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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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…

 

 

Frozen at 30 Rock

To call Lewis Mumford an architecture critic would do him a disservice. He was indeed an outspoken voice on New York’s changing skyline, informed by a keen understanding of history and aesthetics, but his criticisms were also those of a philosopher, a political commentator, a city planner, and an authority on matters concerning art, literature, society and culture.

June 20, 1931 cover by S. Liam Dunne.

The June 20, 1931 issue marks the entrance of Mumford (1895-1990) to our New Yorker story, and just in time to offer his perspectives on the Rockefeller Center project, which was about to commence.

THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD…This Midtown neighborhood was torn down shortly after the photo was taken to make room for the massive Rockefeller Center project. The view is from the corner of 6th Avenue and 51st Street looking to the southeast. One of the spires of St. Patrick’s is visible at far left, and the Chrysler Building can be glimpsed in the distant center. Lewis Mumford was no fan of giant skyscrapers or other “mega” building projects, and would have preferred something more on this smaller scale for Rockefeller Center. (Museum of the City of New York – MCNY)

The proposed project — then referred to as “Radio City” — received negative reviews from a number of critics, although the most pointed came from Mumford, who disliked “mega” building projects such as Rockefeller’s, labeling it as “weakly conceived, reckless, romantic chaos.”

RECKLESS, ROMANTIC CHAOS is how Lewis Mumford, left, described plans for Rockefeller Center. At right, the May 1931 issue of Popular Science featured the project’s plans. (Pinterest/Google Books)

Mumford’s Emersonian temperament favored simplicity, self-sufficiency and community; he believed skyscrapers and other “megamachines” were dehumanizing and even dishonest. In this next excerpt he poses a question about the so-called pragmatic “money men” behind the project: “Are the practical men practical?” We read on…

WELCOME TO CLOUDCUCKOOLAND…That was Mumford’s own term to describe plans for Rockefeller’s “Radio City.” An early rendering from 1928 (left) referred to the project as “Metropolitan Square,” and for a time it was slated to include a new Metropolitan Opera house.  Joseph Urban proposed this Fifth Avenue-facing design (right) in 1927, but plans were waylaid by the Great Depression. (ephemeralnewyork)
BLANK SLATE…With the site mostly cleared, construction commenced in the fall of 1931. This image is from December 16, 1931. (MCNY)

Mumford concluded that the opportunity to create a restful respite from the clamor of the city had been lost on the project, which just promised more “razzle-dazzle” and “incongruous jangle,” an interesting observation given that other New Yorker writers were generally dazzled by the skyscrapers and other gigantic projects that were rapidly erasing the old city.

True to his beliefs, Mumford lived a simple life in an old country house in Amenia, New York, a small town in the northern reaches of the Hudson Valley region.

FAR FROM THE RAZZLE-DAZZLE…Mumford house in Amenia, NY. (Wikipedia)

Historian Daniel Okrent, author of Great Fortune, The Epic of Rockefeller Center, notes that Mumford was eventually won over by Rockefeller Center in the end, calling it “a serene eyeful” and “the most exciting mass of buildings in the city.” I have to agree.

SERENE EYEFUL…Images of Rockefeller Center from 1939 (left) and 1935. (flickr.com/MCNY)

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Summertime Reads

A quick glance at the new books listed at the end of the New Yorker’s book review column shows us a nice variety of summertime diversions, including a book about Josef Stalin written before his Great Purge that murdered a million of his own citizens…then there was the memoir Blood on the Moon written by Jim Tully, “America’s most famous hobo author”…the book Life Among the Lowbrows by Eleanor Rowland Wembridge also caught my eye…I believe I’m almost set for the summer…

A STUDY IN CONTRASTS…Misfits and lowlifes peppered the books of both “hobo writer” Jim Tully (left) and psychologist Eleanor Rowland Wembridge, although from very different perspectives. While Wembridge took a more clinical approach to the underclasses, Tully used them for material in his hardscrabble stories. Guess which one ended up in Hollywood. (scpr.org/apadivisions.org)

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From Our Advertisers

The makers of Jantzen swimwear took a slightly risqué approach in advertising their latest women’s line…

…the owners of the Majestic, on the other hand, used snob appeal and a sense of heightened grandeur to promote their Central Park West apartments…

…advertisers of non-alcoholic drinks tried their best to capture the allure of cocktails, and I imagine much of their product was mixed with something a bit more interesting…

William Steig was hitting his stride as one of the newer cartoon contributors to the New Yorker

…with two of his entries featured in the June 20 issue…Steig would live 95 years and be productive throughout his life…nearly 60 years after these cartoons appeared in the New Yorker he would publish the children’s book Shrek!, the basis for the popular movie series…

…earlier in his career, Steig would also find fame for his series of Small Fry cartoons featuring children in adult situations, anticipating Charles Schulz’s Peanuts…this next cartoon, however, is not by Steig but by Alan Dunn, perhaps anticipating Steig…

Gardner Rea continued to explore the foibles of the well-heeled…

John Held Jr amused us with another of his rustic “woodcuts”…

Garrett Price shot the rapids with a hapless suitor…

…here is one the six cartoons Crawford Young contributed to the New Yorker in 1931-32, capturing a moment in which the chicken-egg question is largely moot…

…and another look into the leisure classes courtesy Barbara Shermund

…and we close the June 20 issue with James Thurber, who showed us a fellow who probably regretted his evening out…

…Thurber also brings into the next issue, June 27…

June 27, 1931 cover by Gardner Rea

…in which he recounted his adventures in bird-watching and the mating habits of crows…

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A Falling (Lone) Star

In her “Letter From Paris,” Janet Flanner reported that the allure of the “Queen of the Nightclubs,” Texas Guinan, did not extend to French shores, where among other things she ran afoul of labor laws that dissuaded non-citizens from working in France.

BEGINNING OF THE END…Associated with risqué entertainments in various speakeasies during the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression prompted Texas Guinan to take to the road with her show. After attempting (and failing) to make a tour of Europe, she returned to the States for one final road trip. Above left, Guinan in the 1933 film Broadway Through a Keyhole, which would open just three days before her death. At right, headline from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle trumpeting Guinan’s French debacle. (pre-code.com/

Upon her return to the States, Guinan took advantage of her well-publicized dismissal from France and launched the satirical revue Too Hot for Paris. This traveling show would also mark the beginning of the end for Guinan, who would contract amoebic dysentery during a run of the show at the Chicago World’s Fair. It would claim her life on Nov. 5, 1933, at age 49.

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They Put the Ping Into Pong

“They” being the Parker Brothers, who took umbrage at anyone who questioned their sole right to market genuine “Ping-Pong” balls. “The Talk of the Town” explained:

The “Talk” item ended with a little surprise about Mr. George Parker himself:

VINTAGE…A 1902 ping-pong set from Parker Brothers. (Worthpoint)

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Some lovely color ads, including this message that paired playful porpoises with leaded gasoline…

…this ad was about color itself, and how Powers Reproduction Corporation could make your images pop…

…and another sad Prohibition-era ad from the makers of Budweiser, in this case, a non-alcoholic version that looks like the real thing…of course what is even sadder about this ad is the suggestion that plantation life was something one should fondly hearken back to…

…on to our cartoons, and another terrific illustration from Barbara Shermund

…and we have Otto Soglow’s Little King, who temporarily lost his crown…

…and another from Soglow, at the men’s store…

Carl Rose gave us a chap contemplating the burdens of a Guggenheim “genius” grant…

Peter Arno revealed that his Major had two left feet…

…and in anticipation of the Fourth of July, we end as we began, with Gardner Rea

Next Time: Firecracker Lane…