New-York Historical Society

Turning the Pages of Patriotism with the American Library Association

war service library14[1]

War Service Library book label, 1918.

This post is written by Tammy Kiter, Manuscript Reference Librarian

Thoughts of World War I do not necessarily conjure up images of soldiers reading for leisure. Rather, we tend to recall seeing photographs of brave young men engaged in trench warfare and scenes of the horrific aftermath of brutal battles. But through the efforts of the American Library Association, thousands of U.S. servicemen and allied forces were given an opportunity to step away from the training camps and battlefields and into the pages of a book, magazine, or newspaper sent from the home front.

Founded in 1876, the American Library Association (ALA) is the oldest and largest library organization in the world. The War Department’s Commission on Training Camp Activities extended an invitation to the ALA to provide library service to soldiers and sailors in America, France and several other locations. In 1917, the American Library Association established the Committee on Mobilization and War Service Plans, later known as the War Service Committee. ALA was among seven welfare groups associated with the Commission; together, they were often referred to as the “Seven Sisters”. The other partner organizations were as follows: Young Men’s Christian Association, Young Women’s Christian Association, Salvation Army, Jewish Welfare Board, Knights of Columbus and War Camp Community Service.

War Library Bulletin, June 1918.

War Library Bulletin, June 1918.

ALA’s Library War Service programs were directed by Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, and later by Carl H. Milam, who earned the nickname of “Mr. ALA”. At the time of the Library War Service’s inception, ALA had a membership of only 3,300 members and an annual budget of just $25,000. Yet through the dedication and perseverance of both library employees and American citizens, they were able to accomplish amazing feats during a tumultuous time in U.S. history. In a guide published by the ALA War Service, the author notes that “previous wars had shown us how to equip and administer commissary departments and canteens, but they taught us little of present day value as to what the men would need in the way of literary or intellectual equipment.”  He goes on to state,  “Not only do the students in khaki call for more than the soldiers in blue and gray, but more is demanded of them in return.”

Every library in the United States was urged to participate not only as a collection site and repository for donated books, but as a source of promotion and publicity for the campaign. Librarians were encouraged to join the “Dollar-a-Month-Club” whereby they contributed their own money to the cause. Library staff catalogued books and placed a War Service label in the front cover and circulation card in the back. Volunteers were solicited to sort, pack and ship the materials to military members at home and abroad. Citizens were invited to place a one cent stamp on the cover

Soldier amidst newspapers. Letter dated January 7, 1918.  Salvator Cillis Papers.

Soldier amidst newspapers. Letter dated January 7, 1918. Salvator Cillis Papers.

of their magazines and place them in the local post box to be mailed to our servicemen. In this 1918 letter Salvator Cillis, a soldier at Camp Upton, Long Island, writes: “You have no doubt seen the little notice printed on all the periodicals, about when the reader gets through to put a one cent stamp and it will be sent to soldiers and sailors. Well in one corner of our barracks there are several piles of them…”. His accompanying sketch brings the scene to life. Cillis continued to send heartfelt, humorous letters with sketches home to his friends and family, even during his time in the trenches.

Wounded soldier enjoys a book with the help of a volunteer. War Service of the American Library Association: Books for the Men in Camp and Overseas, ALA, 1918.

Wounded soldier enjoys a book with the help of a volunteer. War Service of the American Library Association: Books for the Men in Camp and Overseas, ALA, 1918.

The American Library Association mounted two massive financial campaigns and raised several million dollars in public donations and corporate funds. With the help of thousands of library workers (including 212 librarians in the field), ALA was able to collect and distribute over 5 million books, magazines and newspapers to servicemen stationed here in the states as well as overseas. They provided library collections to over 1,500 Army, Navy, and Marine Corps camps and stations, military hospitals, naval vessels and even troop trains. Reading material ranged from local newspapers to classic literature, popular magazines to mechanical/technical guides. Military members could make special requests for items they were interested in receiving. Books in braille were provided for those who had lost their sight in battle.

In 1918, the American Library Association established a library for American military personnel in Paris. Using many of those wartime books as a core for the collection, the library continued and was renamed The American Library in Paris, in 1920. In the spirit of triumph over adversity, the library promoted its mission with the motto: “Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux”, which translates to, “After the darkness of war, the light of books”. Nearly a century later, The American Library in Paris flourishes with twelve provincial branches and remains the largest English-language lending library on the European continent.

"Knowledge Wins". Poster designed by Daniel Stevens, 1918. PR 055.

“Knowledge Wins”. Poster designed by Daniel Stevens, 1918. PR 055.

The original efforts put forth by the Library War Service left lasting legacies. Their prosperous path led to the creation of permanent library departments in the Army, Navy, and Veteran’s Bureau. In 1921, the American Merchant Marine Library Association was founded for the benefit of personnel in the Merchant Marine and U.S. Coast Guard. The Library War Service was also undoubtedly influential in ALA’s ongoing involvement in adult education and international relations. The Armistice ending the Great War was signed on November 11, 1918, but in the end, I think we can confidently say “Knowledge Wins”.


A Slice of the 20th Century – The Bernard Gotfryd Photograph Collection

This post was written by Twila Rios, Intern in the department of  Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections.

It’s tempting sometimes to define history as only items no longer in living memory.  Items over 100 years old usually fit into this definition.  But as an archival student, I’ve often heard the opposite:  “History happens under our feet,” or “history is happening now.”  If we don’t collect more recent items we may not have them when they reach that 100 year mark.  That’s why the Bernard Gotfryd Photograph Collection is such a wonderful acquisition.  It provides a slice of late 20th century history, interesting now and in the future.

The Beatles with Ed Sullivan

The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, PR 276 (Box 7, Folder 104)

With the bulk of the images from the 1960’s and 1970’s, the collection boasts both iconic individuals and those who even now are fading into obscurity.  Largely New York-centric, the collection includes politicians, activists, actors, musicians, writers, artists, and theologians.  Most would recognize the above image of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show; but what about an image of painter Georgia O’Keefe, or politicians Dag Hammorskjold or Adlai Stevenson?  For many the names might be familiar but perhaps not the faces.

Georgia O'Keefe, 1972

Georgia O’Keefe, PR 276 (Box 7, Folder 91)

Hammorskjold and Stevenson, circa 1960

Dag Hammorskjold and Adlai Stevenson, PR 276 (Box 7, Folder 99)












Gotfryd’s photographic career began early and under dangerous circumstances.  When school was closed to Jewish students in Poland during World War II, teenaged Bernard Gotfryd got a job as a photography apprentice. Nazi officers often used the shop to develop their film; which sometimes documented atrocities. Young Gotfryd would make additional copies and smuggle them to the Polish underground.  Eventually he was caught and sent to the concentration camps.  A separate series in this collection contains his book of Holocaust survivor stories Anton the Dove Fancier and other Tales from the Holocaust.

Bernard Gotfryd, 1985

Bernard Gotfryd, PR 276 (Box 7, Folder 107), Photo by Howard Gotfryd

After the war Gotfryd immigrated to the U.S. to work and study photography.  In the 1950’s he settled in Queens, New York where he married and raised two children.  He joined the staff of NewsWeek in 1957.  It was over thirty years of photography for Newsweek that forms the basis of this rich collection of portraits of prominent people and of events between 1960 and 1988.


Mississippi John, circa 1965

Mississippi John Hurt, PR 276 (Box 6, Folder 80)

Mississippi John Hurt was a share cropper in Mississippi who recorded some blues in 1928.  But when that wasn’t successful he went back to share cropping for 35 years.  In 1963 he was rediscovered at a time when folk music was on the rise.  He went on a coffee house and concert round which brought him to New York City and the camera of Bernard Gotfryd.


Cooper_Dali, 1973

Alice Cooper and Salvador Dali, PR 276 (Box 6, Folder 76)

In 1973 Alice Cooper came to New York City at the invitation of Salvador Dali.  The artist wanted to make a piece centered around Alice Cooper. The finished piece was a hologram entitled “First Cylindric Chromo-Hologram Portrait of Alice Cooper’s Brain.”  Who knew that the two ever hung out together?  But Bernard Gotfryd was there on assignment to capture some photos.



Max Ascoli, PR 276 (Box 6, Folder 72)

There’s a note from Gotfryd on the back of this Max Ascoli photograph.  Ascoli was a professor at New York’s New School and editor of the magazine The Reporter.  Gotfryd claims Ascoli said “I like the picture a lot because one can see in my glasses what was on my mind.”


Mother Teresa, 1971

Mother Teresa, PR 276 (Box 2, Folder 19)

These two photos of Mother Teresa were taken in New York City in 1971, the same year she established the first Missionaries of Charity home in the United States, in the south Bronx.

These are just a sampling of the many portraits in the collection.  The Bernard Gotfryd Photograph Collection is available for viewing during regular library hours by advance appointment (to schedule an appointment, email  All subject’s names or subject topics are listed in the Bernard Gotfryd Photograph Collection finding aid.

The Wilderness Cure

This post was written by Kate Burch, Library Page.

“…To a man whose life is chiefly within four brick walls, and whose every breath takes up some part of the street and its filth, whose daily work is such that his body and health are a daily sacrifice to the necessities of sedentary life,- to such a man there is nothing in the whole range of remedial agents to make him so sound and strong and well and in so short a time, like the two or three weeks he can spare for a trip in the woods.”

Camps and Tramps in the Adirondacks, 1880 (F127. A2 N8)

Forest and Stream, August 1917. SK. F1

Forest and Stream, August 1917. SK. F1

Every summer, millions of New Yorkers endure endless traffic, long lines, and crowded transportation to seek refuge from the relentless pace of the city by visiting quieter places. For many, that means a trip to the country, to places like the Adirondacks, the Catskills, and the New England Coast. The paths we follow to these destinations date to the late nineteenth century, when the people of New York found a remedy for the malaise of city life: the wilderness cure.


F127 .A2 T2

New York in the mid-nineteenth century was a vast and prosperous metropolis, but even the glamor of the Gilded Age could not mask serious problems. Overcrowded tenements teemed with garbage and disease, foul air and filthy streets made for a sickly populace, and the politicians and businessmen who ruled the city were greedy and morally bereft. Anxious, overworked, and miserable, New Yorkers found a restorative power in outdoor recreation. The clean air and water of the wilderness could heal the body, while the beauty and solitude of life in the woods revived the soul.

The growth of railroads, steamboats, and trolleys made wilderness travel accessible and affordable to a large population, and by the 1890s, camping was a popular national past-time. Competing transportation companies issued camp guide books, like this one from the Adirondack Railway Company, to advertise their routes as the best path to an idyllic retreat.

Henry C. Squires, 170 Broadway, Descriptive catalogue and price-list of sportsmen's supplies, 1890. (Landauer GV747 .H4 S7 1890)

Henry C. Squires, 170 Broadway, Descriptive catalogue and price-list of sportsmen’s supplies, 1890. (Landauer GV747 .H4 S7 1890)

New York City was serviced by a variety of outdoor supply stores and sporting catalogs that proffered tools, shelters, and apparel to city dwellers planning a wilderness vacation. Outdoor-themed magazines were popular, and an endless array of guidebooks were available to instruct travelers on the best methods of camping and trapping. “Be sure you take with you a large stock of patience and good nature,” Practical Hints on Camping (SK601 .H49) recommends, “A good camper accommodates himself to circumstances and is too much of a philosopher to quarrel.”

Rochester, VT. BV Schermerhorn

Rochester, VT. BV Schermerhorn

Above all, guides to camping urged travelers to keep a diary, to serve as a record of their supplies and expenditures, and also to reflect and document their journeys.

Gene Schermerhorn’s Way Up Diary (BV Schermerhorn) is a beautiful example. The illustrated diary depicts his trips to the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire, showing daily life in the wilderness.

Despite the idyllic landscapes and fresh air, many campers had trouble coping with life in the outdoors.

BV Schermerhorn

Really big mosquitoes. (BV Schermerhorn)

Common complaints included unrelenting insects, uncomfortable beds, rain, and bad food. In the woods, the restraints of civilized society loosened. While many people found this refreshing, some travelers were especially affronted to see people eating with their hands, and having dinner with their hats on.

“After a few days among these environments,” wrote “A Camper” to the New York Times on May 17, 1900, “it seemed to us as if men and women… who had always appeared most decorous in their homes, had forgotten all sense of propriety, and as the season progressed affairs grew even worse.”

Encounters with wildlife (BV Schermerhorn)

Encounters with wildlife (BV Schermerhorn)

Still, most early wilderness travelers found that these annoyances were small compared to the vigor and vitality they gained.

These intrepid explorers left a legacy of enthusiasm for outdoor activity, and provided the popular support needed to create the nation’s first national parks. By documenting their enjoyment of America’s wild spaces, they ensured that future generations of weary New Yorkers could escape to pristine forests and mountains for a much-needed rest.

Outing (GV1 .O9)

Outing (GV1 .O9)

The Photography of Claire Yaffa

This post was written by Twila Rios, Summer Intern in the department of  Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections.

The New-York Historical Society has two collections of photographer Claire Yaffa:  the Claire Yaffa Children with AIDS photograph collection  and the Claire Yaffa New York Foundling Hospital photograph collection.  A portion of the Children with Aids photograph collection is currently on exhibit at N-YHS, through September 1, 2013.


Claire Yaffa Children with AIDS photograph collection,
PR 290 (Box 2, Folder 4)

When looking through these collections a few impressions stand out.  First I am struck by the level of trust that must have existed between Yaffa and her subjects.  Yaffa is able to capture relaxed and genuine portraits of people, often in trying circumstances. I am amazed also at the courage it must have taken to do some of these projects.  Most of the children Yaffa met at the Incarnation Children’s Center died within the ten years that she photographed there.  Yaffa even took photos at their funerals, sometimes with only Yaffa and a few staff in attendance.


Anthony (who died during the Children with AIDS photography project), PR 290 (Box 2, Folder 2)


Yaffa’s courage to take on difficult topics was not limited to the Children with AIDS photos. She photographed the homeless of Westchester County, and also photographed extensively at the programs of the New York Foundling Hospital. Her photos are full of humor, hope and joy despite grim circumstances.  She also insures we see real human beings rather than only the issues at hand.


[Mother and child], New York Foundling,
PR 299 (Box 2, Folder 9)


[Boy with toy], Children with AIDS,
PR 290 (Box 2, Folder 17)

[Girl looking at her own photo], New York Foundling, PR 299, (Box 2, Folder 13)

[Girl looking at her own photo], New York Foundling, PR 299, (Box 2, Folder 13)


[Two children at Puerto Rico Head Start], New York Foundling, PR 299 (Box 1, Folder 6)
















New York Foundling, PR 299 (Box 2, Folder 9)




Yaffa  was prepared to dislike the mothers she photographed at the Foundling’s Temporary Shelter and Crisis Nursery, which were programs to help abused children and their parents. But interacting with the mothers, she began to see them as victims also; individuals as much in need of care and support as their children. Yaffa then discovered that her photos of mothers with their children were having an interesting effect. In the smiling, loving photos Yaffa captured the mothers could see themselves as good parents. They could believe that change was possible and have faith in a happier future for themselves and their children.




New York Foundling, PR 299 (Box 2, Folder 10)




The photos in the two Claire Yaffa collections document the Incarnation Children’s Center and the New York Foundling Hospital in the 80’s and 90’s.  The finding aids can be found via the NYU finding aids portal at Guide to the Claire Yaffa Children with AIDS photograph collection, and Guide to the Claire Yaffa New York Foundling Hospital photograph collection.  The two collections are available for viewing during regular library hours by advance appointment (to schedule an appointment, email


Claire Yaffa Children with AIDS photograph collection,
PR 290 (Box 3, Folder 5)


John Jacob Astor: New York’s landlord

This post was written by Sherry Cortes, Summer Intern in the Department of  Manuscripts

Portrait of John Jacob Astor by Gilbert Stuart, published by William Waldorf Astor, 1899.  PR 52 Portrait File

Portrait of John Jacob Astor by Gilbert Stuart, published by William Waldorf Astor, 1899. PR 52 Portrait File

Born in Walldorf, Germany in 1763, John Jacob Astor was the son of a butcher who traveled to America seeking to improve his condition in life.  It was not long before he made his way to New York City, a still fledgling town at the tip of a small, mostly undeveloped island.   It was here that he would carve out a fortune using a sharp business acumen and pure foresight,  eventually becoming a household name synonymous with New York and wealth.

Starting low on the totem pole, Astor labored as a fur worker before his employer recognized his abilities and sent him into upstate New York to trade with the Native Americans for their furs.  From there he quickly rose in the ranks and soon owned his own shop.  Once this business began to flourish, Astor sought investment opportunities to grow his wealth.  At the urging of his brother, Henry Astor, he began buying property in New York in 1799.  However, real-estate investment remained a side-note to his fur trade, which was to become the American Fur Company in 1808, and one of the largest companies in the country until its dissolution in 1837.  Documents for the American Fur Company can be found in the manuscript collection at the New-York Historical Society.

While Astor increased his monetary value, he also improved his social connections, creating relationships that would be integral to his future real estate dealings.  He became a Mason, where he connected with Governor George Clinton, bought a share of the Tontine Coffeehouse, and made important friendships with Stephen Van Rensselaer and Aaron Burr.  Thanks to these acquaintances, Astor was able to slide with relative ease into the upper echelons of society, although there were always plenty of remarks made about the German immigrant who wiped his mouth on his dining neighbor’s sleeve during a meal.

Map for Deed of land sold by John Jacob Astor to Gilbert Coutant in 1828, MS 25, Astor Family Papers

Map of lots of land from deed sold by John Jacob Astor to Gilbert Coutant at the corner of Bowery, Art Street, and Lafayette Place in 1828. (MS 25, Astor Family Papers.)

It wasn’t until the 1830s when Astor turned his focus from fur to solely real estate.  The entrepreneur was quick to learn tricks of the real-estate game, including ‘lending’ money to landowners.  One notable deal made was when he lent money to his friend, Aaron Burr, who needed quick cash after his duel with Alexander Hamilton.  In return, Burr turned over the lease of his tract of land, now Greenwich Village, which can be found in the Astor Family Papers at the New-York Historical Society.

It was a particular talent of Astor’s to see a plot of land and its potential for profit, no matter how worthless it might have seemed at the time.  He would buy chunks of property for rock-bottom prices, signing his tenants to long term leases of usually twenty one years.  Should the tenant wish to build a house on the property, he could do so at his own expense.  Once the lease ran out, Astor would either buy the house based on a valuation, which usually turned out much lower than what it should have, or he would renew the lease with a much higher rate of rent than before.  He was strict with his tenants, allowing no leniency for those in arrears, thus earning him a reputation as shrewd and hard-hearted.

Map of lots of land from Deed purchased by John Jacob Astor from the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1806. MS 25, Astor Family Papers.

Map of lots of land from deed purchased by John Jacob Astor from the Protestant Episcopal Church between Greenwich and Washington Streets in 1806. (MS 25, Astor Family Papers.)


But it was this cold and calculating personality that helped John Jacob Astor become the wealthiest man in the world.  By the time of his death in 1848, he owned a vast portion of New York City, although his real-estate ventures were not limited to the Island of Manhattan.  Astor also owned properties from New Jersey to the city of Astoria in Oregon.  Not bad for a poor immigrant from a small village in Germany.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!

This post was written by Tammy Kiter, Manuscript Reference Librarian

Who among us doesn’t enjoy a cold, creamy treat on a hot summer day? In honor of July being National Ice Cream month, I thought we’d take a little trip down creamery lane to celebrate ice cream in all its delicious glory.

Rivington's New York Gazatteer, November 25, 1773, N-YHS Newspaper Collection.

Rivington’s New York Gazatteer, November 25, 1773, N-YHS Newspaper Collection.

It is estimated that by the 2nd century BC, Alexander the Great was enjoying ice flavored with honey and nectar. Ice cream was widespread among major Arab cities in the 10th century, where they combined milk or cream with yogurt, rosewater, dried fruits and nuts. When Marco Polo returned to Italy, he brought a recipe that resembled today’s sorbet. In Paris, Procopio Cuto created a crowd-pleasing gelato for his café patrons in the late 17th century.

Recipes for ice cream began to appear in England and America during the early 18th century. Among the earliest were the detailed instructions provided in Mrs. Mary Eale’s Receipts, published in London, in 1718. The Oxford English Dictionary included a definition for ice cream in 1744.

On November 25, 1773, Rivington’s New York Gazetteer featured  the first advertisement for ice cream in the United States. It announced Philip Lenzi’s arrival from London and included a list of fine treats he had available for purchase, including ice cream.

Even Presidents loved ice cream. Accounts show that George Washington bought an ice cream machine for Mount Vernon in 1790 and Dolley Madison served strawberry ice cream at her husband’s Inaugural Ball in 1813.

Advertisement for White Mountain hand-cranked ice cream machine, circa 1900, PR 031, Bella Landauer Collection

Advertisement for White Mountain hand-cranked ice cream machine, circa 1900, PR 031, Bella Landauer Collection

The Quakers also helped introduce ice cream to American colonists when they brought their recipes with them to the U.S.. York County, PA, is known as the birthplace of commercial ice cream production. C. Jacob Fussel, a Quaker from Maryland, built an ice house and ice cream factory with his partner in 1852, creating the first commercially produced and distributed ice cream in the United States.

George Washington may have been the father of our county, but Augustus Jackson is often referred to as “The Father of Ice Cream”. An African American from Philadelphia, PA, he worked as a chef in the White House before returning to his hometown in the 1830s to establish a successful ice cream business and invent a popular technique for manufacturing ice cream.

In 1843, Nancy M. Johnson invented the first hand-cranked ice cream freezer. Over the years, many improvements were made to the original design and electric ice cream makers have gained popularity since the 1960s. White Mountain has been a leader in the industry since 1853. This small advertising card for White Mountain features a replica of their hand-cranked ice cream machine from the early 20th century. The front features their logo and the reverse shows the internal mechanisms of the machine. When opened, the card reveals a pop-up style image with a woman handing the reader a bowl of ice cream.


Entry from shipboard journal of Marcus L. Woodard, April 5, 1861, MS 2869, BV Woodward, Marcus L.

Perhaps a variation on the famous line “One (ice cream), if by land, and two (ice creams), if by sea” would be applicable to the crew upon the Clipper ship, Sunrise, in 1861. In the following entry of his journal, shipmate Marcus L. Woodard writes: “Capt. Raulett tried his skill at making Ice-cream and I never eat better than that which he turned out. He had a regular freezer and plenty of ‘Bordens condensed milk’, plenty of ice and we had for once just as much Ice-cream as we wanted to eat”.

Thanks to German engineer, Carl von Linde, and his development of industrial refrigeration in the 1870s, mass production of ice cream became a possibility and the industry was well on its way to pleasing a broader audience. Prior to the commercialization of ice cream, it was often only available to the wealthy or reserved for special occasions.


Ice Cream and Strawberry Festival, 1863, SY 1863 no. 88

Ice cream even became the inspiration for celebrations and charity fund raisers, such as this Ice Cream and Strawberry Festival, held in New York, in 1863.

Although it may sound like an insult today, the term “soda jerk” became popular in the late 19th/early 20th century, as soda fountain shops sprung up across the country. The soda jerk put flavored syrup into a specially designed glass and added carbonated soda and ice cream. Sundaes were another ice cream parlor favorite. It is possible that the ice cream sundae was invented to circumvent blue laws in some areas that prohibited serving soda on Sundays.


Your Vogue Ice Cream Fun-to-do Book, circa 1930s, PR 031 Bella Landauer Collection.

Italian immigrant, Italo Marchiony, submitted a patent for ice cream cones, originally called “cornucopias”, in 1903. However, legend has it that the modern cone was invented at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, in 1904, by a vendor who’d run out of bowls and began serving ice cream in rolled-up waffles.

Amazingly, this children’s activity book, published in the 1930s by Consolidated Dairy Products Co, Inc., survived without a drop of ice cream on it.

The U.S. Navy commissioned an Ice Cream Barge for military members serving in the Pacific during WWII. An estimated 1,500 gallons of patriotic goodness were pumped out every hour!

As diverse as the people that make up this country, so too are your options for choosing flavors and textures of ice cream. Non-dairy varieties even exist for vegans or those who are lactose intolerant. Statistics show that ice cream is enjoyed by 90% of the nation’s population. So grab your favorite cold concoction and watch out for that brain freeze!


“They deliberately set fire to it … simply because it was the home of unoffending colored orphan children”: The New York Draft Riots and the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum

This post was written by Matthew Murphy, Head of Cataloging and Metadata.

The rioters burning and sacking the Colored Orphan Asylum. Harper's Weekly, August 1, 1863.

The rioters burning and sacking the Colored Orphan Asylum. Harper’s Weekly, August 1, 1863.

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the New York Draft Riots, one of bloodiest and most violent insurrections in American history. A perfect storm of social unrest, ethnic hatred, and class conflict led to the brutal and horrifying riots, which were popularized (and somewhat sensationalized) by Martin Scorsese’s film, “Gangs of New York” (2002). Lasting from July 13 to July 16, 1863, the draft riots were thought to have caused $1.5 million dollars in damage ($27,577,504.97 in 2013 dollars) and were thought to have resulted in the deaths of nearly a hundred New Yorkers, many of which were free African Americans, who were intentionally targeted by the mob. Of all the morally reprehensible events that took place during the draft riots, one particularly stands out: the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum.

The draft riots began on the morning of Monday, July 13, when hundreds of angry rioters stormed the office of the Ninth District Provost Marshal, which was located at Third Avenue and 47th Street.

Ruins of the Provost Marshal Office. Harper's Weekly, Aug. 1, 1863.

Ruins of the Provost Marshal Office. Harper’s Weekly, Aug. 1, 1863.

Provost Marshals were army officers that dealt with issues related to enlistment and desertion, and upon the passage of the draft laws, were tasked with drawing names for the draft.  Shortly after the pulling of names from the draft wheel began, The angry mob arrived and smashed the windows with cobblestones pulled from the street, and afterwards set the building aflame. Violence continued throughout the day; the Metropolitan Police were unable to quell the mob due to a lack of manpower, as most of the city’s militias were absent, having recently participated in the battle of Gettysburg ten days earlier.

The horrors of the first day culminated in the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum, which was located on Fifth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Street. The Asylum, which was managed by the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans, was a large 4 story building surrounded by grounds and gardens, and at any given time housed between 600 and 800 children.

Colored Orphan Asylum exterior, circa 1860-1861 (PR 065, Stereograph File)

Colored Orphan Asylum exterior, circa 1860-1861 (PR 065, Stereograph File)

The records of The Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans, which are held by the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library of the New-York Historical Society, provide a window into the horrific events of that day.

It is not known what (if any) records were destroyed by the fire, but we are fortunate enough to have much of this organization’s records intact. Although there are no entries for July 13, 1863, the Minutes of the Board Meeting from July 25, 1863, several days after the riots ended, describes what occurred (below): “On the 13th July at 4 PM, an infuriated mob … surrounded the premises of the Asylum and 500 of them entered the house … they deliberately set fire to it … simply because it was the home of unoffending colored orphan children.”

Minutes of the Board of the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans, July 25, 1863 (MS 24, Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans Records)

Minutes of the Board of the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans, July 25, 1863 (MS 24, Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans Records)

In the Admission Records, which were used to track the admission, current status and discharge information of each child, there is a hastily scrawled entry, most likely made after the riots (below): “William H. Judson … admitted July 6, 1863. Left with us just after [i.e. before] the riot.”  One can only imagine the terror experienced by this child, having just entered a place of safety and care, only to be forced to flee.

Admission record for William H. Judson. July, 1863 (MS 24, Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphan Records)

Admission record for William H. Judson. July, 1863 (MS 24, Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphan Records)

The twenty-seventh annual report of the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans, which covered 1863 and was published in 1864, describes the events of the day in more detail, mentioning how a ruthless mob of several hundred men, women and children broke down the front door with an axe, and proceeded to ransack the building and set it on fire. The mob stole whatever they could, even baby clothes that were gifted to the Asylum. Thankfully, while the mob was focused on gaining entrance, the superintendent of the Asylum, William E. Davis, and the head matron, Jane McClellan, quietly snuck the children out the back.

The inner front cover of the Bible that was saved from the Colored Orphan Asylum (MS24, Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphan Records)

The inner front cover of the Bible that was saved from the Colored Orphan Asylum (MS24, Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphan Records)

The report states that before leaving the building: “One little girl, as she walked through the dining room, took up a large family bible … and looking up at the superintendent with a sweet smile … ‘See’, said she, ‘Mr. Davis, I’ve got the Bible.’ This dear child carried this treasured volume to the station house, and thence to Blackwell’s Island.”  This very Bible, (at left) though incomplete, is held by the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, as part of the records of the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans.

While the staff and children were making their escape, a crew of firefighters, led by Chief Engineer Decker of Hook and Ladder Company No. 2, valiantly fought the flames and the mob at the same time. The twenty-seventh annual report of the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans recounts the event: “On entering the building, Decker said to his men, ‘Will you stick by me?’ This they promised to do, and were immediately engaged in extinguishing some ten or fifteen fires … this was of little avail, for the mob had decreed its destruction … and Decker was told if he repeated this act, he should be killed. His men replied, ‘In that attempt you will have to pass over our dead bodies.’Though the firefighters fought the flames again and again, the building eventually succumbed to the mob.

Louis B. Rader, who had recently moved into a new home on 45th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, witnessed the burning of the Asylum, and he recounts this in a letter to his friend Don Alonzo, dated July 15, 1863: “Monday afternoon the mob burnt a hotel on my corner and the orphan asylum on the corner below … I left everything in my house … and moved backed [sic] to my father-in-law’s house in 30th Street near 8th Avenue for safety for my family …”

The children were taken to the Twentieth Precinct building which was located on 35th Street near 7th Avenue, where they remained safe until the riots subsided on July 16, 1863. Afterwards, they were moved to Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), along with many other African-American refugees whose homes had been burned by the mob, livelihoods had been ruined, and family members had been murdered in cold blood. The Association had to start from scratch—all had been lost in the fire, at an estimated value of $80,000 ($1,470,800.23 in 2013 dollars). All 233 children survived the riots, and after a short time at Governor’s Island, were moved to a residence in Carmansville, a village that existed within the present day boundaries of the Hudson River, West 158th Street, Broadway and West 142nd Street.

The Asylum was rebuilt in 1867 at 143rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, and in 1907 was relocated again to the Riverdale section of the Bronx. In 1944, the Association’s name was changed to the Riverdale Children’s Association; it went through several moves and name changes until 1988, when the Westside Center for Family Services, as it was then known, merged with Harlem-Dowling Children’s Services.

Portions of the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans records have been digitized and are available via the New-York Historical Society’s Manuscript Collections Relating to Slavery web site. 

Attending Ford’s Theater with the Lincolns: the tragic lives of Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone


Henry Rathbone, with Clara Harris, attempting to stop John Wilkes Booth. (PR 052, Currier and Ives Print)

Most Americans are familiar with the events of the Lincoln assassination. On the evening of April 14th, 1865 Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln went to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. During the play the actor John Wilkes Booth snuck into the Presidential Box and shot President Lincoln. However the details of the other couple in the Presidential Box that night, Clara Harris and her fiancée Henry Rathbone, have largely been forgotten. Unfortunately their tragic future was also determined by the horrors of that night.

Clara Harris was the daughter of Senator Ira Harris of New York. After Harris’s mother died, her father married Pauline Rathbone. Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris were step-brother and sister but still fell in love and eventually became engaged to be married. Henry joined the US Army after the outbreak of the Civil War and saw many bloody battles.  He had hoped to come home from the war, marry his fiancée, and move on with his life. Clara Harris had become friends with the First Lady through the Washington social scene. Others had been invited to Ford’s theater that night, including Julia and Ulysses S. Grant, but all had turned down the invitation.

Lincoln was reportedly enjoying the play until Act III when John Wilkes Booth came into the Presidential Box and suddenly shot the President in the back of the head. Startled, Henry stood up and wrestled with Booth, who stabbed him severely in the arm hurting him from shoulder to elbow. As Booth began his escape, Henry screamed “Stop that man!” while Clara yelled, “The President is shot!” Seriously injured, Lincoln was moved to a house across the street from the theater and died the next morning with many in attendance, including Clara.

Lincoln's Death

Mourners at the death of President Lincoln. Clara Harris is depicted in a lavendar dress at the far right. (PR 052, Currier & Ives Print)

The library at the New-York Historical Society has a letter that Clara Harris wrote to her friend Mary describing that frightful night. She describes Mrs. Lincoln seeing blood on Clara’s dress and screaming, “oh! my husbands blood.” Only later would they learn that it was mostly Henry’s blood on Clara’s dress from his severe stab wound.

Harris letter

Letter dated April 25, 1865 from Clara Harris to her friend Mary describing the night of the assassination. She describes how Mrs. Lincoln saw Clara and exclaimed, “oh! my husband’s blood, – my dear husband’s blood- which it was not, though I did not know it at the time. The President’s wound did not bleed externally..” (AHMC Harris, Clara)

After the terrible night at Ford’s Theater, Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone married and had three children. However, Henry was never able to get over what happened at Ford’s Theater. He felt guilty for surviving the assassination and believed, as many had gossiped, that he should have done more to prevent the tragedy from happening. He felt he could never escape attention for being there that night and began to suffer from hallucinations and eventually declined into mental illness. On Christmas Eve in 1883 while living in Germany, he attacked his own family and himself.  Almost imitating the assassination of years before, he shot Clara and stabbed himself several times with a knife.  Clara died from the attack, and Henry was declared insane.  He was committed to an asylum for the criminally insane in Germany and his children were sent to live with their uncle in the United States. Henry died in 1911 and was buried with Clara in a cemetery in Germany.

For many years, Clara kept her bloody dress from the night at Ford’s Theater in a closet in their family summer home in Albany. According to family lore, she had the closet walled up with bricks after believing that she saw Lincoln’s ghost.  In 1910 their eldest son, Henry Riggs Rathbone, had the dress burned stating that it had been nothing but a curse on his family.

The story of the couple’s life is mostly remembered through historic fiction.  Clara Harris’s stained dress was the subject Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews’s 1930 book The White Satin Dress The story of the ill fated couple is also told in Thomas Mallon’s 1995 book Henry and Clara.


General Grant Dines in Vicksburg

Written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.

One hundred-fifty years ago, in the late spring of 1863, the news was troubling for Federal forces as they awaited an invasion of the northern states by Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  The hope was that Major General Ulysses S. Grant, operating with some independence in the West, could accomplish his goal of gaining full control of the Mississippi River.  Standing in the way was the Confederate outpost at Vicksburg.  Grant’s determined pursuit of this goal included attempting to build a canal to bypass the stronghold, a frontal assault on the city, the laying of mines under Confederate barricades, and bombardment from gunboats.  He finally settled into a relentless siege of the city.

Cave Life in Vicksburg During the Siege, 1863.  Etching by Adalbert Johann Volck, PR.010.1.30

Cave Life in Vicksburg During the Siege, 1863. Etching by Adalbert Johann Volck, PR.010.1.30

As the siege of Vicksburg began in the third week of May 1863, General Grant’s troops dug themselves into over 60,000 feet of trenches around the works protecting the city.  Stationed in nearby dugouts and forced to conserve ammunition, the Confederate defenders could only trade nightly gibes and barter for coffee and newspapers with their besiegers.  Civilians shoveled themselves into more commodious hillside caves, an arrangement the Union soldiers dubbed “Prairie Dog Village.”  The non-combatants usually managed to escape the exploding shells but suffered most from the food and water shortages.

Confederate survivors of the siege of Vicksburg contended that most civilians were as generous as they could be but that, as the wealthy had been able to flee, the danger of starvation fell to the indigent and to abandoned Confederate army horses.  Survivors would also recall the multiple terrors of incendiary shells, Federal sharpshooters firing on anyone who approached the river for water, and newly-designed Parrott missiles so rapid that they arrived even before the report of the gun could be heard.

Also fired was a bit of psychological warfare in the form of a printed circular beginning, “Cave in boys and save your lives, which are considered of no value by your officers.”

To Our Friends in Vicksburg!  SY 1863 no. 1.  The allusion to General Henry E. McCulloch refers to a failed attempt to relieve the Confederates at the Battle of Milliken’s Bend.

To Our Friends in Vicksburg! SY 1863 no. 1. The allusion to General Henry E. McCulloch refers to a failed attempt to relieve the Confederates at the Battle of Milliken’s Bend.

A Union officer claimed that 300 leaflets were fired in bombshells into Confederate lines with the hope that a few would arrive intact and help break the resolve of the besieged.  It may be more likely that the small papers were floated in balloons.  In any case, the Confederates apparently saw none of them, but this one—likely never fired or floated—survives in the New-York Historical Society collections.

In a city where the besieged citizens and soldiers lacked for food and water, the shortage of paper would have been of relatively small concern, but the editor of the Vicksburg Daily Citizen also had to be resourceful.

[Vicksburg] Daily Citizen, July 2,4, 1863, verso.  Newspaper collection

[Vicksburg] Daily Citizen, reverse sides of July 2 and 4th issues, 1863. Newspaper collection

Like newspaper publishers elsewhere in the Confederacy, he issued his newspaper on the blank side of bolts of wallpaper.  The paper’s tone is one of defiance as it reports on the success of Robert E. Lee marching toward Gettysburg (“To-day Maryland is ours, tomorrow Pennsylvania will be, and the next day Ohio”).

[Vicksburg] Daily Citizen, July 2, 1863.  Newspaper collection

[Vicksburg] Daily Citizen, July 2, 1863. Newspaper collection

Editor J. M. Swords ridicules the “Yankee Generalissimo” Grant’s ambition to dine in Vicksburg on the Fourth of July by reminding the general that he would have to “catch the rabbit” first.  He assures the citizens that “there is plenty within our lines” and that “Confederate beef,” i.e., mule meat, is “sweet, savory and tender.”  This rare surviving newspaper, dated July 2, 1863, was found set in type in the printing office when, on July 4, the city capitulated and Federal forces entered after 47 days of siege.  Not losing an opportunity to put out the news, the Union troops reissued the paper with this addendum in the lower right corner:

Note.  Two days bring about great changes.  The banner of the Union floats over Vicksburg.  Gen. Grant has “caught the rabbit;” he has dined in Vicksburg, and he did bring his dinner with him.  The “Citizen” lives to see it.  For the last time it appears on “Wall-paper.”  No more will it eulogize the luxury of mule-meat and fricasseed kitten—urge Southern warriors to such diet never more.  This is the last wall-paper edition, and is, excepting this note, from the types as we found them.  It will be valuable here-after as a curiosity.


[Vicksburg] Daily Citizen, July 4, 1863, excerpt.  Newspaper collection

[Vicksburg] Daily Citizen, July 4, 1863, excerpt. Newspaper collection

 As for the citizens of Vicksburg, Mississippi, tradition states that they did not celebrate the Fourth of July for decades.


Before the Declaration of Independence…

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

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

The line between historical obscurity and fame is often a fine one. It’s not surprising then that on July 4th no one thinks about the most important document produced by Congress before the Declaration of Independence: the Declaration of the Causes and of the Necessity of Taking Up Arms. As its title implies, it was a justification for armed resistance to England’s abusive treatment of the colonies, with a chronicle of outstanding grievances.

Like many such historic texts written “by committee” its authorship has been the subject of some curiosity. Roger L. Kemp offers the now accepted explanation in Documents of American Democracy: A Collection of Essential Works. On June 26, 1775, after Congress had scrapped the first draft by John Rutledge of South Carolina, it appointed to the committee Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson, of Pennsylvania. Ultimately, Dickinson wrote the final version, incorporating content from a previous draft by Jefferson. Though that draft is held by the Library of Congress, an original draft, in Dickinson’s hand, resides at the New-York Historical Society.


The first page of Dickinson’s draft,1775. AHMC – Dickinson, John

Perhaps influenced to some extent by his Quaker roots, Dickinson favored a measured course of action and so Congress presumably intended for him to mollify Jefferson’s more combative rhetoric.  In fact, Dickinson’s demeanor had previously led John Adams to reflect in his diary that “Mr. Dickinson is very modest, delicate and timid.”  He would also later oppose the Declaration of Independence, believing it was premature for such a drastic measure. Still, the Declaration of Causes suggests Dickinson’s approach did not preclude defiance. After all, the title itself is indicative of its purpose: a defense of “taking up arms” by the colonies. Even excepting Jefferson’s rebellious influences, the document was far from conciliatory. Among the more quotable of Dickinson’s prose is “Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable.”

Detail of Dickinson's draft of the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for taking up Arms. AHMC - Dickinson, John

Detail of Dickinson’s draft of the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for taking up Arms. AHMC – Dickinson, John

With the events at Lexington and Concord already three months old, Congress adopted the resolution in Philadelphia on July 6th 1775. It’s no secret that  the Crown’s lack of movement would precipitate the Declaration of Independence the following year. The rather obvious, but critical, difference was that the Declaration of Causes merely threatened King George III with colonial independence while the Declaration of Independence severed ties unequivocally. As for Dickinson’s role in it, contrary to some sources he did not actually vote against the Declaration of IndependenceHe simply remained absent while Congress voted on it. What’s more, he subsequently played an active political and military role in the colonial cause.

That brings up an interesting side note. For some time after John Trumbull painted his famous work Declaration of Independence, Stephen Hopkins was identified as the man in the hat standing off to the side of the proceedings; however, art historian Irma Jaffe confirmed in the 1970s that this identification was incorrect and the figure was instead John Dickinson.

W. Greatbach's print of John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence, with Dickinson highlighted. PR 68 Subject File

W. Greatbach after John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence with Dickinson highlighted. PR 68 Subject File

In any event, over two hundred years later, our nation infuses the Declaration of Independence with monumental significance while the Declaration of the Causes of Taking Up Arms remains something of a footnote to most Americans — and unjustly so. Although it’s understandably of secondary importance, it still offers a unique record of the escalating discontent in the colonies, and represents the  penultimate step to declaring independence from England. Taken in that light, it’s hardly an insignificant piece of American history.


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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