Friday, June 29, 2012

The Rockaways and Rockaway Beach: The strange fortunes of New York's former resort oasis and amusement getaway

The entrance to Rockaways' Playland in the 1960s, one of the more nostalgic reminders of an era in the Rockaways gone by. (Image courtesy the blog Sand In Your Shoes)

PODCAST The Rockaways are a world unto its own, a former resort destination with miles of beach facing into the Atlantic Ocean, a collection of diverse neighborhoods and a truly quirky history.

Retaining a variant of its original Lenape name, the peninsula remained relatively peaceful in the early years of New York history, aland holding of the ancestral family of a famous upstate New York university.

The Marine Pavilion, a luxury spa-like lodging which arrived in 1833 featuring the new trend of 'sea bathing', opened up vast opportunities for recreation on the peninsula, and soon Rockaway Beach was dotted with dozens of hotels, thousands of daytrippers and a even a famous amusement park.

Not even the fiasco known as the Rockaway Beach Hotel could drive away those seeking recreation here, including a huge population of Irish immigrants who helped define the unique spirit of the Rockaways.

The 20th century brought Robert Moses and his usual brand of reinvention, setting up the Rockaways for an uncertain century of decreased tourism, urban blight and uncommon solutions to preserve its unique identity.

FEATURING: Pirate attacks, an inferno in Irishtown, the Cabaret de la Morte, and the legend of Hog Island, New York's very own Atlantis!

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

Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: Rockaway Beach

Next Week: Some books, additional resources, a couple more pictures and some more stories left out of this week's podcast.

A zoning map of the Jamaica Bay region from 1937, featuring the Rockaway peninsula. A few interesting things to note about this, including: 1) no Idlewild Airport at this time, but Floyd Bennett Field was still in operation, 2) Rockaway Beach Improvement, 3) Everything west of Jacob Riis Park is basically ignored. [source]

The Marine Pavilion, the first significant resort destination in the Rockaways, introduced the notion of sea bathing to New Yorkers and attracted famous writers and actors to this peaceful area. [Courtesy Rockaway Memories]


This is not an image from the Rockaways, but 'bathing machines' like these were most certainly used in the early days of Rockaway Beach.

A couple examples of hotels that once filled the peninsula during the late 19th century, early 20th century, the Woodburgh House (at top) from 1870, the Kuloff (at bottom) from 1903.

The boardwalk from 1903 in front of or near a section of Steeplechase Park, I believe, judging from the mini-railroad tracks along the side. [source]


Along Seaside Avenue, possibly depicting an area of 'Irishtown', in 1903, rebuilt after a devastating fire the decade previous.

The bungalows of Rockaway. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

The 1950s began a long era of difficulties for the Rockaways, but you wouldn't know it from this summertime Life Magazine photo from 1956. Click into the image to inspect some of the interesting and long-vanished shops and amusements along the boardwalk.

This almost-ghostly skeleton of a high-rise housing development never built stood for years as the residents of neighboring Breezy Point successfully fought to kill that project and other intrusive plans by the city in the late 1960s. Picture courtesy Arthur Tress/US National Archives.

The mysterious remains of old Fort Tilden, now part of the Gateway Recreation Area and completely taken over by nature. For many more pictures of this area, please visit our Facebook page and check out my photo album on the ruins of Fort Tilden.
The thrashing waves of Rockaway make for good surfing:

 And, what posting about the Rockaways would be complete without:

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Bowery Boys New York City swimsuit edition, 1880-1920

Bathing beauty: Diver Maggie Ward prepares for a jump into the waters of Coney Island, in the summer of 1888

 The notion of organized 'ocean bathing' -- actually going into the water for health, relaxation and enjoyment -- was really a 19th century invention, first popularized in the United States during the 1830s at the Marine Pavilion on the Rockaway Peninsula. For propriety's sake, people would enter a bathing hut hitched to a horse and ride the container as it was backed into the water, exiting from the hut in their full-body swimming apparel only when safely immersed in the water. No risk of seeing wet fabric clinging seductively to the human form!

Fifty years later, bathers would dare walk to the beach sans horse-drawn hut. But their beach apparel still matched the modesty of their regular wear. Here are a few examples of garments -- for sunbathing, swimming or just relaxing -- worn at some of New York's most popular beaches of the late 19th-early 20th century.

Why needs a bikini? Daring ladies risk the surf in regular wear on the Rockaway beachfront, 1897

Serving up shenanigans in the waters of Brighton Beach, 1886

Three female athletes, readying for a ocean swimming match out at Coney Island, await the competition with a few oddly fully clothed men, 1887

Classing it up a little with the 'sand crowds' along the Midland Beach boardwalk in Staten Island, no date, but probably between 1900-1910.

The dapper sea threads adorning the trendy beachgoers at Long Beach, 1882. Okay, this is technically in Nassau County, not New York City proper, but how could I not give these styles a showcase?

Check out little Minnie Pearl and her fine hatted friends at Rockaway, date unknown.

Bathers in black luxuriate in a swimming hole in Pelham Bay, 1903

And finally, I'm not quite sure this avant garde look ever made it onto the beach. But if you want to look like you're floating over the beach without legs, why not try these camouflage beach leggings, advertised in Harper's Magazine in September 1919?

Pictures 1-3 courtesy Life/Google images, Pictures 4-8 New York Public Library

Monday, June 25, 2012

Union busted: Hotel and restaurant workers end their strike

Above: Restaurant workers walk off the job at Sherry's Restaurant at Fifth Avenue in 1912

One hundred years ago today, a rather peculiar worker's strike ended, a protest which had paralyzed New York's restaurant and hotel industries for almost two months. The strike had begun in early May, and by the month's end, thousands of employees had walked off their jobs, leaving diners in emptied restaurants and wealthy hotel guests to carry their own luggage.

What made this particular walkout unusual weren't the demands -- improved conditions and pay, recognition of their newly formed union -- but the locations where the strikes occurred. The employees of the very toniest and best known restaurants and hotels left their jobs in unison. Establishment affected included the Plaza, the Hotel Astor, Hotel Knickerbocker, the Waldorf-Astoria, the St. Regis, the Vanderbilt, and restaurants like Delmonico's and Sherry's (pictured above), among dozens of others.

Workers decided to return to work after a mass gathering on June 25, at the old New Amsterdam Opera House at 44th Street and Eighth Avenue. While some employers agreed to a few paltry changes, most of the strikers demands were not met, including the recognition of their union. (And to this day, they're not unionized.)

Some hotels actually refused to hire back anybody who had join the strikers. Or as the proprietor of the Waldorf  put it: "I told these men that a job at the Waldorf is not an apple hanging on a tree. I told them that we were doing better than ever, then I told them goodbye."

And even their timing was lousy. Drama at the Democratic presidential convention in Baltimore knocked the strike almost completely out of the headlines that week.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Beware the New York vampires: A seductive film star inspires an army of 'golden haired' Broadway sex goddesses

 Maneater: Theda Bara in an unconventional portrait. Her publicist claimed it was her lover and that 'not even the grave could separate them'.

"A vampire is a good woman with a bad reputation, or rather a good woman who has had possibilities and wasted them" -- Florenz Ziegfeld

Progressive, liberated women were clearly so frightening one hundred years ago that equating them to undead, bloodthirsty creatures borne of Satan didn't seem so unusual.

In the late 1910s, women were on the verge of winning the right for equal representation in the voting booth. Women were asserting power in unions, and, in the wake of disasters like the Triangle Factory Fire, those unions were influencing government policy. They were taking control of their destinies, their fortunes, even their sexuality (Margaret Sanger's first birth control clinic opened in 1916).

This surging independence came just as the entertainment industry heralded the female form as one of its primary attractions. Ziegfeld's sassy, flesh-filled Follies -- and its many imitators -- defined the Broadway stage, mixing  music, sex and glamour with a morality-shattering frankness.

But it was the birth of motion pictures that gave the allure of female bodies an unearthly, flickering glow, as nickelodeon shorts became feature-length films, and the first era of the movie siren was born.

Combine the power of liberation with the erotic potential of cinema, and in the late 1910s, you got the vampire (or as we would come to know, the 'vamp').

The queen of the vamps was one of America's most mysterious movie stars -- Theda Bara (at left). The magnetic actress, with her steely gaze and jetblack hair, was the prototype for a movie bad girl. She shook convention so dramatically that a critic called her a "flaming comet of the cinema firmament."

From 1915-1919, she made over three dozen films, most in movie studios located in Fort Lee, New Jersey. It were here that she acquired her famous nickname, based upon her role as a home wrecker in a film inspired by Rudyard Kipling's 'The Vampire'. During this period, Bara lived in Manhattan's Gramercy Park with her family -- at 132 E. 19th Street.

She put a face to a new sort of young lady. These were the spiritual children of the prior generation of newly empowered women who fought against the constraints of Victorian society. A few years later, as another vein of female power (the temperance movement) helped bring about Prohibition, these young women would be called flappers, carefree and fueled on the powers of jazz and illegal alcohol.

But to the established class, these ladies weren't trend-setters. They were devils in black gowns. 'Know a 'Vampire' by the Card She Plays', warned a New York Evening World article from March 1919, accompanied by a Theda Bara-like illustration of a snake-like monster.

The article recounts the efforts of a Newark judge attempting the rid the streets of "flirty girlies," as he called them. "A vampire is a woman who flirts on the street with men, bleaches her hair, camouflages her face, disguises herself with clothes and gives wrong names, but is unable to change her eyes or dimples." The article laughs off his puny efforts. "Can vamps, of whatever sort, BE suppressed?"

Vampires were of course more readily seen in Times Square, dancers, actresses or cabaret stars. But even your stenographer could be one!, warned one article.

Unlike Bara's iconic identity as a raven-locked seductress, most 'real' vampires were blondes. "[T]he vampire of real life hath the golden hair of an angel, which is never disarranged, same when she letteth it down, to DISPLAY it, on the beach," warned columnist Helen Rowland, with a little tongue in cheek. (Ms. Rowland was famous for her writings as a 'bachelor girl'.)

"No one ever saw a vampire in a high neck dress," said an Evening World advice columnist in 1918. "All vampires must reveal their collar-bones and the contiguous territory."

The woman vampire was an urban creature, up all night, sleeping all the day. The city was partial cause for her condition. As the New York Times suggested in 1920, "The idea of New York as a vampire to the rest of the country is one which a number of persons have entertained and expressed. To some of them the vampire is Wall Street, to others it is the region of white lights [Broadway]."

Many actress got stuck with the term 'vamp' or 'baby vampire' -- or else, embraced the coy terminology. Juliette Day was a known 'baby vampire' for her role in the scandalous 1916 play 'Upstairs and Down'. It's no surprise that in the film version from 1919, the role is reprised by the notorious Olive Thomas, a Ziegfeld girl who met a bitter end the following year.

Some actress fought against the alleged stigma. Actress Clara Joel, playing a vampire-type role in a 1918 film, made it known in the Tribune that "she is not a vampire and that she was born in Jersey City."

The irony of stage actresses trying to shed a vampire image is that Theda Bara, the original vampire, in her first stage attempt in 1920, flopped. The play was supernatural-themed 'The Blue Flame' which opened at the Shubert Theater to cavalcades of unintentional laughter.(A 'terrible thing', according to the Times critic.) Bara, who had to deliver such lines as "Did you remember to bring the cocaine?" was roundly trashed.

Shortly thereafter, the vampire moved to Los Angeles. Her film career lasted a few more years, but sound pictures and a strict Hollywood production code pretty much eradicated the existence of vamps on the screen. In New York, meanwhile, her sultry spawn morphed into flappers, populating the speakeasies and cabaret nightclubs of the city.

Below: A 1919 romp called 'The Vamp' performed by the Waldorf-Astoria Orchestra

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The legend of bank robber 'Red' Leary, his wife Kate, and the greatest jail break in Lower East Side history

 'Red' Leary was one of the famous bank robbers of the 1870s, assisting in heists all along the Northeast. Above is an illustration of a bank robbery in Montreal, Canada, displaying some of the tools found at the crime scene.

They don't talk about 'Red' Leary anymore down in the streets of the Lower East Side. In the hipster bars and boutiques, in the graphic design firms and the Chinese foot-massage parlors, his name goes virtually unspoken.

But over one hundred and thirty years ago, his unusual escape from the Ludlow Street Jail (pictured below) captivated New Yorkers, willing to overlook the rascal's criminal misdeeds to marvel at the ambitiously planned jail break, orchestrated by his wife Kate Leary. 'A Hero and a Burglar' proclaimed the New York Times, appalled that teenagers were "absolutely besides themselves and exultant over the daring deed, each individual boy wishing, for the moment, that we was a Red Leary."

John 'Red' Leary was one of the northeast's most notorious bank robbers of the 1870s, frequently pairing with other known criminals of the day to pull of spectacular heists. In particular, as a part of the gang of George Leonidas Leslie (nicknamed "king of bank robbers"), Leary helped make off with thousands of dollars in stolen sums, involved in tricky operations that sometimes took years to plan.

According to Herbert Asbury, Leslie's gang was responsible for 80% of the bank robberies between 1874-84. Not sure how that number was specifically settled on, but needless to say, as a critical member of Leslie's operation, 'Red' Leary was a master at his chosen profession.

However, in December 1878, after a robbery at the Northampton Bank in Massachusetts (making off with a staggering $1.6 million), Leary was promptly captured back in New York at Second Avenue and 92nd Street, in connection with another bank robbery. It was decided to extricate Leary to Massachusetts to answer for the robbery there, so he was thrown into Ludlow Street Jail to await transferal.

The Ludlow Street Jail, between Broome and Grand streets, opened at 1862 as a debtors prison and a sometimes repository for New York's more infamous criminals. In fact, just several months before Leary's arrival, William 'Boss' Tweed had died in one of the cells here.

Leary would be sure not to meet the same fate, thanks in part to his wife, the fiery Coney Island pickpocket Kate Leary, and some of Red's criminal cohorts. Included among them were Shang Draper, a crooked saloon owner famous for drugging customers and shanghaiing them onto ships.

Kate had already helped her husband escape capture once before, in August 1877, when the duo eluded several officers at a hotel near Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn.  A lightly guarded prison in the middle of one of the most populated neighborhoods in the world was certainly no match for a woman as determined as Kate, known as much for her intelligence as for her venality.

In May of 1879, Mrs. Leary, in disguise, rented a tenement flat next door to the jail at 76 Ludlow Street.  She and her accomplices then knocked out a wall, drilling through the thick prison defenses until they broke through into the prisoner's bathroom, perfectly timed with Red's arrival there.

As author B.A. Botkin's describes: "No alarm was raised, nor was the tunnel leading to the room with its neatly piled ton of excavated brick discovered until 10:30. By that time the fugitive was on his way to Coney Island in a light truck."

As a judge has explicitly stated that Leary would probably try to escape, the clean extraction of the high profile criminal elicited mocking scorn at the jailers and officers involved. Saving face, Ludlow officials declared Leary's assisted release was "one of the most daring and skillfully-planned affairs of the kind to ever occur in the city," "executed by shrewd and bold criminals." [source]  The Ludlow jail would never really shake its, shall we say, porous reputation and was eventually demolished in the 1920s. Both the jail and the address 76 Ludlow Street would make way for Seward Park High School (pictured below, from 1930)

So dramatic was the 1879 Ludlow prison break that Leary and his crew were soon turned into folk heroes by the more rebellious residents of the Lower East Side. For this reason, the Leary escape is sometimes listed as a New York urban legend. But in fact, newspapers of the day spilled over with reports of the bold getaway.

Red Leary was eventually recaptured two years later and returned to Massachusetts to answer for his crimes there. He met a grim end in 1888 at the Knickerbocker Cottage (Sixth Avenue and 10th Street), smashed in the head with a brick by a card shark named William Train. His wife Kate literally drank herself to death in 1896 at a Coney Island hotel.

According to Botkin's 1956  book 'New York City Folklore', the legend of Red Leary even briefly entered sports vernacular. "So celebrated did the exploit become, that .... [a] coach who wanted to instruct a player to break loose and steal a base simply yelled, "Red Leary!"

Pictures courtesy New York Public Library

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Bowery Boys podcast turn 5 years old today!

And so our little history podcast experiences a little bit of a historical milestone itself.

Five years ago today, Tom Meyers and I sat down to record our very first podcast, over a bottle of wine and some brand new recording equipment. That first episode went by the unfortunate and unoriginal name 'New York 'Cast', a name which we abandoned in the second show, having been suddenly inspired by a certain well-dressed street gang described in Herbert Asbury's 'Gangs of New York'. This blog came along a couple weeks later.

The first topic of our first show was Collect Pond and Canal Street. We re-explored the topic to far more interesting effect in our 50th episode.

Hopefully you'll indulge us over the next few weeks as we look back on some of our big moments and give nod to some of the history we've already discussed.

I'm also using this occasion to launch a couple other Bowery Boys projects later this summer. The first should be ready to go starting late next month!

We've recorded 139 shows, with number 140 coming up next week. Although I've recorded a few solo shows -- and there have been a handful with special guests -- the most popular have featured both myself and Tom. If you haven't yet listened to the podcast yet, give it a try! Go to iTunes and download a few shows.

Here's a list of what I would consider our most successful episodes -- either by number of total listens/downloads or by the overall quality of the program. If you wouldn't mind, please vote for your favorite. This will help us come up with new ideas for the rest of the year.

Below: Take our poll!

Friday, June 15, 2012

'Mad Men' notes: New York City and electroshock therapy

Modern Mechanix celebrates an exciting new use for electricity! (Courtesy the great Modern Mechanix blog)

WARNING The article contains a couple spoilers about last night's 'Mad Men' on AMC. If you're a fan of the show, come back once you're watched the episode. But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don't watch the show at all. You can find other articles in this series here

And so, in the end, we find that the biggest historical influence within the fifth season of 'Mad Men' wasn't a race riot, a Southeast Asian war, a counter culture movement or a reduced hemline. It was Sylvia Plath.

(This article is so spoiler-y, that I'm placing the rest of it after the jump)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Odds and Ends: St. Marks, 1930s Harlem, Fernando Wood

Above: A shave for 15 cents and a haircut for a quarter, found in Harlem on 422-424 Lenox Avenue, photographed by Berenice Abbott on this date in 1938. The business next door advertises '4 radio photo poses' for a dime. The stoop on the left leads up to a small church.

 Thanks to everybody for voting last month in the Partners in Preservation initiative, sponsored by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Although four sites were ultimately declared the winner based on votes -- congrats again to the Brooklyn Public Library, Congregation Beth Elohim, the New York Botanical Garden, and the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum! -- the remainder of the grant money was being distributed to several other nominees, based upon the decision of an advisory committee made up local civic, business and preservation leaders.

Those other grant honorees have finally been announced today, and you can find the entire list of 16 additional winners here.

However I'm happy to say that the subject of our May podcast, St. Marks-in-the-Bowery, was one of the chosen sites and will have their entire grant request fulfilled, to enable them to restore that stunning 1858 portico, designed by the 'king of cast-iron' himself James Bogardus.

Two others nominees that I wrote about last month -- the Henry Street Settlement and the Alice Austen House -- have also been chosen and will be awarded their entire amount, to help with improvements and upgrades at both sites.


And on an unrelated note, one of New York's most controversial mayors, Fernando Wood (at right), was born 200 years ago today. A powerful speaker and politician, Wood fanned the flames of partisanship during the Civil War, siding with the 'copperhead' (anti-war, pro-South) contingent and often using local politics as a stepping stone for national recognition.

In other words, a bastard, but one that our city's history could not do without.

Another subject of a solo podcast also celebrates a birthday today: Donald Trump. Here's links to listen to the Fernando Wood show and the Donald Trump show.

Photo courtesy NYPL

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Eight forgotten roller coasters from all five boroughs!

If you're ever attempting to make the case that New York isn't as fun as it used to be, just use the following post as an illustration. The New York City area was once home to dozens of roller coasters, set up at major amusement destinations around the city, in every borough. Even Manhattan!

Coney Island's Switchback Railway (1884) is often considered the first 'real' roller coaster. Not only was its size key to the stomach-churning thrill, but amusement parks soon relied on its proportions and sweeping shapes as a kind of branding backdrop, an immediate identifier as a destination of instant fun and relaxation. It was the first thing people saw as they approached the area; the cranking of the wheels and screams of its victims, heard from a mile away, set the rhythm for early 20th century beaches.

Not only are all these roller coasters gone, but the resort districts that hosted them have been radically transformed. Only Coney Island -- the home to America's very first roller coasters -- remains.

Roller Boller Coaster (seen above and in the background below)
Staten Island (South Beach)
In operation: Unknown, but probably lasted until late 1910s
South Beach popular thrived around the same time as Coney Island's did. Likewise, its amusement parks (like Happyland) were similarly felled by fire.

Pic Courtesy NYPL

Starlight Park Rollercoaster 
The Bronx (West Farms)
In operation: 1918-early 1930s
Starlight's rollercoaster was abandoned even the park limped along for most of the 1930s. In 1932, the coaster caught fire, the victim of rampant bonfires set along the Bronx River. (More information on my blog post about Starlight Park)

Wolz's Thriller and the Atom Smasher
Queens (Rockaway Beach)
In operation: Thriller 1916-1937; Atom Smasher 1938-1985
A 'dollar's worth of ride for just ten cents', the Thriller (top picture) was a backbone of Rockaway's early amusement industry, one of ten rollercoasters eventually built for the resort area. Perhaps Rockaway's most famous rollercoaster was the Atom Smasher (at bottom), the anchor of Playland. Rockaway lost all its amusements in the 1980s.

Courtesy Rockaway Memories

Thunderbolt and the Tornado
Brooklyn (Coney Island)
In operation: Thunderbolt 1925-1982; Tornado 1926-1977
Brooklyn has had more rollercoasters than any other borough. In fact, thanks to Coney Island, it's had more coasters than most American states -- 47 by the count of the Roller Coaster Database.

While the still-extant Cyclone is the granddaddy of them all, amusement lovers recall fondly the Thunderbolt , made famous in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, which stood as a ruin for almost two decades. It outlasted its cousin the Tornado (at bottom), considered a marvel of engineering with its almost 3,000 feet of track undulating at a relatively low height.

Paradise Park Roller Coasters
Manhattan (Inwood)
In operation: 1895-1914
Yes, there was a roller coaster in Manhattan! Although this appears to be the only place the island has ever had them, located in an amusement park camped out in today's Highland Park. This amusement park actually had a couple roller coasters, according to one source. Yes, it eventually burned down as well, but its owners moved across the Hudson and opened the Palisades Amusement Park. (Courtesy myinwood.net

Some dates above verified from the Rollercoaster Database

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

'Copper' aka Five Points, the TV show

I've been traveling the last few days and haven't been able to get a blog posting up about the season finale of 'Mad Men', but I promise one within the next couple days.

 In the meantime, another television show will take on New York City history later this summer. 'Copper' is a ten-part British production making its debut in August, detailing the adventures of an Irish cop in mid-19th century Manhattan. Now, I've been dreaming of somebody making a Five Points television show literally for years. Although personally I was hoping for a 'Boss-Tweed-meets-Boardwalk Empire'-type show, this will have to do for now.


 So what do you think? There's one brief shot of what appears to be Paradise Square, and there's definite mention of Cow Bay (considered the most dangerous section of Five Points). But the rest of it just looks like the set of an standard western. Fingers crossed for a tense and well-researched new drama this summer. You know I'll be all over this.

To catch up on the history of Five Points, give our two podcasts on the subject a listen -- Five Points: Wicked Slum and Five Points: The Fate of Five Points

Friday, June 8, 2012

Soda City: NYC's role in creating Bloomberg's favorite drink

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's latest crusade against sugary beverages in excessively large containers had me thinking about the origins of soft drinks. Most major brands of soda started in the South -- Coca-Cola in Georgia, Pepsi in North Carolina, Dr. Pepper in Texas, Mountain Dew in Tennessee. Even the Big Gulp, an invention of the 7-11 convenience stores, originated in Texas. But those companies simply branded and perfected a kind of beverage made popular by the 19th century American soda fountain.

And for the roots of that bubbly innovation, we need to turn our attention -- believe it or not -- to the Manhattan neighborhood of Kips Bay.

Soda water, an English invention infusing regular drinking water with carbon dioxide, was considered a medicinal treatment during the 18th century. However bubbly water (or "charged water") would eventually prove to have a variety of tasty uses -- as a mixer for alcohol or ice cream, or even as a refreshing beverage itself, if mixed with wine, herbs or spices.

The first attempt to sell New Yorkers soda water came in 1809 when Yale professor Benjamin Silliman installed rudimentary fountains at two prominent locations -- the Tontine Coffee House and the posh City Hotel (which opened in 1794). Both places attracted wealthy businessmen, and Silliman attempted to sell his carbonated mineral water, generated from a manual pump, as a wine mixer and as a healthy elixir on its own.  Technical problems bedeviled Silliman -- the pumps produced irregular carbonation -- and he even ran up against false reports of the deadliness of chilled beverages. "Swallowing a large ice cube was thought to cause spasms of the stomach and fatal inflammation of the bowels." [Darcy O'Neil, source]

As a light beverage, soda water still had a way to go. But early American pharmacists were attracted to the supposed tranquil qualities of warm soda and slowly began installing fountains in their shops. Later,  even when its curative properties were largely disproven, pharmacies continued to install soda fountains as a way to attract customers.

At right: A selection of soda fountains displayed at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876

In the mid 19th century, these early soda fountains were principally manufactured by two businessmen -- John Lippencott in Philadelphia and John Matthews in New York. They would design rival soda fountain machines that would define the industry.

Although Lippencott trumped Matthews by first debuting machines that directly dispensed varied flavors, his New York rival eventually made the bigger splash.

Matthews was an English immigrant and former apprentice to lock maker Joseph Bramah, the inventor of the hydraulic press and an early developer of the indoor toilet. The young apprentice moved to New York in 1832 and set up his own modified water carbonation pump in a shop at 55 Gold Street.

The key to Matthews success was sophisticated equipment and one rather unappetizing-sounding addition -- the use of ground-up marble chips to produce the carbonic acid gas for his water. Matthews procured these bits of marble from architects around the city and later even scooped up several barrels of the stuff from the construction site of St. Patrick's Cathedral!

Matthews' most famous employee was likely Ben Austin, a Southern freed slave who operated one of Matthew's portable pushcart fountains and was known for testing the pump pressure by holding his thumb upon the instruments. "If this thumb was forced away by the pressure the fountain was charged," wrote the New York Times, who recounted the story of 'Ole Ben' as though it were a folk tale.

John Matthews was a savvy operator, hiring inventors to streamline his equipment, then purchasing the rights to those inventions outright to mass manufacture.  By the 1860s, he had moved production to a plant at 331-337 East 26th Street (at First Avenue) in old Kips Bay, employing over a hundred men to assemble the latest in soda-fountain technology.

Below: The house that soda built -- Matthews mansion on 90th Street and Riverside Drive (Picture spells his name wrong)

With improved technology came better flavors, more consistent carbonation and safer operation. (Early soda-water pumps tended to explode.)  And of course greater distribution; fountains were installed not only in pharmacies, but in "hotels, saloons, restaurants" and even street corners. To offer energy and refreshment, some flavored soda waters were infused with exotic 'healthy' ingredients, including caffeine or cocaine.

By the time of his death in 1870, Matthews had become the face of soda fountains in the United States, the 'soda fountain king' and 'the Neptune of his trade', owning hundreds of soda fountains throughout the country. So associated was he with his product that he was interred in a fanciful and commanding tomb in Green-Wood Cemetery, abstractly resembling an old soda fountain and complete with gargoyles that -- during rainstorms -- dispense a steady flow of water.

His family stayed in the soda game, selling more than 20,000 fountains from this First Avenue factory the following decade. By the end of the century, descendants of the former rivals Lippencott and Matthews would merge with two other companies -- like so many industries of this period -- to form a virtual monopoly on the soda fountain business.

However, the future of soda would depend on its portability. The drink was still associated with medicinal qualities and people wanted to bring it home with them. Entrepreneurs elsewhere would refine soda for the purposes of bottling and selling for home consumption. While the soda fountain would thrive well into the mid-20th century, its destiny lay in glass bottles. Or, in Bloomberg's case, large, 16-ounce containers.

Pictures courtesy NYPL, except for the Philadelphia photo, courtesy the Library of Congress

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Good news for 'Newsies'? The Tony Awards often go local

Tom Bosley in a Tony-winning performance as Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, in 'Fiorello!', which tied for the Best Musical Tony in 1960 with 'The Sound of Music'. Only one of these productions is regularly produced by high schools across the country.

For those of you not watching the season finale of Mad Men this Sunday, the 66th Annual Tony Awards will be presented that evening at the Beacon Theatre. And among the nominees for Best Musical are the Prohibition-set 'Nice Work If You Can Get It', employing the music of the Gershwin brothers, and 'Newsies', a jovial romp depicting the Newsboys Strike of 1899. [Listen to our podcast for more information on this chaotic event which stopped the newspaper industry in its tracks that summer.]

These two shows may have an advantage over its competitors (Leap of Faith and Once) as the storylines are set within the history of New York City itself.  Believe it or not, a total of 18 musicals at least partially set in New York have won the Best Musical Tony, and most of those are even placed in historical settings, proving both the endurance of the city as a source for storytellers and the insularity of the Broadway musical. (NOTE: I'm exempting the musical revues Ain't Misbehavin', Jerome Robbins' Broadway and Fosse from this total, as they are collected presentations from several older shows.)

That's almost one-third of ALL Best Musical Tony Award winners. The others, in order, are:

Guys And Dolls (Best Musical 1951) Set in the mid-century New York underworld, although inspired by stories written by Damon Runyon from the '20s and '30s

Wonderful Town (Best Musical 1953) Set in 1930s Greenwich Village, particularly along Christopher Street

Fiorello! (Best Musical 1960, tied -- believe it or not -- with The Sound of Music) Set partially during the administration of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, depicting his struggles, in song, against Tammany Hall

How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (Best Musical 1962) Set in the dog-eat-dog world of advertising in the 1950s

Hello Dolly! (Best Musical 1964) Set in the turn-of-the-century trappings of gilded era New York

Applause (Best Musical 1970) Set in the contemporary world of New York theater, although a musical version of 1950's All About Eve. Starring Tony winner Lauren Bacall (below).

Company (Best Musical 1971) Set amidst a host of marriage strife in contemporary New York

A Chorus Line (Best Musical 1976) Set during the auditions of a contemporary Broadway way

Annie (Best Musical 1977) Set in 1930s Depression-era New York

42nd Street (Best Musical 1981)
Set during preparations for the fictitious 1933 musical Pretty Lady

And since the 1990s: The Will Rogers Follies (set in several places, but framed in a conversation with Florenz Ziegfeld) Crazy For You, Rent, Contact (1/3rd is set in 1950s New York), The Producers, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Avenue Q (an outer borough where puppets coincide with humans) and In the Heights

NOTE: Although Damn Yankees (Best Musical 1956) is in one sense about the New York Yankees (namely, how to defeat them), most of the action occurs in Washington DC.

Musical lovers: I just crunched through a lot of Tony Awards history here. So please email me with any clarifications or corrections! My memory of certain musical plot points might be a bit fuzzy.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Brooklyn intellectual landmark becomes a supermarket

Mentioned in our podcast this week was the precursor to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the three-story 'centre of Brooklyn culture' known as the Brooklyn Athenaeum and Reading Room. Founded in 1848 and incorporated in 1852, the Athenaeum was a combination concert hall, store for intellectuals and library (in an era before public libraries), serving the gentlemen of the city of Brooklyn.

Not only BAM but the Brooklyn Public Library traces its lineage to this structure which sat at the northeast corner of Atlantic Avenue and Clinton Street. It was also the original home of the Brooklyn Philharmonic.

Perhaps the place was best known as a prime stop on the lecture circuit. Abolitionist Wendell Phillips spoke to thousands here in October 1860 -- "crowded to its utmost capacity" -- encouraging the Southern states to secede from the Union, months before any of them did so.

By the 1890s, the more elevated arts had escaped to other venues, and the Athenaeum hosted various political functions. Economic reformer and former candidate for mayor of New York Henry George spoke to a crowd of a thousand here on October 25, 1897, four days before dying of a stress-induced stroke.

Events had wandered way off the original course by 1901, when police closed down the Athenaeum due to a planned meeting of East Coast anarchists.

The following year, the top floor was occupied for three decades by the New York Court of Special Sessions. It was unceremoniously torn down in 1942. At some point a modest structure was placed on the lot, and today is hosts a Key Food supermarket.

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ALSO FROM THE PODCAST: One of the very first films shown at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (in 1921) was the Swedish silent romance Synnøve Solbakken ("The Fairy of Solbakken"), screened decades before BAM's stage collaborations with Sweden's greatest filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman.

Looks like a spellbinding movie. Wish I knew Swedish!
 Top picture courtesy NYPL
Film photo courtesy Flickr/Truus, Bob & Jan too!

Monday, June 4, 2012

'Mad Men' notes: The 1960s enlightenment of New York's natural history museum leaves taxidermy in the past

WARNING The article contains a couple spoilers about last night's 'Mad Men' on AMC. If you're a fan of the show, come back once you're watched the episode. But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don't watch the show at all. You can find other articles in this series here

Theodore Roosevelt did not donate all the mounted animals at the American Museum of Natural History, as Glen casually suggested to Sally Draper (below) in last night's episode. Just a great, great many of them, not least of those prizes from his 1909 post-presidential safari, literally thousands of African specimens captured, killed and presented for display here, at the Smithsonian, and other American museums. New York's museum even holds the contents of Roosevelt's 'natural history cabinet', his collection of taxonomy which he started at age nine from his home on East 20th Street.

With Roosevelt's African collection also came expert taxidermist Carl Akeley, who had gone on safari with the former president in 1909 and remained at the Natural History museum to mount and curate its African exhibit. The hall of African mammals is named in his honor and continued to define the museum in the popular imagination.

The early 20th century was a golden era for taxidermy, as greater understanding of natural habitats allowed curators to present their specimens in 'realistic' settings and lifelike poses. But such understanding placed a deadline upon classical museum taxidermy; the more one understood the underpinnings of the natural world, the more absurd such displays seemed.

With the 1960s came a greater awareness of the plight of rare animals and their disappearing habitats that rendered the presentation of mounted taxidermic displays into antiquated, often vulgar set pieces. The first federal endangered species act was passed in 1966 and greatly expanded upon with the Endangered Species Act of 1973, 'the Magna Carta of the environmental movement'.

The staid animal galleries at the American Museum of Natural History faced other surprising challenges. The museum reached record attendance in 1967, but people weren't necessarily there for the mounted elephants. The American Apollo missions ignited a public passion for space science, and with the installation of the awe inducing Zeiss projector in 1960, the museum's Hayden Planetarium easily became its hottest attraction.

Leading up to its centennial in 1969, the museum prepared several new halls (including several of the current anthropology exhibits) and renovated many others; thus Glen and Sally most likely would have seen many 'Closed for Renovation' signs during their trip here.  Had Sally not had a certain emergency which sent her from Glen's side, the pair might have wandered over to the bright, new exhibits in the Hall of the Indians of the Plains, which opened in February 1967.

A refreshed Milstein Hall of Ocean Life would dazzle audiences upon its reopening in 1969, and the museum's trademark blue whale was presented in a new context -- the 1966 worldwide ban on hunting the endangered ocean mammal. The extensively revitalized exhibition also presented a new 1960s museum trend -- the use of artificial, plastic models over actual animal carcasses.

By 1967, New York's natural history museum -- which once touted a staff of 20 full-time taxidermists -- employed only two. "There's not much left to collect and mount (we don't say stuff)," lamented staff taxidermist David Schwendeman.

Taxidermy would live on in the worlds of hunting and fishing. One need only take a trip today to the Bass Pro Shops World Headquarters in Springfield, Missouri, to witness a world where the art of taxidermy continues to thrive, as though there was nothing creepy at all about it.

But in the vaunted hallways of the American Museum of Natural History, the elder animal displays serve a new educational purpose -- a preservation of science's evolving views on the natural world.

NOTE: Since 'Mad Men' doesn't film in New York,  Jen Carlson at Gothamist deftly notes that the exhibit displayed in the episode is from Los Angeles's natural history museum.

Top picture courtesy flickr/Getty Images
Lower picture: Prepping the blue whale in 1968, photo by Yale Joel, Life/Google images