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Posts from the Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy

Behind the Scenes of the Milstein Suspense Trailer

History has secrets... but secrets don’t stay hidden if you know where to look...

The Library's Milstein Division staff are very excited to present a movie trailer-style promotional video, which debuted this week on YouTube. We've loved the videos that other NYPL divisions and neighborhood libraries have made — especially Jefferson 

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Telling Time on New Year's Eve: Why the First Ball Was Dropped in Times Square

On New Year's Eve all clocks are synchronized for the epitome of countdowns. The clinking of champagne glasses and the first kiss of the New Year will all be coordinated to the descent of a 12-foot-wide glowing geodesic sphere stationed on top of One Times Square. When all of its 11,875 pounds reach the bottom of its pole, we will know that the New Year has officially begun.

It wasn't always that way. But thanks to a time-honored tradition involving a lowered ball, a one-shot opening celebration has morphed into a spectacle that attracts one million revelers to Times 

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Everyone Counts: Using the Census in Genealogy Research

You should always start your genealogy research by interviewing your relatives. Carefully record all of the names, dates, and places that they tell you. Don’t worry if Uncle Joe and Aunt Joan have a different story about where grandma was born, write it all down. With that step complete, it is time to start looking into the United States Federal Census. Census takers assiduously attempt to include all Americans, and they typically do a good job at this task. This is what makes it such a valuable genealogical tool. With few exceptions, the census is generally complete, but not always 

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The Great Obituary Hunt: A Genealogy Research Guide

Like all good detective work, genealogy research benefits from organization, patience, and procedure. One of many tools in the researchers toolbox is the obituary. Obituaries are small articles in a newspaper that offer a posthumous piece of the story of a person’s life. They can also be very useful to those who are researching genealogy, adding details that would otherwise be unknown. The names of relatives, location of birth, final resting place, occupation, religious affiliation, volunteer work, and other 

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Who Lived In a House Like This? A Brief Guide to Researching the History of Your NYC Home

The Library's Milstein Division is home to one of the largest free United States history, local history, and genealogy collections in the country, and many of our patrons are writing their family histories. Many reference questions pertain to building histories, especially in the light of genealogy. Afterall, those ancesters lived somewhere, and it's natural to wonder what it was like where they lived.

Sometimes patrons are curious about the buildings they live in, when the buildings were built, and by whom. They might wonder, "Who lived in my apartment 

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Genealogy Research Tips: Breaking Through Brick Walls and Getting Past Dead Ends

Genealogy research may now be among America’s favorite hobbies, but it certainly is not the least frustrating. Stamp and coin collecting may start to look more attractive after you spend a few days combing through Ancestry Library Edition and can’t find any new records to help add details to your family tree. But don’t despair for too long, the following tips and tricks may help you get past the dreaded brick wall in genealogy research.

I would be remiss 

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New York City Land Conveyances 1654-1851: What They Are and How They Work

On microfilm, in olde worlde language, in undecipherable hand writing. Who cares? This is digitized, right? Yes, sometimes, often, and not yet. Being a librarian, I spend a lot of time rummaging through old documents, seemingly dull and indecipherable tracts that often prove to be invaluable sources of the good stuff. Land conveyances are just such a document. The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society recently donated to the New York Public Library's 

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Maury and the Menu: A Brief History of the Cunard Steamship Company

In 1907 the Cunard Steamship Company launched the first of their Express Liners, the Lusitania and the

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History on the Half-Shell: The story of New York City and its oysters

Blue Points, Saddle Rocks, Rockaways, Lynnhavens, Cape Cods, Buzzard Bays, Cotuits, Shrewsburys -- raw on the half shell. Fried oysters, oyster pie, oyster patties, oyster box stew, Oysters Pompadour, Oysters Algonquin, Oysters a la Netherland, a la Newberg, a la Poulette, oysters roasted on toast, broiled in shell, served with cocktail sauce, stewed in milk or cream, fried with bacon, escalloped, fricasseed, and pickled.  If you have spent any time transcribing for NYPL's What’s on the Menu? project, you’ve seen a lot of ways to 

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A Helluva Town: The Origins of New York’s Hellish Place Names

"New York, New York, a helluva town. The Bronx is up but the Battery's down." —On the Town

With at least three "Hell" based place names within its boundaries—Hell Gate, Hell's Kitchen, and Hell's Hundred Acres—New York City is indeed a helluva town. But in spite of name and reputation, these places are now far from infernal.

Hell Gate  Hell Gate is the oldest place name of these three.  Dating back to New Amsterdam's Dutch colonial period, Hell Gate ... Read More ›

NYC Reads: Books on the Subway

"I hope you are not here because you like to read." It was the opening salvo for my interview with the admissions director at the University of Maryland's Graduate School of Library & Information Services. I don't remember what, or if, I countered. It was 1967.

Answer or no answer I was admitted, matriculated, and graduated. After a long library career, I am now retired and a recent volunteer at NYPL. The admissions director is long gone, but I would like to reply. "I love to read. Did then, still do. And I love to know what people are 

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Beware of Zombies: The Grim Origins of Washington Square Park

Centered on Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village is a neighborhood made legendary by the world famous artists, musicians, and writers that have flourished and created within steps of its arch.  However, what lies beneath that splendid, recently re-landscaped and renovated outdoor sanctuary is a bit more morbid.  

In his 2003 book Around Washington Square, Luther S. Harris posed the question, “What had made 

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So, Why Do We Call it Gotham Anyway?

The word “Gotham” actually dates back to medieval England. NYPL has some of these resources, including an 1866 reprint of The Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gottam. Gathered Together by A.B. of Phisicke, Doctor, 1630. There is also a digitized version available on site at the library and a Google Book version. English proverbs tell of a village called Gotham or Gottam, meaning “Goat’s 

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A Look at "The Book": The Fall and Rise of the Telephone Directory

It can't have escaped your attention that there has been a lot of talk recently about the imminent demise of the book, at least the print version. But what about the book? Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have this year reported that the White Pages may soon be discontinued. This is perhaps understandable. How many copies of this book currently lie abandoned in a cupboard or drawer, 

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Thanksgiving Ragamuffin Parade

When searching for Thanksgiving images in our Digital Gallery, you might be surprised to find a set of about 20 images of Thanksgiving "ragamuffins."  Who are these young beggars and what do they have to do with Thanksgiving?

Before Halloween was the holiday known for dressing up in costume and begging for candy (this practice did not become common until the 1940's and 

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Changing the Changing City

Seeking further enlightenment into the city we call home, I recently took a class on the literary and cultural history of New York City. Among the many themes common to New York City novels we discussed was the portrayal of the city itself as a character with power to shape the lives of its citizens.

Many of us New Yorkers have felt this pressure in our own lives: we choose where to live based on our budgets, our hobbies, our family situation, and often our ethnic, linguistic or religious 

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A Clue to a Cue

“I’m looking for a pool hall that used to be on 14th street on the east side. I’m not sure what of its name. It was open at least as late as 1989, and it was next to a nightclub. Can you tell me the name of the hall?”

This was an interesting reference challenge. Normally when one is faced with a business name question, it’s as simple as heading to the yellow pages or reverse directory (also known as an address directory) for the time period in question. Without an exact 

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Not Just Another New York Travel Guide

In these tight economic times, we’re all looking for ways to save money, and as summer approaches this applies to vacation plans as well. About this time of year Americans start to dream of vacations to faraway places, respite from the daily grind and a little sun and relaxation. Conventional wisdom says that in recessions we lean towards travel options light on the wallet, heading to locales closer to home, such as a national park or an American destination city.   Well, the budget ... Read More ›

Endurance racing: Second Leg, Ultra-Marathons

My last post focused on an early example of endurance racing, the Bunion Derbys of 1928 and 1929. Lest you think that such unusual endurance races were one-time pranks typical of the fad competitions of the 1920s and 30s, I’m happy to be able to say that endurance running as a sport is alive and well. There is a vibrant American ultra-marathon community, with hundreds of “ultras” run in the United States alone.   What, ... Read More ›

Endurance Racing: First Leg, the Bunion Derby

Vacationers traveling in the United States usually do so by car, plane or train, but in 1928 (and again in 1929), approximately 200 runners signed on for the challenge of crossing the country coast-to-coast on foot. These were the runners in the Transcontinental Footrace, jokingly called the “Bunion Derby” by the newspapers. The race was used to advertise everything from foot products to the new Route-66 highway to Madison Square Garden, and was managed by a sports promoter of questionable character named C.C. Pyle, whose legal troubles added an additional bit of entertainment 

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