It’s fair to say generosity is not a trait lacking in most Brooklynites — you usually can’t go too far through a page of BKLYNER posts without learning about the latest bit of community engagement in your neighborhood. And some things don’t change.
A little more than 100 years ago, the well-to-do of Brooklyn took on their own philanthropic causes with all the spirit and pomp one would expect from the Gilded Age.
In the late 19th Century, as industrialization discharged more smoke into New York’s air and stuffed more families into overcrowded tenements, many home-grown charitable organizations sprung up to help those who might otherwise be trampled under this march of progress.
One of the more unique organizations to come into existence was the Fresh Air Fund.
Founded by a Pennsylvania preacher in 1877, the fund’s mission was to bring less fortunate children from New York City out to rural communities to give them a reprieve from the mental and physical hardships of city life.
Before long, the Fresh Air Fund became the darling cause of many eager young women of Brooklyn’s high society. Come springtime, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s pages would be flush with ornate images and flowery pronouncements heralding which of Brooklyn’s favored daughters had dedicated themselves to the Fresh Air Fund that season.
From one Daily Eagle account in 1908 — “To-day there appear on this page some further portraits of girls who are to figure in the big Fresh Air Guild Dance of Easter Tuesday…There is little question but that many of the very prettiest of the Hill and Park Slope girls of the hour are to be present.”
This bit of evidence suggests that in addition to the virtuous cause, these dances also provided the perfect atmosphere for the debutants of DeKalb Avenue to strut their spring fashion for all their friends and frenemies to see.
A popular locale for these dances was the Pouch Gallery, a stately art-filled mansion in Clinton Hill (razed after World War II) that was a premier venue for Brooklyn society events in those days.
The Fund was a social outlet in ways that went beyond these popular dances. “Fresh Air Clubs” sprouted up all over the borough like little tulips of altruism.
In March, the Daily Eagle proclaimed: “Easter holiday week is a good time for Fresh Air Club work.”
One young community organizer wrote to the paper in 1909 to say: “We are about to organize a Fresh Air Club. There are about six or eight of us girls in it. Our first meeting will be held on Wednesday… so as to elect the officers and get ready to help earn a little money for the poor children.” Another young letter author tells of $7 raised — “proceeds of cake and candy sale of Bay Ridge Park Fresh Air Club.”
It is comforting to know that all these funds and efforts were indeed put to good use. A Harper’s Reader piece gives an account of one of the Fresh Air trips and offers a glimpse of what these dances and cake sales added up to:
“On a hot evening in July one of these excursions left the New York pier, bound for Lake Champlain. A steamer had been chartered for the trip as far as Troy, and from there a railway train was to take the children to the lake…Here were little girls and boys who had never felt the green sod under their feet, nor picked a flower, but who had spent all their lives penned up in great towering houses, their only playground the burning roof, a hundred feet above the street.”
While society balls at the Pouch Mansion have gone the way of the icebox and Brooklyn’s elevated Fifth Avenue Line, the Fresh Air Fund continues to this day—and they still have dances! Today’s Fresh Air Fund events have traded the newspaper pronouncements for slick pdf invites and elegant mansions for trendy Manhattan clubs, but the youthful enthusiasm to do good has remained the same.