Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Koster and Bial's Music Hall on 34th Street

Throughout the late 1800s Manhattan's Theater district crept northward along the city's Great White Way towards Times Square. Herald Square was home to several music and dance halls including Koster and Bial's. The theater's former location was a bit south at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street. Two days after closing the 23rd Street location, John Koster and Albert Bial opened a new music hall with the same name on 34th Street between Seventh Avenue and Broadway.  On August 28, 1893 the hall opened its doors to the public, eight years before Macy's would buy the property, demolish the building, and build their famous flagship store.

Exterior of Koster and Bial's on the north side of  West 34th Street between Seventh Avenue and Broadway, 1896. Image: MCNY

Interior of the 34th Street Koster and Bial's Music Hall, 1896. Image: MCNY

Strobridge Lithographing, 1896. Image: LOC

A popular vaudeville venue with varied stage performances, Koster and Bial's hosted burlesque and acrobatic acts, as well as a whole host of musical performances.
Fannie Leslie [1896]. Image: NYPL
Trick horse of Emile outside the music hall's 34th Street entrance, 1896. Image: MCNY
Among the many dancers who made regular appearances at the venue, was "La Carmencita," also known as "The Pearl of Seville." Carmen Dauset was born in Seville, Spain in 1868, and began performing at the age of 12 in 1880. She made her American debut at the 23rd Street Koster and Bial's in February 1890, but performed several times at the 34th Street location.
The dancer as portrayed by painter William Merritt Chase, 1888. Image via

One of a few portraits painted of the dancer by painter John Singer Sargent, 1890. Image via
The theater was also the chosen location for the first exhibition of Thomas Edison's Vitascope projector on April 23, 1896. Originally invented by C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armant, and called a Phantoscope in 1895, the two inventors both claimed the invention as theirs after dissolving their partnership. It was soon sold to Thomas Edison, in what sounds like a similar situation to the Emile Berliner gramophone incident in the late 1870s. The Edison Manufacturing Company renamed the machine the Thomas Edison Vitascope, and continued manufacturing it.

The first theatrical exhibition of a a film projection machine, the Vitascope. April 23, 1896 Image: LOC

Edison's company went on to produce 100s of "actuality" films -- watch them -- documenting real life scenes with little or no narrative. Here is a film of Carmencita made in 1894, most likely with one of Edison's previous camera inventions: the kinetograph or kinetoscope:

Almost since the day it opened, the theater was plagued with financial and management issues. On July 17, 1901 Macy's announced the purchase and future demolition of the property to make way for the flagship store at 34th Street and Broadway. Three days later, Koster and Bial's held their last performance on the rook garden, ending with a chorus of performers and loyal customers singing "Auld Lang Syne."

You can still find a plaque commemorating the Hall's existence just outside the 34th Street entrance to Macy's.

Other Sources:
-Snyder, Robert. The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Paterson, New Jersey, the SUM, and the Silk Strike of 1913

In 1791, Alexander Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury convened a group of investors and  started the Society for Useful Manufacturers (SUM). He chose Paterson, N.J. for its proximity to the Passaic Falls and opportunity for future growth. It would be one of the first planned industrial communities in the United States; its design and function centered around the encouragement of stateside commerce and manufacturing. Using the power generated by the falls, developers built an intricate raceway system along the river, from where most mills generated power. The first mill was built and operational by 1796 on Mill Street and by the 1830s the area was known as the cotton capital of the United States.
Passaic Falls, N.J. [1890-1900]. Image: LOC
Locomotive manufacturing came to Paterson first in 1835 with the opening of Rogers Locomotive Works, followed by Danford & Cook and Grant Locomotive Company. All three produced over 10,000 steam engines.  Samuel Colt opened the Colt Gun Mill 1836,  all while the textile and cotton industries continued to flourish. Sanborn maps of the area from 1887 and 1899 show rapid growth during the late 1880s and into the 1900s.

Image: LOC

Paterson, N.J. in 1901. Image: Shorpy

By the early 1900s, with over 100 silk firms located in Paterson, the area was dubbed Silk City, and in 1910 SUM built the first hydro-electric plant. Before, each plant was powered by individual water wheels.

Silk Factory, stripping and dyeing, Paterson, N.J., early 1900s. Stereoscopic: Paige Family

Workers weaving plain silk cloth at a Paterson silk mill, early 1900s. Stereoscopic: Paige Family

The increased industrialization and poor working conditions of the early 1900s led to the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913 (not the town's first strike). Among the demands were the establishment of an eight-hour work day and restrictions in child labor practices. Organized by Paterson workers with the help of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the strikers succeeded in bringing international attention to abusive labor practices endured by workers all over the world, as well as cohesion to the growing movement to stop them. A pageant was held to raise awareness and support at Madison Square Garden on June 7, 1913.

Children from Paterson, N.J. attend a May Day parade in New York City as part of the Silk Strike protest efforts, May 1, 1913. Image: LOC

More than 25,000 skilled and unskilled workers effectively shut down the town's 300 mills and dye houses, however, they were defeated in July of that year. There remained animosity on both sides, with manufacturers making small concessions to striker demands to avoid further unrest. Finally, in 1919, the eight-hour workday was granted.

This year is the centennial of the Paterson Silk Strike. If you find yourself near Haledon New Jersey, check out the  American Labor Museum's exhibit commemorating the Silk Strike's centennial. It's up for another month.

Other sources:
1. NARA's Lewis Hine WPA Research Project photo gallery on flickr
2. Library of Congress research guides by New Deal Program
3. The Great Falls Raceway and Power System, Paterson NJ, National Historic Mechanical and Civil Engineering Landmark, Dedication Program, May 20, 1977
4. National Parks website