It Happened Here First

Historical Highlights

by Alyssa Grossman, 04/09/2013

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Sometimes it seems as though New York City's 8.3 million–plus residents are constantly putting Frank Sinatra's famous lyrics to the test. New Yorkers can make it anywhere, if history is any indication. Those who live in the five boroughs aren't afraid to think outside the box. Inventions that originated within City limits include Scrabble, the teddy bear and the decadent deep-fried Twinkie—all of which give visitors and locals even more reasons to love New York. To find out what else got its start here, let's start from the top (of the hill, that is). 

Thrill seekers have LaMarcus Adna Thompson to thank for what is perhaps the first-ever gravity roller coaster created explicitly as an amusement ride. Long before the latest iteration of Luna Park became a symbol of summertime fun, Thompson's wooden creation was the talk of Coney Island. The year was 1884 and a ride on the pioneering stretches of track cost a nickel. The cars never reached more than 6 miles per hour, and the coaster required riders to get out mid-trip so the car could be switched to another track to head back to the starting point. Today, Coney Island's thrills aren't confined to a single structure, but all it takes is one ride on the Cyclone to understand why Thompson's creation (and subsequent technological advances) had longevity. 

Those little low-calorie pink packets of Sweet'N Low also have Brooklyn roots. It started with a man named Benjamin Eisenstadt, whose original idea of creating individual serving-size packets of sugar was stolen after he pitched it to large sugar producers. Soon after, in 1957, however, he struck sweetener gold, marketing Sweet'N Low as a waistline-friendly alternative. It's also a good way to lower the guilt when pairing a cup of coffee with, say, a decadent NYC donut.

If you follow up that caffeine fix with a shopping spree at some of NYC's must-see stores, this tidbit might be of interest: Brooklyn's Flatbush National Bank was the first to release bank-issued credit cards back in 1946. 

The City is, of course, the publishing capital of the United States and has always been word-obsessed. So it should come as little surprise that Alfred Mosher Butts, a resident of Jackson Heights, Queens, created Scrabble in 1931. The original tiles were cut by hand and the game went through several tweaks before hitting the mainstream. Today, its roots are recognized with a street sign at 35th Avenue and 81st Street

New Yorkers seem to have a flair for the spoken word, too, especially when armed with a cell phone. The chatter started in 1973 with a Motorola researcher named Martin Cooper who, after 90 days of tinkering, headed to Sixth Avenue in Manhattan to dial up the rival Bell Labs, which was the first public cell phone call. Even before cords were removed from landline phones, Cooper was walking and talking on his two-and-a-half-pound, 10-inch-long cellular device. He was also the first to discover that crossing a City street while distracted by a phone can be quite the risky activity.

Adults aren't the only ones benefiting from New York firsts. The Brooklyn Children's Museum, located in Crown Heights, was the world's first museum for kids. It opened on December 16, 1899, long before the Children's Museum of the Arts, the Children's Museum of Manhattan, Sony Wonder Technology Lab and the Staten Island Children's Museum became staples of NYC's kid-friendly entertainment scene

Another New York playtime contribution came in 1902 when Morris Michtom, a Brooklyn candy shop owner and stuffed-toy maker, was reading The Washington Post. In it, he saw a political cartoon poking fun at President Theodore Roosevelt, who, during a hunting trip, had refused to shoot a bear that was tied to a tree. Inspiration struck Michtom and the "Teddy's Bear," as the plush doll was originally called, was born. (They received permission to use Roosevelt's name, and one was later used as a mascot in his bid for reelection.) These days, you don't have to look far to see this NYC resident's impact—big-name stores like Toys "R" Us, FAO Schwarz and Build-A-Bear Workshop proudly continue the teddy bear's legacy. 

Fifty years later, another classic toy made its debut when Brooklyn-born inventor George Lerner put aside his table manners and crafted plastic face parts, bodies and accessories to stick into real potatoes. Hasbro saw potential in his concept and put Mr. Potato Head on the market, making it the first toy to be advertised on TV. It wasn't until 1964 that the famous toy came with a nonedible head and began evolving into the character we know today. 

Fans of New York sports take their team pride seriously, no matter the season. Beyond the professional arena, NYC is home to endless options for amateur players and a steady supply of less conventional competitions, among them squash at Grand Central Terminal and a race to the top of the Empire State Building. The City has a long-standing tradition as a sports hub, with the country's first athlete gaining international acclaim in the late 1700s/early 1800s. Staten Islander and former slave Bill Richmond was a servant to British General Earl Percy when the troops were in New York during the Revolutionary War. Percy took Richmond back to England with him, and he became an apprentice to a cabinetmaker. Richmond's boxing talents were discovered after he fought a soldier who insulted him. He went on to gain widespread recognition in England and faced some of the county's top contenders. 

If your idea of entertainment is more along the lines of a night at the movies, consider this: the long-gone Astor Theater, home to Broadway shows from 1906 to 1925 and a movie theater until 1972, hosted the first audience to watch 3-D film, in 1915. Special red-and-green glasses were worn to view three test reels, featuring a plotless selection of stereoscopic scenes. 

Today's vibrant NYC food culture has an equally inventive past. You'll find plenty of edible history at famed Midtown eatery Le Cirque. Depending on whom you ask, you may get varied stories about who created spaghetti primavera for the eatery. Regardless of its founder, the dish, made with veggies, pine nuts and cream, was the talk of the town when it first appeared in the late 1970s. It's not on the menu, but according to the food experts at Saveur, requests for it are never turned down. 

Unlike the roots of spaghetti primavera, the origin of the Reuben sandwich is heavily disputed, though one tale pins it to 1914 to a City eatery called Reuben's Restaurant. It's been said that it was created for a very hungry movie (a leading lady of Charlie Chaplin's) or Broadway actress. Whether the story is true or false, one thing's certain: today, New York City has enough savory sandwiches to fill not one but two lunchtime-worthy roundups.

NYC is responsible for a slew of other culinary creations. Thank the Waldorf=Astoria for the lettuce, apple, celery and (over time) walnut salad that bears its name. It was first whipped up here in 1896. The hotel is also said to be the original spot for eggs Benedict, its invention attributed to a customer named Lemuel Benedict, who ordered two poached eggs, bacon, buttered toast and a pitcher of hollandaise sauce in 1894. But Delmonico's has its own story about the dish, citing Mr. and Mrs. LeGrand Benedict, two loyal customers who asked for the ingredients that make up the meal, tired of the Financial District eatery's existing offerings. Regardless of which establishment deserves bragging rights, you'll find this entrée of poached eggs, Canadian bacon and hollandaise sauce on an English muffin at brunch spots across the City. 

The menu doesn't stop there. NoLIta mainstay Lombardi's Pizza, which opened in 1905, claims the title of first pizzeria in America. Some desserts got their start here, too. The origin of the egg cream—a drinkable concoction made with milk, seltzer and chocolate syrup (preferably Fox's U-bet)—can't be completely pinpointed, but most stories trace it back to the Lower East Side or Brooklyn sometime in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. (Curiously, few versions of the tale mention eggs or cream as ingredients.) Around the same time, an Italian immigrant named Italo Marchiony received a patent for an improved "molding apparatus for forming ice-cream cups and the like" in 1903. Marchiony claimed he'd been making edible waffle cups since 1896 for his ice cream cart on Wall Street—some believe cone-like wafers may go as far back as 18th-century London, however.

Restaurateurs here are tirelessly innovative. Consider Brooklyn's Park Slope ChipShop, where owner Christopher Sell decided to be a little adventurous with the fryer one day in late 2001/early 2002 after buying Twinkies from a local shop for a birthday celebration. The current menu, which also offers fried Mars bars, Bounty, Twix, Snickers and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, is a testament to Sell's "fry anything" mentality. Thankfully, Park Slope is an excellent neighborhood for walking off the fried goodness. 

After all that food, freshen your breath with a piece of gum and give a hat-tip to Staten Island resident Thomas Adams, who acquired chicle, a natural gum product in trees, in the 1860s from exiled former Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Anna. His original intention: to create a rubber material. The actual result was a whole lot sweeter.

No tribute to New York City innovations would be complete without mentioning its nightlife scene. After all, this is the town where the Manhattan cocktail (rumored to have made its debut at the Manhattan Club) and the Bloody Mary (created in 1934 at The St. Regis' King Cole Bar) got their start. And while the Financial District may not be the ideal place for making beer today, Peter Minuit saw Lower Manhattan's brewing potential in 1633, when he set up the country's first public brewery there inside a log cabin. These days, Lower Manhattan bears little resemblance to its 17th-century past, but you can still sip a pint or two at beer gardens there and all around town. 

So start spreadin' the news: NYC is, without a doubt, a city of firsts.

related venues/(8)

  1. 1
    Luna Park at Coney Island
    1000 Surf Ave.
    Brooklyn – Coney Island
    NY 11224
  2. 2
    Brooklyn Children's Museum
    145 Brooklyn Ave.
    Brooklyn – Crown Heights
    NY 11213
  3. 3
    FAO Schwarz
    767 Fifth Ave.
    Manhattan – Midtown East
    NY 10153
  1. 4
    Le Cirque
    151 E. 58th St.
    Manhattan – Midtown East
    NY 10022
  2. 5
    The Waldorf Astoria New York
    301 Park Ave.
    Manhattan – Midtown East
    NY 10022
  3. 6
    Delmonico's Restaurant
    56 Beaver St.
    Manhattan – Financial District
    NY 10004
  1. 7
    Lombardi’s Pizza
    32 Spring St
    NY 10012
  2. 8
    Park Slope ChipShop
    383 Fifth Ave.
    Brooklyn – Park Slope
    NY 11215

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