Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ready-To-Wear Fashion

From shop to store: prêt-a-porter sales have been a long time coming. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, clothiers' guilds limited the mass production of clothes, but by the 1700s, the US, China, and Europe could all boast flourishing clothing industries.

In 1820, the measuring tape was invented, which helped make consistent sizing methods. And in 1846, Elias Howe's sewing machine further increased the availability of clothes made en masse.

During the American Civil War, the demand for mass-produced uniforms was high. Sizes became standardized so that soldiers order uniforms to fit without much, if any, tailoring. After the war, men's clothes retained the standard sizing, making it easy to buy ready-made clothes.

Department stores grew in popularity. The first of these stores, Le Bon Marche ("the good deal"), opened in Paris in 1838. In New York, Alexander Turney Stewart opened his own store, aptly named AT Stewart, also called The Marble Palace, on Broadway (pictured). The Marble Palace officially became a department store in 1858, and by 182, it was linked with Macy's, B. Altman, and Lord & Taylor to form "The Ladies' Mile" on Broadway. In 1869, Stewart became a millionaire.

Other stores followed. In 1872, Bloomingdale's opened, and Bergdorf-Goodman opened its swanky doors in 1906.

Isaac Singer's electric sewing machine, which had come out in 1889, was another catalyst for ready-made clothing. Clothing factories popped up all over the world, since garment making had never been easier. Using an electric machines in an assembly line, even the most unskilled seamstresses could be of use, as they only had to learn how to make a single piece of clothing. This also created a way for clothing manufacturers to branch out into women's clothing, starting with shirtwaists, which are long, tapered blouses worn with flowing skirts.

Sears, Roebuck & Co., which had begun as a mail-order service in 1839, took on clothing manufacturer Julius Rosenwald as part owner in 1895. With the addition of ready-to-wear clothing available in standard sizes, the catalog grew from 320 pages, to more than 530. In 1925, Sears opened its first retail store. By the end of 1929, 319 stores had popped across America.

Ready-to-wear clothing had found a place in the middle-class, where people were too busy to make their own clothes but not wealthy enough to hire someone to custom-sew them. After World War II, haute couture ready-to-wear began to pop up in Europe from designers like Dior and Givenchy, names still expensive today.


The Grand Street School

School isn't just for good little boys and girls.

In the 1870s, there thrived in the Lower East Side of New York City, a school open to children of all colors and creeds. Located near the intersection of Grand and Clinton Streets in a dry good shop owned by Prussian immigrant Wolfe Mandelbaum, The Grand Street School became the most highly esteemed school for young criminals in the United States.

By the time the school was established, Wolfe's wife, Fredericka, had become New York City's most well-respected receiver of stolen goods. She employed expert pickpockets and thieves who not only helped fill two large Manhattan warehouses with items that once belonged to the city's finest families, but took in children aged ten and younger to learn how to scam, cutpurse, and rob. Even the adanced classes in safe cracking, burglary, blackmail and con artistry were free of initial charge for astute students.

The best and brightest graduates of the Grand Street School were offered salaried positions, but they had to surrender anything they stole. This offering didn't last long: "Marm" Mandelbaum found several of these employees were double dealing by turning in their better finds to her rivals.

The Grand Street School only operated for six years, when, in an act of rebellion, a well-known police officer's son applied for training. Marm Mandelbaum realized the educational venture was too common and bad for her other businesses. In 1884, Marm Mandelbaum--New York's own Fagin--was captured in a sting operation led by the Pinkerton Detective Agency.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Cracker Jack

The more you eat, the more you want.

In 1908, Jack Norworth penned the song, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game", the chorus of which became famous, and is still sung at baseball games today.

Katie Casey was base ball mad.
Had the fever and had it bad;
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev'ry sou Katie blew.
On a Saturday, he young beau
Called to see if she'd like to go,
To see a show but Miss Kate said,
"No, I'll tell you what you can do."

"Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don't care if I never get back,
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don't win it's a shame.
For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out,
At the old ball game."

The Name
The official story tells that upon finding out his brother's secret for keeping the popcorn and peanuts from sticking together, Louis Rueckheim exclaimed, "That's cracker jack!" WH Rueckheim liked the term so much, he has it trademarked.

The Packaging
In 1899, Cracker Jack began to be sold in boxes, rather than tubs.

"Henry Eckstein (1860-1935), a part owner and partner of the company, invented the "triple proof package" or "waxed sealed package," a moisture proof paper package to retain freshness. This new type of packaging allowed the company to mass produce and sell Cracker Jacks worldwide, and thus become a national icon." -- What's Cooking America

The Song
In 1908, fifteen years after introduction of the molasses-covered candy and popcorn concoction at the World's Fair in Chicago, Norworth's song solidifies the candy corn's place in American culture.

The Prizes
In 1912, Cracker Jack offered "a prize in every box." Some of these prizes?
  • Miniature magnifying glass
  • Tiny toys
  • Booklets
  • Morse code charts
  • Presidential cards
  • Movie player cards
  • Novelty whistles
A collection of prizes can be found here.

The Mascots
In 1918, Sailor Jack and Bingo appear on the packages.

The Culture
Cracker Jack has been included in famous fiction works such as Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and the film Breakfast at Tiffany's.
The US Navy's traditional uniform is called "The Cracker Jack."
July 5 is National Cracker Jack Day

The Value
A complete set (176) of 1915 Cracker Jack prize baseball cards was sold for $800,000


Friday, February 13, 2009

Five NYC History Blogs

The Friday Five

Five NYC History Blogs of Wonder

  1. The Bowery Boys. A friend turned me on to these guys, named after the infamous 19th century Manhattan gang. I WILL LISTEN TO ANYONE WHO IS NAMED AFTER AN INFAMOUS 19th CENTURY MANHATTAN GANG.
  2. Ephemeral New York.
  3. A History of New York.
  4. NewYorkology. Okay, this site considers itself a travel guide, and has a lot of current goings-on listed. But even the most focused-on-contemp NYC blogs makes note of history. Because the history is vital to NYC. And that's one of the things I love the most about the city.
  5. Lost New York City. A personal favorite, because it pays a lot of attention to Red Hook. And Red Hook is important. Because I said so.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Chinatown's Tong Wars

All wars begin on smaller scales: a push for more freedom, a governmental revolution, or the desire for resources. New York City of the mid-1800s was no different. Dozens of gangs, small and large, violent and not-so-violent, ran the city with their support of the police through grafts and vice rackets.

Originally, life within the Chinese communities was dominated by a few large family and district associations with restrictive membership. As a protective response to their dominance mutual aid associations, so-called tongs, emerged. The tongs adopted the norms and values of the Triad subculture. Their secretive nature, combined with the fact that they could recruit members without traditional restrictions, enabled them to overpower the family and district associations and to take on the social functions of arbitration, protection and exploitation in Chinatown. A tong is not a criminal organization per se, but a natural means of obtaining and using mutually obligate bonds (guanxi) for both criminal and non-criminal purposes.
Organizing Chinatown: Race and Racketeering in New York City, 1890-1910
Jeffrey Scott McIllwain
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004

Photo: Mock Duck

When the tongs first emigrated to the American West, they served as mutual aid societies. Quickly the 'mutual aid' provided began to resemble the strongarm tactics of the mafia and Irish mob. The tongs spread across the US to Chicago, Boston, and New York City. In the early 1900s, two Chinese gangs took hold of the few Manhattan blocks known as Chinatown. Led by newcomer Sai Wing Mock, known as Mock Duck or "Clay Pigeon", the Hip Sings launched a war against the much larger On Leong Tong, led by press-and-police pet, Tom Lee.

Mock Duck, at age 22, politely asked the older, legendary Tom Lee for half the revenues of all of the On Leong gambling and prostitution rackets. After a long stare, Tom Lee laughed and walked away, without saying a word.

Two days later, Mock Duck set fire to an On Leong boarding house, killing two tong members. Shortly after, an On Leong member was attacked by two hatchetmen. Tom Lee replied to the attack with an order to kill all Hip Sing members, with an emphasis on Mock Duck.

Mock Duck survived stabbings and shootings, and began wearing a chain mail vest under his clothes. Known for his terrible aim with a gun, Mock Duck soon realized his best chance against the hatchetmen was to stoop to the ground, duck his head, shut his eyes, and shoot two pistols in any direction he pleased. Using this method, Mock Duck rarely failed to hit his attackers, but often hit innocent bystanders as well.

Tom Lee put a $1000 price on Mock Duck's head--that's almost $25,000 in today's currency--and the warrant fueled the fires in the Tong Wars. Meanwhile, Mock Duck was busy securing his tong's ties to the Four Brothers, China's oldest and most respected family guild. The Four Brothers joined the war against the On Leongs after Mock Duck promised them cultural power in New York. Mock Duck also drafted the two most dangerous hatchetmen in San Francisco, who are estimated to have murdered around 100 men in the Tong Wars.

While Tom Lee had the police force in his pocket, so Mock Duck appealed to the religious reformers for added support. He told the popular Rev. Charles Parkhurst about the good Chinese trying to live honestly, and about the terrible vices the On Leongs pushed upon them, such as the singsong girls (prostitutes) and the opium dens. Mock Duck provided Parkhurst with a list of On Leong's establishment, and Parkhurst used his favor with most of New York's upper class to force the authorities into action.

But Mock Duck kept the Ace up his sleeve. Tom Lee realized that Mock Duck hadn't given Parkhurst any addresses along On Leong's Mott Street, from whence the On Leong's highest revenue came. Tom Lee couldn't turn over any information about the Hip Sings in retaliation if he wanted to stay in business.

In 1906, Tom Lee finally conceded, only to try to rebuild the On Leongs in 1909. This time, the police involved themselves fully, working toward peace more than profit. These battles, fought within just five diminutive city blocks, were responsible for approximately 350 deaths.


Monday, May 12, 2008

The Children's Aid Society

For kids without families in Victorian New York City, orphanages and almshouses were the only alternatives to life on the streets. In 1853, Charles Loring Brace changed the future for the city's least fortunate when he founded the Children's Aid Society.

A minister working in Manhattan's notorious Five Points district, Brace was appalled by the slum's widespread abuse and neglect. Taking advantage of the Westward push, Brace and his reformers would place nearly 100,000 children with frontier-bound families. While many of these stories ended well, as Brace hoped, some of the children in the Orphan Trains found themselves in situations similar to or worse than the ones they'd left in the East.

Brace and the Children's Aid Society (CAS) continued their outreach programs within the city, by founding and sponsoring industrial schools for boys, girls, and young women, offering free out-of-city camps and excursions, providing free lunches for children enrolled in schools, and opening the first free dental clinics in New York.

The CAS set up several lodging houses in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn, designated for the abandoned, homeless, and orphaned children. These houses offered part-time schooling, but their occupants worked during the day, often as newsies, delivery or messenger boys, in factories or shops. The children in these lodging-houses often did well for themselves later in life. Having created their own family units comprised of other urchins, former CAS kids held reunions, stayed in touch, and became successful business partners.

Today, the Children's Aid Society continues its work as a privately funded organization, helping more than 150,000 children annually through camps, after-school and weekend care, foster care, legal advocacy, health and counseling, and cultural development.


Monday, March 31, 2008


Mental health has been a concern since ancient times, with accounts of insanity reaching as far back as 630-562 BC. In an inscription apparently written by King Nebuchadnezzar II and translated by British archaeologist Sir Henry Rawlinson, the king admitted heavy depression:

"For four years the seat of my kingdom in the city...did not rejoice my heart. In all my dominions I did not build a high place of power; the precious treasures of my kingdom I did not lay out in the worship of Merodach, my lord, the joy of my heart. In Babylon the city of my sovereignty and the seat of my empire I did not sing his praises, and I did not furnish his altars; nor did I clear out the canals."
The famous Greek philosophers studied the mind continually. In works such as De Anima, De Sensu, De Memoria, and Parva Naturalia, Aristotle touches on ideas that would later be examined extensively by psychologists.

In the 8th century, Muslim physicians began to build psychiatric care facilities in which to observe, regulate, and treat patients with various ailments. Dream interpretation was a major focus for early Islamic psychologists, as the religion put a heavy emphasis on understanding the subconscious.

Bethlem Royal Hospital in South London began admitting society's outcasts and mentally ill in 1403, but by the early 1500s there were only 31 patients. Bethlem became widely known as a terrible near-prison in which the violent inmates were manacled and chained to walls or floors. Eventually known as Bedlam, Bethlem became one of the first freak shows upon its move to Moorfields. "Well" folks paid a penny to watch the exploits and lifestyles of the less fortunate--except on the first Tuesday of each month, when admission was, charitably, free.

In 1700, Bedlam's inmates were first called "patients," and in the "curable" and "incurable" wards were opened in the early part of the 1700s.

For Westerners, the lack of Christian values was to blame for all manner of insanity. Demon possession and immorality were considered viable causes for physical deformities, cognitive deficiencies and mental impairments, resulting in society's desire to separate the insane from the well. In the late 1700s, France's Bicêtre Hospital became a hotbed of reform.

Philippe Pinel, physician of the infirmaries at Bicêtre, and Jean-Baptiste Pussin, "governor" of Bicêtre came together to assess the 200 men in the mentally ill ward. Using an "empirical approach" of humane treatment, Pinel prohibited the use of painful "treatments" such as bleeding and purging, and instead visited each patient frequently, capturing each with conversation instead of manacles.

In 1834, the Vermont Asylum for the Insane opened in Brattleboro, Vermont, in the United States. Instead of treating patients like criminals, the Vermont Asylum offered sanitary living conditions and eventually expanded into work programs, exercise and recreation, specialized education, and spiritual guidance. In the mid-1800s, more asylums were founded and in the United States and Australia, even the architecture was specially designed to aid in the treatment of the insane.

The public received a widely-received, if particularly tame, literary look into the madhouse when The New York World published "Ten Days in a Madhouse", a serial by 24-year-old reporter Nelly Bly. In the introduction of the Ian L. Munro publication of the story, Miss Bly writes:

I am happy to be able to state as a result of my visit to the asylum and the exposures consequent thereon, that the City of New York has appropriated $1,000,000 more per annum than ever before for the care of the insane. So I have at least the satisfaction of knowing that the poor unfortunates will be the better cared for because of my work.
This is running long because I hate to feel like I'm reducing a history of a topic so universal and important, but here's hoping these quick snapshots will turn out!


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