Behind The Scenes

Henry James’s (and Later William Wyler’s) Washington Square


Washington Square North as it appears in Mary Black’s book, “Old New York in Early Photographs,” 1894. New-York Historical Society Library

This Friday, the New-York Historical is presenting William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949) as part of our free Friday night film series. Based on Henry James’ 1880 story Washington Square, the film stars  Olivia de Havilland as a young  woman who falls in love with a handsome young man (Montgomery Clift), despite the objections of her emotionally abusive father who suspects the man of being a fortune hunter.

In 1880, when James wrote his novel, Washington Square Park did not yet have its iconic memorial arch, designed by McKim, Mead & White. That was built in 1889 to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration as the first President of the United States. In fact, until 1825 the land on Washington Square Park was used as a burial ground, and to this day there are still human remains buried under the park.

By 1948, when The Heiress was filmed (though the film takes place in the 1800s), the center fountain of the park had been renovated to include a wading pool, and the park began to be a haven for folk singers and other “bohemian” New Yorkers. Today it continues to be a center for Manhattanites, from NYU students to modern-day hippies to anyone who can afford to live in Greenwich Village!

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Ellis Island’s Busiest Day

On April 17, 1907, Ellis Island had its busiest day ever, processing 11,747 individuals who just arrived to America. An average day had them processing about 5,000, so this must have overloaded them! According to the Ellis Island Foundation, “During this historic month [April 1907] of American immigration, the Port of New York received 197 ships and more than a quarter-million passengers from around the world. Most of these arrivals were immigrants intent on establishing a new life in America.” 1,004,756 immigrants were processed in the year of 1907.

Ellis Island opened in 1892, two years after Castle Garden closed. It processed immigrants until the 1940s; The Ellis Island Foundation writes, “After the U.S. entered the war in December 1941, Ellis Island served primarily as a detention center for alien enemies, those considered to be inadmissible and others. By 1946, approximately 7000 aliens and citizens, with German, Italian, and Japanese people comprising the largest groups, were detained at Ellis Island. The detainees became so numerous that the immigration functions had to be transferred to Manhattan for lack of room. Ellis Island was also used as a hospital for returning wounded servicemen and by the United States Coast Guard, which trained about 60,000 servicemen there.”

Many well-known Americans arrived through Ellis Island’s doors, ready to make a name for themselves in a new country. One such immigrant was Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of the classic Madeline books. Bemelmans arrived in America from Austria in 1914 with just $10 in his pocket, and spent his first night detained at Ellis Island. He worked in the hotel industry, which he had learned from his uncle in Austria, but spent much of his time doodling on the backs of menus, which led to his career as a cartoonist, and eventually a children’s book author. Learn more about Bemelmans and his work in Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans!

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Quilting: Not Just For Women


New-York Historical Society / Glenn Castellano

Quilting, and many other domestic crafts, has long been considered the realm of women (and sometimes was dismissed because of that). But quilting is a serious art, and it’s not just for women. Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War, now on view at the New-York Historical Society, features this quilt made by a Civil War soldier–and made from both Union and Confederate uniforms.

This quilt, which comes to our exhibit from the Oklahoma Museum of History, was made by Sergeant Stephen A. Lewis (1838–1923) of the 104th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Lewis was captured by Confederate soldiers after being wounded at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, but managed to flee as they were marching the prisoners in Georgia. He found shelter with a slave woman who risked her life to hide him, and was able to recover in a Union army hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. While there, he made this quilt from scraps of blankets and uniforms. According to our researchers, “In the 1920s, during a terrible period of racial conflict in Oklahoma, Lewis sheltered an African-American, remembering the slave who had saved him.”

1-5 Quilt, wool, Stephen A Lewis

Quilt, made from woolen blanket and uniform fabrics,ca. 1865 Stephen A. Lewis, Wool; tied. Oklahoma Museum of History 2001.011

The fact that the quilter is male may not be such a shock. According to Joe Cunningham, author of Men and the Art of Quiltmaking, “ The first professional quilters were men, participants in every aspect involving the production of textiles. Once quilting became a 19th century hobby and artistic pursuit, women became the predominant enthusiasts. Now there is a steadily growing collection of male quilt artists.”

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William Woolley’s “Patent Improved Bedstead for Invalids” and Other Antebellum Inventions for Disability

This post is brought to us by Laurel Daen, a 2014 Patricia D. and John Klingenstein Fellow. For more information on our fellowship programs, click here.


In 1836, William Woolley, a cabinetmaker from New York City, won a Silver Medal from the American Institute for his “bedstead for invalids.” As the editors of the Mechanic’s Magazine and Register of Inventions and Improvements described, his device “is moved by levers…and by means of a small crank can be raised or lowered, as best suits the patient’s inclination, by a child of 10 or 12 years.” In addition, they noted, the bedstead could be adapted for use in a “swing cradle, by which those who are afflicted with ulcers, &c can be frequently turned with ease and without incurring additional pain.” The judges of the American Institute, which was formally known as the American Institute of the City of New York for the Encouragement of Science and Invention, heralded Woolley’s invention as “of vast importance to invalids [and] persons with fractured limbs.” “It has already been used,” they declared, “in the New York Hospital with great benefit to the sick.”


Woolley’s Bedstead and Adaptation for a Swing Cradle
Mechanics’ Magazine and Register of Inventions and Improvements, August, 1834.

Woolley was not the only cabinetmaker to construct furniture for people with disabilities in antebellum America. During this period, there was a rapid expansion in the availability of material technologies for disability. From bedsteads to bed rests, sick chairs to cradles for sickness, middle and upper class Americans with disabilities experienced a burgeoning array of options that increased comfort, ease, and movement at an affordable price. The papers of the American Institute (a massive collection of 491 boxes and 508 bound volumes at the New-York Historical Society) are an essential resource for recovering these oft-forgotten inventions and the histories of the people who produced and consumed them. In fact, the same year that the American Institute recognized Woolley’s bedstead, judges also awarded a Gold Medal to James Jones for a “Relief Bedstead,” which facilitated the change of bed linens during sickness, and a Silver Medal to Marcus Moody for an “Elevating Spring Bed,” which enabled an attendant to raise and lower a sick person without touching them.


Moody’s Elevating Spring Bed. Hampshire Gazette, April 25, 1843


Page from the American Institute judges’ report describing Moody’s invention, Ninth Annual Fair, October, 1836

Cabinetmakers who constructed technologies for disability often had experienced periods of acute sickness or disability themselves. John C. Jenckes, a silversmith from Providence, for example, began to develop accommodating furniture after he spent a summer “confined to his bed with a leg shattered and fractured.” The following year, in 1823, Jenckes patented what he termed the “Alleviator,” a machine that raised a person confined to bed “to such a height and for such a time as to give an opportunity for making the bed.” As Jenckes noted, “in warm weather the patient may [also] be much refreshed by being raised and kept at a distance from the bed” (Zion’s Herald, May 29, 1823). Ten years later, Jenckes was still inventing technologies for disability. In 1833, the American Institute awarded him a diploma for another invention: a “carriage chair” that enabled “sick persons to move themselves from room to room and also alter their position of sitting.”

Jenckes’ “Alleviator,” Boston Medical Intelligencer, June 10, 1823

Jenckes’ “Alleviator,” Boston Medical Intelligencer, June 10, 1823

Early technologies for disability also reveal the voices and experiences of sick and disabled consumers. Cabinetmakers often featured testimonials from customers in their advertisements. Uriel Rea, a mariner from Providence, for example, described his disabilities in an advertisement for Jenckes’ Alleviator. “[I] have been afflicted with rheumatism for several years,” Rea wrote, “some of the time confined to my bed for weeks in succession.” “So great was my pain that I could not bear to be touched,” he continued, but “having been raised with the above mentioned machine with the utmost ease, I do therefore recommend it to all persons who are similarly afflicted” (Providence Gazette, May 1, 1824). Levi Hutchins, a clockmaker and Revolutionary War veteran from Concord, NH, also endorsed Jenckes’ invention, noting that it was of great assistance when he was “long confined to the bed by disease of the hip.” Years later, Hutchins’ condition seems to have improved because he sold his Alleviator to the town of Concord for $30 (New Hampshire Gazette, July 4, 1825; “Proceedings of the Annual Town Meeting in Concord, 1847”).

People with disabilities and the technologies that they created and used played important roles in the antebellum economy. These inventions may seem primitive or even outlandish to us today; however, they provide valuable insight into the needs and desires of early disabled Americans and those who cared for them as well as the technologies that came, often for better or worse, to dominate their lives.

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Let’s Pretend It’s Spring in New York

It is still so cold in New York. We had a Nor’easter Bomb yesterday and now it’s still cold and dreary, so let’s fantasize about the warmth and sun and color that comes in spring. Technically that’s supposed to be right now, but we’ll just have to dream for another week or so.

The above painting shows handsomely dressed New Yorkers along 59th Street, near the Plaza Hotel and in front of the Pulitzer Fountain (funded by the will of Joseph Pulitzer) of Abundance by Karl Bitter. The statue in the fountain is of Pomona, Roman goddess of orchards. How fitting for spring flowers!


Maytime in Gramercy Park, New-York Historical Society Library

Here’s a lovely photograph of Gramercy Park in may, with tulips in full bloom. It’s in black and white, but you can just feel the warmth in the air.


Irving Browning Photograph Collection, New York Flower Market, Ninth Avenue. Gift of Irving Browning in the name of Irving and the late Sam Browning, July 29, 1959, New-York Historical Society Library

This photograph is of the New York Flower District, where New Yorkers still go for their botanical needs. Brothers Irving and Sam Browning opened a photography studio on West 40th Street in the 1920s, and in 1959 Irving Browning gave over 1,500 photographs from his collection to the New-York Historical Society. They were part of the 1989 exhibition, Irving Browning: City of Contrasts.

So it may not be warm yet, but we have warm promenades and fresh flowers to look forward to soon! What are your favorite spring activities?

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What Typhoid Mary Meant In 19th-Century New York


Riverside Hospital—North Brother Island, New-York Historical Society, PR 020

On March 27, 1915, Mary Mallon, known as Typhoid Mary, was permanently quarantined at this hospital on North Brother Island. From 1900 until her second quarantine in 1915, she was presumed to have infected 49 people, three of whom died, due to her being an asymptomatic carrier.

Typhoid is a bacterial disease commonly spread by eating contaminated food or water, especially food that hasn’t been cooked thoroughly. Mary Mallon was a personal chef, who was known to serve an a popular dessert of raw peaches and ice cream.

Typhoid was a serious disease in New York in the 19th Century, when indoor plumbing was uncommon, regular street cleaning was unheard of, and practices like washing one’s hands were not yet common. These maps from our Library collection show blocks of overcrowded tenements in downtown Manhattan, and the prevalence of diseases like tuberculosis, typhoid fever, scarlet fever and diphtheria.

Map showing over-crowding of buildings on lots and consequent lack of light and air space also the prevalence of tuberculosis, typhoid fever, scarlet fever and diptheria in the tenement house district bounded by 3rd Avenue, Avenue A, 22nd Street, 17th Street; 1899

Map showing over-crowding of buildings on lots and consequent lack of light and air space also the prevalence of tuberculosis, typhoid fever, scarlet fever and diphtheria in the tenement house district bounded by 3rd Avenue, Avenue A, 22nd Street, 17th Street; 1899


Essex Street – East River. Division – Rivington Street [Manhattan]: Map showing over-crowding of buildings on lots and consequent lack of light and air space also the prevalence of tuberculosis, typhoid fever, scarlet fever and diphtheria in the tenement house district. 1899

Public health advances in sanitation and hygiene also coincided with the development of the Typhoid vaccine in 1896, created by Almroth Edward Wright and first used in the Boer War (at the time more soldiers died of preventable diseases than combat). The New-York Historical Society has also explored outbreaks of Smallpox and Cholera, and how public health advances helped combat the spread of these diseases, especially in a place where people live in such close quarters.

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Find Audubon’s Masterpieces in Central Park!

Northern Saw whet Owl, one of the many birds that can be seen in Central Park.

Northern Saw whet Owl, one of the many birds that can be seen in Central Park. [John James Audubon (1785–1851) Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus), Havell pl. 199, ca. 1833. Watercolor, graphite, pastel, black chalk, gouache, and black ink on paper, laid on card; 20 1/2 x 13 1/8 in. (52.1 x 33.3 cm). Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.199]

On March 21, Audubon’s Aviary:Parts Unknown will open at the New-York Historical Society, featuring over 100 of Audubon’s watercolors for the Birds of America. Some of these birds will seem exotic to North Americans, but did you know that many of them can be found in the city’s own backyard: Central Park?

Some birds are familiar to most people, like the Canada Goose, Mallard, and the American Tree Sparrow. But Central Park is also home to some more majestic birds, like the Great Blue Heron and the Northern Saw-whet Owl. Last year, I even found a Black-crowned Night Heron there while on my lunch break!


Black-crowned Night Heron in Central Park [Photo by Jaya Saxena]

John James Audubon (1785–1851) Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), Havell pl. 236, 1832 Watercolor, gouache, black ink, graphite, pastel, and collage with scratching out and selective glazing on paper, laid on card; 25 7/16 x 37 7/8 in. (64.6 x 96.2 cm) Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.236

John James Audubon (1785–1851), Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), Havell pl. 236, 1832. Watercolor, gouache, black ink, graphite, pastel, and collage with scratching out and selective glazing on paper, laid on card; 25 7/16 x 37 7/8 in. (64.6 x 96.2 cm). Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.236

There are numerous birding groups that traverse the park in search of these glorious birds. Tell us, what have you found?

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How Bill Cunningham’s New York Has Changed, And Stayed The Same

From 1968 through the mid-70s, photographer Bill Cunningham set out to photograph models in period costumes in front of beautiful historic settings around the city in a project called Facades (an exhibition of which opens at the New-York Historical Society on March 14). A lot can happen in New York in 40 years, but thankfully, many of the backdrops for his photographs are still standing.


Bill Cunningham, Grove Court (ca. 1840s), Between Bedford and Hudson Streets, 1968-1976

This image was taken at 17 Grove Street in Manhattan, which is in the running for the oldest building in the village. This rare wooden house was built in 1822, with the top floor added in 1870. It has a new paint job now, but almost 200 years later it’s still a beautiful sight.


Bill Cunningham, Municipal Asphalt Plant (built 1944), East 90th Street at the East River, 1968-1976

When this photograph was taken, the model was standing out side the Municipal Asphalt Plant, built in 1914 to mix asphalt for the city’s roads. It was known to some as a beautiful, modernist “Cathedral of Asphalt,” though city planner Robert Moses called it  “the most hideous waterfront structure ever inflicted on a city by a combination of architectural conceit and official bad taste.”  However, in 1980 this unique building was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1984 it was converted into a sports center (take it from me, I took tennis and soccer lessons there!).


Bill Cunningham, 3-4 Gramercy Park West (built 1850), 1968-1976

This beautiful townhouse on Gramercy Park West was built in the 1840s and designed by Alexander Jackson Davis. Do you have about five million dollars laying around? Because if you do, it’s for sale!


Bill Cunningham, Stuyvesant Fish House (built 1804), 21 Stuyvesant Street between Second and Third Avenues, 1968-1976

This townhouse at 21 Stuyvesant Street in Manhattan is better known as the “Hamilton Fish House.” It was built in 1804 by Peter Stuyvesant’s grandson (also named Peter Stuyvesant), and given to his daughter and son-in-law. Their child, Hamilton Fish, would go on to be a Governor and Senator of New York, as well as President Grand’s Secretary of State.

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The Speech That Won Lincoln New York

Abraham Lincoln.  Pamphlet:  Speech... delivered at the Cooper Institute , New York, 1860 (GLC 2812 p.1. The Gilder Lehrman Collection on deposit at the Pierpont Morgan Library.)

Abraham Lincoln. Pamphlet: Speech… delivered at the Cooper Institute , New York, 1860 (GLC 2812 p.1. The Gilder Lehrman Collection on deposit at the Pierpont Morgan Library.)

On February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln stood before a crowd at Cooper Union on 8th Street in New York City, attempting to convince a strongly Democratic city that he, a Republican, deserved the presidency. Until then he was thought of mostly as a country lawyer, but his speech at Cooper Union let New York Republicans market him as a “thoughtful orator” and a reasonable moderate that understood the needs of the country as a whole. It was this speech that won him support in New York, which helped turn him from politician to President. So what exactly did Lincoln say?

Many people view Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator,” but in 1860 he was more focused on preserving the current status quo. He opposed the spread of slavery, but wanted to leave it alone where it existed, and promised to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. “As those [founding] fathers marked it, so let it be again marked, as an evil not to be extended, but to be tolerated and protected only because of and so far as its actual presence among us makes that toleration and protection a necessity.” He still called slavery an “evil,” but one that he was willing to deal with.

Many arguments about slavery hinged on the idea that our founding fathers would not have wanted the federal government to control what was seen as a states rights issue, while others balked at the idea of following. Lincoln addressed this head on: “I did not mean to say we are bound to follow implicitly in whatever our fathers did. To do so, would be to discard all the lights of current experience—to reject all progress—all improvement. What I do say is, that if we would supplant the opinions and policy of our fathers in any case, we should do so upon evidence so conclusive, and argument so clear, that even their great authority, fairly considered and weighed, cannot stand; and most surely not in a case whereof we ourselves declare they understood the question better than we.” You can read the full speech here.

The next day, New York Tribune editor Horace Greely declared “No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New-York audience.”

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, illustration from Harper's Weekly, March 30, 1861, New-York Historical Society

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, illustration from Harper’s Weekly, March 30, 1861, New-York Historical Society

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Woolworth’s May Be Gone, But We Still Have The Woolworth Building

Steven Tucker, Woolworth Building, undated. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel

Steven Tucker, Woolworth Building, undated. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel

On February 22, 1878, F. W. Woolworth opened the first Woolworth store in Utica, New York. That store failed, but he reopened in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and began one of the most successful chain businesses in America. As a kid, I remember our local Woolworth’s as a one-stop shop, with everything from halloween costumes to alarm clocks to the boxes of Whitman’s chocolate my dad liked to keep around the house.

In 1910, F.W. Woolworth commissioned Architect Cass Gilbert to design an office building for the company’s new corporate headquarters. It was initially supposed to be 20-stories, but by the time it opened in 1913 it was 60-stories/792 feet high—the tallest building in the world until 1930. The Woolworth Company only had offices on a couple of floors, but rented the rest to other tenants. You can see Gilbert’s original materials relating to the building in our Library collections.

Cass Gilbert designed the building in a neo-Gothic style, and it was nicknamed the “Cathedral of Commerce” based on its resemblance to European Gothic cathedrals. (You can see more about that name here.) The inside is also known as one of the most spectacular lobbies in the city, with mosaics, gilded elevators, and a depiction of Cass Gilbert holding the building itself. There’s even a secret pool!

In 1997, the Woolworth’s chain shut down after facing increasing competition from other companies. But the Woolworth Building is still one of New York’s greatest architectural achievements.

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