Tag Archives: Macy’s

The real ‘Miracle On 34th Street’: 21 great historical details from New York City’s most famous Christmas movie



The Bowery Boys Obsessive Guides look very, very closely at a classic movie filmed in New York City, finding buried history, additional context and a few secrets within various scenes and plot points. Filled with film spoilers so read this after you’ve seen the movie — or use it to follow along as you watch it!  Check out my previous guides for Midnight CowboyGhostbusters and The Muppets Take Manhattan.

“Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind… and that’s what’s been changing. That’s why I’m glad I’m here, maybe I can do something about it.” 

— Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwynn)

Miracle on 34th Street is the most famous New York City Christmas movie ever made, a celebration of post-war prosperity that happily substitutes Herald Square for the North Pole.

The movie is a complete inventory of the commercial Christmas experience. It treats the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade like a starting gate — Thanksgiving? What’s that? — and, like many Americans, spends much of its entire running time in department stores.

The central question posed by this 1947 classic is whether Macy’s newly hired Santa Claus (played by Edmund Gwenn) is actually the Santa Claus or just some crazy person. At stake is not only the entire world’s celebration of Christmas, but the heart of young Susan (played by Natalie Wood) who never believed in Santa, thanks to her mother Doris (Maureen O’Hara).

Manhattan is perpetually bustling, from the Upper West Side down to Foley Square. Despite its reputation as a saccharine sweet take on the materialistic component of the holiday, the film is really quite cynical, even dark, at times.  Throwing an old man into the Bellevue Hospital psychiatric ward in the 1940s is hardly what I call a warm and fuzzy image.

I recently dug deep into the film and found a great many fascinating details, many involving people and places that lived in New York City at that time.  Here’s my obsessive guide to what normally stuffy critic Bosley Crowther originally called “the freshest little picture in a long time and maybe even the best comedy of the year.”

1) Arranging Reindeer  The film opens with Kris Kringle walking south down Madison Avenue. Get it? He’s Santa. He’s from the north! Along the way he passes several long-vanished New York businesses — Rosenberg & Grief furrier, Janice Carol salon, Liszt jeweler (or possibly pawn shop?)

He stops to chastise a store clerk on 19 East 61st Street about the placement of reindeer in the shop windows. That shop belonged to the interior designer Lillian Schary Waldman, often employed by high society and responsible for the homes of a few celebrities including Danny Kaye.  

By the way, you’ll notice there’s no Rudolph in the Christmas display.  The red nosed reindeer was created in 1939, within a coloring book produced by Montgomery Ward (at right), but not popularly considered part of Santa’s team until the 1964 Rankin-Bass animated special. (EDIT: Thanks to the commenter for reminding me of Rudolph’s real coming out –the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” recorded by Gene Autry and Bing Crosby in successive years.)

2) Old Newsprint  The film occasionally uses the technique of turning newspaper pages as a way of setting the scene.  Notice the first time this is used, before the parade.  The prop designer constructed a phony newspaper but used real news articles from the New York Times.  Here’s the catch — most of the stories are well over a decade old! Some examples:  “NEW FRENCH CABINET UPHELD BY DEPUTIES” – Dec 23, 1932, “OUR SPEED PRAISED IN CHILD LABOR BAN” – July 20, 1933, and “EARTHS FORCES LAID TO COSMIC IMPULSE” – July 24, 1933

The curious Deitrich Knickerbocker balloon from the 1936 parade. (Courtesy Smithsonian)

3) The Real Parade  Santa Claus has appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade since the very first parade in 1924. One detail that did not quite make it into the modern era — knights in shining armor.  Santa arrived in Herald Square “in state. The float upon which he rode was in the form of a sled driven by reindeer over a mountain of ice.  Preceding him were men dressed like the knights of old, their spears shining in the sunlight.” [source]

The scenes of the Thanksgiving Day parade in Miracle are real, taken from the 1946 parade.  This mixing of live events and fictional set pieces (filmed in Hollywood) was rather unusual for the day.  “Scenes shot in actual New York settings add credibility to the film,” said Crowther.  Gwenn was even the parade’s real Santa!  “A somewhat frostbitten Santa Claus, in the person of Edmund Gwenn, the actor, gingerly climbed off his high perch and unveiled Macy’s mechanical windows….” [source]

4) Bad Santas  “These pants are gonna fall off in the midst of Columbus Circle,” said the unfortunately inebriated Santa, who is relieved of his duties and replaced by Gwenn’s Santa.  Several decades before Santacon, newspapers would occasionally make note of a Santa who would come to work “with liquor on his breath.”  It seems there were all sorts of lecherous Santas! In 1948, the year after Miracle, the New York Times Magazine notes a Santa who “grabbed a trim young mother, set her on his knee and suggested that they both go out and have a drink.”

5) Behind The Beard  Edmund Gwenn, the film’s jovial Kris Kringle, went on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. (Unfortunately, he beat Richard Widmark‘s work in the film Kiss of Death, widely considered to be one of the greatest film noir performances.)

Although he had made dozens of films, the British actor was known for his work on the stage.  In fact, right before starting work on Miracle, he gave what would be his last performance on the New York stage — the play You Touched Me with upcoming young star Montgomery Clift.

At right: Clift and Gwenn from their Broadway production of You Touched Me (Courtesy WalterFilm)

6) D-I-V-O-R-C-E  Miracle is unique in that its heroine is a divorced woman, but she’s badly treated by the film’s screenplay.  Note the look of shock on the face of Fred Galley (John Payne) when little Susan casually mentions that her mother and father are divorced.

After World War II, divorce rates skyrocketed in America as servicemen returned from war to changed domestic situations. Divorces were only “fault-based” at the time; “typical grounds were adultery, desertion, habitual drunkenness, conviction of a felony, impotence … and, most used by divorcing parties, ‘cruel and inhuman treatment’.” [source]

The film makes some unsubtle commentary — Doris (which even sounds like divorce) is depicted as a cold, cynical woman, lacking little joy. I mean, she’s the director of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and she doesn’t even bother to stay and watch it?

7) Locker Room Talk  We’re granted many scenes of Macy’s work spaces that customers don’t get to see, such as the locker room, where Kringle meets Alfred, the sometimes store Santa “with extra padding” and a thick Brooklyn accent — “just troo ’em on the floor!”

Macy’s was actually once renown for its locker room! From a report in 1913:  “At Macy’s there are vast locker rooms containing expanded individual metal lockers for the majority of the employees and some smaller ones for certain groups.  Never are two required to use one locker, except during Christmas rush. This is an exceedingly liberal policy, considering the size of the establishment, and a most desirable one.”

8) Toy Stores  We get to the crux of the tale when Kringle, now hired as Macy’s Santa, begins sending customers to other department stores in the city.  Most notably he sends a thankful mother (played by Thelma Ritter, in her debut film role) to Macy’s big rival Gimbels and another to a toy store called Schoenfeld’s, in Yorkville, at 1254 Lexington Avenue.

Here’s an ad for a toy submarine that was sold at Schoenfeld’s in 1927.

9) Cutthroat Business  Macy’s and Gimbel’s were the two biggest department stores in Herald Square and one of New York’s best known rivalries. “Would Macy’s tell Gimbels?” was a popular expression of the time, expressing the fierce secrecy in sales and marketing practices.  In Miracle, after Macy’s embraces Kringle’s policy of recommending items for sale at other stores, Gimbals tries to one-up their rival by adhering to the same policy and spread it to their stores across the country.

According to Gimbels lore, the company chairman Bernard Gimbel was asked to take the role of Kringle in Miracle. (I personally find this very hard to believe.)  Such a request would not have been made of Macy’s founder Rowland Hussey Macy as he had died almost 70 years before.

Below: Gimbels Department Store in Harold Square, taken in 1915, from the vantage of the Marbridge Building (Photo by the Wurts Brothers, courtesy Museum of City of New York)

10) Home Away From Home  When not at the North Pole, Kris Kringle resides at Brooks Memorial Home for the Aged at 126 Maplewood Dr, Great Neck, Long Island.  That’s a real address although you won’t find the grand exterior that was used in the film. Why would they put Kringle in a nursing home in Great Neck?  Perhaps it was a literary illusion to another great New York City fictional tale — Great Neck is called West Egg in The Great Gatsby, written only twenty-two years previous.

11) Santa Gets It Wrong Kringle is taken in for a psychological evaluation to prove his competence.  He’s fully prepared, of course, seeing as he’s frequently accused of being crazy.

He rattles off a list of questions that might be thrown his direction during the mental examination.  The trickiest?  “Who was the vice president under John Quincy Adams? Daniel D Tompkins. And I’ll bet your Mr Sawyer doesn’t know that!”

Tompkins was a great many things in his day.  Today he’s the namesake of Tompkins Square Park and Tompkinsville, Staten Island. But one thing he was not — he was never vice president under John Quincy Adams.  That was John C. Calhoun. Tompkins served under President James Monroe.

So what accounts for this obvious error? Is it a true gaffe or an insight into Kringle’s character? Maybe he was crazy! Or just in need of an encyclopedia.

By the way, the psychiatrist Sawyer is taking his examination cues from a 1946 book called Mastering Your Nerves: How To Relax Through Action.

12) Working Delusion  The handsome Doctor Pierce from the Brooks Memorial Home is sure the old man is suffering from a deeply held delusion.  But so what?

“Why there are thousands of people walking around with similar delusions, living perfectly normal lives in every other respect. A famous example is that fellow — I cant think of his name — but for years he’s insisted he’s a Russian prince. He owns a famous restaurant in Hollywood and is a highly respected citizen.”

Pierce is referencing an actual person named Michael Romanoff (at right), a noted ‘professional imposter’, who once walked the streets of New York City claiming he was Prince Michael Dimitri Alexandrovich Obolensky-Romanoff, nephew of Tsar Nicholas II.

In 1941 he opened the restaurant Romanoff’s in Los Angeles on North Rodeo Drive, enjoying newly found success in a town noted for its impostors.  The famous photograph of Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield is taken at Romanoff’s.

13) Martini Time! In a delightfully throw-away scene, Shellhammer, the head of Macy’s toy department, tries to convince his wife to let Kringle stay at their home.  In order to get her to agree, he gets her wasted on martinis.  “We always have martinis before dinner.  I’ll make them double-strength tonight.”

We have Prohibition to thank for martini hour in many American homes.  Driving alcohol consumption into private dwellings, the cocktail hour was firmly entrenched by the 1930s.  It was properly solidified by the world’s most famous martini drinker after James Bond — Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “Before dinner we usually had martini cocktails made by the President’s own hands,” said one cabinet member.  Many remembered that Roosevelt made very, very bad martinis, preferring to enhance them with a few drops of absinthe.

At right: A festive Gimbels ad which ran in the New York Times in 1946

14) Advertising Blitz Macy’s fully embraces the altruistic policy of directing shoppers to other stores if they are looking for an item that is not stocked. In a montage, we get to see some of the other department stores benefiting from Macy’s new rules — Bloomingdales, Hearn’s, Gimbels, Stern’s and McCreery’s. 

These stores were situated very close to one another during the 1940s and had followed each other up the island of Manhattan, beginning their existence in lower Manhattan, then moving to Ladies Mile in the late 19th century, then to Midtown by the new century.  For instance, Hearn’s went from Broadway and 8th Street, then to 14th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue (very near Macy’s old home).

McCreery’s made its Ladies Mile home at Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street.  Today it’s occupied by another building with a Best Buy on the bottom floor.  It later moved to 34th Street and Fifth Avenue.

For more information about the department store scene, check out our podcast on Ladies Mile.

15) Vintage Lunch  We see Alfred and Kris Kringle in another space for Macy’s employee’s — the cafeteria.  This was obviously filmed on location as evidenced by this picture of the cafeteria from 1948 (photo by Nina Leen):

16) The Nut House  Kris Kringle purposefully fails a mental exam — heartbroken by what he believes is a betrayal by Doris — and gets thrown into Bellevue Hospital for a few days. Kringle is seen in a relatively safe environment although the hospital’s reputation was less than rosy during this period. This is the era of shock therapy and other controversial treatments. In one experiment at Bellevue from the mid-1940s, almost one hundred children with diagnosed schizophrenia were given shock treatments six days a week.

 Bellevue was also famous during this period for its alcohol rehabilitation center.  In 1945, the film The Lost Weekend detailed one alcoholic’s “staggering ugly treatment” here.

17) Kooky Headlines In another swirl of headlines, we’re alerted to Kringle’s upcoming court trial to determine his true status.  Among the many headlines we see is one that makes a total assault upon the English language — KRIS KRINGLE KRAZY? KOURT KASE KOMNG “KALAMITY” KRY KIDDIES

This is a gag directed squarely at Daily Variety, who specialized in absurdist headlines as early as the 1930s.  In 1935 they went with the mind-boggling STICKS NIX HICK PIX, a headline later made famous in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy.

18) Historical Spot  The climax of the film arrives at a peculiar place — Foley Square and the New York County Courthouse, one of the pillars of this civic district. The building was a little over 20 years old at the time of this film, and it looks pretty much the same as it does today.  Along the top of the structure you can make out a carving of a 1789 quotation by George Washington — “The True Administration of Justice is the Firmest Pillar of Good Government.”

This building sets near the infamous intersection of Five Points and almost exactly on the spot were old Collect Pond once sat!

Below: New York County Courthouse, where Kringle’s fate is decided. (Photo from 1927, Wurts Brothers, courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

19) Kids Court  In an effort to prove the existence of Santa Claus, the son of the prosecutor is called to the stand.  His name is Tom Marrah (you know, because he’s the future — tomorrow) and he is questioned about his beliefs on Old Saint Nick. “He gave me a brand-new flexible flyer sled last year,” he proclaims, then proceeds to point out Kringle from the stand.

The scene is an amusing twist on the great tale of “Yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus,” the famous confirmation of Santa’s existence that was published in the New York Sun fifty years earlier. The Virginia in question was also the child of a city employee — the coroner’s assistant — whose letter was answered by Sun editor Francis Pharcellus Church.  In the case of Miracle, it is a more assured child that confirms his identity.  Judge Henry X Harper — a Democrat, we learn — affirms Kringle’s existence to curry favor from the electorate.

20) Dear Santa  The final proof arrives, deus ex machina style, in the form of thousands of letters, re-routed from New York’s mail processing center to Foley Square.  Kringle’s lawyer Galley then proceeds to regale the hall with a brief history of the U.S. post office.  Galley informs the judge that the mail service was created in 1776 — technically it was 1775 — by the Second Continental Congress. Benjamin Franklin was indeed the first postmaster general.

So how many letters does Santa really get a year? In 2013 — even in the era of emails —  there were over one million letters from American children alone. [source]  Back in 1940, the postmaster’s office was inundated with correspondence. Letters address to Santa were “opened and read so that ‘the real worthy ones’  can be set aside from those which were childish requests.” Because how dare a child ask Santa a childish request.

The film may have played a hand into an increase of Dear Santa letters in 1947 — “up 25% over 1946,” according to reports.

From the 1940s article:

21) Christmas In June Miracle on 34th Street may be set during Christmastime, but it was originally released in the late spring, June 2, 1947. The film made its New York debut at the Roxy Theatre in a program that also featured comedian Jerry Lester, singer Art Lund, a puppet show and “the Gae Foster Roxyettes,” which replaced the original Roxyettes after they moved to Radio City Music Hall.

As part of the promotion for the film, Macy’s sent an undercover shopper into Gimbel’s to report for Macy’s-owned radio station WOR.  It’s doubtful that either department store took Santa’s advice and recommended visiting their competitor.

Wacky, windy and weird: 1964 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade


Linus the Lion-Hearted at the 1964 Macy’s Parade

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade of 1963 had been a downer of a parade.

President John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated a few days before but, deciding that cancelling the event would be “a disappointment to millions of children,” the parade went on as planned.  Leading the parade that year was a 38-foot rubber Unisphere to promote the upcoming World’s Fair. Further back in the line was young television star Michael Landon.

Flash forward to the following year — the World’s Fair out at Flushing-Meadows had celebrated a rocky first year. Landon’s Bonanza was about to become the most popular show on television, a distinction it would hold throughout the mid-1960s. New York City was, generally speaking, in a cautiously more festive mood.

Not that the specter of the previous year’s tragedy was far from people’s minds. “Americans plan to savor the traditional cheer of Thanksgiving today in an atmosphere that contrasts with the numbing experience of last year,” said the New York Times. [source]

Below: Macy’s in 1964 (courtesy The Paper Collector)

For their part, Macy’s was trying to whip New Yorkers back up into a holiday shopping frenzy. Among the hottest items advertised by the department store during Thanksgiving week were Hitachi record players, Consolette hair dryers and mink coats for $99.99.

The 1964 Thanksgiving Day parade (November 27) held a certain campier flair than normal, loaded with family-friendly cheerfulness slightly more heightened than normal, with a few assorted mishaps and lots of goofiness mixed in. Why? For the same reason the 1964 is among the most memorable in parade history — television:

First in Color:  NBC has been broadcasting the parade since 1952.  By 1964 coverage had expanded to 90 minutes — in 2014, it’s three hours — and now, for the first time ever, it would be broadcast in color. Several NBC shows had gone to a color broadcast previously, but Americans didn’t yet have affordable color sets at home. But by 1964 sets were finally being mass produced and sold as luxury items in department stores.

There were a little over one million color televisions in American homes with the potential to tune in to a color broadcast in 1964. Ten years later, that number would rise to almost 45 million.

The Official Debut of Lip-Syncing:  But some lamented the attention to the television audience. At one point, the parade was held up for eight minutes while waiting for a television signal.  “Near Herald Square television took over the parade …. and some of the spontaneity went out of it.”  [source]

Performances were pantomimed while songs were pumped in for the television audience. The Times notes that cameras zoomed in on “performers who were only feigning a performance.” Today, of course, this is a regular feature of the parade and almost none of the performances (outside of the marching bands) feature live singing.

At right: The hosts at the 1968 parade

Lorne and Betty:  The hosts of NBC’s 1964 broadcast were Lorne Greene — Landon’s Bonanza co-star — and the effervescent Betty White, celebrated star of a 1950s show called Life With Elizabeth.  Greene was perhaps one of NBC’s hottest actors at the time, while White was busy as a television spokeswoman. She was also a regular host of the Tournament of Roses parade.  Almost every role you’ve ever loved Betty White in lay far in the future for her at this time.

First Men In the Moon: Being a special televised event meant more promotion of film and television properties.  Among the most unusual was the space-themed float promoting the new film First Men In The Moon, a British sci-fi romp featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen.

The float did its best to simulate Harryhausen’s unique creations — ‘Moon Cows’, gigantic bugs who poked their heads out of craters upon a floating moonscape. Lorne Greene is reported to have said, “Wow look at those big grasshoppers!” [source]

The Sound of Puppets:  A few stars of the upcoming film The Sound of Music would appear in the parade. No, not Julie Andrews, bur rather the colorful marionettes of Bil Baird, featured in the ‘goatherd’ scene of the film.  I’m not sure how they were presented, and I assume most of the spectators were unable to see them perform.

The Fate of Dino the Dinosaur:  A great danger threatened the 1964 parade — horrible winds. Fortunately no spectators were injured by the gusts, some up to 21 miles an hour.

The balloons did not emerge unscathed.  Dino the Dinosaur (not to be confused with Dino, the dog from the Flintstones) would grow to become a favorite site in the 1960s and 70s. (He’s pictured at right, from the 1963 parade.)

But at the 1964 parade, a sudden gust blew the dinosaur into a lamppost at Columbus Circle, tearing a hole in its side.  Its handlers along the avenue continued to pull the beast down the street, but by the time they got to Macy’s, the dinosaur was partially deflated and dragging the ground.

Popeye The Limp Sailor: Dino wasn’t the only balloon with performance mishaps. The impressively sized Popeye balloon failed to properly inflate the night before; or as the papers note, “there was not enough spinach in the pumps, and Popeye wouldn’t expand at all.”

He was unceremoniously replaced in the parade by a dragon balloon that Macy’s just had lying around.

Donald Duck (pictured below from 1964) had fewer troubles that year.

Linus the Lion-Hearted: Pictured at top, this balloon with excellent posture debuted at the 1964 parade. It was based upon a Crispy Critters breakfast cereal spokesman who had his own television show which debuted just a couple months earlier.  However, when the FCC determined in 1969 that advertising mascots could not also have children’s show, Linus was abruptly cancelled. He would still make frequent appearances in the parade until 1991.

The Soupiest Star: New to NBC, New York City and to the parade itself was children’s comedian Soupy Sales (pictured at left), whose daily show Lunch with Soupy was a local hit that year. He was probably one of the biggest hits in the parade, riding atop a rocking horse, as his trademark beaming grin was as noticeable as the floats themselves.

The Drunk Munster: And then there was Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis, the stars of NBC’s monster comedy The Munsters.

From a prior article — because this incident has fascinated me for years — “[The] stars of The Munsters, appeared in the 1964 parade in their ghoulish costumes, riding along in their ‘Munster Koach’ car. Neither star was very amused. Gwynne was high on ‘nerve medicine‘ and began cursing at the crowd.”

According to their makeup man (pictured below, in the front seat): “I was in the Koach handling the loudspeaker and radio system that was playing the Munsters song.  Fred had brought along a bottle with him, wrapped in a paper bag, and he got fractured [drunk]. And Al was mad at him. Fred was cussin’ at people. I just kept the music up so nobody could hear him.” [source]

Passing the hosts Greene and White in the media box, Herman Munster fired off a rude expletive in their direction as well

Here are some video highlights from the parade, with the Munsters stars prominently featured:

“Peacock NBC presentation in RCA color” Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of NBC via Wikipedia – 

History in the Making 11/24: Big Thanksgiving Rodents Edition

[Mickey Mouse balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.]

Mickey Mouse at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 1980 (courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

The Christmas Trash Strike of 1981 My new story for A24 Films and A Most Violent Year is up — a look at the strike by the New York sanitation department which kept New Yorkers in feet of garbage. And just in time for the holidays! [NYC 1981]

Thanks Untapped Cities!  They’ve named the Bowery Boys podcast one of the top ten best produced podcasts in New York City. And we’re in some very good company. [Untapped Cities]

Cass Gilbert, the architect of the Woolworth Building, was born 155 years ago today.  Before the Woolworth, he designed three other beautiful structures for the city, and all of them — including the Alexander Hamilton Custom House — are within a short walking distance from his most famous building. [Bowery Boys]

Bright Idea: Did you know New York city had 62 lampposts that have been given official landmark status? [Off the Grid]

Killer ‘Serial’: The true-crime mystery podcast Serial is almost single-handedly changing the way people thing of podcast. If you’re a fan of podcast, you’ll find this article from the Wall Street Journal especially fascinating. [Wall Street Journal]

Save the Edison: The mission to save the Cafe Edison in the old Hotel Edison is underfoot, including weekend lunch mobs and celebrity appearances (well, fake celebrities). [Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York]

Meet Me for Afternoon Tea:  Another midtown classic, the Russian Tea Room, is still going strong and still worth a visit. [Gothamist]

#bikenyc:  Where should New York put its next protected bike lanes? [Streetsblog]

And sadly DeRobertis Pasticceria & Caffe, the Italian bakery which has fed cannoli to New Yorkers since 1904, is closing its door. [Gothamist]

 

The sumptuous story of Ladies’ Mile: Traces of cast-iron grandeur, the architectural delights of the Gilded Age


The opening of Siegel-Cooper department store, 1896, created one of the great mob scenes of the Gilded Age.  Today, TJ Maxx and Bed Bath and Beyond occupy this once-great commercial palace.  

PODCAST  Ladies’ Mile — the most famous New York shopping district in the 19th century and the “heart of the Gilded Age,” a district of spectacular commercial palaces of cast-iron. They are some of the city’s greatest buildings, designed by premier architects.

Unlike so many stories about New York City, this is a tale of survival, how behemoths of retail went out of business, but their structures remained to house new stores. This is truly a rare tale of history, where so many of the buildings in question are still around, still active in the purpose in which they were built.

We start this story near City Hall, with the original retail mecca of A.T. Stewart — the Marble Palace and later his cast-iron masterpiece in Astor Place. Stewart set a standard that many held dear, even as his competitors traveled uptown to the blocks between Union Square and Madison Square.

 Join us on this glamorous journey through the city’s retail history, including a walking tour circa 1890 (with some role play involved!) of some of the district’s best known buildings.

PLUS: Why is Chelsea’s Bed Bath and Beyond so particularly special in this episode? You’ll never buy towels there the same way again!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #1645 Ladies’ Mile

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America’s first department store — A.T. Stewart’s Marble Palace, near City Hall. The building is actually still there today! The address is 280 Broadway. (Courtesy NYPL)

Stewart’s even more celebrated department store at Astor Place, nicknamed the Iron Palace with its cast-iron construction. Unlike Stewart’s first store, this one is no longer there. (NYPL)

1903: Ladies on a freezing day, surrounding the 23rd Street entrance to the Sixth Avenue Elevated Railroad, placing them just a few blocks from the biggest department stores in the world. (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

 6th Ave & 23rd St.

 The entrance to Stein Brothers on 23rd Street. There’s a Home Depot in this building today, but you can still see the SB insignia over the door. And below, the street scene in 1908.(Photo: Edmond V Gillon, MCNY)

[32-46 West 23rd Street.]
[West 23rd Street from 6th Avenue East.]

Adams Dry Goods, decades after the shop at closed. In later years, it was a Hershey’s plants and a military storage space. Today, on the ground floor, there’s a Trader Joe’s grocery store. (Photo: Edmond V Gillon, MCNY)

  [675 Sixth Avenue.]

1901: Women in front of the Church of the Holy Communion, the elevated train in back of them. (MCNY)

Street Scenes, Sixth Avenue at 20th Street.

The windows at Simpson Crawford Co. at Sixth Avenue and 20th Street, 1904. (MCNY)

Simpson Crawford Co. 

The Siegel-Cooper department store fountain, with a statue of Republic (by Daniel Chester French) and electric lights in a kaleidoscope of colors. And, below it, another view of Siegel Cooper from the opposite side of the tracks. (MCNY)

  Siegel Cooper

Retail Trade - Dept. Store 1896. Siegel Cooper Co. (Exterior) 6th Ave at 18th St.

Ladies in the Siegel Cooper canned goods department. The store canned its own food. Very organic! (MCNY)

  Retail Trade Dept. Store.

An overhead shot of Macy’s at 14th Street and the Sixth Avenue elevated railroad station. (MCNY)

[6th Avenue and 14th Street.]

Lord & Taylor’s, at Broadway and 20th Street, 1904. (Wurts Brothers, MCNY)
Broadway and East 20th Street. Lord and Taylor, old building.

Inside WJ Sloane, Carpets Rugs and Furniture, at Broadway and 19th Street (MCNY)

W.J. Sloane, Carpets Rug & Furniture, 19th St. & Broadway.

The Flatiron Building, completed in 1902, is considered part of the Ladies Mile Historic District, even though it was never a department store.

A whirlwind tour of Herald Square: More than just Macy’s, the intersection of publishing, theater and debauchery

Herald Square at night, 1910, with the flurry of shoppers, the churn of printing presses, the clanking and soot exhaust of the elevated train, the rush of the streetcar. The theaters, the drinking, the dancing. (Courtesy the blog Ajax All Purpose Blog)

PODCAST Welcome to the secret history of Herald Square, New York City’s second favorite intersection — after Times Square, of course, just a few blocks north. But we think you may find this intersection at 34th Street, Sixth Avenue and Broadway perhaps even more interesting.

This is a tale of the Tenderloin, an entertainment and vice district which dominated the west side of midtown Manhattan in the late 19th century, and how it abutted the great cultural institutions that soon became attracted to Herald Square, from cheap aquariums to New York’s greatest opera house.

By the 1890s, newspapers arrived to the area, including the one that gives Herald Square its name. A remnant of the New York Herald Building still sits in Herald Square and is the cause of some serious conspiracy. (Especially if you’re afraid of owls!) But the Herald wasn’t the only publication that got its start here; in fact, one of America’s most famous magazines began in a curious office-slash-bachelor apartment facility just close by.

The department stores came at the start of the 20th century, and we bring you the tales of Macy’s, Saks and Gimbels, not to mention their later incarnations, the Herald Center and the Manhattan Mall.

ALSO: Where on 32nd Street were crazy parties featuring a who’s who of New York’s greatest freak show performers? Where did a silent fim stunt man meet his end? And where in New York can you get the best in Korean pop music?

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to straight from here:
The Bowery Boys: Herald Square
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The bawdy Haymarket dance hall, at 30th Street and Sixth Avenue, in a magnificent painting by John Sloan (1907) that conjures up the glamour and winks at its secret pleasures. Several of Sloan’s works depict places located in the Tenderloin, a wide area of entertainment and vice west of Broadway. The original painting hangs in the Brooklyn Museum.

The Great New York Aquarium of W.C. Coup, bringing sea creatures to the corner of Broadway and 35th Street. (NYPL)

The character of Broadway between the intersections of 34th Street and 42nd Street (before they were known as Herald Square and Times Square, respectively) was changed forever with the construction of the Metropolitan Opera House, a vanity project for New York’s new wealthy class. It was all for show; there were plenty of loges for the rich, but so little backstage room that set pieces were stored on the street. (NYPL)

The front of the New York Herald building, with its ornate clock face and Minerva statue. Please note the owls on the corners. (NYPL)

The two most dominant structures in Herald Square in the 1890s — the Sixth Avenue Elevated and Stanford White’s Herald building. “Running presses seen from street.” (NYPL)

The Elevated and the Herald Building from another angle in 1936, with the new addition of Macy’s — and the little building which prevented Macy’s from taking up the entire block! Today, that’s still a Sunglass Hut. You can also see that the back of the Herald offices has already been demolished and replaced with an office building. The front would survive a bit longer and then too would be destroyed. (NYPL)

A view of Greeley Square, with the elevated to the right. This building is the Union Dime Saving Bank. The counting offices of the New York World were on the ground floor, however I’m not certain if they are there in the year this picture was taken (1899).

 Now here’s a mystery for you — this is Greeley Square, named for the statue of Horace Greeley which was definitely installed in 1894. Hmm, but where is it?

The Hotel McAlpin, at the southeast corner of 34th Street, the largest hotel in the world when it was built in 1912! Happy 100th anniversary to this accommodation, pivotal in New York City history.

Herald Square in an early (1896!) clip from Edison.

And an image for the holidays, from the 1940s! Courtesy Life Magazine

A whirlwind tour of Herald Square: More than just Macy’s, the intersection of publishing, theater and debauchery

Herald Square at night, 1910, with the flurry of shoppers, the churn of printing presses, the clanking and soot exhaust of the elevated train, the rush of the streetcar. The theaters, the drinking, the dancing. (Courtesy the blog Ajax All Purpose Blog)

PODCAST Welcome to the secret history of Herald Square, New York City’s second favorite intersection — after Times Square, of course, just a few blocks north. But we think you may find this intersection at 34th Street, Sixth Avenue and Broadway perhaps even more interesting.

This is a tale of the Tenderloin, an entertainment and vice district which dominated the west side of midtown Manhattan in the late 19th century, and how it abutted the great cultural institutions that soon became attracted to Herald Square, from cheap aquariums to New York’s greatest opera house.

By the 1890s, newspapers arrived to the area, including the one that gives Herald Square its name. A remnant of the New York Herald Building still sits in Herald Square and is the cause of some serious conspiracy. (Especially if you’re afraid of owls!) But the Herald wasn’t the only publication that got its start here; in fact, one of America’s most famous magazines began in a curious office-slash-bachelor apartment facility just close by.

The department stores came at the start of the 20th century, and we bring you the tales of Macy’s, Saks and Gimbels, not to mention their later incarnations, the Herald Center and the Manhattan Mall.

ALSO: Where on 32nd Street were crazy parties featuring a who’s who of New York’s greatest freak show performers? Where did a silent fim stunt man meet his end? And where in New York can you get the best in Korean pop music?

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to straight from here:
The Bowery Boys: Herald Square
______________________________________________________


The bawdy Haymarket dance hall, at 30th Street and Sixth Avenue, in a magnificent painting by John Sloan (1907) that conjures up the glamour and winks at its secret pleasures. Several of Sloan’s works depict places located in the Tenderloin, a wide area of entertainment and vice west of Broadway. The original painting hangs in the Brooklyn Museum.

The Great New York Aquarium of W.C. Coup, bringing sea creatures to the corner of Broadway and 35th Street. (NYPL)

The character of Broadway between the intersections of 34th Street and 42nd Street (before they were known as Herald Square and Times Square, respectively) was changed forever with the construction of the Metropolitan Opera House, a vanity project for New York’s new wealthy class. It was all for show; there were plenty of loges for the rich, but so little backstage room that set pieces were stored on the street. (NYPL)

The front of the New York Herald building, with its ornate clock face and Minerva statue. Please note the owls on the corners. (NYPL)

The two most dominant structures in Herald Square in the 1890s — the Sixth Avenue Elevated and Stanford White’s Herald building. “Running presses seen from street.” (NYPL)

The Elevated and the Herald Building from another angle in 1936, with the new addition of Macy’s — and the little building which prevented Macy’s from taking up the entire block! Today, that’s still a Sunglass Hut. You can also see that the back of the Herald offices has already been demolished and replaced with an office building. The front would survive a bit longer and then too would be destroyed. (NYPL)

A view of Greeley Square, with the elevated to the right. This building is the Union Dime Saving Bank. The counting offices of the New York World were on the ground floor, however I’m not certain if they are there in the year this picture was taken (1899).

 Now here’s a mystery for you — this is Greeley Square, named for the statue of Horace Greeley which was definitely installed in 1894. Hmm, but where is it?

The Hotel McAlpin, at the southeast corner of 34th Street, the largest hotel in the world when it was built in 1912! Happy 100th anniversary to this accommodation, pivotal in New York City history.

Herald Square in an early (1896!) clip from Edison.

And an image for the holidays, from the 1940s! Courtesy Life Magazine

‘Mad Men’ notes: The secrets of the New Yawk accent



On the upper floor — or flooah? — with the upper crust: Ladies coats at Sak’s Fifth Avenue in 1960, photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt (LIFE)


WARNING The article contains a few spoilers about last night’s ‘Mad Men’ on AMC, so if you’re a fan of the show, come back once you’re watched the episode.

A culture clash between New Yorkers from different races and classes came barreling through the storyline of ‘Mad Men‘ this week. While Peggy Olson had an awkward bonding moment with the new black secretary Dawn, a morbidly ill Don Draper took out his emotional tensions on the new Jewish copywriter Michael Ginsberg.

As revealed last week, Ginsberg is a ‘real’ New Yorker, living in a tiny apartment with his very devout father with a thick Yiddish accent. This week, Draper chastised the casual, Brooklyn-esque tone of Ginsberg voice, possibly implying a dig at the character’s Jewish roots. In response, Ginsberg defended his ‘regional accent’ and pointed out that Don, too, had an accent. The new kid eventually shines at a pitch meeting emulating a presentation style (and even vocal techniques) ripped from the Draper playbook

On a personal note, I’ve been fighting with accents my whole life, born with an Ozarks drawl only to develop the standard Midwestern ‘newscaster’ voice by high school, then living in New York for almost two decades and now slowly beginning to sound like it. So I found Don’s personal affront particularly interesting, as everything about him is a facade, including the voice. (I also went to school with fellow Missourian Jon Hamm, but that’s for another posting.)

Until last night, it never occurred to me that the secret to New York’s modern local tone — the many borough-specific variants of the New Yawk accent, if you will — was actually ‘discovered’, academically speaking, in a published study released in 1966, the year this season of ‘Mad Men’ is set.

Linguist expert William Labov was a Columbia University doctoral student in the early 1960s when he embarked on an extraordinary and influential study of the New York accent, the results of which were released as The Social Stratification of English in New York City in 1966.

The standard New York accent was historically presented as street jargon, whether it be the New York Times writing out the words of newsboys phonetically (“Dere’s tree t’ousand of us and we’ll win sure”) or the broad slang-filled movies of the Bowery Boys acting troupe (“Whadda ya hear! Whadda ya say!”). Upper class New Yorkers from old families frequently carried a New England lilt in their voices.

What seems inherent from comparing those two examples was flatly proved by Labov’s fascinating experiments done in three New York City department stores — the affordable S. Klein’s in Union Square, the higher priced Macy’s in Herald Square, and the very exclusive Saks Fifth Avenue — attracting shoppers from different social classes.

Below: Klein’s ‘on the Square’ in 1936, photo by Berenice Abbott.

I would have loved to have assisted Mr. Labov out with his experiments. Throughout the day, he asked employees from each store where the women’s coat department were located. In the case of these three stores, it was on the fourth floor. Or the fowth flooah or even the fowt flooah. When asked to repeat what they said, people would most likely restate ‘fourth floor’ with the -r more carefully said, as though it was their accent that had caused the confusion.

Those employees of S. Klein were far more likely to lose their -r sounds, while those from Saks were least likely. But Labov’s study found an additional quirk. On higher floors, where more expensive items were sold in each case, people more likely kept their -r sounds.

His conclusion found that “rhocity increased with the prestige of the department store” and that it even increased within the store itself. How the words were clearly pronounced and presented did not specifically depend on the geographical origin of the speaker, but on socioeconomic considerations. Labov concluded that New Yorkers of the 1960s generally disliked their own accents and subconsciously chose to mask it. “The term ‘linguistic self-hatred’ is not too extreme to apply to the situation,” he stated in his report. “As far as language is concerned, New York City may be characterized as a great sink of negative prestige.” [source]

Labov’s 1966 study is considered one of the most important linguistic findings of the late 20th century. Today Labov is considered the father of sociolinguistics. Whether his conclusions still apply today is a question for modern researchers. But they add an interesting new context to this burgeoning competition between Draper and Ginsberg, a symbolic competition between the ‘fake’ and the ‘real’.

Christmas in the afternoon: A tour around Greeley Square

I’m not 100% sure on the date of this photo, but I’ll place it in the late 1940s, as Life photographer Nina Leen did a great many photoshoots for the magazine in this period. The statue of Horace Greeley sits astride the big Christmas tree as perfect afternoon light casts shadows upon the corner of 33rd and Broadway. Here’s a slightly different angle of the same scene.

Gimbels, at left, one of America’s largest department store chains in the 1940s, was presumably filled with shoppers. The building to its north was is Sak’s Herald Square, the ancestor of the far swankier Saks Fifth Avenue. Out of view at 34th Street is, of course, Macy’s.

The Hotel McAlpin, at right, was once the biggest hotel in the world when it was built in 1912. The storefront that sits at the corner of 33rd and Broadway is Crawford’s men’s clothing store. Today that same corner is occupied by Game Stop.

On the southeast corner of 33rd and Broadway was Whelan’s Drugstore, an New York drug store and soda fountain chain in its heyday during the 1940s and 50s. Its business neighbor was Young’s hat shop, specializing in Stetsons.

Gimbels Bridge over troubled shoppers

The blocks just south of Herald Square are pretty grim. Malls full of chain stores, bland electronic store fronts and fast food restaurants disguise a once vibrant shopping outpost, as department-store competitors of Macy’s flocked to the neighborhood in the early part of the 20th century. One strange vestige of this retail nostalgia still exists, in the form of a fabulous green copper traverse above 32nd Street.

Gimbels was a more than worthy adversary of nearby Macy’s. The two were Coke and Pepsi of early American shopping, with an early, antiquated catchphrase ‘Well, would Macy’s tell Gimbels?’ exemplifying the top-secret, competitive tactics of the business world.

Yet Macy’s was always the more respectable brand. Gimbels arrived in the Herald Square area in 1910 with a lackluster building by no less than Daniel Burnham (of Flatiron Building fame) who was clearly having an off-day. Despite (or perhaps, because of) innovations such as the first ‘bargain basement’, Gimbels never reached the same hallmarks of class and reputation that Macy’s did.

One way in which the Gimbel family did one-up its competitor was branching to a more fashionable street — Fifth Avenue. It did that by merging with its neighbor, Saks Thirty-Fourth Street, in 1922. Two years later, Saks Fifth Avenue, a joint venture of the Gimbels and the Saks, opened uptown and one block over.

Symbolically bridged to more desirable Fifth Avenue, Gimbels decided to link its Herald Square store more literally with a recently acquired annex across the street, building a custom traverse in 1925, a beautiful copper bridge, three story tall, created by the Richmond Shreve and William Lamb, a teeth-cutting project for two young architects who would go on to help design the Empire State Building.

Both the original Gimbels store and its annex have been horribly modified over the years, becoming Manhattan’s saddest mall. Yet, for some amazing reason, the copper bridge has been left virtually intact. Until the 1990s, both ends of the bridge were completely walled off and were only reopened to replace the bridge windows. Despite some fears that it might be getting ripped down, the musty but still beautiful sky bridge still hangs high above shopper’s heads, a reminder of a universe of cut-throat department-store wars.

Picture courtesy Flickr/moufle

Macy’s Strangest Thanksgiving Day Balloons Ever

Above: The parade in the 1930s was a veritable freakshow of oddball balloon creatures

Not every balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade latches on to your memories like Underdog, Charlie Brown and Snoopy do. Below are a few examples of Macy’s stranger offerings over the years:

This Thing (Turkey?) 1932
I swear, if I saw that coming at me and I was eight years old, I would never celebrate Thanksgiving again. Clearly, the art of massive balloon making was still being perfected. Balloons had only been in the parade at this time for only five years and were still being released into the air at the end of the parade, for people to capture and return for reward money. This dangerous practice was stopped in 1933.

Pinocchio 1935
This depiction of the wooden puppet, with his 44-foot nose, is just illconceived on many levels.

Uncle Sam 1939
Today’s Uncle Sam balloon is made of sterner material to fly upright, so I applaud their efforts to keep this older one standing along the parade route. This version of Sam flew from 1938-40.

Eddie Cantor 1940
Few living human beings are immortalized in balloonery — the Marx Brothers also come to mind, but the balloon celebrating Broadway and radio star Cantor is distinctive for being completely misshapen and almost horrifying.

Fish Balloon 1941
This is actually one of the most beautiful pictures I’ve ever seen of a Thanksgiving Day balloon. The balloon was artistic and graceful, and for 1941, that definitely makes it strange. (Courtesy of Google Life stock photos)

Mighty Mouse 1954
Do kids know Mighty Mouse anymore? Anyway, the flexing pose of the balloon always made the strangest images on television. From the picture above, he looks to be on steroids

Rex the Dinosaur 1993
It wasn’t that Rex was a bad balloon. It was the fact that, halfway through, his head popped off and they kept the behemoth floating down the street, the camera uncomfortably cutting away.

By this way, the above picture is from this website, which relays every excrusiating detail of the 1993 parade, apparently one of the worst in Macy’s history (thanks to crazy winds and bad Katie Couric fashions). The descriptions are hilarious

Ask Jeeves 2001
What could be more sad than seeing a discarded mascot for a dot.com floating down the street? A mascot that happens to be in the shape of a middle-age butler.

Harold the Fireman 2007
Way before Joe the Plumber, Harold’s been with the parade since 1958, an old perennial. He makes the list because after all these years, you’d think a man in his profession would have lost some weight. Believe it or not, Harold has been in the parade in different garb — as a clown in 1945, baseball player in 1946 and a cop in 1947 — before finally settling on a job he liked.

Rabbit 2007
Pop artist Jeff Koons took a 1986 work — a table-top stainless-steel bunny — and literally blew it up for the parade last year, perhaps the only floating object that could conceivably be displayed at the Museum of Modern Art (if they had room for it.

And just for fun, some Macy’s excitement from 1984: Tom Turkey and Dionne Warwick!

And finally — last year we did a podcast on the history of Macy’s and the Thanksgiving Day Parade. You can listen to it on this page, download it for free on iTunes or other podcasting services, or directly download it from here.

I also wrote a specific history last year on the Underdog balloon.