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Teddy Bears from Brooklyn

Dec 31, 2014 10:00 AM | 0 comments

The teddy bear has been a perennial gift favorite for at least a century. You may be surprised to learn that the invention of teddy bears is squarely rooted in Brooklyn. The holiday season is a good time to review the story of this adorable stuffed toy with which so many of us have a deep emotional connection.

An early 20th century family photograph of Brooklyn-born sculptor Frederick MacMonnies' daughters Betty and Marjorie, flanked by their governess and their good friend, the teddy bear.

My research was spurred, oddly enough, by a work of fiction. Karen Hesse’s “Brooklyn Bridge”, the 2008 Newbury Award winning novel, tells the story of the Russian immigrant Michtom family, who claimed to invent the popular toy. A search through the pages of the Brooklyn Eagle turned up the real life inspiration for the book, toy-maker Morris Michtom.  

Michtom owned a confectionery and novelty store in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The old Brooklyn city directories for 1902 - 1908 list Morris Michstrom, a cigar seller, at 404 Tompkins Ave (this address also appears in Karen Hesse’s book).  Michtom's stuffed creation was reportedly inspired by a cartoon published in 1902, which depicted President Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a tethered bear cub.


The cartoon was based on a real story of a botched bear hunting expedition attended by Roosevelt in Mississippi. When the hunting dragged on for ten days without a bear sighting, the frustrated hosts, in order to please their important guest, found a bear cub and tethered it to a tree. Roosevelt refused to shoot the captive beast, saying that he "drew the line" at killing a young animal. Spurred by the story, Michtom's seamstress wife sewed a 2.5-foot-tall jointed bear by hand and they displayed it in their store. It quickly became one of their most popular items. The legend continues that Michtom sent a bear to the White House, requesting permission to name the toy Teddy Bear, and that he received a reply from the White House granting the permission. In 1903 the Michtoms approached a wholesaler, the Butler Brothers, with their toy bear. The Butler Brothers bought Mitchom's entire stock, launching his toy-manufacturing career. The Michtoms went on to found the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company in 1907.

The Ideal Novelty and Toy Company eventually expanded beyond stuffed bears to manufacture dolls, action figures and board games. “Celebrity dolls” such as Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin, as well as Wetsy Betsy, Naughty Marietta, Flossie Flirt and hundreds of others were all in their roster of popular toys. In 1951, the Christmas offerings from the Ideal Toy Company included a doll that could change the facial expression from joy to sorrow at a twist of a knob under her bonnet.

It should be noted here that another name pops up in any research of teddy bear history -- Steiff.  Margarete Steiff, of Germany, is often described as the “mother of the teddy bear”. Suffering from polio as a child, she spent most of her time sewing. She made her first stuffed animal, a pin cushion shaped as an elephant, in 1880. After that, she made the whole farmyard of animals, and her brother and nephews helped her build a toy-manufacturing empire. The first evidence of stuffed bears made by Steiff goes back to 1903, when it was shown in the Leipzig Toy Fair. It was spotted in the Steiff pavilion by an American toy buyer and he placed an order of 3,000 bears to be made for the American market. It appears that the Steiffs did not call them teddy bears at that time, but rather bruins or simply bears. The Steiff bears were used to decorate the wedding reception for Roosevelt's daughter in 1906. When someone asked the breed of the bear, one of the guests reportedly exclaimed, "They’re teddy bears, of course!"

While it may be difficult to pinpoint which came first, the "teddy" or the bear, I suspect neither the Steiffs nor the Michtoms would stake the claim for this talking teddy, which “presided” over Theodore Roosevelt’s birthday anniversary celebration at Roosevelt Savings Bank (Gates Avenue and Broadway) in 1950.


Free From Freakish Ideas

Dec 19, 2014 1:21 PM | 2 comments

Parties, man. The worst. Who do you invite? Or more specifically, how do you invite everyone except for that guy? New Year's Eve parties? The worst of the worst. A day already filled with expectations, topped with anticipation, with a dash of nostalgia and/or regret. Thank goodness there are people who are paid to tell us what to do and what not to do to avoid garish social faux pas. Marie Manning, writing under the pseudonym Beatrice Fairfax, wrote the first newspaper advice column in the New York Evening Journal in 1898. The format proved an instant success, with other columns written mainly by women popping up in subsequent years. Naturally, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle needed a column, too. 

December 24, 1922

From 1922 to 1934, Ms. Helen Decie wrote Brooklyn Daily Eagle's etiquette column. Ms. Decie (after all, one must always use a formal address until requested otherwise) was a no-nonsense kind of lady, hence the title of her daily column: "Etiquette." She answered questions and offered general tips, never shying away from the really tough issues like who gets to enter the car first (the driver, followed by the oldest) and mourning veils: "The continued wearing of a mourning veil is entirely a matter of personal choice. No convention is so often disregarded nowadays as is the old-fashioned 'prescribed period.' Usually a widow wears black with a long veil at the funeral and with a short veil for a year afterward. Thereafter, if she is 'still young,' she may go into colors if she pleases" (18 Sept 1930). Golly, thanks!

Ms. Decie didn't pull any punches (not that a lady would ever punch, slap, or commit any act of violence, as those are displays of the uneducated classes). You have a friend that is superstitious? A) "As a matter of good breeding it is vulgar to be superstitious; as a matter of common sense, superstition is blank foolishness..." (22 Aug 1930), and B) rethink that friendship.

And don't ever let Ms. Decie catch you speaking ill about a hostess behind her back.


September 17th, 1927

After all, "Hospitality is one of the most ancient and sacred of social traditions. When a guest gossips about the affairs of a host or hostess, or permits herself even to criticize the household arrangements, she is doing what no well-bred woman would do, and thereby stamps herself as a disloyal, ignorant and vulgar troublemaker whom every hearer instinctively distrusts and dislikes" (27 Sept 1927). 

Needless to say, Ms. Decie isn't to be trifled with. When planning your holiday parties this season, it might be wise to heed her advice. 

For starters, leave your Christmas decorations up and add bells cut from cardboard that say "Happy 1934!" or, "Happy 2015!" as the case may be. As for entertainment: "Ask your more musical guests to bring their music. Time the musicale - including Christmas songs and New Year songs - with interludes of conversation, from 9 to 11, when refreshments are served." (27 Dec 1933). For party favors, jump in your time machine and check out B. Shackman's at 906 Broadway (which is now a furniture store).


December 28th, 1926

If, at your New Year's party, you feel like your dance partner might want to take a break but is too gentlemanly to ask, Ms. Decie suggests you let him know that you "require a moment's rest." Good to have code words during tense social interactions. 

December 29th, 1928

And, on the (very) off chance you're throwing a masquerade party, but you don't want to shatter the illusion by answering the door in costume (but not mask, as a lady does not answer a door masked), why not have your mother or some other relative receive your guests? Such logic. She also suggests that you harken back to a more youthful time and forgo New Year's Eve parties. Bring back Saint Sylvester's Day, which the day was called previously and, in many countries, still is. Sylvester supposedly both baptized Emperor Constantine and cured him of leprosy. Sounds to me like as delightful a reason as any to celebrate with bonbons and turkey, two dishes often suggested as holiday party foods. 

October 2nd, 1927

"Etiquette" has hundreds of entries. In 1934, the column changed hands and went to Ann Deveraux who wrote "Tips of Etiquette" until the paper's demise. Looking back at old newspapers often sheds light on customs long past, some of which might make a welcome return. If you're interested in perusing the daily life of Brooklynites, you can head to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Also, also has digitized magazines dedicated to the upper echelon of Brooklyn's society, Brooklyn Life and its later incarnation, Brooklyn Life and Activities of Long Island Society, for hours and hours of high-class perusal. 

The Brooklyn Collection wishes you a happy and healthy holiday season full of proper parties.

Oh, and yes, you can serve finger bowls at a formal dinner. Finger bowls, small bowls with water for the dipping and cleaning of fingers after the fruit course, come out just before dessert. One will dip their fingers, gently touch their lips, and dry with a napkin. But don't put ice or perfume in the water. That would simply be foolish.

"They'll Say 'Aww, Topsy!' At My Autopsy!"

Dec 12, 2014 10:30 AM | 1 comment

Sometimes, all it takes is an episode of Bob's Burgers to ignite a historical research adventure!

In the episode aptly named "Topsy," Louise devises a scheme to take revenge on an obnoxious science teacher who is obsessed with Thomas Edison. While researching for her science project at the local library, Louise and her siblings stumble across a video of an elephant being electrocuted by the Edison Electric Company. Louise cackles with delight at the idea of smearing the reputation of her teacher's beloved hero in front of the entire class, "I'm going to tell everyone the truth about Thomas Edison, the Electro-cutioner!"

Was Thomas Edison present and responsible for Topsy electrocution? Was Topsy really a "bad" elephant? I needed answers, so I turned to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for accounts of what led to that fateful day in January 1903.

The headline that spelled the beginning of Topsy's demise in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on May 28, 1902.

Topsy did indeed kill a young circus-follower named J. Fielding Blount while in Brooklyn with the Forepaugh Circus in 1902. According to the Eagle's article, Blount snuck into the sleeping elephants' tent early one morning, offering nine other elephants whiskey from a glass before he reached Topsy.

As bizarre as this sounds, this was actually a common practice in the circus at this time that the elephants were accustomed to -- and even looked forward to -- before their first meal of the day. But, Blount was a stranger and a drunk one at that. When he offered Topsy the near-empty glass, seeing the lack of whiskey, she expressed her displeasure by tossing him up and throwing him fatally to the ground with her trunk.

An illustration of Topsy in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which accompanied the headline on May 28, 1902.

After that incident, Topsy began to be referred to as a "bad elephant" by the newspaper. (Other reports of killings by Topsy exist and are even mentioned in the Eagle, but cannot be confirmed directly by multiple sources.) She was put in chains and made to do "penance" for her lethal act. By the end of the year, Topsy had changed owners a couple times to end up in the hands of Luna Park, which was preparing to open to the public in the spring of 1903.

At Luna Park, her handler was arrested twice for animal cruelty and disorderly conduct. The third time he was arrested, Topsy followed him to the police station and poked her head inside. Perhaps it was out of some strange sense of loyalty to her handler or simply curiosity. Either way, the owners of Luna Park had gotten their fair share of publicity out of her antics and were done dealing with the drama of this "bad" elephant. Her owners fired her handler and, in December 1902, announced that the elephant would soon be put to death by electrocution.

There is in fact no mention in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle or the New York Times of Thomas Edison himself being present on the day of the electrocution. What is mentioned in the January 5, 1903 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article is that the, "Chief Electrician P. D. Sharkley of the Edison plant at Coney Island had been secured and with the assistance of Electrician Black of Luna Park several wires were strung from the plant, two blocks distant to the park."

From the evidence at hand, Thomas Edison was not present for the electrocution of Topsy. However, his company did send a film crew to record the event. (That video is the same video Louise and her siblings found over 100 years later on Youtube.) And it is here that we can begin to see the bigger picture -- wherein America's beloved inventor certainly played a role in Topsy and many other animals' demise.

A photograph of Topsy from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle taken moments after her death at Luna Park.

Beginning in the 1880s, Edison's direct current (DC) was threatened by the alternate current (AC) system, designed by Nikola Tesla and distributed by George Westinghouse, which was more powerful and could carry electricity for longer distances. Seeing the new technology as a danger to his business and his pride, Edison began advocating that AC was too dangerous to provide regular homes with electricity and should only be used for implementing the death penalty. This spurred the use of the electric chair as a common means of "humane" execution in the United States.

To prove AC's deadly nature to both experts and the public, Edison worked with an electrical engineer by the name of Harold P. Brown to carry out public demonstrations of electrocution with the AC system on dogs. Though many were horrified at these blatant acts of animal cruelty, experiments continued on various species over the years. Edison's Electric Copmany recorded many of them, including Topsy's, despite the fact that his opponent, Westinghouse, had already won the War of Currents by the early 1890s.

We can conclude, then, that Topsy's unfortunate death was most likely the result of her owners not wanting to deal with an animal too unruly to safely contain and not solely for the egomaniacal amusement of Thomas Edison, as Louise from Bob's Burgers would have us believe. That said, one doesn't have to dig too far into the annals of history to paint Edison as an evil cartoon villain either.

For more information on the unfortunate life and death of Topsy the elephant, check out this book by Michael Daly available at the Brooklyn Public Library.


"Manure Freely": The Floral Stylings of Julius J. Heinrich

Dec 2, 2014 12:05 PM | 0 comments

The Brooklyn Collection's ephemera files are pretty expansive, filled with an array of amazing (and sometimes random) documents tucked away into acid-free manila folders: programs, community newsletters, membership cards, and the like. We have a fair amount of newspapers and periodicals as well, including one well-loved booklet from 1889 entitled Henirch's Floral Instructor.

I was drawn to the book due to the filigree on the cover and the floral-themed typeface. It is pretty, yes? As I started to gently flip through the pages I began to get some scents (Pun! Bad pun!) of late 19th century floriculture, something I knew absolutely nothing about. Quite frankly, I didn't even know that floriculture was a word. I have since tried to use it in my daily life but it is a hard one to stick in there.

Folks have had gardens for a long time. There was that whole hanging one in Babylon a few thousand years ago, Versailles has a pretty one, etc. However, it was with the rise of floriculture in the late 1800s, essentially flower farming, that a wider swath of the population was able to fill indoor and outdoor gardens with flowering plants. The invention of new steam greenhouses replaced both the temperamental flume style houses with small fires that had to be constantly stoked and the outdated greenhouses that were heated with manure. During the Progressive Era of the late 1800s there was also a general desire to reconnect with nature as cities began to swell - the Fresh Air Fund has been sending low-income New Yorkers to the country since 1877 and both the New York Botanical Garden (1891) and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden (1910) came around during this movement to get folks to stop and smell the roses. 

Heinrich's Floral Instructor is, in fact, quite instructive. He begins with a discussion of the oft-undervalued grass plot. "Probably no part of the garden gets more abuse and less attention than a Grass Plot," Heinrich writes, "and if neglected, no part looks worse, and is noticed quicker than the Grass Plot." Even the finest home, he goes on, can be made uninviting by an uneven or spotty plot. His booklet has directions for planting, cutting, sowing, and general maintenance of grasses of all sorts. He doesn't stop at grass, though. 

When it comes to vegetables, Heinrich tells you exactly how deep and how far apart to plant the seeds. He also offers a vital piece of advice for the novice gardener: "manure freely." The more rotten the better. Your cabbages will thank you. 

As the title suggests, Heinrich was a seedsman and florist, thus, he specialized in flowers. The last few pages are devoted to window gardens and the care of individual plants, how to prep spring gardens, and which flowers should be paired with which. The drawings in the book are really detailed and quite lovely. Heinrich's flower shop was located at 121 Court Street or, if you couldn't make it in person, he'd send you a few seed packs for twenty-five cents. 

The back of the book displays some excellent ads (which also run throughout) for Heinrich's other floral services, the floral services of one Henderson, and one for a croup tonic distributed by someone named A. Bauer. Maybe it's just me, but the idea of drinking anything called 'tar syrup' to try to get rid of a cough seems counterintuitive. 

I took a chance and searched for Julius J. Heinrich in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and actually got a few hits, one of which, from March 28th, 1910, was a mention of one of his later books on a recommended reading list composed by none other than yours truly (the Brooklyn Public Library, not me). So, he had two books, huh? Interesting. 

In the Brooklyn Connections program, we always tell our students to look a little deeper. I decided to take my own advice. Using the resources available in the Brooklyn Collection, I wanted to try to discover as much as I could about this manure-loving seedman. From the booklet I had his name and his flower shop's address to start. 

And I found some things. And one or two of them may or may not be (read: may) be juicy...

...get excited!

Archival Adventure - Julius J. Heinrich! still to come!