Archive for the ‘Christmas Cat Tales’ Category

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Last week I went to my neighborhood United States Post Office to mail some packages to family on the west coast. As I was deciding whether to use parcel post or priority service, the clerk asked me if the boxes contained anything that was liquid, fragile, or had batteries. The clerk did not, however, ask me if they contained a live kitten.

General Post Office, City Hall, 1875

Postal clerks load mail at the new General Post Office in 1875. The new post office moved from the former Middle Dutch Reformed Church on the corner of Liberty and Nassau streets to City Hall Park in 1875. NYPL digital collection.

On Saturday, December 23, 1906, more Christmas parcels were received at the New York Post Office than ever before in the history of any post office in the country. There was so much mail, in fact, that it was overflowing onto the sidewalks and streets adjacent to the postal substations throughout the city. Hundreds of extra postal clerks were hired during the holiday rush, and many of them were put to work sorting all the packages lining the sidewalks of 44th Street, Fourth Avenue, 88th Street, and other streets.

“The Entire Country Had Gone Mad”

The biggest rush was at the general City Hall Post Office in the second division, which handled all incoming and outgoing domestic mail. In addition to half a million letters from Europe that arrived on the Kaiser Wilhelm II and La Provence, an estimated 2 million Christmas parcels had been mailed from the General Post Office in a span of only three days. More than 500,000 domestic packages had also been received from around the country for distribution in the city.

In addition to traditional Christmas gifts such as jewelry and books, just about everything that could be mailed was shipped that holiday, including live alligators, mechanical toys, and large talking dolls that were all the rage during this era. As the night superintendent noted, “The entire country had gone mad on the subject of Christmas gifts.”

The Girl From Paris Talking Doll

Large mechanical talking dolls, like this one manufactured in Connecticut, were a very popular Christmas gift in the early 1900s. This doll was billed as “the only real talking doll in existence that can say pappa and mamma perfectly” — all one had to do was push the button under her arm.

Letters to Santa Claus were also in abundance, like this one note from Mini Borman that read:

“Deer Santa Clous,
Tell me your telephone number so I can order a ortomobeel for a poor boy what ain’t got no father on our street.”

A Kitten That Cries “Papa” in Yorkville

One New Yorker who had truly gone mad that Christmas was a man named Uncle Jack. This man took the prize for pushing the parcel post envelope with his rather unique gift in 1906.

Jack apparently thought it would be OK to send his niece (or nephew) a kitten via the U.S. Post Office. (Maybe he had heard about the cat that was sent through the New York Post Office’s pneumatic tube system in 1897?)

As the story goes, a clerk at Station K, a New York postal substation located in Yorkville at 202-204 East 88th Street (Third Avenue), was startled when he saw movement in one of his sacks. He carried the sack to the sorting table and dumped out the contents. As the packages were falling onto the table, he heard a voice cry out, “Papa! Papa!”

Fifth Avenue 88th Street

When Fifth Avenue first appeared on the Commissioners’ Map of 1811, it was only a country road to Yorkville (then a self-contained village). This photograph was taken at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 88th Street 100 years later in 1911. Postal Station K, where Uncle Jack tried to mail a kitten, was just four blocks east of this location. NYPL digital collection

The clerk examined every package until he found the one that had moved. Inside, he found a live kitten packed inside a small birdcage. The kitten was wearing a pink ribbon, and attached to the ribbon was a card that said, “A Merry Christmas from Uncle Jack.”

Could this kitten have cried Papa? the clerk wondered. The mystery was solved when he found a nearby package containing a mechanical doll with blond curls – he had apparently squeezed the doll while examining the package, which caused the doll to cry out.

Keep in mind that Station K was a distributing center only for the general post office — that means that this kitten traveled by mail at least as far as from City Hall to Yorkville! Who knows where this poor kitten started her postal journey.

A Brief History of the Talking Doll in New York

Thomas Edison talking doll

Edison’s talking doll was an historic step in phonograph history, as this was the first phonograph with a prerecorded cylinder marketed for home entertainment. The doll was 22″ high and weighed 4 pounds, with a metal body, articulated wooden limbs, and an imported bisque head.

Thomas Edison envisioned a talking doll as early as 1877, but it was another inventor, William W. Jacques, who first developed a prototype based on Edison’s original tinfoil phonograph. Jacques and his partner, Lowell Briggs, founded the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company in 1887. The company was incorporated in Maine, but had offices in Boston and in New York at 138 Fifth Avenue.

(Although Edison originally agreed to lend his name in return for royalties and stock ownership, before production began, he took over the company and demoted the founder, leading to years of ill-will and lawsuits.)

Thomas Edison Talking Doll

Top operate the doll, children had to turn the crank by hand at a steady speed. Unfortunately the delicate mechanism was too fragile for rough usage, and the steel stylus caused the wax record to wear out extremely rapidly.

The first dolls were presented on April 7, 1890, at the Edison electric exhibition at the Lenox Lyceum at 623 Madison Avenue. The ten dolls on exhibit recited phrases to nursery rhymes such as “Mary had a little lamb” and “Twinkle twinkle little star.”

Although an article in the New York Evening Post said the voices were squeaky but the words were plain, Edison was later quoted as admitting that “the voices of the little monsters were exceedingly unpleasant to hear.” Click here to listen to an actual recording from one of these historic dolls.

Edison Talking Doll

Each doll cost $10 with a simple chemise, or $20 to $25 with full dress. The dolls featured a tiny phonograph inside the body, with a small horn pointing up toward holes in the doll’s chest. The cylinders were not interchangeable and there was no spring motor, so the child had to turn the crank by hand at a steady speed in order for the doll to recite the prerecorded nursery rhyme.

Making Edison Talking Doll

Workers assemble the Edison Talking Dolls in New York City in 1890.

Despite several years of experimentation and development, the Edison Talking Doll was a dismal failure.

Although 2,500 had been shipped by Edison to the Toy Manufacturing Company in March, less than 500 completed dolls were actually sold — most of those were returned by unhappy customers. Production stopped at the beginning of May 1890 and the dolls were removed from the market.

138 Fifth Avenue, New York

The Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company operated out of a four-story brownstone in Union Square at 138 Fifth Avenue. The original house was constructed in the 1840s and first converted for commercial use in 1886. Today the modernized structure is home to several shops and a yoga studio.

Alas, I do not know what happened to the poor parcel-post kitty in this story, but it is nice to know that today, “with a few exceptions,” pets and warm-blooded animals such as cats, gerbils, hamsters, mice, and dogs can’t go in the mail. Mechanical talking dolls, however, are okay to mail, as long as you let the clerk know about the batteries.

Paddy Reilly, mascot of Humane Society of New York

Women couldn’t resist making a donation when they saw Paddy Reilly in his derby hat. Here he’s shown with his owner, Alice Manchester, in 1935. Photo: HSNY

In previous posts, I wrote about the reindeer on display at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in 1944, and about the horses that delivered the first public Christmas tree to Madison Square Park in 1912. In this story, I’m going to tell you about the annual Christmas tree and party for New York City’s four-legged critters, which was sponsored by the Humane Society of New York.

But first, let me introduce you to Paddy Reilly, the featured canine in this holiday tale.

Paddy Reilly was a tan and white terrier mix that, his owner insisted, was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1927. Although he was bred to live the outdoor life in his birthplace of Newport, Wales, his fate changed when, at three months old, he was purchased by Miss Alice Manchester of England. The young woman brought Paddy to live with her in Detroit and Miami before finally settling down in New York City. When Miss Manchester joined the Humane Society of New York in 1933, Paddy became its first mascot.

During his six years as mascot, Paddy was attributed to saving a total of about 10 animals and 40 people, including two kittens — Orphan Annie and Mickey Mouse — that he helped rescue from the bottom of an ash can; two children who were drowning in Miami; 13 people in his Detroit apartment when it caught fire (his fur was singed in this event); and 20 people in his new York apartment building, whom he saved by barking when he smelled escaping gas one night. Paddy won numerous medals for his heroic deeds, including one from movie star Bette Davis, who was once president of the Tailwaggers in Hollywood.

Paddy Reilly saved animals and people

During his six years as mascot of the Humane Society, Paddy was attributed to saving about 10 animals and 40 people, including 2 drowning children in Miami and a woman who was drowning in Jamaica Bay.

Paddy Reilly was also the darling of the New York City media, making annual appearances in the newspapers on his birthday and barking scripts on radio shows. He even served as “Canine Grand Marshall” for the Children’s Day parade at the World’s Fair in 1939.

Rosie the mechanical elephant

On September 6, 1939, Paddy Reilly served as “Canine Grand Marshall” for the Children’s Day parade at the World’s Fair. One report said the terrier rode astride Rosie, the mechanical elephant shown here, but in fact he just watched the parade from his glassed-in kennel. Photo: NYPL

Paddy’s primarily role was chief fundraiser for the society, in which he helped to raise thousands of dollars in coins and recruit hundreds of new members. He could often be found collecting funds outside the New York Public Library or on Fulton Street at Gallatin Place in Brooklyn. Wearing a straw hat and holding a pipe in his teeth, or donning a comical derby hat given to him by former Governor Alfred E. Smith, he garnered much attention. Women would exclaim, “Oh, isn’t he cute!” and then drop coins in his cup.

The Animals’ Christmas Tree and Holiday Party

During the Christmas holidays in the 1930s, Paddy worked as officiate for the Christmas tree party for horses and indoor holiday party for pets sponsored by the Humane Society. The society began this annual Yuletide event in 1921 to “celebrate all good dogs, cats, and horses” in the city. In early years, the festivities took place at the society’s headquarters at 44 Seventh Avenue (at 14th Street).

Humane Society New York Christmas Tree

In early years, the Christmas festivities took place at the society’s headquarters at 44 Seventh Avenue and Harry D. Moran, superintendent of the society, played Santa Claus (shown here in 1925) Photo: HSNY.

As hundreds of youngsters and their pets received gifts of leashes, dog biscuits, cans of sardines, and fancy collars indoors, numerous horses and their drivers enjoyed the tree outdoors, which was adorned with horse blankets, bridles, feed bags, and red stockings filled with apples, carrots, and lump sugar. Harry Daniel Moran, superintendent of the Humane Society of New York, would dress up as Santa Claus every year to hand out all the gifts.

In 1933, Paddy’s first year as mascot, all the dogs received collars, leads, and bones; the short-haired dogs also received blankets. Many cats also attended the party, including Whitey, the mascot cat of the Jefferson Market Court, who had been recovering from an injury at the clinic. Whitey and the other cats seemed to enjoy their new collars with bells and cans of sardines (there was no catnip), which were handed out by the society’s vet, Dr. William Dohm, who played Santa that year.

In 1935, the party moved uptown to the Humane Society’s new headquarters in a little red brick house at 313 East 58th Street. To help announce the new location, members of the Kips Bay Boy Scouts, Troop 42, played their bugles and drums to attract a crowd to the tree outside the headquarters. That year, Paddy dressed as Santa and greeted each animal to the event. He first welcomed the horses outdoors – to which he was very friendly – and then greeted the cats, dogs, and other critters “more or less graciously” at the doorway.

313 East 58th Street, Humane Society of New York

In 1935, the Humane Society of New York moved its headquarters to a little red brick house at 313 East 58th Street. Paddy Reilly’s last birthday party took place here on March 18, 1939. In this photo from the 1950s, it looks like the building had already been painted white, as it is today. Photo: HSNY

In Paddy’s Honor

On September 15, 1939 — just 9 days after he led the children’s parade at the World’s Fair — Paddy passed away from toxic poisoning of the kidneys. A month later, a memorial fund dedicated to Paddy was started to help establish a free clinic for dogs in Brooklyn.

To honor her dog’s passing, Miss Manchester founded the Greenwich Village Humane League in November 1939, with headquarters at 100 Greenwich Street. Each year the league hosted National Dog Week Ceremonies, where members would present a Paddy Reilly Hero Medal to a well-deserving, life-saving dog. Alice dedicated the rest of her life to saving animals, and even lived at the league’s headquarters so she could be available 24 hours a day.

100 Greenwich Avenue

In 1938, the Greenwich Village Humane League moved into 100 Greenwich Avenue, shown here. Alice Manchester moved the organization to 55 Eighth Avenue in 1942, to 40 Eighth Avenue in the 1950s, and to 51 Eighth Avenue in 1960.

During a dedication ceremony at the league’s new Eighth Avenue clinic on December 11, 1942, four-year-old Paddy Reilly Jr., son of Paddy, took over as master of ceremonies.

The Humane Society at 313 East 58th Street

In 1935, the Humane Society of New York moved its headquarters to a little red brick house at 313 East 58th Street. When I found out this house was still standing, I made plans to check it out on a recent weekend romp.

The Civil War–era home was built in 1856-57 by Hiram G. Disbrow, a mason builder who was the first resident of the home. On July 14, 1970, the little house was designated a Registered Historical Landmark. Francis Kelly, a past president of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, called it a “surviving example of ‘Little Old New York,’” especially with its “noteworthy” porch, which he said is practically non-existent in Manhattan.

313 East 58th Street

Although the building is only three windows wide and two stories high, it’s really not as small as one would think. In fact, it has 5,400 square feet of living space, including a large restaurant kitchen with walk-in cold storage and prep areas in the full basement. From the Collection of P. Gavan

Years after the Humane Society moved to their new headquarters on 59th Street, the building was home to Le Club, an exclusive dance club that opened there in 1982 and had a membership that included Al Pacino, Pia Lindstrom, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Later, in 1997, the building was home to Two Rooms, an eclectic restaurant and lounge, and then in 1999, the Landmark Club, a restaurant owned by Shamsher Wadud. The property is currently used by Cipriani Sutton caterers for private parties. From the outside, one would not believe how incredible it looks inside — check it out for yourself!

Pirate Cats of Chelsea Piers

During World War I and World War II, hundreds of cats from all over the world were left stranded on the Chelsea Piers in New York when the troopships and freighters they had stowed away on left the harbor without them. Even years after the wars ended, these refugee mascots still prowled the piers at night in search of food and shelter. The news media called them the “Chelsea Pirate Cats.”

During the post-war Christmas holidays, when there were few ships at port – and the few remaining crews were spending the holiday ashore – the pirate cats that lived in the sheds along the Hudson River (then called the North River) were hard-pressed to find a meal. At night, their howls of protest could be heard all along the waterfront.

Chelsea Piers White Star

Chelsea Piers served as a passenger ship terminal in the early 1900s for several passenger lines, including the White Star Line. Today the piers are used by the Chelsea Piers Sports & Entertainment Complex.

In December 1922, Woo-ki, a one-eyed Chinese feline from Fuzhou (Foochow), was the leader of the pack. He had stowed away on the freighter Wei-hai-Wan and arrived in New York a few weeks earlier, and had quickly risen in power to Chief Pirate Cat.

Woo-ki would lead the stranded stowaway cats toward the Customs guards on duty, and encourage them to try to steal the men’s dinners.

On Christmas Eve that year, Woo-ki and his band of refugee cats zeroed in on veteran watchman Sam Meders. (Sam told a news reporter that he had to carry his dinner around all day to keep it away from the hungry felines.)

Apparently the band of pirate cats realized that a large Christmas feast was being prepared on the White Star Line’s Olympic, and they had no intention of being left out of the celebration. They apparently also knew a sucker when they saw one.

The Olympic in camouflage during WWI

During World War I, the Olympic – painted in dazzle camouflage — served as a troopship with the capacity to transport up to 6,000 soldiers. Her impressive WWI service earned her the nickname Old Reliable.

Christmas on the RMS Olympic

On Christmas Day 1922, the Olympic was the only American ship docked at the Chelsea Piers whose crew did not go ashore to celebrate the holiday. She had just returned to New York a few days earlier from Southampton and Cherbourg; her masts were covered with ice and some glass ports on the “D” and “E” decks were broken by the heavy seas she had encountered en route.

On Christmas morning, though, her saloons were decorated with holly and evergreens in preparation for a holiday feast of turkey, plum pudding, and mince pie. The festivities began at 9:30 a.m. with 15 athletic competitions on the pier for the crew, including sack races, an egg and spoon race, and a tug of war between married and single men (the married men reportedly almost always won the tug of war.)

RMS Olympic crew, 1911

In 1911, the original crew of the RMS Olympic included Captain Edward John Smith and many other members of the crew who would later serve on the Titanic’s maiden voyage.

At 1 p.m. the men enjoyed their Christmas dinner, which was accompanied by beer for the crew and red and white wine for the officers and engineers. What these men probably didn’t realize, however, was that they were not the first ones to dine on the ship that day…

Like all cats I know – at least the two spoiled cats that live in my house – their constant pestering worked. According to Sam, their howling and begging whittled down his defenses, and by Christmas Day, the felines had prevailed.

Grand Staircase, RMS Olympic

Can you imagine the stray pirate cats making their way down the Grand Staircase of the Olympic on Christmas Day?

I can’t quite imagine how he was able to do this – and it’s actually very comical if you try to picture this – but at 8 a.m. Sam mustered up the four-legged pack and took them aboard the Olympic. Once on the ship, the crafty kitties were invited to partake in their very own feast fit for kings – or should I say pirates.

Two days following the Christmas dinner, the crew of the Olympic performed their annual Christmas concert in the White Star Line’s waiting room at Pier 61. I like to believe that a large number of pirate cats were in attendance, providing backup to the chorus.