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September 16, 2003

At the foot of the Flatiron Building
Posted by Teresa at 08:50 PM *

One windy day in October 1903, cameraman A. E. Weed of the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company set up his camera at 23rd Street and Broadway and Fifth Avenue—that is, near the northernmost point of the Flatiron Building—and took this film.

The Flatiron Building (or, more properly, the Fuller Building) had only been completed the year before, but its north end had already acquired a reputation as the windiest corner in the city. Naturally, this led mashers to congregate there on blustery days, hoping to get a look at ladies’ inadvertently bared ankles. (If they knew where to stand, these degenerates could simultaneously watch the 23rd Street subway gratings, which would occasionally lift ladies’ skirts to even more dramatic heights. But I digress.) Police running off the area’s population of cads and mashers was supposedly what gave rise to the phrase “23 skiddoo”. I’ve never understood how that got started; still, that’s the story they tell.

I know that stretch of sidewalk very well indeed. I work in the Flatiron. The camera’s set up just a few feet away from the door where Patrick and I enter the building in the morning. For the record, the ground-level winds there can still be pretty intense, though perhaps not as ferocious as they were when the Flatiron was four or five times taller than any of the buildings around it.

What I like best about the film are the unselfconscious gestures. I, too, have clutched my hat and reined in my skirts when I’ve come around that corner on a windy day; but I’m a child of the late 20th century, and thus a dilettante about such things. The people in this film are confirmed lifelong hat-wearers. Their gestures when they hold their hats on are completely automatic.

An odd thing you see about halfway through the film is two different well-dressed women temporarily walking backwards down the sidewalk, keeping their faces to the wind, while they resettle and secure their hats. That took me by surprise, but after a little thinking I saw that it was logical. Facing into the wind would help keep their hair tucked up and smoothed back while they repositioned their hats and hatpins.

There’s a bit of ankle flashed at the right of the screen about a third of the way through, but it’s not until somewhere around the three-quarters mark that we get a substantial show. This is courtesy of a well-endowed young lady in a very tight bodice. Her skirt is significantly shorter and less voluminous than the ones the other women wear, and she has only one flimsy petticoat beneath it. That petticoat is nevertheless essential, since without it we would very nearly catch sight of her knees.

We first see the girl from behind, as she walks past the camera from left to right. Then she stops and turns around for no reason at all, and strolls back past the camera from right to left, only this time closer in. And for just a moment after she disappears off the edge of the screen, you can see a tall man in the crowd turn around to watch her go—the hussy!

This bit of film came from the Early Films of New York section of the Library of Congress’s American Memory site. There, if you’re interested, you can also see Buffalo Bill Cody parading through the streets of New York with his entourage of American Indian notables. Or you can watch a procession of aging Civil War veterans marching along, in their regulation forage caps and blue uniform blouses, on the occasion of the Funeral of Hiram Cronk—who, when he died at the age of 105, was the last surviving veteran of the War of 1812.

But if you’re very, very brave, and have the bandwidth to spare, I recommend that you go to the Variety Stage Motion Pictures section and check out the 1907 three-parter called Fights of Nations. I’m not even going to try to describe it.

I love history.

Comments on At the foot of the Flatiron Building:
#1 ::: Alan Hamilton ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 01:25 AM:

Also of note is the mustachioed police officer that keeps stalking around. He looks a bit suspicious of the camera.

#2 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 01:33 AM:

He does. And what is that kid up to?

#3 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 03:18 AM:

Mr. Ford and I find "Fights of Nations" most perplexing. He hazards the guess that they mean to say "Americans are harmonious."

#4 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 04:01 AM:

Some questions regarding Part One of "Fight of Nations":

1) The girl in the white dress is completely useless in a fight, isn't she?
1a) Unless you need someone to dance around and flap her arms -- in which case, send her an urgent IM.
1b) Why didn't she bean one of the guys with that big flowerpot?

2) I can't figure out WHAT is going on in "Our Hebrew Friends," but I believe this may be a portrayal of a harmful ethnic stereotype.
2a) Maybe the guy in the cop's uniform is actually being Bar Mitzvahed, and the other guy is his uncle, and the other guy is slipping the kid a twenty and telling the kid, "Spend it on yourself -- don't tell your Mom and Dad."
2b) And then they all dance the hora.

#5 ::: Niall ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 05:37 AM:

I like the spontaneous gesture from the black guy who pauses to look at the camera, and loses his hat as a result.

#6 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 08:38 AM:

I'm getting "Temporary file open error. Display failed" on nearly all of these links.

#7 ::: Adrienne ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 09:01 AM:

Oh, good. Someone else is getting that error message. I thought it was just me.

(Which isn't to say that I think it's good that Mr. Macdonald is getting an error message--just that's it's nice to not be alone.)

#8 ::: Eloise Mason ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 09:45 AM:

I got the error too - but if you go to the link for the main page, and search on 'flatiron,' it takes you to the same URL, without the error message.

#9 ::: India ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 10:05 AM:

I got the error message, too, and hacked back the URL to get to the films. Go to and search for Flatiron.

#10 ::: Anne ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 11:13 AM:

"Fights of Nations, Pt. II": Woo! Buck dancing *and* a cakewalk! I recognized the soloist's style immediately, from documentaries like "No Maps on My Taps"--it's amazing how the tradition has evolved while still remaining itself.

Someday, some enterprising young dance historian in need of a diss topic is going to go through that collection and figure out exactly how much Astaire absorbed from the African-American tap dancers of similar vintage. IIRC, he was in vaudeville about that time, and on Broadway shortly thereafter.

Also: watching the soloist to the tune of Vivaldi's "Domine fili unigenite" is really, really funny.

#11 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 12:20 PM:

I've watched the two short films twice, and will probably watch them a couple of times more. They're hypnotic.

There is something about these very old movies -- those aren't costumes those people are wearing, it's their actual clothes. I'm convinced that there is a naturalness to people wearing their own natural style of clothes that not even the best actor can reproduce. This isn't a stage set we're watching -- nobody's going to yell CUT and then all the actors mill about and the stars go back to their trailers to check their e-mail and everybody pulls their cell phones out of pockets and checks voicemail. This is real life, people wearing their own clothes and feeling natural in them -- TNH nailed it with the observation about the hats but of course that's only part of it. These people wear these clothes every day, they know how to move in them so they don't pull or bind, and they know where the pockets are and know what's in those pockets (or, at least they're very familiar with rifling through those pockets looking for stuff.... ). And what's in those pockets isn't, as I said, cell phones, and it isn't Palm Pilots or even car keys, either -- it's wallets containing large-sized bills.

To some extent, it's a blessing that there are so few films this old, because when we do encounter one, it's magic, as close to time travel as we're likely to ever come.

#12 ::: Carlos ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 02:48 PM:

"Fights of Nations" is screaming to be dubbed.

Taste would be beside the point.


#13 ::: Christopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 03:32 PM:

The Library of Congress site has an amazing amount of really great stuff on it.

I particularly like this: (Here's my attempt at making that a live link, which I'm not sure if I know how to do in this commenting system:

Among other things, it's introduced me to the bluesman Buster Ezell; they've got a couple of tunes by him that are classic time-capsule outsider art.

Buster Ezell, "Obey Your Ration Laws":
Buster Ezell, "Roosevelt & Hitler (Strange Things Are Happening In This Land" (featuring the priceless lyric "He's treating us so mean with his dreadful submarines."):

Similarly, there's Deacon Sam Jackson's belligerent anti-Japanese gospel song "(If I Had My Way I'd) Tear Tokyo Down":

In case those links don't work, all three of those are from "'Now What a Time': Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley Music Festivals, 1938-1943."

#14 ::: Adam Lipkin ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 03:40 PM:

I didn't watch the Fights Of Nations trilogy, not having the bandwidth, but I watched the Flatiron one, with the wind and the hats. That whole area by there up through the park (Madison Square Pk.) into the side streets east of it-- particularly Madison Avenue and 24th street-- are just filled overflowing with wind, from seemingly every direction at once. 24th street especially, probably because of the buildings funneling it. Awful during the rain, renders umbrellas useless (not that they're much good in anything more than a slight breeze anyway).

I was in the Flatiron building last week, for a training course. I was struck by the elevators-- mirrored all over, with an iron scrollwork style of thing in front of the mirrors. And a domed ceiling to top (ha) it all off. Very very nice. Also the up-to-date button panel, much better than the dingy 1960s-techno that we've got here. Also, those elevators didn't echo with the sounds of metal smacking against metal like mine do.

#15 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 03:48 PM:

Any link you can make to a specific item in American Memory is, like the real thing, sadly temporary. You can give a link to the search page and tell what to look for, and let people scamper and frolic among the stacks. Heck, that's the best thing to do anyway. Go to the sound recordings and listen to "Uncle Josh." Go to the sheet music and look at the works of "Blind Tom Bethune." See if they have stereoscope slides of your home town; or panoramic photos. See the Future of San Francisco (not this one; some other future). Read Leonard Bernstein's lecture notes. Or vaudeville scripts. Or other wonderful stuff I can't even think of now. One of the great sites.

#16 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 03:56 PM:

Technical note: when viewing an MPEG, I can also watch it backwards with ctrl + left arrow, or see it slightly faster in either direction by holding down an arrow key. Much fun ensues!

A favorite Flatiron story is that when an entrepreneur wanted to make a "vending machine" to sell gum for a penny, the gum manufacturer doubted people would put money in a machine. As a test, they went to the windy area near the Flatiron and put up a box with a slot, and the legend "Put a Penny in the Slot and Hear the Winds Blow." People filled it with money so fast, the police came around. The manufacturer (I think it was Frank H. Fleer, but I'm too lazy to go look) was sold.

#17 ::: Christopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 04:54 PM:

I figured out how to create permanent URLs for at least those songs I posted above. If you take this:
and swap out 7052a1 with the catalog number used to name the mp3, you can link to any page in that section of the LOC. Something similar probably works for the rest of the site.

Here's the corrected URLs, if anyone's interested.
Buster Ezell, "Obey Your Ration Laws":
Buster Ezell, "Roosevelt & Hitler (Strange Things Are Happening In This Land":
Deacon Sam Jackson's "(If I Had My Way I'd) Tear Tokyo Down":

While I was figuring that out, I ran across another of Buster's songs, in which either the original recording medium has either deteriorated so badly it's not playing at the right speed, or Buster's guitar is way, way out of tune - "Do Right By My Country":

#18 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 06:12 PM:

I was particularly impressed by the ease, facility, and naturalness of everyone's elbow dodging. (The elbow of the arm placing the hand on the hat, I mean.)

And truly, the past is another country.

#19 ::: Seth Johnson ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 06:42 PM:

The American Memory film collection is a fantastic place to browse around.

One of my favorite discoveries is a series of early industrial films made at Westinghouse plants in Pittsburgh, downloaded when I was in search of reference on period machinery.

While watching "Panorama of Machine Co. aisle, Westinghouse works", an amazing overhead tracking shot taken high above the factory floor, I realized that I was watching a time before the assembly line--a chaotic plethora of tasks being done in a seemingly random cheek-to-jowl layout. Workers pushed, pulled, carryed, and hammered away, but where parts came from and how they were proceeding toward a finished product is far from obvious.

Oh, and many of the factory workers are wearing hats.

Truly a different time, and I'm incredibly grateful that some of it has been preserved and made available. (Of course, I'll still join the grumbling about how difficult it is to link to specific items in the collection...)

#20 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 07:13 PM:

I believe I've got the expiring-link problem licked. The LoC has a helpful explanation of this in their FAQ. If you want to link to a specific item, you do "view source" and scroll to the bottom of the code. There you'll find the URL for the permanent link, bracketed by characters that for some reason cannot be displayed here. (On the left, it's open caret, exclamation point, hyphen, hyphen; on the right it's hyphen, hyphen, close caret.) So far the revised links are working. Let me know if they stop.

#21 ::: Glen Fisher ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 07:22 PM:

Mitch Wagner wrote:
There is something about these very old movies -- those aren't costumes those people are wearing, it's their actual clothes. I'm convinced that there is a naturalness to people wearing their own natural style of clothes that not even the best actor can reproduce.

You're not the only one to notice this. Some time back, my local SCA group was helping out at a community college "Renaissance Night". As I was going from somewhere to somewhere else--in SCA garb, of course--I got stopped and asked whether I was from the SCA. When I said yes, the response was essentially, "I knew it!" What gave it away? It seems that the person who asked had noticed that the SCA people were treating the period attire as clothing, as nothing more than what they'd happened to pull out of the closet that evening, while everyone else treated it as costume, something strange and uncomfortable, and the difference was clearly visible.

#22 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2003, 08:26 PM:

It has taken me this long to figure out that the woman whose skirt gets blown up is the whole point of the second video. I expect people actually found that titillating when they watched the movie.

Of course, I found that mildly amusing but by no means titillating -- even if that woman took off her dress entirely and stood in her undergarments, she'd STILL be extremely modestly dressed by 21st Century standards. Whatever entertainment there is in her getting her skirt blown up comes from her startlement rather than anything else.

What's fascinating to me in that video is the stuff that the 1901 audience would've considered barely noteworthy: the people walking around, their clothes, the horses and carts and the fact that horses and carts in those days were still practical means of transportation.

Audiences back then were more patient about setups -- I doubt an audience of today would sit through a full minute-and-a-half of nothing much going on on a city street, waiting for a pratfall, but that was the language of film in that day, you showed a lot of setup that isn't necessary -- or even tolerable -- today. We talk about the MTV generation, lots of quick cuts, I think it's just because we've all gotten more fluent in the language of film and don't need to be spoken to v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y for fear that we will miss something. You see this in old TV shows from the 50s: the hero looks at a clock, puts on his coat and hat, walks out the door, shuts and locks it, walks in the car, gets in the car, starts it (close-up of the hand turning the key), pulls away from the curb, drives down the road.... etc. etc. etc. until he arrives at his enemy's office. Today, they'd just show the hero looking at his watch, exiting the scene, and then cut to the hero storming into his enemy's office -- who needs all that intermediate stuff? Who cares if the hero drove? He had to get there somehow.

#23 ::: Adam Lipkin ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2003, 09:44 AM:

Teresa sez: (On the left, it's open caret, exclamation point, hyphen, hyphen; on the right it's hyphen, hyphen, close caret.)

Those are the html tags for starting and ending comments; they and anything in between don't show up on the finished page.

#24 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2003, 01:27 PM:

Teresa sez: (On the left, it's open caret, exclamation point, hyphen, hyphen; on the right it's hyphen, hyphen, close caret.)

Those are the html tags for starting and ending comments; they and anything in between don't show up on the finished page.

Someone else mentioned this awhile ago, but it's probably worth mentioning again. You can write the brackets in text by using character codes:
&#60; or &lt; for <9(less than symbol)
&#62; or &gt; for > (greater than symbol)

You can see this site and this site for more.

#25 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2003, 03:49 PM:

Thank you both.

I accept the fact that Adam can tell exactly how much I know about HTML.

#26 ::: Kim ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2003, 10:38 PM:

I can't get to any LoC pages :( When I try to go to I get errors - and interestingly enough when I just typed I got redirected to instead. Bizarre. I'll keep trying.

#27 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2003, 08:06 AM:

Well, they were getting hit by a hurricane.

#28 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2003, 10:55 AM:

Graydon: interesting point about the elbow dodging; it sugggests that there were plenty of other windy corners for people to have the moves down pat, or perhaps this was mostly regular traffic. (Plausible, wrt T's point in a previous post about most of the people in the city knowing their way/spot and finding the lost outsider annoying; go through the same bit of turbulence twice a day for most of a year and you'll pick up a twitch to cope with it.) But did you notice how people behaved toward the camera? A number turned to look as they were walking, and a few paused -- somebody cranking a box on a stand would have been slightly novel even then -- but nobody mugged, which I doubt would be true any time in the last few decades.

#29 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2003, 08:50 PM:

CHip beat me to it - These people don't know how to act in front of a camera. Today, we all know that if an amateur person is taking a picture, everyone else should walk around them so as not to spoil the shot. If a professional is shooting video -- like on the TV news -- you should stand in the direction the camera is pointing and wave excitedly and mouth greetings to your watching friends and family. These people haven't figured that out yet.

I wonder who was the first person to make bunny-ears with their fingers while standing behind a sibling while both of them were being photographed?

#30 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2003, 09:34 PM:

I don't know who was the first person to do it, but here's the earliest instance of bunny-ears in a group shot that I know of.

#32 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 02:45 PM:

Hey, I think I get points for coming up with that.

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