Saturday, April 9, 2016


The photographer who captured this image of the intersection of Ann and Nassau Streets in lower Manhattan managed to include a wealth of detail in the frame, from the advertisement for the "Oak Rooms" of the clothier Cohen & Co. to the ornate column surmounted by an eagle, the newsboy on the corner, and the whole bustle of signs, pedestrians, and horse-drawn carts.

This was a long-established commercial neighborhood, favored by the printing and publishing trades from the late 18th century on. In the 1840s the Evening Mirror, to which Poe contributed "The Raven" and much else besides, was published at the address of the building at left. Later in the century Peck & Snyder operated a thriving business selling baseballs and other sporting goods from this block of Nassau, until they were bought out by A. G. Spaulding. There's a sign advertising sporting goods in this postcard (it's on the right side of Nassau Street, below the one advertising "Artists Materials"), but I haven't been able to determine if it was a successor to the earlier business.

My copy of this card was mailed to a Mrs. Moses Benn of Houlton, Maine, a town along the New Brunswick border that at the time was home to some 5,000 people. The inscription, in pencil, reads:
Dear Aunt Lottie; We are on our way home. Now sitting in Grand Central Station N. Y. waiting for train. [Illegible] received your letter. We were so glad to hear. — G. G. — Will write later.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Watkins Glen

Here's how Bradford Van Diver, in Roadside Geology of New York, describes Watkins Glen in western New York State:
This is the best known of the Finger Lakes glens and certainly one of the most beautiful places in Eastern North America. Here, Glen Creek has cut a deep and unusually narrow gorge into the thin-bedded Enfield siltstones and shales belonging to the late Devonian Sonyea group that overlies the Genesee group. Because of the relatively uniform resistance of the rocks to erosion, the gorge does not have large falls... The stream twists and turns in a tortuous manner, leaving overhanging walls where meanders have drifted sideways as they cut rapidly downward.
The unnumbered Rotograph postcard at the top of this post shows an evocative (if not quite convincingly colored) view of the gorge, but the one below (5082 a.) may be of special interest for the postcard historian. Depicting a feature called "the Card-Rack," it appears to document a practice of leaving postcards and letters at a selected location in the glen.

Were these missives votive offerings, or love charms like the locks on Paris's Pont des Arts, or just mementos recording that "So-and-so was here"? I haven't been able to find any other record of the practice or when it was discontinued; I suspect that park authorities would frown on it today. Any information would be appreciated.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The German Hostelries of Battery Place

The two Rotographs on this page date from around 1905, but the architecture seen in them echoes backwards and forwards across a span of Manhattan history at least 160 years in duration. Walter B. Chambers's 1882 Washington Building (the red structure above) still stands along Battery Place between Broadway and Greenwich Street, though it has been greatly modified and is now known as the International Mercantile Marine Company Building or as One Broadway. The Bowling Green Building, which dates from the 1890s and was formerly associated with the White Star Line, is likewise still extent; its address is 11 Broadway.

On the other hand, the three low buildings to the left of the Washington Building, two of which can be seen more clearly in the card below, are long gone, as are, of course, the elevated railway tracks and station seen in the background. (I'm not quite sure why the Bowling Green Building is not visible from this angle.)

Those three buildings can be dated to at least 1853, when they were captured by Victor Prevost in one of the earliest photographic city views of Manhattan, shown below. They stand on the right side, clustered in front of the steeple of Trinity Church.

It's possible that the buildings even predate the great fires of 1835 and 1845, which destroyed much of what is now lower Manhattan but seem to have skirted Battery Place. In any case, in the early years of the 20th century the tallest of the three was Reinhardt's Hotel, an establishment that appears to have catered to the city's large German immigrant community. It was already Reinhardt's in 1879, when the New York Times recorded the suicide in his room of one Albert Sattler, 45, a recent immigrant from Coln (that is, Cologne). The building to its immediate left was the Battery Park Concert Garden, which also may have catered to Germans, while the third building (only partly visible in the second postcard) was the Lion Brewery. The roughly contemporary images below show greater detail, including the doorway of an Exchange Office with a German inscription.

The three buildings were still standing at least as late as 1930 (below), but they looked a bit the worse for wear. They were apparently demolished around 1947.

Sources: Scouting New York has a nicely illustrated post about One Broadway. The German-language blog New York - History - Geschichte has a long (but somewhat difficult to navigate — scroll down to Part 3) article on "The Lost Houses of Battery Place," from which several of the above images were taken. The melancholy account of the death of Albert Sattler can be found in the New York Times of May 3, 1879.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Mission

This Rotograph depicts Manhattan's Five Points Mission, founded in 1853 just off the complex intersection that gave its name to one of the city's most notorious slums. It does not, however, show the original mission building, which itself had been constructed on the footprint of the squalid Old Brewery tenement that the Police Gazette once proclaimed "the wickedest house on the wickedest street that ever existed in New York, yes, and in all the country and possibly all the world."

Standing across from a tiny triangular plot of land called Paradise Square (later Paradise Park), the Old Brewery, true to is name, had been a working brewery until around 1837. It served as a tenement for only about fifteen years, but that was long enough for it to establish a reputation as a warren of depravity like no other. Tyler Anbinder, the author of the definitive book on the Five Points neighborhood, is understandably skeptical of some of the more lurid accounts of the building, such as Herbert Asbury's "ridiculous" contention that an average of one murder a night occurred there throughout its occupancy, but the important point is that contemporary New Yorkers — or at least some of them — regarded it as an intolerable carbuncle on the body politic. It was demolished in 1852 at the instigation of the New-York Ladies' Home Missionary Society, a Methodist organization that seemed to be at least as interested in converting the Catholic heathen of the neighborhood to Protestantism as it was in helping the poor, and replaced with a four-story complex (shown below) that included a chapel, a parsonage, school rooms, and apartments.

The Five Points Mission remained active throughout the second half of the 19th century, hosting an elaborate annual Thanksgiving dinner for the local poor, but it eventually outgrew its building, which was torn down in 1894 and replaced with the more expansive structure shown in the postcard, which was designed to incorporate, among other things, a choir loft that could accommodate 150 and enough classroom space for 900 children. It would serve its purpose for only one generation, however, before succumbing to the wrecker's ball in 1915 in order to make way for New York City's Civic Center district, which largely obliterated the original topography of the Five Points.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Washington Bridge

Not to be confused with the more famous George Washington Bridge, this older structure, which spans the Harlem River, was opened in 1888 and still stands. The postcard was mailed on August 9, 1907 to Miss Georgia Pratt in Essex, Connecticut.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

American Holiday Postcards

McFarland & Company in North Carolina has just published Daniel Gifford's American Holiday Postcards, 1905-1915: Imagery and Context, which promises to be an invaluable resource for the study of the production and dissemination of postcards during the Golden Age. I have drawn on Gifford's related doctoral dissertation as background material for this project. The book can be ordered from independent booksellers, from the usual sources, or directly from McFarland.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Before the fire

A view of Bar Harbor, Maine in the early years of the twentieth century, when it was already a popular tourist destination, especially for the wealthy. This image was probably captured from one of the islands in Frenchman Bay. Much of this terrain was altered in 1947, when a wildfire wiped out much of the forest cover on Mt. Desert Island, along with a large number of hotels and private homes in and around Bar Harbor.

The recipient of this card was William B. Chase, music critic for the Evening Sun, and it was mailed to his office in New York City on August 14, 1906; Chase later moved on to the New York Times. At a party for his seventy-first birthday, in 1943, he was serenaded by a composition written in his honor by the composer Nikolai Lopatnikoff, entitled "Arietta on the Name C-H-A-S-E." Chase's father, Austin C. Chase, was a farmer, piano manufacturer, postmaster of Syracuse, real estate developer, and lieutenant-colonel in the National Guard; the Encyclopedia of Biography of New York notes that among his many other accomplishments in 1882 he became president of the Chilled Plow Company, "when that institution was in very straightened circumstances and its affairs in a very unsatisfactory condition," and quickly put it to rights.

The unidentified sender of the card was staying a few miles away in Seal Harbor at the Seaside Inn, which escaped the 1947 fire but was later torn down.

Monday, June 17, 2013


Similar in manner to the images in my previous post, these snowy rustic landscapes all depict unidentified (though in some cases perhaps not unidentifiable) locations. Only the first features human figures (a woman and child to the right, and another, very blurry child just to the left of center), though many include buildings or other structures. Some show the faint bluish coloration of Rotograph's "Delft" line, others have a reddish hue, and two bear a bit of crudely applied glitter. Most are marked on the back with the words "Winter Serie" [sic] followed by the letters A, B, or C (multiple scenes correspond to the same letter); two have a numerical code beginning with D (for Delft.)

Some kind of shed or tipi-like structure is visible behind the trees in this one:

The next, which is one of only two in this particular group that were ever addressed and mailed, has some added doodles, perhaps meant to suggest footprints or snowshoes:

As far as I know, whatever records that may have once existed that could identify the photographer or photographers who captured these images were destroyed long ago.

Sunday, June 16, 2013


The muted aesthetic of these Rotographs sets them apart from the multicolored scenic view cards. Except for the first, which reads "Picturesque Lake Geneva NY" in a partially cropped-off caption at the bottom, none of the locations are identified. Most have a slight bluish cast, not entirely captured in these scans, that Rotograph compared, rather optimistically, to Delft china. Three have markings on the back indicating that they were included in Rotograph's "Landscape View Serie [sic] A."

It's hard to believe that these subtle images were ever able to compete with all the livelier and more colorful postcards on the market, but at the height of the postcard bubble no doubt some companies felt free to experiment a bit with alternative approaches. At least when grouped together, they still provoke an appealing mood of quiet respite.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The pleasure palace

The second of four Manhattan structures to bear the name, this incarnation of Madison Square Garden, designed by Stanford White, was opened to the public in 1890. In this postcard view the building and nearby structures have been garishly outlined with the addition of glitter, which isn't readily visible in the scan. There is some lettering on the tower that appears to read "OPEN BY NIGHT."

In 1906, the year after this copy of the card was mailed to Mrs. Leo Keck of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the building proved White's undoing. While enjoying a musical performance in its rooftop theater, he was shot to death by Harry K. Thaw, the pathologically jealous husband of one of his former lovers, Evelyn Nesbit. Confined to a mental institution after two sensational murder trials (the first ended in a hung jury), Thaw was released after a few years and died a free man in 1947.

The building also hosted the 1924 Democratic National Convention, which took 103 ballots to nominate John K. Davis to run, unsuccessfully, against incumbent President Calvin Coolidge. It was torn down the following year.