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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Sorry, no Postcard Thursday today

We are at Book Expo America today doing a book signing. But we'll be back next week!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Samuel Tilden Mansion

James has another piece published by Curbed NY -- today's piece is story the Samuel J. Tilden mansion, now the National Arts Club. Read it here.

We will be speaking at the National Arts Club tonight at 8pm. Our talk, entitled "Footprints in Gramercy Park," looks at some of the stories from Footprints in New York that take place in the general Gramercy Park/Stuyvesant Square area. We'll be showing lots of great old pictures; after the talk there will be a Q and A and books will be available for sale and signing.

There's no charge for this event, so if you are in the area, do come by!

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And, of course, Inside the Apple is available at fine bookstores everywhere.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Postcard Thursday: The New York Aquarium in Battery Park

Believe it or not, hiding underneath the old New York Aquarium in Battery Park was Castle Clinton, a fort from the War of 1812.

Notice that this entrance, with the four pilasters, is easily visible in the aquarium postcard, above.

Built starting 1807 by then-mayor Dewitt Clinton, the fort was one of the many defensive positions that guarded the harbor. It later became a theater known as Castle Garden and then the nation's first immigrant processing station, which functioned from 1855 to 1889. Ellis Island opened the next year and Castle Garden was converted by McKim, Mead & White into the aquarium.

James will be talking in much greater detail about Castle Clinton and the War of 1812 on his Memorial Day Walking Tour. Sign up now at this link!

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We have an entire chapter on Dewitt Clinton and the War of 1812 in
Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers


And, of course, Inside the Apple is available at fine bookstores everywhere.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Memorial Day Walking Tour


So, this is a little bit late notice, but on Monday, May 26, at 12:30pm, James will lead a jaunt around Lower Manhattan looking for remnants of the many wars in which New York and New Yorkers have played a prominent role. Last year, we focused solely on Alexander Hamilton and the American Revolution; this year, we’ll talk about everything from the First Anglo-Dutch War through the war in Afghanistan that’s still going on today. Popular sites like Bowling Green and Castle Clinton are on the itinerary, as well as more obscure sites. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.


When: Monday, May 26, at 12:30pm for about 2 hours

Where: The meeting location will be emailed to you when you reserve

Cost: $20 per person or reserve a copy of Footprints in New York and pay just $30 for the tour and book combined. (The book sells for $20 at local bookstores, so this is a great deal!) James will bring your copy with him to the tour.

How to reserve: Email with your name, # of people in your party, and if you want to reserve any books at the special price.

Hope to see you Monday -- and if you can’t come then, we are give a free talk at The National Arts Club on Tuesday, May 27, at 8pm. Details at

All best wishes,
Michelle & James Nevius

$24 Worth of Beads: May 24, 1626

This Saturday marks the 388th anniversary of the fabled purchase of the island of Manhattan. The purchaser was Peter Minuit, director-general of the Dutch West India Company; the seller is shrouded in mystery--one or more representatives of the local Lenape tribes, certainly, but who? Because the deed was discarded in the 19th century, we can only speculate.

What we do know, from a letter written by Peter Schagen, is that Minuit bought the island for 60 guilders worth of trade goods. Two hundred years later, 60 guilders was translated into $24, and that number has stuck with us ever since, as evidenced by the Bizarro comic reprinted above.

(If you don't know Bizarro, it is written by funny man, history buff, and all-around good guy Dan Piraro. You can check out more of his recent cartoons here.)

While the deed is gone, we can guess as to what Minuit used for barter--common items included axes, knives, guns, and other metal objects, along with wool, duffel, and alcohol. Wampum was often a trade good, but "beads and trinkets" (as is often referenced) were not.

If you are interested in this story, the first chapter of our new book, Footprints in New York, talks extensively about Minuit, the 60 guilders, and what that would be worth today. It's available at fine bookstores everywhere.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Postcard Thursday: The Stadt Huis

If you read James's piece on Curbed last week about looking for traces of Dutch New Amsterdam, you saw that one of the illustrations was this postcard from our collection of New Amsterdam's City Hall (or Stadt Huis in Dutch).*

The Stadt Huis was originally built as the city tavern, which served as as both a pub and a hotel. Tiny New Amsterdam was crammed with watering holes (as many as 25% of the buildings were equipped to with beer taps), but this was the only one run under the auspices of the city, which for most of New Amsterdam's history meant the Dutch West India Company.

When the company was forced to cede some control of the city to its citizens in 1653, the city tavern was the natural choice to become the seat of the new city government. After the English takeover in 1664, the Stadt Huis remained the seat of New York City government until the English could build a bigger building on Wall Street. This British City Hall ultimately was converted into Federal Hall, where Washington became president in 1789.

All of these old city halls are gone. Today, the site of the original Stadt Huis is commemorated with a yellow rectangle of bricks on the Pearl Street sidewalk of 85 Broad Street. Archaeological excavations in 1979-80 of the Stadt Huis block turned up all sorts of fascinating finds from the Dutch and English periods, but no trace of the old city hall.

If you read Footprints in New York, this spot comes into play in the first chapter. This is where James's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents lived in 1650s and 1660s, when his ancestor, Johannes Nevius, was city secretary. Who knows -- maybe that's him strolling with Peter Stuyvesant in this postcard?

* Oddly, this postcard is labelled "New York City Hall When Occupied by the English," despite the fact that it clearly depicts a Dutch scene.

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Read more about the Dutch and English colonial eras in
Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers


And, of course, Inside the Apple is available at fine bookstores everywhere.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Postcard Thursday: Second Avenue, 1861

Today's postcard shows the leveling of Manhattan that took place throughout much of the 19th century. When the 1811 street grid was first published, wary landowners like Clement Clarke Moore (author of A Visit from St. Nicholas) were aghast. Moore wrote, "Nothing is to be left unmolested which does not coincide with the street commissioner’s plummet and level. These are men…who would have cut down the seven hills of Rome."

And cut them down they did. As you can see in this 1861 view*, the house at the corner of Second Avenue and 42nd (or 43rd) Street sits precipitously above the newly graded avenue. Eventually, all of Midtown would be more or less flattened out, though there are still a few mild peaks along the avenues.

Also, note the differences between the homes on the two sides of the postcard: The home on the right, built when 42nd Street was still the countryside, was on an open lot and has windows on all sides; the home on the left is a city townhouse. It has no side windows, as its owners know it will eventually have some other house built flush up against it.

By the time the postcard was printed, ca. 1905, the elevated railroad ran up Second Avenue. Here's this intersection in 1915, the view obscured by the El station:

And here's the same view today:

* The original 1861 image is by Egbert Viele, one of New York's greatest surveyors and engineers. It was reproduced at the turn of the 20th century to invoke nostalgia for a bygone era.

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Read more about the 1811 grid (and Egbert Viele's role in Central Park) in
Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers


And, of course, Inside the Apple is available at fine bookstores everywhere.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Looking for Traces of Dutch New Netherland

Peter Stuyvesant and a Dutch burgher (perhaps James's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather?)
outside the Stadt Huis in New Amsterdam.

James has a piece published today at Curbed NY in which he hunts down 11 places where you can time-travel back to the Dutch Colonial Era.

Check it out:

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There's lots more about the Dutch colonial era in
Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers


And, of course, Inside the Apple is available at fine bookstores everywhere.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Postcard Thursday: Washington's Inaugural

President Washington Taking the Oath, Federal Hall, 1789; courtesy of the New-York Historical Society
Today's postcard is, once again, not an actual postcard, though we've certainly seen views similar to this on cards over the years. This 1839 painting by Guiseppe Guidicini depicts the moment on April 30, 1789 -- 225 years ago yesterday -- that George Washington placed his hand on the Bible and was sworn in as America's first president.

If you happened to be on Wall Street yesterday, you might have seen some activity at the building that occupies the site of the old Federal Hall. Every year on the anniversary of the inauguration, the Masons do a reenactment of Washington's swearing in, complete with costumed interpreters and period-appropriate music. The Masons are the custodians of Washington's Bible, but it's not clear if they bring it with them for the reenactment.

Considering the fact that this year marked a major anniversary of the presidency, there has been little press, though Slate did run a good article a few days ago; over at the Congressional Archives, they posted the minutes from the Senate describing the event.

The image above is in the collection of the New-York Historical Society and prominently displayed in their lobby gallery. We'll be giving a talk at the Society on Thursday, June 26, using objects from the collection like this, so save the date!

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Read more about Washington's New York in
Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers


And, of course, Inside the Apple is available at fine bookstores everywhere.

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