Behind The Scenes

Interview With Photographer Stephen Somerstein

Marchers on the way to Montgomery as families watch from their porches

Marchers on the way to Montgomery as families watch from their porches

On January 16, the New-York Historical Society will open The 1965 March: Stephen Somerstein Photographs Freedom’s Journey from Selma to Montgomery. This exhibit features the stunning and historic photographs of Stephen Somerstein, documenting the Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights March in January 1965. We spoke to Mr. Somerstein about traveling to the march, the art of photography, and being present at a history-changing event.

What were your initial thoughts when you first became aware of the march?

I was editor of MAIN EVENTS, one of the City College of New York newspapers. Back in March 1965 everyone was watching the news programs on TV as this extraordinary tableau paraded across the screen, where I clearly remembered feeling outraged by the violent police response to the peaceful civil rights protest marchers in Selma, Alabama, who were attempting to march to the state capital in Montgomery. This unprovoked intimidation galvanized many students in our school to action. When Dr. King called on Americans to join him in a massive protest march to Montgomery, many students immediately organized to travel down to Alabama and join him. I knew that important, nation-changing history was unfolding and I wanted to capture its power and meaning with my camera. I immediately got in touch with the local organizers to determine the travel logistics, went home, packed an overnight bag, some sandwiches, my cameras, and all the film I could round up, then told my mother I was heading for a date with history in Alabama.

Are there any moments during the march that particularly stand out to you?

The first time I seriously reflected on the potential impact of the march was when I encountering the multi-generational family arrayed before the smiling lady of the “Things Go Better With Coke” sign, I realized what a beautiful image it was. Yet on seeing the family’s serious faces, in the midst of taking this iconic image, I knew that our march was terribly meaningful for their future and would have profound consequences. We would be gone in the next days, proud that we had come, yet all too safely home.  I worried and hoped that our efforts would bear good fruit and what we left behind would grow into something better for them.
One of the most moving moments etched into my memory was when I stood behind Dr. King to photograph him from the rear as he was speaking before 25,000 marchers. After carefully framing and capturing the image I looked beside him and into the sea of faces. As I concentrated on individuals, I saw how utterly transfixed the people were by his words. Some had put their hands over their eyes so as to focus solely on his message.

What do you feel you learned from participating in the march?

For someone, such as myself, who thoughtfully considers and weighs before committing to action – to have lept into the unknown for this worthy cause is a marvelous and cherished memory.

Why do you think the New-York Historical Society is a fitting venue for the work?

By virtue of its own name the museum is a venue to display the historical contributions of New Yorkers to the City and to the world, who have created works that have had a profound and enduring influence on the rest of the world. From its earliest founding as New Amsterdam, this city has been a constantly churning amalgam of creative, energetic “can-do” spirit, who see tolerance and acceptance as a necessary part of a successful and vibrant business and social culture.


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How Did FDR Serve Four Terms As President?

On November 7, 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented fourth term as President. Now we know that Presidents may not seek more than two terms, so what let FDR serve for thirteen years before he died in office in 1945?

President George Washington famously refused to seek a third term in office. His Farewell Address states it was because of his age, but his successors saw it as a necessary defense against monarchy. However, there were no formal laws written about term limits, and thus when WWII broke out in Europe, Roosevelt agreed to run for a third and then fourth term. His race in 1944 earned him 53% of the vote and he carried 36 states.

Toward the end of the 1944 presidential race, New York Governor Thomas Dewey said “Four terms, or sixteen years, is the most dangerous threat to our freedom ever proposed,” and supported the passage of an amendment that would limit future Presidents to two terms. The 22nd Amendment was passed in 1947, and ratified in 1951.

 


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Check Out These Spooky Halloween Costumes From 1916

I appreciate a good, scary Halloween costume. These days it’s all too easy to go as a celebrity, some sort of pun, or something like Superman, but I’m all for bringing Halloween back to it’s terrifying roots. When else do you have free reign to cover yourself in fake blood and gross makeup and really freak out your neighbors? It is in that spirit that I present you the scariest costumes I’ve ever seen, “photographed for Mrs. Reiser” in 1916.

Unidentified group of people in Halloween costumes, October 31, 1916. Photographed for Mrs. Reiser.  New-York Historical Society Library

Unidentified group of people in Halloween costumes, October 31, 1916. Photographed for Mrs. Reiser. New-York Historical Society Library

These masks are honestly horrifying. What are they even supposed to be, just men and women with blurry faces that will haunt your dreams? And what is with the paper lantern? This has got to be the creepiest tableau I have seen, and I’d like to toast the folks in the photo, who are completely dedicated to keeping Halloween scary. Kudos to you!


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1915: Women March For Suffrage in New York City

On October 23, 1915, over 25,000 women marched up Fifth Avenue in New York City to advocate for women’s suffrage. At that point, the fight had been ongoing for more than 65 years, with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 first passing a resolution in favor of women’s suffrage. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t find success for another five years.

Unknown artist, Suffragette Mothers on the March in New York, Silver Gelatin Print 8 ½ x 9 5/16 inches 2.14.12 [PR068, Box 10, Folder: People: Women: Suffrage (1)] New-York Historical Society

Unknown artist, Suffragette Mothers on the March in New York, Silver Gelatin Print 8 ½ x 9 5/16 inches 2.14.12 [PR068, Box 10, Folder: People: Women: Suffrage (1)] New-York Historical Society

New York’s 1915 suffrage parade was the largest held in the city until that time. But many still had reservations. The New York Times ran an article warning that if women get the vote, they will “play havoc for themselves and society,” and that “granted the suffrage, they would demand all the rights that implies. It is not possible to think of women as soldiers and sailors, police patrolmen, or firemen” Heavens, think of the chaos!

Women's Suffrage Parade, PR 068, New-York Historical Society Library

Women’s Suffrage Parade, PR 068, New-York Historical Society Library

In 1917, New York State granted women the right to vote. It was one of the first states to do so, and the domino effect lead to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which granted women the right to vote across the country. However, that didn’t put an end to the assumptions that women couldn’t be soldiers, or firefighters, or many other things traditionally in the male realm. Women fought, and continue to fight, for the right to be considered equal citizens every day, both in America and across the world.


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What The General Slocum Victims Wore

This may look like an ordinary child’s shoe, but it has a much darker history. The above shoe belonged to the then nearly six year old Helen Liebenow as a baby, sister of the donor, Adella Liebenow Wotherspoon. Wotherspoon was the last survivor of the General Slocum steamer disaster. On June 15, 1904, fire broke out on the ship and 1,021 passengers perished within minutes. Helen’s body was never recovered from the disaster.

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General Slocum Disaster – Half-submerged boat, PR 020

The General Slocum disaster was New York’s deadliest disaster until September 11, 2001. The steamer was carrying members of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, mainly German immigrants, to a picnic on Long Island. Most of the nearly 1,400 passengers were women and children living in Manhattan’s Little Germany neighborhood, now the East Village. In fact, there’s a memorial to the disaster in Tompkins Square Park.

Slocum Disaster, placing tags on bodies. Geographic File, PR-020

Slocum Disaster, placing tags on bodies. Geographic File, PR-020

As the steamer traveled up the East River, a fire caught in the Lamp Room. Many lifeboats and life preservers on the ship were in disrepair, and as a result 1,021 passengers died by fire or drowning. The community in Little Germany was devastated, as many victims were members of prominent families. The area’s German population was already in decline, with the influx of Russian, Italian and Jewish immigrants, and after the disaster many of the neighborhood’s Germans moved to Brooklyn or Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

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Pair of shoes worn by Anna C. Liebenow, a child who drowned in the General Slocum disaster, ca. 1904. Leather, cotton, metal. New-York Historical Society, Bequest of Adella “Tiby” Liebenow Wotherspoon, 2004.26.2

The above shoes, and more, are currently on view in A Brief History of New York: Selections from A History of New York in 101 Objects.


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What Was In The Time Capsule?

Yesterday, historians and researchers at the New-York Historical Society opened this elegant bronze time capsule, entrusted to the New-York Historical Society by the Lower Wall Street Business Men’s Association in 1914. So 100 years later, what’s in the box?

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Crowd gathered for the opening of the time capsule (Seth Newcom/New-York Historical Society)

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Opening the capsule (Seth Newcom/New-York Historical Society)

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Organizing the contents (Seth Newcom/New-York Historical Society)

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The contents displayed (Seth Newcom/New-York Historical Society)

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New York Tribune found in the capsule (Seth Newcom/New-York Historical Society)

Given that this was a Wall Street Business association, the contents often reflected that. There was the 25th Annual Report for the Coffee Exchange of the City of New York, records from the Chamber of Commerce, the directory for the New York Stock Exchange, and various trade journals. There were also numerous newspapers, which showed the important headlines of the day (like the latest about the Mexican Civil War).

But that wasn’t all that took place. Our Student Historians also created a time capsule of their own! To be opened in 2114, the capsule is filled with objects that represent life in New York and America today. Objects include a MetroCard, flyers and buttons from the Occupy Wall Street movement, an Amazon Kindle, the box for the iPhone 6, and an MTA Subway map. Tell us, what would you put in a Time Capsule today?

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Objects to go in the Student Historians’ time capsule (Seth Newcom/New-York Historical Society)


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When America Opened Its Doors Again: The Immigration Act of 1965

Immigration Interview on Angel Island, 1923. National Archives at College Park, MD.

Immigration Interview on Angel Island, 1923. National Archives at College Park, MD.

Our new exhibition Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion focuses much on the question of immigration in America: who is allowed, who isn’t, how many people should come, and why. These issues are extremely apparent in the passing of the Chinese Exclusion act of 1882, which barred Chinese immigration into America, and required that all Chinese entering or re-entering the country had to prove their identity and eligibility or risk being denied entry. The Act was repealed in 1943, which also allowed Chinese in America to become naturalized citizens.

However, American immigration was still operating on the National Origins System (enacted in the 1924 Immigration Act), which set limits on immigration based on how many people of a particular origin were already in America. However, those quota were rarely fair, and favored northern Europeans. In 1943, just 105 people of Chinese origin were allowed each year, and other Asians were excluded altogether.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, sponsored by Representative Emanuel Celler of New York, removed all language pertaining to race or national origin from US immigration law. Celler argued for the “elimination from our laws of the fallacious belief that the place of birth or the racial origin of a human being determines the quality or the level of a man’s intellect, or his moral character, or his suitability for assimilation into our nation and our society.” Instead, it gave preference to potential immigrants with family members in America, or with desirable skills, which remains the basis of our immigration policy today. President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill on October 3, 1965 at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.

Today, immigration remains an important topic of public discussion. The exhibit provides a chance to look back at attitudes, policies and laws that shaped American immigration from its very beginnings.

Signing of the Immigration Act, 1965. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto.

Signing of the Immigration Act, 1965. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto.


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An Elegant, Bronze Time Capsule, Rediscovered at the New-York Historical Society, Awaits Its Opening

 

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At 2pm on May 23, 1914, a group of men wearing cocked hats, white wigs, and knee-breeches, emerged from the Fraunces Tavern, walked slowly up Broad Street, and then turned down Wall Street towards the river, accompanied by the steady beat of a Continental drum corps.  “Had George Washington’s statue on the steps of the Sub-Treasury come to life,” remarked one witness, “he would surely have thought that the old Revolutionary days had returned.”  But it was merely the advance guard of a parade celebrating lower Wall Street’s importance not just as a center of the tea and coffee trade, but also as a birthplace of the revolution.  Following behind were several hundred tea and coffee merchants, along with members (including almost forty women) of various historical and hereditary societies, and descendants of New York’s revolutionary leaders.  Cheered on by hundreds of spectators on the sidewalk and by office workers from windows high above, they finally reached the Jauncey office building at 91 Wall Street, where they gathered for the unveiling of a bronze plaque marking the site of the historic Merchants’ Coffee House, which had burned down 110 years earlier.

Outside-the-Jauncey-Building

But before drawing the veil, the assembled dignitaries performed a ceremony so new it had no name.  They revealed to the crowds a large, ornate bronze chest containing various documents, and to seal it they called on the ex-mayor of New York and former president of Columbia University, Seth Low, who had himself begun his career on lower Wall Street in his father’s tea company.  Wielding a silver hammer, Low hammered bronze nails into the chest.  He then formally entrusted it to the president of the New-York Historical Society with instructions not to allow anyone to open it until 1974.

Although the plaque no longer exists – presumably lost when that office building was demolished – the bronze chest has survived and is approaching its hundredth birthday.  Sitting patiently on a shelf in the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, and now in the Museum’s rotunda, it remains visible to visitors.  They can read its engraved message and admire its rich ornamentation: the faux-rope handles, the paw-shaped feet, and the crowning finial.  They might also notice that it is still nailed firmly shut.  As a result of being uncatalogued and, for a time, consigned to offsite art storage in Chelsea, the chest was forgotten and thus missed its date with destiny.  In fact, it overslept by more than quarter of a century.  Not until the late 1990s, when curators were cataloguing artifacts in preparation for display in the new Luce Center, was it rediscovered.

Time capsules are generally assumed to be a creation of the 1930s, with the term first being used at the New-York World’s Fair.  In my own research, however, I have found as many as fifteen from the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, dating back to the earliest, introduced at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876.  Consisting of bank safes, lead chests, or other metal boxes, these vessels contained a variety of objects: letters and printed documents but also photographs, phonographs, and films.  Contributors even offered items of material culture, ranging from samples of clothing, hats, and shoes to technological artifacts such as the latest camera or telephone.  I describe these precursors in my book-in-progress, The Birth of the Time Capsule, as a way to explore larger themes such as the mounting conflict between capital and labor, the envisioned possibilities of new media, or the changing conception of the present’s duty to posterity.

As the notion of sealing a box for a certain number of years (usually 100) was only just emerging and no term or protocol yet existed, these early time capsules faced many challenges.  Entrusted to libraries, city halls, and other public spaces, rather than buried underground, they were subject to tampering, relocation, or – in one case – premature opening by a curious clerk.  Over time, further problems arose: a missing key, a broken lock, and a legal dispute over the ownership of the contents.  Nevertheless, the success rate of these proto-time capsules is surprisingly high.  Almost all were opened, usually on time and in the presence of leading officials.  The Wall Street chest would have been the very first to be opened, had it been remembered in 1974 (that honor ultimately fell to the Philadelphia Exposition time capsule, opened two years later by President Gerald Ford).  But it now appears to hold another world record: it is, by my account, the oldest, unopened time capsule.

This fall, the four-hundredth anniversary of Dutch attempts to colonize the New World provides the perfect occasion to finally open this remarkable chest.  On October 11, 1614, the Dutch Republic granted a charter and a three-year fur-trading monopoly to the New Netherland Company – the first official reference to “New Netherland.”  It was this event that the Wall Street merchants were celebrating in 1914, and the city’s festivities continued through the summer, until cut short by the Great War.  If the quadricentennial of New Netherland has gone relatively unnoticed so far this year, the opening of this time capsule on October 8 may serve to correct that.

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In the New-York Historical Society’s Rotunda, like a message in a bottle that has washed up on a distant shore, it evokes a sense of connection across time to those who sent it.  We might wonder what they deposited in it.  And whether we – and the city we now live in – resemble the vision they held of the future.

We might also wonder about the motives behind the capsule.  Certainly, the Lower Wall Street businessmen were celebrating themselves, drawing attention to their deep historical roots at the foot of Wall Street, their pedigree as descendants of revolutionaries, and their ongoing efforts as a philanthropic and Republican-aligned organization.  But they were also making a historical argument that New York, and in particular the Merchants’ Coffee House, rather than Boston’s Faneuil Hall, was the true birthplace of the revolution, by depositing (among other things) a copy of a letter written there in May 1774 by New York’s Committee of Correspondence, calling for a “virtuous and spirited union” – a document that had been lost for many years.  Like other acts of preservation in early twentieth-century New York, the time capsule may even have been intended to inculcate patriotism and national-historical consciousness among a growing immigrant population.

Such ulterior motives and social biases raise questions about how we are to position ourselves as recipients – and how, more generally, we might observe the four-hundredth anniversary of the Dutch venture, knowing as we do its implications for the region’s indigenous peoples. The time capsule will be opened at the New-York Historical Society on October 8, 2014 (if you would like to receive an invitation to the event, please e-mail communications@nyhistory.org)

After the time capsule is opened, it will then be – according to its instructions – “resealed” and returned to the “custody of the New-York Historical Society” for its next opening in 2074.  And finally, there is a plan to compile a new capsule to be placed alongside it.  This would involve reaching out to students for ideas about what kinds of messages and objects would best convey the texture and condition of life in their complex, diverse city to those living sixty years from now.

 

Nick Yablon is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Iowa and the author of Untimely Ruins: An Archaeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819-1919 (University of Chicago Press, 2009).  As the NEH Fellow at the N-YHS for 2013-14, he is researching a book on Charles Gilbert Hine, an amateur photographer who photographed New York at the turn of the twentieth century.


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How To Choose 101 Objects That Represent New York

 bookcover101Sam Roberts took on a lot when he decided to whittle down the essence of New York to 101 objects. How could a city with hundreds of years of history, millions of residents, and countless cultural contributions be defined in such a way? We spoke with the author about his inspiration, his process, and what objects he left out.

Where did you first get the idea for this book?
The book was inspired by the collaboration between the British Museum and the BBC, “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” One Hundred was enough for the world. New York needed 101.

How did you go about your research? Did you have any criteria for what made an object worthy of defining New York?
I consulted curators, historians, museum directors, professors, librarians, archivists to compile my own list of 50 for a New York Times article, then invited readers to submit suggestions. The criteria? That the objects be transformative or emblematic of a transformation, that they exist, be not too much bigger than a breadbox (no Statue of Liberty), not be human (that ruled out Ed Koch) and couldn’t ALL be about food (the subject that generated the most suggestions). I was inundated! How could I have included the MetroCard but not the subway token? The goal of the book was to be provocative, to make people think about history in new ways. I guess it worked.

Do you have a favorite item among the ones in the exhibition?
I have a couple of favorites, mostly the quirky ones that readers wouldn’t expect, wouldn’t ordinarily associate with New York, or would open a window to an episode in New York history that surprises them, such as the artichoke, the mechanical cotton picker and the Third Avenue trolley ticket.

This book reminds me of how people are constantly trying to peg the “real” or “authentic” New York. Do you think that such a thing exists?
What’s authentic about New York is our resilience, our constant evolution, and the fact, which we often forget, that New York rests on a very different foundation from the other American colonies. Its Dutch roots — the tolerance, or indifference, to diversity, as long as  it didn’t interfere with commerce — still defines this city in a way that makes it unique as it celebrates the 350th anniversary of the naming of New York.

If you were to choose a few objects that represent New York City today, what would they be?
A contender for Vol. II

A contender for Vol. II

I’m hoping readers of the book and New-York Historical Society visitors keep submitting suggestions, even though the biggest challenge was winnowing the list down to 101. (there’s a website, also an email: ObjectsOfNYC@gmail.com).  I would add the inflatable rat used by organized labor to protest non-union worksites and the barber chair that the caricaturist Al Hirshfeld sat in to draw, to name just two. Nominations for Volume II are welcome!

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What New York Slang Did We Get From The Dutch?

Today is the anniversary of the colony of New Amsterdam officially becoming New York, when the Dutch ceded control to the British. But Dutch influence on New York, and on America, is longstanding–Dutch values of tolerance and freedom of religion are things Americans hold dear (in 1597 The Netherlands established “no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of his religion”). But Dutch culture made its way into our language as well.

Francis Harrison (fl. 1730–1732), Geoffrey Needler The English and Low-Dutch School-Master, 1730 New-York: Printed and sold by W. Bradford Y Bind Brad/.Har 1730

Francis Harrison (fl. 1730–1732), Geoffrey Needler
The English and Low-Dutch School-Master, 1730
New-York: Printed and sold by W. Bradford
Y Bind Brad/.Har 1730

This dictionary, currently on display in A Brief History of New York: Selections from A History of New York in 101 Objects, translates between English and Low Dutch. When the British took over, there were considerable language gaps, and guides like this flourished to help people communicate. However, many Dutch words snuck their way into everyday New York slang, and continued to spread across America. If it weren’t for the Dutch, we wouldn’t have words like “cookie,” “coleslaw,” “waffle,” “doughnut,” “stoop,” and “Yankee.”

Are these words you use in everyday life? What objects do you think define New York? Let us know!


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