Find of the Week

Called  the “Pallet Project,” it was one of the most satisfying experiences of my career at the Municipal Archives.  The project originated about 30 years when the Archives was asked to take “old” records—mostly in the form of ledger books—that had been stored by City agencies in the basement of the Municipal Building.   At the time, the Archives did not have the resources to go through all of the material to select which ledgers had historical value—they just piled everything on pallets and moved them into storage.

Finally, two years ago, the director of the Archives decided it was time to appraise these thousands of ledgers and accession those worth keeping.  Every day was like a birthday—you never knew what would be found when opening the presents, or in this case, disassembling a pallet of records.  One day, my present turned out to be a series of journals created by the District Attorney’s Homicide Bureau from 1918 through 1927.  Each journal consisted of post-bound typed transcripts of telephone calls received by the Bureau from the Police Department reporting homicides, or alleged homicides.  I will not say this was the most important of my discoveries, but it is certainly a unique record and will be of great use to historians.  Each entry is titled with the date and time of the telephone call, precinct location and a succinct description the homicide, including the names of the police officer at the crime scene, the victim and assailant, if known, and witnesses.  Here’s a typical entry:

Don’t you just want to know more?  How did he get his nick name?  Who found him and put him in the taxi to the hospital?   This entry raises questions that could beguile a researcher into diving deeply into this 1920 murder mystery.

Summer in the City

During August, 2018, we will be publishing briefer blogs—sharing cool items from the Municipal Archives and Library in a briefer format. These blogs primarily will describe interesting finds located in the course of other research or processing projects.  The long form will return, come September. 

August 11, 1927, Far Rockaway, Borough President Queens Collection

Building Escapes

 Municipal Archives Collection, Tenement House Department

Municipal Archives Collection, Tenement House Department

This is the image that we all conjure when thinking of New York City’s fire escapes. The omnipresent metal staircases hanging on buildings throughout the Boroughs.  In 1860, after a terrible fire killed ten women and children, New York State authorized New York City (Manhattan only since this was pre-consolidation) to create laws that safeguarded residents of tenements housing more than eight families.  Early fire escapes included tubes, something akin to those emergency devices on airplanes, for people to jump through.  Some buildings had scuttles that allowed residents to scurry to the roof in case of a fire but getting from the roof proved challenging.   In short order the basic metal stairway design still adorning many buildings emerged.  

In 1862, the Board of Alderman passed an updated “act to provide for the regulation and inspection of Buildings, the more effectual prevention of fires and the better preservation of life and property in the City of New York.”   In his annual report, the Buildings Department Commissioner wrote the 1862 Act was effective because it was retroactive; it allowed building inspectors to require fire escapes on all existing structures, not just proposed new construction.

Characterizing the tenement house system as a process “by which the greatest amount of profit is sought to be realized from the least possible amount of space, with little or no regard for the health, comfort, or protection of the lives of the tenants,” the report lamented the poor construction and questionable building materials of many tenements.  It stated that five hundred and fifty six buildings were required to install fire escapes and “the owners in 386 cases have cheerfully complied with all requirements of the law.”  The report also took issue with poorly constructed fire escapes and mentioned two escape systems that possessed excellent features; one invented by J.W. Mackenzie and the other by a Mr. Shute.

Office of the Mayor, Early Mayor Records, Series XXX: William Strong, 1895-1897

Nevertheless, despite the retrospective law and the tough enforcement, by 1897 Buildings Commissioner Stevenson Constable noted that the fire escapes were being put to uses not connected to exiting from a burning building.  In a letter to Mayor William L. Strong, he bemoaned the great loss of life from people falling from the safety stairs.  Proposing additional safeguards, he enclosed several small blueprints of proposed designs for safer fire escapes. 

Changes to the building code in 1968 focused on fire prevention—using sprinklers and interior stairways—rather than the metal outdoor escape route.  But the ubiquitous fire escape, still evident on thousands of pre-1968 buildings, is a testament to forward thinking and inventive bureaucrats and legislators of more than a century ago.   

Mystery Ledgers

The New York City Municipal Archives is charged with preserving records deemed to have, “continuing and significant historical, research, cultural or other important value.” Sometimes it’s easy to see this value in our collections; in a mayor’s correspondence, an original drawing of Central Park or the Brooklyn Bridge, NYPD crime scene photographs or a great-grandmother’s birth certificate. There are other cases where this value is not so plainly evident, where it must be determined in more exacting fashion and weighed against the various costs associated with maintaining the records in question. And invariably archivists must draw the line somewhere. Not every record gets kept. Doing so would quickly become absurd.

For instance, how long do you keep your receipts? 

At some point, you figure out you don’t really want to return that sweater. Or you finish your taxes and feel reasonably assured you won’t be getting audited this year.

You probably don’t save these assorted slips of paper, much less painstakingly transcribe them in a weighty, leather-bound book, in careful chronological order. Why would you do that? What would be the point in looking back on it a few years down the line? Would that be remotely interesting or useful? How about 180 years down the line?

About two years ago, the Archives undertook a large appraisal project of mostly financial records created by all stripes of City agencies and offices during the past two centuries, and we had to ask ourselves questions like these, amongst a few others.

Some of the ledgers saved after a review of pallets at the Municipal Archives warehouse. 

When you first pick up and open a ledger like this, it’s a mystery. If the spine or cover once gave some indication of the volume’s contents that information long ago turned to dust and fell away. Title-pages evidently weren’t a consistent practice among 19th century officials either. It’s like having to guess the title, author and genre of a novel by reading the first and last pages, and doing some skimming in between. It’s not as easy as you might think.

Although its age seems to lend it an inherent significance, the mystery and novelty give way to a firm sense of the mundane in relatively short order. This is a book of receipts.

It’s actually really amusing to pause and note what the City paid for street paving and repairs, filling cisterns or to have street lamps lit in 1838, but the amusement fades after seeing a couple dozen entries where the only details that change are the dates and dollar amounts. It was interesting to idly page through, but ultimately the ledger’s value is questionable. This path of assessment is familiar to archivists. We know from experience that records with this item-level transactional information are typically impractical to research, and frequently are aggregated and summarized in more useful documents. A dispassionate review would in all likelihood result in the ledger being excluded from the collection.

But then a dispassionate review is also a methodical one, requiring reading a few more entries, to answer a few more vital questions, and a couple words catch the eye. The first is ‘omnibus.’ The second is ‘murder.’

Received May 21: 1838 Warrant No. 2. for four dollars, for omnibus hire in the matter of the murder of Bierbrower and charged to contingent account.            -George Von Brunt

$4.00

Just like that, this book of receipts became much more interesting. Who was Bierbrower? Who killed him and why? And who chartered an omnibus in the matter of his murder?

The Long-Island Star reported on the death of John Bierbrower on April 20, 1837, relating that he, “was found horribly mangled, and stripped of his cloak--his pockets were turned inside out,” and makes mention of the Mayor and Alderman having gone to investigate the affair. An ensuing article from April 24 gives more of the story. It describes Bierbrower, a hatter, as a, “very respectab’e and steady man,” who had, “settled himself at the Wallabout in a house of his own, and was supporting a family consisting of a wife and four children.” It seems that Bierbrower was on his way home one evening, accompanied by a neighbor. When his companion briefly stopped off at a road house, Bierbrower continued on and was viciously attacked by someone wielding a, “heavy and sharp instrument”, crushing his skull. He was carried to his home, but died the following morning. The Star’s report concludes that, “there is some evidence to lend to the belief, that there is or has been around the Wallabout a gang of marauders.” In fact, the initial report on April 20 begins by citing the Bierbrower incident as yet another in a series of such violent disturbances in the area. An 1890 article on the Bierbrower murder in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle looking back on unsolved ‘highway’ murders in the City’s history tells of, “large gangs of Navy Yard laborers” in the area who were then out of employment, and the “intense excitement” that so seized the community that its farmers organized a “Vigilance Committee” to guard the roads at night.

Further review of our mystery ledger reveals it was created by the Common Council of the City of Brooklyn, formally incorporated just four years before the first warrants referenced. The ledger entries were signed by various Aldermen and Officers of the Corporation, including three of the first ten mayors of the City of Brooklyn (Jeremiah Johnson, Henry C. Murphy and Samuel Smith), some of whom no doubt made the omnibus ride to the Wallabout in the matter of the Bierbrower murder. The costs incurred for the marble in Brooklyn’s City Hall, the draining of ‘City Park’, the acquisition of an engine house for the fire department, insuring of markets and almshouses, and interest paid on loans from Atlantic Bank were included as well. Some of the streets for which the costs of grading, paving and repairs were recorded include Carroll Street, Bond Street, and Hamilton Avenue, as well as Myrtle Avenue and Wallabout Road over in Bierbrower’s neck of the woods.

A reader might not immediately connect bills for lamplighting and paving streets with the prevention of violent crime, but suddenly their references being adjacent in this warrant ledger seems a bit less coincidental. More and better paved roads lead to more opportunities for commerce, which translates to greater demand for parcels of land to be divided into lots, with houses built upon them and people living inside. Ultimately there are fewer dark, lonely places for a momentarily solitary traveler to be attacked and killed for a cloak and the thirty dollars they were carrying. That 1890 article in the Eagle began by noting how highway robberies were by then, “of rare occurrence owing to the systematic vigilance of the police and the absence of the vacant, lonely spots, that are now compactly built upon.”

Once there is some context, progression can be seen in the warrant book, step by scattered step.

Received June 27: 1838 Warrant No. 78 of this date for five thousand dollars for services, plotting the City, and charged to Laying out and Plotting City account.           -A.G. Hammond

$5000.00

Received August 10th: 1838 Warrant No. 150 of this date, payable to the Walleboght and Brooklyn Toll Bridge Company, for eight thousand four hundred and eighty seven dollars & forty three cents, for balance of purchase of the Company’s property & interest charged to Bridge & Road of the Wallabout & Brooklyn Toll Bridge Company account.                 

-Jeremiah Johnson, Treasurer

$8487.43

Received August 29th: 1838 Warrant No. 165, of this date, for forty seven dollars and ninety six cents for assessment overpaid for opening Wallabout Road, and charged to Wallabout Road opening account.     -Arthur Miller

$47.96

Plotting the newly chartered City, the acquisition of a major thoroughfare providing expedient travel between its ferry to Manhattan and the farther flung town of Flushing, and the opening of roads (such as the one named for the young Wallabout Village itself):  all these transactions steadily accrete and development continues to spur in a well-positioned neighborhood connected to the industry of the Navy Yard and close to the ferry to Manhattan.

According to the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation report on the Wallabout Historic District, “Wallabout takes its name from a group of Walloons who settled on a bay on Brooklyn’s East River waterfront in the mid-17th century. The district occupies a small portion of a Walloon patent that had descended in the Ryerson and Vanderbilt families and had passed to John and Jeremiah V. Spader in the 1820s.” Walloons, by the way, are a people from the southern region of Belgium known as Wallonia. According to Eugene L. Armbruster’s The Eastern District of Brooklyn, Wallabout Bay was, “originally Walboght, probably from wal, meaning rampart--protection from assault or danger; and boght--bay or gulf.”

More from the LPC report: “In 1833, John Spader sold his farm to Manhattan realtor George W. Pine who developed Clinton Avenue as a villa-lined boulevard. The nearby expansion of the Brooklyn Navy Yard along Wallabout Bay and the opening of Flushing Avenue in the late 1840s prompted the Estate of Jeremiah V. Spader to underwrite the costs of opening Vanderbilt Avenue and to begin selling lots on the west side of the street in the fall of 1849. Almost immediately, the owners of the villas on Clinton Avenue began dividing their lots and selling the land on the east side of Vanderbilt Avenue to developers.”

Brooklyn Farm Plan No. 49

A farm plan of the area shows the dense overlay of (mostly) present-day streets with the old turnpike and toll road, the property lines of the old farms and the clutter of names that bought, inherited and sold pieces of the Wallabout over the centuries. These names and dates constitute a sort of compendium of receipts themselves. The gravity of these transactions is maybe less obvious at face value than those referencing a murder investigation or the construction of Brooklyn’s City Hall, but here too the progression from scattered farms to village to a densely packed urban environment can be traced.

As for our book of ‘receipts,’ its value does not rest solely in the, perhaps unusual, reference to a sensational event not typically found in an account ledger. Yes, the Council’s hiring of an omnibus to investigate a murder was eye-catching. But in this case the simple determination of who created the ledger and when, justifies its long-term preservation in our collection. Records created by New York City’s pre-consolidation municipalities garner special consideration given the relative scarcity of these materials and what they can tell us about the developing City.

So for the Municipal Archives, how long to keep a ‘receipt’ depends on a few key details. As with all of our work, context is key and some research is required. Obviously there was a story behind the entry on a murder, but it can’t be the only one hinted at in this record.

For Lo, These Many Years: Forgotten Cemeteries of Queens

About a year and a half ago, I started learning Dutch through a smartphone app. While doing digitization for the Archives, I’ve had the chance to look at quite a few Dutch-language colonial records. I’m still only a beginner when it comes to Dutch, but knowing basic words and phrases has made working with these records very interesting.  My current project is digitizing photos shot in the 1920s and 1930s by the Topographical Bureau in the Office of the Queens Borough President. While working through a box of 8x10 negatives, I came across numerous pictures of cemeteries. One photo in particular caught my eye.

Brinckerhoff Cemetery, Queens, March 10, 1927. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Reading 17th- and 18th-Century Dutch is a bit like reading early modern English. It’s the same, but, well… not. Most of the differences are minor spelling changes, so, to my nerdy satisfaction, I found I could read the headstone. In English, it reads, “Here lies the body of Aeltje Brinckerhoff, housewife of Dirck Brinckerhoff, died the 9th day of March AD 1740, aged 61 years.”

Map of Queens, 1924. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

I continued to come across many other photographs of colonial-era graves. The captions—written directly on the negatives by the photographers—gave the names of cemeteries I’d never heard of. It was interesting that they bothered to photograph individual headstones and not just the broader views of the land. Photographers and archivists can’t help being curious. We like to dig, we like to find things, and more importantly we like to know that someone, somewhere, remembers the past and the people who lived it. Who were these people whose graves were photographed? That question led me down the proverbial rabbit hole.

Beginning in 1919 an engineer named Charles U. Powell conducted a survey of the private cemeteries of his native Queens. A descendant of several colonial Queens families, Powell submitted his report in 1931 to Borough President George Harvey, saying that he had undertaken the project because “a permanent detailed record of each private cemetery would be of historical and genealogical, and even legal, interest to posterity,” as many private cemeteries had already been “completely erased from the topography of the Borough.” His report is detailed and thorough, with maps and diagrams of the graves that were still visible at the time. It documents some twenty-three burial grounds, including one Native American and two African-American cemeteries. (The African American Cemeteries will be the subject of a future post.) The image of housewife Aeltje’s grave is one of only two such photographs in the report.

Brinckerhoff Cemetery, Queens, ca. 1985. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Aeltje was baptized Aeltje Janse van Kouwenhoven on April 28, 1678 in Brooklyn. Her parents were Jan Gerritse van Kouwenhoven and Gerardina de Sille. Aeltje was a descendant of Wolfert Gerritsz van Kouwenhoven, one of the first Dutch settlers in Brooklyn. The Brinckerhoffs were also an old Brooklyn Dutch family, having first come to New Netherland in 1638. After the English took over, the family moved to Newtown in Queens, where Dirck was born in 1677 and where his father, Abraham, served as the town magistrate. The family acquired land at Black Stump in 1698, and portions of this were given to Dirck and Aeltje in 1705 and 1710. The Brinckerhoff Cemetery was located mostly on Dirck and Aeltje’s farm, with a portion stretching onto a neighbor’s land. Deceased members of the neighboring families were also buried there, especially as, over the years, marriages interconnected families. A few years after Aeltje died, Dirck remarried. Dirck and his new wife Elizabeth sold the farm in 1747, and Dirck passed away the following year. The farm and its cemetery subsequently passed through a succession of owners.

Brinckerhoff Cemetery, Queens, ca. 1985. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The cemetery was left untended, and in 1940 the Long Island Star-Journal reported that Aeltje’s headstone no longer stood. It’s possible that Aeltje’s monument is still there, buried along with many others. However, the cemetery was vandalized several times in the twentieth century, and it may have been destroyed. Neighbors tried in the 1940s to preserve the cemetery by having it declared a public park. The City declined the application, stating that it was not responsible for preserving private burial places. In 1990, property assessments described the lot as “vacant residential land,” and a tax photo from the 1980s shows it completely overgrown. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated it a landmark, stating that the cemetery...

has a special character and a special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage, and cultural characteristics of New York City…and that despite virtually a century of neglect, and the fact that today there are no visible above-ground gravestones…the Brinckerhoff Cemetery survives as a rare, and one of the oldest, colonial-era burial grounds in the Borough of Queens, as well as one of the few tangible links to the early-18th century, and rural, history of the borough.

Other cemeteries, unfortunately, didn’t fare so well. Powell and the Borough President’s photographers also documented the grave of Sarah Rapleje, the wife of George Brinckerhoff. Sarah died in March 1787 at age thirty-two. The gravestone next to Sarah’s English-language stone was too damaged to be read, but Powell was able to read the words huis Vrow on the stone in 1919, making it the grave of a married woman. The cemetery, known as Rapelje Cemetery, where Sarah, George, and the unknown woman were laid to rest stood at the present-day corner of 21st Street and 21st Avenue in Astoria. A three-story brick apartment building was built on the site of Rapelje Cemetery in 1949.

Rapalje Cemetery, Astoria, Queens, October 26, 1927. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

A mixture of the Dutch and English languages on the gravestones gives us an idea of the mixed identity of the area in colonial times. Still standing is the Dutch Reformed Church of Newtown, a beautiful wood-frame church established in 1732, sixty-eight years after the Dutch town of Middenburgh became the English town of Newtown. Though largely destroyed in the Revolutionary War, the church was rebuilt on the original cornerstone after the war, and a new bell was cast for it in the Netherlands in 1792. Preaching in Dutch continued at the church until 1834.

Dutch Reformed Church of Newtown, Queens, July 13, 1927. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Churchyard of Dutch Reformed Church of Newtown, Queens, September 14, 1927. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In the church’s graveyard, the headstone of Jores Debevoise caught the eye of a photographer. It’s a very interesting stone for several reasons. First, it’s inscribed in Dutch and was placed in 1802, further illustrating the persistence of Dutch identity. Second, it exhibits some of the linguistic evolution mentioned at the beginning of this post (“body” is lichaam here instead of the older lighaam), while showing that Dutch was still not quite in modern form (the word for “his” in modern Dutch is zijn, while on the grave it’s zeyn). Finally, Debevoise is a French surname. Most likely the family were Huguenots, or French Protestants. Many Huguenots emigrated from France to the Palatinate or the Netherlands during the Reformation, and many also came to colonize the New World. Here, as in the Netherlands, they often mixed with Dutch populations and came to identify as more or less Dutch.

First pages of William Leverich’s notes. Newtown Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

Old Presbyterian Church Gravestone “Phillip Duvineer ages about 81 years” (Died 1745 leaving 200 pounds and interest to the Presbiterian (sic) Society, according to stone), September 14, 1927. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The colonies were often populated by persecuted religious sects. 1662, the English colonists in Newtown elected William Leverich, a dissenter from the Church of England, as their minister. The congregation he presided over would become the Presbyterian community of Queens. A handwritten volume of Rev. Leverich’s notes on scripture was kept as part of the town records of Newtown, and is now in the Municipal Archives. The grave of one Philip Duviveer testifies to this burgeoning community.

Of course, burial in Queens didn’t start with European colonists. The area of present-day New York has been inhabited since at least 10,000 years ago, after the land emerged from the last ice age. According to an archaeological study by the NYC Dept. of Design and Construction, the Queens area was home to small villages of the Rockaway, Maspeth, Matinecoc, and other native peoples, who lived primarily along the bays and streams. One of their main sources of food was shellfish, and this can be seen in the various shell middens—mounds of discarded oyster shells—over which a number of structures in Queens were built.

Lawrence Homestead, Bayside Queens, built on the site of a shell midden, September 3, 1927. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Burials are rarer, but not unheard of. In 1901 a local historian recorded that seven native graves had been discovered near the present-day corner of Waterloo Place and Westbourne Avenue, where the Bayswater Hotel formerly stood. Powell and the photographers surveyed the native burial ground on Northern Boulevard near 251st Street. In a 1919 letter to Powell, James E. Waters, known as Chief Wild Pigeon, described this cemetery as a place “along the roadside where the iron shoes of the pale face horses instead of the soft moccasin tread, [where] sleep the dead of the family and several whites too poor to own a grave, for lo these many years.” Several of the Waters family were buried there. In a sad episode, the city disturbed this burial ground in order to widen the street. The remains of thirty Native Americans were exhumed, to be re-interred half a mile away at Zion Episcopal Church in Douglaston. A simple monument—a split boulder with a tree growing through it—now marks the graves of the “last of the Matinecoc.”

Excavating Indian Cemetery on Northern Boulevard, Little Neck, Queens, October 20, 1931. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

James E. Waters died in 1927 at age fifty-one, having served as chief of the last remaining Native American tribes on Long Island. He was buried in Zion Episcopal Church Cemetery with his family. Charles Underhill Powell passed away in 1956, twenty-five years after submitting his report. He was buried at Flushing Cemetery. Their work, though not entirely successful, helped preserve and record, as well as protect, the final resting places of many New Yorkers. Yet the struggle is ongoing, and has been taken up by others.

Excavating Indian Cemetery on Northern Boulevard, Little Neck, Queens, October 20, 1931. The three people standing inside the fence are most likely tribal representatives. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In writing this post, I couldn’t help but reflect on how important these final resting places are. When Powell started his survey ninety-nine years ago, several of the old private cemeteries had been destroyed, and some that he surveyed would be gone a few decades later. It’s important that these places be preserved and remembered, because they form a tangible link with the past of the human race. They remind us of who we are, where we came from, and in some cases, whom we displaced. They teach us that our heritage is a river fed by many tributaries, not a single source. They put our own brief present in perspective next to the long stretch of history—a history made up of the everyday lives of countless individuals. As the poet William Cullen Bryant—who passed away in New York City—wrote: “…all that tread/The globe are but a handful to the tribes/That slumber in its bosom.”

More Information

Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens, Charles U. Powell (http://longislandgenealogy.com/QueensCem.pdf)

Landmarks Preservation Commission, August 14, 2012, Designation List 458 LP-2087 (http://s-media.nyc.gov/agencies/lpc/lp/2087.pdf)

Archaeological Documentary Study, Sewer Outfall, Chandler Street, Far Rockaway, Queens; NYC Department of Design and Construction (http://s-media.nyc.gov/agencies/lpc/arch_reports/1040.pdf)

 

Preserving WNYC-TV

The audio-visual collection on the shelves of the NYC Municipal Archives.

From urban decay to economic revival, the City of New York has changed dramatically over the past forty years. Over that same period of time, New Yorkers gained an increasing ability to tell their stories through advances in video technology. Today, we take for granted a nearly universal ability to create and distribute videos all over the world, instantaneously. From 1961 to 1996, publicly owned WNYC-TV on Channel 31 fulfilled this role for average New Yorkers by enabling them to share their stories and discuss issues facing them in their daily lives. Although at first the channel served as a portal for municipal functions like mayoral addresses, WNYC slowly began to focus more on civic affairs and creating original and informative programming that reflected the various communities of the city. Now, staff at the Municipal Archives have begun digitizing video tapes from our WNYC-TV collection, spanning from 1982-1996. Our goal is to preserve as much of this material as possible, while also making it easy and convenient for people to watch.

Following financial and political crises in the 1970s, WNYC-TV secured a large amount of new funding and independence from City Hall in the 1980s. This revival was marked by a wealth of new, original series like Heart of the City, Neighborhood Voices and New York Hotline, as well as specials that showcased important events or guests in New York, like Nelson Mandela. These panel talk shows and cultural magazines focused on difficult issues the City faced in the 1980s and1990s, like homelessness, the AIDS epidemic and race relations. They also featured thriving but overlooked communities in New York, like the Nuyorican Poet’s Café or the Coop Theater in Brooklyn.

A ¾” U-matic tape about to be digitized.

The WNYC-TV collection at the Municipal Archives is composed mainly of three video tape cassette formats: ¾” U-matic, Betacam and VHS. While VHS might be familiar to all but the youngest of us, the other two formats are less widely known. ¾” U-matic was the first video cassette format. Sony widely released the ¾” U-matic system in 1971, originally designed for home use. The cost ended up being far too high for amateur consumers, but the system caught on in professional organizations, like WNYC TV, that had the funds to make the initial investment. Sony improved the ¾” U-matic design and in 1982 released Betacam, the format that makes up the bulk of the WNYC-TV video tape collection.

Unlike paper, photo, or film documents, which potentially can last for hundreds of years if taken care of properly, magnetic tape of all types typically don’t last more than 30 years without at least some significant quality loss. There is window closing at archives around the world to digitize their tape collections before it’s too late. The Municipal Archives is joining the effort at just the right time. In 30 more years, the only working tapes will be like Edison light bulbs today. They might play, but you’ll be lucky if you get any meaningful image off of the tape.

A particularly damaged tape exhibiting drop out. Highlighting different jobs that were disappearing from the Chelsea neighborhood, the interview is about dock workers striking for improved working conditions and pay. From REC0047_II_168_2297, Neighborhood Voices: Chelsea, Joe Stack, Tape 3. NYC Municipal Archives, WNYC Collection.

Thus far, the Municipal Archives has digitized nearly 200 tapes and counting, currently focusing on the oldest and most endangered tapes so we can get to them before they’re lost. What endangers a tape and why are tapes so much shorter-lived than most recording formats? The short answer is that video tape is essentially a ribbon of tape with a glue and metallic powder mix pressed onto it. Every time that glue gets too warm or too damp from humidity in the air, it starts to degrade and loses its ability to stick, resulting in something called ‘sticky shed syndrome.’ The top layer of the tape will literally turn into a gummy sludge and flake off, destroying the recorded video. If it survives intact long enough, every tape will go through this process.

The longer answer is that there are actually many ways that a video tape can cease functioning before sticky-shed syndrome sets in. On video tape, analog video signals are recorded as a repeating wave form by aligning magnetic particles in the glue-metal powder mix with a spinning magnetic head. When a tape is played back, it gets pulled out of the cassette by a series of rollers and pins and gets wrapped around the video head while it spins. This can place a significant amount of physical strain on the tape, potentially damaging it every time it’s played back, much like a vinyl record is damaged by its needle. Unlike a vinyl record, though, video tape was never, and has never been seen, as a high-fidelity format. And the level of enthusiasm for video tape systems has never been enough to warrant continued production of new machines after the 1990s. This means that production of specialized parts needed to repair playback machines ceased decades ago. Preserving analog video isn’t just about preserving the tapes, but also maintaining the machines.

In a future blog post, we will give you a tour of the A/V Digitization Lab, show you all of the tools we use to stabilize our video tapes and go more in depth as to how we turn a wave signal found on a tape into a video file on a computer drive.

Sources:

Voice of the City: The Rise and Fall of WNYC-TV, MJ Robinson, UMI Dissertation Services