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The Visitor's Book

Jan 16, 2009 2:43 PM | 2 comments

If there is one category of manuscript material that, for whatever reason, often sits for years unused and neglected, it is the visitor's book, with its close friend, the autograph collection. These single items, sometimes physically substantial in themselves but not a part of a group of letters or other materials relating to one  subject, and often containing nothing but signatures, are hard to connect to substantive research projects. And yet, they do sometimes offer insights that enrich our knowledge of events and through the window of the locality offer an idiosyncratic view of national developments.


One such item is the "Register" of Brooklyn's P.S. 1.  Brooklyn's first Public Elementary School was founded in the 1830s. The register, or visitor's book in our possession starts in 1843 after the school moved to spacious premises at Adams and Concord Streets, on a plot that would in 1949 be cleared to allow for easier road access to the Brooklyn Bridge. Compulsive readers of city directories would be drawn to this genre. We learn, for example, that on Jan 15 1846, Horace Mann, U.S. Secretary of Education and one of the founders of public school education in the U.S., visited P.S. 1. In 1850 Gen. Duryea honored the school with his presence, leaving an extraordinary page of fluid manuscript in his wake. The General was not big on punctuation. He wrote:

"The appearance of this school is very fine the air of freshness and health revealed in the complexion and the flashing of bright eyes is most pleasant The influence of Education upon the harmonies of the (illegible) nature are so interesting and beautiful to me that I feel and write like an enthusiast when in the presence of those who are very soon to control the world's destinies  The tens of thousands of boy-men of to day who will be the business men of to-morrow directing the white wings of commerce and enterprise I have stood oft on the ocean wave when the soft moonlight to it stole like the emotion of a kind word on the soul--A kind word Ah! remember a kind word may oft sink or save  a soul My boys and ever speak kindly to the (illegible) and less fortunate than yourselves you will sleep all the sweeter for it in life and such a course will sweeten death--For we must all die one day not far in the future and the eye, electric focus of passion affection and intellect will become dim and passionless as the cold angel as he rests with wing of ice on the shivering bosom of the dying."

At the foot of the page, is the name "Kossuth," as if some or all of the above were a quotation. As a military man and living in the 19th century, Duryea no doubt saw death up close more than once. Still, the high flown sentiment of this passage certainly clashes with today's notions of what is the appropriate tone for a school visit.

General Harmanus Barkuloo Duryea, (1815-1884) scion of a family that has a whole graveyard named after it, served in the New York State Militia and apparently married well. A charming little booklet that lists the richest men and women of Brooklyn and Williamsburg tells us:

"Duryea Harmanus B.  ...............$30,000
General Duryea will, in all probability, ere many years elapse.
be one of the richest men in Brooklyn, having married the only daughter
of Samuel Bowne, Esq., who is almost a millionaire.  He is eminently 
deserving of any good fortune he may attain, and possesses qualities both of
head and heart which endear him to all who are acquainted with him, and
render him exceedingly popular among all classes of the community."

(John Lomas, The Wealthy Men and Women of Brooklyn and Williamsburgh. Brooklyn: A.S. Peace, 1847)

 General Duryea's words had a certain prescience to them though. For after pages of signatures and notations of heatwaves ("July 19 1855 At 3 p.m. thermometer at 95", "Alden J. Spooner Editor Star" "John R. Murray Truant officer") we find the following: To day, the Grammar Departments of this school attended the funeral of Clarence McKenzie, one of its pupils until he left to accompany the 13th Regiment, as drummer boy to Annapolis MD where he was accidentally shot the 10th inst."

The circumstances of the accident are described in detail in Mandeville's History of the 13th Regiment, N.G., S.N.Y., as well as in one of the most maudlin pieces of funerary literature ever to see the light of day, Luther Bingham's The Little Drummer Boy, the child of the Thirteenth Regiment. This was a dark day for the locality, but a day that would rock the nation is noted on April 14th 1865:

And so the Civil War years pass,  the hand of war relaxes the grip it held even upon P.S. 1 in Brooklyn; the entries return to a humdrum rhythm of visits from the School Board, the Truant officer, the Orphan Asylum, and all manner of folks with fancy handwriting; and the special notes of the peacetime years refer to certificates earned, characters formed, to lives being built and not destroyed.

Brooklyn Theater Fire in Wikipedia

Jan 13, 2009 11:39 AM | 3 comments

Our thoughts seem to be turning in a melancholy direction. Before we level our attention towards happier matters, let me note the publication of a new Wikipedia article, written by our friend Garry Osgood, on the Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876. It is fashionable to be suspicious of Wikipedia as a source, but let me assure readers that they can have every confidence in Garry's work.

Garry distills a clear and detailed account of the horrific events of the evening from the published sources, especially our own Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online.   Of particular interest though are some remarkable images of the destruction, and a beautiful schematic created by the author himself:

For an explanation of the diagram and an outline of key events, see Garry's commentary on the schematic here: 

And while we are on the subject: the German language version of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, which began publication in the 1850s, published at least two engravings in the bitter aftermath of the fire. Based in Pearl Street, New York, the Illustrierte Zeitung served the nation's German population, 1.5 million of whom arrived in the U.S. between 1830 and 1860, many of them settling in New York City and Brooklyn.

The caption reads: Theaterbrand in Brooklyn am 5 Dezember 1876--Freunde und Verwaendte der Verunglueckten besichtigen die unter dem Schutt gefundenen Gegenstaende. (Theater Fire in Brooklyn on 5 December 1876--Friends and relatives of the victims search  through the property found under the debris.) Theaterbrand in Brooklyn am 5 Dezember 1876--Begraebniss der Verunglueckten am 9 Dezember. Der Leichenzug in Flatbush Avenue (Theater fire in Brooklyn on 5 December--Funeral of the victims on December 9. The cortege on Flatbush Avenue.)  (Frank Leslie's Illustrierte Zeitung, 19 December 1876.)

Two cemeteries

Jan 13, 2009 10:45 AM | 3 comments

The victims of the Brooklyn Bridge Disaster in 1883 mentioned in Leslie's last post had been celebrating "Decoration Day," the holiday we now call Memorial Day.  At a time when the dead of the Civil War lived on in memory, people would visit the borough's cemeteries to lay flowers upon the graves of their loved ones. Decoration Day at Cypress Hills  is the subject of more than one print in our collection of illustrations from the 19th century magazines.

While Green-wood Cemetery has received considerable media attention over recent years in part thanks to the work of its energetic historian, Jeff Richman, the Cemetery of the Evergreens has been overshadowed by its South Brooklyn competitor. The Evergreens has now found a worthy chronicler in the person of John Rousmaniere, whose beautiful new book, Green Oasis in Brooklyn. The Evergreens Cemetery 1849-2008 with photographs by Ken Druse, has arrived unsollicited on my desk (Kittery Point, Maine: Seapoint Books, 2008).

Rousmaniere begins with  a lively account of the events of 1776 on the "Heights of Guana" in the area now covered by the Evergreens.  Engaging writing that ranges through swaths of Brooklyn and world history, coupled with  Druse's beautiful photographs make this a valuable and attractive addition to our collection. Perhaps now the Evergreens will become a destination as popular as Green-wood, we trust with less unhappy results than on that fatal day in 1883.

Channel Thirteen is currently producing an original online video series about hidden and hard-to-access historic places. A new segment on Green-Wood shows interior shots of the catacombs and some of the mausoleums. Here is the link:

As the owner of an unsaleable condominium just a couple of blocks from Green-wood, I find Richman's notion of the catacombs as a condo building for the dead particularly appealing. Perhaps this is a business model I should look into.

Minstrel History in Brooklyn

Jan 9, 2009 3:07 PM | 1 comment

On a recent Saturday afternoon in the Brooklyn Collection, I found something in our Ephemera Collection that startled me.  I was going through folders that focus on Clubs in Brooklyn.  Some of them still exist today, like the Montauk Club of Park Slope.  Many of the folders include programs of performances held at one club or another.  One word jumped out at me as I looked at programs that were dated well into the 20th century: "Minstrel." It was almost like going through an old trunk full of treasures in the family attic and finding out some secret that has been hidden for years among old dresses and glassware and report cards.   But however uncomfortable they make us, it is important that these documents survive.   To censor or discard unsavory items would be to deny the very real and difficult legacy they leave us with today.   

So what other resources do we have about Brooklyn minstrels?


In 1887, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published an article called A Wandering Minstrel: Brooklyn History of a Popular Amusement.  The article begins by lamenting that Brooklyn seemed to be lacking a permanent minstrel house.  Minstrel troupes began performing in Brooklyn as early as 1849, while Manhattan saw professional shows starting in 1843.  The first venue to produce a minstrel show in Brooklyn was the old Brooklyn Museum located at the corner of Orange and Fulton Streets. Hyde & Behman's Theater, Bunnels Museum and Theater and the Park Theater were also known to host minstrel shows and several companies and troupes, such as Bailey & Austin, Hooley's Minstrels, and the Criterion Minstrels, entertained audiences well into the 1920s.  An interview with "Jack" Herman (not sure why his first name is in quotes, but this is how the Eagle printed it) conducted in 1887 by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle shows how much Brooklynites enjoyed minstrel shows.  After performing with Hooley's Minstrels in Brooklyn, Herman would race out to catch the last horse car.  If the audience called for encores of his performance, he would at times, catch the horse car while still in costume.  He remembers: 

"If the audience like my songs well enough to have them repeated, I was compelled to hastily snatch a coat, dash downstairs and chase my car...My blackened face, stage clothes, attracted no little attention in the car, and I was obliged to sing or in other ways amuse the passengers during the long and tedious ride to East New York."

Article Headline

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle carried many stories about professional minstrel troupes as well as amateur minstrel performances.  This headline refers to thirteen young women of the Clermont Social Club who "blacked up for sweet charity's sake last night and gave a first rate minstrel performance," in 1894.  The ladies did not reveal to anyone what they were doing and even refused to have their names printed in the paper.  The reporter gives vivid descriptions of rehearsals, the performance, and at one point declares that even the mothers of the young women would not recognize their own daughters.  Nearly 900 people attended the charity event, which raised $200 for the needy in their ward.  The full article can be found by clicking on the headline.

Social club members produced minstrel shows well into the 1950s.  Members would dress up and perform songs and jokes to the amusement of other club members and their families.  The image displayed at the beginning of the post and the image below show an example of a program from the Mizpah Club, Mizpah Lodge No. 738 F. and A. M.  The performance in 1925 was the first minstrel show performed by the members.      


Social clubs produced minstrel shows as late as the 1960s.  This photo of the Young Folks Club of the Fort Hamilton Presbyterian Church performing the play "The Shmoboat," was taken by an Eagle photographer in 1953.

Minstrel performances died out with Civil Rights as managers of theaters in New York found that audiences had little tolerance for the shows' racist portrayals of African Americans.  The legacy of minstrel shows has crept out even in recent political debates.  In 2006, the New York City council voted to name the corner of 51st Street and Broadway in Manhattan Al Jolson Way.  Al Jolson was an actor most famously known for performing in blackface.  The city council and proponents opted to look at Jolson's whole career, rather than just the negative portion that critics examined.  Just over a year later, the council refused to name a street in Brooklyn after Sonny Carson, the late controversial Brooklyn community leader and activist who fought against police brutality and for local control of New York City schools, but also encouraged the boycott of Korean owned groceries in Beford-Stuyvesant. Council member Charles Barron argued that not to name a street after Carson, when Al Jolson Way had been approved, showed bias. The council made its decision by citing Carson as a "divisive figure in New York City history".  Both men have a complicated relationship to issues of race and racism and needless to say, the controversy will continue.   

A Little Analysis Practice

Jan 2, 2009 3:33 PM | 2 comments

One of the challenges of working with novice researchers is that they fail to understand that history is an imprecise science.  We can only work with the documents that exist.  Until the time machine is invented (something I am anxiously awaiting), we will never know exactly what happened in the past.  Many of my students are frustrated by this concept because they want to have exact answers and they want those answers now.

I do my best to combat this need by showing them that analyzing documents can be a fun challenge, and that the stories documents tell can be fascinating.  One of my favorite exercises is giving students items from our collection of prints from 19th century illustrated magazines.  Because these pictures have been clipped and separated from the original magazines, we rarely have the accompanying article.  Students must closely analyze the picture and then look for other resources to determine what is being depicted.

Illustrated magazines are particularly fun because they often show us what daily life was like in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with a little tabloid drama added in for good measure.  They also happen to be my favorite part of the collection - but that warrants an entry for another day.

For the time being, I thought it might be fun to show off my students' favorite image:

There is so much going on this picture that even the most disenchanted students must take a few minutes to consider what they are looking at.  It takes a little prodding of my own to get them to reach the correct answer, but all the while they are practicing good analysis skills.

And so, I leave it up to you to figure out what is happening in the picture above.  After you've made your own guesses, take your research a little further by checking out this issue of the Daily Eagle.  Happy history hunting!

Image: Harper's Weekly, June 9, 1883, pg 1.