Fourth Avenue & 23rd Street 1908 – A Detailed Breakdown Of New Yorker’s Going About Their Business
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.
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 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.
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 major daily newspapers in English and many more in other languages.
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 that 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.
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 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 many architectural flourishes besides 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. There is a Kalish Pharmacy in New York City 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 eateries 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. On the second floor is 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 smashed through 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.
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.