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The Brooklyn Museum
The Brooklyn Museum

The "Blizzard Men of '88": New York's Exclusive Club of Storm Survivors

The Brooklyn Museum
The Brooklyn Museum

The Great Blizzard of 1888 was a memorable and tragic period; it left people marooned inside their homes for days and caused hundreds of reported casualties along the eastern seaboard.

Starting in 1929, to help keep the memory alive, New York-based survivors of that great storm met annually to recount their experiences. They called themselves the "Blizzard Men of '88" (female survivors weren't admitted until 1933), and they knew how to celebrate in style. “When they file into the Hotel Pennsylvania ballroom for their annual luncheon," The New York Times wrote of the 50th anniversary celebration, "these veterans of the great two-storey high snowdrifts are to be entertained by, of all things, a mechanical snow storm."

Each year, members gathered to share amazing tales of extraordinary commutes ("Edward H. White recalled how he walked across the East River to Brooklyn on the ice") and harrowing accounts of surviving neck-high snowdrifts ("A tall man rescued me," recounted Franklin A. Levi).

But, as the years went on, their main purpose seemed to be to remind everyone that all snowstorms after 1888's were joke affairs, and that anyone who said otherwise was a wuss.

From a story on 1935's meeting, headlined, "MEN OF '88 LAUGH AT RECENT STORM":

New York's blizzard of last January was dismissed as "a mere flurry" at the annual luncheon and reunion of the Blizzard Men of 1888 at the Hotel Pennsylvania yesterday.

From a report of a 1938 meeting titled, "1934 STORMS JOKE TO 'BLIZZARD MEN'":

Theodore Van Wyck of Valley Stream, L.I., historian of the organization, read an original poem, satirical of the boasts of the moderns who “survived” the 1934 storms. The spirit of the gathered was expressed by the first verse, which follows:

"Our blizzard sure must take the prize,
In spite of all the years and lies;
Our snow was nearly two feet deep,
Piled up and down in one big heap."

From a 1939 report, "VETERANS INSIST WE HAD BLIZZARD: Men of '88 Ignore Slur Cast by Weather Man on Their Fondest Calamity":

The Weather Bureau popped up—wholly irrelevantly, the Blizzard Men think—with the statement that New York never saw a real blizzard. There are certain technical requirements—matter of wind velocity , temperature and quality of snow—that a storm must have before it can call itself a blizzard, and no New York blow ever has had them, the bureau contended.

Dr. Strong, secretary-treasurer of the organization, said, “You know, you can’t ever defend a political party, a religion, or a great storm against free speech. There is a tendency to belittle anything today. I have advocated the rights of free speech, but I also advocate the curbing of free slander.

“And another thing you don’t want to forget: On March 12, 1888, the only way you could get a message from New York to Boston was by cable to Europe. That was some blizzard.”

From 1941's "'88 Blizzard Men Belittle the Snow of '41; Deny They Are 'Garrulous, Ancient Gaffers'":

Last week-end's snowstorm set a six-year record but it was just the "little blizzard of 1941" and "our stepchild" to the Blizzard Men of 1888 who gathered yesterday to see if there were any new stories to tell about the famous "big blow" of March 12 of that year, which engulfed New York in snowdrifts two stories deep and has since provided subject matter for endless conversations and speeches.

From a write-up of a 1952 meeting:

A couple members slipped once or twice, and talked about unrelated issues like the high cost of living and the new Washington Administration, but they were quickly steered back to the main snow trail.

The latter-day “blizzard” that brought twenty-five inches of snow to New York in December, 1947, came in for its usual comeuppance from the veterans of the 16.5-inch fall of sixty-five years ago. “No wind in ’47,” was the unanimous reminder, and wind, they all agreed, is what makes a blizzard.

From a brief piece on 1960's get-together:

The old timers’ comments on the city’s biggest storm in eleven years, which deposited 14.2 inches of snow on New York, ranges from “pipsqueak” to “a pretty good little imitation” of the storm of ’88.

In 1969, the last of the group's leaders died, and the Blizzard Men of '88 stopped holding their annual meetings. "We'd never see each other between those lunches," Richard Konter, a former member, told the Times in 1973, "but we'd always have a lot of fun."

This post originally appeared in 2015.

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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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iStock

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
The Funky History of George Washington's Fake Teeth
Screenshot via Mount Vernon/Vimeo
Screenshot via Mount Vernon/Vimeo

George Washington may have the most famous teeth—or lack thereof—in American history. But counter to what you may have heard about the Founding Father's ill-fitting dentures, they weren't made of wood. In fact, he had several sets of dentures throughout his life, none of which were originally trees. And some of them are still around. The historic Mount Vernon estate holds the only complete set of dentures that has survived the centuries, and the museum features a video that walks through old George's dental history.

Likely due to genetics, poor diet, and dental disease, Washington began losing his original teeth when he was still a young man. By the time he became president in 1789, he only had one left in his mouth. The dentures he purchased to replace his teeth were the most scientifically advanced of the time, but in the late 18th century, that didn't mean much.

They didn't fit well, which caused him pain, and made it difficult to eat and talk. The dentures also changed the way Washington looked. They disfigured his face, causing his lips to noticeably stick out. But that doesn't mean Washington wasn't grateful for them. When he finally lost his last surviving tooth, he sent it to his dentist, John Greenwood, who had made him dentures of hippo ivory, gold, and brass that accommodated the remaining tooth while it still lived. (The lower denture of that particular pair is now held at the New York Academy of Medicine.)

A set of historic dentures
George Washington's Mount Vernon

These days, no one would want to wear dentures like the ones currently held at Mount Vernon (above). They're made of materials that would definitely leave a bad taste in your mouth. The base that fit the fake teeth into the jaw was made of lead. The top teeth were sourced from horses or donkeys, and the bottom were from cows and—wait for it—people.

These teeth actually deteriorated themselves, revealing the wire that held them together. The dentures open and shut thanks to metal springs, but because they were controlled by springs, if he wanted to keep his mouth shut, Washington had to permanently clench his jaw. You can get a better idea of how the contraption worked in the video from Mount Vernon below.

Washington's Dentures from Mount Vernon on Vimeo.

There are plenty of lessons we can learn from the life of George Washington, but perhaps the most salient is this: You should definitely, definitely floss.

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