The Wonders of New York: a Midcentury Map packed with weird local stories
There is an old board game, in which someone throws a die at a map, and then dreams traveling wherever it lands. However, If you happened to find yourself in Manhattan in the early 1950s in a absolute normal day, you could have tried the same thing with this dense, curious illustrated map, and then ventured out to see the everyday wonders that awaited you there!
On his map, titled “The Wonders of New York,” New Jersey–born cartographer Nils Hansell sketched out more than 300 sections, from Manhattan’s southern tip up to 96th Street.
A colorful illustration that now is also on the cover of the book “Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps”, by University of Maine geographer Stephen Hornsby. Inside, the author states that maps like this one, colorful, funny, and not especially useful for navigation, were the offspring of the advertising culture that boomed in the mid-20th century.
And, in that vein, Hansell’s map is essentially selling the idea of Manhattan as the place to be: It captured the borough’s buzz, Hornsby writes, in the form of the “gleaming modernist skyscrapers and the new United Nations building, trans-Atlantic liners, and newly introduced jet passenger planes.”
The map’s annotations read like an insider’s guide to Manhattan’s most curious characters, showiest attractions, and least-plausible lore. Here be dragons (in Chinatown), but also prancing fleas, ships inside green glass bottles, and a nearly-nude opera singer hoisting a severed head on a platter.
The flea marks the old site of Hubert’s Museum, a former Catholic school on West 42nd Street where, for nearly 40 years, visitors could watch Roy Heckler’s trained fleas pull off unusual enchanting feats. Curious, but true: when prodded by Roy’s tweezers, the fleas Petey and Peaches shimmied and waltzed, while a trio named Napoleon, Marcus, and Caesar hauled miniature cannons and chariots. “Not as exciting as a horse race,” Heckler once conceded, “but they get there just the same.”
Hansell also marked a building where all of the elevators were operated by redheads (or so he claimed!) and near City Hall, a mermaid signals the place where P. T. Barnum once drew crowds with one of a mythical mermaid’ skeletons (!!!).
If some of the spots were only accessible to wealthy men, others also extended an invitation to their flashy wives. Not everyone had the income or inclination, for example, to slurp the “famous Sunday chicken soup” at the Plaza, let alone walk around the Waldorf-Astoria’s Peacock Alley promenade, which was, The New York Times put it, open to anyone who looked rich and powerful and wanted to display appropriate plumage.
Other attractions were more democratic, and the map’s outer edges are scattered little tips to help people make the most of their time.
For example, anyone ambling around Central Park should note that a lap around the Reservoir takes 20 minutes, he wrote, but he also declared that the park’s ice rink had the best skating in town, and that a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge would make for the best Sunday walk.
Even if a couple other notes on the dense margins seem to relate some pretty unlikely tales, surprisingly, some of these have a grain of truth in them. For example, a 1696 royal charter really did grant Lower Manhattan’s Trinity Church the right to dead whales that land along Manhattan’s shoreline.
The document allowed church wardens and other officials to “seize upon and secure” the whales, and then “tow ashore and…cutt up the said Whales and try into Oyle and secure the Whalebone,” and funnel any profits back into the church.
Several of the places have disappeared over the years,like the 14th Street Armory, which also housed the annual Poultry Show, came down decades ago. Disappeared are most of the typewriter repair shops, too, and while fishermen do still cast from piers around the city, bait-and-tackle shops are few and far between. There are no more pushcarts on Orchard Street anymore, but there is a museum that chronicles the people who stocked them.
Step Into a Midcentury Map of New York, Packed With Weird Local Lore
Dragons, flea circuses, mermaids, and more wonders of the city.
However, still today, even the busiest corners of New York City remain full of wonders, if you look closely enough and, surely, some of them have gotten more accessible since Hansell drew his map: if you want a beer, McSorley’s Old Ale House now serves also women, for example!
Even though the street grid may stay the same, it is the world on top of it that is constantly changing….
Images from web