Archive for February, 2014

Jose Maria Mora

Mrs. Frederic Rhinelander Jones (Mary Cadwalader Rawle), Mrs. Francis C. Barlow, Miss Kate Fearing Strong, and Miss Sandy[?] pose with a stuffed bear in this 1875 photo by Jose Maria Mora. Museum of the City of New York Collections.

In the past few years, numerous websites and blogs have sprung up featuring some very uncomfortable family moments in awkward and embarrassing holiday and vacation photos. These sites are definitely great for a good laugh, but there’s nothing really special about any of the people in the photos (other than the fact that they are, um, eccentric).

Mrs. Frederic Rhinelander Jones

This photo of Mrs. Frederic Rhinelander Jones (Mary Cadwalader Rawle) with a stuffed polar bear was possibly taken at Delmonico’s Ball in 1876, where she was dressed to represent Russia. Museum of the City of New York Collections.

During the Gilded Age of New York City, when cabinet card photographs were in vogue, it was not unusual to find some very awkward portraits in the Victorian parlor. Oftentimes, these portraits featured members of high society posing in bizarre costumes and stances, or with taxidermic animals at their sides (braces and stands were available to help humans remain motionless for long exposure times, but animals couldn’t be made to stay still that long).

Jose Maria Mora

One of New York’s pioneers in photographic portraits during this time was Jose Maria Mora, a young Cuban refugee who studied painting in England and Paris. Mora came to New York during the Cuban uprising in the 1860s, and began his career at Napoleon Sarony’s photography studio at 680 Broadway, which was then the most artistic and respected studio in the city.

Jose Maria Mora

Jose Maria Mora, ca. 1885. Museum of the City of New York Collections.

Mora opened his own studio at 707 Broadway in 1870, which he filled with over 150 hand-painted backgrounds and all kinds of props for his clients, including ornate headdresses and hats and papier-mache columns, balustrades, and rocks. By 1878, Mora was making $100,000 a year photographing the aristocrats of the upper class and the stars of opera and stage.

Sarony Studio

After Mora opened his own studio on Broadway, Sarony moved his studio to 37 Union Square. Customers rode a small hydraulic elevator up from the street level to Sarony’s reception room located on the fifth floor, shown here.

Born into one of the wealthiest planter families of colonial Cuba, Mora was able fit right in with the upper classes of New York. As the photographer of choice among the well-to-do, it was no surprise, then, that Mrs. Vanderbilt chose him to document one of the most memorable social events in the history of New York.

Mrs. Vanderbilt’s “Fancy Dress Ball” of 1883

In the early spring of 1883, everyone who was anyone in New York City’s high society was summoned to attend a fancy dress ball at Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt’s new mansion at 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue. The invitations stipulated that everyone dress in costume — all the guests went above and beyond to comply with Mrs. Vanderbilt’s orders. The ball, which took place on March 26, 1883, was one of the most incredible parties that New York had ever seen (C.K.G. Billings’ opulent Horseback Dinner was still 20 years away).

Vanderbilt Mansion

The William K. Vanderbilt House, also known as the Petit Chateau, was a Châteauesque mansion at 660 Fifth Avenue (northwest corner of 52nd St. and Fifth Ave.) Next door was the twin mansion of William Henry Vanderbilt, which occupied the entire block between 51st and 52nd streets. The W.K. Vanderbilt house was sold to a real-estate developer in 1926, demolished, and replaced by a commercial building. The site is now occupied by an office building known as 666 Fifth Avenue.

The carriages began arriving at 660 Fifth Avenue around 10:30 p.m., setting the scene for what was probably comparable to today’s world premiere of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland or Lady Gaga arriving at the American Music Awards. As almost a thousand of New York City’s well-to-do emerged from their carriages, crowds of common folk, held back by police, strained to catch glimpses of these Victorian pirates, knights, queens, and fairies.

The Beastly Costumes

Although Louis XVI was the most popular costume with the men that year, and fairy-tale characters like Little Bo Peep and Little Red Riding Hood were fashionable with the ladies, many of the female guests chose to dress up as birds, insects, and other creatures. Mora’s camera captured these critter creations on deluxe cabinet cards, many of which still survive in the vast collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Alva Vanderbilt

The hostess, Alva Vanderbilt, dressed up as a Venetian princess, and had her photograph taken by Mora with white doves hovering around her.

Mrs. Ada Smith, the sister of Mrs. Vanderbilt, went as a peacock, complete with a waist made of a real peacock’s breast and a train covered in real peacock feathers. Mr. Vanderbilt’s sister, Mrs. Seward Webb, went to the ball dressed as a hornet, wearing a yellow satin waist with a brown velvet skirt and brown gauze wings (her imported headdress was made of diamonds). Another woman dressed as a wasp with horizontal stripes of black and yellow, and yellow gloves with black stripes.

Mrs. William Seward Webb (neé Lila O. Vanderbilt)

Mrs. William Seward Webb (neé Lila O. Vanderbilt) in her hornet costume. Museum of the City of New York Collections.

If you thought my story about the cat farm was offensive, then you’ll agree that one of the most outlandish and disturbing costumes was worn by Miss Kate Fearing Strong, who went to the ball as her nickname, Puss.

This hideous costume featured an overskirt made of seven white cats’ tails sewed on a dark background and a bodice with rows of white cat heads. The headdress was a stiffened white cat’s skin with a taxidermic cat head. The only nice touch was a blue ribbon inscribed “Puss,” which hung from a bell that she wore on a choker that unfortunately was not tight enough.

Kate Feering Strong

Miss Kate Feering Strong wore the most offensive cat costume at the Vanderbilt Ball. Museum of the City of New York Collections.

In addition to the costumes, the ball also featured six organized quadrilles (a dance for four couples) as follows:

The Hobby-Horse quadrille, the Mother Goose quadrille, the Opera Bouffe, the Star quadrille, the Dresden China quadrille, and the Go-as-You-Please. The dancers organized in the gymnasium on the third floor (a 50 x 35 foot room that was used as an indoor play area for the Vanderbilt children) and then proceeded down the grand stairway and into the grand dining hall. They danced to the music of Gilmore’s Band.

Gilmore's Band

Gilmore’s Band was founded by Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, a bandmaster who served in the Union Army during the Civil War and composed “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”

Of particular interest was the Hobby-Horse quadrille, in which the men and women wore life-size “horses” around his or her waist. The horses, which took workmen two months to construct, had genuine hides, bright eyes and flowing manes and tails. The dancers wore red hunting coats and white satin knee britches or skirts and stockings. False legs hung on the outside of richly embroidered blankets to make it appear as if the dancers were riding the horses.

Delmonico's Ball, Quadrille, Mora

This quadrille–possibly the Folly Quadrille–featuring Mr. Balforn, Mr. W. Duer, Mr. Isaac Bell, Miss Belmont, Miss Edith Fish, and Miss Rutherfurd, was possibly taken by Mora at Delmonico’s in 1872. Museum of the City of New York Collections.

Napoleon Sarony

Napoleon Sarony and his wife, Louise Thomas, often dressed in picturesque and attention-getting attire, which was a form of advertising for his studio.

Peggy the Pug, The Maine

St. Paul Globe, March 1, 1898

During the 1800s and early 1900s, the Brooklyn Navy Yard served as a pseudo receiving and distributing station for the animal mascots of American warships. Some of these animals were born at the Navy Yard, while others stopped in to visit from time to time during their many years at sea.

In the late 1800s, an Italian-American sailor named Cosmero Aquatero was working as a barber on the USS Vermont, which was permanently anchored at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. During his years stationed in Brooklyn, he kept a record of the births and major events in the lives of these mascots in a dilapidated old book. In March 1898, a reporter from The World interviewed Aquatero about some of the famous ship mascots.

USS Vermont

Although the USS Vermont served briefly during the Civil War as a hospital, receiving, and store ship, she spent most of her service at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a store and receiving ship. Here she is in Brooklyn in 1898, when Cosmero Aquatero was stationed there.

Two of the mascots that were well documented in Aquatero’s book were Tom, the mascot of the infamous USS Maine, and Peggy, the young pet pug of the ship’s captain. As two of the only 91 “crew members” who survived the massive explosion on board the Maine in the Havana Harbor in 1898, their lives were pretty incredible.

Tom, the Senior Navy Cat

Tom mascot cat Maine

Tom posed for this photo on board the USS Fern in February 1898. According to one account, the photographer had to give Tom a whole fish before he would stand properly for the photo.

According to Aquatero’s records, Tom was born at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1885 (an article in the St. Paul Globe says he was born on a farm in Pennsylvania, but I prefer to trust the old sailor). A grey and black tabby, Tom was very much respected by the sailors, who believed cats brought good luck to ships. There wasn’t a sailor throughout the world who hadn’t made his acquaintance over the years, and each mariner that sailed with Tom placed his greatest confidence in the cat.

Tom began his Navy career on board the USS Minnestota, but when an officer from that ship was transferred to the Maine, he brought Tom with him. On board the Maine, it was Tom’s job to get rid of the rats and the mice. However, it seems that one time the cat was trained to coexist with a rat named Christopher, which had been adopted and tamed by one of the ship’s sailors. As the story goes, cat and rat were able to stay in a room together, but they never did become good friends.

By 1898, when the Maine exploded in Havana, Tom was still an active member of the crew and considered to be the oldest cat in the United States Navy.

Peggy Pug The Maine

The World, March 6, 1898.


Peggy the Pug

Peggy was the pet of Captain Charles Dwight Sigsbee and his wife, Eliza Rogers Lockwood Sigsbee. The young little dog followed the captain all over the ship, no matter how many steps or ladders he climbed – one time she even fell and broke her leg while following him up a ladder. Peggy was suspicious of everyone in civilian dress that came on board the Maine, and barked at anyone who was not in uniform.

In 1898, when the Maine disaster occurred in Cuba, Peggy was not quite two years old.

The USS Maine and the Battleship Era

USS Maine

The USS Maine (ACR-1) was built in response to the increase of naval forces in Latin America.

The USS Maine and her sister ship, the USS Texas, were the first modern warships built in the United States. They were built in response to the growing naval power of Brazil, which had commissioned several battleships from Europe, most notably the Riacheulo in 1883.

In 1886, Congress authorized the construction of the Maine and in 1888, her keel was laid down at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The 6,682-ton, steel twin-screw battleship was launched from the yard on November 18, 1889. The launch of the USS Maine officially began the “battleship era” for the United States.

USS Maine Launch, Brooklyn Navy Yard

The USS Maine was launched from the yard on November 18, 1889. Her launch sponsor was Alice Tracey Wilmerding, the granddaughter of Navy Secretary Benjamin F. Tracy.

Due to some equipment setbacks, the Maine was not commissioned until September 17, 1895, under the command of Captain Arent S. Crowninshield. The ship spent most of her active career with the North Atlantic Squadron, operating from Norfolk, Virginia, along the East Coast and the Caribbean. On April 10, 1897, Captain Sigsbee relieved Captain Crowninshield as commander of the
USS Maine.

Remember the Maine!

In January 1898, the Maine was sent from Key West, Florida, to Havana to protect American interests during the Cuban War of Independence. Three weeks later, at about 9:40 p.m. on February 15, a massive explosion ripped through the forward section of the ship.

Most of Maine’s crew was sleeping or resting in their hammocks in this part of the ship when the explosion occurred. Captain Sigsbee and most of the officers, on the other hand, were in their staterooms or their smoking quarters, which were in the aft section of the ship.

Captain Sigsbee in his cabin on the USS Maine.

Captain Sigsbee in his cabin on the USS Maine.

Peggy and Tom Survive

When the explosion occurred, Peggy the pug had been asleep in Captain Sigsbee’s stateroom. The captain was also in his cabin and placing a letter in an envelope at the very moment the explosion came. As the captain reported in The Century Magazine, there was a trembling and lurching motion of the vessel, and all the electric lights went out. Then there was intense blackness and smoke.

Somehow Peggy managed to find her way to the poop-deck, which was the highest intact part of the ship above water. There, the captain and Commander Richard Wainwright were waiting for the battleship to settle on the bottom of the harbor. Peggy, trembling with fright, reportedly stood at the place she was taught to take when the lifeboats were lowered.

Crews from nearby ships, including the Alfonso XII and the City of Washington, manned lifeboats to rescue the surviving crewmen of the Maine. Reluctantly, Captain Sigsbee and Commander Wainwright abandoned the Maine, which continued to burn and explode throughout the night. The next day, Peggy was “strutting about the deck [of the City of Washington] with air of a naval hero.”

Peggy and 62 human survivors returned to Key West on February 17 aboard the steamer Olivette.

Captain Charles D. Sigsbee, USS Maine

Captain Charles D. Sigsbee, USS Maine.

Tom’s experience was much more remarkable than Peggy’s, if not miraculous. At the time of the disaster, Tom was sleeping three decks below the upper deck. The force of the explosion was so great that he was literally fired through the three steel decks. The surviving sailors didn’t see Tom at all, and assumed he had perished.

Executive Officer Richard Wainwright

Executive Officer Richard Wainwright was the great-great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin, and nephew of George Dallas, the 11th Vice-President of the United States.

The next morning, Commander Wainwright discovered Tom, who was crying pitifully while crouched on a part of the wreck that was still above water. The officer rescued the cat and took him to the USS Fern, where he was treated for a wounded foot. A few days after the explosion, Tom posed for pictures on a wicker armchair that had been salvaged from the Maine.

Unfortunately, two other cats, including one that joined the ship in Cuba a few days before the explosion, did not survive. However, they did become martyrs for the emerging animal rights movement in the United States. (Animal rights groups often pointed to the Navy and its sailors for their humane treatment of animals as a model for the rest of the country.)

In a pro-cat book published by ASPCA, the author hailed the two cats who died for their country: “The love of cats by sailors and soldiers is well known. In the dreadful explosion of the Maine in Havana, two of the three cats perished.”

USS Maine cooks

This ca. 1896 photo of the USS Maine’s mess cooks was taken by Navy photographer Edward H. Hart. Two of the three cats in this photo did not survive the blast in Havana.

In total 260 men lost their lives as a result of the explosion or shortly thereafter, and six more died later from injuries. There were only 89 survivors, not counting Peggy and Tom, 18 of whom were officers. On March 21, 1898, the US Naval Court of Inquiry declared that a naval mine caused the explosion.

USS Fern

Old Tom continued his service with the USS Fern, which was a gunboat built in 1871 by Delamater and Steack of New York City. The ship served as a home for the officers supervising the wrecking operations in Havana Harbor.

A second forensic inquiry was conducted by Admiral Hyman Rickover in 1974, which confirmed that the cause of the Maine’s destruction was not a Spanish mine or bomb, but the detonation of the forward gun magazines.

Peggy the Pug Perishes

After spending time in Key West for some much-earned rest and relaxation, Peggy was given to U.S. Naval Commander J.Y. Wynn, who was stationed in Chelsea, England.

Soon after moving in with his family, she was outside playing when she either fell or jumped into a catch basin on Addison Street. Efforts were made at once to save her, but she was smothered before they could get her out. Peggy was taken to the Commander Wynn’s home for burial.

LI & NY Places that are no more

We can’t go back and walk through the old Penn Station, it has been replaced by the imposter that now stands in its place at 7th Avenue and 32nd Street in Manhattan. We can’t disembark from a train, slowly climb a staircase, gaze up at the stations shimmering arched glass ceilings, and take a peek out and up into the sky. We can’t look at the beautiful clocks, the walls, ceilings and towers, as we proudly head out onto the surrounding streets. The station and all its grandeur is gone, destroyed by a struggling railroad company in a desperate attempt to save itself from its own demise which inevitably came only a few short years later.

For those of us who want to recapture the look and feel of the great station, there are many pictures (most of which are in black and white), to look at and learn from. We can see the…

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