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

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 Greenwich 

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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 

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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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