The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Forty-Nine

January 1-8, 1918

As I am writing this installment of the Dowager’s Diary on January 3, 2018, it paints the picture of a frigid weather report that was given exactly one hundred years ago. Kate Roosevelt wrote in her diary that temperatures had reached a record low in New York City. Her home at 301 Lexington Avenue was feeling the freeze. “Hot water froze in pantry, but we bought a gasoline torch and George, the chauffeur/handyman, thawed it out. Too cold for Little Langdon to go to dancing class.”

B. Altman Department Store

There was a great shortage of coal and kerosene, the two most popular resources for heating a century ago and Kate commented on the impact the cold was having on the city. “Many people obliged to close their houses owing to the cold.” At Banker’s Trust on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, clerks wore overcoats, hats and gloves to keep warm. Kate recorded the temperature for January 3, 1918 as two degrees below zero and invited her friends, Mrs. and Mrs. Armstrong, to come stay with her for a few days. They had to close their Manhattan townhouse on account of lack of coal and frozen water and heating pipes. She wrote, “The only warm rooms in my house are my bedroom and the dining room. My sister, Ettie Shippen, and I had lunch on trays almost sitting in the fireplace in the dining room.”

Charleston Garden at B. Altman’s

Even though there was a cold spell swooping over New York City, life still went on, although not quite as usual. “Went to B. Altman’s.  We walked as George was busy scouring the city in search of kerosene.” Kate Roosevelt did not have far to go. The department store was located at Fifth Avenue and 34thStreet, just a hop, skip and a jump from her own home on nearby Lexington Avenue. Maybe she stopped in the store’s coffee shop, “The Charleston Garden,” for something hot and hearty.  B. Altman’s Dry Goods Emporium was one of the first of the grand department stores to leave the “Ladies’ Mile” Shopping District on Broadway in Lower Manhattan to follow its wealthy clientele who were moving in masses “uptown” to Fifth Avenue. B. Altman’s opened its Italian Renaissance “Palace of Purchasing” on Fifth Avenue in 1906. Built to resemble the mansions that marched along the avenue, it was located diagonally across the street from Mrs. Caroline Astor’s.

Mansion along Fifth Avenue

The cold snap continued throughout the month, but somehow Kate Roosevelt and her “Enclave of Edwardians” managed to weather the below zero wind chill factors and lack of coal and kerosene without curtailing their socializing as documented in her diary. In the first week of January, 1918, her engagement calendar read like a segment of today’s popular television program, Entertainment Weekly. “Chaperoned a party in Greenwich Village, the latest Bohemian Fad. Came by the Fifth Avenue bus.” “Dined at the Heather Stone Restaurant in Greenwich Village.” “Saw a one-act play, Efficiency, and a thriller called Behind a Mattress. It was curious and poetic, but required better acting.” “To a matinee of Chu Chin Chow, magnificent spectacle.” “Concert at Carnegie Hall.” “Langdon and I to colorized movies of Western scenery.” “Lunched at the Colony Club with Dorothy to hear Major Guthrie speak and see moving pictures of the World War One Battlefront.” “Due to cold, could not get to meeting at hospital, so I went to Tuesday Afternoon Sewing Class and to luncheon at Mrs. Carson’s.”

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday.

Photo One:
B. Altman Department Store
Museum City of New York

Photo Two:
B. Altman Department Store
Museum City of New York

Photo Three:
Charleston Garden at B. Altman’s
Museum City of New York

Photo Four:
Mansion along Fifth Avenue
Bieneke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University