Behind The Scenes

How America Reacted To Watergate…With Buttons!

On May 17, 1973, the United States Senate Watergate Committee convened to begin the investigation on the Watergate scandal. The year before, five men were arrested for breaking and entering into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters, and President Nixon’s campaign office was implicated. From May 17 through August 7, the hearings were broadcast on national television, and an estimated 85% of American households with TVs tuned in.

In the New-York Historical Society Museum collection, political buttons showed many Americans were unsupportive of President Nixon. Numerous buttons have slogans such as “Impeachment with Honor” and “Free The Watergate 500,” in reference to the 500 tapes Nixon had to turn over to the Watergate Committee.

Nixon resigned his Presidency due to the Watergate scandal, saying in his resignation speech, “To have served in this office is to have felt a very personal sense of kinship with each and every American.” Do you remember when Nixon resigned? Tell us your story in the comments!

No Comments

The Hats of Spring

Finally, it’s warm and sunny enough to be able to enjoy the outdoors, which for many women means an excuse to don their best hats. Here’s a look at some of our favorite headwear represented in the New-York Historical society collections.


Albert Abendschein, Eleanor Jay, 1902. Gift of the Estate of Peter Marié.



Albert Bierstadt, Indian Beauty, ca. 1863-1873. Gift of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot



Aline Alaux, Esteban Rodriguez Miro (1744-1795), ca. 1850. Gift of Mr. Thomas W. Streeter

Men have always had fashionable hats too, like this on on Esteban Miro, the governor of Louisiana from 1782 to 1791.


Katherine Schmidt, Almeda’s Daughter, 1937. Gift of David Toorchen in memory of his father Harold Aaron Toorchen


[Unidentified young woman in polka-dot cloche hat and checkered dress sitting in a car, undated. Facing away from the camera; another woman partially visible beyond her.] Eugene L. Armbruster photograph collection, 1894-1939.

We’re in love with this polka-dot getup, not to mention the car!


Full-length portrait of Julia Hassler, posed in summer dress and hat under a grape arbor, undated (ca. 1913). William D. Hassler photograph collection, New-York Historical Society Library

Bill Cunningham, St. Paul's Chapel, ca. 1968-1976. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham, St. Paul’s Chapel, ca. 1968-1976. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bill Cunningham

Of course, Bill Cunningham always as an eye for fashion, as seen here in an image from his Facades collection. You can see this in more at Bill Cunningham: Facades, now on view at the New-York Historical Society.

No Comments

Let’s Be Thankful May Day Doesn’t Exist Anymore


Harry T. Peter’s Collection of Pictorial Newspaper Illustrations, The First of May in New York City – Moving Out. Wood engraving. New-York Historical Society Library

Can you imagine the chaos in New York City if everyone’s leases expired on the same day, forcing everyone into the streets with all their belongings, jostling to find new apartments? Well, it happened, and it sounds like a nightmare. It used to be that on February 1, landlords would notify their tenants of what their new rent would be at the end of the quarter. They had until May 1 to search other residences for better deals, when at 9am all leases would expire simultaneously and everyone would start moving at the same time.

The practice proves that as long as there have been New Yorkers, there have been greedy New York landlords. One New York Times article from 1854 tells the story of Signor Cristadoro, a hairdresser at the Astor House: “He took the shop, during the hard times of 1842, on a lease of five years at $1,300 per annum. In 1847, the lease was renewed for seven years at $1,500.  Notice was served on him a few days since that from and after the 1st of May, the rent would be $3,750!” Sound familiar?

The practice began to fade in the 1920s, as resistance to the lease laws grew, and by WWII many moving companies couldn’t even find enough men to keep up with demand. The post-war housing shortage and rent control laws ended May Day moving for good by 1945, though many commercial leases still run out on May 1, a remnant of the time.


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!

No Comments

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!


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.”

No Comments

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.

1 Comment

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?

No Comments

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.

No Comments

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?

No Comments