New-York Historical Society

“I wish to be honorable & right in my dealings all round” — Letters from Louisa May Alcott to James Redpath

This post was written by Miranda Schwartz, cataloging technician.

Louisa May Alcott in an undated photo.

Louisa May Alcott in an undated photo. PR52, Portrait File.

The New-York Historical Society Library has a collection of eighteen letters by Louisa May Alcott, best known as the author of the 1868 novel Little Women, a classic of American children’s literature. The Alcott letters are in the American Historical Manuscripts Collection, a trove of 12,000 small manuscript collections covering hundreds of years of American history.

Alcott, the second oldest of four sisters, grew up in Concord, Massachusetts. Her father, reformer and writer Bronson Alcott, was friends with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, but his inability to earn a living meant that the family continually struggled for money. Louisa May Alcott did whatever work a young woman could do to earn money: sewing, teaching, working as a companion. But it was when she turned her hand to writing that Alcott was able to support her family and realize her own creativity. Her first poem was published in 1851; her first story in 1852. She originally published stories under the pseudonym of Flora Fairfield; later she published her “blood & thunder tales” under the name A.M. Barnard. (These Barnard stories are markedly different from Little Women and the later work: Their conniving heroines scheme and plot—a far cry from the domesticity of the March sisters.)

An edition of Alcott's stories published by Redpath, 1864.

“On Picket Duty,” an edition of Alcott’s stories published by Redpath, 1864.

Seventeen of the Library’s eighteen letters are to James Redpath, an abolitionist associate of her father who published some of her work. (The eighteenth letter is to writer/editor Mary Mapes Dodge.) Only one of the letters is dated but they were probably written from 1863 to 1864. They all treat the arcana of book publishing: contracts, copyright, binding, illustrations, etc. Though Alcott deprecates herself in terms of publishing knowledge (“Being lamentably stupid about business of all sorts I’m very much afraid I’m not very clear about the contract”; “I did not mention copyrights because I did not know anything about them”), it is clear that she is more knowledgeable than she cares to let on, having already been published in The Atlantic Monthly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

In these letters to Redpath she is quite decided on her own ideas and market appeal; she peppers her writing with references to publishers Frank Leslie and William Ticknor of Boston’s Ticknor & Fields. She makes a point of telling Redpath about a female illustrator whom she wants to illustrate some fairy tales. She is concerned about the binding of Hospital Sketches, a thinly fictionalized narrative of her brief experience as a nurse in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War: “Having a maternal interest in the clothes my offspring wear & the impression they make I mention these things though I dare say you knew them already.”

Letter from Louisa May Alcott to James Redpath, undated. AHMC - Alcott, Louisa May

Letter from Louisa May Alcott to James Redpath, undated. AHMC – Alcott, Louisa May, MS 2958.84.

Is her attitude in these letters to her publisher that of a woman careful of not seeming too masculine, too informed? (Alcott, like Little Women’s Jo March, had been a notorious tomboy.) Is it part of a deliberate strategy to assure a male business colleague of his superior knowledge? I believe the answer is yes.

But Alcott’s demurely calculated strategy still gives her room for a refreshing bluntness with Redpath: “I’ll try not to be ‘spoilt,’ I think ten or fifteen years of snubbing rather good training for an ambitious body but people mustn’t talk about ‘genius’ for I drove that idea away years ago & don’t want it back again. The inspiration of necessity is all I’ve had, & it is a safer help than any other.”

An early allusion to "Little Women."

An early allusion to “Little Women.” Undated letter, AHMC – Alcott, Louisa May, MS 2958.84.

Alcott did not publish Little Women with Redpath; in the end she felt he was more interested in dividing their shared publishing proceeds among charities than he was in supporting his author. In a foreshadowing of the break in their relationship, she expressly tells him that she devotes “time and earnings to the care of my father & mother, for one possesses no gift for money making & the other is now too old to work any longer…. On this account I often have to deny myself the little I could do for other charities, & seem ungenerous that I may be just.”

There is an early allusion to Little Women in one of the Library’s letters: “Some one said one paper wished I’d write a novel, that is all I know, & I think I’ll gratify them.”

Readers can indeed be gratified that Alcott wrote that novel, as the result of her insightful fictionalizing of her own upbringing gave us a classic American work. We can also be gratified that these letters have survived to show us the keen business side of Louisa May Alcott.

The cataloging of the American Historical Manuscript Collection is being funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ken Regan’s Celebrity Portraiture: Paul Mazursky Comes Home

This post was written by N-YHS intern Brynn White

Paul Mazursky, (1978, Ken Regan)

PR 305, Michael Sonnenfeldt Collection of Theatre, Film, and Entertainment Photography

Numerous tributes to actor and filmmaker Paul Mazursky have unspooled since his passing on Tuesday, July 1. In films such as Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969) and An Unmarried Woman (1978),  the Brooklyn native investigated middle class values, hypocrisy, and personal growth during a time in American culture marked by great flux and experimentation, emerging a quintessential component of the New Hollywood cinema of the late 1960s and 1970s.  The Ken Regan and Camera 5 series of the recently acquired and processed Michael Sonnenfeldt Collection of Theatre, Film, and Entertainment Photography features a photo shoot that captures the filmmaker amidst a defining creative period in both his career and his relationship to New York City.

Paul Mazursky (1978, Ken Regan)

PR 305, Michael Sonnenfeldt Collection of Theatre, Film, and Entertainment Photography

In the spring of 1976 Mazursky spoke with critic Roger Ebert while promoting his film Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), which follows a young man’s odyssey from his Jewish working-class outer borough upbringing into the early 1950s beatnik bohemia of the titular neighborhood. The narrative journey evoked the directors’ own early adulthood experiences between his graduation from Brooklyn College and pilgrimage to Hollywood. To Ebert he expressed indecisiveness over shooting his next picture in New York, remarking “There’s a lot of energy there, but, on the other hand, it’s a hell of a place to try and raise a family…I haven’t decided. California is an island, and New York’s an island. Maybe it’s time for me to change islands.”

Mazursky finished the script for An Unmarried Woman – the film many (including this writer) regard as his masterpiece – several months later, then spent nearly half a year in New York City scouting locations for his tale of the downtown liberation of an uptown stockbroker’s wife scorned. The city had reinfected Mazursky, who revealed in a 1978 interview with Film Comment magazine that the film was built on the ordinary, everyday thoughts and sensations of being a contemporary New Yorker, as mundane as: “Are they going to put up this highway on the West Side? Is Tom Seaver going to be traded? Is there going to be a street fair? Is it going to rain?” Unable to resist New York’s “vitality” and “energy,” Mazursky changed islands.

Paul Mazursky (1978, Ken Regan)

PR 305, Michael Sonnenfeldt Collection of Theatre, Film, and Entertainment Photography

The filmmaker met Ken Regan’s lens in April 1978, a month after the film’s release, and already seems to have made himself at home.  He is fittingly positioned affront the Washington Square Park Arch, the commanding byway between the Village and higher-rising luxury of Fifth Avenue, and also the site of a climactic decision by the film’s feminist heroine played by Jill Clayburgh. Though adultery and divorce were issues handled with great nuance in Woman and his other work, Mazursky himself enjoyed a stable marriage of 61 years to Betsy Purdy. The romance had bloomed from the Greenwich Village days and produced two daughters. They feature, along with the family terrier and their new Manhattan apartment, in the Regan photos, which portray a sense of warm affection and peace, not to mention indicate the city might not be so hostile a place to raise a family after all.

Paul Mazursky (1978, Ken Regan)

PR 305, Michael Sonnenfeldt Collection of Theatre, Film, and Entertainment Photography

Regan was a prominent photojournalist of sports, politics, and pop culture. His renowned discretion and unobtrusive presence garnered him intimate access to camera-weary celebrities, and tenures as photographer to The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and The Kennedy family. Regan’s natural candid shots sharply contrast to the Classic Hollywood series of the Sonnenfeldt collection, in which the studios rigorously controlled their stars’ images and publicity output. He was aptly paired with Mazursky, who probed his characters’ plights and idiosyncrasies with an openness and generosity that proved rare and affecting for mainstream Hollywood entertainment.  Both artists respected their subjects and their audiences.

Researchers can view more of Regan’s portraiture, including many other pop culture icons and on-set film production photography from the late 20th-century in the Michael Sonnenfeldt Collection of Theatre, Film, and Entertainment Photography.

The Briton’s Game: Early Promotion of Soccer in America

Dayton’s Catalogue of Athletic Sports, New York: G.S. Dayton & Co., circa 1905

Many commentators billed yesterday’s World Cup Round-of-16  match between the United States and Belgium as the biggest in the team’s history, and it’s at the very least an arguable point. Even in defeat, the United States’ gritty campaign is a welcome advertisement for the game of soccer in America. Just maybe, it has even sparked the kind of interest that advocates have envisioned for quite a long time — since the early years of the 20th century, in fact. Not only is the game’s history in the United States nearly as long as many other major sports, but prognostications about the future of “association football”, or soccer, in America have been articulated for well over one hundred years.

A 1905 tour by a team of English amateurs offers a particularly interesting chapter in this story. Over a month-and-half that autumn, the English side mustered an impressive record, losing only twice and recording one draw over seventeen matches. The tour made stops across the United States, including in Chicago and St. Louis as well as Canada. In New York, they defeated a team of area all stars 7-1 on October 21st at the Polo Grounds, attracting a crowd of 4,000 spectators.

"The Start of the Game, New York making the Kick off." Harper's Weekly, New York, November 4, 1905

“The Start of the Game, New York making the Kick off.” Harper’s Weekly, New York, November 4, 1905

Perhaps most important though is why they came: to popularize the sport of soccer in America. That reason is presumably why they also cheekily named themselves the “Pilgrims.”  Either way, it’s hard not to see this as an early precedent for the now-annual summer exhibitions that major European clubs play across the United States in an effort to break into the American market.

And yet despite the Pilgrims’ tour,  the United Stated had actually organized one of the earliest professional soccer leagues in the world. Formed in 1894 by revenue-seeking baseball owners, the American League of Professional Football teams bore the nicknames of the franchises that fielded them, hence the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, Boston Beaneaters, New York Giants, Baltimore Orioles, Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Phillies. Unfortunately, the league only lasted one season which explains the Pilgrims’ barnstorming. A core objective was to promote the amateur game by encouraging play at American colleges and universities, where the promoters believed it would earn a place alongside American football. Pilgrims are even reputed to have met with Theodore Roosevelt and gotten his approval which alludes to an important part of the story. American football was in a very troubled state in the early years of the 20th century with contemporary newspapers offering an unending chronicle of brutal injuries, and death, that plagued the sport.

"The 'Pilgrims'' Ball-- Linesman watching the Throw-in." Harper's Weekly, New York, November 4, 1905

“The ‘Pilgrims” Ball– Linesman watching the Throw-in.” Harper’s Weekly, New York, November 4, 1905

This context explains why newspaper coverage during the tour offered comparisons of the two sports we now regard as characteristically distinct. Typical columns contrasted  the “open” nature of the English game with the “close formation” of the American, with the former reducing major injuries. Questions also directly addressed whether soccer could de-throne American football.   The Times Dispatch in Richmond, VA ran an article that had this to say:

do its many attractive features, both from the viewpoint of players and spectator, promise it a greater future in this country than the game [i.e., American football] now played by Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania, Cornell, Columbia, Michigan, Wisconsin and all the representative colleges of the East and West? Will it in time supercede the American rugby game in general favor? And eventually will it lead to great international matches, eclipsing in interest any of the great amateur sporting events of the year?

"Coopland (Inside Left of the 'Pilgrims') making a Shot for Goal, Donald (new York), Blocking." Harper's Weekly, New York, November 4, 1905

“Coopland (Inside Left of the ‘Pilgrims’) making a Shot for Goal, Donald (new York), Blocking.” Harper’s Weekly, New York, November 4, 1905

It’s curious stuff. We certainly have the pleasure of hindsight too, which is why the observations of a reporter in the Salt Lake Tribune now appear prophetic in light of the uphill battle that the sport of soccer has faced:

Even with the close mass plays, which now characterize the American game and make it difficult to distinguish the individual work of the players, and pretty formations, the occasional runs and hard diving tackles appeal to the spectators much more than the rather loose, open and individual play of the Briton’s game.

Fascinatingly, even though soccer has matured and made marked progress over the lat few decades, its progress has been at a relatively plodding pace given its long history here. Certainly, American football has never been in danger of losing out to soccer and that remains the case but it’s also quite possible that the 2014 World Cup has been a turning point in the history of soccer in the United States. Of course, only time will tell.

Temples of Trade: George B. Post’s Stock Exchange and Produce Exchange Buildings

NYSE front

Construction on Stock Exchange pediment, PR024

This post was written by Luis Rodriguez, Library Collections Technician

The New York Stock Exchange holds a certain place of privilege in the iconography of American finance.  The columns and pediment of its Broad Street front are immediately recognizable, even if the name of the architect behind the design is largely forgotten. While relatively few of his buildings remain, George B. Post was indeed a major architect of the Gilded Age, and much of his work expressed the wealth and ambition of that time. The Stock Exchange, however, was not the only, or even the most monumental building of his dedicated to the commercial life of New York City.

Just a few steps to the south, at the corner of Broadway and Beaver Street, once stood the New York Produce Exchange. Built almost two decades before the Stock Exchange, it led the way in announcing a new era of construction and trade.  It was a striking building, 100 yards long, with dark red brick and terra cotta walls. Done in what Post described as a modified Italian Renaissance style, it featured horizontal rows of arched windows and a campanile-like tower that afforded a view of the harbor and burgeoning financial district.

Produce Exchange

View of the Produce Exchange from Bowling Green, PR053

As an organization, the Produce Exchange was growing rapidly as it headed into the last decades of the 19th century. A piece of promotional material, written to celebrate the Exchange’s new home boasts: “It occupies a magnificent new building…seven stories in height, and possessing the largest Exchange room in the world, where its 3,000 members meet and transact on an average business to the amount of $10,000,000 each day. They deal in flour, all kinds of grain, lard, pork, butter, cheese, hops, naval stores, oils, petroleum, salt, spirits, maritime charters, insurance, etc. It controls the export grain trade of the country, and is in every way a prominent and respected body.”

NYPE table

Drawing for Produce Exchange flour inspection table, PR053

In 1885, while the Produce Exchange was newly completed, Post finished work on a building for another commodities exchange, the New York Cotton Exchange. The Cotton Exchange building was built with two to three foot thick load-bearing brick walls, a method of construction that, as the race toward skyscrapers began, was almost immediately antiquated. For the Produce Exchange, by contrast, Post built a kind of proto-skyscraper, in which the inner structure was supported entirely by wrought iron framing. It was this innovative method of construction that made it possible for the main trading room to be as large as it was: about 30,000 square feet with a grand skylight suspended 60 feet above.

Terra cotta caps, Produce Exchange, PR053

Terra cotta work, Produce Exchange, PR053

Although Post was a pioneer in skyscraper construction, he didn’t fully embrace the trend toward ever-taller buildings. Rather than going for sheer height, one of his specialties became the creation of large open interior spaces. For example, Post’s vast and basically horizontal building for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 was then the largest in the world with over 40 acres of exposition space. More often, however, this specialty was best suited to governmental or institutional needs. In 1901, when the New York Stock Exchange decided to commission a new building at its historic site, they chose Post to build it.

Pediment detail, New York Stock Exchange, PR053

Pediment detail, New York Stock Exchange, PR053

As with the Produce Exchange, the central element of the Stock Exchange building’s design was its trading room floor. While the trading room of the Produce Exchange was interrupted to some extent by iron columns, the same room at the Stock Exchange was left completely open, as two pairs of steel trusses running along the ceiling could carry the entire weight of the upper stories. By that time, steel frame construction was becoming the norm in a downtown increasingly populated by tall buildings. The use of steel, along with the marble ornamentation, and comforts such as the latest in air conditioning technology helped mark the Stock Exchange as a fully modern edifice fit to house the growing volume of stock trading that took place within.

Interior of Produce Exchange, PR053

Interior of Produce Exchange, PR024

Back when it was built, the Produce Exchange building also boasted every modern amenity. At night its tower was illuminated by electricity, hydraulic elevators carried passengers up and down, and all offices were connected by speaking tubes. As the 20th century wore on, however, modernity came to mean something else, and in 1957, Post’s masterpiece was replaced by a 32-story glass-walled office building. The Stock Exchange building, on the other hand, received landmark status in 1978 and its trading floor—now expanded—continues to see quite a lot of business.

“The Science of Government” and the U.S. Constitution

"The first Lecture in the Sciences of Geography and Astronomy", Universal Magazine, London, 1748. PR 68, Subject File

“The first Lecture in the Sciences of Geography and Astronomy”, Universal Magazine, London, 1748. PR 68, Subject File

While preparing for a presentation about the intellectual foundations of American political thought, I consulted Donald Lutz’s book A Preface to American Political Theory which offers an interesting introduction into an extremely complicated aspect of American history. Among several things that piqued my interest was Lutz’s discussion of the Enlightenment origin and conception of “political science,” a term we use regularly despite the fact that we rarely associate politics with science directly. As it turns out, understanding the term is a great way to appreciate something of how members of our founding generation saw the government they established.

When we learn about the history of western civilization in school, we’re accustomed to hearing about how Isaac Newton articulated laws describing natural phenomena, including his law of gravity. Even today, the ultimate goal of scientific observation and experimentation — hallmarks of the Enlightenment worldview — is a statement or “law” offering a definitive explanation of an aspect of the natural world. It seems unlikely though that many people feel similarly in the context of politics and government, yet that is precisely how many Enlightenment figures thought.

Rufus King, PR

Rufus King, PR

According to this perspective, the method employed by Newton and his cohorts should apply generally, meaning that the objective of political science was a law explaining the governance of people. It should come as no surprise then that the word science is fairly common in the Federalist Papers, even popping up in phrases such as “science of politics” and “science of government”, conveying their close connection in the minds that generation.

In discussing the integral relationship between science and political theory, Lutz explicitly refers to a juncture in the debates leading to the United States Constitution, where Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson analogizes to explain the nature of the proposed federal system, that offers an overt example of the Enlightenment mind’s influence.

This I found especially intriguing given that the New-York Historical Society holds notes of John Lansing and Rufus King, both of whom were representatives at the convention, for New York and Massachusetts respectively. Because the Constitutional Convention established rules prohibiting public disclosure of the proceedings, these records are exceedingly scarce.

Naturally, I was curious to see if either Lansing or King made specific note of Dickinson’s analogy, and sure enough, on June 7, King notes:

We cannot abolish the states and consolidate them into one Govt. Indeed, if we could I [would?] be against it. Let our Govt be like that of the solar system; let the Genl. Govt. be the Sun + the states the Planets repelled, yet attracted, and the whole moving regularly + harmoniously in their respective Orbits.

Rufus King's "Notes on the Committee of the Whole" 7 June 1787. MS 1660, Rufus King Papers

Rufus King’s “Notes on the Committee of the Whole” 7 June 1787. MS 1660, Rufus King Papers

Given the innumerable variables at work, the idea that government can be boiled down to a “law” in the same way gravity was may sound nothing short of absurd to us. But the more critical lesson this tells us is the intellectual environment in which the founders conceived the American political system, and perhaps revealing something of how they envisioned it functioning.

“We will accept nothing less than full victory!” – Eisenhower


Daily News, June 7, 1944.Vol. 25, No. 298. N-YHS Newspaper Collection

This post was written by Tammy Kiter, Manuscript Reference Librarian

June 6, 2014 marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The Allied Invasion of Normandy was the largest seaborne invasion in military history. Allied troops consisted of approximately 150,000 service members representing the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, Norway and numerous other countries. This strategically organized operation paved the way for the attacks against German-occupied Western Europe, led to the restoration of the French Republic and contributed to a victory for the Allies in World War II. The long-fought battle was not without errors in planning and execution or severe consequences.


U.S. troops on landing craft during training maneuvers in England, spring 1944. PR-076,
WWII Photograph Collection. Official U.S. Navy Photo.

On that first day of battle, there were an estimated 12,000 Allied casualties, over 4,000 of which were men killed in action. Allied codenames for beaches along the 50-mile stretch of Normandy were: Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword. Omaha suffered the most casualties. Those who lost a loved one as a result of D-Day may beg to differ with the June 7, 1944 headline from Daily News that claimed, “Landings in France made at small cost in men…”

Planning for Operation Overlord, the name assigned to the large-scale assemblage on the Continent, began in 1943. In January 1944, General Eisenhower arrived in England to take command of the invasion forces. Training maneuvers for this amphibious invasion, codenamed Operation Neptune, began shortly thereafter. The photo above shows U.S. troops waiting for orders during pre-invasion training maneuvers.


U.S.S. Nevada heading up the Hudson River, 1944. WWII Photographic Collection. Official U.S. Navy Photo.

An armada stretched across the ocean replete with battleships, cruisers and destroyers. Bombardment ships moved in closer to shore and opened intense fire against the Nazi pillboxes, gun emplacements and entrenchments. Allied troops were supported by an astounding 5,000 ships and landing craft, 50,000 vehicles and 11,000 planes.  Among the vessels contributing to the Battle of Normandy was the U.S.S. Nevada, which had also served during WWI. The U.S.S. Nevada was praised for “her incredibly accurate support of beleaguered troops” during the invasion. She was also the only battleship to be present at both the Pearl Harbor and Normandy landings. Below, sailors watch as the U.S.S. Nevada makes her way up the Hudson River carrying troops returning from Europe.


Letter from Lundgren to his girlfriend, June 7, 1944. Dewayne Lundgren Papers, MS 393

While correspondence was being censored by the military during WWII in an effort to ensure safety, service members wrote many letters home and vice versa. Communicating with family and friends provided a soldier, sailor or airman an opportunity to step outside the battle zone or military training for a moment to connect with a life that probably seemed a world away at the time. The following letters were written by soldiers stationed on base in the U.S. ,who shared what brief news they could with loved ones back home.

In Dewayne Lundgren’s June 7, 1944 letter to his girlfriend, he writes:

I guess you know by now the invasion has taken place. It didn’t cause much excitement here though. We all have been waiting for it so darn long. The only thing that we all are thinking about is that we hope it didn’t cause to many lifes.”

His girlfriend, Bertha, served in the United States Cadet Nurse Corps.

William E. Tufts, Jr. wrote the following lines to his father from Camp Swift, TX, on June 8, 1944:


Letter from Tufts to his father, June 8, 1944. William E. Tufts, Jr. Papers, MS 642

“Well the Second Front has finally started. I heard about it the morning it began but have had no news since.” Before signing off, he says, “Hope this lousy thing is soon over.”


“A soldier’s loveliness epitomized”, 1944. PR- 287, David Mark Olds WWII Collection

In autumn 1944, Captain David Mark Olds, Radio Officer, was still stationed in France. He’d sustained several injuries as a result of fighting in the Battle of Normandy, including shrapnel wounds and a punctured ear drum. The personal photographs he took reveal the devastation caused by bombings in the city but also display the camaraderie, and even a sense of humor, among he and his fellow soldiers. Taken at the enlisted quarters in Sarralbe, France, this image features a life-size sketch on the wall adjacent to the top bunk. The caption on the back of the photo reads, “A soldier’s loveliness epitomized”.

To all veterans, thank you for your service and dedication!






The Preservation of 18th Century Parchment

This post was written by Janet Lee, Conservation Assistant 

Parchment is a kind of processed animal skin that has been used for centuries as a writing surface. Considered strong and stable, parchments have traditionally been used for important documents.

parchment bundles

These parchments are late 18th century colonial land grants from the Banyar manuscript collection. Like most parchments in the collection, they come to the lab folded into tight bundles, which makes storing them easy but access to them less so.

Having been folded for many years, they tend to resist being opened. They are so stiff, that even if they can be unfolded, they are creased and distorted, too unwieldy for handling.

parchment unfolded

We take advantage of parchment’s water sensitive nature to relax the fibers and flatten it through humidification. Humidification involves the controlled introduction of water as a vapor to an object. There are lots of ways to humidify parchments, and for this document, we decided to use contact humidification with Gore-tex. Gore-tex is a synthetic non-woven fabric that’s used in conservation as a barrier layer that only lets water through as a vapor.

Before humidifying the parchment, we first clean its surface of dirt. Then we introduce the vapor. This is done by lightly misting one side of the Gore-tex with water, and placing it moisture side down onto a clean surface. We place the parchment on top of the Gore-tex with a thin porous barrier between them. We then cover the entire system with a clean polyethylene sheet, which prevents moisture from escaping but also lets us observe the parchment.

parchment humidified

We use light glass weights to help ease out the creases while the parchment relaxes. We don’t humidify the document for long because too much moisture can irreversibly change it. After humidification, we let the parchment dry between layers of absorbent blotter paper and under weight.

parchment drying

This parchment unfolded to be almost 3’ x 3’. It also has a beeswax pendant seal attached with a cord, further authenticating it as an important document. Because of its size and its pendant seal, the next step will be housing this parchment in a custom-made enclosure.

parchment flat

Paper has been the more common writing surface since the late 15th century, and bundled together with this parchment is indeed a smaller document on paper. In this case, the top edge of the paper is scalloped, or cut in an undulating pattern, which reflects the traditional practice of cutting parchment for an indenture so that two or more pieces can be matched together to prove their authenticity.

paper as parchment


The Mormon Alphabet Experiment

This post was written by Catherine Falzone, cataloger.

While working in the stacks one day, I happened upon a mysterious book.

cover of Deseret First Book

YC1868.Deser First.

I had never seen these characters before, but luckily the book came with a key:

Pronunciation key of Deseret Second Book

Pronunciation key. YC1868.Deser Second.

Using it to translate the title, I discovered that this was the Deseret First Book. With that information, and the picture of the Salt Lake Temple on the cover, I deduced that it was a Mormon publication. A bit of research led me to a strange footnote to Mormon history: the creation of the Deseret alphabet.

Like the Cherokee before them, the Mormons were eager to invent new symbols for written language. But unlike Sequoyah, who was creating a syllabary for a language that had no written expression, the Mormons wanted to abandon the Latin alphabet in favor of a completely new alphabet and orthography for the English language. Brigham Young, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1847 to 1877, became interested in spelling reform after taking shorthand classes with British convert George D. Watt. He enlisted Watt to create symbols that they hoped would streamline English spelling.

portrait of Brigham Young

Portrait of Brigham Young. Portrait File, PR 52, Box 156.

In an article in the Deseret News from December 26, 1855, Watt praised the sensible nature of the Cherokee written language, saying,

all the credit is due to [Sequoyah] for first discovering in modern times that language is based upon but a few elementary sounds, and that marks appropriated to such would supply the means of writing them in all their combinations to make words. …What a pity that people are so wedded to their traditions, as to cling to them with eager tenacity, even when it is self evident that they are not founded in the common sense of truth! This is a mournful fact alike with the Hindoo and his avatars, and the scholar and his English orthography…The incarnations of the Hindoo gods are very numerous, but the inconsistencies of English orthography are infinite.

Young wholeheartedly agreed. In 1853, he directed Watt and the Board of Regents of the University of Deseret (which was founded by the Mormon settlers in 1850 and later became the University of Utah) to create a new alphabet that would make learning English easier. At the time, many non- English-speaking immigrants, particularly those from Scandinavian countries, were settling in the UtahTerritory. Young wanted them to be able to learn English quickly so they could more easily become part of the  Mormon community. He also wanted to decrease the amount of time  children would have to spend in school learning how to spell.

article from Deseret News

Deseret News, the Utah Territory’s Mormon newspaper, reported a meeting to discuss printing elementary school books in the Deseret alphabet (right-hand column). Newspaper Collection.

Page 11 of Deseret Second Book

Page 11 of Deseret Second Book. YC1868.Deser Second.

 Watt and the Regents settled on a  system of 38 characters, one for  each  sound in the English  language. It became known as  the Deseret alphabet,  after the  proposed Mormon state of  Deseret. (According to the Book  of  Mormon, Deseret means  “beehive,” a symbol of industry  that is associated  with Utah to  this day.) The characters have  something in common with  shorthand, but they seem to have  mostly been invented by Watt.

Interest in the alphabet petered out in the late 1850s, but was revived in the mid-1860s, when Young ordered the new font to be typeset back east. Ten thousand copies each of two primers, The Deseret First Book and The Deseret Second Book, were printed by Russell Brothers in New York and shipped to Utah. These were followed by 8,000 copies of part one of the full Book of Mormon and 500 copies of a family version.

cover of Book of Mormon

Cover of Book of Mormon. BX8624 1869.

Despite all this activity, the  Deseret alphabet never caught  on with the  public. In addition to  being too hard to learn, the expenses associated  with translating and  printing works in a completely new alphabet were  just too great. The  alphabet also lost its most powerful advocate when  Brigham Young died  in 1877. While merely a curiosity today, the  Deseret  alphabet was  indicative of the lengths to which the LDS Church  would go in order to reshape the world in accordance with its beliefs.



Spring Fashion, circa 1890’s

“Fashion is unfolding, just like nature,” reads the caption for a recent On the Street column by famed New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham (whose work is currently on exhibit at N-YHS).  Now that spring has finally arrived, we decided to take a look at seasonal fashion in New York over a hundred years ago.


Stern Brothers Catalogue, Spring and Summer 1890. Landauer TT555.S84 1890.

Back then, spring fashion apparently involved more enfolding than unfolding. Store catalogs feature an assortment of stifling outfits that look more suitable for Siberia than summer. Imagine, for example, strolling along Far Rockaway beach in this “Seaside Costume” from B. Altman & Co’s 1896 Spring and Summer Catalog.

B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896.  Landauer TT555.B35 1896.

B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896. Landauer TT555.B35 1896.


If — when! — you started to perspire under all that blue Mohair, embroidered Grass Linen and shaded silk fabric, you could don your Navy Blue Flannel Bathing Suit, complete with bathing tights with feet, for a refreshing dip in the ocean.


B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896.  Landauer TT555.B35 1896.

B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896. Landauer TT555.B35 1896.


Even pre-global warming, cycling home from the beach in your Roycelle Bicycle Suit For Ladies (patented 1895) must have been an awfully sweaty business. And think how big of a backpack you would need to cart around all your other outfits!


B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896.  Landauer TT555.B35 1896.

B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896. Landauer TT555.B35 1896.


Since everyone was too hot to think about what to wear, there were specific outfits for every occasion and activity, such as this trio of dresses for street strolling, visiting and going to receptions, respectively.


B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896.  Landauer TT555.B35 1896.

B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896. Landauer TT555.B35 1896.


Men had special summer outfits too, like the Bicycle Suit and Livery Suit pictured below.  In a surprising display of equality, their clothing looks every bit as uncomfortable as the women’s.

Rogers, Peet & Co., Hints on Dress. Spring and Summer of 1888. AC901, Box R.

Rogers, Peet & Co., Hints on Dress. Spring and Summer of 1888. AC901, Box R.


Men’s clothing catalogs also included useful fashion advice, such as “DON’T wear checks if you’re short and stout,” DON’T wear stripes if you’re long and lean,” and “DON’T allow more than a yard and a half of handkerchief silk to protrude from your breast pocket.”


Rogers, Peet & Co., Hints on Dress. Spring and Summer of 1888. AC901, Box R.

For more period fashion, come and visit our stylish exhibition, Bill Cunningham: Facades, before it closes on June 15, 2014.


George Frederick Seward and the Chinese Exclusion Act

This post was written by Heather Mulliner, spring semester intern in the Department of Manuscripts.

George Frederick Seward Papers

George Frederick Seward Papers

A career in politics seemed all but inevitable for George Frederick Seward, the nephew of Lincoln’s famed Secretary of State (and one-time Presidential rival) William Henry Seward. But like his better-known uncle – whose vocal opposition to slavery cost him the Presidential nomination – George Frederick Seward’s political ambitions were thwarted by his stand on a controversial issue.

G.F. Seward’s career as a diplomat began in 1861, when he was only 21, with an appointment as US Consul to Shanghai. He served as a diplomat to China for the next twenty years, eventually rising to the position of Minister to China in 1875.  A few years later, though, the United States shifted its policy toward China and began a series of negotiations that would abruptly end Seward’s political career, and eventually result in passage of the most restrictive immigration law ever adopted by Congress: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Throughout the 1870s, anti-Chinese sentiment began to infiltrate American political discourse. Led primarily by legislators in California, Congress began to seek laws to restrict Chinese immigration. But before the United States could pass any such laws, it needed to renegotiate a set of treaties with the Chinese government to avoid violating international law. In 1879 Congress passed a bill severely restricting Chinese immigration, which allowed only fifteen Chinese passengers on any ship coming to the United States. President Hayes vetoed the bill, despite the fact that he favored restricting Chinese immigration, on the grounds that it violated international treaties. He instead decided that the United States needed to renegotiate its treaties with China to allow for greater immigration restrictions. As Minister to China, it was Seward’s responsibility to lead the negotiations.

Seward opposed the restriction of Chinese immigration, but he nonetheless accepted the role as key negotiator of the new treaty. He simply structured the terms of negotiation to fit his own beliefs about immigration. Rather than seeking a treaty that completely limited Chinese immigration, Seward instead negotiated one that only restricted the immigration of “disfavored classes” such as paupers, the sick, and prostitutes. The Chinese government accepted Seward’s treaty, but there was one problem: the State Department never approved his plan.

George Frederick Seward Papers, MS 557.

George Frederick Seward Papers, MS 557.

Seward claimed that he received approval from the Secretary of State prior to the negotiations, but once he entered into talks with the Chinese government, the State Department failed to respond to his reports. The State Department contended however that Seward never informed them of his negotiations and by the summer of 1880, they sent someone else to China to replace him. Whether or not Seward actually received approval for his treaty is unclear, but he never forgot the sting of his dismissal. Although he moved on to a highly successful career in the insurance industry (serving as the president of the Fidelity and Casualty Company), Seward continued to be an outspoken critic of the United States’ treatment of Chinese citizens until his death.

History has vindicated Seward’s position: the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed by the Magnuson Act on December 17, 1943, and in 2012 Congress issued a formal apology to Chinese-American people, expressing regret for the discriminatory law.  To explore the fascinating history of trade and immigration between China and the United States, please visit our upcoming exhibition Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion, opening September 26, 2014.


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

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