Alas, what a difference 90 years can make ON POLITICS

Lars-Erik Nelson

December 28, 1992|By Lars-Erik Nelson

NEW YORK -- Fleeing the mad scramble of the malls escaping the noise and babble of what is supposed to be a serene holiday, I ducked into a secondhand bookstore. There, lying dusty and forlorn on a bottom shelf at the very back was a veritable time machine, a World Almanac for 1902.

Its cover was crumbling into dry fragments. But its statistics, its summaries and its ads preserved a vivid picture of the world you would have found if you woke up 90 years ago this morning.

New York was booming. It had become the second largest city in the world after London and it was already the tallest. Steel-skeleton construction permitted buildings of 20 stories and more. "Brooklyn is pushing outward with its beautiful suburbs to its very confines," the Almanac said. For those reluctant to move to the suburbs, there was a new concept in housing, "the apartment hotel." They were rising on West End Ave. and Central Park West. Today they're called "doorman buildings."

Down on Broadway, two giant stores were under construction at 34th St. On the south side was Saks; on the north, R.H. Macy. At 42nd St. and Fifth Ave., the main branch of the New York Public Library was being built. And way downtown, workmen were erecting a humane and modern prison. It was called The Tombs.

Coney Island was bought in 1902 as the city's first seaside park. It cost $50,000. A six-story tenement going up in then-fashionable Harlem cost $41,000 -- for the entire building. Andrew Carnegie, the steel tycoon, was building a mansion at Fifth Ave. and 90th St. for $2.5 million. An Army private earned $13 a month. Seth Low, New York's reform mayor, made $15,000 a year.

The Long Island Rail Road reported a profit of $2.1 million, and the New York Central made $8 million. The 20th Century Limited offered rail service to Chicago in 20 hours. The subway was under construction, but elevated trains operated on Second, Third, Sixth and Ninth Aves. The fare was 8 cents. The workday was eight hours and no overtime was allowed "except in extraordinary circumstances."

A cab ride -- horse-drawn, of course -- cost 50 cents for the first mile and 25 cents for each additional mile. If you hired a cab by the hour, the driver had to cover at least five miles or you could complain to the police. Sirloin steak was an outrageously high 24 cents a pound. Lamb chops were 18 cents.

"Have you a dry, hacking cough? Do you have pains in lungs, chest and back? Are you pale, thin, weak and worn out? Have you asthma?" If so, Dr. T.A. Slocum, of 98 Pine St., would send you four free samples of his amazing patent medicine. Yes, the first four bottles were free. But Dr. Slocum was confident you would come back for more. His ingredients, in those days before effective drug control, were cocaine, morphine and opium.

There was no income tax. The national debt was just over $2 billion compared to $3 trillion today. The biggest single federal expense was veterans' pensions.

America had an estimated 150,000 criminals and paupers (the two were lumped together). The largest single cause of death was tuberculosis, with pneumonia a close second. In the entire country in 1901, there were 6,000 murders. In the year ending June 30, 493,262 immigrants landed in New York City, of whom 178,000 were Italians.

James McAuliffe, principal witness in the corruption trial of a city official named Glennon, was taken into the W. 47th St. police station and beaten to death. The police were never prosecuted.

Want to buy a car? A new Oldsmobile cost $650 and got 30 miles to the gallon. It had no windshield and no steering wheel. The latest hi-fi system was the Edison Conqueror, with an electric motor. A phonograph record from Columbia cost $1.50.

On April 4, the will of Cecil Rhodes was published. The British tycoon had left $10 million to provide 100 scholarships for superior American men to attend Oxford University. Ninety years later, one of his scholarship boys was -- as Rhodes had dreamed -- elected president of the United States on the premise that he would bring back the hope of those bustling, booming days when American spirit was young.

So, thank you, Cecil Rhodes.

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