Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Wanamaker, Ogden, Whalen & Powell: A Story about Race

Wanamaker's at Astor Place, 1920s

In 1928, 200,000 black people resided in New York City and 250 of them were employees of the department store known as Wanamaker’s.  

Founded by John Wanamaker in Philadelphia in 1876, the same year as the nation’s centennial, the store had employed African-Americans after Reconstruction and into the Jim Crow era.  Wanamaker’s devout Christianity led him to believe in racial equality – to the extent that the times permitted.

John Wanamaker

The brilliant entrepreneur was also influenced by his friend Robert Curtis Ogden, who joined Wanamaker’s soon after it opened and conceived of the store’s innovative advertising and marketing schemes. 

Robert C. Ogden had been committed to the education of black Americans since 1874, when he joined the board of the Hampton Institute.  The Institute, established after the Civil War as a teachers’ training school, provided agricultural and industrial education – although little in the way of academics – to freed slaves. *

Nature study brochure
Hampton Institute, 1908

In 1896, Ogden moved from Philadelphia to New York City to manage a new branch of Wanamaker’s located downtown near Astor Place.   

There he drew admiration from black employees who soon formed the Robert Curtis Ogden Association of the John Wanamaker Store.  Its purpose was to celebrate the achievements of the store’s black employees; for example, the association awarded annual prizes for achievement in musical composition and performance.

In 1905 Wanamaker and Ogden addressed the National Negro Business League, founded by the educator Booker T. Washington to support black-owned businesses.  Their remarks received flattering reviews in the New York Age, one of the nation’s foremost African-American newspapers.

Robert Curtis Ogden

But contemporary scholars note that the speeches were patronizing and that both men denied the existence of systematic racism.  Further, it is now evident that Wanamaker’s nonwhite employees were rarely promoted. They remained in menial jobs behind the scenes with the exception of elevator operators.  

However, the store’s employment practices were tolerant compared to other businesses.

After World War I, for example, white veterans lobbied the Fifth Avenue department stores to fire black elevator operators and give them the jobs instead.  Saks and Best & Co. obliged but Wanamaker’s and Bloomingdale’s did not buckle.

One could argue that Wanamaker and Ogden were racists, yet they rose above the shameful standards of the day.

John Wanamaker died in 1922, by which time his son Rodman had complete control of the company.  While Rodman’s three passions were music, aviation, and American Indian culture, he continued the work of the Ogden Association and the store’s relatively liberal hiring policy.

Everything changed when Rodman Wanamaker died in March 1928 and a glad-hander named Grover Whalen, a longtime store employee who had been one of Rodman’s assistants, stepped into the top position.

Perpetually doffing a homburg hat, Whalen dabbled in everything: politics, public relations, ceremonies.  He did have some good ideas such as the creation of WNYC, the city’s radio station.  Also, he was a fabulous greeter of General Pershing, Charles A. Lindbergh, and numerous famous people who visited New York.

But he wasn’t great for Wanamaker’s.  Just a few months after Whalen stepped in, the New York Age ran a front-page story about a change in the store's longstanding policy.

It turned out that a white woman customer had observed employees eating together in the integrated company cafeteria and complained to management.  Whalen immediately issued an order to segregate the lunchroom.  In protest, black employees began eating in local restaurants rather in the cafeteria, but Whalen remained unbowed.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, Grover Whalen could not resist the call of City Hall.  Within a few months he was gone from Wanamaker’s, having accepted the job of Police Commissioner offered to him by playboy Mayor Jimmy Walker.   

“There is plenty of law at the end of a nightstick,” declared Whalen.  Communists and bootleggers counted among his many targets.

Over time, Whalen’s views on race might have evolved.  But they did not. 

In his autobiography, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the first black member of the U.S. House of Representatives, recalled visiting Whalen around 1935 just after the former police commissioner had been named chair of the New York World’s Fair Corporation.  The fair would open in 1939.

We went to ask him for employment for qualified Negro people.  He offered us token jobs.  We refused them.  The slogan of the fair was “Building the World of Tomorrow,” and I can remember telling Grover Whalen: “You cannot have a World of Tomorrow from which you have excluded colored people.”

Mr. Whalen, suave and urbane, smiled beneath his carefully trimmed mustache and said, “I do not see why the world of today or tomorrow of necessity has to have colored people playing an important role.”

“A loss shared by all New Yorkers,” came the cry when Whalen died in 1962.  Even though the language is boilerplate, it’s still hard to choke down.

Grover Whalen (second from left) greets Charles Lindbergh
(facing camera) at the Manhattan Bridge in June 1927

*The Hampton Institute (now Hampton University in Hampton, VA) and the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University in Alabama) were denounced in some quarters for providing what critics considered the equivalent of a grammar-school education.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Gun Hill Road

215 East Gun Hill Road, The Bronx, 1940
(from the NYC property tax photos of 1940)

My computer always warns me not to capitalize the word “The” in “The Bronx,” but I know it’s wrong.  My father, a proud Bronx boy, always had the last word in the matter.  Thus, after receiving our childhood gifts, my brother and I addressed all thank you notes to our grandparents at 215 East Gun Hill Road, The Bronx, New York.

They had moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the Art Deco-ish building sometime during the mid-1930s. My father and his brother grew up there.

Building entrance, 2010s

Gun Hill Road has existed for more than 200 years.  It gets its name from a Revolutionary War skirmish in which the colonists hauled a cannon to the top of a hill and fired on the British.  That occurred in the middle of winter in 1777. 

Well over a century later, in 1898, New Yorkers voted to consolidate the five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island) into the City of New York.  Consequently, vast swaths of land in The Bronx suddenly became valuable and made many a real estate fortune.

By 1905 there was subway service from Manhattan to The Bronx.  In 1917, Gun Hill Road became a stop on the IRT line. 

My grandparents’ neighborhood drew Catholics and Jews who had enough money to flee Manhattan, leaving behind the crowded streets and tenements.  They craved space, trees, and air.

Still, every day my grandfather took the subway back to Manhattan.  He was in the fur business, a trade he had brought with him from Lithuania in 1914. 

Until the 1980s, the fur business was big business.

In his Eastern European accent, he told a story about his family’s fur shop in Vilnius.  One day, the Cossacks rode up to the front of the store, dismounted their horses, and stormed inside. 

“Give us the furs!” they told his grandmother. 

“Never!” she cried. 

Again: “Give us the furs!” 


She flung her body across the minks that were piled on a table.  The soldiers shot her to death.      

My brother and I liked to hear this story and our grandfather seemed to like telling it to us.

At the time that my grandfather arrived in the United States, manufacturing was scattered all over Manhattan rather than consigned to one area.  You could find all kinds of industry from the southern tip of the island up to 59th Street and farther north along the East Side.

But in 1916, the same year that urban reformers pushed through the nation’s first citywide zoning code, local businessmen formed The Committee to Save New York.  The idea was to consolidate industry below 32nd Street and west of Sixth Avenue.  This would have the effect of restoring uptown real estate values for businesses and homeowners. 

Surprisingly, everyone got on board.  Within a few years, most garment manufacturers had moved their factories and sweatshops to the new industrial district.  The fur shops, clustered around Seventh Avenue at 28th Street, became part of it, too.

Within that small area, my grandfather moved around a lot: 214 West 28th to 150 West 28th to 52 West 22nd to 67 West 23rd.  These buildings have all been demolished except for a four-story brownstone walk-up built in 1851 when Franklin Pierce was president.   

Since my grandfather created designs for fur shops and department stores, he did not need to have a vault and a showroom – just enough space for worktables and the tools of the trade.  He might have needed refrigeration for the furs. 

He did well until the Davy Crockett craze of the late 1950s, when he jumped in late and ended up with too many raccoon tails.

My grandparents circa 1945

When my grandfather came home to Gun Hill Road, he sat down in one of the easy chairs zipped into plastic, smoked a cigar, and watched television while my grandmother fussed around him.

On her left leg she had a large brown birthmark, so visible that a bureaucrat noted it in her naturalization papers.  The mark strongly resembled a stain in their bathroom sink that was caused by a long-running leaky faucet.  The child’s mind insisted that there had to be a connection between the stain and the birthmark, but what was it?

Occasionally my parents went away for the weekend and left my brother and me with our grandparents.  If the day was warm, we would all walk over to the “Oval,” a large park built during the New Deal on the site of an old reservoir.  We’d sit on a bench while bicycles and balls flew by.

Construction of the "Oval" during the 1930s

Back in the apartment, in a corner of the second bedroom, a battered wooden rack held a couple of old magazines.  One was an issue of Look with a big story about Jackie Kennedy, commemorating one year since the president’s assassination. 

I liked to sit on the wooden floor with the window half-open, the breeze moving the curtains, looking at the pictures. 

Even then, it surprised me that my grandmother held onto the worn magazine, for she spent a lot of time clearing closets and tossing out anything that was past its prime. 

She wanted everything to be new with no reminders of the old country in the apartment on Gun Hill Road.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

St. Augustine 1911

George Miller Brown in St. Augustine, 1911

George Miller Brown was a cautious, soft-spoken man whose long-anticipated trip from New York City to Florida would be his first voyage since he arrived at Castle Garden from Scotland in 1871.

An industrialist named Henry C. Flagler, who organized the Florida East Coast Railway Company, had made train travel possible from New York to Miami since 1896.

But George wanted to depart from the new Pennsylvania Station, an astonishing marble temple designed by McKim, Mead & White, which opened its bronze doors in November 1910.

There could be no grander way to go.  Construction had lasted seven years and the building, with its vast concourse and soaring staircases, occupied four city blocks between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

Pennsylvania Excavation by George Bellows
(Brooklyn Museum)

In March 1911 George boarded a sleeper headed to St. Augustine.

He could afford the vacation, if that’s what it was.  He had done well thanks to advertising sales, a growing field to put it mildly.  George first worked for Alexander T. Stewart, who established the world’s first department store on Broadway in 1848.  It too was a marble palace, five stories high.

Then George leapt to the Gair Company, founded by a fellow Scot and Civil War hero to boot.  Robert Gair invented paper bags and corrugated boxes.  He became a millionaire and George Miller Brown – well, he made a small fortune.

Map of Henry C. Flagler's Florida East 
Coast Railway, circa 1911. A Key West 
extension had not yet been completed.

When I first saw the colorized photograph of George, I wondered if he went all the way to St. Augustine to pose with the oranges.  The image has such a deliberate quality. 

It’s possible that he wanted to see an air show presented by the Curtiss Aeroplane Company, which would have been a pretty big deal.  Ever since an international air meet in Reims in 1909, Americans had flocked to the shows in Los Angeles, Boston and New York.

In St. Augustine, the pioneer aviators James J. Ward and John Alexander Douglas McCurdy flew their planes up and down the south beach and over Matanzas Bay. Sadly, Ward would crash five months after the exhibition, but McCurdy went on to play an important part in airplane manufacturing during World War I.

James J. Ward in the Curtiss Transcontinental Flyer 
just before his death in September 1911

The airshow surely interested George. But no one spent time in St. Augustine without paying a visit to Dr. Garnett’s Orange Grove. 

In 1911 when George traveled south, Florida’s main industries were real estate, cigars, oranges, and sponges.  Tourism was creeping up.

To capitalize on the visitors, during the early 1900s Dr. Reuben Garnett, a doctor from Missouri who moved to St. Augustine in 1882 in search of a Catholic community, opened an orange grove on his property.  He brought in ladders and encouraged visitors to pick the oranges and stroll along paths lined with palm trees and live oaks dripping with Spanish moss.

Another visitor to Dr. Garnett's Orange Grove poses 
for his picture by Lewis W. Blair, circa 1911

In 1910, in a masterstroke, he hired a photographer, Lewis W. Blair, who snapped souvenir pictures of the tourists.

And folks, George brought his photograph back to New York.

"A Spray of Orange Blossoms"
illustration from Florida East Coast Homeowner, 1911

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Rainy Day Window

 Looking south at the skyline's surprisingly pastel palette

photo by Claudia Keenan

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Hitting His Stride

John Walker Harrington's interest in technology was evident in this
article which appeared in Scientific American during World War I.

John Walker Harrington, an enterprising reporter who blew into New York City during the heyday of yellow journalism in the 1890s, came equipped with a big ego. 

In college he’d torn up the competition in oratorical contests.  He composed sly poems about his friends, pushing caricatures to the limit.  His writing dominated the student newspaper and yearbook. 

Still, everyone seemed to like him.

At Harrington’s 1887 wedding, it reflected well on the groom to have as his best man Samuel Hopkins Adams, an up-and-coming muckraker who wrote for the esteemed magazine, McClure’s.  


Popular Science Monthly (1918)

It was Harrington’s good fortune to hit his stride during World War I when editors were looking for his particular brand of story – technological innovation and the expansion of government and industry:

Hudson Under-River Roadway: Chief Engineer Talks of Plans and Prospects for the 40-foot Tunnel with Three Lines of Traffic Each Way

Police Force Expands as its Duties Increase; Nerve Center of City at Headquarters Utilizes Motor Cars, Telephones, Radio and Special Street Signals

Yet there was a downside to the kind of in-depth reporting in which Harrington specialized, and he recognized it even as he celebrated his own success. 

As the public consumed ever greater amounts of information about how business and government worked, complacency gave way to questions.  Rumors spread.  Organizations, corporations and individuals lost absolute control of how they were perceived by the world.      

Dividends, reputations, and fortunes could be erased by a single newspaper article.

Popular Science Monthly (1928)

Consequently, Harrington began to pay attention to how his services might be used to balance negative publicity.  He designed a pitch and sent out dozens of letters, emphasizing his knowledge of the inner workings of the press with the implication that he could manipulate coverage.        

For example, in 1917, after the imperturbable New-York Historical Society confronted the unthinkable – an attack on its leadership by one of its own starchy members – Harrington wrote to the director suggesting that the museum might need some help holding onto its aristocratic image.  

New-York Historical Society flap:
New York Times; January 3, 1917

The Society declined Harrington's help, but he had great luck in the business sector.

By 1919, he was running a news service for the American Chemical Society, a trade organization eager to calm fears about toxic gases, the use of X-Rays and fertilizer, problems with the nation’s milk supply, and other public concerns.

Harrington had a particular interest and faith in science and scientists, so he was a natural to write about the benefits of industrial research.  His topics ranged from electrification of the railroads, to the extraction of all-important potash from rock deposits, to building cheaper, more comfortable shoes.  His articles were always upbeat.

Popular Science Monthly (1922)

Harrington did not invent the art of public relations. 

That honor went to Ivy Ledbetter Lee, a Princeton graduate and publicity expert.  Lee began reshaping the unsavory image of the Rockefeller family in 1914 after the Ludlow Massacre, when John D. Rockefeller Sr. ordered a Colorado militia to break a strike by the United Mine Workers. Nineteen men, women, and children were killed.  

Harrington flourished in the world of flackdom, which would become a derogatory term for PR.  He also continued to write for himself.

In July 1924 American Magazine, a popular interest monthly, published a story by Harrington: “His Most Valuable Contract was the One He Didn’t Get.”

Here’s the teaser: “By speaking well of a rival firm, James G. White, when he was a young engineer, lost a big contract but gained some bigger friends.”

And here’s the first line: “Two men stood facing each other in the office of an Omaha smelting plant.”

No one sets a scene like that anymore.

"Chemistry's Greatest Rally"
Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry

*John Walker Harrington died in Connecticut in 1952.
See part 1 - 10/9/10.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The School Superintendent Who Needed a Home

Eastchester High School, 1940s

Needless to say, the members of the board of education were shocked to discover that the superintendent and his wife and children had been living in the local high school. 

At the end of each day when the teachers, students, and coaches were gone, when the drama and orchestra rehearsals had wound down and the custodians had banished the last banana peel and crumpled math quiz – the superintendent would make his way to the wing of the school where vocational classes were held.

Warily he would usher his family into the rooms occupied by the school’s home economics department.  There was a bedroom and bathroom, kitchen and living room.  Nothing fancy, but furnished and well-lit. 

Girls learning homemaking in school, 1930s

Good enough for the family to relax, prepare and eat meals, complete homework, wash up, and sleep through the night. 

It was the fall of 1945 in Eastchester, N.Y., a town in the New York City suburbs that started life as a seventeenth-century English settlement.  Within its five square miles, the direst housing shortage in the nation’s history had come home to roost.

Worst of all was that the returning veterans had to scramble for places to live.  “Dog-tired soldiers can’t come home to Detroit.  There aren’t any houses,” according to a headline in the Detroit Free Press.

A classified ad in the Omaha World-Herald offered “Big ice box, 7 x 17 feet inside.  Could be fixed to live in like a trailer.”

The housing famine, as some called it, preceded the postwar boom in housing and roads. Out on Long Island, Levittown’s 17,000 houses would go up in a record four years, but the farmers who sold their land to the builder were harvesting their potatoes until construction started in 1947. 

It was estimated that the nation would need 12.6 million new dwelling units during the first decade after the war.

But major shortages stood in the way of a quick end to the housing crisis: a shortage of labor and a shortage of supplies, their destinies entwined.  

From Architectural Forum (1945)

While the Army had released large amounts of lumber to industry, the timber remained standing in the woods of northern California, Oregon, Washington State, and Idaho.  The reason was that 60,000 American Federation of Labor (AFL) members had struck in nearly 500 lumber camps and logging mills, asking for $1.10 / hour.  No one held out hope for quick mediation.  

Labor was missing across all manufacturing sectors.  Big American Radiator & Standard Sanitary Corp., which formerly turned out 3,000 bathtubs per day, was now fortunate to produce 3,000 tubs per week.  Steel production had slowed, with capacity output not expected until spring of 1946.

Keg of nails?  How quaint. 

As housing starts stalled, veterans and labor organizations looked reflexively to the government for a solution to the crisis. 

Three senators – Robert F. Wagner of New York, Robert H. Taft of Ohio, and Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana – started work on a bill that would “provide a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.”  This bill also mandated the clearing of urban slum areas to create low-rent housing, which created new problems related to the displacement of poor people.

  Georgia, 1945: black families displaced by
postwar construction lived in tent cities 

that resembled Eastern European shtetls. 

Meanwhile, private industry recognized that the time had come to reject price controls and set its own production goals or else submit to interminable government regulation.

Indeed, after Congress finally declared a national housing emergency in May 1946, President Truman took steps to free builders from government constraints on supplies and construction.    

But he met fierce opposition from veterans’ groups who opposed the government’s removal of priorities, subsidies and market guarantees.  They worried that veterans would be unable to afford the new housing.  The stalemate lasted several years.

"A home from a Quonset Hut" appeared in
House Beautiful (September 1945).

Back in Eastchester, Superintendent Ward I. Miller, who had moved his family into the high school, was not a veteran.  Perhaps he wanted to save money, or his salary did not cover housing costs, or he could not find just the right home.  Which it was remains unknown. 

Despite their shock, the school trustees did not fire Miller.  He stayed on until 1946 and then became superintendent of schools in Wilmington, Delaware. 

One must admire Miller’s clever choice of a place to live. 

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, as student enrollment soared, U. S. public school administrators accepted the charge to teach homemaking.  School buildings were constructed or retrofitted with small apartments where girls learned to cook and clean under the tutelage of home economics instructors who knew all the best recipes for gruel.   

Since the home economics curriculum modeled hygiene, diet and family life, it fit neatly with the overarching goal of Americanizing immigrants.  In Eastchester, such an effort would have been directed at the daughters of Italian immigrants who began moving to the town during the mid-1920s.   

Surely the Millers left the apartment in immaculate condition when they tiptoed out each morning.