The New York Public Library recently opened its vast digital photo archives to the public — somewhere in the range of 180,000 images. Lucky us!
In honor of this release—and our annual Drinks issue—we found a cool beverage-related photo from the archives. Taken at a bar within the 1939 World’s Fair, the woman in the picture is smoking, drinking and looking a bit melancholy (à la Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks). We caught up with Thomas Lannon, manuscripts and archives curator at NYPL, to learn more about this compelling picture.
Edible Manhattan: The caption lists this woman as an actress. Do we know who she is?
Thomas Lannon: This photo came from the promotion and development division of the World’s Fair, basically their PR arm. Chances are she is a staff actress,* which could be a lot of things. There were chorus lines and historical re-creations but also a lot of bawdy entertainment—burlesque and the “living magazine,” where you could pay to take pictures of topless women.
EM: How would the PR team have used this photo?
TL: Honestly, they probably didn’t. If you look through the 13,000 images from this collection, you find A LOT of photos of pretty young women. It’s pretty clear the male photographers are basically taking pictures just to flirt with their subject.
EM: What do we know about where she was drinking?
TL: This was one of the many, many places to drink in the fair’s “Amusement Zone.” There was one restaurant sponsored by Heineken with a big windmill. There was a very large beer hall. There was a place called Old New York that was like a fake re-creation of a restaurant from the 1890s. It’s listed as a bar, but it’s hard to say if she’s drinking alcohol. Is there a froth on her beverage? Hard to say.
We figured out who the lone lady is in the picture above, using her ever-so-unique headgear to track her down. Meet performer Evelyn Eckhardt, looking really bummed to punch a timeclock:
And here’s Evelyn in actual “performance mode.” Lannon tells us the World’s Fair was rife with burlesque, risque even by today’s standards. Looks like it!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.