New-York Historical Society

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.



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


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 Colonel 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!


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

Share Our Blog!


Support n-yhs

Help us present groundbreaking exhibitions and develop educational programs about our nation's history for more than 200,000 schoolchildren annually.