History Detectives

Happy 150th Birthday, Nellie Bly! Celebrating This Courageous Journalist, Feminist, Traveler and Fighter for Justice

One hundred and fifty years ago today, in the western town of Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, the thirteenth child of Judge Michael Cochran was born. Her given name was Elizabeth Jane.

Nelly Bly [Library of Congress]

Nelly Bly [Library of Congress]

All the other mothers in Cochran’s Mills had the habit of dressing their daughters in muted brown and gray fabrics…but not Mary Jane Cochran. She dressed her daughter in starched pink and white frilly dresses with white stockings (not the usual black). People called the girl Pink for the way she stood out from the crowd of other children.

This little girl would stand out from the crowd for the rest of her life. She began using the name Nellie Bly in 1885 after earning herself a position as a reporter for the Pittsburg Dispatch. She was hired there as a result of a feisty letter and a couple of columns she wrote arguing for women’s rights.

In 1887, Nellie Bly wanted more. The note she left behind in Pittsburgh said this: “I am off for New York. Look out for me. Bly.”

She had her sights set on The World, which had earned a reputation for being the most successful paper in the country under the leadership of Joseph Pulitzer, who had purchased it four years earlier.

Her first bit of investigative reporting for The World took her inside Blackwell’s Island as a patient of a women’s insane asylum. Her stories from the time spent there as an inmate revealed the abuses inflicted on the patients and resulted in further investigation and changes in hospital staff and policy.

Nellie Bly’s reporting also promoted the idea that women could do more than write for the society pages at newspapers – women could produce hard-hitting, daring investigative pieces just like men.

The story Nellie Bly is perhaps most famous for, and one of the few that did not unveil some sort of social injustice, was her trip around the world. Her idea was to match the fictional trip by Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. The trip was eventful (and deserving of another blog post soon!) and successful! She arrived back in New York City on the 73rd day to cheering crowds. Nellie Bly was a hero in 1890…everyone wanted to read about her and her trip. There was even a board game inspired by her adventure.

nelly bly

Round the World with Nellie Bly, 1890, McLoughlin Brothers, The Liman Collection at the New-York Historical Society.

nelly game

Nellie’s newfound fame did not deter her fight for the rights of the poor, the abused, and the disadvantaged in New York and elsewhere. She would continue to report on social issues, writing more than 600 newspaper and magazine articles during her lifetime.

We are proud to call Nellie Bly a true New York hero.

Here at the DiMenna Children’s History Museum we display the game of Round the World, stock some Nellie Bly children’s books in our library and even created a Nellie Bly birthday party!

Stay tuned for Part II of the Nellie Bly series when Nellie meets an odd, new friend in Singapore…


Bibliography: Kroeger, Brooke, Nellie Bly, 1994, Random House, Inc., New York.

Reading into History: Interview with Phillip Hoose, Author of The Race to Save the Lord God Bird

Birds are everywhere at the New-York Historical Society right now! The second floor of our museum has been taken over by Part II of our tripartite series, Audubon’s Aviary, which features many of John James Audubon’s original watercolors for his revolutionary work, The Birds of America. This year, we are showing works that relate to the peak of Audubon’s career when he began to become concerned about disappearing wildlife and wanted to protect it. Today, we call people like Audubon conservationists.

Credit line: Gordon Chibowski, Portland Newspapers

Gordon Chibowski, Portland Newspapers

Audubon wouldn’t have used the word “conservationist” to describe himself because this word, this idea, did not exist when he was alive (1785-1851). Most Americans in Audubon’s time thought that plant and animal life in this country was so abundant no species could ever disappear; however, through his work, Audubon witnessed habitats being destroyed and shrinking bird populations. He saw the future, and it did not look promising.

To honor Audubon’s work and insight, the Reading into History Family Book Club here at the DiMenna Children’s History Museum has been reading Phillip Hoose’s multi-award-winning book The Race to Save The Lord God Bird this month. This amazing book is about the 200-year struggle to save the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (nicknamed the Lord God Bird) from extinction. Audubon painted this marvelous bird and was an early advocate for its preservation. When the book club meets on Sunday, May 4, Phillip Hoose will join us to discuss the book, and we’ll all visit the exhibition to see a couple of other birds Audubon painted that are now extinct.

lord god bird cover

The image of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker on the cover of the book comes from a painting Audubon made of a family of these birds.

To get everyone in the mood for this exciting family program, we interviewed Phillip Hoose about his life and this book. Check out what he has to say:


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

Phillip Hoose: The 20th Century. Why?  I suppose because I’ve been alive to participate in much of it.   I’m familiar with the century’s great struggles.  I remember, for example, that Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring focused on the struggle to halt the loss of species.  I had never really thought about this before reading that book.

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

PH: Private. I lived in my head. I was mouthy enough, but it was all a smokescreen to keep people from penetrating my defenses.

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

PH: The big sunny upstairs gallery at the NYC Art Students League, on 57th. Why?  I love the feel of the room, its creaky wooden floor (when you’re trying to be quiet) and the chance to see dozens of bright paintings done by art students.  Sometimes six different students will paint one model, which tells you more about the students than the model.

DCHM: What made you want to write The Race to Save the Lord God Bird?  

PH: I worked for The Nature Conservancy, an organization that saves species by protecting habitats.  I wanted to write about my work through the story of a single creature’s struggle to survive—and of efforts by humans to save it.

DCHM: What three words best describe The Race to Save the Lord God Bird

PH: Surprising, frustrating, inspiring.

Do you have your own questions for Phillip Hoose? Come ask them on Sunday May 4 at 3 pm (and get your book signed!). This book club meeting, like all the rest, is free with museum admission and is recommended for families with children ages 9-12.  See you this Sunday!

The Reading into History family book club is supported by a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post and/or in Reading into History programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Little New-Yorkers Step by Step: Beekman Coach

Recently in our Little New-Yorkers program we have started to venture out of the children’s library into the museum. On the fourth floor in the Luce Center lies quite a majestic piece, the Beekman Family Coach. Coaches like this were very rare, super fancy and would only be used for special occasions. In December we took a closer look at this unusual mode of transport, one of only 3 surviving coaches from 18th-century America. It was made for the merchant James Beekman in 1771, managing to survive thanks to family members who carefully stored it until it was donated to the New-York Historical Society in 1911.

  In the galleries

Perhaps you’ve taken a ride in one of the carriages in Central Park? These modern versions are great for getting around the park, but how else can we travel around a large city like New York? To help us answer this question we read the book Rush Hour by Christine Loomis. This story explores the different modes of transport that we may encounter on a busy day. We explore the daily routines of people from the moment they wake up with particular focus on how people travel to and from work. From taxi’s and subways to boats and airplanes.


It’s not everyday that you get to see a coach or even ride in one so for our craft project we made these beautiful paper replicas. Maybe you won’t be able to ride in it but a small doll can!


What you’ll need:

  • Beekman Coach printed onto card stock (8 ½ x 11)
  • Beekman Wheels printed onto card stock (8 ½ x 11)
  • Scissors
  • Crayons
  • Fabric scraps
  • Brads
  • Stapler
  • String
  • Hole punch
  • Strip of cardstock (approximately 3” x 6”)

What you'll need

Here’s how to make your own Beekman Coach!

1. Start with the coach template and color it all over.


2. Cut out the middle squares on the template to make windows, and cut out the sections with stripes. Fold your coach so it looks like this:


3. Now take the wheels template. Color them in and cut them out!


4. Use a hole punch to make holes in the center of the wheels template. If you don’t have a hole punch you can use a pencil.



5. Do the same on the black dots on the coach template.


6. Attach the wheels onto the coach using your brads.


7. Cut the fabric to fit the windows, and then staple your curtains into place.


8. To make sure that your coach stands up, fold and attach a strip of cardstock under the coach.


9. Now get a long piece of string. Tie each end to the inside of the brads on the front two wheels. Make sure to tie a double knot to secure it!


Done! Now you can take it on a little walk.

 Toddler expample


For more fun projects here at the DiMenna Children’s History Museum, join us each Tuesday and Friday at 3:30 pm for Little New-Yorkers!

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!


The Reading into History family book club is supported by a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post and/or in Reading into History programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.



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 Reading into History family book club is supported by a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post and/or in Reading into History programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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!


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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