Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Snowy Old New York

City Watchman by William P. Chappel  (around 1870)
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Toward the end of his life, William P. Chappel painted scenes of early nineteenth-century New York City, which he recalled from his childhood.  The oil paintings are small, no larger than 7"x 10", and meticulously detailed.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Louis N. Hammerling, an American Allrightnik

Louis N. Hammerling launched his magazine,
The American Leader, in 1912.

In 1908, when Louis N. Hammerling founded the American Association of Foreign Language Newspapers, he had long since persuaded his colleagues that he was Hawaiian – born in Honolulu in 1874; immigrated to the U.S. in 1886. 

Unfortunately, as Louis once scribbled in a passport application, he could not recall the name of the steamer and the point of departure.  That is because he had not been truthful.  In fact, he emigrated from Poland in 1879 at the age of nine.

Much later, when the truth emerged, Louis explained that he thought every immigrant was allowed to choose his own birthplace upon arriving in America.  He also admitted that he perjured himself while obtaining his naturalization papers in 1901.  

Hammerling used fraudulent papers 
to obtain a certificate of naturalization 

Louis led the quintessential checkered life.  Scholars and contemporary observers have described him as charismatic, problematic, and wily; a master of fraud and intrigue, a huckster, a self-promoter, and an "allrightnik."  Allrightnik is a Yiddish word for a striver who attains success yet remains vulgar and deceitful. 

Around 1890, Louis moved to Wilkes-Barre, PA, to work as a coal miner and mule driver.  He also became editor of a local Polish language newspaper.  Soon after, he began editing the United Mine Workers Journal.  Through that connection, he met Mark Hanna, an Ohio businessman and influential politician who owned mines and was largely responsible for getting the pliable President McKinley elected.  Subsequently, Hanna introduced Louis to members of the Republican National Committee.  They hired him to manage the party’s appeals for immigrants’ votes between 1904 and 1916. 

Along the way, Louis had many ideas.  One of them was this:

By the turn of the twentieth century, the U.S. was home to at least 400 foreign language newspapers published in at least two dozen languages.  In 1908 Louis formed the American Association of Foreign Language Newspapers (AAFLN), requiring that each member-newspaper purchase a few shares in the association. 

Next, he made a match. 

American corporations, government, and political parties had spent years trying to reach the burgeoning immigrant population.  Big business had stuff to sell: thousands of retail products.  Politicians wanted to pitch the pros and cons of social movements such as Prohibition.  Electioneers and marketers were hired to corral the votes of immigrants.   

But language was a formidable barrier.

Organizing the foreign language press enabled Louis Hammerling to act as an advertising broker.  He established rates, bullied reluctant publishers, and pocketed money from unwitting parties on both sides of the fence.  He believed that advertising would help “Americanize” immigrants by tethering them to the consumer culture.   

Classified listing of foreign language newspapers
published in the U.S. (around 1910)

Today, it is rather astonishing to scan an old directory of AAFLN members.  In 1917, the following nations were represented by one or more American newspapers:

Albania … Arabia … Armenia … Assyria … Austria … Belgium … Bohemia … Bulgaria … China … Croatia … Denmark … Estonia … Finland … France … Germany … Greece … Hungary … Iceland … Italy … Japan … Lithuania … Norway … Poland … Portugal … Rumania … Russia … Ruthenia … Serbia … Slovakia … Slovenia … Spain … Sweden … Syria … Turkey … and Ukraine, not to mention papers read by the Welsh, the Swiss, the Lettish, and Jews.  

Altogether they totaled 724 publications, 150 dailies and 500 weeklies plus magazines, published largely in Midwestern and northeastern cities.

In 1912, Louis started his own monthly newspaper, The American Leader.  In its pages, academics, businessmen, and foreign language journalists editorialized about current events.    

Robert Park, an urban sociologist who began his career as a newspaper reporter, once wrote that Hammerling “could give advertising or he could take it away.  He could promise the struggling little publisher that he would either make him or break him.”

But The American Leader (and other papers in the AAFLN) became best-known for a 1915 advertisement, written by Louis, entitled “An Appeal to the American People.”  It called for the U.S. to stop manufacturing weapons and ammunitions for the allies, and was widely regarded as pro-German propaganda.

During the early 1920s, Congress investigated Louis and others who were suspected of violating the 1918 Sedition Act.  Louis stopped publishing The American Leader and handed off the presidency of the association. 

Ultimately, he was expelled from the U. S., but not because of treason.  Rather, the government figured out that he had used false papers to become naturalized.  He journeyed back to Poland in 1924; then returned to the U.S. in 1930 and was re-naturalized legally.  

Louis married twice and fathered three sons.  Born Jewish, he converted to Catholicism but was not a religious man.

In 1935, he died after falling from the nineteenth floor of a Brooklyn apartment building. At a time when newspapers still announced suicides and even the gory details, no cause of death was given.

*Louis Hammerling led a complicated, duplicitous life.  See The Most Dangerous German Agent in America, The Many Lives of Louis N. Hammerling by M. B. B. Biskupski (2015).

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Leaving Lord & Taylor

Main entrance to Lord & Taylor (1914)

Goodbye to yet another great American department store.  

Lord & Taylor’s Fifth Avenue flagship palace, built in 1914 in Italian Renaissance style, closed its doors on January 2.

Soon a company called WeWork, a decidedly 21st century enterprise, will carve the space into offices and meeting rooms available to the general public.  WeWork’s design team takes itself as seriously as did the building’s original architects, the firm of Starrett & Van Vleck.

Of course, it has been many years since shoppers could take the elevator to the tenth floor and dine in the Wedgwood Room or the Loggia: a cup of clam broth, a tongue sandwich; Cantaloupe Lillian for dessert.*  

And decades have passed since a fountain and frieze of glazed terra cotta decorated the walls and ceilings of the Cut Flowers Department.**

The Cut Flowers Department was located on a second-floor balcony; the
 Rookwood Pottery Company of Cincinnati created the architectural faience.

Once upon a time the Toy Department displayed its mechanical water toys in a 7 ’x 16’ tank.  And between 1914 and 1938, the Sixth Avenue Elevated conveniently stopped just a block away from the store.

Yet even as change came to Lord & Taylor, the store had a habit of standing still.  It evoked an earlier city.

I don’t mean that the store was quaint.  Rather, it connected generations:  for us, the tail-end baby boomers, to the city where our mothers emerged from the Depression and war and fully came of age.   

A child feels very comfortable being held by the hand as an adult knowledgeably navigates a large, old building.  Such a place was Lord & Taylor, just like Grand Central Terminal. 

Lord & Taylor (1914)

The store has a long history.  Samuel Lord and George Washington Taylor opened their shop in 1826, far downtown on Catherine Street in a neighborhood now known as Two Bridges.  French satins, Indian shawls, and the like were purchased abroad.  The merchants aimed high.

Over time, Lord & Taylor moved north to the Lower East Side neighborhood, and then to Broadway where Lincoln’s funeral procession passed its black draped building in 1865.  But the city kept moving uptown, and in 1912, the company purchased land on Fifth Avenue between 38th and 39th Street.  The new store – with 600,000 square feet of floor space, a carriage and automobile entrance, and an employees’ gymnasium – was completed in 1914. 

Lord & Taylor was designed for women but its president – no surprise – was a man, Samuel Reyburn.  In the early 1920s, he became captivated by “the Little Shavers,” a quirky collection of small male and female dolls with odd names and colorful outfits.  Hand-crafted of cloth, with painted faces, the Little Shavers quickly became a fad among women and girls alike.

Drawings of Little Shavers from an article by Elsie Shaver

Two sisters, Elsie and Dorothy Shaver, had imagined the dolls after moving from Arkansas to New York City after World War I.  Elsie turned them out and Dorothy marketed them.  That is how she met Reyburn, who soon hired her to join his staff.  Dorothy rose through the ranks, establishing the store’s Bureau of Fashion & Design in 1925.  Soon after she was elected to the Board of Directors.  And in 1945, she became president of Lord & Taylor.

$110,000 Earned by Arkansas Girl announced a New York Times headline one year later.  She was the first woman to head a major retail store.  

Dorothy Shaver, 1950s

Dorothy Shaver brought Lord & Taylor into the modern age.  She had a gift for spotting trends and shifting tastes.  During the late 1920s, she decided to introduce modern art and home furnishings.  Off she went to France and brought back furniture, rugs, silver, glassware, and paintings by Utrillo, Braque and Picasso, which were exhibited in the store.

In 1932, Shaver introduced “the American Look,” championing American designers such as Claire McCardell.  She opened branches in the suburbs, helped establish the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute, and generously supported the Greater New York Fund and the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.

Eventually she became a vice president of Associated Dry Goods, which owned Lord & Taylor.  She died in 1959 at the age of 66.

“We came to New York on a fast-running, extra-fare train from Chicago because Elsie was in a hurry to start her career,” Dorothy Shaver once told a reporter.

“I had no thought of a career for myself, then.  I just came along for the ride, and because New York sounded fabulous and exciting.  It was, and has been, fabulous and exciting to me ever since.”

Dorothy Shaver introduced the American Beauty
rose as a symbol of Lord & Taylor

As Joan Didion reflected in her 1967 farewell to New York, Goodbye to All That:

“I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.”

And the same for Dorothy Shaver as she strode through her department store, across the travertine floors edged with black Egyptian marble.

She really understood what Lord & Taylor meant to its patrons.

Lord & Taylor on Catherine Street

*Cantaloupe Lillian, named after the actress Lillian Russell, was a half-cantaloupe with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the middle.
**The Rookwood Pottery was established in 188o by Maria Longworth Nichols, inspired by her visit to the 1876 U. S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.  Many of its designs relate to the Arts & Crafts Movement.  The company is still in business.

The Little Time Traveler

  Last fall, my adorable grandson, halfway between two and three years, was finally tall enough to look at the family pictures arranged on a...