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“St. George’s” by Gene Schermerhorn

In 1888, Gene Schermerhorn, a member of an old New York family, ended a series of letters to his young nephew in the finest spirit of personal recollections:

Now my dear Phil I have tried to tell you what this great city was like when I was a boy but little older than yourself, and I hope I have succeeded in interesting you somewhat. I have begun with my earliest recollections of New York and I will leave it now about 1856 when the population was only 629,810…It is estimated now at over 1,500,000.

I cannot help looking forward and wondering, if it can possibly be that you can tell of as great changes. It is my firm belief that you will be able to do so and that you will live to see the entire island as thickly built as it is now below 59th St. and perhaps the district above the Harlem also. Or it may be that you will see changes that I don’t even dream of, although my faith in the future of New York is unbounded…I hope you will sometimes enjoy reading what has given me so much pleasure to write for you.

Your loving Uncle Gene

First hand accounts like these are sparks of New York life.  Many writers, including Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, E.B. White and Joseph Mitchell, have illuminated the city, but the words of New Yorkers outside of literary circles, people like Gene Schermerhorn, are often equally eloquent and distinctive. Unlike histories, contemporary diary entries, letters, and other eyewitness accounts offer a view of New York life that is umblemished by the sensibilities of a later time. Read the rest of this entry »

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Henrietta (Hetty) Green (image: Wikipedia)

A familiar figure garbed in an old black dress carrying a large black satchel on the streets of New York City and Hoboken, New Jersey invited attention and curiosity.  The odd person in question was Henrietta “Hetty” Howland Robinson Green, known for her vast wealth, who, ironically, wanted only to be unnoticed.

Green’s paranoia and eccentric behavior inspired many rumors, including some pretty outlandish ones.  Notably,  she was listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the “World’s Greatest Miser.”  Her frugality was legendary and derisive and  she was widely blamed for the amputation of her young son’s leg because she would not see a doctor to avoid medical fees.  She was also ridiculed for obsessively  relocating to small apartments in Brooklyn, Hoboken, New Jersey and New Hampshire, just to avoid paying New York City residency taxes and to guard her anonymity. Read the rest of this entry »

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Drawing of abortionist Ann Lohman (a.k.a. Madame Restell) based on a photograph, 1888. (image: Wikipedia)

Madame Restell was the name Ann Trow Lohman gave herself, but to New Yorkers she was known as “The Abortionist,” “Madame Killer,” and “The Wickedest Woman in New York.” Vilified as she was, she and her husband built a mansion on fashionable Fifth Avenue, proof that many wealthy clients used her services.

Restell started her business in New York during the 1830s, and by the 1840s she had franchised women’s clinics that sold her “remedies”—concoctions in pill or powder form, across the country.  Abortion was not clearly legally defined and was not necessarily considered a crime.

Madame Restell advertised her medical services in penny presses and legitimate newspapers, spending an estimated $60,000 in one year alone.  One ad brazenly addressed the married woman : “Is it desirable, then, for parents to increase their families, regardless of consequences to themselves, or the well-being of their offspring, when a simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy is within our control?”  Restell was unsuccessfully indicted six times between 1839 and 1845, as eyewitnesses did not volunteer to come forward. One case, however, finally went to trial and Restell was found guilty of a misdemeanor and sentenced to one year on Blackwell’s Island (today’s Roosevelt Island). Although she was provided with luxuries for her time in jail, Restell vowed she would never go back. Read the rest of this entry »

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Victoria Woodhull (image: Wikipedia)

A fearless maverick, Victoria (Vicky) Clafin Woodhull Blood Martin took New York City by storm.  Born into a wild and wacky family who traveled the country with a medicine show telling fortunes and selling patent medicines, Woodhull moved to New York in 1866 with her sister Tennie.  They arrived just as the women’s suffrage movement was gaining steam—that year Elizabeth Cady Stanton ran for Congress, albeit unsuccessfully.  This was an opportune time for Woodhull to champion her causes—women’s rights, worker’s rights,and sex education, as well as more radical ideas such as free love and legalized prostitution.

What’s more, the national rage for spiritualism served the Woodhull sisters well.  As children, they had performed as clairvoyants in the family’s medicine show. Their presumed spiritual powers attracted the recently widowed Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt for whom they gave business tips “from the beyond,” and Tennie became his lover.  In return, Vanderbilt backed them in their Wall Street brokerage firm of Woodhull, Claflin & Company. In fact, they became the first American women to work as bankers and own a seat on the Stock Exchange.  The sisters used their handsome profits to start a weekly radical feminist newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, as an organ for their beliefs. Read the rest of this entry »

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Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first American canonized by the Roman Catholic Church (1975). Her image is on the bronze doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. (Image: Viridia via Flickr)

Elizabeth Bayley was born into a prominent old New York family. Her promising, privileged life, however, was marked by tragedy early on as her mother died when she was three years old.  Her father remarried and had seven children with his second wife before they divorced. She and her sister were rejected by their stepmother and were left in the care of relatives while their father was studying medicine in London. During what she described as her dark years, she took comfort in reading the Scriptures, meditating, and writing in her journals.  At nineteen, she was happily married to William Seton, a successful businessman. Although they had five children and a busy household, Seton was drawn to charitable causes and organized a group of society women who visited the sick poor in their homes. Read the rest of this entry »

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—inscription on Moses King’s gravestone

Moses King had a grand vision of the city’s future

Moses King was a prolific publisher of photographic guidebooks in the 1890s. Among his earliest works were guides to Boston, where he lived, and the impressive two-volume set King’s Handbook of the United States (1891).  After King moved to New York, he began assiduously chronicling New York’s rapid expansion by constantly updating his King’s Views of New York City with new information and photographs until his death in 1909.  For six years after his death, King’s publishing company continued to feature New York subjects, including one dedicated to Brooklyn. The result is an awesome visual and descriptive documentation of buildings, businesses, institutions, and other structures from the turn of the twentieth century.

The first in his series of photographic guides to New York City was the 1892 King’s Handbook of New York CityAn Outline History and Description of the American Metropolis.   It was so successful and the city was changing so rapidly, that ten months later in 1893 he published an updated edition with approximately 300 new images.

King’s Photographic Views of New York City in 1895 followed with full-page illustrations of buildings and some text. The three aforementioned volumes  were hefty standard-sized hardcover.  Except for a few small pamphlets such as one on the new rapid transit in 1904 and some other exceptions, King concentrated on folio-sized photographic views of Manhattan with pictorial paper covers, which he published nearly every year.  His company issued one on the new borough of Brooklyn and subjects such the New York Stock Exchange and its members, the Admiral Dewey reception, the Dedication of Grant’s Tomb on Riverside Drive and other special events. Read the rest of this entry »


The cover from the first edition of PARNASSUS ON WHEELS by Christopher Morley (image: Wikipedia)

The other day I went to my overflowing, sagging bookshelves looking for a book to read on the subway. I almost randomly chose Christopher Morley’s New York, a collection of delightful essays and poems about the city, and I rediscovered a passionate and prolific celebrant of New York who dropped off New York’s literary map. Two of his most captivating novels, Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop, may be familiar to some—they are truly classic New York titles that are often read and reread. These books were written early in Morley’s distinguished career as a newspaper columnist, essayist, novelist, playwright and enthusiastic bibliophile.

Morley muses in his 1933 book, Internal Revenue, “I had a queer thought the other day, that the two subjects most worth thinking about, for me, are Shakespeare and New York City.” (Internal Revenue.  Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1933.)  Indeed, he was a self-described bard of New York:

Mark all these things: her generous reckless moods,
Proud, spendthrift, swift, assured, and terrible:
And make interpretations of your own.
But just one caveat:
She is not always merely what she seems:
I’d like to have you see her as I do –
The greatest unwrit poem in the world.
(Parsons Pleasure. 1933)

Christopher Morley

Morley wandered about the city, through its nooks and crannies, in search of topics for his essays. One of his favorite stops was to a bookshop, from the most rarefied establishments to the rough and tumble Fourth Avenue stalls. Morley also once reverentially described McSorley’s saloon, which was later immortalized by Joseph Mitchell, another great New York observer.

In his 1939 novel, Kitty Foyle: The Story of a Woman, Morley took on the highly controversial and verboten topics of abortion and the love affairs of unmarried, working women.  The novel was an instant hit, selling more than one million copies, and was made into a movie the following year. It starred Ginger Rogers, who accepted the part only after the abortion was rewritten as a stillborn birth and some other ticklish features were changed.  Rogers received the Academy Award for Best Actress, beating out Katherine Hepburn (The Philadelphia Story), Joan Fontaine (Rebecca) and Bette Davis (The Letter). The movie was also nominated for best film and best director. Life Magazine did a spread on the movie with Ginger Rogers wearing a decidedly unglamorous working girl’s dress on the cover. That dark dress with white collar and cuffs, worn by Rogers in the film, is still known today in the garment trade as a “Kitty Foyle Dress.”

I mention Kitty Foyle to illustrate the breadth of this talented, spirited multifaceted man who offered much more than the whimsical pieces for which he is best knownI implore everyone to explore Morley’s work (see list below).  Readers will not only delight in his writings, but will learn about New York in the 1920s and be touched by Morley’s life-affirming, wholesome philosophy of life.  But there is no need to rush, according to advice from Morley himself:

Epitaph for any New Yorker

 I, who all my life had hurried,
Came to Peter’s crowded gate:
And, as usual, was worried,
Fearing that I might be late.
So, when I began to jostle
(I forgot that I was dead),
Patient smiled the old Apostle:
“Take your Eternity,” he said.
(From: Parson’s Pleasure)

Recommended Reading

Christopher Morley’s New York. Illustrated by Walter Jack Duncan.  New York: Fordham University Press, 1988.

The Haunted Bookshop. Garden City, Doubleday Page and Co., 1918.

Reprint____________ Illustrated by Douglas Gorsline.  Phila: J.B. Lippincott, 1955

Kitty Foyle. Phila: J.B. Lippincott, 1939

Parnassus on Wheels. Garden City, Doubleday Page and Co.: 1917

Reprint___________ 1955. Illustrated by Douglas Gorsline.  Phila: J.B. Lippincott, 1955.


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In October 1872, the first ship ever owned and managed for commercial purposes by women set sail from New York for Asia.  The clipper ship, called the Madame Demorest, that proudly sported a carved image of Nell Demorest as its figurehead and a flag advertising “The Woman’s Tea Company,” was seen off by a crowd of curious well wishers including bankers, merchants, and the press.  Ellen (Nell) Curtis Demorest and Susan A. King, who spearheaded the enterprise, had similar beginnings: they both grew up in small upstate towns where at a young age they were aspiring entrepreneurs and moved to New York City to start their own businesses—and both succeeded brilliantly.

Nell Curtis watched her maid cut a dress pattern out of a paper bag, developed the idea of selling dressmaking patterns and built it into an international empire of manufacturing, mail order, emporiums, and magazines.  She and her husband, William Jenning Demorest, both proactive social reformers, used their magazines as a platform to advocate progressive issues as well as to promote their products.  Author Matthew Hale Smith described the Demorests’ liberal politics in his book Sunshine and Shadow in New York:

When philanthropy was not as popular as now, and when respectable and intelligent colored girls could not find employment in establishments called fashionable, Madame Demorest welcomed them to her Broadway rooms, gave them the same wages, and a seat in the same work-room that was assigned to others.  At first, fashionable ladies flaunted out of the rooms, and announced that they would not patronize an establishment that employed negro girls.  But they were glad to come back, as they could not get their work done elsewhere. (page 470.)

Susan A. King made her fortune buying and selling real estate. One of her major deals was selling  land to Union Theological Seminary in New York, to which she also gave a financial gift.  Once she had amassed her fortune, King also turned her attention to philanthropy.

Demorest and King were members of Sorosis, a social club for professional women that was devoted to aiding indigent females achieve  financial independence through higher education and employment opportunities. They also founded The House of Mercy for Fallen Women, but they came to believe that instead of charities, it was more effective to offer poor women a chance to earn their own living.

Ever inventive, innovative, and indomitable, Demorest and King decided to set up a business to be run by women.  In 1871, King set off on an eighteen-month trip to San Francisco to make business connections for the venture and sailed on to Asia to learn first hand how tea was grown and processed.  King fearlessly traveled deep into China’s countryside to deal directly with the farmers and select the choicest leaves in the best growing areas.

For their enterprise, Demorest and King settled on importing fine tea from the East that would be sold nationwide by women. Selling tea, which was a very popular beverage, seemed a “ladylike” commodity in which to deal, and they were convinced that they could obtain a higher quality tea if they dealt directly with the growers than what was presently imported from the East.  The two raised a half a million dollars to back the enterprise, purchased an old clipper ship, fitted it to transport tea, renamed it “Madame Demorest” and hired an all female crew for the 1872 voyage that drew a large audience of well wishers.

The Woman’s Tea Company did well enough to recoup all of its expenses, but it was not a lasting enterprise.  It was no match for The Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, a powerful operation that began importing tea in 1859 and by 1878 had seventy stores. One wonders what  Demorest and King might have achieved if they put all of their formidable abilities and energy into managing the Woman’s Tea Company themselves, instead of setting it up for others to run it.

Reading List

Drachman, Virginia G.  Enterprising Women.  250 Years of American Business. Chapel Hill, N.C: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Leuzzi, Linda.  A Matter of Style, Women in the Fashion Industry. Danbury, Ct.: Franklin Watts, 1996.

Ross, Ishbel. Crusades and Crinolines: The Life and Times of Ellen Curtis Demorest and William Jennings Demorest. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
The book is replete with interesting information about the Demorests, their business and the estimable people with whom they interacted.
Smith, Matthew Hale. Sunshine and Shadow in New York. Hartford: J.B. Burr and Co., 1869.

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The Works Progress Administration (WPA), President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s plan to put millions of unemployed Americans back to work, initially focused on modernizing and building the country’s roads, highways, dams, bridges, and government offices.  Responding to pressure from artistic groups that also wanted to be included in the plan, a program called Federal One was set up to fund people in the arts to work in their craft. Federal One had five divisions—writing, art, music, theater, and a historic records survey.  The writing division was called The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). Read the rest of this entry »

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I recently finished reading Love, Fiercely, a wonderful new book by Jean Zimmerman, that is aptly subtitled “A Gilded  Age Romance,” as I instantly fell in love with its remarkable protagonists and their families.  Having focused, professionally and personally, on New York history for so many years, I was delighted to see a new book about Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, the man behind The Iconography of Manhattan Island  and his wife, Edith Phelps Stokes, nee Minturn.  Newton Phelps Stokes’ six-volume oeuvre, arguably the most important body of work on New York City, is a sweeping graphic and historic documentation of the city’s heritage.  Edith Phelps Stokes spearheaded the establishment of kindergarten education and legal adoption procedures—neither of which existed in her time. Read the rest of this entry »

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