It happened just the other day. One glance up on a tenement wall, five stories above East Harlem’s Lexington Avenue. Two seconds was all it took. The shock of recognition rushed through my soul. It’s 2006, right? Not. 1912 is more like it. A ghost image, a palimpsest, caught my eye, high above the 116th Street corner. There beneath the parapet of an old walk-up, some boy’s pet pigeons once swooped and swirled from their home-base coop. With its pale decoration, a century old, the anonymous wall still bears silent testament to another world that’s long gone by.
“59th & 60th Sts.”With these few words a whole world opens. Even in the years before World War I, when the sign was fresh paint, the advertising business was no infant. The sign was placed there with knowledge aforethought, at a certain height, targeting a particular audience. I’ve carbon-dated the sign from display ads in The New York Times. The logo in the photo begins to appear in the those ads no later than 1899, and disappears after mid-June of 1917.
Display Ads from The New York Times
from January 2, 1912The building on which the ad remains is known as 124 East 116th Street. The certificate of occupancy on file at the New York City Buildings Department indicates that the structure is an old law tenement, a phrase used to describe dwelling houses constructed before 1901. The ad may well date from the building’s youth. Sometime between the store’s relocation to Third Avenue and 59th Street in 1886 and the logo change in 1917, the painters were hard at work…Each step in my figuring opened petal after petal of a fascinating bloom, that of New York in the pre-war years, its consumer culture, its nascent Babbitry, the city of strivers and all-rightniks, when the East Bronx was the chosen destination of tens of thousands of immigrant who had made some money and could afford to leave the Lower East Side and East Harlem for the newly-constructed apartment blocks near the Third Avenue el Bronx stations.The Bloomingdale’s sign sits on the east wall of a building perhaps 100 feet back from Lexington Avenue. The avenue lots must have been unencumbered by tall buildings when the sign was painted (they are low-rise today, though occupants of those parcels, come and gone in the intervening decades, may have temporarily blocked the view).Pedestrians in the East Harlem of T. R. and Taft, of Warren Gamliel Harding, were they local residents or shoppers on the busy 116th Street retail corridor, saw and reacted to the Bloomingdale’s ad. But was the store out of their league (as it is today)? A peek at newspaper ads for that emporium as well as local stores along 116th and 125th Street might shed some light on the subject.
January 2, 1912: The New York Times will answer everything. Sure enough the display ads tell the story. By that time, Bloomingdale’s was hardly for the carriage trade. Modest priced domestics, pianos on credit, “All cars transfer to Bloomingdales” trumpets one ad. They’re not speaking of landaus or cabriolets.
But things had not been so always. An ad from 1887 in the New York Public Library’s collections tells that the store had been located at 59th Street for only one selling season and was in the process of expanding to 60th Street. Despite its proximity to the Third Avenue elevated railroad, Bloomingdales customers were wealthier in 1887 than three decades later. Touting the store’s success, management told the public of the need to expand, even after only one year at the new premises “The new entrance on Sixtieth Street will be found most convenient to the large number of lady customers who visit our store in carriages.”
Department store ads on the side walls of New York City buildings drew customers from far and wide to central Manhattan emporiums in the pre-WW I years. Names like Siegel-Cooper and O’Neill drew shoppers to the Ladies’ Mile in the same decades that Bloomingdale’s occupied its uptown palace. Out in the Rockaways or up in East Harlem, the merchandising technique was the same: draw the lower middle class customer to the store and let them taste the richesse that pulled in those borne by fancy carriages in years gone by.
Sign on Building Wall on Rockaway Beach Boulevard near Beach 100th Street, covered up c. 2004 by aluminum siding…
These signs are fading, as has their history. Diligence is called for or the losses will become permanent. Get yourself up to 116th and Lexington and take a look westward on that wall. It’s easy as punch: All cars transfer there…