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You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby

Aug 12, 2010 11:56 AM | 1 comment

Claudia Kine, 1953

On a recent beach vacation I discovered that many towns along the Jersey shore hold a 'baby parade' each summer.  I was intrigued by the idea of a parade of babies, but I chose an afternoon of lounging over further investigation -- bloggers get vacations too!

After returning home, a thought occurred to me: "If baby parades existed in New Jersey, maybe there was one in Brooklyn too."  It's not that I think everything ties back to Brooklyn.  It's just that through my posts I have become familiar with Brooklyn's tendency towards the kitschy and quirky.  Off to the Eagle "morgue" I went.

Success!  Brooklyn did have a baby parade: 

September 16, 1928

And before Brooklyn had its own parade, Brooklynites would travel to New Jersey to participate there:

August 29, 1929

I learned that a baby parade is an opportunity to dress up and show off your child (they used the term "baby" loosely) while competing for cash and/or glory.  It was every stage mom's dream.  The greatest of all baby parades was held at Asbury Park, which attracted people from all over the world.  The Library of Congress has footage of the 1904 parade, which was the year two-year-old Brooklynite Samuel Peden won the novelty division for dressing as a hod carrier.  I particularly like the floats towards the end, including the mini boxing ring at 5:07.

The Brooklyn Baby parade took place in Coney Island and was linked to the annual Coney Island Mardi Gras festivities.  The Mardi Gras events warrant another blog entry (it's in progress!).  But in summation: Coney Island Mardi Gras took place every September to celebrate the end of summer and mimicked the New Orleans affair with a week of costumes, parades and massive (occasionally drunken) crowds.  Mardi Gras and the parade ended in 1954.  But today's Mermaid Parade is intended to be a one-day homage to Coney's Mardi Gras. 

Sleeping Babe, 1948

According to the Eagle the baby parade was the "crowning event" of Mardi Gras, taking place on the last day of the festivities since 1916.  The parade featured 400-600 babies with spectator crowds of around 350,000 people.  While most participants were from Brooklyn, the parade attracted families from other boroughs, New Jersey and beyond.  Participants could dress any way they liked.  Some prefered traditional white "Sunday Best," while others went for thematic costumes and floats.  Some even got political: "Protests against prohibition, birth control, the slaying of innocent children and police censorship of bathing beauties.. all found expression in the colorful and unique floats." (Eagle, 1931)   

Ducky Pair, 1954

$2,000 was spent on trophies for the entrants.  Every participant received a small "loving cup" trophy.  Larger versions were given to children in the various competition categories.  Categories included best fancy costume, original constume, fancy float, original float and overall best baby. The winning babies/children would be crowned by the Queen of Mardi Gras, who had celebrated her own crowning earlier in the week.  

From one queen to another, 1946 A charming entry, 1946

Prizes at Asbury Park ranged from $500 cash to a new car.  At Coney Island, the prize was "only" a trophy, a mention in the Eagle, and the chance for fameThis was enough for parents to go to extremes.  In 1954, eight-year-old Joan Megerle rode her own horse to victory in the best original costume as (a fully clothed) Lady Godiva. 

Mardi Gras sprite, 1954

That same year, five-year-old Bobbie DeMott braved an unseasonably chilly September afternoon as a hula girl with matching float.  I think she went home with only a standard participants trophy.  Personally, I think Bobbie is rather cute.  But it's tough to compete with live animals.  

Chilly Hawaiian, 1954

And then of course there were the ringers from out of town.  In 1931, seven year-old William Aitken, Jr. of Newark, New Jersey, took the grand prize for "Original Float" in two other parades--Asbury Park and Belvedere Beach--before nabbing trophy number three at Coney Island.  All three of William's winning floats were related to fire because his father was a fireman.  Now there's some hot competition.

Peacock in Bushwick: The Pope Mansion

Aug 7, 2010 12:34 PM | 5 comments


Some years ago we purchased a small collection of photographs of an opulent house known as the "Pope Mansion" at 871 Bushwick Ave.  Mostly interior shots showing crushing amounts of Victorian clutter, the photographs are credited to H.G. Borgfeldt and dated c. 1909.

Pope Mansion Exterior

A search for information on the house and the family revealed a fascinating story of tobacco wealth and family feuds right in the heart of Brooklyn. 

The Pope parents immigrated to the U.S. from Bavaria. It was their son John, born around 1857, who was the founder of the family fortunes. According to a long Eagle article dated April 1, 1909, John went down to Richmond Virginia as a wagonboy handling express packages, and was soon noticed and given a position as a clerk in a tobacco company. In fact the 1880 census shows him at age 23 boarding with the well-known Arents family, one of whom (George) was later the donor of a sumptuous collection of materials on tobacco to the New York Public Library.

John Pope was a man of energy and initiative who quickly amassed a fortune in the tobacco trade.  Unfortunately he died young in 1896, dividing his millions among numerous friends including George Arents; his brother George P. Pope; and three sisters, Kunigunde Mullin, Margaret Pope, and Eva Kreiser. A Bushwick property was deeded equally to all four siblings, and the brother and sisters pooled their money, the women leaving all monetary affairs in the hands of the youngest, George, who had received the bulk of the fortune. 

George was a conoisseur of fine tapestries and other objets d'art. He had a pipe organ built in his new house--(you can just see the pipes at right of the photograph above)--bought costly chandeliers, the finest oriental rugs, music boxes, pianos, stained glass windows possibly by Tiffany (see below) and installed a white peacock in the garden.  A staunch Catholic, he gave lavishly to local churches.  The marble altar at the Church of St John the Baptist in Willoughby Avenue was donated by George Pope, as was the organ at St. Pope mansion windows

Barbara's. He also gave freely to Cathlic orphan asylums and other charitable institutions, his good works drawing such notice in the Holy See that in 1902 at the age of 33 he was invested with the Order of St. Gregory the Great by Pope Leo XIII. To show his appreciation, Mr Pope immediately sent Pope Leo a gold papal seal set with precious stones.  Even a modest 1900 report of the fifth ("wooden") wedding anniversary celebration of his sister and brother-in-law, the Kreisers, trumpets the handsome gift he bestowed on the young couple. As the Eagle reporter does not tell us exactly what it was, we are free to imagine--a Steinway piano with the finest of rosewood veneers perhaps, or a medieval German carving out of walnut...

But trouble was brewing in paradise. Kunigunde Mullin, George's widowed sister--a tall, blue-eyed and large-mouthed woman, with a high forehead and a name that is a gift to census searchers--became concerned that the inheritance of her two children would be squandered by her luxury-loving brother.  While George had received over $1 million in his brother's will, John left Kunigunde and her sisters a mere $140,000 each. The magnificence of the Bushwick Avenue Mansion seemed to Mrs Mullin out of proportion with her true lot in life. In 1909 she retained an attorney serendipitously named Mr Lack, who made heroic attempts to settle the matter out of court.  Failing to reach an agreement,  Mrs Mullin sued her brother for the stocks and bonds named in John's will. She, it was said, did not want to be "made to pay one fourth of the cost of all the clocks, the music boxes, the rugs and the priceless embroidery with which George has been satisfying his artistic fancies."


Still less did she wish to pay for one fourth of a $140 peacock that was "worse than worthless."  As tends to happen with peacocks, the creature was so noisy that the neighbors --no doubt local beer barons --complained that it kept them awake, and the bird was given away. There was even talk of partitioning off a section of the mansion, but by mid-June of 1909 the siblings finally reached an accommodation, and Mrs Mullin dropped her suit. The house and its contents at that time were valued at $2,000,000.

And so it was that by the time of the 1910 census, Mrs Mullin and her son were living not in the gilded palace on Bushwick Avenue, but at 74 Woodruff Avenue in Flatbush, not far from the Parade Grounds. We can only hope that family relations were improved by the separation, and that Mrs Mullin felt more comfortable in her modest row house.

Poor George with all his finery did not make old bones. In 1917 at the age of 48 he died at his "winter residence" in Atlantic City after a long illness.  Three years later, the mansion on Bushwick Avenue at the corner of Himrod Street was sold to the Jewish Home for the Aged and Infirm (later known as the Menorah Home) for $150,000. It must have been the bargain of the century. The remaining family members may not have realized that some of the chandeliers were 22-carat gold, while others were "exquisite objects of Japanese brass."  Murals and ceiling paintings  and a bonsai garden were among the other objects that would be enjoyed by the elderly inhabitants of the old Pope Mansion.

The house endured until the 1950s,  when the directors of the Menorah Home replaced it with a building that was no doubt more practical, but it must be said, infinitely less attractive. That building changed hands in 2005 and is now home to the Metro International Church. 


Bundle of Fun

Aug 4, 2010 4:30 PM | 3 comments

If you make regular use of our collection it is likely that the name Henry Reed Stiles rings a bell -- a very small, rusty, cracked, nearly inaudible bell -- but a bell nonetheless. At the time of his death in 1909, Stiles was widely recognized as the first historian of the city of Brooklyn; his three volume History of the City of Brooklyn was published between 1867 and 1870 and covers everything from Hudson's first Manhattan visit to the consolidation of the cities of Williamsburgh, Brooklyn, and the township of Bushwick. He was this borough's Herodotus -- and though a photograph is an admittedly unfair way to judge someone -- he was this borough's pale, timid-looking, and doughy Herodotus.

But don't let this yellowed photo fool you. Stiles was a talented polymath and a tireless worker. Here is a quick, and far from complete, breakdown of some of his accomplishments:

He studied in the medical department of the University of the City of New York and at the New York Opthalmic Hospital, graduating at the age of 23; shortly thereafter he left the medical profession and moved west to Ohio to take on head editorial duties at the Toledo Blade; in 1856 he returned to Brooklyn and, as a member of the Calkins & Stiles firm, published the American Journal of Education; soon thereafter in 1859, he resumed practicing medicine but left the field again in 1863 to help establish the Long Island Historical Society, of which he would become the first librarian.

He resigned from his position as librarian in 1865 and in 1868 served in the office of the Metropolitan Board of the City of New York, where he also acted as health inspector for three years. Needless to say, in Stiles's obituary his "long and useful life" was described as one of "work, work, work, from the time that he left college until sickness prostrated him[.]"

Perhaps most remarkable was that in the midst of all these labors, Stiles still found the time to write a number of books on a variety of subjects: The History and Genealogies of Ancient Windsor, Bundling in America, Genealogy of the Massachusetts Family of Stiles, The Wallabout Prison Series, as well as his three volume history of Brooklyn, to name just a few.

From exploring the lineage of his own Connecticut yeomanry to detailing the plight of prisoners aboard Wallabout's floating dungeons, Stiles cut a wide scholarly path for such a day-to-day busy man. But of all these works, and of all the subjects he touched upon, I was most curious about one specific title: Bundling in America. What was it? A treatise on the American method of gathering objects and binding them together? Could it be? Was Old America really that weird? Well, yes and no. It turns out Bundling in America, or, Bundling: Its Origins, Progress and Decline in America (its full title) is a brief history of...well...cuddling. Or perhaps we should call it snuggling. Or maybe spooning is a more apt descriptor -- yes, indeed: old-fashioned colonial spooning. More or less. But to be clear, here are the three definitions of bundling supplied by Stiles at the beginning of his text:

Bundling. "A man and a woman lying on the same bed with their clothes on; an expedient practiced in America on a scarcity of beds, where, on such occasions, husbands and parents frequently permitted travelers to bundle with their wives and daughters." -- Grose, Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

Bundle, v.i. "To sleep on the same bed without undressing; applied to the custom of a man and a woman, especially lovers, thus sleeping." -- Webster, 1864

Bundle, v.n. "To sleep together with the clothes on." -- Worcester, 1864

And though the original printing of this monograph was unaccompanied by any illustrations, a reprint from the 1930s ("Reprinted for the Enlightenment of the Present Generation") remedied this oversight. The woodcuts, printed in red, were done by someone named Herb Roth. Here are some choice examples.

Bundle party!


Mom is no fun.

Ummmmmm...why are they tied up?

In any case, whether illustrated or not Stiles's account of bundling in America is an engrossing read, tracing as it does the different permutations of this wooing style in the British Isles, Holland (where it was known as queesting), Switzerland, and Afghanistan where a close cousin of bundling went by the name namzat bebe. Plus, you can read some of the greatest bundling-inspired poetry in the American canon -- classics like "A Poem Against Bundling," and "The Whore on the Snow Crust."

So perhaps a bit of rethinking is called for when it comes to Henry Reed Stiles. Rather than a doughy Herodotus we might want to think of Brooklyn's first historian as a sort of bookish Brad Pitt. After all, Stiles was just 29 when his work on bundling was published and still a vigorous, red-blooded, and supple young man -- as surely this etching from an edition of The History of Kings County, a book which he edited, would attest.

Collage Workshop: Picturing Your Neighborhood

Aug 2, 2010 12:17 PM | 0 comments

A summer art workshop jointly sponsored by the Brooklyn Collection and the Art, Music Media and Sports Division (AMMS), with Artist and Librarian June Koffi.

Central Library, 2nd floor meeting room, 11:00-12:30. Registration required. 718-230-2708

Week One, Wed. August 4. What makes a Collage? What makes a neighborhood?

In this session participants will brainstorm about what makes their neighborhood unique. We'll also go over collage techniques and the various materials that will be used.

Week Two, Wed. August 11. Looking for Images.

Week two will be spent gathering and selecting images from magazines, sketchbooks and your personal albums. Participats will also learn to use BPL's historic photograph database.

Week Three, Wed. August 18. Putting It Together.

Using photographs, drawings and whatever else we can find, we'll start composing and gluing materials, finding interesting ways to tell the story of our neighborhoods.

Week Four, Wed. August 25. Finishing touches.

Participants will adjust, rearrange and fine tune their masterpieces.

This workhop is limited to twelve people and is open to all ages and abilities. Please call June Koffi at 718-230-2708 for registration.