Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Prints

The first print of the Stuyvesant Pear Tree
(New-York Historical Society)

In 1867 an old pear tree, planted 200 years earlier by a Dutch settler on a Manhattan street corner, met its demise. The tree had been decaying for some time but a collision between two carriages killed it with one blow. More than a few New Yorkers grieved. The loss of the tree became yet another reminder that vestiges of the nation’s Colonial Era were slipping away.  

The most valuable image of the Stuyvesant tree, a lithograph, had been created for the 1861 edition of a long, boring book called the Manual of the Corporation for the City of New York. These manuals contained statistics, rules, minutes, and endless lists of city officials and buildings, livened slightly with maps and pictures. A clerk named Valentine published the books annually between 1842 and 1866.

About 50 years after the last volume was issued, a Scottish immigrant, Henry Collins Brown, decided to revive the Valentine’s Manuals, as they were known. He would change the formula with lots of color illustrations and folklore. He thought he saw an opening: while guidebooks and memoirs of Old New York were readily available, few combined information with local history in an entertaining way.

Between 1916 and 1928, Brown produced eight new manuals. Alas, while the New York Times took notice, the books did not sell.

First edition of the revived Valentine's Manual,
published by Henry Collins Brown in 1917.

Brown's endeavor remains interesting for one reason: The Prints. These were copperplate engravings and lithographs of the city dating back as far as two centuries.

At the time of World War I, most of these “views” belonged to libraries and collectors. Brown scrambled, pleaded, and occasionally dissembled to gain permission to reproduce the images in his manuals.

In order to copy the lithograph of the pear tree, for example – which after all was commissioned by the clerk, Valentine! – Brown had to beg the librarian of the New-York Historical Society, which owned the original.

Currier & Ives hand-colored lithograph, Central Park in Winter
circa 1873

 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Making things worse for Brown, the prints started to surge in value during the late nineteenth century, so they became even less accessible. This is what happened:

In the 1890s, a greater appreciation of American traditions, lore, and art emerged among the general public. Some historians believe it originated at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where millions of Americans visited an old New England farmhouse and viewed American art and furnishings.

The antiques business evolved quickly. Cabinetmakers who were experienced in fixing older pieces leaped to become dealers. And some of those dealers began to comb the New England countryside, knocking on the doors of farmhouses under false pretenses, hoping to be invited in, buying many a rare item for a song.

Reverse painting on glass, this image tops a late 19th century mirror.
It is based on the Currier & Ives print, Home to Thanksgiving.

Inevitably, the Americana obsession encompassed The Prints. The market became highly competitive. Among the most important collectors, the blue-blooded Isaac Newton Phelps-Stokes occasionally bumped heads with Henry Collins Brown as the latter sought permission to use various images.

Phelps-Stokes, who had an epiphany about early American prints while dining at the home of a friend, once wrote:

Can there be anyone so callous, and so lacking in romance, as not to feel a thrill of emotion before such contemporary pictures as Paul Revere’s Landing of the British Troops at Boston in 1768, the inauguration of Washington in the loggia of the old Federal Hall, or the engagement between the Merrimac and the Monitor? 

As interest surged, one saw these headlines more often: 


While many collections were sold, others were donated. For example, Mr. Phelps-Stokes gave his collection to the New York Public Library during the 1920s. Several other major collections were given to museums around this time.*  

Originally, the New York market for prints was centered in downtown Manhattan. The first print dealers were booksellers who opened shops after the Civil War in the area that is now the Financial District. The stores clustered around Nassau, Pine, and Ann Streets and along lower Broadway. They also sold newspapers and stationery.

Over time, some dealers shifted from books to prints. Such was the case with Joseph Sabin, an English immigrant who arrived in 1848. He became a widely recognized expert in rare books and prints.      

Joseph Sabin, born in England in 1821, immigrated
to the U. S. as a teenager. He died in 1881.
(New York Public Library)

In 1912, the New York Times noted:

Since a few men started gathering old maps and views, over forty years ago, the number of collectors has rapidly increased, and things that could be found in the old shops twenty-five years ago or so for $5 or $10 are now quoted in the hundreds. 

Today, the prints march on. In the words of I. N. Phelps-Stokes,

Such pictures make history more vital, life more real; they engender feelings both of pride and humility, and serve alike as an inspiration and a warning. 

In John Singer Sargent's 1897 portrait,
I.N. Phelps-Stokes stands behind his wife Edith.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

*The Pennsylvania Historical Society and the Chicago Historical Society, among historical organizations in American cities, also acquired print collections that tended to be localized.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mrs. Norr, I Presume?

Some of the newspaper reports stated that she wore her wedding finery; others that she was draped in a black silk shawl. She definitely had new shoes. But what a shock to see one end of a length of rubber tubing in her mouth with the other end attached to a gas jet.

Gas was the means by which many a person took his life during the late 19th century, and the graphic details often appeared in big city newspapers.  Most of the time, the stories were about men: “He had suffered losses. . .” or “Recently he had a reversal of fortune. . .” or, as my friend Mark speculates, many suicides were by gay men who couldn’t go on in the closet or faced unrequited love.

Twenty-one year old Olga Norr killed herself in September 1897 because she could not bear to live without her husband, William, who had died one month earlier.

Newspaper Row, located across from City Hall, around 1900;
from left to right: The World Building, the Tribune Building,
and The Times Building (foreground)

A well-known journalist who wrote for the New York Sun and New York World, specializing in baseball and other sporting news, William Norr’s death from typhoid received a paragraph in the papers. But Olga’s lurid story fit better with the sensationalism of the day.

The family told a convoluted tale.

After William’s death, Olga moved in with his mother on St. Mark’s Place. But she refused to give up the couple’s apartment on East Thirteenth Street, and spent every day there caressing an urn that contained William’s ashes. She intimated to her brother-in-law that she would like to join her husband, which alarmed him. However, she also went shopping with her sister-in-law and appeared to be in a jolly mood, so no one worried too much.

They didn’t realize that Olga’s happy manner was related to her plan to join William.

One day, she secretly bought a cemetery plot, said good-bye to everyone and set off for East Thirteenth Street.

When the police busted the door down, they found Olga on the bed with the urn and a bundle of love letters. Forgive me for doing this and bringing disgrace on you all, but I find it impossible to live without Billy, she wrote in a farewell note.

She left instructions for her own body to be cremated and her ashes mixed with those of William. They were buried in a Beaux-Arts columbarium in Queens. It’s not clear what became of the cemetery plot.

After William and Olga were safely in the columbarium, the mother decided to speak to a reporter from the New York Journal.

It turned out that after William’s death, Olga and her late husband’s family were gathered in the parlor on Thirteenth Street, grieving over his body. The doorbell rang and the mother went to the door. A woman in black stood outside.

“Don’t you know me? I’m Bella, Billy’s wife, and I want to look on his face now that he’s dead.”

The mother shrieked. She wanted only to protect Olga from this horrible woman.

“Oh Bella. Please go away. We thought you were dead. I never harmed you!”

During the encounter, Olga caught sight of Bella in the hallway. “Who is that dreadful creature?” she screamed. “What right has she to look upon his face?”

Olga seized a pistol from her wardrobe and brandished it. The brothers-in-law took it away from her but left it in the apartment. Not too smart.

That afternoon, Olga tried to fling herself off the roof.

So what was the story with Bella? The mother confided that when Billy was younger he took up with Bella, an unsavory person. He wished to bring her home to live with the family. The mother refused, but Billy had a persuasive way about him. Ultimately, Bella lived in her house for about one year. Finally, the mother said they had to go.

Years later, she read that Bella had committed suicide using belladonna. William’s mother assumed finality. After a time, William introduced Olga as his wife, and the family loved her.  
Now here is Bella Norr, knocking at the door. She told a reporter:

I did not know of his whereabouts until I read of his death in the paper. I did not know there was another wife until I read of this person in the paper. I went to the house to make my claim that I am his wife and want any property he may have had.

When the reporter told Bella Norr that her appearance may have been the cause of Olga Norr’s suicide, she laughed and said, ‘Well I’m his wife, and I’m going to let people know it, and if there’s any property it belongs to me.’”

Most assuredly, William Norr left nothing behind.

He had covered baseball at an exciting time. The fans’ interest surged as the Eastern, Western, and National Leagues sparred for dominance.

William Norr also became known for a series of sketches of Chinatown which he wrote for editor Charles Dana of The Sun. Apparently, Dana loved Norr’s stories so much that he urged him to publish a book, Stories of Chinatown: Sketches from Life in the Chinese Colony of Mott, Pell and Doyers Streets.

Pell Street, Chinatown, around 1900

When it appeared in 1892, critics noted that Norr had immersed himself deep in the life of Chinatown in order to write the book. In the introduction, Norr himself suggests that he was a regular opium user.

Bizarrely, one of the stories, “’Round the Opium Lamp,” ends with a woman killing herself with gas after her boyfriend has been sentenced to prison.
*For more about Chinatown circa 1890, see these posts: March 8 + January 25, 2017

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Dr. Holmes & the Mt. Vernon Schools

Long-ago morning: a city-wide track meet of public
school students; Mt. Vernon, N.Y., 1930s* 

Superintendent Holmes was a serious, intimidating man.  He could appear kindly when he spoke to a circle of children who gathered around him.  However, he preferred to be stern, his gray eyes blinking behind thick spectacles. 

“Come back when you have real experience,” he would tell new graduates of Teachers College when they came knocking on his door.  One applicant recalled a monolithic desk and booming voice.  She scurried away to teach in New Jersey.  Several years later, Holmes hired her.

In 1913, when Dr. Holmes became superintendent of schools in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., he arrived with a newly minted doctorate from Clark University.  He proudly carried his dissertation, The Individual Child, in his back pocket (figuratively speaking).  He had studied under the great G. Stanley Hall, a pioneer in the field of developmental psychology whose research on adolescence inspired education reform movements in the United States.  

And Hall had worked at the University of Leipzig with Wilhelm Wundt, a philosopher and physiologist whose experiments in the social aspects of human thought and behavior launched the field of psychology in 1879.

To say that these men were eminent falls far short of the mark.  More than a century later, all of their ideas have been disputed but their work remains influential.

Dr. Holmes meets with students, 1930s

Given these prestigious connections, the Mt. Vernon board of education considered itself fortunate to have landed Holmes, and he modestly agreed.  But the new superintendent would face twentieth-century challenges for which Colby College and Clark University had not necessarily prepared him.  

Enrollment in the four-square mile city – which had incorporated two decades earlier – was rising rapidly, as was the case in all of the nation’s cities.  Most residents called for more schools but some old-timers did not.  Opposition to high schools had been common during the nineteenth century; those feelings persisted here even as the Mt. Vernon school board commissioned plans to build a new one.    

Further, although Mt. Vernon was technically a suburb, its demographics were more urban than suburban.  Founded and controlled by Protestants, the city had become home to Irish and German immigrants during the 1870s.  Along came enough Jews to support two synagogues.  A small black community, established after the Civil War, grew slowly on the South Side of the city.

Certainly a far cry from the hamlets of Grafton and Upton, Mass., where Holmes had served previously as superintendent.

Finally, there were Italian immigrants, part of the late-nineteenth century wave of European immigration.  They were most detested and exploited by the city’s establishment.  The men found jobs as stone masons, digging the cut for the New York Central Railroad which would bisect the city of Mt. Vernon, much to its detriment later on. 

Italian artisans also created beautiful stone and tile work for the homes of wealthy suburbanites.  And when they got on their feet sufficiently to form their own construction companies, Italian-American contractors always held the winning bids to build new schools.  Among these was Mt. Vernon’s gleaming new academic high school, completed in 1914.

However, when it came time for the children of Italian immigrants to go to high school, most were consigned to Edison Vocational & Technical High School, not the aforementioned college preparatory school. Black students also were directed to Edison.

It was an excellent place to learn a trade but the students were robbed of liberal arts degrees. 

At play: scene in a South Side elementary school, no date

Life would change for Mt. Vernon’s Italian immigrants, however.  Over the course of a generation, the community gained seats on the school board and eventually came to dominate city government.  

Unsurprisingly, the black community remained powerless.  Before the Great Migration, about 1,000 black students attended the public schools.  Yet “the Negro situation” was pronounced enough to draw the attention of the State Commissioner of Education. 

The commissioner and several state senators saw that Holmes had taken his cue from the board of education, which sanctioned inferior facilities in black neighborhoods.  And they wondered why black teachers were employed only in classes where white students constituted a very small minority.

“Many white persons would move from the neighborhood of any Mount Vernon school in which a Negro teacher had a position and realty values would depreciate,” Dr. Holmes told a legislative hearing, according to the New York Times.

“There was a storm of protest from parents when we once assigned a Negro substitute teacher,” said the school board president.

This was the North!

Mt. Vernon never integrated its elementary schools, so how could one have reasonably expected a measure of equity during the twenties and thirties?     

And yet, turning back to Superintendent Holmes, undeniably he gave his best to the schools over which he presided for 27 years.  Nearing retirement in 1940, he decided to write a history of the district. It’s packed with photographs, charts, and self-adulation.

Here are some of the things he accomplished, in line with progressive education initiatives of the time:

              Separated the 7th and 8th grades from elementary school to form what he called the “central grammar school,” a forerunner of the junior high school,

              Introduced the “platoon system,” invented in 1907 by the enterprising superintendent of the Gary, Indiana schools.  Instead of staying in one classroom with one teacher all day long, students moved around for science, art, music, and physical education,

              Established a medical department to check the ears, eyes, chests, and teeth of poor children,

              Created supervised study periods for children who otherwise would do their homework "in poorly lit kitchens" and

              Organized a counseling program to offer students health, educational, social, vocational, and ethical guidance.

Under Holmes, the Mt. Vernon schools gained a fine reputation.  But the superintendent’s heart really lay back in the nineteenth century.  After he retired and returned to his native Maine, he became fixated on a rundown Victorian mansion in Portland.  He and his sister, Clara, bought it and started to restore it.  He died not long after, in 1948.

Today the Victoria Mansion is a flourishing tourist attraction and the Mt. Vernon public schools are in ruins.

*The event occurred at Mt. Vernon's once glorious Memorial Field,. Presently, with its grandstand crumbling and the soil contaminated, there is a raging debate about whether to restore the field.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017


Perfect fried egg prepared by a doting mother,
Wisconsin 1977

That spring I was crazy about a guy who was the director of the campus radio station. He came from Wisconsin and always wore jeans and Frye boots. He was a swashbuckler, and he bedazzled me.

It always took longer for spring to arrive in Chicago. Even in May, one might find a little patch of snow lurking deep under a hedge.

But here came Easter weekend, with an invitation to visit my guy in the small town where his father, mother, and sister lived.

The eighties were not even on the horizon, so most college girls dressed in ways that were. . . unattractive. I decided to swap my battered jeans for a new, flowery skirt.

The skirt would be paired with brown clogs so that I would be sure to look my very best. Did I really not own a nice pair of shoes?

Was anyone ever so young?  asked Joan Didion in her essay, “Goodbye to All That.”

I am here to tell you that someone was.

Off to Wisconsin, where for the first time I saw a mother truly fawn over her son. Anything he wanted – including trimming the sunny-side-up eggs so that the perfect yolks were surrounded by perfect circles of white.

I remember thinking: I can’t top that. And, do I want to?

For the bloom already was off the rose.

In the guest room to which I’d been assigned, sitting on a bedspread that matched my skirt, I opened the drawer of the night table and found it packed with love letters from my boyfriend’s high school girlfriend, desperately begging him to take her back.

How awful to behold. It was necessary to scan just two or three of the letters to realize that I was going to be axed, because that’s how he operated. I felt badly for the ex-girlfriend, and wondered why the letters were in this particular drawer rather in than his room. And also: why keep them at all?

Sure enough, he did break it off a few weeks after the Easter visit. I should have ended it first, but just like his ex-girlfriend, I had been swashbuckled.

IBM Selectric, queen of the electric typewriters

The school year came to a close and I headed to Waltham, Mass., where my brother attended college. That summer, he had rented a room in an old house. Another room became available so I took it without even having a job.

Happily, it turned out that the Brandeis University music department required someone to handle the phones and type letters and reports. The instrument I played was the IBM Selectric, still the most wonderful typewriter that ever lived, at 90 words per minute.

The department chair paid me the ultimate compliment when he said that I typed the way he imagined Beethoven had played the piano.   

Also living in the house were a woman who would become an eminent professor of American literature and a newly arrived student, astounded by American appliances; one in a major wave of Soviet Jewish immigrants.

The house where we lived faced back onto Nipper Maher Park, which had a baseball field where a team of youngsters called the Little Nippers played at night. We’d sit on the bleachers and watch.

Nipper Maher Park
Waltham, Massachusetts

A terrible heatwave smothered the East Coast for more than two weeks.  I read more books faster than ever before – David Copperfield and The Woman in White and at least 20 more. That may not sound like a scintillating summer, but it renewed me.

Much later, my kids loved to hear a recitation of the perfect eggs story.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Stanley Fox with Sparrows

"The Sparrow's Home, Union Square, New York City"
Stanley Fox for Harper's Weekly, 1869

Evidently New York City’s pigeon population is declining, and the English sparrow and European starling have assumed most-hated status. It’s hard to imagine that once upon a time sparrows were so desirable that the city built houses to keep them happy.

Originally, officials decided to import the birds from England to fix an urgent problem: caterpillars were munching on the leaves of shade trees. It was believed that the sparrows would eat the caterpillars.

During the 1850s, Brooklyn tried several times to establish a population but the birds kept dying. Finally, several broods were let loose at Greenwood Cemetery and a man was hired to tend them; they flourished.  

Soon enough, the city of Portland, Maine, acquired its own sparrows. Then Boston brought them to the Common. During the Civil War, hundreds were set free in the parks of Manhattan. By the 1870s, Philadelphia, New Haven, Galveston, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco had large sparrow populations.

As the sparrows multiplied, Americans grew frustrated. The birds nested everywhere and ate crops. In 1903, the editor of The Warbler, a magazine devoted to North American ornithology, wrote, “The bird has now overrun the entire country and is a most serious pest.”

And in 1917, the Federal Government announced:

The U. S. Department of Agriculture scientifically investigated the contents of the stomachs of a large number of English sparrows, and reported that, aside from the destruction of weed-seeds, very little is to be said in the English sparrow’s favor. In reference to the insects destroyed this statement is made: ‘Out’ of five hundred and fifty-two stomachs inspected by the Biological Survey, forty-seven contained noxious insects, fifty held beneficial insects, and thirty-one contained insects of little or no importance.  

What a waste. But nothing could be done.

Fortunately, there’s one pleasing relic of the sparrow’s halcyon years:  a wood engraving of a giant bird house in Manhattan’s Union Square Park, circa 1869. Its creator, Stanley Fox, worked as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, the leading news magazine of the day, where the picture first appeared.

 Little Falls, N. Y., late nineteenth century

Mr. Fox was born and lived much of his short life in rural Little Falls, N. Y., 200+ miles northwest of New York City. The town lies in a deep gorge of the Mohawk River. Its dairy farms thrived because the Erie Canal passes right through.

In 1865, when Stanley Fox started working for Harper’s, the editors sent him south for the last year of the Civil War. He drew Fort Sumter and black soldiers arriving at Hilton Head. His picture of President Andrew Johnson pardoning rebels at the White House snagged the magazine’s cover.

After the war ended, Fox returned to Little Falls but continued to work for Harper’s. Now the editors wanted illustrations of topical urban scenes, which often required Fox’s presence in the city. He must have commuted back and forth on the New York Central Railroad.

Stanley Fox’s engravings are not remotely in the same league as the work of Winslow Homer and Thomas Nast, who also contributed to Harper’s Weekly.

"Pedestrians Walking in a Blizzard" by Stanley Fox
Harper's Weekly, 1873

However, in addition to the sparrow palace at Union Square, Fox nicely captured various scenes around town: a thoroughbred horse race, a blizzard, a county fair, the Central Park Zoo, and boys swimming in the East River.

"The Race for the Hunter's Plate," Jerome Park, The Bronx, 1870
by Stanley Fox for Harper's Weekly

When the destitute widow Mary Lincoln exhibited her wardrobe in New York City, hoping to raise money by selling her gowns, furs, and jewelry, Fox’s drawing helped promote the show.

And on May 30, 1868, Fox visited a Brooklyn cemetery to sketch visitors decorating the graves of the Union dead.

"Decorating the Three Thousand Soldiers' Graves at Cypress Hill Cemetery"
by Stanley Fox, Harper's Weekly, 1868.

But many of his drawings were gritty:

The indigent pleading for mercy at Jefferson Market Court in Greenwich Village  . . .

A police wagon dumping a motley crew of men, women, and boys at New York City’s notorious prison, the Tombs . . .

Identifying the dead in a morgue . . .

Vulnerable immigrants and sly employers negotiating at Castle Garden. .  .

The demeaning work of women in “the metropolis” . . .

Dinner hour for the poor . . .

A horde of adults and children in a bar, “evading the excise law – laying in rum for Sunday.” 

"A Prison Van Discharging at the Tombs" by Stanley Fox
Harper's Weekly, 1871
One of the striking things about Fox’s engraving of the “Sparrow Hotel,” as the New York Times referred to it, is its resemblance to a 19th century print of farmers shooting the passenger pigeons that used to fill American skies.

During the very same years that the sparrows thrived, the over-hunted passenger pigeon became extinct.

"Passenger Pigeons Being Shot to Save Crops in Iowa," 1867
Frank Leslie's Illustrated News, artist unknown

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


Invitation to my mother's 10th birthday party, 1928

My mother has forgotten many things but not the luncheonette that her parents owned at 23 East 20th Street in Manhattan.  These days the neighborhood is very fashionable, known as the Flatiron District. During the 1930s, however, it was largely given over to manufacturing.

Of course, as goes the urban cycle, the area was home to affluent New Yorkers through much of the 19th century.  In 1858, Theodore Roosevelt came into the world in a brownstone at 28 East 20th Street.  An American flag waves out front, as it did in the thirties.

At the little restaurant, one could have breakfast and lunch Monday through Saturday.  The customers were largely factory workers from the cast-iron buildings that clustered around Broadway, which cuts across a large slice of Manhattan from west to east.

The Flatiron Building rises where Broadway crosses Fifth. In its shadow, the blocks are short with little sunlight.

Flatiron Building, 1938
photograph by Berenice Abbott
(Museum of the City of New York)

My mother recalls a well-muscled guy who looked just like Tyrone Power. He worked in a carpet factory around the corner. On Saturdays when he came in for lunch, she sat at the counter, sneaking glances. 

I had no idea.

In addition to Tyrone Power, there was Frank, the sandwich man. In 1939, Frank went west to work for Boeing, where he would earn a lot more money.
My grandmother handled the cash register and my grandfather was the cook.

One day, a man in a fancy suit entered the restaurant. He held his hand in his pocket, as if he had a gun. He said to my grandmother, “How many guys you got working here?”

He wanted to know if there was organizing to be done.

He went into the kitchen and spoke with Frank and the dishwasher. After a few minutes, he left the store.

In 1932, at the bottom of the Depression, a customer asked if he could get a meal in exchange for drawing a picture of my mother.

The luncheonette also was the scene of her tenth birthday party. That is her last memory of East 20th Street. One year later, her father sold the restaurant to his cousin Murray and bought a luncheonette further uptown, on Broadway between 39th and 40th Streets, very close to Times Square.  

From there it was a short walk to the Capitol Theater where The Wizard of Oz opened in 1939. She remembers prancing up Broadway with her mother and a friend, full of eager anticipation.

Before the show, Judy Garland came on stage.  Everyone was shocked.  The actress had become chubby and wore her hair in short blonde ringlets, but she sang beautifully.

In a way, the luncheonette was a snapshot of the 1930s – a square meal, a job, the advancing war, and the lift that came from finding a movie star, real or imagined, in your midst.