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December 18, 2019

“Saloon Smasher” Carrie Nation Would Have Had Her Opinions on Today’s NoMad Fashions

On November 20, 1902 the annual horse show, one of the city’s most glittering events, was just beginning in Madison Square Garden at the corner of 26th and Madison (now the site of the New York Life tower).  With the upper echelon of New York society dressed to impress in its finest formal dresses, morning coats, and top hats, everyone was there to see and be seen.

Enter the temperance crusader known as the “Saloon Smasher,” Carrie Nation. With a swarm of reporters at her heels, she paraded up and down the aisles, raising a ruckus by shrieking with horror at the gowns worn by New York society women. In front of Reginald C. Vanderbilt’s box (yes, those Vanderbilt’s), she stopped and pointed a quivering finger at Reginald’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Alfred G. Vanderbilt and asked loudly how much of the Vanderbilt’s sizeable fortune had gone to support the temperance cause. When Mrs. Vanderbilt tried to quiet her by saying Mrs. Nation should write, and it would be addressed, Nation shot back, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself for wearing such disgraceful clothes. Take them off and dress yourself modestly.”

That must have created quite a stir, but Nation wasn’t finished yet. She shrieked at other society ladies, intermittently sang hymns, and drew a large crowd that began following her around. Eventually the crowd made her retreat to the Garden’s café, where she overturned tables and broke bottles and glasses before being threatened with arrest.

Seeing the fashions of 1900, it is hard to understand how someone found them scandalous, but as Cole Porter said, “In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking.”  Apparently, Mrs. Nation, was one of those who believed that anything less than a multiple layered, fully clothed body was immoral.

Mrs. Nation lead by example, as is clear in Herbert Asbury’s 1933 article, “Big Wind From Kansas”: “For this, her first visit to the metropolis, the smasher had characteristically arrayed herself in a black pole bonnet with long white ribbons tied under her chin, a black alpaca dress over innumerable petticoats and whatnots, and a linen duster, belted at the waist.  From her shoulder hung a satchel bulging with miniature hatchets, photographs, souvenir buttons and sample copies of her newspaper the Smasher’s Mail.  An enormous hatchet, almost as large as a small broad ax, was stuck in her belt . . .”  Clearly, she would never be, and never was, the type of person to dress for frivolity.

On her visits to New York she always stayed in NoMad at the Hotel Victoria on 27th Street between Broadway and Fifth. On her first arrival, she signed the guest book, “Carry Nation, Your Loving Home Defender, Kansas.”  Then, she turned around and noticed a marble statue of Diana, which depicted the goddess in her natural form. Nation covered her face and screamed, “She ain’t got a thing on!”  To stop the commotion the hotel manager covered the statue with cheese cloth, which would remain as long as Nation was a guest.  On a second visit, the hotel was pre-warned and covered Diana before Nation arrived.  Her response?  “It’s a good thing you covered her up.  I’d made up my mind that if that thing was naked when I arrived here this time, I’d use my hatchet on it.”

In fact, in one of her very first bar wreckings, the customers, along with the bartender, scurried from the room as Mrs. Nation drew out an iron bar and began smashing bottles and beat the beautiful cherry wood bar with a large brass spittoon. She brought along a valise filled with rocks which she threw at mirrors, bottles, and her main target—a large painted nude above the bar.

The general damage she caused in various locations, and her particular venom for nudity, was reported throughout the nation. As a result, every time she was in town, Hoffman House Hotel at 25th and Broadway placed guards at each entrance to protect its renowned painting of “Nymphs and Satyr,” hanging over its bar.

One can hardly imagine “Saloon Smasher” Carrie Nation’s reaction to the men and women’s fashions in NoMad today. If she could see the tight pants and bare midriffs, overhear that undergarments have been reduced to a minimum, and realize that petticoats, bonnets, dusters, and corsets have disappeared entirely, her head might explode!