Old New York In Photos #77

Fourth Avenue & 23rd Street 1908 –  A Detailed Breakdown Of New Yorker’s Going About Their Business

A spectacular clear view of Fourth Avenue looking south towards 23rd Street from 1908 shows pedestrians going about their daily activities. Once again the source is the Detroit Publishing Co.

Above 14th Street up to 34th Street Fourth Avenue is now called Park Avenue South.

Before we examine our old picture, let’s take a modern look at approximately the same spot from Google maps.

Now forget our modern view and return to 1908.

When we zoom in on some of the details, there are some interesting things to take note of. You can click any photo to enlarge.

The People

Unless you were a construction worker, city worker or a young boy, almost every man wore a hat, jacket and usually a tie. Here almost all the men are wearing straw hats.

The man in the center holding a newspaper is smoking a cigarette. I’ve seen men smoking in old photos but usually not on the street. The subway kiosk on the northeast corner of 23rd street is an “exit only.”  There is a trash can right by the kiosk.

Looking at the southeast corner we can see another subway kiosk and lots of people crossing the street. The subway kiosks were removed many years ago and the subway entrances and exits relocated.

The shadows indicate that it is probably around noon. With the exception of a newspaper on the ground, there is hardly any litter on the streets or sidewalks. Civilized people disposed of their trash properly.

These two women with their ornate flowered hats are crossing the street, carefully. No matter how often the streets were cleaned there was horse manure and urine everywhere. By 1908 at least women’s skirts were no longer dragging on the ground. Over the years skirts had gradually risen to slightly above the ankles. The little boy in the background between the women looks like the poorest person in this prosperous district.

On the southeast corner a group of boys and young men have newspapers that they are getting ready to sell. The World; The Times; The Herald; The Evening Post; The Globe and Commercial Advertiser; The Tribune; The Morning Telegraph; The Sun; The Call; The Press; The American; The Evening Journal; in the highly competitive world of journalism there were over a dozen daily newspapers in English and many more in other languages.

Also on the southeast corner of 23rd Street, check out the man on the left, just hanging out on the corner waiting for somebody or something, watching the world pass by.

Looking south down Fourth Avenue, people crowd the streets on their way to their destinations. It must have been a hot day as the woman in white is using a parasol and the distinguished looking gentleman about to pass her has an umbrella indicating the threat of rain or it had rained recently. Directly behind the man with the umbrella is a message boy with a badge on his hat working for either Western Union or Postal Telegraph .

This young man making a delivery waits with his parcels in the middle of the street alongside the trolley tracks.

Another teen crosses the street deep in thought, while directly behind him an African American man goes about his work,

As always, there is a policeman on the beat keeping an eye on everything around him. As horse drawn vehicles of various types make their way north up Fourth Avenue their drivers have to be wary of all the pedestrians in the street.  Helping those drivers navigate is the traffic officer standing on the right with the top hat, badge and uniform. If you look carefully you’ll see he is holding a white flag in his right hand.

One other thing to note. Look at all the people in the isolated photographs. With the exception of a couple of women, almost everyone is slim.

The Surroundings

The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Building, was completed in 1893. The architectural firm of Renwick, Aspinwall  & Renwick designed the eight story structure to fill the complete needs of the charity.Six of the floors were for the exclusive use of the Society. But by 1920 the Society needed more space and sold the building to the American Linseed Company. The Society’s headquarters were moved around the corner to East 22nd Street between Lexington and Fourth Avenue.

In an ever-changing city where nothing is permanent, some architects expressed confidence that their buildings would last. If you look above street level, take a look at the corners of some old buildings. Occasionally you will see something similar to this, East 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue street indicators written into the building itself.

The building is extant today, but without the Society’s bronze emblem wrapping around the corner. If you pass the building today look up. The Fourth Avenue and 23rd Street indicators are still there.

Further up near the roof the relief sculptures of children that adorn the trimming near the top floors. Though the building has been modified, thankfully both the street indicator and relief sculptures remain.

Of course you could just glance up at the street sign attached to the light pole to find out where you were. Beneath the street sign, there is an additional hand painted traffic regulation sign  which says, “Slow moving vehicles keep near right hand curb. Rules for driving can be secured at all police stations.”

The Society rented its ground floor to one tenant, Kalish Pharmacy. Their sign was visible on their window facing Fourth Avenue. Their is a Kalish Pharmacy in New York now but it is in Ozone Park, Queens. They say they’ve been there for over 65 years. Morris Kalish who owned the pharmacy on 23rd Street filed for bankruptcy protection in 1941, long after he had moved the location of his store further uptown.

Next door to the Children’s Building was the New York location of the world famous E.B. Meyrowitz opticians at 104 East 23rd Street. Note the large eyeglass display sign. At the time the Meyrowitz firm had offices in London, New York and Paris.  Above Meyrowitz’s main floors are advertisements for Electro Medical Apparatus and Batteries along with Photo Supplies and Kodak Lenses that presumably Meyrowitz’s sold as well. 109 years later, the firm is still in business making eyeglasses.

MacFadden’s Physical Culture Restaurant was next door at 106 East 23rd. The enigmatic publisher Bernarr MacFadden started a chain of these which we would now call health food restaurants.

Above the restaurant on the second floor is Abbott’s Business School where one could learn English French or Spanish, stenography and typewriting. On the third floor is Ryan & McFerran building contractors.

In the next building at 108 East 23rd on the ground floor is a surgical supply distributor. And on the second floor D. Dinan manufacturer of picture frames and gilder. Though I can’t be certain, the man leaning on his arm looking out the window is probably proprietor Dennis Dinan. Today a frame attributed to Dinan can be worth up to five figures.

The buildings at 104, 106 and 108 East 23rd Street were later demolished and replaced by a large apartment building.

Showing that advertising signs were not necessarily all that original, Toric Optical at 110 East 23rd Street has the exact same giant spectacles protruding from their building as Meyrowitz opticians. Toric is another company still in business in 2017, with high end custom eyewear.

When Theodore Roosevelt was shot by a would be assassin in 1912, the bullet first passed through Roosevelt’s folded speech, then his Toric manufactured spectacle case, before lodging in his chest. The injury  to Roosevelt was greatly reduced by these obstructions and probably saved his life.

On the next floor there is another man standing by the open window of Chas. Fried “Eyes Examined.”

Above that is the Allison Co. a physicians furniture supplier.

Final Thoughts

I’m sure I’m looking at this snapshot of time through rose-colored glasses when I say it seems like most people in the early 20th century had a firm grip on their purpose in life and believed in a positive future with an eye on bettering one self.

Yes, there was the overcrowding of tenements, along with poverty and hunger. But there was also a sense that in America it was possible for anyone to achieve success and improve your situation.

New York Times editor Henry Seidel Canby called the 1890s “The Age of Confidence.” That confidence carried over to the new century and lasted until the outbreak of World War I. This photograph captured a present urgency of the time. People very determined to get where they are going with an awareness of their surroundings. Whatever distractions existed, they were not like today when people are completely oblivious to what is happening around them, especially when crossing the street while on the phone or texting.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could be transported back in time, right into the scene shown here and spend one day in 1908? We can’t do that, but we could look deeper into our photo, peering at these people now all long dead and hopefully discover something about ourselves.

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14 thoughts on “Old New York In Photos #77

  1. Manuela

    PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE do more of these. I can’t tell you how much I loved this post. I’d happily walk straight into that picture and spend a day in 1908.

    Reply
  2. Kevin

    You should do an entire book like this — I’d buy it! Sometimes I think I’d give up a year of my life to spend a day in the past.

    By the way, the conspiracy-minded folks out there would look at the second enlarged photo and swear that the guy second from the left is talking on a 1908 cell phone.

    Reply
    1. B.P. Post author

      “the conspiracy-minded folks out there would look at the second enlarged photo and swear that the guy second from the left is talking on a 1908 cell phone.”

      because he’s a time traveler…
      and the earth is flat, the Loch Ness monster is real, we never landed on the moon, and Elvis is alive.

      Reply
  3. Rick

    I also enjoyed you travel down memory lane, but a society that required expansion from 6 floors to larger quarters for the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children can not have been that great of a place to live.

    Reply
    1. B.P. Post author

      Thanks.

      For a charitable institution it was miles above what we conceive of as homeless or temporary housing. The description of the details makes the building a huge improvement from whatever horrible situation these children were escaping.

      Many of the floors of the original building were for other uses than housing children.

      Besides the commercial stores occupying the ground floor, the main floor was for receiving children and where the children would be cleaned in porcelain baths and given new clothes.

      The second floor held the office of President Elbridge T. Gerry, the offices of the Board of Directors, other executive offices and the records of the society. The third floor contained the apartment for the superintendent and his family. The fourth floor had a playroom gym, dining room and reception room. The fifth floor was the girls dormitory and the sixth was the boys dormitory with an infirmary. The seventh floor was where the kitchen and laundry was located in addition to rooms for the servants employed in the building.

      The eighth floor was a roof garden used a playground. The roof could be opened or closed depending upon the weather.

      With all this activity not housing children and the number of people required to run the charity, I can see why they needed more space.

      Reply
  4. Bob

    As you know, Dover published several years ago a picture book about Fifth Avenue in 1911 with shots of every block from Washington Square to (I believe) Carnegie’s mansion in the nineties. Has this been done for any other New York thoroughfare back around that time? Could it be done? Is it feasible? I personally have no knowledge of or feeling for the depth and availability of photographic resources from those times. You probably do. The Fifth Avenue book was to my knowledge simply a republication of a set of single source photos that had originally been published as a book long before. Would it be possible to approximate that kind of thing for other New York locations? Thanks for this posting and looking forward to more!

    Reply
    1. B.P. Post author

      Thanks for your comment and questions.

      Has it been done before? The answer is yes. Three books were published in between 1899 and 1911 besides 5th Ave Start to Finish.

      A Pictorial Description of Broadway was put out in 1899 by the Mail & Express. It has colored chromo illustrations of Broadway identifying the buildings. Copies offered for sale are overpriced, in the five figure range.

      The most famous book of this period is Both Sides of Broadway by R.M. DeLeeuw, 1910. An amazing book that was intended to be followed by similar views of other New York thoroughfares, but was never executed.

      The final comparable book is Both Sides of Fifth Avenue by JFL Collins. It has some photographs, but it is in a small format and is not as complete as Fifth Avenue from Start to Finish by Welles and Co., 1911 which was republished as you noted in a small format by Dover in the 90s.

      Was it ever done again? Yes, but not in book form. The New York Tax Department took photographs of every building and street in New York City – twice! Between 1939 and 1941 and again in the 1980s. To assemble those photos as a book would be interesting, but probably not commercially viable.

      Also Matthew Buckingham did an homage to Both Sides of Broadway with his One Side Of Broadway in 2005.

      Could someone produce a contemporary or a collection of vintage photographs now and is it feasible?

      Possibly. I know of a private collector who for years has had a book that is ready to be published on Lexington Avenue in 1910. I tried to help it see the light of day. No major publishing house will consider it and it is not an option to self-publish. How many people would buy it vs. what are the production costs.

      I’d buy it.

      Reply
      1. Bob

        Thanks very much indeed for those titles. I found the two “Both Sides” books on IADb and the Mail & Express book on the NYPL site. As for your friend’s Lexington Avenue manuscript, it’s hard to believe Dover wouldn’t publish it, unless they’ve had a recent and severe change of management. As for the Tax Department archives, I’m sure you’re right, book form would be excluded. But there just might be funding somewhere for an experienced web editor to assemble them (or some of them) in a good website, street by street. The City itself couldn’t do it for financial reasons. Are you aware of any similar projects abroad and, if so, how they’ve been funded?

        Reply
  5. Pat S.

    What can you tell us about the “traffic officer” with the hat and flag?

    I’m a student of the history of policing in NYC and have never seen this type of individual before. He is not from the PDNYC’s “Traffic Squad” as they were all full-time, regular police officers, like the officer in the photo.

    Could he be from a private neighborhood/business-sponsored organization akin to the guys who clean-up trash in different neighborhoods in NYC today? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. B.P. Post author

      My best guess is that he is a flagman / traffic officer employed by the Metropolitan Street Railway, the company that ran the trolley lines along the Fourth Avenue route and 23rd Street route. A busy intersection like that would probably need someone in addition to a policeman to keep traffic flowing safely. If anyone else has more information or a better suggestion, please share.

      Reply

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