. [Public Theatre]

One hundred and forty-nine years ago, there was a solar eclipse on the same day as Abraham Lincoln's New York funeral procession. Here's the procession order:  [New York Times]

Next week we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the opening of the World's Fair 1939-40.  One notable star of the fair -- Hitler the Cat! [Slate]

A tour of all the New York City locations used in the Martin Scorsese film Good Fellas, from downtown Manhattan to Astoria, Queens. [Untapped Cities]

Well, isn't this just great! "Lower Manhattan's Flood Risk is 20 Times Higher Since 1844" [Accuweather]

The New York Times Book Club is discussing Colm Toibin's amazing novel Brooklyn next month!  [NYT]

Next month is Lower East Side History Month! Tours, exhibits, a Henry Street Settlement block party and the sidewalk-focused #ChalkLES are all on the slate.  Check out the full calendar: [LES History Month]

A short history of the New Yorker called the Queen of the Waves who swam the English Channel in 1926. [Ephemeral New York]

Explore the newly opened photo vaults of the American Museum of Natural History! [Gothamist]

Top image courtesy New York Public Library

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Assorted mishaps from the 1964 New York World's Fair -- in its first month and before it even opened



Certainly Robert Moses expected there to be a few little problems to arise at the opening of the 1964 World's Fair on April 22, 1964.  And for the most part, the most popular attractions launched without a hitch.  But a host of bad press on opening day and a litter of minor issues created a sense of unease among some organizers.

The fair was already a controversial venture by Moses -- unsanctioned by the official World's Fair organizers and sold wholesale to a bevy of corporations as a way to fund the hugely expensive endeavor.  Moses' own reputation was on the wane by 1964; the fair would further tarnish it.  Whatever enthusiasm New Yorkers had for the fair in 1964 evaporated with its completion in the fall of 1965, with reports of ludicrous financial mismanagement and a gradual indifference by fair-goers to its line-up of generally un-amusing amusements.

So these first few mishaps from the months before and after opening, in retrospect, seem to be a harbinger for the greater fiascoes which followed.  Money issues, faulty machinery, injuries, lack of planning -- welcome to the World's Fair of 1964!


1) The World of Food never opens
With hundreds of new temporary structures going up, you wouldn't think that a single building lagging behind would be much of an issue.  But the prominently placed World of Food  -- standing 75 feet from the fair's entrance -- was one of the largest pavilions on the fair, and little work had been done on it since ground-breaking in January.

The building was to celebrate cooking and gardening, with weekly festivals devoted to a particular food (shrimp, apples), a rooftop 'edible garden' and a model kitchen with the most innovative home appliances.  A teen center on the ground floor would host cook-outs and clam-bakes with appearances by the hottest young stars of film and television.

It would have, that is, except the organizers ran out of money, and a large gaping construction site sat like an open sore marring the fairgrounds.  Moses and fair organizers wanted to level the site immediately, fighting it out in court with the World of Food organizers.  Finally, two weeks before the opening, the uncompleted venue was finally torn down.

But there was no time to fill the lot, so on opening day, an odd gap in an otherwise tightly organized grounds greeted visitors.  Gift shops sold World of Food souvenirs anyway.  Meanwhile, the fair paid thousands of dollars to store the unused construction materials off site.  [More information at Bill Young's excellent World's Fair site. Image above is also from there.]

2) Ceramic catastrophe
The most spectacular displays were often at the pavilions hosted by foreign countries.  The Pieta at the Vatican Pavilion, for instance, would become one of the most popular attractions.  The organizers from Spain, however, would have to scramble when they opened crates containing a 50-foot ceramic relief by Antonio Cumella called 'Homage to Gaudi," only to discover that much of it had been crushed in transport.

Welders furiously labored to repair the work before the fair opened.  Some semblance of the work was eventually displayed.

Courtesy New York Daily News

3) Rain on Opening Day
The April 22nd opening was to be one of the greatest events in New York City history, and in volume, it certainly was.  Ten of thousands clogged the highways in one of New York's ugliest traffic days. Over 90,000 made it to the fairgrounds to witness opening ceremonies that included a speech by president Lyndon B. Johnson, president for only a few months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

But fair organized had planned for 250,000 attendees.  Keeping people away was the "November-like weather," torrential morning rain and a chilly, cloudy afternoon.  The New York Times reported:  "The World's Fair opened yesterday morning with a parade that had everything. But mostly it had rain, and 4,000 sodden marchers outnumbered the hundreds of sodden bystanders."

4) Protesters and arrests
President Johnson and fair organizers were met with picketers and sit-ins, mostly civil rights organizers.  They managed to heckle Johnson through his entire speech at the Federal Pavilion and sit in at several fair venues.  In particular, protesters camped out in shrubbery outside the pavilion and had to be forcibly removed.  "It was dreadful, dreadful," said one state official.

By the end of the day, over 300 people had been arrested by police.  What had particularly incensed protesters was a variety show at the fair called "America, Be Seated," a "minstrel-style" show that meant to turn the derogatory stereotypes of old into something fun and jazzy for the 1960s.  "I think we'll start a whole new wave of minstrel shows," hoped producer Michael Todd Jr, (stepson of Elizabeth Taylor), promising no "burnt cork" and that every performer in the integrated cast would be wearing "his own face."

It was still deemed too offensive for many and quickly closed within two days, raking in a grand total of $300.

Below: From the New York Times, April 23, 1964


5) City locked down
If you weren't at the fair, you were probably cursing it out.  A planned "stall-in" by demonstrators to stop traffic throughout the city failed to materialize, but the city planned for it anyway, created a veritable police state that day.  "Police cars and tow trucks waited sometimes as close as every half mile along Grand Central Parkway."

This tension led to a near-disaster at one subway station, when four protesters and three police officers were injured "when a crowd tried to stop one morning subway train." [source]


6) No hospital
Five days after opening, seven fair goers were injured inside fair transportation sponsored by Greyhound Bus Lines. One of these "Glide-a-Ride" vehicles hit one of the eleven General Foods arches (pictured above), causing minor injuries.

But there was no hospital facility on the fairgrounds -- "[T]he hospital was expected to open late next month" -- so the injured were treated at the employee's dispensary and advised to see their own doctors at once. [source]


Leonidoff's Wonder World. Pic courtesy Randy Treadway at World Fair Community. There are many more rare photos of this event there.)

7) Water and Ice Catastrophes
Two big-name entertainments at the fair were plagued with constant accidents and delays before they opened.  Leon Leonidoff, famed producer at Radio City Music Hall, watched as his "Leonidoff's Wonder World" befell perpetual mishaps, mostly associated with a faulty mechanical swimming pool.  The show was hugely expensive and not a big draw (see photo above).  It closed within two months.

Meanwhile, Olympic champion Dick Button was having similar issues over at Dick Button's Ice-Travaganza.  His woes involved transportation costs and salaries associated with his mostly European cast.  This show, too, was considered a failure, closing a few weeks after its opening opening.

However it did have a skating chimpanzee in a dress, so that's something to celebrate.

8) Elephant Attack
Six days after the fair opened, a trainer was "stepped on" by a chained elephant named Anna Mae.  Again, as no fair hospital had been opened, the trainer was rushed to Elmhurst Hospital.

You can imagine what the conditions for this poor animal were probably like.  The animal, known for "her erratic temperament," was chained to two other elephants at the time of the attack.


Above: the Ford Pavilion (NYPL)

9) Ford Pavilion Smoked Out
Nine days after it opened, a transformer at the Ford Pavilion -- featuring Walt Disney's Magic Skyway -- caught fire, issuing smoke into the attraction and causing 2,000 people to be evacuated.  The conveyor belt Skyway was also prone in its early days to malfunctions, leaving fair-goers trapped in late-model Ford vehicles in front of caveman and space-age dioramas. [source]

10) The World's Fair Bus "Riot"
May 16 was a day of record attendance at the fair, so it should be assumed that it was also a day of high tensions and long lines.  People were especially impatient that evening while waiting to board shuttles back to the parking lot.

"A shoving, yelling crowd of 15,000 persons went into near panic," creating four blocks of mayhem as people attempted to squeeze into an inadequete number of vehicles.  A "riot call" was made on the fairgrounds, with additional police and several ambulances called to treat minor injuries and several women who had fainted.

"They acted like animals," commented one bus inspector. Said another, who had been grabbed and lifted by his tie:  "If we lived through [Saturda] night, we can live through anything." [source]

Top image courtesy Flickr Marsmett Tallahassee

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

African lions and dinosaurs, musical plastics and electricity: The sights and sounds of the 1964-65 World's Fair


The World's Fair of 1964-65 opened fifty years ago today!  We visited this unusual New York mega-event on the podcast a few years ago.  Give this show a listen to get a good introduction to our city's strangest celebration of the future.  You can listen to it here or download it from the Bowery Boys Archive:



With its dozens of special pavilions, with its dazzling displays of technology and innovations, the World's Fair of 1964-65 was an especially filmic event, with corporations making canned industrial films to promote their participation in the event.  Here's a few notable (and often cheesy) examples:


Start with this introductory video, reported by Lowell Thomas, best known as the man who made Lawrence of Arabia famous. He was loosely depicted in the Oscar-winning from a couple years before.



This film on the Florida Pavilion could have been taken from an episode of Leave It To Beaver. "In this film, viewers learn about the dolphins that performed at the New York World's Fair."

 

The Sinclair Oil Corporation created its own Jurassic Park, Sinclair's Dinoland.  After all, it was an oil company! Get it?  This attraction also had some of the most popular souvenirs.



Sinclair could fuel your Ford to get to the fair. So why not celebration the Ford Motor Company at its automobile fantasia -- the Ford Motor Skyway, designed by Walt Disney!

 

For a continental view of the park, British Pathe made this amusing promotional documentary:




But this film is my absolute favorite, most likely meant for American classrooms -- a celebration of the creation of the Unisphere!   It features Robert Moses, the Crystal Palace, the Eiffel Tower and an amazingly weird mod spider sculpture.

 

Here's a good time, toe-tapping tribute to plastics, in a musical tribute by DuPont. "The Wonderful World Of Chemistry" was staged at the DuPont Pavilion 48 times a day.



Over at the Johnson Wax Pavilion, you would have experienced this unusual documentary short -- To Be Alive, directed by Francis Thompson and Alexandr Hackenschmied (known as the cinematographer of Maya Deren's Meshes in the Afternoon).  The following  year, the film was the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short!



Eastman Kodak also had a pavilion and released this film about how to take the best pictures at the World's Fair.  Of course, today, this looks like the most Instagrammed film in history:



New York created a special "Subway Special" to get from Manhattan to the World's Fair.   This became today's 7 train and still one of the easiest ways to get out to Flushing-Meadows.  It also comes with a catchy tune!



And finally, here's a selection of beautiful shots from Life Magazine, most taken in April 1964 in promotion for the fair:

The United States Pavilion featured a 15-minute film-ride on American history that culminated in its infamous Hall of Presidents (photographed by George Silk):


In another George Silk photograph, Masai tribesmen dance at the African Pavilion which featured caged lions, a museum of African artifacts, and a "tree-house restaurant" featuring the decidedly unauthentic "African Punch."



Several structures at night, including the Tower of Light and Walt Disney's Progressland Pavilion (the domed building at top) for General Electric, "showing the role of electricity in the progress of man." [Here's the brochure.]



The fiberglass tent atop the New York State Pavilion's Tent of Tomorrow, the framework of which still stands like a ruin out in Flushing-Meadows. (Life/George Silk)



Thursday, April 17, 2014

100 years ago today, somebody tried to murder the mayor


John Purroy Mitchel in front of City Hall, one month after the assassination attempt (May 11, 1914, courtesy Library of Congress)


It was an pleasant early afternoon one hundred years ago today when Mayor John Purroy Mitchel boarded an automobile on Park Row carrying other members of his staff, including police commissioner Arthur H. Woods, tax commissioner George V. Mullan and corporation counsel Frank Polk.

Suddenly, a man later identified as Michael P. Mahoney approached the vehicle, pulled out a revolver aimed at the mayor and pulled the trigger.

Mahoney, described as "a wretched, despairing, mentally weak old man" and a bit of a "semi-lunatic," was an unemployed blacksmith who blamed the mayor for a host of personal grievances. After drifting from city to city, he arrived hopeless in New York, living in a boarding house on East 50th Street.   Later found in his room was a disturbing collection of rantings against a host of prominent citizens and organizations, most notably Andrew Carnegie.

But on this particular day, he meant to off the mayor.  Within his pocket were angry letters to the mayor, although I'm not sure when he intended to present these.

From the New York Times, April 18, 1914



I'll let the original New York Times incident report narrate the rest:

"Suddenly ... Woods saw, just over his shoulder, a shabbily dressed man, with scraggy gray beard, lurch up to the street side of the car, draw a revolver from his coat pocket and level it at the Mayor in the rear seat.  In a moment, he had leaped upon the assailant, striking his shoulders with both arms and bearing him to the street. But he was not in time."

Mahoney's bullet ended up whizzing by Woods and the mayor, hitting Polk through the chin, shattering the jawbone and instantly dislodging two teeth which flew from his mouth.

"He got me! He shot me in the mouth," Polk managed to scream.

Below: Frank L. Polk, obviously before the incident (LOC)



The mayor's cheuffeur leapt to Woods' aid, wrestling the gun from Mahoney's hand.

The mayor, meanwhile, was well equipped to defend himself;  in his pocket he carried his own revolver.  After all, the last mayor, William Jay Gaynor, had also been shot by a disgruntled constituent.  "The experience of the last administration teaches us that there are always a few crazy people in every community and no one can foretell what they will do," Mitchel said.  Luckily, he did not need to use his weapon.

Hundreds soon gathered around the car.  While word inaccurately circulated that the mayor had been assassinated, others leaped upon the would-be murderer, a bizarre heap of bodies upon the sidewalk.  Mitchel, Polk and the rest were then rushed to the basement of City Hall to assess the chaotic and bizarre situation.

Under interrogation later that morning, Mahoney explained why he missed the mayor.  "The trouble is that I didn't wear my glasses. I'm near-sighted."

Mitchel's chauffeur found Polk's dislodged teeth and later returned them to Polk. He later joked that he would have the teeth mounted in gold.

The front page from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:



Although Polk would wear a slight facial scar for the rest of his life. it clearly didn't hinder his career in any way.  He was later Under Secretary of State of President Woodrow Wilson and started a prominent law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell which is still very much in business today.


We talk about this frightening event in our podcast on the Boy Mayor of New York. This blog post has more pictures of Mayor Mitchel, and you can find the podcast here and on iTunes.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Charlie Chaplin on Wall Street: The tale behind the 1918 photo



The comedy legend Charlie Chaplin was born 125 years ago today in London, so I thought I'd use the opportunity to re-post one of my favorite photographs of Wall Street.

In the 1918 photo above, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks draw tens of thousands to Wall Street and the foot of the United States Sub Treasury building (i.e. today's Federal Hall) to drum up support for World War I war bonds (or, more precisely, Liberty Bonds).

The United States had entered the conflict the prior year, on April 6, 1917, and began selling bonds to raise funds for the war effort.  Although many Americans were caught up in a patriot fervor, war bond sales were initially quite weak.  Most Americans in the late 1910s had never bought a bond of any kind.

To promote sales, the government began enlisting celebrities from several fields of entertainment, most notably motion pictures.  Since the New York area was filled with film stars -- Hollywood not yet being the center of the film business -- its streets were soon filled with dutiful movie stars, extolling the patriotic and moral virtues of supporting their county through bond sales.

My favorite instance of this was the sale of doughnuts -- considered a symbol of wartime -- on the street by glamorous movie stars like Martha Mansfield.  The Sub Treasury building, New York's largest bond repository, was often the center of such rallies and fund drives.  (There were even doughnut auctions held on the steps here.)  It made sense to bring the biggest stars to the Sub Treasury to drum up the most publicity.

And so, on April 9, 1918, as the New York Tribune headline goes, "20,000 Throng Wall Street to Hear Movie Stars Tell How To Win War."

Chaplin threw himself into the war effort, embarking on a nationwide tour to promote the sale of bonds.  That year he would make a propaganda film called The Bond:



But there may have been a bit of self-promotion in his appearance at the Sub Treasury.  His film A Dog's Life would conveniently open in movie theaters five days later.

People weren't used to hearing their movie stars speak in 1918.  "I never made a speech before in my life," he proclaimed through a megaphone that noon, standing in front of the statue of George Washington. "But I believe I can make one now."



The dashing Fairbanks -- known for swashbucklers and romances -- happily broke character, goofing around with Chaplin to the delight of the crowd.  "Folks, I'm so hoarse from urging people to buy Liberty bonds that I can hardly speak."

As eager as audiences were to hear their matinee idols, it was their horseplay that caused the greatest satisfaction:

"It was difficult for the lay ear to determine whether Chaplin or Fairbanks got the most enthusiastic reception.   But there one was feature that got more than either. That was the combination of Chaplin and Fairbanks.   The later carried the former around on his shoulders, and the 20,000-odd crowd howled with delight."


Afterwards, Fairbanks and vocalist Harvey Hindemeyer led the crowd in a rendition of "Over There," the American war anthem written by Broadway impresario George M. Cohan the previous year. (The story behind that song was featured in our podcast on the birth of the Broadway musical.)

Mary Pickford was also on a war bonds tour through America at this time.  The following year, Pickford, her secret lover Fairbanks, Chaplin and the film director D.W. Griffith would start the film studio United Artists.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Stunning Wilderness: John James Audubon saves the birds and creates a rare 19th century masterpiece


Happy Easter!  Audubon's Golden Eagle with its bizarrely depicted bunny prize.  Notice the small man in the background. That's Audubon himself as 'an American woodsman', the only appearance he makes in this series of watercolors.


You'd be forgiven for thinking that the latest show at the New-York Historical Society -- Audubon's Aviary: Parts Unknown (Part II) -- is about birds.  It's in the title, after all.

The gallery, painted sky blue, is filled with them, most in studied, formal poses, trapped in elaborate picture frames, a static zoo for slightly unusual animals.  You've certainly seen the work of John James Audubon and might be familiar with his style.  His creatures are sometimes arched and twisted around a frame in a way that seems otherworldly.

But take your focus off the individual subjects and look around. You're basically standing in the middle of one of the greatest publishing achievements in history.

The Birds of America is an ambitious book of wondrous art, published in sections between 1827 and 1838 and collected in a double-elephant-folio (almost 40 inches tall).  The watercolors here are studies for the original edition of Birds, one of the most treasured books of the 19th century, a landmark of publishing and a charmingly dated approach to animal preservation.

This is the Historical Society's second Audubon show, this time mostly featuring images of water fowl. (Part three will come next year.)  The individual birds themselves may either bewitch or repel you -- depending on your tolerance for 19th century scientific formality -- but the overall display is surprisingly moving.  You're standing here in an age where the published tome itself has become an endangered species.

Audubon was one of the most esteemed New Yorkers of the early 19th century, although as the era's greatest naturalist, he was rarely in one place for long. (His family roots in France frequently took him back overseas where he was widely hailed.)  He owned an upper Manhattan estate Minniesland where his descendants lived for decades.  The watercolors you see in this exhibit were stored at Minniesland for decades; his wife Lucy often bringing them out to the delight of dinner guests.

 Audubon Terrace sits on most of that land today.  Audubon is buried nearby at Trinity Cemetery.

A vista of Audubon's home and the Hudson River. You can see this particular print in NYHS's exhibit:


Hardly any of The Birds of America depicts any creature he would have seen from his porch.  The exhibit takes you along on his travels, constantly on the move over the Atlantic Ocean on the search for specimens. And we get to meet some of his collaborators, including his sister-in-law Maria Martin, who contributes some of watercolors in the collection.

His drive to preserve seems especially prescient today.  In 1829 he wrote  "When I see that . . . the vast herds of elks, deer and buffaloes which once pastured . . . in these valleys . . . have ceased to exist; that the woods are fast disappearing under the axe by day, and the fire by night . . . when I remember that these extraordinary changes have all taken place in the short period of twenty years, I pause, wonder, and, although I know all to be fact, can scarcely believe its reality."

Little did he know that it would be the book itself -- not just the birds within his own great masterpiece -- that would now seem to be similarly imperiled.

You may the most transfixed with the bound edition of The Birds of America in the middle of the gallery.  Behind glass, its dimensions give it the appearance of something you might find at the Cloisters museum.

Audubon's Aviary: Parts Unknown (Part II of the Complete Flock) on display at the New-York Historical Society, until May 26, 2014.  Visit their website for more information.



All images courtesy New-York Historical Society

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Neon Beautiful: Images of New York at Night 1946


"In New York the first lights start to come on at night long before the last light has gone out of the sky." 

 In 1939, a young Paris-born photographer named Andreas Feininger moved from his home in Germany to the United States. He took a job at Life Magazine in 1943, a few years after the publication's retooling by publisher Henry Luce into a showcase for photojournalism.

Feininger would become one of America's great photographers of the 20th century. He didn't document places. He transformed them. In the era before frequent photo manipulation, Feininger could make the ordinary mythical. He could photograph a building and make it look like a rocket ship.  His vision was painterly, finding the iconic within the simple. And when he photographed extraordinary things -- like his favorite subject, New York City -- the result was often transcendent.

On August 5, 1946, Life ran a photo essay by Feininger called "New York At Night."  It's extraordinary for several reasons.  Most Life photography up until this time -- in fact, most Feininger's finest work --  was in black-and-white.

In fact that issue is all black-and-white -- except the advertisements and "New York at Night."

Just a few years before, New York was a darkened city at night due to wartime precautions.  But in the summer of 1946, the city was again abuzz.  Color photography itself had seen startling innovations but it was still a dazzling rarity then.

A revitalized New York City rendered in color prints by one of Life's brightest talents?  It was the closest a print publication could come to conjuring magic.

Here's several images from "New York at Night," courtesy Life Magazine.  You can view the entire issue here for some context. (It's worth a read, especially the article on a kids radio station!)

You can click into each image for greater detail.  And see if you can identify where in Midtown each of these photographs were taken!

















And some music to put you in the mood, a song that was near the top of the charts in the summer of 1946: