2016-12-07 / Star Journal

Christmastime In Queens During The Victorian Era

The Greater Astoria Historical Society presents pages from the Long Island Star Journal by Dan McDonald

Welcome to December 1891!

With Christmas just around the corner and the New Year knocking on the door, December 1891 was a month of historical firsts for America. Up in Springfield, Massachusetts, professor Dr. James Naismith played the first game of basketball with 18 of his students at what is now Springfield College. The game was played with a soccer ball and a peach basket. Down in Baltimore, Father Charles Uncles became the first African-American Catholic priest to be ordained in the United States. In our nation’s capital, meanwhile, the 51st Congress passed its first $1 billion budget.

Back home in Queens, locals were abuzz with preparations for the Holiday season. With local merchants touting their wares to Christmas shoppers in the Long Island Weekly Star, dry goods merchant C.J. Dillon of Long Island City took promotion to a higher level that month. Placing a $450 Sohmer piano in his center window, he invited customers to guess the number of toothpicks in a glass jar placed atop the locally manufactured upright grand, with the winner taking home the piano as a prize. Mr. Dillon soon discontinued the contest, however, when Anthony Comstock of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice got wind of the allegedly illegal scheme. The term “comstockery,” meaning excessive opposition to immorality, was later derived from his name.

A prudish Victorian such as Mr. Comstock may have even disapproved of the seasonal revelry at local hotels and assembly rooms that December. William Friedrich’s Sohmerville Hotel, next door to the Sohmer factory, proudly trumpeted its billiard saloon and bowling alleys along with “The finest stock of Liquors and Refreshments, always on hand,” while Theodore Stein advertised his Bowery Bay House on Steinway Avenue as “The finest hall in Steinways for private and public entertainments.” Mr. Stein’s venue offered guests a bowling alley and shooting gallery to escape the biting winter cold and celebrate the holiday season.

The normally festive month brought unfortunate news to some 200 employees of the Eppinger & Russell creosote works on Newtown Creek. When a large fire consumed the busy factory, its machinery and hundreds of barrels of tar oil, the workers found themselves unemployed for the holidays. Tugboats moored nearby came to put out the conflagration, since the Long Island City fire engines were not available due to a water shortage, but it was too late to save the building. Fires were once common in the factories and refineries in the heavily industrial area on the East River.

Sadly, that month an infamous family dispute played out in a Queens courthouse. Civil Service Commission official, Theodore Roosevelt and his sister-in-law Anna petitioned the county Supreme Court to rule his alcoholic brother Elliot incompetent to manage his own affairs. The younger brother of the future president, who had been drinking heavily and behaving erratically for some time, owned an estate called Half Way Nirvana in present-day Westbury, then part of Queens. Theodore Roosevelt later became conservator for his spendthrift brother, who died of injuries sustained in a failed suicide attempt three years later. Elliot’s daughter Eleanor, seven years old at the time of the trial, later married distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt and served as First Lady of the United States for 12 years.

That’s the way it was December 1891!

For further information, contact the Society at 718-278-0700 or visit our website at www.astorialic.org.

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