History at Home: Preserving Family Photos

I love photographs, especially old ones. Almost everyone (or at least those of us born before 2000!) has a collection of precious old family photos that are sitting in a box somewhere. An an archivist, I cannot stress enough the important of digitizing these family photos to preserve them for the next generations.

Years ago, my family’s home was partially flooded during Hurricane Floyd. Many of our family photos were ruined in the flood. I now only have a few photos left of my childhood, and many other precious memories were lost. Digitization can prevent loss of memories – even if the physical photos degrade or are destroyed. It can also help you share photos with loved ones and make high-quality print copies without damage to the originals.

Print permanence varies based on what kind of photograph you have and how good the conditions in which you’re storing it are. But, trust me, your prints are not permanent. They are degrading and, eventually (probably sooner than later), they are going to be damaged beyond repair – even if they are stored in an ideal environment.

I recently digitized just a few of our family photographs – though there are still many more to do! I thought I would share a few lessons learned from my experience, and a few tips on how to preserve your family photos through digitization.

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1. Use a good scanner.

The are lots of great scanners out there that can create high-quality scans from both photos and film.  I recommend getting a good scanner that is designed to scan photos and that scans a resolution of 600dpi. This Epson scanner is one of the best, and is fairly reasonably priced. This is an important project – you do not want to use a low-quality scanner or (gasp!) your phone if you intend to truly hang on to these digital files.

As you are scanning, I recommend scanning images at 600dpi for high resolution images, though some would say that 300dpi is just fine. It is fine to scan multiple photos as a “batch scan,” and to scan the area around one photo rather than cropping it with the scanner software. Both of those things can be taken care of with a little cropping in an editing program later on.

I would not recommend using an editing program to do anything other than crop your photographs – you’ll want to preserve the original image, not an edited version of it. If you truly want to make some edits, edit a copy of your original digital file.

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2. Come up with a naming/filing system.

Lumping all your scanned photos into a general iPhoto library will turn into a big mess pretty quickly – especially if you are saving a lot of photos. When I was scanning, I made four sub-folders within the “Family Photos” folder on my desktop – one for each generation. I had “kids” (my generation), “parents” (any photos of my parents or people in their generation), “grandparents,” and “great-grandparents.” I labeled each scanned digital file accordingly (For example: “family last name_k_0001” to mark the first file in the “kids” folder). It doesn’t matter what system you have – but it is important to have a system and to stick with it. This will help you sort and save, and will also help you easily locate files later on.

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3. Digitized photographs are not necessarily permanent. Make digital copies and keep the original prints.

Digitized photographs are not a replacement for the originals. Data isn’t necessarily permanent – especially in this age of rapid technological advancement. Save your photographs as TIFF files, which is a less lossy file format than JPEG or PNG. Then save them (from the original digital file, if possible) in multiple digital spaces. TIFF files are fairly large files, so you might want to save them on an external hard drive or large-capacity USB flash drive rather than on your computer’s hard drive. Cloud storage options such as Dropbox Pro and SmugMug offer huge amounts of storage and are a great backup space just in case anything happens to your external hard drive. They also allow you to share your photos easily.

Hold on to the original photographic prints, and store them in a good environment. Ideally, your printed photos should be kept in an acid-free plastic sleeve and put into a binder or photo storage box. Photos smaller than 8×10 can be stored on their sides, but photos 8×10 and larger should be stored flat.

4. If you’re overwhelmed, hire a pro.

This is an important project – but, depending on how big your collection of family photographs is, it can be overwhelming and very time-consuming. If you are thinking about purchasing a new high-quality scanner and an external hard drive just for this project, you may want to consider hiring a pro for about the same price. There are professional services available that will scan your family photographs (prints and negatives) for a fairly reasonable fee. ScanCafe seems to be one of the best. I am lucky to be a student at NYU, which has its own Digital Studio. If you are a university student, or if you have a university near you, you could look into whether there is an IT, LIS, or archives student there that would like to take on your digitization project for a small fee – especially if your family photographs are significant to scholarship in some way.

I hope this helps – and perhaps encourages you to get on that digitization project you’ve been planning for years! There is truly nothing more special than memories captured in photographs, and it is just as important to preserve your precious photographs as it is to take the picture in the first place!

Say cheese,

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The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth

It’s hard to believe it is already Thanksgiving week! Every November, I am confronted with inaccurate historical accounts of “the First Thanksgiving,” and this year has been no exception. It’s frustrating as a historian, especially since the “traditional” Thanksgiving story is brimming with ethnocentric ideology that reflects the history of American social thought much more than it reflects any sort of “truth” about the first Thanksgiving. The “Thanksgiving myth” has been busted by credible sources a thousand times over – in fact, correcting people about Thanksgiving has become its own Thanksgiving tradition – but an oral history that has been present in American society since the 1780s is hard to shake. Since it’s that time of year, I thought I’d reflect a little on what we know about the “real” first Thanksgiving – not in an effort to “right the narrative,” which has its place as an American folk tale, but just because the history is really interesting.

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Jean Leon Gerrome Ferris, The First Thanksgiving 1621, 1899.
(PS, This painting is full of historical inaccuracies!)

First, the story of the Plymouth Colony (the site of the first Thanksgiving) begins long before the 17th century. Native Americans, specifically a tribe called the Wampanoag, had been living in New England for hundreds of years (long before it was called New England!). However, the Wampanoag lost thousands in an epidemic (not small pox, but something like it) that hit them in 1617-1619 – making the area around Plymouth fairly sparse of human settlement. In 1620, a small group of people from England (some by way of Holland) traveled to America, hoping to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River. They overshot it a little and ended up in Cape Cod, and finally Plymouth, which seemed pretty good to them since there were relatively few Native Americans there and it had already been settled (and subsequently left) by other Europeans like John Smith (yes, that John Smith).

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These 1620 settlers of Plymouth are sometimes called “Pilgrims,” though that title started in the 1840s and is connected with a Biblical verse (Hebrews 11:13-16). The Pilgrims were damn lucky, all things considered. The ones that made it through the first brutal winter (45 out of 102 people died) were able to begin permanent settlements, organize themselves into a structured society, and make a tense peace with their Wampanoag neighbors.

The settlers of Plymouth loved to feast – they did it frequently, especially in early autumn after a successful harvest. The harvest feast was an unofficial tradition in England since the English Reformation (1536). Since the autumn of 1621 would have been the first harvest for the settlers of Plymouth, it was basically their first opportunity to have their traditional autumn harvest feast. (By the way, England had its own Day of Thanksgiving – which was not the same as a harvest feast. The Pilgrims of the “first Thanksgiving” were celebrating a harvest feast, not the English Day of Thanksgiving.)

The Pilgrims’ autumn harvest of 1621 was pretty great. Of course, they owed a lot of that success to their Wampanoag neighbors, who had helped them grow crops and taught them how to survive in the brutal climate of coastal Massachusetts. Most likely, this harvest feast took place around the end of September. Historical accounts suggest that there were around 140 guests at the first harvest feast. Since there were only 53 English still surviving, that means that there were about 90 Wampanoag (!) present. The harvest festival took three days, during which the Pilgrims and Native Americans feasted and celebrated.

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Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914.
(PS, This painting is full of historical inaccuracies!)

There were only four women still alive in the Plymouth Colony in September 1621, so the meal was likely prepared largely by men (take note!). On the table would have been local vegetables (carrots, onions, etc.), fowl such as duck, venison (provided by the Wampanoag), fish and probably shellfish such as mussels and lobster. They might have had corn, though it would have been more of a cornmeal mush, known as samp. There would not have been cranberry sauce (though they might have had raw cranberries), potatoes of any kind, or pumpkin pie (they didn’t even have a baking oven!) – and the historical accounts don’t mention turkey at the table, though they did have turkeys in Plymouth.

The only real sources we have for what happened at “the first Thanksgiving” are Edward Winslow and William Bradford. Each of them wrote basically the same one-paragraph account of the harvest festival in their respective accounts, which you can read here. The historical roots of what we think of as our American Thanksgiving can more reasonably be traced to 1863, when Abraham Lincoln issued the Thanksgiving Proclamation. The 1940s were responsible for establishing a lot of the “spirit” of Thanksgiving that we think of today, probably due to the predominance of the nuclear family and a sort of patriotic “thankfulness” ideology popularized during and after World War II.

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Thanksgiving in New York is always lovely, and I am looking forward to a few days off spent with friends and family – and maybe a Black Friday deal or two (thanks, FDR!). It doesn’t really matter how many myths are contained in the first Thanksgiving story, because it was become a part of our shared American memory. Just as most of our folk stories, it is based in truth but smothered in inaccuracy to make it easier to connect to present-day. It may be fun to bring up your new knowledge of the first Thanksgiving at the dinner table to get a conversation going about historical memory and what matters to you.

Have a happy Thanksgiving,

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Treasures of the National Archives

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the nation’s record keeper. Although this federal archive houses the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence, it also holds millions of records of ordinary citizens. As a graduate student in Archives and Public History, I want to do nothing more than spend hours absorbed in documents, seeking fantastic stories of lives past, at the National Archives in New York City, located at 1 Bowling Green.

One story I came across at the National Archives in NYC a few months ago (with a little help from their archivist Trina) really jumped out at me – the story of 18th-century New York businesswoman Ann Greenleaf.

The docket containing Ann Greenleaf’s file.

Although there is not much information available about Ann Greenleaf, we know a bit about her husband, Thomas Greenleaf. Thomas was known for his strong opinions against George Washington and the Federalist Party. In 1787, he established his own printing business in New York City, which included two newspapers: New York’s first daily newspaper, called Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser or sometimes The Argus, and a bi-weekly newspaper, Greenleaf’s New York Journal and Patriotic Register. Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser quickly became leading Democratic-Republican daily newspaper.

Bitter partisan warfare has a long history in American politics. By the late 1790s, Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were in open warfare over a variety of ideological and practical issues, sparking vitriolic and divisive debates. In New York City, one politically active woman stood at the center of a major legal controversy.

Thomas Greenleaf was a longtime opponent of the Federalists. His obituary, published in Boston’s Independent Chronicle on September 24, 1798, described him as “unawed by persecution or prosecution,” both of which he apparently experienced frequently.

When Thomas died suddenly of yellow fever in 1798, his widow Ann Greenleaf took over his printing business. Although not much is known about her, we do know that Mrs. Greenleaf’s political views were as strongly anti-Federalist as her husband’s. Like her husband, Ann continued the practice of using newspapers as a political tool to crusade against the John Adams presidential administration and the Federalists. Like her husband, Ann became a target of the Federalist government.

On July 14, 1798, Congress passed the Sedition Act. In short, this act prohibited public opposition to the government. It was specifically aimed at Democratic-Republican newspapers, and it gave the federal government the power to punish though a fine or imprisonment those who “write, print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the government.

Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, backed by the Sedition Act, began monitoring Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser for “audacious calumnies against the government.” On February 9, 1799, Ann Greenleaf printed in Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser an article stating her political opposition against the recent Alien and Sedition Acts. In this article, Ann explicitly called the Alien and Sedition Acts “tyrannical and unconstitutional.” Again, on August 31, 1799, Ann Greenleaf printed another article in Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser further criticizing the federal government and asserting the rights of the press.

A bit from the court record, which calls Ann a “wicked Malicious and seditious Person”

These two articles published in Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser were exactly the sort of seditious sentiments that Secretary of State Pickering wanted to make an example of. In 1799, Ann Greenleaf was indicted for sedition in a court in New York. The court charged Mrs. Greenleaf with “wickedly and Maliciously” defaming the government in a deliberate effort to stir up sedition among the public. The full transcript of the indictment against Ann Greenleaf is in the collection of the National Archives in New York City.

Ann Greenleaf’s sedition trial was set for April 1800. However, Ann cunningly avoided her trial by selling the entire newspaper business before 1800. Once Ann Greenleaf no longer owned these papers, she no longer constituted a threat. On the urging of New York District Attorney Richard Harison and with the reluctant support of Pickering, President Adams agreed to drop the prosecution against Ann Greenleaf. She was never formally tried for sedition.

Ann’s story is so fantastic because she was an 18th-century businesswoman, because she was indicted for complaining about the exact (ridiculous!) law under which she was prosecuted, and because she got off. If you want to really dig deep into this story, I have uploaded the Ann Greenleaf court docket, and a transcription of the records, to Google Drive.

Ann’s is just one story of many that you can find in a few hours at the National Archives in NYC. Next time you have a few hours in New York, take some time to dig around their documents and find some treasures on your own!

From the archive,

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History at Home: Special Delivery

I am such a history-lover that I am naturally attracted to all things historic. Every time I visit a vintage shop or a quirky boutique, I end up with a history-themed thing of one sort or another. In a perfect world, I would probably dress up every day like Felicity Merriman. Since I live in the real world – and, alas, I have a real job in midtown Manhattan that seems to frown upon 18th-century dresses – I have to settle for incorporating subtle history-themed touches into my every day life.

One way I channel my inner history nerd is by writing snail-mail letters to friends. Writing letters – and sending them through the U.S. Postal Service – is a dying art, but it is seriously so much fun and a great way to keep in touch with old friends.

People love receiving mail, and writing letters provides an excellent excuse to go a little overboard at the stationary store. Letter-writing is an area of modern life that still employs a lot of historic techniques. Letterpress is as old as Gutenberg, rubber stamps hearken back to the days of woodblock printing, and vintage postage adds a fun mid-century modern touch. Luckily, all three of these historic elements are easily found on Etsy.


Card by Parrott Design Studio.

There is nothing like the feel of a real letterpress print. I love the way the thick craft paper feels in my hands, and the way the type feels when it is indented into the paper. Letterpress cards are available everywhere these days, but Etsy is a particularly great resource for a letterpress card for any occasion. I love Parrott Design Studio (they are doing my wedding stationary!) and 1canoe2 in particular.

Card by 1canoe2.

Write a “just because” note to a friend on a lovely letterpress card, or consider sending your Christmas card list a lovely letterpress Christmas card!

Vintage Postage Stamps

Postage by Pack and Post.

There is a huge market for vintage postage, since a lot of brides choose to use it to send their wedding invitations. But it’s not just for weddings! You can use fun vintage stamps on your envelopes for any occasion – and there are so many cool ones out there that you can make a color scheme or a theme collection on your envelope.

Vintage, uncancelled stamps are perfectly valid U.S. postage – so don’t be worried your letter won’t get there as long as your stamps are uncancelled (don’t already have the cancellation stamp on them from going through the mail). Plus, vintage stamps are affordable – they cost more than their face value, but not too much more.

Rubber Stamps

Custom stamp by Flourish Design Co.

Rubber stamping is a fun (and reusable!) way to dress up your envelope. One of the most logical ways to use rubber stamps in letter-writing is for the return address. You can get your own custom return address stamp from a bunch of great places on Etsy. I got mine from Rubber Stamp Press and I am really happy with it! It was only $30 and it is reusable for years – all you need to buy is an ink pad!

Stamp by Stamp Couture.

Of course, return addresses aren’t the only way to utilize rubber stamps in your letters. There are loads of adorable rubber stamps to add a little personality to your envelopes. I like this cute cat one from Nora Jane and this handmade bee stamp from Blossom Stamps.

For extra credit, play with fun patters of washi tape to seal your envelopes and get a nice fountain pen to immediately add a special touch to your handwriting.

Sending letters in the snail mail may be a lost art, but it is a cheap hobby (49¢ to be exact!) and a ton of fun to put together. You can get really creative with finding the perfect stationary, tools, and vintage postage for your envelopes. The lucky recipients of your letters will appreciate the vintage touches – especially if they are a history-lover like me!

Par avion,

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The Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument

Places: Fort Greene Park

I live at the corner of Fort Greene Park in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn. Every day on my walk to the subway, I pass the park and its giant central monument. I can see the monument through the window and, at night, it glows like a lantern. I think most modern-day residents of Fort Greene (like me!) probably don’t know the full history of the monument, though it becomes a part of our daily lives as our days play out around it. Ever curious, I wanted to learn more – and the little-known history of the monument turns out to be a fascinating study in memorialization and memorial-building from the 18th century through the present day.

During the American Revolutionary War, New York was a Loyalist stronghold and a base of operations for the British. There were 16 British prison ships used to detain prisoners of war on the New York Harbor, in Wallabout Bay at the site of what is now the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Following the end of the war in 1783, the remains of the soldiers who died on these prison ships were neglected and left to lie along the Brooklyn shore.

View of New York from the Brooklyn Navy Yard  View of New York from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, 1860.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

The remains of the prison ship martyrs and the question of how to memorialize the sacrifice of these men first became a public issue in 1803 – the same year that the Federalist political party erected a statue to George Washington and thus took up memorial-building as a political act. The Republican response to this act was to call for a grand ceremonial re-interment of the prisoners’ remains, not emphasizing the construction of a monument, but rather something more suited to the “common man.” The Tammany Society formed the Wallabout Committee in 1808 for this purpose. In 1808, Tammany and the Republicans went further with their political exploitation of this issue by emphasizing their plans for re-interment as part of their campaign to bolster anti-British sentiment after the Embargo Act.

In his book Until the Last Man Comes Home, published in 2009, Michael J. Allen discusses the taking-up of the prison martyr’s interment as a politically-loaded cause.

“Buried in shallow graves or left to rot in the open air, [the bodies of the prison ship martyrs] languished for decades, with ‘skulls and feets, arms and legs, sticking out of the crumbling bank in the wildest disorder.’ Lone voices made sporadic calls to reinter the bones, but property owners refused and petitions to Congress were rejected.

“Not until 1808 did the New York State legislature grant the Tammany Society $1,000 to bury the prison ship dead. The act was less a sign of blooming nationalism than a measure of the intense partisanship of the early republic. With President Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act threatening the political fortunes of Jeffersonians in the seaport of New York, the Tammany ceremony stoked anti-British, anti-Tory, anti-Federalist fires among workingmen by recalling the common soldiers and sailors whose revolutionary sacrifices had been forgotten as Federalists promoted the memory of Washington over radical patriots.”

The first tomb for the prison ship martyrs was located near the Brooklyn Navy Yard in what is now the neighborhood of Vinegar Hill. The Republicans did get their grand re-interment ceremony in May of 1808.

The first tomb on Hudson Avenue in Vinegar Hill. From Whitman’s Brooklyn.

However, little was done to repair or upkeep the vault. Eventually, the original monument was in a state of disrepair and neglect. In 1839, a survivor of the prison ships took up the cause to repair the tomb and build a monument around it, but he died in 1844 and was buried in the tomb and not much seemed to happen for another several decades.

Fort Greene Park, then called Washington Park, was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux in 1867. Almost immediately after the park opened, an appropriation of $6,500 was established for a new mausoleum to inter the prison ship martyr’s remains and a 25 by 11 foot brick mausoleum was constructed.

The remains of the prisoners were moved from the first tomb to the new site in 1873. Twenty-two boxes, containing a mere fraction of total volume of remains, were interred in the vault. The front of the tomb had the following inscription: “SACRED TO THE MEMORY, OF OUR SAILORS, SOLDIERS AND CITIZENS, WHO SUFFERED AND DIED ON BOARD BRITISH PRISON SHIPS IN THE WALLABOUT DURING THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION”.

Towards the end of the 19th century, a diverse group of interests including the federal government, municipal and state governments, private societies, and donors, began a campaign for a permanent monument to the prison ship martyrs. Congress, together with local funds, financed construction of the monument that is there today.

In 1905, the renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White was hired to design a new entrance to the crypt and a wide granite stairway leading to a terrace on top of the hill. The monument’s construction was finished in 1908, to mark the 100th anniversary of the original re-interment. President-elect William Howard Taft attended the monument’s dedication on November 14, 1908, which was attended by 20,000 people despite the freezing rain.

New Entrance to Fort Greene Park, Showing the Prison-Ship Martyrs' Monument, Brooklyn, N. Y.Valentine & Sons, New Entrance to Fort Greene Park, ca. 1910.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

The memorial is a grand terrace, with 100 steps leading up to it. In the center of the terrace is a freestanding Doric column crowned by a bronze lantern. There are granite eagles at each corner of the terrace.

From President Taft’s speech at the dedication ceremony:

“Efforts from time to time have been made to put into permanent form an expression of the gratitude of this Government and its people to those who thus offered up their lives rather than be unfaithful to their country’s cause, but not until now by Governmental aid has a suitable testimonial been reared in memory of those heroes and martyrs.”

As a resident of Fort Greene, I know that most people who live in the neighborhood think of the monument as more of a neighborhood landmark than a monument to fallen soldiers. I would venture to guess that most residents are not aware of the monument’s fascinating history – or the contents of the tomb. It is truly still one of New York City’s hidden histories – and worth a visit!

Visiting Fort Greene Park on a weekend morning is a delight, and one that I am lucky to do a lot since I live only a block from the park. Get an iced latte at local cafe Bittersweet and, if you’re up for it, one of their Dough donuts (yum!) and walk them over to the park for a little outdoor breakfast. If you’re not a morning person, consider a to-go lunch from Humo Smokehouse instead (I like the pulled pork!). A perfect outing if you ask me…and one surrounded by a lengthy and complex history of memorial-building that goes all the way back to the American Revolution.

From Brooklyn,

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The Historic Marble Collegiate Church

In 1628, the Dutch Reverend Jonas Michaelius conducted the first service of what came to be known as the Collegiate Church of New York in a gristmill on South William Street in the newly-formed town of New Amsterdam. Today, that same congregation still stands proudly in a marble building on the corner of West 29th Street and Fifth Avenue, not far from where it all began four hundred years ago. With its New Amsterdam beginnings, Marble Collegiate Church is the oldest Protestant organization in America and has had a continuous ministry since Reverend Michaelius first organized the worshipers.

Although it is technically the same congregation and even the same basic church, Marble Collegiate Church today is strikingly different from the Dutch Reformed Church of early-17th-century New Amsterdam. The multi-cultural, all-inclusive attitudes of Marble, however, betray a certain “Dutchness” in their inclusive and accepting nature, and the value placed on simplicity of decoration and simplicity of theology is still inherently Dutch Reformed.

[Marble Collegiate Church.]
Wurts Bros., 1915. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Marble Collegiate Church now resides in a beautiful marble building (the name Marble came about as a way to differentiate it from the “other” church that was once on 29th Street) that was designed in the mid-19th-century by architect Samuel A. Warner in Neo-Romanesque Gothic style. When the first cornerstone was laid for the church in 1851, the northernmost city limits were at 23rd Street, and the new church on 29th Street and Fifth Avenue was on a dirt lane near a dairy farm, surrounded by livestock and muddy in rainstorms(!). To keep out the livestock, the church erected a cast iron fence – most of which still stands today, surrounding the marble building.

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Marble’s nearest neighbor in 1854 was a dairy farm on 29th and Broadway.
Photo courtesy of Marble’s Facebook page.

Warner designed Marble with some architectural marvels for the time, including cantilevered balconies that looked as if they were free-hanging, with no visible means of support. Marble was the first church in America to have this type of balcony, and parishioners enjoyed good sightlines and better acoustics because of this new way of building. The 215-foot steeple is topped with a traditional Dutch weather vane that has an image of a rooster, alluding to the Biblical story about the cock that crowed three times after the apostle Peter denied Christ. The church bell has tolled the death of every American president since Martin van Buren in 1862 (coincidentally, van Buren was one of five American presidents with Dutch ancestry, the others being Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and George H. W. and George W. Bush).

1 West 29th Street. Marble Collegiate Church. Interior showing Austin organ
Wurts Bros., 1938. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Marble’s interior originally was in keeping with Calvinist tradition, which emphasizes simplicity of decorating and a lack of images. There were no images or icons of Christ and no crosses or crucifixes, which is consistent with the Calvinist teaching. The walls were white and the windows were clear glass. However, as Fifth Avenue became the famously wealthy “go-to” street in the later 19th century and the area around Marble got more posh and manicured, Marble caved to the changing styles and painted its walls burgundy and gold in 1891. In 1900 and 1901, two of the clear glass windows were replaced with stained glass Tiffany windows depicting Bible scenes, though still not including crosses or images of Christ. Since then, all ten windows have been replaced with stained glass, and one of them today does depict Jesus on his cross. There are still, however, no crucifixes in the Sanctuary and the only other cross ever displayed is a cross made out of lilies that is put out annually at Easter time.

From its perch on Fifth Avenue, Marble Church has seen some important moments in New York history in its one hundred and fifty years. The original mahogany pews with swinging doors to limit the draft, which are still in use, remind of the time when Fifth Avenue and 29th Street was the epicenter of the “Who’s Who” of New York City in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The pews still have their brass number-plates from the days of reserved seating and some pews even have shelves which were used to keep top hats.

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Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower’s wedding, 1968.

The funeral procession of President Abraham Lincoln went past Marble’s doors as it made its way up Fifth Avenue on April 25, 1865. Twenty years later, on August 8, 1885, the funeral procession of President Ulysses S. Grant also went past Marble. In the 1960’s, Marble hosted a series of fashionable weddings of American celebrities and notables. On November 19, 1961, Lucille Ball was married to her second husband, Gary Morton, in a service at Marble. On August 17, 1963, Johnny Carson, who had been hosting The Tonight Show for almost a year, married Joanne. On December 22, 1968, a grand Christmas wedding took place when Julie Nixon married David Eisenhower in an over-the-top wedding at Marble, when Richard Nixon was President-Elect but not yet seated in the White House. The most over-the-top wedding Marble has hosted was officiated by then Senior minister, Dr. Arthur Caliandro in 2002 when Liza Minnelli married David Guest. The guest list was star-studded with Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Ross – to name a few!

A visit to Marble Collegiate Church is worthwhile if you are a New York local or if you are visiting New York for an extended time. Tours are often given after Sunday services, which begin at 11 AM on Sundays. After your service and tour, keep the spirit of the early-20th century alive with a stop at Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, a circa-1929 sandwich shop that serves delicious old-style egg creams. While you walk along Fifth Avenue, picture the street during its prime in the early-20th century.

Meet you on Fifth Avenue,

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The Draft Riots of 1863

New York City in the 1860’s was “a city characterized by extremes in wealth and poverty, by ethnic and racial diversity, by economic elites competing for political power, and by an unstable social-class system.” Poor white immigrants in New York lived in relative squalor and were faced with job competition – against their white peers and their free black neighbors – for (often temporary) jobs that required unskilled labor. Adding to the misery of poor whites in New York was the opulence by which the upper class lived. On main thoroughfare of Broadway in the center of the city, the lower and higher classes alike, as well as the free blacks of the city, were forced into a “dangerous mingling” that allowed them to observe how their urban peers lived. This daily observation of the disparity of wealth and status in the city lead poor whites to ask the question, “What sort of equality is that which keeps the largest portion of the people in want, while the smaller rolls in plenty?”

The New York Draft Riots – which occured July 13-16, 1863 – began as “a communal uprising against the power of an expanding and centralizing federal government.” Working class New Yorkers were being drafted to fight in the Civil War – at a time when they could not afford to leave jobs at home, and could not afford to pay the expensive $300 fee that would get them out of this obligation. The fact that the rioters initially only targeted military and governmental buildings – symbols of the unfairness of the draft – illustrates that their original motivation was to protest the draft by participating in group action. A first-hand observer remarked that the Draft Riot mob participated in a “defiant, law-contemning insurrection” in the spirit of the extralegal colonial mob. This was not an indiscriminately destructive mob, out only to wreak havoc upon the city; it was a mob structured in the tradition of the colonial political mob and concerned only with destroying the symbols of their grievances in an effort to make a political statement.

The original group of draft-resisting New Yorkers was corrupted very quickly by fringe groups with different – mostly racial – motivations for participating in acts of mob violence. “By afternoon of the first day, some of the rioters had turned to attacks on black people, and things symbolic of black political, economic, and social power.” In addition to the many anti-black rioters that joined the Draft Riot mob, various other groups of people took advantage of the urban chaos, further watering-down the legitimate, politically-motivated group until it was nothing more than a band of thieves, arsonists, and murderers. “The idle, the vicious, the curious joined the throng, and the motives of the mob became as varied and diverse as its elements.”

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Looting of Brooks Brothers on Catherine Street, 1863.
From Dickinson College’s House Divided Project.

“Thieves and plunderers” took advantage of the lack of policing and the destroyed property that the legitimate mob action had caused, stealing the items of property that were easily available and further devaluing the original political mob. Although most primary accounts concede that “everything goes to prove that, in the outset, so far as the original active rioters were concerned, the draft was the immediate cause of the disturbance,” the Draft Riot soon lost most legitimacy by snowballing into a mob without a goal.

“Ye Old Willow Cottage” Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, 1880.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Within the first day, the Draft Riot mob devolved from a motive-driven, politically-conscious colonial political mob to a “wild frenzy of July.” The mob became a cold-blooded, racially-motivated group of violent and angry New Yorkers. The “center of operations” for the mob became a cottage (sometimes called Croton Cottage, sometimes Willow Cottage) on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. The mob set fire to the Provost Marshall Office (the place names for the draft were being pulled) on Third Avenue and 47th Street. Then they continued wreaking havoc – destroying the city’s armories, looting and destroying businesses (such as the first Brooks Brothers store at Catherine and Cherry Streets), and attacking and killing citizens (particularly black men, at least two of whom were lynched by the mob that day).

View of the Distributing Reservoir & Colored Half Orphan Asylum from the Deaf & Dumb Inst.
View of the Distributing Reservoir & Colored Half Orphan Asylum from the Deaf & Dumb Inst., 1847.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

In (arguably) their most horrific act, the mob burned a Colored Orphan Asylum, on Fifth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets, with 200 orphan children still inside (all of whom luckily made it out alive!). New York Historical Society has a fantastic blog entry about the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum.

Over the course of a few days, the Draft Riot mob murdered at least 120 civilians (many of whom were free blacks) in cold blood, lynched 11 black men and forced hundreds of other black people to flee the city, plundered the city, caused at least $400,000 in property damage (some estimates put that number at $1.5 million) and committed various other vicious and unwarranted acts.

Murray Hill was the site of the final standoff between the mob and the government on July 16th. That day, 4,000 federal troops were finally able to get to the city – after having just fought in the bloody and exhausting Battle of Gettysburg from July 1-3rd. The troops, in combination with other factors such as a public plea for peace by the Archbishop (speaking to a mostly-Catholic mob), were finally able to stop the violence.

Most of the buildings associated with the Draft Riot are gone today, having been destroyed during the rioting. However, a walk from midtown Fifth Avenue to Murray Hill will take you to the sites of these places. If you open your mind, you can almost feel the tension – the anger, the racism, the fear – that characterized the mob.

Your Civil War buff,

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History at Home: Fabulous First Ladies

Our last History at Home explored handmade and vintage goods featuring the American presidents, so I thought it was only fair that our country’s First Ladies got their due. As Abigail Adams once said, “Remember the ladies.” The First Lady is the official White House hostess – but often (especially in the years since Eleanor Roosevelt) her role as First Lady extends well beyond the household sphere. This roundup of some of my favorite quirky vintage and handmade First Lady-themed swag will get your home and office looking swell!

1. Florence Harding letterpress print from Two Paper Dolls. $30

Florence Harding, wife of President Warren G. Harding, was kind of a badass. She was married before Warren (and totally lied about it afterwards, claiming she was a widow rather than a divorcée), she ran Warren’s newspaper business, and she even had her own astrologer. Florence’s words captured on this fun letterpress print epitomize the role of the First Lady (and arguably the role of wives everywhere). Hang this print at your desk for a constant reminder of the fabulous Florence Harding.

2. Eleanor Roosevelt 8 x 10 print from Elizabeth Mayville. $20

Eleanor Roosevelt is my favorite First Lady of all time. She was strong, sassy, and hyper-intelligent. She was a Michelle before Michelle was even born. Although Eleanor was self-conscious about her own looks – and was called ugly, among other things, by her own family – this portrait of Eleanor makes you think twice about her beauty. Eleanor had beauty that radiated from within – and somehow Elizabeth Mayville’s portrait brings that out.

3. Jackie Ohh II sunglasses from Ray Ban. $150

First Ladies are often the nation’s trendsetters. Michelle Obama made us proud to wear J. Crew, Hillary gave us the business-casual headband, and Jackie Kennedy left a fashion legacy of quintessential mid-century glamour. Lucky for us, Jackie O.’s effortless preppy style will always be “in.” Channel your inner Mrs. Kennedy with some fabulous oversized frames like these classic sunglasses from Ray Ban.

4. Hillary Clinton Love sticker from Dirt Squad. $2.50

Whatever your politics, you have to admit that it would be a pretty awesome moment in our country’s history if any lady – and especially a former First Lady – became president. This “Hillary” sticker is the perfect way to announce your love of Hillary: Senator, First Lady, Secretary of State…and possible future president.

5. The Adams Family print from Puns Intended. $5

Puns are amazing. History-themed puns are better. History-themed puns featuring Abigail Adams are the BEST. Abigail Adams was such an influential and impressive First Lady – her brilliant letters to John undoubtedly influenced the way our country was built. And just as Morticia Addams was the matriarch of the Addams Family, Abigail was the matriarch of the Adams Family. Show off your Abigail love with this adorably punny print!

6. Lady Bird Johnson letterpress print from Two Paper Dolls. $30

“The clash of ideas is the sound of freedom.” A quote so beautiful it could only have come from someone who witnessed just this sort of thing in action – especially someone who spent time in the White House and was married to a president. Lady Bird Johnson supplied plenty of great quotes in her day (“Where flowers bloom, so does hope” is one of my favorites) but this is a particularly good one. A perfect print to inspire you to think and to voice your opinions!

7. US Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane Blueprint from Blueprint Place. $15

During James Buchanan’s presidency, his niece Harriet Lane acted as his First Lady. Harriet was actually a pretty great First Lady, even if her uncle wasn’t the best president. Harriet was so cool, they named a ship after her – a US Revenue Cutter, built in 1857. The USRC Harriet Lane was captured by Confederates, got caught up in some skirmishes near Cuba, and was eventually abandoned at sea in 1881 when a fire broke out in one of her cargo holds. This blueprint, handmade on a real, old-fashioned blueprint machine, is a lovely little reminder of First Lady Harriet Lane. And you will totally impress your friends when you tell them why you have a ship blueprint hanging on your wall.

8. Nancy Reagan campaign button from Peace, Love, and Retro. $8

Campaign buttons are always fun, but I find the family-focused campaign buttons particularly interesting. Rather than directly advertising the candidate (in this case, Ronald Reagan), political campaigns often focus on First Ladies and children in an effort to appeal to women voters. This vintage “Nancy Reagan for First Lady” button totally represents this concept. Nancy was active in her husband’s campaign – she went on the campaign trail with him (and gave speeches to highlight his “personal side”) and even appeared in a commercial in 1980 alone in order to defend him. This vintage button is an artifact of its era – and would make a wonderful keepsake or a fun accessory for any First Lady-lover.

9. Eleanor Roosevelt quote print from Whisker Prints. $9

Eleanor Roosevelt quotes are everywhere out there. Although I’m a little tired of seeing them on everything, I admit that Eleanor Roosevelt was brilliant and said lots of really poignant things that deserve to be quoted. This quote is one of my favorites – and I love the look of the typography printed on a vintage page. Hang this in your house to remind you to do things that make you happy!

10. Michelle Obama tank from Look Human. $23

As a historian, I can say with a degree of certainty that Michelle Obama has the sickest arms of any First Lady in American history (though I’m sure Mrs. Washington’s were lovely). Wear this tank to the gym to remind you of your arm role model – and to celebrate First Ladies as you sweat it out!

My FFL (favorite First Lady) is definitely Eleanor, but Dolley Madison is a close second. Dolley saved a portrait of George Washington from a burning building, for goodness sake. Who’s your FFL and why? Let me know on the On the Ground History Facebook page. Through next Thursday, October 30, I’m giving away a 4×6 Adams Family print to one lucky commenter!

Your First Lady fangirl,

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A Visit to Philipsburg Manor

Places: Philipsburg Manor; Stew Leonard’s

Last weekend, my fiancé Colin and I decided to get out of the city for a bit, in search of a peaceful place with a little greenery where could spend a Saturday. Westchester County neighbors New York City, but the feeling is wholly different – there are trees, quiet outdoor spaces, and small-town restaurants. Although it only takes us an hour to get there from our Brooklyn apartment, it feels like a little getaway.

I recently read an excellent book about Margaret Hardenbroeck Philipse, a Dutch woman who came to New York (then Dutch-controlled New Amsterdam) in 1659. She was a businesswoman, or a “she-merchant” as the Dutch called them, and she was an awesome lady! She owned and traded ships, furs, slaves, and real estate (among other things) and she was the epitome of an independent woman.

After Margaret’s first husband, Peter De Vries, died, she married Frederick Philipse. Philipse was already an international businessman and merchant. His talents combined with Margaret’s business acumen and connections made them the ultimate 17th-century “power couple.”

Philispburg Manor, located in Sleepy Hollow, NY, was built on land Frederick Philipse owned (he owned most of Westchester County by the 1680s). The 17th-century stone manor house, reconstructed gristmill, 18th-century barn, and slave garden on the Upper Mills of Philipsburg Manor are open to the public as part of Historic Hudson Valley.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugImage courtesy of HudsonValley.org

The eastern part of the stone manor house was built in 1680 (!), and the western side was added on in 1720. However, the manor house is restored to the year 1750. This is the year that Adolph Philipse (Frederick and Margaret’s son) died without a will. Although it was not good for his heirs that he didn’t have a will, Adolph’s lack of legal planning turns out to be great for historians. In the year of his death, a probate inventory was taken, which includes remarkably detailed descriptions of the house’s decor- down to a description of a dried ham that was hanging from one of the rafters. (This probate inventory is actually housed at the New York Public Library, and you can make an appointment to look at it!)

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In addition to the stone manor house, there is a reconstructed water-powered gristmill on the Upper Mills property and a wooden 18th-century Dutch barn to visit. The gristmill was my favorite part of the tour – it is a working mill, in which you can still crank up the water wheel and watch the millstones grind wheat (from the property) into fine flour. Of course, the hard labor that the mill requires to operate highlights the people who were behind this grueling work – the 23 enslaved men, women, and children that lived and worked on the Philipse property.

The story of Philipsburg Manor is not complete without significant attention paid to the enslaved Africans that supported the property and the greater Philipse fortune. In addition to having their own slaves, the Philipse’s were in the business of slave trading. The Philipse’s financial success was completely dependent on the labor and trade of enslaved Africans. Enslaved men on the Philipsburg Manor property, such as Caesar, ran the mill for 10 hours a day, six days a week. Others, like Diamond, were boatmen. (They also maintained the grounds, worked as coopers, etc.) Enslaved women, such as Dina, worked at the dairy, tended the garden, cared for children, and did many other things to support daily life at the Upper Mills, as well as produce export products. The enslaved population was without question the backbone of Philipsburg Manor.

There are cooking demonstrations on an open fire near the property. When we were there, they were making “Indian slapjacks” and Johnnycakes from cornmeal. Yum!

Smelling those slapjacks got us hungry – so we  hopped in the car and drove 10 minutes south to the mecca of grocery stores, Stew Leonard’s. If you have never been to Stew Leonard’s, you simply must go. There’s site-made soft ice cream, hot food, an espresso bar, and more – plus tons of meat & produce…and (slightly creepy) talking animatronic displays throughout the store. We had a little ice cream, a lot of coffee, and picked up some steak and potatoes to cook for dinner. Overall, an awesome way to end a fantastic Saturday exploring 17th and 18th century New York!!

Your little Dutch explorer,

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The Majestic New York Public Library

Places: New York Public Library; Bryant Park

The New York Public Library now has neighborhood branches sprinkled throughout the city, but its main library building (officially called the Stephen A. Schwarzman building, after a library trustee) on Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets is the flagship of the New York Public Library System and is truly an architectural masterpiece. I work a few blocks away from the New York Public Library and, on lunch breaks, you can often find me with a bagel and a Gregory’s coffee (the best in the neighborhood!) sitting on the steps of the massive main library building. There is something special, and truly iconic, about this space in the middle of Manhattan.

A deeper look into the history of the library building uncovers a fascinating history of the location, and the building itself. The building was built on top of the Croton Reservoir (a remnant of the reservoir, built in 1842, can still be seen today on the foundation of the South Court!). Before it was a reservoir, the land was a potter’s field (1823-1840) and a Revolutionary War battlefield. Now, this chunk of land makes up the New York Public Library and its beautiful “backyard,” Bryant Park.

The cornerstone for the library building was laid in 1902, though the library didn’t open until 1911. It’s a small wonder that it took 9 years to open (and technically 16 years for “completion”) – the NYPL building was the largest marble structure ever attempted in the United States. It contains miles of shelves and millions of books. It took a whole year just to install the books, which came from the libraries of John Jacob Astor and James Lenox.

On May 23, 1911, President William Howard Taft and other dignitaries officially opened the library. The next day, the library was opened to the public – and 50,000 people visited the library that day! According to legend, an overachieving reader filed the first book request at 9:08 AM – a study of Nietzsche and Tolstoy. While that guy was reading about Nietzsche, the other visitors were probably preoccupied taking in the beautiful Beaux-Arts architecture and the impressive Rose Main Reading Room.

The Rose Main Reading Room is the highlight of the building. It takes up almost two city blocks and its ceiling is 52 feet high. It is the kind of place in which it is almost impossible to get any real work done, because you become entranced with the awe-inspiring elements of the space – the marble walls with enormous windows, the mural of clouds and plaster moldings on the ceiling, the 40,000 volumes lining the walls. Writers and scholars through the years have somehow managed to get things done in this space – notable authors such as Henry Miller and E.B. White have written in this room.

Note: A visitor to the New York Public Library between now and December 2014 will not be able to view this room since it is closed for inspection after a plaster rosette fell from the ceiling in May. (This closing isn’t all bad, since spaces usually closed to the public will be opened in an effort to add workspace!)

The iconic pair of lions on either side of the entrance stairway are the first thing most New Yorkers probably visualize when they think of the New York Public Library. I have always known the lions as Patience (he’s the one facing the library, on the south side) and Fortitude. Although these are the names most people know them by today, these names only originated in the 1930s with Mayor LaGuardia, who said that New Yorkers needed to possess both qualities to make it through the Great Depression. Before Patience and Fortitude, the lions were Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after John Jacob Astor and James Lenox, founders of the New York Public Library. At some point, they became known as Lady Astor and Lord Lenox (a little rude, considering both lions are definitely boys!).

“A sectional view of the New York Public Library,” 1911, New York Public Library.

Although the library appears massive from the street level, there is a whole other level of the library unseen from the ground view – the underground stacks of the library. Although the imposing Beaux-Arts marble structure is impressive, the underground engineering is the real marvel of the building (and the one that is often ignored). There are seven tiers of stacks below the main library building. In 1991, more stacks were added underneath Bryant Park, behind the library. In total, the stacks underneath the library and the park comprise almost 80 miles (!) of book storage space…right under your feet.

You can take a free tour of the New York Public Library building at 11 AM or 2 PM Monday through Saturday to learn more about the library’s history, though you can wander around the library any time it’s open (it’s public!). In nice weather, grab a latte and a sandwich at ‘witchcraft in Bryant Park, find an outdoor table, and bask in the shadow of this New York City icon.

Until next time,

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