Firecracker Lane

When fireworks were still allowed on the streets of New York City, Firecracker Lane was the place to go for all your pyrotechnic needs.

Theodore Haupt illustrated holiday travelers for the Fourth of July issue in 1931.

By 1931, however, fireworks had been banned across the greater New York City area, so customers visiting Firecracker Lane — a short row of sellers on Park Place between Broadway and Church Street — had to find a friendly burg beyond the metropolis to shoot off their Independence Day arsenals.

Before the city clamped down on the fun, Firecracker Lane did a bustling trade, and fireworks were even manufactured at sites around the metro area. But after a number of explosions and fires, the city closed down the fireworks factories, and by 1931 Fireworks Lane itself was on its last leg. “The Talk of the Town” visited what remained, and reminisced about the glory days.

A STREET WITH SOME SIZZLE…The famed Pain’s Fireworks company occupied this building on Firecracker Lane, photo circa 1903. At right, a young woman promoting Pain’s latest novelty, the “Chinese Dragon,” in the 1920s. (MCNY)
HAVING A BLAST…In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Pain’s staged massive themed fireworks displays, including the incredible The Last Days of Pompeii show on Manhattan Beach, seen here during its 1903 Season. (heartofconeyisland.com)
BEFORE THERE WERE MOVIES, entertainment companies were fond of putting on spectacular shows like The Last Days of Pompeii on Manhattan Beach. Illustration from an 1885 edition of Harper’s Weekly. (heartofconeyisland.com)
LOCATION, LOCATION…Explosions at fireworks factories in New York and New Jersey put an end to the manufacture of fireworks in the area by 1930. Above, a July 1901 explosion of a fireworks factory in a Paterson, N.J. tenement resulted in the deaths of 17 people who lived above factory. The New York Times reported “So great was the force of the blast, that a boy playing in the street a half a block away was lifted from his feet and hurled against an iron fence, and had one of his legs broken.” (Courtesy Paterson Fire History, via boweryboyshistory.com)

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Not Mum on Mumford

In the previous post we were introduced to critic Lewis Mumford, who excoriated plans for the new Radio City, now known as Rockefeller Center. In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White added his own two cents:

PERHAPS IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN A CAKE…Even the promoters of the Radio City project looked uncertain of their scheme in this March 1931 photo. (drivingfordeco.com)

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New Yorkers who wanted to get away from the steamy streets of Manhattan (almost no one had air conditioning in 1931) could catch the cooling breezes of the Atlantic on any number of cruise lines that plied the Eastern Seaboard and Canadian Maritimes during the summer…here the French Line offered a six-day “Triangle Cruise”…

…while Cunard offered a similar excursion (employing the cartooning skills of H.O. Hofman) that allowed passengers to “do the ocean” in just four days…

…to earn the ever-shrinking travel dollar during the Depression, both the Red Star and White Star lines offered their giant ocean liners for half- and full-week cruises to the Maritimes, Red Star even throwing in some on-board entertainment, claiming to be the first to do so “on any ocean”…

A SCRAPPED LOT…From top, the Belgenland, Majestic and Olympic. These great ships that once ferried passengers in high style between Europe and the States had been reduced to taking folks on short cruises and even one-day excursions due to the Depression. By the mid-1930s the Belgenland and Olympic (once the world’s largest ship) were sold for scrap. The Majestic was scuttled a few years later. (Wikipeda)

…I’m not sure where this pair is headed, but the angle suggests they just drove off a cliff…

…if cliff diving wasn’t your thing, you could tool around in a bright red Dodge boat…

…or be easily amused like this guy on the right, who gets his jollies from the abundance of ice cubes in his fridge…

…over at Essex House we find a more reserved scene, the “well-born” father and son gloating over their Central Park view…

…the Essex House might have been “all that,” but Dad and Junior would have to reconsider their social rank against a newcomer — the Waldorf-Astoria, reborn on Park Avenue…

…on to our cartoons, this couple illustrated by Garrett Price might consider something with a larger balcony…

Otto Soglow’s Little King took his Little Prince out for some air…

Kemp Starrett showed us a chap who contemplated the passing of time along with the passing of his timepiece…

I. Klein updated the theme of a damsel in distress…

…the growing popularity of Ping-Pong gave James Thurber some material to explore the battle of the sexes…

…and Barbara Shermund left us poolside with a couple of eggheads…

…on to our July 11, 1931 issue…

July 11, 1931 cover by Rose Silver.

…we find E.B. White taking his sweetheart, Katharine Angell White (referred to here as his “best girl”) out for a date at Coney Island…

A PLACE FOR ROMANCE…It’s not them, but this couple visiting Coney Island in 1928 (photo by Walker Evans) will serve well as our stand-ins for E.B. and Katharine White on their date to Coney. At right, the famous “Tunnels of Love.” (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Pinterest)
AND OTHER DIVERSIONS…Another famous and rather lurid Coney attraction was the wax museum, which featured dioramas based on headlines of the day. The biggest attractions were those featuring famous crime scenes, gruesome effects included. (Museum of the City of New York)
IT WAS A LIVING…Among other big attractions at Coney were the sideshow “freaks” White mentioned in his article. The photo above, from 1929, is by Edward J. Kelty. (artblart.com)

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On the Waterfront

The 1954 film by the same name featured the murderous mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) who ruled the waterfront’s stevedores with an iron fist. The reality was just as brutal, if not more so along the Brooklyn waterfront in the early 20th century, where the reign of a crime boss was as short as his life span. Alva Johnston reports:

TOUGH NEIGHBORHOOD…Midcentury view of the Brooklyn waterfront. (thenewyorkmafia.com)

Dinnie Meehan’s widow, Anna Lonergan, had the distinction of being shot at the side of two successive husbands; after Meehan was murdered, Anna married “White Hand” gangster Harry Reynolds. Johnston, who referred to Anna Lonergan as “the Brunhild of the longshore cycle,” concluded his piece with a look at the “last of the great leaders,” Red Donnelly, also known as “Cute Charlie”…

HARD KNOCKS…“Peg Leg” Lonergan was the final leader of the waterfront’s “White Hand Gang.” He was gunned down on Dec. 26, 1925, after a short reign as boss. He was just 25 years old when he died. (Pinterest)

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The Show Must Go On

With the glory days of vaudeville quickly receding into the past, Flo Ziegfeld was nevertheless determined to keep his “Follies” alive at his eponymous theatre. Robert Benchley stopped by for a look at the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931.

CARE FOR A SMOKE?…Program cover for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931. At right, Ziegfeld star Ruth Etting, who portrayed a cigarette girl in the show’s “Club Piccadilly” skit. A note of trivia: Etting and I attended the same high school (but not at the same time!). (Playbill/Wikimedia Commons)
GLORY BE…Inside pages of the program featured some of the “Ziegfeld Beauties” appearing in the show. (Playbill)

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Gross

Back in the day some entrepreneurial types would kill a large whale, stuff it full of sawdust and formaldehyde, and then take it on the road to parade in front of gawkers with spare nickels in their pockets. E.B. White observed the fate of one such specimen:

YES, THIS WAS A THING…Before the days of Jacques Cousteau and Animal Planet, this is how some folks got their first and likely only look at a real whale, even if it was pumped full of sawdust and formaldehyde.

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From Our Advertisers

This small back page ad invited New Yorkers to the cooling breezes atop the Hotel Bossert in Brooklyn Heights, once referred to as the “Waldorf-Astoria of Brooklyn”…

Its rooftop restaurant — the Marine Roof — was a famous hangout. When the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series in 1955, this is where they celebrated…

(brownstoner.com)

Dr. Seuss was still making a living illustrating advertisements for Flit insecticide…

…”my eyes are up here”…says the woman who uses Coty brand lipstick…

…on to our cartoonists, we have Garrett Price also examining the challenges of playing Ping-Pong…

Perry Barlow was at the seaside with a precocious beach-goer…

Carl Rose showed us a Boy Scout after his encounter with the Red Menace…

Kemp Starrett weighed the advantages of air travel…

Otto Soglow surprised us with this undercover operation…

…and we end with James Thurber, and the price of literary fame…

Next Time: The Black Eagle…

 

 

Rooftop Romance

In the days before air conditioning, New Yorkers took to the higher rooftops in the city to escape the summer heat and reconnect with familiar entertainers.

June 6, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt. The title image is a detail from a Sept. 5, 1970 cover by Arthur Getz.

Among those reconnecting was Lois Long, who had abandoned her nightlife column “Tables for Two” the previous year but revived it in the June 6, 1931 issue, perhaps in reaction to the “boundless trouble” that had marched into her “quiet life,” namely her bitter divorce that month from cartoonist Peter Arno. Soon to be single again, Long dusted off her “Table” for another night out.

PRE-AC…As far back as the Gilded Age of the 19th century New Yorkers escaped the summer heat by seeking entertainment on one of the city’s rooftop gardens. Pictured is the Paradise roof garden atop Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre, 1901. (MCNY)

THE BUCK STARTS HERE…It wasn’t a rooftop, but the Central Park Casino was a cool retreat from city streets, especially for Mayor Jimmy Walker, who conducted much of city business there (much of it shady). After reform-minded Mayor Fiorello La Guardia replaced Walker in 1934, he had the place torn down. (New York City Parks Photo Archive)
I COULD HAVE DANCED ALL NIGHT…Mayor Jimmy Walker and his mistress, showgirl Betty Compton, were often the last to leave the Casino in the wee hours of the morning, dancing in the black-glass ballroom (above) to the Leo Reisman Orchestra. (drivingfordeco.com)

Higher up in the city, Long also paid a visit to the elegant rooftop of the St. Regis, designed by the famed architect and theatrical designer Joseph Urban

DAZZLING…The St. Regis rooftop, designed by Joseph Urban.
ANOTHER VIEW of the St. Regis rooftop as illustrated in the July 7, 1928 issue of the New Yorker by Alice Harvey. 

Long also visited the roof of the 42-story Hotel Pierre. The New York Sun described the top two floors as “decorated to resemble the interior of a zeppelin cabin.”

THE COOLEST…Top of the Hotel Pierre. A popular summer ballroom in the years before air-conditioning, the Pierre advertised itself as having “the highest and coolest hotel roof in Manhattan.” (NYT)

If you were in the mood for a little crooning, Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees were taking in the breeze atop the Hotel Pennsylvania, per this ad in the back pages of the June 6 New Yorker

Advertisers must have been paying attention to Long’s column, because the back pages of the following issue (June 13) had plenty of ads touting various rooftops…

Long also sampled the offerings of less savory venues, such as the Club Argonaut, which was apparently frequented by mobsters…

NOT AMUSED…Lois Long didn’t care for the antics of Gene Malin (center, and inset) who performed in front of a tough-looking crowd at the Club Argonaut. A popular drag artist who helped ignite the “Pansy Craze” in the 1920s and 30s, Malin was one of the first openly gay performers in Prohibition-era speakeasy culture. His career ended abruptly at age 25 in a car accident. (Pinterest)

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Sexy Soviet Tractors

One place you could find an early form of air conditioning was at the movies (critic John Mosher referred to these theatres as “iced), and no doubt many lowered their cinematic standards just to get a few hours respite from the heat. For some unknown reason the Central Theatre thought it could entice audiences not with air-conditioning, but with a Soviet propaganda film titled The Five-Year Plan.

STAY CALM AND CARRY ON…Soviet poster for The Five Year Plan (1930), and a 1930 image of the Volograd (Stalingrad) tractor factory. You wonder how many of those blokes got wiped out by Stalin’s purges, or by the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43. (Wikipedia)

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Laughing at Death

A couple of posts ago I wrote about a very public gun battle that brought diminutive killer Frances Crowley to justice (“The Short Life of Two-Gun Crowley”). In the June 6 installment of “A Reporter at Large,” Morris Markey recounted the courtroom scene where the 18-year-old Crowley winked at girls and nonchalantly chewed his gum as judge and jury determined his fate.

OH WELL…Frances Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend, Helen Walsh, left, was positively bored during the trial that would send her beau to Sing Sing’s electric chair. Crowley himself (shown above at the trial) seemed to be amused by the proceedings, and enjoyed the attention. (NY Daily News)

Markey also noted the unseemly behavior of Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend, Helen Walsh, who seemed bored by the whole thing. “She was not a creature of your world or of mine,” wrote Markey, who noted at one point that she put her hands to her face “to conceal a faint smile that sprang from some incalculable amusement within her.” Markey offered this sample of Walsh’s questioning.

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Summer Frost

Novelist and poet Raymond Holden penned a profile of famed poet Robert Frost, who among things apparently enjoyed apples and a bit of gossip. A brief excerpt:

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Dead Ball

E. B. White lamented in his “Notes and Comment” the changes to the official golf ball, which was to be made slower in a time when Depression-weary businessmen could use a little lift:

GET ‘EM WHILE THEY LAST…This 1930 golf ball, signed by golf legend Bobby Jones, can be yours for $15,000 on eBay.

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From Our Advertisers

Gender-bending trends in clothing continued from the 1920s with flowing trousers for women (unthinkable a decade earlier)…

…and beach pajamas for men and women alike…

…Buick dialed up a patrician vibe with this ad that suggested a posh boy might be transported in one by the family’s driver…

…and this might be one of the first ads that linked cigarette smoking to the myth of the Western cowboy…

…on to our cartoons, we begin out in the country with Perry Barlow

…and Kemp Starrett, with this charming bucolic scene…

…back in the drawing room, we have this canine encounter from Leonard Dove

Helen Hokinson explored the violent side of bridge…

Barbara Shermund went into the garden to sample the trials of the rich…

Carl Rose pondered the art of grammar in crowded places…

Chon Day gave us yet another take on the familiar boss vs secretary trope…

…and Gardner Rea gets the last laugh with this hapless prodigal son…

Next Time: A Star is Born…

 

Risky Business

The Irish American gangster JackLegsDiamond was often referred to as the “clay pigeon of the underworld” due to surviving several attempts on his life.

Nov. 1, 1930 cover by Rea Irvin.

In his “Reporter at Large” column, Morris Markey checked up on the fleet-footed bootlegger, adored by the public for his various brushes with the law and escapes from sure death. In his opening paragraph, Markey referred to one of the attempts on Diamond’s life: On October 12, 1930, he survived being shot five times at Manhattan’s Hotel Monticello:

Markey’s column attempted to remove some of the glamour from Diamond’s flamboyant life, a life that would be cut short about a year later in an Albany rooming house…

OUT WITH THE BOYS…Legs Diamond leaves the federal court in New York with his attorney and a couple of cronies on Aug. 8, 1931, after being convicted of owning an unlicensed still and conspiring to violate Prohibition laws. (digitalcommonwealth.org)
BEDFELLOWS…Legs Diamond had a number of mistresses, but the best known was Marion “Kiki” Roberts, who was with Diamond shortly before he was slain. (The Mob Museum/Pinterest)
DEADLY TRIO…Clockwise, from top left, Legs Diamond is comforted by his wife, Alice Kenny Diamond, after being shot three times at a roadhouse near Cairo, NY, on April 27, 1931. His enemies finally succeeded in killing him on Dec. 18, 1931, shooting him three times in the back of the head in an Albany rooming house. Alice would be shot and killed less than two years later, possibly by Diamond’s enemies to keep her quiet. And sadly, the New Yorker’s “Reporter at Large” columnist Morris Markey would also meet a violent end, dying of a gunshot wound to the head in 1950. Whether it was by his hand or another’s, it was never determined. (Albany Archives/NY Times)

An afternote: Enemies would finally catch up to Legs Diamond and kill him on Dec. 18, 1931. Diamond’s wife, Alice Kenny Diamond, would be shot and killed less than two years later. Diamond’s mistress and former Ziegfeld Follies performer Marion “Kiki” Roberts would return to the stage and cash in on her notoriety. In 1937 it was reported she was the big draw in a touring “Crazy Quilt” burlesque revue. And according to the writer William Kennedy, who wrote about Diamond in his 1975 novel Legs, the last record of Kiki Roberts was in Boston in the 1940s, where “she was still appearing as ‘Jack (Legs) Diamond’s Lovely Light o’ Love.’ ”

Here is newsreel footage of Diamond’s mistress Marion “Kiki” Roberts, shortly after the gangster’s death. In this brief interview with a Boston reporter (and with her mother at her side) Roberts advises girls to “live good clean lives and obey their parents wishes.” Note how it appears she is reading from cue cards.

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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

A precursor to the helicopter, the autogyro was considered by many to be the next logical step in aircraft development, and especially in the development of smaller craft that could serve as safe, affordable transportation options for commuters. The New Yorker’s E.B. White, an aviation enthusiast, demonstrated to readers the wonders of this aircraft:

EASY AS PIE…A Cierva Autogiro C30 takes flight circa 1933. (findmypast.co.uk)

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Baker’s Big Show

Nineteen-year-old American-born French entertainer Josephine Baker became an instant symbol of Jazz Age Paris when she starred in La Revue Nègre in October 1925. Her erotic dance routines wowed Paris audiences, and she quickly moved on to the famed Folies Bergère. In 1930 she opened a new show at the Casino de Paris that also featured her pet cheetah, Chiquita. The New Yorker’s Janet Flanner was there to take it all in:

HEAR THE THUNDER…Nineteen-year-old Josephine Baker took Paris by storm when she appeared in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in October 1925. (harleminmontmartre.paris/artphotolimited.com)
HEAR ME ROAR…The New Yorker’s Janet Flanner was wowed by Josephine Baker’s newest show at the Casino de Paris that also featured her pet cheetah, Chiquita. (pictorem.com/vam.ac.uk/artphotolimited.com)

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Grim Reminder

Despite the deepening Depression across the country, few mentions of it were made in the pages of the New Yorker. Howard Brubaker, in his “Of All Things” column, offered this not-so-gentle reminder:

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From Our Advertisers

We feature Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, a Swiss-born American socialite shilling for Pond’s cold cream. At the time of this ad she was the mother of six-year-old Gloria Vanderbilt (who would become a famous fashion designer and artist and the mother of CNN’s Anderson Cooper)…

POOR LITTLE RICH GIRLS…Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt and her husband, Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt with daughter Gloria, circa 1924-25. Reginald died in 1925, and a famous custody battle over little Gloria (who recently died at age 95) would take place in 1934. At right, portrait of Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt by Dorothy Wilding, 1933. (Perkins Library, Duke University)

…the makers of Ybry lipstick apparently did not have the budget to garner a patrician endorsement, so they settled for this illustration by New Yorker cartoonist Barney Tobey

…and we have another lovely color ad from R.J. Reynolds, once again linking cigarettes to athletic prowess…

…on to our cartoons, we mark election season with Carl Rose

Barbara Shermund explored the generation gap…

Peter Arno gathered his sugar daddies for a game of chess…

Kemp Starrett introduced us to an unlikely life of the party…

Alan Dunn examined the influences of popular cinema…

Mary Petty gave us an Ivy League perspective of the Great Depression…

…and Arno again, with a cartoon that was featured along with the New Yorker’s “Wayward Press” column…

Next Time: Body and Soul…

 

The Woes of Mr. Monroe

Whether probing the battle of sexes or exposing the secret lives of daydreamers like Walter Mitty, James Thurber (pictured above) had a knack for revealing the frustrations and various tics that plagued ordinary people.

Aug. 9, 1930 cover by Rea Irvin.

That included the fictional John Monroe, whom Thurber placed in various awkward situations in a series of humorous stories, including this encounter with some moving men that required the rather inept Monroe to make a series of decisions usually left to his wife, Ellen. Some excerpts from the Aug. 9 issue:

ODD COUPLES…Sue Randall, left, and Orson Bean portrayed John and Ellen Monroe on a 1961 episode of The DuPont Show with June Allyson…
…a decade later, William Windom, left, and Joan Hotchkis portrayed John and Ellen Monroe on the Thurber-inspired (and award-winning) NBC comedy My World and Welcome to It (1969-70). (Wikipedia/Amazon)

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Beats the Heat

In the hot August of 1930, film critic John Mosher probably found the air-conditioned theaters to be the best feature of the cinema, given the generally mediocre quality of the summer movies. Mosher also noted the new trend of adapting Broadway plays to the screen, a practice that continues to this day.

THE SOUND OF 1930…Joan Crawford (left) examines a boom microphone on the set of Our Blushing Brides. Although most films were produced with sound in 1930, it was still something of a novelty to actors who began their careers in the silent era; at right, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Anita Page in Little Accident. (IMDB)

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From Our Advertisers

Well who doesn’t love a whole chicken in jar, ready to “fry or cream” in just 20 minutes? This was actually a big deal in 1930, given that chicken dinners were not as common back in the days before factory farms and Chick-fil-A…

…the makers of Marlboro cigarettes abandoned their essay and penmanship contests and took another direction with their drab, back-page ads, appealing to a vague sense of status in the prospective smoker…

…this sad little bottom-of-the-page ad enticed readers to take a drive in the country to see Texas Guinan and her “Famous Gang” still whooping it up like it was 1925. The venture was short-lived…

…on to our cartoons, Peter Arno looked in on nightlife in the city…

William Crawford Galbraith took in an outdoor concert…

Ralph Barton offered his comic skills to a glimpse of domestic life…

Garrett Price observed some boaters on an outing that would be frowned upon today (or at least I hope so)…

…and Constantin Alajalov examined the pitfalls of modern art…

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Speaking of art, we move on the Aug. 16, 1930 issue…

Aug. 16, 1930 cover by Barney Tobey.

…in which Robert Benchley has fun with the foibles of the art world…

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Rough Riders

In his “Reporter at Large” column, Morris Markey looked in on the working world of one chain-smoking ambulance driver…some excerpts…

SOMEONE NEEDS TO CLEAN THIS UP…Clockwise, from top left, a 1930s Flexible ambulance and its rather cramped interior; scene of a 1933 Manhattan murder. (coachbuilt.com/NY Daily News)

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From Our Advertisers

Hard to believe that zippers were a novel invention just 90 years ago…in this ad from the leading manufacturer, Talon, this “hookless” wonder was still referred to as a “slide fastener”…

…the Chrysler Corporation was never the biggest car company in America, but it was always known as a leader in both technology and design, as in these graceful lines that flowed over its new “Straight Eight” models…

…the makers of Camel cigarettes continued to push their product as a sound way to stay fit and trim…

…in the cartoons for Aug. 16, this drawing by Peter Arno appeared for the fifth time in the magazine, always with a different caption (the others appeared in three consecutive issues — June 5, 12 and 19, and on Aug. 2, 1930)…

William Crawford Galbraith detected some wet vs. dry tension at the country club…

Ralph Barton returned with another full-page illustration of a weekend domestic scene…

Garrett Price found confusion in a lengthy queue…

…and Kemp Starrett gave us a bird’s eye view of a future New Yorker…

Next Time: Hell’s Angels…