Behind The Scenes

AIDS in New York: An Interview with Jean Ashton

This week we sat down with New-York Historical’s Senior Director of Resources and Programs Jean Ashton to discuss her book, AIDS in New York: The First Five Years. The book shares its name with the 2013 N-HYS exhibition that Ashton curated. To learn more about the epidemic in NYC, check out our online exhibition.

A group advocating AIDS research marches down Fifth Avenue during the 14th annual Lesbian and Gay Pride parade in New York, June 27, 1983. Mario Suriani/Associated Press.

A group advocating AIDS research marches down Fifth Avenue during the 14th annual Lesbian and Gay Pride parade in New York, June 27, 1983. Mario Suriani/Associated Press.

How did you first get interested in the topic of the AIDS epidemic in NYC?

The New-York Historical Society recently presented exhibits on the history of cholera, smallpox, and the discovery of insulin. They showed how contagious disease was an integral part of urban history—disease had social and political impacts and treatment was influenced by cultural and political norms. The AIDS epidemic was no different. We were convinced that a new generation of AIDS patients was growing and that there were lessons to be learned, so we created an exhibit that would serve the public interest in explaining why treatment and preventive care were still important and relevant.

I conducted extensive interviews, talking to about 40 people who had been involved in the research in the early 1980s, who were survivors of the period, or who had lost friends and had vivid memories of the disease—everyone from Matilda Krim, Ed Koch (just weeks before his death), Larry Kramer, David Ho, to doctors currently running HIV clinics. It was clearly important to have these voices on record while people were still alive and able to recall their memories.

What was New York City’s reaction to the discovery of AIDS?

The people of the city of New York were at first unaware of the spread of this new disease which appeared primarily in socially “outside” communities, among down-and-out heroin users. As knowledge and disease spread, AIDS was characterized by a stigma that stemmed from the taboos related to its source. Just as the Irish were blamed for cholera in the 1840s, gays, and to some extent, black people were rumored to be responsible. AIDS was a punishment for bad behavior, some thought. There was also a lot of fear since the means of transmission was completely unknown; fear of infection added to the panic. On the other hand, middle-class families in communities throughout New York were, for a long time, completely isolated from the epidemic—or so they thought. But after 1985, deaths from AIDS became so common and so widespread that it was impossible to ignore. The death of Rock Hudson, widely covered on television and print media, was a turning point, especially after Hollywood stars like Elizabeth Taylor became committed to the search for prevention and cure. 

Silence = Death poster, 1987. ACT UP New York records, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

Silence = Death poster, 1987. ACT UP New York records, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

Before the discovery of the HIV virus, what did victims suspect was making them sick?

In the early period before the virus was identified, no one really knew what was going on. This allowed for a lot of magical thinking, efforts to find non-medical solutions, homeopathic remedies, etc. Mourning and fear were widespread, as almost everyone in some communities either had the disease or were convinced they would get it. There was a strong reaction among some groups against behavior change of any sort—the use of condoms or avoidance of multiple anonymous sexual encounters. These were “identity markers” that had been fought for and won as gay culture proclaimed itself proudly. Some, particularly in black communities, talked about intentional infection and government-sponsored genocide.

How did the AIDS epidemic affect the civil liberties of HIV-positive New Yorkers?

Civil liberties are always potentially at odds with public health initiatives. Men who have sex with men were—and until recently still are—prevented from giving blood, since possible transmission of the HIV virus through the blood supply was established early on. People at first feared that homosexuals who revealed their status would be sent to concentration camps or at least there would be social consequences. Parents of school children felt that children with AIDS would contaminate their kids. There were also many reports of AIDS patients being kicked out of their apartments or being given sub-standard treatment in hospitals where staff members refused to enter their rooms. The worst aspects of this calmed down as more was learned about transmission of the disease.

How do you hope AIDS in New York improves understanding of public health in the city?

The reaction to the possibility of an Ebola outbreak in the city shows that New Yorkers still have a lot to learn when dealing with public health issues. Fear affects social behavior. I hope that understanding the way in which AIDS entered into civic consciousness—about the need to treat disease as something other than a moral issue and to be realistic and open about the presence of a contagious disease—can help a current generation understand the present, as well as the past. On a more practical note, I learned from the comments on the exhibition, many young people today don’t know what HIV/AIDS is or its enduring effects. We need to teach them how important it is to be vigilant and careful.

Share

No Comments

Unpublished Jupiter Hammon Poem Discovered at N-YHS

April is National Poetry Month, so what better time to share our exciting news! Independent Scholar Claire Bellerjeau made a miraculous discovery in the New-York Historical Society’s collections; she uncovered an unpublished poem likely written by Jupiter Hammon, the first published African American author in America. Hammon, who lived his entire life as an enslaved person, had four poems and three essays published in his lifetime. This sixth poem (a fifth was discovered at Yale in 2011) illuminates a historically well-versed, free thinking Hammon. In his work, he champions Anne Hutchinson, an outspoken proponent of religious freedom. We recently sat down with Bellerjeau to learn more about her discovery, as well as the life and poetry of Jupiter Hammon.

Because the poem was folded like a letter, Bellerjeau believed that it was a single page. However, upon closer inspection, she discovered that the stanzas spilled across three pages. The scholar is confident that this is a complete work. Poem attributed to Jupiter Hammon, transcribed by Phebe Townsend, August 10, 1770. Townsend Family Papers, Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society, 90347d.

Because the poem was folded like a letter, Bellerjeau believed that it was a single page. However, upon closer inspection, she discovered that the stanzas spilled across three pages. The scholar is confident that this is a complete work. Poem attributed to Jupiter Hammon, transcribed by Phebe Townsend, August 10, 1770. Townsend Family Papers, Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society, 90347d.

Can you tell us about Jupiter Hammon?

Hammon was born in 1711 and was owned by three generations of the same family. The Henry Lloyd family (of Long Island) had their own manor, and within their property (which was fairly large), they had their own schoolhouse, where Hammon was educated alongside the family’s children. And that’s extremely unusual for a slave to even be allowed to be educated, let alone alongside the household children. Two teachers we know about had religious ties. One was a Harvard Divinity School graduate and another was a missionary. It seems unlikely that a person with this level of education and a clear passion for writing would have picked up the pen so late in life. He wrote this poem in his later 50s. So, I wonder if he kept a book of his own writing, and if that could ever be found.

How did you discover the poem?

I was conducting research on the slaves of the Townsend family at the New-York Historical Society Library. The Townsends were prominent patriots living on Long Island during the American Revolution. When I was reading through their family collection, I saw Hammon’s name on a document. I was in a rush, so I just took a photo, but it wasn’t until Valentine’s Day that I just happened to be looking at the picture I had taken of Hammon’s poem. I googled a few lines of the poem, honestly thinking I was going to find scholars talking about it. And it wasn’t until nothing came up in the searches for any of the lines of poem that I realized this was an undiscovered work.

Where do you see Hammon’s voice in this poem?

I have analyzed all of his works side-by-side and found that his phrases, syntax, as well many of the lines and allusions that he used in this poem appear in other poems. Likewise, his attribution, where he says it was composed by Jupiter Hammon, is the same as his others. Even the first line of this poem is very similar to his 1778 poem about Phillis Wheatley. In fact, all of his first lines are very evocative—using the word “come” or “came.” They all encourage the reader to enter the poem. So you can clearly see his voice in this one, as it carries across his body of work.

The theme of salvation was one of the major themes throughout all his works, especially in his first poem, where he mentions the word “salvation” over and over. This is the next known work, said to have been written on August 10, 1770, and it takes the question of salvation a step further, offering a historical point of comparison. Hutchinson was convicted of heresy for believing that she achieved salvation through a direct relationship with God. Now that’s a very powerful statement for a person who is enslaved. It shows that Hammon, too, wanted to bypass the slave owners and reach salvation directly through God. He would later write, “If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves.”

This was not the first of Hammon’s works found at the New-York Historical Society. Hammon’s 1760 poem, “An Evening Thought” was discovered in the collection in 1905. This early broadside made him the first published African American author in America. An evening thought. Salvation by Christ, with Penetential Cries:/ composed by Jupiter Hammon..., ca.1760. Broadside SY1760 no.2, Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society, 81747d.

This was not the first of Hammon’s works found at the New-York Historical Society. Hammon’s 1760 poem, “An Evening Thought” was discovered in the collection in 1905. This early broadside made him the first published African American author in America. An evening thought. Salvation by Christ, with Penetential Cries:/ composed by Jupiter Hammon…, ca.1760. Broadside SY1760 no.2, Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society, 81747d.

Is this poem, in any way, radically different from Hammon’s other works?

I believe it is different in the way that he is writing specifically about someone from the past. Anne Hutchinson was alive over 120 years before he was—it’s a scholarly thing to write about a historical figure.

This poem is a gift to scholars and the African American community because Hammon has been heavily criticized for being an apologist, when in reality his anti-slavery pieces simply weren’t published. This poem doesn’t broach the topic of slavery per se, but it does pay tribute to a woman who was famous for her rebellion in favor of religious freedom and thought: Anne Hutchinson.

Can you tell us about Phebe Townsend, the woman who penned Hammon’s poem?

She was the youngest child of the Townsend household and was not a well-known member of the family. While her brother, Robert, was one of Washington’s greatest spies, who wrote letters to the general in invisible ink recounting troop movements around New York City, Phebe remained on Long Island during the American Revolution. In fact, she lived at home for almost her entire life. She certainly went against the grain, defying societal expectations. For example, Phebe didn’t marry until she was 45. Her husband was 26. Even after she was married, she continued signing documents with her maiden name. Although her family condemned her husband as a gold-digger, there’s no evidence that Phebe shared this opinion. Interestingly, she would have been only seven years old in 1770 when the poem was written. At that time, Hammon was 59, so there was a great age difference between them.

All of the Townsends, including Phebe, owned slaves, but only her brother Robert (the spy) ever expressed explicit anti-slavery sentiments. He joined John Jay’s manumission society in 1785, and in the decade that followed helped several slaves secure their freedom, including Hammon’s grand-nephew, Edward.

What do you hope will come from this discovery? 

My hope is that those who previously dismissed Hammon will now re-evaluate his works. He was living under a highly restrictive environment as a slave, and we can only speculate how this affected his writing. Critics should remember this while examining the differences between his published and unpublished works. For Hammon to revere Anne Hutchinson, a woman who championed freedom of religion and thought, adds significantly to his legacy as the father of African American literature.

I feel sure that Hammon wrote many other poems over the course of his long life. I am hopeful that through this discovery, others will become more aware, and perhaps unearth more of his works that may be hiding in plain sight.

 

“I wonder whether Phebe shared Hammon’s admiration for Anne Hutchinson,” explained Bellerjeau. “If you look carefully at the poem, you can see that it’s folded, which makes me think it was something she treasured. It was carefully kept for a long time.”  Poem attributed to Jupiter Hammon, transcribed by Phebe Townsend, August 10, 1770. Townsend Family Papers, Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society, 90347d.

“I wonder whether Phebe shared Hammon’s admiration for Anne Hutchinson,” explained Bellerjeau. “If you look carefully at the poem, you can see that it’s folded, which makes me think it was something she treasured. It was carefully kept for a long time.”
Poem attributed to Jupiter Hammon, transcribed by Phebe Townsend, August 10, 1770. Townsend Family Papers, Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society, 90347d.


3 Comments

Meet Audubon’s Assistant Painter: Maria Martin Bachman

Currently on display at New-York Historical is the final installment of the three-year series featuring all of John James Audubon’s original watercolor models for The Birds of America. Because of their fragility, this is your last chance to catch these stunning works. So don’t miss out—come see Audubon’s Aviary: The Final Flight and perch with flock (through May 10).

 A portrait of Maria Martin Bachman, taken in her native Charleston, South Carolina. Courtesy of The Charleston Museum, Charleston, South Carolina

A portrait of Maria Martin Bachman. Courtesy of The Charleston Museum, Charleston, South Carolina

 

Considered America’s first great watercolorist, John James Audubon pioneered innovative artistic techniques and for the first time ever rendered his feathered subjects life-size. He was a French immigrant (born in present-day Haiti) who became an American citizen in 1812 and responded to major developments of his time: among them the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and Manifest Destiny. The push westward opened up new frontiers, and with them, new flocks of avian species for him to catalogue and master.

Martin’s floral flourishes compliment Audubon’s exquisite hummingbirds. John James Audubon [with Maria Martin], Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), Study for Havell pl. 379, 1836–37 Watercolor, graphite, black ink, and gouache with touches of pastel and selective glazing on paper, laid on card. Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.379

 

But Audubon’s ambitious project to paint the birds of America required assistance. In the Old Master tradition, his assistants worked anonymously under his name, including the self-taught artist, Maria Martin Bachman. She was the sister-in-law, and later the second wife of John Bachman, an impassioned naturalist, a Lutheran pastor, and life-long friend of Audubon. Her personal letters paint the picture of a well-educated, literary, and artistically talented woman. Upon his first visit to the Bachman’s Charleston abode in 1831, Audubon noticed her gift with watercolors. He began supplying her with paints, teaching her new techniques, and encouraging the gifts of “our little sweetheart.” Over the years, her abilities in painting exquisite flowers soared. She contributed to the watercolor models for Audubon’s most famous project The Birds of America. It is thought that she collaborated with him on at least 30 watercolors (he credited her with nine), embellishing them with both flowers and insects.

Courtesy of St. John's Lutheran Church, Charleston, South Carolina.

The Bachmans’ house was a whimsical place. Its gardens boasted splendid varieties of flora.These wild shrubs were all that remained at the turn of the 20th century. It was here, in John’s study, where Audubon painted his watercolors for “The Birds of America.” Bachmans’ house on Rutledge Avenue, Courtesy of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Charleston, South Carolina.

 

Because their collaborations were virtually seamless, with Audubon designing the composition, it is often very difficult to know where Audubon’s hand ended and Martin’s began. In her lifetime, Martin became South Carolina’s only recognized female artist. Unfortunately, she has not been studied outside of her association with her husband and Audubon, but luckily for us, her gift has been immortalized through the watercolors she painted with Audubon.

Martin’s moths create interest and add movement to the composition, bringing Audubon’s birds to life.  John James Audubon [with Maria Martin and John Woodhouse Audubon], Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya), Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis), and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus), Study for Havell pl. 359, 1836 –37 Watercolor, graphite, pastel, gouache, and black ink with scratching out on paper, laid on card. Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon,

Martin’s moths create interest and add movement to the composition, bringing Audubon’s birds to life.
John James Audubon [with Maria Martin and John Woodhouse Audubon], Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya), Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis), and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus), Study for Havell pl. 359, 1836 –37 Watercolor, graphite, pastel, gouache, and black ink with scratching out on paper, laid on card. Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.359

Bachman’s Warbler, featured in this Audubon-Martin collaboration, is now extinct. In this work (inscribed by her), Martin’s flora highlights the bird’s ability to camouflage itself. Can you spot it amidst the leaves? John James Audubon [with Maria Martin], Bachman’s Warbler (Vermivora bachmanii), Study for Havell pl. 395 (plant) Watercolor, graphite, gouache, with touches of black ink and pastel and selective glazing on paper, laid on card. Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.18.12

Bachman’s Warbler, featured in this Audubon-Martin collaboration, is now extinct. In this work (inscribed by her), Martin’s flora highlights the bird’s ability to camouflage itself. Can you spot it amidst the leaves?
John James Audubon [with Maria Martin], Bachman’s Warbler (Vermivora bachmanii), Study for Havell pl. 395 (plant) Watercolor, graphite, gouache, with touches of black ink and pastel and selective glazing on paper, laid on card. Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.18.12


No Comments

Lincoln and the Jews: An Interview with Dr. Jonathan Sarna

Did you know that more than twice as many books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than weeks have passed since his death almost 150 years ago? With Passover beginning at sundown, we’re honoring Lincoln’s legacy by exploring an untold aspect of his personal life and political career: his friendships with Jews. During his tenure at the White House, he fought for freedom—combatting widespread anti-Semitism and appointing the first Jewish military chaplain. Recently, we sat down with Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and co-author of the text, Lincoln and the Jews: A History, Jonathan Sarna. His book shares the title with our groundbreaking exhibition on display until June 7.

Samuel Alschuler, a Jewish photographer, lent Lincoln his own velvet-trimmed coat for this photo taken in Urbana, Illinois, on April 25, 1858, just as Lincoln would begin his Senate campaign against Stephen Douglas. Lincoln would again sit for Alschuler two years later, after he was elected president. Photograph of Lincoln by Samuel Alschuler wearing Alschuler's velvet trimmed coat for this photo. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Samuel Alschuler, a Jewish photographer, lent Lincoln his own velvet-trimmed coat for this photo taken in Urbana, Illinois, on April 25, 1858, just as Lincoln would begin his Senate campaign against Stephen Douglas. Lincoln would again sit for Alschuler two years later, after he was elected president. Photograph of Lincoln by Samuel Alschuler wearing Alschuler’s velvet trimmed coat for this photo. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

 

The exhibit highlights Lincoln’s close relationship with Jews. Can you describe these relationships and what exactly about them was groundbreaking?

The exhibit and my book illuminate Lincoln’s lifelong interest in Jews and put it into context. Of course the first Jews he learns about are in the Bible, but even as a young lawyer, he befriended a Jew at a time when a lot of people would not have done that. In fact, Lincoln’s life coincided with the emergence of Jews on the national scene. When he was born, there were scarcely 3,000 American Jews. By his assassination in 1865, there were more than 150,000. And in that sense, his personal encounters with Jewish Americans reflect a microcosm of how America was coming to terms with its growing Jewish population. Americans and Jews were both changed by this encounter. But what is so interesting is that Lincoln, probably more than any previous president, had Jewish friends—starting from his time in Illinois. And when you know Jews that of course shapes the way you view Jews. Lincoln does more than any previous president to promote the inclusion of Jews into the fabric of American life and to transform them from outsiders to insiders.

Before 1864, Lincoln is very close to Abraham Jonas, a Jewish clothier and merchant who he first meets in Illinois. Jonas was very interested in political strategy and has a lot to do—much more than historians realize—with shaping strategy that wins Lincoln the nomination and the White House. But when Jonas passed away in 1864, it so happens that Lincoln became particularly close with a podiatrist named Issachar Zacharie. Zacharie is a mysterious figure. There is no doubt that he was dealing with Lincoln’s feet, and beyond that, Lincoln was also using him as a spy. Zacharie was trying to win support for Lincoln from Jews, especially in Louisiana. Zacharie worked really hard for Lincoln’s re-election in 1864. During the campaign, it is clear that Lincoln is aware of the Jewish community and believed at least its liberal members were going to support him. But he won over other people, too. Young people like Abraham Dittenhoeffer, who was a New York-transplant from the South. Even though he was brought up on southern principles, Dittenhoeffer converted to anti-slavery. He was persuaded that people whose own ancestors were enslaved in Egypt should not support slavery in America. Dittenhoeffer even brings relatives to the Republican cause and plays a role in Lincoln’s election.

Carte-de-visite of Issachar Zacharie. Courtesy of The Shapell Manuscript Collection.

Carte-de-visite of Issachar Zacharie. Courtesy of The Shapell Manuscript Collection.

Can you describe General Orders No. 11? What effect did it have on American Jews? Did it become a national topic of conversation?

Under General Orders No. 11, Ulysses S. Grant expelled Jews from his war zone [which encompassed parts of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky]. Grant had persuaded himself that the smuggling—which was prolonging the war effort and was a problem— was caused by Jews. Part of this was because it was common at the time to call all smugglers “Jews.” Just as you would call a northerner a “Yankee,” smugglers were “Jews.” There’s no question that Jews were smuggling, just as there were soldiers smuggling, and non-Jews smuggling. But fortunately for the Jews, Grant was attacked within 48 hours of issuing that order. At the time, a lot of the telegraph lines were cut and because of this, news of the order spread very slowly. So, only about 100 Jews were affected by it. Only in Paducah, Kentucky, were all the Jews are ordered out.

When the order reached Paducah, a man named Cesar Kaskel was expelled. Kaskel, who was in the clothing trade, knew a lot about advertising. Everywhere he went on his way from Kentucky to Washington, D.C., he distributed a press release on General Orders No. 11. He’s a little like the Paul Revere of this story. It’s thanks to Kaskel that the Associated Press picked up this story and sent it across the country. So the nation does hear about it, but what’s fascinating how quickly the order is reversed.  It takes a while for word of it to reach Lincoln because of the telegraph lines are down. But when he finds out, he’s quick to act, declaring, ‘I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.’ Lincoln said the right thing and the Jewish community—even people who hadn’t supported him for election in 1860—is very grateful.

General Orders No. 11, U.S. Military Telegraph from Lieutenant Colonel John Aaron Rawlins by Order of Major General Ulysses S. Grant, December 17, 1862.

General Orders No. 11, U.S. Military Telegraph from Lieutenant Colonel John Aaron Rawlins by Order of Major General Ulysses S. Grant, December 17, 1862.

How did General Orders No. 11 affect the rest of Ulysses S. Grant’s career?

It comes up and is a big issue when Grant runs for president in 1868. Suddenly his enemies pounce on General Orders No. 11 and much was written and spoken about it. Grant apologized. Grant really spent the rest of his career proving that he has no prejudice against Jews. He appointed Jews and befriends Jews and really wanted to make sure that nobody thought that he was a man of prejudice. And, his wife wrote in her autobiography that Grant looked back on the order as one of his greatest mistakes.

The Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s reversal of General Orders No. 11 were both issued in early January of 1863. Are the two documents linked?

It’s December 28, 1862, when General Orders No. 11 reached Paducah, and Lincoln reversed it by January 5, 1863. That’s no time. I’m not sure if Washington could move that quickly today.

This was just as the Emancipation Proclamation was being published, and some people linked them. The Jewish community was very worried that when blacks were emancipated, the Jews would become the new out-group. Jews put these two laws together and decided that it was a deliberate policy of exchanging one out-group for another. That of course was not correct, but it is easy to understand why Jews thought it was correct. And you can certainly see in the Jewish newspapers, very strong articles, one of them asking ‘Are we slaves in this country?’ This illustrates the fear that Jews were experiencing—they envisioned themselves as the new slaves.

Had Lincoln not acted the way he did, then the history of Jews in American would have been entirely different. America would be remembered as another one of these places where Jews were expelled and targeted. It would never have had the reputation overseas as it does have without his reversal. It sent a message that maybe America is different.

 


No Comments

Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls

To celebrate the opening of our newest special installation Nature Illuminated: A Tiffany Gallery Preview, the exhibition’s curator who is also the Curator of Decorative Arts here at New-York Historical, Margaret K. Hofer, has signed on as this week’s guest blogger. Her post continues this month’s theme of New York women’s history and illuminates the story of Clara Driscoll, one of Tiffany’s forgotten designers.

Clara Driscoll (1861-1944), ca. 1900. Courtesy of Linda D. Alexander and David Fenn

Clara Driscoll (1861-1944), ca. 1900. Courtesy of Linda D. Alexander and David Fenn

 

This Women’s History Month is a fitting time of year to pay tribute to unsung women who left their mark on history. At the New-York Historical Society, as we make plans for our dazzling new Tiffany Lamp Gallery, slated to open in late 2016, the supreme talents of Tiffany designer Clara Driscoll (1861–1944) are very much on our minds. Until New-York Historical revealed her story in the 2007 exhibition A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls, Driscoll’s achievements were virtually unknown. Thanks to the discovery of caches of letters held at the Kent State University Library and the Queens Historical Society, her important story has now been shared with audiences far and wide.

"View of the Glass Room, with Women at Work," from Art Interchange, October 189

“View of the Glass Room, with Women at Work,” from Art Interchange, October 1894

 

A native of Tallmadge, Ohio, Clara Wolcott came to New York in 1888 to pursue an artistic career. Shortly after completing her studies at the Metropolitan Museum Art School, she landed a job at the Tiffany Glass Company (later Tiffany Studios) cutting glass for windows and mosaics. She married a year later, and according to the custom of the time, left her job to assume the duties of a proper Victorian housewife. After her husband’s untimely death, Driscoll returned to Tiffany’s and assumed a managerial position directing the six-person Women’s Glasscutting Department. Whether due to her leadership or the boom in the stained glass window industry, Driscoll was soon managing a thriving department of 35 young women, who referred to themselves as the “Tiffany Girls.”

Driscoll’s letters, written to her mothers and sisters back in Ohio, provide a rare first-person account of the activities at Tiffany Studios, whose corporate records do not survive. From them, we learn that she flourished under the direction of “Mr. Tiffany,” with whom she shared an artistic vision that included a love of nature and an appreciation of beautiful materials. Although Louis C. Tiffany was the artistic genius behind the creative endeavors of Tiffany Studios, it is clear that Clara and the other women who labored anonymously behind the scenes made substantial contributions. Clara began experimenting with lamps around 1898 and was probably responsible for introducing leaded shades. Tiffany seized on her idea, charging Driscoll and the women’s department with the design and execution of all the leaded-glass shades with nature-inspired themes. She conceived many of the most iconic Tiffany lamps, such as the Dragonfly and Wisteria. The Tiffany Girls played an essential role in creating shades, selecting glass from an infinite variety of opalescent sheet glass, cutting the individual segments using templates, and wrapping them with copper foil. The men’s department executed the “dirty work” of actually assembling the lampshades, soldering the cut and foiled pieces of glass together on wooden molds.

Tiffany Studios (1902-1932), Dragonfly shade, probably designed by Clara Driscoll ca. 1900-06; Standard base, designed ca. 1900-06. Gift of Dr. Egon Neustadt, N84.110

Tiffany Studios (1902-1932), Dragonfly shade, probably designed by Clara Driscoll ca. 1900-06; Standard base, designed ca. 1900-06. Gift of Dr. Egon Neustadt, N84.110

 

Working women of Driscoll’s era endured many challenges. Although she and the other women at Tiffany Studios were better off than their counterparts working in factories or as domestic help, they had their share of struggles. Driscoll found it frustrating leading a department of young women, as her employees were forced to resign once they married and she was continually losing talented workers. Rivalries between the men’s and women’s departments were fierce, as men making windows, mosaics, and leaded shades were unionized and the women were not (for the simple reason that the lead glaziers and glass cutters union did not admit women). While the men enjoyed the protection of the union, the women had to continually prove themselves to preserve their jobs. Louis Tiffany valued his female employees and paid them on the same scale as the men, which must have rankled them. In 1903, the men threatened to strike in order to take away the women’s right to make windows. Tiffany held firm, and in the end reached a settlement with the union that allowed the women to continue their work on windows, shades, and mosaics, but capped the number of women in Driscoll’s department at 27.

 

Tiffany Studios (1902-1932), Wisteria lamp, designed by Clara Driscoll ca. 1901. Gift of Dr. Egon Neustadt, N84.130

Tiffany Studios (1902-1932), Wisteria lamp, designed by Clara Driscoll ca. 1901. Gift of Dr. Egon Neustadt, N84.130

In 1909, matrimony beckoned again and Clara became Mrs. Edward Booth, leaving Tiffany Studios for good. Her material legacy of stunning designs continues to delight lovers of Tiffany lamps, and her story of perseverance and achievement at a time when women had not yet won the right to vote has broadened our understanding of both Tiffany Studios and working women in turn of the 20th century New York. Driscoll’s story has resonated so powerfully with women of the early 21st century that it has inspired not one but three recent novels about her life.


No Comments

The Legacy of Voting Rights 50 Years After Selma

“Write right from left to the right as you see it spelled here.” Did you print your answer? If so, you got it wrong—it should have been written in cursive.

“Spell backwards, forwards.” Did you include a comma? Wrong. Did you omit the comma? That’s wrong, too.

These are only two of the 30 questions African Americans had to answer correctly in just 10 minutes to register to vote in the State of Louisiana in 1964. By the 1960s, literacy tests were one of the many hurdles blacks faced at the voting booth.

In an address to Congress on March 15, 1965, President Johnson declared his solidarity: “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

In an address to Congress on March 15, 1965, President Johnson declared his solidarity: “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” 1964 Campaign Poster, Poster File: Politics, PR 055-05, New-York Historical Society, 85136d.

 

But neither violence, nor even the threat of death, was enough to deter African Americans from casting their ballots, so state governments established new measures, including poll taxes and literacy tests to curb voter turnout. At the turn of the 20th century, nearly 80 percent of African Americans were illiterate, and with this in mind, southern states began mandating literacy tests to systematically prevent African Americans from voting. Their exams were highly effective:  by 1940, only three percent of eligible southern blacks were registered to vote. Although these exams claimed to test prospective voters’ literacy, some, like the 1964 Louisiana exam, did not include a single civics question—just ambiguously worded brainteasers. Moreover, only African Americans were required to take the exams that left blacks at the mercy of white registrars who single-handedly decided their fate. One wrong answer meant a failing grade; the tests were not meant to be passed. Even highly-educated test-takers struggled to master the absurd exam. Watch Harvard students voice their frustrations and ultimately flunk the quiz:

 

 

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march. During March of 1965, thousands of African Americans walked across the state of Alabama to protest their deprivation of a basic Constitutional right: the right to vote. During the demonstration, all-white local and state police forces met several thousand peaceful African American marchers with night sticks and pepper spray, not once, but twice on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. During the marchers’ first attempt, cameramen captured the sanguine confrontation, dubbed “Bloody Sunday.” Their footage attracted national attention—national outrage followed. On March 21, demonstrators finally gained passage and began their five-day, 54-mile march to Montgomery. To learn more about the march, be sure to check out our ongoing exhibition showcasing its final day, Freedom Journey 1965.

Although the images included in this post (borrowed from our exhibition) are peaceful, let us not forget the political climate of the South during the 1960s—its brutality and violence—or the history of institutionalized exclusion African Americans faced at the polls.

Although black men had won the right to vote with the 1870 passage of the 15th Amendment (remember it would take women another 49 years), during the decade, the dissolution of the Freedmen’s Bureau and pull-out of Federal troops from the South meant blacks had to fend for themselves against the rising tide of white supremacist groups. Widespread terror and violence curbed African Americans’ rights—basic rights including the right to movement, to protest, to own property, and to a speedy trial with an impartial jury. Southern justice often left blacks dangling from nooses and out of the voting booth. A recent New York Times article, reported that almost 4,000 blacks were lynched between 1877 and 1950. These hangings were all racially motivated. Sometimes they were predicated upon flimsily-evidenced accusations, but often times they occurred simply because of the victim’s skin color. New-York Historical Society’s very own Director of Engineering, Ron Gilchrist, grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, during the 1950s and 1960s. As a kid, he remembered “seeing signs enforcing segregation that said things like: ‘coloreds go to the back.’ Water fountains and bathrooms were divided by race. And if you crossed those particular lines you would be brutally beaten.”

Stephen Somerstein, marchers waving flags, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer

Stephen Somerstein, marchers waving flags, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer

 

“The issues of racial inequality and segregation were always a topic of conversation. And the only time you weren’t under that pressure was when you were in the black community,” Ron explained. Despite the obstacles, again African Americans fought back. Across the South, they created classes, where hopeful voters practiced taking the literacy exams. State governments responded by releasing new exams. The hurdles were endless.

Stephen Somerstein, Martin Luther King, Jr. at the podium, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer

Stephen Somerstein, Martin Luther King, Jr. at the podium, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer

 

This was the southern culture from which the Civil Rights Movement was born. In joining, participants faced violent—sometimes fatal—retribution for their determination to secure basic rights. Their bravery, courage, and unwavering dedication to establishing racial equality should not be forgotten. How are your test-taking skills? Do you think you can make the grade? Test your luck with the 1964 Louisiana literacy exam!


No Comments

Guest Blogger Harold Holzer on Lincoln and the Jews

To celebrate the upcoming opening of our groundbreaking exhibition, Lincoln and the Jews on March 20, Harold Holzer, the Roger Hertog Fellow at the New-York Historical Society and Chief Historian to the exhibition, has signed on as this week’s guest blogger. In his post, he highlights the show and the exciting history it illuminates. So read on and don’t miss Lincoln and the Jews, opening a week from today here at New-York Historical!

“Some of my best friends are Jewish.” It’s an old cliché, but uttered in the mid-19th century, such a statement would surely have raised eyebrows—and, very likely, objections. Abraham Lincoln, however, never believed in “a house divided.” Though he is, of course, best known as a champion of black freedom, Lincoln had a remarkably liberal attitude—and record—when it came to Jews, a record that might be characterized by the words he used in his second inaugural address just six weeks before his death: “malice toward none.”

Samuel Alschuler, a Jewish photographer, lent Lincoln his own velvet-trimmed coat for this photo taken in Urbana, Illinois, on April 25, 1858, just as Lincoln would begin his Senate campaign against Stephen Douglas. Lincoln would again sit for Alschuler two years later, after he was elected president. Photograph of Lincoln by Samuel Alschuler wearing Alschuler's velvet trimmed coat for this photo. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Samuel Alschuler, a Jewish photographer, lent Lincoln his own velvet-trimmed coat for this photo taken in Urbana, Illinois, on April 25, 1858 – the year he challenged Stephen A. Douglas for the Senate. Lincoln would again sit for Alschuler two years later, after he was elected president. Photograph of Lincoln by Samuel Alschuler wearing Alschuler’s velvet trimmed coat for this photo. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

 

Lincoln’s relationship with Jews and Judaism is an overlooked subject that will be addressed in the upcoming New-York Historical Society exhibition, Lincoln and the Jews, opening March 20. The exhibition shares its title with the big, beautiful catalogue co-authored by the brilliant historian Jonathan Sarna and mega-collector Benjamin Shapell. Together the two have inspired a display of original documents and objects—many never-before-seen—that illuminate Lincoln’s little-known personal relationships with Jewish people of his day, and explore his landmark official actions designed to protect Jews in crisis and extend to them equal rights.

Visitors will meet Lincoln’s fellow lawyer and political supporter Abraham Jonas, who never lost Lincoln’s affection even when his sons fought for the Confederacy; the Springfield, Illinois, clothiers Hammerslough and Rosenwald, who later founded the Sears Roebhuck empire; Illinois photographer Samuel Alschuler, who took the first photograph ever to show Lincoln with whiskers; and Lincoln’s own Jewish doctor—the beguiling, mysterious, controversial chiropodist (podiatrist)-turned-political emissary Issachar Zacharie, who not only cured the president’s chronically aching feet, but served as Lincoln’s representative to Jewish communities in New Orleans and other cities.

Surprises abound: Louisiana Governor Michael Hahn, to whom Lincoln sent one of his most famous public letters (“Keep the jewel of liberty”) was Jewish-born; a Jewish officer helped quell the New York City draft riots and save its most innocent victims—the residents of the “Colored Orphans Asylum” on Fifth Avenue; Lincoln’s well-chronicled enthusiasm for the theater included attendance at slew of plays on Jewish themes; Lincoln quoted the Old Testament in his writings far more often than the New; and one of the physicians attending Lincoln at his deathbed was a Jewish ophthalmologist!

Abraham Jonas was a Jewish lawyer in Quincy, Illinois whom Lincoln first met in 1843. Jonas was a staunch supporter of Lincoln throughout their more than two decades of friendship. The correspondence between the two men demonstrates their personal, professional, and political closeness, with Lincoln calling Jonas “one of my most valued friends.” Abraham Jonas photograph. Courtesy of the Wells Family Collection.

Abraham Jonas was a Jewish lawyer in Quincy, Illinois whom Lincoln first met in 1843. Jonas was a staunch supporter of Lincoln throughout their more than two decades of friendship. The correspondence between the two men demonstrates their personal, professional, and political closeness, with Lincoln calling Jonas “one of my most valued friends.” Abraham Jonas photograph. Courtesy of the Wells Family Collection.

 

Most important of all, the show reminds visitors that Lincoln made humane decisions when they mattered most. Throughout American history, military chaplains were required to represent some “Christian denomination.” Lincoln advocated for Jewish chaplaincy rights, arguing that Jewish Union soldiers deserved the comforts of religion, and eventually signed the bill extending that right to Jews. He appointed the first Jewish army quartermasters, as well. And when General Ulysses S. Grant issued his infamous “General Order Number 11” expelling all Jews from his vast military command in the West, Lincoln rescinded the command—quietly enough to maintain Grant’s loyalty and morale, but loudly enough so American Jews understood and appreciated his resolve to allow no official discrimination.

This is a fascinating, complex, gripping story, and the exhibition a perfect way to mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death (April 15)—by celebrating a little-known aspect of his life. The show should not be missed.

 


1 Comment

The 1970 Women’s March for Equality in NYC

To kick-off our celebration of Women’s Herstory Month, let’s travel back to the groovy days of 1970. Pervasive inequality pushed the Second-wave Feminist Movement forward into the next decade. Its Founding Mothers, including Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem established the National Organization for Women (NOW), a centralized force for change. NOW sponsored the Women’s Strike for Equality. On August 26, 1970, the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment passage (when women gained the right to vote), feminists and their allies in 40 American cities, as well as in France and the Netherlands, protested for gender equality. In New York City alone, 10,000 took to the streets to fight for their rights at home, in the classroom, and at the office. Radical feminists linked arms with “suffrage veterans” who had help secure voting rights for women five decades earlier. Check out images of the march from our Library’s archives!

New-York Historical Society’s dedication to American women’s history doesn’t end on March 31. Next year we will be opening our very own Center for the Study of Women’s History in the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, which will showcase rotating  exhibitions and re-imagined permanent installations dedicated to women’s history.

“Don’t iron while the strike is hot!” and “I am not a Barbie Doll!” were popular chants among the day’s marchers.

Eugene Gordon Photograph Collection, PR 248, New-York Historical Society

Eugene Gordon Photograph Collection, PR 248, New-York Historical Society

 

Question 7: “Have you ever resented it, even a little, that almost all the important political decisions are made by men?”  This broadside quiz publicizing the protest showed women New Yorkers that the fight for gender equality was far from finished. After the march, 80 percent of Americans were familiar with the Women’s Movement and its demands.

86023d_Aug26WomensStrike_SY1970_4 (1)

Women’s Coalition Strike Headquarters broadside, SY1970 no.4, New-York Historical Society

 

The march reflected the diversity of the feminist movement. Participants demonstrated for gender equality, while garnering support for other causes: the anti-Vietnam War Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, and the Civil Rights Movement were all represented.

78778d_WomensEqualityStrike_Gordon (1)

Eugene Gordon Photograph Collection, PR 248, New-York Historical Society

 

Eugene Gordon, 2005 & Miriam Gordon, 2008.

Eugene Gordon Photograph Collection, PR 248, New-York Historical Society

 

Eugene Gordon, 2005 & Miriam Gordon, 2008.

Eugene Gordon Photograph Collection, PR 248, New-York Historical Society

 

Eugene Gordon, 2005 & Miriam Gordon, 2008.

Eugene Gordon Photograph Collection, PR 248, New-York Historical Society

 

Eugene Gordon, 2005 & Miriam Gordon, 2008.

Eugene Gordon Photograph Collection, PR 248, New-York Historical Society

 

 


No Comments

Uptown, Audubon’s Birds Hit the Streets

Patron saint of the environmentalist movement and celebrated ornithologist, John James Audubon was the first to sound the alarm. He recognized in the early 1800s that many avian species and their habitats were threated. Almost 200 years later, many of the feathered subjects are endangered or extinct. To see 42 of his original breathtaking watercolors from The Birds of America, come check out Audubon’s Aviary: The Final Flight, opening today at the New-York Historical Society!

Inspired by John James Audubon’s vibrant avian watercolors, the National Audubon Society teamed up with New York street artists and the Gitler & _____ Gallery to bring you the Audubon Mural Project. The ambitious plan will transform blank brick walls and rolling steel security grates around Washington and Hamilton Heights into works of art, immortalizing 314 of Audubon’s treasured birds who’re currently climate-threatened. We recently sat down with Agatha Szczepaniak, Senior Media Relations Manager at the National Audubon Society to talk about the new flock uptown.

Our national symbol makes an appearance. Camilla Cerea/National Audubon Society

Our national symbol makes a colorful appearance. Camilla Cerea/National Audubon Society

Please explain the Audubon Mural Project.

The Audubon Mural Project is a public art initiative of the National Audubon Society, in partnership with the Harlem‐based Gitler &_____ Gallery. The project is inspired by the legacy of the great American bird artist and pioneering ornithologist John James  Audubon (a former neighborhood resident), and is energized by recently published findings from the National Audubon Society that nearly half of all North American bird species face dire threats to their survival by 2080 due to global warming. The project is commissioning artists to paint murals of each of the threatened birds—a total of 314 species—throughout Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights. It will beautify the neighborhood; create a powerful draw for tourists and residents from throughout the city; and be a fresh, surprising way to bring attention to a critically important environmental and conservation crisis.

Why was spray paint the chosen medium? 

Spray paint was the medium our select artists were comfortable using. The larger murals are painted with spray paint but the smaller installed works are painted with mixed media.

Mike Fernandez/ National Audubon Society

The Rusty Blackbird’s habitat is now threatened by climate change. Mike Fernandez/ National Audubon Society

How do you think John James Audubon would react to this project?

We think he would be happy as the whole goal of the project is to make more people, the general public, aware about the threats to birds… same purpose as J.J. Audubon’s paintings except that it’s just a modern way of doing so.

The murals are currently underway across Hamilton and Washington Heights—how has the community responded to the project so far?

Mostly curiously and positively. Most seem to appreciate this unique approach and creative way of reminding passerbys about nature, the effects of climate change on birds and what the National Audubon Society does. (But of course, there always some “jaded” New Yorkers who don’t even notice). We hope it inspires more people to help protect birds and engage in conservation action.

And be sure to watch this amazing time-lapse video of the Audubon street artists at work!


No Comments

A Look at Harlem’s History of Protest

In today’s installment of our Black History Month celebration, we’ll be exploring Harlem. The first wave of African Americans landed in Harlem after World War I, when hundreds of thousands left the Jim Crow South in search of safety and opportunity. In 1914, only 50,000 blacks lived in Harlem, but by 1930, almost 205,000 had moved to the Big Apple, the majority settling north of Central Park.

Their arrival sparked an artistic movement that we now call the Harlem Renaissance. Poets, musicians, writers, and artists joined forces to create a rich oeuvre reflecting the diverse African American experience. And, for the first time, American society at-large took note, tuning in to black culture. Greats like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, and Zora Neale Hurston merged prose, poetry, and politics. “Democracy will not come/Today, this year/Nor ever/Through compromise and fear… I do not need my freedom when I’m dead./I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread,” penned Hughes. The renaissance was cut short by the onset of the Great Depression.

 

Portrait of Langston Hughes, 1960. PR276 Bernard Gotfryd Photograph Collection

Langston Hughes merged music and verse to create a new literary genre: jazz poetry. Portrait of Langston Hughes, 1960. PR276 Bernard Gotfryd Photograph Collection

 

But the trying 1930s didn’t squelch growing action against pervasive inequality. And the outbreak of World War II illuminated unresolved racial conflict dating from the Civil War. While President Franklin D. Roosevelt emphasized that the boys overseas were fighting for democracy (more than 1.2 million African American men were in uniform), segregated lunch counters, schools, buses, and military units underlined this hypocrisy. In Harlem, and across the country, African Americans organized and the Civil Rights Movement was born. The neighborhood’s cultural centers—churches, music venues, homes, and restaurants—became political hotspots.

 

One of Harlem’s greatest institutions, the Apollo Theater, was originally an all-white venue. However, during the 1930s, after New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia campaigned to end the city’s burlesque shows, the theater rebranded to attract the neighborhood’s growing population of African Americans. Andreas Feininger Photograph Collection, PR 207, New-York Historical Society, Gift of the photographer. © Andreas Feininger/Bonni Benrubi Gallery.

Early in the 20th century, many of Harlem’s theaters and shops including the Apollo Theater were all-white venues. However, during the 1930s, after New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia campaigned to end the city’s burlesque shows, the Apollo Theater rebranded to attract the neighborhood’s growing  African American population. Andreas Feininger Photograph Collection, PR 207, New-York Historical Society, Gift of the photographer. © Andreas Feininger/Bonni Benrubi Gallery.

 

A 1935 playbill from the Cotton Club, another Harlem late-night spot, frequented by Harlem’s African Americans.

A 1935 playbill from the Cotton Club, another Harlem late-night spot, frequented by African Americans. Bella C. Landauer Collection of Business and Advertising Ephemera, PR 031, New-York Historical Society

 

Underground music and dance venues merged entertainment and politics. Among the performers was Billie Holiday,  whose repertoire included the powerful protest song “Strange Fruit,” which boldly juxtaposed the beauty of magnolia trees against the ugliness of lynching.

Underground music and dance venues joined entertainment and politics. Among the performers was Billie Holiday, whose repertoire included the powerful protest song “Strange Fruit,” which boldly juxtaposed the beauty of magnolias against the ugliness of lynching. Andreas Feininger Photograph Collection, PR 207, New-York Historical Society, Gift of the photographer. © Andreas Feininger/Bonni Benrubi Gallery.

 

Racial unrest reached a crescendo in Harlem on the summer night of July 16, 1964, when a white New York Police Lieutenant shot and killed James Powell, a 15-year-old unarmed African American. The policeman claimed Powell lunged at him with a knife; a handful of witnesses disagreed. Regardless, a grand jury failed to indict. Powell’s death sparked a six-day race riot during which thousands took to the streets in protest. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Harlem continued to be an organizing hub for racial equality. While some followed the non-violent movement of Martin Luther King, Jr., others championed radical means to achieve justice. Black nationalists like the Black Panther Party and racial separatists including Malcolm X garnered support.

 

Sometimes the Panthers served their radical politics with a side of eggs and bacon. They encouraged Harlemites to join their cause by instituting a free breakfast program for youths in need.

Sometimes the Panthers served their radical politics with a side of eggs and bacon. They encouraged Harlemites to join their cause by instituting a free breakfast program for youths in need. Photograph by Ken Regan. Michael Sonnenfeldt Collection of Theatre, Film, and Entertainment Photography, PR 305, Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections, New-York Historical Society, ©Ken Regan/Camera 5.

 

The Black Panther Party was started in Oakland, California, in 1966, and soon spread across the U.S. to cities including New York.

The Black Panther Party was started in Oakland, California, in 1966, and soon spread across the U.S. to cities including New York. Photograph by Ken Regan. Michael Sonnenfeldt Collection of Theatre, Film, and Entertainment Photography, PR 305, Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections, New-York Historical Society, ©Ken Regan/Camera 5.

 

Do you see the similarities between the New York of past decades and today? What do you think has changed? If you want to learn more about Harlem through the ages, be sure to check out our online exhibition showcasing a vibrant collection of Camilo Vergara’s photographs of the neighborhood spanning four decades. Also, don’t miss out on the upcoming book club meeting when New York Times best-selling author Rita Williams-Garcia will discuss her highly acclaimed children’s book, One Crazy Summer, and remember to see our on-going exhibition on the Civil Rights Movement, Freedom Journey 1965.


1 Comment