Over the past few years I have had the wonderful opportunity to pore over countless books describing New York City’s past while doing research for posts. These forays down the memory lanes of others have painted a colorful picture in my mind of what New York was in decades (and centuries) past. I would like to share a few snippets here that I found especially interesting in that they describe what places all too familiar to me in 2014 “looked” like back in the day.
During the early 1800′s, the posh shopping and dining neighborhood in downtown Manhattan called SoHo (which stands for SOuth of HOuston), enjoyed its previous heyday as a commercial destination for well-to-do New Yorkers. By mid-century, however, while Broadway around Prince and Spring Streets remained for some time the “Fifth Avenue” of its day, bordellos began popping up on side streets, and the area soon became New York’s first red light district. Particularly informative listings could be found in the Directory to the Seraglios in New York, published by A Free Loveyer, in 1859:
Miss Clara Gordon
No. 119 Mercer Street
“We cannot too highly recommend this house, the lady herself is a perfect Venus: beautiful, entertaining, and supremely seductive. Her aidesdecamp are really charming and irresistible, and altogether honest and honorable. Miss G. is a great belle, and her mansion is patronized by Southern merchants and planters principally. She is highly accomplished, skillful, and prudent, and sees her visitors are well entertained. Good wines of the most elaborate brands, constantly on hand, and in all, a finer resort cannot be found in the City.”
No. 76 Greene Street, below Spring
“This quiet and comfortable resort is situated very central, and within a few moments’ walk of Broadway and the principal hotels… Gents must come well recommended or they won’t get in. . . The hostess is an agreeable lady, indued with a tasteful mind. . . Her young ladies behave with much prudence and propriety…”
Exerpted from: SoHo A Guide by Helene Zucker Seeman and Alanna Siegfried, published by Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc., New York, NY, 1978.
When I first picked up the book Memories of Manhattan in the Sixties and Seventies, I thought to myself, oh goody, a memoir about the New York of my childhood. I opened the book, and to my surprise and delight, this catalog of memories, written by Charles Townsend Harris, is a look back not on the twentieth century, but on the 1860’s and 1870’s. In an early chapter, he writes about his memories of the Village:
The street life of Greenwich Village in the sixties and seventies was different from that of any other part of the city, having more of the rural atmosphere. Vendors with tin ovens sold hot corn in the summer and baked potatoes with butter and seasoning in the winter. During the spring and early summer women bore trays of wild strawberries on their heads, furnishing the fruit in small splint baskets. Chimney sweeps patroled [sic] the streets soliciting jobs with their musical cries, and fish peddlers made “the welkin ring” with blasts from their tin horns. Pass down Morton, Barrow, Le Roy, and Grove Streets or Greenwich Avenue today and observe the home like houses that are left. There was no “jerry” building in their time; the great fault was that they lacked bath rooms, a wash tub on Saturday night furnishing the means of the weekly ablution. The frames and inside finish of the houses were of honest timber; the method of construction was substantial and artistic and meant to be lasting. (45)
Harris, Charles T. Memories of Manhattan in the Sixties and Seventies. New York: Derrydale Press, 1928.
Canal Street (1886)
While doing research for an earlier post, I came across a picture of the Stone Bridge (see above) in 1800, from the 1865 edition of the Valentine Manuals. A little research then produced an article entitled “The Old Stone Bridge at Canal-street and Broadway” by Capt. Walker Bicker in The New York Times about his memories of the bridge and its environs in the early 19th century, published April 9, 1886:
Broadway was not paved beyond “the stone bridge” which stood where Canal-street now crosses Broadway. This was a famous resort for us schoolboys. It was considered “out of town”—all north beyond as well as the immediate vicinity was country, post and rail fences dividing the land into different sized parcels. This bridge spanned a small stream which conveyed water from the Collect on the east side of Broadway (where now stands the Tombs) to the west side, where was an extensive meadow covering most of the ground from Broadway to the north River and from Lispenard-street to Spring-street.
“The Old Stone Bridge at Canal-street and Broadway” by Capt. Walker Bicker. The New York Times, April 9, 1886
I recently read the most charming diary of a young girl named Catherine Havens. Born into a prominent New York family in 1839, Catherine kept a diary from 1849-1850 that gives us a glimpse into the life of a child in mid-century (the nineteenth century, that is) New York. The following is her entry on where to purchase candy and confections:
There is a bakery kept by a Mr. Walduck on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street, and they make delicious cream puffs, and when I have three cents to spare, I run down there right after breakfast, before school begins, and buy one and eat it there. On the corner of Broadway and Ninth Street is a chocolate store kept by Felix Effray, and I love to stand at the window and watch the wheel go round. It has three white stone rollers and they grind the chocolate into paste all day long. Down Broadway, below Eighth Street is Dean’s candy store, and they make molasses candy that is the best in the city. Sometimes we go down to Wild’s, that is way down near Spring Street, to get his ice-land moss drops, good for colds.
My mother says Stuart’s candy store down on Greenwich and Chambers Streets used to be the store in her day. When she was a little girl in 1810, old Kinloch Stuart and his wife Agnes made the candy in a little bit of a back room and sold it in the front room, and sometimes they used to let my mother go in and stir it. After they died their sons, R. and L. Stuart, kept up the candy store in the same place, and it is there still. (p. 58-60)
Diary of a Little Girl in Old New York, by Catherine Elizabeth Havens; 2nd edition (1920)
In Millicent Kent’s 1937Angel of Hell’s Kitchen, a memoir of her childhood and her relationship with her mother, she remembers living in an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen:
We were now living on the ground floor of a tenement in Hell’s Kitchen. If you don’t know New York, that name will probably mean nothing to you. Decent people in that big city steer clear of it. Situated down near the river front, bordered on one side by passing railroad trains, trucks, and automobiles, it is the center of vice in that big city, breeding gangs of the worst sort. From these gangs come many of the criminals you read about in the newspapers. From here, too, come girls who still earn their miserable living walking the streets and selling their bodies. The rankest kind of liquor is made there. When I lived in Hell’s Kitchen it was also the center of dope traffic and the hideout of fugitives from the law. “Hell’s Kitchen” is right. All the hell in the world is cooked up there. (page 15)
Angel of Hell’s Kitchen Millicent Kent New York: Godwin, 1937
Vincent McHugh’s euphoric 1943 novel I Am Thinking of My Darling in which New Yorkers are infected with a mysterious virus during an unusually warm spell in February that makes them happy. The “sick” lose all inhibitions, walking away from their jobs, marriages, responsibilities. Banks dole out cash, stores give away food, movies are free. And it is up to one man, acting mayor Jim Rowan, to make sure the city does not fall apart while he tries to contain the contagion until a cure is found.
On Livonia Avenue, under the IRT pillars, the Moors were having a festival. Real Moors. Moroccans. Other North Africans, and the Spanish ones. The street lights out. A yellow bonfire sparking up through the tracks, and bare bulbs strung from pillar to pillar. Kitchen chairs for the jouncing musicians. Sharp yells, and the vivid full skirts whirling, whipped about the smooth thighs in a folding corolla, and the easy subtle balanced rhythmic interplay of the drums, the rhythm that comes through flamenco and rumba and Calypso and samba and New Orleans jazz. (108-109)
McHugh, Vincent. 1943. I am thinking of my darling, an adventure story. New York: Simon and Schuster.
In the mid-1940’s, The Brooklyn Eagle published a booklet entitled “Bushwick,” as part of a series of six booklets for public school students about the history of Brooklyn townships. Bushwick has a long history dating back 300 years. On August 1, 1638, the West India Company bought from the Indians the land that comprises the old town of Bushwick for “8 fathoms of duffels cloth, 8 fathoms of wampum, 12 kettles, 8 adzes, 8 axes, some knives, corals and awls.” The town was chartered by Peter Stuyvesant in 1661 and named “Boswijck,” meaning “little town in the woods.”
Bushwick proper, which includes part of Ridgewood and which lies roughly between Flushing Ave. and Jamaica Ave., north of Broadway, has changed the least o the three villages and is predominantly residential. Its population is about 140,000. Bushwick Ave. is one of the most beautiful residential streets in the country and the area around the old Dutch church at Himrod St. is reminiscent of an old New England village.
Modern subway facilities now serve the Bushwick section, making it a more attractive place than ever in which to live. It is readily accessible to all parts of the city and to eastern Long Island.
Bushwick, a brochure published by The Brooklyn Eagle (1946) [Part of series entitled The towns that became Brooklyn : Bushwick, Flatbush, Flatlands, Brooklyn, New Utrecht, Gravesend].