Asphalt Jungle

The zoos of yesteryear were joyless places, that is, if you were one of the animals. Children squealed with fear and delight at the sight of a caged lion, and many an adult had fun tossing peanuts at elephants or teasing enraged gorillas locked behind bars; but if you were a zoo animal in 1931, life was endless hours of boredom, sprinkled with moments of terror and humiliation.

Aug. 15, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

It is instructive to look back 89 years and see how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go, to see our fellow creatures as more than curiosities and amusements to be captured and gawked at, and to see their environments as something to be preserved, not only for their survival but for ours as well.

LIFE BEHIND BARS…Left, a zookeeper with chimps at the Central Park Zoo, 1936. Right, a rhino paces in a barred enclosure, 1937. (nycgovparks.org)

E.B. White paid a visit to the Central Park Zoo, and found it wanting in a number of respects:

Many zoos back then were more collections of curiosities than places where you could learn about various habitats. So when David Sarnoff, president of RCA, bagged a live opossum in the South, the critter was given a new home in an antelope enclosure, per this item in the Dec. 20, 1931 New York Times:

The Central Park Zoo was established in the 1860s as a “menagerie” behind the Arsenal, and by the turn of the century attracted millions of visitors to its displays of exotic animals.

GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALL…Postcard image of the Menagerie in Central Park, New York, 1905. (Museum of the City of New York—MCNY)
ANIMAL ATTRACTION…Postcard image of folks enjoying caged birds at the Menagerie, 1905. (MCNY)
O GIVE ME A HOME…In the early days of zoos, animals were presented in cages and fenced enclosures with no hint as to what their natural habitat might look like. Clockwise, from top left, “Fatima” the hippo, image from an 1896 stereograph card; a 1911 photo of a trainer and a dog perched on top of a hapless elephant; a bull bison around the turn of the century; a group of people observe animals in cages at the Central Park Menagerie, 1895. (Library of Congress/nycgovparks.org/MCNY)

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He’s Your Future

The New Yorker featured two-part profile of the governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who unbeknownst to writer Milton MacKaye would soon become the next president of the United States. Two excerpts (not continuous)…

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Ah yes, the first time I visited the Empire State Building’s observation deck (in the 1970s) a heavy smog enveloped the city (the air is much cleaner today). I like how the promoters spin disappointment into an opportunity — “The mysterious beauty of the city has a million constantly changing aspects”…

…if you were looking for bluer skies, Bermuda could have been an option if you had the means…

…or you could have stayed closer to home at a Long Island beach resort, as Helen Hokinson illustrated, and as we segue into our cartoons…

I. Klein gave us a very unscientific, albeit humorous view of genetics…

Richard Decker redefined the meaning of “volunteers”…

…and William Steig summoned the advice of Dorothy Dix, a forerunner of “Dear Abby” who was the most widely read female journalist of her time…

We move on to the Aug. 22, 1931 issue…

Aug. 22, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

…in which James Thurber wrote about his experience with early television in “The Talk of the Town”…

NO CABLE BILL, YET…Charles Francis Jenkins demonstrates his “Radiovisor” console television in 1929. At right, the inner workings featured a rotating disc punctured with tiny holes, each projecting a line across the glass screen to compose an image. As Thurber noted, the pictures commonly were too dark for viewers to see anything more than silhouettes. (earlytelevision.org)

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The Other Moving Pictures

The movies still had nothing to fear from television in 1931, and Hollywood continued to draw large audiences to “Pre-Code” films that featured doses of sex and violence. Novelist Viña Delmar gained famed in 1928 with her suggestively titled book Bad Girl, so when it was adapted into a film, audiences came running — even if the screen adaptation proved to be a bit tamer than the novel that inspired it. Critic John Mosher observed:

I’M JUST A LITTLE BAD…Sally Eilers played the title character in Bad Girl with co-star James Dunn. The film won two Oscars in 1932 for Best Director (Frank Borzage) and Best Writing, Adaptation (Edwin J. Burke). (IMDB)

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Chic Chapeau

The Empress Eugénie hat was named for 19th century French empress Eugénie de Montijo, who was known as a fashion trendsetter. The hat was revived in 1930 after Greta Garbo was seen wearing a version of one in the popular film Romance. E.B. White was not exaggerating when he noted (in his “Notes and Comment”) that the jaunty hat was seen on “every other head” in the city.
 

LOOK WHAT YOU STARTED…Greta Garbo sported an Empress Eugénie hat in the 1930 film Romance, setting off a fashion craze that persisted through much of the decade. At right, Kemp Starrett referenced the trend in this Aug. 8, 1931 cartoon in the New Yorker. (Pinterest)

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Speaking of trends, these “roughies” were all the rage among the young folks, in the dorms and on the beach…

…one trend I wasn’t aware still persisted in 1931 was a top hat and tails for an evening out among the smart set…

…according to this ad, if you were a “smart” and fashionable New Yorker, then you needed an “Inebriates” themed cocktail set…

…examples of the glassware for sale on Worthpoint…

Dr. Seuss was still busy selling pesticide with this four-panel ad…

…on to the cartoons, we start with James Thurber

…and Rea Irvin continued to experiment with various motifs, this time an Egyptian-themed cartoon referencing the “wine bricks” sold by enterprising vineyards during Prohibition…

Peter Arno found a big surprise during a mansion tour…

…and we end with Otto Soglow

…and Richard Decker…both cartoons reminded me of Al Jaffee’s Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions

…I grew up reading Mad magazine, and always looked forward to Jaffee’s fold-ins…he just retired from Mad at the young age of 99, so we conclude with one of his Snappy Answers panels from Mad #98, Oct. 1965…

Next Time: Unnatural History…

 

Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

2 thoughts on “Asphalt Jungle”

  1. At one time it must have been a common sight to see drunks in top hats wrapped around lampposts,especially around new years eve.I even have a little cast iron antique one hanging on my wall.
    Who did the drawing for the E.B. White piece on hats,Irvin or Soglow.
    Whoever it was,theyre still in use today!

    Like

    1. The drunk-lamppost motif persisted into the 1970s. In mid-century popular culture, drunks were often portrayed as amusing, Falstaffian characters. No one seemed to be worried that they were serious alcoholics. Recall the “town drunk” character Otis Campbell on The Andy Griffith Show, or Foster Brooks at a Dean Martin roast (and old Dino himself). I remember old Sears catalogs even featured drunk/lamppost lamps for the home bar, perhaps emblazoned with the words “How Dry I Am”…

      Like

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