You don’t hear much about the Gay Nineties anymore, and by the Gay Nineties I don’t mean the 1990’s in New York City’s West Village, I mean of course the 1890’s, which was a whole other thing altogether. And this is probably the crux of the problem right there. The term gay has changed somewhat since 1890. And that’s not a bad thing, mind you; English is a fluid language and words change their meanings all the time. Take the word honey.
When I first got married ‘honey’ was nothing more than a harmless term of endearment my wife would use, as in “Hi, honey. How was your day?” Now when she calls me honey I can be assured that it will always precede her asking me to perform some odious chore, as in “Honey, a flock of seagulls had a terrible case of diarrhoea all over my car today. Could you go clean it off?” And if you don’t think that a defunct 1980’s pop band having a case of the runs all over your wife’s car isn’t odious, then you don’t know nothing. But apparently I’m digressing.
We were most emphatically not talking about the 1980’s, but the 1890’s. Surely you must remember the Gay Nineties? Handlebar moustaches, bustles and bicycles built for two? No? Well, not surprising, you weren’t born yet, and if you were you’re really old now and probably senile or at least quite wrinkled and....sorry. This staying on track isn’t as easy as it looks. Where was I? Oh yes. T. R. Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party (relax, I know Roosevelt and the Bull Mooser’s weren’t until the 1900’s, but I bet you didn’t, so it sounded authentic, didn’t it?) Actually, I meant McKinley. Or someone else, I don’t know. Didn’t they shoot McKinley? And before McKinley there was Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, neither of which were assassinated, but by that comparison I’m makings no statements as to the relative merits of any of these men. I think they were all fat, though.
Whatever happened to player piano’s, Sears and Roebuck catalogs, concerts by brass bands in the town square, really big Fourth of July parades? Back in the days when men were men and women wore those cute little shoes with the buttons up the side. When the sight of a ‘well turned ankle’ ( I’m not making that up, by the way. Girl watchers in those days of long skirts had to be content with whatever they could get). was a cause for judicious comment among the young Men About Town? Ah the good old days.
And Twenty Three Skidoo. Now there’s something you don’t hear said much anymore.
Well, that’s not bad, but what about gathering around the piano and singing those old standards? A Bird in Gilded Cage and Red River Valley? Nobody does that any more. Well, that’s not bad either, but wait a minute; there must be something about the 1890’s that we all can miss. This requires some research.
I have here in front of me a copy of The Century Illustrated Magazine, May 1890. Let’s skip to the back where the advertisements are. Hmm...Anti-Kum-Off...what in the hell? Let’s look a little deeper. The blurb says,” A little accident which has occurred millions of times, and which happens now and then in every house.” Don’t I know it; it must have happened to me at least a dozen times. Oh, calm down. This product prevents window shades from pulling off their rollers. Get your minds out of the gutter. Let’s see what else we have...Barry’s Tricopherous for the Hair and Skin. Packers Tar Soap. The Prophylactic Tooth Brush, appreciated by lovers of luxury. Dr.Price’s Cream Baking Powder and Cleanfast Black Stockings that will not Crock (A complete assortment for men women and children). All fine products and sorely missed.
Ok, so maybe that wasn’t the way to go. By the way, my wife feels you’ll think I‘ve made these advertisements up. Well, I haven’t, I swear. I have, however, made up my wife. (Now she’s mad at me and I’ll have to make up with her. Once I’ve made up then ...oh, forget it).
But back to the old days. Maybe some of the poetry that’s in the old Century mag.
Here’s one by Harrison S. Morris:
Hope, is this thy hand
Lies warm as life in mine?
Is this thy sign
Of peace none understand?
I know not if I may
Believe thee, Hope, or doubt:
With pretty pout,
Wilt flee, or wilt thou stay?
All’s I can say is, thank Christ he’s dead. Come to think of it every one connected with this magazine is dead. How sad. Except of course for Harrison Morris, who as we’ve already seen, deserved death.
Articles then. “Chickens for Use and Beauty”. I’ll skip that one. “Two Views of Marie Bashkertseff.” Apparently, Miss Bashkertseff was exciting some discussion in those days. From what I gather she had recently passed away, a Russian woman of talent and great beauty (certainly not chicken-like, although according to The Century they’re quite the lookers too). , an artist, diarist and interesting to the Century for being spoiled and dying young. The article tsk tsk’s her for being blunt and honest in her diary, a great shortcoming in their eyes. I have a feeling, looking at her self portrait, that there was a great deal more to this woman than the Century lets on. Her eyes look so intelligent, so...modern. Oh, god, this is getting too serious for me. Back to the chickens. (If you think I’m going to waste your time describing the chicken piece, you’re nuts. Suffice to say that they’re beautiful, although their eyes are a bit beadier than Marie Bashkertseff’s and when you get tired of their great loveliness, you can cut their heads off and they’re mighty good eating).
What is amazing is how many names that got their start in the 1890’s are still with us today. I’ll refer now to Kings Notable New Yorkers, 1896. Just think, in the publishing and printing fields were Charles Scribner, Adam W. Wagnall’s, Isaac K Funk, George Putnam, Joseph Harper of Harpers Bazaar, Edward Dutton, and Henry Holt. Dry goods and merchants included the Bloomingdale brothers, Abraham and Strauss, Charles Tiffany and F.A.O. Schwarz. Lew Waterman was making his pens, Norton Otis elevators, Bill Steinway was making pianos, Nikola Tesla was playing with rotating magnetic fields and Thomas Alva Edison was, well, being Thomas Alva Edison. Remember, these are just notable New Yorkers (although I know for a fact that Edison lived in New Jersey, so maybe Mr. King was taking liberties). And believe me, the list goes on.
I don’t know what to say. After writing this, I have to ask myself, is there anything about the Gay Nineties that we can all long for? A simpler time? It’s not that simple. More fat presidents? No, that can’t be it. O. Henry? Yeah, that’s good, but is it enough? I just don’t know.
What I do know is I’m getting hungry and I found this recipe for chicken that I’m dying to try out as soon as I fix this damn window shade. Does anyone know where I can get some Anti-Kum-Off?