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Walk the Walk

Dec 7, 2011 10:32 AM | 3 comments

 

We have a number of prints here in the Collection, most of which come from old issues of Harper's or Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, covering all manner of Brooklyn life. Some of my favorite images come from the Sports folder, showing as they do the great diversity of early sporting activity in the borough. Here we can find young men playing handball in stripped-down handball togs, polo dandies in candy-striped jerseys wrangling their horses around the desired ball, and women in feather-caked hats drawing their bows in Prospect Park archery tournaments. But none of these pages from the illustrated papers interest me as much as the one from Leslie's dated February 1, 1879. Though correctly filed away with the other sports prints, it's not immediately evident what sport is being depicted here.  We see no mallets, balls, arrows, bows, horses, targets, teammates, or opponents. Instead, we see one woman as she appeared in five different scenes:

singing from a stage...

enjoying the adulation of a crowd...

clowning around with a sleeping man...

striking a noble pose...

and being carried away, wrapped in blankets. So what kind of sport was this?

Almost 133 years ago to the day Madame Ada Louise Anderson began the task of walking 2,700 quarter miles in 2,700 quarter hours. Or, if my math is right, 675 miles in about a month, or 28.125 days. This phenomenal feat of pedestrianism, as the sporting ways of these distance walkers was termed, took place in Brooklyn at the Mozart Garden on the corner of Fulton and Smith streets. The Eagle ran careful descriptions of both the Garden and the celebrated English pedestrienne. The auditorium of the Garden was encircled by a neatly-laid and well-rolled tan bark track about three feet wide. This oval was then enclosed by a narrow railing about eighteen inches high which separated the track from the flooring. Within the ring, several hundred chairs were set out for spectators -- prominent Brooklynites, a large contingent of women, and gamblers with a stake in the trek. The whole place was brilliantly illuminated, and on the Garden's stage, which was decorated so as to resemble an open air landscape, a brass band regularly played until midnight.

Intersection of Fulton and Smith from an 1886 Robinson's atlas.

As for the 36-year-old Madame Anderson herself, the Eagle describes her as being "robust, rosy, and hearty" with a bright and prepossesing face (though of a "slightly masculine type"). The reporter goes on to describe her form as being "exceedingly strong and muscular, but symmetrical as well." Her costume consisted of black velvet knee breeches, and a loose flowing robe of blue and scarlet cloth, embroidered in white. On her feet were stout, loose, leather shoes topped by scarlet stockings. Her strong, muscular, and altogether symmetrical legs were encased in silver tights, and on her head she wore a blue and scarlet cloth cap ornamented with a white braid and snowy feather. Not only were the Eagle reporters taken with the hale Madame Anderson, but so too were the crowds. On December 30th the Eagle reported that between the hours of 7pm and 11pm four thousand people had gone in and out of the Garden. The seats in the center of the circle were filled, and so too was nearly every available piece of ground on which a spactator could stand. People hung around at all hours of the day, with some crowds at the early hour of 3am reportedly as large as 300 people.

 

Though not without its own sort of drama, a long endurance walk could be a difficult event to report on with continually new and interesting material. As Madame Anderson plodded on toward her goal, most Eagle headlines offered up some variation of "Still Walking" to keep Brooklynites abreast of the pedestrian's labors. As the achievement of the 2,700th quarter mile became more and more of a reality, Madame Anderson wasn't the only one who seemed to be getting fatigued. This one word might sum up the mood in the Eagle offices.

But, as you can probably tell from the Leslie's images, walking was just one part of the spectacle created by Madame Anderson. As much as to wake herself up as to entertain the crowd, Madame Anderson would occasionally take to the stage following a quarter mile and belt out an aria from Verdi, graciously accept challenges from Hoboken pedestrienne wannabes and then vanquish them, or disappear into her dressing room after a few laps only to reappear in some new brown and silver trimmed velvet costume.

Though many doubted her when she first began, Madame Anderson proved all her disbelievers wrong. Keeping up her strength on a diet of rare beefsteak, roast beef, mutton, beef tea, port wine, and champagne, Madame Anderson completed her arduous walk on January 13th 1879. A coach awaited her at the stage door of the Mozart Garden. Several large bouquets of flowers were handed in to her as she left, and a big basket of champagne was hoisted onto the roof. As the coach began to leave, the surrounding crowd shouted out to Madame Anderson to unhitch the horses so that they might pull her to her well-deserved destination -- Dr. Charles H. Shepard's Turkish baths at 81 and 83 Columbia Heights.

It's what's for dinner

Dec 2, 2011 12:25 PM | 0 comments

"Amid wild scenes of face-slapping and hair-pulling, police today quelled a stampede among 3,000 women fighting for places in line... The line had formed as early as 1:30 a.m... some women brought their lunches, their knitting, and their babies."

It may sound like the standard consumer zealotry we're accustomed to hearing about this time of the year, as usually sane citizens spend their Thanksgiving vacation camped out for hours, or days, in front of retail stores in hopes of snagging deals on big-screen TVs, videogame systems, and other toys... the kinds of products they'd enjoy at home, if they were there.  But no, this is not a description of the now-typical Black Friday bargain-hunter brawls that overtake the aisles of otherwise tranquil shopping centers.  Printed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in June of 1946, this is a rundown of the desperate measures Brooklyn housewives would take to get their hands on a product that most of us take for granted.  What was the hot-ticket item that dragged them out of bed in the wee hours of the morning?

Meat.

Even though the war, with its attendant deprivations, was over, throughout 1946 meat was a hard-won item on America's dinner plate.  Since World War II the federal Office of Price Adminstration (OPA) had been imposing price ceilings on consumer goods in an effort to quell inflation.  The ceilings were popular with much of the public, which appreciated  affordable staples like meat, eggs, and milk, but they were increasingly unpopular with the producers of those goods, who argued that they couldn't turn a profit under the government restrictions.  To protest the price controls, meat packers staged a slowdown in production, refusing to slaughter and ship the meat that fed the nation, until price ceilings were removed.  

As meat supplies dwindled, the borough's collective stomach rumbled.  Brooklyn's Fort Greene Retail Meat Market, at 174 Fort Greene Place (now home to a different kind of market, the Atlantic Center Mall), slaughtered its own meat, and throughout that year was often one of the only places borough residents could get the porterhouse steaks, lamb shoulders, and beef livers for which their families clamored.

Above, on June 6, 1946, shoppers vied to get a piece of a shipment of 30,000 pounds of meat that the Fort Greene Retail Meat Market managed to bring in, despite nationwide shortages.  Police were called in that day at about 9 a.m. to restore order to a crowd of over 3,000 restless shoppers, below, waiting for their turn at the butcher's block.  "To add to the excitement," wrote the Eagle, "someone yelled 'Murder!' at the height of the disorder and others took up the cry."

The powers of the OPA were set to expire on June 30, 1946, unless Congress passed an extension.  This was easier said than done; an extension bill put forward in the Senate proposed a much-weakened OPA that would ease price controls and, according to a June 10th Eagle editorial, cost consumers an additional $2 billion in the following six to nine months.  After heated debate in the Senate, which included a futile eight-hour filibuster by anti-OPA Texas Senator W. Lee O'Daniel, the extension of the OPA passed.  On June 29th the Eagle all but guaranteed readers that President Truman would sign the bill into law, while this less reassuring headline ran alongside:

To the surprise of many, President Truman vetoed the OPA extension bill on the grounds that it did not give the agency adequate power and would "legalize inflation and bring economic disaster to the nation."  It was hoped that Congress would act quickly to push through a new bill restoring the OPA to its former strength, but that effort was blocked by -- you guessed it -- Senator O'Daniel.  At midnight on June 30th, all OPA price controls expired.  The beef industry was quick to capitalize on the increased profit potential, and by July 2nd, Brooklyn was back in the meat, but at prices that alarmed many shoppers.

"Despite the price hike," the Eagle reported on July 2nd, "the rush at the market was as great as ever.  Up to noon 1,000 persons had been served.  The line started forming at 4 a.m.  Many of the early arrivals were drenched by rain, but they refused to yield their places."  Prices eased down by the next week as meat from the revived Chicago stockyards trickled into Brooklyn.  The black market for beef, which had flourished under the OPA price ceiling system, quickly dissipated as supplies flooded the city.

Above, an image from the Eagle, July 10, 1946, with the caption: "Scarce no more -- Yes, folks, that's beef and there's plenty of it at the Fort Greene Retail Meat Market."  A spokesman from the Unity Meat Market, at 125 Smith Street, remarked to the Eagle on July 7th that, "The death of the OPA was the best thing that could happen in our business."

But not everyone was ecstatic about the newly unfettered meat market, and consumers moved quickly to push back against rising prices.  On July 18th, 150 housewives and veterans paraded down DeKalb Avenue, between Sumner and Throop Avenues, announcing a boycott on new meat prices with punny slogans like "Meat may be nice but we won't meet the price," and "We refuse to swallow hamburger at $1 a pound."  According to the Eagle, "they succeeded in keeping shoppers out of seven butcher stores.  Poultry shops, not included in the boycott, did a landslide business."  

Several other organizations rallied with the housewives, including the local chapter of the American Veterans Committee, whose chairman, a young Howard Zinn, declared, "We are now engaged in another grim war which must be won if the first victory is to be of any significance."  More rallies followed; July 23rd was the first of several "buy nothing days" staged by a citywide consumer strike committee.  On August 1st Coney Island shoppers picketed along Mermaid Avenue and that same day Mayor O'Dwyer himself endorsed the boycott efforts.  The Brooklyn Buyers Strike Committee declared a meat boycot for the entire week of August 12th to 20th. 

Their efforts were rewarded, albeit inadequately, when a revived OPA bill was finally pushed through the legislature.  Price ceilings on meat and other staples went back into effect in early September, and the wearying cycle immediately started all over again.  Meat supplies dried up.  Black markets sprang up with pocket-gouging prices.  Long lines formed outside the Fort Green Retail Meat Market which was, again, the only game in town. 

Look familiar?  Brooklynites wait patiently to get inside the Fort Greene Retail Meat Market, where on October 2nd crowds swelled to 5,000 hungry shoppers.

The Eagle ran this picture on October 13th, lamenting the plight of these cattle who had "nothing to do and no purpose in life" while another meat industry slowdown kept beef off the market. 

The seesaw of feast and famine finally came to an end in mid-October.  President Truman, "under severe political pressure from Republicans and members of his own party who have bombarded the White House for relief from the meat shortage," according to the Eagle, announced his decision to lift controls on the price of meat completely.  Once again, the floodgates were opened and meat poured into Brooklyn's markets.  The Eagle snapped this shot of Dave Ershowsky, owner of the Harvey Beef Company at 201 Fort Greene Place, standing forlornly in an empty meat cooler on October 15th...  

...and came back the next day to capture a still-low-key Ershowsky posing with his just-arrived 15-ton shipment of prime beef.

 

Another price hike followed, but by the end of the month, as the beef supply evened out, prices again came down, although not as low as the OPA ceiling prices shoppers had once enjoyed.  While the housewives and consumer groups had lost their fight to keep meat prices in check, they did strike a parting jab against the meat industry -- by the end of October, meat markets complained of an overabundance of beef that customers were unwilling to buy.  As Eagle reporter J. A. Livingston described it in his "Business Outlook" column on October 27th, "OPA decontrols meat prices, beef flows to market, and overnight Mrs. Housewife decides she'd rather save the bank account than buy red meat."  Maybe familiarity bred contempt?