Thursday, October 25, 2012

Election Night

New York City, 

After walking through Herald Square on election night in 1907, artist John Sloan noted in his diary that the cheerful crowd was “so dense in places that it was impossible to control one’s movement.” The square on Sixth Avenue and 34th Street, then bounded to the east by the elevated train, was one of the traditional places where New Yorkers gathered in the years before radio to hear the election results. Although this was a period of social activism and political reform, the citizenry was mostly out to have a good time. Filling the squares and circles of the city, the large gatherings were generally peaceful, except for the shouting and blaring of horns, and the feather ticklers that the celebrants wiggled under the noses of passers-by. Within a week, Sloan painted the scene he witnessed, masterfully capturing the excitement of urban life.1 

During election night in 1906, George Bellows, another realist painter of the Ashcan school, sketched the densely-packed crowd in Times Square, an up-and-coming area where people also congregated on such occasions.2 Adding to the excitement as the votes were being counted, a searchlight on top of the new Times building signaled who was currently ahead in the gubernatorial race—north for Republican and south for Democratic. 

Times Square on Election Night (1906)

The electric sign over Rector’s, the renowned “lobster palace” on Broadway, can be seen in the lower left of the photograph shown above. The restaurants in New York were jammed on election night, matched only by New Years Eve. In addition to the images provided by artists and photographers, a menu from the Flatiron Building in 1906 offers additional evidence of the sociability that once surrounded elections. 

The Flatiron Building (1906)

The wedge-shaped Flatiron Building facing Madison Square was also a relatively-new skyscraper at the time. The restaurant in the basement reportedly had a seating capacity for 1,500 people, well-suited to handle large crowds. The illustration below indicates where the entrances were located on Broadway and Fifth Avenue. 

Pairing down its regular menu comprising hundreds of items, the Flat Iron Restaurant offered only the most festive and expensive dishes on election night in 1906. Many of the entrées on the late-supper menu shown below, such as the venison steak, the roast Jersey suckling pig, and the German partridge, reflect the large number of German-Americans living in New York, then the city’s largest immigrant group. Among the highest-priced dishes costing $1.25 (approximately $32 in 2012 dollars) are the jumbo sweetbreads procured from the specialty meat dealer Charles Wissman. Known in the trade as the “Sweet Bread King,” Wissman was also the president of the restaurant. 

This period of American political history came to be called the Progressive Era. Moving away from its laissez-faire traditions, the government began addressing the myriad of social issues that resulted when the country shifted from an agrarian to an urban society. One of the most shocking revelations in 1906 came from journalist Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, exposing the bad practices of the meatpacking industry. In response, the Pure Food and Drug and the Meat Inspection Act was passed, becoming the first legislation of its kind. 

Dating from about the same year, the twenty-page booklet shown in part below provides a few pictures of the Flat Iron’s dining room and kitchen, followed by a list of the wines, cigars, and cigarettes. 

There is a wide selection of German and French wines, including an 1881 Château Mouton Rothschild, then ranked as a second-growth estate in Bordeaux.3 Arguably, a better choice may have been the Château Pontet-Canet from the extraordinary 1893 vintage, priced at $2.00 (about $50 today.)4 Only three wines from Italy and California appear on this list. 

The booklet features two full pages of cigars. The Flat Iron Restaurant advertised that its exhaust system was so efficient that smoking was allowed at all times. Nevertheless, no matter how good the ventilation, cigar smoke would have infused everything in the dining room with a lingering odor; it was one of the distinctive smells that once permeated many places of everyday life. 

The list of cigarettes shown below includes an early brand named Ladies Gold Tip. It would be another year before the Café Martin and Rector’s would publicly announce that women would be allowed to smoke in their restaurants, belatedly acknowledging a societal change that had already taken place. In fact, women's suffrage was one of the byproducts of this era, when the relationship of the democratic government with its people was redefined. 

In the New York gubernatorial election in 1906, the progressive Republican Charles E. Hughes ran on a platform of social reforms, defeating publisher William Randolph Hearst on the Democratic/Independent fusion ticket. (The candidates for the Socialist, Prohibition, and Socialist Labor parties came in a distant third, fourth and fifth, respectively.) “Let nobody mistake the meaning of the narrow victory that Charles E. Hughes has won over William R. Hearst,” exclaimed the New York World. “Mr. Hughes’s election by a small plurality is morally a Republican defeat, a popular repudiation of the corrupt Republican machine and its alliance with corrupt corporations.” Indeed, all of the statewide offices were won by Democrats, thereby ending the twelve-year reign of the conservative Republicans in state politics. 

1. John Sloan, Election Night, 1907, oil on canvas, 26⅜bx 32¼ in., Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, New York, Marion Stratton Gould Fund. 
2. George Bellows, Election Night, Times Square, 1906, charcoal, lithographic crayon, conté crayon, ink, 18¼ x 26 in., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington. Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn. Photo credit: Lee Stalsworth. 
3. In 1973, Baron Philippe de Rothschild succeeded in having his Chateau Mouton-Rothschild elevated from a second growth to a first, reversing what he called “the monstrous injustice” of the official classification in 1855, when Bordeaux wines were ranked according to quality and price for the Exposition Universelle de Paris. 
4. Situated adjacent to Château Lafite Rothschild in Pauillac, Château Pontet-Canet has made a comeback in recent years, after a long decline during much of the twentieth century. Today, the restaurant price of a twelve-year-old bottle of Pontet-Canet exceeds $200, representing a price that has risen at least four times faster than the rate of inflation. The rapidly-escalating prices of global luxury brands like Pontet-Canet reflect the degree to which the moneyed classes have expanded and prospered since 1906, particularly over the last thirty years. Interestingly, Chateau Pontet-Canet is using part of the financial windfall to reintroduce horses to work its fields, giving this venerable fifth-growth estate the look and feel of a nineteenth-century vineyard.


Jan Whitaker said...

The Flatiron menu is quite a prize! Great post.

Anonymous said...

Very nice. Appreciate the insight.