The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., printed in New York by a C.S. Van Winkle at 101 Greenwich Street, was published in seven serialized installments from 1819 to 1820. The book was also an entirely pseudonymous affair by none other than Washington Irving, the father of American folklore.
The Sketch Book, and in particular the short stories collected within it, would serve to define American identity and culture after the birth of the country, making legends of its history. One of those stories has held more popularity and acclaim than others: the sixth part, published on March 15, 1820.
This was “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” whose distinct Americanness reminded readers of their roots: a mishmash of divergent cultures (Native American, Dutch, and English, to name only a few) and the transformative revolution that occurred not half a century earlier. It’s a story that is still told, retold, adapted, and expanded today, in numerous iterations.
It’s no surprise that in 1949, Walt Disney Productions had the same idea in mind. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was an animated package film released by RKO Radio Pictures. It featured the 1908 children’s novel The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The latter has been more enduring and popular; every child remembers the lanky and awkward Ichabod Crane crashing through the woods on his comically lazy horse.
In the course of production, Disney hit a snag. Who better to ask about the detailed accuracy of the film than the librarian at the New-York Historical Society? Nowadays we answer reference questions primarily through email, but in the late 1940s, much of our reference correspondence was received by post. That correspondence, and more institutional records, have been archived in the New-York Historical Society’s Institutional Archives.
May 21, 1948
We are trying to find the correct form of an invitation to a ball or party that might have been used by the New York Dutch around the year 1800. We have had no success in this area and are appealing to you for assistance.
Would you have access to data of this nature and would you tell us how they were worded?
We should be most grateful for any assistance that you can give us. An airmail stamp is enclosed since our request is an urgent one.
Very truly yours,
June 1, 1948
My dear Miss Roxby,
We have received your letter of May 21st, and have been examining our few invitations around the year 1800 in New York and vicinity. By ‘the New York Dutch’ of that year, I assume you mean conservative residents of Dutch descent who might have continued social customs of their 17th century ancestors, but the few that we have are in English with no apparent Dutch association.
For the decade of the 1790’s we have only a few printed cards for dancing assemblies and subscription balls. One reads:
Honor of [blank]
is requested to a BALL, at Jamaica,
on Tuesday, January 15, 1793.
Elias Hicks )
Saml Titus )
We have four manuscript invitations dated in the second decade of the 19th century (most of the formal invitations we have are dated only with month and day, not year). These read:
Robert Bogardus requests the fav. of Mr.
Bradish’s Comp. to pass the evening
of the 12th March.
Feb. 22, 1812
Mrs. Jay requests the pleasure of
Mr. Bradish’s company at tea on
Feb. 18th, 1818
Mr. Neilson Jr. requests the
pleasure of Mr. Bradish’s
company at Dinner tomorrow
at 4 o’clock.
Dec. 7, 1818
Mrs. Jay requests the favor of
Mr. & Mrs. Willinck’s company
at tea on Friday next.
Very truly yours,
Dorothy C. Barck
June 3, 1948
Dear Miss Barck:
Thank you for the invitation forms. This is a great help. It is to be used in our story of Ichabod Crane and of course had to be authentic regardless of what poetic license may be indulged in by the director.
We are most grateful for your assistance, and only hope that we may at some time have the pleasure of helping you.
Dorothy C. Barck, who started at New-York Historical Society as a library assistant in 1922, was the first woman to manage the entire Library by the time of these letters. The assistance she was able to provide through her expertise as a librarian is evident in the faux invitation which appears in the movie. At approximately fifty minutes into its runtime, Ichabod receives a handwritten message:
Ichabod Crane, Esq.
You are cordially invited
to attend a frolic at Mynheer
Baltus van Tassel’s home tonight.
B. van Tassel. Esq.”
[The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Directed by James Algar, Clyde Geronimi, and Jack Kinney, Walt Disney Productions, 1949.]
Ask a reference librarian a historical quandary you’ve had in mind at this link or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
This post is by Crystal Toscano, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.