The F. W. Woolworth Company, also called Woolworth’s or Woolworth, delighted children and their parents alike for more than a century. In Illinois, 25 Woolworth stores, mostly in Chicago and the suburbs, were shuttered forever in July 1997. In the UK, the stores lasted a decade longer, going out of business in December 2008. The very last thing I bought at Woolworth’s when the store was liquidating stock, was a pair of Barbie roller skates for my then 9-year-old daughter. The store closures symbolized the end of quite a run that began on February 22, 1878 when Frank Winfield Woolworth opened “Woolworth’s Great Five Cent Store” in Utica, New York. The first store failed after a short time, however, the second store that opened on July 18, 1879 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania was a big success. When he launched the Lancaster store, Frank enlisted his brother Charles Sumner Woolworth to join the business.
It was really nice that so many family members reached out to me and commented on my first Howard Clothes article. This yielded a good deal of insight and information, which inspired the desire to write this epilogue. Based on my communications with family members, I found out Elaine Winik is the sole surviving child of Samuel and Minnie Kappel. I also discovered she wrote a book entitled Still Looking Forward, published in 1996. I decided to purchase a copy on Amazon and gave this to my dad to read first. After all, it was his family with the connection to Howard Clothes and to Minnie and her mother Mollie Sennowitz. Elaine’s book filled in a lot of blanks including first names of people who were unknown to me when I wrote the first article, and had escaped my dad’s memory at this point in life – he is 92 after all. A few weeks later, I had the pleasure of talking to Elaine on the phone, and she graciously sent me a few clippings and photos that I have added to this blog. My dad got a real kick out of this passage from Elaine’s book: After living with us, grandma came to my parents and said that although we all were wonderful to her, the house wasn’t kosher, and besides, she missed her Yiddish-speaking contemporaries. If mother and dad would pay rent to “the greenie,” (all immigrants were referred to as greenhorns) her newly arrived cousin from Russia, she would live with him and his wife. Of course we could come and visit her there. She also mentioned that it would be very nice if my parents would furnish the apartment for the “the greenie” as he had no money at all. They did, as they asked.
My love for NYC goes back to when I was a teenager and visited my older sister, who at the time was living in her first dive apartment, a 3rd floor walk-up on Sullivan Street north of Houston. However, it was during my four years at RISD, from 1976-1980, that I became immersed in NYC. I have written about this before, in Reflections on a New York City Christmas, Own a Small Piece of Vanishing New York – Vintage 1970s, and The Times Square of My Mind. I have photographed the gritty streets of NYC going back to my RISD years. Every time I return, another small or large chunk of my youth slips away, swallowed up by gentrification and cookie-cutter commerce.
Howard Clothes was a name I heard throughout my childhood, as my dad regaled us with tales of his youth. However, I never took the time to learn more until recently, which proved quite a challenge. My 92-year-old dad has a spectacular memory, but I was seeking concrete information on this rather obscure clothing company that has seemingly been lost to history. The first Howard Clothes store opened in New York in 1924 and was founded by Samuel Kappel, Joseph Langerman, and Henry Marks – named after Langerman’s son Howard. A corporation was subsequently organized in New York in 1925 under the name Howard Clothes Inc. and was later changed to Howard Stores Corporation. The company operated a massive factory in Brooklyn, just on the other side of the Manhattan Bridge, in the neighborhood now known as Dumbo. They sponsored a radio show called Howard Dandies, broadcast on WABC. Their line was limited to men’s clothing, with a major competitor being Bond Stores. Bond operated numerous retail outlets across the U.S., with a factory in Rochester, N.Y. and a flagship store at 372 Fifth Avenue at 35th Street in NYC. Although Bond was primarily a men’s clothier, by the mid-1950s some stores carried women’s clothing, and in their heyday, like Howard Clothes, they also had around 150 stores.
My paternal grandfather Abraham immigrated by himself to America in 1905, leaving behind my grandmother Nettie to fend for herself with their firstborn infant, my Aunt Ella, in a small village near Lomza, Poland. Once my grandfather settled in NYC, he worked in the garment industry as an embroiderer – the trade he learned in the old country. He returned to Poland in late 1911, already a U.S. citizen – Jacob (my Uncle Jack) was born in 1912 and when Abraham left again for America later that year, he was unaware that my grandmother was pregnant with Dora (my Aunt Dottie), who was born in 1913. When World War I broke out, he was separated once again from his family, this time for even longer. He returned to Poland in 1919, moved the family temporarily to Lomza, and worked towards the goal of immigration for his family. Abraham, Nettie, and the three children stepped foot on Ellis Island on April 9, 1921, after sailing from Southampton on the Aquitania. My dad Sam was the only member of his immediate family to be born in America, in September 1923.
I rarely write travelogue pieces, but a September 2014 2-day trip to John Water’s hometown of Baltimore warrants this for the oddities and wonders encountered. My daughter and I took a BoltBus from NYC to Baltimore in mid-September, heading to the Natural Products Expo East. It was with a little trepidation that I booked the bus trip – the reviews on Bolt, Peter Pan, Greyhound, and Megabus leave you wishing you had a fast Porsche instead. In retrospect, glad we didn’t take a Megabus – quite a few accidents in the last months. Hopping in a cab near my daughter’s West Village apartment, we got snarled up in Chelsea traffic along 10th Avenue. We finally made it to the rather odd location for our journey – 33rd Street between 11 and 12th Avenues. The bus trip there was not half as bad as some of the Yelp reviews, but nevertheless, I found myself wondering how the heck anyone over 5” 3” could possibly fit his or her legs into this cramped space. We mainly listened to our iPods and I found myself fascinated looking straight into the faces of truck drivers who were at my eye level for the first time, trying to snap photos of them at the right moment. The highlight was crossing the pretty Delaware River, as I summoned images of George Washington doing so in 1776, or to be more accurate, the painting by Emauel Leutze depicting this valiant event.
I have been experiencing a wave of nostalgia – it comes with age and recent losses of dear friends and our beloved little kitty Pepper. For me, the holidays seem to inspire reflections on the past – thinking back to how much New York City used to mean to me at Christmas. I have been digging up wonderful Christmas-related NYC photos from the Library of Congress and decided to delve into my own archives to see what I could find. When I was a child and up through about 2004, my parents would visit NYC every December for an annual psychiatric meeting at the Waldorf Astoria. While my dad was attending lectures, my mom would go window shopping with some of her friends. As children, my sisters and I always looked forward to my parents coming home with intriguing presents. My dad would also visit Russ & Daughters and purchase obscene amounts of candy that he had shipped home. Chocolate covered coffee beans, pastel chocolate mint lentils, and chocolate covered raspberry rings are the candies that I remember most. He would tell me stories about buying pretzels and roasted chestnuts from street vendors, shopping at B. Altman, Gimbels, and other now defunct stores; telling me tales that made it sound so magical.
While cleaning out my parent’s basement, I discovered a bunch of old newspaper clips from the Apollo 11 moon landing, dated July 21, 22, 23, and 24, 1969. The clips themselves are intriguing, although essentially worthless from a monetary standpoint. I actually found myself more fascinated by the ads. I have highlighted a few of the business of yesteryear that once upon a time graced the Windy City. Although I have blogged about other defunct Chi-Town shops, this article only features retail stores for which I found ads – a subsequent article will cover a few cultural venues unearthed in these clips. Benson-Rixon Benson-Rixon men’s store had multiple locations, including the flagship location at 230 South State Street – now home to a McDonalds on the ground level. This is not a store that my dad frequented – he was a Brooks Brothers guy through and through! This store has a fascinating history – in the ad it is called Benson-Rixon, but other references refer to the store as Benson & Rixon. Hans A. Rixon, born in 1864, the son of a German manufacturer of woolen goods, immigrated to Chicago with his family. In 1886, he started clerking for Charles Rixon at 701 Milwaukee Avenue and served as the store’s general manager. In 1890, he opened his own gent’s clothing shop at 851 North Avenue, continuing this business until 1895. He then combined his business with Mr. Rixon’s business, moving to 1730 Milwaukee Avenue. In 1896, Mr. Rixon became a partner and vice president of the Benson-Rixon store, originally established by Paul J. Benson and Albert Rixon in 1889. According to an excerpt from the History of Cook County, Illinois, by 1909, the gentlemen owned three stores.
Sometimes the oddest random encounter leads to sleuthing. In this case, a visit to the Salvation Army Family Store in Mundelein led to my interest in an artist known as Countess Zichy, as well as the NYC-based publisher Edward Gross that printed reproductions of many of her paintings. Erzsebet Podvinecz, often went by the name Maria, but painted under the name Countess Maria Zichy after she emigrated to the U.S. Erzsebet (Elizabeth) Maria Podvinecz was born in Budapest, Hungary on June 29, 1893 to Daniel Podvinecz and Hermina Racz (Rosenberg). Daniel Podvinecz was somewhat famous in his own right, an industrialist who built motors and motorcars. In 1901, at the tender age of 25, Daniel and his 24-year-old partner Vilmos Heisler, started assembling Austrian Leesdorfer cars. Their work is acknowledged as important in the creation of MÁG (later known as Magomobil – Hungarian General Machine Factory Corp.), the most important Hungarian vehicle manufacturer before World War II, based in Budapest.
Twenty-eight years before the great female photographer Berenice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio on July 17, 1898, a pioneering documentary photographer named Jessie Tarbox Beals was born on December 23, 1870 in Hamilton, Ontario. While Abbott has long been a favorite of mine along with the wonderful female photographers Helen Levitt (1913-2009) and Ruth Orkin (1921-1985), Beals was not on my list until recently. I readily admit this oversight with remorse and humility and she is now the subject of my devotion and fascination. While the aforementioned photographers may have possessed greater cache in the art world during their lifetime and post-death, and perhaps more bravura technique, Beals overcame more insurmountable odds due to her place in time. All three of these photographers are synonymous with capturing New York City life … and all of them surely had to encounter the challenges and prejudice of working in a male-dominated field. Abbott was influenced greatly by the French photographer Eugene Atget, whose artistic goal was to document all of the architecture and street scenes of Paris before these cityscapes succumbed to modernization. She moved to NYC in 1918, but left for Europe in 1921 to study sculpture and painting in Berlin and Paris. It wasn’t until 1923, when Man Ray hired her as a darkroom assistant at his Parisian portrait studio that she realized photography was her calling. She returned to NYC in 1929, reportedly to find an American publisher for Atget’s photographs, and it dawned on her that she had to capture the city’s ephemeral landscape much as Atget had done in his beloved Paris. I cannot find any mention of this, but surely Abbott had to be aware of Beals’ work.