THE NEW YORK CITY MUNICIPAL ARCHIVES preserves more than 225,000 cubic feet of original records, mostly paper. Some is bound into books. I thought I knew a lot about books, especially books about children’s experiences, having worked in children’s publishing for many years. Recent visits to the Archive led me to three books about children unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
THE CHILDREN’S REPORTS IN THE ALMSHOUSE LEDGERS
THE NYCMA IS CONSERVING over 400 handwritten volumes from 1758-1952 pertaining to city-run institutions supporting the poor and sick. The Almshouses and various hospitals were located on Blackwell’s Island, now Roosevelt Island. The Child Admission Ledger covers the years 1860-1865, and contains Almshouse admission information and reports for children, most under two years old. Columns in the ledgers are labeled with Date of Admission, Age and Condition. The Children’s Reports include a column labeled Remarks, which notes the cause of death or details about the release. Scores of babies died each month; most deaths were attributed to diarrhea and malnutrition. A typical ledger page between May 15-21, 1864, shows that 14 babies died, two were adopted, one was transferred to the small pox hospital, and one was taken by his mother. Many babies died within a few weeks after admission, and the pages are filled with carefully inked entries in decorative penmanship created with a metal-tipped pen.
The handwriting in the ledgers drew my attention, and as a result I contemplate the lives of the children and their caretakers. The penmanship resembles calligraphy commissioned for wedding invitations. The contrast between the elegant writing and the suffering of the children makes no sense in my twenty-first century context. The ledger provides a visual reference for the enormous scale of loss, and helps me understand the deep well of grief behind Victorian memorialization. The pages are like miniature memorials to those who passed through the Almshouse.
A small scrap of paper with a tally for 1866 was slipped into the endpaper of one of the volumes. With perfunctory marks, in pencil, the clerk noted that 460 out of 558 children died at the New York City Almshouse that year. The shoddiness of the scrap tells me that the tally, the number, was less important to the ledger keeper than the individuals. The anonymous clerk of the Almshouse Ledger pays tribute to each person with a slow, ornamental rendering of their names.
New York City has had numerous institutions supporting children, including one of the earliest public school systems.
THE NEW YORK CITY SCHOOLS at THE PARIS EXPOSITION of 1900 (Exposition Universelle)
THE EXPOSITION UNIVERSELLE OF 1900 was a world's fair held in Paris, France, from 14 April to 12 November 1900, to celebrate the achievements of the previous century and to accelerate development into the next. The fair, visited by nearly 50 million people, displayed many machines, inventions, and architecture that are now nearly universally known, including the Grande Roue de Paris Ferris wheel, Russian nesting dolls, diesel engines, talking films, escalators, and the telegraphone (the first magnetic audio recorder).
Included in the fair was a set of bound books about the New York City Public Schools. Bound into the set was a complete portfolio of original student work with markings by the teachers, photographs of school rooms and students, and a description of the curriculum for the system.
Justina Jones, a teacher from PS 18 in Staten Island wrote:
When the children found that it was a subject in which their parents were interested, and one that they themselves might some time make use of, it became of some value in their eyes, and they enjoyed the work.
Detailed drawings…word study…grammar… millions of viewers received a full picture of public school education circa 1900 in New York City.
ALL THE CHILDREN
ALL THE CHILDREN IS THE REPORT by the Superintendent of Schools, New York City. In the 1930s, the report was bound into a hardcover book. The theme of the forty-first annual report for the 1938-39 school year was teacher devotion, with numerous pages profiling individual teachers.
The book was intended as a report for the general public (the taxpayers who funded the schools), the Board of Education and committee members. The tone is relentlessly upbeat. This book serves as a positioning document to justify spending, as well as a report of activities and accomplishments. The layout resembles a large-format contemporary lifestyle magazine, like LIFE or LOOK. The photos – such as those taken from the roof of Brooklyn Technical High School, or the shot from the rafters in the architecture lab at Brooklyn Tech – provide a real inside view of the buildings.
THESE THREE BOOKS offer unique depictions of children’s lives. Created to fulfill different government purposes, they help us understand two of city government’s critical undertakings: educating and providing for our children.