The New York Historical Society is one of the oldest independent research libraries in the United States. The Museum and Library collection strengths include local history of New York City and State; colonial history; the Revolutionary War; American military and naval history; religions and religious movements, 18th and 19th century; the Anglo-American slave trade and conditions of slavery in the United States; the Civil War; American biography and genealogy; American art and art patronage; the development of American architecture from the late 18th to the present; and 19th and 20th century portraiture and documentary photographs of NewYork City.
Internship Spring 2015
For the last three months I have been treking to the New-York Historical Society on the Upper West Side, where the head archivist Sue Kriete has been generous enough to take me under her wing. N-YHS, the oldest historical society in New York, and the second oldest in the country, has a huge backlog of collections and a very interesting history. It was founded in 1804 by a group of “gentleman historians” who wanted to preserve history in the broadest sense. The Society did not develop a concrete collecting policy until late in the 20th century, and consequently they have amassed enormous backlog. While the backlog is considerable, their collections are also diverse and fascinating. With so much work to be done the Society is glad to have NYU interns.
As an intern I was given three small collections to organize that had been in the Society’s backlog for years. The first collection contained three boxes of papers belonging to George McAneny, a reformer, preservationist and New York civil servant in the 19th century. His collection contained correspondence, press clippings, material from events given in his honor and awards. It told the story of a man deeply devoted to the city and to civic reform. He assisted in the consolidation and streamlining of the burgeoning subway system, battled against Robert Moses to protect Castle Clinton in Battery Park, and drafted zoning bills that would later aid in historic preservation efforts. While sifting through the papers I discovered that his son Herbert also had a presence in the collection. The collection was passed on to N-YHS from the Princeton New Jersey Historical Society, where Herbert McAneny had once served as president. In the papers were a number of photographs, correspondence and books that had made it into the George McAneny material. Organizing this collection presented me with the challenge of arranging this varied material, and deciding which materials should be maintained. Ultimately, the McAneny material was given its own series reflecting the passion for preservation exhibited by George McAneny.
The second collection I managed documented a 1980’s preservation effort to turn the area around the Flatiron Building into a historic district. Known at the Ladies’ Mile, the area contains a number of former department stores that were once the center of the female driven consumer culture of the Gilded Age. The collection, the Drive to Protect the Ladies’ Mile, was given to N-YHS by the New York Preservation Archives Project (NYPAP). NYPAP was created to help save material related to the preservation movement in New York, but is not a repository itself, and consequently, the material primarily concerns the people who did the preserving and their efforts. Made up mostly of letters of support, research and administrative material, this collection would be very helpful to researchers interested in historic preservation, but not necessarily of interest to historians of architecture or consumer culture.
Lastly, I worked on the small photographic collection given to N-YHS by photographer Jane Hoffer, who spent four years between 1975 and 1979 interviewing and photographing female police officers in the field. The end result was a rich collection of prints and transcripts that give a lot of insight into the world of policewomen, especially during a time when they were relegated less and less to traffic divisions and desk work. As the only collection with any kind of original order, it was by far the easiest to arrange, however, it contained the least contextual information, so I had to dig a bit deeper. I interviewed Jane Hoffer herself, who is still a working photographer in New York. She provided the information I needed to situate the collection in a broader historical context. Without Jane’s input, I would not have known that a bound photo essay in the collection had been made independent of any exhibits. She also informed me that the photographs had been shown at two galleries and a museum before arriving at N-YHS, and that a selection of photographs from the same project are housed at the New York City Police Museum.
Each collection raised a unique set of problems and questions. The small size of the collections along with Sue’s invaluable guidance enabled me to conquer these challenges. I have described the specific challenges each collection raised, but they also presented me with issues in housing and contextualization. Ultimately, I learned two major lessons from my time at N-YHS. The first: experience is the only way for me to encounter the problems that crop up in processing. I can’t anticipate the kinds of questions a collection will present to me. I can’t anticipate them from a classroom. At N-YHS I was not only able to tackle those problems, but working with Sue allowed me to ask the questions I couldn’t answer on my own. It has set me on the road to preparedness for larger projects, and has certainly given me a framework for the kind of thinking needed to sort out these questions in a way that provides the best, most accessible and appropriately contextualized collections. The second lesson I learned is that N-YHS is a very unique organization, which has experienced the ebb and flows of archival practice over two centuries of collecting. I was given the chance to visit other departments, sit in on meetings and take part in the kind of events that inform the institutional culture at N-YHS. As an intern at a large, reputable institution in one of the most museum and library dense cities in the world, I was afforded a glimpse into the work it takes to maintain such an enormous repository. I saw first hand the way in which the archives, as a department, functions within the larger institutional framework and the direction they are headed in for the future.
Internship Spring 2014
Family Papers and Family Legends
This spring I interned at the New-York Historical Society and had the opportunity to process a collection papers from the de Caro, Menkhoff, and Mulvehill families. These three families united through a series of marriages at the end of the nineteenth century, and their papers and photographs document the relationships that brought them together and the generations that followed.
Family papers are unique historical resources and their content often says as much about the way a family has chosen to remember its history as it does about the experiences of the individuals featured. In deciding what materials to keep and what to throw away, families build selective narratives that develop into legends. The de Caro, Menkhoff, and Mulvehill Family Papers are constructed around their own legend, which builds off of a creation story that was passed down from one generation to another.
This story centers on the courtship of Frank A. de Caro and Anna Menkhoff. Frank and Anna both immigrated to the United States in the late nineteenth century. Frank was an Italian tailor and moved to New York City in 1883. Anna emigrated from Germany with her parents around the same time. The Menkhoffs started a bakery in the city and Anna worked in the family store. The details of how Frank and Anna met are unclear, but when they first started courting, her parents expressed their disapproval of the relationship. According to family lore, Frank and Anna used a secret code as a way to see each other without her parents’ knowledge. Working in her parents’ bakery, Anna would put two éclairs in the window to signal to Frank that she could sneak away and meet with him. If she couldn’t she would place two napoleons in the window instead. At one point Anna’s parents even bought a piano for her as a way to distract her from Frank’s attentions, but this tactic failed, and Frank and Anna eloped in 1891.
After their elopement, Frank sent Anna’s parents a letter informing them of his marriage to their daughter. As a way to signify the importance of their defiance, and perhaps antagonize Anna’s parents, they later had the letter framed along with the receipt for the piano. Both were passed down to subsequent generations and ultimately ended up in the family’s archival collection. As for the piano, their son-in-law had it dismantled and turned into a dining room table.
The symbolic importance this family gave to these items reflects the centrality of Anna and Frank’s relationship in this family’s history. Through the preservation (or destruction in the case of the piano) of these materials and the story they tell, this family has preserved not only their history, but also a sense of their values.
William Twersky, Exhibitions Intern at the New-York Historical Society
The “Fall” or “Liberation” of Saigon
The United States lost the Vietnam War. That is a generally accepted historical fact. The language and evidence that is used by the American media and educational curricula to instruct future generations about Vietnam, however, is less certain. These outlets have popularized the term “Fall of Saigon” to describe the conclusion of the war, a phrase that obscures more than it illuminates.
My education fell directly in line with this model. It was not until I began researching primary documents and photographs for the New-York Historical Society’s forthcoming exhibit on the war that I first encountered the term “Liberation of Saigon”, the meaning of which conveys something precisely opposite to the American phrase.
Before drawing any conclusions, it is important to consider the sources. The documents and images with texts that mention the “Liberation of Saigon” were produced and distributed by two groups. The first was the Viet Nam News Agency (VNNA), based in Hanoi. The second was the Liberation News Service (LNS). Each media company certainly had its reasons to describe the end of the war so favorably. The VNNA, functioning as an informal service of the North Vietnamese, needed to describe the reunification process as liberation rather than a hostile takeover. The LNS was a U.S.-based underground, radical newspaper that strongly opposed the Vietnam War. Most American organizations like the LNS described events that pertained to the war in ways that mirrored North Vietnamese media outlets. Phrases like “liberation” were intended to make its readers believe that the war was morally wrong and that the United States had no business interfering in internal Vietnamese matters.
As history has demonstrated, very few things are exclusively clear-cut. This case appears no different. Many South Vietnamese felt liberated by northern soldiers and were happy to see the American presence expelled from their country. Others, certainly a minority but still in existence, feared the worst as the war neared its end. Many fled the country.
In America, Vietnam was viewed for many years as a national embarrassment and a military failure. The “Fall of Saigon” marked a definitive conclusion to a war that would be remembered by the majority of Americans as wrongly conceived and interminable in execution. By describing the final phase as a “fall” instead of a “liberation”, observers lamented an American failure to halt Communism, and lingering fears persisted of the “domino effect” that would produce further Communist advances. The language of defeat, therefore, justified the Vietnam War as a necessary, if unsuccessful, battle in the larger war against Communism.
Internship Spring 2013
Erin Shaw: During the Spring 2013 semester, I was fortunate enough to intern at the New-York Historical Society’s library. Working with the Manuscript Curator, Maurita Baldock, I was able to process two collections that spanned from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first century.
First, I processed the King Family Papers. The most notable member of the King family is Rufus King, attendee of the Constitutional Convention, signer of the United States Constitution, and an unsuccessful candidate for vice-president twice, in 1804 and 1808; however, his progeny also include such other such notable figures as one of the first presidents of Columbia University, a governor of New Jersey, and a governor of New York. The majority of correspondence is between family members, and the collection gives an exclusive glimpse into the life of a prominent New York family from the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century.
The second collection I processed was the Westside Crime Prevention Program Records. The Westside Crime Prevention Program was a community-organized initiative that attempted to address the drug and crime problem that plagued the Upper West Side in the 1980s and 1990s. The program empowered residents to take a proactive stance against criminals and criminal activity in their community, and helped to bridge the communication gap between police officers and community members. The program was so successful that it disbanded a few years ago, feeling that the core of its mission had been achieved. While it may take some time for this collection to pique the interest of historians, the collection offers a potentially incredible case study for sociologists, or those interested in the rapid change to Manhattan’s demographic in the late twentieth century.
Processing these two collections introduced me to the wide breadth of the New-York Historical Society’s holdings as well as provided me with invaluable experience handling a variety of archival materials, with materials from both collections spanning from before the Revolutionary War to nearly the present day.
Internships Spring 2012
Megan Findling: This semester I had a wonderful experience working at the New York Historical Society with Marci Reaven (VP for Historical Exhibits) on the upcoming WWII & NYC exhibition. The exhibition focuses on the home front during World War II and highlights the way in which the war touched every aspect of life in New York City. It is a place-based exhibition with each section highlighting a different venue for war effort activities such as schools and museums.
At the beginning of the semester I started off taking this location-centric mindset and began researching for the Education Department. I was gathering interesting war effort events whose specific address I could pin down. I went though secondary sources, microfilmed newspapers, and other municipal documents like archived Parks Department announcements. Two excellent overviews of New York City life during the war are Over Here!: New York City During World War II by Lorraine Diehl and Helluva Town: The Story of New York City During World War II by Richard Goldstein. Diehl’s book in particular also includes fascinating photographs from the period.
As the semester progressed, I looked for a way to turn all the information I had gathered into a resource that could help make the exhibition and learning about the period more interesting for children. Working with Museum Educator Allyson Schettino we were able to come up with a project that would add a local history component to the larger themes of World War II that 8th and 11th graders must learn under New York’s Scope and Content standards. These two grades focus on such concepts as the response to Pearl Harbor, the African American experience, and women during the War. I created a profile card for each topic including a photograph, brief history, and connection to the theme so that teachers will be able to add local examples to their lessons. Secondly, I selected sites of war activity from each borough writing a brief paragraph of historical context. These will hopefully be the basis for a local history project teachers can assign where students create an in-class exhibit, walking tour, or photograph the sites in the present day. This project was great for me because I learned to think critically about how to translate the information to teach larger themes while retaining a local connection.
The exhibition opens October 5, 2012.
Rachel Schimke: My internship with the manuscripts division of the New York Historical Society’s library gave me the opportunity to work with some amazing collections from the nineteenth century. The first collection I processed was the Peter Curtenius Papers. Curtenius served as the U.S. Marshal for the District of New York during the War of 1812. One of his duties was to maintain registers of the approximately 1,500 British citizens living in New York (about half of whom lived in New York City) during the war. Curtenius corresponded often with the Department of State (led by James Monroe), receiving frequent instructions regarding these British “aliens.” The collection also includes registers of British prisoners of war and correspondence from the Department of the Treasury, which was then headed by Albert Gallatin, the founder of NYU.
I also processed the James Harper Papers. Harper, of Harper & Brothers fame, was not only a famous publisher, but also served as mayor of New York City from 1844-1845. The collection is primarily correspondence written to him from his constituents, mostly proposals for public projects, grievances, and requests for jobs. As Harper is best known for his work in the publishing industry, this collection offers an interesting look at his other pursuits and interests.
The final collection I processed was the Alexander Robert Chisolm Papers. Chisolm served as the senior aide-de-camp to General Beauregard during the Civil War. He was present at many important battles, including Fort Sumter, the First Battle of Bull Run, and Shiloh. Through letters, speeches, notes, and copies of Chisolm’s unpublished autobiography, the collection richly documents Chisolm’s memories of the conflict.
Internship Spring 2011
Cassie Brewer: working with the manuscripts curator, Maurita Baldock on processingthe papers of Ebenezer Stevens (a revolutionary war soldier/officer) and the William H. Paine Papers
Many associate the name Roebling with the design and production of the Brooklyn Bridge, but what about the minds behind the scenes that aided in the planning and construction of this unprecedented engineering project? Aside from a plaque on the bridge listing the names of six other men involved in the bridge’s engineering, their contribution is rarely acknowledged in any popular history of the bridge.
One of those men is William H. Paine, an assistant engineer for the Brooklyn Bridge. Paine’s papers reside at the New-York Historical Society, and I processed them as a part of my internship this semester. For 14 years, Paine worked on the engineering and construction of the bridge’s cable railway system, obtaining 14 patents for new or improved technologies.
Although Paine is immortalized on that plaque for his work on the Brooklyn Bridge, he was involved with innovative engineering and major events of his time long before this. In 1848, he settled in the young state of Wisconsin and began his career as a land surveyor. Shortly after, Paine tried his hand at gold mine engineering in California at the height of the Gold Rush. Clearly a self-starter, upon returning to Wisconsin, Paine patented and began selling his “Paine’s Patent Steel Measuring Tape” while working on various railroad projects.
In 1861, Paine joined the Union Army as a topographical engineer and served in this position for the entirety of the Civil War, mapping land in Washington D.C. and Virginia. Post-war, Paine settled in Brooklyn and worked as a consulting engineer for major projects including the Niagara Suspension Bridge, the 10th Avenue railway line and, most notably, the Hudson River Tunnel.
The William H. Paine Papers document Paine’s diverse interests and involvement with modern innovations of his time, as well as his accounts of major events, particularly the Gold Rush and the Civil War. It is not often that we question the little-known names associated with major projects like the Brooklyn Bridge, but when we do, the results can be rich and exciting — as they are with the papers of William H. Paine.
Jacqueline Colognesi: assisting Marci Reaven (V.P., Historical Exhibits) at New York Historical Society on an exhibit she is curating on New York City in World War II, which will run from March 1, 2013 to September 1, 2013.
This past spring, my internship with the New York Historical Society had me searching for voices-the voices of those who lived, worked, or even just passed through New York City during World War II.
Thankfully, World War II has long been the focus of oral historians. Interest recording wartime memories actually began during the war, with personnel from the Army’s Information & Historical divisions interviewing soldiers directly after combat. Today, a number of institutions are carrying on the tradition and are executing projects dedicated to the preservation of World War II reflections.
The largest national project is the Veteran’s History Project, run by the Library of Congress. The project aims to help citizens better understand the realities of war. It is not primarily focused on World War II-veterans and civilians who participated in six different U.S. conflicts are invited to participate in the project and share their memories.
Rutgers University also possesses an extensive oral history archive dedicated to conflict histories. The archive is searchable by conflict and geographic region, and heavily focuses on participants from the New York/New Jersey area.
A good oral history archive or project doesn’t always have to be large, however. “What did you do in the War, Grandma?” is a great example of a student-run oral history project. Rhode Island high schoolers interviewed a group of 36 women about their roles in the war, and came away with some fascinating stories.
These are just a few examples of the hundreds of existing World War II oral history collections. If you’re in the market for World War II oral histories, a good place to start (besides Google) is the Alexander Street Oral History Database. Happy hunting!