New-York Historical Society

A Wintry Dionysiaca

This post was written by Joseph Ditta, Reference Librarian.

Pick any contentious global issue. Drinking red wine with fish, perhaps. Or wearing white after Labor Day. Do you hang a paper towel roll over or under? You’re either on one side or the other (always the right side, of course). No shilly-shallying.

How do you feel about snow? Does the sight of the white stuff trigger an adrenalin rush? Or do the words “winter storm watch” make you dread trudging to work? There seems to be a definite (and totally unscientifically proven) correlation between a person’s age and whether or not s/he welcomes winter. One nineteenth-century New Yorker who lived for a good snowfall was Edward Eugene “Gene” Schermerhorn (1842-1922), who brought to life the joyous winters of his youth in a letter to his nephew, Phil, composed and illustrated on January 23, 1887:

Edward Eugene Schermerhorn, "Sleighing on Broadway." {BV Schermerhorn}

Edward Eugene Schermerhorn, “Sleighing on Broadway.” {BV Schermerhorn}

It seems to me that we had a great deal more snow then [i.e., 1848-1856], than we have now: there used to be good sleighing in Broadway for weeks at a time, and all the stage lines ran huge open sleighs, in place of the usual stages. These same sleighs were the means of our having some of the jolliest times we ever had. In the evenings, large parties would get on the sleighs and ride down to the South ferry and back and oh! what fun: such shouting and snow balling and such a good time generally. The sleighs all had at least four horses and sometimes six, eight, or ten. I have known sixteen and twenty on some of the larger ones. People used to crowd in and hang on the outside, while there always seemed room for one more. Someone would shout “Come right up here by the stove.” Of course there was no stove but they would crowd up all the same. On the box were sometimes men dressed in fancy costumes or like old women. I remember once seeing some men with huge tin trumpets eight or ten feet long. Every small boy who could not ride, seemed to feel like taking it out [on] those who could by pelting them with snow-balls; but no one seemed to mind it much.

Little did Gene know that the following year — 1888 — would bring New York’s greatest snowstorm to that date.  He left no written reaction to the twenty-one inches the Great Blizzard dropped on March 12-13, but  he must have relished every blustery minute.


I. Baker, “LIFE IN NEW YORK! (Sleighing in Winter)” (New York: J. Dorival, 1830-1832) {PR-020}

And now for a word from someone who surely would have cursed every flake had he lived as late as 1888. In 1856, diarist George Templeton Strong (1820–1875) viewed the identical scene that Schermerhorn found so thrilling through a decidedly darker lens. Perhaps he got hit by one snowball too many:

Tuesday, January 8, 1856. This is a stern winter. Saturday’s snowstorm was the severest for many years past. The streets are like Jordan, ‘hard roads to travel.’ One has to walk warily over the slippery sidewalks and to plunge madly over crossings ankle-deep in snow, in order to get uptown and down, for the city railroads are still impracticable and walking (with all its discomforts) is not so bad as the great crowded sleigh-caravans that have taken the place of the omnibi. These insane vehicles carry each its hundred sufferers, of whom about half have to stand in the wet straw with their feet freezing and occasionally stamped on by their fellow travelers, their ears and noses tingling in the bitter wind, their hats always on the point of being blown off. When the chariot stops, they tumble forward, and when it starts again, they tumble backward, and when they arrive at the end of their ride, they commonly land up to their knees in a snowdrift, through which they flounder as best they may, to escape the little fast-trotting vehicles that are coming straight at them. Many of the cross streets are still untraveled by anything on wheels or runners, but in Broadway, the Bowery, and other great thoroughfares, there is an orgasm of locomotion. It’s more than a carnival; it’s a wintry dionysiaca.

Paul Girardet after Hippolyte Victor Valentin Sebron, “Winter Scene in Broadway / Scene d’Hiver dans Broadway,” 1857. {PR-020}

Paul Girardet after Hippolyte Victor Valentin Sebron, “Winter Scene in Broadway / Scene d’Hiver dans Broadway,” 1857. {PR-020}

[Many thanks to Barbara Cohen, editor of Letters to Phil: Memories of a New York Boyhood, 1848-1856, who first compared the views of Gene Schermerhorn and George Templeton Strong.]

“Speak to the past and it shall teach thee”: Wilberforce Eames, the Self-Taught Bibliographer

Sotheby's Auction Cataloge for the November 26, 2013 sale of the Bay Psalm Book.

Sotheby’s Auction Catalogue for the November 26, 2013 sale of the Bay Psalm Book.

Written by Maureen Maryanski, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.

Last week a copy of The Whole Booke of Psalmes, the first book printed in English in North America, set a record as the most expensive book ever sold at auction – for $14.2 million. Published in 1640 by Stephen Daye in Cambridge, Massachusetts, only 11 of nearly 1700 printed copies of this first edition survive. Commonly known as the Bay Psalm Book, this book was the product of the New England Puritans’ desire to retranslate the psalms from the original Hebrew text. Yet, as the Sotheby’s catalog states, “it is as a book and not as a text, that the Bay Psalm Book is best known, celebrated, and revered.” The history of its printing has long fascinated book collectors, antiquarian booksellers, and bibliographers, including former New York Public Library bibliographer and librarian Wilberforce Eames (1855-1937).

A List of Editions of the "Bay Psalm Book" compiled by Wilberforce Eames, 1885.

A List of Editions of the “Bay Psalm Book” compiled by Wilberforce Eames, 1885.

Those seeking further information about the Bay Psalm Book, its subsequent editions and various copies, would be well advised to consult Eames’ 1885 bibliography A List of Editions of the “Bay Psalm Book” or New England Version of the Psalms. While some information is outdated – only 9 extant (surviving) copies were known of the 1640 edition at the time – the amount of detail given by Eames in his physical descriptions of the books provide insight into their printing, as well as the provenance, or ownership history, of the identified copies. Indeed his descriptions and accounts are still used as sources for current discussion of these copies, as illustrated by Sotheby’s recent census of the Bay Psalm Book copies: The New-York Historical Society holds two of the twenty five original printed copies of Eames’ List of Editions, one of which was a presentation copy from the author.

Eames' inscription to the New-York Historical Society, 1885.

Eames’ inscription to the New-York Historical Society, 1885.

Eames also contributed the introduction to the 1903 facsimile reprint of the 1640 Bay Psalm Book, which was created from two copies: those currently under the stewardship of the NYPL and the Huntington Library. Expanding upon his census of 1885, this introduction provides updated provenance information and more extensive discussion of the Bay Psalm Book’s history. The New-York Historical Society holds what Eames’ colleague Victor Hugo Paltsits described as an “unusual memento of the great bibliographer”: the galley and proof pages of Eames’ introduction, with corrections in his own hand. These annotations allow us to chart the evolution of his bibliographical descriptions, through his charming marginalia.

An excerpt of the galley proof pages to Eames' introduction to the 1903 facsimile reprint of The Bay Psalm Book.

An excerpt of the galley proofs to Eames’ introduction to the 1903 facsimile reprint of The Bay Psalm Book.

Wilberforce Eames (1855-1937) in 1904. Wilberforce Eames Papers, Manuscript Department, N-YHS.

Wilberforce Eames (1855-1937) in 1904. Wilberforce Eames Papers, Manuscript Department, N-YHS.

An expert on Americana, Eames was a self-taught scholar, having never finished high school or attended college. Yet over his career at the Lenox Library and then NYPL he compiled and contributed to a multitude of bibliographies, including Joseph Sabin’s A Dictionary of Books relating to America from its Discovery to the Present Time, still a standard reference source for American imprints. Well respected during his lifetime, Eames earned a reputation for his devotion to scholarship, inspiration to others, and dedication to the study of books as material objects. Presented with three honorary degrees from Harvard, University of Michigan, and Brown, he was described by the latter as “enrich[ing] our generation and show[ing] us the meaning of the ancient scripture, ‘Speak to the past and it shall teach thee.’”

In addition to these academic honors, Eames’ dedication to bibliography was also recognized by a published series of bibliographical essays by his colleagues in 1924, as well as gold medals from both the Bibliographical Society of England and the New-York Historical Society. Accepting his medal on November 20, 1931 from N-YHS, Eames beautifully described his view of library work in his address (a handwritten copy of which is held in the manuscripts collection):

Eames' handwritten address to the New-York Historical Society, November 20, 1931. Wilberforce Eames Papers, Mss Department, N-YHS Library.

Eames’ handwritten address to the New-York Historical Society, November 20, 1931. MS 188, Wilberforce Eames Papers

We librarians can learn much from people who come to us for information. In trying to help others in this way, we often help ourselves to a better knowledge of the material under our charge. It is really a great privilege to meet the inquirer personally, and a sufficient reward to succeed in finding the information desired.”

I couldn’t agree with you more, Mr. Eames.

Assassination in the Adirondacks: the murder of Orrando Perry Dexter

Posthumous portrait of Orrando P. Dexter by Charles Ayer Whipple for Henry Dexter, 1906.1

Posthumous portrait of Orrando P. Dexter by Charles Ayer Whipple, 1906.1

On the afternoon of September 19, 1903,  49-year-old millionaire lawyer Orrando Perry Dexter met his end on the road leading from his estate to the town of Santa Clara, NY. As usual, he had been on his way to collect his mail when a man stepped into the road from behind “a clump of hemlock bushes” where he fired two shots from a .38 caliber rifle. The first missed Dexter, instead ripping through the dashboard of his buggy and into his horse; the second struck him squarely in the left shoulder. Despite an estate employee riding ahead and another a short distance behind, Dexter had been shot dead in broad daylight in the middle of the Adirondack wilderness.

It was a shocking crime, but possibly not entirely unexpected. Since his original purchase in the early 1890s, Dexter had built a vast estate — upwards of 10,000 acres — which he closed off to bemused locals, generations of whom had used it for hunting, fishing and timber. This act, and the zealousness with which he defended his property from transgressors, made  him a fairly unpopular figure around Santa Clara.

Detail from the Franklin County map in the Atlas of the State of New York, Bien & Co.: New York, 1895.

Detail from an 1895 Franklin County map  showing Dexter Lake  and rail line providing access from New York City to the Adirondacks. Atlas of the State of New York, Bien & Co.: New York, 1895.

Though painted in the press as slightly eccentric, and a bit of a loner “who cared nothing for society,” Dexter’s passion for the Adirondack wilderness was hardly an exception. With wilderness preservation already building a head of steam, a number of others with the financial means and desire were amassing their own private preserves in the Adirondacks. A notable example is financier William Rockefeller, who ran afoul of the local population too. Like Dexter, he faced similar acts of intimidation, a common tactic among the locals, only he was spared a comparably violent end.

While even the most superficial pieces of evidence collected, such as the caliber of the rifle, suggested a disgruntled local, no one was ever convicted for the murder. Not even the hefty reward posted by Dexter’s elderly father Henry, head of the American News Company, could suss out the shooter’s identity.

The Orrando Perry Dexter Memorial at the New-York Historical Society, NYHS 5, New-York Historical Society Pictorial Archives

The Orrando Perry Dexter Memorial at the New-York Historical Society. New-York Historical Society Pictorial Archives, NYHS 5

Given its mysterious circumstances, the story itself remains fairly well-known today. But the public’s fascination with the intrigue often obscures its broader historical relevance. The tensions between Dexter and the those living in the vicinity of Santa Clara represent an fundamental reality for nature conservation: the appreciation of nature is a luxury that not every member of society can afford.

This was especially the case around the turn of the twentieth century when the time and money to visit places like the Adirondacks remained a venture limited mostly to those economically better off. In contrast, the inhabitants of the Adirondack wilderness, who eked out a living from the land, had understandably more narrow concerns. Sadly for Dexter, his good intentions and the energy with which he pursued them only widened the existing socioeconomic gap between himself and the local population.

Henry Dexter was clearly very troubled by the loss of his son and, in addition to the reward, did his best to ensure Orrando would not be forgotten. Towards that end, he contributed an enormous sum (in the vicinity of $250,000) towards the construction of the New-York Historical Society’s present home on Central Park West. That generous act led to a memorial for his son on the doorway of the Robert H. Smith Auditorium.

Unfortunately, one piece of Orrando Dexter’s legacy, the house he had built as part of his estate (a copy of  the 16th Century home of German artist and printmaker Albrecht Durer), came to a similarly ignominious end as its first owner. Newly restored, it was purchased in 1994 by Shania Twain and her husband, who subsequently knocked it down to build an entirely new house and studio only to sell it soon after.

Rare photographs of Hart Island, New York’s potter’s field

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Off-limit to the public for over 35 years, Hart Island — a mile-long island off the eastern coast of the Bronx — has remained one of New York City’s most closely guarded secrets.  It is the home of New York’s “potter’s field,” for those who can’t afford to pay for burial, or whose identity is unknown.

Since 1976, Hart Island has been operated and maintained by the Department of Corrections, which transports inmates from Rikers Island to dig and fill the graves — as many as 2,000 new ones each year, organized into 70 foot long plots that can hold about 150 adults each, or 1000 children. Somewhere between 850,000 to 900,000 poor, homeless, or forgotten people are buried there, making it the largest public cemetery in the world.  Yet , aside from the inmates working there, only a very few have ever visited this burial ground.

One obvious reason is that until recently, the Department of Corrections restricted access to relatives in possession of a death certificate. But there is another factor at work as well: in life as well as in death, the mainly indigent and anonymous people who are buried on Hart Island are all too easily overlooked. Photographer Claire Yaffa has devoted her career to focusing attention on the lives of neglected individuals, especially children.  In the 1990′s, she embarked on a decade-long project to document the fate of a growing number of “crack” babies born with HIV/AIDs, most of whom did not live to adulthood.  Many of these abandoned children were buried at Hart Island, and in 1991 Yaffa was granted the rare opportunity to photograph some burials there.  Her images, held at N-YHS in the Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, provide a powerful memorial to a few of history’s forgotten children, and a singular glimpse of one of New York’s least-visited sites.

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290


Horse Thieves Beware!


Minutes of the Mutual Association for the Suppression of Horse Stealing, MS 2913

This post is by Brenna McCormick-Thompson, Print Room Reference Assistant

In the autumn of 1815, a group of concerned citizens in Westchester County, New York banded together to put a stop to one of the most egregious crimes plaguing the region: horse stealing.    Having identified a very real threat to their homes and communities, a committee of seven men set about drafting a constitution for a new society to protect themselves from the despicable acts of these thieves.  Thus began the Mutual Association for the Suppression of Horse Stealing.

The Mutual Association for the Suppression of Horse Stealing, whose original records are housed in the Society’s  manuscript collections, was not the only organization of its kind to crop up in the 1800s, nor was New York the only region faced with this crime.  Horse thieves freely roamed the countryside in much of nineteenth century America.  Making off with another man’s animal was, of course, illegal, but law enforcement was often too ill-equipped or preoccupied to catch these bandits.  Accordingly, in many places locals found the need to take the reins of justice into their own hands.  For the price of a dollar or two, you could purchase peace of mind, resting easy in the knowledge that should any dastardly deviant try to steal your steed, a group of your neighbors would be in immediate pursuit.

Advertisement for a stolen horse outside of Alexandria, Virginia. SY 1825 no. 17

Advertisement for a stolen horse outside of Alexandria, Virginia. SY 1825 no. 17

For the first half of the century, the number of anti-theft organizations grew until it began to rival the number of horses available to be stolen.  So, what sets the M.A.S.H.S. apart from the herd?  It’s most famous member: Washington Irving.

Broadside announcing a meeting of an anti-theft society in Clermont, NY. SY 1869 no. 2

Broadside announcing a meeting of an anti-theft society in Clermont, NY. SY 1869 no. 2

At first glance, it may seem like a bad joke.  The author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, who gave the Hudson Valley its most famous equestrian villain, is now looking for protection against marauding horsemen?

Though Irving was not a founding member of the Association, the organization’s early papers often read like one of his stories, conjuring dramatic imagery of terrorized villagers suffering from “the numerous depredations [which] have of late been committed, by persons unknown.”  The language is consistently striking, detailing the manner in which suspected criminals were to be hunted down by a group of men known simply as the “Riders.”   The Riders received their orders from an assemblage referred to in the papers as the “Committee of Vigilance,” which was set up as a watchdog for justice, detecting missing horses and dispatching any number of Riders in pursuit.

Washington Irving PR 012-002-851

Washington Irving
PR 012-002-851

Washington Irving crossed the threshold into this thrilling world when he joined the Association in the early 1850s.  Surprisingly, he came to the organization with a fair amount of expertise.  Previous to settling in Westchester County in 1835, Irving had travelled extensively along America’s western frontier, where horse stealing was a part of daily life.  He wrote in his journals about one particularly memorable adventure, in which he and his fellow travelers came across “a tall, red-haired, lank, leather faced settler with one eye habitually closed,” who was missing his horse.  This man accused a member of the Osage Tribe, claiming they had been known to “steal horses and then bring them home, pretending to have found them and claiming a reward.”  After riding out in search of the missing horse, Irving and his friends determined that the settler was not to be believed and returned in time to prevent this questionable individual from seeking out retribution on his own.

Whether these exploits influenced Irving’s actions as a member of the Mutual Association is unclear.  The Mutual Association for the Suppression of Horse Stealing eventually disbanded in 1874, 15 years after Irving’s death.  In 1903, The Tarrytown Argus remembered the group fondly as having stalwartly stood against the “evilly disposed persons from the outside world, who occasionally, quite too often we may infer, made predatory raids into this law abiding and peace-loving community.”  It’s nice to know that after terrorizing Westchester residents with the idea of a headless horseman, Washington Irving was able to help bring some tranquility to the region.

Irving’s name as it appears on the group’s roster. MS 2913

Irving’s name as it appears on the group’s roster. MS 2913

Illuminating New York City for Celebrations

This post was written by Marion Holland, Intern at the Library Digital Project

Many present-day New Yorkers and visitors to New York City see the Empire State building, lit up with multi-colored electric lights to celebrate events from holidays to sports team victories, as a symbol of the city.  Even before there was electricity, special lighting for special occasions was a prominent feature of New York celebrations.  In 1825, during the Grand Canal Celebration marking the opening of the Erie Canal, prominent buildings such as City Hall, Park and Chatham Garden Theaters, Scudder’s and Peale’s  Museum, Scudder’s Spectaculum, City Hotel, and Sykes Hotel were illuminated for the grand occasion. Unfortunately, as this illumination of the city took place before the advent of photography, we don’t have any pictures of the Spectaculum (a museum/performance venue located on Chatham Street) lit up, spectacular as it must have been.  We are, however, lucky enough to have images of some later celebrations, and the technology used to create the displays, in our library collections.

Hudson Fulton Program

Souvenir Book: Hudson-Fulton Celebration, Program and History (1909). F 127.


Soldiers and Sailors Monument at 89th St and Riverside Drive illuminated, PR129 (Box 1, Folder 11)

The New York Historical Society has, in its Photographs of New York City and Beyond digital collection, many stunning photographs of monuments illuminated for the Hudson Fulton celebrations in 1909.  These celebrations continued for more than two weeks, from September 25th to October 9 1909, featuring parades and spectacles, which aimed to honor the exploratory voyage of Henry Hudson and the achievements of the steamship inventor Robert Fulton.

The library also holds “The Program and History of the Hudson Fulton Celebration”, which has a very modern seeming glossy cover featuring  Henry Hudson with his ship the Half Moon, and Robert Fulton with his steamship the Clermont. Inside are biographies of the inventor and explorer and  a description of the highlights of each day of the celebration.  Included are many descriptions of planned illuminations, which started on the second week of the celebrations, from October 2 to October 9, 1909. For eight nights, New York City and all its boroughs were lit up between the hours of  6:30 and 12:30 in the evening . The Washington Monument, City Hall, Brooklyn Museum, many bridges over the East River and even fleets of ships were all illuminated and stood ghostly against the night sky. In addition to lighting which was already permanently in place,  between 1,000,000 and 1,500,000 incandescent light bulbs were added .

City Hall Illuminated for Hudson Fulton Celebrations PR129 ( Box 1, Folder 12)

City Hall Illuminated for Hudson Fulton Celebrations PR129 ( Box 1, Folder 12)


Washington Square Arch Illuminated for Hudson Fulton Celebrations, PR129 (Box 01, Folder 15)

There were 14,000 electric lights on the recently completed Queensboro bridge and almost as many on the other bridges over the East River. Powerful searchlights illuminated the Hudson River. On the last night of the celebration, the length of the Hudson Valley, 170 miles from New York to Troy, was illuminated.

The New York Historical Society does not have actual records of the costs of the Hudson Fulton celebration, but we can get a ball-park figure by consulting the catalog “Something Electrical for everyone”, put out by the Manhattan Electical Supply Company in 1905, which offered 100 bulbs for $2.00. Using published conversion rates that is around 50 dollars in today’s currency. So, just getting light bulbs for the Queensboro bridge may have cost as much as$ 7,000 or about $140,000 in today’s currency. One could imagine this cost adding up over many bridges, buildings and monuments, the majority of which were being lit up especially for this celebration.

Manhattan Electrical Supply Company, ” Something Electrical for Everybody” catalog.  TK 455.M3 1906.

Manhattan Electrical Supply Company, ” Something Electrical for Everybody” catalog. TK455.M3 1906.

Expositions had impressive lighting as a major feature for a long time, but the Hudson Fulton celebration marked a moment of triumph for electrical lighting. Those interested in learning more can read an article written by Luther Stieringer in 1901 in the magazine Western  Electrician, which describes “The Evolution of Exposition Lighting.”  Written in response to the prominence of incandescent lighting at the Pan-American Exposition, the article traces the practice of lighting public events back many centuries to the Chinese, who used some early form of neon lighting ( illuminated gas) in stores and tea shops. The article goes on to describe the first use of electricity in exposition lighting in the New York area: the decorative lighting of the Turkish Pavilion at Manhattan Beach in the late 1870s ( a reproduction of a similar pavilion at the Centennial  Exposition of 1876), where over 200 small gas jets were electrically ignited. Sieringer ends his history of exposition lighting with the Pan American Exposition of 1901, only eight years before the Hudson Fulton Celebration.

Hudson Fulton Celebration Court of Honor Illuminated, PR129 ( Box 01, Folder 14)

Hudson Fulton Celebration Court of Honor Illuminated, PR129 ( Box 01, Folder 14)

These early expositions required onsite generators, and parts of the fairs themselves were “ power plants.”  The World’s Colombian Exposition, Pan American Exposition and Hudson Fulton Celebration were festivals that not only talked about and celebrated history and historic events — Columbus’s discovery of America, Hudson’s explorations and Fulton’s steamship — they created history themselves, particularly by exposing the public to developing technology. Companies and inventors would compete to present at the fairs, and the public would come to look at innovations, which might improve their own lives.  In the World’s Colombian Exposition in 1893,  for example, the fair was brilliantly illuminated by Westinghouse and Tesla  at a candlepower of 13,000,000, but the lighting did not extend to the fair’s host city of Chicago .

In contrast to earlier fairs and expositions, at the Hudson Fulton Celebration, the “power plant” provided illumination not for a separate fairground, but for an entire inhabited city, and soon enough this illumination would find its way into all aspects of daily life from hospitals to schools.



Those interested in reading more about  early electricity in Manhattan, can examine “Where they lit up New York : a walking tour through Thomas Edison’s ‘first district.‘”  This 1985 brochure, published by Con Edison,  provides the patient pedestrian with detailed directions to all the important sites of early electricity in Lower Manhattan, including Edison’s Pearl Street  generator station. 

Illustrated recreation of Edison's Pearl Street Generation Station, created circa 1979 from the brochure  "Where they lit up New York : a walking tour through Thomas Edison’s “first district”, in the Main Collection of the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library

Con Edison, “Where they lit up New York : a walking tour through Thomas Edison’s ‘first district’.”  F128.18 1985.


“A full account of the celebration of the completion of the Grand Canal…along the line of the canal, and in the city of New-York, &c.”   New York : Printed for John Low ; 1825

“Electricity: a  popular electrical journal”  New York  : Electricity newspaper co.; 1891-1906

“Something Electrical for Everybody” Manhattan Electrical Supply Company, 1905

Western Electrician, Vol 29  Electrician Publishing Company,1901

” Where they lit up New York :  a  walking tour through  Thomas Edison’s “first district” ” New York, N.Y. : Con Edison; 1979

Beware of Things that go Blog in the Night

This post is by Tammy Kiter, Manuscript Reference Librarian

Halloween’s origins can be traced back to the Celtic festival known as Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”). The Celts’ New Year was November 1st. They believed that on the night before the New Year, boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped and that ghosts returned to earth to wreak havoc by playing tricks on the living and damaging crops from the harvest.

The word Halloween is derived from “All Hallow’s Eve”, a Christian celebration that dates back to the mid 18th century. When European Immigrants, many of whom were Irish, came to America in the 19th century, they brought a great deal of the Halloween spirit with them and the ideas began to spread throughout the United  States. Many of the traditions that began hundreds of years ago have stood the test of time and have emerged into an integral part of our social culture. By the mid-20th century, the superstitious and religious overtones associated with the holiday were less prominent and the event became a time for communities to celebrate by decorating, attending parties, organizing parades… and eating!

Children at the Henrietta School celebrate Halloween in style, 1920s. Children's Aid Society Collection, MS 111. Photo by A. Tennyson Beals.

Children at the Henrietta School celebrate Halloween in style, 1920s. The Victor Remer Historical Archives of the Children’s Aid Society, MS 111. Photo by A. Tennyson Beals.

Crops from the autumn harvest have always played a large role in Halloween traditions.  One such early European practice involved sending young single women into a cabbage field blindfolded. Each girl brought back a cabbage and the size and shape of said cabbage was believed to determine the likeness of her future mate’s head. (I suppose when they married, they gave birth to Cabbage Patch Kids.) In these wonderful photos from our Children’s Aid Society collection, we see youngsters enjoying some fall favorites. In the first, five African American children from the Henrietta Industrial School don their Halloween hats while eating tasty apples. In the second, a young boy from the Milbank Convalescent Home displays his pumpkin-carving skills.


Young boy with Jackolantern at Milbank Convalescent Home, 1928. The Victor Remer Historical Archives of the Children’s Aid Society, MS 111. Photo by Lewis Hine.

 Trick-or-Treating resembles the late medieval practice known as “souling”, in which the poor went door to door on November 1st begging for “soul cakes” in exchange for saying a prayer for the donor’s deceased loved ones on All Soul’s Day, November 2nd. Shakespeare makes a reference to

Trick-or-Treat Bag, circa 1970s. PR 264, Ephemera File

Trick-or-Treat Bag, circa 1970s. PR 264, Ephemera File

this practice in Two Gentlemen of Verona, when the character Speed states, “to speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas”. A few centuries later, children were receiving candy in little Trick-or-Treat goodie bags, such as this one, from our Print Room’s Ephemera File.

 During medieval celebrations, large bonfires burned all evening as rituals were performed. The fires were also built in an effort to ward off evil spirits and singe the brooms of any witches that dared to fly overhead. Today, many people enjoy gathering around campfires to share ghost stories and roast marshmallows. Among the many books in our collection is this children’s book, published in 1948, Spooks of the Valley. All of the stories in the book were taken from folklore related to the Upper HudsonValley in New York.


Endpaper illustration from Spooks of the Valley by Louis C. Jones, 1948.


Have no fear, even if you find yourself traveling on Halloween, you may just get treated to an appropriately-themed meal on your flight. This postcard-sized menu, issued by United Airlines in the 1950s, proves that flying can be fun… even if airline food itself is sometimes scary.


United Airlines Halloween menu, circa 1950s. N-YHS Menu Collection


Come one, come all, and enjoy a festive parade full of creative costumes, live music, pageantry, and a real sense of community. This little pumpkin had her picture taken while standing on the sidelines at the Village Halloween Parade, held here in New York City. The infamous parade celebrates its 40th anniversary this year with a theme of Hallelujah Halloween Revival. After being cancelled last year, due to the devastating effects of Sandy, folks are ready to rally together to show support for the Big Apple and to celebrate Halloween. For more information on this event, check out the following website:


Village Halloween Parade, 1987. PR 267, Erika Stone Photograph Collection


Happy Haunting From The Stacks at N-YHS!


Rockaway After Sandy

This post was written by Marybeth Kavanagh, Print Room Reference Librarian

Almost a year after Superstorm Sandy hit New York City, waterfront communities are still feeling  the impact.  To commemorate the one year anniversary of Sandy, a set of  photographs documenting the effects of the storm in Rockaway Park, Queens was given to the New-York Historical Society by the photographer, Michael Schor.

Schor, a self-taught landscape photographer and Rockaway native,  rode out the storm in his beachfront apartment.  He captured these images in the immediate aftermath.  The photographs depict the surreal experience of waking up to a once-familiar landscape that has been dramatically transformed overnight.  Rockaway residents in the photographs survey their neighborhood, trying to take in the enormity of  what has happened.  The titles and captions provided by the photographer convey an awareness that for many, time is now marked as “before” and “after” Sandy.

Silent Walk

Silent Walk. Photograph by Michael Schor, 10/30/2012. PR 20

“A mother and child walk down Beach 119th Street to survey the damage.”

Rockaway on Fire. Photograph by Michael Schor, 10/30/2012.  PR 20

Rockaway on Fire. Photograph by Michael Schor, 10/30/2012. PR 20

“A fire burns down local stores at Rockaway Beach Boulevard  near Beach 116th Street.”

Before and After. Photograph by Michael Schor, 10/2012. PR 20

” The Harbor Lights Pub, a mainstay of Rockaway Park, burned to the ground on Oct. 29. “

The Morning After. Photograph by Michael Schor, 10/30/2012.  PR 20

The Morning After. Photograph by Michael Schor, 10/30/2012. PR 20

“Rockaway residents stare at the remains of their boardwalk the day after Sandy.”

The Boardwalk After. Photograph by Michael Schor, 10/30/2012.  PR 20

The Boardwalk After. Photograph by Michael Schor, 10/30/2012. PR 20

“The boardwalk was pulled from it’s concrete pilings and hurled into nearby buildings.”


Concerning Spooks: The Spiritualists of New York

This post was written by Kate Burch, Library Page

The Fox Sisters, Margaret, Catherine (Kate), and Leah. PR 052, Portrait File.

The Fox Sisters, Margaret, Catherine (Kate), and Leah. PR 052, Portrait File.

In March of 1848, Kate and Margaret Fox, teenagers living in Hydesville, New York, reported something fantastic: they had developed a system of communicating with the dead. Their home, in a small hamlet near Rochester, was rumored to be haunted, and for months the family had been woken in the night by loud knocking sounds. On March 31, Kate challenged the ghostly knocker to repeat the pattern she tapped out. To the astonishment of the family, it did. The sensational story of the young mediums captivated the citizens of New York. In the excitement, Kate and Margaret were sent to live with their older sister Leah in Rochester, but the mysterious knockings followed them. Soon, the Fox Sisters began holding public séances all over New York State.

Drawing on religious revivalism and novel scientific discoveries like electricity and magnetism, the Spiritualist movement attested that the souls of the dead resided in an astral realm and could communicate with the living. Through travelling medium shows that exhibited spirit-rappings, table-tippings, and thought-readings, as well as published communiqués from famous dead people, the doctrine of Spiritualism spread quickly across America. The idea was irresistibly fascinating, and the believers ranged from common people to prominent judges and politicians. Columbia University held symposiums on the topic. In 1854, a group of New York spiritualists petitioned Congress to use their newly-installed electromagnetic telegraph to open a line of communication between Heaven and Earth. (The Senate tabled the proposal.)

The Spiritual Telegraph was the most popular Spiritualist publication, issued in New York from 1853 until the Civil War. (Newspaper Collection)

The Spiritual Telegraph was the most popular Spiritualist publication, issued in New York from 1853 until the Civil War. (Newspaper Collection)

George Templeton Strong, a New York City lawyer and diarist, wrote frequently on Spiritualism, which interested him as an intellectual possibility.

The Davenport Brothers, from Buffalo, had a traveling medium show in which they communicated with the dead using a "spirit cabinet". (SY1873 no.83)

The Davenport Brothers, from Buffalo, had a traveling medium show in which they communicated with the dead using a “spirit cabinet”. (SY1873 no.83)

On June 16, 1850, he spoke of being “mystified” by the Rochester knockings and speculated that,“all things considered, it seems much more likely to me that some obscure, occult, mysterious, but natural agency would be concerned, if anything but adroit humbug is concerned in the matter.” He and his discerning friends held private séances with Leah Fox and other mediums. While Strong remained a skeptic, he was impressed by the performances he witnessed, noting in 1852 that “[i]t is a strange chapter in the history of human credulity at all events, and as such worth investigating.” (The Diary of George Templeton Strong, F128. 44 .S925 1988).

The proponents of Spiritualism imbued their beliefs with scientific proof. Experiments were conducted to investigate the existence of the soul and the possibility of mind reading. One 1925 publication attests, “[c]ertain Dutch physicists have, indeed, calculated [the soul’s] approximate constitution. Its weight is said to be ‘about 12.24 mgs lighter than hydrogen, and 176.6 mgs lighter than air’.” (BF1031 .W168 .1925). Charles White Kellogg, a New York diarist and a believer in Spiritualism, conducted his own experiments, consulting the spirits aided by a system of knocking and a planchette (a device similar to a Ouija board). He kept a record of his communications, which included advice from his dead mother and inquiries on the philosophy and science of the soul.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 6, 1899.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 6, 1899.

Of course, many people doubted this new religious science of talking to the dead. Many Christians dismissed Spiritualism as fraud combined with devil worship, and noted that the séance was a convenient excuse to “… mingle males and females….. in the same circle…. and then put out the lights!” (Spirit Rappings Unveiled, BF 1042 .M38)

The New York Times, April 15, 1922.

The New York Times, April 15, 1922.

Other skeptics included scientists and entertainers, who were eager to expose the showmanship and trickery of the Spiritualist performers. Harry Houdini had a long-running feud in the Letters to the Editor of the New York Times with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a fervent believer in the spirit realm. William Sidney Mount, a contemporary of the Hudson River School, warned his friend T. H. Hadaway in an 1855 letter that he had heard from a friend that a prominent medium was planning on writing a tell-all book that would expose Spiritualism as a fraud and name all the public figures he had successfully hoodwinked. (MSS William S Mount Papers)

By 1859, George Templeton Strong attributed “seventy-five per cent of the spiritualistic phenomena to mere trick, twenty per cent to psychometry or thought-reading (whatever that may be), and a residuum of five per cent more or less to something they cannot explain.”  By the late 19th century, most prominent mediums had confessed to fraud and trickery. The Fox sisters eventually admitted that their spirit knockings had been produced by the strange but entirely natural ability of Margaret Fox to loudly crack the joints of her toes. In 1865, P.T. Barnum published The Humbugs of the World (AZ999 .B3), in which he elaborated on the skills and devices used by Spiritualists to perform supposedly supernatural acts. Still, the Spiritualist debate raged on through the 1920s. Whether the ghosts of New York were real or imagined, they certainly put on a good show.

The New York Times, September 21, 1855.

The New York Times, September 21, 1855.

Indian Summer

Above-average temperatures at other times of year may raise alarms of global warming, but autumn heat waves are still fondly referred to as “Indian summer.” So where does the term come from, and what exactly does it mean?

Alan Petrulis, "Indian Summer." PR 300, David Feinstein Collection of Prints.

Alan Petrulis, “Indian Summer.” PR 300, David Feinstein Collection of Prints.

A number of explanations have been advanced over the years, including the following:

charles b. brown

Charles Brockden Brown. PR 52, Portrait File.

1. In 1804, Charles Brockden Brown (an early American novelist), suggested that “[i]ts American name it probably owes to it being predicted by the natives to the first emigrants, who took the early frosts as the signal of winter.”

2.  A variation on this theme was proposed a few years later by Reverend James Freeman, who in 1812 proposed that “the name is derived from the natives, who believe that it is caused by a wind which comes immediately from the court of their great and benevolent God Cautantowwit . . . ”

3.  Around 1815, another idea came into vogue: that the Indian Summer derived its name from the burning of the woods and the grass by the natives.

4.  A more ominous explanation was proposed by the Reverend Joseph Doddridge in 1824: “It however sometimes happened that after the apparent onset of winter, the weather became warm; the smoky time commenced, and lasted for a considerable number of days. This was the Indian summer, because it afforded the Indians another opportunity of visiting the settlements with their destructive warfare.”

5. A less politically correct view arose later in the 19th century: “The Indians were deceitful, and the uncertainty as to the Indian character became a byword, and hence, by a poetical transition, the short season of pleasant weather in November may have been known as “Indian summers” because the pleasant weather could not be relied upon and was sure to be followed by some sudden and severe cold northerly winds and snow.”


Albert Matthews, “The Term Indian Summer.” Pamph PE1599.I53 M3.

While each of these theories have enjoyed some currency at various times, all were more or less debunked over a century ago by a writer named Albert Matthews.  His exhaustive survey of 17th, 18th and 19th century literature — a model of scholarly inquiry, with no assistance from Google! — revealed that contrary to (then) popular belief, early American settlers did not use the expression at all.  The first use of the term unearthed by Matthews occurs on October 13, 1794, when one Ebenezer Denny made the following entry in his diary:  “Pleasant weather. The Indian summer here. Frosty nights.”  Although later scholars uncovered a slightly earlier use of the term, in a 1778 essay by J. Hector Saint  John de Crevecoeur, Matthews’ general point — that the expression is not widely used until the 19th century — is “clearly right,” as no less a critic than H.L. Mencken acknowledged.

Matthews also pokes persuasive holes in the many “vague and uncertain” theories about the origin of the expression, demonstrating through careful analysis that not “one of them has any substantial basis in fact.”  Indeed, as Matthews shows, there is no consensus as to what an “Indian summer” even is: “It has been stated that this spell [of peculiar weather] appears in September; that it comes in October; that it occurs in November or not at all; that it takes place in January; that it lasts for three or five days only; that it extends over a period of four weeks; that it is peculiar to New England; that it does not occur in New England at all; that it is now more marked than was formerly the case; that in former years it was more pronounced than it is now; that it has at present ceased to occur anywhere.”

Matthews’ article, which first appeared in the January, 1902 issue of the Monthly Weather Review, was re-issued as a pamphlet that is held in the library’s general collections, and remains the most authoritative work on the topic.  Yet notwithstanding all this well-documented uncertainty, “Indian summer” is still a popular phrase, not only to describe the weather but also as a figurative and imaginative device for poets, novelists and literary critics.




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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