Friday, December 30, 2011

The Bowery Boys Year In Review -- and the 1,000th post!

Here's a listing of all the podcasts we recorded in 2011. This year we followed New York's contribution to electricity and film, bridged the Narrows and took to the sky, revisited the Revolutionary War via the city's most influential tavern, and spent the summer surviving riots and conspiracies cooked up during the Civil War. If you missed any, you can download directly via the links below, or find us on iTunes or other podcast aggregate sites.

Our podcasts #120 NYC and the Birth of the Movies and #127 The Civil War Draft Riots and  were our most popular shows of the year, but our most downloaded show of 2011 was recorded in December 2010 -- #118 Times Square.

We both would like to thank everybody for listening in this past year! And we look forward to bringing you new tales of the city in 2012. Also, if everything falls in place, we'll be doing our first real expansion into different media next year.

This is also my 1,000 post for the Bowery Boys: New York City History blog. Onward to 2,000!

#119 The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge

#120 NYC and the Birth of the Movies

#121 Fraunces Tavern
Click here to download 

#122 The Grid - The Commissioners Plan of 1811

#123 TRUMP

#124 Idlewild/JFK Airport
#125 Sardi's Restaurant

#126 Fernando Wood: The Scoundrel Mayor

#127 The Civil War Draft Riots
Click here to download 

#128 Hoaxes and Conspiracies of 1864
Click here to download 
Blog page: Welcome to 1864! A 24-karat hoax, New York's first theme restaurant, and a Confederate plot to torch the city

#129 Chinatown
Click here to download 
Blog page: Manhattan's Chinatown: A tribute to the old neighborhood, and to the temptations of rich delicacies and basement vices

#130 Haunted Histories of New York
Click here to download 
Blog page: Haunted Histories of New York: What horrors lie beneath the foundations of the city's treasured landmarks?

#131 The First Apartment Building
Click here to download 

#132 Electric New York: Edison and the City Lights
Click here to download
Blog page: Electric New York: From gaslight to Edison's Pearl Street Station, illuminating the shadows, re-visualizing the night

Thursday, December 29, 2011

If Wal-Mart can't come to Brooklyn, then Wal-Mart will bring Brooklyn to Arkansas

Francis Guy hangs in good company at the Crystal Bridges Museum.

Wal-Mart is aggressively lobbying to bring its chain of big box stores to the New York City region. In the meantime, a member of the Walton family is buying up bits of New York and taking it back to Bentonville, Arkansas, the headquarters of Wal-Mart located in the Ozark Mountains.

I just got back from visiting my parents who live in neighboring Missouri and swung by Bentonville to visit the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which recently opened in November, the project of Alice Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. It lands in the region a bit like an alien spaceship, its arched and twisted architecture (think L.A.'s Getty Center as inspired by dinosaur fossils and river gulches) just one mile away from the quaint storefront-turned-museum that was the very first Wal-Mart store.

Alice Walton did an infamous tear through the art scene in the last two decades, buying up a great many well-loved works in anticipation of this project. Along the way, she also bought up a significant area of Brooklyn.

Or rather, its most famous early depiction. Francis Guy was one of America's earliest landscape masters, making his home in the village of Brooklyn in 1817. From then until his death in 1820, he painted what interested him from his second floor window on 11 Front Street, a series of panoramic, cool-hued works capturing both Brooklyn's bustle and serenity.

The Brooklyn Museum proudly displays one version of Guy's spectacular work, called 'Winter Scene In Brooklyn'. But the other version of this painting now sits in Arkansas, at Crystal Bridges. It sits in a  prominent place indeed, across from a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington and a noble portrait by John Trumbull of the man the Stuart portrait was painted for, Alexander Hamilton. They're all in great company in this warm, expansive new building.

By the way, his version of 'Winter Scene' once sat on loan next to its companion at the Brooklyn Museum in 2006. The Brooklyn Historical Society has Guy's summertime version of this view.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Pre-Scrooged: The Ghost of New York Christmas specials

A Bill Murray holiday classic is closely linked to a forgotten 1955 teleplay

Tracing itself back to one of America's first television broadcast station, New York's local WCBS-TV can claim a host of significant achievements, including the first regular broadcasts in color and the first baseball game in color (with the Brooklyn Dodgers, naturally).

Their early news documentary series 'Eye on New York', hosted and produced by future CBS president Bill Leonard, took a break from serious reporting on the evening of Christmas 1955 to broadcast a live version of Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol'.  I don't believe a version of this classic exists to view today, but holiday television lovers benefit from one odd quirk of this fleeting program.

At right: Bill Leonard with CBS News correspondent Walter Cronkite.

This version of 'Carol' starred the extraordinary Bronx-born character actor Jonathan Harris (best known as the flamboyant Dr. Smith from 'Lost In Space') as Ebenezer Scrooge and Tony Award nominee Biff McGuire as Bob Cratchit.

But far from constructing a dour Victorian London set upon their midtown Manhattan soundstage, Leonard (who wrote the teleplay) decided to change the setting of the story, to modern day New York City. According to author Fred Guida, "this clever conversion preserved the spirit of the original but in the milieu of lower Park Avenue and big industry."

Harris' Scrooge was transformed into the bitter old CEO of Metropolitan Plastics, with Cratchit his elevator man. Scrooge was visited by the various ghosts via "a TV receiver as an up-to-date medium for his unearthly visions," according to Variety.

Leonard's 'Carol' was the very first version of the tale set in New York, and with a modern twist. While this original program has been lost, its cheeky trope has been used in a great many modern shows (especially those of the 1970s and 80s) in 'very special Christmas episodes', to bring holiday realizations to jaded characters from Alex P. Keaton of 'Family Ties' to even the title character of 'Xena: Warrior Princess'.

But the greatest beneficiary of Leonard's holiday twist is the 1988 Bill Murray classic 'Scrooged', where a grumpy New York television producer -- filming his own version of 'A Christmas Carol' -- finds epiphany after an evening with three illuminating spirits, including a cab driver played by former New York Dolls singer David Johansen.

And since we're on the subject, here's some more New York holiday themed cheer from Johansen, under the name of his alter ego, Buster Poindexter. Happy holidays from the Bowery Boys!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

'Christmas or Chanukah?': NYC discovers the Jewish holiday

Early news reporting on the celebration of Hanukkah (or Chanukah, as it was popularly referred then) in New York usually took a arms-length approach, as most of their readership knew little about the celebration 100 years ago. More than one old Tribune or World carried a variant of the headline 'Jews Celebrate Chanukah' , as though there might have been some doubt. A 1905 headline informs: 'Chanukah, Commemorating Syrian Defeat, Lasts Eight Days.'

It wasn't just non-Jews that were misinformed about this seemingly mysterious holiday. A December 1894 edition of the New York Sun asks 'Christmas or Chanukah?' as a prominent rabbi from Temple Emanu-El (pictured at right, in its Fifth Avenue incarnation) "rebukes the tendency of Jews to confuse the festivals." In fact, many Jewish leaders at this time were concerned that many traditions were being abandoned, the better to acclimate in a city that was decidedly more Christian-seeming. 

The wife of American Jewish scholar Richard Gotthell* worried in 1900 that "this festival occurs so nearly coincident with the Christian festival of Christmas that there is danger that the observance of one may be lost in a gradual assimilation with the other."

But with the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews to New York in the 1900s, soon thousands celebrated the holiday -- and newspapers could hardly be so cavalier.

One event they took particular note of was the Chanukah celebration by the Federation of American Zionists, at the Herald Square Theater on January 1, 1911. One anecdote sprang out at me: "Dr. S. Levin spoke in Hebrew for an hour, on 'Jewish Life and Art.' He took exception to a certain Jewish speaker who recently declared that the Jews had produced nothing in art. Dr. Levin asserted that he was greievously wrong."

Across town at that very moment, a young Russian Jew named Irving Berlin was hammering out tunes in Tin Pan Alley and would debut, just a couple months later, 'Alexander's Ragtime Band', while other songwriters of Jewish heritage, such as Jerome Kern, were right then hard at work reinventing the American songbook. So, yes, Dr. Levin, grievously wrong.

And of course, these Jewish songwriters would go on to even help reinvent Christmas itself via a flurry of popular holiday tunes, like Berlin's own 'White Christmas.'

*Gotthell was also the founder of America's first Jewish fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau, formed in New York in 1898.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas in the afternoon: A tour around Greeley Square

I'm not 100% sure on the date of this photo, but I'll place it in the late 1940s, as Life photographer Nina Leen did a great many photoshoots for the magazine in this period. The statue of Horace Greeley sits astride the big Christmas tree as perfect afternoon light casts shadows upon the corner of 33rd and Broadway. Here's a slightly different angle of the same scene.

Gimbels, at left, one of America's largest department store chains in the 1940s, was presumably filled with shoppers. The building to its north was is Sak's Herald Square, the ancestor of the far swankier Saks Fifth Avenue. Out of view at 34th Street is, of course, Macy's.

The Hotel McAlpin, at right, was once the biggest hotel in the world when it was built in 1912. The storefront that sits at the corner of 33rd and Broadway is Crawford's men's clothing store. Today that same corner is occupied by Game Stop.

On the southeast corner of 33rd and Broadway was Whelan's Drugstore, an New York drug store and soda fountain chain in its heyday during the 1940s and 50s. Its business neighbor was Young's hat shop, specializing in Stetsons.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Notes from the podcast (#132): Electric New York

Manhattan grid illuminated, taken from the Metropolitan Life Tower in Madison Square, looking downtown. I'm not sure when this photo was taken, but a reasonable guess might be the late 1910s. The caption says 'New York Edison Company, Photographic Bureau.' (Photo courtesy NYPL)

FOR MORE INFORMATION: We just scratched the surface on the 'war of the currents' and 19th century American achievements in electricity. Luckily there are a great many readable books on the subject. Tom's favorite is 'Empire of Light' by Jill Jonnes which descriptively recounts the battles between Edison and Westinghouse. There's also the breezy 'AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War' by Tom McNichol which is a more sensationalist take on the subject.

 If you want a broader history of electricity and power (one that includes the innovations of steam and gas), nothing is better than Maury Klein's 'The Power Makers.'

There are dozens of books and films on Thomas Edison himself, but I highly recommend 'The Wizard of Menlo Park' by Randall E. Stross, probably the most engrossing of the books listed.

FURTHER LISTENING: If you enjoyed this episode, you might also like our show on the history of Times Square (Episode #118, find the blog entry here, download the show from here). And of course, Edison makes a significant appearance in NYC and the Birth of the Movies (Episode #120, blog entry here, download show here).

Now, if you dare go back to some of our really older shows I also make a mention of electricity's impact on the development of Coney Island. We delve into the Brooklyn amusement neighborhood's early history in Episode #12: Coney Island: the Golden Age (download). And of course, one of our earliest podcasts ever was on the Blackout of 1977. It's Episode #5, dozens of podcasts ago, so be kind! (here)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Electric New York: From gaslight to Edison's Pearl Street Station, illuminating the shadows, re-visualizing the night

The soft luminescence of electric light brings a mysterious glow to City Hall, the New York World Building and the newly opened City Hall subway station in 1904.

PODCAST The streets of New York have been lit in various ways through the decades, from the wisps of whale-oil flame to the modern comfort of gas lighting. With the discovery of electricity, it seemed possible to illuminate the world with a more dependable, potentially inexhaustible energy source.

First came arc light and 'sun towers' with their brilliant beams of white-hot light casting shadows down among the holiday shoppers of Ladies Mile in 1880. But the genius of Menlo Park, Thomas Edison, envisioned an entire city grid wired for electricity. From Edison's Pearl Street station, the inventor turned a handful of blocks north of Wall Street into America's first area entirely lit with the newly invented incandescent bulbs.

ALSO: It's the War of Currents, the enigmatic Nicola Tesla and the world's first electric Christmas lights

You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: Electric New York

Notes, clarifications, sources, and additional information will be posted next week

The home of Samuel Leggett, the first to be illuminated with gas lighting, at 7 Cherry Street. This home stood  just a few blocks from the location of Edison's Pearl Street Station (255-7 Pearl Street), which would also change the way people consider lighting their city. (NYPL)

Inside the Pearl Street Station: Direct current surged through Edison's generators to the neighboring blocks.

Laying the electrical wires under the streets of the blocks surrounding the Pearl Street station was an arduous, potential dangerous task. It took well over a year to complete the job. (Courtesy NYPL)

'New York The Wonder City', and indeed it was, thanks to electricity. Whole neighborhoods, like Times Square and Coney Island, were defined by it. Landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge, thoroughfares like the Bronx's Grand Concourse and even Broadway itself were transformed at night by electric power. (NYPL)

Nikola Tesla, the brilliant Serbian inventor who spent his final decades in New York living in hotels and communing with pigeons.
Behold! The first Christmas tree with electrical lighting, courtesy Edison employee Edward Hibberd Johnson. This tree glittered and twirled from Johnson's home in Murray Hill. (Courtesy Jim on Light)

On the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of the lightbulb, an elderly Thomas Edison 'reinvents' it in 1929 at a reconstructed laboratory in Dearborn, Michigan, to the delight of Henry Ford and newly elected President Herbert Hoover.

 And finally, footage of the death of renegade Coney Island elephant Topsy, electrocuted in an Edison experiment of the viability of electric power to kill.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

All of the Lights: An invention of Edison's invention

A new podcast will be ready for download later this evening!

The film 'Edison, The Man' was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, which is appropriate because most of the movie is entirely fictional, including this re-imagining of Edison's Pearl Street Station and the first blocks cast in the glow of incandescent lights.

In truth, the 'switch' was flipped from the offices of J.P. Morgan at Wall and Broad streets in 1882, and not from the ruddier station on Pearl Street. And, while many were impressed, there was hardly such a hat-tossing ruckus made in the street as depicted here. After all, streets had gaslights already, and some people even criticized the first electrical bulbs with having inferior light.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Holidays on Ice 1861: Skaters flock to Brooklyn's icy ponds

Williamsburg(h)'s Union Pond, one of the finest destinations for ice skating in the city, 1863. It later became America's first enclosed baseball field.

The nation was at war one hundred and fifty years ago, but that didn't stop the austere celebrations in the 'borough of churches'. But while thousands of Brooklyn residents attended church that morning in 1861, many participated in a more whimsical holiday celebration -- wild and uncontrollable ice skating.

So famous was the city of Brooklyn's famed ponds -- which reliably froze each winter -- that New Yorkers by the boatloads crammed into ferries across the East River to join in the icy merriment. On really cold days, of course, it was often the East River itself that froze solid. But in 1861, an unseasonable warmth kept the river disappointingly liquid, forcing thousands of skaters upon Brooklyn's small ponds where the ice quickly melted.

For instance, Washington Pond (at right), at 5th Avenue and 6th Street -- then considered Gowanus, today it's Park Slope -- was normally ideal for skating. Horse-drawn streetcars took crowds right from the Fulton Ferry to the door of the nearby old stone house, built in 1699 and famous for its role in the Revolutionary War. (It's why the pond is named for Washington, after all.) But on Christmas 1861, "the ice was unpleasantly rough" there.

Skaters may have found more success at other Brooklyn skating destinations. The Capitoline Skating Lake, near the train station in the former independent village of Bedford, was known as the "principle pond of the Western District." In Williamsburg, the versatile 'world-renownUnion Pond drew thousands during the winter and thousands more in the summer -- as the nation's first enclosed baseball field. On this particular day, the newly opened pond in its 'gay and brilliant appearance' was crammed with skaters laughing and caroling, in various states of sobriety.

By the afternoon of Christmas 1861, most of the closest ponds were mushy and nearly dangerous. At a pond on Third Avenue, "a gentlemen with two ladies fell trough the ice and took their Christmas immersion without any material damage save a very decided shivering," according to the Brooklyn Eagle.

Urban ice enthusiasts were forced to follow the advice of horsecars festooned with the signs 'Good Skating in East Brooklyn'. I'm not sure exactly where crowds went that day, but a New York Times article from a three years later lists several 'free ponds' that might have been available for ice skating that day, including Seller's Pond "in Bedford, near the Jamaica Pond Road", "Dumbleton's Pond on Myrtle Avenue" and the Suydam's Pond, "on Atlantic-avenue near the Hunters-Ferry road.".

All that skating and merriment drove many to more intoxicating holiday spirits, preferring their drinks 'on the rocks', or as the 1861 Eagle reports, "the boys will insist that 'Christmas comes but once a year' and with it comes a large measure of 'good cheer' and so they must get cheerful." The most serious altercation came with one reveler, tiring of throwing rocks at boys, attempted to pistol whip a police officer.

The more respectable Brooklynites traipsed home at dawn, as the gaslights meet the fading light, casting the wet snow in a bright glare. Many reformed again for choirs of caroling, or else to distribute presents at charity 'Christmas tree exercises', where children lined up outside downtown theaters hoping for presents and a gander at the gorgeously trimmed tree, sparkling with candles.

Top pic courtesy NYPL. Second pic courtesy the Old Stone House.

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Very Special New York Newsies Christmas

The gritty image of the scrappy 19th century newsboy, the can-do kid slinging newspapers from the street corner, full of vinegar and character, was an encouraging invention of the newspapers themselves. Children were cheap labor, willing to sling stacks of freshly printed papers to corners across the city. Many kids preferred the profession to that of bootblack or messenger boy, and it was certainly more profitable than peddling door to door.

Newsies were frequently mentioned within general-interest stories of homeless, outcast whelps, considered almost blissfully, as though their own news delivery forces weren't themselves part of that pathetic number. The papers stereotyped newsboys (who were occasionally girls, too) as orphans or 'street arabs' with purpose, self-sufficient little adults plucked by their profession from the grasp of destitution.

Many children were homeless; the lucky ones took shelter in 'newsboy lodging homes', but many braved it in doorways and slept over gratings. Some found this life preferable to New York's houses of refuge, dreary orphanages that were often grouped with homeless shelters or other asylums. Those children who did have families took employment out of necessity or as a means of escape. It took organized action (culminating in the Newsboy Strike of 1899) and the work of child-labor activists like photographer Lewis Hine to highlight the unsavory conditions and low pay.

Below: A newsboy posing for a Jacob Riis picture at the Duane Street lodging house, 1889

No time was worse for a newsboy than winter. Not only was it physically difficult to sell newspapers in cold and snowy weather -- or worse, the wet, wintry mix that often typifies the New York season -- but children were rarely dressed for comfort. The idea of Christmas was a luxury. As newspapers were sometimes heavier due to increased page count, some children may have even dreaded the holiday.

But the Gilded Age wealthy were charitable around the holiday, and a few lucky 'urchins' got a gracious Christmas handout.

Some groups, like Charles Loring Brace's Childrens Aid Society, worked year-round to get children off the streets, via 'orphan trains' that sent children to live with families in other places. Those that remained in New York, the ones fortunate enough to find shelter at a newsboys lodging house like the one at 9 Duane Street, celebrated the holidays with an large annual feast hosted by importer William M. Fleiss. The wealthy trader brought annual Christmas meals to the needy children at the lodging house for almost thirty years. "The newsboys were not overlooked by Santa Claus, " said the New York Times in 1893.

Below: Dinner at a newsboys lodging home, from an earlier period (1867), courtesy NYPL

At the 1897 dinner, the lodging house dining room was festooned with evergreen branches and white linens. Children ate in shifts, enjoying a bountiful feast that included ham, turkey, mashed potatoes and plenty of pie. A familiar face at some of these lodging dinners was a young police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, his father being a co-founder of Brace's aid society.

Reformer Jacob Riis recounts one such dinner:

"Tramp! tramp! comes the to-morrow upon the stage. Two hundred and fifty pairs of little feet, keeping step, are marching to dinner in the Newsboys' Lodging-House. Five hundred pairs more are restlessly awaiting their turns upstairs....As the file of eagle-eyed youngsters passes down the long tables, there are swift movements of grimy hands, and shirt-waits bulge, ragged coats sag at the pockets. Hardly is the file seated when the pliant rises: 'I ain't got no pie! It got swiped on me.' Seven despoiled ones hold up their hands."

There was plenty of room for shenanigans at this dinner. Another source confirms that "a few fine, soft pies were deposited down some unfortunate newsboy's back between his shirt and him." By most accounts, however, more food was eaten than thrown.

Fleiss's generosity, while certainly genuine, kept him in good social company. The wife of William Waldorf Astor (not to be confused with her aunt, in social parlance THE Mrs. Astor) paid for Thanksgiving suppers for the boys. And for Mr Fleiss, charity may have had a more soul-cleansing motive. In 1894, he was accused during the Lexow police corruption investigation of giving a prominent inspector "about $5,000 to $6.000 as a result of speculation in stocks."

Another group of newsboys in 1898 enjoyed a bountiful dinner of "oysters on the half shell, consomme julienne, radishes, celery, salmon, mayonnaise dressing, turkey and cranberry sauce" courtesy of early grocery giant Frank Tilford of Park & Tilfords, the Whole Foods of its day.

Top picture: Photographed by Lewis Hine, caption "Group of newsboys starting out at Brooklyn Bridge early Sunday morning," courtesy NYPL

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

From a Bowery tattoo parlor: "Remember Pearl Harbor!"

Charlie Wagner (seen above, in the sombrero) was New York's most skilled and revolutionary tattoo artist of his day, plying his ink trade behind the partition of a "five-chair barber shop" on the Bowery, according to a 1943 New York Times article. His shop was at 11 Chatham Square (pictured below), unsurprisingly located beneath the elevated train station.

In that article, he heralds the war effort for driving up the demand for tattoos. (The headline of the article is actually 'War Booms The Tattooing Art'.) His most popular piece featured an inked dagger with the phrase "Remember Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941."

Wagner is an historic figure of subculture, the "dean of tattoo artists," designing and administering his work for almost half a decade, from his first apprenticeship in 1908 (in the very shop he was to later own) to his death in 1953. He even held the patent for an "electric tattoo device", a precursor to the tools used by a modern tattooist.* Wagner decorated many of Coney Island's early sideshow stars and is even credited with being among the first to apply 'permanent lipliner' for women.

But the war also produced unfavorable results for Wagner. He was arrested in 1944 for violating the city's sanitary code due to allegedly unwashed needles.

Sadly, when Wagner died, most of his work was thrown out, so we have little original documentation of his particular artistry. Yet his influence was noted later that decade in an article by young writer Gay Talese. "A tattoo fan can distinguish the precise pecks of Chicago's famous Tatts Thomas from the free strokings of the late Charlie Wagner as easily as an art critic can tell a Modigliani from a Grandma Moses."

*Some also credit the invention of the tattoo machine to Wagner's mentor Samuel O'Reilly, who first owned the Chatham Square tattoo/barber parlor. It seems likely they worked on it together.

Top picture (c 1947) courtesy the blog Inkflesh who have more information on the history of New York tattoo artists. Secondary picture of Wagner's shop courtesy Monroe Stein/Tumblr

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The first board game: Before Monopoly, a whirlwind tour around America became the perfect Christmas gift

The 24 States: playing field for America's first board game

HOW NEW YORK SAVED CHRISTMAS My yearly roundup of little events in New York history that actually helped establish the standard Christmas traditions many Americans celebrate today. Not just New York-centric events like the Rockefeller Christmas Tree or the Rockettes, but actual components of the festivities that are practiced in people's homes. You can read past articles in this series here.

Board games are a staple of the holiday gift-giving season and one of the presents most easily guessed correctly by children when sitting wrapped under the tree. My young niece has already texted me strongly implying she would like to see the new UNO ROBOTO under the tree this year.What if I decided to be the weirdest uncle in the world and give her the first board game ever sold in America -- The Travellers Tour through the United States, first manufactured and sold in New York?

Contests played on wooden boards (like backgammon and chess) have been around for millenia, but they were mostly seen as an adult dalliance, often kingly, sometimes undignified, and almost never for children.

The concept of non-physical boxed games for adolescents developed, not surprisingly, for educational uses. Board games are actually the step-children of maps, with many 18th century European models focusing on geographic instruction. Considering the penchant of European countries to invade each other then, this may have been both useful for teachers and vexing for students.

Historians trace the first real children's board game to that party in a box called The Mansion of Happiness, indoctrinating Puritan values as children maneuvered pieces along a winding, multi-colored path. Although the game was invented in England in 1800, it took several decades to be reproduced in the United States. By this time, New York kids already had their own board game.

It debuted in 1822, courtesy the brother book publishers Frederick and Roe Lockwood. Their father, the spectacularly named Lambert Lockwood, owned a book store in Bridgeport, Connecticut. According to game historian Joseph Angiolillo, it's believed Lambert also sold 'linen games' which could be unfurled on the floor, folded and put away. (Think of Twister, but less shocking.) The Lockwood's fine home would not be far from that of the downtown Bridgeport residence of P.T. Barnum.

With father's help, the young brothers moved to New York in the late 1810s to start their own publishing business, setting up a small shop at 154 Broadway at Liberty Street (today, catty-corner Zuccotti Park). They appear to have specialized in 'foreign works' -- probably books in other languages -- but had a few startlingly devout titles in their collection, from  "Views on Theology: President Edward's Doctrine of Original Sin, the Doctrine of Physical Depravity" to "The Excellence and Influence of the Female Character." They even dabbled in game instruction with the 1821 guide "Instructive and Amusing Pastimes."

In 1822, they developed an educational tool for the purpose of learning American geography -- a topic not terribly complicated back then -- and called it The Travellers Tour through the United States. Essentially, it was a map of the states and territories, including the freshly unveiled states of Missouri and Maine and the blue lumpen-shaped Arkansas territory. The map was printed on some type of flexible wooden board that could be folded.

The object of Travellers was to give the names of cities and places, with players following a line around the board. Seems easy, right? In a more advanced version of the game, however, one also had to guess the population total. I cannot think of a more apt symbol of the pride for American expansion than this particular feature. The first player to get to New Orleans won.

There were no dice with The Travellers Tour through the United States, being associated with gambling and vice. Instead, players maneuvered around the terrain via a spinner, a far easier method of cross-country travelling than the one chosen by Lewis & Clark several years previous.

The game was clearly successful enough in their store that two expanded versions were created, The Traveller's Tour through Europe and The Traveller's Tour through the World.

The Lockwoods aimed their board games to holiday shoppers. In in the 1820s, however, many New Yorkers didn't celebrate on Christmas; in a Puritan throwback, many believed celebrating on Jesus's birthday itself was too unholy. New Years celebrations, however, were just as relevant, with families visiting the homes of friends and neighbors, often bearing gifts.

The brothers Lockwood were ready: "VALUABLE NEW-YEAR PRESENTS," according to one old newspaper."The works of Byron, Scott, Cowper, elegant bindings." And among the books they sold backgammon and chess boards. With such games for adults, the Travellers series must have seemed a desirable purchase, lest they leave the children jealous.

The Lockwoods continued making books through the 1820s at this location, although it doesn't appear they were in business together after 1830. One source mentions Frederick Lockwood as a watchmaker later in life. His brother Roe, however, stayed in the book business, partnering with his son. It appears he even later published the extraordinary illustrations of John James Audubon.

I'm not sure what happened with the building at 154 Broadway, but if it was still standing in 1845, it was surely destroyed in the Great Explosion of 1845.

One final note -- in 1822, just as the Lockwoods were debuting their new board game, a wealthy gentleman uptown in his estate (the austere Chelsea manor) became inspired by the holiday season and wrote a festive poem. The following year, that man, Clement Clarke Moore, published it under the title "A Visit From St. Nicholas," aka 'Twas the Night Before Christmas."

Top pic courtesy NYPL

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Wretched Anniversary: The Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876

It is difficult to discuss calmly the frightful disaster which happened in Brooklyn on Tuesday night. No such awful sacrifice of human life has ever been known in this country shipwreck and the casualties of war alone being excepted. -- New York Times editorial, Dec. 7, 1876 

  One hundred and thirty-five years this evening, nearly a thousand playgoers entered the Brooklyn Theater, at Washington and Johnson streets near City Hall, to enjoy the well-reviewed (and lengthy) production of N. Hart Jackson's 'The Two Orphans'. During the show's final act, stage hands discovered that a set piece backstage had caught fire. The actors onstage attempted gamely to stay in character, for fear of causing a panic, until fiery bits of wood and flaming parts of the set began raining down upon them.

As the audience leapt to the aisles in terror, the actors tried to calm people to prevent a stampede, to no avail. An usher forced open a rarely used exit door to free audience members, but the rush of December air only fed the flames, turning the once elegant auditorium, built only five years previous, into an inescapable trap of heat and asphyxiation.

Those in the upper tiers of the theater -- the 'family circle', or cheap seats, filled with men, women and children -- were trapped by smoke within darkened foyers and unnavigable stairwells. Some fell from balconies to their deaths. Dozens were crushed heading for doorways, and to some of those who survived, it seemed that all respectability had given way to base animal behavior. Most perished by suffocation or underfoot, while others were lost into the oblivion of belching smoke when weakened floors gave way.

Twenty five minutes after flames were first spotted backstage, one entire wall of the Brooklyn Theater caved backwards into the inferno, the once elegant ceiling fresco nothing but a crumbling scorch now. Flaming projectiles caught in the wind settled upon surrounding structures, and firefighters scrambled to soak the inferno, now in fear of scattering randomly through one of Brooklyn's oldest neighborhood. Most in danger was the hotel on the corner, where some audience members had found momentary safety.  

Since 1869, Brooklyn had a paid fire department, and many fought the fire from the streets. But the rudimentary firefighting implements of the day were unable to combat the inferno. The Brooklyn Theater burned for several hours more, dying out by early morning. Throughout the night, most could only watch -- what to do, plunge into darkness? -- and many did watch. Thousands flocked, some to help, others fascinated, horrified.

Inspectors found an unspeakably grisly sight the next morning, heaps of burned bodies in formless masses -- people choked or crushed, their remains almost unrecognizable amid blackened debris. In an eerie parallel to two later disasters (the General Slocum explosion of 1904 and the Triangle Factory Fire of 1911), a make-shift morgue was prepared on nearby Adams Street to accommodate the dozens of unidentifiable corpses.

Nobody is sure exactly how many died that evening -- some number between 275 to 300 people. It is certainly among the worst disasters in Brooklyn history and one of the most catastrophic fires in American history.

The place where the theater once stood is now occupied by Cadman Plaza, in the grove of trees just east of the Henry Ward Beecher statue. Many of the bodies (over a hundred) are buried together under a memorial at Green-Wood Cemetery.

Top picture courtesy NYPL

Below: the area of Cadman Plaza where the Brooklyn Theater once stood.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Thermos Building, keeping it hot (and cool) in Chelsea

A charming family enjoys its insulated beverages -- just as they like it, just as they need it -- in an ad from 1909.

 The invention of the vacuum flask in 1892 (by Scottish chemist Sir James Dewar) does not rank high among mankind's most remarkable inventions, but its longevity relies on being a steady companion. The first gas-operated motor vehicle debuted in Massachusetts the following year. In an era before disposable containers, the vacuum flask came along at exactly the right time. Now, people could travel long distances of their own accord and drink a hot beverage along the way. In the 1890s, the road trip was born.

Believe it or not, Dewar was not a member of the family that produced the famed Scottish whiskey, although I suspect much of that intoxicant has been stored in Dewar's vacuum invention. Like many inventors, Dewar was not terribly business-savvy, and he failed to properly patent and profit from his own creation, unsuccessfully taking rivals to court.

One of those competitors, the German glass blowers Burger and Aschenbrenner, ran away with the industry. They loosely named their revised vacuum flask after the Greek word for 'heat' and began producing the Thermos for local use in 1904. Two years later, William B. Walker, an American visiting the Munich-based Thermos plant, became enamored of the magic container and obtained a license from the Thermos company to bring the product to America the following year.

Walker opened the American Thermos Bottle Company in 1907, producing the containers out of a small factory in Brooklyn, in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge. (Today's DUMBO neighborhood, 31 Washington Street, to be precise. The building is all condos today, so that means one or more people are living in an old Thermos factory as you read this.)

His timing could not have been more divine. Auto dealerships began popping up around Times Square, driving a market for accessories. New York's continuing construction boom -- paired with less advantageous lunch-break privileges -- suggested new uses for the Thermos.

But most likely it was Walker's clever marketing strategies that made the Thermos a desirable product. As seen in the advertisement at top, the Thermos brought the family together. It was traditional. At the same time, it was a marvel of invention, at an affordable price. An ad (at right) that ran 100 years ago today, in the New York Tribune, heralds its appropriateness as a Christmas present. "It does just what everyone wants done -- it keeps coffee, tea, soup, etc., hot for 24 hours."

Walker soon expanded the Thermos company. While his marketing and distribution team moved to a swank office near Madison Square (1171 Broadway), his production facilities moved to Chelsea in 1910, to 232 West 18th Street, with additional entrances on West 17th Street. "The building will hereafter be known as the Thermos Building," proclaimed the New York Times.

The product began popping up in truly odd places, all engineered for the maximum of publicity. Most of the 200,000 New Yorkers who lined Broadway for an "automobile carnival parade" in 1909 observed one prize-winning vehicle -- a car in the shape of a Thermos bottle. (The Thermos car below is from the 1909 Vanderbilt Cup races, in Long Island. I imagine it must be the same vehicle. Pic courtesy Vanderbilt Cup Races.)

The Thermos made a stout companion during the era of exploration. E. H. Shackleton had one during his 1909 voyage to the South Pole, as did Robert Peary on a his similar expedition north. The Wright Brothers allegedly had one on their early planes. Back on Earth, so did the President of the United States that year, William Howard Taft.

Christmas shoppers along Ladies Mile, not far from the Thermos Building, would have found a wide selection of sizes. According to Charles Panati, "A quart-size Thermos sold for $7.50; the pint size for $5.00." Those are appliance prices; according to the Inflation Calculator, a $5 Thermos in 1910 is equal to a $115 product today. (I don't know what that ad above is talking about with its $1.00 Thermos.)

Demand soon required larger facilities, and the Thermos company moved out of the Thermos Building. But not before a disaster that struck on May 1, 1913, a fire that quickly swept through the structure, rather unsettling in light of the Triangle Factory Fire that occurred just two years before. Luckily, most of the Thermos employees were out to lunch, and a hero, "Samuel Gumps, a negro elevator man" rescued employees from the top floors. Although "several girl employees" were forced to escape to the rooftop.

The Thermos company moved its headquarters to Norwich, Connecticut.  Today the building is a basic residential address, its Thermos Building name long forgotten. (As the building cuts through the block, it's known today as 245 West 17th Street.)  On the 18th Street side, it's just next door to Barney's Co-Op. Perhaps they sell Thermos there?

By the way, I love that in the early days of this product, it was sometimes marketed as 'Thermos, the Bottle."