Behind The Scenes

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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130 Years Ago, Elephants Solved Panic On the Brooklyn Bridge

On May 24, 1883 the Brooklyn Bridge opened to traffic, and though now we know it as a beautiful landmark, New Yorkers of the time were a bit more wary. At the time it was the only bridge spanning the East River, connecting the separate cities of Brooklyn and New York, and many doubted that a bridge that large could hold.

This fear is what may have prompted a stampede a week after the Brooklyn Bridge opened, on May 30. The New York Times wrote that a woman tripped and fell on the steps up to the bridge, prompting another woman to scream and crowds to push forward. Then, panic: “Those following were in turn pushed over and in a moment the narrow stairway was choked with human beings, piled one on top of the other, who were being crushed to death. In a few minutes, 12 persons were killed, 7 injured so seriously that their lives are despaired of, and 28 others more or less severely wounded.”

Earlier that year, showman and circus founder P.T. Barnum had suggested marching his elephants, led by his most famous one, Jumbo, across the bridge in celebration of its opening. He was turned down, but with public trust of the structure still wavering, a display of the Brooklyn Bridge’s strength seemed to be a good idea. On May 17, 1884, Barnum marched 21 elephants across the bridge, along with 17 camels.

The animals made it across just fine, proving that the bridge was steady. At the time it opened, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, and it lives on today as one of New York’s finest landmarks.



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Beach Scenes From New York’s Past

Memorial Day Weekend is upon us, which means it’s officially beach season! The New York City parks department maintains 14 miles of beaches, which New Yorkers have been using to cool themselves from the city heat (or enjoy some amusement park rides) for many years. Many of these beach scenes are from almost 100 years ago, but we bet opening weekend won’t look much different!

Below is a scene outside of Curley’s Hotel, an extremely popular Rockaway destination until it burned down in 1968.

How have we never thought of bringing rocking chairs to the beach before?


Group of women in dresses seated on Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, undated (ca. 1920). William D. Hassler photograph collection, New-York Historical Society

Which roller coaster is being built in the background here? We think it may be the Tornado, which was 2,790 feet long.

This bathing suit is too cute. Hopefully some fashions like this will come back in style!

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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!


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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