New-York Historical Society

“The Star-Spangled Banner” Watched O’er the Ramparts of Fort McHenry

This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections 

Francis Scott Key. From a painting by Charles Willson Peale.  PR 052

Francis Scott Key. From a painting by Charles Willson Peale. PR 052

Frank Key, as his friends knew him, had little use for this war, particularly as he viewed the War of 1812 as an aggressive one directed at Canada.   The Georgetown lawyer’s patriotism kicked in, however, with the threat of the British invading the Chesapeake.   He enlisted in the militia and threw himself into the role of civilian scout and local advisor.

Francis Scott Key’s mission, to win the release of the elderly American physician, William Beanes, is well-known as the circumstance that found him among the British fleet as Fort McHenry was bombarded and inspired him to write what later became our national anthem.  Less commonly recognized in this familiar tale are the stakes:  The fall of Fort McHenry would likely have led to the capitulation of Baltimore—where the British intended a much harsher treatment than that inflicted on Washington weeks earlier—and a quite different outcome to the terms ending the war.

The well-connected Frank Key embarked on the mission to save “Old Dr. Beanes” along with the official government agent for prisoners, John Stuart Skinner.  The 35-year old Key approached this task with a dutiful gloom about both it and the war’s outcome.  Because Key and Skinner had already overheard too much while aboard British warships about the intended bombardment and landing of 4,700 troops , they were detained.  After several days, they were allowed to return to the small American sloop that served as a truce ship, but only with a guard of Royal Marines that kept them afloat in the area.

Bombardment of Fort McHenry, drawn by William Strickland, engraved by William. Kneass.   PR 020

Bombardment of Fort McHenry, drawn by William Strickland, engraved by William Kneass. PR 020

With five special “bomb ships,” the heaviest floating artillery available, stationed at the mouth of the Patapsco River, the British threw virtually all they had at Fort McHenry.   The star fort, at the tip of the peninsula guarding the harbor, lacked a bombproof casement and often had little opportunity to reach the British ships with their own fire:  “We were like pigeons tied by the legs to be shot at,” was how the militia artillery commander, Joseph H. Nicholson likened it.  In commanding the fort, Major George Armistead did much more than order flags for the garrison, and he won praise for his resolve and resourcefulness.  Lightning and thunder added dramatic effect to the bombardment, but the rain that fell through the night also aided the American defenders.

Of equal importance as the successful defense of Fort McHenry, was the prior action the Americans took to sink their own vessels at the mouth of the harbor to serve as an effective barrier to British warships.   With the resulting failure of the Royal Navy to provide support to their land forces, the British commanders made the reluctant and controversial decision to abandon their plans for a land invasion on the fateful night of September 13-14.

The massive bombardment ceased and Key, Skinner, Dr. Beanes, and the small American crew could only wait until dawn to determine the fort’s fate from their distance of several miles away.  Major Armistead’s extra-large garrison flag, the sun, spy glasses, and a slight breeze finally “gave proof” and occasion for Key’s exuberant, thankful, and, at times, scornful poem  written as  he viewed the enemy’s apparent retreat.

The Anacreontic song, [John Stafford Smith], words by Ralph Tomlinson.  London.  M1627 Smith

The Anacreontic song, [John Stafford Smith], words by Ralph Tomlinson. London. M1627 Smith

Key had composed in this genre before and was likely writing in meter to the popular tune “To Anacreon in Heaven,” here seen as it was known in Britain.

It was, we believe, either Skinner, Key’s companion on the mission, or Joseph Nicholson, the commander of volunteer artillery at Fort McHenry, who took the poem to the press to be printed as a broadside.  Nicholson, an influential judge who also happened to be Frank Key’s brother-in-law, understandably saw to it that the published piece got to the soldiers at the fort.  One of the earliest broadside printings is this one in the Historical Society’s collection, but it differs from the poem’s very first publication in inserting Key’s name as author.  The devout Key concludes his four verses with “In God is our Trust,” that later derived into the “In God We Trust” appearing on United States

Francis Scott Key, Defence of Fort M’Henry.  1814.  SY 1814 no. 63

Francis Scott Key, Defence of Fort M’Henry. 1814. SY 1814 no. 63

coinage.

Francis Scott Key went on to a life of accomplishments and tragedy, one full of the contradictions of 19th century America.  Flourishing as a lawyer, his politics eventually connected him closely to Andrew Jackson, and he promoted his brother-in-law, Roger B. Taney, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  A slaveholder, Key argued vehemently at times against both slavery and abolitionists.  He lost children to illness, accidents, and dueling but did not live to see one son become the victim in one of New York’s most notorious murder trials.

Exhaustion and fever finally disabled fort commander Armistead, and he was replaced by Samuel Smith, the prominent Baltimorean responsible for the overall defense of the city.  This letter to Smith, written

Samuel Hollingsworth to Major General Samuel Smith, [Baltimore] Sept. 18, 1814.  AHMC-Hollingsworth

Samuel Hollingsworth to Major General Samuel Smith, [Baltimore] Sept. 18, 1814. AHMC-Hollingsworth

four days after the bombardment, about making the powder magazine at Fort McHenry “Bombproof,” comes across in our eyes as “closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.”  But the local Committee of Vigilance did indeed respond with building materials and carpenters and brick-layers for the task.  It is a reminder of how the citizens of Baltimore were still not certain of their fate, and how similar civilian committees in cities up and down the coast prepared for British attack.  The citizens of Baltimore had the distinction of being successful and remain proud of that fact.

New Amsterdam Becomes New York, and Peter Stuyvesant Gets Over It: It’s Been 350 Years

This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections

It was once an occasion worth marking—when, on September 8, 1664, the English took the city.  The bicentennial of the event was toasted with an elaborate New-York Historical Society dinner at the Cooper Institute, a welcome way to set aside the strains of the Civil War and President Lincoln’s reelection campaign. The founding date “1664” decorated the New York City seal for a good part of the 20th century.  The 300th anniversary was a proper occasion—or perhaps a good pretext—for the 1964 World’s Fair and conjointly began the Operation Sail tradition of tall ships sailing up the Hudson River.  But, somehow, it has been speculated, there won’t be much commemoration this week of the 350th anniversary of the day New Amsterdam became New York.

James, Duke of Yorke and Albany.  Engraving [1660-1685]. PR 052 Box Royalty-2

James, Duke of Yorke and Albany. Engraving [1660-1685]. PR 052 Box Royalty-2

In these last 50 years, historians have taken a more nuanced look at the Dutch colonial period, and they continue a sometimes spirited debate about how much of New York City’s character is derived from its Netherlandish or its English legacy.  In the 1970s, City Council President Paul O’Dwyer conducted an almost single-handed, and ultimately successful, crusade to change that date on the city seal backwards to 1625.

The 17th century scene for the takeover of New Netherland had been set by a Restoration England that was consolidating its imperial power while, in the Americas, English settlers and towns had begun to surround New Amsterdam.  For both trade and strategic reasons, New Amsterdam was a prize for the ambitious English and particularly for King Charles II’s brother, James, the Duke of York.  York (the future James II of England) was responsible for the operation that brought his four ships to Gravesend Bay under the command of Colonial Richard Nicolls in late August.  Although the invasion force was expected, Director-General Peter Stuyvesant’s small colony and its inadequate supplies in the fort were no match for it.   When presented with the ultimatum to surrender, the volatile Stuyvesant reacted with characteristic—but understandable—fury, tearing up the letter of intermediaries in the presence of a delegation of city burghers.   However, he found no civilian takers to put up resistance, especially as Nicolls’s terms seemed generous, guaranteeing freedom of religion to the Dutch inhabitants and honoring property and contracts.

Govr. Stuyvesant Destroying the Summons to Surrender N.Y. Form the original painting by [William Henry] Powell in the possession of the publishers. New York: Johnson, Fry & Co., 1866. PR 052

Many of the Dutch burghers didn’t mind the change as business could go on, in some cases, more freely than before.  The soldiers of the Dutch West India Company in the fort wanted to offer resistance because, as one female resident reasoned, “Those lousy dogs want to fight because they have nothing to lose, whereas we have our property here, which we should have to give up.”  Stuyvesant finally agreed to send commissioners and was given three days to decide,  during which the English showed force, landing 400 troops in Brooklyn to overtake the ferry, raising new companies of English soldiers from the surrounding areas, and sailing the frigates past the fort.  So, the matter was concluded with a certificate of consent from Stuyvesant and his council on September 8th, and the Dutch soldiers marched out to their ship while the English soldiers, according to a witness, “kept themselves out of their sight on the bouwery.”  Not a shot was fired.

[Articles of Capitulation] at the Governors Bowry, August 27th Old Stile 1664; as copied from city records in 1720.  The August 27th Old Style date converts to September 6th.  NYC Misc. MSS Box 1, Folder 4

[Articles of Capitulation] at the Governors Bowry, August 27th Old Stile 1664; as copied from city records in 1720. The August 27th Old Style date converts to September 6th. NYC Misc. MSS Box 1, Folder 4

 

After explaining himself to the Dutch West India Company in Amsterdam, Stuyvesant would return, living out his life on his plantation, or “Bouwerie,” as an ordinary citizen and chum of Governor Nicolls.  Buried there in 1672 on the site of what is now St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, he did not live to see the colony return briefly to Dutch rule in 1673.

This fluid time may be best marked by the attractive map, likely drawn in 1664 to present to the Duke, showing the English flag over what is now called Fort James and plenty of English warships, but nonetheless depicting New Amsterdam as it was in 1661.  The original manuscript rests in the British Library, where it was rediscovered by the New-York Historical Society’s Librarian, George H. Moore in 1858.  He dubbed it “The Duke’s Plan,” the way it is known by historians and map aficiondados today.

 

A Description of the Towne of Mannados: Or New Amsterdam as it was in September 1661 [“The Duke’s Plan”].  1664; manuscript facsimile drawn ca. 1858.   M31.2.23

A Description of the Towne of Mannados: Or New Amsterdam as it was in September 1661 [“The Duke’s Plan”]. 1664; manuscript facsimile drawn ca. 1858. M31.2.23

Richard Nicolls, the new governor, right away began dating his correspondence “N: Yorke.”  On September 16, when seven members of the sitting City Court wrote as “loyal, sorrowful and desolate subjects,” to the directors of the Dutch West India Company to explain what had transpired, they sent it from, “Jorck heretofore named Amsterdam in New Netherland.”   They relate what had happened, bitterly attributing it to their foreign directors’ “neglect and forgetfulness of your promise;” they enclose the Articles and conclude, “How that will result, time shall tell.”  It is an ongoing story that we at the Historical Society continue to tell.

In honor of Labor Day: a photographic tribute to New Yorkers at work

While historians still debate who first proposed a labor day holiday, there is no question as to where the first Labor Day celebration took place. Like most other important events, it happened right here in New York City.

Labor Day Parade, 1960.  John Albok Photograph Collection, PR 1, Box 2, Folder 20.

Labor Day Parade, 1960. John Albok Photograph Collection, PR 1, Box 2, Folder 20.

On September 5, 1882, a parade organized by the city’s Central Labor Union marched up Broadway, past a reviewing stand in Union Square, and continued along 5th Avenue to its termination point at Reservoir (now Bryant) Park.

 

"Candy Man," circa 1850.  Subject File, PR 68, Box 6, Folder: Occupations.

“Candy Man,” circa 1850. Subject File, PR 68, Box 6, Folder: Occupations.

The Central Labor Union was formed in November, 1881, to coordinate the activities of labor unions throughout the New York City area.  Its guiding principle was that “the emancipation of the working classes must be achieved by the working classes themselves as no other class has any interest in improving their conditions.”

Steel worker drilling beams.  Irving Browning Collection, PR 009, Box 3, Folder 23.

Steel worker drilling beams, circa 1930′s. Irving Browning Collection, PR 009, Box 3, Folder 23.

To this end, in 1882 the CLU adopted a resolution “that the 5th of September (Tuesday) be proclaimed a general holiday for the workingmen of this city and all workingmen be invited to be present.”

New York Navy Yard Ordnance Machine Shop, 1945.  WWII Photograph Collection, Box 2, Folder 52.

Production workers, New York Navy Yard Ordnance Machine Shop, 1945. WWII Photograph Collection, Box 2, Folder 52.

The parade was a great success, with an estimated turnout of between 20,0000 to 25,000. As the New York Sun reported the following day, “The windows and roofs and even the lamp posts and awning frames were occupied by persons anxious to get a good view of the first parade in New York of workingmen of all trades united in one organization.”

Demolishing Sixth Avenue elevated railway.  Irving Browning, PR 009, Box 2, Folder 20.

Construction workers demolishing Sixth Avenue elevated railway, circa 1939. Irving Browning, PR 009, Box 2, Folder 20.

Although not originally envisioned as an annual event, the enthusiasm generated by the first parade led the CLU to organize another parade on its anniversary date, September 5, 1883 (a Wednesday). In 1884, the CLU declared the first Monday in September to be an annual holiday in honor of wage workers.

Calculating women in the Department of Finance.  Subject File, PR 68, Box 10, Folder: Occupations.

Calculating women in the NYC Department of Finance, circa 1950′s. Subject File, PR 68, Box 10, Folder: Occupations.

In 1885, the New York State Legislature introduced a bill to make Labor Day an official holiday, but it wasn’t enacted until May 6, 1887 — several months after Oregon became the first state to actually pass a law (on February 21, 1887) making Labor Day a holiday.

Ticket-taker, Times Square, circa 1970.  Kenneth Siegel Photograph Collection, PR 298, Box 1, Folder 3.

Ticket-taker, Times Square, circa 1970. Kenneth Siegel Photograph Collection, PR 298, Box 1, Folder 3.

Other states soon followed suit, but it took almost another decade — and a tragic political crisis — to make Labor Day a national holiday.  In 1894, after federal troops were called in to end the Pullman Strike in Chicago, killing a number of strikers, Congress rushed to pass a bill designating the first Monday in September as Labor Day. Ironically, it was President Grover Cleveland — the man responsible for pitting the U.S. Army against the strikers — who, in a conciliatory gesture to labor, signed the bill into law.

blog labor martin3065

Restaurant worker, 1999. Edwin Martin Photograph Collection, PR 96, Box 1, Folder 6.

The real credit for Labor Day, though, should go to the working people it celebrates.  New York workers, past and present, we salute you!

“Lamenting the Disgrace of the City”: The 1814 Burning of Washington, D.C.

This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.

A representation of the capture of the City of Washington by the British Forces under the command of Major Genl  Ross and Rear Adml Sr Cockburn, August 24th1814.Publish’d by I. Ryland 83 Cannon Street.  PR 68 WARS

A representation of the capture of the City of Washington by the British Forces under the command of Major Genl Ross and Rear Adml Sr Cockburn, August 24th1814.Publish’d by I. Ryland 83 Cannon Street. PR 68 WARS

“Our preparation for defence by some means or other, is constantly retarded but the small force the British have on the Bay will never venture nearer than at present 23 miles,” First Lady Dolley Madison wrote to her friend in her letter of July 1814.

Dolley Payne Madison.  Engraving from the original painting by William Chappell; Johnson & Wilson, New York.  PR 052

Dolley Payne Madison. Engraving from the original painting by William Chappell; Johnson & Wilson, New York. PR 052

It sounded like the worst case of wishful thinking as, within a month, the invading British force was burning the President’s home and the other public buildings in the nation’s capital.

Mrs. Madison was far from being naïve, but world events of 200 years ago would alter her calculation.  With Napoleon’s defeats in Europe, the British could redirect the mass of their army toward putting a definitive end to the War of 1812, now well into its third year, on the North American continent.    Burning the enemy’s capital city seemed a sure way to do it.  Dolley was prepared for the event, and disdainful of her fellow residents of Washington, D.C., as she confided to her close friend Hannah Gallatin, wife of longtime Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin:

Dolley Payne Madison to Hannah Gallatin, July 28, [18]14; Gallatin Papers, #113

Dolley Payne Madison to Hannah Gallatin, July 28, [18]14; Gallatin Papers, #113

“Among other exclamations & threats, they say if Mr. M[adison] attempts to move from this house, in case of an attack, they will stop him & that he shall fall with it.  I am not the least alarmed at these things, but entirely disgusted & determined to stay with him.”

 Even after the events of 9/11, it is hard to imagine an invading force marching into our capital.  Almost as difficult, is visualizing the President of the United States, accompanied only by a servant and his Attorney General, riding headlong toward the field of battle to serve as Commander-in-Chief, and the diminutive James Madison, with no military experience, would seem to fit this bill even less.  In the hands of this British caricaturist, however, “President Maddy” is running away with the state papers along with his vain plans for carrying on the war.

The Fall of Washington—or Maddy in full flight. Pubd Oct. 4th 1814 by S.W. Force, no. 50 Piccadilly. Caricatures PR 010 1814-1819

The Fall of Washington—or Maddy in full flight. Pubd Oct. 4th 1814 by S.W. Force, no. 50 Piccadilly. Caricatures PR 010 1814-1819

In actuality, Madison left his wife with instructions for packing important papers in trunks, while he rode toward the advancing British.  With the shortage of available wagons, Dolley sacrificed the couple’s personal property to save items of silver, china, some books, and a small clock that belonged to the house already being dubbed “the White House.”  Dolley Madison’s calm actions on August 24, 1814 are most accurately described for us by 15-year old Paul Jennings, the President’s enslaved valet.  Her last gestures were to grab her beloved red drapes and to firmly instruct Irish gardener Tom Magraw, French chef Jean-Pierre Sioussat, and two helpful New Yorker neighbors, Jacob Barker and Robert G.L. DePeyster, to avoid letting the full-length portrait of George Washington fall into British hands.  Also saved was her pet macaw.

The Americans on the ground acknowledged that the British targeted public buildings and war materials and left most private property alone.  The practice was nonetheless shocking in known warfare of the time, and the remaining residents found themselves pleading with British officers and unsure of their intentions.  One who did this repeatedly was Mary Stockton Hunter, the wife of a chaplain at the Washington naval yard, who then had to endure British Admiral George Cockburn’s version of gallantry as he assured her, “he admired the American Ladies—they made excellent wives and good mothers.”   Much of what we know of the civilian experience in Washington comes from this letter of Mrs. Hunter  to her sister, as she describes the disgrace of the American militia retreating from Bladensburg, Maryland, “We saw our men running in great numbers in a disorderly manner.  And in the evening, perhaps at sunsetting, I will leave you to conjecture what our feelings must have been when we saw the British flag flying on Capitol-Hill, and the rockets brandished for the destruction of our Capitol and for what other property we knew not.”

Capture of the City of Washington. Published by J. & J. Gundee. Albion Press, London 1815. PR 68 WARS

Capture of the City of Washington. Published by J. & J. Gundee. Albion Press, London 1815. PR 68 WARS

The Capitol, not completed, but containing grand interiors and quarters for the House, Senate, Supreme Court, and Library of Congress was subsequently set to flame.  The Library’s 3,000 books helped fuel the fire.

 

A few remaining Americans were at last compelled to set fire to the naval yard and its newly built vessels to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.  “You never saw a drawing room so brilliantly lighted as the whole city was that night.  Few thought of going to bed—they spent the night in gazing on the fires, and lamenting the disgrace of the city,” Mary Hunter explained.  The “meridian brightness” obviated the need for candles or lanterns as the British went about their nighttime business of setting flame to the Treasury and War Departments, along with the “President’s Palace;” special pleading spared the Patent Office.  The next morning, August 25, Admiral Cockburn boasted to Mrs. Hunter that he could not resist targeting one non-military structure, the newspaper office of the resolutely anti-British National Intelligencer, where the presses and books were destroyed and the types “scattered.”

Mary Stockton Hunter to Susan Stockton Cuthbert,  Aug.  30th, 1814, p. 1; AHMC –Hunter Family.  The correspondents came from a distinguished line of Revolutionary patriots yet the letter shows little animus toward the British.

Mary Stockton Hunter to Susan Stockton Cuthbert, Aug. 30th, 1814, p. 1; AHMC –Hunter Family. The correspondents came from a distinguished line of Revolutionary patriots yet the letter shows little animus toward the British.

 

Mary Stockton Hunter to Susan Stockton Cuthbert,  Aug.  30th, 1814, p. 4; AHMC –Hunter Family.

Mary Stockton Hunter to Susan Stockton Cuthbert, Aug. 30th, 1814, p. 4; AHMC –Hunter Family.

Then, and as if from an angry Deity, “a most alarming storm of wind and rain,” one of the worst to ever hit the city, descended upon Capitol Hill, tearing roofs from houses, lifting cannon from their base, and killing 30 British soldiers.  Having taken additional casualties and feeling their work was done, the British columns retreated silently, passing horrible scenes of corpses exposed to heat, fire, rain, and wind.  After some tribulation, Dolley and James Madison would finally locate each other in Virginia, and they moved into alternate housing in the District within days.  Congress, Madison insisted, should remain in the city and meet in the spared Patent Office.  Eventually, resolution and rebuilding replaced defeat and dissent, and the surreal experience faded from memory as Washington, D.C. came to resemble what we know today.

Love and Other Dishes: Harvey Rosen’s El Borracho

This blog post was written by Megan Dolan, intern in the Archives Department at N-YHS

Rosen Collection PR 308 Box1/Folder 10, El Borracho promotional postcard

Rosen Collection PR 308 Box1/Folder 10, El Borracho promotional postcard

Throughout the 1920’s, prohibition-induced underground speakeasy clubs were major social destinations for dining, drinking, dancing, and listening to live music, generally jazz.  But with the end of the prohibition era, the speakeasy gave way to a new type of establishment: the supper club.  Although speakeasies had similar components, supper clubs were far more elaborate. They were generally grand Art Deco establishments serving as both restaurant and night club — a ‘destination’ where people could spend their entire evening, from cocktail hour to dinner to nightclub-style entertainment, with patrons expected to remain after dining for dancing, music, and other night club entertainment.

The 1930s and 1940s are considered the golden age of supper clubs, with high society frequenting famous establishments such as the Rainbow Room, Copacabana, and El Morocco. One of the more colorful supper clubs dating to that era was “El Borracho” (i.e., The Drunkard), at 51 East 53rd Street.  Founded in 1944, the club was conceived at the outset to be a polished, up-market venue aimed at socialites and celebrities. But “El Borracho” achieved its greatest notoriety after Harvey “the Fire Chief” Rosen took over management in 1956.

Rosen Collection PR 308 Box 1/Folder 10, El Borracho promotional postcard

Rosen Collection PR 308 Box 1/Folder 10, El Borracho promotional postcard

Rosen Collection PR 308 Box 1/Folder 10, El Borracho promotional postcard

Rosen Collection PR 308 Box 1/Folder 10, El Borracho promotional postcard

 

Rosen’s “El Borracho” was characterized by a number of stylish quirks, such as mynah birds over the bar and a menu that included a ‘Siamese’ fish with a head at both ends, jokingly priced at $4,127.82. It was best known, though, for more seductive features, such as the ‘Romance Room’ where various mantras regarding love and the words “I love you” (translated into twenty-three different languages) were hanging on the wall. There was also a ‘Kiss Room’ containing thousands of signed lipstick-kissed index cards by various women that were hung all around the room. Female patrons were encouraged to add to this collection. El Borracho thrived throughout the late 1950s and closed in 1962.

Rosen Collection PR 308 Box 1/Folder 7 'The Art of Selecting a Mistress', article in 'Monsieur Magazine'

Rosen Collection PR 308 Box 1/Folder 7 ‘The Art of Selecting a Mistress’, article in ‘Monsieur Magazine’

N-YHS recently acquired an eclectic collection of materials relating to Harvey Rosen and El Borracho, including business cards, postcards, lip decals, “kiss” related quotations, and other racy ephemera that might seem more suitable for a Mad Men set than a historical society (in particular, the article on “The Art of Selecting a Mistress” seems tailor-made for Don Draper).  Also included are a few magazine and newspaper articles relating to an incident (probably staged by the flamboyant Rosen) where two “blondes” disrobed after entering El Borracho.  While not your standard scholarly fare, the Harvey Rosen and El Borracho Collection provides valuable insights into the supper club scene in New York as well as the decidedly un-feminist perception of women that characterized this era.

Rosen Collection PR 308 Box 1/Folder 10, El Borracho Promotional Stationary

Rosen Collection PR 308 Box 1/Folder 10, El Borracho Promotional Stationary

These un-feminist attitudes towards women are defined perfectly in this piece of promotional stationary by El Borracho. Let us hope that ‘thin lipped’ 21st century women are not seen to ‘lack feeling’ and be ‘content to remain spinsters’!

 

Damn the torpedoes! The Battle of Mobile Bay

This post was written by Alice Browne, Ebsco Project cataloger.

The Battle of Mobile Bay, fought on August 5, 1864, led to Union control of one of the last significant Gulf ports remaining in Confederate hands. The New-York Historical Society holds letters and papers from several participants in the battle. It was widely anticipated, and widely reported as a major victory. Two actions of the admiral commanding the Union fleet, David Farragut, had a long afterlife in popular memory. One was the words of his command to lead his fleet through the mined waters which were the only way ahead, even after a mine (or torpedo, in the language of the day) had sunk the ironclad Tecumseh: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead … ” His congratulatory order to his troops of August 6 fully acknowledges their courage in following this command; Ensign D.W. Mullan, serving on the Monongahela, transcribed the order in his usually laconic diary. (Ensign D.W. Mullan collection, 1861-1862, 1864-1865. NHSC – Mullan)

Currier & Ives, "The Great Naval Victory in Mobile Bay, Aug 5th, 1864.  PR 100, Maritime History File.

Currier & Ives, “The Great Naval Victory in Mobile Bay, Aug 5th, 1864. PR 100, Maritime History File.

As an obviously important battle, Mobile Bay was anxiously anticipated and widely reported, with details emerging gradually. Sarah Coan, sister of Titus Munson Coan, a Union naval surgeon at Mobile Bay, wrote to him from Albion, N.Y. on August 10: “Dear Munson, somehow I do not like to write to you today, for the attack on Mobile has commenced, and perhaps I am writing to no one. But if you are alive and well, you must have letters. I am going down street this morning to get papers and see what news there is. ” (T.M. Coan papers, box 4, folder 12, item 19. Titus Munson Coan papers)  Coan survived, and sent his family hand drawn maps of Mobile Bay.

Admiral Farragut.  PR 52, Portrait File.

Admiral Farragut. PR 52, Portrait File.

Farragut’s other memorable  action was his decision for part of the battle to command from high on the mainmast of his flagship, tied to the rigging. This dramatic detail of the battle generated numerous reports and visual representations, and was disputed for many years.  A Union participant in the battle, Alexander McKinley, wrote to his niece Martha on August 29: “We have received the New York and Philadelphia papers up to the 17th inst. & most ludicrous and absurd accounts do they give of our great naval fight of the the 5th. Study my report and you will get at the truth. The Admiral was in the main rigging but not lashed there.” (Alexander McKinley letters, 1862-1864.  AHMC – McKinley, Alexander)

McKinley’s confidence in his report was misplaced. The dispute about whether Farragut was lashed to the rigging was only settled years later, by the testimony of eyewitnesses, including Quartermaster John H. Knowles, who helped to tie him.  (Chester G. Hearn, Admiral David Glasgow Farragut. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1998, p. 26-262) A letter from the admiral’s widow, Virginia Loyall Farragut, to Gustavus Vasa Fox, who was Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the Civil War, discusses the question and adds a comment of her own: “The late discussion as to whether he was lashed to the port main rigging until the fleet got in the bay, or not, has been silenced by Page’s letter and also by the testimony of J. Crittenden Watson who assisted in tying him. Lieut. Marthon also testified to the fact. I can also testify that the [sic] often told me of it with the interesting addition that perhaps he never told to any one but myself and it is that he was glad to find himself so securely fastened in an elevated position as he felt then if ‘I am wounded fatally I may with my dying breath give an order that may lead to victory.’ During the discussion on the subject I felt greatly tempted to give my knowledge to the public but I have such a dread of making myself conspicuous I forbore, it has often been very oppressive to me to be silent when I perceive false impressions have been made about my husband.”  (Virginia Farragut letter to Gustavus Vasa Fox, in Gustavus Vasa Fox collection, box 13, folder 11, item 31. NHSC – Fox. The letter is dated April 23, with no year; probably 1882, as John Crittenden Watson’s article appeared in Scribner’s Monthly in Jun 1881.)

Virginia Farragut’s reticence, and McKinley’s false confidence, are good reminders of the complexity of the historical record. Witnesses often speak confidently from ignorance, and people who know about an event may have many reasons for remaining silent.

 

 

Digitization 101

This post was written by library intern Jacob Laurenti

The digitization of collections is a controversial issue at museums and libraries.  It can be both expensive and time-consuming, and some argue that the quality and detail of artwork is lost in the digitization process.  But there are also obvious benefits to scanning photographs, manuscripts and other parts of a collection and making them available on the web.  It allows for widespread access to these items, increased exposure to museum and library collections, and can help preserve fragile materials.  In some cases, digitization gives an institution a chance to rediscover collections that haven’t been looked at in many years.

Enter the Herman A. Blumenthal Collection: one consisting primarily of glass and film negatives ranging from 1914-1939.  Blumenthal, a noted art director and production designer for the 20th Century Fox film studio in Beverly Hills, California, donated the collection to the museum in 1968.  It is currently being digitized through a grant-funded project.

The first step in digitizing a collection like this is to create an inventory.  This required me to go through each image of the collection, mainly using a light box to determine the subjects of the negatives, as well as to get a more accurate count of how many there were.  This is an important step because, as I soon realized, the estimates of the number of images in a larger collection aren’t always correct.

The collection seemed to be organized well.  The images were stored in a total of 139 boxes, which were numbered sequentially.  However, while some boxes had labels for the images, others had no description or date recorded.  Each box consisted of different types of images, which made this both a tedious and interesting process.

Box 13 PR119 Herman A. Blumenthal Collection

Box 13
PR119 Herman A. Blumenthal Collection

One obstacle along the way was the sheer number of images.  After creating an excel spreadsheet for the collection, I determined there were 1628 glass negatives, 414 film negatives, and 321 photographic print.  This was significantly above the original estimate of 1300 glass negatives.  In this way, digitization can help institutions more accurately determine what they have.  This also brought up an important preservation concern.  After discovering that many of the film negatives were nitrate (which can pose a risk of fire as it deteriorates), I needed to separate them from their original boxes and re-house them for cold storage.

Despite these hurdles, going through the collection was a great experience.   Each box told a different story and took me on a journey around New York, across the United States, and into both Canada and Mexico.

One specifically fun subject that comes up in a few of the boxes is subway construction around New York City, dating back as early as 1915.  I coincidentally came across these boxes not long after reading Christopher Gray’s column on Subway construction earlier this month.  As Gray mentions, there are many images of subway construction at the New-York Historical Society, as well as at the New York Transit Museum, but most of them are not yet available online.

 

Subway Construction, Steam Shovel at Christopher and Fourth Sts. (undated) PR119 Herman A. Blumenthal Collection

Subway Construction, Steam Shovel at Christopher and Fourth Sts. (undated)
PR119 Herman A. Blumenthal Collection

Another theme of the collection is World War I.  Various boxes include images of World War I parades and rallies, as well as of noted soldiers and officers.  This was also of particular interest to me, as I recently helped create metadata for a different collection of World War I letters (written and illustrated by Salvator Cillis).  These letters can now be viewed online and tell the story of one soldier’s experience through military training and fighting in France.  Although the letters are beautifully illustrated, it was exciting to also see photographs from the same time period.

 

Admiral Sir David Beatty shaking hands with Marshal Ferdinand Foch in front of crowd (undated) PR119 Herman A. Blumenthal Collection

Admiral Sir David Beatty shaking hands with Marshal Ferdinand Foch in front of crowd (undated)
PR119 Herman A. Blumenthal Collection

The collection also includes images of famous buildings and monuments, the 1921 World Series and Italian Day at C.C.N.Y. Stadium.

 

1921 World Series PR119 Herman A. Blumenthal Collection

1921 World Series
PR119 Herman A. Blumenthal Collection

Young America and Young Italy, Italian Day - C.C. N.Y. Stadium - 6/23/17 PR119 Herman A. Blumenthal Collection

Young America and Young Italy, Italian Day – C.C. N.Y. Stadium – 6/23/17
PR119 Herman A. Blumenthal Collection

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If an image wasn’t labeled, it was fun to research to identify the building or city it showed.  One example is the image below of the Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal, Montreal, while it was still being constructed:

 

Mount Royal, Montreal (undated) PR119 Herman A. Blumenthal Collection

Mount Royal, Montreal (undated)
PR119 Herman A. Blumenthal Collection

Mixed in with many of these historic images are boxes consisting of portraits and photographs of family vacations.  In these cases it is much harder to determine exactly who is in the image.  In many instances, though, they are just as interesting as seeing historic monuments.

 

Man throwing dog into water (undated) PR119 Herman A. Blumenthal collection

Man throwing dog into water (undated)
PR119 Herman A. Blumenthal collection

After separating each material type, I now had a better understanding of the collection, both in number and scope.  The images needed to be prepared for scanning, which required determining a proper number system for each image and adjusting the original spreadsheet to reflect that.  I worked with scanning technicians Danny Velardo and Leeroy Kang, who helped me with this process and showed me how to scan the glass negatives.

The fragility of these items makes it a priority to digitize them as a means of preservation. Even more importantly, though, after years of being accessible to only a few researchers, these images are currently in the process of getting scanned and will soon be available for everyone to view online.

 

Street Trades: The Photography of Marcus Reidenberg

“The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.”

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Street performers.

Street performers.

From poet Walt Whitman to activist Jane Jacobs to fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, New Yorkers have celebrated their streets as a place to meet, gather, gawk, eat, occupy, walk, play, dress, bicycle, perform, sleep, and just about every other activity under the sun.

Doorman

Doorman

Except work.  As Dr. Marcus Reidenberg noticed a few years back, the streets of New York are filled with workers — selling food and newspapers, constructing buildings, repairing potholes, delivering packages, and cleaning up after the rest of us –  yet often, “in their ubiquity,” these workers are simply ignored. Dr. Reidenberg, a  professor of Pharmacology, Medicine, and Public Health at Weil Cornell Medical College, and an accomplished amateur photographer, set out to remedy this oversight with a series of photographic portraits.

Reidenberg drew inspiration from two early photographers:  the Frenchman Eugene Atget, who photographed working people in the streets of Paris over a century ago, and British photographer John Thomson, whose images of flower sellers, chimney-sweeps, shoe blacks, musicians, peddlers, and other London street workers were published in the 1876 book Victorian London Street Life.  “The trades may be different from those of the 19th century,” Dr. Reidenberg notes, but they do “still exist.”  Indeed, his pictures of construction workers, cab drivers, trash collectors, police officers, street sweepers, newspaper hawkers, delivery people, and food vendors reveal a surprising continuity in street professions over the past 150 years.

Street vendor

Street vendor

Delivery man

UPS Worker

Sandwich board holder

Billboard holder, 5th Avenue

Like his predecessors, Reidenberg sought to capture the dignity of people “working at what they can do.”  He was also struck by the creative ways street workers found to express themselves — in particular,  with the hard hats of construction workers.  Intrigued by the variety of stickers and slogans  the workers affixed to their hats, Reidenberg embarked on a new project focused solely on this personalized and highly individual head gear.  These images, featured in the New York Times,  “communicate the voice of the American worker in stickers.”

Currently 80 years old and still a worker himself — both indoors as a physician and on the street as a photographer — Dr. Reidenberg has generously donated a number of his images to the New-York Historical Society, along with his two privately printed publications, Street Trades, Then and Now and Hard Hats.  “They have earned our notice,” he says of his subjects; we hope his images will bring New York’s street workers the attention they deserve.

“I wish to be honorable & right in my dealings all round” — Letters from Louisa May Alcott to James Redpath

This post was written by Miranda Schwartz, cataloging technician.

Louisa May Alcott in an undated photo.

Louisa May Alcott in an undated photo. PR52, Portrait File.

The New-York Historical Society Library has a collection of eighteen letters by Louisa May Alcott, best known as the author of the 1868 novel Little Women, a classic of American children’s literature. The Alcott letters are in the American Historical Manuscripts Collection, a trove of 12,000 small manuscript collections covering hundreds of years of American history.

Alcott, the second oldest of four sisters, grew up in Concord, Massachusetts. Her father, reformer and writer Bronson Alcott, was friends with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, but his inability to earn a living meant that the family continually struggled for money. Louisa May Alcott did whatever work a young woman could do to earn money: sewing, teaching, working as a companion. But it was when she turned her hand to writing that Alcott was able to support her family and realize her own creativity. Her first poem was published in 1851; her first story in 1852. She originally published stories under the pseudonym of Flora Fairfield; later she published her “blood & thunder tales” under the name A.M. Barnard. (These Barnard stories are markedly different from Little Women and the later work: Their conniving heroines scheme and plot—a far cry from the domesticity of the March sisters.)

An edition of Alcott's stories published by Redpath, 1864.

“On Picket Duty,” an edition of Alcott’s stories published by Redpath, 1864.

Seventeen of the Library’s eighteen letters are to James Redpath, an abolitionist associate of her father who published some of her work. (The eighteenth letter is to writer/editor Mary Mapes Dodge.) Only one of the letters is dated but they were probably written from 1863 to 1864. They all treat the arcana of book publishing: contracts, copyright, binding, illustrations, etc. Though Alcott deprecates herself in terms of publishing knowledge (“Being lamentably stupid about business of all sorts I’m very much afraid I’m not very clear about the contract”; “I did not mention copyrights because I did not know anything about them”), it is clear that she is more knowledgeable than she cares to let on, having already been published in The Atlantic Monthly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

In these letters to Redpath she is quite decided on her own ideas and market appeal; she peppers her writing with references to publishers Frank Leslie and William Ticknor of Boston’s Ticknor & Fields. She makes a point of telling Redpath about a female illustrator whom she wants to illustrate some fairy tales. She is concerned about the binding of Hospital Sketches, a thinly fictionalized narrative of her brief experience as a nurse in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War: “Having a maternal interest in the clothes my offspring wear & the impression they make I mention these things though I dare say you knew them already.”

Letter from Louisa May Alcott to James Redpath, undated. AHMC - Alcott, Louisa May

Letter from Louisa May Alcott to James Redpath, undated. AHMC – Alcott, Louisa May, MS 2958.84.

Is her attitude in these letters to her publisher that of a woman careful of not seeming too masculine, too informed? (Alcott, like Little Women’s Jo March, had been a notorious tomboy.) Is it part of a deliberate strategy to assure a male business colleague of his superior knowledge? I believe the answer is yes.

But Alcott’s demurely calculated strategy still gives her room for a refreshing bluntness with Redpath: “I’ll try not to be ‘spoilt,’ I think ten or fifteen years of snubbing rather good training for an ambitious body but people mustn’t talk about ‘genius’ for I drove that idea away years ago & don’t want it back again. The inspiration of necessity is all I’ve had, & it is a safer help than any other.”

An early allusion to "Little Women."

An early allusion to “Little Women.” Undated letter, AHMC – Alcott, Louisa May, MS 2958.84.

Alcott did not publish Little Women with Redpath; in the end she felt he was more interested in dividing their shared publishing proceeds among charities than he was in supporting his author. In a foreshadowing of the break in their relationship, she expressly tells him that she devotes “time and earnings to the care of my father & mother, for one possesses no gift for money making & the other is now too old to work any longer…. On this account I often have to deny myself the little I could do for other charities, & seem ungenerous that I may be just.”

There is an early allusion to Little Women in one of the Library’s letters: “Some one said one paper wished I’d write a novel, that is all I know, & I think I’ll gratify them.”

Readers can indeed be gratified that Alcott wrote that novel, as the result of her insightful fictionalizing of her own upbringing gave us a classic American work. We can also be gratified that these letters have survived to show us the keen business side of Louisa May Alcott.

The cataloging of the American Historical Manuscript Collection is being funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ken Regan’s Celebrity Portraiture: Paul Mazursky Comes Home

This post was written by N-YHS intern Brynn White

Paul Mazursky, (1978, Ken Regan)

PR 305, Michael Sonnenfeldt Collection of Theatre, Film, and Entertainment Photography

Numerous tributes to actor and filmmaker Paul Mazursky have unspooled since his passing on Tuesday, July 1. In films such as Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969) and An Unmarried Woman (1978),  the Brooklyn native investigated middle class values, hypocrisy, and personal growth during a time in American culture marked by great flux and experimentation, emerging a quintessential component of the New Hollywood cinema of the late 1960s and 1970s.  The Ken Regan and Camera 5 series of the recently acquired and processed Michael Sonnenfeldt Collection of Theatre, Film, and Entertainment Photography features a photo shoot that captures the filmmaker amidst a defining creative period in both his career and his relationship to New York City.

Paul Mazursky (1978, Ken Regan)

PR 305, Michael Sonnenfeldt Collection of Theatre, Film, and Entertainment Photography

In the spring of 1976 Mazursky spoke with critic Roger Ebert while promoting his film Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), which follows a young man’s odyssey from his Jewish working-class outer borough upbringing into the early 1950s beatnik bohemia of the titular neighborhood. The narrative journey evoked the directors’ own early adulthood experiences between his graduation from Brooklyn College and pilgrimage to Hollywood. To Ebert he expressed indecisiveness over shooting his next picture in New York, remarking “There’s a lot of energy there, but, on the other hand, it’s a hell of a place to try and raise a family…I haven’t decided. California is an island, and New York’s an island. Maybe it’s time for me to change islands.”

Mazursky finished the script for An Unmarried Woman – the film many (including this writer) regard as his masterpiece – several months later, then spent nearly half a year in New York City scouting locations for his tale of the downtown liberation of an uptown stockbroker’s wife scorned. The city had reinfected Mazursky, who revealed in a 1978 interview with Film Comment magazine that the film was built on the ordinary, everyday thoughts and sensations of being a contemporary New Yorker, as mundane as: “Are they going to put up this highway on the West Side? Is Tom Seaver going to be traded? Is there going to be a street fair? Is it going to rain?” Unable to resist New York’s “vitality” and “energy,” Mazursky changed islands.

Paul Mazursky (1978, Ken Regan)

PR 305, Michael Sonnenfeldt Collection of Theatre, Film, and Entertainment Photography

The filmmaker met Ken Regan’s lens in April 1978, a month after the film’s release, and already seems to have made himself at home.  He is fittingly positioned affront the Washington Square Park Arch, the commanding byway between the Village and higher-rising luxury of Fifth Avenue, and also the site of a climactic decision by the film’s feminist heroine played by Jill Clayburgh. Though adultery and divorce were issues handled with great nuance in Woman and his other work, Mazursky himself enjoyed a stable marriage of 61 years to Betsy Purdy. The romance had bloomed from the Greenwich Village days and produced two daughters. They feature, along with the family terrier and their new Manhattan apartment, in the Regan photos, which portray a sense of warm affection and peace, not to mention indicate the city might not be so hostile a place to raise a family after all.

Paul Mazursky (1978, Ken Regan)

PR 305, Michael Sonnenfeldt Collection of Theatre, Film, and Entertainment Photography

Regan was a prominent photojournalist of sports, politics, and pop culture. His renowned discretion and unobtrusive presence garnered him intimate access to camera-weary celebrities, and tenures as photographer to The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and The Kennedy family. Regan’s natural candid shots sharply contrast to the Classic Hollywood series of the Sonnenfeldt collection, in which the studios rigorously controlled their stars’ images and publicity output. He was aptly paired with Mazursky, who probed his characters’ plights and idiosyncrasies with an openness and generosity that proved rare and affecting for mainstream Hollywood entertainment.  Both artists respected their subjects and their audiences.

Researchers can view more of Regan’s portraiture, including many other pop culture icons and on-set film production photography from the late 20th-century in the Michael Sonnenfeldt Collection of Theatre, Film, and Entertainment Photography.

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This is a blog created by staff members in the library to draw attention to the richness and diversity of our collections.

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