To better understand our lives in this city, I am happy to share some very old photos of New Haven from the late 19th and early 20th century. I did my best to provide the context for the photos. However, in the absence of a professional staff and with little money left in the BNH budget, I was forced to turn to cheap labor to do the research.
The result is a trail mix of New Haven history, with peanuts of truth and raisins of fiction, banana chips of profanity, and coconut shreds of absurdity. (Did I mention I hired monkeys to write this)?
Yale Bicycle Club
In the 1870s, the Yale Bicycle Club met weekly to ride, compare facial hair, and discuss appropriate cycling attire. At this time in history, with the invention still novel, cyclists were admired, respected and gazed upon with awe wherever they went. At some point in the past 150 years, the public attitude toward cyclists shifted to reflect the growing appreciation for motorized transport.
The man third from the right, Pervis T. Wilborn, was publicly disgraced and excommunicated from the Club shortly after this picture was taken for violating the club’s dress code. (Note that his trouser pants are worn loosely and not secured in his boots). As a response, in 1873, he established the Yale Freeman’s Bicycling Club to provide a more open-minded environment. The YFBC was open to all New Haven residents except Italians, Jews, African-Americans, women, Catholics, and most indigenous tribes.
Lawrence Tibley, entertainer
Notorious New Haven prankster, Lawrence Tibley, seen here performing his daily routine in which he would run into the path of the Chapel Street Trolley to the delight of onlookers. Between 1915-1924, Tibley performed over 2,500 “run-ins” with the Chapel Street Trolley and was once referred to as “The Fatty Arbuckle of Transit.”
A 1929 talkie, Look Both Ways, starring Al Jolson with music by Cole Porter commemorates Tibley’s work. The title song’s refrain still echoes with New Haven residents:
Watch out Elis (put down that Frisbee)
Look both ways (’cause here comes Tibley)
He loves public transit (not private livery)
Cause he’s a masochist who en-joys his own mis’ry.
Film scholars often argue that Look Both Ways, a Warner Brothers production which was heavily subsidized by Goodyear and Standard Oil, was just a thinly veiled propaganda piece for the emerging auto industry. Maybe I’m naive, but I think its just a heartwarming story about an old-fashioned entertainer who loved to please his fans.
Yale Bicycle Storage Facility
The Yale Bicycle Storage facility operated at 66 High Street where the “Tomb” of the Skull & Bones secret society now stands. In other words, they were the last people to occupy this spot on High Street whilst resisting the urge to steal an Apache hero’s physical remains.
This photo captures the Danielson Brothers, Thom and Brooker, who were perhaps the first cyclists to warn 20-something noise-rock enthusiasts about the dangers of the brakeless fixed-gear. (Noise rock at the time was referred to as Jazz). The sign to the right of the doorway reads, “why not attach a coasting break to your wheel?”
The Danielsons were making an appeal to Yalie intelligence by posing their question in the form of a philosophical quandary as was the mode of intellectuals at the time. For example, asking a woman out on a date in this era went something like this:
“Why NOT accompany me to the premier of “Look Both Ways”? It will be a most delightful experience, will it NOT?”
The women were then left to ponder the question and be ready with a witty response one day later at the same location. Perhaps it is telling that Lesbianism gained massive appeal during this era.