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Thursday, November 28, 2013

150th Anniversary of Thanksgiving

This year marks the 150th anniversary of modern Thanksgiving -- that is, a national holiday, celebrated yearly in November. The date moved around awhile before settling on the fourth Thursday in November during the Depression. (Congress legalized the date of Thanksgiving to eliminate it happening on the fifth Thursday of the month and thus shortening the Christmas shopping period.)

But did you know that in 1863, 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):
It has pleased Almighty God to hearken to the supplications and prayers of an afflicted people, and to vouchase to the army and the navy of the United States, on the land and on the sea, so signal and so effective as to furnish reasonable grounds for augmented confidence that the Union of these States will be maintained, their Constitution preserved, and their peace and prosperity permanently preserved; but these victories have been accorded not without sacrifice of life, limb and liberty, incurred by brave, patriotic and loyal citizens. Domestic affliction in every part of the country follows in the train of these fearful bereavements. It is meet and right to recognize and confess the presence of the Almighty Father, and the power of His hand equally in these triumphs and these sorrows.
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 second paragraph is 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. Had Lincoln not issued a second Thanksgiving proclamation in 1863, do you think we'd be celebrating the national holiday in August? Any thoughts are welcome in the comments.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Michelle and James Nevius

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You can read more about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War in 

or in our forthcoming book
Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers
(which has an entire chapter about Lincoln in New York)

Monday, November 25, 2013

Happy Evacuation Day!

Today is a holiday that's seldom celebrated in New York anymore: Evacuation Day, the commemoration of the end of the American Revolution. On November 25, 1783, George Washington led the victorious Americans into the city and the final British troops evacuated, giving the holiday its name.

Even if you’re a bit fuzzy on your dates, you probably remember that the war ended with the Battle of Yorktown, which took place in Virginia in October 1781. However, despite the British surrender and the subsequent ratification of the Peace of Paris, British troops refused to leave their headquarters in New York City. (The British commander, Guy Carelton, was reluctant to leave due to the large number of Loyalist refugees that had come to the city following the British surrender. Many of those refugees eventually ended up settling in New Brunswick, Canada.)
To end the occupation once and for all, George Washington returned to New York on November 25, 1783, for the first time since he had lost Manhattan to the British in 1776. That morning the British troops pulled out of the city, sailing from the Battery through the Narrows. (Supposedly the last shot of the Revolutionary War was fired in anger at the shore of Staten Island.) Once the British had gone, Washington and his commanders marched into the city.

However, the British had left at least one insult behind. Someone had run a Union Jack up a flagpole, cut the halyard, and greased the pole so that when Washington arrived he’d still see the British colors flying over the city. It was up to a young sailor named John van Arsdale to rectify the situation. Using nails, he created cleats on the side of the flagpole and managed to carry a Stars-and-Stripes up to the top of the pole and replace the Union Jack before Washington’s arrival. (The somewhat fanciful depiction above is a later commemoration of the scene. Notice the fort directly behind the flagpole; that appears to be Castle Clinton in Battery Park, which wasn’t built until 1807 for service in the War of 1812.)

In the early part of the 19th century, Evacuation Day was celebrated with some fervor in New York City, but as the war passed into memory and many of its veterans died, the holiday lost its following. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be a day of Thanksgiving and the modern tradition of Thanksgiving was born. With this holiday following on or near Evacuation Day, New York’s local holiday fell by the wayside. (Compare this to Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts, which commemorates the start of the Revolution and is still going strong.)

There are couple of places you can go to celebrate Evacuation Day. The first is Fraunces Tavern on Pearl Street. This is the reconstructed version of the tavern where Washington had his final headquarters after his triumphant Evacuation Day return to the city. The tavern still operates a bar and restaurant as well as a fascinating small museum.

Nearby on Wall Street, a statue of Washington graces the front of Federal Hall National Memorial. Though the statue is there to commemorate a later event (Washington’s inaugural in 1789), it was erected on Evacuation Day.

In Union Square, take a look at the magnificent equestrian statue of Washington that stands at the 14th Street end of the square. This statue, by Henry Kirke Brown, depicts Washington riding into the city on Evacuation Day.

[This blog post originally appeared, in slightly different form, in 2008.]

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You can read more about Evacuation Day in 

or in our forthcoming book

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Era of New York City Boarding Houses

The "House of Genius" / courtesy of the
Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
Inspired by "Renters Week" over at our favorite real-estate blog, Curbed (where, among other things, you can read jealously about $50 rents in the 1940s), we began thinking about a form of residential living that was once ubiquitous but has really fallen by the wayside: the boarding house.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, tenants in New York City were divided into three basic categories: renters, lodgers, and boarders. Though these terms were used differently by various people, in general, renters paid for their own apartment, which was not shared. Lodgers paid for a room (or bed) in someone else's apartment, but received no meals. Boarders had both a room and meals, usually breakfast and dinner.

As we've been researching and writing our new book, Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers, boarding houses keep popping up. Footprints has a chapter on Edgar Allan Poe, who lived exclusively in boarding houses during his time in New York until he moved into his final home, Poe Cottage in the Bronx. Many other New York authors lived in boarding houses, as well: Herman Melville was born in one on Pearl Street in 1819; Walt Whitman lived in them most of his life; and on Washington Square, the so-called "House of Genius" (later torn down by NYU) was the residence of such luminaries as Willa Cather, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and O. Henry.

But it wasn't just writers--by some estimates, as much as thirty percent of New York's population by the middle of the 19th century lived in a boarding house. That included, before he was married, John Jacob Astor, who'd go on to be America's richest man. Astor actually married his landlady's daughter. In 1857, the first (and only?) contemporary study of boarding-house life came out, The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses by Thomas Butler Gunn. This slightly ironic guide features 30 different types of boarding house, including "The Cheap Boarding-House," "The Fashionable Boarding-House Where You Don't Get Enough to Eat," "The Theatrical Boarding-House," and "The Boarding-House Where There Are Marriageable Daughters." In his introduction, Gunn noted the necessity for such a work--everyone eventually ends up in a boarding house. "Like death," he wrote, "no class is exempt from it."

In some respects, what has replaced the boarding house in New York is the apartment share; people who were boarders in the nineteenth century would be roommates today. There was a sense of camaraderie around the communal table in New York's boarding houses that influenced life in the city; even with all the over-sharing on social media today, the city today lacks the intimacy of boarding-house life.

However, not everyone in a boarding house was happy to be there. A few weeks ago, we posted an excerpt from Edith Wharton's short story, "Mrs. Manstey's View," which talks about one woman's life in a boarding house. It was a theme Wharton (who is also featured in Footprints in New York) would return to, perhaps most famously in House of Mirth. In that novel, Wharton chronicles Lily Bart's descent from high society to abject poverty; at the end of the novel, Lily is living in the worst room in a boarding house--it's not even a real room. It's the end of a hallway that's been partitioned off so that the landlord can make a little extra money.

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Footprints in New York will be out on April 15, 2014, but is already available. (Visit for more information.) We also have a Twitter account ( where we tweet links to stories about the city and you can follow the book on Facebook at for more information about book talks, tours, etc. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Nellie Bly's Race Around the World

courtesy of the New-York Historical Society (2000.447)

In the Amazing Race of its day, on November 14, 1889, stunt journalist Nellie Bly set out on a trip around the world in an attempt to break Phileas Fogg's fictional eighty-day record.

Bly first had the idea in 1888, but when she went to her editors at Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, they told her they wouldn't sponsor her trip. As Bly later recalled in her book about the journey, her editor told her:
In the first place you are a woman and would need a protector, and even if it were possible for you to travel alone you would need to carry so much baggage that it would detain you in making rapid changes. Besides you speak nothing but English, so there is no use talking about it; no one but a man can do this.

Well, a year later the paper had obviously had a change of heart. The editors summoned Bly to their offices and told her that not only were they sending her to break Fogg's record, but that she'd be leaving in just two days on the steamship Augusta Victoria.

As soon as word spread the Bly was leaving on her round-the-world journey, Cosmopolitan magazine decided to sponsor a trip of their own, recruiting journalist Elizabeth Bisland to race against Bly (and Fogg's record) by setting out the same day in the opposite direction.

Bly's trip took her to her first to England, then to France, where she met Around the World in Eighty Days author Jules Verne. Bisland, meanwhile, started her trip by train heading west across America. The two women never saw each other and, in fact, Bly didn't even know there was anyone racing against her until she received word while in Hong Kong. Determined to beat Bisland, the World hired a private train for Bly and when she reached California, it whisked her across the continent to New York.

In the end, Bly beat both Bisland and Fogg by completing her journey in 72 days (though that record would soon be beaten, as well).

The World, hoping to cash in on Nellie-mania, not only published Bly's dispatches -- which she sent via telegram from across the globe -- but also a "Round the World With Nellie Bly" game, where players vied to recreate Bly's race. The game soon became a hit and was published in full-color by McLoughlin Bros; a copy now resides in the New-York Historical Society, where reproductions of the game can be purchased, as well (at least, last time we were there).

Both Nellie Bly's account and Elizabeth Bisland's memoir are online at the University of Pennsylvania and both are worth checking out.

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Read more about New York City history in

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Brief Life of New Orange

New York City has gone by a lot of names: New Amsterdam, Manhattan, the Big Apple, Fun City (that was John Lindsay's idea to draw tourists). But did you know that for one year it was officially called New Orange? This weekend marks the 339th anniversary of the end of our second time being a Dutch city.

From the establishment of the first settlement in 1624 until the English takeover forty years later, the city on the island of Manhattan was New Amsterdam, the capital of the Dutch colony of New Netherland. In 1664, a convoy of English ships came to take control of that colony by force. As we write in Inside the Apple, after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660,

[Charles II's] ministers—notably his brother, James, Duke of York—had great territorial plans for the New World, which included complete English control of the area from Boston to the Carolinas. Hostilities had flared in 1652 during the First Anglo-Dutch War, but New Amsterdam didn’t really begin to feel the pressure until 1664, when Captain John Scott from Southampton, Long Island, asked English citizens in New Netherland to proclaim him the “President of Long Island,” serving as a proxy for the Duke of York. For many, this was the first they knew that the Duke had any designs on the area. 
To conquer New Amsterdam, the Duke dispatched Richard Nicolls.... Nicolls was given four ships, approximately six hundred soldiers, and instructions to keep New Amsterdam as intact as possible. He was, in effect, to treat the mission more like a hostile takeover by a rival corporation and less like a military attack.
Nicolls was able to seize New Amsterdam without firing a single shot; the town was renamed after its patron, the Duke of York, and gradually the city began to switch over to English rule.

However, in the spring of 1672, hostilities broke out between the Netherlands and England, leading to a Third Anglo-Dutch War. In September 1673, the Dutch navy seized Manhattan from the English -- this was one of the only parts of this Anglo-Dutch War to spill over to the American colonies -- and soon Anthony Colve was declared its new governor. Colve renamed the colony New Orange after William of Orange, the stadtholder of the Netherlands.

Luckily for Colve, so little had changed in Manhattan since the English takeover in 1664, that he didn't have to dismantle the apparatus of English governance. Many Dutch colonists still resided in New Orange -- some welcomed Colve with open arms; many probably shrugged and waited for the other shoe to drop.

It dropped on November 10, 1674. Hostilities between the Netherlands and England had ceased in the spring and a Treaty of Westminster, ratified in March, gave Manhattan back to the English. However, because it took so long for word to travel across the Atlantic in the seventeenth century, Colve did not end up surrendering New Orange until nearly eight months later. The city once again became New York and the Dutch never made territorial claims in North America again.

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Read more about New Amsterdam and early New York in

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