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A few months back, the Brooklyn Collection provided some images and expertise to ABC News for a story about Brooklyn’s Dead Horse Bay. The story was most excellent – if you missed it you can check it out here. I used the video as a source for a note taking lesson and, during the lesson, my students kept peppering me with questions: What was life like for the people who lived and worked on the island? What was school like? How did the island's inhabitants navigate all that garbage?
I could only answer their questions in adjectives: smelly, exhausting, backbreaking, dangerous, filthy, putrid, infested. So, I went on a quest looking for answers in complete sentences.
Colton, J.H. Map of the country thirty three miles around the city of New York. 1852. Brooklyn Historical Society blog, 16 Mar 2012. Web. 9 Jan 2014.
Long story short: Barren Island went from being an uninhabited island good for fishing and burying (alleged) pirate treasure to a hub of offal factories -- harboring the largest concentration of them on the planet -- within a twenty year span. Offal refers to the internal organs of animals, usually those not consumed by humans. These factories rendered animal waste, similar to today's rendering plants, where they turned carcasses, bones, and intestines into glue, fertilizer, buttons, etc. In the above map you can see the island in the bottom right-hand corner.
In the mid-19th century, both Brooklyn and New York City had messes on their hands. Horses routinely died in the street, butchers slaughtered cows in the alleyways, and packs of feral pigs seemed to be in continuous turf wars with packs of feral dogs. Garbage and manure, both human and otherwise, were collected and taken to dumping piers on the waterfront alongside the waste from tanneries and offal factories. Thus, the shoreline of the East River was slowly morphing from a sandy beach to a goopy sponge of entrails and blood. It. Was. Super. Gross.
Barren Island was the solution. Offal factories, rooming houses, saloons, and single-family homes were built and then populated, creating a multi-ethnic community amidst the hordes of flies and the putrid smells.
"Barren Island Factory." 1911. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
In 1877, a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter went on an excursion to the island and noted the "the faint odor of decayed horses and putrid dogs" that hit him as he approached. "The stench is something to be feared, even by persons having very strong stomachs." (Side note: We melted a TON of dogs.) In the late 1870s, the population was noted at roughly 500: one hundred gaunt and semi-feral dogs, nine horses, some thirty most likely tubercular cows, about one hundred hogs, 270 men, and 10 women. Most of the humans were Irish, Swedes, and English.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 20 Aug 1877.
Although the island was bustling in the summer months, many factories went dark during the winter, leaving only eight permanent families. Permanent or not, none of the island's residents received a lot of press unless they were involved in a drunken saloon fight; part of a gang of toughs called the "Bone Gang"; kicked off a train for smelling horrible; one-eyed; or sick with cholera, diptheria, or any number of other illnesses. The newspaper lumped all of the island's inhabitants and the garbage with which they worked together. Rarely was there discussion of the conditions of the factories or the families of the workers, but constantly there were discussions about how the offal runoff was ruining the beaches for the middle-class across the bay.
Jump to the 1890s. Benjamin Miller's Fat of the Land has a pretty succinct description of the island and its amenities: "In 1897, there were five factories and four saloons on Barren Island, one store, one road, no doctor, nurse, or pharmacist, no church, no electricity, no post office, no social hall, no reading room, and a one-room school (on the first floor of a Polish tenement) into which some fifty of the school-age children on the island crowded for daily lessons." By that time, the population was said to be mainly Italians, Poles, and African-Americans.
One of the factories was used for the melting down of animal carcasses: horse dog, pig, cat, goat; another said to boil down over one million fish weekly. The fish were used for oil and fertilizer, but first dried on massive platforms. The waste wasn't just from New York City and Brooklyn, but also towns in New Jersey. Often, the offal washed back on shore when the tide was high, creating pools of perpetually soggy waste along the shoreline.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle May 9 1899.
In 1897, Barren Island's PS 120 was shut down. Held in a multi-family dwelling, the children packed into one of the lower rooms for their schooling. The closure was ordered by the Heath Department, as it had come to their attention that a man was dying of diphtheria in an upper apartment. Aside from that, the physical structure wasn't safe. "The school sits in a depression that fills up with water at every tide," wrote a reporter. "After the tide goes out the damp ground is left to dry by evaporation, with stenches of all kinds arising from refuse matter thrown out and left to decay... In front of the school house and about 400 feet from it is McKeever's plant, in which he makes fertilizer out of the carcasses of horses." The school's floors were rotten, the building slanted, and the windows were always shut to keep out the smell.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 17 Sept 1897.
The reporter goes on to list other factories and odors, culminating in the description of a particularly dangerous puddle: "All sorts of things have been thrown into it... pigs and cows use it at will; dead cats and dogs lie in it and the people who live near it have made it a general dumping ground for all their refuse. One of the objects noticed in it was a large straw tick and the reporter was told that it was the tick on which two children died of diphtheria a short time ago. It has been thrown out to the air and left to scatter germs with every passing wind."
After much debate, money was put forward to build a new school building. When the structure opened in 1901, the Eagle sent a reporter to cover the story. In this reporters eyes, the school was "the only bright spot for children of that desolate place." Not even the teachers could stand the island for very long, choosing to make the long commute by boat every morning rather than live amongst their students. One educator, described by the reporter as "a pretty teacher," explained how even getting a drink of water was an ordeal: "The water tank in our house was in an indescribable condition of filth, and there is not any water fit to drink upon the island. There are a number of wells on the island from which is must be carried to the house. It usually tastes like oil, though sometimes by way of variation it is flavored much more horribly."
"PS 120." Board of Education Collection. 1905. Print. New York City Municipal Archives.
"Barren Island." 1912. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
*This is another photograph of PS 120 from 1912, a slight alteration having been made to the front of the building.*
The island's inhabitants lived "in small wooden houses which might be called huts." Here is where the reporter makes choice use of quotation marks: "A few bedraggled sunflowers serve to decorate their 'gardens' and the houses all in a row, each having a number, like a convict settlement or the outdoor wards of a pest house. Amidst such an enviornment these little children are being 'raised'. Down at the opposite end of the island and near the crematory is a dance hall, where a monthly 'soiree' takes place."
He goes on to talk about the plentiful liquor used to dull the sorrows of the "drunken workman of the garbage heap," and the fact that fruit doesn't grow in the sandy soil. Not that it would matter, writes the reporter, as "it remains a doubt whether the inhabitants would find it of interest. They find amusement in the saloon and the dance hall." The parents would bring their children to the parties with them; "the young white women frequently choose negro partners and the children look on and drink in, as children do, all the sights and sounds of the seamy side of Barren Island society." The saving grace was the school, which provided refinement "unknown in their homes."
What a glowing review, right?
So often, this is where the story ends. An outsider tells us how it is and, because we lack an opposing voice, we accept it. This particular reporter painted a picture of filth, both human and otherwise. The adults were morally inferior, the children tragedies, and the "pretty teachers" martyrs. We don't get to hear about the community that formed on the island, the culture and connections that these immigrant and African-American people made amongst themselves.
Thank goodness for Daniel Edwards, principal at PS 120. (This man is my new favorite.) Edwards wrote to the Eagle the following Sunday with a letter to the editor directly rebutting the claims made by the reporter and systematically breaking down the false description of the island community.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 25 Aug 1901.
Edwards admitted that the island has an odor, but claims it nowhere near as bad as reported. He also made clear that the squalid huts mentioned are actually "respectable cottages," that the inhabitants of the island were "hard working, thrifty people," and that the children were "remarkably healthy and bright."
Barren Island Houses. 1936. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. Print.
*The above image was taken in 1936, a few years before the residents evicted and the houses demolished. I'm not sure if these are the "respectable cottages" mentioned by Principal Edwards, but they very well could be.*
And my favorite part, "Some of the children, it is true, go down to the 'Klondike,' as the garbage dumping ground is called. Here they find brass, silver, gold, and once in a while a diamond. But are they not to be commended for thus earning a penny, rather than engaging in more questionable pursuits?" A 1918 article from the Eagle described a special "brass apron" worn by children on their treasure hunts, essentially an embroidery apron folded into a big pocket.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 4 May 1918.
Barren Island was filled in and is now part of Floyd Bennett Field. All of the inhabitants were evicted in the late 1930s and, as the ABC News story mentions, you can still find treasure out at Dead Horse Bay. If you go, you can leave your "brass apron" at home, as the rangers at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge discourage treasure hunting. With that said, if you do visit and walk away with a diamond, I won't tell.
This spring, one of the most hotly anticipated arrivals to Brooklyn is a herd of eight goats. The animals are here on the loan from a Rhinebeck farm for the summer months during which they will help control invasive weeds in the Prospect Park. They will be deployed in the Vale of Cashmere (between Flatbush Ave and the East Drive) to graze on poison ivy and goutweed which have been taking over the area after Hurricane Sandy damaged it. The goats are already hugely popular; the park's free “Fun on the Farm” event this weekend – with a "bleet and greet" tour every 30 minutes – is booked to capacity!
Yet, goats are nothing new to the Prospect Park (shown here in a picture by George Bradford Brainard taken in 1870s) ...
… or to Brooklyn itself.
A quick scan of old Brooklyn newspapers reveals that the animals were widely held by Brooklynites when the city was a “vegetable basket” for Manhattan. “Lost and Found” sections of the newspaper were peppered with pleas to return a stray goat (for a reward, like beloved dogs or cats of today) or to collect one (and pay expenses!) -- sometimes in the same breath, as in this segment from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on January 29, 1867:
In the good old days, one could not just own a goat. An owner had to obtain a license (yes, this is correct!) to own a goat. The reports of sting operations against illegal goats proliferate in the police dispatches, such as this one from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 17, 1867:
Goats were kept for milk (“especially useful of the anemic”), leather and wool, but also, evidently, as a companion animal:
I came across a hilarious story that appeared in the paper on October 11, 1893, where a wily goat inserted himself into the legal machinery of the city:
“An ordinary, every day goat, with no outward marks of distinction beyond unusually long chin whiskers and an air of reckless daring, has hopelessly mixed up two families in a snarl, which Justice Connelly and the district attorney have been trying to unravel between them. The animal in question resides on Hale avenue, in a very respectable neighborhood, and like all Twenty-sixth Ward quadrupeds has learned to despise the restraining influences imposed upon the less favored of his species by the more conventional customs of other sections of the city. Sometimes he grazes on the sunny acclivities of Cypress Hills, and again, with the rapidity of the lightning change artist, appears an hour or two later in the very heart of fashionable Brownsville.
The goat is owned by Mrs. Christine Dowling, an elderly woman, whose husband only figures as a background incident in the difficulty which necessitated the appearance of Mr. and Mrs. William Commoda, in the role of defendants, before Justice Connelly this morning. The Commodas and Dowlings are neighbors. Some time ago, it appears from the records, the Dowling goat chewed up portions in the fence surrounding the Commoda estate and also macerated a quantity of old shoes which have been slowly ripening underneath the rays of a long summer’s sun in the secluded spot near the Commoda gates. Mr. and Mrs. Commoda objected, but the goat resumed his luncheon day after day, disturbing himself every now and again to dodge a flying brick […] Relations between the Commoda and Dowling families became so strained in consequence that when both parties met Mr. Dowling was threatened with death and his wife with some lesser form of punishment. The Commodas were arrested and placed under bonds by Justice Connelly. They swore that they owned a house and a lot on Hale avenue which were nominated as a security in the bond to keep the peace, the execution of which then released the couple from the impending penalty. Today they were re-arraigned for repeating the old offense, and also for assault. Once more the goat was at the bottom of the trouble. He broke out again unexpectedly and his goings-on revived the old feud. During the trial of the Commodas, the attention of the district attorney’s representative was called to the fact that the representation of the proprietorship in the Hale avenue house and lot, made by the defendants at the previous arraignment, was false. The house and land belong, it is claimed, to a Mr. Rosenberg. Today Commoda was sent to jail for twenty days, […] while his wife received a similar sentence, which was afterward suspended. Justice Connolly is determined that the Dowling goat shall henceforth enjoy his meals undisturbed.”
Perhaps the hero of the story looked something like that:
Goats were held as domestic animals in Brooklyn well into the 20th century.
This runaway goat boarded the Independent Subway System train at Church Ave and “butted into everybody’s business. The goat ran along the platform with its head down, butting inoffensive people waiting for trains and thus convincing one and all that the goat was going to business. Captured after boarding the crowded train, the goat was taken to Jamaica S.P.C.A. Shelter where he is shown with Fred Kusterbeck, kennel man.” (BDE, Nov 19, 1936).
This goat named Harry lived in a backyard of his owner’s house in Canarsie in 1939.
But sometimes, in a search for all things goat, one comes across a mysterious statement in a paper. Perhaps it is a subject of a future blogpost, but here it is, in all its glory:
We are pleased to announce that we have completed a finding aid for our collection of Brooklyn letterhead stationery. The Brooklyn Letterhead Collection spans 200 years of business in our borough, from 1802 to 2002, with the bulk of the collection representing the 1850s to the 1960s. Several thousand different businesses, institutions, and organizations are represented in the collection, including carpenters, plumbers, painters, city agencies, religious institutions, and more. The finding aid includes a complete listing of the names, addresses, and dates from the letterhead collection, which should prove useful to genealogical researchers, those interested in the history of various industries in Brooklyn, neighborhood historians and many others. Explore the finding aid here.
Using just the finding aid, it is possible to tease out interesting stories. For example, we can see that Robert Clarke was a plumber in the 1860s:
But by 1875, he was a manufacturer of his own patented pipe type, indicating that Clarke was able to transition from plumbing work to full-time manufacture of his apparently useful and popular invention:
There are many instances of businesses being passed down through generations, as indicated by name changes such as "William M. Shipman" to "William M. Shipman's Sons." There are also times when cooperatively owned businesses change their partners, making one wonder about what potential drama might lie behind the name changes over the years. For example, the Ray Brothers, who sold stoves and ovens, combined forces with at least three other partners during their more than 25 years in business. The finding aid also indicates when businesses moved, either from one part of Brooklyn to another or simply down the street.
Sometimes, the letterhead includes imagery related to the profession of its owner, as in these examples on our Tumblr, and sometimes the typography and design is just beautiful and interesting in and of itself, as in these examples.
Some Brooklyn businesses lasted for many years, decades even, such as Longman & Martinez, which existed at least from 1852 to 1940 based on the evidence in this collection. Some are even still around today, like James Weir Florists, which used to be housed in the now-landmarked greenhouse across from Green-Wood Cemetery and is now located on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. We even have early letterhead from the now-national brand of paint, Benjamin Moore. The company was founded in Brooklyn in 1883; this collection has examples of their letterhead from 1887, 1892, and 1903.
Beyond information about the businesses themselves, these documents also provide other historical insights, such as evidence that immigrants retained the use of their native languages. This letterhead from Ogni Bros has "Gennaio" in the date field instead of January:
This 1889 letterhead from Kenny & Murphy, bill posters, states the population of Brooklyn (still an independent city at that time) as 300,000. Compare that to today's population of over 2 million!
This letterhead from Sprague National Bank shows us the interior of the bank building--quite different from banks today!
As a fun side note, the bank's vice president is BPL's own David A. Boody (former president of our Board of Trustees).
There are also street addresses that no longer exist, from several downtown Brooklyn locations that were eliminated in the creation of Cadman Plaza, to streets that simply changed names. These include Gwinnett Street (now part of Lorimer Street), Oakland Street (became McGuinness Boulevard), and Magenta Street (now McKinley Avenue).
Sometimes there are funny instances of the use of language. I know this letterhead from Coalankok Retail Corp. is referring to fuel, not drugs, but the phrase "Coke bulk bagged" is a bit funny to modern eyes:
Or how about Alfred E. Horn, bungmaker?
Who knew there was enough need for "bungs" (stoppers/corks) to devote a whole business to them? Plus, the word "bung" has another, quite rude, meaning.
In addition, there are some fun surprises, such as these thread samples from Commonwealth Color:
There is also one receipt, from H. & G.W. Rich, that measures a staggering 42 inches long, demonstrating that today's extra-long drugstore receipts are nothing new.
In short, our Letterhead Collection is full of fascinating insights and is awaiting your discoveries! Explore the finding aid here.
This week a guest blogger shares her story of how researching in our digital newspaper database, Brooklyn Newsstand, led her to a surprising discovery about her family history, and a new heirloom to boot! We librarians are always so happy to hear these kinds of stories, as we often don't get to learn where research in our collections leads after patrons exit our doors. Our guest blogger Joan Harrison is an artist and author. She is a Professor Emerita of Long Island University, where she taught for many years.One evening in early March as my husband was watching the PBS show "Finding Your Roots," I, with iPad in hand, decided to search the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online one more time to see if I could find mentions of my paternal grandparents. The site had been my go-to source for the daily late 19th and early 20th happenings in Glen Cove, Long Island when I was doing pictorial histories of the city and neighboring Locust Valley for Arcadia Publishing. Previous searches had yielded no information. I can only assume more links were fed into the search engine since my last visit for I suddenly discovered a goldmine of information about my grandparents and their siblings. [Editor's note: these were likely articles from Brooklyn Life, a society magazine that was added to the online database shortly after the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was digitized.]
The first entry to appear was the May 20th, 1911 announcement of the engagement of my paternal grandparents, Grandma Bess and Grandpa Herb, aka "Pop" Harrison. I went on to find their wedding announcement, notations of their social engagements, obituaries of a great grandfather and a great grandmother, and then, amazingly, a photogravure of W.H. Harrison's and Sons, the legendary family store!
W. H. Harrison's was a wholesale and retail dealer in flour, butter, sugar, teas, coffees and spices as well as a purveyor of meat and produce. The emporium and warehouses were located at the corner of Washington Avenue and Pacific Street. The picture caption noted that the business had been at that location since its founding in 1865. It remained at that location until closing in 1917. A look at Google street view reveals that the store building still stands, though seemingly repurposed into an apartment building.
On St. Patrick's Day when everyone was posting "green greetings" on Facebook, I posted a screen grab of the picture of the store. To my astonishment, it drew over sixty comments and included among the entries was an image of a stoneware jug with the name W.H. Harrison and the location of the store impressed into the surface and stained cobalt blue. I discovered that an artist friend, Sarah Hogan -- whom I had met in the local library history room -- had made the post.
I immediately got in touch with Sarah, who revealed she had found the jug while on a childhood archeology expedition. While searching for vintage bottles in a ravine in neighboring Sea Cliff, Long Island nearly forty years earlier she had uncovered the jug, intact and without a single crack or chip. We arranged a meeting and amazingly Sarah felt the heirloom, the earliest prize of her considerable collection of local artifacts, should come home to its family.Since my siblings, cousins and cousins' children heard about this amazing gift they have set to intensive family historical and genealogical research, with a field trip to the old neighborhood of Prospect Heights and environs planned for next month. If you have any pictures or artifacts from the store or information about the Harrison or Redmond clans we would love to hear from you.Now, on to the next question: Was Grandma Bess' claim that we were descendants of the 9th and 23rd presidents, William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison true or merely an apocryphal story?
With the upcoming primary elections on April 19th, Brooklyn, all of New York City, and indeed all of New York State finds itself basking in the reflected glare of the white-hot spotlight that follows this season's presidential candidates. Trump, Cruz, Kasich, Clinton and Sanders are trotting all over the map this month, drumming up support for their causes and tasting some local delicacies along the way. Tomorrow Brooklyn's Navy Yard will host a debate between Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, drawing even more focus onto our patch of Long Island.
As is widely known by now, Bernie Sanders grew up in Brooklyn, so in some ways his campaigning here means a return to home turf. The Daily News ran a story last Saturday exploring just how deep Sanders's Brooklyn roots dig down, uncovering anecdotes from his childhood in Midwood through his high school career and into his stint at Brooklyn College. I couldn't resist doing a bit of my own investigating in the archives to hunt for traces of Sanders's boyhood days, and I was happy to hit a small jackpot in the pages of the Madison Highway.
The Madison Highway was the school newspaper for James Madison High at Bedford Ave and Ave P in Midwood -- just steps from Sanders's boyhood home. Sanders graduated from there in 1959, and as luck would have it, our collection of newspapers from that school starts in the fall of 1958, as Sanders embarked on his senior year.
James Madison High School in 1946.
While many of us squeak through high school without making the pages of our alma mater's rag, Sanders was mentioned in almost every issue that year. As a star member of the track and cross-country teams he was regularly featured in the paper's sports section.
That's co-captain Bernie Sanders sporting short shorts in the upper left.
As noted in the Daily News piece, Sanders also made an impression off the field. In December of 1958 the budding politician was selected to run against two of his classmates for the job of student body president.
Above, the front-page announcement of the presidential candidates (SGO = student government organization) and below, headshots of all the runners. Sanders is the third buzz cut from the left.
At this point, it is important to note that the Madison Highway came out only monthly, and that our collection is likely incomplete. And while the 24-hour news cycle has trained modern readers to expect up-to-the-minute reports of campaign action, high school elections of the 1950s were perhaps a bit more laconic. After the candidates for class president were announced in December, this campaign trail runs cold until March of 1959:
In case the fine print is hard to read, here we see the newly-elected SGO officers being sworn in. Sanders is nowhere to be seen as new president Robert Rockfeld raises his right hand.
But that defeat wasn't the end of Sanders's involvement with student affairs at James Madison. He makes a fiery comeback in the very next issue of the Madison Highway, grabbing headlines on nearly every page of the 4-page newspaper. As the Daily News article also described, part of Sanders's presidential campaign platform involved raising funds for a Korean War orphan. This was a cause that seems to have pre-dated Sanders's candidacy -- the outgoing SGO treasurer Myron Kalin was already organizing benefits to "adopt" a Korean orphan through the Save the Children Federation in the fall of 1958. Through fundraising efforts the school would donate $120 per year, enough to provide food, clothing and shelter for one child. In the March 25, 1959 issue the editors published a letter from Jong Han, identified as the older brother of Jong Soon, the boy who would benefit from the philanthropy of James Madison High School students:
That article cited Sanders specifically for his fundraising efforts in the campaign. How did he do it? you might wonder. With an all-star basketball game!
In language that portends of hyperbolic campaign pamphlets to come, the paper excitedly affirms, "This [alumni basketball game] is not a dream, and will shortly be a reality. Bernie Sanders made a campaign promise to bring back the stars, and that's exactly what he's doing." You must give Sanders credit -- many politicians who are successfully elected fail to come through on their campaign promises and yet here we have young Bernie making good on his word despite his defeat at the polls.
News of the coming alumni game flooded the (4) pages of the March 25th issue of the Madison Highway, and once again it bears reminding that this paper only came out monthly. When I paged through the following issue from April 16, 1959, eager for news of the alumni game and the profits it reaped for young Jong Soon, I was sorely disappointed. Sanders's fundraising blitz was by then old news, apparently, and no more mention of it was made through the rest of the school year. Did New York Knicks coach and James Madison graduate Fuzzy Levane indeed coach the alumni team, as was hinted? If he did, the Highway apparently didn't think it was worth reporting.
Which is not to say that the Madison Highway ceased to be riveting reading. The wacky editorial board ran several hoax news items in its April issue, presumably in honor of April Fool's Day, which elicited a few chuckles. And then there were also cartoons by staff illustrators:
All of this serves to remind us how important it is to collect things like school newspapers and yearbooks. We are all the time consulting these resources to assist with genealogy research and student projects, not to mention tracking the careers of famous Brooklynites. We've been steadily expanding our collection of high school newspapers, yearbooks, and ephemera, thanks in large part to donations from people who spent their own formative years in this borough. Hopefully there are some Brooklyn-born readers out there right now who are willing to donate a part of their private history to our historic and publicly accessible collections!