The great thing about New York City is that no matter how many times one visits, there is always something new to see. Even visits to old favorite museums are fresh because of temporary exhibitions. But sometimes I just like to pick a place I’ve never before seen and see if it can go onto my favorites list.
The Museum of the City of New York was added to my list of places to visit on this past trip. Actually, I’ve been meaning to visit for years, but it is located far uptown, and I just never seemed to make it. This time I put it first, mainly because I wanted to see their exhibition, Gilded New York, in which the wonders of the Gilded Age are on display.
Gilded New York was a small exhibition, packed full of the riches of the 1 percent of late Victorian New Yorkers. I was disappointed that there was only one dress, but it was a magnificent example, being made by the House of Worth in Paris. This circa 1897 dress was made from satin and voided velvet and decorated with glass pearls, Bruges lace, silk fringes and trim, and anything else Worth could fit onto it.
Note how you can see the back of the dress in the mirror.
While there was only the one dress, there were jewels aplenty, many of them crafted by the famous jewelers who catered to New York’s wealthy. An excellent example was the gold necklace seen above, decorated with diamonds, pearls, and turquoise. It was made by Tiffany and Company.
Fine jewelry was not just for the ladies. These buttons from France were made of hunting scenes etched onto mother of pearl.
The elite of New York loved to travel the Continent, and they left a trail of dollars in their wake. A popular purchase was fine jewelry that was reminiscent of recent archaeological finds. The items shown above came from Italy.
This looks like a crown, but it actually a bracelet. Made of glass micro mosaic and wire work, it dates from 1865. I’ve got this on my Christmas list.
There was much more to this exhibition than jewels and one fine dress. There were paintings and silver and mansion ornaments galore. And despite the very small scope of what was on exhibit, I really enjoyed my time in the Gilded Age.
In sharp contrast to Gilded New York was an exhibition on activism in the city, Activist New York. This exhibition covered a wide range of issues that have brought out the activist in the New Yorker, from the issue of religious in the colonial days to more recent issues like historic preservation and environmental problems.
I was most interested in a section about the role of women garment makers in the fight for shorter working hours, fair wages, and the right to organize. In 1909 a meeting of mainly women workers led to a strike known as the “Uprising of the Twenty Thousand.” Smaller garment making companies were forced to give in, and even the large makers, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Company made concessions to the strikers in order to get them back to work.
Much of the story was told by use of a digital slide show using vintage photographs.
Of course the strike of 1909 did not solve all the problems associated with the city’s garment industry. Workers and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union kept the pressure on factory owners for years, which led to legislation concerning safety, wages, and child labor.
The exhibitions are always changing, and I was sorry to miss a new one that opened last week, Everything Is Design, The Work of Paul Rand. There are also fashion exhibitions from time to time, including one a couple of years ago that featured the 1970s fashions of New York designer Stephen Burrows.
Don’t go to the Museum of the City of New York expecting a comprehensive retelling of the city’s history. Instead, expect carefully thought-out thematic exhibitions like the two I’ve described. They do show an excellent film that tells the city’s history in twenty-five minutes, and I strongly suggest that visitors watch it first.