Tag Archives: New Jersey

Danger in the Harbor: World War I and the Black Tom Explosion of 1916

PODCAST The tale of the Black Tom Explosion which sent shrapnel into the Statue of Liberty and rocked the region around New York harbor. 

On July 30, 1916, at just after 2 in the morning, a massive explosion ripped apart the island of Black Tom on the shoreline near Jersey City, sending a shockwave through the region and thousands of pounds of wartime shrapnel into the neighboring Ellis Island and Bedloe’s Island (home to the Statue of Liberty).

Thousands of windows were shattered in the region, and millions woke up wondering what horrible thing had just happened.

The terrifying disaster was no accident; this was the sabotage of German agents, bent on eliminating tons of munitions that were being sent to the Allied powers during World War I.  Although America had not yet entered the war, the United States was considered an enemy combatant thanks to weapons manufactures in the New York region and around the country.

But the surprising epicenter of German spy activity was in a simple townhouse in the neighborhood of Chelsea.

ALSO: New Yorkers still feel the ramifications of the Black Tom Explosion today at one of America’s top tourist attractions.

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The location of Black Tom Island in relation to Jersey City, circa 1880.

Courtesy New Jersey City University
Courtesy New Jersey City University/ Prepared for the National Board of Health, Washington, D.C.(Hoboken, N.J.: Spielmann & Brush, 1880)


The Statue of Liberty in relation to Black Tom (situated in the background) in 1912

New York Public Library
New York Public Library


The view of Jersey City from a skyscraper in downtown Manhattan, 1918.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York


Images of the grim aftermath of the explosion (courtesy Liberty State Park):

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Associated Press
Associated Press


This series of photos (courtesy Library of Congress) shows the efforts of divers and salvagers looking for remaining munitions that had sunk into the harbor!

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The front page of the New York Tribune the following day:



The Kingsland munitions explosion of January 11, 1917, caused millions of dollars in damage, but no lives were lost thanks to the efforts of a single switchboard operator named Tessie McNamara who stayed at her post throughout the disaster.



To give you some idea of the size of the Statue of Liberty’s torch, here’s a picture of its replacement during the 1984 renovation. It can only be accessed via a very narrow stairway.


In 1914, a Jersey City fireworks and munitions plant exploded. Was it sabotage by the Germans?

One hundred years ago today, the Detwiller & Street fireworks plant, located in the Greenville section of Jersey City, exploded in a horrible shower of fire and glass.  Four men were killed instantly and dozens of employees were injured.  Several surrounding buildings “fell to pieces like houses of cards.”   The rumble shook buildings throughout the city, up to Weehawken and even into Manhattan and Staten Island. [sources]

This was the sad, weird reality of munitions plants in the New York metropolitan area.  Staten Island was one of America’s largest producers of fireworks and saw its share of disasters, including a 1907 explosion in Graniteville.

But there was one huge difference between the 1907 Graniteville disaster and the 1914 Jersey City explosion — World War I.  Fireworks manufacturers during the war also produced munitions.  As the United States wasn’t yet engaged in the European conflict, some manufacturers were hired directly by the Allied nations.

The New York Tribune notes the unwillingness of executives to talk about the blast, and eventually the plant’s superintendent was eventually charged with “violations of the Crimes act, which makes it unlawful to store high explosives within 1,000 feet of a  highway unless in a fireproof vault.”

From the Evening World, October 3, 1914:

While the press reports of the day never explicitly mention Detwiller & Street’s munitions productions, it’s clear from later incidents that this was probably at least part of the plant’s output that year.  Another explosion at the very same plant in 1917 killed nine, all women.  A safety report clearly indicates then that “[t]he company is engaged in the manufacture of munitions for the Russian government.”  On hand to rescue some of the women was a Russian munitions inspector. [source]

This naturally leads to a more disturbing question — was the 1914 explosion sabotage by the German?

An early postcard from 1873.  The New York based Detwiller & Street specialized in “fireworks, time danger signals, railroad track torpedoes, etc.”  They were also responsible for the spectacular fireworks display at the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.

That’s one suggestion according to a 1918 book The German Secret Service In America 1914-1918, listing a set of suspicious fireworks accidents in New Jersey before Oct. 3, 1914, Jersey City disaster. While these early accidents may have been due to increased munitions contracts in the hands of inexperienced employees, the authors admit ominously, “These explosions were the opening guns.”

German orders from that year make clear the focus on American targets.  From the German Secret Service book: “[A] circular dated November 18, issued by German Naval Headquarters to all naval agents throughout the world, ordered mobilized all ‘agents who are overseas and all destroying agents in ports where vessels carrying war material are loaded in England, France, Canada, the United States and Russia.”

This had horrible consequence for the United States and those plants in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania in particular, leading to the greatest act of sabotage prior to America’s involvement in World War I — the Black Tom Explosion. (Pictured above: Aftermath of the Black Tom Explosion, courtesy Liberty State Park)

On July 30, 1916, a munitions depot on Black Tom pier in Jersey City was set ablaze by German agents.  The resulting explosion killed seven people on neighboring Ellis Island  in Jersey City and ricocheted through the metropolitan area, shattering windows in Times Square and over at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and shaking people from their beds in Brooklyn.  The Statue of Liberty also suffered damage from this act of sabotage.

And so it’s hard to read accounts of the Jersey City explosion from one hundred years ago and not imagine the possibility of sinister intention.


The grand opening of the World Trade Center on April 4, 1973; Richard Nixon, labor strikes and “General Motors Gothic”

Photography on this page, from various periods, by Edmund V. Gillon, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.  Check out their online gallery for some more beautiful black-and-white shots. 

Let me take you back to a simpler time, back to a time where it might have been okay to hate the actual World Trade Center.

The World Trade Center was originally seen as a representation of New York’s own dreams and failures.  The buildings represented progress to some, disruption to others.

An entire business district — Radio Row — was eliminated in its construction.  Another neighborhood — Battery Park City — sprang up in its shadow.  The monumental design by Minoru Yamasaki radically altered (distorted?) the skyline. Some of New York’s oldest streets were now blocked from sunlight. On the other hand, an area of Manhattan that would have been susceptible to rising blight was now renewed.  It was the apotheosis of post-modern design, the apex of New York City construction.

Everything grand and intolerable about New York City in the late 1960s/early 1970s was embodied here in these two impossibly tall shafts of metal.

Many saw a waste of resources and state governments with skewered priorities.  Business interests were hopeful the buildings would reinvigorate the Financial District.  They would, eventually.  But back in 1973 many openly wondered how its owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were even going to attract tenants.

Below: The view of downtown Manhattan from a New Jersey marina

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Edmund V Gillon
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Edmund V Gillon

After years of construction that transformed lower Manhattan, the buildings were officially opened in a ribbon-cutting ceremony on April 4, 1973.  Far from a rapturous embrace, the opening of the world’s tallest buildings was met with relief, resignation and turmoil.  Few were in a mood to celebrate two shiny new symbols of wealth in a city slowly nearing bankruptcy.

Here are a few more details from its opening day and its aftermath:

People were already over it:  The opening was occasioned by severe rain. (It’s in good company; the opening of the Statue of Liberty was also met with a downpour.)  Even without it, however, the celebration would have been heavily muted.  The ground was broken on the World Trade Center site almost seven years before, and New Yorkers had plenty of time to get used to the rising towers. The first tower had been completed by 1970, but by then, the city had become rather jaded to the expensive buildings.  As it was, lower levels of the second building were still not even completed.

Disagreements: The top luminaries at the opening were New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and New Jersey governor William T. Cahill.  The World Trade Center was a Port Authority project;  PATH trains to New Jersey were rumbling underneath (or were supposed to be, see below).

While the two governors seemed in playful spirits, Cahill openly resented the backseat his state took in the finished product.  According to author Eric Darton:  “Cahill implies that New Jersey’s commuter rail needs have taken second place to the trade center, and Rockefeller, still grinning, points towards the Jersey shore. ‘You see all those magnificent container ports,’ he says, ‘that took all those jobs away from New York.’ ”

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In Absentia: Gone were the days when U.S. presidents showed up at the opening of New York landmarks, but President Richard Nixon did send a statement, hailing WTC as “a major factor for the expansion of the nation’s international trade.”  That very same month, the Watergate cover-up erupted into the scandal that would eventually lead to his resignation the following year.

STRIKE! Not only was Nixon not there, but the man he designated to read the speech — Peter J. Brennan — was not even there.  Three days earlier, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen union began a strike against Port Authority.  Because of the strike, the PATH train — that glorious feature of the new World Trade Center — was closed for a total of 63 days.  Brennan was Nixon’s new Secretary of Labor, so it would hardly seem proper to break the picket line.  Nixon’s speech was delivered instead by a Port Authority chairman.


Critics, Part One:  Noted labor leader and powerful mediator Theodore W. Kheel was violently against the states’ interest in the World Trade Center.  Calling it “socialism at its worst,” he demanded the governors take the podium on ribbon-cutting day and sell the building to private investors “at the earliest possible date.”

Others were perhaps understandably concerned that the buildings, given special tax status, were now a quarter-filled with state offices and certainly destined to empty and bankrupt office buildings with no such tax breaks in the surrounding area.  Luckily, Kheel did live to see the building sold to private concerns in 1998.

Critics, Part Two: Somebody else was saving up some vitriol for opening day — noted architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable.  Having years to craft some well-worded jabs, she did so in a column in the New York Times the following day. “These are big buildings, but they are not great architecture…..The Port Authority has built the ultimate Disneyland fairytale blockbuster.  It is General Motors Gothic.”

Critics, Part Three:  Labor leaders were disgruntled. Critics dismissed it.  But many New Yorkers outright loathed it. It’s a bit disturbing to read such outright disgust over structures that we have very different feelings about today.  From the Village Voice a week after the opening:  “The ecology-minded and those who are concerned with the energy crisis are fond of predicting that the building will have to be torn down — or at the very least abandoned — on that not-to-distant day when the power it consumes puts an intolerable strain on our already-diminishing power reserves.”


Nowhere to Eat:  The World Trade Center could facilitate thousands of employees, but, on opening day, it had one restaurant, called “Eat and Drink,” where “the waitresses wear hard hats and its busboys wear vests inscribed “Ecologist” on the back.” [source]  In the second building, a makeshift sandwich shop opened on the unfinished 44th floor.  Needless to say, outside food vendors in the area were not displeased.

Subversion The ribbon-cutting ceremony also marked the end of One World Trade Center’s dominance as the world’s tallest building.  Chicago trumped it when Sears Tower topped out at 1,454-feet less than one month later.

In New York, the buildings quickly became a totem of excess, of something that could be symbolically overcome.  You may be familiar with the daredevil Philippe Petit and his insane and unbelievably majestic (and illegal) tightrope walk between the towers.  But you may not remember that it took place just sixteen months after the opening, on August 6, 1974.  Two years later, King Kong performed a similar sort of feat in the 1976 remake starring Jessica Lange.

But there was magic in the air.  On the very same day as the ribbon-cutting, in a hospital across the water in Brooklyn, a woman went into labor and gave birth to a child who would later become the nightclub-loving illusionist David Blaine.  The World Trade Center and David Blaine — born on the same day!


Aaron Burr vs. Alexander Hamilton: The terrible consequences of an ugly insult

PODCAST Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met at a clearing in Weehawken, NJ, in the early morning on July 11, 1804, to mount the most famous duel in American history. But why did they do it?

This is the story of two New York lawyers — two Founding Fathers — that so detested each other that their vitriolic words (well, mostly Hamilton’s) led to these two grown men shooting each other out of honor and dignity, while robbing America of their brilliance, leadership and talent.

You may know the story of this duel from history class, but this podcast focuses on its proximity to New York City, to their homes Richmond Hill and Hamilton Grange and to the places they conducted their legal practices and political machinations.

Which side are you on?

ALSO: Find out the fates of sites that are associated with the duel, including the place Hamilton died and the rather disrespectful journey of the dueling grounds in Weehawken.

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The Bowery Boys #168 DUEL! Aaron Burr vs. Alexander Hamilton

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CORRECTION: Alexander Hamilton had his fateful dinner as the house of Judge James Kent, not John Kent, as I state here.

SOURCES: Many of my research materials include the books on my Riffle list of 25 Great Books About the Founding Fathers (And Mothers).

Alexander Hamilton, leader of the Federalists was a played out, stressed out, heavily in debt politician by June 1804. This is John Trumbull’s painting of Hamilton, completed almost over a year after the duel.

The Hamilton Grange, a beautiful home on the Hudson that Alexander only lived in for a couple years. (NYPL)

Aaron Burr, Vice President of the United States, was a played out, stressed out, heavily in debt politician by June 1804. This is John Vanderlyn’s portrait of Burr from 1802.

View of the Weekhawken dueling grounds in 1830s.  This area most likely still saw some duels at this period.  Note the small monument/obelisk marking the spot allegedly where Hamilton fell. (NYPL)

Thomas Addis Emmet’s quaint depiction of the dueling grounds was created in 1881, long after the actual grounds were destroyed by railroad construction. (NYPL)

From the New York Tribune, July 1904, a look at the Hamilton bust that once sat in Weehawken.  Several years later, vandals took the bust and hurled it off the cliff.

The William Bayard house in later years, with the lots surrounding it obviously sold and built up around it. (NYPL)

The Hamilton tomb at Trinity Church, picture taken in 1908, although it looks pretty much the same today! (Wurts Brothers, Courtesy MCNY)

Broadway and Wall Street. Tomb of Alexander Hamilton, Trinity churchyard.


The Bridge to Everywhere: The George Washington Bridge strangely political, unexpectedly naked, undeniably beautiful

PODCAST  The George Washington Bridge is best known for being surprisingly graceful, darting between Washington Heights and the Palisades, a vital connection in the interstate highway system.  It’s also been part of more than a few political scandals. And we’re not even counting the current scandal involving New Jersey governor Chris Christie.

Figuring out a way to cross over the Hudson River (not using a boat or ferry) between New York City and New Jersey has been a challenge that engineers and builders have tried to solve for over two hundred years.  With the formation of the Port Authority in 1921, there was finally an administrative body with the ability to bring a Hudson River bridge to life.

At the core of this story is a professional disagreement (or betrayal, depending on how you see it) between Gustav Lindenthal, the dreamer of a monumental crossing linking New Jersey with Midtown Manhattan, and his protegee Othmar Ammann who envisioned a simpler crossing in a less populated part of town.

The final bridge was eventually built thanks to a few strategic political moves by New Jersey’s Jazz Age governor George S. Silzer. But the original bridge design was quite ornamental, a bridge close in appearance (if twice the size) to the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge you see today is technically unfinished.

ALSO: The story of the little red lighthouse and the great big flag!

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The Bowery Boys #162 George Washington Bridge


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A view of the landscape around the George Washington Bridge, clearly illustrating the two different sets of conditions on both sides of the bridge.  The New York side abuts an existing neighborhood, while the New Jersey side retains a bit more of its natural beauty.  July 4, 1947 (Courtesy New York State Archives)

Gustav Lindenthal worked with Othmar Ammann on the construction of the Hell Gate Bridge, completed in 1917….

…but his ultimate dream of building a colossal Hudson River bridge, with a entrance point on the Manhattan side in Midtown, was never realized.  His vision of a dramatically large span was illustrated in the New York Tribune in 1921:

Othmar Ammann, whose bridge design eventually won out, due to its relative economy (compared to Gustav’s design) and choice of location:

The cable crew of the George Washington Bridge. The daunting construction job was completed ahead of time. (Courtesy Flickr/dsearls whose father appears in this picture!)

Opening day on the bridge, 1931, with 5,000 people in the stands and thousands more gathered around the New York and New Jersey sides.  New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt was there, as with Lindenthal and Ammann.  Who was not there? The mayor of New York City Jimmy Walker, who was attending an NYU football game. (Flickr/wavz13)

Margaret Bourke-White captures a Canadian Colonial Airways aircraft flying up the Hudson, October 1939.

Inside the bridge: a selection of photos from the Library of Congress from atop the tower, inside the anchorages, way extremely overhead and incredibly close:

From a cigarette card, showing the New Jersey toll booths:

The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Grey Bridge….(Flickr/CPWview)

Footage from the bridge’s opening day featuring FDR in a top hat:

This is how a crossing would have looked in the late 1940s-early 1950s!

Holland Tunnel, still drying out, turns 85 years old today

Contract No. 3. South tunnel, New York. taken December 1923  [NYPL]  

The Holland Tunnel, New York’s first automobile tunnel, linking downtown Manhattan with Jersey City, New Jersey, turns 85 years old today after a hard month for the city’s underground passages. The tunnel was closed for several days after Hurricane Sandy, reopening on November 7.

The tunnel is named after its engineer Clifford Milburn Holland who died before its completion, from heart failure brought on during a routine tonsillectomy procedure in Michigan. He was 41 years old.

He died in 1924, just two days before the two approaching tunnels on the New York and New Jersey sides were to have met.  In 1927, on the day of its opening, the New York Times gave him one of most passionate eulogies –‘In Holland’s Tunnel Is His Monument’ — in the newspaper’s history.

Holland was replaced by Milton H. Freeman … who then also died, of pneumonia a few months later. Ole Singstad, a colleague of Holland’s, was finally brought in to complete the work, devising its innovative ventilation system. Singstad eventually developed most of Manhattan’s tunnels, including the Lincoln Tunnel.

When the Holland was completed, it was the longest underwater tunnel of its day. The first vehicle through the tunnel 85 years ago? A delivery truck for Bloomingdale’s department store.

The Holland Tunnel was closed on October 29 in advance of the superstorm’s arrival; as you can see, it was a wise decision:


‘Mad Men’ notes: New Jersey invades the Statue of Liberty

The lady of Liberty Island makes an appearance in a 1965 United Airlines ad campaign. Don Draper, of course, prefers American Airlines. (Courtesy Flickr/What Makes The Pie Shop Tick) 

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

‘Mad Men’ returned to AMC last night, ramping up its regular displays of well-primped, misogynistic Madison Avenue ambition. On Mondays here on the blog, I’ll drill down for inspiration into the smaller details from the show that deal specifically with New York City history. And on Sundays, during the show itself (when possible), I’ll be playing along on Twitter, throwing out little trivia tidbits as quickly and accurately as humanly possible.

Everybody seems to be talking about the slinky performance of Gillian Hill‘s ditty ‘Zou Bisou Bisou — or ‘Zoo Be Zoo Be Zoo’ if you prefer the Sophia Loren version — by Don Draper’s new wife Megan. And civil rights issues finally begin to bubble to the surface when a nasty water-balloon incident by a rival firm (based upon a real event, down to the dialogue!) somehow ends with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce possibly hiring their first African-American secretary.

But I was struck by a throwaway line uttered early in the episode by Don’s son Bobby Draper — played by yet another young actor, the fourth Bobby in the show’s five seasons. With the children over at Don and Megan’s Manhattan apartment for the Memorial Day holiday, Don emptily suggests this will be the day they go visit the Statue of Liberty. Bobby shrugs and says, “We always say that, but we never do.”

The remark is meant to imply all the cheerful, all-American things that the Draper family never seem to do together anymore. When Don drops the kids off at the home of ex-wife Betty and her new husband, he refers to the couple inside as ‘Morticia and Lurch‘. (Did Don know that ABC had just cancelled The Addams Family the month before?)

Oh, but I do wish the Drapers had gone to the Statue of Liberty at that moment, in late May 1966, as they might have witnessed a rather remarkable sight — the virtual invasion of Liberty Island by stolid representatives from Jersey City!

Once called Bedloe’s Island, the alleged hiding place of pirate’s treasure and the home of Frederic Bertholdi‘s statue since 1886, Liberty Island actually sits within the state line of New Jersey, as does its partner Ellis Island. In fact, some of Ellis Island’s reclaimed land is still considered part of New Jersey. However, Bedloe’s has been within the jurisdiction of New York since a compact between the two state governments was signed in February 1834.

New Jersey has not always been happy with this arrangement. On the afternoon of May 23, 1966, a group of over four dozen Jersey City Chamber of Commerce members stormed across the water and ‘conquered‘ Liberty Island, pressing their contention that the island should be part of their state.

With ‘the Federal Government cooperating as a friendly non-belligerent’, the New Jersey businessmen, joined by Jersey City mayor Thomas J. Whelan in a ‘festive, bloodless invasion’, rattled off their demands, including equal recognition of Jersey City and New York, direct access to Circle Line boat service from the island, and even a change to Liberty Island’s postal address.

Don could have even brought his new bride Megan — of ‘French extraction’ as she might say — as a representative of the French government was also on hand to confirm friendly relations between the two parties. (I assume he meant between America and France.) Afterwards, Air France even provided a box lunch to the Jersey City aggressors!

The event was, of course, mostly for show, for greater plans were already in play. In the previous year, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island were enjoined as a national monument under one administrative entity, the National Park Service. By October 1966, they were also listed as inaugural members of the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

The Statue of Liberty often served as a complicated symbol for 1960s political debate, a touchstone for civil rights activists and an ironic construct for many antiwar protesters embittered by the Vietnam War.

In 1965, the FBI and New York police snuffed out an attempt by the Black Liberation Front to smuggle dynamite onto the island and blow up the statue. That same year, President Lyndon B. Johnson (at right) traveled to Liberty Island to sign into law the Immigration and Naturalization Act, a pivotal and far-reaching change to American policy that essentially eliminated immigration quotas.

A few years later, antiwar activists staged a Christmastime demonstration here, barricaded themselves inside the statue for almost two days. In sad need of disrepair by the late 60s, Lady Liberty even represented a certain dislodging of the American dream to many, a sentiment strongly recognized by the 1970s which led to the statue’s rehabilitation for her 1986 centennial celebration.

Notes from the podcast (#120): NYC early film history

Fashion weak: Mary Pickford finds millinery mischief in the 1912 feature ‘The New York Hat’, a Biograph film by D.W. Griffith.

This was an especially unusual show to arrange and represents a closely cultivated tour through New York City’s early film history.

But early movie studios spread beyond New York’s borders. Most notably, Fort Lee, NJ, became as active as New York in the 1910s, especially as the sophistication of filming processes allowed more productions to be shot outdoors and long running times meant story lines with multiple sets. D.W. Griffith’s first film, Rescued From An Eagles Nest, for Edison, was shot on the Fort Lee Palisades. But this wasn’t his directorial debut; he was the star of that film.

Soon all the major studios would have locations in Fort Lee and other places along the New Jersey coast. You can find more information on Fort Lee’s contributions to cinema at the Fort Lee Film Commission.

We had to cut off our coverage of New York’s film history at the early 1920s, or else it would have been an endless show, and one of us would have collapsed in exhaustion! But obviously we plan to pick up the topic again from this point in a later show.

One note of clarification: I mention that Fox ‘got his start’ in Staten Island. I meant to state that Fox would get his start in film production in Staten Island; indeed, in 1914, the ambitious film distributor began his very own studio and began making movies from his three small studios in Fort Lee, Jersey City, NJ, and a place called Scott’s Farm, in the neighborhood of Grasmere, Staten Island. Within a year, that studio would be named Fox Film Corporation and move out to Los Angeles. Less than twenty years later, weakened by debt, Fox merged with Twentieth Century Pictures to form Twentieth Century-Fox (yes, with a hyphen, which was later dropped).

Places To Visit:
Your first stop should be the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, to check out their displays of early film productions. Next door is the Kaufman Astoria Studios, New York’s oldest and still active movie studio. According to their website, there are no tours. But the famous studio commissary in the basement has been turned into a swanky restaurant and lounge.

Edison’s laboratory in West Orange, NJ, is definitely worth the trip, and not just to see the replica of the Black Maria. The National Park Services operates the Thomas Edison National Historical Park with tours of the laboratory complex and the Edison home Glenmont, where the inventor himself is buried.

Tom mentioned that Edison’s first demonstration of his kinetoscope — and its first film ‘Blacksmithing Scene’ — was exhibited as the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences on May 9, 1893. That organization was the forerunner to the Brooklyn Museum.

We planted a few specific addresses in the podcast for you to search out during one of your wandering adventures through the city. See if you can find the plaque at Macy’s honoring the theater that once stood there, Koster and Bial’s Music Hall, and occasion of the debut of Edison’s Vitascope. One of the first modern movie houses, the Regent Theatre in Harlem, is still around, but it’s no longer a theater. It’s owned by the First Corinthian Baptist Church.

Other Sources:
For a clearer picture of early film history, you should supplement this podcast with the first three parts of the TCM documentary Moguls and Movie Stars, their mini-series on the history of the movies. The best place find some of these very early films is the Library of Congress, which includes a wonderful page on early on-location pictures, The Life of a City: Early Films of New York 1898-1906.

Richard Koszarski’s extensive survey of the region’s contribution to the movies, ‘Hollywood On The Hudson‘, essentially starts where we leave off. David Robinson’s ‘From Peep Show To Palace’, with an introduction by Martin Scorsese, puts New York’s role into international context. You can also check out Paul Clee’s ‘Before Hollywood: From Shadow Play To Silver Screen‘.

‘Mad Men’ notes: Naked truths about New York nudism

Every Monday I’ll try and check in with the Mad Men episode from the night before and focus in on one or two historical references made on the show. Spoilers aplenty, so read no further if you don’t want to know….

While the inebriated men of Sterling Cooper Draper Price were accepting Clio Awards at the Waldorf=Astoria, poor Peggy was stuck in a hotel room with a pretentious creative director going over ideas for a campaign for Vicks cough drops. Rizzo, the director, claims to be a nudist, or at least to sympathize with the cause. (Since the impetus of the conversation revolves around looking at a Playboy Magazine, I would say he’s probably a poseur and a faux-nudist.) Goading Peggy, she calls his bluff, strips off her clothes in a sign of liberation and casually settles back to brain storm.

By 1965, the nudism movement (or naturism) was firmly established in America, its proponents gathering in secluded camp grounds for decades, often near urban areas where its philosophies could be more easily disseminated, usually (but not always) among bohemians or extreme practitioners of physical fitness. Rizzo’s casual — but ultimately timid — embrace of a nudist philosophy was certainly not unusual by the mid-1960s and would be popularly corrupted in the practice of campus streaking.

The roots of the American nudist movement start in New York City among a group of German immigrant intellectuals, bringing over a well-established discipline from Europe. Kurt Barthel began the American League for Physical Culture in New York in 1929 as a straight-laced, non-lurid celebration of the human body; as an extreme corollary to the temperance movement, Barthel advocated clean living and eschewed alcohol.

At left: In the days before nudist organizations, even racy sculpture like that atop the old Madison Square Garden could scandalize discreet New Yorkers.

From the little I could find on the early days of this organization, they had their first clothes-off gathering on Labor Day 1929 in upstate New York with seven participants (both men and women), but the organization held meetings in the city, at a Tenderloin establishment called the Michelob Cafe on 28th Street. (NOTE: I can only find evidence of a place called this from various nudist literature and not from any independent source.)

A guidebook to the discipline, called ‘The New Gymnosophy’ (or ‘Nudism In Modern Life’) written by Turkish doctor Maurice Parmelee, could be found in certain bookstores in New York, but was naturally sold behind the counter. Although a dry, philosophical text, the subject would have scandalized book buyers! In ‘Gymnosophy’, Parmelee extolled the virtues of the nude lifestyle, recounting the health risks of clothing and mental strains of bodily shame while being sure to separate these philosophies from common prurient thoughts.

Parmelee writes: “Sex feeling and curiosity…characterize practically all adults who enter the gymnosophic movement. After becoming habituated, sex stimulus through vision usually falls to normal and the initial curiosity is satisfied. [Excerpted in the book ‘Studies in human sexuality’ by Suzanne G. Frayser]

Interestingly, this sociologist and intellectual nudist is perhaps best known as being the author of America’s ‘first criminology textbook’.

Upstate campgrounds were fine (and far away from disapproving eyes) during the summer; but in the winter, the American League for Physical Culture met up a few times a month in a Manhattan gymnasium, and that put its naked aesthetic at odds with New York’s indecency laws. In 1931, one such meeting was raided by the police and Barthel was thrown into jail. In 1932 Barthel founded the Sky Farms nudist colony in Basking Ridge, NJ, the nation’s oldest continually operating nudist facility.

Above: If Don Draper were a nudist. (Photo from Martin Klasch)

By then, nudism philosophies had attracted other New Yorkers, including two librarians from the New York Public Library, Herman and Katherine Soshinski, who started up their own group — American Gymnosophical Association — and their own nudist colony, the Rock Lodge Club in northern New Jersey, still active today. (Who knew there were so many outlets for nudism in New Jersey?)