New-York Historical Society

Yellow Fever: the Ebola of earlier centuries

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Names of Persons who have died in New-York of the Yellow Fever: from the 29th of July, to the beginning of November, 1795. Y1795.New.

The current Ebola crisis is by no means the first time a viral  haemorrhagic fever (“VHF”) has terrorized the inhabitants of America.  Throughout the 18th century and into the 19th, epidemics of another VHF — yellow fever — spread fear and panic across the United States.  N-YHS is fortunate to hold a number of rare reports of these early epidemics.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, VHF’s are a group of illnesses caused by several distinct families of viruses. Although Ebola belongs to a different family  of viruses (Filoviridae) than yellow fever (Flavirviridae),  the symptoms are similar:  early fever, headaches, vomiting and diarrhea, followed by internal and external bleeding that all too often leads to death.

Perhaps as early as 1668, before it even had a name, a “fatal epidemic” of what most historians believe was yellow fever occurred right here in New York City.   The first undisputed outbreak of yellow fever raged through Charleston and Philadelphia in 1699, prompting Pennsylvania to pass, the following year, the first quarantine law in the colonies.  Thereafter, throughout the 18th century, there were frequent epidemics of yellow fever in America, including no less than 10 in New York City before 1800 (in 1702, 1743,  1745, 1751, 1762, 1791, 1793, 1795, and 1798).

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An Account of the Yellow Fever which appeared in the City of Galveston, in the Republic of Texas, in the Autumn of 1839, with cases and dissections. Y1839.Smith.

Then as now, accurate information was hard to come by, and distorted by fear.  No one knew what caused yellow fever, or how it was transmitted.  One of the first to unravel some of the mysteries of the disease was a doctor working in Galveston, Texas — the state now charged with bungling the first American case of Ebola.  When yellow fever broke out in 1839, Dr. Ashbel Smith treated the sick, published factual accounts of the progress of the disease in the Galveston newspaper, and afterwards wrote an Account of the Yellow Fever in Galveston in 1839, the first treatise on yellow fever in Texas.  As disclosed in this report, Smith even “repeatedly tasted the black vomit, when fresh ejected from the stomachs of the living” to prove that yellow fever was not contagious.  Although Smith, like Benjamin Rush before him, failed to recognize that mosquitoes were the carriers of the deadly virus (a fact that would not be discovered for nearly another century), his work is considered the first significant medical publication in Texas.

While considerably more is known about VHF’s than in Dr. Smith’s time, there is still no cure or established drug treatment, and until one is found the tradition of misinformation and fear is likely to continue.

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Apparatus for treating yellow fever, illustrated in a Treatise on Yellow Fever: shewing its origin, cure and prevention. Y1789.Bro.

It’s electrifying! Medical uses of electricity

This blog was written by Alice Browne

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Dr. Bryan’s electro-voltaic and magnetic belts and appliances, Y1881 .Bryan

Nowadays we are more likely to associate electricity with execution than with healing.  But in nineteenth-century New York, sellers of electric belts and proprietors of electric baths promised relief from many diseases, especially those that were chronic, embarrassing, or neglected by conventional medicine. Both claimed to relieve symptoms by passing electric or magnetic currents through the patient’s body. They operated in the same uncertain area as the sellers of patent medicine, although a curiosity about the possible medical uses of electricity never quite disappeared in more respectable scientific circles.

Dr. James Bryan’s electric belts and harnesses, made in New York, offered relief from nervous prostration, hysteria, impotence, and uterine prolapse, as well as disorders of the kidneys, liver, lungs, spine and brain. His pamphlet is filled with testimonials, and illustrated with pictures of the doctor’s well-appointed offices and consulting rooms, as well as of the appliances on sale.

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Dr. Bryan’s electro-voltaic and magnetic belts and appliances, Y1881 .Bryan

Electric baths, which passed an electric current through the the patient’s body, were also supposed to help many conditions, and were often advertised as part of the amenities at hotels and spas. These advertisements are sometimes misleading, as early tanning beds were also sometimes described as electric baths; the “electric baths” on the Titanic were of this kind, and did not involve water. However, Dr. Maurice Vergnes, proprietor of “electro-chemical baths” at 4 and 6 East 11th Street in 1867, gives a graphic if scientifically unpersuasive description of his methods, which leaves no doubt about how his treatment was supposed to work:

M. Vergnes takes an unfortunate patient corroded by lead, mercury, gold, silver, or any other metal, and places him in a metallic bathing-tub, insulated from the ground. The man sits down, his legs horizontally stretched out on a wooden bench, insulated from the tub, which is filled with water up to his neck. The water is slightly acidulated to increase its conductibility; and the acid varies according to cases. Nitric or hydrochloric acid is used for the extraction of mercury, silver or gold; other acids for that of lead. This done, the negative pole of the pile [i.e. battery] is brought into contact with the sides of the bathing-tub, and the positive pole placed in the hands of the patient.

The work of purification is now in full activity; the electrical current precipitates itself through the body of the sufferer, penetrating into the depth of his bones, pursues in all the tissues every particle of metal, seizes it, restores its primitive form, and chasing it out of the organism, deposits it on the sides of the tub, where it becomes apparent to the naked eye. [Vergnes’ electro-chemical baths, p. 8; Pamph RM885 .V47 1867)

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Vergnes’ electro-chemical baths, Pamph RM885 .V47 1867

Mercury was widely used as a treatment for syphilis, as well as many other conditions. Vergnes does not emphasize this in his leaflet, and gives case histories of children with lead poisoning, and people exposed to heavy metals for other reasons, but sufferers from syphilis were probably part of his expected market. His baths are listed in New York directories at a variety of locations throughout the 1870s, although later entries do not describe him as a doctor; the last directory entry for Vergnes describes him simply as “electrician”. The pamphlet describing his baths says that he developed his methods after working in the electro-plating industry. He also patented an inhaler for consumption.

The medical uses of electricity remained marginal in the nineteenth century, but never quite went away. Sometimes stereotyped as a fad treatment for hypochondriac women, the power of electricity remained intriguing. Perhaps without the fantasies that produced electric belts and electric baths it would have taken longer to evolve modern uses of electricity for the management of pain and treatment resistant depression.

Climate and Protest: The Letters of Reverend James MacSparran

We hadn’t even started changing the climate, and Wall Street could only be understood in a literal sense, but the title page of a tract published in 1753 captures the spirit of this week’s protests perfectly, viz:

America Dissected, being a Full and True Account of all the Colonies, showing the Intemperance of the Climates; Excessive Heat and Cold, and Sudden Changes of Weather; Terrible and Mischievous Thunder and Lightning; bad and unwholesome air, destructive to Human Bodies; Badness of Money; Danger from Enemies; but Above All, the Dangers to the Souls of the Poor People that remove thither, from the Multifarious Heresies that Prevail in Those Parts. 

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America Dissected, by James MacSparran. Y1753.Macs Ame.

More peevish than prescient, the author of this work was an Irish clergyman in Rhode Island, the Reverend James MacSparran.   From the time he first arrived in America in 1718 (and perhaps even before), he showed a talent for embroiling himself in controversy. First, he antagonized eminent Boston clergyman Cotton Mather, and found himself facing charges of profanity, drunkeness, sexual immorality, and fraudulent credentials as a Presbyterian minister.  He was exonerated of the first three, and sidestepped the fourth by leaving for England where he was ordained, in 1720, as an Episcopalian priest.

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Frontspiece portrait, “History of the Episcopal Church in Narraganasett, Rhode Island,” by Henry M. Onderdonk. F89.N5.A58

Notwithstanding his unpropitious beginnings in  America, MacSparran returned in 1721 as an Episcopalian missionary, settling in Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. His church was “elegant” and “commodious,” and MacSparran moved in the highest circles of the colony while also attending to impoverished Indians and slaves (10 of the latter his own property), as mandated by his mission. Despite the outward trappings of personal and professional success, however, MacSparran’s 37 years as a rector were marred by conflict.  In his first year, he faced renewed charges of intemperance and sexual philandering.  Although he ended these accusations by wedding the daughter of his richest parishioner, Hannah Gardiner, his marriage did not prevent further strife.  He engaged in perpetual feuds with the area’s other religious sects, set off a pamphlet war with one of his sermons, and poured money and venom into an unsuccessful lawsuit over a land dispute.

In 1752, MacSparran blew off some of this steam in three letters to former schoolmates in Ireland which were published in that country the following year.  Considered to be the only known emigrant’s guidebook to America published in the 18th century, it was designed not to entice visitors but rather — as the catchy title suggests — to  caution “Unsteady People who may be Tempted” against leaving their native Ireland.  His complaints about “bad money” might resonate with Occupy Wall-Streeters, but his most bitter railings were reserved for the climate:  “It is no unusual Thing for Houses and Stacks of Hay, and Grain, to be Burnt; and Men and Cattle are often killed by the Sharp Lightning.  In New England,  the Transitions from Heat to Cold are short and sudden, and the extremes of both very sensible.  We are sometimes frying and others freezing; and as men often die at their Labor in the Field by Heat, so some in Winter are froze to Death with the Cold . . . “

If MacSparran were here today, would he view this as a preview of more destructive climate change to come, or as evidence that the weather has always been subject to extremes? On one side or the other, you can be sure he would be in the thick of the battle.

 

 

The Half Moon Club

Title page of the "log" of the Half Moon Club, 1906-1934. MS 1475 - BV Half Moon

Title page of the “log” of the Half Moon Club, 1906-1934. MS 1475 – BV Half Moon

Few people are aware that the Half Moon Club even existed and this probably wouldn’t have bothered its members very much. Although it wasn’t a secret society, its surviving club “log” suggests that it was on par with other leading Progressive Era social organizations — elite, sophisticated and enormously selective.

Beginning in 1906, the Half Moon Club met twice and sometimes three times a year until its last recorded meeting in 1934. With Henry Hudson and his ship, the Half Moon, as thematic inspiration, their “voyages” were formal affairs with dinner and a lecture by an adventurer, scholar or gentleman on a range of topics including exploration, science, art, and architecture. On two occasions Ernest Shackleton himself even spoke before the the club!

Aside from presenting a snapshot of Gilded Age leisure, the log also demonstrates how the period’s social, intellectual and cultural circles overlapped. It’s impossible here to convey fully the complexity of these interactions and how they may have influenced modern American society but those who showed up for lectures as members, or guests, were highly capable of shaping public discourse and taste. Among the more recognizable attendees were John D. Rockefeller, Ralph Adams Cram, Tim Hornaday, John Russell Pope, Kermit Roosevelt, Charles Dana Gibson, Peter Cooper Hewitt, Thomas Hastings, John Muir, Whitney Warren, Roy Chapman Andrews, Cass Gilbert, Daniel Chester French and Charles Scribner.

Leading member of the Half Moon Club, Henry Fairfield Osborn, in Escavada Wash, San Juan Basin, New Mexico, 1913. MS 474 - Henry Fairfield Osborn Papers

Leading member of the Half Moon Club, Henry Fairfield Osborn, in Escavada Wash, San Juan Basin, New Mexico, 1913. MS 474 – Henry Fairfield Osborn Papers

Those names and the broader meaning of their interactions is thought provoking but a slightly more subtle avenue of inquiry travels through the two men who loom largest over the club, Henry Fairfield Osborn and Madison Grant, while touching on one of the least savory aspects of 20th Century American history.

Osborn was a paleontologist and head of the American Museum of Natural History, while Grant was a lawyer, naturalist and board member of both the AMNH and the New York Zoological Society. Each made pivotal contributions to the early American conservation movement and are, without exaggeration, two of its most important figures. However, these achievements can obscure their leading roles in scientific racism. Historians have long acknowledged that among early nature conservationists were many men and women, spurred on by the related impulse of racial preservation, who advocated eugenics, anti-miscegenation, anti-immigration and related causes.

Still, perhaps because of the club’s obscurity, the only historian to discuss the Half Moon Club itself and this aspect of its legacy is Jonathan Spiro, who offers a brief introduction in his biography of Grant, Defender of the Master Race. In it, Spiro posits that William Z. Ripley’s 1908 lecture, “The Migration of the Races,” proved a formative moment for Grant which precipitated his headlong plunge into matters of race and genetics. Whether or not this is literally true is impossible to say, but this lecture was not an isolated event. Although Spiro fails to mention it, there were at least three other lectures over the course of the club’s existence on various facets of scientific racism:

“Through the Channels of Heredity” – Edwin Grant Conklin, April 29, 2014

“From the Home Port of Asia” – Madison Grant, March 23, 1921

“Navigating by Race” – William McDougall, February 5, 1925

"Log" entry from the lecture of Edwin Grant Conklin's lecture "Through the Channels of Heredity" with a number of leading figures in eugenics in attendence, April 29, 1914. MS 1475 - BV Half Moon

“Log” entry for Edwin Grant Conklin’s lecture “Through the Channels of Heredity” with a number of leading figures in eugenics in attendence, April 29, 1914. MS 1475 – BV Half Moon

The titles aren’t proof alone but an examination of the presenters and many of the attendees (which included men like Prescott F. Hall, Charles B. Davenport, Franklin H. Giddings, Edward L. Thorndike, and Clark Wissler) leaves no doubt as the to thrust of the discussion.

Admittedly, there is little to no evidence that many Half Moon members actually subscribed to the theories of Grant, Osborn and their cohorts either. In fact, evolutionary biologist and geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan, who was present at Conklin’s lecture, became a staunch critic of eugenics. Conklin himself even rejected the “practical suggestions” for man’s improvement. Still, the very fact that men so highly regarded for their cultural and civic achievements mingled with those who left such a damaging mark on America, and the world, gives pause.

 

“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.

 

 

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