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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Postcard Thursday: 1866 Redux

Last July, James wrote a piece for Curbed about exploring modern-day New York City with a handful of 19th-century guidebooks as his only companions. The piece, "A Walking Tour of 1866 New York," has recently been nominated for an award for "Outstanding Achievement in NYC Essay/Article/Series Writing" by the Guides Association of New York City.

While we wait to see if he's won (winners will be announced March 6), here's the link to the story, a fascinating piece of time travel.

There's more history-minded journalism coming soon from James and Curbed, including a story about the Broadway Theater District and another time-travel feature. The best way to keep up on these things is to follow us on Facebook at or Twitter

Those guidebooks have some fabulous advertisements in them. Here's just one example:

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Postcard Thursday: The Rise and Fall of New Orange

This weekend marks a little remembered anniversary. On February 19, 1674, the Treaty of Westminster was signed, ending the Third Anglo-Dutch War. While most of that conflict took place in Europe, it did have a brief impact on New York City. Even though the colony of New Netherland had been taken over by the English ten years earlier, Manhattan was briefly held by the Dutch during the war and renamed New Orange.

In September 1664, Peter Stuyvesant and the Dutch West India Company had surrendered to the English in a bloodless takeover. While the city changed its name from New Amsterdam to New York (in honor of its new patron, James, Duke of York), very little changed in the day-to-day lives of New Yorkers, and the city continued to have a distinct Dutch and Dutch-sympathizing population.

Thus, it wasn't that surprising that when war broke out between the English and Dutch in April 1672 that many New Yorkers favored the Dutch side. In July 1673, Dutch Admiral Cornelis Evertsen arrived in New York harbor and after a brief battle -- aided by New York's Dutch population -- was able to capture the fort at the southern tip of  Manhattan. (That fort, then called Fort James and originally built as Fort Amsterdam, stood on the site now occupied by the Museum of the American Indian.) In September 1673, Captain Anthony Colve arrived to be installed as governor of the colony, which had been renamed New Orange in honor of the Dutch royal family.

Less than four months later, the Treaty of Westminster formally ended the war and handed the colony back to English control. Colve stayed on through October 1674, when his replacement, Sir Edmund Andros, arrived. After a negotiation of the terms of the handover, Andros took over on November 10. The name of the colony reverted to New York, which it has remained ever since.

The image at the top, from the collection of the New York Public Library, purports to show New Orange as it appeared in 1673; however, the engraving was done in the 19th century and there's no corroborating evidence that it was sketched in 1673.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Snow Day

In honor of the snowstorm hitting New York City today, here are some photos from the New York Public Library's digital collection of snowstorms past. The photo above shows a stretch of Fifth Avenue ca. 1905 (the year the photo was printed) after a storm; unfortunately, there aren't enough revealing details to determine exactly where on the avenue this is.

This second card, from the same storm, shows Broadway between 29th and 30th Streets. The photographer was clearly drawn to the irony of the "Sarnoff Straw Hats" sign peeking out of a snow drift, but if you look just to the right of that you'll see the sign for Shanley's, which was a popular restaurant in that era. In operation from the 1890s to 1925, Shanley's was known as a "lobster palace," and a quick perusal of the menu makes it easy to see why: lobster appears in just about every possible preparation, along with oysters, other shellfish, and various unidentifiable dishes such as "cold corn starch."

This final photo may be from the same storm, but doesn't have an easily readable date. These children are sledding -- or "coasting" in the language of the day -- on a hill in Central Park.

Enjoy the snow and be careful out there!

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Postcard Thursday: From Imbolc to Candelmas to Groundhog Day

Today, Punxsutawney Phil, the world's most famous rodent, saw his shadow, thus predicting six more weeks of winter. Now, for anyone paying attention, March 21--the first day of spring--is six weeks away, whether a groundhog sees his shadow or not.

But how did this tradition begin?

Ancient traditions not only marked the beginnings of the seasons (vernal equinox, summer solstice, autumnal equinox, and winter solstice), but also the midpoint of each season. For winter, that is approximately February 1 or 2, which was known in ancient Ireland as Imbolc, a word which literally means "in the belly." It referred to the time around which ewes and rams would mate. The date is also 40 days after Christmas, which in the Christian tradition is celebrated as Candelmas, the commemoration of Jesus' presentation in the temple and the end of the Christmas/Epiphany season.

In northern Europe, Candelmas became the day when farmers would begin to predict whether or not there would be an early thaw. As one early poem put it, "If Candlemas day be dry and fair/The half o' winter to come and mair [more]."

We don't know exactly how this then transformed into small animals predicting the weather. In France it's a marmot; in Germany, the animal is traditionally a badger. By the 1840s, the groundhog had been attached to the holiday in the United States. Since 1887, the town of Punxsutawney, in Pennsylvania, has hosted groundhog festivities. As celebrations of Candelmas became less important in American life, Groundhog Day took its place. There are now many competing groundhog prognosticators, including Staten Island Chuck who--for the record--did NOT see his shadow, thus predicting an early spring.

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