History Detectives

New-York Haunted Society: What should Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln be for Halloween? You Decide!


Last year, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln got in the spooky spirit of All Hallows’ Eve by donning costumes for the New-York Historical Society’s annual Halloween party. Douglass stood guard as a noble Jedi Knight on 77th Street and Lincoln greeted passersby as a heavyweight boxing champion on Central Park West.

Dressing up was such a blast that they’ll be getting into costume again and, this year, you get to pick what they’ll be! Click here to vote!


Will Frederick Douglass be an astronaut? (Because he wasn’t afraid to shoot for the moon and definitely landed among the stars). A sailor? (As a nod to the way he escaped captivity and became a leader in the fight for freedom). Or a 1970s activist? (Because he was ahead of his time in the 1870s and would have fit right in in the groovy 1970s).


As for Abraham Lincoln, will he be Captain America? (Because they’re both iconic American heroes). A railroad conductor? (As a nod to his nickname “Rail Splitter” as well as the Underground Railroad) Or a giraffe? (Because they’re both tall and larger than life!)

Image Credits:









Little New-Yorkers: From New York to India

In our Little New-Yorkers program, we explore living in New York through an array of wonderful children’s books that introduce us to and help us explore the city. We explore anything from travelling on the subway to meeting characters from different cultures that make up this city’s 8 million inhabitants.

As we continue to venture into the galleries, our little ones are being introduced more and more to the museum’s collections, such as our recent Madeline exhibition, or hidden gems like the painting below.


Partial View of Building at Futtehpore-Sikri, New-York Historical Society

I recently came across this painting in our exhibition The Works: Salon Style at the New-York Historical Society. I was immediately drawn to its beautiful architecture and the warm colors. I was even more excited to find out that this seemingly random (and exceptionally small) painting of a corner of a building had a story attached that would transport us from New York to India.

In October, we’ll be exploring this painting by American artist Edwin Lord Weeks.

Painted between 1880-1890 it depicts a partial view of a building in India. Weeks was an American painter known for specialising in exotic subjects after he travelled extensively in countries such as Egypt, Jerusalem, Damascus and Tangier.

The building in the painting, called Birbal House, in Futtehpore-Sikri, was built in 1571 by the great Mughal emperor Akbar. He built the city as his capital, before the city was abandoned in 1585 when the capital was moved to Delhi.


Birbal House today, Image courtesy of tybarchhistory.weebly.com

There are many stories and mythologies attached to the site of Futtehpore-Sikri, most about the Emperor Akbar’s and his ‘9 Jewels of the Court’. These were nine extraordinary people that the emperor, a lover of great intellectuals and talents, would surround himself with in his court.

One of these men was called Tansen the Great. He was considered one of the greatest musicians that ever lived and was known as a music magician. It is said that he could work miracles with his singing. It was this talent that led him to become the court musician and one of the 9 Jewels.

On 7 and 10 October, the Little New-Yorkers program will hear the most famous mythical story about Tansen and his music. We’ll explore the Raag (or Raga), a style of music native to India. And be introduced to the legendary Raag Deepak, a famous mythical song that has been lost and thus unknown to us today (adding to the mystery of the story).

Do you want to find out why this song is lost? Come and join us to find out!

An Interview with Frances McDormand: What was it like to be “Miss Clavel”?

Frances McDormand

Frances McDormand

As our Madeline in New York exhibition winds down to its close on October 19, we are inviting families to join us this Sunday for a screening of the 1998 movie based on the books, Madeline.

We are so excited that local Upper Westsider Frances McDormand will be here to introduce the film! You may know that Ms. McDormand played the wonderful role of Miss Clavel who leads the girls on their adventures. We were able to interview Ms. McDormand recently and here’s what she said:

1. Ms. McDormand, this month is the 75th Anniversary of the story of Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans, a book that continues to be read nightly to children everywhere. To what do you credit the appeal of this story and the character of Madeline?

A girl, ostensibly on her own, navigates the magical city of Paris and her preadolescence in the company of other girls her age and a benevolent caretaker.  No messy parents and lots of adventure!

2. Did you have a favorite bedtime story? What did you like to read to your son when he was smaller?

Bill Peet books! Almost all of them! Cyrus The Unsinkable Sea Serpent, Chester The Worldly Pig, How Droofus The Dragon Lost his Head.

3. In the story of Madeline, Miss Clavel plays such a central role in the lives of Madeline and the girls. How did you think about Miss Clavel when you were preparing for your role in the movie Madeline?

I felt it was. It was important not to be friends with the girls as myself nor as Miss Clavel.  She is there as the voice of authority and security.  I tried to stay peripheral until necessary so that when I spoke, my voice would be heard.

4. What were some of your favorite parts about this role and, conversely, what were some challenges to portraying Miss Clavel?

My favorite thing was learning to drive the Deus Cheveux. I loved that car and it is very difficult to drive.  Both Miss Clavel and I are very macho about our ability to drive well.

The most challenging aspect of the filming was that, because I was always at the back of the “twelve little girls in two straight lines,” they were often stepping impatiently backwards onto my toes.  I had very angry and inflamed toenails by the end of our two months together.

5. Making movies seems like a lot of work but also a lot of fun…do you have a favorite memory about making the moving Madeline?

As the character of Miss Clavel, I wore a uniform most of the film.  I became very fond of my habit and especially the fact that I didn’t have to worry about my hair most of the days I worked.  I did, however, enjoy the day that we shot Miss Clavel in her nightclothes and without a veil.  I think we matched Mr. Bemelmans’ illustration quite well…”Something is not right. Something is quite wrong!”

6. In our exhibition, we learned that Madeline was actually created in Pete’s Tavern by Gramercy Park. Which New York places inspire you?

I have lived in NYC for 35 years and most of that time on the Upper Westside.  A piece of my heart will always be attached to the Elephant playground in Riverside Park.  It is where my son experienced his first swing and slide and learned to sing the ABC song.  It is Our Park.

Thank you, Ms. McDormand! We look forward to seeing you on Sunday!

The New-York Historical Society is located at 170 Central Park West at the corner of 77th Street in New York City. Madeline will be shown at 2 pm. Come early for Madeline-themed activities and storytelling beginning at 12:30! Everything is free with Museum admission.

Madeline’s Tea Party!

All summer long, the New-York Historical Society has been celebrating the special exhibition Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans.

Madeline came to the Museum and joined the Independence Day festivities on the 4th of July…


Little New-Yorkers read Madeline stories and made Madeline accessories…


Madeline books were read during Story Time every Sunday and additional Story Times were added throughout the week…

cAnd, maybe most fun of all, the New-York Historical Society has been hosting Madeline tea parties!

d e

If you haven’t already, come for an elegant and playful afternoon tea party in Caffè Storico at the New-York Historical Society! At Madeline’s Tea Party, guests enjoy an array of Parisian treats (both sweet and savory) while surrounded by Madeline décor (including a special activity placemat). Guests can then visit the exhibition Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans and listen to their favorite Madeline stories being read aloud.

Don’t miss out on the chance to attend one of these delightful teas – only a few dates remain! Check out our family programs calendar for more details.

This is Not a Humbug–Reading into History is Back!

giant cover

Even though school has started and homework assignments are already piling up, it’s important to remember to read for fun! We’ve got that covered here at the Reading into History Family Book Club. This Sunday, kids ages 9-12 and their adults will gather to discuss Jim Murphy’s incredible book The Giant and How He Humbugged America and see precious artifacts related to it from our Patricia D. Klingenstein Library. What giant, you ask? Are there really giants, you also ask?

: The Cardiff Giant being removed from his “grave” on A.C. Newell’s Farm in 1869. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The Cardiff Giant being removed from his “grave” on A.C. Newell’s Farm in 1869. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

We’ll answer your second question first: no, as far we know there are no real giants. The giant Mr. Murphy writes about was a ten-and-a-half foot tall stone statue of a man buried on a farm in Cardiff, New York in 1868 and then dug up by the owner of the farm, A.C. Newell, and some hired hands a year later. Most who first saw the giant thought it was a “petrified man,” or a man whose corpse had turned to stone after being buried for thousands of years . Others thought it was an ancient and significant statue. It took a long time to uncover the truth about the statue and its unsavory origins.

One man who became entangled with the giant’s rise to fame and remained powerful through its downfall was Phineas Taylor Barnum, the famous American showmen and co-founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. As the Cardiff Giant become popular—and lucrative— Barnum tried to buy a stake in it, but he was rejected. So what’s a famous humbug artist to do? He built a copy! But was it really a copy or was it the original? That’s what Barnum asked audiences to decide when they came to see it in his American Museum, which you can see in this image below.

P.T. Barnum’s American Museum at the corner of Broadway and Ann St., 1853. Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

P.T. Barnum’s American Museum at the corner of Broadway and Ann St., 1853. Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

The question “Is it real or fake?” is one that Barnum wanted people to ask themselves when they went to see his museum. That is-it-or-isn’t-it quality is what separates a humbug from a pure deception.  Barnum and those who exhibited the original Cardiff Giant swore up and down to the authenticity of their curiosities, but invited the public to debate that authenticity amongst themselves. This strategy gave ordinary people the power to become authorities on what they saw equal to scientists, archaeologists, or other so-called learned men. It also drove in crowds by the thousands. Here’s how one advertisement described what was on display for people to see in Barnum’s Museum, which included historical objects, animals, and people from places most Americans would never go:

This text comes from a poster advertisement for Barnum’s American Museum from the 1800s. Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

This text comes from a poster advertisement for Barnum’s American Museum from the 1800s. Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

We’d like to try humbug you right now into joining us this Sunday from 3-5 pm for the book wrap! There’s no pre-registration, no extra fee besides museum admission—just step right up, folks! You’ll decide if the Cardiff Giant’s creators were geniuses or charlatans; you’ll decide if the nineteenth century scientists who believed the giant was an ancient relic were as right as they could have been given the evidence, or if they were no-nothing amateurs duped by antiquated ideas; Finally, you’ll decide if people today are more or less susceptible to humbuggery than people were 146 years ago. We can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

Camp History: It’s a Wrap!



This summer, Camp History at the New-York Historical Society was all about the Civil War. Twenty-one precocious campers had the unforgettable experience of going behind-the-scenes at the Museum and Library to speak with museum and Civil War experts; styling and posing in their very own tintype photographs; and putting together and starring in their very own museum exhibition.  Check out some photos from Camp History below!

During Camp History, we explored in the galleries…




met with a conservator…


(and performed some conservation work!)


met with an exhibition designer…


(and made our own mounts!)


created our own quilt squares…


looked at artifacts up close…


learned all about Civil War era medicine…


(and performed surgery on our very own wounded soldiers!)



put up an exhibition in the Museum…


(which was written about in the  New York Daily News!)

and just had a lot of fun!



Please stay tuned to learn more about our upcoming February sessions of Camp History!

Suspended in Silver: Camp History & Photography Then and Now

Guest post by Robert Christian Malmberg

Color photo pf RCM, camera, model with caption: Malmberg with his large format camera on set at Broderson Backdrop Studio, 873 Broadway, New York, NY

Malmberg with his large format camera on set at Broderson Backdrop Studio, 873 Broadway, New York, NY

Starting Monday, August 11, photographer Robert Christian Malmberg will be photographing Camp History campers as people from the Civil War. We’ve asked him to guest-write a blog post for us to get to know him better. Here he is, in his own words:

My fascination with “alternative process” photography began in the back rooms of antique stores, sifting through boxes of old portraits and vintage photographs. I was always amazed by the craftsmanship that went into the earliest forms of the medium. While living in an ever-changing digital world, my desire to create something tangible with my own hands grew deeper. I wanted to get messy, to use photography as an art form. I soon discovered the “tintype” process, which I have been working with for over a decade now!

While the wetplate collodion process has changed quite a bit since the Civil War Era, the basic elements remain unchanged: sheets of glass (or metal, aka tintype) are coated with an emulsion (the collodion), dipped in liquid silver nitrate, loaded into a light-tight “plate holder”, exposed in the camera, and then hand developed as the latent image arrives from the abyss. The magic in the “reveal” of these final steps is a cross between alchemy and a quirky home science project!

There is a resurgence of wetplate work happening in the fine photography world today, which I find to be quite promising. It’s encouraging to see so many young photographers wanting to experiment with dated processes. Most current “wetplaters” stay pretty true to the time period, ie: staging Civil War Battle scenes or reenacting historical people and events. However, I’ve ALWAYS used the technique to photograph contemporary people, fashion, and subject matter.

john and luke

Left: John Ward, Jr., Lieutenant in 18th Regiment, NYSM in May 1861. Collection of the New-York Historical Society PR 012-3-494. Right: Original tintype by Robert. Model:Luke Ditella, styled by Altoriso, Groomed by Walton, Backdrop by Charles Broderson, Fashion by Tommy Hilfiger

In the above comparison, we can see how this process has transformed from the 1850’s to today. On the left, we see a portrait of a soldier from the Civil War. Early tintype plates like this one were almost always presented in an ornately crafted pocket frame. The plates were often cropped to conceal the imperfect edges and chemical errors. You will notice in my portrait of Luke to the right that I welcome sporadic grit and beautiful imperfections.  The hand poured image is like a fingerprint: no two are identical.

Aside from the obvious and drastic differences in fashion and lighting in the above photographs, there are many similarities: both men have stylized beards; both images have painted canvas backdrops; and both men have been posed deliberately by the photographer (notice the hands).

Unidentified Artist, Portrait of Two Girls, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, PR.012.1.326.Box12. Untitled Portrait, RCM

Left: Unidentified Artist, Portrait of Two Girls, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, PR.012.1.326.Box12. Right: Untitled Portrait, RCM

There are many visual differences between the portraits of yesteryear and today, even if the process is basically the same. In the above examples, we see children of the past on the left and a current tintype portrait I made of a child on the right. My specific technique offers a much warmer tone on the plate surface. Usually, time period plates have a much cooler, and sometimes greener, hue due to variables in the chemistry and processing times. Note on the left: it was very common for photographers to paint in a little “blush” on the cheeks of their sitters. This splash of color added warmth to the otherwise monochromatic portrait.

Isaac Rehn, Mrs. Charles S. Lewis (Elizabeth Harley), Matilda Anna Harley, and Hullina Harley, ca. 1860-1880, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, PR.012.1.361.Box14. 8x10” original tintype by Robert. Model: Nikki Alexa Reynen of  Click, styled by Altoriso, Hair and makeup by Jerry Lopez, Backdrop by Charles Broderson, Bridal gown by Elizabeth Fillmore

Left: Isaac Rehn, Mrs. Charles S. Lewis (Elizabeth Harley), Matilda Anna Harley, and Hullina Harley, ca. 1860-1880, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, PR.012.1.361.Box14. Right: 8×10” original tintype by Robert. Model: Nikki Alexa Reynen of Click, styled by Altoriso, Hair and makeup by Jerry Lopez, Backdrop by Charles Broderson, Bridal gown by Elizabeth Fillmore

Lastly, we can see the stark difference between these studio portraits of women. On the left, we see a group of women (probably sisters) posing stiffly with a forlorn countenance. The studio portraits of the era were generally created using window-daylight and very long exposure times. It was average for the sitter to hold completely still for 30 seconds to as long as 10 minutes! This often led to very serious facial expression as it’s easier to hold a straight face than a big cheeky smile.

Through the use of high voltage flash “pops” in my recent bridal portrait to the right, my exposures are very controlled, allowing for instantaneous capture. This is a major leap in technology from the era: it gives me control over the posing and facial expression. This was not a tool or luxury available to photographers of the 1860s.

We hope you’ve enjoyed the time travel through photography. For more information about camp history, email camphistory@nyhistory.org. Robert is also available for private portrait sessions by appointment only in his downtown NYC studio. For inquiries and to book your session please contact info@robertmalmberg.com or  917.202.0599. You can find him on Instagram at: @rcmgallery and online at www.robertmalmberg.com.

Blast from the Past: Tiny Incubator Babies: The Coney Island Attraction

Like many children growing up in busy families, sometimes I had to go into work with my dad. I loved it! My dad worked in a big city hospital and when we got there, he would guide me through the labyrinth of hallways to the neonatal intensive care unit where he parked me in front of a big window while he went off to do his work.

I pressed my nose to the glass and didn’t take my eyes off the nurses caring for the tiny babies, born too small, inside their incubators. “Tiny” is an understatement…these babies easily fit into the hands of the caregivers as they were gently monitored, cleaned and massaged. I learned from my father that the neonatal intensive care unit at his hospital was one of the very best in the country and that these babies did very well because of the incubator technology that was there.

But incubators are relatively new in the world of medicine. A basic warming incubator was developed in France in the 1880s, but it took a much more entrepreneurial mind to develop the incubator into something that would not only warm the babies but help their premature lungs develop.

This person was Dr. Martin Couney. He worked with doctors in Europe and brought this new technology over to America. But it wasn’t that simple. At the time, most babies were born at home and so hospitals did not want or need the expensive equipment. So, like in Europe, Dr. Couney began to set up incubator “shows” in places like the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 in Buffalo, NY. He was reluctant to charge fees for people to come “watch” the premature babies, but he had no choice.                                                                                                                                  

Eventually Dr. Couney set up permanent incubator exhibits at Coney Island, one at Luna Park from 1903 to 1943 and the other at Dreamland from 1904 until the fire of 1911 (all the babies were rescued). He rationalized the public nature of these exhibits by being able to prove to a dubious public that this new technology actually worked, by being able to continue to afford the staff and machinery through ticket sales, and most importantly, by being able to save the lives of more than 6,500 of the 8,000 babies that stayed there as premature infants. He even cared for his own daughter who had been born weighing only three pounds! (She later worked as one of the baby attendants.) None of the parents of the babies were ever charged for this care — most would not have been able to afford it and so were extremely grateful.


Infant Incubators at Coney Island, New-York Historical Society

In a New York Times article on August 1, 1904, it was reported that a reunion of babies who were “graduates” of Dr. Couney’s incubator exhibits was held at Dreamland, Coney Island. Dr. Couney was very interested to see how the children were doing. The reporter writes, “It would be hard to find a finer set of infants anywhere than those which cooed in their mothers’ arms while their photographs were being taken yesterday afternoon, or a more satisfied set of paters and maters.”


Incubator babies at Coney Island, New-York Historical Society

After 40 years, Dr. Couney finally shut down the incubator exhibits, citing the expense of maintaining the high cost. But he said that his goal had been reached — to convince doctors, hospitals and the public that the use of incubators for premature infants is an invaluable technology. By the time he retired, many hospitals around the country had created neonatal units using his incubator technology.

I was not born prematurely, but one of my daughters was, and she spent some time in one of the modern incubators, thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of people like Dr. Couney and his caring staff.


Luna Park, 1911, New-York Historical Society




“The Incubator and the Medical Discovery of the Premature Infant,” Jeffrey P. Baker, MD, PhD, Journal of Perinatology 2000; 5:321-328, © Nature America Inc.

“Incubator Graduates Hold a Reunion: Forty Healthy Babies Meet at Coney Island,” The New York Times, August 1, 1904.


Celebrating Independence Day and Madeline at the New-York Historical Society

Earlier this month, on the 4th of July, the New-York Historical Society threw a supersized family day to celebrate both Independence Day and the opening of our special exhibition Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans.  And, the photos are finally in – check them out below!

That day, we made tricorner hats…


performed with the Hudson River Ramblers…


created our own silly Madeline stories…


got Madeline tattoos…


made Madeline, Pepito, and Genevieve finger puppets…


built the Eiffel Tower…


and even met Madeline!


If you missed all the excitement on the 4th of July and love Madeline, no need to worry. Join us on Sundays at 11:30 a.m. for Story Time – we’ll be reading Madeline books all summer long!

Step By Step: Make Your Own Madeline Hat!

Here at Little New-Yorkers, July marks Madeline month. So far we’ve been introduced to the wonderful fearsome character and her nemesis Pepito. We have many exciting craft projects based on the illustrations in the book to create, including the wonderful iconic yellow hat complete with black ribbon. Last week we read Madeline and the Bad Hat, and took our inspiration from the books’ title to create a hat craft project. It was really important that children be able to wear the hat, quite tricky when dealing with paper! However with a little cunning we came up with this template that can be adapted to create any number of hat accessories for the future.

You will need:

  • 2 Sheets yellow construction paper 12”x18”
  • Scissors
  • Stapler
  • Black ribbon
  • Glue stick
  • Pencil

What you'll need



Here’s how to make the hat:

1. Take one sheet of construction paper and cut into long strips. Do this along the longest side of the paper.
2. Take the second sheet and fold it in half lengthways.
3.  Use a pencil to draw the template below along the folded edge.
Image 3
4. You should have one semi-circle along the bottom and two curves along the edges. It should look like the picture above.

Image 5
5. Cut this out so that you end up with an arch shape.

Image 6
6. Then along the inner circle cut slits into the paper.

Image 7
7. Open it up, and gently fold back the slits. This will be the brim of your hat.

Image 8
8. Meanwhile take two strips of cardstock and measure it on your child’s head to create a band. A loser fit is better. Staple it into place.

Image 9
9. Place the band over the hole in the in the brim of the hat. All of the slits should sit nicely within your band.

Image 10
10. Without forcing the shape of the band, fold back the strips and staple them into place. The trick is to keep the circular shape.

Image 11
11. Take the ribbon and tie onto the hat with the bow falling at the back.

Image 12
12. For extra shape cut a strip on either side of your hat.

Image 13
13. Apply a bit of glue to the edge.

Image 14
14. Pull the paper over and place onto the glue. This will cause the hat to tilt up slightly creating more of a bowler hat look.



Example 2

Example 1


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