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City Tabloids, Old Laws, and the Painted Ladies

This past month in New York City, political issues have surrounded the Painted Ladies of Times Square like googly-eyed tourists with cameras on selfie sticks. The uproar fittingly abides the municipal brouhaha over the last 100 years that has possessed the behavioral pressure cooker of Times Square. 'Twas ever thus that vice, unlicensed peddling, mass crowds, and tabloid fever constitute the Glittering Gulch, The Big Stem, the Blaze Bowtie.

Painted Lady
The Painted Lady. Image ID: 1200778

Historical research using newspapers and government resources shows numerous examples of city brass and ink-smudged quill-slingers alarming the public over the commercial activity of New York street life.

“Gone are the Apple Marys,” lamented the NY Times in 1923, “and the woman with the baskets festooned with pretzels.” These “nomads of the hawking industry” were shoved from the curbs of Printing House Square and Wall Street by “the organization of merchants in specified zones,” and “the fixing by ordinance of districts in which unlicensed street vendors are not allowed to peddle” (NY Times, Aug 19, 1923).

Pretzel Vendor
Pretzel Vendor. Image ID: 79779

“The latest effort,” noted the New York Herald Tribune in 1932, “to weed out fakers and hawkers from New York streets reminds the sociologist that the crop is perennial.” The reporter cites “economic conditions” of the burgeoning Depression as instigators of the “pitch men,” whose “foisting of valueless merchandise” includes rubber balls that don’t bounce, toy balloons that don’t fly, “discarded factory machine needles” demonstrated with sleight-of-hand to mend women’s stockings, and squawking devices which mimic the sound of songbirds and roosters. Though technically illegal in the blocks of Times Square, hawking is rampant on the Flamboyant Floodway, with pitch men pocketing up to $25 a day, or $435 in 2015. The Forty-Second Street Property Owners Association objected to the “craft vendors” hoodwinking passersby by “comparing their merchandise with that of regular stores” (NY Herald Tribune, Apr 17, 1932).

Two years later, the Broadway Association of merchants and property owners, agitated by “sidewalk loafers, lobby dancers, rubbish droppers, peddlers, panhandlers, and clip joint steerers,” activated a semi-annual cleanup of the Bright Light Zone by the NYPD, “for the benefit of tourists and taxpayers.” Squadsmen in “Whalen blue shirtsleeves” used nightsticks like pushbrooms, and enforced Chapter 23, Article 3, Section 23 of the Code of Ordinances against the likes of 700 unemployed musicians whom routinely milled, gabbed, loitered and lounged between West 47th and 48th Streets” (NY Herald Tribune, Jul 5, 1934). Years before, the Ordinances had already made it illegal for “peddlers, hawkers, and venders” to “use or suffer or permit to be blown upon or used, any horn or other instrument” to “cry his or her wares.”

NYC Street Peddlers
NYC Street Peddlers. Image ID: 806175

The Painted Ladies find a more vivacious precedent in the performers of the old Times Square burlesque house, which “popular but often frowned-upon stepchild of the show business” was assailed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in the New Deal Deco 1930s. The Mayor shut down all licensed burley houses as a “menace to public morality;” demanded that theater operators submit a code of ethics that would regulate performances; compared the burlesque acts to “sewage” at an annual meeting of the American Civil Liberties Union; and imposed a language ban which made it illegal to use the word “burlesque” on all signage or promotional material related to the venues.

Eltinge Theater
Eltinge Theater, West 42nd Street. Image ID: TH-56721

As women who exercise public toplessness in NYC today do not break the law unless they pursue a commercial intent other than tips, in the 1930s it was legal for “girls on the stage to be naked from the waist up if they do not wiggle.” Burlesque houses exploited this discrepancy, outwardly conforming to the new regulations but continuing to suffer into the 1940s, when theaters like the Eltinge and Republic, on Forty Deuce, promoting “Frolics” and “Follies” under the language ban, were again shut down. (New York Herald Tribune, May 3 & Jul 18, 1937, Apr 12, 1942; Variety, Dec 15, 1937) .

The NY Herald Tribune described a “New Clean-Up Drive” in 1939, anticipating the gargantuan crowds of visitors to the city for the World’s Fair. A new state law made “begging, singing, dancing in subways, streetcars and buses” a crime. Similar to signs in the Times Square pedestrian plazas today warning tourists that it is an optional and uncoerced act to tip Elmo, Spider-Man, or the Naked Cowgirl, “placards requesting passengers not to give alms or buy articles or services from peddlers” were put up in subways and bus stops at a cost of $900,000, funded “largely by the sales tax” (NY Herald Tribune, May 14, 1939).

Mayor LaGuardia Clean Up
Mayor LaGuardia Clean Up. Image ID: 1680167

In 1947, the Times reported on another “crackdown” on street peddlers, citing an estimated 1,000 arrests made by the NYPD each month. Thirty years later, when Ed Koch signed two anti-street peddler bills, there was an estimated 800 unlicensed street vendors operating in town (NY Times, Sept 8, 1979).

When panhandling in New York subways and public places was ruled a form of free speech by U.S. District Judge Leonard B. Sand (who is played by actor Bob Balaban in the current David Simon HBO series Show Me A Hero), the Chief of the NYC Transit Police was 2015 Police Commissioner William Bratton. The NY Times quoted the skepticism of transit officers whom were “not certain exactly what constitutes panhandling under the law and are reluctant to take action against people who have no other means of support except begging” (NY Times, May 12, 1990).

Last week, the Times noted that the Painted Ladies—brushstroked in red, white, and blue by an unofficial manager and bodyguard—are “mostly immigrants” and “many speak little English.” The increased front-page attention was causing the women paranoia about “officers from the Labor Department who were said to be around.” When the same newspaper in 1896 wrote about Flower Boys, “the peddlers who sell roses and violets along Twenty-third Street and Fourteenth Streets, at elevated stations, and along Broadway, Fifth Avenue, Park Row, and Sixth Avenue,” the gaslight era reporter explained that “they are all Greeks… know very little English,” and live in a “dilapidated tenement” in four rooms occupied by thirty to forty young men. The “master of the premises” is “George the Greek,” who, “when Spring comes… wends his way to Bleecker Street and inspects the newly arrived Greek immigrants, who find temporary lodgings in that part of the city,” and “picks out several score of those who know the least English and the least about the value of American money.”

A similar, if less adolescent, stable of vendors in 1946 operated out of a former café in a “dirty little building” on West 41st Street and 8th Avenue. These men sold chestnuts from pushcarts on the street, and the illegal but generally unhassled racket was puppeteered by “Angelo, King of the Chestnut Stabbers” (NY Herald Tribune, Nov 27, 1949).

As the below two headlines prove, there is a routine precedent of civic solutions to headline headaches:

Squares & Circles - Times Square. Mounted clippings collection, Milstein Division, NYPL.
Squares & Circles - Times Square. 1905. Mounted clippings collection, Milstein Division, NYPL.
Squares & Circles - Times Square. Mounted clippings collection, Milstein Division, NYPL.
Squares & Circles - Times Square. 1977. Mounted clippings collection, Milstein Division, NYPL.

In the most populated city in the U.S., defined by constant change, the traces of unchanging patterns found in local history collections and reflected on the cover of the morning’s city tabloids are, for the reference librarian, an intellectual ripsnorter.

City Laws

For information about city laws and government proceedings, or legislative actions by the state of New York, the below subject headings, guidelines, texts, and hyperlinks may be useful to navigate.

The Common Council was a legislative body formed by the mayor and officials selected from the Board of Alderman, which in colonial New York assumed a gallimaufry of duties, including "to regulate commerce and public safety, monitoring strangers, setting the price of bread, drawing up the rules of the city market, and controlling ever-present hogs" (Encyclopedia of New York City / Jackson). From 1686, when for a spate Boston was the capital of the Dominion of New England—including New York—to 1898, when the city consolidated into what would become the five boroughs, the Common Council and Board of Alderman shifted authority according to several successive charters, and eventually morphed into what is today the lawmakers and district representatives of the City Council.

Chamber of the Board of Alderman
Chamber of the Board of Aldermen. Image ID: 804937

Following the elephantine larceny of Tammany Hall sachem William "Boss" Tweed , the municipal government commenced publication of The City Record, known as the “Official Journal of the City of New York.” Published daily, a digital database of The City Record  (2000-current) is freely searchable online at the NYC Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) webpage. Individual editions going back to 2008 are also available online at DCAS. All editions going back to 1873 are available in NYPL collections, while many volumes are available on HathiTrust, digitized from the collections of the New York Public Library, and the collections of the University of Chicago

Similarly, the Proceedings of the Board of Alderman are digitized and freely available online.

Proceedings of the City Council are available at the reference desk of the Science, Industry & Business Library, while legislative hearings dating from 1998 are searchable at the City Council webpage. Likewise, the Laws of the State of New York.

The American Legal Publishing Corporation makes available freely online:

And see the below catalog records and resources related to researching current and historical city and state laws:

Tabloids & Times Square

The history of Times Square demands its own research guide. For this post, the Times Square clippings files in the Milstein Division collections provided excellent traction to the subject, in addition to keyword searches of New York City newspapers and the Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive available in ProQuest databases. An outside point of entry to information on shifts in crime in the neighborhood since 1990 is the crime statistics database COMPSTAT (“Computer Comparison Statistics”) tabulated by the New York Police Department. However, clotheless body art panhandling is not one of the enumerated offenses.

NY Press Patrol
NY Press Patrol. Image ID: g00c72_001

The sensationalization of the Painted Ladies has also notched the belts of the city’s top two tabloids as if showdown gunslingers at high noon. The Daily News initially triggered the topless turbulence and the Post counter-squibbed with an undercover expose, perhaps less for municipal morality or feminist fanfare than headline hullabaloo.

NYPL digital databases feature only recent issues of each scandal sheet:

Otherwise, researchers must use microfilm collections, which are unindexed; browsing may be difficult without specific subject date ranges:

However, select date ranges of the forefather of the New York Post, which originated as the New-York Evening Post, are searchable at America’s Historical Newspapers (1801-1876) and 19th Century Newspapers (1890-1898).

The Library of Congress free online newspaper resource Chronicling America includes a detailed publication chronology for individual titles:

It is also recommended to browse the NYPL catalog for materials related to each gazinkus gazette:

And in addition to the Milstein Division’s significant guide to historical newspaper resources, see the listing of all NYC newspapers available on microfilm, which includes short-run quidnunc blasters like PM (1940-1948) and the New York Evening Graphic (1924-1931).

Nellie Bly
New York World journalist Nellie Bly, who once faked insanity to go undercover and investigate conditions at Bellevue Hospital and Blackwell's Island. Image ID: 1121847


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Blue Pencil and the Painted Ladies

I must admit I could aspire to carry a basket festooned with pretzels and be a sidewalk loafer, might be the only way for me to feel like a master of the premises. Couldn't be all bad.

Plus Ca Change

Verily, sir, you are the Damon Runyon of NYPL Archives. Highly enjoyable article.

The First Picture

Is there anywhere I can get a copy of The Painted Lady. Image ID: 1200778?

See the "High Quality

See the "High Quality Reproductions" section of our Copies & Reproductions page:

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