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Apr 30, 2013 1:42 PM | 0 comments

The Listening Project: Midwood is a collection of gripping oral history interviews collected by documentary film maker Dempsey Rice during a residency at the Council Center for Senior Citizens in Midwood. If you think of oral history as long-winded wallowing in nostalgia, think again--these interviews are riveting stories distilled from long lives and told with grace, humor and panache. There are so many wonderful interviews to choose from that I urge you to explore the site. Here to whet your appetite is Harriet Solomon recounting the story of how she almost died on her first date with her future husband.


While we are on the subject of oral histories, Brooklyn Collection librarian June Koffi is capturing on video stories from around Brooklyn of residents' encounters with Hurricane Sandy.  Read about her project here. She will be at the Kings Bay branch with her video camera this Thursday, May 2 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. If that's not convenient for you, she will also be visiting other locations to be announced.  If you have a Sandy story to tell, you can just show up on Thursday; or call 718-230-2708 to make an appointment or email

The Merchant Marine, Sheepshead Bay, and Richard Avedon

Apr 26, 2013 12:08 PM | 0 comments

Just a year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Brooklyn saw the opening of the largest United States Maritime Service training station at Sheepshead Bay. Built for $8,500,000 on old beach, bath, and amusement grounds once owned by John P. Day,  the station was equipped to pump out 30,000 trained merchant seamen a year. At the opening ceremonies on December 12, 1942 more than 10,000 men, officers, and guests assembled to hear Telfair Knight, director of the Division of Training of the War Shipping Administration, read a laudatory message on behalf of President Roosevelt. These remarks were followed up with more marvelling and extolling by Governor Charles Poletti. All in all it was a big bright day for Brooklyn, but one that would be short-lived. As war gave way to peace the need for tens of thousands of knot-tying, deck swabbing, cargo transporting seamen diminished to the point that the station was deactivated on February 28th, 1954.

But during its short life the station buzzed with activity, most of which we have learned about through a pair of magazines recently acquired by the Collection. 


Published for personnel living and working at the training station, The Helm and The Mast covered every facet of life on the base.

 From learning to make soup in the mess...

 to studying the structure of the hand in Instructor Cunningham's Osteology class with a skeleton named Davy Jones...

 to getting your chest measured. No activity was too strange or small!

But aside from covering the ins and outs of sailor life on the base, The Helm and The Mast also ran articles about Merchant Marine life around the world, including helpful articles about:

What to do if the enemy gets you,

 how to survive on a raft or desert island,

and advice from Denver Ed Smith on getting tattoos: "Don't come in here, or to any other tattoo studio for that matter, when you're three sheets in the wind and ask me to tattoo your sweetheart's name across yer chest. Once something's tattooed on, brother, it's darn near permanent. And the next day you wake up and find you're wearing some gal's name across your chest, and it ain't your wife's name. If that happens to you mister, you better ship out, pronto."

But what caught my eye as I looked through these issues was the name of one particular Assistant Editor.

Richard Avedon. Yup, that Richard Avedon. From 1942 to 1944 Avedon served as a Photographers Mate 2/c in the United States Maritime Service stationed at Sheepshead Bay. It's funny to think of him cutting his glamour photog teeth in the Sheepshead Bay canteen, but these magazines are proof. And though he appears as an assistant editor or "staff" in all but 2 of the 7 issues we have of both The Helm and The Mast, it's only in The Helm that his work gets credited. And here are a few of those shots with accompanying captions.

The twenty foot, four sided rope climb is the only one of its kind. Developed specially to train large groups at the same time, it has plain ropes, cargo nets, knotted ropes and jacobs ladders. By the time the men have completed their three months training they cannot only tie ropes but climb them also.

Judo training and its finer points. Chief Joe Lederer throws one of the instructors. Learning how to fall is a trick in itself.

And from the inside back cover page, here's a rain battered young salt accompanied by an Avedon poem.

As a student he was, after all, poet laureate of New York City high schools.

We have many more photos of the Sheepshead Bay Maritime Training Station here in the Collection -- but whether or not they were done by Richard Avedon is anyone's guess. Maybe you art historians and historians of photography need to weigh anchor and pay a visit?

The History of Brooklyn's Waterfront with John Manbeck, Wednesday April 24th 7pm, Central Library's Brooklyn Collection

Apr 22, 2013 12:32 PM | 0 comments

Aerial view of the waterfront in 1950

Please join us this coming Wednesday, April 24th, for our latest author talk with former borough historian John Manbeck.  He'll discuss the Brooklyn waterfront's rich history and how its use influenced the development of Brooklyn's industries and communities, from ship-building to ferries, factories, and beaches.  The city continues to look for new ways of utilizing the waterfront today with plans under way for new housing, parks, and business projects.  Manbeck has written several books on various aspects of Brooklyn history, many of which are available in the Brooklyn Collection.

A wine and cheese reception, as well as distribution of tickets, is at 6:30 p.m.  The Brooklyn Collection is located on the 2nd floor balcony of the Central Library at Grand Army Plaza.  Seating is limited to 40.

Emily Warren Roebling in the Press

Apr 18, 2013 10:27 AM | 0 comments

There is a tired cliche that "behind every great man is a great woman". This has always seemed to me to be a way to shoehorn women into the mostly-male narrative of history as we learn it. The wives of presidents and inventors are rarely given their own space in history, and are usually seen as appendages of the men they married. When researching prominent women in history, it is very likely that you will at first find more information about their husbands.

The same is not true for Emily Warren Roebling.

I was first drawn to her when researching news coverage of her husband's illness, contracted during the building of the caissons for the Brooklyn Bridge. As I searched the name Washington Roebling in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle online archive, I was shocked to find that most of the articles on the first page were about his wife, and not even about her in direct relation to him. The articles all concern her involvement with charities, political affairs and the Daughters of the American Revolution.

By all accounts, Mrs. Roebling was a force to be reckoned with. She was an educated young woman when she met and married Washington Roebling, and the couple were only one year into their marriage when Washington took his father's place as Chief Engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1869. Three years later, he was incapacitated by the Bends (then known as Caisson Disease) while working on the bridge foundations. With Washington Roebling unable to oversee the construction in person, the Roebling family might have had to dissociate itself from the Bridge, had it not been for Emily, who was all of 29 years old.

It is immediately clear that Mrs. Roebling was not simply her husband's secretary--relaying notes with no input of her own. Her own education and interest in engineering (their honeymoon involved studying caisson technology in Europe) meant that she was far more involved in the project than people at the time might have expected. This is the moment when any article about the Bridge or Washington Roebling begins to mention his wife. He was bedridden and inactive, while she became the face of the project and the family, even giving a statement to the American Civil Society of Engineers defending her husband's ability to remain in the role of Chief Engineer. To give credit where it is due, Mr. Roebling recognized his wife's contributions: "At first I thought I would succumb but I had a strong tower to lean on, my wife--a woman of infinite tact and wisest council (sic)." (Zink, 2011,

While all of this is interesting (and well-documented) there is a lot more to Mrs. Roebling than the work she did with and for her husband. I mentioned her involvement in politics and charitable work above; but without context one might think that she was simply fulfilling the role of a high society woman who attended lunch meetings and organized charity dinners. This is simply not the case. She was heavily involved in various civic institutions, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, of which she was vice president, but not president, as evidenced by this snippet from the Sunday, February 17, 1901 Daily Eagle.

The Chiropean Society, the Relief Society, the Society for the Aid of Friendless Women and Children and the State Federation of Women's Clubs also commanded her attention. In addition, she was well-travelled, so much so that she was present at the Coronation of Tsar Nicholas II, as reported on Friday, April 30, 1897 by the Eagle. She is described as having a "Keen discriminating and investigating turn of mind", with nary a mention of her appearance or dress.

Mrs. Roebling also never ceased to further her education, graduating from the NYU law program on March 31, 1899, at the age of 56. This is a stunning accomplishment for any 56- year old, much less for a woman in the Victorian era.

Mrs. Roebling's accomplishments did not go unnoticed. There is a handsome placard commemorating her on the Brooklyn Bridge, in recognition of all her efforts. At the dedication ceremony for the bridge, Mr. Abram S. Hewitt stated, "It is thus an everlasting monument to the self-sacrificing devotion of woman, and of her capacity for that higher education from which she had been too long debarred. The name of Mrs. Emily Warren Roebling will thus be inseparably associated with all that is admirable in human nature, and with all that is wonderful in the constructive world of art." (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 25, 1883)

Emily Warren Roebling embodied a powerful intellectual spirit and set an inspiring example. As a teacher, I feel that she is the kind of person my students should learn about-- someone who worked hard and continued to learn throughout her lifetime, achieving great recognition for her intelligence and abilities.

Let's Get Trivial!

Apr 10, 2013 12:57 PM | 3 comments

Two trivia contestants battling for the crown of Brooklyn's Smartest Nerd  

Very rarely here at the Brooklyn Collection are we able to combine three of our most indefatigable passions: showcasing our broad knowledge of Brooklyn's past; partnering with local businesses to bring fun and free events to the public; and enjoying a drink or two with friends. But now, thanks to a new partnership with Sepia, a local bar just steps from Central library's door, we can pursue all three passions simultaneously in the form of a... Trivia Night!

So here's what you need to know (aside from, say, knowing the name of the first mayor of Brooklyn):

Who: Teams of four will compete. Bring three friends or come solo and we'll match you up with some real eggheads.
What: Brooklyn trivia night.
Where: Bar Sepia, 234 Underhill Avenue (at Lincoln Place)
When: Tuesday, April 16th at 9pm
Why: Because you can win a bar tab!

There's no need to register ahead of time, just show up at the bar and be prepared to answer 40 of the toughest trivia questions you can imagine. We'll cover everything from Abraham & Straus to Zach Wheat. If you think you know Brooklyn you got another think coming. We hope to see you there!