Brooklyn Historical Society

The Brooklyn Historical Society connects the past to the present and makes the vibrant history of Brooklyn tangible, relevant and meaningful for today’s diverse communities, and for generations to come. Founded in 1863, the Brooklyn Historical Society is a nationally recognized urban history center dedicated to preserving and encouraging the study of Brooklyn’s extraordinary 400-year history.  Located in Brooklyn Heights and housed in a magnificent landmark building designed by George Post and opened in 1881, today’s BHS is a cultural hub for civic dialogue, thoughtful engagement and community outreach.

Internship Spring 2015

Victoria Harty: Armed with a notebook and a pencil, I spent most of my internship at the Brooklyn Historical Society in their research library, pouring over fire insurance atlases. Part of a larger project for a new offsite satellite location on the Brooklyn waterfront, my role was to trace the industrial development of the waterfront. Knowing very little about Brooklyn’s history and even less about the geography, the task before me seemed daunting. Fast forward eighteen weeks and I now possess an intimate knowledge of every fire insurance atlas in BHS collection from 1855 to 1941 for the neighborhoods of DUMBO and Vinegar Hill, can visually picture the development along the waterfront in a time-lapse sequence that plays on a loop in my mind, and rattle off obscure and interesting facts about the major industrial companies and manufacturers on command.

And I couldn’t be more excited.

The research process was frustrating, thrilling, and mostly intriguing. I spent hours with the atlases in the library, going block by block from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Fulton Street from the East River into York Street. My notes reflected the changes in the area as coal sheds, stables, and small warehouses, were replaced by big name coffee companies, shoe factories, and paint companies, among a number of other national manufacturers and industries that called Brooklyn home. Compiling the research was monotonous at times, but in the end I had compiled a 70 page database from thirteen different atlases that chronicled the industrial growth of Brooklyn from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Fulton Street.

Atlas of the City of Brooklyn, G.W. Bromley and Co., 1893

But I had to make the research useable. Coding the companies by type – warehouse, manufacturer, other industry, utility, and community development – was the first step in building a profile of the neighborhoods. The coding led to an index of every company and a note of every atlas they appeared and what they produced. Throughout the course of the project I was aware that I wasn’t going to be at BHS for the duration of the projection and other staff members and researchers would have to use my research. By creating these indexes, along with a master list of each company and their category, the research now held meaning for more than just myself.

Now I had a multicolored word document and a spreadsheet with numerous tabs. From the first leg of my research I was able to figure out who the big players on the waterfront were and from there I began writing short company bios, filled with fun facts and quirky little details, which built the narrative of why these companies were so important to the development of Brooklyn. Some of my favorite odds and ends were things like the National Licorice Company, which was headquartered in DUMBO in the early 20th century, invented Twizzlers candy which later became a subsidiary of Hershey’s. Or that E.W. Bliss Co., the largest contractor of warheads and torpedoes for the United States Navy, built cars for commercial sale in 1906.

My internship at Brooklyn Historical Society, not only taught me about the history of the waterfront, which was expressed through my research and resulting analysis, but also a worthwhile learning experience. Public history is one of those professions that’s loosely defined and changes from venue to venue. While the semester is ending and my internship has come to close, my experience at BHS helped shape my understanding of public history and my own skills and goals as an emerging professional in the field.

Internship Spring 2014

Sweet Excursions: Taking Brooklyn Historical Society’s Exhibition Lab Students to the Past

Shannon McDonald: Since February, high school students from Cobble Hill School of American Studies, The Packer Collegiate Institute and Brooklyn Technical High School in Brooklyn have worked diligently with Brooklyn Historical Society’s Education Department to curate an exhibit.  The students participate in the program twice a week after school at the Brooklyn Historical Society where they curate an exhibit from start to finish. With the addition of new classroom facilities to the building, they had a fresh and inspiring environment to work. The exhibit is based on Brooklyn’s former sugar industry that was once a booming enterprise that formerly supplied jobs to large amounts of locals. As most historians know, the curation of exhibits is no simple task.

photo2 Throughout the Semester, the students have had the opportunity to research in the Other Library, digging deep to find the story of Brooklyn’s booming industry through maps, photographs, records, and material culture. With the assistance of educators, they first did background research on the sugar industry, by working hands on with primary resources and material culture, helped design the layout, and are currently in the process of writing labels and quotes for the exhibit that is due to open in June. The importance of this experience early on, in this case high school, is a great opportunity to take history out of the textbook for these students and make it real. Not only are they given this intimate look at peoples lives from their community’s past, they are introduced to new research methods than they are accustomed to. These experiences leave students with a close connection to history as well as a larger understanding of museum professions. As the school year wraps up and the exhibit opening approaches, the students bustle in every Tuesday and Thursday after school ready to work. The students work hard and certainly deserve a reward. What would be more fitting than a trip to relish in the sweet treats available around town? The students and Ex Lab instructors explored the neighborhood to visit Brooklyn Farmacy, a nostalgic, delicious, and certainly sugary soda fountain. photo1

Brooklyn Farmacy is a restored 1920’s pharmacy that calls Carroll Gardens home. Once an abandoned storefront, it now bustles with the excitement of a former American Soda Fountain. The culture of soda fountains in America is one of community involvement. Soda fountains were a place to gather for lunch, or with friends after school. So the exhibit lab students and instructions departed in 2014 and arrived in the early 20th Century at Brooklyn Farmacy. With a fabulous introduction about soda fountain culture and the short history of Brooklyn Farmacy from the co-founder and proprietor Gia Giasullo, the students were able to connect the sugar and its industry that they had researched the last few months to something tangible that benefitted from the mass production of sugar. In this case, that was soda and soda floats. After learning about sugar’s role in Brooklyn, they got to consume it. photo 1

As an Education Department Intern, I was able to assist with the programming and conduct one informal session. The goal of my session was to create a fun excursion for the student group before the demanding part of the final stages of the exhibit take place. My preparation for the day included background research. My starting point was Jstor, shared digital library that houses vast amounts of books and academic journal articles in order to research a bit on the culture of soda shops and soda fountains. What I found was a mix between health reports, reminiscent poems, concise histories of the culture, and even a list of lingo used within the soda shops. In fact, there seems to have been such a concern for the health codes of soda fountains that in 1957 Cleveland held a seminar that professionally trained workers in the soda industry with the proper techniques and health code laws. It was a multi-day school consisting of traditionial classroom techniques as well as interactive elements to train the soda jerks. These classes proved just how substantial the industry was in America that it was being professionalized.[1] Specific lingo and terminology was used by the soda fountain industry workers such as the popular “soda jerk” who received that name that came from the “jerking” action the server would use to swing the Soda fountain handle back and forth when adding the soda water to the sweet drink.[2] From these findings, I provided context about the soda industry, created a connection to the sugar industry and prepared the students to look out for something we talked about before the trip. During our time at Brooklyn Farmacy, they were delighted to recognize the soda jerks wearing the clever Brooklyn Farmacy shirts that say “JERK” in large letters. Rather than taking the class directly to Brooklyn Farmacy without explanation, it was important to tie in the excursion with their current studies and create a meaningful experience.

photo 2-1 The trip was a fun educational emersion into a nostalgic past that many sugar industry workers may have used as gathering places after their long workdays. While a loose affiliation to the sugar industry, it was a great opportunity to get the students out of the classroom for a fun trip that also provided an educational and relevant experience. As important as researching with primary sources and curating the past is, it is beneficial to visit places that offer a type of living history. While Brooklyn Farmacy is not the same as a museum, it offers a slice of the past that makes you feel closer to those who actually lived it. Nostalgia can be a dangerous symptom of the past; in this case it was truly sweet. I was pleased with the outcome of the outing and felt that it did a good job of intersecting a real life experience with history of community and culture that is being learned for the exhibit. I felt accomplished of my lesson and outing that I planned. As the semester comes to a close, I will be assisting students in the final stages of the exhibit curation. The student’s exhibit Sweet Industries opens on June 10, 2014.

[1] “Soda Fountain School.” Public Health Reports (1896-1970) 72, no. 3 (1957): 193.

[2] Lancaster Riordan, Ensign John. “Soda Fountain Lingo.” California Folklore Quarterly 4, no. 1 (1945): 50-57.

Internship Spring 2011

Brendan Dolan : Working under Sady Sullivan, Director of Oral History, digitizing and describing  interviews collected in 1994 to document Brooklyn’s West Indian Day parade.

I spent the past semester at the Brooklyn Historical Society digitizing oral histories and researching methods to facilitate their access within the context of an archival finding aid.  The thirty-seven oral histories were conducted from 1993 to 1995 as part of a larger project to document the Carnival that takes place each year on Eastern Parkway over Labor Day weekend. The documentation project was a joint effort between the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Brooklyn Museum and the West Indian American Day Carnival Association (WIADCA), the committee that has organized the parade since its 1967 move from Harlem to Brooklyn. The oral histories supplement a significant collection of photographs, primary source materials and research materials, which culminated in a museum exhibit in 1994.  Over the ensuing years, the collection was misplaced only to resurface this past year enabling NYU program member Margaret Fraser to create a finding aid using the Archivists’ Toolkit last semester. The interviews cover the spectrum of Carnival participants from high level organizers such as Carlos Lezama and Joyce Quamina, to notable musicians such as Val Adams and Kelvin “Duke” Pope, to costume designers, wire benders, food vendors, youthful steel pan musicians to mere spectators. Under the guidance of BHS Oral History Director Sady Sullivan the mostly hour-long interviews were digitized using Pro Tools and saved in three locations in both AIFF and MP3 formats.

While in the short term the interviews will be accessible on site at the BHS’ oral history station in the historic Othmer Library, I used my time during my internship to investigate the possibility of on-line access to the interviews. Many repositories with oral history projects provide on-line access to their collections, usually within the context of a freestanding exhibit showcasing some thematic topic.  From my perspective, I feel that this sort of presentation too often separates the materials from its context, the very thing that separates archives apart from other types of repositories.

I feel that a better solution would be to provide access to the audio materials straight from a finding aid’s container list.  Surprisingly there are few precedents for this sort of access, although after much digging I did come across the finding aid for the Guggenheim’s Reel-to-Reel collection, which is a hopeful step forward.  The next goal is to implement this idea without using Flash technology, which while pretty has many drawbacks. I would welcome any suggestions in the comments below because I would love to see this sort of access become a reality.


Hester Goodwin: Working with the education department, leading school groups on tours and helping with other projects as needed.

“At the Foot of Hicks Street: An Artist’s View of Red Hook”This spring, as part of the Archives and Public History program, I was an Education intern at Brooklyn Historical Society. As part of the internship, students pick a little-noticed object on display, research it, and do a presentation for the whole staff during the semester. This helps keep items in the collection from becoming just part of the backdrop, which can be an occupational hazard for museum employees.

I researched a painting which hangs in the lobby at BHS, but is often overlooked: At the Foot of Hicks Street, painted by John Mackie Falconer in 1877. Falconer was born in 1820 in Edinburgh, Scotland, but immigrated to New York in 1836, where he became active in the art community. Falconer is known for his paintings of buildings in varying states of ruin, with At the Foot of Hicks Street being a prime example.

The painting probably shows a makeshift community sometimes known as “Tinkerville,” located in what is now Red Hook, Brooklyn. During the early 19th century, the area was populated by jacks-of-all-trades, and was known as a disreputable spot. In the 1840s, developments in shipping and industry led to increased traffic in nearby Gowanus Bay. The swampy land under Tinkerville was filled in, and its residents were evicted to make way for docks and the Erie Basin. As At the Foot of Hicks Street was painted in 1877, Falconer may have worked from memory or earlier sketches, or just imagined how the area might have looked. Today, the “foot of Hicks Street” is buried beneath the Red Hook Recreation Center, adjacent to the Brooklyn Ikea store.

Further Reading:

Brooklyn Historical Society, Red Hook-Gowanus Neighborhood History Guide. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Historical Society, 2000.

“Brooklyn Before the Bridge: American Paintings from the Long Island Historical Society,” Exhibition catalog, Brooklyn Museum, 1982.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Attribution: John Mackie Falconer, “At the Foot of Hicks Street,” 1877. Brooklyn Historical Society Collection. Photo by Hester Goodwin.

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