Preserving the Collections

After treatment, detail, upper corner.

1788 map of Gravesend, Brooklyn, before treatment, recto.

Visitors to the Municipal Archives are often surprised to learn that the oldest records in the collection—dating back to the early 17th century—are in better condition than more recent materials. For example, manuscripts of the Dutch colonial settlers in New Amsterdam are perfectly legible, exhibiting only minor degradation due to age. The fact that they are written in the old Dutch language is really the only impediment to their usefulness for historical research.

The reason the older records are typically in good condition is due to how paper was manufactured. Prior to the early 19th century, most papers were composed of cotton or linen rag. And like cloth, with reasonable care, they can remain intact and in good condition for centuries. With the rise of the industrial revolution, paper-makers swapped rag for much cheaper and more abundant wood pulp, which is now known to become yellow and embrittled with age due to the presence of a substance found in wood called lignin. It is common to find that paper produced in the 17th century is far more stable than that produced in the early 20th century.

However, not all of the early records in the Municipal Archives are in good condition. Over the years, some items have suffered from environmental hazards such as poor handling and storage, exposure to temperature and humidity extremes, all of which lead to deterioration.  

Before treatment, detail showing the former house of Antonie Jansen van Salee.

Recently, I was asked to treat a map of Gravesend, Brooklyn dating from 1788. The map was most likely submitted as evidence in a land dispute court case with the neighboring town of New Utrecht. Both towns claimed title over a marshy area that was a favorite fishing spot. The dispute, which originated with the 1645 deed to Gravesend, dragged on for centuries and may have been the longest running court case in the United States. By the time the case ended in 1898 with the consolidation of New York, it had been running for over 200 years. Most notably, in 1789 the Town of Gravesend hired Aaron Burr (yes that Aaron Burr) to defend them in court.* Another historic note in the map are the drawings of Dutch farmhouses, including the former house of “Antonie Jansen van Salee,” one of the earliest Muslim landowners in America. Van Salee will be well known to anyone who has read Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World, and despite his controversial place in New Amsterdam history his granddaughter would marry an indentured servant from the Dutch town of De Bilt in Utrecht, who would eventually change the family name to Vanderbilt.

After treatment, detail. A morgen (morning) was a Dutch unit of measurement representing the amount of land that could be plowed in one morning.

The job of a conservator in the Municipal Archives is to ensure a long life span for materials in our care via both preventive and interventive treatment. Our work rarely extends to a full restoration of an object, but we often repair damage and perform treatments to stabilize and improve the general condition of collections. Generally, the goal is to ensure that the intellectual content of the item continues to be accessible and the artifactual value of the object remains intact. 

The first step in most treatment projects is to document the condition of the item and assess its physical condition. The conservator measures and photographs the item, determines composition insofar as possible, and depending on the treatment needed, tests the stability of inks and pigments. All of this information is noted in a condition and treatment report. Then, consulting with staff archivists and sometimes other conservators, we map a treatment plan.

Before treatment, right center detail.

In the case of the Gravesend map, it was apparent that previous conservation treatment had been performed at some point. The front of the map, a.k.a. the recto, had been “silked,” probably in the late 19th or early 20th century, when the practice was common. Silking a document involves applying a type of starch paste and adhering silk gauze over the surface of the paper. The gauze is more or less transparent and was intended as an added layer of protection for the document. Over time, however, dust and dirt had become embedded in the silk, obscuring the surface, and brush strokes, darkened over time, were also apparent where the paste was applied. Additional backing layers were added to the verso – the map had been given a linen backing over the top of an additional paper backing. Evidence of several mended tears was also present throughout the document.

After treatment, right center detail.

After photographing the map and making condition notes, I began by cleaning the surface with eraser crumbs and smoke sponges to gently remove as much dirt as possible. I then tested the solubility of the media to determine if it is stable in the presence of water and alcohol. If any movement of inks or pigments is observed during testing, the conservator must proceed with caution and adjust the treatment plan as necessary. The media tested stable, so I proceeded with a bath to facilitate removal of the silking as well as the old backing and repair materials.

The water and alcohol bath softened the old adhesives used for the silk gauze and backings, allowing them to be carefully lifted away. I adjusted the pH of the bath with calcium hydroxide to increase the alkalinity of the solution and help to remove degradation products in the paper.

During treatment, detail of writing on verso and watermark.

Once I removed the various support layers, writing on the back of the map that had been covered was suddenly revealed. The old repairs made to reunite torn pieces of the map lifted some of the ink on removal, but the writing is still clearly legible. Also now viewable is an elegant watermark with a crown and the initials “G R.”

Upon removing the old linings and repairs, the map separated into eight large pieces, with many losses along the left edge and bottom center in particular. I rejoined the pieces with Japanese tissue and wheat paste. Working on top of a light table made the laid lines of the paper easier to see and realign. Existing planar distortions from the previous treatment made the realignment particularly challenging.

Finally, I lined the unified map with a medium weight Japanese tissue on the verso to provide support. I filled areas of loss with a lightly toned Japanese tissue. After post-treatment documentation, I returned the map to storage in one of the large flat files along with other Gravesend maps in the Archives’ collections.

1788 map of Gravesend, Brooklyn, after treatment, recto.

The fine details and additional text revealed during this treatment made the process especially satisfying. Researchers viewing the map now have a less obstructed view of the drawing, the document is safer to handle, and the condition of the paper makes it accessible for hopefully hundreds more years.

Lindsey Hobbs is Head of Conservation and Preservation at the Municipal Archives

 

*Gravesend: The Home of Coney Island, Eric J. Lerardi

Basketball

Baseball and football are thought of as quintessential American sports, but both were based on older European games. Basketball, however, is a truly American invention (even if developed by a Canadian). In December 1891, James Naismith, a Canadian phys-ed instructor in Springfield, Massachusetts devised the 13 basic rules of the game. The first game was played with two teams of nine, and used two peach baskets nailed to the gym balcony. Although the basic rules have not changed significantly since then, initially, dribbling was not allowed and the backboard and nets were not introduced until 1906.

The first public basketball game was played in March 1892. The sport quickly gained popularity. It had the excitement and merits of football but with less risk of injury. Plus, playing indoors meant weather was not a concern. Perhaps because of this, girls’ schools quickly adopted the game. Smith College organized the first women’s game the following winter, and women’s basketball paralleled men’s basketball perhaps uniquely in the history of sport.

Initially the YMCA had helped spread the game around the United States and the world. Soldiers also loved basketball as it did not need much space or equipment and could be set up quickly. Although it started out as an indoor sport, by the nineteen teens, crude basketball courts appeared in city playgrounds.

BPQ_ls_138: Soldiers playing basketball at mobilization camp for Spanish-American War, ca. 1896-1898. Note the lack of a backboard. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Basket ball (there was some early confusion whether it was basket ball, basket-ball, or basketball) was introduced in New York City schools in the 1890s. It was promoted not just as physical training, but as a moral exercise, whereby students could be taught the value of teamwork and self-sacrifice:

Basket Ball in a Roof Playground, Report on the vacation schools and play grounds, 1899. Board of Education Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

“Basket Ball is an excellent exercise. It develops nearly every muscle of the body, and especially the lungs and the heart. It gives training in quickness of thought and execution and in the coordination of muscles.

Try to have regular teams which play together every day. Encourage each member of the team to play for the success of the whole, not to make star plays for himself. Praise every tendency of a boy to sacrifice himself for the good of his team. Show them that this is the only way to succeed. If you can develop this spirit, you have the foundation for co-operation, politeness and morals alike….”

-Report on the vacation schools and play grounds, 1899, p.18

Basketball at this time was seen as a good indoor physical exercise for the winter months, part of a calisthenics routine. A lesson plan from the 1900 Report on Play Schools suggests, “the hour for each division could be divided into three parts:

  1. Marching or free work _____10 to 15 minutes,

  2. Apparatus work __________20 to 30 minutes,

  3. Basketball ______________ remainder.”

From these modest beginnings as a gym activity, by 1916 it was announced that “Over 125 schools have held inter-class competition in baseball and basketball.” (Day Elementary Schools-Physical training, Board of Education Annual report 1916)

YMCA advertisement for “Basket Ball, Bowling Alleys, Baths” from 1899. Boys High School Bulletin. Board of Education Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

How the sport grew in New York schools is revealed through fascinating turn of the century Board of Education records in the Municipal Archives collection. After consolidation in 1898, the first public New York City “High Schools” were established, including the Boys’ High School. In their first published “Bulletin” they addressed school athletics: “… by common consent, foot-ball, base-ball, basket-ball, tennis and track athletics [were] recognize[d] as the backbone of school sports…” (Boys’ High School Bulletin, Number 1, p. 12, Tuesday, March 15, 1898). By the following week it was announced that “Two basket-ball teams have already been formed.”

By April, Boys’ High School had played their first intermural game against the Mixed High School: “On Friday evening, 16, April, the Boy’s high school basket ball team played the Mixed high school team, at Dr. Savage’s gymnasium. The presence of a large number of interested spectators from both schools, including several teaches, stimulated the players on both sides to their best efforts, the result being an excellent game.” (Boys’ High School Bulletin, #6, p. 7, April 26, 1898).

Boys’ High School Bulletin, #7, May 4, 1898. Board of Education Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The season was a rousing success and in the final issue of the year, it was declared:

“The basket-ball team is the only senior team which has done anything to distinguish the school. This team, however, took part in a series of exceedingly good games at Dr. Savage’s gymnasium, many of which were won by our school. The popularity of the game is due to the fact that it affords the same amount of excitement as football, without any of the brutal elements of that game.” (Boys High School Bulletin, #11, p. 92, June 1, 1898).

As the following season approached, the Bulletin tried to drum up interest in the new sport:

Boys High School Bulletin, January 18, 1899. Board of Education Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

“Basket-ball is a new game and one not yet fully appreciated; but if lovers of sport in this school will attend one or two of these contests they will be as enthusiastic over this branch of athletics as they now are over the others.” (Boys High School Bulletin, P.113, #13 November 16, 1898).

That season, games were played against schools like the Business Institute of the YMCA, and the “finest game yet played by the BHS basketball team was that against the Berkeley school team on Friday evening, 6, January at Savage’s gymnasium.” (Boys High School Bulletin, #20, p. 206, January 18, 1899).

In April 1899, the Bulletin became the High School Bulletin and published articles of interest to other New York City and New Jersey high schools including the Mixed High School of The Bronx, Girls’ High School of Brooklyn, the Manual Training High School, Erasmus Hall High School of Brooklyn, and the Jersey City High School. The Boys and co-ed schools also formed the Metropolitan Athletic League and it was decided that the Bulletin would be the official publication of that league.

In the November 16, 1899 Bulletin, it was noted that “the Manual Training High School athletic association appropriated $20 for the girls’ basketball team… The basketball teams are unable to practice in the armory, on account of the fair which is being held there.” (High School Bulletin, #38, p.482).

The following week, the Bulletin reported on the increasing interest in sports for young women and a conference that was held to discuss the issue:

“.… It was developed that the Mixed high school does not favor interscholastic games for girls, on the ground that girls are too excitable and nervous to stand the strain of playing in such contests without injury. All the representatives of other schools were enthusiastic on the opposite side of the question. They argued that such games… instead of being harmful, are most beneficial, teaching self-control, self-reliance, alertness, and fearlessness, qualities which the modern girl needs…. As a result of the meeting it was decided to form the Girls’ Interscholastic Athletic Association of the Metropolitan District.” (High School Bulletin, #39, p.493-494, November 23, 1899).

Four Members of the Jersey City High School Basket Ball Team, High School Bulletin, No. 46, Feb. 1900. Board of Education Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In that same issue it was announced that the Manual Training High School girls would play their second game of basketball against the Adelphi academy girls. In the December 7th issue, Girls’ Basketball rated a regular full page article, where the game was richly recounted:

“In point of size and weight, the advantage was decidedly with the Manual team, but the accurate passing and superior team play of the Adelphians quite offset this, the result being a very close an exciting contest. In the matter of roughness, there was a marked difference between this game and that played a couple of weeks ago…It is said, however, that the Adelphi girls are accustomed to practice with the boys, a fact which naturally accounts for their rougher style of play.”

The game ended with a win by Manual, 6-4, despite the “very inadequate practice they have had for a month past and the fact that they had never played till this year….” (High School Bulletin, #39, p. 521, November 23, 1899).

The first game of the championship was played in Flushing in January of 1900, in front of “a very select throng of society folk.” Uniforms for the girls’ teams reflected the styles of the times,

“The Jersey City girls created something of a sensation as they marched on the floor of the gymnasium, clad in bloomer costume, with sailor blouses, red trimmings, black stockings and black shoes, but even the staid Flushing folk said they were decidedly neat. The Flushing girls wore white shirt waists and cloth bicycle skirts to the ankles.” (High School Bulletin, #44, P. 598, January 18, 1900).

Basketball Champions, Girls’ Interscholastic Athletic League, Manual Training High School, Brooklyn. High School Bulletin, No. 49, March 1900. Board of Education Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

It was the girls’ team of Manual Training High School that would come to dominate the league that first year, despite the fact that in the fall only two girls in the school had any idea of the game. When their teacher Mrs. Ida Clark reintroduced basketball to the school (an earlier team had fizzled out) she discovered that what they lacked in skill they made up for in an enthusiastic spirit of play, “although the dictums of social decorum forbade the expression.” When these girls, being trained for a life of labor, were offered the chance away from the drudgery of their studies, many joined the team. Their coach William Powell crafted a winning team by teaching them the same as he would a boys’ team, with “no fooling, no coddling, no babyishness.” They would win the 1900 championship season, 6 games to 0. And at the end of the season the girls’ league was considered such a success that discussions were started of having a tennis tournament.

From these fledgling beginnings in the City’s schools and playgrounds, basketball at the Public School Athletic League thrived. Today schools like Lincoln High School, South Shore High School and Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers dominate the game and continue the tradition of offering students opportunities to play and excel.

BOE_72020 PS 62 Manhattan, Basketball court, ca. 1908. Note the size of the recently introduced backboard. Board of Education Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

BPS_iii_1812: Manhattan Bridge view showing play grounds and park at Cherry Street looking northwest, May 29, 1917. Photo by Eugene de Salignac, Department of Bridges, Plant and Structures Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

BPS_07088: Basketball team Municipal Building, March 4, 1922. Photo by Eugene de Salignac, Department of Bridges, Plant and Structures Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

BPS_07079: Basketball Team, taken on roof of Municipal Building, March 2, 1922. Photo by Eugene de Salignac, Department of Bridges, Plant and Structures Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

DPC_1424: Kings County Hospital: Nurses' basketball team posing for camera wearing their uniforms, ca. 1920. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Dpc_0388: Special Education Gymnastics class, Randall’s Island, ca. 1930. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

WPA_682a: Playground Basketball, 68th Street and 1st Avenue, New York City, May 21, 1938. Photo by E.M. Bofinger, WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

NYPD_d_0032f: Police Department practice game at the Metropolitan Life Insurance gym, March 7, 1939. NYPD Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

DPR_24008: Basketball tournament Betsy Head at McCarren Park Playground. Coach Caral Deimling, Margaret Hylend, Roseanna Brica, Jean Percella, Theresa McGuire, Ann Bousson, Theresalinn Vaccaro, Estell Kestenbaum, March 9, 1945. Department of Parks and Recreation Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

DPR_24011: Basketball Betsy Head Boys Team: (Fort Hamilton High School Playground) 1st row L-R Eugene Howie, Roy DeVines, Robert Petter, 2nd Row Jimmy Sotis- Lon MacDonald-Edward Murphy- Howard Weiss- Adam Kalfaian. Coach Tom Burns, March 9, 1945

FHL_0772: Children playing Basketball, Catholic Youth Organization, Heckscher Camp, September 1942. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

DPR_19876: Abraham Lincoln High School Playground, March 27, 1941. Department of Parks and Recreation Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloons

Thanksgiving November 26, 2008. Mayor Bloomberg Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Other than a brief 3-year hiatus during World War II, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has marched through Manhattan since 1924. The first balloons appeared in 1927, in a variety of animal shapes, but the first recognizable cartoon character was Felix the Cat, introduced in 1931. Starting in 1928 the balloons were released into the air at the end of the parade. That year they burst, but they were redesigned for 1929 with valves that allowed them to stay airborne for days. Macy’s would give a gift to whoever found the balloons and mailed them back. In 1932, after an all-too predictable incident with a balloon colliding with a plane over Queens, the practice was ended.

Happy Thanksgiving from the NYC Municipal Archives.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg with Kermit the Frog and security staff, Thanksgiving, November 26, 2009. Mayor Bloomberg Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Hello Kitty, Thanksgiving November 28, 2013. Mayor Bloomberg Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Paul Frank’s Julius The Monkey, Thanksgiving November 28, 2013. Mayor Bloomberg Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

SpongeBob SquarePants, Thanksgiving November 28, 2013. Mayor Bloomberg Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg with Al Roker and Uncle Sam, Thanksgiving November 29, 2002. Mayor Bloomberg Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Returning Home, New Yorkers and World War I

Parade of the 77th Division, 1919. General view of the parade showing a company passing through the Victory Arch at Madison Square in mass formation, the same formation used by the Division in their review before General Pershing. Underwood & Underwood. Mayor’s Reception Committee, NYC Municipal Archives.

Welcoming Returning Troops, March 25, 1919. Underwood & Underwood. Mayor’s Reception Committee, NYC Municipal Archives.

On the cold afternoon of November 11, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson announced to the American people that the first global war was over. As with all armed conflicts, World War I had devastating consequences. From 1914 to 1918, more than 8 million soldiers were killed and 21 million civilians died, were injured or displaced. It was one of the bloodiest wars the world had ever witnessed.

New York City played a strategic role during those years, especially after the United States entered the war in April, 1917. It became common to see hundreds of people gathered along the West Side piers cheering as soldiers embarked for Europe. And not just soldiers—ships carrying tanks, food, and medical supplies left from New York City docks. According to official reports, more than 500,000 New Yorkers served—12.5 percent of the four million American troops sent to combat in Europe. And when fighting ended, New Yorkers cheered again.

The prospect of thousands of troops returning to America on ships that would dock in New York City, prompted then Mayor Hylan to appoint a committee, “Mayor’s Committee for Welcoming Home the Troops.”

Army Band, 42nd Division, 165th Infantry, 69th N.Y., 1919. Underwood & Underwood. Mayor’s Reception Committee, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Municipal Library and Archives collections provide a rich resource for exploration of the role of New York City during the war. The collections include mayoral correspondence, documents, and rare images.

Parade of the 77th Division, May 6, 1919. Color sergeant Sing Kee (2nd from right), was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the French Croix de Guerre. He was the first Chinese American to be decorated for bravery. Underwood & Underwood. Mayor’s Reception Committee, NYC Municipal Archives.

Mayor LaGuardia and fellow soldiers in Italy in 1918. LaGuardia was a major in the US Army Air Service on the Italian-Austrian front. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Dorothy Arville Auerbach, Nurse and Ambulance Driver with the Motor Corps of America, 1916-1918. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

One unique item in the Municipal Library is a Board of Education syllabus published in 1918. The booklet provides an early example of interactive and participatory education. It has six chapters containing the appropriate narrative to the understanding of elementary schools students. In addition, it has a chapter fully dedicated to analyzing the chronological events leading to the war, an extensive selection of maps, references, and a war terms dictionary.

World War I history syllabus, June 1918. NYC Municipal Library.

World War I history syllabus, June 1918. NYC Municipal Library.

Please feel free to reach out to us for questions and remember that exploring the New York City Department of Records is one of the best historical adventures.

Kristallnacht

On November 9th, 1938, Jews all across Germany were subjected to a night of terror now known as “Kristallnacht” for the broken glass of shop windows, homes and synagogues that were destroyed. In 1988, the Leo Baeck Institute produced a 1-hour documentary to mark the 50th anniversary, calling it Kristallnacht: More Than Broken Glass. Now, for the 80th anniversary, the NYC Municipal Archives has digitized over a dozen hours of previously unaired interview footage shot for the documentary. Those interviewed fled religious persecution in Germany as children and were some of the lucky Jewish refugees the United States accepted during the War. Most of them became New York City residents, adopting new Americanized names and losing their accents almost entirely, in turn forever changing the history of the City and America’s moral role on the world stage.

Prior to Hitler taking power, Jewish rights in Germany had gone through periods of expansion and contraction until they were fully enfranchised after the end of World War One. At the same time, German Jews were largely blamed for the loss of the War as part of a conspiracy theory fanned by disgraced German military leaders, experiencing an increase in informal discrimination from their fellow citizens. The long-term ambiguity about Jewish rights in Germany caused many of those interviewed and their families to dismiss or downplay the danger Hitler posed, notwithstanding the blatantly violent anti-Semitic rhetoric being used by the Nazis for years.

Peter Gay, whose original surname translates to “Spring,” laments his loss of identity in the wake of Kristallnacht, REC0047_II_77_0965. WNYC Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Born Peter Frühling in 1923, Peter Gay changed his surname twenty years later when he and his family arrived in America. His father had been a small businessman in Berlin, representing glass and ceramic manufacturers. Peter attended a modern public school with Jewish and non-Jewish children where he did well and had friends. His family had renounced their Jewish faith before Hitler seized power and did not see themselves as primarily Jewish, but German. Aside from occasional verbal harassment, he described his youth in Germany as largely uneventful.

However, Peter remembered getting a lot of “very mixed signals” about his place in Germany after the Nazis took power.[1] By 1935 it was already clear to Peter and his teachers that he and other Jewish students would soon be removed from public schools. Regardless, both his teacher and the head of the school took a deep interest in his academic development, going so far as to personally talk to his father about Peter learning English. In the same year, one of Peter’s smartest classmates volunteered for the Hitler Youth and stopped associating with Peter or any of their Jewish neighbors entirely. Peter’s teachers were also Nazi party members and despite their interest in his success, Peter was expelled in 1938 after Kristallnacht.

Miriam Cohn will never forget the sound of a single stranger’s voice on Kristallnacht that said “Let the children pass,” possibly saving her from a mob of Nazi Stormtroopers. She was 12 years old. REC0047_II_77_0965. WNYC Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Miriam Cohn, another Jewish refugee, recalled that 1937-8 was a turning point in her experience of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. Miriam remembered that most Jews in her home town of Essen thought “Hitler was an aberration and would pass.”[2] Starting in 1937, aspects of her everyday life began to change. Like Peter, more and more of her non-Jewish friends began joining the Hitler Youth and stopped playing with her. Her mother warned her to hide if she ever saw a group of Nazis walking through the streets as a general sense of unease took hold. That same year, Miriam started attending a private Jewish school for her own safety, even though there was a long commute. As they were now legally excluded from public life, the very places targeted during Kristallnacht like synagogues and community centers became even more important for German Jews as the last safe places remaining.

On the night of November 9th, Miriam’s family had heard a rumor that ‘something terrible was about to happen.’ At 2 AM, her mother woke Miriam up, warning her that the Nazis had already arrived and begun destroying their home and the synagogue where her father was a rabbi. After pulling Miriam and her family out to the street, the Nazis forced them to watch as they destroyed their possessions and burned the building. Terrified, Miriam and her family fled, only to find that their neighbors had gathered to throw rocks at them as everything they owned vanished. By the end of November 10th, 30,000 Jewish men had been detained in concentration camps and nearly 100 men, women and children had been killed. Miriam was only 12 years old.

Irrational people, out of control, enjoying with zest their violent experience…I said to myself ‘Well, this is what human beings can do, this is what people are capable of doing.’
— Miriam Cohn, REC0047_II_77_0972

Miriam and Peter would eventually find refuge in New York, but the Nazi persecution they fled from in Germany had already found its way to the City. Nazi sympathizers abounded in 1930s America, agitating successfully to keep the level of Jewish refugees admitted to America low. While more than 125,000 Jews applied for refugee visas in the months following Kristallnacht, only 27,000 were admitted.[3] Various American Nazi groups held mass rallies in Madison Square Garden in 1934, 1935, 1936 and most famously on February 20th, 1939, just months after Kristallnacht. This last gathering set up by the German American Bund was the largest of all, with 20,000 people filling the Garden. There, President Roosevelt was repeatedly referred to as ‘Rosenfeld’ promoting his ‘Jew Deal’ to introduce a Bolshevik-American alliance.[4]

German American Bund members in Madison Square Garden, February 20th, 1939 with a banner of George Washington behind them. NYPD_22066j, NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

At the same time, this gathering was met with popular resistance and protesters clashed with Bund Stormtroopers in the streets of New York after the 1939 rally. Officials like Mayor LaGuardia went on record repeatedly denouncing the Nazi party and its clear desire for “the complete annihilation of the Jews in Germany” as early as 1934.[5] Groups like the Bund eventually collapsed after they urged their members to resist the draft for World War Two, but American Nazi political movements have continued to resurface since. Despite this, the United States remained a relatively safe country for Jews to live in and practice their faith openly without fear of reprisals all throughout the Postwar Era.

The Municipal Archives is expanding its digital platform to the videos currently being preserved with plans to offer streaming services within the next several months. In the meantime, the stories highlighted here are only a small portion of the footage now available for viewing at the Municipal Archives’ 31 Chambers Street location. With nearly 10 interviews spread across more than 40 tapes, this series offers hours of unique and personal perspectives on one of the worst periods of the 20th century. In addition to the powerful interviews, the videos also feature rare examples of anti-Semitic propaganda, footage of the Eichmann Trial and a large number of personal still photographs provided by the people interviewed. Those interested in personal accounts of how Germany changed from a democratic republic into a fascist dictatorship over the course of only a few years will find this series an unparalleled resource.


 

[1] REC0047_II_77_0965

[2] REC0047_II_77_0971

[3] https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/refugees

[4] https://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/542499/marshall-curry-nazi-rally-madison-square-garden-1939/

[5] David M. Esposito, and Jackie R. Esposito, "La Guardia and the Nazis, 1933–1938"

The 1940 Tax Photos—A Well-Traveled Collection

31 Chambers Street, ca. 1940. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

WPA tax photo employees, ca. 1940. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

On November 1, 2018, the Municipal Archives announced that the long-awaited project to digitize the 1940 ‘tax’ photograph collection was complete and all of the 720,000 images now are online in the agency’s photo gallery.

It required more than thirty years, many thousands of dollars and hours of labor, plus two cross-country trips. But we think it’s fair to say that the tax photographs have now reached their full potential as one of the most important research resources in the Municipal Archives.

The digitization project is only the latest chapter in the story of the 1940 tax photographs. The Archives accessioned the collection from the Department of Finance in 1980. At that time it consisted of 2,047 strips of 35-mm black-and-white nitrate negative film (36 frames per strip), each stored in its original metal canister. The canisters were transferred from the Municipal Records Center; it is not known how long they had been in storage. Despite the less-than-ideal environment at the Center, the negatives were in relatively good condition, suffering only minor shrinkage due to age. Some films were scratched and others exhibited evidence of redox (reduction-oxidation) blemishes, but they did not break when unrolled.

Queens, 41-10 Main Street, Block 5041, Lot 33. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The value of the collection was immediately apparent to City archivists. Given their fragile condition, it was not possible to allow patrons to examine the original negatives, but they could request prints. To remedy this limitation, the archivists developed a preservation and access plan that took advantage of 1980s technology and equipment to duplicate fragile motion-picture films.

Bronx, 1494 Westchester Ave, Block 3738, Lot 43. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

It would have been cost prohibitive for the Archives to acquire the necessary equipment and in 1988 the decision was made to contract-out the duplication work. To fund the $332,000 budget (about $560,000 in 2018 dollars), grant applications were submitted to public agencies and private foundations. Over several years, the Archives assembled the necessary funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission-$50,000; the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts-$25,000; the New York State Library-$25,000; the Municipal Archives Reference and Research Fund-$92,346; and the National Endowment for the Humanities-$138,259.

1940s Tax Photo reel before shipping to Luna Imaging

With funding in place, the nitrate negatives made their first journey across the country to the vendor, Western Cine, of Denver, Colorado. The vendor spliced together the negative strips to make 1,000 ft. rolls. Using a liquid-gate printer designed to duplicate nitrate motion-picture film they created a new positive image on fine-grain polyester stock. From this master they produced a second-generation negative and another positive copy. The second positive was cut down to 100 ft. lengths and used to produce another copy on diazo stock—a microfilm product—to serve as the reference copy for use in a microfilm-reader machine.

For that time, this was a good solution. But there were drawbacks—the new negative was second generation meaning that much of the fine detail in the original negative did not reproduce. The reference diazo was third generation and it was difficult to view the pictures in a microfilm machine.

By the 2000s, the “new” printing negative was beginning to deteriorate and using the microfilm for research was a daily struggle for patrons and staff. There had to be a better way. And there was—digitization.

One of the map books used to create the tax photo metadata. Queens, Vol. 1, Double Page No.15, Long Island City, E. Belcher Hyde Map Company.

It would take several more years of research and planning, but by 2015 City archivists determined that decreased scanning costs and improved technology made it possible to consider digitizing from the original 1940s nitrate negatives. Once again, it proved more cost effective to contract-out the digitization service.

During the time it took to procure the vendor contract, project staff began preparing the metadata—the information about the images that is required to make the collection searchable. It was a big job. There had been so many changes in the City since the 1940s—new highways, housing developments, airports, etc.—that the available 1980s block and lot database had only limited usefulness. Project staff consulted period-appropriate land atlases and, after a year of careful research, they created a database that can be searched by either address or block and lot number.

Steel drum with reels of film packed for shipping to California

Once the $200,000 contract with the selected vendor was signed in 2017, the project team began to prepare the original negatives for another cross-country trip to the digitization vendor, Luna Imaging, in Los Angeles California. (These negatives had been stored in freezers since their return from Denver in 1990.) After carefully defrosting them, the negatives were packed into special fire-proof shipping canisters. And, over one long weekend a company specializing in hazardous materials drove the canisters, non-stop, to California.

Staten Island, 257 Sand Lane, Block 3110, Lot 16. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Luna Imaging used an overhead copy stand with a Canon 5DS camera and light box attached, to capture the images at a 24-bit RGB. Luna then converted the RAW files to TIFF format, and named each file with the borough, block, and lot numbers. Multiple pictures of the same block and lot were given a letter designation (a, b, c, etc.) as a suffix to the file name. If the identifying block or lot number sign did not appear in the image, the file was named with an alphanumeric code and the image number from the original roll.

When the new digital files were received by the Archives, the project team began their quality-inspection protocol. Visually inspected each image, they compared the file names to the block and lots signs, checking the embedded metadata fields, and ensuring that properties such as file size, bit-depth, dimensions, and resolution met specifications.

When the quality inspection was completed the metadata and images were uploaded to the Archives digital gallery. From start to finish this process took approximately 2 years to complete. The collection is amazing and we are hopeful that it will not require another cross-country trip.

181-189 2nd Avenue, ca. 1940. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.