Behind The Scenes

What Objects Define New York?

How do you define a city? Is it its buildings, its people, its history? In the upcoming exhibition A Brief History of New York: Selections from A History of New York in 101 Objects, the New-York Historical Society attempts to make sense of the city’s past through its objects. So, what objects define us?

Due to the importance of the area’s beaver trade, it would make sense that New Amsterdam’s coat of arms would feature them. However, this draft for a coat of arms for New Amsterdam, presented to the Dutch West India Company, was not approved. Inscribed in ink below the coat of arms in mid 17th century script, in Dutch: “Nota dit waepe(n) was ee(n) concept doch niet goet gevonden” Translation: “Note: this coat of arms was a draft and was not approved.” We still have beavers in the city seal to this day, and they speak to the importance of trading pelts in building our early business economy. This is also one of the oldest drawings in our collection.

This surveyor’s monument stood at the corner of Fourth Avenue and East 26th Street, where it had been placed under direction of the Commissioners appointed by the New York Legislature in 1807 to lay out streets in Manhattan north of Houston Street. It was dug up in 1890 during excavations for the old Madison Square Garden. It’s carved with “26″ on one face and “4″ on the other, presumably marking the address.

In March of 1987, ACT UP was formed in New York City by a group of people as a diverse, nonpartisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS Crisis. They meet with government and health officials; they support research and distribute the latest medical information as well as holding public protests and demonstrations. These stickers display their motto, an important reminder that many in New York’s history have had to fight for rights and recognition.

Much of lower Manhattan was covered with layers of dust generated by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Urban historian Andrew Davis observed a vehicle covered in a layer of dust four inches thick, and filled a small plastic bag with the thick, gray dust on September 12th. Shortly after the bag of contaminated dust, sprinkled with particles of paper and building materials, was given to the New-York Historical Society, conservators carefully transferred the contents to a glass specimen jar, so that it could safely be studied and preserved.

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Where Was New York International Airport?

On July 31, 1948, New York International Airport was dedicated. You may be wondering what that is, considering that none of the airports that serve the New York City metropolitan area are called that. Well, before it was called JFK, and even before it was called Idlewild, the airport was dedicated as the New York International Airport, Anderson Field.

It was commonly called Idlewild Airport, given that it was built on the previous Idlewild Golf Course and resort in Jamaica Bay, beginning in 1942. First commercial flights began on July 1, 1948, but it wasn’t dedicated until later that month. It was actually called New York International Airport, because “New York Airport” sounded too much like “Newark Airport” on the radio–though I always feel bad for tourists who get confused between those names to this day!

In 1963, it was rededicated John F. Kennedy International Airport, following action of the Mayor and Council of the City of New York, and a resolution of the Commissioners of the Port Authority.

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Remember The NYC Subway Token

On July 25, 1953, New York City’s subway fare was raised to 15 cents. Instead of making subway riders have three nickels each time, the city introduced the subway token, which became a symbol of the city until it was phased out for the MetroCard in 2003.

The initial subway token design featured the initials NYC in the center, with the Y cut out. This design was used until 1979, when, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the subway system, the “diamond jubilee” token was issued, featuring a diamond cutout at the top.

In 1980 the subway token reverted to the design with NYC in the middle, though it was solid this time. Then, in 1986, the “bullseye” token was introduced, with a circle of silver-colored metal in the middle of the brass token. When it was introduced, subway fare was $1.

In 1995, the final subway token design was introduced, the “five boroughs” token. This featured a pentagram cutout in the center. By the time it was introduced, MetroCards had already been active for a year, though it took until 2003 for the MTA to phase out the tokens completely.

However, these weren’t the only transportation tokens used in the city! From 1929 through 1956, the Brooklyn and Queens Transit Corporation operated streetcars in Brooklyn and Queens as a subsidiary of the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT). This token was for a half-fare on one of their streetcars.

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What Do Beavers Have to Do With Manhattan Real Estate?


Heins & LaFarge beaver plaque at Astor Place

It’s John Jacob Astor’s birthday today. The Astors were a powerful family in early New York history, making their fortune from the beaver pelt trade, and eventually owning a ton of city real estate.  They’re why we have Beaver Street in the FiDi, and why Astoria is called Astoria. (He didn’t even put up a lot of the money for developing Astoria, they just wanted his name and he obliged.) The name “Astor” is everywhere in this city–almost like “Trump”!

If you look at the Astor Place 6 subway station, you may notice some critters you don’t normally see in other stations. The Astor family had made its profits from the beaver pelt trade, so in a nod to their fortune, the station features tiles of beavers! The tiles and plaques were designed by George C. Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge, both relatives of stained-glass master John LaFarge, in 1904.

This certainly isn’t the only New York landmark named for Astor. One of my favorites is Astoria, Queens. The neighborhood was known as Hallett’s Cove (though it now encompasses Steinway, Ravenswood, and a few more). Steven Halsey, a local fur merchant, established a ferry route across the East River to 92nd Street, wanted Astor to invest money in the neighborhood, and petitioned the state legislature to rename it Astoria. He won, though Astor invested just $500, and never set foot in Astoria. He could, however, see the neighborhood across the river from his summer home on 87th Street. According to the Daily News, Astor himself said “They named Astoria, Ore., after me and I’m never going out there. And now you’ve named Astoria, L.I., after me and I’m not going out there, either.”

John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), ca. 1840. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. George K. Livermore

John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), ca. 1840. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. George K. Livermore

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How New York Reacted To World War I

World War I began on July 28, 1914, almost exactly 100 years ago. The United States did not enter the war until 1917, but the horrors of the war were known, and America reacted in a number of different ways. First, there were those who supported the war and the troops, however they could. This doll, according to acquisition documents, was “used to promote Liberty Bonds during WWI.”

Others, of course, fought for the cause. This hat was worn by donor Charles M. Lefferts, during World War I. Lefferts first enlisted as a private in Co. K, 7th Regiment, National Guard New York, in 1893. After the active 7th Regiment was called into service in WWI, a reserve regiment was recruited to serve at home in case of need. Lefferts re-enlisted in this new organization November 14, 1914.



This cane was made to celebrate victory in World War I in 1918. Its silver handle depicts the American flag and a bald eagle.


World War I victory cane, ca. 1918. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Lou and Barbara Grumet

There was even a temporary memorial arch constructed on Fifth Avenue near Madison Square Park, in honor of the city’s war dead. The arch cost $80,000 and was modeled after the Arch of Constantine in Rome, but bids to make the arch permanent failed.

Even though this arch didn’t stay, there are many WWI memorials around New York City. Which have you seen?

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How We Celebrate Our Independence

My plan for this Independence Day involves hot dogs, hanging out on my friend’s balcony, and watching the fireworks on the East River. I think it’s a pretty good way to spend my day, but New Yorkers have been celebrating with parades, beaches and parties since we pulled down that statue of King George.

Some celebrated with parades, like these firemen in Hempstead, NY.

Some read comic books about The Yellow Kid, created by Richard F. Outcault.

Some, like Jean Lussier,  went over Niagara Falls in a rubber ball. Lussier, originally from Quebec and living in Niagara Falls, New York, challenged the Falls on Independence Day in 1928. This machinist’s successful trip was in a self designed, 1.8 metre (six foot) rubber ball lined with rubber tubes filled with oxygen. On July 4, 1928, after taking some hard knocks in the upper rapids, it skipped perfectly over the Falls. One hour later, Lussier stepped ashore below the Falls unharmed.


Some played castanetes, like these used during the Centennial celebration on July 4, 1876.

So remember your forefathers this Independence Day!

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What Are Your Madeline Memories?

madeline1At the New-York Historical Society, we mount exhibitions that directly connect American history and art to you, our visitors. This summer, we will present Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the beloved schoolgirl and the iconic illustration and writing of her creator.
The story of Madeline‘s author Ludwig Bemelmans mirrors that of so many other New Yorkers: he was an immigrant who went against the grain in his home country (in his case, due to juvenile delinquency) and used his creativity and hard work to make a name for himself in America. Madeline was also born in New York – in some notes scrawled the back of a menu at Pete’s Tavern in Gramercy. Since then, many New Yorkers have grown up reading the Madeline series, inspiring them to travel to Paris, to find bravery to undergo appendectomies, and to pursue their adventures and dreams.
Our former high school intern Lily Shoretz is a prime example. We were thrilled when she reached out to us to reconnect and share her excitement for the exhibit:
Madeline has had a particularly important place in my childhood. She was my role model — the smart, strong, spunky female character I aspired to be like. My mother read me the Madeline books, watched the Madeline videos with me, and organized Madeline-themed tea parties for my third and fourth birthdays. These parties included dramatic presentations that my family put on for our guests, with me as Madeline (in a home-made blue coat and yellow hat), my mother as Miss Clavel (in a full habit, no less), and my father and brother filling in as the secondary characters. My brother, 11 at the time, even went so far as to don dog ears and a yellow bow to play Genevieve.
My family’s enchantment with Madeline became meaningful early on when, at age two and a half, I had open heart surgery. While I was in the O.R., my mother embroidered an open heart surgery incision on my beloved Madeline rag doll, who already came with a scar on her tummy from her appendectomy. I was stuck in the hospital for a month, and my family did everything they could to entertain me. We drew pictures, made paper chains, and watched Shirley Temple movies on repeat, but one of my favorite things to do was read Madeline books. When we got to the right page, I, like Madeline, would sit up in my hospital bed and shout, “Voila! My scar!” Madeline taught me to be proud of my scar and gave me the confidence to know that I was brave and strong.
What are your Madeline memories? Tell us below in the comments, and visit the exhibition July 4 – October 19, 2014.


Happy Birthday, Coney Island Cyclone!

It’s officially summer, which means Coney Island is hopping with locals and tourists alike, enjoying the beach, eating hot dogs, and riding rides. On June 26, 1927 one of Coney Island’s most popular and enduring rides was born–the Coney Island Cyclone!


Coney Island Cyclone [Flickr user Keith Putnam]

Coasters like the Thunderbolt and the Tornado were popular additions to Coney Island’s amusement parks, so Jack and Irving Rosenthal bought land previously occupied by the Giant Racer roller coaster, and hired coaster designer Vernon Keenan. Rides, which send you hurtling across 3,000 feet of track in 100 seconds, cost a quarter. Now, the coaster is a National Landmark.

The first time I rode the Cyclone I was 14-years-old, and despite the whiplash it was the most exciting and exhilarating roller coaster I had ever been on. Have you ridden the Cyclone? Tell us about your Coney Island memories!



Enjoy Tiffany Lamps? Thank Thomas Edison


Dragonfly shade, designed probably by Clara Driscoll for Tiffany Studios pre-1906, 22 in. (55.9 cm) diam.; library base, designed pre-1906. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Dr. Egon Neustadt, N84.110


Tiffany Studio’s stained glass lamps are among the most gorgeous decorative objects ever created and represent an incredible historical moment of American art joining the world stage. While numerous countries are filled with beautiful painting, sculpture and architecture, American stained glass of the late-19th and early-20th century outshines the competition. Tiffany lamps not only embody America coming into its own artistically, their innovative opalescent glass and usage of incandescent bulbs also illuminate America as a beacon of technological collaboration and innovation.

From his earliest days as a telegrapher working for Western Union in Boston, Thomas Edison was a tinkerer. However, it was right here in New York and New Jersey that Thomas Edison made history with inventions including the stock ticker, the phonograph, and—of course—the incandescent bulb. Edison’s inventions were capital-intensive, and required funding from businessmen, politicians and other powerful individuals based in New York. While Edison did not invent the first light bulb, by 1879 he created the first practical, long-lasting light bulb and patented a system of electricity distribution. Without Edison’s innovations, electric lighting would not be suitable for interiors and Tiffany’s artistry would have been limited to interior design, stained glass windows, and oil lamps.

In 1884, Edison worked with theatrical innovator Steele MacKay to design the lighting for the Lyceum Theater at Broadway and 22nd Street. Louis Comfort Tiffany was also brought on board to design the interiors. Tiffany was designing stained glass windows at the time, but had not yet begun to design stained glass lamps or lighting fixtures. Working alongside the electrical “wizard,” Tiffany could have looked at those bare, exposed light bulbs and seen potential.

Underwood & Underwood, Thomas Edison in his laboratory, East Orange, New Jersey, 1901. Stereograph. New-York Historical Society # 41493

Underwood & Underwood, Thomas Edison in his laboratory, East Orange, New Jersey, 1901. Stereograph. New-York Historical Society # 41493

Unlike Edison’s enduring electricity, Tiffany’s art nouveau and aesthetic style fell out of fashion for a time in the twentieth century.  Tiffany is once again adored, with reproduction lamps in homes everywhere, original lamps fetching hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction, and museums with extensive collections (including our own, which was established with a major donation by collector Egon Neustadt). Scholarship has also caught up to recognize a crucial part of Tiffany’s genius: he employed talented artistic collaborators. One designer in particular, Clara Driscoll, is believed to have led a team of women in designing the majority of the 132 lamps in our collection. Visitors will have the opportunity to examine the beauty and historical significance of these lamps as never before when the Luce Center reopens following renovation in 2016. Until then, we hope you’ll explore them online and in our publication A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls.

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Votes For Women! When Congress Approved The 19th Amendment

On June 4, 1919, the US Congress approved the 19th Amendment, which granted suffrage to women. The Amendment was not ratified by the states until August 18, 1920, but the approval was a huge victory for women’s rights. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton first drafted and introduced the amendment in 1878, but it took over forty years for women to get the right to vote.

Before that, the rules of suffrage were undefined by the Constitution, though most states did not extend the vote to women (New Jersey being the exception, though they revoked women’s suffrage in 1807). Though the amendment was introduced in 1878, Congress repeatedly ignored it, and the fight for women’s suffrage moved to the states. Beginning in 1910 a number of western states passed legislation for full or partial suffrage for women.

The Woman Suffrage Party was organized by Carrie Chapman Catt in 1909 out of many small suffrage societies. It put the state legislature under intense pressure in 1913, forcing a referendum on votes for women in New York State. In 1915, a second vote was forced by more campaigning, helping women gain the vote in New York state. With the momentum started in New York and the added votes from women in the state, New York carried the country and the 19th Amendment was finally approved by Congress.

Then it was up to the states to ratify it; 3/4 of the states needed to ratify it for it to become part of the Constitution (meaning 36 of the 48 existing states). There were a few holdouts–Virginia, Alabama, Florida and South Carolina did not ratify the amendment until the 1950s and 1960s, and Mississippi was the last to ratify it, waiting until 1984!

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