Tag Archives: Washington Market

Making Green: The history of New York’s Christmas tree market

For many, the Christmas holiday in New York City finally comes to life when the sidewalks sprout evergreens. The sight and smell of curbside Christmas tree sellers ushers in the season in the most pleasing way. (Pleasing for the passerby; on a rather cold day, I can’t imagine it too pleasing for the seller.)

As history has it, the presence of streetside Christmas trees in the city actually predates Christmas as a national holiday (1870).

In the mid-19th century, hardly any modern Christmas traditions existed. One that did was the Christmas tree, a pre-Christian ritual incorporated into holiday festivities in German-speaking European countries (Those traditional settlers, the Puritans, didn’t much care for Christmas at all.)

Although the tradition did exist in the United States thanks to the Dutch, it was German immigrants who popularized it. As a huge surge in German immigration began in the 1840s, it’s not surprising that New York’s first Christmas tree market — in fact, the first mass-market sale of Christmas trees in the United States — came along shortly after, in 1851.

Unloading Christmas trees, photo from 1901-1915

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

It doesn’t appear that ‘jolly woodsmanMark Carr, living in the lush Catskill Mountains, even celebrated Christmas, but he certainly heard tales of families driving outside of town and chopping down evergreen trees to drag into the city. The go-out-and-get-it-yourself approach probably only benefited the wealthy or anybody with a horse and wagon and the time and energy to travel into the forest and find one. Carr, finding the spirit of the holidays (capitalism) deep within him, thought he’d bring the forest to the city folks.

So a couple weeks before Christmas in 1851 — things didn’t start so early back then — Carr and his sons chopped down a couple dozen fir and spruce trees, shoved them into two ox sleds, carted them over to Manhattan on a ferry and set up shop in the Washington Market paying one dollar for the privilege of taking up a sidewalk at Washington Market with his rather ungainly merchandise.

Holiday revelers were thrilled to be spared the journey out of town, and Carr’s entire stock of evergreens sold out within the day. No surprise this financial opportunity was mimicked by other farmers the next year, and within a few years, the open-air Christmas tree market was born.

Below: A Christmas tree seller on Catherine Street, 1941, photo by Beecher Ogden

MNY215421
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Carr, of course, became the Vanderbilt of the Christmas tree, raking in the dough year after year, selling trees for decades. Carr’s sons were still selling trees in the city as late as 1898, in a city quite transformed, or as the old House Beautiful magazine put it, “Mark Carr’s little sidewalk stand now rents for several hundred times what he paid for it.”

His innovation may be responsible for a whole host of domestic decoration, delivered fresh to the customer. “It is safe to say that 200,000 Christmas trees will be on the market here this year,” said the New York Times in 1880, “besides many tons of Christmas greens.”

Below: Christmas tree sales at Barclay Street, near the site of today’s World Trade Center

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By the 1870s boatloads of evergreen trees from Maine were pulling into New York. The task of moving a forest into crowded Manhattan required additional greased palms.

From an 1878 New York Tribune article: “A preliminary trip to the city is … necessary to engage a position on the street or dock, and the rent for this varies from $10 to $75. Then comes the night-watchman and tips (it is whispered) to harbor-masters and police sergeants, so that a dealer who invests $1,000 often realizes little for his labor which extends through three solid months.”

For decades, well into the 20th century, it was easiest to get the trees near the waterfront.  “West Street is now the Christmas tree market in the city,” said the Times in 1908. “Not only is the city’s entire demand supplied practically from this one market, but thousands of Christmas trees are shipped by the West Street dealers to all the surrounding towns and cities in New York State, New Jersey and even to points much further away.”

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West Street was still the central location of prime Christmas tree sales by the 1930s, but sellers were increasingly bringing their wares onto city streets. Tree markets were a regular seasonal site by the 1950s, with the deterioration of the New York waterfront.

What has drastically changed is the time of year that trees have become available.  “Prospective buyers … feigned surprise at seeing Christmas trees this time of year,” claimed an article published on December 19, 1951. “Most householders, it is well known to Christmas tree retailers, put off buying a tree in the hope that frantic merchants will have to unload at a low price just before Christmas when the market is glutted.”

Within a New York lodging house, 1910-1915

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

 

Note: This is an expanded version of an article which originally ran on this blog in 2009.

 

 

Detonations and flying cheese: Annotated news from 1913

I present this little news item from the June 6, 1913 New York Tribune in its entirety:

1)  The idea of bombs exploding all over the city is shocking to us today.  But in fact the threat of makeshift bombs were sometimes employed in extortion plots such as those by the Black Hand.  Most of these bombs were homemade and many never detonated. When they did, they were usually used to kill particular individuals.  The police department even had a Bureau of Combustibles; in 1913 they reported 125 such explosive devices.
2)  This bomb was placed at 268 Washington Street.  That stretch of Washington no longer exists today, but it would have been located in today TriBeCa neighborhood.  The building which sat at this address predictably held grocers of various sorts.
3)  Notably this address is indeed in “the heart of the fruit district,” Washington Market, where the city went to get one’s produce right off the trains from St. John’s Freight Depot.
4)  Garlick & Co. was a produce “commission merchant,” i.e. a grocery middle-man who buys or sells items for a percentage of the price, obviously a familiar concept today.  
5) The spectacularly-named victim, Bongiorno Zammaturo, was unharmed. I have a feeling the Tribune has gotten his last name wrong. Zammataro is a more frequent variation of this name.
6) This particular Greenwich Street Police Station, where officer Aichman reports, was closed by the police department five years after this incident for “lack of business.”  Another police station of Greenwich Street was active by the 1930s as the man who kidnapped and killed the baby of Charles Lindbergh was taken there.
7) The damage “amounted to scarcely $100” = $2,348.00 according to the Inflation Calculator.
8) An intact flying “twelve-pound Edam cheese” is the comic star of the show of this article.  For those not versed in delicious cheeses, Webster’s describes Edam as “a mild Dutch cheese of yellow color and fine flavor, made in balls weighing three or four pounds, and usually colored crimson outside.”  It’s that outside shell that turned this little cheese into a virtual cannonball, explaining why it “landed intact”.
By the way, did you know that New York state was America’s leading cheese maker in the mid-19th century, although by the time of this article, major cheese manufacturing was centered in the northern Midwest.
Below: An advertisement from April 1913, for cheese “with all the cream”
IN OTHER NEWS THAT DAY: The big local news of that day was the announcement that New York district attorney Charles S. Whitman was running for mayor to replace William Jay Gaynor who was not running again (and in fact would die in office that September).  Whitman became a national hero during the gangland murder trial that eventually convicted Charles Becker.  
As it turns out, Whitman wouldn’t run for mayor; instead, he ran for governor in 1914 — and won.
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Edit: I originally ran this ad in context of the article above, thinking it was Manhattan’s Washington Street, although it clearly says Brooklyn.  My apologies.  However since this ad was so interesting I thought I would keep it here anyway.  I find the pricing structure particularly interesting:

‘Mad Men’ notes: Swanky steaks and a market soiree


A postcard from Jim Downey’s showing a plethora of theatrical faces who frequented the place.

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….

There were two long-gone destinations used in last night’s episode of ‘Mad Men’ to delineate the old and the new, contrasting the square with the hip.

Two former ad rivals Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove bury the hatchet over a meal at Jim Downey’s Steak House, a dapper theater-district hangout at 705 Eighth Avenue (at 44th Street), started in the late 1950s by an Irish immigrant who won big at the horse races one day and decided to open a restaurant (as the legend goes).

Downey’s, very much in the mold of classic midtown eateries like Sardi’s and Toot Shor’s, was considered more a destination for theater crowds than the professional set, so much so that its dining rooms had theatrical names (like the Backstage Room) and you could frequently find a theater star or two having Irish coffees at the bar, possibly standing by writer Brendan Behan, also a regular. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall sat at a booth very much like the one depicted on the show, discussing women and literature.

The restaurant was closed by the early ’80s, taken over by a Cajun restaurant, although Downey’s sons opened steak houses in other parts of the city.

Meanwhile, Peggy Olsen got herself invited to a happening, or rather, an “I don’t even know what to call it” at old Washington Market (pictured below), the once lively indoor marketplace downtown. By 1956, however, the vendors — at one time, over 800 of them — had moved out (most up to the Hunts Point in the Bronx) and the forlorn shell of the building sat abandoned. It was eventually ripped down in 1967 to build the World Trade Center.


(Picture from Shorpy)

Decked out: America’s first Christmas tree market

Outside the Barclay Street train station, circa 1903 (courtesy LOC). The Christmas tree marketplace had been well-established by then.

HOW NEW YORK SAVED CHRISTMAS Throughout the month I’ll spotlight several events in New York history that actually helped establish the standard Christmas traditions many Americans celebrate today. Not just New York-centric events like the Rockefeller Christmas Tree or the Rockettes, but actual components of the holiday festivities that are practiced in people’s homes today.

It’s that time of year again, when you can’t make it a few blocks down a street without having to wind perilously by stacks of evergreen trees for sale standing in the sidewalk, the poor things plucked from far away to give New Yorkers a little holiday spirit (and in turn making their apartments feel ever smaller). As history has it, the presence of streetside Christmas trees in the city actually predates Christmas as a national holiday (1870).

In the mid-19th century, hardly any modern Christmas traditions existed. One that did was the Christmas tree, a pre-Christian ritual incorporated into holiday festivities in German-speaking European countries (Those traditional settlers, the Puritans, didn’t much care for Christmas at all.) Although the tradition did exist in the United States thanks to the Dutch, it was German immigrants who popularized it. As a huge surge in German immigration began in the 1840s, it’s not surprising that New York’s first Christmas tree market — in fact, the first mass-market sale of Christmas trees in the United States — came along in 1851.

It doesn’t appear that ‘woodsman’ Mark Carr, living in the lush Catskill Mountains, even celebrated Christmas, but he certainly heard tales of families driving outside of town and chopping down evergreen trees to drag into the city. The go-out-and-get-it-yourself approach probably only benefited the wealthy or anybody with a horse and wagon and the time and energy to travel into the forest and find one. Carr, finding the spirit of the holidays (capitalism) deep within him, thought he’d bring the forest to the city folks.

So on the week of Christmas 1851 — things didn’t start so early back then — Carr and his sons chopped down a couple dozen fir and spruce trees, shoved them into two ox sleds, carted them over to Manhattan on a ferry and set up shop in the Washington Market paying one dollar for the privilege of taking up a sidewalk at Washington Market with his rather ungainly merchandise. Holiday revelers were thrilled to be spared the journey out of town, and Carr’s entire stock of evergreens sold out within the day. No surprise this financial opportunity was mimicked by other farmers the next year, and within a few years, the open-air Christmas tree market was born.

Carr, of course, became the Vanderbilt of the Christmas tree, raking in the dough year after year, selling trees for decades. One source even says that Carr’s sons were still selling trees in the city as late as 1898, in a city quite transformed, or as the old House Beautiful magazine put it, “Mark Carr’s little sidewalk stand now rents for several hundred times what he paid for it.”

By the way, here’s what Washington Market looked like on a normal day in 1859. The bustling marketplace, opened in 1812, was a rival of the Fulton Fish Market, and not too terribly far from the Barclay Street Station pictured above.

The only remnant of the market today comes in the form of Washington Market Park, sitting where part of the marketplace once resided. Forgotten NY has an interesting write-up on what happened to the market and neighborhood in later years.

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