Behind The Scenes

When Edison Lit Up Manhattan

On September 4, 1882, the electrical age began. That day, Thomas Edison’s Edison Illuminating Company flipped the switch on his power station on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, providing electricity to homes at a price comparable to gas. By the end of the month, they had 59 customers. By the next year, they had 513.

Objects being illuminated would have been like this copper oil lamp, which was converted for electric use.

Lamp, 1880-1910, New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bella C. Landauer

Lamp, 1880-1910, New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bella C. Landauer

Electricity had been discovered for some time, though this was the beginning of its real, practical, commercial usage. Before then, it was more of a novelty, used in things like this children’s toy!

Davis & Kidder's Patent Magneto-Electric Machine, ca. 1854, Gift of Joseph Nathan Kane

Davis & Kidder’s Patent Magneto-Electric Machine, ca. 1854, Gift of Joseph Nathan Kane

Thomas Edison was using DC (Direct Current) to power those buildings, though now it’s used mainly for lower voltage items. AC (Alternating Current) is commonly used for businesses and residences. In the late-1880s, Edison and George Westinghouse (using patents made by Nikola Tesla) engaged in what’s known as the “War of Currents,” battling for popularity as the world’s electric demand grew.

Edison decided to use the power of spectacle to slander AC. In 1903, Topsy the elephant, a circus attraction, was to be put to death for attacking a trainer (the trainer fed her a lit cigarette, so Topsy hardly had a baffling response). Thomas Edison proposed to use the occasion to demonstrate the dangers of AC, which was being considered by New York City. Using techniques perfected during the course of his secret work on an execution tool for humans—the electric chair—he arranged to have Topsy fed carrots laced with sixteen ounces of potassium cyanide and then shod with wooden sandals lined with copper and draped with wires. After the switch was pulled, the elephant died in less than a minute.


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Henry Hudson: Voyager, Explorer, Lost At Sea

On September 3, 1609, Henry Hudson sailed into the river that now bears his name. He had departed Amsterdam on April 4 on his ship the Halve Maen (Half Moon), on a mission from the Dutch East India Company to find a passage to Asia through the Arctic Ocean. However, due to some slightly fortuitous ice blockage, he wound up around Newfoundland, where he and his crew (not so fortuitously) raided a village near the shore and stole boats and pelts.

Hudson’s crew then made their way south, looping around the Delaware Bay and eventually finding the “North River.” The estuary had actually been known to Europeans since  Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed it in 1524, but Hudson helped lay Dutch claim to the area, and also brought back a number of pelts, inspiring the Dutch to settle and get into the fur trade. As you may remember, beaver pelt trade remained a booming business in the region for some time.

Ivan Wilson, Commemorative cane, 2006. Gift of Lou and Barbara Grumet

Ivan Wilson, Commemorative cane, 2006. Gift of Lou and Barbara Grumet

Unfortunately for Henry Hudson, his next voyage wouldn’t turn out so well. Sailing under the English flag this time, he sailed to Iceland and Greenland, but in the James Bay the ship became trapped in ice, and the crew had to move ashore. By the time the ice cleared after months, most of the crew wanted to return home, and mutinied. Hudson, his son, and a few loyal crewmembers were put on a small boat, which was set adrift and never found again.


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Anna May Wong: Chinese-American Star

Anna May Wong Certificate of Identity, August 18, 1924, National Archives at San Francisco (54099).

Anna May Wong Certificate of Identity, August 18, 1924, National Archives at San Francisco (54099).

The first thing to remember about movie star Anna May Wong is that she was an American. She was born Wong Liu Tsong in 1905 in Los Angeles, with Cantonese-American family that had lived in America since at least 1855. Her father owned a laundry shop, and as the film industry began to move west, she began to gain an interest in acting and movies. However, being an American didn’t matter in a time when people of Chinese descent were being heavily legislated against.

Beginning in 1909, any people of Chinese descent entering or residing in the US, regardless of the country of their birth, had to carry a Certificate of Identity with them at all times. This was part of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (the subject of the New-York Historical Society’s upcoming exhibit, Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion), which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers, and excluded Chinese from US citizenship. Even at the peak of her fame, Wong still had to carry papers like the one above to prove she was allowed to be here.

Wong’s career also suffered from the anti-miscegenation laws of the time, which prevented her from sharing an on-screen kiss with any person of another race (even if it was an Asian character being portrayed by a white actor.) There was only one other Asian leading man at the time, Sessue Hayakawa, so Wong was often relegated to the part of the “Dragon Lady.”  In 1928, Wong moved to Europe, saying in an interview, “There seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.” However, in the 1930s, she returned to Hollywood, and starred in some of her most iconic films, like Shanghai Express and Daughter of the Dragon.

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Picture of Anna May Wong from t he 1930s ©Paramount Pictures / Photofest

Despite being barred from leading-lady status, moviegoers loved her, especially minorities who were excited to see a non-white actress gain such fame. Anthony B. Chan wrote about his parents seeing Wong in his book Perpetual Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961):

Like many Chinese in North America, the films they eagerly awaited, cherished, and from which they could escape the repercussions of the Great Depression and the consequences of racist acts were those that revealed people who actually looked like them. Anna May Wong was clearly one of those who looked like them.

Watching her repartee with Shanghai Lily and Mrs. Haggarty in Shanghai Express was almost like watching one of their neighbors on the wide screen. Here was a yellow woman holding her own against two white women. It was truly an extraordinary sight that almost never happened in the icy reality of interracial relationships, in which no yellow person could think to act equally to a white person in the 1930s. That Wong as Hui Fei, a Chinese, could brazenly speak in such a witty and cool manner while exuding a controlled rationality in this mind game was even more astonishing to Chinese living in a North America that precluded and subordinated them with discriminatory legislation and overt hostility.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, but Chinese-Americans (and other Asian-Americans) still fight stereotypes and hostility today. There are few movie stars of Asian descent, and while there may be no room for the “Dragon Lady” in modern cinema, you rarely see an Asian-American woman in a leading role. Anna May Wong straddled the line between Asian and American, learning her roots but fighting to prove that she was as American as anyone else. For future generations, hopefully the fight won’t be so hard.


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Why We Love The Chelsea Hotel

The Chelsea Hotel, in its majestic Victorian Gothic building at 222 West 23rd Street, has been a staple in many New Yorkers lives. When I was a kid, I’d look at guitars with my dad at Chelsea Guitars right underneath the hotel, and peek in the lobby. Built in 1885, the hotel (first build at co-ops) quickly attracted artists and musicians, including O. Henry, Arthur C. Clarke, Dylan Thomas, Edgar Lee Masters and Madonna. It was also the tallest building in the city until 1899!

Ownership of the Chelsea has changed over the years, and it’s seen its share of controversies. In 1934, employees of the Hotel Chelsea restaurant covered a mural featuring Huey Long, Alfred E. Smith and James A. Farley–politicians connected with the infamous Tammany Hall. The president of the corporation that owned the restaurant wanted the mural removed, because of the “indignity” depicted, but the man who leased the restaurant didn’t want to “submit to censorship.”

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Chelsea Hotel, Hotel Files, New-York Historical Society Library

Over the years there have been a number of songs written about the hotel, including “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” by Leonard Cohen, “Chelsea Hotel” by Dan Bern, “Chelsea Girls” by Nico, and “Chelsea Morning” by Joni Mitchell. It’s also the subject of the poem “The Hotel Chelsea” by Edgar Lee Masters, a longtime resident.

In 1966, the building was designated a New York City Landmark, due to its “special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City.” The Landmarks Preservation Commission also wrote that “the Chelsea Hotel was one of the pioneer Victorian Gothic apartment houses, that its unique array of balconies is an extremely attractive feature, and that it has always been noted as the home of famous writers and artists such as Thomas Wolfe and Dylan Thomas.”

In 2011, the Chelsea Hotel closed to guests for restoration and renovation, and the question remains of whether it will continue to be a haven for artists, both struggling and successful, or whether it’ll turn into a $250-a-night boutique destination. But we’ll always have our memories of walking by, imagining the hundreds of stories taking place within.


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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?

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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.

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

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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.

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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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