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Thursday, March 7, 2019

Alexander Graham Bell and the St. Denis Hotel


On March 7, 1876, the US Patent Office granted Alexander Graham Bell the patent for his brand-new telephone or "harmonic telegraph." Bell was in a race to secure a patent with Elisha Gray, who'd essentially invented the same device; there's been controversy ever since as to which person should get credit. At least one reason Bell received the patent is that his lawyer showed up at the patent office first.

Some in Bell's corner argue that the patent itself is less important than the fact that he was the first to get a telephone to actually work, on March 10, 1876, when Bell was able to summon his assistant by saying "Watson, come here" into a working phone.



It was also Bell who successfully demonstrated the telephone was more than just a novelty. Of particular importance was his demonstration at the St. Denis Hotel in Greenwich Village in early May 1877 was instrumental in getting the technology adopted.

The St. Denis was opened in 1853, just across from Grace Church. Both buildings had been designed by James Renwick, who would later go on to build St. Patrick's Cathedral. (James wrote a story about Renwick's buildings in the Village for The New York Post, which you can read at https://nypost.com/2018/06/06/the-secret-legacy-of-the-architect-behind-st-patricks.)

Billed as the "most centrally located hotel in the city," the St. Denis was within walking distance of most of New York's prime theaters, restaurants, and department stores, many of which lined Broadway south of Union Square. The hotel quickly developed a celebrity clientele, including first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who stayed there during one of her frequent trips to the city. Ulysses S. Grant worked on his memoirs at the hotel and, when he was stuck with writer's block, his publisher, Mark Twain, moved in for three months to get him over the hump.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
Though [Alexander Graham Bell] had already patented the device and made public demonstrations of its efficacy—[including a call from Boston to] Providence, Rhode Island, 43 miles away—he hadn’t yet found a market for it. At the St. Denis a crowd of about 50 filled the drawing room on the second floor where Bell made telephone calls to the A and P Telegraph office in Brooklyn, using wire strung across the not-yet-completed Brooklyn Bridge. In the audience were potential financial backers, such as Cyrus Field, the president of the company that 11 years earlier had successfully laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable. 
At least one observer at the St. Denis, telegraph pioneer Walter P. Phillips, derided the invention as “a toy, if not an absolute humbug.” But it is clear that others were impressed. Later that year, the first telephone was installed—connecting J.H. Haigh’s home on John Street to his factory in Brooklyn. By 1878, the first telephone directory was published: it contained 252 listings: 235 businesses and 17 people who had telephones installed at home.
Alas, the St. Denis hotel -- converted into an office building in the early part of the 20th century -- is now slated for demolition, so that it can be replaced with a 12-story glass tower.

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Read more about Bell and the St. Denis in












Thursday, February 28, 2019

John Tyler, Julia Gardiner, and the "Awful Explosion" on the Princeton


One of the most complicated legacies in presidential history is that of John Tyler, our tenth president. Elected to the vice presidency in 1840, he became president in April 1841, when President William Henry Harrison died a mere month into his term.

While the 12th Amendment had modified the Constitution so that presidents and vice presidents would run together on one ticket, the document had never fully laid out the duties of the vice president or the rules of succession.

(Amazingly, those rules would not be codified until the 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967.)

So, when Harrison died, Tyler assumed the presidency -- against the wishes of just about everyone in Washington, including his own party, the Whigs, who kicked him out. He was pejoratively known as "His Accidency" instead of "His Excellency" and most politically minded Americans probably thought he'd serve as lame duck throughout his entire term.

Tyler, meanwhile, was dealing with personal tragedy. In September 1842, his wife Letitia died in the White House of a stroke, and his daughter-in-law, actress Priscilla Cooper Tyler, took on the role of White House hostess and de facto First Lady.

Tyler, then age 52, soon began wooing Julia Gardiner -- age 22 -- the daughter of David Gardiner, a wealthy New York attorney and scion of the famous Gardiner family of Long Island.

As we write in Inside the Apple, Julia was
a rebellious and bored young woman. In 1840, she appeared in a handbill advertisement for Bogert & Mecamley, a dry goods store. Julia stands clutching a handbag that is actually a sign:

I’ll purchase at Bogert & Mecamley’s, number 86 Ninth Avenue. Their goods are beautiful and astonishingly cheap. 

 
Julia’s family was horrified. Not only was she shilling for a middle-class department store while wearing a gaudy frock, she was doing it on the arm of a man who was not a male relative. Of all the social faux pas in Victorian New York, the unchaperoned female was high on the list. 
Julia was immediately sent to Europe to learn her social graces. Soon upon her return, she met President Tyler—who was less than five months a widower—and the two began an oblique romance. Within a few weeks, he had proposed to her. Julia demurred [ed: or, more likely, her parents did], but Tyler was not easily dissuaded. In February 1844, Tyler invited Julia and her father, David, to see the first demonstration of the U.S. Navy’s new twelve-inch gun, the “Peacemaker.”
The "Peacemaker" and the ship that bore it, the Princeton, were the brainchild of John Ericsson, the inventor of the screw propeller who would also go on to also design the ironclad warship. The "Peacemaker" was designed to give the US Navy an edge against older, bigger, and better trained fleets. Tyler invited a host of dignitaries for the Princeton's inaugural run up the Potomac, including David Gardiner and Julia. Perhaps Tyler thought that including the Gardiners in what was supposed to be the biggest triumph of his presidency would bring Julia's father around.

But what started as a joyful and patriotic day ended, in the words of one participant in "scenes of death, and disaster, of lamentation and unutterable woe" when the "Peacemaker"exploded in the breech.

Tyler was on his way topside from having been with Julia below deck when the accident happened. Secretary of State Abel Upshur and Navy Secretary Thomas W. Gilmer were killed instantly, as was David Gardiner. It was, by all accounts, a gruesome scene.

Four months later,
Julia and the President were married at a secret ceremony at the Church of the Ascension, near the Gardiners’ New York City residence on Lafayette Place. Tyler was loath to tell his children about the wedding. His eldest daughter, Mary, was five years older than Julia, who was 24—and the President was himself only nine years older than Julia’s mother. 
However, word soon spread of the nuptials—not least because Julia took Washington by storm, spending her nine months as First Lady in a whirl of social engagements and state functions. She established new, more rigid protocols (including the tradition that “Hail to the Chief” be played every time the President made an appearance) and catapulted herself into a lifetime career as Former First Lady Julia Tyler.
Julia and John Tyler left the White House in 1845, and she bore him numerous children. Amazingly their son Lyon Gardiner Tyler (born 1853) still has two living sons -- which means that President John Tyler, who was born in 1790, George Washington's first full year in office, has grandchildren that are still alive.


 

and don't forget our first book with the story of John and Julia Tyler









Thursday, February 14, 2019

James K. Polk and Early Presidential Portraits



On February 14, 1849 -- 170 years ago today -- President James K. Polk sat down in the photography studio of Mathew Brady in New York City to have his portrait taken. This photo is the earliest surviving photograph of a president taken while he was in office. Though there's a rumor that a daguerreotype of William Henry Harrison was shot during his one month in office in 1841, that photo has never been found.

Brady's studio at the time was at the corner of Broadway and Fulton streets in the Financial District and is now gone, as is Brady's famous uptown studio, where he took the photo of Abraham Lincoln (below). The only Brady studio building still standing is in Tribeca at 359 Broadway.


While Polk may have been the first president to be photographed while in office, he was not the first to sit for his portrait. That honor goes to John Quincy Adams, a daguerreotype of whom was shot in March 1843. At the time, Adams was serving in Congress; he was actually a representative from Massachusetts for nearly seventeen years after he left the presidency, overlapping briefly with Lincoln during that future president's one term in Congress.


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Read more about Mathew Brady and Abraham Lincoln in New York
in
Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers

 

and don't forget our first book








Thursday, February 7, 2019

Beatlemania!


On February 7, 1964 -- fifty-five years ago today -- four lads from Liverpool landed at JFK airport and took America by storm.

Coming just ten weeks after President Kennedy's assassination (and two months after Idlewild Airport's renaming in honor of the slain president), the Beatles arrival that day served for many as a tonic to the ills of the world.


The group's first British albums, Please Please Me and With the Beatles had been released in rapid succession in 1963, keeping the group at the top of the British charts for a remarkable 51 straight weeks. In America, it had taken a few months for Beatlemania to catch fire, but once it did in early 1964, the group became an unstoppable force. When they landed at JFK on February 7, 1964, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" had just reached the top of the Billboard charts and a crowd of 3,000 screaming fans greeted them. (The fact that 3,000 was considered a crowd seems almost quaint.)

Two days later, on February 9, the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. Like Elvis's appearance before them, it was a crucial moment in introducing the band to a larger audience and a record 73 million people tuned in to watch them perform "All My Loving," "Till There Was You," "She Loves You," "I Saw Her Standing There," and "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

73 million people equaled about 40% of the TV audience that night. What were the others watching instead? Up against Ed Sullivan that night were The Wonderful World of Disney, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters (starring a 12-year-old Kurt Russell), Imogene Coca in Grindl, and Arrest and Trial, the forerunner to Law and Order.

Three Beatles -- George Harrison was nursing a sore throat -- commandeer a carriage in Central Park for a publicity shoot

On February 11, the band played its first U.S. concert at the Coliseum in Washington, D.C., then returned to New York for two shows at Carnegie Hall. (The shows ran a mere 35 minutes each!) The group appeared for a second time on Ed Sullivan on February 16, playing live via satellite from a hotel in Miami where they had retreated for a vacation Though they were only in the States for less three weeks, the trip had a lasting impact, unleashing the "British Invasion" and forever changing the face of pop music.


 

and don't forget our first book







Thursday, January 31, 2019

Happy 100th Birthday, Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson rookie card, 1947


100 years ago today Jackie Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia. On April 15, 1947, he broke baseball's color line went he was sent out start at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. As a Dodger, he lived at 5224 Tilden Ave in East Flatbush (now a national historic landmark), and later at 112-40 177th St in Queens.

The Dodgers were founded in Brooklyn in 1883 as the Brooklyn Grays, but by 1895 had acquired the nickname "Trolley Dodgers" after the increasing need for residents of Brooklyn to speed across streets to avoid oncoming trolleys. Not everyone was successful, and news reports of the era are filled with trolley accidents.

For years the team went by many names, including the Brooklyn Bridgegrooms and Hanlon's Superbas and did not officially adopt the Dodgers moniker until 1933.

To get some sense of what trolley dodging was like, watch this film from the early 1900s taken from the front of a trolley making its way around Manhattan.



Robinson spent his entire Major League career with the Dodgers, retiring in January 1957. That year, he took a job as vice president for personnel at Chock Full O' Nuts coffee, becoming the first black person to serve as vice president of a major American corporation.

Robinson died in 1972. His funeral was held at Riverside Church in Morningside Heights. That year, the Dodgers retired his number, 42, and in 1997, all other Major League Baseball teams followed suit, making his number the first to be retired by every team.

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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Thought I'd Seen Some Ups and Downs: Bob Dylan Arrives in Greenwich Village


Ramblin' outa the wild West,
Leavin' the towns I love the best.
Thought I'd seen some ups and down,
‘Til I come into New York town.
People goin' down to the ground,
Buildings goin' up to the sky.

-- Bob Dylan, Talkin’ New York

As we've blogged about before, Bob Dylan -- Nobel Laureate and towering figure in American popular music -- arrived in Greenwich Village either on January 23 or 24, 1961.

As we write in Footprints in New York, Dylan
grew up in the tight-knit Jewish community in Hibbing, his mother’s hometown. After graduating high school in 1959, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota but only lasted one year. While he was there, he tapped into the burgeoning folk scene and began consistently using the stage name Bob Dylan. Having been a rock and roller, Dylan’s musical trajectory changed around this time when he was introduced to the music of Woody Guthrie, which, in Dylan’s words, “made my head spin.” 
In January 1961, he arrived in New York City determined to do two things: perform in Greenwich Village, the center of America’s folk music revival, and meet Woody Guthrie. By the end of his first week, he’d done both. Dylan probably got to the city January 23, the day the front page of the New York Times proclaimed it the “coldest winter in seventeen years,” a line Dylan would borrow for one of his earliest compositions, “Talkin’ New York.” In No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Dylan’s early career, the singer remembers that first day: “I took the subway down to the Village. I went to the Cafe Wha?, I looked out at the crowd, and I most likely asked from the stage ‘Does anybody know where a couple of people could stay tonight?’” 
Dylan joins Karen Dalton and Fred Neil onstage at Cafe Wha? in 1961

Singer-songwriter Fred Neil presided over the bar’s eclectic all-day lineup. Dylan showed his chops by backing up Neil and singer Karen Dalton on the harmonica and was hired to “blow my lungs out for a dollar a day.” 
Immersing himself in the music scene, Dylan soaked up everything he heard, from live acts in the bars and coffee houses south of Washington Square to the records he’d spin at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center down the street from Cafe Wha?. In the meantime he continued to embellish his back story. In No Direction Home, Izzy Young recalls Dylan telling him, “I was born in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1941, moved to Gallup, New Mexico; then until now lived in Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, North Dakota (for a little bit). Started playing in carnivals when I was fourteen, with guitar and piano. . . .” 
Later, newspapers picked up the fake biography, writing about the cowboy singer from Gallup. Stretching all the way back to the city’s Dutch pioneers, people have come to New York to reinvent themselves, to cast off their old identities and strike out in new directions. Dylan’s fanciful back story may have been an extreme case, but it was effective.

 

and don't forget our first book







Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Curious Case of Benjamin Franklin's Birthday

Benjamin Franklin on the facade of the Brooklyn Historical Society

On January 17, 1706, Benjamin Franklin -- printer, author, inventor, statesman, Postmaster General, and ladies' man -- was born.

Or was it January 6, 1705?

While it is not unusual to have people shave off a few years to appear younger -- or add a year or two when they are young to give themselves more gravitas (see also: Alexander Hamilton) -- the discrepancy in Franklin's birth date isn't vanity.

Franklin was, in fact, born on January 6, 1705, according to what is now termed the "old style" calendar. When Franklin was born, Great Britain and its colonies still followed the Julian calendar. In 1752, when the British finally moved to the Gregorian system, everything was bumped forward by eleven days. Many people born prior to the shift kept their old birthdays, but Franklin happily shifted his forward as a sign that he was in favor of the move. (Most of the rest of Europe had been on the Gregorian calendar since the 16th century; Protestant England's distaste for all things "popish" was one reason they stayed behind.)

However, the switch in 1752 from January 6 to January 17 doesn't explain the discrepancy in Franklin's birth year.

That, too, is a result of the calendar change. Prior to the adoption of the Gregorian system, New Year's Day in Britain was March 25, which roughly coincides with the first day of Spring (and which is also the date of the Feast of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she was going to give birth to Jesus Christ).

With the switch to new calendar, the first day of the year was moved back to January 1. Thus anyone born in the period January 1-March 25 under the Julian system also had the year of their birth retroactively bumped forward a year, and Franklin's January 6, 1705, birth date was transformed to January 17, 1706.

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Postcard Thursday: Rear Views


James has a story in today's New York Post that examines many of the hidden homes in New York City that were once carriage houses, rear tenements, or -- as is the case in the photo above -- an artist's studio and theater.

"Washington Square, New York" (1910) courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The artist was Everett Shinn, a member of the Ashcan School, who lived and painted in New York starting in the late 1890s. Like many Greenwich Village bohemians of the era, Shinn wasn't content to merely paint and founded a small theatrical company to perform plays he'd written. These melodramas had
titles like “Lucy Moore, the Prune Hater’s Daughter.” Though not home to high art — the New York Times called one participant “the worst actor in the New World” — Shinn’s theater is credited with paving the way for the Off-Off-Broadway theaters of today.
You can read the entire story at https://nypost.com/2019/01/09/back-houses-are-nycs-best-kept-secrets/






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Thursday, January 3, 2019

Postcard Thursday: Alaska Admitted to the Union


On January 3, 1959--sixty years ago today--Alaska was admitted to the union as the forty-ninth state.

There had been some jockeying in congress to decide whether Alaska or Hawaii would become a state first. Alaska--then predominantly home to Democrats--was championed by Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson as it would add two Democratic Senators to the chamber. To counter this, the GOP pushed hard for Hawaii to be admitted, which would add two Republican Senators and restore the status quo.

Today, those roles are largely reversed. Hawaii is a reliably blue state, and while Alaska's politics are harder to pigeon-hole, it is mostly represented nationally by the GOP.

Alaska became a territory in 1867 when Secretary of State William Seward purchased the land from the Russians for $7.2 million. Known as "Seward's Folly" or "Seward's Icebox," the acquisition of such a large swath of mostly uninhabited land was seen as a waste to many Americans. A couple of years ago, we traveled to Sitka, Alaska, the former Russian capital, for the 150th anniversary of the handover. You can read more about those commemorations in James's story for The New York Post.

Alaska is both the largest and least densely populated state, with a mere 1.1 people per square mile. By contrast, at its peak in the early 20th century, parts of New York City's Lower East Side were home to 1,000 people per acre--that's 640,000 people per square mile--which some historians estimate made it the most densely populated place on the planet earth ever.

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Thursday, December 27, 2018

Postcard Thursday: Manifest Destiny


On December 27, 1845, John L. O'Sullivan wrote an influential editorial for the New York Morning News that is credited as the first use of "manifest destiny" to describe and justify the continental expansion of the United States. O'Sullivan wrote:
And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.
  Article in which John L. O'Sullivan first used the term Manifest Destiny, reprinted in a newspaperArticle in which John L. O'Sullivan first used the term Manifest Destiny, reprinted in a newspaper Wed, Sep 10, 1845 – 1 · Mississippi Democrat (Carrollton, Mississippi, United States of America) · Newspapers.com

However, O'Sullivan certainly didn't coin the phrase, despite the fact that he is often credited with it.

For example, the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Advertiser used the phrase in connection to Louis Napoleon in 1840. It seems the future Emperor of France had been caught at a brothel (presumably in New York City), and the Daily Advertiser used "manifest destiny" to describe Louis's fate:


Even earlier, the term was being used to describe one group conquering another. In an address to the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association in 1824, Alphaeus Cary used the term "manifest destiny" to describe the spread of the Roman Empire:



There are even older examples stretching back at least to 1800, though all that we've found seem to refer not to a nation's destiny but -- as with Louis Napoleon -- and individual's. Are there examples in the 18th century? I'd bet a careful sleuth could find them.

Forget to get someone a present for the holidays?
Inside the Apple and Footprints in New York look great on anyone's shelves!


 







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