Lost at Sea(port)

lithograph poster c. 1860s, detail
Behind the scenes at South Street Seaport Museum: I loved the contents lists on the storage cabinets
crimpers or 'jagging wheels' carved by sailors from the jawbones and teeth of sperm whales
(were there really that many pies needing crimping?)

the museum has a large collection of 19th century ephemera from local businesses
drawers of scrimshaw and harpoons in storage
19th century wood type at Bowne

Doug using one of the 19th century presses
Some of you may already know Bowne & Company Stationers down at the South Street Seaport. Bowne is a recreation of a printing job shop c.1875 with which I've had an informal history going back a few years—Doug and I printed a line of letterpress cards there, and we held our book party there. The shop has an amazing collection of type, both metal and wood, several 19th century presses including a couple of treadle presses still in use, an assortment of curious machines for manipulating brass and paper, and many wooden cabinets, cubbyholes and drawers. There was always the sense that something special was going on.

Bowne was a part of the Seaport Museum (as it recently paid to restyle itself) and they just laid off half their staff including curators, a historian or two, and the master printer/curator at Bowne. The last tiny shred of cultural worth that clung to the margins of the Seaport is gone, it seems, because of what appears to be tragic incompetance and mismanagement. And with it, another wisp of New York City identity evaporates. 

The Seaport is a botched opportunity to evoke a tiny bit of the history of what was the most important port in the country! When people in charge of museums with great, unusual collections appear to be completely ineffectual, utterly without vision or obsequious social climbers I feel personally aggrieved. It is offensive to me that incompetance takes away my local history, my quirky little haven, my project opportunities and leaves me with Abercrombie and Fitch.

What's going to happen with all the stuff at Bowne? What about all the artifacts gathering (and turning to) dust in the museum archives? Last year I got to go on an abbreviated behind-the-scenes tour of the museum (my dreadful snaps above) and I was thrilled to get to see a bit of Joseph Mitchell's "Old Hotel". The Fulton Ferry Hotel at 92 South Street was a former
rest stop for boat travelers in the early 19th century, but had degenerated into an SRO by the time Mitchell visited and wrote about it in the New Yorker in 1952. Remnants of the former flophouse/literary icon and social landmark had been stabilized—stained wallpaper, graffiti and all—and were being saved for some kind of installation as part of a restoration of the building. Whats going to happen with that?

Also, the
museum had opened "NY Unearthed"— a short-lived archeological  installation (designed by, oddly, Milton Glaser)—which I believe housed the 18 or so remaining Five Points neighborhood artifacts. Yes, that legendary slum immortalized by Jacob Riis and Herbert Astbury (and Luc Sante and Martin Scorsese) is now documented with a mere 18 items of an original holding of 850,000 that was incinerated (along with 2800+ people) in the World Trade Center. And I believe the South Street Seaport Museum is responsible for their safe keeping... My guess is that the "museum" will hold onto its maritime doodad gift shop. So let's hope one of the sales assistants knows how to look after those archives... //

A little background: In the 19th century the Fulton/Nassau/Pearl Street area was filled with printing shops—like the original Bowne and Co.—which produced, among other things, the journals and ledgers that seamen took with them aboard ship, and clipper cards like these (advertisements for ships) by the thousands. These would have literally littered the streets. The Seaport Museum has a collection of these but the examples pictured here are from this fantastic Flickr set.
"Extraordinary dispatch! 116 days to San Francisco"

"Rapidly loading!"
"I could distinguish the reek of the ancient fish and oyster houses, and the exhalations of the harbor. And I could distinguish the smell of tar, a smell that came from an attic on South Street, the net loft of a fishing-boat supply house, where trawler nets that have been dipped in tar vats are hung beside open windows to drain and dry. And I could distinguish the oak woody smell of smoke from the stack of a loft on Beekman street in which finnan haddies are cured; the furnace of this loft burns white oak and hickory shavings and sawdust...." —Joseph Mitchell


peacay said...

Lovely stuff thanks Angela.

Hey, did you see this post of mine from last week? I'm fairly sure you'll find something in there to like!

will said...

angela-- thanks for writing this and writing tugster. i will link to your post soon. will


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