In the early years of the 20th century, the building of the Williamsburgh Bridge encouraged garment workers and other Lower East Side residents to move to Williamsburg and Brownsville. In the interwar years, Brownsville, its population about 75% Jewish, was thrumming with cultural activity; not only theaters but newspapers, the labor movement, the Hebrew Educational Society, schools and synagogues all provided cultural enrichment in hard economic times.
For many of these Brownsville residents, Yiddish would have been the language spoken at home, a fact that is reflected in print materials that have come down to us from that period.
The Brooklyn Collection's sheet music collection contains about a dozen rare Yiddish songs that would have been performed in homes and in theatres like the Liberty (1919-1933) in East New York or the Lyric (1908-1937) in Siegel St. But rarer still is this item we found some years ago in the catalogue of an antiquarian bookseller. One of only a handful of copies in libraries throughout the U.S., and the only one in a public library, as far as I can tell, Geyt a hindele kayn Bronzvil (A Hen Goes to Brownsville) is a charmingly illustrated children's book published in 1937, about a generous hen who decides to improve the health of the children of Brownsville by traveling there to lay eggs for them. During the long journey through Manhattan and into Brooklyn, circumstances conspire to keep her from her quest. This strikes the modern reader as a strange tale, and yet perhaps we can understand it as an attempt to carry into a starkly urban environment the memory -- or the fantasy -- of a place across the ocean where mothers could collect eggs for their children, and there was always enough to eat.
I include almost all the illustrations; the text, translated for us by a brilliant polymath in our cataloging department, has been considerably abridged.
Geyṭ a hindele ḳayn Bronzṿil / Y. Ḳaminsḳi ; bilder un liṭografishe plaṭn fun Noṭe Ḳozlovsḳi.
A Hen Goes to Brownsville, written by Yehoshu Kaminski; illustrations by Note Kozlovski.
New York : Farlag Ḳinder ring bay dem Arbeṭer-Ring Bildungs-Ḳomiṭeṭ, 1937
A hen goes to Brownsville to lay eggs. She has heard that the children in Brownsville are short, pale, thin and weak because their mothers often don't have money to buy fresh eggs for them...The hen finally comes to Times Square, where there are so many people passing by.
She decides to lay eggs right here in Times Square. She puts down her basket...sits herself down and starts singing, "I sit down and close my eyes, and one, two, and three I lay eggs."
Meanwhile cars, buses, wagons and passers by come to a standstill and can't move. Traffic builds up for miles...A policeman quickly comes to the scene. He starts to yell at the hen, "Hey, how dare you stop all the traffic here in Times Square? You are under arrest! You are going to court to pay a hefty fine."....
In the courthouse, the judge rules that the hen must pay a $2 fine. The hen asks, "Your Honor, is this the case even for a hen that is going to Brownsville to lay eggs?" He shows her the page in the law book. The hen says, "Your Honor I do not have $2. She sits on that very page in the law book and places a white egg there. Then she picks up her basket and flies out the window. She gives eggs to the children on Delancey Street at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge.
She comes to the other end of the bridge. A man asks her, "You want to go to Brownsville? You have to go right, then left, up, then down, but it is very far on foot. Take the bus over there. It will take you to Pitkin Avenue, in the heart of Brownsville.....
The bus driver calls out "Pitkin Avenue!" ...The hen jumps out and lands on an open window leading to a basement. She sees through the window an infant being cuddled by its mother. The hen starts to sing, "I sit down and close my eyes and one, two, three I lay eggs." A white egg appears on the window sill. The mother takes the fresh egg and shows it to her child and says:
"Just as this egg is clean so shall my child's eyes be clean. Just as this egg is round so shall my child's face be round. Just as the egg is fresh, so shall my child's face be fresh."
As the hen heard these charming warm words, she was so touched that she began laying more eggs near the window sill. Mothers came from all around to get eggs and began to say the same words:
Club officers and rules, 1900-1901
As I leaf through the gilt-edged pages of the the twenty-pound tome, The Eagle and Brooklyn edited by Henry W.B. Howard in the 1890s, I am struck first by an almost total absence of images of women (whereas portraits of men--all white of course--abound.) And secondly, by the prominent role played by clubs in the social life of the community. The Hamilton, the Germania, the Brooklyn, the Union League, the Lincoln, the Oxford, the Montauk, the Carleton, the Eckford, the Midwood, the Laurence, the Constitution--for years these clubs were a home from home for thousands of men and a few women. They could eat, drink, socialize, play games, discuss politics, attend entertainments, network and bond amidst pleasant surroundings and free of domestic cares. Clubs were organized around interests (The Crescent Athletic Club, The Riding and Driving Club), around ethnic identity (the Germania), some catered to young bachelors, others to the establishment figures of a given neighborhood. When I happened upon the single volume in our collection published by the Hanover Club--a list of its members for the year 1900-1901--I was curious to know what club members actually did together.
Hanover Club, Bedford Ave, co. Rodney St
The club was orgnized on March 7, 1890. P. J. Lauritzen, architect, was engaged to remodel and enlarge the "Hawley house," a brick mansion that had been the residence of Oscar Hawley, a box manufacturer, and had cost $70,000 to build. The club house formally opened on Jan 19, 1891 with over 400 members. During the club's halcyon years around the turn of the 20th century, aces of the billiard table such as George F. Townsend and J. Byron Stark put their misspent youths to good account in closely watched tournaments. The club's bowling alley was generously made available to the ladies during the afternoon hours, and the ladies were also allowed their own cafe, in which no man was allowed unless accompanied by a lady. No opportunity for a good dinner was missed. "Thumbbit dinners" given around 1901, which required members to wear butcher's aprons and hats and to eat slabs of steak laid on slices of bread, seem to have delighted the Hanover carnivores. The association's name must surely have morphed into "Hangover Club" more than once among the wags of the Eastern District.
William Cullen Bryant was an early President of the club. Other Presidents included Col. Andrew Baird who served in the 79th Regt. in the Civil War; and Frederick K. Wurster, the last mayor of Brooklyn. Afficionados of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle will recognize the name of Herbert F. Gunnison, first club secretary.
But the tide of change was beinning to flow toward the Bedford Avenue mansion. With the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, immigrants wishing to escape the overcrowded tenements of the Lower East Side had an easy trip between home and work. The Eagle remarked in 1922, "Opening the Williamsburg Bridge brought with it a tide of immigration from Manhattan which soon swamped the Eastern District and caused a general exodus, which...has greatly changed the entire character of the neighborhood. The Williamsburg of today is rather a manufacturing city than a community." Club members moved to the leafy streets of Prospect Park South and other areas of the city.
By June 25, 1919 there was discussion of whether to accept an offer of $36,000 for the club building. Some members wanted to move to smaller quarters, while others wanted to wind up the affairs of club and divide the proceeds.
The Club finally disbanded in 1922, title being taken over by the Young Israel District Association, which paid $50,000 for the property. Net proceeds were divided among 79 living members.
New York Public Library, Miss Frank E. Buttolph American Menu Collection, 1851-1930
The club's paintings went under the hammer in March 1925, for $612. Attendees of "funeral" of club lamented the changes in that "forced" them out of the neighborhood, but the Eagle of August 27, 1922 took the more positive view that: "...the growth of every big city involves just such changes, and on the whole they are broadening rather than narrowing to its development."
Photo courtesy of nyc-architecture.com
This year we’ve had the pleasure of once again working with two high school interns through the Multicultural Internship Program (MIP). Emal and Erfana spent the months of July and August shadowing our reference staff, learning about our collections, and conducting their own research into Brooklyn history. As in the past two years, the culmination of the interns’ time with us is the Brooklyn, Then and Now photography project. In this endeavor, interns choose old images from our photograph collection and then visit those sites to take a contemporary snapshot of the same location. The comparisons one can draw from a side-by-side pairing of old and new are often surprising and always illuminating.
The above view of Manhattan from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, taken in 1954, shows a downtown with its share of skyscrapers, albeit fewer than the contemporary view taken by our interns, below.
Emal and Erfana worked hands-on through the entire process of mounting the exhibit, from choosing old photographs to mimic, to researching neighborhood history, to visiting the various sites to take new pictures, to preparing their photographs for display.
Their photography will be on view here in the Brooklyn Collection through the end of November, and we'll be celebrating the opening of this new exhibit on Wednesday, October 24th, at 6:30pm, prior to the latest installment of our monthly lecture series. Light refreshments will be served, and the public is welcome.
When we last left our little 1950's runaways, Eugene Hart was returned happily to his Bushwick home with his Mama, never to roam so far, at least by accident, again.
But, there are more tales of childhood derring-do, escape, and adventure that have woven their way through the streets of the city.
I'll Take Manhattan
Our next story happened in May of 1950. Ten year old Victor and eight year old Tanya Sedor spent 3 1/2 days on the run from their 45 N. Elliot Place home. They had been enjoying a warm spring day, playing after school in the park. Their merriment continued into the early evening when the sun began to set, and they realized they had stayed out far too long. Now afraid to go home, and not wishing to face the ire of Mom and Dad, they decided to continue their fun and "go adventuring." Well this took them up and over the bridge, to the metropolis of Manhattan's midtown area. The brother and sister pair visited Central Park and its zoo, rode the merry-go-round, went to the movies, AND, to church, (two masses no less). Sympathethic strangers took pity on the two and gave them money, which they used to purchase the childhood food staples of candy, ice cream and cup cakes.
However, the jig was up when Thomas Nelloy of 793 9th Avenue saw them sleeping in the hallway of his apartment building. The pair started to run, but Mr. Nelloy was able to grab hold of Tanya, with Victor making a clean getaway. Big brother was picked up 6 hours later, hanging around the West 54th street police station looking for his sister who had already been returned home. After they were home the siblings recounted that they only regretted running away once during the weekend. The conversation had gone like this - Tanya: "I wish I were home in my nice, warm bed." Victor: "I sure would like a good chicken dinner right now."
So Close but yet so Far
The one escapade that stands out for me is the tale of Robert Lidell. In the spring of 1954 Robert Lidell took off from his home at 1080 St. Johns Place and created the ultimate "boy cave" under the intersection of Ocean and Flatbush Avenues. For 12 days Lidell lived under a Transit Authority manhole, furnished with wire chair, automobile seat used for a bed, a can of Sterno and two pictures for decoration which hung from cables. His days were spent looking for food
From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
To reach his underground paradise, the boy had been forced to climb over a wall and down into an open rail road cut used by the Frankling Avenue spure of the B. M.T. He then walked 150 feet along the track, climbed over a catwalk and entered the cable room from the bottom through another underground chamber.
How the boy found the place or how he was able to lift the heavy manholr cover between the chambers was a source of puzzlement to the cable crew which moved out his furniture.
Why'd he do it? "When they see my picture they'll laugh. They'll say I got nerve. They won't be able to call me chicken!"