New York City’s Scrap Metal Drive
When Charles Cushman arrived in New York City in the fall of 1942 the United States had officially been at war for only 10 months. By October, 1942, the word of the day in all of the local papers was sacrifice. Sacrifice in the form of wage, rent and price controls, and in the rationing of food, gasoline, heating oil, and rubber. It was common at this time to see recipes in the newspapers touting meatless dishes. Mayor La Guardia, in fact, declared Tuesdays to be meatless. To conserve rubber the speed limit in New York was set at 35 mile per hour. To conserve energy, buildings and homes in New York were allotted just enough heating oil to maintain a maximum temperature of 65 degrees, which was deemed sufficient to accommodate one’s health, if not comfort. But still greater sacrifices would need to be made in the form of metals used to make the planes, tanks, and other materials needed by the armed forces. Hence, the genesis of a great “scrap metal drive” that consumed the country towards the end of 1942.
It was not as if no effort was being made to contribute scrap metal after America’s entry into the War. For example, New York had “Tin Can Wednesdays” where, by ordinance, each building within the city would have a central collection point for tin cans to be picked up every week by the Department of Sanitation. But there was still a lack of a coordinated effort at both the national and local levels, and by September, 1942, industry representatives sent an alarming message to the country. Many steel plants were said to be down to approximately 30 days to two weeks worth of raw materials to continue production; others were surviving, as executives put it, “hand to mouth.” Without an all out effort to collect and distribute all available scrap metal, the industry warned, many plants during that winter would be forced to scale back operations significantly or even temporarily shut down.
In response there was a national scrap metal drive that began in the Fall of 1942. In mid-September Mayor La Guardia announced that there would be a concerted 30-day scrap metal drive in New York City, with each borough of the city being given a tonnage quota to meet. The deadline for each borough was: Queens, October 2; Staten Island, October 6; Brooklyn, October 8; the Bronx, October 13; and Manhattan, October 15. Citywide progress was recorded on a 20-foot thermometer that was erected in the middle of Times Square between 43rd and 44th Streets, with lines marking poundage totals from 0 to 40,000,000. The scrap metal drive was two-pronged — big ticket items (such as industrial scrap and abandoned buildings) and small ticket items (such as pots, pans and the like) found in homes and apartment buildings.
Part and parcel with this national effort were 80-percent of the nation’s daily newspapers, including all of the New York dailies, which ran stories on a daily basis about the drive (to coordinate this publicity effort, the papers formed the Newspaper Publisher’s Committee). The New York Post even started a contest that groups — ranging from local schools, the Boy and Girl Scouts, churches and synagogues, and air warden sectors — could enter to win cash prizes.
Suffice it to say, when Charles Cushman starting snapping the shutter of his camera in Manhattan on October 1, 1942, he was no doubt aware of the scrap metal drive that was taking place in New York City and throughout the country. It is little wonder, then, that he happened to get a couple of shots of the salvage drive in motion. Stories had run in a couple of the local papers about the efforts being made by residents of the Lower East Side. By the time he arrived, in fact, it was already reported that they had had amassed an “eye-opening” 100-ton heap of scrap metal in a vacant lot on the south side of Broome Street between Clinton and Attorney Streets. It was the culmination of an effort by residents of the area surrounding the Clinton Street (7th Precinct) police station, at 118 Clinton Street, on the southeast corner of Clinton and Delancey Streets. As detailed on the October 4, 1942 page, the Cushman shots below are in this immediate vicinity (facing north on Broome Street) and the people you see are some of the Lower East Side residents who took part in the effort.
Note: The Cushman shots have been reproduced on this site with the written consent of Indian University, which owns the Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection.
The opening day of the scrap drive was September 27th. To kick off the effort, a public address system was set up on Broome Street where, it was anticipated, actor, singer, song writer and Academy Award-winning movie producer George Jessel, in a cheering return to his childhood neighborhood, would be master of ceremonies at 10:30 a.m. on that drizzly raining day. Unfortunately, George was ill with a cold so the PA system was turned over to musical recordings, such as “God Bless America”, which played as the folks went about the business of contributing scrap to the war effort.
The New York Herald Tribune on September 28th noted: “Into a vacant lot on the south side of Broome Street between Clinton and Attorney Streets … a hundred residents carried yesterday old gramophones [think old, old phonographs with the large, funnel-like speaker], radios, light bulbs, broken electric heaters, iron ladders, old tires, kitchen sinks, bathtubs, wash boilers and bed springs.” The leader was Sol Cohen, who also held the title of air-raid warden commander. Also acting in a leadership capacity was Abraham Bisgaier, who was chairman of the Lower East Side Defense Council, which covered the twelve block area around the 7th Precinct police station. It was onto trucks, horse-drawn wagons (seen in Cushman’s shot above) and baby carriages, that the residents of the LES neighborhood contributed all of the ‘implements of their daily lives’ that they could muster.”
As part of this effort, the Grand Street Salvage Corps. enlisted the help of children from the Grand Street Settlement House, which was located at 283 Rivington Street. The children, who wore arm bands painted red and reading “Grand Street Settlement Salvage Corps., transported scrap, including sleds, tricycles and a small red airplane, in go-carts made from discarded buggy wheels and grocery boxes. Kids being kids, some did this with reckless abandon. A nine-year old boy, for example, was reported to have charged through a crowd shouldering sharp-edged metal. Recognizing this as an accident waiting to happen, the cops of the 7th Precinct kept the crowd back from the scrap lot which, on the first day, was piled with dozens of tons of scrap by mid-afternoon.
The vacant lot referred to in the newspaper stories is today the location of a parking garage seen below.
But it was not just on the Lower East Side that such efforts were being made. A section of the Upper East Side stretching from Park to Third Avenues and 88th to 90th Streets would be designated as a proving ground for testing the methods used to collect scrap from a typical Manhattan neighborhood. According to the New York Times, this area was selected because it covers nearly every type of apartment dwelling in the city, ranging from the Park Avenue duplex apartments to the railroad flats of Third Avenue.
The effort would be led by a group called Bundles for America, Inc., which by that time had 250,000 volunteer members throughout the country. Bundles set up local headquarters for the test drive at 1327 Lexington Avenue between 88th and 89th Streets which had a side entrance at 141 E. 88th Street.
Suffice it to say, the test drive was a smashing success. In fact, two days before the test drive was to officially start on September 28 the headquarters itself became inundated with scrap. When the women who ran Bundles for America arrived that morning, a long line of men, women, and children were there carrying all sorts of scrap in make-shift carriages and the like. Thinking this was a one-time occurrence, Bundles officials asked that the scrap be deposited in the office through the 88th Street entrance. In less than an hour, however, they were forced to summon their own volunteers, a few troops of Boy Scouts, a trucking firm and a junkman to cart off the continuous stream of scrap that people were dropping off. In all, the office was filled three times; a large pile was amassed in a nearby alley, and the cellar was filled. “What could we do?” asked Mrs. Wales Latham, President of Bundles for America. “There they were with their salvage. We couldn’t tell them to go home and wait until Tuesday [September 28th] when the drive begins.”
The test drive started promptly at 8 A.M. that Tuesday and lasted well past dusk. Collection volunteers were summoned that morning to 153 East 88th Street (right around the corner from Bundles headquarters), which was a four-story walk up owned by the Rhinelander Estate. Mrs. Philip Kip Rhinelander, herself a member of Bundles, made a preliminary visit that morning, buzzing a couple of the dumbwaiter bells and reminding tenants that she would be by later that day to receive their scrap.
Each group of salvage collectors was equipped with a pair of wooden scales on a dolly or wooden platform with wheels, which could weigh pieces of scrap of up to 200 pounds. And on that day the collectors, who were said to have swarmed over the area like locusts, would have plenty of scrap to weigh. The sidewalks were covered with old boilers, bed springs, radios, curtain rods, stoves and countess other kinds of scrap. So much scrap was put out that, as the New York Daily News put it, you could not have gotten any more if the entire four block area had been lifted up and shaken upside down.
According to the Manhattan 1930 Land Book, the building at 1327 Lexington Avenue was called the Rhinelander and is still there today (pictured below on the left). A flower shop (which replaced a bicycle shop) occupies the spot where Bundles was headquartered. And the quant four-story walk up on 88th Street that was next to the Rhinelander is still there today (pictured below on the right).
The test drive was a huge success because schools and businesses, not just individual residences, contributed. For example, The Dalton School, at 114 E. 89th Street, coughed up a whopping 2,800 pounds of metal pots. Then there was Louis Pappas, who ran a restaurant at 1291 Lexington (between 86th and 87th Streets). He contributed 1,419 pounds of scrap, including four big coffee urns which, as the Daily News noted, from then on would be making bitter tea for the Japs. And Lim Chun, a Chinese laundry owner at 1303 Lexington Ave. (between 87th and 88th Streets), handed over four flatirons weighing eighty pounds apiece with the terse mandate, “Kindly drop on Japs.” The Dalton School is still there, as is 1291 Lexington, albeit it is an eyeglasses store today. However, 1303 Lexington has since been razed to make way for a white-bricked post-war coop. Below is The Dalton School, 1291 Lexington and (approximately what was) 1303 Lexington as they appear today.
The Girl Scouts also made their contribution to the effort. In fact, they had set up The Girl Scouts Salvage Shop at 120 E. 86th Street where it was reported that this “beehive” collected 25,000 pounds of scrap since May 1942. This building still exists and is pictured below as it appears today.
Despite the success of the test drive, early on there were complaints from collectors that the chic stretches of Park Ave. weren’t yielding nearly as much scrap as the Third Avenue section. One volunteer, Mrs. Marcia Davenport of 1 East End Avenue, novelist, said: “The most heartbreaking thing is the indifference of some of the people in the, shall we say, upper crust.” Such complaints, however, turned out to be meritless. Park Avenue collections picked up as the day wore on and, to illustrate this point, it was noted that by 4 P.M. a 64-unit apartment house at 1095 Park Avenue produced 1,092 pounds of scrap. This apartment, pictured below as it appears today, is just around the corner from the Dalton School (noted previously).
The papers noted salvage efforts elsewhere in Manhattan. For example, William B. Hall, resident manager of the mammoth Pare Vendome apartments on West 57th Street, boasted that the tenants, who including Damon Runyon, Octaves Roy Cohen and James Montgomery Flagg, would contribute more scrap metal than any other apartment house in the land. One of the residents, George S, Downing, president of Jamaica Savings Bank, contributed a German machine gun that was presented to him in 1919 by France. “Just so it goes back to Hitler in the form of bullets, I’m glad to give it,” Downing said.
The Pare Vandome is pictured below.
Sources used for this page are The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The New York Post and The New York Herald Tribune (sites to specific dates/articles will be provided in the near future). To be continued…