Tuesday, September 15, 2009

living high

This photo comes from the Prints and Photos Division of the Library of Congress. It shows a scene on Fifth Avenue in New York City in 1905.

{Click to view full size: LC caption: Belmont coach, New York, c1905.}

The Shorpy blog, which also shows this photo, gives somewhat more information:
New York circa 1905. "The Belmont coach." Alfred Vanderbilt's Belmont Park four-in-hand passing the Holland House Hotel on Fifth Avenue, in the days when "coaching" was a favored pastime of millionaire sportsmen
A Shorpy commenter locates the shot exactly: "That's Marble Collegiate Church at 29th and Fifth, so this view is to the southwest. Dedicated in 1854, it's where Dr. Norman Vincent Peale preached." The commenter links to the Google Street View of the intersection.

Some things to notice:

1. There are many vehicles, but no evidence of traffic control: no signage, no lane markings, no one giving orders to stop and go. Nonetheless, there seems to be discipline. Carriages, carts, and wagons all keep to the right and the side-street flow is yielding to the flow on the broad avenue, including most prominently the Vanderbilt coach. People afoot wait at the corners for opportunity to cross. At least one mounted policeman is present, presumably ready to act if needed.

{mounted policeman}

2. A stray Dalmatian seems to be wandering aimlessly amid all the congestion, but the dog is probably a carriage dog, associated with the four-in-hand team and coach which follow. One source says such dogs "had a natural affinity with horses and formed lasting bonds with them."

{carriage dog}

3. Although the photo locates us in an area of great wealth and prestige, not all whom we see are well to do. Notice the shoe of the man in the derby hat just below the center of the image.

4. Since this is 1905, perhaps it's surprising that we don't see much of motor cars. I think I see only one. If I'm right, the gent in livery just to the right of the policeman's head is guiding a horseless carriage something like this one:

{a horseless carriage at Union Square in 1899; source: Oliver Nade's photostream on flickr}

5. Although the mania for bicycles was still going strong, I see none here.

6. The coach itself — the subject of the photo and the center of attention for us and many whom it shows — is most heavily loaded. We can't see whether there are people within, but there couldn't be more without.

The carriage seems to be a Tantivy Road Coach like this one:

{Tantivy Road Coach; source: caaonline.com}

You can view many such coaches on this site, the 2009 Newport Rhode Island Coaching Weekend. These coaches were sometimes called tally-ho coaches to distinguish them from public conveyances.

The reins of the four horses are rigged four-in-hand, meaning that they are passed along the harnesses and up to the driver in pairs. The method permits a single coachman to control the four at once. Like this pleasure coach, stage and mail coaches were normally rigged four-in-hand.

The driver of this coach is its owner, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt I


Here are three more details from the image:

A few personal notes:

1. New York City at this time was not a pedestrian's paradise. My great-grandfather, Louis Windmiller, was a promient merchant and enthusiastic walker. In this year, 1905, as in the previous couple of decades, he made the 8.5 mile commute on foot each day between his summer home in Woodside, Queens, NY, and his office in lower Manhattan. This map shows one of the routes he would take (the blue line):

{click to view full size; source: mapblast}

He knew a lot about the difficulties a pedestrian faced in Manhattan. As an article in the New York Times put it, "Conditions are daily becoming less and less favorable [to those who walk in the city]. Mr. Louis Windmuller tells with much feeling about the varied and numerous annoyances and dangers encountered by the foot passenger in the streets of New York and other American cities. The writer enumerates an endless list of assaults upon the senses and the temper which the city many or woman is sure to suffer whenever afoot." (source: TOPICS OF THE TIMES. Monday, April 28, 1902).

2. The Vanderbilt family possessed extreme wealth and consequently owned vast properties. Margaret Louisa Vanderbilt-Shepherd — who was sister to Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt I, the owner of the Belmont Coach — owned an enormous estate in Scarborough, NY, a section of village in which I was raised (in a pleasant small house on a half-acre lot). That estate subsequently became Sleepy Hollow Country Club where I spent some awkward hours from time to time, done up in a rented tux, serving as part of the obligatory male contingent in two or three coming out parties, and where, somewhat later, I spent some afternoons, hanging out out with one another high school friend whose parents actually belonged as members of the place. This photoshopped image gives an idea of the mansion and propetry.

Margaret stood for what has become a pretty well known portrait by John Singer sargent.

3. I had a college classmate whose father, John Martin Seabrook, was well known for his revival of coaching. When he died earlier this year, an obit said:
By the early 1960s, when Esquire Magazine first named him to its Best Dressed Men in American list, Mr. Seabrook was recognized as one of the country's most stylish devotees of the British Saville Row look. To accommodate his wardrobe, he installed a revolving dry cleaner's carousel in the attic of the 18th century farmhouse in Salem, N.J., where he and his family lived. An enthusiastic equestrian, Seabrook was equal parts horseman and clotheshorse. When Diana Vreeland produced the exhibit "Man and The Horse" for Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute in 1985, she asked him to provide clothing accessories appropriate to 19th century England - outfits that he was still wearing on a regular basis.

Mr. Seabrook had begun collecting and driving l9th century carriages when the sporting world had almost forgotten about carriage driving, and he was instrumental in reviving the sport of "coaching" in the United States. He was a founding member of the Carriage Association of America, and the third American member of the British Coaching Club, following William Tiffany and Alfred Vanderbilt. He often conducted business from the box seat of a road coach. Richard Fain, who as a young executive worked under Seabrook at I.U., and later became the CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, recalled, "He would be holding four reins in one hand, a coaching whip and champagne glass in the other, driving four horses through farm roads lined with vegetables, remarking on the state of the crops, while simultaneously discussing how best to finance the five new supertankers the company was getting ready to order. Of course, the board of directors was along for the ride, both literally and figuratively." In his later years, his horses and carriages became a familiar presence in Newport, R.I., for the annual summer meeting of the American Coaching Club.

{Left: John M. Seabrook coaching; source: caaonline.com. Right: JMS himself; source: aikenstandard.com}

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