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Types of Brooklyn Girls

Apr 29, 2009 11:06 AM | 5 comments

"Brooklyn Girls are renowned for beauty, grace, and wit... To those so unfortunate as to live outside the boundaries of the borough, all its young women are equally charming... But the native knows that each section of the city has its own peculiar type."  

For several weeks in 1902, the Eagle published weekly drawings that represented certain female social "sets" in Brooklyn.  Each week, they asked readers to submit a 250 word essay in response to the recent image.  Judges selected the best three essays on each set to be published in the following Sunday edition.

The images were drawn by artist and Eagle staffer Harrison Cady, whose work here echoes the famous Gibson Girl images of the early 20th century, complete with fair skin, big hair, and tiny waists.

At first, the essays seem a bit flippant; just an exercise in well-off Brooklynites writing about how wonderful their women are.  But upon closer examination, one can find evidence of the changing role of women in this era:

The Heights Girl has "exquisite taste" and "a long line of aristocratic ancestors."  She participates in social clubs and charitable causes, but she "is not permitted that degree of independence which her sisters in the newer portions of the borough enjoy."






The Hill Girl (i.e. Fort Greene) has "discovered that the hours spent by her grandmother in hand sewing may be better employed now in study."  She is "the woman of the future."  She takes her education seriously and is not part of the old aristocracy.







The Suburban Girl enjoys outdoor activities, but she is "near enough to the city to accept its advantages."  She is more genuine than her sisters because "she lives further from the artificial and nearer to nature."







The Park Slope Girl is "a blending of types."  She is not quite as smart at the Hill Girl, but she is "near enough to the country" and "her aristocratic birth and tastes force her to respect conventional propriety."







(Note: Mr. Cady intended to complete sketches of the Eastern District and Bedford District girls, but discontinued the series due to illness.)

One could argue that these essays are the 20th century equivalent to today's Gossip Girl - a depiction of New York's elite that combines acute observation and overgeneralization.  It's fun to look at, but it only represents society to a small degree.

Yet we can not ignore that during this time, also known as the Progressive Era, defining the woman's role in society was a national question.  These essays are indeed addressing important issues:  education, independence, modernity, charity, beauty, and urban artificiality, to name a few.  All four sets are well-educated, but some use their education towards careers and others towards social status.  The aloofness of the Heights Girl is contrasted with the genuine nature of the Park Sloper and Suburbanite.  And the middle class sensibility of the Hill Girl seems to challenge all three of her other "sisters."  You can almost hear Brooklynites questioning what is best: A wealthy heiress with charitable tendencies?  A well-rounded aristocrat?  An intellectual middle-class graduate?  A suburbanite who avoids the artificial city?

In the years to come, women from all of these sets would play an important role in women's suffrage, workers' rights, and other social reforms.  Lucy Burns, a real-life "Brooklyn Girl," graduated from Vassar the year this piece appeared and went on to co-found the National Women's Party.  Her fellow sisters would assist Margaret Sanger in opening the first birth control clinic in Brownsville; fight for equal rights for women workers; and organize suffrage rallies across the borough.  The subtle way these issues appeared in the Sunday paper shows us that Brooklyn Girls were more than "renowned for beauty, grace, and wit."  They were preparing for a greater role in their borough and beyond.   

A Small Accolade, and Some Brooklyn Moustaches

Apr 24, 2009 10:28 AM | 3 comments

Good news! Amid the gloom of budget cuts, bursting property bubbles and bankruptcies, we take heart from the fact that Brooklynology won an honorable mention in Mr M. Levy, Unity Clubthe ArchivesNext Best Archives on the Web awards. That alone is a fine thing, but better yet, among the other winners is the University of Kentucky's "Mustaches of the Nineteenth Century" in the "Most Whimsical Archives-Related Website" Category--one of the most amusing blogs we have seen in a long time.

Never having met a good idea that wasn't worth borrowing, I thought we might occasionally bring to your attention a few of the finer Brooklyn moustaches of the nineteenth century.  Were Brooklyn moustaches different from all other moustaches? Not at all, and yet it is worth pointing out that Mr N. Schellenberg, Unity Clubthey did adorn masculine faces all over the City (and, after 1898, the Borough)-- a fashion, like hats, that is less often seen today. Today we feature two belonging to members of Brooklyn's Unity Club, described by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle as "the leading Hebrew social organization of the Borough..." Our impeccably preserved collection of cabinet cards depicting club members bears the name of each one on the verso, sometimes with a date.  Of a type rarely seen today, these facial ornaments cover the upper lip and would certainly require the use of a moustache cup, a subject touched upon in our inspirational blog of the day.

One young staff member who shall be nameless disrespectfully referred to this style as a "krill filter." Really!

The Drivotrainer

Apr 21, 2009 9:43 AM | 3 comments

Having grown up in the suburbs, I only learned to parallel park to pass the driver's test.  So when I borrowed a friend's car recently, I realized I would have to parallel park for the first time since I was 16.  But at the moment of truth I recalled my old driving lessons and found myself perfectly aligned with the curb.  Success! 

I cannot say that I would have been able to pull off this feat if I had learned to drive under THIS method:

Parallel Parking 

These high schoolers are practicing parallel parking with the Aetna Drivotrainer, which had its debut at the Brooklyn High School for Automotive Trades, on Bedford Ave, in 1953.  The Looking at the EvaluationDrivotrainer was a replacement for on-road instruction.  Students sat in "dummy cars" and navigated courses that played out on the screen in front of them.  Each car was equipped with a monitoring system that noticed every turn of the wheel and push of the pedal.  A printer near the instructor's booth provided a print out of each student's performance. 

In the early 1950s, instituting driver's education in high schools became a national solution for highway safety and traffic accident concerns.  But providing this service in a large school system was costly.  Before the Drivotrainer, most New York City students completed their driver's education in a classroom.  According the Department of Education, only 1% received on-road instruction, which was expensive and logistically challenging.  Instruction via Drivotrainer, where a teacher could provide "behind the wheel" instruction to 15 students at once, was one solution.

Emergency DrivingRichard O'Connor, the NYC comissioner for Driver's Education, was a strong supporter of the Drivotrainer.  After contacting Aetna, he was able to receive one donated classroom to use for a series of pilot tests.  He worked with a team of education officials and Aetna representatives to shoot hours of driving footage in Hartford, CT.  What resulted was a set of 22 films, covering everything from driving basics to emergencies.  The young man above is responding to the latter. 

The Drivotrainer gained media attention at its introduction because it was a totally new approach to driver's Learning to Drive Backwardseducation.  The Eagle provides us with a series of wonderfully posed shots of students using the cars, and the New York Times has several articles on the options and results of various driving training systems.  In a lengthy Times piece written by Mr. O'Connor himself, we learn that students were responding well to the Drivotrainer and that it seemed to be a successful option in the early years of its existence.

As with many cultural phenomena, it is harder to tell the end of the story.  There is evidence that the Drivotrainer found success nationally and abroad.  In 1954, a 15-seat classroom had been built in Sweden by Aetna.  The latest mention I found was a 1967 Times article highlighting the use of new computer technology to improve the Drivotrainer's student assessments.

We now live in a world where driving simulators can be found in almost every arcade and home gaming system.  It is hard to imagine that this was a credible option for teaching at one time.  For the most part, I want to dismiss the system as archaic and kitschy.  On the other hand, the costliness and danger of on-road training still exists.  Perhaps Aetna and Mr. O'Connor, who believed that some training is better than no training, were onto something.

Mr. O'Connor Instructs

Now the Drum of War. Robert Roper on Whitman and his Brothers in the Civil War

Apr 16, 2009 5:30 PM | 0 comments

book jacket

Robert Roper, author of an acclaimed book on the Whitman brothers in the Civil War, will give a talk sponsored by the Brooklyn Collection on Wednesday April 29th at 7 p.m. in the Trustees Room, Third Floor, Central Library, Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn NY 11238.

Birds of Prospect Park

Apr 15, 2009 3:42 PM | 2 comments

Brooklyn is not a quiet borough.  When I walk around the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and listen to the wind in the trees, I will inevitably hear air plane engines over my head or the sound of sirens in the distance--not really the noises that I want to hear in this sanctuary.  But one sound that I've waited all winter for, I finally get to hear again: birdsong.

  A lovely publication called Birds of Prospect Park that I found on our shelves is a delightful guide to birds in Brooklyn.  Published in 1951 by the Brooklyn Bird Club, this pamphlet records field observations of the birds of Prospect Park.  The pages include information on sightings of birds and the date sighted.  40 pages of bird observations fill the pamphlet with entries like: 

A witty message for the American Robin.  This entry for the Tennessee Warbler also caught my eye:

While these entries may not seem very helpful, the listings do include times of year when the birds can be seen throughout Brooklyn.  I do wish that there were descriptions of the birds that are unfamiliar to me.  Then again, the guide has a decent bibliography which includes Audubon's Field Guide.  This pamphlet includes maps that show migratory patterns, bird watching paths in Prospect Park and what to look for in the Spring and Fall.  The booklet is almost 60 years old and while I do not know how much birding has changed in Brooklyn over the last 60 years, you can find up-to-date Prospect Park bird sightings at the Brooklyn Bird Club blog!  The Brooklyn Bird Club turns 100 this year and has lots of special events planned.  I am hoping to go on a bird watching tour soon.  Until I can find that moment, I will be content to listen to the melancholy coos of the Mourning Dove couple that reside in my Brooklyn backyard.

Images:  Birds of Prospect Park, Brooklyn Bird Club, 1951