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It is once again upon us; that century-old ritual of courtly grace and sequins! Prom!
Prom, short for 'promenade,' has been around since the late 19th century. Starting at colleges, the dances served as a more egalitarian version of the ever-popular debutante balls cherished by the upper classes. The dances were fancy, but usually more high tea than black tie. Because proms served as socialite training grounds, it makes sense to see them listed in Brooklyn Life's "Dances" section along with the other society happenings. The magazine, published weekly for Brooklyn's upper crust and now digitized on Newspapers.com, had a section devoted to which fancy person traveled to which fancy country and another detailing which lucky young lady took a ride with which handsome young man (and his mother, inevitably). Think one step down from Downton Abbey, Brooklyn style. (Netflix, I'm going to need that show created. Thanks.)
Brooklyn Life Magazine 1915.
The only proms that appear in the news (be it the Brooklyn Daily Eagle or Brooklyn Life) around the turn of the century are those held at elite girls' schools. The first mention of a prom in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle can be found in 1897 in reference to the Packer Institute, originally one of Brooklyn's preeminent all-girls schools. Along with the Packer Institute, there are many refrences to the Berkeley Institute (now the Berkeley Carroll School). Girls High School makes an appearance in the early 1910s.
In 1915, Brooklyn Life described the Packer Senior Prom: "...the members of the class of 1915 transformed the gymnasium in which the dance was held into a bower of green with blue conflowers and yellow tulips intermingled, showing the class colors. In the library a cheerful fire was blazing, lighting up, with the glow of electric lamps, the couches and cozy corners around the room." The magazine also wrote that "preceding the Packer Institute 'Prom' on Friday evening of last week, Mrs. Horace L. Rutter gave a dinner for her daughter, Miss Kathleen S. Rutter, who was the head of the 'prom committee'" (Brooklyn Life Magazine 20 Feb 1915). Being on the committee looked great on a society resume and often netted you a beautiful photo in Brooklyn Life.
The Brooklyn Collection has a great collection of dance tickets from the early twentieth century, most from social club gatherings like the ones listed above in Brooklyn Life . The cards illustrate the popularity of dances and society parties and provide an interesting window into the social life of middle- and upper-class Brooklynites of the day. I was hoping to find a ticket or invitation to a prom, so I started flipping through the binders.
Apparently, there was always a reason to dance.
Third Annual Halloween Dance, Bath Beach Olympics, Inc. 1932. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
Dinner-Dance, Lincoln Social Club, 1938. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
Look! It's a "Lincoln Eve" dance! I'm throwing one of those next year.
First Annual Dance, Hob-Nob Club, 1938. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
And then I found what I was looking for:
Brooklyn Tech Junior Prom Card, 1932. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
An invitation to Brooklyn Tech's junior prom, held in the Jade Room of the Brooklyn Elks Club on Livingston Street. The attire is specified as "Informal - Red and Gray Collegians" and the cost is $1.50 per couple.
The 1930s and 1940s saw proms move into the mainstream, popping up at schools across the borough. As reported in the Eagle in 1943, "At Namm's party and fashion show held yesterday in the Colonial Room on the third floor the loudest applause was for a prom party dress of heavenly blue, the satin bodice trimmed with narrow pleating and the skirt of yards and yards of matching net. Priced at $16.95. A single string of blue pearls at her throat and a gleaming white gardenia in her hair completed this graduate's costume" (30 December 1943). The 1950s, with the rise of the "teenager," the suburban dream, and the disposable income, proms became more involved affairs replete with taffeta and tulle.
"Prom Delights." Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1949. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle documented a few 1950s proms, like the one below at Prospect Heights High School.
McNamara, C.E. "Seniors Take Over." Brooklyn Eagle 1954. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
Sadly, proms aren't always fun and games. For one, someone always cries at prom. Always. But, in all seriousness, there is certain antiquated feel about many of the customs involved in the evening. Aspects of prom feel very traditional and tradition can sometimes get in the way of progress.
You might recall the 2010 story of Constance McMillan, a lesbian student in Mississippi who asked to attend her prom with her girlfriend who was also a student at the school. The school board refused to allow her to attend unless she came alone or brought a male date. In the end, the school board cancelled the prom entierely. Just last year there was a story of the first integrated prom in Abbeville, GA. The battle for inclusivity has also been fought right here in Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 22 April 1920.
In 1920, six young women were told they could not attend the Girls High School prom because of the color of their skin. One of those young women had a fairly famous father: W.E.B DuBois. When DuBois was notified that his daughter was barred from the dance, he and other parents and distinguished community members went to speak with the principal, Dr. William L. Fetter. The paper reported that the concerned parents "got no satisfaction from him." The parents then went to see the superintendent who was "astounded when he learned the facts of the case." Thus, the principal was given an ultimatum: cancel the prom or integrate it.
Dubois' daughter attended the prom.
The last paragraph of the article reads: "A suggestion was made that in leiu of the prom, a theater party be held for the colored girls, but that was voted down." Youbetcha it was voted down! Separate is not equal, not then, not now.
Every morning the Verrazano-Narrows bridge greets me and every evening it says goodnight, the lights twinkling like the city’s own stars. It’s one of the best things about living in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. (The worst thing being the very long R train ride home.)
When I first moved to Bay Ridge, the bridge was an anchor of sorts. It told me, when I accidentally got off at the wrong subway station, which way was home. Walk this way, it said. Toward me. I might be biased but I think it’s a prettier than the George Washington; more elegant than the Brooklyn Bridge. Bigger than the Manhattan and sharper than the Williamsburg.
And it recently turned 50.
But the bridge, designed by Swiss-born engineer, Othmar Ammann, and the brainchild of master builder, Robert Moses, had a long difficult journey to formation: legal disputes, protests and, sadly, the deaths of three workers.
First there was dispute over what to call the bridge. The Italian Heritage Society launched a lengthy campaign in support of naming the bridge after Giovanni da Verrazano. Staten Island residents, feeling their borough was underrepresented, wanted it named the Staten Island Bridge. The neutrals pushed for The Narrows. In the end, the officials compromised with Verrazano-Narrows.
Who was this Verrazano anyway? Giovanni da Verrazano was an Italian explorer who, in 1524, was commissioned by the French to find a shorter path to Asia in the ship La Dauphine. It’s said that once Verrazano reached what would become North Carolina, he continued north; hit Sandy Hook and eventually the Hudson River. However, he miscalculated and thought the New York Bay was a big lake, turned around and went back to France. Eighty years later, Henry Hudson sailed in and, well, the rest is history.
So why the dispute? First off there was the possibility that Verrazano was not really an explorer but in fact a privateer who just...stumbled upon the mouth of the Hudson. (He was, in fact, tied to the pirate Juan Florin!)
[Fun fact: Verrazano gristly death came at the hands (literally) of Jamaican cannibals. I hope the fact that he’s got his own day (April 17th is Verrazano Day) helps him rest easier.]
Once decided on a name, there was the much bigger issue of spelling. One R? Two Rs? One Z? Two Zs? The Italian Historical Association of America had some very strong feelings about this issue. His name, in Italian, is spelled with two Zs but NYC and Governor Rockefeller decided on just the one, based upon the spelling found in early manuscripts and encyclopedias. The dispute over the Single or Double Z even lead to one courageous volunteer painting an extra Z on the sign announcing the planned construction site. And the Staten Island Chamber Physician actually quit his post over the naming issue.
But more than the name, most of the protests regarding the bridge came from the residents of my neighborhood, Bay Ridge. In Bay Ridge, the bridge was not a sign of progress but a harbinger of very real destruction. Eight hundred buildings would be leveled. Seven thousand people would have to find a new place to live. It was a difficult reality for the residents of Bay Ridge, one that was elegantly captured by Gay Talese in his book, The Bridge:
“Most people in Brooklyn did not, in 1959, understand the good part, and so they held on to their homes with determination. But sooner or later, within the next year or so, they let go. One by one they went, and soon the house lights went out for the last time, and then moving vans rolled in, and then the bulldozers came crashing up and the walls crumbled down, and the roofs caved in and everything was hidden in an avalanche of dust – a sordid scene to be witnessed by the hold-out next door, and soon he too would move out, and then another, and another. And that is how it went on each block, in each neighborhood, until, finally, even the most determined hold-out gave in because, when a block is almost completely destroyed, and one is all alone amid the chaos, strange and unfamiliar fears sprout up: the fear of being alone in a neighborhood that is dying…”
Construction began in 1959. By '63, three workers were dead. In protest, 300 of their fellow builders refused to raise a 400 ton roadway section into place until they were given saftey nets to work over. After five long arduous years (and $325 million), the bridge opened at 3pm on November 21, 1964.
And what a bridge it was!
It surpassed the Golden Gate Bridge as the largest suspension bridge in the world, with a 4,260-foot-center span between two 693-foot towers. The towers are twice as big as the Statue of Liberty! And the bridge is so long that the two towers needed to be angled away from each other to account for the curvature in the earth. Each of the cables contains 26,108 separate strands of galvanized steel wire, each about as thick as a pencil. There is enough wire on that bridge to circle the globe six times!
The opening ceremony was a huge event, attracting dignitaries such as Mayor Robert Wagner, Governor Nelson Rockefeller and “master builder” Robert Moses. The ceremony was capped off with a Navy flotilla including a submarine, two destroyers and three destroyer-escorts passing under the bridge with whistles blowing.
Open day toll: 50 cents. Ah, the good old days!
The Brooklyn Collection is pleased to be joining forces with our counterparts at the Brooklyn Historical Society this spring to offer new programs exploring the fun and fanciful side of our borough's history. *Note that two of these three programs are happening at the Brooklyn Historical Society (128 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights) and some do charge an admission fee.
Extreme Brooklyn Trivia: All Star EditionThursday, April 16th, 6:30pm at the Brooklyn Historical Society$10 General Admission / $5 for BHS and G-W MembersReserve tickets>>The result of an unprecedented détente between two trivia titans, the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Collection and the BHS Trivia Masters are joining forces to present the mother-lode of Brooklyn-inspired trivia, while raising the bar to the heavens for all future pub trivia competitions. This multi-round, multi-media competition is not for the faint of heart, but should be edifying (and fun!) for nerds of all abilities and Brooklyn lovers of even the most recent vintage.
The Othmer Library at Brooklyn Historical Society
Brooklyn Collecting BrooklynWednesday, May 13th, 6:30pm at the Brooklyn Historical SocietyFree! But you can reserve your spot here>>Wednesday, May 20th, 6:30pm at the Brooklyn Collection (Central Library at Grand Army Plaza)Free! But you can reserve your spot here>>Brooklyn Historical Society and Brooklyn Collection archivists get together to reveal behind the scenes tales of our Coney Island collections. We’ll have an array of historical artifacts ranging from wax replicas of Nat King Cole’s head and hands to vintage photographs of Coney Island's nighttime Mardi Gras parade (and much, much more) on display to illustrate the stories of the what, who, when, and how we acquired these seemingly obscure items. This is a two-part series so attendees will see up close some of our prized Coney Island collections in the Othmer Library at Brooklyn Historical Society and in the Brooklyn Collection.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 18 April 1948.
Remember when you were little and you'd put black olives on your fingers? Were you the type of kid who could only get one or two on before you'd snatch them off like a bird? Or were you like me, a ten-finger-all-or-nothing-go-big-or-go-home olive eater? I was the bane of all family dinners featuring tacos.
Or maybe you hate olives? If that is the case, you can stop reading now.
In 1890, Irving T. Bush built a warehouse on the banks of New York Harbor in today's Sunset Park. Within a decade what had started as a single warehouse was on the cusp of becoming the hub of a transnational shipping empire. In 1902, the Bush Company prepared for a massive expansion with plans to "construct a great terminal property and not a warehouse plant. There is not the same need for warehouses as there was thirty years ago. What are now needed and what we will build are piers large enough for the economical discharge of modern steamships and in immediate connection with a freight railway terminal connecting with all the truck lines entering New York City" (Brooklyn Daily Eagle Feb 14 1902).
Rutter, E.E. Aerial View of Bush Terminal Piers. 1917. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
Tenants began vying for spots within Bush Terminal, as it was then called. One of those tenants was the Mawer-Gulden-Annis olive packing company (you can read about some of the Terminal's other tenants here, here, and here).
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 25 May 1950.
Established in 1907, Mawer-Gulden-Annis originally specialized in green queen and Manzanilla olives from Seville, Spain. They later expanded, packing olives coming from California, Italy, and Morocco. The olives arrived at the plant, at its peak the largest olive packing plant in the world, in hogsheads (a big barrel, not a pig head) containing 160 to 180 gallons, as well as smaller 50 gallon casks. The brine in which the olives were delivered allegedly had a percentage of salt double that of the ocean.
"Ready to Roll." Brooklyn Daily Eagle 8 Sept 1954. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
(Side note: When I was little I had dreams of running through olive fields and eating the fruit straight from the vine. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that a) olives don't grow on vines and b) you can't eat raw olives. Raw olives are bitter and essentially inedible, hence the long brine soak which pulls out all the nastiness.)
The company grew steadily throughout the early twentieth century. In February of 1929, it was reported that the company doubled its capital stock from $250,000 to $500,000. By the mid-1940s the factory was a packing powerhouse running on female power.
"Up To Her Elbows in Olives." Brooklyn Daily Eagle 26 Sept 1954. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
Featured prominently in a New York Times article about women in the wartime workforce, Mawer-Gulden-Annis employed 100 women just for packing olives (they also packed cherries and made olive oil). During WWII Bush Terminal was too busy making supplies for the war effort and serving as a deployment point for soldiers to pause for olive shipments. The olives were instead shipped to Hoboken, Philly, or Baltimore and then made the rest of their way by truck or train.
The women handpicked the olives and used long tongs to place them into jars, filling two jars every three minutes and totaling sixty dozen a day per worker.
"Girls at Work." Brooklyn Daily Eagle 18 April 1948. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
And don't go thinking just anyone can pack a jar of olives. "Lest you have the idea it's a simple matter of dumping them in, it takes from six months to a year to train each [worker]. They sit at large steel tables, and, using long metal tongs with wooden handles, pick up the olives individually, examining them for perfection of appearance, and putting them in the bottle in symmetrical vertical rows" (New York Times, 5 Feb 1945).
Stuffed olives were provided the biggest challenge because each olive had to be placed pepper side out. Now that's craftsmanship!
Olives that didn't make the grade were chopped up mixed with spices to form a special byproduct called Grandee olive butter.
Once packed, the jars would be filled with new brine, sealed, and shipped nationally (in 1948 it was reported that 95% of the green olives eaten in the United States came from this Brooklyn factory) and worldwide. And I'm guessing quite a few of the olives never left the factory at all.
"Unofficial Tester." Brooklyn Daily Eagle 18 April 1948. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
In the 1960s, Bush Terminal was renamed Industrial City and boasted 150 tenants with over 25,000 workers. In the 1970s, however, the active port was deemed unstable due to industrial contamination and tenants began to move out or go out of business entirely. Today, Industrial City has had a renaissance and now houses artist studios and small businesses but, sadly, no olives. The Mawer-Gulden-Annis company appears to have left Bush Terminal during the decline.
Brooklyn in the early 1950s was a borough of rising crime, and the problem was steadily getting out of control. Cab drivers were held up, grocery stores robbed, and gangs fought for bragging rights in the streets. Stories of victimized residents and business owners were a regular feature in the newspaper. Something had to be done. Various community groups met to discuss strategies that would get weapons off the streets and out of the hands of the youth.Enter the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which along with civic leaders, business leaders, and local precincts waged a three-year campaign, one that reached all the way to Governor Dewey in Albany, with a proposal for legislation that would ban the sale and possession of menacing switchblades.
Leading the campaign was Special Sessions Justice John E. Cone. Cone worked tirelessly, speaking in front of groups all over New York, about the need for comprehensive legislation. Justice Cone had previously been Chief of the Homicide Bureau in the District Attorney's Office and had seen first-hand the effect of switchblades on the psyche of young people. He claimed "...it was a badge of distinction among teen-age gang members to possess a switchblade or zip-gun." The allure of the switchblade was evident. They were the stuff of movie gangsters. With a quick temper and a flick of the mechanism, the blade would release, and advantage was quickly gained. These "toys" had become incredibly dangerous.Huddle at City Council hearing at which Committee on State Legislation voted to ask Albany Legislature for a total ban of switchblade knives. Special Sessions Justice John E. Cone makes a point to group of Council committee members - December 17, 1953
Cone's fight would not be an easy one. The switchblade had its supporters in knife makers and knife enthusiasts, many of whom lived in upstate districts. Governor Dewey was uninterested and ambivalent, choosing to side with New York state business lobby. But Cone fought on, enlisting the help of the 67th Precinct in Flatbush, which organized support of the ban as well, as the Flatbush Merchants Council and Americans for Democratic Action.Among the many others who worked alongside Justice Cone were Senators Fred G. Moritt, Herbert I. Sorin, and Assemblyman Ben Werbel, whose son had been slashed with a switchblade. Werbel and Sorin drafted a bill in 1953 to ban the sale and possession of switchblades. By the time it got through the legislature, however, it was so watered down it was rendered worthless. Cone and his supporters took a half-a-loaf approach and vowed to fight on, agreeing only to a bill that limited the sale of switchblades to minors under 16.
Special Sessions Court Jusice John E. Cone, left, chairman of the Citizens Committee Against Switchblades, congratulates Mrs. Rita Develin, chairman of the 67th Precinct Co-Ordinating Council, for the council's part in the Flatbush crusade against switchblade knives. At right is City Councilmnan Jack Kranis, co-chairman of the co-ordinating council -February 15 1954.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle devoted considerable journalistic resources to the cause. In addition to op-ed pieces and letters to the editor, reporter Leslie Hascom wrote a series of in-depth articles about the violent impact switchblades had on the people and neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Keeping up the drumbeat, the Eagle maintained a box next to every article about switchblade violence that read, Even after defeat of the 1953 bill Cone kept up the pressure. Sensing victory in the winter of '53, he did not let up, and exhorted Brooklynites to inundate Albany lawmakers with telegrams in support of the stricter comprehensive ban.
In the end, the governor could not ignore the onslaught from Brooklyn, and on March 28th, 1954, New York became the first state in the nation to ban the manufacture, sale, and possession of switchblades.
After the victory Cone declared, "It will take away the toy that kills from the adolescent and the favored murder weapon from the adult criminal. The ban could not have been secured without the support of the Brooklyn Eagle."A period of amnesty followed right away, allowing knife owners to quietly turn in their blades, without fear of prosecution.
April 7, 1954 - Responding to warnings by Police Commissioner Francis W.H. Adams that owners of outlawed switchblade knives should turn them in, a citizen hands blade to Lt. Francis X. Grattano and Patrolman Joseph Graham, right, at Bergen St. stationhouse. Those who turn in knives immediately won't be prosecuted.Since that battle was won exactly 61 years ago, times have indeed changed. Many states are reversing their switchblade laws, acknowledging that the weapons famously used by the "Sharks and the Jets" hearken back to another era. Furthermore, citizens with no evil intent have been arrested, and jailed for possessing knives used for maintenance jobs.But for one moment, Brooklyn was front and center in a national struggle for saftey... a struggle that continues.