To kick off Black History Month, here is a cabinet card that has fascinated me ever since I stumbled across it in our Portrait File.
Titled “Little Ethiopians,” it’s a composite of 21 portraits of African-American babies. The cabinet card was issued by Smith’s Studio of Photography in Chicago, Illinois, and bears an 1881 copyright date. I initially thought that the photographer, Joshua Smith, might have been an African-American, but further investigation proved this guess wrong.
In fact, Joshua Smith was a prominent Chicago photographer who apparently achieved his greatest fame as a photographer of white babies. In 1878, Smith submitted a large composite photograph of (white) babies to the Paris Exposition— a “sheet 21 x 16 1/2 inches covered over with portraits of babies and very young children,” according to the British Journal of Photography (Volume 25, 1878). The article goes on to give a glowing review of Smith’s entry:
“There are nearly one hundred of these juveniles’ portraits arranged and vignetted in such a way as to merge one into the other, thus producing a very excellent effect. There are all the most unaccountable positions that babies alone can take, and that we cannot imagine, as well as the hundred-and-one facial expressions so varied and so dear to all doting mothers. This picture is labeled, in quaint American phraseology— ‘We came all the way from Chicago.’ The printing is firm, the whites pure (as in all good American printing) and although evidently the most rapid exposures have been given, the half-tones and modeling are perfect, while the shadows are in due keeping.”
The Exhibition judges were also impressed: Smith won one of three silver medals awarded to United States competitors (the gold medal for American photography went to New Yorker Napolean Saroney).
Smith, a savvy businessmen, capitalized on his success by issuing a condensed version of his award-winning baby montage on a pair of cabinet cards. One, titled “Good Morning,” shows a gallery of 36 smiling and happy (white) babies, and the other, titled “Good Night,” features 40 unhappy crying (white) babies. Unfortunately, N-YHS does not hold either of these cards, but images available online show that both are copyrighted 1880, a year before the “Little Ethiopians” cabinet card. So it seems the latter is simply an African-Americanized version of a formula that had proven highly successful for Smith. The only variations, aside from ethnicity, are that the “Little Ethiopians” cabinet cards combines both happy and crying babies in a single montage, and also includes one older child playing a horn (especially intriguing considering the card was issued 20 years before Louis Armstrong was born!).
All of this is interesting, but it still leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Smith’s composites of white babies were presumably composed of individual portraits, commissioned and purchased by doting middle and upper class parents. But who were the black babies in the “Little Ethiopians” card? who brought them in to be photographed? and who was the target market for this cabinet card? Was there a large-enough emerging black middle-class to make studio portraits of and for African Americans a commercially profitable business? White studios apparently found it commercially profitable to produce images of well-known black personalities (for example, Sojourner Truth) as well as, regretfully, negative and satirical images of African’Americans, and many examples of both can be found in the photograph collections at N-YHS. But N-YHS holds very few studio portraits of African Americans of any age.
Certainly, all three of Smith’s composite images were intended for a mass market. The back of each card serves as a highly effective advertisement for his studio, displaying an image of the medal won in Paris, the studio’s address, and the slogan “Children’s Photos par excellence.” And to reach the widest possible audience, Smith licensed the production and sale of all three cards to E. and H.T. Anthony, the dominant retailer and manufacturer of photographic images in 19th century America with a huge marketing and distribution network. But how images of African-Americans fit into this network is a puzzle that still needs to be unlocked.
This post was written by cataloger Miranda Schwartz.
Satirical takedowns and witty bon mots weren’t invented by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Our 19th-century forebears knew a thing or two about the influential effect of a little well-aimed satire, as evidenced by an 1871 broadside that the New-York Historical Society Library has in its collections.
The Library’s broadside is a copy of a famous speech given by J. Proctor Knott, a Democratic congressman from Kentucky who was later governor of Kentucky. His speech on January 27, 1871, instantly brought him national attention and was heralded as the epitome of wit. There are varying stories about Knott’s speech and if it was totally extemporaneous, as some claim, or if it was indeed ghostwritten, as others assert.
An excellent article by Dr. Philip D. Jordan in the Summer 1954 edition of Minnesota History gives a thorough introduction to the events leading up to Knott’s speech. Knott obviously knew of previous land grants to railroads in the Northwest but at this time he wanted to oppose authorizing a land grant from Hudson to Superior (both cities in Wisconsin) to the St. Croix and Lake Superior Railroad, because of increasing public dissatisfaction with the grant of public lands to the railroad companies. As Dr. Jordan puts it: “For some reason, which never has been satisfactorily explained, Knott was under the impression—or pretended to be under the impression—that the terminus of the road was to be Duluth.”
Out of Knott’s desire to quash the railroad land grant was born a hilarious Congressional speech. (Though there is only space here for excerpts, the speech is definitely worth reading in full.)
Knott opens with: “Years ago, when I first heard that there was somewhere in the vast terra incognita, somewhere in the bleak regions of the great Northwest, a stream of water known to the nomadic inhabitants of the neighborhood as the river St. Croix, I became satisfied that the construction of a railroad from that raging torrent to some point in the civilized world was essential to the happiness and prosperity of the American people.” And it only gets better: “…I was utterly at a loss to determine where the terminus of this great and indispensable road should be, until I accidentally overheard some gentleman the other day mention the name of ‘Duluth.’ Duluth! The word fell upon my ear with peculiar and indescribable charm, like the gentle murmur of a low fountain stealing forth in the midst of roses…. ’Twas the name for which my soul had panted for years…”
Knott goes on in this vein for hundreds of words, finally summing up by saying “it grieves my very soul to be compelled to say that I cannot vote for the grant of lands provided for in this bill…these lands, which I am asked to give away, alas, are not mine to bestow! My relation to them is simply that of trustee to an express trust.” He works himself up into a final fever pitch: “And shall I ever betray that trust? Never, sir! Rather perish Duluth! Perish the paragon of cities! Rather let the freezing cyclones of the black Northwest bury it forever beneath the eddying sands of the raging St. Croix!”
The Congressional record clearly states that Knott was interrupted numerous times during his speech by “laughter” and “great laughter.” On February 1, 1871, the St. Croix and Lake Superior Railroad land grant bill was defeated, likely because of Knott’s speech. The Hudson to Superior line was never built.
The residents of Duluth took the speech quite well. At the time of Knott’s mockery Duluth was, per Dr. Jordan, “a struggling and jerry-built community of a little more than three thousand inhabitants.” The city came into its own later in the 19th century and boasted a population of 59,000 by the 1895 U.S. Census. In the spirit of Minnesota good humor, the Duluth Chamber of Commerce even took to publishing the speech. In 1894 a town in Minnesota was even named after the gentleman from Kentucky: Proctorknott (later shortened to Proctor). And J. Proctor Knott himself visited Duluth in 1891—though apparently he didn’t make any speeches.
The cataloging of the N-YHS library’s collection of railroad material was part of a grant-funded initiative.
Written by Maureen Maryanski, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.
Among the uncatalogued treasures at the New-York Historical Society are two small, leather bound volumes I recently stumbled upon in the library stacks. Out of pure curiosity, I picked these volumes up and looked at the title page. The title read: The Life of Harriot Stuart, Written by Herself.The first volume’s title page, as you can see, is torn in half, the bottom half containing publication and printing information lost to time. The title page of the second volume, however, is wholly intact and lists the place of publication as London in 1751. As the book was found in the biography section of the book stacks, I immediately was intrigued by this apparent account of an 18th century woman’s life, told from her own perspective. I whisked the books downstairs to my desk for further investigation. What I discovered was more remarkable than I had expected.
Mistakenly placed in the biography section of our library stacks, The Life of Harriet Stuart is in fact a novel written by the English author Charlotte Ramsey Lennox (ca.1729-1804). Although she lived most of her life in England, Lennox was most likely not born there. Her father James Ramsey was a member of the Coldstream Guards, and she spent the early years of her life traveling the world where ever he was stationed, including a posting to colonial New York from 1739-1743. After his death in 1743, Lennox traveled to England, settling in London in 1747, the same year she married “feckless Scotsman” Alexander Lennox.
In London Lennox began to write, producing collections of poems, novels, and plays. In addition, she gained a reputation as a “versatile woman of letters” through her translations of French texts. The N-YHS Library holds copies of two of these translations: Memoirs of Maximilian de Bethune, Duke of Sully (1751) and The Greek Theatre of Father Brumoy (1759).
Lennox also published a monthly periodical in 1760 and 1761 called The Lady’s Museum that argued the importance of women’s education, especially in history and philosophy. A contemporary and friend of such luminary men of letters as Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Johnson, Lennox was widely admired during her life time. Indeed Johnson praised her as superior to other female authors of the time, encouraging and supporting her literary pursuits.
The Life of Harriot Stuart is Lennox’s first novel and details the experiences and adventures of Harriot Stuart, a young woman in the 1740s, as she travels to colonial New York and England. Written as a memoir in the form of letters, the similarities between Lennox and Stuart’s lives have led many to believe that it is a partially autobiographical tale of her own life. Since 1940, claims have been made that Lennox was the first American novelist, as both The Life of Harriot Stuart and her last published work Euphemia (1790) are partially set in colonial New York. Indeed The Life of Harriot Stuart is one of the earliest literary references to colonial New York City, Albany, and Schenectady, including descriptions of colonial life and manners, relations between colonists and Native Americans, and impressions of New York City, described with an unfortunate lack of detail: “At last, after a tedious voyage of nine weeks, we came in sight of N——. That city making a delightful appearance from the water, I stood some moments contemplating it with great pleasure.”
According to the British Library’s English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC), the recently re-discovered N-YHS copy of The Life of Harriot Stuart is only the 18th known copy of the first edition, joining its fellows at the British Library, the Bodleian Library, Harvard, Yale, the University of Illinois, Indiana University, the Newberry, Princeton, and New York University. I’m still in the process of piecing together the provenance of the N-YHS copy, but luckily several ownership markings and inscriptions are visible on both volumes. What is known at the moment is that the book belonged to three generations of the Cox family in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in New York. The names of John Cox Jr.(1756-1825), John Palmer Cox (1794-?), and Emilie Aglae Cox (1821-1866) all appear in these inscriptions. It appears that the book passed from father to son, and then from father to daughter. Several other names and markings appear in the book that have yet to be deciphered and researched completely, but hopefully we’ll learn more soon about the extraordinary journey of these two volumes produced in London in 1751 which found their final home in the New-York Historical Society Library in 1925.
Eve Tavor Bannet. “The Theater of Politeness in Charlotte Lennox’s British-American Novels.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Autumn 1999), pp. 73-92.
Jerry C. Beasley. “Charlotte Lennox.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 39; British Novelists, 1660-1800. The Gale Group, 1985. pp. 306-312.
Judith Dorn. “Reading Women Reading History: The Philosophy of Periodical Form in Carlotte Lennox’s The Lady’s Museum.” Historical Reflections / Reflexions Historiques, Vol. 18, No. 3, The Eighteenth Century and Uses of the Past (Fall 1992), pp. 7-27.
Kimberly Dawn Lutz. “Charlotte Lennox.” American National Biography.
Margot Gayle is synonymous with historic preservation. A leading figure in the movement which found its voice following the tragic loss of Pennsylvania Station in 1963, Gayle played a seminal role in the creation of New York’s Landmark Preservation Law two years later. For sixteen years she penned an architecture column in the Daily News while helping to found the Victorian Society in America in 1966, and the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture in 1970. Naturally, her papers here at the New-York Historical Society reflect many of these noteworthy achievements, particularly through the medium of photography. While Gayle was an amateur, her photographs nevertheless tell important stories about New York’s built environment, most especially its architecture.
Though they are certainly a valuable resource, the collection seems an unlikely place to find pieces of Civil Rights history; however, on April 5, 1968, Gayle took a small group of photographs documenting New York’s reaction to the news of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in Memphis the previous day. As the world reeled from the shocking news that King had been murdered, a crowd of New Yorkers gathered at the Central Park bandshell, with the New York Times reporting seven to eight thousand high school students in attendance. They listened to speeches from leading figures such as Dr. Barry Spock and Jarvis Tyner, the national chair of the W.E.B. Du Bois Clubs, which inspired a march down Broadway to City Hall.
Gayle photographed the march at 5.30 pm as it arrived at City Hall Park. It’s unclear under what circumstances this occurred but her passion for documenting New York architecture suggests Gayle may have carried her camera along with her, and simply had been in the right place, at the right time. As photographs go, they certainly don’t compare aesthetically with the most powerful images of the Civil Rights struggle, but in their own way, they are remarkable records of a critical moment in New York, and American, history.
During the march, in fact, many New Yorkers feared for the worst as elsewhere in the nation frustrations over the the terrible news had kindled rioting and other acts of violence. Fourteen people all told lost their lives. Remarkably, despite some unrest, including report broken windows and taunting of police in the course of the march, New York remained comparably calm with the Times even noting other marchers remonstrating for peace in respect of King’s principles of non-violence.
In an America where recent events have revealed the challenges still facing the nation in dealing with one of its most troubled legacies, Gayle’s photographs take on additional meaning and seem an appropriate, and timely, reminder of Martin Luther King’s achievements, particularly as we prepare to celebrate his extraordinary life next week.
Another important photographic record of the Civil Rights era is soon to be on exhibit at the N-YHS in Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein, opening on January 16th
The beginning of a new year seems like the perfect time to explore our collection of vintage calendars.
It’s hard to imagine in this age of email marketing and television commercials, but calendars were once among the most effective means of advertising. Unlike advertisements in newspapers or magazines, which were likely to be discarded right away, a free calendar could potentially hang in a home or business for an entire year.
The more attractive the calendar, the more likely consumers would be to display it on their walls, which gave companies a powerful incentive to create colorful calendars featuring beautiful illustrations. Among the many fine examples in our collection, my favorite is this 1909 “Birdland” calendar.
Apparently the brainchild of George J. Charlton, passenger agent for a group of railroad companies, the calendar promotes the conglomerate’s Clover Leaf Route (connecting Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City). It features illustrations of women wearing bird plumage, cleverly designed to evoke the names of four passenger trains: “The Hummer,” “The Nightingale,” “The Red Flyer” and “The Nighthawk.”
A cross between Audubon specimen and pin-up girl, these images would appeal to a broad range of consumers, having something for almost everyone — art, fashion, nature, theater, and sex appeal (it’s not clear if the term “bird” was in common use in America as a slang term for young women at the time, but it’s hard not to make the connection).
The back of the four sheets are also illustrated, with allegorical prints depicting “Luxury,” “Speed,” and “Agriculture,” culminating in “Perfect Passenger Service.” Although the images are hardly subtle, explanatory text is provided to make sure their message is clear, i.e.: “Speed, represented by the central figure, rests, after attempting to keep up the continuous fast pace of the modern locomotive.”
A particularly charming example of chromolithography (the technique that made inexpensive color printing widely available), this calendar is one of many held by N-YHS; collectively, they form an invaluable and largely untapped resource on the history of advertising.
Historians are accustomed to constructing human history through surviving texts, architecture, and images but the living world can help us understand our past in its own unique way. A particularly good example of this is the Tree of Heaven, or Ailanthus altissima. Although now widely regarded as a weed, at one time it was a heralded exotic plant. Most will also recognize it as the focal point of the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s a tree anyone living in or near New York has seen, and indeed, a species now found in most parts of the United States. That said, its ubiquity belies an interesting story which offers its own unique perspective on the history of America.
If you’ve contemplated the ailanthus at all, you may have observed that it doesn’t quite fit with the landscape of the Northeast; that makes sense because it’s actually not an American species. Instead, the ailanthus is native to China and Taiwan, having made its way to Europe in the first half of the eighteenth century when English landscape design was particularly enamored by the gardens of the Far East. In America, it made landfall decades later in 1784, with Philadelphian William Hamilton credited as having brought the first specimen for his garden at his estate, The Woodlands.
It took another forty years to arrive in New York. In 1820, according to his son, Flushing horticulturalist William Prince, Jr. obtained a specimen from Archilbald Thompson, a London nurseryman. The only problem was that it arrived misidentified as common tanner’s sumac (Rhus coriaria). Prince’s catalogs document that the ailanthus remained undiscovered until 1823. As his son relates, that turned out to be a lucrative discovery since the popularity of the new offering, “Chinese Ailanthus,” facilitated a threefold increase in price. We can easily ascribe this good fortune to the prevailing interest in exotics, as well as the lingering fascination with garden styles of the Far East; however, it also provides an useful baseline for understanding how tastes would later change, and recognizing how societal influences contributed to the shift.
In the succeeding decades, the tree enjoyed widespread popularity as an exotic ornamental and was especially employed as an urban planting, perhaps because of its resilience and because the species boasts a natural tolerance for pollution. Prince, in his 1828 work A Short Treatise on Horticulture, described it as a “splendid tree” and one that “forms one of the most beautiful trees when at maturity.” On the other hand, other traits mitigate its appeal: the male tree emits an unfortunate odor when flowering while the plant’s hardiness is complemented by a toxin secreted to ward off nearby plants. Andrew Jackson Downing, regarded by many as the father of American landscape architecture, foreshadowed its fall from grace in 1852, seemingly at the height of the ailanthus’ popularity. In his magazine, The Horticulturalist, he cited the tree’s ability to reproduce at a near-constant pace, and other less attractive qualities, while extolling less noxious, native species to the American public.
Given its less desirable qualities, and the fact that it is a non-native plant Downing’s take makes sense. He is especially known for his commitment to constructing an explicitly America landscape design style where native flora take center stage. Yet more significant here is the language he employs in deriding the ailanthus which suggests a deeper, more insidious motivation. He begins by describing how the ailanthus “seduced by the oriental beauty of its foliage,” continuing in a similar vein:
We look upon it as an usurper , which has come over to this land of liberty, under the garb of utility to make foul the air, with its pestilent breath, and devour the soil with its intermeddling roots – a tree that has the fair outside and the treacherous heart of the Asiatics, and that has played us so many tricks that we find we have caught a Tartar which it requires something more than a Chinese wail to confine within its limits.
While he may have understandably been disappointed by the plant, the less than subtle racial undertones in his comments are unmistakable. Taken in the context of a changing America, where immigration was revealing what would become a long, sordid history of American sinophobia, Downing’s comments also become a larger reflection of American society. Perhaps most fascinating though is how a plant could become a conduit for Downing’s anti-Chinese feelings and a reminder of how aesthetics are shaped by the society they represent.
This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections
It is the time of year when people talk most of “Peace on Earth.” A bit of peace of the worldly sort emerged 200 years ago this week when the United States and Great Britain came to terms ending the two and a half years of fighting the War of 1812 and foreshadowing the centuries of peaceful relations between the two countries. The hard work of diplomacy was hammered out in the city of Ghent, Belgium where the American and British finally signed a treaty on December 24, 1814.
The delegation of American peace commissioners that finally found themselves at Ghent was a distinguished lot, but not congenial either in personality or regional bias: it comprised the irritable (as he described himself) New Englander John Quincy
Adams, the frontier war hawk and House Speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky, Federalist James A. Bayard, politically ambitious diplomat Jonathan Russell, and the longtime Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin. The historian Henry Adams and grandson of J.Q. Adams, would go so far
as to write of this delegation, “The negotiation with the British commissioners was, however, much more simple than the negotiation with one another.” John Quincy
Adams, in particular, glumly complained about Clay, a bad influence whose desultory work habits included indulgences such as staying up late and drinking. The Swiss-born Gallatin, with a broader national outlook and what Adams would admit in his diary was a “playfulness of disposition,” kept them all on message. But, in the end, it was the card-playing Clay who knew when to call the British commissioners’ bluff.
The negotiations had been a hard slog: The British commissioners refused to formally concede on the principles of free trade and the impressment of American sailors, even as the ending of the Napoleonic wars made these matters far less urgent. At the same time the British diplomats brought new—or rather, unresolved—issues to the table: the border of Canada, rights to the Mississippi, American fishing privileges in Newfoundland, and protection of their American Indian allies. At one point, eager to make the protracted war worthwhile, they sought to bring the Duke of Wellington, fresh from his victory over Napoleon, to the Atlantic theater. While willing to follow orders, Wellington seemed to want none of it, and, like many influential Britons, urged his government to settle for limited war aims. Meanwhile, the relatively easy victory the British had had in Washington in August was followed by their being forestalled at Lake Champlain and Baltimore and presaged more costly war ahead.
As a result, the final terms were the status quo ante bellum (a return to the conditions before war broke out) and a vague agreement to negotiate other issues through joint commissions. In reporting the results to Secretary of State James Monroe in his December 25 letter, Gallatin added that America’s ability to withstand the “very formidable military power of England, and our having been able, without any foreign assistance , and after she made such an effort, to obtain peace on equal terms, will raise our character and consequence in Europe.”
Americans may remember only one thing from their school days about the War of 1812: that Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815 came about after the Treat of Ghent had been signed. Actually, fighting continued after that, and the war did not officially end until the Treaty reached the United States and was ratified on February 17, 1815.
To the British public, the disappointing war and its outcome were always overshadowed in memory by the great victory over Napoleon that was cemented at Waterloo in 1815. For Americans, it took longer for the conflict to become the “forgotten war;” indeed its heroes and lore shaped American politics and nationalism for some decades.
Canadians would eventually come to celebrate the War of 1812 as a victory over a rapacious neighbor that allowed them to form a national identity. There seemed, however, no way that Native Americans in the United States could see a bright side to the War of 1812, as their losses in deaths, land, and autonomy had enduring consequences. For them, this “Christmas Eve Peace” on this piece of earth was indeed a costly one.
We hope for more peace and justice ahead as we send you and yours greetings of the Season.
Requesting the pleasure of your company: Artists’ receptions and the Tenth Street Studio Building’s legacy
This post is written by Joe Festa, Manuscript Reference Librarian
Unlike today’s art market, American artists of the early 19th century had few galleries to represent them. While many art dealers were setting up shop in Manhattan’s wealthier areas, their focus was on representing elite European artists and serving the privileged social classes. As such, early American artists maintained a living through self-promotion and their personal networks.
All of this changed drastically during the middle of the century, when New Yorkers saw the construction of 15 West Tenth Street in 1857, which was later renumbered as 51, but is most commonly known as the Tenth Street Studio Building.
The first of its kind in the City, the Tenth Street Studio Building was conceptualized by architect Richard Morris Hunt and built by James Boorman Johnston. It provided artists with large, clean work areas and plenty of natural light, a vast improvement over the poorly-lit and disorganized spaces artists had grown accustomed to.
What made the Studio Building unique was the deliberate inclusion of a central exhibition room two stories high; surrounding the exhibition area were artist studios that were each interconnected by doorways. The Studio Building’s exhibition space provided artists with the opportunity to show their work and, more importantly, schedule regular artist receptions where visitors could find entertainment and view art. These lavish receptions impacted an artist’s social network greatly and added to the Studio Building’s desirability, which ultimately helped define Greenwich Village as the foremost bohemian locale.
As styles and tastes changed, the Tenth Street Studio Building began to attract more modern artists, and the building remained a vital artistic center in New York City until its demolition in the 1950s, nearly a full century after it was built. A number of important artists would come to share space here, either concurrently or in succession; they included Albert Beirstadt, John LaFarge, and Alexander Calder to name but a few.
Today, Manhattan’s creative hubs mirror current real estate trends, and as such, these areas are in rapid flux. Nonetheless, one is able to draw many parallels between the groundbreaking Tenth Street Studio Building and the receptions held there with the way current artists work in shared loft spaces and the open studio events and gallery walks that art admirers continue to enjoy today.
This post was written by Alison Barr, Manuscript Department volunteer
With the advent and popularity of NASCAR in America, long forgotten is New York’s road racing circuit in the tradition of the European Grand Prix. Between the two wars, in 1934, the Collier Brothers (Barron, Samuel and Miles) and Thomas Dewart founded The Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA). Besides driving in these events, Thomas Dewart (who would go on to become the president and publisher of the New York Sun) also photographed many of them. The negatives are held within the William Thompson Dewart Collection of Frank A. Munsey and New York Sun Papers here at the New-York Historical Society. It is clear from the negatives that Thomas Dewart loved the cars which are photographed.
As the lore goes, Barron received a British MG from his fiancée and, with that car, began the young men’s racing careers in the driveway of the Collier’s sprawling home, Overlook, in Pocantico Hills, New York. They invited their friends, primarily from St. Paul’s School, Harvard, and Yale, to join their club of gentlemen racing drivers. Although there were social and avocational aspects to the club, these young men were quite serious about the cars and driving.
Miles and Sam Collier became the first American MG import agents so that they could supply cars and parts. Another ARCA founding member, George Rand, ran a garage in New York City where the MGs and other European imported cars could be serviced and parked. Member William L. Mitchell who designed the “ARCA” badge and sketched the cars during the races joined General Motors styling team and later became head of design at GM.
The rudimentary racing that began in the driveway of Overlook quickly flourished into a circuit that staged events in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., Roosevelt Raceway, N.Y., Montauk Point, N.Y., Alexandria Bay, N.Y., Wayland, MA., Marston’s Mills, MA., Mount Washington, N.H., and Memphis, TN. The courses varied from dirt or sand tracks to paved village roads. The races themselves were as charming as their names: the contests at Overlook were the Sleepy Hollow Ring, the event in Memphis was the Cotton Carnival Race, and the ones at Marston’s Mills were the Cape Challenge. The Race Around the Houses consisted of 50 laps of a 1.4 mile circuit around the picturesque village of Alexandria Bay where Thomas Dewart had a summer home. And, it was a race indeed with the cars reaching speeds of over 60 miles per hour.
The events staged at Mount Washington were dubbed the Climb to the Clouds. (In fact, Mount Washington was the site of the first American auto race in 1904, and the Climb to the Clouds is still held today.) This course ran from the bottom of the Mount Washington Carriage Road (later, the Mount Washington Auto Road) to the top, about an eight-mile climb from 1,500 feet to 6,000 feet above sea level. In the 1937 Climb to the Clouds, Barron and Sam Collier finished first and second, with their brother Miles coming in fifth, driving an Alfa Romeo, an Auburn V-12, and a Willys 77, respectively.
Although the MG was the predominant make, especially in the early years, the automobile makes varied from Bugatti to Austin to Willys to Ford to Alfa Romeo and Maserati. There were also many so-called “specials”, cars that combined the chassis of one make with the body of another.
Another aim of ARCA was to represent America in European racing. In 1939, Miles Collier and his team entered his rebuilt MG “Leonidis”, into the premier European road race – Le Mans – with Miles as the driver. While the Leonidis had been victorious at the 1938 Race Around the Houses, it did not finish at the Le Mans.
On the brink of World War II, ARCA staged its last event at the World’s Fair in New York on October 6, 1940, and ARCA dissolved officially on December 9, 1941. The Collier Brothers and most of the other young club members served in the war. In 1944, the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) formed with many of the former members of ARCA. Watkins Glen, N.Y. was the first race venue for SCCA in 1948 and happily Miles and Sam Collier joined the race. Sadly, two years later in 1950, Sam Collier would die on this same racecourse, as did a young spectator in 1952, putting an end to road racing on village roads in New York State.