New-York Historical Society

Gobbling Up Thanksgiving in New York!

This post was written by Tammy Kiter, Manuscript Reference Librarian.

This time of year has become synonymous with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  As we revel in the excitement of watching our favorite characters float larger than life down Central Park West, let’s celebrate three of the key ingredients for a fantastic holiday in the Big Apple: Family, Food and Fun! Oh yeah… and history!

Daguerreotype of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 2000. PR 157, Jerry Spagnoli Photograph Collection

Daguerreotype of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 2000. PR 157, Jerry Spagnoli Photograph Collection

The image above is from a daguerreotype taken by photographer Jerry Spagnoli. Daguerreotypes are made using a very early photographic process that utilizes an iodine-sensitized silver plate and mercury vapor, which is then exposed to light. In the foreground, the New-York Historical Society stands proudly along the parade route.  Just behind it is the American Museum of Natural History. The first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was held in 1924 and it is the second oldest Thanksgiving Day parade in the United States. It has run every year since 1924, with the exception of 1941 – 1944, when materials were needed for the war effort.

Advertisement for Thurber & Co. roast turkey, late 19th century. PR 31, Bella Landauer Collection of Business and Advertising Ephemera

Advertisement for Thurber & Co. roast turkey, late 19th century. PR 31, Bella Landauer Collection of Business and Advertising Ephemera

What Turkey Day dinner would be complete without, well, a turkey? This colorful advertisement from Thurber & Co. features a promotion for roast turkey. Thurber & Co. was founded by Horace K. and Francis B. Thurber in 1875. In the late 19th century, their firm was one of the largest wholesale grocery houses in the country and their corporate headquarters occupied an entire city block.

Recipe for “Mrs. Gallagher’s Pumpkin Pie”, dated pre-1940. BV Cookery , MS 1127.

Recipe for “Mrs. Gallagher’s Pumpkin Pie”, dated pre-1940. BV Cookery , MS 1127.

For those of us  who are vegetarians, please pass the mashed potatoes! Better yet, how about a nice piece of pumpkin pie. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can attempt to make one yourself. Here is a recipe from an early 20th century recipe book kept by an unidentified home cook. No oven temperature, cooking time or detailed instructions are included with the recipe. I imagine the woman who kept this book was familiar enough with her kitchen and comfortable enough with her baking skills to make a delicious pie sans such modern necessities. One also has to assume  she was able to make a pie crust from scratch (perhaps w/o the aid of a recipe), since those handy ready-made pie crusts were not available at the time.

Thanksgiving dinner menu from the Oliver Cromwell Hotel, 1948. N-YHS Menu Collection

Thanksgiving dinner menu from the Oliver Cromwell Hotel, 1948. N-YHS Menu Collection

If the thought of spending hours engrossed in food preparation does not appeal to you, why not head out to one of the countless wonderful restaurants here in the city? Let’s see what was on the menu at the Oliver Cromwell Hotel in November 1948. If you look closely, you can spot the gravy stains on the menu. The Oliver Cromwell was designed by influential architect, Emery Roth, whose outstanding designs can be seen among numerous NYC landmarks including The San Remo, The El Dorado and the Warwick Hotel. Note the powerful message of PEACE at the top of the menu, a reminder that WWII had ended just a few years earlier.

The Children’s Aid Society, founded in 1853 by Charles Loring Brace, is a charitable organization that has been providing assistance to children and families in New York for over 160 years. Throughout the seventy-five year span of the Orphan Train Movement, Children’s Aid Society, along with New York Foundling Hospital and several other orphan asylums, placed at least 200,000 children into new homes; many located out west and in the Midwest. Representing the importance of family and friends, these beautiful children at the Society’s West Side School enjoy their Thanksgiving dinner in 1915.

Thanksgiving dinner at the West Side School. The Victor Remer Historical Archives of the Children’s Aid Society, MS 111. Photo by A. Tennyson Beals, 1915.

Thanksgiving dinner at the West Side School. The Victor Remer Historical Archives of the Children’s Aid Society, MS 111. Photo by A. Tennyson Beals, 1915.

The first documented Thanksgiving Day football game took place in Philadelphia, PA, in 1869. In this photo, young athletes huddle together to strategize during a game.  Irving Browning, the photographer, was born and raised in New York City and became an innovator in both photography and cinematography.

Football huddle, circa 1930s. PR 09, Irving Browning Photograph Collection

Football huddle, 1940s. PR 09, Irving Browning Photograph Collection

As you reflect upon what you’re most thankful for this holiday season, please think about those who are less fortunate. Consider donating essential items to a local food bank, winter coat collection or toy drive. Happy Thanksgiving from the New-York Historical Society!

The Last Hours of World War I

This post was created by intern Alison Dundy.

Captain Raymond J. Walsh on the Champagne front, October 1918. His horse was killed the next day. MS 671, World War I Collection

Imagine hearing the war is over, but a time lag in communications means men are still laying on their bellies in trenches while shells whizz overhead and explode around them. Elsewhere in the world, champagne corks are popping and glasses are raised in toasts to peace. Will you make it out alive or will you and the men you lead die senselessly in the seemingly interminable last minutes of this nightmare?

Captain Raymond J. Walsh gave a gripping account of the last hours of World War I in a WEAN radio broadcast on February 25, 1939. The transcript of this broadcast is in the New-York Historical Society World War I Collection. Walsh fought with the 15th Field Artillery Regiment of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, alongside the French Fourth Army in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of 1918 (also known as the Battle of the Argonne Forest).

Walsh recounts what happened on the morning of November 11, 1918:

“Around 8:00 a.m. I got a call from our Battalion Commander, Major E.H. Brainard of the Marines. He told me that an Armistice had been signed with the Germans and that no firing was to take place after 11:00 A.M. He then gave me the correct time. It was a very dramatic moment, I thought. Three hours to live or die. I went to the gun crews and gave them the news. As I recall it, they received it stolidly—there was no demonstration, but I could see their eyes brighten. I made them all lie down and told them to stay there until I gave the word to get up. Those three hours were the longest I think I’ll ever live. I don’t know how many times I looked at my watch. I certainly smoked my head off. We got little or no shelling the last hour or so. Maybe the Germans were sick of the whole business too. As for Battery C, we never fired a shot after 11:00 P.M. the night before. The war was slowly ticking away from us and most of us were too sodden with fatigue to realize that the horrible nightmare was about to end. As the last few minutes crept by we all got very restless; one of the officers walked up and down in back of our small camp, taking off and putting on his steel helmet; the rest of us fidgeted around and stared ahead like stunned people—unbelieving.

“At 11:00 A.M. the whole affair closed down like the lights being put out at the theatre, like the machinery stopping suddenly in a great factory. The rumble of guns in the distance, the sharp crack of the neighborhing 75s—all ceased. Silence prevailed everywhere—then a French ammunition wagon rattled along the road nearby, the driver trying to whip up his tired horse; there were a few shouts, but only a few—too many of us remembered the men killed the night before. Someone built a fire, then everyone seemed to think that was a good idea—impromptu fires broke out all along the front. From a distance you could hear singing. Our men said it was the Germans across the river. Some of us looked at one another and grasped hands.

“The War was over.”

* * *

"Warring nations invade America for cavlary horses." Underwood & Underwood, 1939.  PR 68, Subject File.

“Warring nations invade America for cavlary horses.” Underwood & Underwood, 1939. PR 68, Subject File.

What about that horse?

Captain Walsh must have cherished the memory of his magnificent horse because he kept the photograph featured above. Horses were beloved companions and heroes in World War I, as related in the novel War Horse, which went on to become a smash hit on  stage as well as a Steven Spielberg-directed Hollywood movie.

Between 1914-1918, the U.S. sent nearly one million horses to the European allies. When the U.S. entered the war, another 182,000 horses were sent overseas with the American Expeditionary Forces.  Twenty days was the average life expectancy for a horse at the front. Their plight led to the establishment of the American Red Star Relief, a welfare service for horses and mules in the U.S. Army, which still exists today as part of the American Humane Association’s emergency services.

“Churl Darling:” The Wartime Letters of Lester and Shirley Halbreich

This blog post was written by Megan Dolan, Archives Intern at N-YHS

As is the case with most areas in New York City, Brooklyn has undergone many transformations. Today Brooklyn has become the ‘new Manhattan’, home to a range of wealthy young professionals, trendy cafes on blocks lined with street art, flea markets, and of course, hipsters. During the 1940s however Brooklyn was the suburban home to many middle class ethnic families.

Nostrand Avenue, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, circa 1940's.  Geographic File, PR 20.

Nostrand Avenue, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, circa 1940’s. Geographic File, PR 20.

N-YHS recently acquired a collection of over 600 letters between a newlywed Brooklyn couple Shirley and Lester Halbreich, written while Lester was serving as a dentist in the Navy during World War II. Their correspondence provides an interesting glimpse of Brooklyn life before the onslaught of Etsy and craft beer.

Halbreich Collection- letter

Letter from Lester to Shirley dated June 19, 1945. Halbreich Papers, MS 2959.

Both Shirley and Lester were born to middle-class Jewish parents and raised in Brooklyn. They married on December 24th 1941, three weeks after the Japanese bombings of Pearl Harbor. Like many young couples of this era, their early years of married life were shadowed by the cloud of WWII. Shirley gave birth to their son, Jeffrey Neal, in July 1944. Three months later Lester departed for the war in the Pacific where he was stationed until November 1945.

While Lester was away at war Shirley and their son resided in her parent’s house at 921 Washington Avenue, Crown Heights, Brooklyn. During this time Lester and Shirley wrote diligently to each other every day. Lester, who adorably always addressed Shirley as “Churl darling,” gave accounts of life on board his ship, the Oxford 189, and Shirley provided accounts of their son and his various stages of infancy. In one letter, Shirley provides a humorous account of how, when grocery shopping, Jeffrey, then aged 8 months, started throwing a tantrum after she left him unattended outside the store in his stroller – apparently a common practice at that time, but one that would likely get you arrested now!

Halbreich Collection- envelope

Halbreich Papers, MS 2959.

In another striking comparison with current times, both Lester and Shirley voice frequent complaints about the level of delays with mail service. This was due to a range of issues such as the censoring of all mail, military invasions, and warfare. For the navy, as Lester frequently outlines, issues such as mail being delivered to the port a ship had just left was a frequent cause of frustration. The importance of mail for morale not just for soldiers but for their family members at home is very evident throughout the collection. It’s hard to imagine in our current era of instantaneous communication via email, iPhone, Facebook and other social media, but Shirley describes waiting for over a month numerous times for a letter from Lester, leaving her wondering if she would ever hear from her husband again.


Halbreich Collection- card 1

Card from Shirley Halbreich to Lester Halbreich who was away serving in WWII.

Card from Shirley to Lester. Halbreich Papers, MS 2959.

Even more devastating was what happened to Shirley’s friend Gloria, whose fiancé was also stationed in the Pacific. After first receiving notification that he had been killed in action, Gloria also received, a few weeks later, over 100 letters that she had sent to him. These letters never reached her fiancé due to delays and backed up services. This news deeply upset Shirley, who wrote many letters to Lester about how distressed she felt.

Happily, Lester survived the war, as did his correspondence with Shirley, which is now available to interested researchers at our library.  Their letters serve as a poignant reminder, on this Veterans Day, of the many sacrifices war demands of soldiers and their families.

Who Coined the Phrase ‘United States of America’? You May Never Guess

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

Stephen Moylan to Joseph Reed, January 2, 1776. Joseph Reed Papers.

Stephen Moylan to Joseph Reed, January 2, 1776. Joseph Reed Papers.

Take a look.  Dated January 2, 1776, Reed-Moylan1 many months earlier than once thought, this, quite likely, is the first time the name “United States of America” was ever written, or possibly even expressed.

People have indeed tossed around the question, “Who named this country?” for quite some time.  It certainly is amusing that, for all our hubris about our national origins, we haven’t known who came up with the phrase, or even when.   The New-York Historical Society’s collections give us an excellent opportunity to take this moment to glance at the newer documentary evidence.

Portrait of John Dickinson published by R. Wilkinson, May 1783. PR 52 Portrait File

Portrait of John Dickinson published by R. Wilkinson, May 1783. PR 52 Portrait File

The earlier research clustered around the days and weeks just preceding July 4, 1776.  When the late New York Times wordsmith William Safire put himself to the task in 1998, he had a good deal of scholarly help and took some time in concluding that, while the phrase “United States of America” does appear in the Declaration of Independence, it was also bandied about by members of the Continental Congress working on other committees in June 1776.  Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson could have employed it before Thomas Jefferson in his undated draft of the Articles of Confederation; that is an irony to enjoy since the patriot Dickinson famously refused to vote for or sign the Declaration.

The other Congressman who made use of the phrase in these pre-Declaration days was Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts as he wrote a newsy letter to General Horatio Gates on June 25, 1776.  He reports “I think we are in a fair Way to a speedy Declaration of Independency.”  One can see here that, in further writing of the resolve to “capitally punish” spies, Gerry managed to employ “United Colonies” and “United States of America” in the same sentence.

Elbridge Gerry to Horatio Gates, June 25, 1776; Horatio Gates Papers.

The capitalized UNITED STATES OF AMERICA appears bluntly in print in a Philadelphia newspaper just days before the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence.  There, the writer Republicus states, “as we cannot offer terms of peace to Great-Britain, until we agree to call ourselves by some name, I shall rejoice to hear the title of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in order that we may be on a proper footing to negociate [sic] a peace.”  Republicus could have been one of those members of Congress just getting familiar with the phrase, or someone—pamphleteer Thomas Paine is a good candidate here—who hobnobbed with them in Philadelphia in these heady days.


[Philadelphia] Pennsylvania Evening Post, June 29, 1776. Newspaper Collection

All of this earlier speculation and research gets steamrolled over with Byron DeLear’s report in the Christian Science Monitor in 2012 that “united states of America” is plain to see in one of the long, anonymous, pro-Independence essays of “A Planter” published in the Williamsburg newspaper, the Virginia Gazette of April 6, 1776.

(Williamsburgh) Virginia Gazette , printed by Dixon and Hunter, April 6, 1776

[Williamsburg] Virginia Gazette , printed by Dixon and Hunter, April 6, 1776. Newspaper Collection

DeLear then trumped his own finding the following year when he brought the letter shown above to our attention.  Here, on January 2, 1776, seven months before the Declaration of Independence and a week before the publication of Paine’s Common Sense, Stephen Moylan, an acting secretary to General George Washington, spells it out, “I should like vastly to go with full and ample powers from the United States of America to Spain” to seek foreign assistance for the cause.

Joseph Reed, Painted by Charles Willson Peale; Engraved by John Sartain, PR 052 Portrait File

Joseph Reed, Painted by Charles Willson Peale; Engraved by John Sartain, PR 052 Portrait File

Stephen Moylan was writing this letter from the Continental Army’s Cambridge, Massachusetts headquarters to Colonel Joseph Reed, Washington’s aide-de-camp who was then on leave in Philadelphia.  The Irish Catholic Moylan did have appropriate European contacts for his proposed Spanish mission since he had established himself in Lisbon as a merchant before settling in 1768 in Philadelphia, where, among other things, he was elected the first president of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick.  Moylan served in various capacities during the Revolution, including quartermaster-general and cavalry colonel, but not without the vicissitudes—forced resignations, limited supplies, courts-martial—of a Continental officer in the protracted struggle.  In a slim 1909 biography, he is depicted as a true hothead for independence (quite unlike his counterpart Joseph Reed).  Moylan’s “United States of America” letter was published in this biography, as well as in the 1847 published life of Reed, without anyone taking any particular note of it.  Digital technology makes it likely that these phrases will be sought and found in more efficient ways in the future.

Byron DeLear follows up on his discovery with the speculation that Moylan and Reed, as secretaries, would not likely be throwing around the term “United States of America” without the approval of their boss, Commander-in-Chief George Washington. Outside events at the turn of the new year, 1776, may indeed have tipped Washington himself toward independence and toward naming, in conversation at least, the country for which his newly-reformed Continental Army was fighting.

So, George Washington joins a list of figures:  Thomas Jefferson, John Dickinson, Thomas Paine, Elbridge Gerry—household names to history buffs—who were once thought to have named this country.  But it may be appropriate to pause and give credit to Stephen Moylan of Cork, Lisbon, and Philadelphia, a mostly unknown figure for whom no portrait exists.  Moylan remained close to George Washington, was appointed Commissioner of Loans in Philadelphia in 1793, and is the namesake of Moylan, an unincorporated community in southeast Pennsylvania.  But, for us now, he, like the vast majority of veterans, has remained unheralded and forgotten in the centuries-long efforts to secure and maintain American freedom.

Note:  In the comments, it has been brought to our attention that historian Curtis P. Nettels reported the Moylan phrasing in his 1951 volume, George Washington and American Independence (p. 232).  Nettels’s concern was the substance of the letter, seeking foreign aid for the American cause.

How to Have a Jolly Halloween

This post was written by Marybeth Kavanagh, Reference Librarian for the Department of Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections.

photoLooking for inspiration to get into the spirit of the season, I found a small, sweet  volume in our Printed Collections called Games For Halloween. In less than 60 pages, author Mary E. Blain lays out a plan that Martha Stewart would envy for the perfect Halloween party circa 1912. Her imaginative, precise instructions cover everything from proper invitations:

“Witches and Choice Spirits of Darkness will hold High Carnival at my house,

October 31st at 8 o’clock. Come prepared to test your fate.”

 to festive decorations:

” The room… should be decorated as grotesquely as possible with Jack-o’-lanterns made from apples, cucumbers, squash and pumpkins”

“Jack-o’-lanterns for the gas jets may be made of pasteboard boxes…cut a hole in the bottom of the box just large enough to fit over the gas jet, turning the gas low enough not to burn the box.”

“An idea for a centerpiece is a large pumpkin, the top cut in large points with small chocolate mice in the notches and scampering down the sides (held in place by long pins or a little glue) and over the table.”

Also included are suggestions for  games and amusements, many of which are divination games meant to predict future happiness, prosperity, and most especially romantic partners.  According to Blain, “[Halloween] is the night when all sorts of charms and spells are invoked for prying into the future.”  To “furnish entertainment” at the party, Blain suggests “[t]he following games and tests of fate and fortune”:

Halloween Souvenir Game: “Suspend apples by means of strings in a doorway or from ceiling at proper height to be caught between the teeth. First successful player receives prize. Prizes should be Halloween souvenirs, such as emery cushions of silk representing tomatoes, radishes, apples, pears or pickles; or pen-wipers representing brooms, bat, cats, witches, etc.”


Halloween postcard, 1907. PR 54

For the more daring party-goers, Blain suggests a riskier version of this game, called Candle and Apple: “At one end of a stick fasten an apple; at the other end, a short piece of lighted candle. Suspend stick from ceiling…so that stick will balance horizontally; while stick revolves, players try to catch the apple with their teeth.”

Ducking for Apples: “Into one tub half filled with water are placed apples to the stems of which are tied bits of paper containing the names of boys at the party, while across the room is a similar tub in which the names of girls are placed…[players] endeavor to extricate the apples with their teeth, and it is alleged that the name appearing upon the slip fastened to the apple is the patronymic of the future helpmeet of the one securing the fruit from the receptacle.”


Halloween postcard, 1907. PR 54

Combing Hair before Mirror: “Stand alone before a mirror, and by light of  a candle comb your hair; the face of your future partner will appear, peeping over your shoulder.”


Halloween postcard, 1907. PR 54

Why not try these yourself this Halloween? As Blain points out, “Of course, prying into the future with these tests at any other time, they may not prove infallible, but on the Eve of All Saint’s Day, when all the elves, goblins and hobgoblins are at large playing pranks and teasing and pleasing, why should they not ‘come true’ ?”

Have a Jolly, Merry Halloween!


Halloween postcard, 1909. PR 54

What is the Oldest Book in the N-YHS Library?

Written by Maureen Maryanski, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.

Aristotle. De natura animalium libri novem. De partibus animalium libri quattor. De generatione animalium libri quinque. Venice: Johannes and Gregorius de Gregoriis , de Forlivio, 18 Nov. 1492. N-YHS Printed Collections.

A reasonable assumption would be that the oldest materials in the New-York Historical Society Library relate to Colonial North America or New York. However, in terms of the book collection, the oldest item actually predates the first North American colonies by over a hundred years. Amongst the rare book collection at N-YHS sits a 1492 imprint of three works by Aristotle: De natura animalium libri novem. De partibus animalium libri quattuor. De generatione animalium libri quinque, the oldest book in the collection.

This edition of Aristotle was printed in Venice by Joannes and Gregorius Grigoriis of Forli, brothers who first began printing together in 1482. The Grigoriis brothers specialized in classical texts printed in roman types, as did several other Venetian printers of the period. With the production of numerous classical texts in Latin and Greek, Venetian printers were intricately linked to the renewed interest in classical antiquity characteristic of humanism and the Renaissance, and the city quickly became the most productive center for printing in the 15th century.

Grigoriis brothers' printer's device.

Grigoriis brothers’ printer’s device.

While the content of this 1492 Aristotle imprint reveals its connection to the Renaissance, considering the book as a physical object also provides insight into the changing nature of book production in the late 15th century. Prior to Johann Gutenberg’s production of a bible using moveable type in Mainz around 1455, books were predominantly produced by hand. Gutenberg’s new method of casting type allowed books to be printed more quickly and efficiently, thus leading to a greater dissemination of knowledge throughout Western Europe.

Derived from the Latin phrase in cunabulis, meaning “in swaddling clothes,” the term incunabula is utilized to describe books printed before 1501, in the “infancy” of printing. Incunabula provide incredible evidence into the trends and experimentation of these early years of printing. Practices from the manuscript era are often evident, such as the presence of rubrics, which are paragraph marks, initial capitals, and underlining in red ink used for emphasis. These markings, as well as any annotations or marginalia, were added by hand after printing by a rubricator or rubrisher. The fascinating thing about the N-YHS copy of Aristotle is that these rubrics were never added. However, comparing this copy to one in Munich that has been digitized, one can visualize the process of 15th century book production.

Un-rubricated page in N-YHS copy.

Un-rubricated page in N-YHS copy.

Rubricated page from Munich copy.

Rubricated page from Munich copy.

In addition to rubricated initial letters, another practice continued from the manuscript era is evident in the N-YHS copy: guide letters. These letters would be printed, very small, in the space left for the painting of initial letters to ensure the correct letter was added. Usually, care was taken when these initial letters were painted to cover the guide letters; however, if the book was never rubricated, as is the case with the N-YHS copy, “the guide letter remains, rather forlornly, in the middle of an empty space” (Carter and Barker, 118).

Guide Letter in N-YHS copy.

Guide Letter in N-YHS copy.

Rubricated initial letter in Munich copy.

Rubricated initial letter in Munich copy. The guide letter is still visible.

In addition to rubricated pages, illuminations, in which initial letters, single words, first lines, or opening pages were decorated by hand with gold, silver, and/or colored paint, were also evident in early printed books – another practice carried over from the manuscript era. Below you can see what a page looked like before illumination and a completed illumination on a page of the Munich copy .

Un-illuminated page in N-YHS copy.

Un-illuminated page in N-YHS copy.

Illuminated page of Munich copy.

Illuminated page of Munich copy.

You can view more images from the Munich copy here. Through comparing these two copies of Aristotle printed in Venice in 1492, the process of book production in the 15th century can be visually examined. The differences between these copies provide insight into how books were printed and decorated, as well as illustrating the value of each unique copy of a printed work.

“Look at them constantly with all your might”: the art education of Edwin Howland Blashfield

This post is written by Joe Festa, Manuscript Reference Librarian.

Edwin Howland Blashfield Papers, Vol. 3 - Manuscript Collections at New-York Historical Society

Edwin Howland Blashfield Papers, Vol. 3 (detail)

Mural artist Edwin Howland Blashfield, born in Brooklyn in 1848, is perhaps best known for adorning the dome of the Library of Congress Main Reading Room in Washington, DC. His work can be characterized by his formal European apprenticeship in the classical arts, which greatly informed his aesthetic and contributed to his success during the American Gilded Age.

In 1867, Blashfield left New York to study under artist Leon Bonnat, who ran an open, independent studio in France. A large part of his classical training included drawing directly from life, and as such, the artist traveled extensively throughout France, Italy, and elsewhere to visit important cultural institutions and civic monuments.

The artist documented his travels at length in scrapbooks, short notes, and memoirs, which are held within the Edwin Howland Blashfield Papers here at New-York Historical Society. These volumes serve as an excellent physical example of the time-honored way many artists, both past and present, work to perfect their craft.

In an open letter published in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine in February of 1889, Blashfield reflected on how the French painter and sculptor Jean-Leon Gerome mentored him and influenced his artistic approach. In it, Blashfield recalls Gerome instructing him to “surround yourself with everything you can, – casts, photographs, terra-cottas, vase paintings – and look at them constantly with all your might.”

Edwin Howland Blashfield Papers, Vol. 3; New-York Historical Society Manuscript Collections

Edwin Howland Blashfield Papers, Vol. 3 (detail)

Placing the quote alongside Blashfield’s scrapbooks and travel writings provides unique context for the artist’s fastidious note-taking. By shedding light on the rigorous studies of a nascent artist, these volumes underscore how important close observation, replication of nature, and strong visual analysis skills are to classical arts education. Moreover, they broaden our understanding of how an artist working at the turn of the 20th century might incorporate record keeping and a collection of visual references into his or her practice.

Blashfield returned to Manhattan after he completed his apprenticeship in 1880.  The artist’s deep appreciation for Europe and the classics remained an active and central part throughout his career, and he continued to travel abroad, compiling his experiences into the 20th century.

Edwin Howland Blashfield Papers, Vol. 3; New-York Historical Society Manuscript Collections

Edwin Howland Blashfield Papers, Vol. 3 (detail)

Yellow Fever: the Ebola of earlier centuries


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).


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.


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


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.


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)


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. 


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.


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.




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