Tag Archives: Cultural History

How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America


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Supreme CityThis spring Simon & Schuster will publish Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America by Donald L. Miller, the John Henry MacCracken Professor of History at Lafayette College and author of several books about World War II. Miller also wrote the bestseller City of Century about Chicago, and his book Masters of the Air is currently in production with Spielberg and Hanks at HBO.

As its subtitle proclaims, the book examines how midtown Manhattan rose to become the nation and world’s capital of commerce and culture via mass communication – radio, film, music, printing – as well as architecture, spectator sports, and organized crime during the roaring 1920s. Continue reading

TRAIN: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World


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train-zom-zoellnerTRAIN: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World-from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief (Viking, 2014) takes a global inventory of railroads while weaving a light history of this important mode of transportation and telling an entertaining story of an around-the-world rail journey by author Tom Zoellner.

From the birth of the locomotive in Cornwall, England, to traveling along the frozen trans-Siberian railroad with a past as dark as the arctic sky, and crisscrossing the antiquated yet magnificent Indian Railways, the world’s eighth largest employer, TRAIN examines the mechanics of these grandiose machines, and the impact on the societies through which they run. Continue reading

Peter Feinman: How Historians Can End The Civil War


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The Monument at Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park was dedicated October 23, 1912The Sesquicentennial for the Civil War honors a war which still rages on in America. An example of the ongoing nature of the war was seen in the dispute over a memorial to northern troops at Olustee, Florida, the site of the largest and bloodiest battlefield in the state.

The issue of a memorial to the northern troops who died there has been compared to the reopening of a 150-year-old wound. According to a report on the front page of the New York Times, John W. Adams, commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Florida division, said “Old grudges die hard. And feelings run deep.” Another person with ancestors who fought on both sides said, “There are some, apparently, who consider this to be a lengthy truce and believe the war is still going on.” Continue reading

Celebrate Black History Month in New York State


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museum_03_lgNew York State offers a special window into African American history and American culture. It was a center for 19th century anti-slavery organizations, and home to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and many other Abolitionist and Underground Railroad leaders.

Nevertheless, anti-black discrimination remained an issue well into the 20th century, and the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) actually has its roots in the Niagara Movement, whose first meeting in 1905 took place on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls because members were turned away from hotels on the U.S. side. Continue reading

The Angola Horror:
The Train Wreck That Shocked the Nation


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Angola HorrorOn December 18, 1867, the Buffalo and Erie Railroad’s eastbound New York Express derailed as it approached the high truss bridge over Big Sister Creek, just east of the small settlement of Angola, New York, on the shores of Lake Erie.

In a dramatic historical narrative, Charity Vogel tells the gripping, true-to-life story of the wreck and the characters involved in the tragic accident in The Angola Horror: The 1867 Train Wreck That Shocked the Nation and Transformed American Railroads (Cornell University Press, 2013). Continue reading

Should We Still Teach Cursive Handwriting?


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01679vAn ad like the one in the January 21, 1869 issue of the Malone Palladium which announced the opening of a new writing school in Malone, NY, was not uncommon during the post-Civil War era.

According to the ad, Professor T.M. Tobin, a former teacher at the Vermont Business College in Burlington, was offering to teach “ladies and gentlemen the Spencerian system of penmanship.”

Students were expected to provide their own foolscap paper, “good” ink, and pens. Tobin’s ad stated that specimens of his penmanship could be seen at the post office and that he would award a gold pen to the student who showed the most improvement. His fee for twelve lessons in today’s money was about $35.00, payable in advance. Continue reading

Smugglers, Bootleggers and Scofflaws:
Prohibition and New York City


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Smugglers BootleggersUsing previously unstudied Coast Guard records from 1920 to 1933 for New York City and environs, Ellen NicKenzie Lawson’s Smugglers, Bootleggers, and Scofflaws: Prohibition and New York City (SUNY Press, 2013) examines the development of Rum Row and smuggling via the coasts of Long Island, the Long Island Sound, the Jersey shore, and along the Hudson and East Rivers.

With the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, “drying up” New York City promised to be the greatest triumph of the proponents of Prohibition. Instead, the city remained the nation’s greatest liquor market. Continue reading

New York History and the Birth of the Nation


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A portion of the 1768 Fort Stanwix Treaty line showing the boundary in New YorkScholars divide time into periods in an effort to make history comprehensible, but when to draw the diving line can be problematical and historians often disagree where one period ends and another begins.

For the birth of the nation, I am using the end of the colonial period, roughly from the French and Indian War to the end of the War of 1812. The colonial era for me was the time of the settlement of the 13 colonies which would become the United States. That process began in Jamestown and ended approximately 130 years later in Georgia. Up until then individual colonies, notably New York, Massachusetts / New England, and Virginia, dominate the curriculum, scholarship, and tourism, with only passing references to the Quakers in Pennsylvania and the Dutch in New York. Continue reading

Harlem Soundscape: The Bells of St. Martins


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bigbellBells ringing from a forest of steeples, horseshoes striking cobblestones, boat whistles in the harbor, Yiddische mamas scolding children from tenement windows. These are instantly recognizable noises that evoke a historical time and place, adding up to what today’s historians sometimes call a “soundscape.”

In today’s cities when the most characteristic sound may be the giant crash of falling brick walls as old buildings are demolished, soundscapes are a precious way of experiencing history outdoors. This heritage is particularly relevant in urban settings where so many layers of the city have gone missing. Continue reading

Oral Tradition in Historical Scholarship:
The Dutch, The Iroquois, and The Two Row Wampum


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13220774-largeThe challenge of contact in the 17th century between the Dutch and the Iroquois was brought to life in the 21st century with a symbolic summer journey from western New York to the United Nations to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Two Row Wampum and its message.

That event was the subject of several posts on The New York History Blog. I wrote about the scholarly challenges posed by the Two Row Wampum; Naj Wikoff, an artist active in the Lake Placid region, also wrote about the the Two Row Wampum, acknowledging that there is not a written record of the treaty, nor does the physical object exist, but the oral tradition of the event is valid and its message remains relevant. Continue reading

Holiday Celebrations at Crailo, Schuyler Mansion


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image003(4)On Saturday January 4, 2014 Crailo State Historic Site will welcome visitors for its annual Twelfth Night Celebration from 4:00 pm until 7:00 pm.  Twelfth Night was one of the traditional holidays celebrated by the Dutch and English colonists of early New York.  Twelfth Night was the final holiday of the season and was marked with unsurpassed feasting and revelry.

Featured during the event will be decorations, hearthside cooking demonstrations, seasonal music, seventeenth century reenactors, the Jolly Toy lady, and refreshments.  In addition the Marketplace Museum Shop will be open, with a selection of unique items. Continue reading

Unusual Christmas Safety Warnings from the Past


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1913 Christmas headline BRTwenty years ago, Dana Carvey’s character, “Grumpy Old Man,” was a popular recurring feature of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. He’d offer an assessment of current times compared to the so-called “good old days,” highlighting some barbaric practices of the past (exaggerated to great comedic effect) with the closing line, “And we liked it!”

I was reminded of that concept while perusing some shocking guidelines suggested in the early 1900s regarding the enjoyment of a safe Christmas season. Regional newspapers carried a list of suggestions for an enhanced experience … and I liked it! Continue reading

Capitalizing On Our Dutch Heritage


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you_are_here-optIn cultural studies the cosmic center refers to the meeting point between the heavens and the earth at the center of the universe. It often is associated with a high place perhaps in nature like a mountain or human-built like a ziggurat.

For the United States of America, New York City is the cosmic center, the crossroads of the universe, ground zero.  But as New York prepares to ignore the 350th anniversary of when it became New York, it’s also appropriate to remember that when New York began as New Amsterdam, no one thought of it as a city on a hill. There is a story to tell of how it turned out that way. Continue reading

Westchester County: Religion, Gravestones and Archaeology


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1(2)Gravestones represent some of the most valuable evidence available to archaeologists currently working on the St. George’s/St. Mark’s Church site in Mount Kisco, New York. Once occupied by two Episcopal churches – St. George’s (1761–1819) and St. Mark’s (1850–1916) – the site is also the final resting place of over 400 people, all buried between the 1760s and 1940. The area where the churches once stood was excavated this fall. The artifacts and information they uncovered is now undergoing analysis, and the excavation is planned to resume in the spring.

As co-directors of the excavation, Laurie Kimsal and I have discovered just how essential gravestones are to our understanding of the site. To begin with, gravestones offer clues to the location and orientation of the 18th-century St. George’s Church. Secondly, the gravestones provide insights into the values and beliefs of the people who erected them, as well as the social, religious, and economic worlds of the 18th and 19th centuries. Continue reading

New Book: Greater New York American Indian Place Names


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Manhattan to MinisinkDrivers exiting the New Jersey Turnpike for Perth Amboy, and map readers marveling at all the places in Pennsylvania named Lackawanna, need no longer wonder how these names originated.

Manhattan to Minisink: American Place Names in Greater New York and Vicinity (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013) provides the histories of more than five hundred place names in the Greater New York area, including the five boroughs, western Long Island, the New York counties north of the city, and parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. Robert S. Grumet, a leading ethnohistorian specializing in the region’s Indian peoples, draws on his meticulous research and deep knowledge to determine the origins of Native, and Native-sounding, place names. Continue reading

New Adirondack History: When Men and Mountains Meet


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when men and mtns meet 001Glenn Pearsall’s first book, Echoes in These Mountains: Historic Sites and Stories Disappearing in Johnsburg, an Adirondack Community (Pyramid Publishing, 2008), was well received for including the first documentary evidence that famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady was indeed born in Johnsburg. Now Pearsall has brought forth When Men and Mountains Meet (Pyramid Publishing, 2008), subtitled “Stories of Hope and Despair in the Adirondack Wilderness after the American Revolution.”

“The story of the Adirondacks is more than the history of great camps, guide boats and environmental protectionism. It is, ultimately, the story of a people and their relationship to the land,” Pearsall begins the book. He calls this a book of cultural history, and it is, but it also draws much from environmental history, although more in the vein of “on the ground historians” like William Cronon and Alfred Crosby than the political approaches of Roderick Nash or Frank Graham. Continue reading

Thanksgiving History: The Two Thanksgivings of 1871


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1871 turkey plucking harpersFor about a week in 1871, New Yorkers were in a quandary about Thanksgiving. On October 25, New York Governor John T. Hoffman designated Thursday, November 23 as Thanksgiving Day for the state. In his Thanksgiving Day proclamation, the Tammany Hall Democrat urged New Yorkers to spend time on that day to declare “their gratitude to God for all his mercies” and to “remember especially the poor.”

On October 28, President Ulysses S. Grant recommended that the nation observe Thanksgiving a week after the New York Thanksgiving, on Thursday November 30. In his proclamation, the Republican chief executive called for Americans to “make the usual acknowledgments to Almighty God for the blessings he has conferred on them” and ask “His protection and kindness for their less fortunate brethren.”

What was a conscientious, holiday-minded New Yorker supposed to do? Observe the Democratic Thanksgiving on November 23, or the Republican Thanksgiving on November 30, or both? Continue reading

A History of Family Poverty and Homelessness in NYC


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ThePoorAmongUs_frontcoverWith nearly 49,000 people living in city shelters, including almost 21,000 children—a modern-day record that may well be broken—there has never been more of a need to step back and understand how New Yorkers have confronted poverty and homelessness over time.

The Poor Among Us: A History of Family Poverty and Homelessness in New York City (2013, White Tiger Press), puts current policies in perspective through the lens of nearly 300 years of public and philanthropic efforts to alleviate poverty in New York City. Continue reading

No Country for Peter Stuyvesant: Loss Across Time


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15114The nation or country, what entity is of more importance to modern society? What about capitalistic economy, secularization, democracy, and progress as normative American values. All hold sway, for better or worse, on our perceptions of the world and our place within it. And it is from this vantage point in modernity that we look towards the actions of those who lived before us, reaching back through time to filter the past through the eyes of the present. This is history, and this is why the practice of history is an art and not a science. It is imperfect, an extension of the historian and the times in which they live.

But how then, asks Donna Merwick in Stuyvesant Bound: An Essay on Loss Across Time (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), can we better understand Peter Stuyvesant from our vantage point in the modern world, back to one that was premodern and existed between the post-Reformation and pre-Enlightenment periods. A world in which the United States of America cannot be predicted or imagined, though the history written about Colonial America often chooses a narrative that fits into a story of nationalistic genesis. Continue reading

‘Do it for the Children’: History’s Long Running Argument


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Headline Passing the Buck 3 x 1-JILLA popular way for politicians to demonstrate their altruistic intentions is to invoke “our children and our grandchildren.” The phrase should be worn out by now, but politicians see it differently: if it worked before, it’ll work again, no matter how long it’s been around. Their concern for the future is much more poignant and meaningful when it’s “for the kids.” The term is used so often, it should be considered child-phrase abuse.

It always sounds well intentioned to be against spending with impunity, but history suggests it’s merely the position of the party not currently in control of the nation’s purse strings. The party in power rarely expresses any worry about “our children and grandchildren.” Continue reading