A Place to Buy Thunder, 1898

The following excerpt was originally published in the March 6, 1898, of The New York Times. It is not only interesting in its description of a theatrical prop store and shop in Midtown Manhattan at the end of the nineteenth century, but remarkable in the fact that the proprietor is a woman. Unfortunately, the article never mentions her name!

A Place to Buy Thunder

That, as Well as Lightning, Fog, Snow, and a Moon, for Sale by a Woman.

Assortment of Oddities

Ingenious Devices Under the Head of Theatrical Hardware—A Japanese and a Donkey Skin Made to Order.

She has thunder by the sheet, fog by the yard, lightning by the box, snow by the bushel, and the child who cries for the moon can get it there, if he will only wait until it is manufactured. It won’t be made out of green cheese, either, but more likely from pale blue silk, for moons have been made out of that before now, and they were eminently satisfactory and couldn’t have been told by any one but a connoisseur from the real article; and who is a connoisseur in moons?

And the mistress of all these natural elements is not a Mme. Jove, either, but a nice, ordinary, every day sort of woman, and this queer collection of hers is merely food for herself and her children. Not literally, for even a pretty, pale blue silk moon might be indigestible, but she provides them for “the profession,” and indirectly they become oatmeal and coffee, roast beef and plum pudding.

It might be thought that the establishment where all these strange things are to be found would resemble those regions supposed to take a low position in the universe, and to be the home of all things unpleasant and flamable, but it doesn’t. It is a modest little place, not so far from Thirtieth Street, on the line of the elevated road and the proper business of the proprietor, when it is called by its right name, is that of dealer in theatrical hardware. The visitor would not even guess, in taking a view of the stock, that the word theatrical was appropriate, for nothing but small articles of seemingly ordinary hardware are in sight.

That is not strange, as there is never a demand for the same kind of thunder, lightning, or other theatrical appliances which are supplied on demand of the property man or the stage carpenter, and very little of anything is kept on hand, though they can be had at a moment’s notice. The hardware proper is the most prosaic part of the business. That consists of the wheels, bolts, screws—everything that is needed to make the curtains and scenery of a theatre stay where they are wanted, and move when they are not wanted.

The Uses of “Profile.”

Then the carpenter has a great desire for “profile.” That is a technical term, and does not mean the profile of anything, though it might, but it consists of thin strips of board, four feet wide and ten feet long, not much more than an eighth of an inch in thickness, but tough and strong, so that it will bend and conform itself to all conditions without a break. Keystones and corners of the same serviceable material are things without which the carpenter cannot get along.

Profile is a valuable commodity. There is not much it cannot be used for. An ordinary individual who is not of the profession bought some of it for a cozy corner the other day, and a genuine Japanese jinrikasha used in a Japanese play now running, is made of profile. It may be thin, but it is strong, and it supports a young woman of very comfortable proportions for some time.

It is in ways like this that the ingenuity of the theatrical hardware dealer comes in. One word that she does not know is “can’t.” So when they brought her a miniature jinrikasha a few inches long and told her that a vehicle to match the sample was needed, she promised it immediately. Then, not she, but a clever son, went to work, and with the profile a nice little carriage that might have come straight from Japan was made, the wheels purchased, but the rest of the little carriage was made for the occasion, even to the upholstering.

But that was a mild demand of the property man. He wanted a donkey skin the other day. Even a real donkey might wear through his skin with the long hours, stage drafts, and other trials suffered by a property donkey, and the imitation donkey couldn’t stand it at all. So he must have a new skin, and the little woman who keeps a large stock of ingenuity as well as thunder and lightning, always ready to hand, started out to find one. She was too wise to try outright for a donkey skin, and she compromised on goat, but nowhere could she find a goatskin of the satisfactory donkey color. But she did it at last.

Perhaps no one else would have thought of going to Harlem, as this woman did. It was even more satisfactory than the extensive goat pastures of Brooklyn might have been. The first thing she saw as she entered a shop was a rug on the floor which her experienced eye told her was just the thing. “Do you really want that?” said the woman in charge “Why, I can let you have that at a very reasonable price.”

So the rug was purchased, sheared, and it made such a delightful donkey skin that no one would have ever suspected that it grew on a goat.

A Musical Broom.

There is no manufacturer for musical brooms, but the dealer in theatrical hardware can furnish one at short notice. It was just an ordinary broom that she furnished for a well known Broadway theatre, but before she had completed it it was a regular music box. The entire inside of the broom was cut out, and in the opening left there was inserted a box which contained eighteen bells all carefully tuned. From these bells wires ran up the handle, connecting with push buttons at the top, and then passing up the arm of the sweeper on the stage was connected with a small electric battery that she wore concealed on her back. She played a pretty chime of bells as she swept, and no one knew how it was done.

The elements are not difficult. They belong to a regular stock. The fog is gauze, the lightning is made by magnesium, the snow of scraps of paper, and the thunder of sheet iron of varying weight, according to the depth of the thunder that is to be produced.

“I can furnish everything but rain,” says this mistress of the elements, “and I guess I could furnish that if it was wanted.”

One little bit of natural history that is learned at the shop is that though you may not paint the lily you may theatrical grass. Stage grass only shows in one shade of bright green. It may be French grass, German grass, English or American grass, but it always grows in the same shade of vivid green. If the big mats of it are not in color then they are painted.

The demands of the stage are varied. There was a beef’s bladder wanted for Falstaff the other day. None of the blown-up affairs that the peddlers sell would do, and two of the genuine were brought from a slaughterhouse.

“And it was fortunate that we had two,” says the ingenious gatherer of theatrical wares, for they burst one the very first night and had to have another.”

Money is one of the commodities that is kept in stock. And the poorest man on the stage never has less than $10 if he has a bill, for stage bills grow in that way. They are regular sized bills, upon which are the words “stage money” in large letters upon both sides, an “x” in each corner, and two larger “x’s,” one on either side of the centre. Coins are in gold, silver, and copper—those are the colors they wear—and they may amount to anything according to the supposed wealth of the possessor on the stage, and are coins of any nationality, according to the play, for they are all merely round bits of different kinds of metal that are not marked.

A Coiffure for a Beard.

Occasionally it will seem that there is nothing in the city that will just answer for a certain purpose. One property man, the other day, wanted some long, gray whiskers, almost white. Nothing seemed to be just the thing, until a Martha Washington coiffure came to hand, and that, turned upside down, its precise arrangement loosened; gave as delightfully patriarchal a beard as could be desired.

“Old plays are the most difficult to furnish with properties,” says the woman of ideas. “I remember seeing my husband bring in an old portrait of Washington with a shabby old frame before I knew anything about the business.

“‘They won’t use that, will they?’ I asked.

“‘Yes, and it is exactly what they want, too,’ he answered.

“I have had to furnish an old clock face with Roman numerals upon it once, and something that I am sometimes called upon for, and which I should not have room to keep in stock if I wished to, is the straw that covers champagne bottles. That makes excellent thatched roofs for cottages. It is cut open and laid out in strips, and it is easy to work with.

“Hardware that we are called upon to furnish sometimes is for rests for living pictures. You think perhaps that in those pictures the people hold themselves in position. I used to wonder how they did it. But they don’t; they all have iron rests which are made just to fit them, and they have to be measured for them. They wouldn’t be able to do as they do without them.

“Then aerial harnesses are something we furnish for performers. Those have to be fitted, and the wearer is measured and the harness made and padded just to suit her.

“Oh, yes, it is a pleasant business. At one time I would never have thought I could have done it, but now I find when I have not been down here for a day that I am anxious to be back to see how things are getting on.”