"An Opinion As Is An Opinion"

March 26, 1881

Bernhard Gillam

"An Opinion As Is An Opinion"

Business, Industrial Pollution; New York City, Public Health; Public Health; Symbols, New York City;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

New York City;

Old Obelisk. "This is the worst state of affairs I can remember since I was young, and then we had the plague; and if they don't have it here, it won't be the Commissioners' fault--that's all."

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon by Bernhard Gillam caricatures Manhattan as an ancient Egyptian obelisk who gripes about the foul-smelling and supposedly disease-causing vapors emanating from the factories’ smokestacks across the East River at Hunter’s Point in Long Island City, Queens, New York.

As late as 1858, there were only a few streets in Hunter’s Point, and for years its relatively rural setting attracted thousands of picnickers every Sunday. It soon began to expand around the railroad and ferry depots, and to attract businessmen and real-estate developers, so that in the early 1870s, Hunter’s Point became a boom town. More rail lines connected to its terminus; businesses, banks, and warehouses relocated from Brooklyn; and new hotels and saloons opened. It also became a center for numerous oil refineries (including Standard Oil), kerosene refineries, coal yards, varnish manufactures, fertilizer plants, ammonia works, and other factories. Consequently, Hunter’s Point became a Mecca for blue-collar workers, further stimulating the construction of family houses, boarding houses, schools, and churches. In 1870, it was incorporated with the more affluent Ravenswood and Astoria into Long Island City, which became the county seat in 1876.

By the early 1880s, however, the pollution from the factories at Hunter’s Point, as well as other industrial spots in the metropolitan area, had become a contentious issue. A March 19, 1881, editorial, entitled "The Plague of Smells," announced the findings of a special committee of the newly-established (May 1880) New York State Board of Health. The report detailed how the banks of the East River "were covered with liquid filth, manure dumps, etc.," and how "these useful but unpleasant industries … had been established … within rifle-shot of the upper half of New York," which receives its offensive stench. Editor George William Curtis deems Hunter’s Point a "nuisance and pest" which may "make the upper part of the city of New York uninhabitable" if no action is taken.

In August and September 1881, Harper’s Weekly published three editorials on the pollution from Hunter’s Point. In the August 6 issue, editor Curtis decries that the factories "generate impure gases and foul and dangerous effluvia of every kind, smearing the banks … with vile mud and slime, and pouring the stench of the whole in poisonous vapors over densely populated parts of the city." The cartoon above depicts not only "Sickening Smells" from the factories’ smokestacks, but also "Diphtheria," "Cholera," "Diseases," and "Fever." Although the germ theory of the transmission of human diseases was understood in Europe and accepted by the better physicians in the United States, most American physicians still attributed contagious disease to poisonous vapors or other atmospheric factors. Germ theory was not even mentioned in the leading medical textbook in the United States until the 1881 edition, and then, it was linked only to the spread of anthrax and relapsing fever.

In these late-summer editorials, Curtis again returns to the findings of the Board of Health’s investigation, which "showed that many of the worst nuisances are absolutely preventable, and are the result of the most wanton and criminal negligence; … and that at least nine-tenths of all the matters complained of were controllable by perfectly simple and practicable means." In response to the study, Governor Alonzo Cornell issued a proclamation on April 22 for the factories to control and abate the source of the pollution by June 1.

After two months, the editor despairs, the corporations "have not taken even the trouble to snap their fingers at the Governor’s warning. They have continued without intermission to poison the air which a large part of the city breathes." Curtis, whose editorials helped topple the Tweed Ring in 1871, was so upset that he not only compared the companies’ attitude to "Tweed’s famous sneer, ‘What are you going to do about it?’"; but believed they were worse. "Tweed at least did plant flowers about the City Hall Park." As late as 1889, however, Curtis was still writing about "the pestiferous nuisance of … Hunter’s Point .. [which] was now greater than ever."

The cartoonist’s choice of an Egyptian obelisk to represent Manhattan was prompted by a gift from Egypt to the United States in commemoration of the Suez Canal’s opening in 1869. The 70-foot, 193-ton obelisk and its 50-ton pedestal arrived in New York in July 1880. After installation of the pedestal, the obelisk was dragged slowly—97 feet per day for 112 days—by teams of horses to Central Park. In January 1881, the shaft was elevated onto its base before a cheering crowd of 10,000. The use of such an ancient symbol may also be meant to suggest the older age of Manhattan (compared to Hunter’s Point) or the older and discredited theory of disease transmission through vapors (since the complainant is treated somewhat lightly by the artist).

Robert C. Kennedy

"An Opinion As Is An Opinion"
July 14, 2024

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