New-York Historical Society

Illuminating New York City for Celebrations

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

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

Hudson Fulton Program

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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

Western Electrician, Vol 29  Electrician Publishing Company,1901

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

Beware of Things that go Blog in the Night

This post is by Tammy Kiter, Manuscript Reference Librarian

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


Happy Haunting From The Stacks at N-YHS!


Rockaway After Sandy

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

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

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

Silent Walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Concerning Spooks: The Spiritualists of New York

This post was written by Kate Burch, Library Page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 6, 1899.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 6, 1899.

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

The New York Times, April 15, 1922.

The New York Times, April 15, 1922.

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

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

The New York Times, September 21, 1855.

The New York Times, September 21, 1855.

Indian Summer

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

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

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

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

charles b. brown

Charles Brockden Brown. PR 52, Portrait File.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



The Dancing Cavalier: The Dual Lives of Edward Ferrero

Written by Maureen Maryanski, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.

Portrait of Edward Ferrero. PR 31, Portrait File.

Portrait of Edward Ferrero. PR 31, Portrait File.

Among the Civil War related papers in the American History Manuscript Collection at the Historical Society are those of Union Army General Edward Ferrero (1831-1899). This one folder collection consists mainly of items relating to his military commissions. These materials document Ferrero’s progress through the war, beginning as Colonel of his own 51st New York Regiment in 1861 and rising to the rank of Major General by December 1864 for “bravery and meritorious services” following the siege of Petersburg. A newspaper clipping also included in these papers reveals that Ferrero commanded a brigade at Vicksburg, Fredericksburg, and Antietam, where he received his commission as Brigadier General on the field.

Notification of Ferrero's appointment to the rank of Major General by brevet on December 2, 1864. Signed by Edwin M. Stanton. AHMC Ferrero.

Notification of Ferrero’s appointment to the rank of Major General by brevet on December 2, 1864. Signed by Edwin M. Stanton. AHMC Ferrero.

This slim collection recounts the facts of Ferrero’s military service and the sequence of his commissions, yet reveals little else about this New Yorker’s life. Digging further, it became evident that prior to the war Ferrero ran one of the most prestigious dancing academies in New York City, catering to children of its wealthiest families. In addition to being a dancing master (and one of America’s leading experts in dance), he also authored a bestselling book, The Art of Dancing, a copy of which is held in the library’s Printed Collections. Both a history of dancing and a dance manual, this book provided instruction to dancers about the rudiments of dancing, etiquette, and the most modern dances, from the quadrille to the waltz. Illustrative figures assisted in this instruction, and music is printed at the end of the book, including the Ferrero Esmeralda.

Title Page of The Art of Dancing, 1859.

Title Page of The Art of Dancing, 1859.

While seemingly unconnected, the link between the military and dance is not an unlikely one, especially in the case of Edward Ferrero. Born in Spain of Italian parents, Ferrero moved with his family to New York City in 1832. His father was a renowned dancer and proceeded to open the dancing school at the northeast corner of 14th street and 6th Avenue that his son would one day inherit. Ferrero was raised surrounded by both dance and military associations, as his uncle Colonel Lewis Ferrero served in the Crimean War. Ferrero’s interest in military affairs led him to serve for six years as lieutenant colonel of the 11th New York Militia Regiment prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, while simultaneously serving as a dancing master and originating popular dancing figures.

Robert E. Lee to Mr. Hlasco, 22 January 1853. AHMC Lee, Robert E.

Robert E. Lee to Mr. Hlasco, 22 January 1853. AHMC Lee, Robert E.


Ferrero also taught dancing at the Military Academy at West Point during the 1850s, a common occurrence as evidenced by a letter from Robert E. Lee to a Mr. Hlasco. Lee wrote to Hlaso, a professor of dancing, to accept an offer of dance instruction for the cadets “on the former conditions,” a phrase that suggests this was an ongoing arrangement. The physicality required of military drills and exercises parallels the movements and precision necessary for the many dances popularized in mid-19th century America. Through its ability to assist in the development of social grace, etiquette, and discipline, dance instruction was considered vital  for officers and elite members of society.

Redwoods and Hitler: the link between nature conservation and the eugenics movement


Tribute by the California State Park Commission to the Founders of the Save the Redwoods League, 1931. MS 474, Henry F. Osborn and Family Papers

In 1931, the California State Park Commission presented this engrossed certificate in gratitude to Save the Redwoods League founders  Henry Fairfield Osborn, Madison Grant and John C. Merriam. From all appearances, it’s an attractive reminder of the achievements of the early conservation movement. What is less apparent is a darker link between the three founders and prevailing racial theories that would have particularly abhorrent implications in Nazi Germany.

According to the 1890 census, America had effectively closed the frontier after almost three centuries of nearly constant battle with the natural world. That revelation stoked concerns for the survival of the remnants of the nation’s once great wilderness, spurring a conservation fever that would blossom in the new century. In turn, the movement that followed was enormously successful in protecting many of America’s remaining natural treasures.

As great as those accomplishments were, the popular narrative typically omits an unfortunate by-product of the movement — that among those with the drive to preserve nature were individuals who theorized about the preservation of a presumed genetically superior, so-called “Nordic” race. Among these were Messrs. Osborn, Grant and Merriam.


Madison Grant. Our Vanishing Wild Life, New York : New York Zoological Society, 1913


Henry Fairfield Osborn. PR 84, Pach Brothers Portrait Photograph Collection












Osborn and Grant, in particular, are leading figures of their pseudo-scientific cohort. Osborn was a prominent paleontologist, Columbia University professor and long-time president of the American Museum of Natural History while Madison Grant was a lawyer, naturalist, president of the New York Zoological Society and AMNH trustee who expended considerable energy preserving America’s wildlife and flora. Together they helped found the American Eugenics Society, an outgrowth of the Second International Conference on Eugenics in 1921. Perhaps the most glaring declaration of Grant’s views came in his book The Passing of the Great Race, first published in 1916. It boasted an introduction by Osborn and a book jacket endorsement from none other than Theodore Roosevelt.

The Passing of the Great Race, or, The Racial Basis of European History. New York : C. Scribner's Sons, 1932.

The Passing of the Great Race, or, The Racial Basis of European History. New York : C. Scribner’s Sons, 1932.

To proponents of eugenics, America’s evolving cultural and racial landscape spelled disaster for racial preservation. They saw common ground between the destruction of America’s flora and fauna and the genetic decline of the Nordics. In their world, an obvious catalyst was the introduction of foreign populations, via immigration, a dynamic that also paralleled the destructive competition that might result from the introduction of non-native species into a natural environment.

A further link emerged in the negative effects of industry and urban development. For the latter they asserted that Nordics were better suited to taming the wilderness while their genetic inferiors seemed to thrive in “the cramped factory and crowded city.” In The Passing of the Great Race, Grant wrote:

The increase in urban communities at the expense of the countryside is also an important element in the fading of the Nordic type, because the energetic countryman of this blood is more apt to improve his fortunes by moving to the city than the less ambitious Mediterranean.

Still, eugenics cast its shadow beyond race. One of its most troubling facets was how it regarded the “unfit” of the population. In The Passing of the Great Race, Grant laid out their ambitions with shudder-inducing simplicity:

Mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life tend to prevent both elimination of defective infants and the sterilization of such adults as are themselves of no value to the community. The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race.

This statement is quite a reflection of the intersection of Grant’s views on conservation and eugenics. He was one of the pioneering thinkers in the concept of wildlife management, which recognized that given the now-limited free range  and food sources available to a wild population, a herd’s size must sometimes be culled to ensure its overall health. Perversely, Grant and others transferred those principals into the treatment of human beings, particularly those who bore physical and mental disabilities.

With these ideas hovering around it is not at all shocking to learn that the theories embraced by Grant, Osborn and their adherents eventually made their way to Nazi Germany.  Still, it’s hard to fathom a group of Americans so thoroughly connected to the highest levels of American society directly influencing a group at the heart of one of the worst atrocities the world has ever witnessed. And yet so consistent were the rhetorics that Hitler himself referred to Grant’s book as his “bible” and Karl Brandt, his physician, entered excerpts from the German translation of The Passing of the Great Race into evidence at Nuremberg.

Grant's signature in 1934, revealing the effects of his illness. MS 1475, BV Half Moon Club

Grant’s signature in 1934, revealing the effects of his illness. MS 1475, BV Half Moon Club

In an odd twist, Madison Grant suffered from a crippling form of arthritis that left him disabled much in the same way as many of those he decried as detrimental to the population.

“Perhaps Rain, Perhaps Not”: Josh Billings Parodies the Almanac

This post was written by cataloger Catherine Falzone.

Two portraits of Henry Wheeler Shaw (a.k.a. Josh Billings)

Two portraits of Henry Wheeler Shaw (a.k.a. Josh Billings). Meserve Historical Portraits, PR 231.

Continuing our series  of highlights from the American Almanac Collection, another almanac of note is the Farmer’s Allminax by Josh Billings. Josh Billings was the pen name of humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw (1818-1885). Shaw was a member of a prominent New England family—his father was a member of Congress, and his uncle was Chief Justice of the State of New York. One would have expected him to follow suit, but he chose mischief over maturity and was expelled from Hamilton College for stealing the clapper of the chapel bell. For the next ten years he traveled the country, working as a farmer, steamboat captain, coal miner, auctioneer, and real estate agent.

Shaw didn’t begin writing until he was in his forties. His first published piece, “Essay on the Mule,” was ignored by readers until he reissued it with intentional, humorous misspellings and titled it “Essa on the Muel bi Josh Billings” (1864). This resonated with audiences and he was published widely in newspapers throughout the country. Shaw also became a successful lecturer, performing 80-100 shows per year in character as Josh Billings, and wrote humorous columns in the New York Weekly and Century Illustrated Monthly.

Billings produced a wildly popular series of comic almanacs, Josh Billings’ Farmer’s Allminax, every year from 1870 to 1879. They played with the universally familiar format of the almanac, using the guise of a common household item to deliver his trademark misspelled aphorisms. As seen in the two examples below, every issue of his almanac had a parody of the “man of signs,” the ancient and, by the 1870s, completely esoteric diagram of a man’s body marked with the signs of the zodiac that mapped onto different body parts, frequently found in almanacs. (Note: I have translated all captions into modern English, in case his misspellings are too confusing!)

Two pages from Josh Billings' Farmer's Allminax for the year 1870

“The undersigned is an American brave, in his great tragic act of being attacked by the twelve constellations.—(May the best man win.)”

Josh Billings’ Farmer’s Allminax for the year 1870. N.Y. 1870 .J67 N9

Two pages from Josh Billings' Farmer's Allminax for the year 1873

“Zodiac signs, of the latest patterns, will be furnished heads of families, or hot beds of learning, at a slight advance upon cost, by speaking to Josh Billings about it.”

Josh Billings’ Farmer’s Allminax for the year of our Lord 1873. N.Y. 1873 .J67 N9











Billings also had fun with the weather predictions, another standard component of almanacs throughout history. Click below on the calendar page for February 1874 to see the liberties he takes with his weather forecasts.

February calendar page for Josh Billings' Farmer's Allminax for the year of our Lord 1874

February 1874.
“Now kill ducks/ now kill time/ now swap hens/ now yoke steers
Now tell yarns/ now sign the pledge/ now go to bed.”

Josh Billings’ Farmer’s Allminax for the year of our Lord 1874. N.Y. 1874 .J67 N9.

Billings was a humorist of and for his time. After the Civil War, American humor had a more skeptical and satirical slant, while becoming less regionally specific; he satirized American life from the fictional and stateless backwater of “Pordunk.” Billings and other so-called “phunny phellows” like Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby relied heavily on the comic potential of “cacography.” By the 1870s, American spelling had been codified, with uniform spelling being taught in schools from Webster’s ubiquitous “blue-backed” spelling book. Because there was finally a “correct” way to spell, readers delighted in seeing it mangled.

Noah Webster was a good speller/ he had better spells than Billings/ go in when it rains.

May 1871.
“Noah Webster was a good speller/ he had better spells than Billings/ go in when it rains.”

Josh Billings’ Farmer’s Allminax for the year 1871. N.Y. 1871 .J67 N9.









Beloved in his era, Josh Billings has been mostly forgotten today. Like fashion, taste in humor changes. However, if you can look past the cacography, Billings is a charming writer, by turns silly and wise. Of course, don’t take my word for it—Abraham Lincoln, a big fan of Billings, once said, “Next to William Shakespeare, Josh Billings is the greatest judge of human nature the world has ever seen.”

The Drag Queen Stroll: Jeff Cowen and 1980s New York City

This article is written by Joe Festa, Manuscript Reference Librarian.

Jeff Cowen, a contemporary art photographer born in New York City, is best known for his portraits and collages, and a painterly approach to his photographic process. Five gelatin silver prints by Cowen are housed within the Photographer File here at New-York Historical Society. Taken early in the artist’s career, these images illustrate Cowen’s artistic practice prior to his formal study at the Art Students League and New York Studio School. They also shed light on New York City’s fringe counter-cultures of the 1980s – specifically, transgender prostitutes living and working in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.

Untitled, Jeff Cowen (ca. 1980-1989). Gelatin Silver Print. Photographer File, PR50

Jeff Cowen, Untitled, ca. 1980-1989. Gelatin Silver Print. Photographer File, PR50

Untitled, Jeff Cowen (ca. 1980-1989). Gelatin Silver Print. Photographer File, PR50.

Jeff Cowen, Untitled, ca. 1980-1989. Gelatin Silver Print. Photographer File, PR50.






When New-York Historical acquired these images, Jeff Cowen included a typewritten, four-page narrative he titled “The Drag Queen Stroll.”  In it, the artist details his subjects from their first-hand accounts and his point of view, utilizing an abrupt writing style that’s reminiscent of the Beat Generation.

Cowen maps “The Stroll” from 17th Street and 9th Avenue, running west to the Hudson River, to the southern edge of the Meatpacking District on Gansevoort. His writing draws on the rampant homelessness, drug use, prostitution, theft, and assault in this area at night, which serves as a sharp contrast to the union workers and family men who work in the meat markets and warehouses during the day. Cowen calls this area “a haven for the largest transvestite subculture on the east coast.” And with the advent of crack and HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, he says “the cost of sin has never been higher.”

Untitled, Jeff Cowen. Gelatin Silver Print. Photographer File, PR50.

Jeff Cowen, Untitled, ca. 1980-1989. Gelatin Silver Print. Photographer File, PR50.

In the late 1980s, around the time these images were taken, Cowen was working as assistant to artist Larry Clark. Clark, a photographer known for his controversial and provocative imagery, gained notoriety in 1971 through the publication of his art book Tulsa, and later made mainstream headlines with the release of his film Kids (1995) – two works that share a strong undercurrent of drug use and its consequences.

Like Clark, Cowen brings the harsh realities of urban youth and New York City to the surface, and infuses his images with raw, human emotion. Alongside the artist’s written narrative, these five images demonstrate Cowen’s ability to speak bluntly about drugs, sex, and AIDS, while juxtaposing heavy subject matter with fleeting elements of tenderness and beauty. This emotive quality has since become central to his photographic mission, and remains evident in the artist’s recent work focusing on the human form.


Untitled, Jeff Cowen. Gelatin Silver Print. Photographer File, PR50.

Jeff Cowen, Untitled, ca. 1980-1989. Gelatin Silver Print. Photographer File, PR50.

Untitled, Jeff Cowen. Gelatin Silver Print. Photographer File, PR50.

Jeff Cowen, Untitled, ca. 1980-1989. Gelatin Silver Print. Photographer File, PR50.


“We Have Met the Enemy,” or, in Other Words…

This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections

Perry groupAs we continue to mark the bicentennial of the War of 1812, we pause this week to commemorate the September 1813 Battle of Lake Erie.  Unlike those heroic naval encounters on the high seas, this victory for the young United States was fought on a literal backwater, where existing warships could not move down the St. Lawrence River and the combatants had to start from scratch—racing to find the supplies to build and man lake-worthy warships.  American Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry actually sought this unheralded command, but he, too, would be beset by discouragement when he felt his superior on Lake Ontario was unwilling to provide him with experienced sailors.  Perry, with his Master Mariner Daniel Dobbins, was able to supervise the building of nine warships in as many months at Presque Isle (now Erie) Pennsylvania, while his British counterpart, Commander Robert Heriot Barclay, struggled even more with supplies and support.

Perry was especially inspired by the death from battle wounds of his friend Captain James Lawrence off Boston harbor that June.  As he was creating this fleet to meet the British on the Great Lakes, Perry named his flag ship Lawrence and had a local family sew a battle ensign bearing Lawrence’s last, futile but memorable command, “Don’t Give Up the Ship.”

In August 1813 Perry took the initiative by successfully moving his newly-built ships into open water and toward the western end of the lake where he could disrupt and challenge the British.  It was the threat of starvation that forced British commander Barclay to give battle on the morning of September 10 as his inexperienced crews were left with only one day’s rations.

Perry’s victory in this bloody encounter was secured in large part by a sudden shift in the wind that allowed him to bring up his gunboats and effectively use his shorter range guns.  Still, his battle plan went awry when his second in command, Master Commandant Jesse Duncan Elliott, did not directly follow the Lawrence into battle with the sister brig Niagara.  This left the Lawrence to endure raking fire from the long-range guns of the two largest British warships.

Perry's Victory on Lake Erie.  Painted by T. Birch, Engraved by A. Lawson, Printed by B. Rogers, Published by Joseph Delaplaine.    Line engraving, hand-colored.  Irving S. Olds Collection of Naval Prints, PR 47, no. 245.

Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie. Painted by T. Birch, Engraved by A. Lawson, Printed by B. Rogers, Published by Joseph Delaplaine. Line engraving, hand-colored. Irving S. Olds Collection of Naval Prints, PR 47, no. 245.

The heroic turning point in the Battle of Lake Erie can be seen in this engraving when Perry had his few surviving seamen transfer him through the hail of fire in a small boat from the disabled Lawrence to take command of the lagging Niagara a half mile away.  He is shown accurately here with the “Don’t Give Up the Ship” battle flag draped in his arms, the flag that survives now at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis.  However, as Walter P. Rybka, Captain and Curator of the now-restored Niagara, quipped, “In actuality the only way to win the battle was to give up the ship and go to the next one.  The real motto was ‘Don’t give up.’”

Costly in terms of casualties and marking the first time an entire British naval squadron was defeated, Perry’s victory gained control over Lake Erie.  The outcome would allow Major General William Henry Harrison to defeat a British and Native American force the following month in present-day Ontario at the Battle of the Thames, thus securing the Old Northwest for the United States.

Oliver Hazard Perry to Commodore Isaac Chauncey, September 10, 1813, 4 P.M. AHMC - Perry, Oliver Hazard

Oliver Hazard Perry to Commodore Isaac Chauncey, September 10, 1813, 4 P.M. AHMC – Perry, Oliver Hazard

Here in manuscript is Perry’s 4 P.M. report of his victory to his superior, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, “It has pleased the Almighty to give the arms of the United States a signal victory over their enemies on this Lake.  The British squadron consisting of two Ships, two Brigs, one Schooner & one Sloop, have this moment surrendered to the force under my command, after a sharp conflict.”  (Naval historians suggest that it was actually one brig and two schooners).


Glorious News.  Herald--extra.  Carlisle, September 24, 1813.  SY1812-15W no. 46

Glorious News. Herald–extra. Carlisle, September 24, 1813. SY1812-15W no. 46

Perry’s other report of this triumph, as noted in this broadside, was scribbled to General Harrison on the back of an old letter at the same time.  It contains the altogether more memorable epigram, “We have met the enemy and they are ours; Two Ships, two Brigs, one Schooner, & one Sloop.”


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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