Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past

Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past

by Frank Mastropolo

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Overview

New York City's oldest neighborhoods are downtown, where scores of timeworn ads have improbably survived for decades. These "ghost signs" hold the secrets of businesses and products that vanished decades ago. Clues to our jobs, schools, places of worship, cafés, and concert halls lurk in their faded outlines. Journalist and television producer Frank Mastropolo brings more than 100 of these signs to life through insightful commentary on the history of downtown's distinct neighborhoods and the eclectic businesses that anchored them during the first half of the 20th century. The collection offers an important and timely look at New York City's rich economic and social fabric, especially today, when long-established businesses are rapidly being priced out of their neighborhoods.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780764358319
Publisher: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.
Publication date: 11/28/2019
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 772,507
Product dimensions: 9.20(w) x 6.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Frank Mastropolo is a veteran journalist, photographer, and television network news producer who has documented hundreds of New York City's ghost signs. His series on downtown New York's faded ads appears in New York magazine's Bedford+Bowery blog.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

SHOPPING

S. BECKENSTEIN

Samuel Beckenstein was a Polish immigrant who sold odd lots of fabric he bought from clothing manufacturers. After starting as a pushcart merchant, he established Beckenstein's Men's Fabric in 1919.

Beckenstein created a business that catered to men who could not afford a new suit when the pants wore out. He began to buy leftover fabric from men's suits manufacturers and carefully cataloged the material by manufacturer. The entrepreneur then contacted dry cleaners around the country. He offered to make pants that would exactly match the jackets of men's suits. By the 1930s, Beckenstein advertised his business as the "World's Largest Pants Matching House."

Pants matching was a success, with 400 to 500 pairs a week shipped. The 1932 song "Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long," cowritten by Milton Berle, was purportedly about Beckenstein. Barbra Streisand released a version of the tune in 1970.

In 1945 the company moved to a new home, the former New York Telephone Co. building at 130 Orchard Street. Beckenstein completely covered the second and third floors with signage for his business, announcing the "World's Largest Values & Savings" and a "Special Remnant Dep't." Two large "Entrance" arrows point to the doors.

In time, fabric businesses departed Orchard Street, replaced by leather and hat shops. Beckenstein was one of the last holdouts when it moved uptown in 1999.

DE ROBERTIS PASTRY SHOPPE


De Robertis Pastry Shoppe closed in 2014 after more than a century serving Italian coffee, pastries, cookies, and ices. Four generations of the De Robertis family worked at the pasticceria since it opened in 1904. John De Robertis, whose grandfather Paolo started the business, described the store's early days in Bedford+Bowery (http://bedfordandbowery.com): "They made pignoli, the seeded cookies, and they made coffee, cappuccino, and as refrigeration came in they started making pastries, cannoli. Then as time went by they started making lemon ice. They catered to the Italians because that's what everybody around here was used to.

"The heyday of the store's popularity was in the '60s. As soon as church was over, whatever mass people went to, they all piled in here. We were packed. They came in for coffee and cannoli, sfogliatelle, whatever."

De Robertis said that the neon sign, which spans the width of the building, was probably erected in the 1940s. "We never really had people come over to our apartment because we were always working," explained De Robertis. "My father said, 'This is like my living room. I can't have people over my house because I'm always here, so this is my living room.' And people like that. It's that love that you can't get from a chain store" (Mastropolo 2014).

GOLD MEDAL FLOUR

Gold Medal Flour was originally named Washburn Crosby's Superlative Flour. "In 1880, our very first entry into an international millers' competition won a gold medal," reads the Gold Medal website. "So, we thought that was a great reason to change our name."

The faded sign, at least fifty years old, is visible from Delancey Street. The script above "Gold Medal Flour" reads "Eventually." It is a shortened version of the flour's old slogan, "Eventually ... Why Not Now?"

G. LA ROSA & SON BREAD CO.

Successive tenants have preserved the signage of G. La Rosa & Son Bread Co. The SoHo building is a renovated 1850s New York City firehouse. Giacchino La Rosa operated the bakery until the 1950s, when he retired and sold the business to a family member.

HYGRADE'S ALL-BEEF FRANKFURTERS

Sir Winston Churchill Square is a garden and sitting area at the juncture of Downing Street and Sixth Avenue. The site was purchased by the city's Parks Department in 1943. The square, designed by George Vellonakis, was rebuilt in 1998–1999, adding a garden, an armillary sphere, and a decorative fence. The square is named in honor of the British prime minister who guided the UK through WWII.

Overlooking the square is a ghost sign advertising Hygrade's frankfurters, a brand that dates to 1914. Hygrade was founded by Samuel Slotkin, a Russian immigrant who was one of the first to produce packaged meats for consumers.

"Mr. Slotkin's first loyalty was always to the quality frank-furter," notes Slotkin's 1965 New York Times obituary. "Early in his career he frowned on mixing meats in frankfurters and developed an all-beef frankfurter."

AVIGNONE PHARMACY

When Avignone Pharmacy closed in 2015, it was one of the oldest drugstores in New York City. The proudly antichain pharmacy was founded in 1832 as Stock Pharmacy. Italian immigrant Francis Avignone bought the business in 1898 and changed its name to Avignone Pharmacy. Its original location was 59 MacDougal Street, which was demolished when Houston Street was widened.

In 1929 Avignone moved the shop to 281 Sixth Avenue, a building the family erected for the pharmacy. Avignone's son Carlo ran the business from 1956 until it was sold in 1974.

Abe Lerner owned and operated Avignone for thirty years but was forced to close its doors in 2015, when the landlord tripled his rent. "I've spent half my life here," Lerner told DNAInfo. "I've known many of these people for thirty years; I've seen a lot of kids grow up. A lot of these people have become friends — they're not just customers, they're friends" (Tcholakian 2015).

The Avignone painted sign shares the wall with the Hygrade's sign overlooking Sir Winston Churchill Square.

TREE-MARK SHOES

"Mental comfort begins in your feet," reads a 1939 newspaper ad for Tree-Mark Shoes. "Complete foot happiness is guaranteed if you wear Tree-Mark Shoes." Tree-Mark Shoes emphasized comfort over style. A 1970 New York Times article noted that Tree-Mark specialized in "boots for women with larger than average calves." An in-house custom department manufactured and fitted shoes for abnormal feet.

Tree-Mark, which had three New York locations, occupied the former movie theater for almost thirty years. The parapet along the smooth limestone roofline is engraved with the company's name.

REX COLE

In the 1930s, master salesman Rex Cole was chosen by General Electric to promote its new line of Monitor Top refrigerators, which housed the motor, compressor, and condenser on the top of the cabinet. The Monitor Top was the first electric refrigerator designed for the home market. Cole hired architect Raymond Hood to create spectacular showrooms in New York City to promote General Electric refrigerators.

The modernistic buildings featured 15-foot-high replicas of the Monitor Tops on the roof. Cole, nicknamed "King Cold" as a pun on his product, erected enamel signs throughout the city to promote his dealerships. By 1931, Cole reportedly had 1,000 employees and $15 million in sales despite the Great Depression. But by 1935, fewer people could afford refrigerators, and Cole filed for bankruptcy. Hood designed at least fifteen showrooms for Cole, but they all have been demolished or drastically modified.

Two of the remaining metal signs survive thanks to building owner Charlotte Storper. Her husband, Sidney, died in 2000, and when Mrs. Storper had the building's facade cleaned in 2001, she made sure the two Rex Cole signs remained.

In 2003, Storper told the New York Times that she and her husband bought the building in the 1950s. "We kept it all through the years, through the flower children and the ups and downs of the '60s and '70s," she said. "At one point I said the signs were unsightly, but he said, 'Those signs are a part of history'" (Gray 2003).

P. N. CORSETS

By the 1890s, women's corsets were a hot item, advertised in newspapers and magazines across the US. One of the leading brands was P. N. Practical Front Corsets, manufactured by I. Newman & Sons. The company was founded by Issac Newman in the 1870s. The P. N. purportedly refers to Newman's wife, Pauline.

The marketing feature of P. N. Corsets was its Practical Front, an inner elastic vest that prevented the corset from riding up. "Youth Is Beauty — Youth Is Style," reads a P. N. ad from 1925 that shows two women admiring a flapper's figure. "A touch here and a slight yield there and the style becomes your style."

The lettering of the four-story ad for P. N. Corsets probably dates it to the early 1900s, decades before Madonna made the girdle a fashion statement. Because neighboring 168 First Avenue is set back a few feet, there is just enough wall space to squeeze in the corset ad.

WITTY BROTHERS

The Witty family — brothers Spencer, Frederic, Ephraim, and Arthur, and cousin Irving — expanded Polish immigrant Henry Witty's Eldridge Street store into a manufacturing plant employing 400 workers and a chain of six high-end menswear shops. "They used luxurious fabrics, cashmere, Scottish tweeds," Jane Gould, Spencer Witty's daughter, told the New York Times (Hevesi 2006).

One fan of Witty Brothers clothing was Edward "Monk" Eastman, a mobster whose Eastman Gang dominated street crime in New York in the early twentieth century. Eastman was gunned down in 1920 by gangsters on Fourteenth Street and Fourth Avenue. Detectives found a Witty Brothers tag with Eastman's name inside his jacket. After the murder, Henry Witty said in the New York Tribune, "Monk Eastman, the old time gang leader ... we have made clothes for him for 19 years."

The Witty Brothers name remains on the facade above the second floor. Nicole Witty, granddaughter of Frederic Witty, said in Bedford+Bowery that by 1962, the business "was no longer financially viable due to unionization of workers and production moving to the South. At that point it was sold to Eagle Brothers, which then licensed out the name without regard for quality that the brand had stood for. Think Jewish Brooks Brothers, fine men's clothing with a little extra pizzazz that the gangsters liked" (Mastropolo 2018).

MARTIN ALBERT CUSTOM DECORATORS

In 1980, Martin Zeliger and Albert Harary founded Martin Albert Custom Decorators on the Lower East Side. "It used to be on Sundays you couldn't move on that street," said Harary, the company's vice president. "At one point we had a guard at the door; we couldn't let everybody in at one time. Our store was maybe 1,000 square feet. We built a good business."

Its two-story sign, with a bold red arrow pointing to the entrance, was painted a year or two after the store opened. "We're looking at about $300 to paint the sign and considering how they designed the lettering, it was a little rough. I think it was a guy with a scaffold. We didn't have money for sign painters.

"The arrow was there and we had a phone number there. There was a phone number on the sign that was faded. A year or two ago somebody painted over the sign so it wouldn't disappear from the world. But they painted over the phone number! Kind of an amateur restoration."

Martin Albert moved from the neighborhood in 1993. "It was such an interesting area, everything that was going on," said Harary. "These tiny little stores were there for thirty or forty years. That's all gone now. It's a shame" (Mastropolo 2018).

TURKISH TROPHIES CIGARETTES AND FLETCHER'S CASTORIA

Turkish Trophies cigarettes were produced from 1892 to about 1930. The tobacco ad is hard to decipher because it is painted over an older ad for Fletcher's Castoria, a children's laxative. The word "Trophies" is partially obscured by "Fletcher's." On the right is the rest of the laxative ad: "The Brand You Have Always Bought."

M. SCHAMES & SON PAINTS

Russian immigrant Mendel Schames opened his paint business on the Lower East Side in 1927. When the building next door at 5 Essex Street was demolished in 2010, the work destabilized the shared exterior wall with Schames. The paint dealer moved to Delancey Street but left behind two of the largest and brightest ghost signs in the neighborhood.

The building-wide sign over the entrance displays two Benjamin Moore paint cans. Two stories above is a huge Dutch Boy Paints sign. The style of the Dutch Boy logo dates the sign to the mid-twentieth century.

EMIL TALAMINI REAL ESTATE

The two-story-high Emil Talamini Real Estate sign towers over Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village. Its Algonquin-4 telephone prefix dates it to the 1950s or earlier. Village resident Emil Talamini was a real-estate broker and investor who maintained an office in the building.

EDELSTEIN BROS. PAWNBROKERS

Jazz legend Charlie Parker's life was plagued by bouts of depression and heroin addiction. The saxophonist, known as Bird, died in 1955 at age thirty-four. Parker kept a chronology of the last ten years of his life, which was published as Bird's Diary: The Life of Charlie Parker, 1945–1955 by Ken Vail (Vail 1996). Its last page shows a pawn shop ticket for Parker's King Super 20 alto sax from Edelstein Bros. Pawnbrokers. The ticket is dated Jan. 24, 1955, less than two months before Parker's death.

The Edelstein brothers were Isaac and Max Edelstein, who inherited the shop from their father, Simon Edelstein. The two brothers first worked with their father at the family's shop on First Avenue. They moved to the Fourteenth Street location in 1945, where they remained until 1981.

One of Parker's saxophones was part of an auction of personal items owned by jazz icons held at Lincoln Center in 2005. The saxophone, said to be Parker's main instrument in the 1950s, sold for $225,000.

M. KATZ & SONS FINE FURNITURE

In the twentieth century, shoppers flocked to the furniture stores along Essex Street and Avenue A for bargain prices. Meilich Katz founded M. Katz Furniture in 1906. The company's website notes that "M. Katz, whose business still bears his name today, began by selling furniture out of a tenement in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and eventually moved his thriving furniture business to a location on Stanton Street, just around the corner from where Katz Furniture stood for over fifty years on Essex Street."

The Beauty & Essex restaurant, lounge, and pawn shop has retained the M. Katz signage with its own.

MAX FEINBERG

Orchard Street has welcomed new citizens since the mid-nineteenth century, when Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants arrived from Europe. To serve their needs, Orchard Street became a discount shopping hub where haggling over prices was an art form. Merchants originally sold their merchandise from baskets, then pushcarts. Laws that banned pushcarts in the 1930s encouraged vendors to establish their own stores along the street.

The Lower East Side building that would house Max Feinberg was erected in 1910 as an apartment house. The Shearith Israel Sisterhood later operated a settlement house on the site to pro- vide for Sephardic immigrants. The settlement house moved to Eldridge Street and Max Feinberg purchased the building in 1928.

Feinberg sold ready-to-wear children's clothes from the storefront. The second floor was used for his office, and the third floor for storage. Feinberg erected a building-wide sign with his name between the second and third floors that survives in remarkably good shape.

BAKER BRUSH CO.

Baker Brush was a manufacturer and importer of high-quality brushes for artists and contractors. Its ad in Popular Science promoted its line of brushes and rollers for house painting: "Brushes by Baker. Better brushes for better painting. A style for every purse and purpose." If you sent a postcard to the company, you would receive a free booklet, "How to Do a Good Paint Job."

Baker Brush was founded by Alfred Baker in 1908 on Fulton Street and moved to Grand Street in 1915, where it remained until 1975. No sign of the company remains on Grand Street, but around the corner on Greene Street is a ghost sign for the Baker Brush receiving entrance.

MATERA CANVAS

"If it is canvas you need, Matera Canvas has it: boat covers, tarpaulins, tote bags, awnings, aprons, and items some people wouldn't think of making of canvas," the New York Times noted in 1990.

The Matera family worked in the canvas business beginning in the early twentieth century. "Any canvas work that would be needed on a boat, we can make," said Peter Matera, the third generation of his family in the trade. "An Indian reservation in New Mexico wanted a custom teepee" (Brewer 1990).

Matera Canvas moved to 5 Lispenard Street in Tribeca, two blocks from the large square sign, in 1970. The store closed in 1997.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Ghost Signs"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Frank Mastropolo.
Excerpted by permission of Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction, 6,
Chapter One: Shopping, 32,
Chapter Two: Working, 56,
Chapter Three: Meeting, 78,
Chapter Four: Discoveries, 98,
Chapter Five: Make-Believe, 108,
Chapter Six: Going ... Going ... Almost Gone, 114,
Bibliography, 123,
Index, 127,

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