Behind The Scenes

Lafayette’s Return: An Interview with Laura Auricchio

This week we sat down with Dean and Associate Professor of Art History at The New School Laura Auricchio who recently published a groundbreaking biography on the French Founding Father, The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered. Her book traces the French aristocrat’s life, from his tumultuous childhood overshadowed by the untimely death of his father through his formative adolescence that he devoted to the American Revolution, and finally his later years. To learn more about this seminal revolutionary figure, check out our upcoming special installation Lafayette’s Return opening May 29.

Representing the height of French naval technology, the Hermione was a Concorde-class frigate that sailed “like a bird,” in Lafayette’s words, and went on to engage in several battles against the British. Scale model of the frigate l’Hermione, 2004. Wood, canvas, paper. Courtesy of Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America

Representing the height of French naval technology, the Hermione was a Concorde-class frigate that sailed “like a bird,” in Lafayette’s words, and went on to engage in several battles against the British.
Scale model of the frigate l’Hermione, 2004. Wood, canvas, paper. Courtesy of Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America

How did you first get interested in the Marquis de Lafayette?

As a specialist in the age of the French Revolution I was struck by the realization that Lafayette, who is universally acknowledged to be a hero of the American Revolution, is remembered far more ambiguously in his native France. How is it, I wondered, that a man who dedicated his life to pursuing liberty could have left behind such disparate legacies? What I learned is that Lafayette’s steadfast commitment to principles of moderation, and especially his belief that the French monarchy needed to be reformed but could not be abolished lest France descend into chaos, cost him the faith of both sides in the French Revolution, and left him standing nearly alone on a middle ground that rapidly eroded around him. The more I learned about Lafayette, the more I came to admire him as a man who steered his own path through tumultuous times and who clung to his beliefs without fail.

Lafayette, in contrast, made the United States his career, doing whatever he could to advance the cause of French-American political and economic alliance. Unidentified artist, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), ca. 1785–90. Oil on canvas. New-York Historical Society, 1817.2

Lafayette, in contrast, made the United States his career, doing whatever he could to advance the cause of French-American political and economic alliance.
Unidentified artist, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), ca. 1785–90. Oil on canvas. New-York Historical Society, 1817.2

What is the significance of the Hermione? Why do you think the Hermione and not the Victoire was recreated this year? Was the former more memorable or meaningful to Lafayette’s story than the latter?

In 1780, the Hermione transported Lafayette to Boston bearing official word that the French Crown would be sending ships and troops to support General Washington in the War of Independence. Representing the height of French naval technology, the Hermione was a Concorde-class frigate that sailed “like a bird,” in Lafayette’s words, and went on to engage in several battles against the British. On a personal level, though, Lafayette might have felt a greater attachment to the Victoire–the optimistically christened ship that he purchased with his own funds and sailed across the Atlantic in 1777, when he set out to join the American cause against royal orders. Unfortunately, the Victoire is unlikely to be reconstructed: as an ungainly merchant vessel, it holds less appeal for sailing aficionados; and as privately built ship, its plans have not come down to us through the French Naval archives.

What’s the most surprising fact that you learned about Lafayette through your research?

I was shocked to stumble across pornographic prints and pamphlets created during the French Revolution that depict Lafayette and the French Queen Marie-Antoinette in obscene situations! In 18th-century France, pornography was often used as a political weapon. I knew that Marie-Antoinette was accused of all sorts of improprieties, but I had no idea that Lafayette had been portrayed in such a humiliating way.

Lafayette made four separate trips to the U.S. in his lifetime. Some of his stays lasted years on end. Was it his provincial upbringing and his thirst for adventure that contributed to his discomfort at the French court and his affinity for the United States?

Born and raised in the rugged Auvergne region of south-central France, Lafayette never felt entirely at home in the refined court society into which he married. Lafayette’s forthright demeanor and preference for action over banter placed him at a disadvantage in the games of intrigue that dominated life in the gilded halls of Versailles. In the United States, however, Lafayette’s matter-of-fact sensibility and self-deprecating humor won the hearts of Americans who recognized a kindred spirit in the earnest young nobleman.

Lafayette threw English-speaking Parisian dinner parties with American diplomats, including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay. How did he harness these soirées to weave himself into the elite American circles?

After the American Revolution ended, most of the French soldiers and sailors who fought for the cause returned to France and to the careers they had left behind. Lafayette, in contrast, made the United States his career, doing whatever he could to advance the cause of French-American political and economic alliance. Establishing himself as the new nation’s foremost French friend, he filled his Left Bank townhouse with American objectsa plant that he found in Connecticut climbed the walls of his terrace, and a gold-engraved copy of the Declaration of Independence hung on the wall of his studyand he regularly invited the Adamses, the Jeffersons, the Franklins, and other American dignitaries to Monday dinners where his children (including his son George Washington Lafayette and a daughter named Virginie after Washington’s home) entertained visitors with songs in English. So closely did he associate himself with the new nation that, according to the explorer John Ledyard, Lafayette “planted a tree in America, and sits under its shade at Versailles.”

He regularly invited the Adamses, the Jeffersons, the Franklins, and other American dignitaries to Monday dinners where his children (including his son George Washington Lafayette and a daughter named Virginie after Washington’s home) entertained visitors with songs in English. Invitation to Benjamin Franklin for dinner with Lafayette, April 26, 1785. New-York Historical Society

He regularly invited the Adamses, the Jeffersons, the Franklins, and other American dignitaries to Monday dinners where his children (including his son George Washington Lafayette and a daughter named Virginie after Washington’s home) entertained visitors with songs in English.
Invitation to Benjamin Franklin for dinner with Lafayette, April 26, 1785. New-York Historical Society

Although he had some English training and brought his dictionary with him to the U.S., Lafayette’s grasp of the language was rudimentary. So, Alexander Hamilton edited some of his more important correspondences. As two fatherless men who idolized Washington were they rivals? What was their relationship?  

Hamilton and Lafayette developed a close friendship during the American Revolution. Although they hailed from very different circumstancesHamilton was an illegitimate child born into poverty on the Caribbean island of Nevisand had very different temperaments, both came to the American Revolution as outsiders of sorts yearning for glory and determined to do whatever they could to advance the cause of liberty. An able judge of character, the childless Washington took both men under his wing so that they might be said to have grown up together. Both played crucial roles in the Siege of Yorktown that marked the last major hostilities of the American Revolution and, although their final meeting was in 1784, they remained in correspondence until shortly before Hamilton’s untimely death some 20 years later.

Lafayette began referring to himself as an American in 1779: “When I say ours, I mean the Americans,” he wrote to Benjamin Franklin. And by 1784, he was granted citizenship in several states, making him a “natural-born” American with the 1789 ratification of the Constitution. So what prompted Lafayette to define himself as an American? Was it his military service during the American Revolution, or his affinity for the language—what made Lafayette distinctly an American?

Lafayette saw himself as part of a great American experiment. An eternal optimist who devoted his life to furthering ideals of liberty and improving the lot of all humankind, he saw the United States as the land where his dreams of freedom might be realized. Although he worked to institute reforms in his native France, where he advocated for such principles as religious toleration and electoral representation, he believed that the French people were too deeply entwined with their ancient traditions to engage in the kind of bold experimentation that would allow liberty to flourish. To him, the young United States beckoned as a land of opportunity where all things seemed possible. He considered his contributions to the cause of American liberty to be his greatest achievements, and he cherished the outpourings of affection that he received from the American people throughout his long life.

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The Hirschfeld Century: An Interview with David Leopold

What made the 1900s The Hirschfeld Century? We sat down this week with Creative Director of The Al Hirschfeld Foundation David Leopold to get the inside scoop. In addition to being Hirschfeld’s close personal friend and archivist, Leopold curated New-York Historical’s upcoming show The Hirschfeld Century: The Art of Al Hirschfeld opening May 22. Our multimedia exhibition features over 100 original Hirschfeld drawings and shares its name with Leopold’s groundbreaking book on the artist. His text will be on sale exclusively at our Museum Store starting next Friday. So don’t miss out! Come learn about the artist whose iconic style defined New York popular culture during the 20th century.

Self-Portrait, 1985. Ink on board. Melvin R. Seiden Collection of Drawings by Al Hirschfeld, Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. © The Al Hirschfeld Foundation, www.AlHirschfeldFoundation.org

Self-Portrait, 1985. Ink on board. Melvin R. Seiden Collection of Drawings by Al Hirschfeld, Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. © The Al Hirschfeld Foundation, www.AlHirschfeldFoundation.org

 

What first drew you to Hirschfeld?

When I was a kid, my parents introduced me to counting Ninas. Every Sunday, I fought with my five siblings for the Hirschfeld drawing in The New York Times—I wanted to count the Ninas first! I grew up in the small town of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Hirschfeld’s cartoons were my gateway to an entirely new world. They introduced me to the cultural mecca of New York and its premier theater and dance institution: Broadway.

While researching one of Hirschfeld’s contemporaries, I first reached out to him. We eventually met, and I was so flattered because I hit it off with the legendary Al Hirschfeld. Only later did I find out that he hit it off with everyone. I was asked to organize an archive of his work. He was 86 at the time, so I assumed the project would last for two or three years, tops. It continued for 13 years.

What’s your favorite Hirschfeld drawing?

One of my absolute favorites in the show is a mixed media work of the Marx Brothers, probably created to promote their first MGM film, A Night at the Opera. Against a background of collaged sheet music is a portrait of the Marx Brothers: Harpo’s hair is made from cotton balls, Chico’s hair from Brillo pads, and Groucho’s moustache from a black piece of felt. His glasses are fastened from pipe cleaners. After this piece was published, MGM encouraged the Marx Brothers to conform to the cartoon. In their second film, A Day at the Races, Groucho’s hair was styled in two triangles just like Hirschfeld had drawn. Through his art, Hirschfeld helped define some of Hollywood’s most iconic characters.

 Marx Brothers, 1935. Ink, opaque white, sheet music, silk felt, steel wool, fur, string, and steel wool on illustration. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © The Al Hirschfeld Foundation, www.AlHirschfeldFoundation.org


Marx Brothers, 1935. Ink, opaque white, sheet music, silk felt, steel wool, fur, string, and steel wool on illustration. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © The Al Hirschfeld Foundation, www.AlHirschfeldFoundation.org

Were you ever “Hirschfelded”?

Not directly. But I will say that in his later crowd scenes, there are a few more pony-tailed men than before I knew him. I like to think it was his sly way of including me in a drawing. I have the dubious distinction of having never been drawn or photographed by any of the artists that I’ve worked with.

Hirschfeld had a long and prolific career in an extremely tough industry. How did he evolve as an artist to stay relevant?

Above all, Hirschfeld caught the wave at the right moment and was a genius in his medium. In the 1920s and 1930s, caricature was the art form every newspaper used and although Hirschfeld came late to the game, by the end of the 1930s, he was literally the whole field.

Can you count the Ninas? Nina’s Revenge, 1966 Ink on board © The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. www.AlHirschfeldFoundation.org

Can you find the Ninas? Nina’s Revenge, 1966 Ink on board © The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. www.AlHirschfeldFoundation.org

Another reason Hirschfeld triumphed for so many decades was his ability to live in the present. He didn’t go to another revival of Showboat and say this is not as good as ’46, ’32, or ’27. He only considered the current production. I know that seems like such a banal phrase, but Hirschfeld was not a person who thought about the past in a traditional way. While many people constantly look back, he was looking ahead. In his future, there was always someone new to draw.

Even people who didn’t know anything about Hirschfeld’s iconic subjects would stop to look at his drawings because they were compelling. He had a sense of humor and a great gift of insight. Hirschfeld was also the ideal audience member. When the lights went down and the curtain went up, there was no better person for a performer to have in the audience than Hirschfeld. Not because he was uncritical, but because he enjoyed performances so much. It was this unadulterated enthusiasm and joy that he translated into ink.

The fact is that Hirschfeld’s work was seen everywhere. It was ubiquitous in ways that few things ever were and few things ever will be. He was also very democratic about his drawings. He designed for newspapers, film studios, and Broadway shows so everybody owned a piece of visual culture that he created.

How does Hirschfeld’s art tell the New York Story?

When Frank Rich arrived in New York, he expected everyone to look like a Hirschfeld drawing. And that’s true of a lot of people. Hirschfeld dominated the world of New York popular culture so much so that his drawings came to represent the city wherever they were seen. Particularly with his connection to Broadway—when you were talking Broadway, you were talking Hirschfeld and vice versa. Almost every New York performance was heralded by a Hirschfeld drawing. It was the first accolade a performer received because his drawings were published before the shows opened. He wasn’t picking winners and losers. He wasn’t saying this was a hit or a flop. He was reporting what he saw and sharing it with his audience. At first that audience was New Yorkers. But over time, his drawings were seen around the world. By the 1950s, Hirschfeld monopolized Broadway. Broadway had come to represent New York and New York was seen as the paragon of American culture. So Hirschfeld’s drawings came to represent the United States to a global audience.


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Revolutionary Indecision: Brooklyn during the American Revolution

Did you know that some Brooklynites fought for both sides during the American Revolution? When revolutionary rhetoric adopted an anti-slavery tone, Kings County residents renounced the “Glorious Cause” and sided the British in hopes of preserving their forced labor system. This week New-York Historical’s Bernard and Irene Schwartz Fellow Chris Minty is our guest blogger. In his post, Dr. Minty explores the lives and motivations of Brooklynites during the American Revolution. To learn more about the War of Independence, be sure to check out our special installation Lafayette’s Return: The “Boy General,” the American Revolution, and the Hermione, opening May 29!

Unlike cosmopolitan Manhattan, Brooklyn was an inward-looking community of Dutch settlers.  83585d, Library – Plan of the City of New York in North America, New-York Historical Society

Unlike cosmopolitan Manhattan, Brooklyn was an inward-looking community of mostly Dutch settlers.
Plan of the City of New York in North America, 1770. Bernard Ratzer; added names: William Faden, Thomas Kitchin. black ink on paper, backed with paper backed with cloth. (library call# 2N X1.5.28 (map 9211.2))

Across from the lower tip of Manhattan Island, Kings County was filled with small rural hamlets that retained their 17th-century Dutch heritage. By the mid-1770s, the 3,623 inhabitants of six townships were mostly fourth- and fifth-generation descendants of colonists who had settled there in the mid-17th century. For a majority of inhabitants, interactions with Manhattanites, across the river, were a rare occurrence. Most were Dutch speakers, followers of the Dutch Reformed Church, and, more often than not, had married within their community, relying on its strong networks to make a living. Despite living under English and, after 1707, British rule, the colonists of Kings County retained their Dutch identity.

The introspective cultural outlook of the inhabitants was complemented by its economic system. The inhabitants of Kings County were reliant upon slave labor throughout the 18th century. Although Kings’ population grew less rapidly than all of the other counties in New York, increasing by less than one per cent between 1698 and 1771, the number of slaves increased by 886 per cent during the same period. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, one-third of Kings County inhabitants were slaves and about sixty per cent of the county’s white families owned at least one slave. Slaves were among the most valuable economic commodities owned by the inhabitants. When John Lefferts died in 1776, for instance, his seven slaves were estimated to be worth £296 sterling. They were the most valuable items inventoried.[1]

Most Brooklynites owned at least one slave. Slave ad from New York Journal or General Advertiser, June 23, 1768, page 6, "Negroes, to be sold by Thomas Durham..." New-York Historical Society Library.

At time of the American Revolution, most Brooklynites owned at least one slave. Slave ad from New York Journal or General Advertiser, June 23, 1768, page 6, “Negroes, to be sold by Thomas Durham…” New-York Historical Society Library.

Perhaps because of the residents’ resistance to cultural adaptation and their reliance upon unfree labor, agitation in Brooklyn during the American Revolution was neither as fervent nor as extensive as it was in New York City. The inhabitants of Kings largely acquiesced to patriot demands early in the war. With their tacit agreement, the patriots mobilized the inhabitants to prepare for war, soon extending military commissions to the local inhabitants.

In the Revolutionary War, militia units became an effective means to articulate American sovereignty, establishing another bulwark against the perceived threat of the British. More importantly, colonists’ military service created a veneer of consensus, togetherness, and righteousness between inhabitants in a developing revolutionary movement. In other words, by serving in the militia, it appeared that colonists supported what they were fighting for.

In mid-May 1775, Henry Williams and Jeremiah Remsen were elected by Brooklyn inhabitants to sit in New York’s extra-institutional Provincial Congress. As delegates, these individuals had many duties. But, the most important was establishing American, rather than British, governance.

By March 1776, the Provincial Congress had received its quota of men requested by the Continental Congress and looked to recruit in Kings County. Brooklynites duly obliged, mustering nine militia companies and issuing commissions to its townships’ citizens. Military commissions were sought-after in 18th-century America. Service brought prestige and grandeur and it brought militiamen into vibrant, all-male groups where they could develop and articulate their identity. Further, service in the militia made them appear as “citizen-soldiers.” They were ordinary men, bravely serving to protect the public good. A number of individuals in Kings County received military commissions.

More importantly, or perhaps somewhat surprisingly, a majority of these individuals would later go on to sign a loyalist subscription list or take the oath of allegiance. Thirty-eight Kings County inhabitants were extended commissions in March 1776. Of these men, twenty-eight, or seventy-four per cent, later signed a loyalist document. Similarly, the six men that the Provincial Congress appointed to the county’s Committee of Safety would all later sign a loyalist document. There is, moreover, supporting data for the rank-and-file in two of the militia units. The Kings County “Troop of Horse” was commanded by thirty-two-year-old Lambert Suydam and contained nine other commissioned officers, including a trumpeter, and fifteen privates. Of the company’s twenty-five men, nineteen signed a loyalist document. In the “Brooklyn Troop of Horse,” there were nineteen men; nine signed a loyalist document. They did this voluntarily. They did not have to sign a list or take the oath.

Yet, throughout early and mid-1776, Kings County became increasingly important to the patriots’ war effort and its inhabitants played an important role in patriot plans. As revolutionary general Charles Lee noted to George Washington, because it was opposite New York City, to control Kings County would give the patriots a distinct advantage over their British opponents. Kings County was, Lee alleged, “a more capital point than ever.” Lee also realized that if the patriots controlled Brooklyn Heights, they would be able to deprive British forces of much-needed resources. “[S]hou’d the enemy take possession of N. York,” wrote Lee, “when Long Islan[d] is in our hands—They will find it almost impossible to subsist.”[2]

Their loyalties were, perhaps, strongest to each other—to their friends, family members, and neighbors—and they were committed to upholding the Dutch way of life, including its slave labor system. Run-away slave ad, New York Mercury, Monday, May 21, 1764: "Run-away, on the 22d of April last, from Samuel Cock...a Negro Man, by Name, Harry...: New-York Historical Society Library

Brooklynites’ loyalties were, perhaps, strongest to each other. They were committed to upholding the Dutch way of life, including its slave labor system. Run-away slave ad, New York Mercury, Monday, May 21, 1764: “Run-away, on the 22d of April last, from Samuel Cock…a Negro Man, by Name, Harry…: New-York Historical Society Library

Unlike in New York City, a majority of the inward-looking Dutch New Yorkers, including those future loyalists, supported the patriot war effort in the early stages of the Revolutionary War. To determine what reasoning led these men to temporarily reject British control and choose (lukewarm) patriotism is difficult. However, it is probable that they associated their allegiance to maintaining social and political balance with the hope of preserving their way of life. For most of the 18th century, they had not interacted with the political affairs of the colony, instead focusing on their own lives. This was the approach they adopted up to and beyond August 1776. After the British came, these Dutch colonists supported—or, at least, didn’t protest—their occupation. Instead, they retained their focus on not upsetting the socio-political balance in the colony. Most Brookynites owned at least one slave. These Dutch New Yorkers did not want to see a descent into civil war between the county’s inhabitants. Indeed, it could call into question the nature of their entire labor system. Ensuring a degree of political ambiguity or flexibility was critical to their maintaining the status quo. They supported the Americans. They supported the British. But, they were truly loyal to neither. Their loyalties were, perhaps, strongest to each other—to their friends, family members, and neighbors—and they were committed to upholding the Dutch way of life, including its slave labor system.

 

[1] For John Lefferts’s inventory, see Estate inventory of John Lefferts, 2 March 1778, Lefferts family papers, ARC.145, box OS1, Brooklyn Historical Society.

[2] Charles Lee to George Washington, 5/6 February 1776, in Philander D. Chase, ed., The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series (Charlottesville, VA.: University of Virginia Press, 1985), III, 250–251; Same to Same, 19 February 1776, in ibid., III, 339–341.


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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.


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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.


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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


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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.

 


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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.


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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!


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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.

 


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