New-York Historical Society

“Fleeting Magic Designs”: Arnold Genthe and the Dance

Written by Maureen Maryanski, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.

In the early 20th century, a new form of dance was emerging, one fostered by periods of experimentation in European cities and transferred to American stages by impassioned personalities led by Isadora Duncan. As this new, modern dance both challenged and influenced other dances from ballet to vaudeville, the lines between these forms became blurred allowing for a cacophony of creative expression. The dance world was expanding and changing in a myriad of ways, and nowhere was that more evident than in New York City, where high and low dance shared the same urban space and exchanged ideas and inspiration. Modern dance, as with other modernist movements of the time, sought new forms with which to express the spirit of modern times, and as Duncan phrased it, to express “the free spirit, who will inhabit the body of the new woman; more glorious than any woman that has yet been…the highest intelligence in the freest body.”

As modern dance developed and evolved, dance photography also began to develop, influenced by photographer Arnold Genthe (1869-1942), who utilized his signature style to capture dancers “in the free movement of the dance.” As discussed last month on the blog (, Genthe avoided posed photographs, choosing to capture his subjects in an unobtrusive manner, the better to express the essence of a human being. This same principle he applied to his dance photography. Here it was not just the soul and spirit of the dancer he sought to capture, but the motion of the dance, those “fleeting magic designs made by the human body.” Genthe’s goal was to create an image that suggested both the “proceeding as well as the following movement,” that suggested motion, “fluent, dynamic, natural.”

In his memoir, Genthe spent several pages discussing the difficulty of photographing this ephemeral art form adequately, claiming that very few of his pictures do dance justice, even those published in the 1916 volume The Book of the Dance. However, he is considered one of the pioneers in the field of dance photography, and his images include some of the leading participants in early modern dance, including Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, and Anna Pavlova.

The following examples of dance photography from the Genthe collection at the New-York Historical Society offer insight into the variety of dances performed in early 20th century New York City.

Isadora Duncan (1877-1927). PR 19, Genthe Collection

Isadora Duncan (1877-1927). PR 19, Genthe Collection

Lauded as the “Mother of Modern Dance,” Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) challenged established forms of dance through an emphasis on expressing the human spirit through movement. She performed throughout Europe and America and became a popular symbol and subject for modernists and artists. Photographed in New York between 1915 and 1918, Genthe was originally commissioned to take only a passport photo, but Duncan was so enraptured with the photograph and his style she had him take several more photographs of her and her dancers. As Duncan wrote in her autobiography My Life, his “pictures were never photographs of his sitters but his hypnotic imagination of them. He has taken many pictures of me which are not representations of my physical being but representations of conditions of my soul.” These photographs have since become some of the most famous made of Duncan and were included in the memorial volume Isadora Duncan: Twenty-four Studies by Arnold Genthe (1929). This photograph features Duncan barefoot and in a white Grecian tunic, signatures of her early dances and the inspiration she drew from Ancient Greece.

Isadorables. PR 19, Genthe Collection

Isadorables. PR 19, Genthe Collection

Duncan saw the education of the young as one of her key missions. To that end she opened several schools during her lifetime to teach young women the art of the dance. The first of these opened in Germany in 1904. From this school six Duncan protégées emerged who traveled and danced with Duncan into the 1920s.  Lovingly called the Isadorables, Duncan eventually adopted the six girls, and they took her last name. In addition to photographing Duncan, Genthe photographed the Isadorables between 1915 and 1918 in solo portraits and group shots, such as in this outdoor image.

Margaret Severn (), dancing at the water's edge. PR 19, Genthe Collection

Margaret Severn (), dancing at the water’s edge. PR 19, Genthe Collection

Margaret Severn (1901-1997) was an internationally acclaimed dancer who trained in ballet in London before returning to the United States during the First World War. She is most well-known for her role in the Greenwich Village Follies of 1921 and her use of Benda masks, which she performed with on the vaudeville circuit until 1928. These life-like papier-mache face masks were sculpted by Polish-American artist Wladyslaw T. Benda (1873-1948) and used in plays and dances in both New York and London, including stage productions for Eugene O’Neill and Noel Coward. This print of Severn dancing on the beach was made between 1924 and 1942 from a 1923 negative and is sometimes referred to as “Scarf Dance.” Another Genthe photograph of Severn from a similar, or possibly the same, beach photo shoot was published in the January 1924 issue of Vanity Fair.

Marion Morgan Dancers. PR 19, Genthe Collection

Marion Morgan Dancers. PR 19, Genthe Collection

The Marion Morgan Dancers was a troupe of predominantly female dancers founded and led by Marion Morgan (d. 1971) who performed interpretative dances based on classical legends and antiquity, such as Helen of Troy.  Originally formed in California, they appeared on the vaudeville stage for nearly a decade, from 1916 to the mid-1920s. At that point, the group began working in Hollywood, contributing inserted dance sequences to films such as Don Juan (1926) and  Up in Mabel’s Room (1926). Morgan also choreographed sequences for several films of her partner, director Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979), including Ten Modern Commandments (1927) and Manhattan Cocktail (1928); however, the group and Morgan’s choreography did not survive the transition to sound films. Morgan’s dances emphasized pantomime and tableaux, as well as elaborate staging and costuming, as evidenced by this Genthe photograph from the period.

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Historians and America’s First Secret Societies

This posting was written by Kevin Butterfield, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the New-York Historical Society, 2012-1013.

Mason Hall, Broadway near Pearl Street, 1831 (PR 003)

Much of what we know about the past we know for one simple reason: someone took the care to record and to preserve some record of his or her time. Thankfully, people like New York’s Philip Hone, whose twenty-eight quarto volumes in the diary he kept for decades wound up at the N-YHS, were virtual packrats and incessant chroniclers of their lives.

That urge to keep and to preserve records was, if anything, even more pronounced in the clubs and voluntary societies of the early United States. It became astonishingly common in the fifty or so years following the American Revolution for men and women to create fraternal clubs, debating societies, and other voluntary associations. These people often went out of their way to record their proceedings—and to preserve them. When a debating and literary club for young men in Long Island discovered in 1822 that they’d filled up one book with all their debates, club elections, and so on, the Mamaluion Society allocated funds to buy a new blank book to record their proceedings. And when they showed up one day for a meeting and couldn’t locate the book, they were at a loss and didn’t even know how—or whether—to go on with the meeting.

New England Anti-Masonic Almanac depicting secret rituals, 1829 (Mass.1829.N49 B64)

But many of these same groups kept secrets. They had secret initiation rituals, locked doors, and strict rules against divulging what happened within the confines of the club. Such secrecy had begun, in seventeenth-century England, as a strategy to protect clubs and societies from the watchful eye of church and state, but it continued in the far less repressive setting of the new American republic for different reasons. Most commonly, secrecy was a strategy to create close ties among men who could then know that they shared knowledge with one another that other men just didn’t possess. They could be more tightly knit, more caring, more charitable to one another—all thanks to the wonders of shared secrets. Thomas Power wrote a long, mostly bad poem about the glories of “Secrecy” that he delivered to his fellow Freemasons in 1832 Boston, pairing secrecy not with conspiracy or hidden power but with charity, friendship, and love.

Another reason that people in the early decades of the American republic often chose to insulate themselves from the outside world by vows of secrecy is…well, almost adorable. In a lot of cases, it was a product of shyness. Young men would form a reading club or a debating society, but they also knew that they didn’t yet have the oratorical skills or esoteric literary knowledge that might suitably impress everyone else. Gathering together to develop those skills was precisely the point, and so a policy of strict secrecy was implemented. Take the Schaghticoke Polemic Society, for example, which was a group of young men who met in 1797 in a small town in Rensselaer County to debate the issues of the day and whose manuscript book of minutes is kept at the N-YHS. They created strict rules enjoining secrecy, to which they added an oath: “That I will not in any manner whatever divulge the proceedings thereof, so that the same may operate to the disadvantage of any member or members” of the society. The society’s first president, Edward Ostrander, declared that this was probably the best way “to fortify us against every embarrassment.”

Historians are not without some tools for exploring these societies with secrets. For one thing, these groups tended to keep records for themselves, under lock and key, that have survived for posterity. The men of Schaghticoke recorded their meetings in great detail, even if their contemporaries saw only a closed door.

The World’s Wonder; or, Freemasonry Unmasked: To Which Is Added a Key to the Phi Beta Kappa, John W. Carter.

And sometimes secrets were publicly divulged by an outsider or a disgruntled ex-member, who often went straight to a printer with the scoop. We know as much as we do about early Freemasonry because Englishman Samuel Prichard published Masonry Dissected in 1730.The exposé, according to historian Steven Bullock, was so accurate in its descriptions of rituals and passwords that the English lodges were forced to make changes just to keep interlopers from crashing their meetings. In the heat of the American Anti-Masonic furor of the 1820s and 1830s—itself sparked by the disappearance and possible murder of one William Morgan, who proposed to print a book exposing some of Masonry’s few remaining secrets—more and more exposés came out, some including plates with visual depictions of all the key Masonic ceremonies.

Still, there are some secrets that apparently went to the grave with the members. And there’s one in particular I’d love to solve. The Mamaluion Society I mentioned above, which was founded in 1816, made as the first order of business in its constitution (preserved in their book of minutes at the N-YHS) the announcement of the name of the society—and the declaration that its meaning shall forever remain hidden.

Sec. 1. This Society shall be distinguished, and known by the name of the Mamaluion Society.

Sec. 2. The enigmatical interpretation of the word Mamaluion shall be made known to none, only to the members of this Society; and any members who shall divulge the meaning of the name to a non member shall be expelled the Society

Constitution, By-laws, Proceedings of the Mamaluion Society, 1816-1823, Article 1, sec. 2. (MS 1776)

There’s no record of what the name meant. If it was a simple letter-substitution code, then it’s possible that the name “Mamaluion” was intended to have the secret meaning of “Cucumbers” or “Ululating.” But that doesn’t seem right. Nearly 200 years later, it remains, as they had very much hoped in 1816, a secret.

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Happy 100th Anniversary, Woolworth Building!

Written by Marybeth Kavanagh, Print Room Reference Librarian

April 24, 1913, 7:30pm:  President Woodrow Wilson presses a telegraphic button in Washington, DC, illuminating eighty thousand bulbs in the newly constructed Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway in New York City, and ushering in the era of the modern skyscraper.

View of the Woolworth Building, undated. Browning Photograph Collection PR 09

Constructed in neo-Gothic style by architect Cass Gilbert, who was commissioned by F.W. Woolworth  to design the new corporate headquarters of his five-and-dime empire, the Woolworth Building was then the tallest building in the world at 792 feet. The cost of construction was approximately $13,500,000.00, which Woolworth paid in cash.  A celebratory dinner for over 800 people on the 27th floor of the “Cathedral of Commerce” continued the opening ceremonies that April evening.

Woolworth Building Opening Banquet, April 24, 1913. PR, new acquisition

Speeches and toasts were made,  and Mr. Woolworth presented Mr. Gilbert with a silver punch bowl designed by Tiffany and Company.  This bowl was recently acquired by the New-York Historical Society, and is now on display in our Smith Gallery.  The inscription reads:  “Presented to Cass Gilbert by Frank W. Woolworth as a Mark of Appreciation at the Formal Opening of The Woolworth Building on the 24th of April 1913.”

Tiffany & Co. (1837-present), Presentation punch bowl commemorating the opening of the F.W. Woolworth Building, 1913. Sterling silver with gold inscription.2013.12


                 In celebration of the Woolworth Building’s 100th anniversary, we’ve decided to share some of the many fascinating artifacts of the Woolworth Building’s history and design that can be found within the library’s Cass Gilbert Collection (PR 21).  This collection consists of over 500 linear feet of architectural drawings, ledgers, sketchbooks, scrapbooks, photographs, architect’s specifications, project files, and correspondence spanning the years 1887 to 1934.  It documents the first meetings between Gilbert and Woolworth in 1910, through the building’s construction and completion and beyond to include promotional brochures, reviews and articles about the Woolworth Building. This is intended to be the first in a series of blog posts that highlights a selection of our Woolworth-related collections.

The Woolworth Building Pool

One of the more surprising elements of the Woolworth Building is the pool in the sub-basement.  Hoping to attract high-end tenants, Woolworth planned to offer a package of  modern amenities.  These special features included a  shopping arcade, high speed elevators, a private club, an observatory, a rathskeller, a barber shop, a nurses office, and a health club with a swimming pool.

Construction of Swimming Pool, Woolworth Building, Dec. 31, 1912. PR 21

For the basement swimming pool, Gilbert hired the decorating firm Mack, Jenney and Tyler to paint wall and ceiling  panels suggesting a “Pompeiian” bath.

Presentation drawing, Decoration of Swimming Pool in Sub Basement of Woolworth Building, undated. PR 21

Sadly, this design was never carried out.  By the time the final specs for the pool had been approved, all orders for the “Pompeiian” detail had been changed. When the pool opened in 1913, it looked like this:

Swimming Pool, Woolworth Building, ca. 1913. PR 21

Into the 1980s, the pool was  part of a Jack LaLane Fitness club.  It was drained in the late 1990s, and as of now is no longer in use.

Remains of the Woolworth Swimming Pool, 2000. Holly Hinman, photographer. Woolworth Photograph Collection PR 187



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James Vick and his Illustrated Floral Guides

Spring fever was as common 150 years ago as it is now, and for many winter-weary souls, the illustrated seed catalogs that began appearing in that era are still the closest thing to a cure.

Vick's Illustrated Floral Guide, 1873. Landauer SB 403.V6 1873.

Among the many fine examples of early seed catalogs in our collections, my personal favorites were produced by James Vick, a Rochester seedsman who began his career in the printing trade in New York City.  Vick was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1818, and in 1833, he and his parents moved to New York City, where he set type for, among other publications, the Knickerbocker Magazine.  The family moved to Rochester in 1837, and Vick continued to work there as a printer in local newspaper offices.

Vick also developed a passionate interest in flowers and in his leisure time, cultivated a garden.  His interest in horticulture led to his becoming writer and editor — and eventually owner and publisher — of the Genesee Farmer.  In 1853 and 1854 Vick also took over publication of The Horticulturist, started in the late 1840′s by America first landscape designer, A.J. Downing.  By the mid-1850′s, Vick sold these horticultural publications and began focusing all his energies on starting his own seed business.  The Vick Seed Company, established in 1860, sent seeds to customers through mail order and by 1862, employed 150 people and was receiving 3000 letters a day.

Vick's Monthly Magazine, December, 1878. New Amaranth, Sunrise chromolithograph. SB1.V5.

Vick’s Floral Guide and Catalog, first produced in 1862, proved to be the perfect outlet for his expertise as a printer, writer, publisher and gardener. Filled with charming wood-cut engravings and vivid color plates (by some accounts, Vick was the first to use color illustrations in a U.S. seed catalog), the Floral Guide quickly became the most popular seed catalog of its day. “Vicks Floral Guide came like the first breath of spring, with promise of future bloom,” raves a typical magazine review. “Vicks catalog, like his seeds and plants, is first class.  It is finely illustrated, on good paper, and with two beautiful colored plates.”

It wasn’t only the pictures that set Vick’s seed catalogs apart: he was also a first-rate writer who entertained his readers with advice and anecdotes touching on every aspect of gardening and beyond.  A consummate salesman, Vick enticed his readers with tantalizing descriptions of the plants he sold: “The Chinese Paeonies are so valuable on account of their large size, beautiful coloring and delightful fragrance, and so entirely hardy and vigorous, that I am anxious all my customers should have at least a White and Pink variety.” But Vick’s enthusiasm for gardening was more than merely commercial.  His stated desire to “create a taste for the beautiful in gardening, and a true love of flowers among the people,” found expression in many fanciful passages, like the following: “Man may be refined and happy without a garden; he may even have a home of taste, I suppose, without a tree, or shrub, or flower; yet, when the Creator wished to prepare a proper home for man, pure in all his tastes and made in His own image, He planted a garden and placed this noblest specimen of creative power in it to dress and keep it.”

Vick's Floral Guide, 1889. McCollum's Hybrid Tomato, Irondequoit Musk Melon chromolithograph. Landauer SB403.V6 1889.

Indeed, Vick soon discovered that publishing the Floral Guide twice a year “did not seem to give us facilities for saying all the we wished,” and began publishing quarterly in 1873, eventually expanding in 1878 to a monthly magazine that flourished for over three decades.  Each issue had at least 32 pages and included several feature articles on gardening topics, followed by special sections for “Correspondence” (letters from readers), “Foreign Notes” (information about foreign plants and gardens and quotes from foreign periodicals), “Pleasant Gossip” (containing anecdotes and comments from both editor and readers on gardening issues), and “Our Young People” (aimed at children) — all, of course, profusely and beautifully illustrated.  Widely advertised and distributed, the magazine was very popular  and helped make Vick’s a household name.

James Vick died of pneumonia at age 63 on May 16, 1882, just four years after he began his monthly magazine, but his sons carried on his magazine and seed business, which prospered into the early 1900′s before being sold to the Burpee Seed Company.  “If we may judge by the letters of his correspondents,” reads the obituary that appeared in the June, 1882 Monthly Magazine, “those who knew him only by his publications felt the magic of his poetic temperament and goodness of heart, and came to regard him as a friend and faithful counselor rather than as a tradesman.”

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Beyond “A Photographic Mask”: An Introduction to Arnold Genthe

This post was written by Maureen Maryanski, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.

Arnold Genthe, self portrait

Arnold Genthe, self portrait

One of the best known American photographers of the early 20th century, Arnold Genthe (1869-1942) taught himself photography, experimenting with focus, retouching, and color processes along the way. Trained as an academic in his native Germany, it wasn’t until he moved to San Francisco as a tutor in 1895 that he developed an interest in photography. Through his explorations of the city Genthe began to experiment with the camera, particularly in Tangrenbu, the Chinatown quarter of San Francisco. He took hundreds of candid shots of streetlife with subjects ranging from residents, merchants, and children to gamblers and drug addicts. Many of these photographs are in and out of focus and from odd angles as Genthe had to photograph secretly, often waiting hours in an alley or doorway in order to snap the images inconspicuously. The residents of Chinatown would abandon the streets at the sight of the camera, actions that Genthe attributed to their fear of “the black devil box;” however, it might be better explained by their fear of deportation.

Genthe’s photographs of Chinatown streetlife from 1896 to 1906 are the only surviving photographic documentation of the area from before the 1906 earthquake. While Genthe’s studio and collection of plates and cameras were destroyed during the subsequent fire, approximately 200 negatives of his Chinatown photographs had recently been transferred to a bank vault and were undamaged.  Following the destruction of his studio, Genthe borrowed a hand held camera and photographed the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake. These photographs from his San Francisco period are among his most famous images.

Two children in imperial costume, PR 19, Box 2, Folder 9

Two children in imperial costume, PR 19, Box 2, Folder 9

One of the Chinatown photographs for which Genthe is so well known is an undated print of two children in imperial costume in front of a vase shop. A cropped reproduction of this photograph appears in his memoir As I Remember; however, the full image reveals the cobblestones of the street to the right and one of San Francisco’s street cars. Genthe would often retouch his photographs, removing evidence of Western presence in Chinatown, such as signs in English or Caucasians on the streets.

Greta Garbo, 1925, PR 19, Box 5, Folder 32

Greta Garbo, 1925, PR 19, Box 5, Folder 32

Genthe was also a successful portrait photographer, first in San Francisco, but most famously in New York, with an impressive clientele that included presidents, stars of stage and screen, socialites, and celebrities. Arriving in New York in 1911, he established a portrait studio at 562 Fifth Avenue. From his early days of portraiture, Genthe was determined to create photographs of people with more “relation to life and to art than the stiffly posed photographs that gave the effect of masks behind which the soul of the subject was lost.” To avoid these posed photographs and capture more of the spirit and character of his subjects, he chose to photograph in an unobtrusive manner, without announcing to his subjects the exact moment the exposure was made. In doing so, Genthe sought to go beyond a “surface record” or “commonplace record of clothes and a photographic mask,” in an attempt to capture with the camera a human being’s essence.

Single Dancer, in the style of Isadora Duncan, PR 19, Box 13, Folder 102

Single Dancer, in the style of Isadora Duncan, PR 19, Box 13, Folder 102

An example of Genthe’s portrait style can be seen in his 1925 photographs of Greta Garbo. Shot in Genthe’s New York studio, this series of photographs are dark and dramatic portraits of Garbo early in her American career, emphasizing her eyes and neck. Genthe credited his photographs of Garbo with launching the actress’s American career.

Being based in New York also allowed Genthe the opportunity to photograph the rising new art form of early modern dance. His subjects included some of the most influential figures in dance history from Isadora Duncan to Anna Pavlova, which will be explored in greater detail on the blog next month. Stay tuned!


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Enlightenment in the Cemetery: The Adams Memorial and Buddhism in 19th Century America

The Adams Memorial statue as it appears today in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, DC.

Even in a city with as many monuments as  Washington, D.C., the Adams Memorial is exceptional. Commissioned on the death of his wife by Henry Adams, it is one of the most widely celebrated pieces of American funerary art.

Adams’ wife Clover committed suicide in December 1885. The loss so shook Adams that she is entirely absent from his 1907 autobiographical work, The Education of Henry Adams.  In fact, he excises the entire period of their marriage, from 1872 until her death. In spite of this, Adams does reference the memorial that he preferred to call The Mystery of the Hereafter and The Peace of God that Passeth Understanding for which he enlisted the famed duo of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and architect Stanford White.

Presentation drawing of stonework designed by Stanford White for the Adams Memorial. PR 42, McKim, Mead & White Architectural Records Collection

Tucked away from the mall in Washington’s mildly bucolic Rock Creek Cemetery, it was completed in 1891. A palisade of hedges conceals an impressive, but remarkably simple memorial. Within those hedges is a placid, cloaked figure of ambiguous sex seated across from an exedra, or bench. Often overlooked is the hexagonal footprint of the memorial, employing a shape that in early Christian symbolism represented death, and offering a subtle reminder of the memorial’s function. The layout makes one thing very clear — its focus is inward, literally and figuratively — standing in direct contrast to both the opulent age in which it was constructed, and the aggrandizement commonly found in funerary architecture. The result is an incredible sense of balance between the acute pain of grief and the serenity of contemplation.

Drawing showing the hexagonal base of the memorial. PR 42, McKim, Mead & White Architectural Records Collection

It all seems fitting given that the memorial’s  principal inspiration is Buddhist, though this is all but impossible to discern from the memorial. In spite of his family’s close relationship with Unitarianism, Adams was hardly enthusiastic towards Western religion but, like many of his age, developed an interest  in Buddhism. Consequently, he directed Saint-Gaudens to consider this in his design. And so the memorial’s central figure is the Kannon, a buddhist deity and “the bodhisattva of infinite compassion and mercy,” apparently chosen with the encouragement of John La Farge (with whom Adams had traveled to Japan).

Artistic qualities aside, the Adams Memorial’s symbolism is a reflection of America’s burgeoning relationship with Buddhism in the late nineteenth century. It was hardly the country’s first introduction either; it received superficial treatment in earlier literature, such as the 1784 work of Hannah Adams, An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared in the World From the Beginning of the Christian aera to Present Day, and slightly more substantive interest by Transcendentalists. Still, while Chinese laborers in California established a Buddhist foothold from the late 1840s onwards, it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that the first sustained interest arose among Americans of European descent.

Titlepage of Hannah Adams' An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects... 1784.

One of those often credited as a catalyst is the British writer, Edwin Arnold, whose poetic work, The Light of Asia (1879), stirred a wave of interest from Americans. One of his detractors, William Cleaver Wilkinson, a preacher and poetry professor, expressed the impact of Arnold’s work very nicely:

The publication of Mr. Arnold’s work happened to coincide in time with a singular development, both in American and in Europe, of popular curiosity concerning Buddhism. The “Light of Asia” was well adapted to this transient whim of Occidental taste. So I account, in part, for the instantaneous American popularity of the poem. At any rate, Mr. Arnold has, no doubt, whether by merit or by fortune, been, beyond any other writer, the means of widening the American audience prepared to entertain with favor the pretensions of Buddha and his teachings.

Interestingly, while the memorial he commissioned is such an outstanding symbol of the emerging popularity of Buddhism in this period, Adams never “took refuge” or formally converted in contrast to many well-known contemporaries such as William Sturgis Bigelow, Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky.



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Where to Live in New York: the Women of the Ladies Christian Union

Everyone knows how hard it is to find housing in New York.  However, locating safe housing for young women in New York City in the mid-nineteenth century was particularly difficult.

Promotional picture from the LCU, 1947 (MS 359)

In 1858, a prayer group known as the “Ladies’ Christian Association” recognized this as a common problem and decided to provide housing for young women who were “dependent upon their own exertions for support.”  Led by Mrs. Marshall O. Roberts, the group, now known as the Ladies Christian Union (LCU), bought and rented houses where women could stay when they moved into the city.  Their original home, the Amity House, was the first of its kind. Although the specific rules for each house differed, generally the homes were meant for young, unmarried, Christian women moving to the city to work or study.  The organization quickly grew and by 1958 it owned as many as six houses for women, most with waiting lists to get in.

Brochure of the Ladies Christian Union houses, ca. 1955 (MS 359)

The records of the Ladies’ Christian Union in the N-YHS library document 140 years of efforts to provide safe and affordable housing for young women.  The LCU tried to provide an alternative to the unsanitary and unsavory rooming houses of the nineteenth century and to offer Christian guidance. They worked to make their homes safe and clean and created a homelike environment for boarders with cooked meals, a library, and eventually sewing machines, and laundry. A relief fund was set up to pay for hospital beds in private hospitals for sick boarders and to help girls who could not pay their boarding fees due to illness or tragedy. The collection contains many thank you letters from these young women for the organization’s financial help during times of duress.

The materials in the archive also provide an overview of “career girls” working and studying in New York City from 1858-2001. The collection documents the changes in young women’s professions, fields of study, recreational interests, and political concerns. For instance, early occupations of boarders included teachers, seamstresses, governesses, telegraph operators, and milliners while professions in the twentieth century began to include drama students, secretaries, dancers, librarians, and eventually business and engineering students. Similarly, the patriotic eagerness of women living in the houses during World War II contrasts with accounts from the 1968 Annual Report describing the difficulty of providing housing for young women, “while they are loudly rejecting everything current, including both the domestic and foreign policies of this country.”

Women enjoying the backyard of a LCU home, 1950's (MS 359)

Brochure of the Ladies Christian Union houses, ca. 1955 (MS 359)

Although rules regarding male suitors remained strict, the homes of the LCU did eventually become more modern and allowed for women of all religions and nationalities.  However, the last LCU homes, the Katharine House and the Roberts House, closed to the public in 2000-2001. Continuing its mission, the Ladies Christian Union is now the LCU Foundation, a private, secular foundation that awards grants for housing costs to female students in New York City preparing for careers to serve the community.

If you are an LCU alumnae, feel free to share your memories of living in housing provided by the Ladies Christian Union.


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Grace Hoadley Dodge and the Travelers Aid Society of New York

Women’s History Month is the perfect time to pay tribute to a largely unsung heroine, Grace Hoadley Dodge.

Born in 1856, to a family prominent in both business and philanthropy, Grace Dodge devoted her life to helping underprivileged women.  She was instrumental in founding a number of prestigious and long-lasting aid organizations, including the YWCA, one of the oldest and largest women’s associations in the nation, and the Teachers College at Columbia University, the nation’s oldest and largest graduate school of education (featured in a current exhibit of photographs, documents and artifacts at the New-York Historical Society).

Travelers Aid Society, Annual Report, 1918. F128 HV696 .T7

The New-York Historical Society also holds the papers of another enduring, though less well-known, organization Dodge helped to found: The Travelers Aid Society, the oldest non-sectarian, social welfare organization in the United States.  The idea of aiding travelers had begun as early as 1851, when Bryan Mullanphy, a former mayor of St. Louis, left one-third of his million-dollar estate to assist the movement of westward travelers.  In the 1860′s, several Boston organizations began providing aid to travelers, and in subsequent years, religious organizations offered assistance to travelers of their respective churches.

Dodge, like her contemporaries, viewed “travelers aid” primarily as a means of protecting female travelers from “vice” and the so-called “white-slave traffic,” but her approach to the problem — collecting data, employing professionals, and uniting factions — was ahead of its time.   In 1905, she convened a committee of Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Protestant women to investigate the possibility of providing “regular Travelers’ Aid work at the stations” (up to that time, various religious and other groups had posted placards giving their addresses or met women by special request).  The committee decided to place women agents in one or two major stations to meet women and girls who were traveling alone, and “to judge by the results obtained as to the necessity for further work.”

Travelers Aid Society, Annual Report, 1927. F128 HV696 .T7

Active work began in Grand Central and Pennsylvania stations in July, 1905, and in its first year, the Travelers Aid Society of New York escorted 799 women and children from the stations to “some definite destination” and provided in-station assistance to twice that number.  Encouraged by these results, the organization was formally incorporated in 1907, and rapidly expanded its services in both volume and breadth.  Its credo, set forth in the Travelers Aid Society’s second annual report, exemplifies the catholic attitude which informed all of Dodge’s charitable endeavors:: “Jew and Gentile, Catholic and Protestant, and those of no religion, have been helped, solely on the ground of their necessity, by agents selected for their capacity to help, and for no other reason.  The success so far attending the work has seemed to justify this cause.”  Dodge’s business acumen (J.P. Morgan described her as the best business mind of his acquaintance) was also a factor in the organization’s success.

Not content with merely unifying religious factions, Dodge hoped to also consolidate the various local societies into a single, national or even international organization.  In 1911, she established a “Department of National Cooperation” to help coordinate the work of the Travelers Aid Society of New York with other social service organizations, and in 1914 spearheaded a conference of representatives from Travelers Aid Societies throughout the country.  Although Dodge, who died of “apoplexy” later that year, did not live to see it, her dream of a unified national organization was realized in 1917.   Responding to rapidly changing social conditions, the national organization soon broadened its scope to assist men as well as women immigrants, and expanded from railroad stations to piers, bus stations and eventually airports.  In 1925, the Travelers Aid Society began providing psychiatric services to its clients, one of the first organizations to do so; it was also among the first to employ professionally trained social workers. During WWII, the Travelers Aid Society was one of the original “USO’s” (United Services Organizations) that provided assistance to traveling service men and women, operating “troop transit” lounges in 175 locations, including Grand Central Station.  Although scaled back from its peak years, the Travelers Aid Society still operates today.

Travelers Aid Society/USO "troop transit" lounge at Grand Central. MS 635, Travelers Aid Society Records

Even by the lower-limelight standards of her era, Dodge was extremely shy of publicity.  As a contemporary reporter noted, “No one ever hears of Grace Dodge.  Her name rarely appears in a newspaper, her picture never . . . all of her gifts are anonymous.”  Not surprisingly, we could not find a portrait of Dodge in our collections, but she deserves continuing recognition for her work in so many worthwhile organizations which have lasted to the present day.




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“However, be you Scotch or Irish”: Thomas Addis Emmet’s letter to his daughter Jane

Thomas Addis Emmet. PR 52, Portrait File

For many significant figures, the historical spotlight is focused on their public accomplishments but being able to appreciate the aspect of their lives outside the public sphere often presents an important context for those accomplishments. An excellent example is a cache of letters by famed early nineteenth century Irish-American revolutionary and lawyer Thomas Addis Emmet to his daughter, Jane Erin Emmet.

Composed of eight letters in all, they span the years 1816 to 1826, from Jane’s teenage years into her adulthood. With the exception of the last letter from Washington, D.C., Emmet writes from Albany while tending to the legal practice to which he devoted considerable energy. His letters encourage his daughter in her studies while offering healthy doses of fatherly advice. The latter is of predictably nineteenth century vintage, however, emphasizing the importance of her conduct and bearing, specifically with regard to her prospects of finding a husband.

Despite the abundant “guidance”, Emmet leaves no doubt that this was a loving relationship, with several moving statements affirming his fatherly affection.  And, like every teenage girl’s father, he even manages to present a curious analogy regarding her social “debut”:

I suppose she must feel something like a General after his first victory, a little frightened at the heaps of slain; but still proud of their number; + tranquillising her conscience, if it should feel troubled at the ravage she has made, by the glory of her maiden triumph.

We can only imagine  fit of eye rolling this provoked by his then seventeen-year-old daughter!

Perhaps the most memorable letter though is dated March 2, 1818. In it, Emmet is reduced to an emphatic apology to Jane whom he believes he has offended, guessing it may have been something he wrote about her “Scotch partialities.”

Perhaps it was. And perhaps not unjustly; for my wish to have you entirely Irish (except so far as you ought to be American) may have made me treat those partialities without mercy. I meant to make you Irish, in spite of your birth place, when I gave you the name of Erin, I meant to give you the feeling which little John Bradstreet once expressed with infantile naivete to a gentleman who asked where he was born — ” I was born in America, but I am to be brought up an Irishman.” However, be you Scotch or Irish, I shall always love you. And assure you that altho’ I have predelictions for Ireland, I have no prejudices against Scotland, so that if any harshness consisted in that, we can easily make friends.

Excerpt from Emmet's letter to his daughter Jane, March 2,1818. MS 2893, Whitlock Family Papers

Far from a passing comment, Emmet’s comments connect deeply with his life experiences. Despite being a lawyer of immense fame in America, his legacy is firmly rooted in his part in the United

Emmet memorial, St. Paul's churchyard. PR 20, Geographic File

Irishmen, a non-sectarian political movement in late eighteenth century Ireland that  failed in its 1798 bid to bring a revolution and republican principles to Ireland. Imprisoned for his part, Emmet spent several years in Glasgow, Scotland before settling for a life of exile in the United States in 1804. This he did with a heavy heart after the execution of his brother, Robert, in the previous year for his own failed uprising.

In this context, identity has considerable meaning to a man like Emmet. As you might infer, Jane was born during his time in Scotland which explains why she would have certain affinity towards the land of her birth. And yet Emmet, a man who achieved so much in his adopted land, had also sacrificed a great deal for his own native country and clearly remained very much attached to it. Interestingly, while he was unique  in so many ways from the enormous waves of Irish immigrants that would follow him, in this private letter, even he faced the shared immigrant dilemma of identity.

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The Traveller and the Stone: John Ledyard and the Central Park Obelisk

Titlepage for Ledyard's account of Cook's third voyage, 1783. Y1783.Ledy Numb

John Ledyard’s far from a household name in his own country even though he’s arguably the United States’ first explorer, and, had Catherine the Great not abruptly ended his circumnavigation of the globe in 1787-1788, could very well have achieved what Lewis & Clark accomplished fifteen years later. Ledyard also attended Dartmouth, participated in Cook’s Third Voyage, knew Thomas Jefferson, earned Sir Joseph Banks’ support and saw more of the globe than most people could imagine — even in the 21st century. And that’s just a fraction of his story. But while an investigation of his life is completely worthwhile — it’s  beyond remarkable — there isn’t nearly space here to chronicle them properly. Instead, we’ll have a look at how Ledyard, in Egypt in 1788 describes a sight many New Yorkers see on a daily basis.

After Catherine the Great quashed his circumnavigation bid, Ledyard set his sights on Africa, travelling under the auspices of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa. This newly formed group counted Banks, the famed naturalist, botanist and patron of exploration, among its members and was intent on investigating the continent that it described as “still in a great measure unexplored.”

First page of 'Mr. Ledyard's Subscription" for his trip " to cross the continent of north America from Nootka to New York," November 1786, with Sir Joseph Banks' name included. AHMC - Ledyard, John

Ledyard arrived in Alexandria in August 1788 but died tragically in Cairo on January 10, 1789 at the age of thirty-eight while awaiting the next leg of his trip. As sad as his death was, Ledyard left behind quite an epistolary legacy, including a letter from Alexandria on August 15, 1788 to Thomas Jefferson, whom he had previously met in Paris. In it, Ledyard provides a fascinating, though hardly flattering reflection on the city. For our purposes the most interesting comment  regards its ancient ruins:

A pillar called the pillar of Pompey, & an Obelisk called Cleopatra’s are now almost the only remains of great antiquity — they are both & particularly the former noble subjects to see & contemplate & are certainly more captivating from the contrasting deserts & forlorn prospects around them.

Selection from Ledyard's letter to Thomas Jefferson from Alexandria, August 15, 1788. AHMC - Ledyard, John

If you frequent Central park, it probably won’t be news to learn that it boasts a 3,000 year old Egyptian obelisk, colloquially known as “Cleopatra’s Needle”; however, it might be surprising to learn that Ledyard’s letter is almost assuredly referring to the very same one. The “Obelisk called Cleopatra’s” as he puts it, was one of two in Alexandria when Ledyard visited, both having been moved there in 18 A.D. from Helipolis where they were erected in 1450 B.C.

Photograph of Central Park's obelisk in 1881, shortly after it has been erected. PR 20 Geographic File

Sadly, as Bob Brier points out, nowadays obelisks are something of an endangered species in Egypt since the Romans began an unfortunate trend of removing them as symbols of their military feats. By the later nineteenth century more modern sensibilities had similar results, bringing Alexandria’s pair to London and New York, in 1878 and 1880 respectively.

The saga of their removal and re-erection is another story altogether but the obvious question arises, how can we be sure that Ledyard is describing the New York one over the London one? Well, Rev. James King’s 1884 book Cleopatra’s Needle: a history of the London Obelisk indicates that through erosion “about 300 years ago, the colossal stone fell prostrate on the ground.” It’s clear that Ledyard is only referencing one obelisk but, even by 1788, the one destined for London had already lain on its side for two centuries, and sources indicate that sand had at least partially obscured it in that time. It’s safe to conclude then that Ledyard was then writing about the most prominent of the two, which would presumably have been the standing obelisk, the same one any visitor to Central Park can still find behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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