Have you ever read a description of some idyllic, sun-soaked historical moment and wondered how a historian could have assembled such an image? Sometimes it’s pure fabrication, but if a researcher “does it by the book” there actually are sources for such details, even before official meteorological records were kept.
According to the Encyclopedia of New York, merchant William Laight and his son Henry were the first to maintain an extended record of New York weather, beginning in 1788. The Society has the weather diaries of Henry, covering 1795-1803 and 1816-1822, noting the temperature, wind, precipitation and/or clouds, lunar phase and a brief entry about the day’s events. Similar data were recorded by a variety of people, including farmers, seamen, and military officers, and for any number of reasons, as shown by the “Thermometrical Observations” kept by George B. Hodgsden, secretary for the Knickerbocker Fire Insurance Co. In that diary is recorded the coldest month on record, January 1857, and the coldest daytime temperature on January 10, 1859, during which the mercury remained below zero the entire day.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, numerous organizations were keeping records, among them was Dr. Daniel Draper, who organized the New York Meteorological Observatory in 1869. Although Central Park’s meteorological observations have long been associated with Belvedere Castle, the NYMO first headquartered at the Arsenal.
An interesting side story is an 1825 New York State law requiring academies accredited by the Regents of the University of the State of New York to report meteorological observations to the Regents. Those data were subsequently compiled and made publicly available through publication, such as in the volume shown below. The practice is also demonstrated by neatly-kept volumes that appear in the records of Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School.