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

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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Lady Drivers!

For symbols of the freedom of the road, you can't beat the wind in your hair, piles of crinkly state road maps at your side, and a whole continent of asphalt spilling out underneath your wheels. The devil-may-care excitement that goes with exploring the American continent has lured many a traveler since the invention of the automobile.

But would one ever call taking a road trip a feminist activity? I don’t mean Thelma and Louise on a tear in a Ford Thunderbird, shooting criminals and running from the law. 

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A Mystery in Astor Hall

I recently received a research question that posed a bit of an unusual mystery. The question was why John Jacob Astor, a founder of the library, was listed as a benefactor on one of the Astor Hall marble columns not once, but twice.

The question sent me over to Astor Hall to investigate, where I found the first four benefactors listed as John Jacob Astor, William Backhouse Astor, James Lenox, and John Jacob Astor, in that order. Hmm, a mystery indeed.   To answer the question, I began with the first issue of the ... Read More ›

The Pony Express: History and Myth

Nearly everything you thought you knew about the Pony Express is wrong. Well, perhaps not wrong, but exaggerated or romanticized. If you’re like me, you’re probably imagining men dressed in fringed leather uniform on horses, riding at break-neck speeds to carry important business and love letters hundreds of miles, perhaps while simultaneously shooting their Wincester rifles in the air. When not dashing across the prairie, the riders would be found roping cattle, drinking and playing cards in saloons, hunting buffalo, and dodging Black-Hatted Bandits and 

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Life at the library: New York Public Library’s live-in superintendents

In the 1930 census, John H. Fedeler was living at 476 Fifth Avenue in midtown. Believe it or not midtown was once lined with brownstones. However, Fedeler's home address was not for a residential building, but for a library. Mr. Fedeler lived and worked in New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street from 1910 to 1940 as the library's live-in superintendent and engineer.

Fedeler's passport photograph from 1922

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The City of Light Before the Advent of Electricity: New York City Travel Writing, 1600s

Gotham. The Big Apple. The City of Light. Crossroads of the World. And my personal favorite: the City of Superlatives. These are all sobriquets that have been applied to New York City at one time or another.

The city that has insinuated its way into the hearts of so many travelers has inspired an incredible outpouring of travel guides and literature.

Travel writing at its best is half reporting and half myth-creating by the adventurer fortunate to visit an unknown, perhaps exotic destination. These treatises offer a 

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Road Trip

What could be more American than the road trip narrative? From Jack Kerouac to Tom Robbins, Americans have penned accounts both real and fictional about the joys and singular boredom of the open road. The rolling hills and prairies, the breeze wafting in through the window, and the seemingly endless dots of small towns, roadside restaurants and gas stations all stem from a particularly American phenomenon: the Interstate Highway System.

The

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Primary Day

Hopefully those of you living in New York City were able to participate in Primary Day; if you haven’t, it’s not too late. Registered voters have until 9:00 this evening. Of course, we all care about our city and want to take part in electing our public officials. Perhaps this morning you were overwhelmed by the number of candidates to research and decide between. According to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, as of September 10, 2009 there were a total of 374 candidates running for election!

Still, New Yorkers have been given materials to be informed: The New York 

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Better Living Through Selective Breeding

When reading family histories, as I often find myself doing in the Milstein Division, I frequently come across glowing depictions of people’s ancestors, of the grandmother who made the best peach cobbler this side of the Mississippi, or the aunt who was adored by all the neighborhood children and stray cats. For obvious reasons, less favorable descriptions of one’s family are not as common. Rarely do we come across stories of the egotistical great-grandfather or the lay-about uncle. Even 

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Happy 4th of July!

Images of the High Line

Have you visited the High Line yet? I haven’t but I am looking forward to making the trip in the near future. The High Line is an elevated train track which fell out of use during the 1950s due to the increased use of interstate highways for freight deliveries. In the late nineties, two New Yorkers came together to start Friends of the High Line, a group whose mission was to keep the historic structure from being demolished. Ultimately, the group partnered with the

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Photographic Views on Google Earth

As I have mentioned in the past, part of my work entails handling some wonderful photographs. One collection I processed last year was the Photographic Views of the United States, comprised of photographs from locations across the continental U.S., Hawaii and Alaska. While its layout is intuitively alphabetized by state, Matt Knutzen, from the Map Division decided to provide an alternative visual interface, 

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Milstein joins the Flickr Commons!

Just last week, the New York Public Library updated their Flickr Commons photostream. The newest images are from the Milstein Division and include construction photographs of the Woolworth Building as well as block by block street views of both Fifth Avenue (1911) and

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The Queens of Finance

Who exactly were the Queens of Finance? The New York Herald reserved this title for Victoria Claflin Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin (or Tennie C Claflin). These sisters surmounted incredible odds by establishing a highly lucrative brokerage business on Wall Street in 1869. Born in Homer, Ohio they were not privy to the comforts and education afforded by wealth or high social stature. In fact, their childhood was quite tumultuous. Born to an alcoholic father, the sisters took charge of providing for the family while 

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Islands of New York City: Roosevelt Island

 As one would guess, Roosevelt Island was not always known as Roosevelt Island. In fact over the past four hundred years it has gone through six name changes. From the Native American Minnahanonck, or “nice island,” to the Dutch name Varckens Island (meaning hogs island) to the English name Manning Island which became Blackwell Island, to American, Welfare Island and finally to the present, Roosevelt Island. Most of these names changes came as ownership was transferred from one party to the next, marking very distinct periods of history for the island which we now know as 

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