Saturday, November 9, 2019

McSorley’s Painterly New York Saloon

In 1975, during a three month period working in New York City,  I ventured over to McSorley’s Old Ale House for lunch, having read Joseph Mitchell’s well-known book on the saloon.   At the time I was aware of the several paintings of the famous watering hole by New York artist, John French Sloan,  I was unaware then, however,  that a number of Sloan’s artist contemporaries also had memorialized McSorleys. 

First, a bit about Sloan (1871-1951).  He is best known for his urban genre scenes and ability to capture the essence of neighborhood life in Gotham City.  Sloan, shown here, has been called "the premier artist of the Ashcan School who painted the inexhaustible energy and life of New York City during the first decades of the twentieth century.”  As shown above and in paintings below, McSorley’s not only was his regular drinking establishment but a favorite scene to paint.  Above is Sloan’s “McSorley’s Bar, 1912.”

In a painting called “McSorley’s Cats,”  Sloan captured John McSorley, the founder of the saloon at 15 East Seventh Street, in scene with the owner’s rat-catching pet cats.  McSorley had arrived in America in 1851 at the age of 18.  The date on which he started his saloon is in dispute.  McSorley gave it as 1854 but others date it to 1865.  As in the beginning, the establishment still serves only ale and beer with its food, never the hard stuff.  As shown below, Sloan also could capture quiet moments as in “McSorley’s Back Room.”

Sloan’s fellow Ashcan School member, George Luks (1867-1933), also painted a scene at McSorley’s.  Known for his depiction of New York City life, Luks's work typifies the real-life scenes painted by the Ashcan School artists.  At McSorleys, as shown below, the artist has captured figures at the bar, one smoking, the other reading a newspaper.  Behind them a bartender is at work.

Reginald Marsh (March 14, 1898 – July 3, 1954) was an American painter born in Paris, most notable for his depictions of life in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. Jobless men are subjects that appear repeatedly throughout his work.  He often worked in pen and ink and in ink wash drawings.  Here he has captured a scene in McSorley’s where a gent likely down on his luck has stopped for a beer and is trying to warm up in New York’s frigid winter by hugging the saloon stove.

Perhaps the most unusual artist to paint the interior of McSorleys was Childe Hassam.  Frederick Childe Hassam (1859 – 1935) was an American Impressionist painter, noted for his urban and coastal scenes.  After living in France for some years, Hassam and his wife returned to the United States in 1889, taking residence in New York City. Hassam began to paint urban scenes, often using a palette of blacks and browns (considered "forbidden colors" by some Impressionists) to create his paintings.  This is evident in the dark hues Hassam used in his image of a lone drinker at McSorley’s bar.

Another artist who chose McSorley’s was Louis George Bouché (1896 – 1969), an American painter with whom I was earlier unfamiliar. Very little has been written about him.  Born in New York City, Bouché spent many years abroad and returned to teach at the Art Student’s League in New York.  A friend of Reginald Marsh, his art is not easily categorize.  Below he has captured the McSorley bar scene somewhat as Sloan had done earlier.

The cartoon of McSorley’s below is by Don Freeman (1908-1978), once a student of John Sloan at the Art Student’s League.  Freeman was known for carrying a sketchbook with him wherever he went. His images depicted New York City, the faces of the people he observed on the streets, and citizens down on their luck.  His pen and ink drawing here depicted some well known McSorley customers.  Note that Freeman included the potbellied stove and the cats.

My own memory of lunch at McSorley’s is dim.  I remember having a corned beef sandwich on rye that was mediocre and a glass of ale that was good.  The place seemed a bit dark and dingy, and with my historical interest satisfied, I never went back.  Below is a photo of the saloon interior as it looks today.  The bar, clock, stove, light fixtures — appear as they did in the past.  One major change:  A female bartender.  Women were not allowed in McSorley's until August 10, 1970 and it took a lawsuit to force their admittance.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Vera Lynn: Nightingale Amidst the Carnage


With the daily news from the UK being about the antics of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the stalemate in Parliament over Brexit, my thoughts are of more inspiring times.  They travel back to World War II, the stalwart Brits who saved civilization, and the singer who inspired them.  Her name is Vera Lynn, shown here.  At age 102 she was still alive in England in October 2019. 

The fortitude of the British people during World War II continues to be inspiring, as German bombing raids over their cities caused major devastation.  The bombs caused enormous destruction and heavy civilian casualties—some 43,000 British civilians were killed and another 139,000 were wounded.  It did not dampen people’s resolve.  An American witness wrote: "By every test and measure I am able to apply, these people are staunch to the bone and won't quit ... the British are stronger and in a better position than they were at its beginning". People referred to raids as if they were weather, stating that a day was "very blitzy” 

Buoying morale was a 23-year-old native of East Ham, England, who had begun singing at the age of seven. In 1932 she had recorded a song written by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles called “We’ll Meet Again.”  The song seemed spontaneously to fit the wartime atmosphere and became an emblematic hit not only in Britain but worldwide.  Among its lyrics:

We'll meet again
Don't know where
Don't know when
But I know we'll meet again some sunny day
Keep smiling through
Just like you always do,
'Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.
So will you please say hello’
To the folks that I know,
Tell them I won't be long’
They'll be happy to know, 
That as you saw me go,
I was singing this song.

The words hit a number of responsive chords with those men called into the military service to defeat the “dark clouds” of Fascism.  Perhaps saying goodbye to a girl friend or other loved one with the promise, “I won’t be long.”  Lynn sang it over and over again, always with enthusiasm and feeling.  She is shown here, singing to workers in a munitions factory in 1941. That same year, the darkest days of World War II, Lynn began her own radio program, performing songs most requested by the soldiers and sending messages to British troops serving abroad. She also visited hospitals to interview new mothers and send personal messages to their husbands overseas.

Lynn’s other great wartime hit was “The White Cliffs of Dover,” by Nat Burton and Walter Kent.  The lyrics were aimed straight at the war and the peace that was expected to follow the Allied victory.  Among them:

                        There'll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover,
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.
There'll be love and laughter
And peace ever after,
Tomorrow, when the world is free.

In fact, most of Lynn’s songs had a wartime theme, emphasizing the faithfulness of a loved one at home, the joys of a reunion, dreams of a peaceful tomorrow.  While some in Parliament sniffed that her offerings were sentimental “slush,” those doing the fighting did not agree.  When British servicemen were asked to name their favorite musical performer, Vera Lynn was the popular choice and became known as “The Forces Sweetheart.”  One favorite with the troops was the comic song, “The General’s Fast Asleep.”

She also joined with other British artists, touring Egypt, India and Burma, entertaining the troops and visiting those in hospitals, carrying messages back to family members.  She said talking to the troops and giving them the chance to ask her questions and simply being there for them was just as important as the actual singing, if not more so. 

Lynn had just turned 27  and was a major celebrity in 1944 when she traveled 5,000 miles to Burma in treacherous wartime conditions.  The press termed it, “a death defying tour” since Japanese patrols were never far away.   The intense Burmese heat was punishing and Vera also had to cope with insects, humidity, monsoons, lack of facilities and sheer exhaustion.  

She was sick some of the time but kept on.  One observer remembered of one Lynn performance:  “She sang until her make-up was running in dark furrows down her cheeks, until her dress was wet with sweat, until her voice had become a croak.” Lynn also insisted on visiting every field hospital, said to have "sat next to every bed" and chatted with the sick and wounded.

After the war for several decades Vera Lynn continued to be a popular singer with a worldwide following.  Because of her charitable work with veterans, the families of those killed in battle and other causes she was named a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.  In 2000 she was named the Briton who best exemplified the spirit of the 20th Century.   

Given the chaos in the UK today around Brexit, some of Dame Vera Margaret Lynn’s stalwart grace might well be a model for the British people — indeed for all of us — in the increasingly problematic 21st Century.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Vintage Automobiles in a Shoe Box II

Foreword:  Old enough to remember the days when electric buggies and Ford’s Model T’s were not totally unusual sights on the streets of my town, I am an aficionado of vintage automobiles and seldom have passed up an antique car show.  That spurred me in August 2012 to do a post on this blog that featured  vintage vehicles on paperweights — much, much cheaper than originals and can be stored in a shoebox.  In the intervening seven years, I have collected additional images and am delighted to present ten of them here, ranging in age from the oldest to the newer models.

The first is a medallion weight issued by the Ford Motor Company to celebrate the 100 anniversary of its founder, Henry Ford.  It shows him with the first motor car he built in a workshop behind his Detroit home.  It was, Ford wrote, “…Powered by a two cylinder four  horsepower motor, with a two-and-half-inch bore and a six-inch stroke, which was connected to a countershaft by a belt, and then to the rear wheel by a chain. The belt was shifted by a clutch lever to control speeds at 10 or 20 miles an hour augmented by a throttle  Other features included 28-inch wire bicycle wheels with rubber tires, a foot brake, a 3-gallon gasoline tank, and later, a water jacket around the cylinders for cooling.  Ford is said to have driven it 1,000 miles before moving on to his second vehicle.

Although in an anniversary piece, the Nash Company in 1952, identified this motorcar as its own Rambler, the original builder was the Thomas B. Jeffrey Co.  Jeffery was an inventor and industrialist who built his first prototype in 1897.  By 1902 he was mass producing an automobile he called a Rambler from a plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  Note that instead of a steering wheel, the Rambler relied on a tiller.  Jeffrey owned the plant until 1916 when it was purchased by Charles W. Nash, former head of General Motors, who changed the name.

One of the truly iconic automobiles was Ford’s Model T, affectionately known as “The Tin Lizzie.” It was the first genuinely affordable automobile, a vehicle that opened motor transportation even to working class America.  Cost was kept reasonable because of Ford's efficient fabrication, including assembly line production instead of individual handcrafting. The Ford Model T was named the most influential car of the 20th Century in the 1999 Car of the Century competition.  It also meant the final doom of the horse and buggy.

Many automobile manufacturers sprang up in the 1905-1920 era, most of them short lived.  The perfect example is the Marvel, an automobile built on Rivard Street in Detroit by the Marvel Motor Car Company.  The Marvel was a two-seater runabout. It came equipped with a horizontal two-cylinder engine, a planetary transmission (as did the Model T Ford) and single chain drive.  Production occurred only one year, 1907.  That was just enough time for the company to issue a paperweight promising:  “The Greatest Value on the Market, A Car of Superior Merit, Gives Most Satisfactory Service.”  Given the Marvel’s history, maybe not.

In 1904 Joseph J. Cole of Rockford, Illinois, bought a local buggy plant, renamed it the Cole Carriage Company, and built an automobile.  It was a high-wheeled motor buggy with a two-cylinder engine.  A Rockford story goes that Cole forgot to fit brakes on this prototype and on his first trip, had to drive until the gas tank was empty.  After reorganizing in 1909, the company began producing conventional automobiles, Big news came in mid-1915: Only one year after Cadillac had pioneered the V-8 engine, Cole brought out its own V-8 powered automobile — and would stay with it until the very end of the make in 1923.  The so-called “Aero-Eight” came in several styles, including a sedan, shown above.

Packard Motor Car Company was founded by James Ward Packard with two partners in the Northeastern Ohio city of Warren, where 400 Packard automobiles were built at factory from 1899 to 1903.  The latter year Packard moved operations to Detroit. Until 1903 all Packards had a single-cylinder engine.  The company was innovative, inventing the modern steering wheel and, years later, the first production of 12-cylinder engines. Shown here is a ”Twin Six" model series of 12-cylinder car along with familiar Packard slogan, “Ask the Man Who Owns One.”

Trucks, because of their need to haul heavy loads, were longer in development than motorcars.   The first Chevrolet truck available for purchase was the 1918 Chevy Model 490, a year after Ford introduced its first truck, the 1917 Ford Model TT.  Considered a light delivery vehicle with a half-ton rating, the Chevy 1918 Series 490 was sold as a chassis only, meaning the truck cab and body had to be installed by the customer. Shown on the weight here and sold alongside the light-duty truck was the 1918 Chevrolet Model T, a one-ton rated truck. Described as Chevrolet’s first purpose-built truck, the 1918 Chevrolet One-Ton had a 224-cubic inch OHV 4-cylinder engine with 36 horsepower.

Arthur Holmes, formerly an engineer for the Franklin Automobile, struck out on his own to organize the Holmes Automobile Company in 1917 in Canton, Ohio.  About 500 cars annually rolled off its assembly line in a range of open and closed models.  As shown here, the sedan also could be used in the funeral and ambulance trade.  The Holmes 6-cylinder engine was the first production engine to use three valves per cylinder.  Holmes planned to produce a lower-cost 4-cylinder car, but financial difficulties halted production in 1922 and the firm went out of business in May 1923.

The Dort Motor Car Co., named after co-owner, J. Dallas Dort, built automobiles in Flint, Michigan, from 1915 to 1924.  Almost immediately successful, the company sold 9,000 cars in its first year.  Compared to Fords, Dort models were fairly expensive but by 1920 had climbed to the country’s 13th largest automobile producer.  Having invested in a large new plant in Flint right after World War I, Dort was caught in an economic downturn, began bleeding cash, cut staff and expenses, and by 1923 forced into bankruptcy.  J. Dallas Dort died the following year.

The Ford Model A was Henry’s second big success in the automotive industry.  Popular in my younger days among the hotrod set, the automobile was unveiled in December 1927, replacing the venerable Model T. (There also had been a very early “A” model.) Rather than all black like its predecessor, it came in multiple colors.  Again the price was right:  The Tudor sold for an accessible $500 and top price was $1,200 for the fancier Ford Town Car with a dual cowl.  By mid-1929 the Model A had sold three million cars. When production ended in March 1932 almost five million were on American roads.

Of the ten vehicles featured here four manufacturers — Marvel, Dort, Cole and Holmes — were soon out of business.  Nash and Packard survived into my youth and Ford and Chevrolet, though batter by economic winds over time, still survive.  So do the paperweights issued to advertise and memorialize each of them.  Material abounds on every automobile make and model, even the short lived.  A wealth of information awaits the collector with a historical interest regardless of the size of the shoebox.

Note:  The information for this post principally came from Internet sources, particularly Wikipedia.  

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Uncle Sam and More Alcohol Ads

Enlisting Uncle Sam in the marketing of alcoholic beverages was a common occurrence in pre-Prohibition America.  In three prior posts I have featured the national Uncle as he has been depicted endorsing a range of whiskeys.  [See references below.]  That rush to identify with the old man in the red striped trousers was related to the passage by Congress of the Bottled in Bond Act of 1879 that empowered Federal authorities closely to monitor distillery warehouses for tax purposes.  Even without such direct government scrutiny, purveyors of imported scotch, spiritous bitters, premixed cocktails, wine and beer, also saw Uncle Sam as advantageous to their marketing.

Kicking off this vignette is a colorful image of Uncle Sam holding out his loving arms to a little girl whose dress identifies her as “Belgium.”  He is surrounded by ten other youngsters, all identified by costume and name as representing other European countries.  The poster was issued by Victor Brzezinski of Syracuse, New York.  Appropriate to the theme here Brzezinski sold a range of alcoholic goods, including wine, liqueurs and beer. 

Judge W. H. McBrayer of Anderson County, Kentucky, with three whiskey warehouses was one of the distillers who used Uncle Sam frequently in his advertising.  McBrayer concentrated on making a high quality whiskey and marketing it widely. According to legend, Wife Mary urged him to call the brand after the nearby stream. Thus, In 1861 Cedar Brook brand is first recorded as being used in commerce. Its growth over the following years was swift, aided by winning first prize and a gold medal for whiskey at the Philadephia Centennial Exposition of 1876.

Another whiskey that saw fit to identify with Uncle Sam was Jim Beam, a brand of bourbon produced in Clermont, Kentucky.  Founded 1795, seven generations of the Beam family have been involved in producing the brand, although the name “Jim Beam” dates from after Repeal.  The jug, often called a “toby jug “ was the product of England’s Doulton Pottery.   That company also produced the Dewar’s Scotch jug of Uncle Sam smoking a long clay pipe.  Dewar’s whiskey brand was created in 1846 in the Perthshire region of Scotland by John Dewar Sr.  Since then Dewar’s has had several international owners.

In its color lithograph trade card, Abbott’s Aromatic Bitters featured an Uncle Sam arm in arm with a distinguished gent who in turn is linked with a clownish figure with a crown identified as Old King Cole.  What any of this trio have to do with the bitters is unclear.  We do know that the original name was C.W. Abbott's Angostura Bitters, adopted in 1872, and many subsequent legal battles resulted with the word “Angostura” being stricken in 1908.  Nonetheless, the principal ingredients in this bitters was angostura (tree) bark and lots and lots of alcohol.

The Garrett Company of Weldon, North Carolina, furnished customers with a wall sign that featured Uncle Sam in a toast with Miss Liberty (was she a drinker?) of “Escapernong,” billed as “An American Wine for Patriotic Americans.”  From its home in Weldon, the Garrett Co. operated as a thriving business for years, shipping grapes from regional vineyards to the winery in Weldon. Garrett's wines began to be recognized worldwide, but in Weldon, the winery was threatened by state prohibition and forced to move to Norfolk and later to New York.

By trademarking its facilities as “Uncle Sam Wine Cellars and Distillery, the C. Anduran Company of San Francisco stole a march on other wineries who might have wanted a similar image.  Uncle Sam became a “man on a barrel,” a traditional pose described in depth in my post of May 12, 2018.  This wine company is recorded as in business from 1876 from 1887, located at 515-517 Sacramento Street.  The owners were C. Anduran and C. Carpy.

Brewers did not shrink from using the national symbol. Shown here is a slightly manic-looking figure assuring us that Sterling Beer from the Evansville (IN) Brewing Assn. was not only Uncle Sam’s favorite beverage but “just the mildly stimulating drink you want….”  Well maybe.  On March 13, federal authorities seized and condemned 295 cases holding 10,380 bottles of Evansville Brewing beer in Louisville, Kentucky, claiming that it had been adulterated and misbranded.  The government testing found that an unidentified substance had been added to the beer, substituting for malt.  The company pled guilty and was fined $200, a slap on the wrist.

Not all Uncle Sam ads were pre-Prohibition.  Here is a Budweiser ad from 1934, shortly after Repeal.  It shows Uncle Sam sitting on top of the world with figures in national uniform, left to right — France, Germany, Sam,. England, Spain and Japan.  The message is that during Prohibition, each country had its own beer but all were delighted to have Budweiser back in production:  “The biggest-selling bottled beer in history and the demand for Budweiser quality have built the world’s largest brewery.” 

The final ad in this series has an entirely different twist on the Uncle Sam personna.  No longer is he seen with a glass of whiskey, wine or beer in his hand, or sitting on a barrels of booze, but carrying a gun.  A New York City liquor dealer named Harry Hollander was warning the public that:  “Uncle Sam Will Enforce Prohibition.”  Existing stocks of good merchanise are almost extinct, he claimed.  As a result the public should “BUY NOW,” and Henry could accommodate  with gin, rum, whiskey, liqueurs, and wine.  At the time sales of alcohol were still legal, so Sam, for goodness sake, put the rifle down.

Note:  My earlier posts were “Enlisting Uncle Sam to Sell Booze,” October 1, 2011; “The Return of Uncle Sam, Whiskey Salesman,” February 15, 2013; and “Uncle Sam—The Distillers’ Man,”  August 18, 2018.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Requiem for the Barney Knob


It goes by lots of names.  In my northwest Ohio town we called it a “barney knob.” In other places it is known by other names.  Wikipedia uses the generic term “Brodie” knob after a man named Steve Brodie, a New York daredevil who is reputed in 1886 to have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge to collect a bet and survived. Other names for the device include necker, knuckle buster, and suicide knob.  A variety of them are shown throughout this post.

With my first automobile, a 1953 Chevrolet two-door that cruised at 80 miles an hour, for a while I had a barney knob on the steering wheel, have not used one since, and had largely forgotten about the device.  What put me in mind of it was a younger friend who fell, broke a wrist and was told not to drive.  “If you had a barney knob,” you could drive with one hand,”  I told him.  He had never heard of them. 

The object in question is a small, independently rotating knob (not unlike the standard door knob).  As shown here, it faces the driver and is securely mounted on the outside rim of a steering wheel. The knob is intended to help make steering with one hand less difficult and faster.  It was invented in 1936 by Joel R. Thorp, a resident of a Milwaukee suburb, West Allis, Wisconsin.  He called it a “steering wheel spinner knob.”  Later Thorp would invent an improved accelerator pedal.

In its heyday the knob made a fashion statement.  After World War II, hard plastic like lucite had hit the market and colorful knobs were the rage.  As I remember, mine was drum shaped with a bright yellow plastic flower display.  As shown here, others displayed plastic dice, the eight ball of pool, and sometime an image you did not want your mother to see. 

Placement of the barney knob was crucial.  It had to be available to the major driving hand and to turn a hard corner.  Being left handed, mine, I recall, was about 8 o’clock on left side of the wheel.  Others tended to locate it at 1 o’clock.

It was sometimes called the “necker” knob because it allowed the user to drive while having one arm around the shoulders of a girl friend snuggled close or perhaps holding her hand.  A youthful pal of mine was employing the knob to good use in that fashion but in his romantic haze drove into a busy intersection and had a fender bender that got him grounded for several weeks.

Wikipedia points out that the device is “notoriously useless” for controlling the automobile during an emergency.  The knob also be the cause of an emergency if it flips back and hits the driver’s arm. Today it frequently is termed the “suicide knob.”  Potential hazards also are responsible for it being called a “Brodie knob,” since his daredevil antics popularly were seen as a death wish.

During the 1950s, rumors constantly were flying among the barney knob crowd that the Ohio state legislature had passed a law making them illegal and if stopped by the police for a traffic infraction a second citation would follow.  I have no doubt that bills were introduced in many states to outlaw the knob and that nationwide proponents of the gizmo were left to worry.  To date, however, I cannot find any evidence that the barney knob ever was declared illegal in Ohio or any other state.

Nonetheless, whether it was fear of arrest or my father’s strong objection to it, I removed my barney knob only months after tightening the screws on my Chevrolet steering wheel.   The knob was kept lovingly in my dresser drawer where I would take it out occasionally and gaze at it in appreciation.
But I never replaced it on the steering wheel of my Chevrolet.

Some sixty years have elapsed since then.  The barney knob with the bright yellow flower long since has vanished from my possession.  I no longer cruise at 80 miles an hour and am usually holding tightly onto the steering wheel with both hands.  But it pains me that the knob has faded into almost utter obscurity even among the younger set.  I mourn its passing.  Thus the requiem.