Behind The Scenes

When America Opened Its Doors Again: The Immigration Act of 1965

Immigration Interview on Angel Island, 1923. National Archives at College Park, MD.

Immigration Interview on Angel Island, 1923. National Archives at College Park, MD.

Our new exhibition Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion focuses much on the question of immigration in America: who is allowed, who isn’t, how many people should come, and why. These issues are extremely apparent in the passing of the Chinese Exclusion act of 1882, which barred Chinese immigration into America, and required that all Chinese entering or re-entering the country had to prove their identity and eligibility or risk being denied entry. The Act was repealed in 1943, which also allowed Chinese in America to become naturalized citizens.

However, American immigration was still operating on the National Origins System (enacted in the 1924 Immigration Act), which set limits on immigration based on how many people of a particular origin were already in America. However, those quota were rarely fair, and favored northern Europeans. In 1943, just 105 people of Chinese origin were allowed each year, and other Asians were excluded altogether.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, sponsored by Representative Emanuel Celler of New York, removed all language pertaining to race or national origin from US immigration law. Celler argued for the “elimination from our laws of the fallacious belief that the place of birth or the racial origin of a human being determines the quality or the level of a man’s intellect, or his moral character, or his suitability for assimilation into our nation and our society.” Instead, it gave preference to potential immigrants with family members in America, or with desirable skills, which remains the basis of our immigration policy today. President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill on October 3, 1965 at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.

Today, immigration remains an important topic of public discussion. The exhibit provides a chance to look back at attitudes, policies and laws that shaped American immigration from its very beginnings.

Signing of the Immigration Act, 1965. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto.

Signing of the Immigration Act, 1965. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto.

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An Elegant, Bronze Time Capsule, Rediscovered at the New-York Historical Society, Awaits Its Opening



At 2pm on May 23, 1914, a group of men wearing cocked hats, white wigs, and knee-breeches, emerged from the Fraunces Tavern, walked slowly up Broad Street, and then turned down Wall Street towards the river, accompanied by the steady beat of a Continental drum corps.  “Had George Washington’s statue on the steps of the Sub-Treasury come to life,” remarked one witness, “he would surely have thought that the old Revolutionary days had returned.”  But it was merely the advance guard of a parade celebrating lower Wall Street’s importance not just as a center of the tea and coffee trade, but also as a birthplace of the revolution.  Following behind were several hundred tea and coffee merchants, along with members (including almost forty women) of various historical and hereditary societies, and descendants of New York’s revolutionary leaders.  Cheered on by hundreds of spectators on the sidewalk and by office workers from windows high above, they finally reached the Jauncey office building at 91 Wall Street, where they gathered for the unveiling of a bronze plaque marking the site of the historic Merchants’ Coffee House, which had burned down 110 years earlier.


But before drawing the veil, the assembled dignitaries performed a ceremony so new it had no name.  They revealed to the crowds a large, ornate bronze chest containing various documents, and to seal it they called on the ex-mayor of New York and former president of Columbia University, Seth Low, who had himself begun his career on lower Wall Street in his father’s tea company.  Wielding a silver hammer, Low hammered bronze nails into the chest.  He then formally entrusted it to the president of the New-York Historical Society with instructions not to allow anyone to open it until 1974.

Although the plaque no longer exists – presumably lost when that office building was demolished – the bronze chest has survived and is approaching its hundredth birthday.  Sitting patiently on a shelf in the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, and now in the Museum’s rotunda, it remains visible to visitors.  They can read its engraved message and admire its rich ornamentation: the faux-rope handles, the paw-shaped feet, and the crowning finial.  They might also notice that it is still nailed firmly shut.  As a result of being uncatalogued and, for a time, consigned to offsite art storage in Chelsea, the chest was forgotten and thus missed its date with destiny.  In fact, it overslept by more than quarter of a century.  Not until the late 1990s, when curators were cataloguing artifacts in preparation for display in the new Luce Center, was it rediscovered.

Time capsules are generally assumed to be a creation of the 1930s, with the term first being used at the New-York World’s Fair.  In my own research, however, I have found as many as fifteen from the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, dating back to the earliest, introduced at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876.  Consisting of bank safes, lead chests, or other metal boxes, these vessels contained a variety of objects: letters and printed documents but also photographs, phonographs, and films.  Contributors even offered items of material culture, ranging from samples of clothing, hats, and shoes to technological artifacts such as the latest camera or telephone.  I describe these precursors in my book-in-progress, The Birth of the Time Capsule, as a way to explore larger themes such as the mounting conflict between capital and labor, the envisioned possibilities of new media, or the changing conception of the present’s duty to posterity.

As the notion of sealing a box for a certain number of years (usually 100) was only just emerging and no term or protocol yet existed, these early time capsules faced many challenges.  Entrusted to libraries, city halls, and other public spaces, rather than buried underground, they were subject to tampering, relocation, or – in one case – premature opening by a curious clerk.  Over time, further problems arose: a missing key, a broken lock, and a legal dispute over the ownership of the contents.  Nevertheless, the success rate of these proto-time capsules is surprisingly high.  Almost all were opened, usually on time and in the presence of leading officials.  The Wall Street chest would have been the very first to be opened, had it been remembered in 1974 (that honor ultimately fell to the Philadelphia Exposition time capsule, opened two years later by President Gerald Ford).  But it now appears to hold another world record: it is, by my account, the oldest, unopened time capsule.

This fall, the four-hundredth anniversary of Dutch attempts to colonize the New World provides the perfect occasion to finally open this remarkable chest.  On October 11, 1614, the Dutch Republic granted a charter and a three-year fur-trading monopoly to the New Netherland Company – the first official reference to “New Netherland.”  It was this event that the Wall Street merchants were celebrating in 1914, and the city’s festivities continued through the summer, until cut short by the Great War.  If the quadricentennial of New Netherland has gone relatively unnoticed so far this year, the opening of this time capsule on October 8 may serve to correct that.


In the New-York Historical Society’s Rotunda, like a message in a bottle that has washed up on a distant shore, it evokes a sense of connection across time to those who sent it.  We might wonder what they deposited in it.  And whether we – and the city we now live in – resemble the vision they held of the future.

We might also wonder about the motives behind the capsule.  Certainly, the Lower Wall Street businessmen were celebrating themselves, drawing attention to their deep historical roots at the foot of Wall Street, their pedigree as descendants of revolutionaries, and their ongoing efforts as a philanthropic and Republican-aligned organization.  But they were also making a historical argument that New York, and in particular the Merchants’ Coffee House, rather than Boston’s Faneuil Hall, was the true birthplace of the revolution, by depositing (among other things) a copy of a letter written there in May 1774 by New York’s Committee of Correspondence, calling for a “virtuous and spirited union” – a document that had been lost for many years.  Like other acts of preservation in early twentieth-century New York, the time capsule may even have been intended to inculcate patriotism and national-historical consciousness among a growing immigrant population.

Such ulterior motives and social biases raise questions about how we are to position ourselves as recipients – and how, more generally, we might observe the four-hundredth anniversary of the Dutch venture, knowing as we do its implications for the region’s indigenous peoples. The time capsule will be opened at the New-York Historical Society on October 8, 2014 (if you would like to receive an invitation to the event, please e-mail

After the time capsule is opened, it will then be – according to its instructions – “resealed” and returned to the “custody of the New-York Historical Society” for its next opening in 2074.  And finally, there is a plan to compile a new capsule to be placed alongside it.  This would involve reaching out to students for ideas about what kinds of messages and objects would best convey the texture and condition of life in their complex, diverse city to those living sixty years from now.


Nick Yablon is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Iowa and the author of Untimely Ruins: An Archaeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819-1919 (University of Chicago Press, 2009).  As the NEH Fellow at the N-YHS for 2013-14, he is researching a book on Charles Gilbert Hine, an amateur photographer who photographed New York at the turn of the twentieth century.


How To Choose 101 Objects That Represent New York

 bookcover101Sam Roberts took on a lot when he decided to whittle down the essence of New York to 101 objects. How could a city with hundreds of years of history, millions of residents, and countless cultural contributions be defined in such a way? We spoke with the author about his inspiration, his process, and what objects he left out.

Where did you first get the idea for this book?
The book was inspired by the collaboration between the British Museum and the BBC, “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” One Hundred was enough for the world. New York needed 101.

How did you go about your research? Did you have any criteria for what made an object worthy of defining New York?
I consulted curators, historians, museum directors, professors, librarians, archivists to compile my own list of 50 for a New York Times article, then invited readers to submit suggestions. The criteria? That the objects be transformative or emblematic of a transformation, that they exist, be not too much bigger than a breadbox (no Statue of Liberty), not be human (that ruled out Ed Koch) and couldn’t ALL be about food (the subject that generated the most suggestions). I was inundated! How could I have included the MetroCard but not the subway token? The goal of the book was to be provocative, to make people think about history in new ways. I guess it worked.

Do you have a favorite item among the ones in the exhibition?
I have a couple of favorites, mostly the quirky ones that readers wouldn’t expect, wouldn’t ordinarily associate with New York, or would open a window to an episode in New York history that surprises them, such as the artichoke, the mechanical cotton picker and the Third Avenue trolley ticket.

This book reminds me of how people are constantly trying to peg the “real” or “authentic” New York. Do you think that such a thing exists?
What’s authentic about New York is our resilience, our constant evolution, and the fact, which we often forget, that New York rests on a very different foundation from the other American colonies. Its Dutch roots — the tolerance, or indifference, to diversity, as long as  it didn’t interfere with commerce — still defines this city in a way that makes it unique as it celebrates the 350th anniversary of the naming of New York.

If you were to choose a few objects that represent New York City today, what would they be?
A contender for Vol. II

A contender for Vol. II

I’m hoping readers of the book and New-York Historical Society visitors keep submitting suggestions, even though the biggest challenge was winnowing the list down to 101. (there’s a website, also an email:  I would add the inflatable rat used by organized labor to protest non-union worksites and the barber chair that the caricaturist Al Hirshfeld sat in to draw, to name just two. Nominations for Volume II are welcome!

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What New York Slang Did We Get From The Dutch?

Today is the anniversary of the colony of New Amsterdam officially becoming New York, when the Dutch ceded control to the British. But Dutch influence on New York, and on America, is longstanding–Dutch values of tolerance and freedom of religion are things Americans hold dear (in 1597 The Netherlands established “no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of his religion”). But Dutch culture made its way into our language as well.

Francis Harrison (fl. 1730–1732), Geoffrey Needler The English and Low-Dutch School-Master, 1730 New-York: Printed and sold by W. Bradford Y Bind Brad/.Har 1730

Francis Harrison (fl. 1730–1732), Geoffrey Needler
The English and Low-Dutch School-Master, 1730
New-York: Printed and sold by W. Bradford
Y Bind Brad/.Har 1730

This dictionary, currently on display in A Brief History of New York: Selections from A History of New York in 101 Objects, translates between English and Low Dutch. When the British took over, there were considerable language gaps, and guides like this flourished to help people communicate. However, many Dutch words snuck their way into everyday New York slang, and continued to spread across America. If it weren’t for the Dutch, we wouldn’t have words like “cookie,” “coleslaw,” “waffle,” “doughnut,” “stoop,” and “Yankee.”

Are these words you use in everyday life? What objects do you think define New York? Let us know!

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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.


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.”


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.


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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