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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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Want to hear more about NYC history?
Inside the Apple has recently been released for the first time as an audio book!
Visit Amazon or Audible to download today


Thursday, November 1, 2018

Postcard Thursday: What's in a Street Name?

image of the Malbone Street subway crash courtesy of the New York Transit Museum

When Governor Andrew Cuomo jokingly (?) suggested the other day that the Newtown Creek be renamed the Amazon River in a bid to woo Amazon's HQ2 to New York, it was easy for historians to get worried. All joking aside, Newtown was the colonial name for the Elmhurst section of Queens, and if the creek were to be renamed, another chapter in the city's history--already all-but forgotten--would be further erased.

But New York has a long history of such street renaming. In Lower Manhattan, as we write in Footprints in New York:
most of the other English names that once defined the city are gone.... [To the English, the Dutch] Pearl Street...was known as Great Dock Street. The nearby Beaver Path—where pelts had once been carried to waiting ships—became Princess Street. During the eighteenth century, new roads were constructed north of Wall Street and given names like Crown, King, and Little Queen.

In a fit of patriotism in 1794, all these British names were swept away. Great Dock reverted to Pearl; in a sort of reverse fairy-tale move, the Princess was turned back into a Beaver. Pointedly, Crown Street became Liberty Street. In this case, history was written by the winners on the street signs.
It isn't just the Newtown Creek renaming that has brought this topic to mind. Today marks the centennial of the worst subway disaster in New York City history, the Malbone Street Wreck. On November 1, 1918, a Brooklyn Rapid Transit subway train traveling at a high rate of speed and piloted by a driver with no experience crashed during the evening rush hour, killing at least 93 people and injuring hundreds.

Today, most people have never heard of Malbone Street. That's because the crash was so horrific that Malbone Street was renamed Empire Boulevard so that people wouldn't associate it with the tragedy. Just as it had done in the early American era, the city was renaming the street in order to forget the past.

However, because so many streets in New York are a little off-kilter, this doesn't always work.

In Lower Manhattan, for example, we still have Hanover Square--named for the British royal family--and Thames Street stands near Trinity Church as a reminder of the city's English roots.

In Brooklyn, one block in Crown Heights remains Malbone Street to this day, as you can see in the Google street view photo above. The map below is from 1898 and shows the issue. Malbone Street had an odd spur--probably the result of street names being appended in the area before there was any sort of comprehensive urban planning--which meant that in the 19th century, Malbone essentially ran parallel to itself for a block. (This is very similar to the issues we still have with Waverley Place in Greenwich Village.)

So, when most of Malbone Street became Empire Boulevard after the subway crash, the spur stayed  Malbone--as it remains to this day.

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Want to hear more about NYC history?
Inside the Apple has recently been released for the first time as an audio book!
Visit Amazon or Audible to download today

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