Digitizing Historical Photographs

The Municipal Archives is noted for its vast collection of photographs, currently totaling more than two million images. Dating back to the early 1900s when City agencies first adopted photography to document their work, they extend to the present day. Most are traditional prints and negatives in various sizes and formats. About fifteen years ago, the Archives started digitizing these images and making them available on-line. This has made our patrons very happy (and begging for more!), but it also means that the Archives is now responsible for preserving all the digital surrogates as well as the original images.

Two sides of a trifold brochure created for Open House NY.

Matt Minor, Municipal Archives photographer, writes this week’s blog describing the considerable work that goes into creating, storing, and describing digital images. And he might just provide some good answers for those who ask … “why don’t we just digitize everything?”

Matt Minor: I joined the Municipal Archives in 2011. One of my earliest assignments was to digitize the Municipal Archives Photograph Collection (MAC). Archival records, including photographs, are usually organized in collections named for the creating office or individual, e.g. Mayor LaGuardia Photograph Collection. MAC is the exception. These are photographs acquired over several decades from numerous, and in many cases, unknown sources, and assembled together by the archivists as an “artificial” collection. They are truly eclectic in subject and many are quite evocative. Below is mac_1689, a photo of lions in the Bronx Zoo.

mac_1689: The Bronx Zoo: The African Plains exhibit. Six uncaged lions face viewers across an invisible moat.

One of the goals in creating a digital copy is to convey the photographer’s original intention. In this instance, the original negative did not exist, but I had a vintage print to help guide me on what the photographer wanted the viewer to see. I saved the photo as a color file rather than black and white to show the warm tone and give the viewer a sense of its age. I saved it as a jpeg because almost any browser or photo viewer can read jpegs.

Making a web-ready jpeg in Photoshop

Digitizing colonial records using an 80-megapixel overhead camera system.

But how do photographers like me, in an archival institution, produce high-quality scans? We start with many of the same questions other photographers ask at the beginning of a job. How can I light my subject so that I don’t get shadows where I don’t want them? How should I set my aperture and shutter for the best exposure? Is the subject in focus? Am I getting the resolution I need? And throughout the process, we rely on our eyes, asking each time we take a photo, “Does everything look right?” But this is only how it starts.

The Back End

In today’s world, most people take the storage of their photos for granted. Your iPhone pictures are automatically backed up. But things get complicated if you want people a hundred years from now to find a specific photo, know what it is and where it came from, and be able to look at it on whatever system they’re using.

The archival master file viewed in Photoshop

In the Archives-world, we create what is called a “preservation master” image. This often appears very different from the picture the viewer sees in the digital gallery. Here are some differences in the archival master above. There’s less contrast overall, even though the original image still has deep shadows. I had to make sure no information was lost, so the highlights and shadows both had to be within the range that the camera’s sensor would capture. I composed the shot so the entire print would fit in the frame, not just the image—that way, a researcher will know this is the whole item. Finally, to the left of the image you’ll see a Golden Thread target, which is used to make sure color, exposure, and focus met laboratory standards. The target is retained in the picture, so those standards can be checked. The target also has inches and centimeters marked, for scale.

Using high-grade color targets allows us to accurately represent color and ensure high resolution and focus. Here the scan is shown in Capture One CH, our main software tool for digital capture.

File naming in action. In this instance, the filenames let us know that the item is from the Municipal Library, its call number, the date it was published, and which page each photo shows.

Then the file needed a name so it would be findable among millions of others. The Archives’ MAC collection is small so naming was easy; but as we are now digitizing many non-photographic items, we’ve had to come up with a stricter set of file naming rules so that everything is organized and findable.

You might also notice some things about the file itself. The web-ready photo at the beginning of this blog is about one megabyte—a good size for social media. The archival master, though, is a whopping 198 megabytes—far too big for Facebook or Instagram. Why would we want such a big file taking up storage space? The answer is simple: we want to do this digitization work only one time. We scan at the highest possible resolution and then create derivative files at a lower resolution, as appropriate for the desired purpose, e.g. social media, duplication for publication, etc.

We also have to create the metadata for the image, e.g. information about the original item, letting researchers know who created it, what it shows, which collection it belongs in, copyright status, etc.

Finally, we have to store the digital file for the long term—preferably on a server that will be automatically backed up to other servers in different locations, so that nothing will get lost or corrupted.

This brings us back to that question—why don’t we just digitize everything? As you can see, there’s a lot more that goes into archival digitization than what you see on the front end. On the front end a digital photograph is visual. It’s a picture with detail, contrast, color, tonality, sharpness, depth of field, and focus. On the back end, it’s a huge packet of information—it’s three channels, millions of pixels, and a precise value for each. Even a blog post like this one is just a brief glimpse into the world of cultural heritage photography.

Honoring and Welcoming Idilio Gracia Peña, April 6, 2018

On April 5, 2018, at a ceremony hosted by the New York Archival Society in the Rankin Reading Room at the Department of Records and Information Services, Commissioner Pauline Toole read a proclamation from Mayor Bill de Blasio announcing April 6, 2018, in the City of New York as “Idilio Gracia-Peña Day.” Society President Kevin Foley introduced Mayor David N. Dinkins who graciously acknowledged the decades of service to the City of New York by his friend and appointed Commissioner, Idilio Gracia Peña.

Ann Phillips, Mayor David N. Dinkins, Idilio Gracia Peña, and Commissioner Pauline Toole, April 5, 2018.

A few days before the ceremony, Kenneth R. Cobb spoke with Mr. Gracia Peña about the early days of his career.

Kenneth R. Cobb: I know that you came from Puerto Rico in 1960, and in 1964 you were hired by the Municipal Archives. How did that happen?

Idilio Gracia Peña showing visitors early City records during an open house, June 7, 1991.

Idilio Gracia Peña: I was born on December 28, 1939 in Arroyo, Puerto Rico. My mother was a homemaker and my father was a sharecropper. I arrived in New York City on August 20, 1960, to join my cousins living at 228 E. 112th Street, in Manhattan. I was studying engineering, with a scholarship, but needed more money. Four months later, in November 1960, I decided to enlist in the United States Air Force. After three months of basic training I was posted to the Sheppard Air Force base in Wichita Falls, Texas. I was assigned to work in their libraries—a “recreational” library connected to the hospital, and a technical library for the pilots. I performed typical librarian duties—ordering books, providing reference service—and I became the Administrative Assistant to the head librarian.

KRC: Now it’s 1964 and you are back in New York City.

IGP: I returned to New York City and began looking for a job. Although I did not have a Library degree, I did have experience as a librarian. At that time the government of Puerto Rico had a “Migration Division” that helped immigrants find jobs. They provided me with a reference and a referral to the New York Public Library. The only opening they had was at the Municipal Archives and Records Center, which was then a branch of the NYPL.

Idilio Gracia Peña showing visitors early City records during an open house, June 7, 1991.

KRC: I read that James Katsaros had been Municipal Librarian Rebecca Rankin’s assistant for many years, and after she retired in 1952, he became the director of the Municipal Archives. Was he your first boss?

IGP: Yes, Katsaros was still there in 1964, and I was assigned to the Records Management Division. I began on December 7, 1964, at a salary of $67.50 per week—which was about $3,500 per year. My civil service title was “Clerk,” but I realized that I was doing the same work as staff members who had the title “Laborer,” and they were earning $8,000 per year. So I asked to be re-classified as a laborer. The unions got involved and eventually I became a “Laborer-Class A.”

KRC: I know that the fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s hit the Archives very hard and you were laid off.

Idilio Gracia Peña on an excursion to Ellis Island, ca. 1990.

IGP: Yes, my Civil Service title was laborer, as I said, and that was one of the titles targeted for lay-offs. In June, 1975, I received a letter saying that my position was being terminated. I was out for six months. During that time I was advising the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, as a consultant. On the day I decided I would ask for a permanent position in Newark, I received a notice to stop by the Municipal Archives office—they wanted me to come back. I told them I would, but only on the condition that I be officially appointed Director. By then [January 1976], Eugene Bockman was in charge and he said I would be called “Archivist-in-Charge,” and after six months I would be appointed Director of the Municipal Archives. And they also gave me a new Civil Service title, “Administrative Archivist.” I think I’m probably the only person who went from Laborer to Director in one step.

KRC: Yes, I think that’s probably true.

David N. Dinkins with Idilio Gracia Peña in a Municipal Archives storeroom, 1984. At this time Dinkins was City Clerk.

Idilio re-joined the Municipal Archives shortly before the City Council passed the legislation (Local Law 49 of 1977) establishing the Department of Records & Information Services (DORIS) as a mayoral agency, joining together the Municipal Library, Municipal Archives and Municipal Records Management divisions.

As Director, Idilio transformed the Archives from a warehouse operation to a modern, nationally-recognized research institution, one of the largest in North America, providing access to world-class archival collections. He planned and supervised extensive renovations for the Archives’ new home in 31 Chambers Street to accommodate climate-controlled storage, conservation and micrographics laboratories, and a welcoming public reference room.

Among the collections accessioned during Idilio's tenure are the magnificent Central Park design plans.

Some of our most important and iconic collections such as the 8,000 original architectural records of the Brooklyn Bridge, and 1,500 drawings of Central Park are in the Archives as a direct result of Idilio’s valiant rescue efforts. His unerring sense of which records have historical value brought tens of thousands of cubic feet of historical mayoral, court, district attorney, comptroller, and City agency records into the Archives.

In recognition of his achievements, knowledge, and reputation in the archival profession, on January 1, 1990, Mayor Dinkins appointed Idilio Gracia Peña as Commissioner of DORIS. Among Idilio’s notable achievements were persuading the New York State Archives to dedicate $1 million annually from the Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund to improve City agencies records management. He advanced innovative outreach programs including an exhibition highlighting the Archives’ holdings related to the newly-discovered African Burial Ground.

Idilio Gracia Peña Commissioner of the Department of Records and Information Services, 1990-1994.

Upon his retirement in 1995, Idilio continued his service to New York City through his pioneering work documenting the Caribbean diaspora. From 1997 to 2004, he served as project archivist for the Center for Puerto Rican Studies Archives of the Puerto Rican Migration at Hunter College, City University of New York. Since 2004 he has been the Chief Archivist of the Dominican Archives at the City University of New York.

With Mayor de Blasio’s recent appointment of Idilio to the Archives, Reference and Research Advisory Board, the agency will more directly benefit from his vast knowledge and expertise.

Welcome back, Idilio!

Rebecca Rankin

Rebecca Rankin at her desk, ca. 1939. NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

As Women’s History Month draws to a close, we are reminded of the remarkable Rebecca Rankin and her essential role in the development of the Municipal Library and establishment of the Municipal Archives. Rankin served as Municipal Reference Librarian from 1920 until her retirement on June 30, 1952, the day the Municipal Archives and Records Center—long championed by Rankin—was officially opened.

Born in Piqua, Ohio, near Dayton, in 1887, Rankin received her librarian training at Simmons College, Boston. A vacation trip to New York City in 1918 turned into a job at the New York Public Library. In January 1919 Rankin took up a position as second-in-command at the Municipal Reference Library (then a branch of the NYPL) and within a year, she was named the Library’s Director. The Municipal Library had been founded in 1913 when cities around the country established special libraries to educate citizens and policy-makers about their local governments. As the Library grew, its very informative serial publication, Notes, circulated around the country.

Rebecca Rankin, giving an address on WNYC radio, September 14, 1934. Photograph by Eugene de Salignac. Department of Bridges/Plant & Structures Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Barry W. Seaver, a former librarian at the Municipal Library and author of the indispensable and thorough Rankin biography, A True Politician (McFarland & Co., 2004), describes her commitment to Progressive Era principles as exemplified by the Library: “She believed strongly in providing the citizens of New York with information to enable them to take advantage of the services of the local government." During her thirty-two year career she more than lived up to that ideal, with dozens of articles, speeches, lectures, books, and more than three hundred radio programs airing on WNYC. 

With the election of Fiorello LaGuardia in 1933, Rankin found in the new Mayor someone who shared her belief in educating citizens about their government. Earlier in her career she had helped LaGuardia when he served as President of the Board of Aldermen. After he became Mayor, she quickly renewed her friendship and welcomed his numerous and frequent requests for information.

Rebecca Rankin presenting Mayor LaGuardia with the first copy of of her book New York Advancing during a ceremony on the steps of the New York Public Library, 1936. Rebecca Rankin Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

Rankin's 1936 book New York Advancing was a surprise best-seller. NYC Municipal Library.

In 1936, with LaGuardia’s encouragement, she published her first book, Guide to the Municipal Government of the City of New York. And at LaGuardia’s request she authored what would become a best-seller, New York Advancing—a description of the financing, organization and planning involved in running New York. Telephone orders for copies of the book (@ $1.00 each), poured in at a rate of 500 per day after its release on September 10, 1936. It was re-issued in 1939 as a special World’s Fair edition, and in 1946, a third “victory” edition was printed with added text about the City’s role during the Second World War.

From her first days at the Municipal Library, Rankin observed the haphazard conditions in which valuable historical City government records had been stored and began transferring these materials to the Library. The “early Mayors” series and Common Council papers, dating back to the 17th century, are two of the most notable Municipal Archives core collections that Rankin rescued and preserved in the Library.

In 1939, after cleaning-out the basement of City Hall for the third time, she convinced Mayor LaGuardia that an archival program was necessary to care for historical records. He appointed her Chair of a newly-created Mayor’s Municipal Archives Committee. He also directed the Board of Estimate to purchase the 12-story Rhinelander Building (where One Police Plaza now stands) to house historical records. However, war-time paper recycling campaigns diverted the Committee and steel shortages made it impossible to equip the building with needed shelving.

LaGuardia relied on Rankin for more than just her skill as a librarian—in 1942 he asked her to take over the New York City Committee for Latin-American Scholarships. With financial backing from businesses that had connections in South America, the Committee arranged for free business and professional courses for 20 Latin-American college graduates per year, for three years. Rankin continued her work with the Committee until 1945.

Rebecca Rankin, Librarian, Municipal Reference Library (Left) with Lillian Slaughter, Latin American Scholarship winner from Chile, September 29, 1942. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

After the war, the newly-elected Mayor William O’Dwyer revived the Municipal Archives Committee. He reappointed Rankin and asked her to expand its scope to develop a modern records management program modeled on emerging federal and state systems. To that end she worked on a record retention manual, and developed a records manager training course. In 1950 the Board of Estimate funded staff for the Rhinelander Building and in 1951 they authorized the purchase of shelving and archival boxes.

On June 23, 1952, Rankin presided over a graduation ceremony at City Hall for 33 new public records officers. At the event, Mayor Impellitteri praised Rankin for her work in making the Municipal Archives and Records Center (MARC) a reality. It formally opened, on the day she retired, June 30, 1952.

Snapshot of Rankin at work at the Library shortly before her retirement in 1952. Rebecca Rankin Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

Rebecca Rankin was inducted into the Special Libraries Hall of Fame at their 50th annual meeting in May 1959, for her four decades of service to the profession.

Rankin died on March 1, 1965, at the Dobbs Ferry Hospital near her home in Westchester County, New York. Unlike many notable women, Rebecca Rankin did receive an obituary in the New York Times; indeed she had been the subject of a Times editorial on the occasion of her retirement from City service in 1952.

Equal Pay and Equal Employment

The Municipal Archives and Library collections contain material that provide a vital backstory to today’s efforts to gain equal pay and equal employment opportunities. They illustrate the sustained efforts of women to gain equal pay as New York City teachers in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, and the efforts beginning in the 1970s to win equal pay and employment opportunities for women in City government, including the appointment of women to leadership positions at City agencies.


After the consolidated City was created in 1898, the New York State Legislature set a uniform pay schedule for New York City teachers in 1900 that applied to all of the formerly separate education districts. The “pay bill” set salaries based on gender; women were paid at a lower rate than their male counterparts, even though the vast majority of teachers were women. In particular, this was a big setback for female Brooklyn teachers who previously had been paid at the same rate as their male counterparts. Due to the pay bill, the starting pay for female teachers was $600 annually while starting pay for male teachers was $900. The rate of salary increases also was set in the same discriminatory fashion: $48 annual increments for women compared to $105 annual increases for men. Whether teaching in elementary or high school, in science or writing, the State Legislature enshrined the principal that women teachers should be less than men.

Drawn from the Department of Education collection, accounting forms illustrate the different pay structures. A 1907 ledger from PS 10 in the Bronx shows the salaries paid to teachers of different grades. 12 of the 67 teachers are male and all are assigned to 7th and 8th grades; the 55 women teachers educate the primary grades.

Testimony from female teachers before the State Assembly in 1907 on pay equity.

Between 1900 and 1911, women teachers and their supporters in trade unions and suffrage organizations worked to achieve equal pay. In an unprecedented move, women journeyed to Albany to lobby legislators in 1907—the first time women ever spoke at a State Legislative hearing. The State Legislature passed equal pay legislation, but the bill was vetoed by Mayor George McClellan. At this juncture, legislation concerning New York City was acted upon by the Mayor in addition to the Governor. (Oh don’t we wish this was still the case?) This fleeting success spurred the creation of the Association of Men Teachers and Principals who opposed equal pay. The women activists received pledges of support from William Gaynor, the Democratic candidate for Mayor in the 1910 election. He was true to his word and in 1911 equal pay for City teachers became the law. But…it was a limited reform: the “Equal Pay Law” equalized the starting salaries of men and women teachers but did not apply to teachers hired prior to the 1912 enactment date. So the preponderance of teachers continued to be paid in an unequal fashion. Women teachers also fought for the right of married women to continue to teach and for mothers to teach. For decades, women teachers, and their union, continued to make a case for equality. Legislative improvements were enacted in a piecemeal fashion, until finally in 1947 the salaries of elementary and secondary school teachers were equalized.

Letters from the collections of Mayors Seth Low, McClellan, and William Gaynor illustrate the debate around equal pay.


Equal pay is connected with equal access to job opportunities in all economic sectors. One approach to closing the gap is paying people equally for performing work that requires comparable skills. This “comparable worth” or “pay equity” approach requires a rebalancing of the value placed on different occupations, taking into account training and skills to fairly value the work that women perform. Another approach is to diversify the work force, doubling down on efforts to recruit and hire people under-represented in various jobs.

Materials from the collections of the Commission on the Status of Women and the Human Rights Commission document efforts to achieve equal employment opportunities in the 1970s. In 1970 The Human Rights Commission, headed by Eleanor Holmes Norton, conducted research and convened hearings on the status of women and minority workers in New York City government. In part, the study showed that female City workers were concentrated in two agencies: the Board of Education and the Human Resources Agency.

Public Employee Press from August 21, 1987.

In 1975 the Chairperson of the NYC Commission on the Status of Women suggested that Mayor Beame approve a study of the civil service system to determine how and why women were underrepresented in various job titles. Eventually, in 1984, a campaign by women’s rights groups and unions successfully pushed for a city-funded pay equity analysis whose results supported increased pay for some traditionally “female” city jobs.

As employment opportunities expanded, women began agitating for appointments to decision-making positions in City government. The Commission on the Status of Women’s analysis of mayoral appointments between July and December, 1976, showed that women comprised 29% of Administrative appointments and the pay differential between male and female appointees was $14,981. In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed women to 52% of the administration’s top positions.

Workforce poster2.jpg

Formal barriers preventing women from working in various occupations have been dismantled but women remain concentrated in certain fields: education, health care, administration, with lower pay scales compared to male-dominated occupations. A 2013 Workforce Profile on City Government shows that 51% of all managers are women. However, women remain concentrated in lower paid fields: the base salary for paraprofessionals and administrative support staff is approximately $20,000 lower than the base salary for skilled craft workers. Women comprise 76% of public school teachers and only 16% of the uniformed services.

The gender segregation in employment coupled with low pay has a disproportionate impact on family mobility because women now are the primary wage earners in 40% of American families. On average in the United States women earn 78¢ compared to each dollar earned by men. In New York State, the average is 86¢. Back when I started working on these issues women earned 59¢ to the $1 earned by men. But, at the current rate, it will take another 44 years for women to achieve parity in earnings, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

While the residue of discriminatory rules, pay practices, and laws continue to constrain women, there is some good news. In 2015, young women with college degrees, ages 16-34, (the Millennials) in New York State earned $1.02 compared to each $1.00 earned by their male counterparts. It remains to be seen if this is the start of a good trend or a blip in the data. It’s unfortunately likely that this gain will be fleeting. The American Association of University Women reports that within one year of graduation, a woman working full-time earns only 82 per cent as much as her male counterpart, regardless of the occupation: doctor, lawyer, scientist, or teacher. Generally, the wage gap increases as women age, particularly when women begin to have children and don't have access to affordable child care, paid family leave, or paid sick days.

A female 2014 high school graduate who is employed at a salary of $20,000 annually will make $700,000 less over the course of her lifetime than a male in the same situation. That’s enough to buy another 196 cups of coffee a week.

Women in Civil Society

The debate over women’s equal rights and full access to all areas of society is persistent, and the archival records at the MA repeat a single story of limited access for over three centuries. What is inspiring is the unrelenting struggle for education, property, labor rights, suffrage, and quality of life. And most unnerving is the history on repeat.

We’ve recently begun documenting and highlighting within our collection guides the unique instances in which women spoke and government responded. The pull quotes from these original documents highlight the fears, attitudes, judgements, and expectations we often find ourselves still challenging. Our focus here is on the language—that which we’ve found to be shocking, inspiring, insulting, and sometimes just laughable—so that we may continue to change the conversations, to shape and inspire a lexicon of human rights.

Bill of Sale for Betty, 1814, Common Council Papers

In 1799 the New York State Legislature passed an “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” which granted freedom to all children born of slave women after July 4, 1799. However, the children were required to serve a period of indenture to the slave owner; males until the age of 28; females until the age of 25. After this period of servitude they would become free. Enslaved individuals who were born before July 4, 1799 were not included in the 1799 act.

Emma Goldman, Cause of Arrest: Incitement to Riot, 1893, Court of General Sessions

Speaking to a crowd of people, Goldman’s efforts to galvanize unemployed New Yorkers after the effects of the Panic of 1893, lead to her indictment. Goldman’s anarchist philosophies and the differing testimony at her trial, lead to her being sentenced to Blackwell’s Island.

International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, 1916, Mayor John P. Mitchel Subject Files

Established in 1900, the ILGWU began by organizing local unions in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland to improve working conditions. The ILGWU’s work to organize protests and engage social reformers and government in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911, lead to a significant victories and further spurred their mission.

Suffragists vs. Anti-suffragists, 1914, Mayor John P. Mitchel Subject Files

Sophie Tucker Playground, 1943 Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia Subject Files

A Matter of Simple Justice: The Report of the President’s Task Force on Women’s Rights and Responsibilities, 1969, Mayor John V. Lindsay Subject Files

Virginia R. Allan led the task force to promote the role of women in government. The Task Force outlined recommendations that would ultimately facilitate a change in women’s roles in the workplace. The Task Force was established soon after Vera Glaser, a news correspondent, noted that only 3 of 200 high-level cabinet and policy appointments in Nixon’s administration were women.

“Woman as an Industrial and Moral Factor,” 1895, Mayor William L. Strong Subject Files

Charlotte Odlum Smith was among the early women’s rights supporters, organizing and calling for significant changes in support of pay equity and working conditions and hiring practices. Odlum Smith challenged legislation, and sought to solidify women’s roles in science, journalism, and government.

The Flu Epidemic of 1918

We all have heard warnings about the flu season. It seems to be following a typical pattern as occurs almost every decade—1947, 1957, 1968, 1977…But there is an outlier in the routine: the flu pandemic of 1918 which killed 55 million people around the world and is considered the deadliest health crisis in modern history and perhaps, ever.

1918 began in a regular manner. New Yorkers were focused on the Great War that raged overseas, food rationing and other mundane issues. The Weekly Bulletin of the Department of Health reflects the concerns of public health experts: contaminated milk, sanitary issues in commercial laundries and deaths caused by automobiles. The rate of marriage was up compared to prior years; the rate of suicides was down and the rate of deaths from pneumonia was unfortunately stable and described as “one of the most important problems facing health authorities throughout the world.” Tuberculosis death rates were falling, as were those from typhoid fever. And in the most auspicious news, deaths from poliomyelitis the previous year dropped to 51 from the high of 2,248 in 1916. About influenza? Nary a word in the Bulletin.

Weekly Bulletin of the Department of Health, October 12, 1918. NYC Municipal Library.

The Health Department statisticians produced weekly reports showing the rates of infectious disease, birth and death rates, by borough, and the causes of death by age and gender. The mortality report in an early January 1918 circular showed that 11 people died from influenza, favorably compared to 49 in the corresponding week in 1917. Four of the deceased were male, 7 were female, and 5 were over 65. It was just a regular flu year. That’s not to say that there was a callous attitude about these deaths. Rather the Health Department tried to determine what factors contributed to the spread of infectious disease and where to focus resources to reduce infection and mortality.

Deaths from influenza continued to drop. By June 7 only two people died from this illness in the preceding week. Typically, influenza, or “the flu” strikes during the cold weather months when people are more likely to be in closer contact, inside apartments, offices and subways. The winter season actually was less severe than in the prior years and by the spring of 1918, officials were turning their attention elsewhere.

Weekly Bulletin of the Department of Health, October 19, 1918. NYC Municipal Library.

In May, 1918 Mayor John Hylan appointed the former Ann Arbor, Michigan, Mayor, Royal S. Copeland, as the Health Commissioner. Little did he know that the public health crisis he would soon face. Instead, the monthly bulletin described efforts to combat venereal disease (on the increase due to the soldiers passing through the City), and the Children’s Year designated by President Woodrow Wilson to reduce child mortality nationally and by 4,700 in New York City. The July 6 bulletin urged vaccination against typhoid fever, noting, “Many times the healthfulness of a place is judged by its typhoid death rate. Can you afford to give New York City a bad name?”

The first mention of the “Spanish Influenza” in the bulletin was the front page article on August 17. Ironically, there were zero deaths attributed to the flu reported in this edition. The article reported that nearly one-third of Spain’s population had experienced the flu, which illustrates how the misnomer, “Spanish Influenza,” came about. The flu did not originate in Spain. It was no more severe there than in other European nations, but because news reports in that country were not constrained by wartime censorship the extent of the epidemic was reported publicly. The Bulletin stated that a Norwegian steamer had arrived bearing a dozen passengers with the flu who had been quarantined. Nevertheless, “The public has no reason for alarm since through the protection afforded by our most efficient quarantine station, and the constant vigilance of the city’s health authorities, all the protection that sanitary science can give is assured. The very mildness of the disease, as reported in Europe, is, in itself, assurance against anxiety on this side of the water.”

That was not the case. The flu hit in two waves, the first during the regular winter season. The second wave, the direst threat to public health, emerged that summer. On the Eastern Seaboard, Boston and Philadelphia were particularly hard hit. New York City, proportionately, experienced fewer deaths. Why? In large part, by doubling down on the public health systems that the Health Department had deployed to fight another highly contagious disease: tuberculosis. Principally these were public education, quarantine, and decentralized medical care, including visiting nurses.

Weekly Bulletin of the Department of Health, October 19, 1918. NYC Municipal Library.

At this time, medical researchers did not know exactly what caused the flu. Some “experts” hypothesized that the germs came from Germans, part of the war effort. While debunked as a German plot, historians have agreed that there is a close correlation between the Great War and the flu. Whether the movement of the armed forces dispersed the virus or the deployment of medical personnel into the theater of war left civilians with reduced medical care. Another query was whether the Bayer aspirin was the cause. The rumor was that “the aspirin tablets contain influenza germs and some slow poison,” according to the Bulletin. This caused the Health Department to conduct laboratory tests of aspirin purchased randomly from locations throughout the City. “Nothing irregular was found in the composition of the tablets,” they reported.

Clearly, educating the public about how the flu was spread was key. The Health Department developed leaflets that were distributed widely, including 900,000 to every public and private school student. They urged people to use handkerchiefs to cover up each cough and sneeze, and to stay out of crowds. This advice was heeded by the medical professionals themselves as the convention of the American Public Health Association was postponed from October to December, at the request of the United States Surgeon General.

Letter from Dept. of Health Commissioner Copeland to Mayor Hylan, October 18, 1918. Mayor Hylan Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

By September 28, when cases of the flu were doubling in the City, Copeland acknowledged the seriousness of the disease and possibility of an epidemic but refused to order that schools and theaters be closed. He rationalized that the schools had healthier environments than many homes. His reasoning proved wise, although highly controversial. After the epidemic ended, he was quoted in the New York Times saying, “My purpose in doing it all in this way, without issuing general closing orders and making a public flurry over the situation, was to keep down the danger of panic… I wanted people to go about their business without constant fear and hysterical sense of calamity.”

The Board of Estimate (the government entity that made budget decisions at that time) made a special allocation of $25,000 to fight the flu. It was largely used to hire nurses and nurses’ aides and sanitary inspectors who collaborated on identifying flu cases and providing care. Copeland set up a system of emergency health districts from which localized care was provided. If cases of the flu were detected in apartments or private homes, care was provided on site and the ill person quarantined. Tenement house or boarding house residents who contracted the flu were taken to municipal hospitals. Copeland explained the plan to doctors in an October 10 letter, “In the future, the Department of Health will largely center the efforts of its nurses and medical inspectors in the field, within the congested sections of the city and will make home visits to all cases of influenza and pneumonia in which the practicing physicians fail to state that they will assume entire responsibility for proper isolation in the patients’ homes.”

Death rates from influenza, September to November 1918. Monthly Bulletin of the Department of Health, December 1918. NYC Municipal Library.

The health district plan was announced on October 4 and implementation began immediately. A call went out for nurses and by October 13, the health centers were staffed. The nursing personnel worked in the emergency clinics but also in people’s homes, caring for the sick. In a post-outbreak summary, Mildred Lum, the nurse in charge of emergency nurses wrote: “Three classes of women rendered efficient service in this crisis, and made the opening and maintenance of these emergency hospitals a possibility. Women who in previous years had had hospital training, women who were recent graduates of emergency war time courses and women who were without hospital training but who were willing to serve in any capacity to fight the fight against this dread disease.”

The Survey, February 14, 1920, pp. 580-581. NYC Municipal Library.

The Henry Street Settlement House founder, Lillian Wald, already directed a visiting nurse service providing in-home care throughout Manhattan. In October, she assisted in creating the Nurses Emergency Council that brought together all of the private nursing agencies and City inspectors. In a post-flu summary titled “Influenza: When the City is a Great Field Hospital” she claimed, “These forces, municipal and private, Catholic Jewish and Protestant, were mobilized and ready for action in less than twenty-four hours after the forming of the Council.” In Wald’s view, the City should remain on constant readiness to provide this level of service because severe outbreaks of “epidemics” weren’t extraordinary. Rather, “their occurrences are frequent enough to be anticipated and are not inherently incapable of administrative control.”

October 4, 1918 was a busy day for the flu fighters. In addition to announcing the clinic plan, the Board of Health declared a flu epidemic existed and also adopted a resolution to regulate the hours of operation for businesses, entertainment venues and other entities.

Actual daily deaths from influenza, September to November 1918. Monthly Bulletin of the Department of Health, December 1918. NYC Municipal Library.

Copeland reported on this development in the November 1918 edition of The American City, after the height of the epidemic had passed. Published by the Civic Press, this monthly publication was meant for municipalities of 5,000 or more people and reported on innovations ranging from a Snow Scratcher in Ottawa that roughed up snow to make it passable and not slippery, to Bathing Suit Regulations (no white or flesh colored suits) to “The Patriotic Unification of Your Town Thru Drama.”

His article “Fighting Influenza with Transit Systems” described how the Board of Health “called into play some of its vast powers” adopting a resolution that set schedules for the opening and closing of most places of business, thus spreading out the transit window and reducing congestion. Reduced congestion = Reduced Flu. For example, retail dry goods stores were scheduled to open from 9:45 – 6:15 P.M. whereas other retail stores were scheduled to open at 8:00 a.m. and close at 4:00 pm. Some entities were not affected—banks and offices of the U.S. Government, for example. Theaters and places of amusement were permitted to maintain afternoon hours as normal but evening performances at movie theaters and two-a-day vaudeville houses were regulated. Copeland noted that this emergency measure had faults because it was “conceived and executed in less than four hours.” Never-the-less, he concluded that the scheme effectively reduced the number of people packed into various locales, including subways and buses, and reduced the spread of the deadly flu.

Throughout September and October, New Yorkers weighed in on how to resolve the epidemic. One can imagine the reaction provoked by the letters sent to the Health Commissioner about how to fight the flu. One, proposing that all telephones be supplied with individual mouthpieces would seem impossible to implement. Unfortunately, the suggestion seemed compelling to Mayor John Hylan who sent along his own letter of support, suggesting daily replacement and disinfectant of telephone receivers along with cleaning subway restrooms. Another suggesting saturating all public places with camphor to prevent the flu must have been met with eye rolls and guffaws. And some must just have provoked frustration, as when the Staten Island Borough President insisted in a letter that places of assembly be closed during the epidemic, the exact opposite approach that Copeland was implementing.

When the flu was in check, Copeland responded with his own missive stating in which he wrote:

Letter from Dept. of Health Commissioner Copeland to Staten Island Borough President, November 4, 1918. Mayor Hylan Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

In responding to a brief note by one R. J. Caldwell claiming that Copeland didn’t take the quantity of flu cases seriously, Copeland penned a letter directly to Mayor John Hylan claiming that not only did he take the matter seriously but devoted 21 hours daily to handling the epidemic.

Letter from R.J. Caldwell to Mayor Hylan, October 7, 1918. Mayor Hylan Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

Letter from Dept. of Health Commissioner Copeland to Mayor Hylan, October 10, 1918. Mayor Hylan Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

Copeland and his Department had a good deal to be proud of. By November, when the worst of the epidemic had passed, New York City had experienced 20,403 deaths from influenza and pneumonia (the first frequently resulted in the second so both were deemed influenza-related deaths). However proportionate to the population, the City fared much better than most counterparts with a rate of 3.9 deaths per thousand residents. Of the twenty large cities, only Chicago and Cincinnati had lower mortality rates, with 3.3 and 2.6 deaths per 1,000 residents.

Influenza death rates of the six largest cities, from the Weekly Bulletin of the Department of Health, December 1918. NYC Municipal Library.

In the Sunday New York Times published on November 17, 1918, Copeland took a verbal victory lap in an article titled “EPIDEMIC LESSONS AGAINST NEXT TIME.”

In meeting the situation when it got here we did a number of unconventional things and we did not do several conventional things that were done elsewhere.... The first thing that was done almost everywhere but New York was to close the schools…and the theatres and all places of public assemblage.... They may have been just the right things to do in those places; I don’t know their conditions. But I do know the conditions of New York and I know that in our city one of the most important methods of disease-control is the public school system.

An ad in that edition praised Copeland with a headline: “This Man Guards the Health of Five Million People.” Paid for by the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry, the ad praised him for not closing the theatres despite the “hullabaloo and panic of other cities” and claimed “An Ounce of Courage is Worth a Ton of Fear.”

The lead article in the penultimate edition of the Bulletin in December 2018 was headlined, “Control of Influenza Must Be Continued,” and cited the practices that Copeland implemented: reporting illnesses, public health education and requiring sick people to stay home.

Any person who has a running nose, headache, slight cough, feeling of illness, or other symptom indicative of sickness should see a physician at once, and if it is determined that he has influenza or there is any doubt as to whether or not it may be influenza, that person should immediately go home and go to bed, or at least shut himself off from his family and the community until it has been determined definitely that he has not influenza.

Oh, so wise.