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Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Curious Case of Benjamin Franklin's Birthday

Benjamin Franklin on the facade of the Brooklyn Historical Society

On January 17, 1706, Benjamin Franklin -- printer, author, inventor, statesman, Postmaster General, and ladies' man -- was born.

Or was it January 6, 1705?

While it is not unusual to have people shave off a few years to appear younger -- or add a year or two when they are young to give themselves more gravitas (see also: Alexander Hamilton) -- the discrepancy in Franklin's birth date isn't vanity.

Franklin was, in fact, born on January 6, 1705, according to what is now termed the "old style" calendar. When Franklin was born, Great Britain and its colonies still followed the Julian calendar. In 1752, when the British finally moved to the Gregorian system, everything was bumped forward by eleven days. Many people born prior to the shift kept their old birthdays, but Franklin happily shifted his forward as a sign that he was in favor of the move. (Most of the rest of Europe had been on the Gregorian calendar since the 16th century; Protestant England's distaste for all things "popish" was one reason they stayed behind.)

However, the switch in 1752 from January 6 to January 17 doesn't explain the discrepancy in Franklin's birth year.

That, too, is a result of the calendar change. Prior to the adoption of the Gregorian system, New Year's Day in Britain was March 25, which roughly coincides with the first day of Spring (and which is also the date of the Feast of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she was going to give birth to Jesus Christ).

With the switch to new calendar, the first day of the year was moved back to January 1. Thus anyone born in the period January 1-March 25 under the Julian system also had the year of their birth retroactively bumped forward a year, and Franklin's January 6, 1705, birth date was transformed to January 17, 1706.

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Postcard Thursday: Rear Views

James has a story in today's New York Post that examines many of the hidden homes in New York City that were once carriage houses, rear tenements, or -- as is the case in the photo above -- an artist's studio and theater.

"Washington Square, New York" (1910) courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The artist was Everett Shinn, a member of the Ashcan School, who lived and painted in New York starting in the late 1890s. Like many Greenwich Village bohemians of the era, Shinn wasn't content to merely paint and founded a small theatrical company to perform plays he'd written. These melodramas had
titles like “Lucy Moore, the Prune Hater’s Daughter.” Though not home to high art — the New York Times called one participant “the worst actor in the New World” — Shinn’s theater is credited with paving the way for the Off-Off-Broadway theaters of today.
You can read the entire story at

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Thursday, January 3, 2019

Postcard Thursday: Alaska Admitted to the Union

On January 3, 1959--sixty years ago today--Alaska was admitted to the union as the forty-ninth state.

There had been some jockeying in congress to decide whether Alaska or Hawaii would become a state first. Alaska--then predominantly home to Democrats--was championed by Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson as it would add two Democratic Senators to the chamber. To counter this, the GOP pushed hard for Hawaii to be admitted, which would add two Republican Senators and restore the status quo.

Today, those roles are largely reversed. Hawaii is a reliably blue state, and while Alaska's politics are harder to pigeon-hole, it is mostly represented nationally by the GOP.

Alaska became a territory in 1867 when Secretary of State William Seward purchased the land from the Russians for $7.2 million. Known as "Seward's Folly" or "Seward's Icebox," the acquisition of such a large swath of mostly uninhabited land was seen as a waste to many Americans. A couple of years ago, we traveled to Sitka, Alaska, the former Russian capital, for the 150th anniversary of the handover. You can read more about those commemorations in James's story for The New York Post.

Alaska is both the largest and least densely populated state, with a mere 1.1 people per square mile. By contrast, at its peak in the early 20th century, parts of New York City's Lower East Side were home to 1,000 people per acre--that's 640,000 people per square mile--which some historians estimate made it the most densely populated place on the planet earth ever.

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Thursday, December 27, 2018

Postcard Thursday: Manifest Destiny

On December 27, 1845, John L. O'Sullivan wrote an influential editorial for the New York Morning News that is credited as the first use of "manifest destiny" to describe and justify the continental expansion of the United States. O'Sullivan wrote:
And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.
  Article in which John L. O'Sullivan first used the term Manifest Destiny, reprinted in a newspaperArticle in which John L. O'Sullivan first used the term Manifest Destiny, reprinted in a newspaper Wed, Sep 10, 1845 – 1 · Mississippi Democrat (Carrollton, Mississippi, United States of America) ·

However, O'Sullivan certainly didn't coin the phrase, despite the fact that he is often credited with it.

For example, the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Advertiser used the phrase in connection to Louis Napoleon in 1840. It seems the future Emperor of France had been caught at a brothel (presumably in New York City), and the Daily Advertiser used "manifest destiny" to describe Louis's fate:

Even earlier, the term was being used to describe one group conquering another. In an address to the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association in 1824, Alphaeus Cary used the term "manifest destiny" to describe the spread of the Roman Empire:

There are even older examples stretching back at least to 1800, though all that we've found seem to refer not to a nation's destiny but -- as with Louis Napoleon -- and individual's. Are there examples in the 18th century? I'd bet a careful sleuth could find them.

Forget to get someone a present for the holidays?
Inside the Apple and Footprints in New York look great on anyone's shelves!


Thursday, December 20, 2018

Postcard Thursday: The Year at Curbed

The Elevated Railway near Morningside Park
'Tis the season for year-end wrap-ups and "Best of 2018" lists.

James is pleased to have been awarded two slots in Curbed New York's list of  the "Thirteen Best Longreads of 2018" for his history of Co-op City in the Bronx and his look back at the 150th anniversary of the first elevated railway to be erected in the city.

If you aren't already a reader of Curbed NY, it is a great resource for journalism on architecture, urbanism, transportation, and more. The other stories in the "best of" list include Karrie Jacobs's trek to La Guardia airport on foot, Nathan Kensinger's photo essays about Canal Street and Long Island City, and a first-hand look at "glamping" on Governors Island.

Check out the entire list at

James had a number of other pieces published by Curbed NY this year, including

Thank you for your support this year. We hope everyone has a wonderful holiday season!

Michelle and James Nevius

If you are looking for a great gifts this holiday season, Inside the Apple and Footprints in New York look great on anyone's shelves!


Thursday, December 13, 2018

Postcard Thursday: Mary Todd Lincoln

Two hundred years ago, on December 13, 1818, Mary Ann Todd was born in Lexington, Kentucky. She met Abraham Lincoln after she'd moved to Springfield, Illinois; they married in 1842.

We devote a chapter to the Lincolns in Footprints in New York, as New York and Brooklyn were important to both the president and the First Lady.

As we note:
During Lincoln’s first term, he was usually stuck in Washington, DC, but Mary Todd Lincoln came to New York frequently. Mrs. Lincoln’s first trip after her husband’s inauguration was in May 1861, just one month after the attack on Fort Sumter, and seems typical of her city sojourns. Mrs. Lincoln checked into the posh, new Metropolitan Hotel at Broadway and Prince Street, in the heart of the shopping quarter. This section of Broadway south of Bleecker Street had almost everything an out-of-towner could hope for: hotels, theaters, shops, restaurants. It was the Times Square of its day, and like its modern counter- point, there were probably visitors who checked into the Metropolitan Hotel and never left the environs of Broadway and Prince Street. 
Mrs. Lincoln arrived on a Saturday; the next day, she attended services at the Plymouth Church. On Monday, she shopped at A. T. Stewart’s marble palace; on Tuesday, Lord & Taylor’s was on the agenda, as well as a trip to Laura Keene’s theater, which stood on Broadway near Bleecker, just a five-minute walk from the hotel. On Wednesday, Mrs. Lincoln made what was probably her most lasting purchase: new White House china from E. V. Haughwout’s emporium at Broadway and Broome.

The next day, Mrs. Lincoln toured the Brooklyn Navy Yard; the following morning, Mrs. Lincoln inspected the “Park Barracks”—perhaps those in City Hall Park outside the Astor Hotel. Amazingly, the barracks were just about the only sign that America was at war. 
Mrs. Lincoln would return to New York many times, ostensibly as shopping excursions, but also, certainly, to get away from the mounting war pressures in Washington. In the summer of 1863, Mrs. Lincoln spent four days in New York, seeing friends, and being entertained on the French frigate Guerriere. It had been less than a month since the draft riots, but Haughwout’s and Stewart’s were open for business, and the theaters on Broadway were full. It was almost as if nothing had happened.
Not only did Mary Lincoln survive the assassination of her husband, she lost two of her four sons in childhood and a third, Thomas ("Tad"), six years after Abraham Lincoln's murder. Only her eldest son, Robert, survived her--he would go on to serve as Secretary of War under presidents Garfield and Arthur.

Mrs. Lincoln died in 1882 at her sister's home in Springfield, Illinois.

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Happy Holidays! If you are looking for a great gifts this holiday season, Inside the Apple and Footprints in New York look great on anyone's shelves!


Thursday, December 6, 2018

Postcard Thursday: Co-op City at 50

Co-op City in the Bronx under construction in the early 1970s
Fifty years ago, on December 10, 1968, the first families moved into Co-op City in the Bronx. Within five years, it would become the largest cooperative apartment complex ever built.

James took a deep dive into the history of the project for Curbed, examining the legacy of New York's efforts to build limited-equity housing to help alleviate the city's middle-class housing woes.

Meanwhile, if you're dying to own a construction photo of Co-op City, the image above is available from Walmart, of all places, for a mere $62.73 -- a bargain!

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Happy Holidays! If you are looking for a great gifts this holiday season, Inside the Apple and Footprints in New York look great on anyone's shelves!


Thursday, November 29, 2018

Postcard Thursday: Edison's Phonograph and "I Want to Hold Your Hand"


On November 29, 1877 -- one hundred and forty-one years ago today -- Thomas Edison first demonstrated the device that he would patent seven months later as the phonograph.

Edison's first crude phonograph used tin foil and doubled as both the recording and playback instrument.

At the demonstration, Edison spoke Sarah Josepha Hale's poem "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into a crude microphone. Flipping the phonograph into playback mode, Edison immediately played back the words he'd just recorded to the assembled audience.

And just like that, the future of entertainment was irrevocably changed.

Realizing that tin wasn't the right medium, Edison soon switched to wax cylinders (as shown in the photo of the inventor, above). Wax cylinders were then replaced by round discs and the modern record player was born.

It's a fun coincidence that November 29 is also the anniversary of the Beatles single "I Want to Hold Your Hand," the song that came out in 1963 and catapulted the group into super-stardom. The single was released in the US in December, launching Beatlemania -- and again changing popular entertainment forever.

03 iwantoholdyourhand.jpg

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Happy Holidays! If you are looking for a great gifts this holiday season, Inside the Apple and Footprints in New York look great on anyone's shelves!


Thursday, November 22, 2018

Postcard Thursday: Some Thanksgiving Thoughts

The modern holiday of Thanksgiving has become totally enmeshed with the story of the Pilgrims and The Mayflower, though the feast held by those denizens of Plymouth, Massachusetts, was certainly not the first such commemoration in the New World. (Indeed, not only were there early thanksgivings, such as the one at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia in 1619, but often these events were more somber and religious in nature than our current feasts.)

Plymouth Rock
However, the story of the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving is extremely relevant to the history of New York City, because Manhattan was their intended destination.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
The Pilgrims’ voyage to the New World, which started out from the Dutch city of Leiden where they’d lived in exile, worried the fur traders. In the common Thanksgiving story, it’s usually left out that the Pilgrims weren’t en route to Massachusetts at all (which lay outside English territory) but instead had been granted the island at the northern limit of the Virginia colony: Manhattan. (Virginia’s claim to Manhattan was long-standing. When John Smith wrote to Henry Hudson about a Northwest Passage, it was because the river he was describing was part of Virginia.) 
After a rocky start, where the Pilgrims were forced to abandon one of their two ships—perhaps because of sabotage by Dutch merchants—they continued on to the New World on the Mayflower, disembarking in Plymouth after a half-hearted attempt to sail further south. When it became clear that the English settlers were not going to move to Manhattan, Dutch traders hurriedly began staking a firmer claim to their territory.

By 1820 — the 200th anniversary of their arrival —  the Pilgrims had long been an important part of the cultural DNA of New England, a section of the country that saw itself as separate from (and inherently better than) both the south and the Mid Atlantic states. As an anonymous contributor to the second volume of the New England Quarterly wrote in 1802: “If the inhabitants of New-England are superior to the people of other countries, their superiority is to be attributed to their moral habits.”

In the 1740s, a 94-year-old man named Thomas Faunce had first identified Plymouth Rock as the spot where the Pilgrims had come ashore; on the eve of the Revolution, the boulder was dragged by a team of twenty oxen to Plymouth’s town square to be placed at the foot of a liberty pole. During the move the rock broke in two — a sign of America’s impending war with Britain, some thought — which only served to endow it with greater meaning.

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Modern Thanksgiving didn't really get started until after the Civil War. James wrote a history of that holiday for the Guardian in 2016:
Image result for sarah josepha hale
Sarah Hale
We owe our modern holiday to a writer named Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, novelist and poet (she penned “Mary Had a Little Lamb”).... In her first novel, 1827’s Northwood, Hale devoted multiple chapters to Thanksgiving; at one point, the character Squire opines that Thanksgiving will eventually be celebrated “on the same day, throughout all the states and territories” and “will be a grand spectacle of moral power and human happiness, such as the world has never yet witnessed."
[Hale] took over Godey’s Lady’s Book, which she grew into America’s most popular periodical. Though she insisted that Godey’s remain apolitical, each year Hale would advocate in the magazine’s pages for a New England-style Thanksgiving holiday to be “celebrated throughout the whole country on the same day”. She also wrote to every state governor each year asking that a Thursday in November (sometimes the third, often the last) be dedicated to Thanksgiving. 
Many southern politicians were less than enthused. Governor Henry Wise of Virginia wrote back in 1856 that the “theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving” was merely a mask to aid “other causes”. By other causes, Wise meant abolition. He knew Thanksgiving was a Trojan horse; cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie would get the northerners through the front door, and they’d soon be spreading their “claptrap” throughout the slaveholding south. 
That same year, the Evening Star in Washington DC, along with other southern newspapers, complained that Thanksgiving was an attempt to replace the “legitimate Christian holiday” of Christmas with a secular day where “an astonishing quantity of execrable liquor will be guzzled”. 
Still, by 1863, Hale had convinced Abraham Lincoln to declare a Day of National Thanksgiving, though it would not become a true national holiday until Franklin D Roosevelt signed it into law in 1941.

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Abraham Lincoln actually declared Thanksgiving Day twice.

In the words of the original proclamation, issued in October 1863 and actually written by Secretary of State William Seward, the former senator from and governor of New York:
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
However, this was actually Lincoln's second Thanksgiving proclamation of the year. On July 16, he had issued the following proclamation (again, likely by Seward):
Now, therefore, be it known that I do set apart Thursday, the sixth day of August next, to be observed as a day for National Thanksgiving, praise and prayer, and I invite the people of the United States to assemble on that occasion in their customary places of worship, and in the form approved by their own conscience, render the homage due to the Divine Majesty for the wonderful things He has done in the Nation's behalf, and invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit, to subdue the anger which has produced, and so long sustained a needless and cruel rebellion; to change the hearts of the insurgents; to guide the counsels of the Government with wisdom adequate to so great a National emergency, and to visit with tender care, and consolation throughout the length and breadth of our land, all those who, through the vicissitudes of marches, voyages, battles and sieges, have been brought to suffer in mind, body or estate, and finally to lead the whole nation through paths of repentance and submission to the Divine will, back to the perfect enjoyment of union and fraternal peace.
(FYI: That's one sentence.)

The first Thanksgiving of 1863, August 6, was celebrated with proper solemnity. As the New York Times noted the next day, "The National Thanksgiving was observed throughout the City yesterday by an almost entire abstaining from secular pursuits. The stores throughout were closed, and there appeared to be a very general desire to unite in the purposes of the day -- Thanksgiving and Praise. Very many of the churches were open, where proper observances were had, and each was crowded to overflowing." What they were praising and/or hoping for was continued Union success; with the Union victory at Gettysburg in July, many hoped that tide of the war had finally turned in favor of the North.

Of course, on the minds of New Yorkers would have been the fighting closer to home -- the Civil War draft riots -- which had waged on the streets less than a month earlier. However, it is unclear if the riots played any role in the Thanksgiving commemorations.

Having celebrated Thanksgiving in August, why did Lincoln then proclaim another one in November? The declaration for this second Thanksgiving seems little different from the first; there had been no major Union victories in the meantime for which the nation could express thanks; and Lincoln's proclamation doesn't make any ties to harvest festivals, the Pilgrims, or any of the things we now firmly associate with the holiday.

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Happy Thanksgiving! If you are looking for a great gifts this holiday season, Inside the Apple and Footprints in New York look great on anyone's shelves!


Thursday, November 15, 2018

Postcard Thursday: Hans Haacke

Installation view; Whitney Museum of American Art. Photography by Ronald Amstutz

A few years ago, James wrote a story for Curbed about the artist Hans Haacke and one of his most famous artworks, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971.
This work was one of the controversial pieces that caused Haacke's 1971 solo show at the Guggenheim Museum to be cancelled. As James writes, Haacke
undertook to map out the holdings of prolific real estate investor Harry J. Shapolsky, who at the peak of his career had owned as many as 200 tenements in Harlem, the East Village, and the Lower East Side. Using public records, Haacke painstakingly unearthed the dozens of shell corporations that Shapolsky and his relatives had created to control properties around the city. Haacke then photographed each property and presented his findings—142 buildings in all—as gelatin silver prints, each accompanied by a dossier of facts: the building's address, block and lot number, lot size, and building type. Below that was information on ownership: corporate entity, date of acquisition, cost of the mortgage, the names of which of Shapolsky's associates were involved, and the assessed land value.
That same year, Haacke also researched and created a second piece: Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971. That piece is now owned by the Tate, but is currently on view at the Met Breuer as part of its exhibition "Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy," which is on view at the Met's Madison Avenue outpost through March 31, 2019. As New York spirals toward ever-increased gentrification, Haacke's sobering take on real-estate chicanery are well worth exploring.

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