New York City history

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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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Memories of Manhattan in the Sixties and Seventies by Charles T. Harris

Memories of Manhattan in the Sixties and Seventies by Charles T. Harris

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.  I perused the pages of Townsend’s recollections as I sat in the New York Bound Books office here in Greenwich Village and read about the neighborhood’s origins:

I was born in the erstwhile village which in its earliest days was separated from the main city by Lispenard Meadows.  People in the early part of the last century visiting Greenwich literally went into the country, as the village was truly a rural settlement.

By the 1860’s and 70’s, however, New York had become a newly bustling metropolis, as Barbara Cohen writes in her post on 1850’s New York:

As New York City left the 1850′s behind, the nation entered into the bloodiest war in its history.  Although the battlefields were in the south, the Civil War exacerbated class tensions, culminating in the infamous Draft Riots in 1863, and left a lasting impact on life in the city.  The seeds of transformation, from a seaport town to an international metropolis in the decades leading up to the war, however, could never be unsown, and New York continued its meteoric rise, despite domestic conflict, to become the epicenter of the Western world.

Grand Central Depot, from Memories of Manhattan

Grand Central Depot, from Memories of Manhattan

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A drawing titled “The Genius of Advertising” from an 1880 issue of the National Police Gazette shows men outside a brothel gazing at pictures of some of the attractions awaiting them inside (photo via The New York Times)

A drawing titled “The Genius of Advertising” from an 1880 issue of the National Police Gazette shows men outside a brothel gazing at pictures of some of the attractions awaiting them inside (photo via The New York Times)

During the early 1800′s, the posh shopping and dining neighborhood in downtown Manhattan called SoHo (which stands for SOuth of HOston), 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: Read the rest of this entry »

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A drawing by F. O. C. Darley published in Harper’s Weekly on January 1, 1859 (image and text: HarpWeek via The New York Times) The caption for this untitled cartoon reads: Mrs. Pegu, and drawing-room, are all laid out in state to receive New Year’s calls. Thirty-two young gentlemen make a brief appearance at the door, and recite the following shibboleth: “How d’ye do, Mrs. Pegu. Happy New Year. Can’t stay a minute. Made seventy-six calls this morning; got thirty more to make. Adoo! Adoo!” The young gentlemen vanish, to be succeeded by others.

Although I’ve lived in New York City my entire life, I have never been to Times Square on New Year’s eve.  The idea of standing out in the cold with close to a million others to ring in the new year sounds dreadfully exhausting to me, but perhaps not quite as exhausting as the old New Year’s tradition of “calling” or “visiting.”

In 1907, Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times, dropped the first illuminated ball from the flagpole on the recently constructed New York Times Building that was located in the newly renamed Times Square and started a tradition that would last over a century.  Predating this tradition, according to The New York Times Learning Network’s On This Day, nineteenth century New Yorkers practiced another ritual that seems to have been long forgotten:

New Year’s Day was traditionally considered the best time of the year for renewing, reviving, or reaffirming friendships. During the nineteenth century, it was the custom of urban gentlemen to pay formal visits to the households of friends and relatives on that holiday. Gentlemen were expected to dress appropriately in morning costume, consisting of a dark coat, vest and tie, dark or light pants, and somber-colored gloves. Receiving the gentlemen callers were the ladies of the house, dressed in their sartorial finery or, occasionally, in the costume of famous female figures in history or myth.

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The following is an excerpt from an article by Sibyl McCormac Groff entitled “Gothamtide: Words and Images in Nineteenth Century New York,” that first appeared in Antiques magazine.

New Yorkers have long promoted the Christmas season, or Gothamtide as I like to call it, which begins in early December and lasts until the twelfth day after Christmas, or January 6. While Christmas day was not declared a national holiday by the United States Congress until 1870, it was recognized as a holiday in New York State in 1849. New York’s prosperous ports (enhanced by the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825), the development of the transcontinental railroad system, and the rise of industry and commerce led to an increase in the number of immigrants settling in New York City, and the emergence of the family-centered middle class. Read the rest of this entry »

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New Books

By Robert Sullivan

CITY OF PROMISES: A History of the Jews in New York
By Deborah Dash Moore (Author) , Howard B. Rock (Editor) , Annie Polland (Editor) , Daniel Soyer (Editor) , Jeffrey S. Gurock (Editor) , Diana Linden (Editor)

THE RICHEST WOMAN IN AMERICA: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age
By Janet Wallach



By Robert Sullivan

259 pages, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.00

From the Macmillan website:

Like an almanac, My American Revolution moves through the calendar of American independence, considering the weather and the tides, the harbor and the estuary and the yearly return of the stars as salient factors in the war for independence. In this fiercely individual and often hilarious journey to make our revolution his, he shows us how alive our own history is, right under our noses. 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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“Robert Moses Astride New York” is a musical-in-progress by Gary S. Fagin (image: Curbed)

I was recently reading about composer, Gary Fagin, who is working on a musical called “Robert Moses Astride New York.” A musical about Robert Moses?  Really?  What will they think of next? A musical about the newsboys strike of 1899?   Been there.  A musical about the Atlantic Yards?  Done that.  A musical about Fiorello LaGuardia?  Old news.

It turns out that people and events in New York City history, no matter how unromantic, no matter how un-musical they might seem, have been the subject of many a musical interpretation.  One of these shows even won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award.

“Fiorello!” is a musical about New York City mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia (1882-1947), who took on and beat down Tammany Hall. The book is by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and music by Jerry Bock. It is one of only eight musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, ever, and it also won a Tony award for Best Musical, beating out “Gypsy” and sharing first place honors with “The Sound of Music” in 1959. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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"Bushwick" A brochure published in 1946 by the Brooklyn Eagle

A March 8, 2012 New York Times article declares that, “As with SoHo, Chelsea and the Lower East Side before it, Bushwick is shaping up as the city’s next gallery district.”  This and other recent Titles articles with titles such as “The Vanguard Alights” and “Bushwick is Getting Some Wine Shops” indicate that Bushwick has come of age as a (not so) new New York hipster destination.

As I flipped through a booklet entitled “Bushwick,” published in 1946 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” in Dutch.

By the end of the Revolution, Bushwick consisted of three hamlets whose inhabitants were mostly farmers growing fruits and vegetables for the New York markets.  This farmland was coveted by real estate speculators who wanted to build a suburban development.

The Bushwick village square, no date (source: BUSHWICK bythe Brooklyn Eagle)

In 1868, the Long Island Railroad added a Bushwick Branch and in 1885, the Lexington Avenue elevated, the first elevated train in Brooklyn, terminated in Bushwick thus making the area accessible by public transportation.  At the same time, as the New York area began to industrialize, factories were built, including Peter Cooper’s first, a glue factory.  The area was also home to 44 breweries by 1904 due to a large influx of German immigrants, making it the “beer capital of the Northeast.”

During the 20th century, the area shifted demographics, first becoming one of the largest Italian-American communities and later in the century becoming predominantly African-American.  For a time, Bushwick was a very affluent area, with grand homes on grand boulevards, according to the website:

Bushwick homes were designed in the Italianate, Neo Greco, Romanesque Revival, and Queen Anne styles by well known architects. The New York City Landmarks Commission considered two sections worthy of Historic District Status in the 1970’s and described the corner of Bushwick Avenue and Lindens Street as “one of the finest groups of Romanesque Revival architecture in the City.”

Looting in Bushwick after the blackout of 1977 (photo: © Alon Reininger)

By the time of the New York City blackout in the summer of 1977, Bushwick had become an economically depressed area.  During the blackout, many of the area’s shop were looted and were forced to close permanently.  In addition, an arson fire three days after the blackout left 23 buildings destroyed over 7 blocks.

Since then, Bushwick has been slowly making a comeback, both residentially and commercially.  On his website “Up From Flames,” about the recovery of Bushwick, Adam Schwartz writes:

The events of July 1977, however apocalyptic they may have seemed, were also a turning point for Bushwick. The neighborhood had been suffering out of sight for many years.  After the jarring week of looting during the blackout and the “All Hands Fire”, the media came to Bushwick, and put it on the map. Through the city’s attention and the fire department’s innovative fire prevention program Bushwick was able to begin the process of regeneration.

After a long period of urban blight, Bushwick is once again transitioning, for better or worse.  Ironically, there is even a Bushwick Farmers Market, a project of Ecostation: NY, who has also developed Farm-in-the-Sky, a prototype rooftop farm that has brought farming back, after three centuries, to the hamlet of Bushwick.


“Bushwick,” Brookyn Eagle Historic and Beautiful Brooklyn Pamphlet Series
(Flatlands, Flatbush, Brooklyn, Bushwick, New Utrecht, Gravesend)

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