Tag Archives: Pop Culture History

Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes in Early America


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ben_franklins_worldDid you know that George Washington’s favorite drink was whiskey?

Actually, it wasn’t.

Washington preferred Madeira, a fortified Portuguese wine from the island of Madeira.

Why the false start to our weekly exploration of history?

In this episode of the Ben Franklin’s World podcast, Gregory Dowd, a Professor of History and American Culture at the University of Michigan, leads us on an exploration of rumors, legends, and hoaxes that circulated throughout early America. You can listen to the podcast here: www.benfranklinsworld.com/091

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Baby McKee: Early American Child Celebrity


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The McKee children, printed in Harpers Round Table in 1895Caroline Scott Harrison, the wife of U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, died in the fall of 1892, after a trip to the Adirondacks failed to cure her tuberculosis. Her death left the White House without a first lady. Harrison’s daughter, Mary Scott McKee, filled that role for the last few months of Harrison’s term (he lost his bid for re-election that November). In those days, presidential terms ended in March, so Mrs. McKee carried on as first lady for about five months.

She and her husband, James Robert McKee, and their two children Benjamin Harrison McKee and Mary Lodge McKee had been living at the White House during her father’s term. The presidential grandchildren – especially Benjamin, who got labeled as “Baby McKee” – were media sensations. (Though it was often stated that he had been born in the White House, both he and his sister were actually born in Indiana.) Continue reading

Medical History: Saranac Lake’s Mirror Girl


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NYH02AColonel Walter ScottHis work with children’s hospitals convinced Colonel Walter Scott that there might be help for Jessica Ferguson despite her negative prognosis and seemingly hopeless situation.

New and exciting progress had been made, especially by Dr. Russell Hibbs of New York City, whose surgical innovations helped change the face of medicine. Hibbs was the first to perform a spinal fusion, and made great advances in treating tuberculosis of the spine and hip. Continue reading

Spectacle: The Life of Ota Benga


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Ota BengaIn Pamela Newkirk’s Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga (Amistad / Harper Collins, 2015) the award-winning journalist reveals a little-known and shameful episode in American history, when an African man was used as a zoo exhibit — a shocking story of racial prejudice, science, and tragedy in the early years of the twentieth century.

Ota Benga, a young Congolese man, was featured as an exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Two years later, in 1906, the Bronx Zoo displayed him in its Monkey House, caging the slight 103-pound, four-foot eleven-inch man with an orangutan. The attraction became an international sensation, drawing thousands of New Yorkers and commanding headlines from across the nation and Europe. Continue reading

The Mirror Girl of Saranac Lake


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NYH01AColonel Walter ScottMirror Girl. What an intriguing term. In the past it has been applied to the prettiest coeds in sororities, cute girls in general, and particularly vain women. But in this case, it addresses one of my favorite historical stories linked to the Northern New York’s years as a tuberculosis treatment center. The patient was a young woman, Jessica “Jessie” Ferguson, born in 1895 in Mount Pleasant, New York, north of Tarrytown on the Hudson River. Her parents, James and Anna, were both natives of Scotland, a fact that becomes key to the story.

The young girl’s difficulties began in her early twenties when her father died, and Jessica was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone, affecting her spine. In 1918, she lost the ability to walk. Doctors placed her in a cast that forced Jessica into a permanent reclining position. Continue reading

Watertown’s Wizard of Show-Business (Conclusion)


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NYH3A CGiblynSelzPosterIn 1920, Charles Giblyn produced his first film for William Fox. (If the name sounds familiar, William founded Fox Film Corporation in 1915, the forerunner of today’s Fox TV and movie units.) The film, Tiger’s Cub, allowed Giblyn a homecoming of sorts. With his lead actress, Pearl White, who reportedly had the widest following of any star worldwide at the time, he came north for filming in Port Henry, about an hour south of Plattsburgh, where he once lived.

After producing a few more movies, Charles was sent to the West Coast on behalf of Fox, where he continued working. For a brief period, he assumed leadership of the Motion Picture Directors Association, but when Fox reassigned him to more movie projects back East, he surrendered the top spot with the MPDA and headed for New York. Continue reading

NYC Hip-Hop History Photograph Exhibit Planned


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Hip-Hop - 1The Museum of the City of New York is presenting HIP-HOP REVOLUTION: Photographs by Janette Beckman, Joe Conzo, and Martha Cooper, an exhibition that shows the historic early days of hip-hop culture and music, with its roots firmly in New York, and how it evolved towards the worldwide phenomenon it is today.

Bringing together for the first time the work of three renowned photographers of the hip-hop scene, the exhibition shows the birth of a new cultural movement – with its accompanying music, dance, fashion and style – as it quickly and dramatically swept from its grassroots origins into an expansive commercial industry. Continue reading

Everything is Design: Paul Rand Exhibit in NYC


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Paul-RandThe Museum of the City of New York has announced a new exhibit opening in February, Everything is Design: The Work of Paul Rand, showcasing the nearly six-decade career of visionary American graphic design master Paul Rand (1914-1996).

Born in Brooklyn with a father who owned a small grocery store, Rand rose to the heights of 20th century design, seen as one of the most influential designers in the history of print and often called the ‘Picasso of graphic design.’  Continue reading

19th Century NYC Travelers Talk, Exhibit


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Hooker's Map (showing places of interest)The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden will host a lunchtime lecture about James Stuart and other travelers to New York City, this Friday, January 9th at 12:30 pm.

James Stuart was a guest at the Mount Vernon Hotel during his stay in New York City in 1833. His travel diary attracted considerable attention for the generally positive reviews he offered on American society compared with his British contemporaries. Continue reading