Up until 1895, New York City had the reputation of having the most corrupt police department in the country. Like most City agencies at the time, the police owed their allegiance not to the people, or even to each other, but to Tammany Hall; the political “machine” that ran New York. Tammany had a hand in who was hired, who was promoted, who was protected, and who you paid off. There was no such thing as “Protect and Serve,” it was more like “Show me the money.” Then Theodore Roosevelt became President of the Commission of Police. Like the sheriff coming into the lawless town in the Old West, Roosevelt brought law and order to a department that had forgotten what that was. (more…)

88th Precinct, SSpellen

On January 1, 1898, Brooklyn woke up to a new world in which it was no longer the master of its own destiny. It was now part of Greater New York City, where the seats of City power rested on the streets and in the buildings of Lower Manhattan, not at Brooklyn’s City Hall or in the office and bank buildings of Court Street. It’s hard to imagine what that may have been like. The closest analogy may be that it felt like Brooklyn had been conquered by another nation. All aspects of city life were different after January 1st, and in the coming months, it got a lot worse before it got better.

Take the police, for example. Since they were charged with maintaining order, stopping crime and apprehending criminals, all very important tasks, you’d think those in charge would have spent a lot of time planning for the re-organization of the police force, so that the transition of power and command would be swift and efficient. Yeah, you’d think… (more…)

Lane Bryant, SB, PS

By the time Lane Bryant, the maternity and plus-sized women’s clothing chain, reached its 50th year anniversary in 1954, it was on top of the fashion world. Who would have dreamed that maternity and “fat ladies’ clothes” could not only be lucrative, but would be on the cutting edge of fashion? The reasons were simple – good products, and a respect and love for the customer. Lane Bryant made fashionable, stylish clothing of all kinds for their special-sized customers. They didn’t marginalize them to a rack hidden in the back of the store, or design down for them. They made their customers feel that they were just as worthy of a fine shopping and fashion experience as their thinner sisters, and offered products and services that reflected that philosophy.

Downtown Brooklyn saw its first Lane Bryant store in 1922. It was a large four story building constructed for Lane Bryant, with entrances on Hanover Place and Livingston Street, near Flatbush Avenue. By the end of World War II, they had outgrown the space, and in 1950 moved to the former Balch-Price Building on the corner of Fulton and Smith Streets. Lane Bryant herself, now 71 years old, was on hand for the opening ceremonies and the ribbon cutting. (more…)

Lane Bryant, 50th anniversary, BE 1954

It’s never been easy being a woman of, shall we say, operatic proportions. Society is not kind, to say the least, and neither was the ready to wear clothing market. Larger sized women have always desired to be fashionable, elegant, and feel good about themselves, just like everyone else. Had it not been for a tiny Lithuanian Jewish lady named Lena Bryant, who knows how long it would have been until someone took notice and did something about it? Since 1904, Lane Bryant, the clothing company she started in her apartment in Harlem, has been providing beautiful and stylish clothing to pregnant women, larger sized women and girls. If you were in one of these categories, you were probably a Lane Bryant customer.

Part One of this story tells of Lena Bryant’s start, and early life. Part Two chronicles the rise of a huge retail and mail order business that branched out to locations in cities across the country, including, of course, Brooklyn. The first Lane Bryant store in Brooklyn was in a building constructed for them, a modern reinforced concrete, L shaped, four story building with entrances on Hanover Place and Livingston Street. The store opened with great fanfare in 1922, and joined Abraham & Straus, Loeser’s, and Fulton Street’s other grand clothing emporiums as shopping destinations for women and girls. (more…)

Lane Bryant Ad, new store opening, BE 1950

In 1909, dressmaker Lena Bryant was working out of a shop on 5th Avenue and 120th Street in Harlem. There, under the Lane Bryant label, she designed and manufactured maternity clothing for stylish women -– some of the first mass produced lines of maternity wear in the world. Before Lane Bryant, women who wanted to venture out while pregnant had few clothing choices. They had to either have clothing custom made to accommodate their growing bodies, sew them themselves, or wear oversized baggy clothing that would help them hide their pregnancies.

For most of the Victorian era, nonworking, well-to-do women simply stayed home and received their female guests. No self-respecting woman of that age would walk the streets in the advanced stages of pregnancy. It just wasn’t done. The women who discovered Lane Bryant and her clothing were able to take advantage of her design genius, and Lane Bryant became the head of one of the most successful fashion houses in America. (more…)

Lane Bryant Ad, maternity gown, 1911, BEWestern society has long had a strange attitude towards pregnancy. Throughout much of its history, much has been made of producing children, whether they are the heirs to the throne, or workers on the family farm. We’ve told women that it is a biblical duty to have children, but up until the end of the 20th century, many Western societies have been loath to see a woman walking around pregnant. As soon as a woman was showing, in polite society, she entered her “confinement” and rarely left home until after the baby was born. It all has to do with attitudes about sex, and the war between fulfilling the biological and societal imperative to go forth and multiply, and the fact that one has to have sex in order to do it. We are a conflicted and messed up people.

At any rate, this is a story about a fashion empire and Brooklyn’s part in that empire. Pregnancy is at the heart of our story. At the turn of the 20th century, maternity clothes were not available the way they are now. Women of means had their maternity clothing custom made. Those who could sew made their own, and everyone else made do by letting their clothing out, or wearing larger clothes. Or they didn’t leave home much.

But this was not the Middle Ages. Women were out and about, unescorted, in record numbers. Many middle and upper middle class women had jobs, many more were active in sports like bicycle riding, and most did not want to spend half their pregnancies locked behind closed doors. There was a real need for well-fitting maternity clothing, including the ever present corset, so women could go out, be pregnant, and look beautiful and healthy. The conditions were right for the right person to come along and revolutionize the market. That woman was a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant named Lena Himmelstein. (more…)

Arthur D. Howden Smith, 1918, BEAfter spending a few months as a foreign correspondent in the mountains of Macedonia, Arthur D. Howden Smith would always seek a life of adventure and danger. He travelled to the Balkans to write the story of a lifetime; his adventures as a freedom fighter with a gritty band of Chetniks who were waging a bloody guerrilla war with the Turks. Young Howden Smith came from a family of world travelers, his forbearers were sea-faring men, and close relatives were famously trekking through the wilds of Africa, killing elephants and importing ivory.

Part One of our story introduced us to Arthur Douglas Howden Smith, who spent his youth and young adulthood living in what is now Crown Heights, at 907 Sterling Place. He was the descendant of New England shipping merchants, and in spite of his tony upper class British sounding name, was born in New York City, in 1887, lived as a small child in New Jersey, and grew up in this house in Brooklyn. He would live in Brooklyn for much of his life. He didn’t look like the adventuring type; he was a small man, about 5’7” tall and weighed 160 pounds, soaking wet. He wore round-lensed glasses and looked like someone who would be more at home in the stacks of a library than the mountains of Macedonia. But, he was a lot tougher and more determined than his appearance would warrant. (more…)

Arthur D. Howden Smith, Brooklyn Eagle 1908Many writers have found Brooklyn to be an amiable place to live while penning works of great importance, or at least works that pay the rent. Whether that work is a great novel or autobiography, or just a self-important blog post, writers have put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, here in Brooklyn since there has been a Brooklyn. One of those writers is someone I stumbled across while researching a group of houses for a Building of the Day column. He wrote in the early to mid-20th century, and in the height of his popularity, was practically a household name. By the time he died, he was only worth a few lines in an obituary column. His name was Arthur D. Howden Smith, and for many years, he was a resident of 907 Sterling Place in Crown Heights North.

For a man who spent part of his career writing the autobiographies of others, Arthur D. Howden Smith did not leave all that much information about himself behind. According to press releases, he came from an old aristocratic New England family. His family was in the shipping business, or as one release put it, “he was descended from owners of sail.” He was born in 1888 or ‘89, and spent some of his childhood in Port Richmond, Staten Island. By the time he was a teenager, he was living at 907 Sterling Place with his family. (more…)

Tag fire, Brooklyn Eagle, 1916The day after the tragic fire at the Tag house, an advertisement in the Brooklyn Standard Union announced, “Six Women Die in Brooklyn Blaze: It Could Be Your Home Tomorrow!” This half page ad was for the Pyrene Company, which manufactured fire extinguishers. The ad went on to say, “In Casimir Tag’s Brooklyn home this morning, six women were burned to death…Six out of ten fires are in homes. And yet the home, the place which guards our most precious possessions, is least protected from fire. Every home should have something to put out fires from the start…Until the Pyrene Fire Extinguisher was invented a couple of years ago, there was never any practical fire protection for the home…The holocaust in the Tag household may be re-enacted tomorrow in your home. This is a time for action. Put a Pyrene in your home today.” Talk about exploiting a tragedy for financial gain.

Part One of our story tells the tale of banker Casimir Tag and his family. He was one of Brooklyn’s wealthiest bankers in the early 20th century, a man who worked hard and became the president of not one, but two Manhattan banks. He and his wife Hannah raised a large family of six children. His death in 1913 left Hannah the wealthiest widow in Brooklyn, and head of the family home, a large five story brownstone at 243 Hancock Street, on the most impressive block in the upscale neighborhood of Bedford. (more…)

Tag house, Brooklyn Standard Union, 1916

After a day of making wedding plans, and stacking presents in a spare bedroom, the Tag household took to their beds on the cold and frosty evening of February 3rd, 1916. Mrs. Hannah Tag and her two daughters, Caroline and Helen, lived in the large 5 story townhouse at 243 Hancock Street, in the upscale Bedford neighborhood. They had lived here since 1893, the first family to occupy this grand home. At that time, Hannah’s husband, banker Casimir Tag, had been one of Brooklyn’s most successful financial men, the president of two banks and a board member on several more. His background and the story of the family house and neighborhood can be found in Part One of this story.

Casimir died in 1913, leaving his widow and six children in financial comfort. The Tag children were all now adults. The eldest son, Charles, was a medical doctor, with a home right behind the Tag house, at 284 Jefferson Avenue. The eldest daughter had gotten married on Hancock Street, and lived elsewhere. So did the other two sons. Only Caroline and Helen were left at home, and the wedding preparations were for 25 year old Caroline’s nuptials, which were to take place here at the house in two more weeks. Caroline’s older sister Helen, who was 31, was lame, and could not walk for any length of time. She stayed home most often, and was an artist. (more…)

Casimir Tag, house, Hancock St.

Casimir Tag was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Over the course of his years, he turned that spoon to gold, and had the kind of life that many dream of, but only few ever have. When he left this earth, he left his large family well secured and financially set for life. He and his wife imbued their children with fine values and a generosity of spirit that would serve them more than admirably in the years to come. But none of us ever know what life has in store for us. We don’t know what tragedies or triumphs will occur that we never planned for, or suspected would ever happen, or even deserve. This is the story of the Tag family and the disaster that changed their lives forever. (more…)

Ragpickers, NYC, thehistorybox.com 1

Today, we are used to seeing the people who somehow manage to make a living recycling cans and bottles. We hardly notice them as they root through trash cans looking for those precious five-cent drink containers. Perhaps we even separate them out for them, and hang the cans on the fence, so they won’t disrupt the garbage. The people who are really serious about this occupation can be seen pushing grocery carts heaped high with bags of cans, often on their way to a recycling facility, where if they have been diligent, they can make $25 or $30 a day. It’s certainly not an easy life, but as the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Their collecting cousins are the guys with an old pickup truck who roam around picking up all kinds of metal for the scrap dealer. They are experts on metal, and can tell you how much is being paid for iron, copper, brass and steel. Finding a large amount of copper is like finding the mother lode – money in the pocket. In many cities with a lot of abandoned buildings, copper pipes don’t last long. For that matter, neither do radiators, iron pipe, or any kind of metal. My house in Troy, which had been empty for a number of years before we got it, was stripped of everything metal including the doorknobs, which were literally ripped out, leaving ragged holes in the wood. We had to replace everything. (more…)