Did You Know?
Below, a selection of interesting people, places, and things from the great borough of Brooklyn.
By Lindsy Van Gelder
Illustrations by Charlotte Farmer
The Teddy Bear
The creation of this childhood staple was sparked by, of all things, a shooting expedition. When Bed-Stuy store owner Morris Michtom saw a Washington Post cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt refusing to kill a black bear that had been captured for him during a 1902 hunting trip, his wife, Rose, sewed a plush velvet version of the animal. They put it in their shop window with the label “Teddy’s Bear.” It was a hit, so the Michtoms sent it to the president with a request for permission to make more with his name. The Ideal Novelty and Toy Company was born, and Roosevelt adopted the bear as the Republican Party symbol in the 1904 election.
Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress; she represented New York’s 14th District between 1969 and 1983. As if that weren’t impressive enough, in 1972, when she ran for president of the United States, she became both the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s nomination.
The origins of the frankfurter remain as unclear as its ingredients, but we do know Coney Island has played a pivotal role in its ascendancy, beginning with German immigrant Charles Feltman. Some credit the pie vendor–turned-restaurateur with putting the wiener in a bun (he called it a red hot) so beachgoers could eat without the need for utensils or plates; this supposedly happened around 1869. In 1916, Nathan Handwerker left Feltman’s employ to open Nathan’s Famous at Surf and Stillwell Avenues, with the first hot-dog-eating contest occurring there on July 4, 1972.
The Myrtle Avenue el train at the intersection of Myrtle Avenue and Duffield Street (between what is now 15 MetroTech and 4 MetroTech), aka Old Myrt, opened in 1888 and operated for more than 80 years.
It’s a bit mind-boggling how many were born in Brooklyn, including the five talents at left.
Before there were Central and Prospect Parks, New Yorkers flocked to Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, a rolling 478 acres of ponds, lush landscapes, and million-dollar views. Founded in 1838, Green-Wood was one of the first “rural cemeteries”—picturesque tracts used to replace church burial grounds that were filled to capacity. Among its permanent residents are artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Louis Comfort Tiffany and physician Susan McKinney-Steward (at right), a Crown Heights native who was the third African American woman to earn a medical degree in the entire United States and the first in New York State.
In 1845, two Brooklyn confectioners started selling licorice whips and other treats through Young & Smylie, a new candy company they named after themselves. In 1929, that same business, known as the National Licorice Company following a merger, introduced Twizzlers to the world. They also played a role in the most monumental achievement in history, 1969’s Apollo 11 moon landing. After his “One small step” remark, Neil Armstrong supposedly delivered the second sentence uttered on the celestial body: “I could sure go for some Twizzlers right now.”
It’s no wonder why the first bridge to connect Manhattan to Kings County has figured so prominently in literature, film, photography, and painting: a hybrid cable–stayed and suspension span opened in 1883, it’s a feat of engineering and design with a dramatic 14-year construction backstory. Among the most famous renderings are those by (clockwise from top left) Joseph Stella, Georgia O’Keeffe, Émile Renouf, and Andy Warhol.
Park Slope real estate is already pricey, but the allure of presidential history likely added to the value of 640 2nd Street—which recently sold for more than $4 million. In the mid-1980s, after graduating from Columbia University, Barack Obama lived on the historic brownstone’s top floor with his girlfriend Genevieve Cook, the daughter of an Australian diplomat.
Circa 1871, brothers John and Charles founded the eponymous Arbuckle Coffee Company, which helped change the way Americans consume caffeine. Previously, homeowners purchased raw green coffee beans, but they frequently rotted before they could be roasted on the buyers’ stovetops. Coffee-obsessed John thought it was worth trying to sell small bags of preroasted beans, and after lots of trial and error and patents, their DUMBO operation grew into the largest coffee company in the United States.
Though discovered in 1879, saccharin didn’t go big until 1957, when Benjamin Eisenstadt, owner of a Brooklyn Navy Yard cafeteria, created, marketed, and distributed a powdered form of the artificial sweetener. Eisenstadt received US patent number 3,625,711 for his creation—something he’d failed to do in the mid-1940s when he invented the modern-day sugar packet. Because of his earlier oversight, sugar manufacturers could steal his ingenious invention, which they did freely.
Landmark Building in Fort Greene
Now known as Skylight One Hanson, this commercial and residential property in Fort Greene was once the tallest building in the borough. For 91 years, Brooklynites have set their watches to the four-faced timepieces on the 512-foot-high landmark building; when installed in 1929, these clocks were the largest in the world.
On September 22, 1958, Elvis Presley left the building—well, the pier, actually—of the Brooklyn Army Terminal for an 18-month tour of duty in Germany. Completed in 1919 and designed by prominent architect Cass Gilbert, the innovative 4-million-square-foot complex spread across 95 acres in Sunset Park was, upon its construction, the largest concrete building on the planet. It has deployed millions of troops and is now home to local businesses and manufacturing including chocolatier Jacques Torres.