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Every New Year's Day morning, when most people are nursing hangovers (or still imbibing the drink that will ensure a hangover, later) dozens upon dozens of hardy souls converge on Coney Island to observe a ritual more than one hundred years in the making -- the annual Coney Island Polar Bears' New Year's Day swim. As Polar Bear Club members will attest, there's nothing like a dip in frigid Atlantic waters on a cold winter's day to get the blood pumping, and as I can personally attest, there's no better way to kick off a new year than an invigorating brush with hypothermia.
An Irving Herzberg photograph of the Coney Island Polar Bears, 1977.
The Coney Island Polar Bear Club doesn't relegate its ice-diving activities to just one morning out of the year -- members meet every Sunday during the cold months, and have been since 1903. The club credits Bernarr Macfadden -- the so-called "father of physical culture" -- as its founder. Macfadden was an early proponent of weight-lifting and believed that spare living and rigorous physical activity could cure most of mankind's ailments. I couldn't find any historic documents definitively tying Macfadden to the Polar Bears, nor could two of the engrossing Macfadden biographies I picked up at the library, Mr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation Diet and Weakness is a Crime: the Life of Bernarr Macfadden. Based on those evocative titles alone, though, it isn't hard to imagine that the idea of willingly bathing in freezing waters would appeal to Macfadden, who was a fascinating character in his own right. Although he is largely unknown now, he made (and lost) a fortune publishing magazines espousing his views on physical fitness in the early half of the 20th century. He also published the New York Evening Graphic, a splashy tabloid newspaper that, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, "burst upon the city with all the noise of an unsafe and insane Fourth of July." Perhaps an unsafe and insane New Year's Day spent frolicking in the ocean would be a more apt metaphor?
Another Herzberg shot of the Polar Bears exercising in the snow, 1974.
Although the Eagle seems to have taken no notice of Macfadden and his band of aquatic daredevils in their club's inaugural season, the newspaper did routinely check in on the Polar Bears through the years, often as a light-hearted counterpart to the usual front-page tragedies. An Eagle article from March of 1914 incredulously lauded the Polar Bears for refusing to cancel their weekly swim despite a "blinding snowstorm" and treacherous waters "choked with miniature ice cakes." The Manhattan Beach branch of the club made news -- and one of my favorite pictures in our collection -- in 1941, when it began allowing women to its ranks.
From the Brooklyn Eagle, March 13, 1941: "First girl admitted -- The Polar Bear Club at Manhattan Beach, admission to which was closed to members of the female sex since its inception 25 years ago, recently opened its lists to women." Miss Dale Roberts, the lady bear pictured above, "was properly initiated with a face-wash of snow."
Other winter bathing clubs formed as the sport caught on, with a club sprouting up as far away as Chicago. Another Coney Island group formed in 1918 and called themselves the Iceberg Athletic Club. Although they may not have been the first winter swimmers' club, they probably had the snazziest uniforms, which they showed off annually when they marched in Coney Island's Mardi Gras parade.
Members of the Iceberg Athletic Club, 1952.
This card from the Brooklyn Collection's archival files -- presumably from a survey of local organizations that Brooklyn Public Library conducted in 1969 -- gives a bit of an idea of the Iceberg Athletic Club's mission, not to mention its high standards for membership:
"Purpose: Health -- Recreation -- Friendship"
"Who may Join: All males who qualify (swim in January)"
"Day and Time and Place of Meetings: Every Day"
Many of our best photographs of winter bathers come from amateur photographer and Coney Island resident Irving Herzberg. He captured the Polar Bears and their merry antics in the frigid air on several occasions throughout the 1970s.
Above and below, Polar Bears show off their strength, agility and sense of humor with medicine balls and handstands.
Above, a Herzberg picture of the Polar Bears' former headquarters at Cooks Baths on the boardwalk. Below, a group shot from 1974.
Have you fallen in love with them yet? Membership for the 2011 - 2012 season is, unfortunately, closed, but as always, the public is welcome to join in the club's most high-profile tradition, the annual New Year's Day Swim. In addition to being a memorable way to welcome the new year, the event is also a fundraiser for Camp Sunshine, and details on how to register or pledge can be found at the event's website. The mad dash for the water, sometimes attracting thousands of participants and many more observers, begins at 1:00pm sharp on the Boardwalk at Stillwell Avenue.
Having participated in the plunge myself last year, I'm looking forward to taking another dip this Sunday. It truly is an invigorating way to shake off the old year and welcome the new. See you there!
The sub-genre of the Brooklyn memoir--often inexpensively self-published in paperback, with little editing--can be a valuable source of information on folk ways, street games and customs, while at the same time fleshing out the bare bones of the borough's history with narrative life. Titles on our shelves that dip into memories of childhood and youth include Michael Gordon's Brooklyn Beginnings. A Geriatrician's Odyssey; Gerald Chatanow and Bernard Schwartz's Another Time Another Place; Mike Getz's Brooklyn Boy: A Memoir; and Estelle Breines Brooklyn Roots. A tale of pickles and egg creams; Frank J. Trezza's Brooklyn Steel-Blood Tenacity; Louis Postiglione's Did I Win or Did I Lose?; Ed German's Deep Down in Brooklyn; Muriel Fox's A Girl from the Home; and a welcome recent addition in graphic form by Martin Lemelman, Two Cents Plain, this one published in hard cover by the mainstream press, Bloomsbury.
The three volumes pictured here are the latest to appear on my desk. Martin Levinson proceeds by setting the scene: so thoroughly is the scene set that one begins to wonder when the action will start. The Korean War, the many amenities of his Flatbush neighborhood, the role of women, the advent of TV and rock and roll, popular fads and games--these concerns, interspersed with brief personal anecdotes, form the bulk of this slim book. Levinson's Brooklyn was a "Club Med for kids," a sunny paradise in which the only guns available were water pistols and cap guns. If you ever need to know the difference between stoopball, punchball and boxball, this is your source.
As its title suggests, entertainer Jerry Castaldo's Brooklyn NY: a Grim Retrospective inhabits an altogether darker world. In 1970s Bensonhurst a boy from a struggling family could find any number of ways to get into trouble, which is precisely what Castaldo did. His stories of violence, addiction and attempted suicide flow with a verve and immediacy that set this book apart from so many of its more pedestrian fellows.
Nicole Scarcella's Made in Sicily Born in Brooklyn gives us a warmer, less threatening Bensonhurst, a neighborhood viewed from the heart of a Sicilian family living the American dream of the late 1940s and 1950s: a house on 72nd Street filled with family and the aroma of Italian cooking; a car with a garage, a garden planted with fig trees and vines, a wine cellar, an enclosed porch transformed into a teenage girl's bedroom--these are the elements of Scarcella's remembered urban idyll. There are deeply felt moments here; in spite of her verbal tics, mixed metaphors and cliches, Scarcella--a self-confessed novice writer--is a born storyteller. Her vignettes coalesce to form a vivid picture of a young woman breaking out of a life circumscribed by the values of her Sicilian parents. Scarcella moved to California as an adult, but like so many Brooklyn exiles, she seems to have left a piece of her heart here.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And apparently he's been to Brooklyn on many occasions.
Early evidence of Santa's presence in Brooklyn can be seen in this 1878 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. That year, Santa and his reindeer set up his HEADQUARTERS at Rogers, Peet & Co on Fulton Street. Although he was probably quite busy getting ready for his big night, the advertisement goes on to point out that all children were welcome to come visit him.
Santa seems to have had similar relationships with several department stores over the years. In 1937, he joined Snow White and Abe the Clown to celebrate one of the United States' largest Christmas trees, on display outside of Loeser's Department Store (left). In 1950, he hosted the opening of the Namm's Department Store Toyland (below).
That same year, he also arrived by helicopter (I guess the reindeer had the day off) outside of the May's Department Store. Notice the crowds forming not only on the street, but inside the store. That Santa really knows how to make an entrance.
Santa's public appearances weren't limited to the commercial. He attended holiday lighting ceremonies on Flatbush Avenue and Fifth Avenue. He even stopped by Central Library (right) one year.
But his favorite activity, by far, seems to be serving as a special guest at children's parties at settlement houses, community centers and other charitable organizations. Our collection is full of images depicting Santa's generosity to those children who were most in need.
There are also rumors that Santa's Brooklyn excursions are not limited to the winter months. In 1966, amateur photographer Irving Herzberg captured photographic evidence that Santa occasionally vacations at Coney Island.
It's hard to predict where Santa might pop up this year. If you have a Santa sighting... let us know. And in the meantime, we here at Brooklynology are sending you best wishes for a very Happy and Healthy Holiday Seaon!
In its general look and feel the library's web site may not appear to have changed much in the past week, but under that smooth surface design, a small revolution has taken place: a new content management system will allow Brooklyn Collection staff to effect changes to our web page instead of having it done at one remove. So, here is our first photo of the week--just in case you missed our article on Brooklyn's one and only full matador. And even more exciting, here are the finding aids we have deemed good enough to share. And now that we have a simple way to share them, more will follow quickly on their heels, for our shelves positively groan with manuscript and archive collections large and small in various states of arrangement and description.
Here is one, for example, that is not yet included in our list. The Holloway Letters (1868-1926) consist of 67 letters addressed to Laura C. Holloway (later Laura C. Holloway Langford). The bulk of the letters pertain to Holloway's best-selling book, "Ladies of the White House", while others have to do with her tenure as an associate editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Most notably, the collection contains eleven letters written by Susan B. Anthony, who dedicated her life to woman's suffrage.
Dated between 1881 and 1889, the letters show evidence of a warm friendship and a lively involvement with social concerns of the day. Most intriguing is the discovery of Holloway's attempt to bring Anthony--a figure of national renown--to Brooklyn for a luncheon meeting of the Seidl Society, an institution founded by Holloway in 1889 "for the purpose of securing to its members and the public increased musical culture and of promoting musical interest among women particularly. It aims to reach all classes of women and children and by its efforts in their behalf to prove the potent influence of harmony over individual life and character."
Anton Seidl, after whom the association was named, was a conductor who took an active role in bringing the works of Wagner to audiences in New York--and Brooklyn. According to Joseph Horowitz, (in Cultivating Music in America) "During the summer of 1889...several thousand working girls and poor or orphaned children visited the Coney Island seashore and concerts at the society's expense. The group also organized lectures, lunches, dinners and receptions. It taught its members to sing. And it aspired to build a Wagner opera house in Brooklyn to house a permanent Wagner festival, an American Bayreuth."
Anthony gracefully declined the invitation, suggesting Elizabeth Cady Stanton as a substitute.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (l.) and Susan B. AnthonyLibrary of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Rochester N.Y., July 7 1889
My Dear Friend
Your two telegrams are before me--and much as I would love to say "yes" and be with you next Friday the 12th inst. I have to deny myself the pleasure--1st because I am but just settled into being lazy at home--and 2nd because that very day I am expecting the arrival of my brother D.R.'s only surviving daughter--and 3d because my purse groans with emptiness from too many such acceptances already...
Our Grand Commander in Chief Elizabeth Cady Stanton is at Hempstead Long Island--why do you not (illegible) upon her--she is so very near to you and always can say just the beautiful word in the most beautiful way..."
Rochester NY Jul 10th 1889
My Dear Friend Laura C. Holloway
Ever since I said "no" to your most kind and flattering invitation to be the guest of your "Seidl" Club at Brighton Beach...my heart has smote me right and left...
Rochester NY Jul 11, 1889
Your card is just here--I am more than delighted that Mrs Stanton is to be the guest of your club on the 12th tomorrow--and hope the skies will be kind and all the very best forces will possess her head and heart, so that every person who sees and hears her at some lunch--will be connected to woman's need to possess the right of suffrage as a fulcrum on which to plant her lever to move the world to higher and truer living....
Lovingly and gratefully
Susan B. Anthony
Brooklyn did not become the American Bayreuth, but women did finally get the vote; and thanks to the Holloway letters, we know that a meeting of the Seidl Society in Brooklyn on July 12 1889 (attended by 300 people, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle report) was one of the thousands of occasions on which stirring words were spoken and hearts were moved.
Please join us this Wednesday, December 14th, for the latest installment of our monthly series of author talks. This month we are pleased to welcome Evan Hughes, author of Literary Brooklyn. Please note that the program is on the second Wednesday of the month, as opposed to the usual fourth Wednesday, due to the busy holiday season.
Literary Brooklyn uncovers the borough's -- and a nation's -- history through the minds of its greatest writers. In it, Hughes not only traces the origins of Brooklyn's contemporary literary scene but illuminates a revealing slice of American urban history. Starting with Walt Whitman, Brooklyn's first laureate, through the greats of the twentieth century, such as Henry Miller, Marianne Moore, Richard Wright, to today's prominent writers -- Jonathan Lethem, Jhumpa Lahiri, Colson Whitehead, and more -- Hughes peers into their lives, their work, and their Brooklyn, the home that shaped them. Chapter by chapter, Hughes uses Brooklyn's literary tradition to tell the story of city life in America.
Seating is limited to 40 people, so please arrive at 6:30pm to claim a ticket. Wine and cheese will be served. The author talk begins at 7pm. We hope to see you there!