On a recent early evening, I came across a small scrimmage in Union Square, not an unusual scene for a warm day. But as I got closer, I noticed that at the center of the huddle of bodies was a bank of water fountains. A large pickup truck awaited nearby and some workers were trying to delicately pry the thirsty New Yorkers away from their water source so they could pack up the fountain. As I got closer, I could see large letters on the side of the troth: “Water-on-the-Go” and the familiar logo of the city of New York. Apparently, the city has been providing these portable fountains around town for free each summer since 2010.But water fountains, mostly the non-portable sort, have only been around NYC since the mid-19th century.
Specifically, since the opening of the Croton Aqueduct which finally brought fresh water to the city in 1842 – 90 millions gallons of it per day. Instead of contaminated well-water, the city’s residence now had consistent access to fresh and clean water for the first time. The effects were transformational to the city and to the health of its residents. Wealthier New Yorkers installed running water in their homes and public bath houses and pools were constructed for everyone else . Cockroach trivia of the day: the horrendous critters became known as Croton bugs because they congregated around the water pipes. To celebrate clean water, lavish fountains were erected in Union Square and City Hall Park and over the next few decades, public drinking fountains were built across the city to quench the thirst of “man and beast.”
Today there are 1,970 water fountains in the city with the most in Brooklyn. Their designs are more functional than the ornamental fountains of the last century, but free and clean water is clearly something that New Yorkers still very much appreciate.
The vilification of food is something Americans do all too well. Many food items have swung back and forth between villain and savior (Harvey Levenstien wrote a great book about this: Fear of Food A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat). Caffeine has long been one of the most popular targets and perhaps no one did more to try to destroy the reputation of coffee than the man who brought us Grape Nuts: C.W. Post. If you’ve ever wondered why Grape Nuts has that strange, indiscernible but slightly gravely taste it’s because it originally wasn’t meant to be a cereal at all, but rather a coffee substitute–one of Posts’ many efforts to rip off Kellogg’s creations.
Riding on the wave of the success of Grape Nuts and new health concerns over coffee, which he called a “drug drink,” Post developed another coffee alternative made from roasted grains called Postum. In his book, Uncommon Grounds, Mark Pendergrast argues that Posts’ ability to use bogus health jargon while appealing to people’s fears and snobbery paved the way for modern consumer advertising practices. Post himself was likely influenced by Coke’s ads in the 1880′s promoting the drink as a “brain tonic.” Post promised that drinking Postum would put consumers on the “road to Wellville,” and as this ad contends, would also rebuild one’s nervous system from the effects of “the old poison–caffeine,” and win over one’s husband to boot! In the end, commerce won out over caffeine ideology. C.W. Posts’ daughter took over the company following his death and bought Maxwell House in 1928.
Beer gardens are experiencing a small, but notable renaissance in New York City these days. Sadly they don’t even touch the kinds of massive, throbbing beer gardens that used to be commonplace. Sure, you could grab a beer at any of these German-style beer halls that dotted 19th century New York, but they were so much more than watering holes. The largest and most famous of these was the Atlantic Garden, which was a cavernous multi-storied social space were patrons would spend the better part of the day drinking, playing pool and listening to live music and of course, drinking beer. The largest of these was the Atlantic Garden, opened in 1858 on the Bowery at number 50 extending to Elizabeth Street. At a time when male and female social spheres rarely overlapped, beer halls were frequented by both men and women. The Atlantic Garden was particularly popular with German families who came to enjoy some evening entertainment together. This included an array of diversions such as a shooting gallery, pool tables, bowling allies and live entertainment. Despite the flowing beer, the crowd was relatively tame. On the lower lefthand corner of the postcard you can see a young girl sitting patiently at the end of the table as her parents chat away and another couple walking hand in hand between the tables on the right side.
As the Bowery increasingly became home to some of the most desolate populations in the city, Atlantic Garden managed to maintain its clean reputation and remained popular with locals and tourists. That is, until the locals finally left for less seedy pastures. Atlantic Garden was closed in 1902 because its main clientele, Germans and Irish, had moved away from the Bowery. This particularly vivid passage from the New York Times article announcing the closure describes the ending of an era:
Dwellers of the Bowery paused and rubbed their eyes yesterday when they passed Atlantic Garden, for the front of the famous old resort, which had stood almost unchanged on its site just below Canal Street since before the Civil War, was plastered over with Billboard in Yiddish announcing a Yiddish variety programme.”
(Yes, we still clung to that extra “me” in 1902.)
The article goes on to describe how the hall had hosted vaudeville acts, a new form of entertainment when it first opened, and specialized in novelty acts such as “‘teams’ of negro performers,” and later a “ladies orchestra.”
This past fall, it was discovered that the basement of the tavern that had previously occupied 50 Bowery and which had supposedly been George Washington’s headquarters, was still intact. Almost just as soon, it was demolished to make way for a 22-story, 160-room hotel. Hopefully plans will also include an enormous beer hall.
January 17, 1920: the day Americans were legally prohibited from consuming alcohol for the next 13 years—the day the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect. But teetotalism had been popular in America for nearly a century before the government got involved.
Alcohol had long been the target of American reformers who aimed to restore order to society through publishing diatribes on the harmful effects of excessive drinking, such as this illuminating pamphlet by University of Pennsylvania professor, Dr. Benjamin Rush, An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind (in its 8th edition by 1823).
A note to those considering imbibing tonight: Dr. Rush warns that while small amounts of alcohol “have a friendly influence upon health and life,” overindulgence in anything as innocent as punch leads to idleness, which leads to sickness and eventually to debt. Cordials lead to swindling, while the stronger stuff like gin and brandy will ultimately lead to murder and…the gallows. He suggests sticking to water which brings “health and wealth”—a radical concept at a time when the quality of most water was questionable.
American Teetotalism actually has its origins in Ireland with the Catholic Temperance movement when priest Mathew Theobald established the Cork Total Abstinence Society in 1838. His followers each signed a pledge of total alcohol abstinence and met on Friday and Saturday nights and on Sundays after Mass. In just the first five months, Theobald had conscribed 130,000 members. He began taking his cause on the road and eventually came to the U.S. in 1849 where he enlisted another 500,000. Catherine Cauty was the 4,281,797th to sign the pledge, promising to “abstain from all intoxicating drinks, except used medicinally and by order of a medical man, and to discountenance the cause and practice of intemperance.” The above card illustrates the consequences of alcohol consumption: wife-beating, and the benefits of temperance: a happy family gathering in front of a hearth.
Slimy, briny and amorphous; oysters are an implausible aphrodisiac and an unlikely delicacy. And yet, oysters are part of a cadre of much-valued foods with the fabled powers to generate sexual stimulation, along with chocolate and apparently striped bass. While oysters have long been shrouded in a myth of sensuality, they were not always so rarefied. In the nineteenth century, oysters were one of few foods that both rich and poor could agree were delicious, and they ate them with equal enthusiasm. Mark Kurlansky writes in The Big Oyster: History of the Half Shell that mid-nineteenth century New York oystermania “was one of the few moments in culinary history when a single food, served in more or less the same preparations, was commonplace for all socioeconomic levels.”
New York was synonymous with oysters long before it was known for its hotdogs and bagels. The nineteenth century waterways were so bountiful that oysters were sold as street food for pennies. New Yorkers were so mad for oysters that shuckers would work 10 hour days opening up 1,000 oysters per hour just to keep up with the demand.
Oysters could be found all over town and prepared in all sorts of ways: boiled, stuffed into in pies and stewed. In The House of Mirth, Lily Bart seeks refuge at a white table-clothed restaurant on 59th Street and Park Avenue where she has a rejuvenating snack of tea and stewed oysters. While just a few blocks downtown in Edith Wharton’s New York, oysters were casually consumed for a penny each off carts by the harbor.
When it came to oysters, elites were essentially indulgent gilded age locavores. Delmonico’s, New York’s original fine dining establishment, put oysters, or huîtres as was their francophile predilection, at the very top of their menu and set the trend for serving them raw on the half-shell. Oysters also attracted the attention of visitors to New York, including Charles Dickens who found most of America to be horrendous and did not hesitate to call parts of New York “loathsome, drooping, and decayed.” And yet, he found the New York oyster cellars “pleasant retreats” and seemed to enjoy their “wonderful cookery.”
I certainly cannot think of a single food item, even with the relative democratization of food over the past century and the increased access and exposure to a wider variety of cuisines, that would be equally celebrated at, let’s say Daniel’s and IHOP. I would love to be wrong about this (Cronuts at Dunkin’ Donuts don’t count), and maybe someone will point out that I am. But from what I can tell, I’m not.
A combination of pollution and bitter turf wars between competing fisherman caused the decline of New York’s oyster population. Eventually typhoid fever and cholera outbreaks forced the City Health Commission to close all the oyster beds in 1927, ending New York’s oyster bonanza.
New York is more socioeconomically divided today than it has been in over a century but it has been nearly as long since oysters were consumed with equal gusto by both the haves and have nots. But could it happen again? There are projects to revitalize New York’s oyster population, like efforts by the New York Harbor School and The River Project. But it’s doubtful that their numbers will ever get as high as they once were when oysters were so plentiful that their shells literally paved the streets.
There is an ever-narrowing window, it seems like mere hours now, between the moment the clock of commerce strikes the end of Thanksgiving and the start of the “holiday season.” Barely have our over-burdened stomachs digested our preternaturally large turkeys than the elves of CVS, Target and Best Buy come crawling into their respective stores to exchange the autumnal colors for whites, reds and greens. I imagine these brave defenders of mercantilism slinking in under the cloak of darkness, staving off tryptophan as the rest of us lay splayed on couches clutching our stomachs while eyeing the last piece of pie, to furtively haul out the pumpkin and apple flavored everything and heave in the bulk bins of Santa hats and stock endless shelves with gift “suggestions.”
“Christmas has been ruined!” We bark. “Its spirit has been sullied by our lust for commercial grade juicers!”
We do like to harp on. But what if there never was a noncommercial American Christmas to ruin? What if the commercialization we love to hate on is the very thing that brought us the “spirit of Christmas” that we lament has been destroyed? So argues Penne Restad in a Bloomberg article from last year. The American tradition of Christmas first took off within the confines of the home where upper class ladies of leisure took to decorating and indulging in cobbling together “the scraps and slivers of various folk traditions blended to serve a religion of domesticity.” Rituals such as tree decorating and stocking stuffing where then picked up by the press, which published Christmas recipes along with etiquette tips, gift ideas and morality tales of the “true meaning of Christmas.” Publications like Harper’s Weekly also began to develop the version of Santa Clause from a marginal character to the jolly gifting supernatural being we recognize today.
As early as the 1830’s poinsettias were being grown in greenhouses and by the 1870’s Christmas trees were living room fixtures. Woolworths played a role by importing cheap ornaments from Germany while department stores around the country stuffed their displays full of glittering merchandise, pushing gifts on American consumers with unbridled zeal. This Richmond Times Dispatch article from 1916 reported on the “Christmas spirit” on display in the “brilliantly decorated windows…within, the stores are temples of plenty, thronged with devotees. Even the shops which have to do only with humdrum articles of constant necessity and ugly drudgery have been infected with the desire for cheer and beauty.”
As the spirit of commerce and Christmas were created in tandem, so have they continued to grow concurrently. As Restad writes:
“These days, it is a commonplace to say that the economy depends on Christmas sales and that marketing strategies, such as Black Friday, threaten the holiday of yore. True enough. But less often noted is that the market revolution of the 19th century, and the consumer economy it created, made possible and continues to sustain what we mean when we talk about the ‘spirit of Christmas.’”
You can find just about anything in New York City. Most of the world’s cultural exports end up here eventually, from bubble tea to bike lanes. But Japanese culture has only made its way selectively into this city’s cultural landscape. Despite the growing popularity of Japanese pop culture like anime and manga here in the U.S., the Japanese have largely left the weirder stuff back home, until now. The first Maid Cafe has just opened in Chinatown. Theme cafes are big in Japan, and especially hostess cafes which are a special blend of fantasy and female degradation where waitresses dress up in elaborate and often skimpy costumes and flirt with their, mostly socially awkward, male customers. In the Akiharaba district of Tokyo, young waitresses dressed as French maids, school girls and manga characters in platform pumps and thigh highs hand out invitations on the busy streets to passing potential customers. They were all too happy to pose for pictures too, as I found out.
At the maid cafes in Japan, waitresses greet male guests as “master,” listen dotingly, flatter and giggle behind menus. It’s an exaggerated femininity of the kind that feels uniquely Japanese. But, in some ways it’s familiar. What is Hooters if not a fantasy bar where buxom waitresses serve atomic wings instead of matcha? There is one small, but significantly disturbing difference though. There is no mistaking the Hooters waitresses for girls. Whereas the primary look of waitresses at many hostess cafes, and the popular look for Japanese woman in general, is kawaii, meaning cute, as in young, often a little too young. Hence, the popularity of the school girl look. At the Maid Cafe in Chinatown the French maid outfits are maintained but the rest of the experience has been finessed for the American crowd. The cafe holds special events where “traditional” maid service is offered. But regular service involves no references to guests as”masters,” or cartoonish flirtations, just young women in frilly maid outfits serving chicken curry with heart-shaped rice for $6.95.
In the early 1990′s in New York City, on the southwest corner of Central Park a few blocks down from Lincoln Center, lay a disused blocky convention center, a strange Venetianesque latticework building and a few other functional butnondescript structures. This hodgepodge group all crowded around a traffic circle that was decorated with parked motorcycles and punctuated by a sooty column topped by a statue of a famous dead white man. The buildings all seemed to face this traffic circle expectantly, as if asking: why must our fate be to stare at you day after day? You are a blight on our fair city. Alas, we are doomed to continue staring at you until someone comes along with better plans for us all.
This was the Columbus Circle that I knew as a child. Today it is the manicured center of high-end shopping and living. Recently, Columbus Circle was named Best Roundabout in the World 2013 by the Roundabout Appreciate Society (which should itself be voted Most Unapologetically British Society 2013). Fountains and careful landscaping have replaced the motorcycles, Columbus and his column have received a scrub down, the weird latticework building whose arcade was essentially a homeless shelter, has been discreetly covered up and is now the Museum of Arts and Design, the abandoned convention center (a Robert Moses creation) was torn down to make way for the billion dollar Time Warner Center, and Donald Trump took over the anonymous glass tower by the park. Actual people, lots of them, sit on the benches backed by a row of fountains. It’s easy to romanticize the “bad old days” of New York and confuse grit and neglect with authenticity, but Columbus Circle itself is a gleaming example of a resuscitated public space. And while I wish it didn’t mean that William Sonoma and Whole Foods are today as much of a draw to this corner of the city as Jazz at Lincoln Center, I am very glad the motorcycle parking lot is a distant memory.
It’s World Vegetarian Day! For all our meat-shunning friends it’s a day to celebrate the earth’s bounty while sneering at the barbarians who still partake of flesh (me!). Also, it’s a day to remember a piece of forgotten women’s history. Feminist theory has long highlighted the common subjugation of women and animals in a patriarcal world where meat-eating plays an integral role in male dominance. In mid-19th century America, the early vegetarian movement was closely linked with several reform movements including animal welfare, health reform, abolition and women’s suffrage. The American Vegetarian Society was founded in 1850 under the leadership of several prominent American health reformers of the day, including noted vegetarian Reverend Sylvester Graham (of Graham cracker fame). It was the first society of it’s kind in the U.S and attracted supporters the like of Susan B. Anthony, who was known to throw vegetarian dinners but also still enjoyed the odd turkey and cow.
In the U.K. where vegetarian diets were being adopted up by the upper classes, London was teeming with vegetarian eateries. By the 1880′s, 30 new vegetarian restaurants had opened in London. These restaurants, as well as tea rooms, became popular meeting spots for suffragettes as there were few places where women could gather alone together outside the home. Away from the steaming kitchen and roast beef dinners, vegetarian restaurants also set an example of the kind of simple and fast cooking that could liberate women from the stove. Eventually women created their own spaces. London’s Minerva Club was founded by the Women’s Freedom League in 1920 attracting women from all branches of the women’s suffrage movement. Knowing their clientele, the club’s restaurant advertised that its vegetarian dishes were cooked separately and entirely free of animal fat. Eight years later the Representation of the People Act granted all women over the age of 21 the right to vote.
What if your doctor actually prescribed you a trip to the beach? These days we go to the beach to relax and rejuvenate. But we used to believe that a trip to the beach would actually cure us. Eighteenth century British beachgoers dunked themselves in the chilly waters of the North Sea to relieve their moral and physical ailments. For decades, taking in sea air and drinking seawater was prescribed with medical certainty. Through the tuberculosis epidemic of the nineteenth century, the seaside was a place of refuge and rehabilitation for the wealthy. Eventually, as the middle class flocked to the beach in the twentieth century, we turned our gazes from the sea to the sun–the new source of therapeutic wonder that rejuvenated and revitalized us with the tans to prove it. Here’s the full story on The Atlantic.