You probably knew this already, but there was a time when there were regular goat beauty pageants in Central Park.
The time was the mid-1930s, when, in a fit of post-Prohibitionary giddiness, New York City provided space for the Brewers Board of Trade to choose the year’s mascot for the ubiquitous bock beer advertising poster (a billy goat is a geissbock in German, and a bock beer festival was a springtime staple).
Or as The New York Times put it on the eve of a 1934 contest, “Amid the Virgilian landscapes of Central Park, the shy goatherds of Manhattan will bathe in the sweet light of publicity this morning, when they assemble at 11 o’clock to consecrate the choicest of their flocks to Bacchus.”
And so it was that 79 years ago Monday, The Times carried news that Pretzels, a breathtakingly attractive he-goat with “magnificent swirling horns, a long, sagacious beard and a relatively sweet disposition,” walked off the Central Park mall with the title of Mr. Manhattan and the right to face the winners from across the city and region for the crown.
While Pretzels did not actually live in Manhattan – he was a resident of the Westchester County village of Hastings-on-Hudson who was allowed to enter because his owner lived on West 26th Street – fully 35 of the other competitors, surprisingly enough, did, according to the brewers board. The Times explained:
“Indigenous goats, according to the brewers, fall naturally into two rather finely differentiated classes – mascots and talismans. The mascots are kept by secret societies, naval reserve units and others, to whom the mere fact of keeping a goat seems comical. The talismans are kept by kennels and stables mostly, on the so-far-unexploded theory that no animal can get distemper if a goat is kept somewhere in the offing.”
Pretzels went on to win the title of Mr. Bock Beer, 1934, defeating the leading hircine beauties from Newark, the Bronx, Staten Island and Brooklyn. He was awarded $75 and an embossed blanket.
In 1936, Pretzels won the Manhattan title again, only to be trounced in the finals by Buddy, a goat employed as a lawn mower at a Standard Oil Company tank farm in New Jersey.
Goats were hardly strangers to the park. In the early 1900s, as the photo below demonstrates, goats pulled children in miniature versions of horse-drawn carriages. Even today a statue of a Dancing Goat guards the archway between the Central Park Zoo and the Children’s Zoo.
Perhaps the park’s long tradition of goat-friendliness has something to do with the fact that the word Gotham is, according to the New York Public Library, borrowed from a reference in old English proverbs to “a village called Gotham or Gottam, meaning ‘Goat’s Town’ in old Anglo-Saxon,” a village of simple-minded fools.
Perhaps, though, it doesn’t.