What Santa Brought in 1928

As we sweep up the tinsel and wrappings from another holiday season, let’s take a look back at 1928 and see what the New York “smart set” wished for under the Christmas tree.

Nov. 24, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

We’ll start with the outlandish, namely this advertisement from Kurzman furriers on Fifth Avenue, which offered just two rare chinchilla coats for sale, one for $45K and the other for a mere $20K. That would be roughly equivalent to $630K and $280K in 2017 dollars. Oh Santa baby…

If you didn’t get the chinchilla, you could have asked for a Glycine Swiss watch, a gift “whose smartness reflects your taste”… and is “the supreme adornment of the patrician wrist.”

The New Yorker was filled with such ads that appealed to class pretensions, but thankfully the editorial side of the magazine mostly tweaked those pretensions, including this Nov. 24 cartoon by John Elmore:

In the following issue (Dec. 1), Elmore also contributed this unsigned cartoon (thanks to Michael Maslin’s invaluable Ink Spill blog for the identification):

Back to the ads for Nov. 24, Kolster Radio continued its series featuring illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, this one borrowing from his familiar themes featuring gold-diggers and sugar daddies…

…and 56-year-old stage and silent film actress Fannie Ward offered proof that lighting up a Lucky could keep you slim and youthful. Whether or not she actually smoked the things, Ward was indeed best known for her seemingly ageless appearance.

Our comics from Nov. 24 issue are courtesy of Arno…

…and Helen Hokinson

We continue our Christmas wish list with the Dec. 1, 1928 issue…

Dec. 1, 1928 cover by Rea Irvin.

Regarding gifts for her, how about some fine French perfume, “originally created for the exclusive use of one of the present Nobility of France” (apparently a person descended from the line that managed to keep their heads attached to their necks)…

…and for him, the ubiquitous Christmas necktie, with a choice of patterns that would still serve him well in 2018…

Your “smoking friends” would doubtless have appreciated a rum-infused rumidor, available in a variety of finishes and sizes…

…or you could choose from the sundries offered up by Abercrombie & Fitch (bookends appeared to be a popular item)…

…and finally, for that special, anal-retentive someone on your list, “Fabrikoid” covers would keep his or her periodicals neat and tidy (note the New Yorker is conspicuously missing here).

Note: Fabrikoid “was one of DuPont’s first non-explosives products. Produced by coating fabric with nitrocellulose (yep, basically the same flammable stuff silent films were printed on) and marketed as artificial leather, Fabrikoid was widely used in upholstery, luggage and bookbindings during the early 20th century. In the 1920s, Fabrikoid became the preferred material for automobile convertible tops and seat covers” (text from www2.dupont.com).

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Despite the holidays, there was still news to be reported. The Nov. 24 issue profiled violinist Fritz Kreisler, while the Dec. 1 edition featured a profile of Harpo Marx, written by his fellow Algonquin Round Tabler Alexander Woollcott. Two brief excerpts:

In this next excerpt, it is interesting to note that Woollcott couldn’t see ahead to the huge success in film that awaited Harpo Marx and his brothers. Just eight months after Woollcott’s profile, the Marx Brothers would premiere their first film, The Cocoanuts, and continue to draw on material from their vaudeville and Broadway days to produce a string a comedy hits throughout the 1930s and 40s.

In other news from the Dec. 1 issue, Frank Sullivan grumbled about the recent election of President Herbert Hoover and the state of politics in general, echoing the general sentiment of his New Yorker colleagues in dismissing the national elections as little more than silly sideshow. Two excerpts:

The New Yorker was less pessimistic when it came to the changing skyline, and was almost giddy at times about the latest technology seemingly transforming the city overnight. This time it was the gilded New York Life Insurance tower, and its impressive pneumatic tube system:

THINGS ARE LOOKING UP…Cass Gilbert’s newly completed New York Life Insurance Building in 1928. (Smithsonian)
YOU TUBERS…Women sporting fashionable bobs working the pneumatic tubes at the new home of the New York Life Insurance Company at 51 Madison Avenue, 1928. (Corbis)

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And to close, some more holiday offerings, this time for the kiddies, from Macy’s Department Store, as reported by writer Bertram Bloch:

WHAT THE?…Macy’s kicked off the Christmas season with their famed Thanksgiving Parade in 1924. In this image, from 1928, New Yorkers enjoyed an array of creepy balloon animals.
NOT PC, DUDE…The Macy’s Christmas window display in 1928 featured the Tony Sarg marionettes in a tableau based on The Adventures of Christopher Columbus. (Pinterest)
SUPER SOAKER…With this 1928 sit ‘n ride toy, junior could hose down the living room thanks to its large water tank and hand crank-operated water tower. (collector.com)

Next Time: Out of the Mouth of Babes…

Diamond Mae

Although the Roaring Twenties saw the relaxing of many moral strictures — particularly in major cities like New York — Mae West’s frank portrayals of sex on an off-Broadway stage could still create a stir in the newspapers and among arbiters of American probity.

Nov. 19, 1928 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

Before she appeared in films (mostly in the 1930s) Mae West was well known to New Yorkers both in vaudeville and on Broadway. Her wider fame came in 1927, when many Americans read about her arrest on obscenity charges linked to a scandalous play simply titled Sex. A story of a Montreal prostitute, Sex opened at Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre on April 1926 to modest audiences and mostly scathing reviews. The New York Times, for examplecalled it a “crude and inept play, cheaply produced and poorly acted.” Perhaps because of the negative reviews, which mostly focused on the play’s morality, curious audiences flocked to see it. Ironically (at least, I imagine, to the critics), Sex was the only play on Broadway in 1926 to stay open through the summer and into the following year.

NOW THAT I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION…Mae West in a publicity photo from 1926. At right, promotional poster for Sex, which touted the play as the “Biggest Sensation Since The Armistice.” (maewest.blogspot.com/boweryboyshistory.com)

The fun ended when New York City police raided West’s production company in February 1927 and charged her with obscenity. In another ironic and hypocritical twist (many in the police department and in the city’s court system had enjoyed the play themselves, along with approximately 325,000 others during the play’s 10-month run), authorities fined West $500 and sentenced her to 10 days in a workhouse on Welfare Island. Always the entrepreneur, West used the sentence to her advantage, and even arrived at the prison in a limousine. It was during her short stint in prison that she began work on her smash hit Diamond Lil.

Thyra Samter Winslow, a writer who often exposed the hypocrisy and prejudice in American life in her short fiction, profiled West for the Nov. 10, 1928 issue:

Note Winslow’s surprise to find West to be much smaller than she imagined (indeed, West barely stood five feet tall). Because West preferred a curvy, buxom figure to the thin flapper look, many like Winslow assumed her to be a much larger woman. No doubt her lavish costumes also suggested greater proportions:

West explained to Winslow that she was simply giving the people what they wanted, whether it was outlandish costumes or some “dirt” in their entertainments. Behind this facade, however, was a private, hard-working woman who wrote much of her own material and had the savvy to market it.

TOO MUCH FOR YOUR TICKER?…Mae West tangles with Barry O’Neill in this 1926 publicity still for Sex. The image came with a warning no doubt cooked up by West herself: “If you cannot stand excitement—see your doctor before visiting Mae West in Sex.” (Bettmann/Corbis)

In her profile, Winslow noted West’s marketing savvy during her incarceration, where she won many new friends along the way:

ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE…Mae West with Sex co-star Barry O’Neill during a 1927 trial for obscenity charges. During the trial the judge asked the defendant: “Miss West, are you trying to show contempt for this court?” West replied, “On the contrary, your Honor. I was doin’ my best to conceal it.” (gvshp.org)

Winslow concluded her piece wondering if West had peaked in her success, and would “fade out” along with so many other vaudeville stars…

…. In less than seven years, West at age 42 would become Hollywood’s highest paid star and second only to William Randolph Hearst as the highest paid person in America. Ninety-two years after Sex, West remains an icon of popular culture around the world.

ALL THAT GLITTERS…Drawing of Mae West that accompanied the New Yorker profile. At right, publicity photo for Diamond Lil, 1928. (Playbill)

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From Our Advertisers

The Nov. 10 issue featured this all American endorsement for Lucky Strike cigarettes from World Series winning pitcher Waite Hoyt…never mind that the New Yorker itself completely ignored the World Series and baseball in general.

…and Charles of the Ritz used a combination of vanity, snob appeal and class anxiety to promote their latest beauty ensemble…

The comics glimpsed the foibles of the upper classes, including this terrific entry by 22-year-old Ben Hur Baz, a Mexico-born artist who would go on to become famous for his pin-ups in the 1940s and 50s, many of them appearing in Esquire:

…and a game of blind man’s buff (or some say ‘bluff’) as rendered by Peter Arno:

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The Nov. 17 issue featured an unusual entry by E.B. White, who, like many of his New Yorker colleagues, found many reasons to be critical of the media, including the dumbing down of newspapers that increasingly favored trivia, sensation and promotion over serious discourse.

Nov. 17, 1928 cover by Sue Williams.

White skewered the news of the day in this two-page spread that parodied the look and language of contemporary newspapers (click to enlarge):

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The issue’s “Talk of the Town” featured a lengthy entry on Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, a figure greatly admired and generally lauded by the magazine’s sportswriters. A brief excerpt:

The Nov. 17 film reviews gave a rare thumbs up to an American movie, Show People, which starred Marion Davies.

HE LOOKS FAMILIAR…William Haines (left) and Marion Davies meet Charlie Chaplin in the 1928 Hollywood send-up film, Show People, directed by King Vidor. Chaplin made this rare appearance as himself, without his “Little Tramp” makeup. He was uncredited in the film, and asked to be paid the extra’s fee of only $7.50. (silent-volume.blogspot.com)

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From Our Advertisers

Although you couldn’t legally procure a drink in 1928, you could (unlike today) legally purchase of box of Cuban cigars for you special someone:

…or if you preferred, a carton Chesterfields. Apparently someone in marketing thought conjuring up the horrors of trench warfare would help sell some smokes…

And finally, Peter Arno found out what’s for dinner at the table of a great outdoorsman:

Next Time: What Santa Brought in 1928…

 

Lighter Than Air

Just a decade after German Zeppelins sowed terror across the skies of Europe and Great Britain, Germany’s new Graf Zeppelin was enthusiastically welcomed by a throng gathered at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the massive airship having completed its first intercontinental trip across the Atlantic.

Oct. 27, 1928 cover by Peter Arno.

It had been only ten years and two months since German Zeppelins dropped their last bombs on the British, which had dubbed the airships “baby killers” for the mostly civilian casualties they inflicted. Beginning in 1915, Zeppelin raids on London killed nearly 700 and seriously injured almost 2,000 over the course of more than 50 attacks. It must have been a terrifying sight, something straight out of science fiction — flying ships more than the length of two football fields, blotting out the stars as they loomed overhead. Their size, however, was also their downfall, as Britain soon developed air defenses (searchlights, antiaircraft guns, and fighter planes) that shot many of these hydrogen gasbags out of the sky (77 of Germany’s 115 airships were either shot down or disabled).

TERROR IN THE SKIES…Image from a German postcard celebrating the bombing of Warsaw by the Zeppelin Schütte Lanz in 1914. Here’s a weird fact: There was a shortage of sausages in Germany during WWI, since cow intestines normally used for casings were instead used to create special bags to hold the hydrogen gas that kept Zeppelins aloft. It took more than 250,000 cows to make one airship. (Wikipedia)

So when the 776-foot Graf Zeppelin loomed over the New York City skyline on Oct. 15, 1928, the reaction was one of awe rather than terror. The New York Times heralded its safe arrival on the front page…

(rarenewspaper.com)
NO BOMBS…JUST VISITING…The Graf Zeppelin loomed above New York City in October 1928. (Getty)

…and the New Yorker’s James Thurber (writing in “The Talk of the Town”) was on hand to assess the welcoming crowds gathered at Lakehurst, N.J….

…who in their enthusiasm could have easily destroyed the vessel, which had already sustained damage during a storm over Bermuda…

OLD GAS BAG…The Graf Zeppelin arriving at Mines Field (now Los Angeles International Airport) on August 26, 1929, during a stop on its flight around the world. (silodrome.com)
Living quarters of the Graf Zeppelin. Cozy, if you could forget that your room was contained within an envelope of highly explosive hydrogen gas. (airships.net)

Dining aboard the Graf Zeppelin. (Top, airshipsonline.com, bottom, airships.net)

Reuben’s restaurant in New York seized the opportunity to cash in on the spectacle, boasting (in this hastily placed ad in the Oct. 27 issue) that the Graf Zeppelin’s passengers dined at their establishment on the very night of their arrival…

A final note: Considering the hazards of flying these ungainly, flammable machines (e.g. the Hindenburg in 1937) Graf Zeppelin flew more than one million miles in its career (the first aircraft in history to do so), making 590 flights (144 of them oceanic crossings, including one across the Pacific), and carrying more than 13,000 passengers — all without injury to passengers or crew.

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Rough Riders

Back on the ground, “The Talk of the Town” looked in on a somewhat less exotic form of long-distance travel — the recently inaugurated coast-to-coast bus service from New York to Los Angeles:

LONG HAUL…This greyhound bus from 1929 was probably similar to those leaving the New York bus stations for points west in 1928. (flickr)

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From Our Advertisers

On the subject of rolling transportation, Buick trumpeted the introduction of “adjustable front seats” in its silver anniversary model. Curiously, this improvement was touted as a convenience solely for women drivers…

Our cartoon (a two-pager) for Oct. 27 comes from Gardner Rea, the latest among the New Yorker’s staff to mock the quality of sound motion pictures. The cartoon is labeled at the bottom: “The Firtht One Hundred Per Thent Thound Movie Breakth All Houth Recordth.” (click image to enlarge)

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If you wanted to get a glimpse of New York’s “royalty” in 1928, you could secure a seat at the Metropolitan Opera, especially one with a view of its famed “Diamond Horseshoe” seats.

November 3, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

The “Diamond Horseshoe” described a ring of seats at the Metropolitan Opera House occupied by New York’s social elite. Not unlike today’s stadium skyboxes, the Met reserved these boxes for purchase by the wealthy. “The Talk of Town” for Nov. 3, 1928 noted how many of these were still held by the same families that had secured spots after the Met opened in 1883:

CULTURAL LANDMARK…The Metropolitan Opera House at Broadway and 39th Street circa 1905. (Wikipedia)
A PLACE TO SEE AND BE SEEN…Leading figures of New York society seated in the Met’s famed “Diamond Horseshoe” section in 1929. (NY Daily News)

“Talk” also noted that some of the boxes in the Diamond Horseshoe were coming into new ownerships among the newly rich (E.F. Hutton) and even (gasp) immigrants such as Otto Kahn:

DUST TO DUST…Above, a view of the “Diamond Horseshoe” at the Metropolitan Opera’s gala farewell performance on April 16, 1966. Below, patrons say goodbye to the old house at Broadway at the farewell performance. The building was torn down in 1967 and replaced by a 40-story office tower. (Life)

Also in the Nov. 3 issue was this comic by Peter Arno depicting one of the Met’s boxes stuffed with overfed toffs:

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Poet With a Green Thumb

The Nov. 3 “Talk” also featured a bit by James Thurber on American poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay, a major figure in New York’s Greenwich Village literary scene as well as a feminist leader. A Pulitzer-Prize winner (1923), Millay was also an avid gardener who preferred the solitude of her farm, Steepletop, to the limelight usually accorded a literary star:

RARE PHOTOGRAPH…Edna St. Vincent Millay raised her own vegetables at Steepletop, a former blueberry farm located near Austerlitz, New York that she owned with her husband Eugen Jan Boissevain. Photo is circa 1928. (Library of Congress)

Thurber noted that even her publisher, Harper & Sons, had to use an old photo of the publicity-shy poet for a new book release:

On the topic of photography, “Profiles” (written by film historian Terry Ramsaye) looked in on the quiet life of photography pioneer George Eastman, who founded the Eastman Kodak Company and popularized the use of roll film.

A quintessential “mamma’s boy,” Eastman never married…

…and by all accounts died a celibate less than four years after this profile was written, taking his own life at age 77. Suffering from intense pain caused by a spinal disorder, Eastman shot himself in the heart on March 14, 1932, leaving a note which simply read, “To my friends: my work is done. Why wait?”

Odds and Ends

Other items of note from the Nov. 3 issue included a humorous piece by Rube Goldberg, “The Red Light District,” in which the president of the Blink Stop-Go Traffic Company summons a doctor to treat a strange malady. The doctor gets held up by traffic lights on the way to the “emergency,” and when he discovers the problem is only hives, he shoots the patient. The piece was headlined by this artwork, also by Goldberg.

Rube Goldberg is still known today thanks to his series of cartoons depicting deliberately complex contraptions invented to perform simple tasks, such as the “Self-Operating Napkin” below, from 1931:

1931 (Wikipedia)

Cartooning’s highest honor, The Reuben Award, was named after Goldberg, who was a longtime honorary president of the National Cartoonists Society.

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The Roaring 20s saw a rapid transformation of the New York skyline, with massive skyscrapers rising from the dust of old 18th and 19th century institutions. But few would signal the new age more than the Chrysler Building, an Art Deco landmark that would stand as the world’s tallest building for nearly a year (knocked from the top spot in May 1931 by the Empire State Building). Architecture critic George S. Chappell (“T-Square”) had this observation about the planned building:

EVOLUTION OF AN ICON…Stages in the design for the Chrysler building, from the July-December 1929 issue of Progressive Architecture.

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More from our advertisers…in the Nov. 3 issue Hawaii beckoned well-heeled New Yorkers who were contemplating the coming winter…

…and then there was this poorly executed ad for Kolster radios, the whole point seeming to be the drawing they commissioned from New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno:

And finally, a cartoon by Alan Dunn, who looked in on an Ivy League football huddle:

Next Time: Diamond Lil…

 

The Prohibition Portia

Despite Prohibition, booze flowed freely in 1928 New York thanks to bootleggers and lax enforcement by everyone from cops to judges. One major exception was Mabel Walker Willebrandt, a U.S. Assistant Attorney General from 1921 to 1929 who among other things handled cases concerning violations of the Volstead Act.

Oct. 20, 1928 cover by Constantin Alajálov.

Although Willebrandt herself enjoyed the occasional drink (she was personally opposed to prohibition), she was nevertheless serious about enforcing the law, and rather than chasing small-time bootleggers or padlocking speakeasies, she targeted the big-time operators.

How Willebrandt fits into this blog entry can be found in Lois Long’s “Table for Two” column in the Oct. 20, 1928 issue of the New Yorker, in which Long described the current state of affairs of Manhattan’s nightlife, including the departure of boozy torch singer Helen Morgan from the speakeasy scene for Flo Ziegfeld’s late-night Broadway revue, the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic:

WELL-KNOWN TO THE POLICE…Helen Morgan started singing in Chicago speakeasies in the early 1920s, where she defined the look of the torch singer, including the draped-over-the-piano pose, which was her signature. (amanandamouse.blogspot.com)

Morgan, who at the time was also starring in Broadway’s Show Boat, had been arrested the previous December for violation of liquor laws at her own popular nightclub, Chez Morgan. She would not return to performing in nightclubs until after the repeal of Prohibition.

Long also looked in on the popular Harlem nightclubs, where the dance music was “throbbier than ever.”

HOPPING IN HARLEM…Lois Long wrote that you couldn’t get near the popular Small’s (left) on a Saturday night, while Connie’s Inn (right) offered a new show that was “as torrid as ever.” (harlemworldmag.com, New York Public Library)

There was a sober undercurrent to all of this merry-making, namely Willebrandt’s determined efforts to go after the big bootlegging operations that were fueling all of this mirth. Long wrote:

PROHIBITION PORTIA…At left, Mabel Walker Willebrandt being sworn in as U.S. Assistant Attorney General in 1921. At right, Willebrandt on the cover of Time magazine, August 26, 1929. (legallegacy.wordpress.com)

Willebrandt decried the political interference and the incompetence (or corruption) of public officials who undermined the enforcement of the Volstead Act, and even fired a number of prosecutors. As her office also oversaw the enforcement of tax laws, she developed the strategy for prosecuting major crime bosses for income tax evasion. It was an approach that would finally put the famed Chicago gangster Al Capone behind bars in 1931.

Lois Long’s mention of Willebrandt was doubtless due to the 1928 presidential campaign, during which Willebrandt openly campaigned for the “dry” candidate, Republican Herbert Hoover, over the “wet” Al Smith, who referred to Willebrandt as “The Prohibition Portia.” Smith was referencing Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, in which the play’s heroine, Portia, outwits the merchant Shylock in a court case by referring to the exact language of the law.

Jim Dandy

New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was well-known for his taste in clothes (as well as for the nightlife), so E.B. White (writing in “The Talk of the Town”) decided to pay a visit to the mayor’s personal tailor to see how the “royal garments” were created. Excerpts:

CLOTHES HORSE…New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was a well-known dandy and a familiar face at Manhattan nightclubs. Rarely seen at City Hall, Walker used the lavish Casino nightclub in Central Park as his unofficial headquarters. (uptowndandy.blogspot.com)

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In one of my recent entries (The Tastemakers, posted Nov. 28) I noted how Prohibition had driven some advertisers to absurd lengths, including manufacturers of non-alcoholic beverages who appealed to the refined tastes (and snobbishness) usually associated with fine wines (see Clicquot Club ad below). Gag writer Arthur H. Folwell had some fun with such pretensions:

Speaking of refinement, when was the last time you saw someone dressed like this at a hockey game?

Before they graced the silver screen, the Marx Brothers were one of Broadway’s biggest draws, including their 1928 hit “Animal Crackers,” advertised in the back pages of the Oct. 20 New Yorker.

Our cartoons are courtesy Peter Arno, who looked in on a Hollywood movie set…

…and Gardner Rea, who rendered a scenario for an upper class emergency…

Next Time: Lighter Than Air…

 

 

 

 

 

A Bird’s Eye View

The New Yorker’s E.B. White was an aviation enthusiast who rhapsodized about his flights into the clouds, but also had prescience to see the darker side of this modern thrill ride.

October 6, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

Writing in the “Reporter at Large” column for the Oct. 6, 1928 issue, White described his visit to Curtiss Field, where he inquired about a pilot who could fly him over New York City. He was told someone named Bill would take him up.

EARLY BIRD…This Fairchild FC-2 Cabin Monoplane, with strut-supported wing, was probably similar to the plane E.B. White rode in his flight over New York City. (Quora)

After a half hour wait, a man in a gray felt hat and sack suit offered White a cigarette and said, “You want to fly over New York?” Although the man didn’t look like a pilot, White followed him to a “little cabin monoplane.” Without saying another word the man took the plane up into the air, much to White’s surprise:

FLYBOY…E.B. White (left) with friend and New Yorker colleague James Thurber in 1929. (University of Virginia)

White described the various sites from 800 feet up, including Coney Island, a view at once beautiful and foreboding…

AMUSING SIGHT…Aerial view of Coney Island in 1920. (Pinterest)

…and the thrill of the approaching city skyline as his plane soared up the Bay toward Manhattan:

Lower Manhattan looking northeast from the Bay in July 1927. This is approximately the view described by E.B. White as his plane approached Manhattan. (Favrify.com)
A closer view of lower Manhattan as it would have appeared to E.B. White on his 1928 flight over New York City. (Fairchild Aerial Survey photo, 1928)

Once over the city, White could not help but contain his exuberance, soaring high above the towering spires and teeming crowds below:

And yet as I noted earlier, his observations were tinged with melancholy and foreboding. In describing his flight over Coney Island, for example, White concluded that “the world in general seems sadly beautiful, it is so soon to be gone entirely.”

Perhaps he referred to the rapid changes seen daily in the city during the 1920s, when nothing seemed permanent. Or did this bird’s eye view suggest something else to White? Twenty years later, in his 1948 essay “Here is New York,” White would write:

A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

Unlike 1928, White had the hindsight of World War II, of entire cities leveled by waves of heavy bombers, or in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just a single bomb. The foreshadowing of 9/11 is contained in his words as well.

Back on the ground at Curtiss Field, White would finally learn the identity of the man who didn’t look like a pilot, but had just flown him over the city:

Another Vantage Point

With buildings rising ever higher in Manhattan, you could get a pretty good view of the surrounding city by taking an elevator to the rooftop of the latest skyscraper. The Oct. 6 “Talk of the Town” found a good perch atop the 680-foot-tall Chanin building on the southwestern corner of Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street.

THINGS ARE LOOKING UP…The Chanin Building at Lexington and 42nd. Sloan & Robertson Architects, 1928. (Favrify.com)

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From Our Advertisers

Something you never see in the New Yorker anymore, or in most magazines for that matter, are ads promoting various brands of gasoline. This one touts the benefits of Tydol, produced by the (now defunct) Tide Water Oil Company of New York:

For our Oct. 6 cartoon, here is one of Rea Irvin’s occasional multi-panel, two-page comic spreads, this one exploring the ordeal of a man who couldn’t think of the word for a type of natural plastic used in the 1920s (click to enlarge image):

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The Oct. 13, 1928 issue featured a notable short story by Thyra Samter Winslow, a writer who contributed nearly a dozen pieces to the New Yorker in 1927 and 1928.

October 13, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

Her short story on page 25, “But for the Grace of God,” was a “key transitional work” for the magazine, according to Ben Yagoda in his book About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made. He writes: “Realistic fiction thrives in periods of social ambiguity and flux, and the attention to class was on of the factors working to propel New Yorker writing from two-dimensional sketches to fleshed out short stories.” Yagoda observes that Winslow’s story, “in its carefully selected details, its mild epiphany, and its attention to the potency of class…is an accomplished and poignant piece of short fiction.” Excerpts:

GROUNDBREAKER…Thyra Samter Winslow, circa 1920s. She wrote more than 200 pieces for New York magazines between 1915 to 1955, as well as Hollywood screenplays, early television scripts, and several books. She was married to New Yorker staff writer Fillmore Hyde. (playinginthepages.blogspot.com)

You can read more about Thyra Samter Winslow in Savannah Fry’s excellent blog, Playing the Pages.

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The New Yorker continued its stubborn refusal to report on baseball in its sports section, even though the Yankees were in the process of taking their second consecutive World Series title with a 4-0 sweep over the favored St. Louis Cardinals. The magazine did, however, mention the game in the Oct. 13, 1928 “Talk of the Town” — not on how it was played, but rather on how the championship money was distributed among players and assistants:

Money matters in the game of sport were more informal 90 years ago, with players themselves divvying up money to other players, trainers, mascots and batboys. For example, in 1927 Yankees batboy Eddie Bennett received $700 for the one-eighth World Series share voted him by the team. This sum earned over the four days of the series nearly equalled a batboy’s pay for a full year.

GOOD LUCK CHARM…Yankee batboy Eddie Bennett in the 1920s. Although a spinal injury as an infant left him hunchbacked, Bennett would serve as Yankee batboy for 12-years — a period that would include seven pennants and four World Series titles. (sabr.org)

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Although European-inspired modern furniture was all the rage among certain members of the New York smart set, writer Joseph Fulling Fishman (best known for his writing on contemporary prison conditions) offered a dissenting view in the Oct. 13 edition. An excerpt:

In the art review section, critic Murdock Pemberton also seemed a bit perplexed by modern design, in this case by the work of Ukrainian-born avant-garde artist Alexander Archipenko. His Archipentura was an electronic machine that displayed pre-loaded images of a female undressing by rolling painted canvas through a complex system of sprockets and belts. He intended the machine “to do for painting what the motion picture did for photography.” Pemberton observed:

THINK DIFFERENTLY…Alexander Archipenko (right, circa 1920), intended his intended his Archipentura machine (pictured in front and side views) “to do for painting what the motion picture did for photography.” (Wikipedia/Archipenko Foundation)

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From Our Oct. 13 Advertisers

Yet another endorsement for cigarettes from the posh set. This time Melachrino Cigarettes got in on the action with this endorsement by Augusta Barney Harriman.

For our cartoon, Peter Arno once again looked in on the mannerisms of the upper class, contrasting a lithe young flapper with the imposing presence of a battle-axe. Note how the young woman uses the archaic British “mater” in reference to her mother…

Next Time: The Prohibition Portia…

The Tastemakers

Modernism in interior design gained a wider audience in the 1920s thanks in part to a series of major exhibitions sponsored by some of New York City’s leading department stores.

Sept. 29, 1928 cover by Rea Irvin.

Although the New Yorker continued to feature advertisements for traditional styles of furniture, such as this one from the Sept. 22, 1928 issue…

…it was clear that the appetites of the city’s younger “smart set” were being whetted by retailers such as Macy’s, who in May 1927 hosted an “Exposition of Art in Trade” that included 100 exhibitors of modern European and American silver, pottery, books, textiles and furniture. The following spring Macy’s hosted the “International Exposition of Art in Industry,” where more than 250,000 visitors saw the work of more than 300 exhibitors from six countries. (This blog’s opening photo features a 1928 sideboard by Kem Weber, one of the exhibitors at Macy’s 1928 show. Photo courtesy Cooper Hewitt Collection).

TRENDSETTERS…R. H. Macy & Co. hosted the International Exposition of Art in Industry in the spring of 1928. At right, an interior scene at the exposition, with a chair designed by Walter Von Nessen. (socalarchhistory.blogspot.com/wright20.com)

Macy’s inspired other exhibitions by such retailers as Wanamaker’s, Abraham & Straus, Frederick Loeser, Lord & Taylor, and B. Altman & Co., which advertised its “20th Century Taste in the New Expression of the Arts in Home Furnishings” in the Sept. 29, 1928 issue of the New Yorker:

Writer Bertram Bloch reviewed the exhibit in the Oct. 6 issue. Although he suggested that he had some “hard, cruel things” to say about the show, overall he believed it something not to be missed. Excerpts:

THE SMART LOOK…B. Altman & Company showcased designs including, clockwise, from upper left, a dining room by Charles B. Falls; a conversation room by Steele Savage; a bedroom by Charles B. Falls; and a salon section by Dominique. (Art Institute of Chicago)
FADED GLORY…Clockwise, from upper left, The B. Altman flagship store at 34th Street and 5th Avenue and a closer view of the front entrance in 1915; closed in 1989, the flagship store is now used by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, among other tenants. The mahogany-paneled Fifth Avenue foyer survives intact, however the exterior looks a bit hosed-down, with the Ionic capitals removed from the columns as well as the lintels that banded the windows and the cornice on top. (Museum of the City of New York/daytoninmanhattan)

While on the topic of modern furniture, Ilonka Karasz, who painted a total of 186 New Yorker covers from 1924 to 1973, showcased her own furniture designs (along with other artists from the American Designers’ Gallery), at an exhibition the following month.

NEW YORKER COVER ARTIST Ilonka Karasz designed this dining room for the American Designers Gallery Exhibition in October 1928.  (Art Institute of Chicago)

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The Singing Fool

The New Yorker generally detested the introduction of sound in motion pictures, but for some reason didn’t mind it so much when Al Jolson opened his mouth. This time he followed up his blackface performance in The Jazz Singer with another blackface routine in The Singing Fool. E.B. White wrote about the film’s big opening in “The Talk of the Town”…

…and in the magazine’s film review section, yet more praise for Jolson, whose singing apparently compensated for the mediocre dialogue:

SERVED WITH A SIDE OF HAM…One of a series of promo slides for The Singing Fool, featuring Al Jolson, child actor Davey Lee, and the saccharine lyrics for Sonny Boy, said to be the first pop record to sell more than million copies. (nitrateville.com)
THAT WAS ENTERTAINMENT…Theatre lobby card for 1928’s The Singing Fool. (IMDB)

The Sept. 29 issue illustrates the dichotomy in how the New Yorker depicted African Americans in the 1920s. Blacks in the magazine’s cartoons and illustrations were often portrayed as minstrel characters, picaninnies or mammies. However, a serious artist like Paul Robeson received a much different treatment. Indeed, the magazine shamed the racism of a fictional character in Dorothy Parker’s short story “Arrangement in Black and White” (Oct. 8, 1927), in which a wealthy, white woman condescends to a black singer who might well have been modeled after Robeson. The journalist and author Mildred Gilman profiled Robeson in the very same issue that praised Jolson’s tired blackface routine. An excerpt, accompanied by a Hugo Gellert illustration:

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Next Time Wear a Disguise

The newlywed Gene Tunney (also newly retired from boxing) was spending some time in Europe, probably hoping to get a break from the adoring crowds back in the States. Upon entering a French café with his friend, the author Thornton Wilder, he soon discovered that adoring crowds awaited him on the other side of the pond, as related by the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent Janet “Genêt” Flanner:

NOWHERE TO HIDE…Gene Tunney during a visit to Paris in 1930. (Getty)

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From Our Advertisers

Although by 1928 Americans (and particularly New Yorkers) were flouting Prohibition laws, alcoholic beverages still could not be legally produced or marketed (except for “religious” or “medicinal” purposes). Advertisers, however, found clever ways to market non-alcoholic beverages like ginger ale with the allure of liquor or fine wine. But then again, few were actually drinking straight ginger ale…

And if you formerly grew grapes for winemaking, what’s preventing you from selling unpasteurized grape juice that remains free from fermentation “as long as the factory seal remains unbroken”…? Also, note the not-so-subtle cocktail shaker at the top left of the photo:

And for our cartoons, Barbara Shermund explored the modern ways of love…

…while Peter Arno continued probing the comic imbalance of rich old men and their young mistresses…

Next Time: A Bird’s Eye View…

 

 

This Thing Called Baseball

In the early years of the New Yorker, baseball as a sport was almost entirely ignored by the magazine, which otherwise gave exhaustive coverage to polo, yacht racing, tennis, and golf. There were also articles on badminton, rowing, and even auto racing, and college football received a lot of enthusiastic ink. But none for baseball. With the Sept. 22, 1928 issue I think I finally understand why.

Sept. 22, 1928 issue by Adolph K. Kronengold.

It has to do with the New Yorker’s parochial view of the world, so aptly illustrated by Saul Steinberg on the magazine’s March 29, 1976 cover, in which anything beyond the Hudson was essentially terra incognita:

A lot of New York Yankee fans came from “out there,” according to James Thurber in a “Talk of the Town” segment titled “Peanuts and Crackerjack.” Thurber wrote of his experience at a pennant race game between the Yankees and the Philadelphia A’s. The game of baseball was described as something for the out-of-towners who were “a bit mad,” a mass spectacle in which the game itself was of minor importance. In short, it wasn’t cool to be a Yankees fan if you counted yourself among Manhattan’s smart set:

This “Talk” item was written when the Yankees were on the verge of winning their second consecutive World Series championship over the favored St. Louis Cardinals. The 1928 team featured the famed “Murderer’s Row” lineup with the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. In all, nine players from the ’28 team would be elected to the Hall of Fame, a major league record. But as of the Sept. 22 issue neither the 1927 or ’28 Yankees merited a line in the New Yorker’s sports pages.

ONE FOR THE OUT-OF TOWNERS…The Yankees’ Earle Combs leads off with base hit against the Philadelphia A’s in a key AL pennant race game on Sept. 9, 1928. A record crowd of 85,265 attended the game, won by the Yankees, who gained half-game lead over the A’s with the victory. (baseballhistorycomesalive.com)

Thurber wrote that one could learn much about those in attendance at the game by the way they received Yankee star Babe Ruth:

Thurber proved his point about out-of-towners by noting the origin of license plates in the “army of parked cars” outside of the stadium. He also noted the appearance in the game of an ancient Ty Cobb, who hit a weak fly ball while a few old-time fans looked on in reverence:

A GAME WAS PLAYED, TOO…Babe Ruth celebrated the Yankees 1928 World Series win by dressing as a cowboy and riding the hood of a car. To the left is fellow slugger Lou Gehrig. (sbnation.com)
WHERE YOU COULD READ ALL ABOUT IT…The Oct. 10, 1928 edition of the Daily News splashed its front page with photographs of the Yankee’s triumphant title win. (Getty)

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An Eye-dropping Art Collector

The Sept. 22 issue A.H. Shaw profiled “De Medici in Merion” Dr. Albert Barnes, who made his fortune by developing in 1901 (with German chemist Hermann Hille) a silver nitrate-based antiseptic marketed as Argyrol. In the days before antibiotics, Argyrol was used to treat eye infections and prevent newborn infant blindness caused by gonorrhea. The profile featured this rather fearsome illustration by Hugo Gellert:

The lengthy piece detailed Barnes’ coming of age, and how his promotion of Argyrol helped bankroll his famed art collection. A brief excerpt:

IT FUELED A FORTUNE…Invented in 1901, Argyrol eye drops would finance one of the world’s greatest private art collections. Although was no longer marketed in U.S. after 1996, it is still available today, as seen at right in this Vietnamese product. (todocoleccion / ydvn.net)
HMMM, THAT LOOKS FAMILIAR…Henri Matisse views his 1917 painting The Music Lesson during a 1933 visit to the Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion Township, near Philadelphia. (The Morgan Library & Museum)
HE LIKED DOGS, TOO…Dr. Albert Barnes and his dog Fidèle with Matisse’s Red Madras Headdress, in 1942. (Barnes Foundation Archives)

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A One-eyed Monster Comes to Life

It’s always interesting to note the mentions of emerging technology in the early New Yorker, including this bit in Howard Brubaker’s column “Of All Things” about the successful broadcast of a “radio-television play.” Brubaker mused about what this new invention might called:

The first television broadcast in July 1928 was not exactly must-see TV. For two hours a day, General Electric’s experimental station W2XB broadcast the image of a 13-inch paper mache Felix the Cat, simply rotating on a turntable.

THE DAYS BEFORE VIAGRA ADS…A 13-inch Felix the Cat figure (top) was used to test an early television broadcast from General Electric’s experimental station W2XB in Schenectady, N.Y. Rotating on a record player turntable, the Felix figure was broadcast using a mechanical scanning disk, and was received as a 2-inch high image (below left) on an electronic kinescope. At bottom right, a 1928 television from General Electric that received alternating sound and picture. (NBC / Imgur / tvhistory.tv)

Then on September 11, 1928, W2XB (with WGY radio providing audio) broadcast a 40-minute one-act melodrama, The Queen’s Messenger. Northern State University’s Larry Wild writes that because TV screens were so small, only an actor’s face or hands could be shown. “The play had only two characters. A female Russian spy and a British Diplomatic Courier. Four actors were used. Two for the character’s faces, and two for their hands.”

The Queen’s Messenger was the first television drama, received by 3-inch televisions (most likely similar to the General Electric Octagon TV set pictured at left) that were set up in various places in the New York City area. At right, actors on the set of The Queen’s Messenger. The crude, flickering image marked the beginning of a revolution. (General Electric)

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From Our Advertisers

Advertisers were always looking for clever angles to capture the attention of the New Yorker’s upscale readers, including the use of subtle and not-so-subtle racist cues to get their points across. Two examples from the Sept. 22 issue have the makers of Oshkosh trunks helpfully pointing out that their product is not intended for African “natives”…

…or the folks from Longchamps restaurants, who depict the joyless life of a blubber-eating Eskimo as an appropriate juxtaposition to the succulent delicacies awaiting readers at their five New York locations:

We might associate rumble seats with the carefree joys of the Roaring Twenties, but in reality passengers in these jump seats received little protection from the elements (or flying gravel), and the ride was no doubt jarring atop the rear axle. No wonder you needed a special coat:

Our cartoons for Sept. 22 include this whimsy from Gardner Rea

…and this cartoon by Al Frueh, which depicts the deserted surroundings of the Flatiron Building on Yom Kippur. Robert Mankoff, who served as the New Yorker’s cartoon editor from 1997 to 2017, observed in the Cartoon Desk (Sept. 26, 2012) that “the rapid growth of Jewish-owned businesses in New York made the cartoon relevant in a way that it’s not today. Through modern, politically correct eyes, the cartoon may seem anti-Semitic, but I don’t see it that way. It just depicts the reality of those times, exaggerated for comic effect.”

Next Time: The Tastemakers…