History Detectives

Blast from the Past: Mittens and Slippers during the American Civil War

Bloodiest War in History

War Between the States

War of Secession

War of the Rebellion

Mr. Lincoln’s War

No matter what it was called, the American Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865, was a brutal one – not only for the men who fought on both sides, but for those who remained at home. No one was spared the physical and emotional tragedy.

Supplies for the soldiers were in great demand. There were shortages of tents, blankets, uniforms and bandages. These were not items that could simply be ordered from a manufacturer…they needed to be created by hand. And the people who created these items – both in the North and the South – were the women on the homefront.

Some of the most important items women made were mittens and socks! The war was fought through treacherous weather and soldiers need plenty of warm clothing. Women also received news from the warfront that soldiers were wearing out their socks at an alarming rate due to the drastic conditions in the field. One estimate is that soldiers went through one pair of socks each week.[1]

So women began to knit. They knit at home and in knitting circles with other women. They knew that their knitted products would be durable and provide comfort to their loved ones far from home. Their work at home also gave women enormous satisfaction that they were doing everything possible to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their soldiers.


Directions for Knitting Mittens, ca. 1862, Printed for the Women’s Central Relief Association, New York, the New-York Historical Society, New York NY.

Here is a pattern that was distributed to women in New York who volunteered to knit mittens for the Army. What is unusual about this diagram? The index finger is separated from the rest of the fingers! That’s because soldiers needed this finger free to use their weapon triggers.

Women had to know what they were doing when sewing these patterns! They even liked to refer to their needles as “weapons” in the fight to win the War. Some sewing groups gave themselves names that referenced fighting, like “The Needle Regiments” in Mississippi.[2]


Pattern, “Hospital Slippers for the sick and wounded soldiers of the Union…patterns and directions furnished gratis by Henry C. Blair, Druggist, Philadelphia,” ca. 1861, The New-York Historical Society, New York, NY.

Here is a wonderful pattern for slippers to relieve the cold feet of soldiers in the hospital. Because there were enormous shortages of fabric and other materials, this pattern specifies that the sewer can use anything they find…even carpeting!  It also says they can be completed in one hour, making it very ideal for the busy women at home.

The work done by the women on the homefront during the American Civil War was crucial to the success of their soldiers, so it was rare to see anyone sitting down without some form of sewing or knitting in their hands. And those in the field encouraged this valiant work. One nurse wrote to her friends back home that they should “knit, knit, knit, and let it be stockings. Illness comes from cold feet, and there are hundreds who have either no stockings at all, or such as have been worn a month or more.”[3]


Engraving, Six and Eighty-Six Knitting for the Soldiers, 1865, from Frank B. Goodrich, The Tribute Book, courtesy of Lynne Z. Bassett

Families, make sure to visit the special exhibition Homefront & Battlefiled: Quilts and Context in the Civil War and explore the Civil War through our vacation week programming. We’ll have scavenger hunts, family quizzes, and on April 13 we’ll have Civil War reenactors!

[1] Abby H. Woolsey to My Dear Girls, 6 December 1861, Box 185, letter 188, Woolsey Family Civil War Letters, Bellamy-Ferriday House Archives, Bethlehem, CT., quoted in Homefront & Battlefield: Quits & Context in the Civil War, Madelyn Shaw and Lynne Zacek Basset, 2012, American Textile History Museum, Lowell, MA.

[2] Natchez Daily Courier, September 10, 1861, quoted in Homefront & Battlefield: Quits & Context in the Civil War, Madelyn Shaw and Lynne Zacek Basset, 2012, American Textile History Museum, Lowell, MA.

[3] Letters from Abby Hopper Gibbons, November 1861, Life of Abby Hopper Gibbons: Told Chiefly through Her Correspondence, ed. Sarah Hopper Emerson, vol. 1 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897), 300, quoted in Homefront & Battlefield: Quits & Context in the Civil War, Madelyn Shaw and Lynne Zacek Basset, 2012, American Textile History Museum, Lowell, MA.

Martha Maxwell’s Menagerie: The Story of a Nineteenth Century Woman Naturalist

Martha Maxwell

Martha Maxwell, In the Field, ca. October 27, 1876, LOT 13301, no. 307 [P&P], Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

How many girls today dream of becoming scientists? In the twenty-first century, these girls can achieve their dreams far more easily than could girls in the nineteenth century. This Sunday, Reading into History book club families will learn about nineteenth century women in science by discussing The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. In this book, a young girl living in Texas in 1899 struggles to explore her interest in natural science instead of assuming traditional womanly responsibilities. The book is historical fiction, but there were real women in the nineteenth century who became scientists against many odds. One of those women was Martha Maxwell, a little-known, fascinating, and somewhat tragic figure. In Calpurnia Tate, Calpurnia’s grandfather references “Mrs. Maxwell” as a woman Calpurnia might look up to. Once you know her history, you’ll understand why.

Martha Maxwell (1831-1881) was a Colorado homesteader who became a pioneer in taxidermy, the art of stuffing and mounting dead animals. Taxidermy was crucial to the study of the natural world in the nineteenth century. Through taxidermy, Maxwell could catalog the variety of wildlife in Colorado, a part of the world that most Americans knew little about. She even discovered a subspecies of screech owl! Maxwell arranged her specimens in life-like poses and groupings and placed them in settings that mimicked their behavior in their natural environment. Later, Carl Akeley and William Hornaday would adopt some of her techniques for dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History and the Bronx Zoo, respectively.

The New-York Historical Society library has a first edition of a book about Martha Maxwell called  On The Plains and Among The Peaks, by Mary Dartt, Maxwell’s half-sister. The book begins by discussing the diorama of Colorado wildlife that Maxwell curated at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Maxwell was commissioned to bring her collection of over 400 birds and 100 mammals to the exhibition, design an environment for them, and answer visitors’ questions. It was a rare honor for a woman to represent her state at such an important event. At this time, it was rare for a woman to even give a speech in public- it was not considered proper! Maxwell thought it was important for women to show off their talents in public.  She once said  “My life is one of physical work, an effort to prove the words spoken by more gifted women….The world demands proof of womans [sic] capacities, without it words are useless.”[1] Maxwell titled her Centennial exhibition “Woman’s Work” to prove this point.

cover_on the plains

This is the cover of the copy of On the Plains, and Among the Peaks, or, How Mrs. Maxwell Made Her Natural History Collection in our Library collection.


In the first few pages of On the Plains, the author Dartt tells us about a time when she took over answering visitor questions at Maxwell’s diorama while Maxwell took a break. Here are some of the questions that Dartt, was asked about her sister:

Martha Maxwell Taxidermy

Martha Maxwell, In the Work Room, ca. October 27, 1876, LOT 13301, no. 306 [P&P], Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA 

“How could a woman do it?”

“Did she kill any of the animals?”

“What sort of a woman is she?”

“Did she kill them buf’lo?”

“I don’t believe them critters was shot; I’ve looked ‘em all over and I can’t see any holes. Did she pisen [poison] ‘em?”

“Does she live in that cave?”[2]

Here is how Dartt may have answered all these questions. Martha Maxwell killed most but not all of her specimens herself by poisoning, trapping or shooting them. She stuffed and mounted all of them herself. This involved gutting the animals, and Maxwell reported that she often became sick doing this gross work. She was so expert at putting the animals in lifelike poses that it threw some viewers off.  Before the Centennial, a journalist  visited the Colorado museum where Maxwell displayed her collection and reported that “The first thing upon which my eyes fell was a black-and-tan terrier lying on a mat. Not until after a second or two did the strange stillness of the creature suggest to me that it was not alive….I could hardly believe it.”[3] People at the Centennial were especially astonished by Maxwell’s buffalo, posed as though ready to charge. Maxwell was likely the first woman of European descent to kill a buffalo. Are you surprised that someone asked if she lived in the cave that was part of the diorama? Well, she did. Here’s where Maxwell’s story isn’t so glorious.

calpurnia3Martha Maxwell, though respected and well known, never made much of a living from taxidermy. The museum she started in Colorado failed in one location and then another. During the Centennial, Maxwell lived in the cave that was part of her diorama because she could not afford housing. She even worked in a cafeteria on the fairgrounds to earn some money. After the Centennial, she was able to sell her collection for $600, but she was rarely able to sell future specimens. She struggled to get by until the day she died in Rockaway Beach, New York in 1881. She moved to Rockaway Beach in 1880 and tried to open a Colorado-themed resort/museum on the boardwalk. That business venture never took off. Her daughter, Mabel was with her when she died, but historians think their relationship was strained. Mabel may not have liked that her mom was so different from other mothers, always off in the woods, camping and shooting animals. Most of the world in the 1800s did not understand how a mother could want to work.  The struggle between work and family is one that women still face today.

Martha Maxwell’s life was risky, full of adventure, and full of struggle. After reading this post, pick up The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and come compare Calpurnia’s life to Maxwell’s at the book wrap this Sunday at 3 pm. We’ll be joined by Jessica Shearer, and ornithological researcher at the American Museum of Natural History. In the meantime, here’s to all the past, present, and future woman scientists out there!



Thompson, Mary Emma Dartt. On the Plains, and among the Peaks Or, How Mrs. Maxwell Made Her Natural History Collection. Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen, Haffelfinger, 1879. Print.

“Martha Maxwell, Colorado Huntress.” National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Dickinson Research Center, n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2014. <https://www.nationalcowboymuseum.org/research/exhibits/maxwell-martha/default.aspx>.

Richard, Frances, and Emilie Clark. “Reversing the Regular Order of Nature: An Interview with Emilie Clark.” Cabinet Sloth 29 (2008): n. pag. Web. 3 Apr. 2014. <http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/29/richard.php>.


[1] “Martha Maxwell, Colorado Huntress.” National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Dickinson Research Center, n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2014. <https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nationalcowboymuseum.org%2Fresearch%2Fexhibits%2Fmaxwell-martha%2Fdefault.aspx>.

[2] Thompson, Mary Emma Dartt. On the Plains, and among the Peaks Or, How Mrs. Maxwell Made Her Natural History Collection. Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen, Haffelfinger, 1879. Print. Pp 5-8

[3] H.H. “Bits of Travel at Home”, New York Independent, as quoted in Thompson, Mary Emma Dartt. On the Plains, and among the Peaks Or, How Mrs. Maxwell Made Her Natural History Collection. Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen, Haffelfinger, 1879. Print. P. 12

A Whale Bone Umbrella?! The Whaler’s Art of Scrimshaw

whale tooth_web image

Whale’s tooth, 1910-1940, New-York Historical Society, 1943.10

This Sunday, families who take part in our Lost Arts: Scrimshaw program will get to see examples of scrimshaw, an art form practiced by sailors on whaling expeditions in the nineteenth century.  Scrimshaw makers, called scrimshanders, most often made elaborate carvings into sperm whale teeth. Families will see examples of these and will carve their own “scrimshaw” with candles on Sunday. But scrimshaw is more than pictures carved into teeth- it’s any work of art or useful object carved by a whaler at sea using the byproducts of his (or her- sometimes sailors’ wives sailed and made scrimshaw) industry. These materials include whale teeth, bones, baleen and items found on a ship or in the places where ships docked. Let’s see what we can learn about whalers from looking at the stuff they created on their journeys.


Umbrella, 1850, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, INV.8413

It was not uncommon for whalemen to carve handles for umbrellas out of whale bones, like in the umbrella above from 1850. This umbrella was owned by a man named Gordon L. Ford who used to leave it at his sweetheart Emily Ellsworth Fowler’s house every time he visited so he would always have an excuse to visit again. They got married in 1853 and called this “the courting umbrella.” There’s more whalebone here than just the handle though- where else might it be? Why do you think whalers made umbrella handles?

The ladle below was made from a sperm whale’s jaw bone, some metal, and a certain type of fruit. Can you guess what it is? Items like these tell us about the places where whalers traveled. Where do you think a whaler may have gotten that fruit? Why do you think whaleships traveled to places like these?


Ladle, 1840-1860, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 1943.44

Every now and then a folk artist got truly creative with whale bones. What whale bone do you think was used to make the seat of this chair? That bone is more than a foot wide- what does that tell you about the size of the whale it came from? Think about the skill it took to make something like this. What kind of job or special training might this artist have had, besides knowing how capture whales?

whale seat

Seat, 1750-1850,Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 1947.261

If you want to learn more about the whaler’s art of scrimshaw, and why people hunted whales, register for our Lost Arts: Scrimshaw class for 6-10 year olds and their grown-ups.  See you then!

Frances Wright: Unsung Heroine of the Suffrage Movement

H. W. Anness & Co. Flags, Pennant, 1910-1920. Felt. New-York Historical Society, INV.7092b

H. W. Anness & Co. Flags, Pennant, 1910-1920. Felt. New-York Historical Society, INV.7092b

When you think of Women’s History Month, which names come to mind? Many people rightfully associate Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton with the women’s rights movement of the 1800s. After all, they founded the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869, an organization to help women gain the right to vote. For all of their accomplishments, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s vision of equality for women did not appear out of thin air. They had mentors who inspired them, including a woman named Frances Wright.


LEFT: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Drawing, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. RIGHT: Susan B. Anthony, Photograph, Collection of the New-York Historical Society

Frances Wright was born on September 6, 1795 in Scotland. In 1818 she went on a two year tour of America with her sister Camilla. Wright became fascinated by the United States. She saw the young nation as a beacon of hope and liberty. In 1821 she published a book about her journey called Views of Society and Manners in America. Her book caught the attention of the Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolution. He encouraged her to re-visit the United States in 1824, and introduced her to former presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Wright loved the principles of freedom and justice that the United States stood for, and was inspired to become an American citizen. However, she was dismayed by the practice of slavery.

Henry Inman, Frances Wright (1795-1852), 1824. Oil on Canvas. New-York Historical Society, 1955.263

Henry Inman, Frances Wright (1795-1852), 1824. Oil on Canvas. New-York Historical Society, 1955.263

Wright soon became an antislavery activist. In 1825 she published a book called A Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States without Danger of Loss to the Citizens of the South. Wright believed it was necessary to help slaves transition from bondage to freedom. She purchased a plantation in Tennessee called Nashoba where former slaves could be taught to read and write and learn a skilled profession. Although Wright successfully freed at least fifteen slaves, she had difficulty raising money for the Nashoba community. Wright decided to raise awareness about the cruelty and injustice of slavery instead.

In 1828 Wright became the first American woman to speak publicly against slavery. The following year she became the first woman to edit a journal in the United States, the New Harmony Gazette. During the 1820s it was almost unheard of for women to lecture and write about politics. Wright was ridiculed for speaking her mind. Artists such as James Aiken created political cartoons of her:

A Downright Gabbler Political Cartoon

James Aiken, A Downright Gabbler or a Goose that Deserves to be Hissed, 1829. Lithograph with watercolor. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

This cartoon, featuring Wright as a goose was designed to humiliate her, and keep her from speaking her mind. Imagine if you were slandered in the press. Would you continue to stand up for what you believed in? Wright could not be deterred. Despite public protest, Wright continued to give lectures. She called for equality for women, freedom for slaves, and free education for all children. She passionately declared: “Equality is the soul of liberty; there is in fact no liberty without it.” [i]

Wright died in Ohio on December 13, 1852. Her tombstone reads: “I have wedded the cause of human improvement, staked on it my fortune, my reputation, and my life.” [ii] No wonder, Susan B. Anthony kept a picture of Frances Wright on the wall of her study!

Learn more about women’s rights activists by participating in our Women’s History Month Scavenger Hunt!  Search throughout the museum for artifacts, including Frances Wright’s portrait. Copies of the scavenger hunt are available anytime this month in the DiMenna Children’s History Museum’s display rack.

[i] Bartlett, Elizabeth Ann, Liberty, Equality, Sorority: The Origins and Interpretation of American Feminist Thought: Frances Wright: Sarah Grimke, and Margaret Fuller (New York: Carlson Publishers, 1994), p. 53.
[ii] Dykeman, Therese Boos ed., The Neglected Canon: Nine Women Philosophers-First to the Twentieth Century (Massachusetts: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999), p. 281.

Friends that Fought: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

We all know that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were two of our Founding Fathers. But did you also know that, while they were close friends for much of their lives, Jefferson and Adams fought regularly, and once went ten years without speaking?


Left: Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Jefferson, 1805. Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 1867.306
Gilbert Stuart, John Adams. Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 1867.304

This Saturday, Maira Kalman will be here to read from and discuss her new children’s book Thomas Jefferson. While Kalman’s book touches on their relationship, the friendship between Jefferson and Adams was much more complicated than you might think.

What kinds of things do you and your friends have in common?  Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were lifelong friends. They were both patriots during the American Revolution, both worked on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, and both held the title of President of the United States. Although different in many ways, when the two met at the Continental Congress in 1775, they developed a strong friendship and respect for one another.  They bonded over a love of books, reading, and writing.

declaration of independence_1976_23

Broadside (Declaration of Independence, reproduction), silk, 1876. Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 1976.23

However, despite their closeness, Jefferson and Adams fought often over their political views. The two disagreed about how the country should be goverened. As a Democratic –Republican, Jefferson advocated for the rights of states, while Adams, a Federalist, supported a strong national government.  Both friends ran for president in the 1796 election, and Adams beat Jefferson by just 3 electoral votes. Still, the two remained friends. After receiving the second highest number of votes, Jefferson served as vice-president to Adams for the next four years. How do you think competition like this could hurt a friendship?

Four years later, these friends had a fight that temporarily ended their relationship. In the election of 1800, Jefferson beat Adams and became the third President of the United States. Their feud began when Adams gave political appointments to some of Jefferson’s enemies right before Jefferson took office. Jefferson felt that Adams had betrayed him. After this fight, the two did not speak for the next ten years.

With the help of mutual friends, Jefferson and Adams renewed their friendship in 1811. They wrote letters often for the remainder of their lives. On July 4, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the two died within hours of each other. Unaware that Jefferson had just died, Adams’ last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives.”[1] Although the two had many differences and fought often, one thing we can learn from Thomas Jefferson and John Adams is that no matter how big the fight, true friends can always find a way to work things out.



Maira Kalman, page from Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014

If you would like to learn more about Thomas Jefferson and his accomplished and complicated life, join us at New – York Historical Society on Saturday, March 15 at 2:00 pm for our Meet the Author! event with Maira Kalman. Families can also participate in a Thomas Jefferson scavenger hunt through the New-York Historical Society galleries, and see some amazing letters written by Jefferson up close form our library collections. Due to limited space, we encourage attendees to pre-purchase tickets to this program.

[1] “John Adams.” Monticello.org. The Jefferson Monticello

Reading into History: Interview with Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Author of No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller

PROMO PHOTO by Drew Nelson

Photo by Drew Nelson

This Sunday, March 9, our family book club will meet to discuss No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, a book that looks at Lewis Michaux and the National Memorial African Bookstore. This bookstore was the intellectual heart of Harlem from roughly 1939 to 1975 and a favorite spot of such figures as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. We will be lucky enough to be joined on Sunday by Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter, who will read from her new book Malcolm Little. Though No Crystal Stair’s author, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, will not be joining us (she lives in New Mexico!), we were lucky enough to interview her about her incredible book, which has won multiple awards including a Coretta Scott King Honor and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. Here are Ms. Nelson’s thoughts on her book and her great uncle, Lewis Michaux.

DCHM: What were you like between the ages of 9 and 12?

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson:  I was a rule follower.   I had a real sense of wanting to do the right thing.  When I did get in trouble, it was unintentional.  I loved school and studied hard.  Call me a nerd if you must.  I was fan of the Beatles and Motown.  The youngest of five siblings, I listened to the music they did –  a lot of Motown and rhythm and blues.  We often lip-synced to popular songs.  My mother and father exposed us to to artists like Billie Holliday, Johnny Mathis, and songs like “Rhapsody in Blue,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “Summertime.”   And my whole family was in our church choir.  My parents also read to us every night and taught us to value words and to love stories.  From an early age, I was a reader and wanted to be able to write stories that moved other readers the way I’d been moved.

DCHM: What is your favorite place in New York City?

VMN: I haven’t been to New York City enough to give an informed answer but, with my limited knowledge, I guess I’d say Central Park. I enjoy the natural world, and the park may be the closest place you can come to that in New York City.  It would love to visit John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Memorial.


DCHM: Why did you write No Crystal Stair?

VMN:  It began as a family history project.  I just wanted to learn about my uncle and his bookstore and record what I found.  The more I discovered about Lewis’s life and contributions, the more I needed to share his story with others.  His message about the value of education benefits all people, young and old. Also, as a writer, I love exploring character.  And what a character Lewis was!  I enjoyed getting to know him through research, trying to figure him out.  I was intrigued by his struggle, his journey.   As a librarian, I was taken with this life so influenced by reading — by how books saved Lewis and how he went on to save others through his bookstore.  Lewis’s life is important historically, but it’s also just a great story.

DCHM: Black Nationalism, Black Islam, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X were important in Lewis Michaux’s life and in this book. What do you think young people should know about them and why?

VMN:   Wow, this could be a thesis topic.  Historic figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks are regularly studied in school, but Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, who are part of American history too, are often skimmed over or neglected.  Their ideas and philosophies about the fight for equality were out of the mainstream and, for some, were threatening.  They were seen as radical, explosive, enigmatic personalities.  Most of the grownups in my childhood saw Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement as extreme and Malcolm X as intimidating.   But there is much to learn from Garvey’s commitment to blacks building their own businesses, creating their own communities, becoming self-sufficient, and uniting globally.  Malcolm’s struggle for human rights  “by any means necessary,” his personal evolution, his compelling speeches, and (like Lewis Michaux) his belief in education are powerful,  significant, and worthy of study.  Learning about figures like Lewis, Malcolm and Garvey can help young people grow as thinkers.   Without alternative perspectives, they are in danger of believing there is only one right way of seeing and being.  They may simply fall into lock step rather than discover who they really are.

DHCM: What three words best describe No Crystal Stair?

VMN:  I found Lewis’s story unique, provocative, and inspiring.  I hope I was able to bring those qualities to the page.

The History of Chocolate at the New-York Historical Society


Bella Landauer collected “ephemera” meaning stuff people usually throw away. This 1998 M&Ms wrapper is part of her collection, housed at N-YHS. M&Ms are made by Mars and were introduced during WWII.

On President’s DayMars American Heritage Chocolate will take over two floors of the New-York Historical Society  to talk about the history of chocolate! They’ll be conducting demonstrations of 18th century chocolate-making and workshops about modern chocolate making, and visitors get to taste chocolate of the past and present. You might reasonably wonder: is there a difference? There certainly is!

For about 2,000 years, people only drank chocolate. Chocolate originated in South America and Europeans began drinking it in the seventeenth century, taking this habit with them to North American colonies.  For much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, chocolate drinking was the purview of the rich, and special dishes were invented with which people drank chocolate. Thomas Jefferson was so taken with chocolate after he first purchased it in 1775, he became convinced that its “health and nourishment will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America.” Check out this chocolate pot owned by Samuel Shaw, the first American consul at Canton. It was used to stir and serve drinking chocolate.

chocolate pot_1972_11a

Chocolate pot, 1788, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 1972.11a

Just like we have tea cups or coffee mugs, people long ago had chocolate cups for drinking chocolate. They don’t look too different from a regular cup, though sometimes they come with special lids. This cup is one of a set in our collection. The “C” on the cup is likely someone’s first initial (it probably doesn’t stand for chocolate).

chocolate cup

Jean Nepomucene and Hermann Nast, Chocolate cup, 1805, New-York Historical Society, 1954.9y

You still might be wondering what the difference is between the chocolate drink that Thomas Jefferson loved and the hot cocoa that you  love.  You won’t truly know until you taste the difference here on Monday, but let us give you an idea here. Cocoa powder as you know it was first developed by a Dutch chemist in 1828. He figured out how to pulverize cacao beans by removing much of their fat content, grinding them up, and mixing them with alkalized salts to make them taste less bitter. The chocolate drink from the eighteenth century was not made from cocoa powder, and no fat was removed from it.

dutch cocoa_2002_1_2023_front

This food wrapper is also part of Bella Landauer collection. Just like the M&M wrapper seems like no big deal to us today, this wrapper seemed like no big deal 100 years ago. But today we’re glad Bella saved it! Bensdorp Royal Dutch Cocoa packet, ca. 1900-130, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 2002.1.2023

Hopefully this blog post has made you hungry- for modern chocolate and to know what 18th century drinking chocolate was really like! To see for yourself, drop by the New-York Historical Society between 12:00 pm and 4:00 pm on Monday, February 17th. The demonstrations and workshops are free with museum admission. Don’t forget to ask someone when chocolate bars were invented!

Carter G. Woodson and the Origins of African American History Month

The New-York Historical Society and the DiMenna Children’s History Museum celebrate African American history year-round, but we, and most other cultural institutions, pay special homage in February. Why?

Charles Alston drew this cartoon of Dr. Woodson for the National Archives and Records Administration in 1943.

Charles Alston drew this cartoon of Dr. Woodson for the National Archives and Records Administration in 1943.

African American (or Black) History Month started with one man: a historian, author, and teacher named Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950). Dr. Woodson was the child of formerly enslaved people and did not to attend school regularly until the age of 20. In a short time, he earned a high school diploma in West Virginia, then a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago. In 1912, he went on to become the second African American ever to earn a PhD from Harvard University.

Dr. Woodson dedicated his life to promoting knowledge about the roles p-ople of African descent had played in world, and particularly American, history. The New York Historical Society’s Patricia D. Klingenstein Library holds a 1927 edition of one of his most important books, The Negro in our History, first published in 1922. Although considered degrading now, “negro” was a term African Americans used to describe themselves in the early part of the twentieth century. This book charts the history of peoples of African descent in the United States from colonial enslavement to the 1920s.

This Irving Browning photograph captures West 130th street, part of Harlem, between 1920 and 1935, during the infancy of “Negro History Week.” Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

This Irving Browning photograph captures West 130th street, part of Harlem, between 1920 and 1935, during the infancy of “Negro History Week.” Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

In 1915, Dr. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History ( now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History), located in Washington D.C. In 1926, Dr. Woodson and the Association began to promote a week-long celebration of African American history, dubbed Negro History Week, that would coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass (February 12 and February 14, respectively). Dr. Woodson wanted to move people from marking the achievements of two great men to marking the achievements of an entire people. In a talk to Hampton Institute students he said ““We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements.” [1]

Negro History Week found immediate success. The 1920s saw the dawn of what African American intellectuals of the time called the “New Negro.” The “New Negro” was an educated, cultured, literary ideal that African Americans were aspiring to during a time when the black middle class was growing, particularly in American cities like New York. This ideal was closely linked with figures like W.E.B. Dubois and the Harlem Renaissance in general. African Americans across the country took an active interest in their history, forming clubs that wanted to celebrate Negro History Week.

Reginald Marsh, Harlem, Tuesday at the Savoy, 1932, Private Collection. © 2013 Estate of Reginald Marsh/Art Students League/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. The Savoy Ballroom was a hot spot during the Harlem Renaissance, where conversations about the “New Negro” would have taken place.

Reginald Marsh, Harlem, Tuesday at the Savoy, 1932, Private Collection. © 2013 Estate of Reginald Marsh/Art Students League/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. The Savoy Ballroom was a hot spot during the Harlem Renaissance, where conversations about the “New Negro” would have taken place.

Despite the success of Negro History Week, Dr. Woodson would not live to see it become the nationally recognized month that we know. It wasn’t until the heat of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s that some college campuses began celebrating black history for a full month. In 1976, Gerald Ford proclaimed Black History Month a federally recognized heritage month as a part of our nation’s bicentennial celebrations. In his declaratory speech he remarked:

“We are grateful to [Dr. Carter G. Woodson] today for his initiative, and we are richer for the work of his organization.

Freedom and the recognition of individual rights are what our Revolution was all about. They were ideals that inspired our fight for Independence: ideals that we have been striving to live up to ever since. Yet it took many years before ideals became a reality for black citizens.

In celebrating Black History Month, we can … seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” [2]

Today, Black History Month has its supporters and also its critics. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History is part of Howard University and continues to promote Black History Month. They are responsible for setting an annual theme for the month. This year’s theme is “Civil Rights in America.” Critics of African American history month say that it separates African American history from American history, when in fact there is no separation. Daryl Michael Scott, Professor of History at Howard University, has studied Dr. Woodson’s life and career and believes that

“Woodson never viewed black history as a one-week affair. He pressed for schools to use Negro History Week to demonstrate what students learned all year. In the same vein, he established a black studies extension program to reach adults throughout the year. It was in this sense that blacks would learn of their past on a daily basis that he looked forward to the time when an annual celebration would no longer be necessary.” [3]

The New-York Historical Society honors African American history in February but also seeks to do so year-round, as it does with women’s history and the histories of all the racial, ethnic and cultural groups that make America what it is. Like Dr. Woodson, we encourage the public to learn about and honor history-makers great and small. In fighting for this, Dr. Woodson made history, so today, in this blog post, we honor him.

[1] Scott, Daryl M. “History of Black History Month.” History of Black History Month. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, n.d. Web. 09 Feb. 2014.

[2] ”President Gerald R. Ford’sMessage on the Observance of Black History Month.” President Gerald R. Ford’s Message on the Observance of Black History Month. February 10, 1976. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.

[3] Scott, Daryl M. “History of Black History Month.” History of Black History Month. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, n.d. Web. 09 Feb. 2014.

History, Animated: The past comes to life in Camp History at N-YHS

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Campers strike a pose with Lincoln outside the museum.

Instead of spending your February break watching cartoons, why not learn how to make them? From 9am to 4pm, February 18-21, middle school students in New-York Historical Society’s Camp History program will create stop-motion animated videos based on the history they learn in the museum galleries.

What do history and animation have to do with each other? Well, all Camp History projects use current technologies to study history in new, creative ways. If you have ever been to our museum, you know there are a lot of very new stuff among all the very old stuff. Perhaps you have seen our film, New York Story, in our state-of-the-art theater. Or maybe you have clicked the images on the touch screens by the New York Rising exhibit. Museums, and people in general, invent technologies to help them connect to other people, places, and even times.

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campers clean some very old paper in our conservation lab.

Camp History experiences are unique because campers get unparalleled access to our collections, and they get to work with special guest experts. This February, campers will work with Ken Amarit, artist, crafter, programmer, and independent video game designer based in Brooklyn.  In keeping with the Camp History theme, Mr. Amarit combines present and past technologies in his work.  Mr. Amarit needle felts wool to create the fascinating creatures in his video games. He even uses plants and other natural materials to dye his wool!  His blog has more information about his games and his animation process.

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Check out Mr. Amarit’s studio. You can see the wool Amarit dyes and uses for his creatures.

In addition to working with Mr. Amarit, campers will go “behind the scenes” and meet N-YHS staff including conservators and historians. Space is limited and advanced registration required. Contact camphistory@nyhistory.org before February 6th, 2014 if you are interested in joining the fun!

Reading into History Author Interview: Cynthia Levinson on We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March

CYL Photo for Website-tiffYoung people have often played significant roles in history, often willing and able to take a stand when adults can’t or won’t. This month, when we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr’s life and legacy, the Reading into History Family Book Club is reading We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson,  about the efforts made by children to end segregation during the Civil Rights Movement. The book follows the stories of four such young people and was extensively researched. Their stories are incredible.

In preparation for our meeting on February 2nd when we will skype with Ms. Levinson, we asked her out five author questions. Read on and join us on Sunday, February 2nd  to discuss the book!

DiMenna Children’s History Museum: What is your favorite time period in American history? Why?

Cynthia Levinson: I have two different kinds of favorite periods. One is the time that’s my favorite to live in. And, the other is my favorite time period to study.

My favorite time to live in is now because, even though our country has lots of serious problems that need to be solved, I’m confident that we can do it. Actually, I’m confident that YOU can do it because young people today are bright and well educated and caring.

OK, I fibbed. I don’t have a favorite time to study. I love learning about all of American History, even when I don’t like what I”m learning, such as about segregation in Birmingham. But, it’s important to know about all of our past.

DCHM: What were you like between the ages of 9 and 12?

CL: I was a total doofus. I had practically no idea how to get along with other kids. I wished I were taller. And, I always forgot the punch line when I got to the end of the joke.

DCHM: What is your favorite place in New York?

CL: Oh, gee. Just one? OK, OK. I’ll pick Central Park because it’s a contradictory. It’s an oasis in the middle of Manhattan but, at the same, time it draws all kinds of people from all over the place who do all different kinds of things there. Central Park is both separate from and very much a part of New York.

wgaj_coverDCHM: What made you want to write We’ve Got a Job?

CL: Embarrassment. Even though I had seen the events on the news and later studied them in college, I was mortified that I’d never learned that the people who were marching and get hosed and bitten in Birmingham were children. When I discovered that many other (white) people didn’t know that either, I knew I had to write a book.

DCHM: What three words best describe We’ve Got a Job?

CL: I’m going to turn this question around and ask you which three words you think best describe the book. My words don’t matter. It’s readers’ reactions that count.


This is a clubhouse blog for kids who love history! It is created by the staff of the DiMenna Children’s History Museum and New-York Historical Society.
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