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Posts by Laura Ruttum

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

Okay, to cut Pyle some slack, organizing a race of such proportions is pretty tough. One would think he might have worked out some of the kinks by the second run in 1929, but one would be wrong. An August 4, 1929 article (pdf) in the New York Times indicated that Pyle's money had run out, that he “didn’t have a thin dime” to pay his athletes or staff. The article ended ominously with the Deputy Labor Commissioner of Los Angeles promising to issue a warrant for Pyle’s arrest ... Read More ›

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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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.


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Feminism's First Wave: Lillian Wald and the Henry Street Settlement

“Men! Give Women Votes to Protect the Children!”

This sentiment, originating during WWI, is an example of the many tools first wave feminists used in their efforts to obtain the right to vote. Women of the first wave argued that the vote would allow them to fix social ills such as poverty, child labor, alcoholism, and the war, and they used these issues as political levers to achieve their suffrage goal. This was not a cynical calculation, however: these early feminists and suffragists believed in their causes and would go far to fight for them. Numerous activists were put on 

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Is Feminism Dead?

Working as an archivist I often come across collection items that change the way I see the world around me. I had such an experience recently when processing a manuscript collection. As I sorted through the papers of a woman who had donated her papers to the library, an article title caught my eye, “Is Feminism Dead?”

Those who are interested in the Feminist movement will remember the Time magazine cover from 1998 that asked this question, featuring the images of four women across a stark black 

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Kitty Marion, Birth Control Advocate

Kitty Marion, from the Kitty Marion Papers,Manuscripts and Archives DivisionResidents of New York City, members of a metropolis that somehow simultaneously operates as a small village, are all familiar with certain “characters” who frequent public spaces. Today it is the “Naked Cowboy” one can find entertaining the tourists in Times Square, the affable gentleman selling vegetable peelers in Union Square, or even the kids who perform gravity-defying acrobatics on the A train. A similar character who was surely familiar to many in the streets of NYC during the nineteen-teens through 

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Edith Wynner, Firecracker

Edith Wynner, Schwimmer-Lloyd Photographs,box J31, Manuscripts and Archives Division“Is there a Jew in the House?”

Thus began a meeting of the “Great Pro-American Mass Meeting in Behalf of Free Speech and Americanism,” a gathering of several anti-immigrant, anti-Communist, reactionary organizations, on May 24, 1939. The crowd, turned away from their first meeting location at Carnegie Hall, had re-congregated at the Great Northern Hotel a few doors down 57th street. Police swarmed the lobby, shouts went around to “keep the newspapers out,” and journalists were violently 

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Rosika Schwimmer, Pacifist

Get the boys “out of the trenches by Christmas!"

Thus began the Ford Peace Expedition of 1915, an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to convince warring European parties to make peace. The brains behind the project, short, stocky, bespeckled pacifist Rosika Schwimmer convinced automaker Henry Ford to finance the venture. Together, they chartered a ship—the Oscar II—and enticed a number of intellectuals, social and political luminaries, students, journalists, three small children, and one stowaway to join them on their voyage across the Atlantic.


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