2/20/2008

Letter from the Past - Part 2



If you are just joining us for this story-catching exercise here's the deal. A few weeks ago I found a 90 year old letter my grandmother wrote to her mother when she was on a trip to New York City.

The text of the chatty letter to her mother in Charlotte is in the previous post - Letter from the Past - Part 1 along with a list of the characters. In this post I will explore the scene at the time she wrote the letter to develop the atmosphere and search out possible directions for a story. You know - I am just playing around.

To do that I am pulling information from family history, using my genealogy research - and turning to "'google" and the internet to take me back to this day and time and to enrich the content.

I want to bring Nanny's trip to life - primarily for our family. These stories are my subversive tactics in this world of the scattered family to water our roots and keep the family oak from shriveling to a sapling. Perhaps the exercise will give you ideas for catching a story of your own.

In the "olden times" when families lived close-by, folks told these stories at the dinner table or on a porch or maybe sitting around a tablecloth spread on the ground at a picnic. Children grew up knowing they were part of a large tribe and the stories of those "gone" lived on. We have to work harder today to keep our stories alive..

Exploring the scene of the story - New York City, April 30, 1918

Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States. John F. Hylan was Mayor of New York City ( http://www.nyc.gov/html/nyc100/html/classroom/hist_info/mayors.html). America was at war. More than 8 million people lived in New Youk City, and about 650,000 lived in Charlotte, NC. My grandpartents, Louise and Sam Diggle, rode all night on the train, leaving their six children at home with relatives for a business-vacation in the BIG city.

Hotel McAlpin
Louise and Sam were staying at one of the finest hotels in New York. Hotel McAlpin, a large hotel with 1500 rooms, was built in 1912. It was known for its innovations, decorative brick work, decorations and fine Marine Bar.

From an article in the New York Times, February 20,2008
Early 20th-century hotel construction was an exercise in quick obsolescence - with a new generation of buildings completely eclipsing the old one every three or four years. Telephone, telegraph, plumbing, elevator and other mechanical services rapidly advanced, but each new hotel also sought singular decorative schemes.

The Astor Hotel had an American Indian Grill and a Pompeiian billiard room, the Plaza had the Germanic-style Oak Room and the airy Palm Court, and the Vanderbilt Hotel had an unusual Grill Room with tiled, vaulted ceilings.

The 1,500-room McAlpin Hotel, opened in late 1912, was considered the largest hotel in the world and it also attempted to outdo its predecessors. There were floors restricted to women, men and even night workers - where silence was enforced during the day. There was a tapestry gallery, a banquet room with a vaulted ceiling, a giant marble lobby, a Louis XVI-style dining room and Russian and Turkish baths.

In 1913, the Real Estate Record and Guide noted another unusual feature of the McAlpin. Unlike other giant hotels, the McAlpin rented out its valuable store space all along the street frontages, moving its main rooms up or, in one case, down a floor. The basement room, at first called the Rathskeller and within a few months the Marine Grill, remains one of the most unusual in New York City.

The Marine Grill is a forest of tile-clad piers that curve up and form great curved vaults, all in a glazed riot of ornament and color - brown, green, cream, silver and scarlet. Giant semicircles along the walls carry faience panels depicting the maritime history of New York.

1918 - America was at war - the Armistice was not signed until November 1918.

In her letter Louise mentions the stir over the new campaign for Liberty Bonds. Around the first of April in 1918 they launched the the third Liberty Bond campaign - selling the Bonds to finance the American effort in France. This would have been of particular importance to Louise because her two younger brothers Walter, age 31, and Fritz, age 23, were in the Army serving in France.

She writes that she hopes to see some of the returning heroes before she returns to Charlotte. I imagine that she meant one of the parades down Fifth Avenue.


She says they went to Vaudeville - we can imagine the music - popular George M. Cohan songs like "Over There" and Give My Regards to Braodway" must have been on the bill and heard around town in restaurants.


Macy's: A History

In 1918 Macy's was located at Herald Square - on Bradway and 34th Street - very near the Hotel McAlpin - convenient for Louise to "look around and do some shopping" while Sam was at the office.

Macy's has an interesting history - growing from a small fancy dry goods store which opened in 1858 to it a world-known retailer.The website history calls Macy's an innovator. Macy's was the first to introduce the tea-bag, Idaho baked potatoes, and colored bath towels. Macy's moved to the Herald Square location in 1902. By 1918, when Louise "looked around and shopped there", Macy's was generating 36 million dollars in sales and was a world-wide tourist attraction for visitors to New York - like Louise.


I thought this was an intersting bit of Macy's history.
To help celebrate their new American heritage, Macy's immigrant employees organized the first Christmas Parade in 1924. The procession featured floats, bands, animals from the zoo and 10,000 onlookers, beginning a time-honored tradition now known as the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

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