Please join us this coming Wednesday, April 24th, for our latest author talk with former borough historian John Manbeck. He'll discuss the Brooklyn waterfront's rich history and how its use influenced the development of Brooklyn's industries and communities, from ship-building to ferries, factories, and beaches. The city continues to look for new ways of utilizing the waterfront today with plans under way for new housing, parks, and business projects. Manbeck has written several books on various aspects of Brooklyn history, many of which are available in the Brooklyn Collection.
A wine and cheese reception, as well as distribution of tickets, is at 6:30 p.m. The Brooklyn Collection is located on the 2nd floor balcony of the Central Library at Grand Army Plaza. Seating is limited to 40.
There is a tired cliche that "behind every great man is a great woman". This has always seemed to me to be a way to shoehorn women into the mostly-male narrative of history as we learn it. The wives of presidents and inventors are rarely given their own space in history, and are usually seen as appendages of the men they married. When researching prominent women in history, it is very likely that you will at first find more information about their husbands.
The same is not true for Emily Warren Roebling.
I was first drawn to her when researching news coverage of her husband's illness, contracted during the building of the caissons for the Brooklyn Bridge. As I searched the name Washington Roebling in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle online archive, I was shocked to find that most of the articles on the first page were about his wife, and not even about her in direct relation to him. The articles all concern her involvement with charities, political affairs and the Daughters of the American Revolution.
By all accounts, Mrs. Roebling was a force to be reckoned with. She was an educated young woman when she met and married Washington Roebling, and the couple were only one year into their marriage when Washington took his father's place as Chief Engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1869. Three years later, he was incapacitated by the Bends (then known as Caisson Disease) while working on the bridge foundations. With Washington Roebling unable to oversee the construction in person, the Roebling family might have had to dissociate itself from the Bridge, had it not been for Emily, who was all of 29 years old.
It is immediately clear that Mrs. Roebling was not simply her husband's secretary--relaying notes with no input of her own. Her own education and interest in engineering (their honeymoon involved studying caisson technology in Europe) meant that she was far more involved in the project than people at the time might have expected. This is the moment when any article about the Bridge or Washington Roebling begins to mention his wife. He was bedridden and inactive, while she became the face of the project and the family, even giving a statement to the American Civil Society of Engineers defending her husband's ability to remain in the role of Chief Engineer. To give credit where it is due, Mr. Roebling recognized his wife's contributions: "At first I thought I would succumb but I had a strong tower to lean on, my wife--a woman of infinite tact and wisest council (sic)." (Zink, 2011, p.vi)
While all of this is interesting (and well-documented) there is a lot more to Mrs. Roebling than the work she did with and for her husband. I mentioned her involvement in politics and charitable work above; but without context one might think that she was simply fulfilling the role of a high society woman who attended lunch meetings and organized charity dinners. This is simply not the case. She was heavily involved in various civic institutions, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, of which she was vice president, but not president, as evidenced by this snippet from the Sunday, February 17, 1901 Daily Eagle.
The Chiropean Society, the Relief Society, the Society for the Aid of Friendless Women and Children and the State Federation of Women's Clubs also commanded her attention. In addition, she was well-travelled, so much so that she was present at the Coronation of Tsar Nicholas II, as reported on Friday, April 30, 1897 by the Eagle. She is described as having a "Keen discriminating and investigating turn of mind", with nary a mention of her appearance or dress.
Mrs. Roebling also never ceased to further her education, graduating from the NYU law program on March 31, 1899, at the age of 56. This is a stunning accomplishment for any 56- year old, much less for a woman in the Victorian era.
Mrs. Roebling's accomplishments did not go unnoticed. There is a handsome placard commemorating her on the Brooklyn Bridge, in recognition of all her efforts. At the dedication ceremony for the bridge, Mr. Abram S. Hewitt stated, "It is thus an everlasting monument to the self-sacrificing devotion of woman, and of her capacity for that higher education from which she had been too long debarred. The name of Mrs. Emily Warren Roebling will thus be inseparably associated with all that is admirable in human nature, and with all that is wonderful in the constructive world of art." (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 25, 1883)
Emily Warren Roebling embodied a powerful intellectual spirit and set an inspiring example. As a teacher, I feel that she is the kind of person my students should learn about-- someone who worked hard and continued to learn throughout her lifetime, achieving great recognition for her intelligence and abilities.
Two trivia contestants battling for the crown of Brooklyn's Smartest Nerd
Very rarely here at the Brooklyn Collection are we able to combine three of our most indefatigable passions: showcasing our broad knowledge of Brooklyn's past; partnering with local businesses to bring fun and free events to the public; and enjoying a drink or two with friends. But now, thanks to a new partnership with Sepia, a local bar just steps from Central library's door, we can pursue all three passions simultaneously in the form of a... Trivia Night!
So here's what you need to know (aside from, say, knowing the name of the first mayor of Brooklyn):Who: Teams of four will compete. Bring three friends or come solo and we'll match you up with some real eggheads. What: Brooklyn trivia night. Where: Bar Sepia, 234 Underhill Avenue (at Lincoln Place)When: Tuesday, April 16th at 9pmWhy: Because you can win a bar tab!
There's no need to register ahead of time, just show up at the bar and be prepared to answer 40 of the toughest trivia questions you can imagine. We'll cover everything from Abraham & Straus to Zach Wheat. If you think you know Brooklyn you got another think coming. We hope to see you there!
This blog post comes with an audio accompaniment. Please put in your ear-buds or ensure that your speakers are turned on, click here, skip the obnoxious ad, and press start before reading on. All will become clear as we go on.
Slowly but surely the manuscripts and archives housed in the Brooklyn Collection are rising out years of obscurity complete with finding aids and arranged into sparkling new acid-free folders. The records of the Froebel Society are the latest to be dusted off and brought into the light of day. It was in 1957 that the ageing members of the Froebel Society, a dwindling cohort of women interested in progressive education and uplifting ideas, decided to wind up their affairs. Active since 1884, the Froebel Society had, it seemed, run its race, reached the finish line, and like many other Brooklyn clubs, succumbed to changes in society and the media that rendered club membership less attractive than staying home and watching the telly. Cognizant as they were of the value and interest of their activities over the last half century to future generations, the far-sighted society members turned to their local library to find a final resting place for the minutes of their meetings, their yearbooks, their accounts. What they did not give us, was their photographs, if they had any, or the silver tea service! I find these omissions hard to forgive.
But we must be grateful for what we do have, and among our Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs we find these two images showing the actual transfer of the materials from the remaining Froebel Society members into the hands of then Chief Librarian Francis St. John. The date is June 1957.
A catalog record for the collection has long been available in OCLC, but I sadly I cannot say that library patrons have been breaking down the doors demanding access to these files. Now, the new finding aid describes some of the activities of the Society and the arrangement of the collection in the confident expectation that those interested in educational movements, women's clubs and related topics will find their way to us.
Friedrich W. A. Froebel (1782-1852) was a German educator who established the idea of the kindergarten and believed in the value of free play in early education. A kindergarten based on Froebel’s principles was established in Brooklyn in the 1880s. According to the Brooklyn Citizen, (Sept 23, 1894) and in the words of one of the officers of the society,“The Froebel Society was organized in April, 1884. It was the outcome of the desire of the patrons of the Froebel Academy (incorporated 1883) to so understand the principles of education that the home life and the school life might become supplementary parts of one scheme, and was organized out of the mothers and teachers of the academy. Its purpose…continues to be mainly educational..."
Children at the Froebel Academy, 1945
The Froebel Society was a women's social club that provided cultural programs for its members at their monthly business meetings, and gave them other opportunities to meet in committees such as the "Home Committee," which was particularly scrupulous in recording its proceedings. The Club also took part in the activities of the New York State Federation of Women's Clubs.
The Society's records provide a fascinating window into social practices among middle class women during the first half of the 20th century.They entertained each other frequently at lunches and suppers and their menus were very much of their time. Here is a lunch menu from 1954:
Ham, peas, sweet potato and pineapple
Tomato aspic salad
Ice cream and special anniversary cake
While the subjects of talks ranged widely through literature, art and politics, a number of our volumes relate to the activities of the Home Committee, which took a particular interest in domestic life. "Fabrics--the key to successful decoration" was the title of one of their talks in 1948. In 1899 a Mrs Benjamin read a piece by Marion Harland entitled "The Mistress' Touch," which avers--now pay attention to this--that the "stamp of good housekeeping is the clean soap dish." Happily, the ladies of 1900 (February 20th) took a somewhat more relaxed view of housekeeping: "It was the general opinion of the ladies...that...if a book was out of its usual place or a few cigar ashes on the carpet not to feel that either interefered with the routine of work."
It all too easy to make fun of women who were not allowed to vote, or to enter a profession aside from those then prescribed for women such as teaching or nursing. Women's clubs must have played an important role in keeping women sane and connected to society. Later in 1900 Mrs Benjamin summarizes an article from the magazine Club Women: "The article stated how beneficial Club life had been to women; taking them away from the petty cares and trials of house-keeping for a while, to go back strengthened and refreshed at the same time keeping women young."
Among the many concert programs included in the collection, this one caught my eye. Schulz-Evler's Arabesques on Strauss's Blue Danube Walz (played in this case by the amazing Josef Lhevine) is what you have been listening to if you followed the instructions at the top of this post. Pianist Marian Kalayjian must have had chops! She played that, but the only note in the minutes is "Miss Marian Kalayjian...rendered a well-chosen group of piano pieces"! There's gratitude for you. I hope at least they had a glass of fruit punch waiting for her on a doily!
Call it morbid fascination, call it a sadistic thrill, or call it plain old curiosity, but for better or worse our eyes are often drawn toward scenes of discord and mayhem like moths to a flame. For evidence one need only note the traffic jams that build up around gory car accidents as passers-by slow down to gawk or the tabloid tales of misfortunes fallen on the otherwise rich and famous that fly off supermarket shelves. I can only speak for myself here, but I will admit to taking some small pleasure from a moment of glorious, utter destruction. Who doesn't enjoy a rousing demolition derby? So it is with a file of pinball machine photographs from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
One can almost hear the shrill crunch of sledgehammer against glass as Police Commissioner William P. O'Brien destroys a pinball machine at a police garage on the corner of Meeker and Morgan Avenues. And although I wince at the loss of what looks to be a beautiful old machine -- one called the Cyclone, no less, a name that particularly resonates in this borough -- I can't help but admire the gusto with which O'Brien goes about his work. What crime did the machine commit to deserve such a fate? What could anybody have against a pinball machine? Although pinball machines are considered harmless, even quaint, now, in the 1930s and 1940s they were seen as a morally suspect form of gambling and a cash cow for organized crime rackets.
In this time, it was customary for prizes to be offered to winners at pinball games. While winning a toy kazoo after shelling out fifteen cents in nickels on a pinball machine may seem like no great crime or calamity, those nickels added up. According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which published a series of articles on the pinball racket early in 1936, there were 16,500 pinball machines in the borough pulling in $20,000,000 in nickels every year. That "take", as the paper called it, was divided up among the owners of the cafes and arcades where pinball was played and the operators who supplied and owned the machines. Part of it also went to purchasing the prizes that lucky players could win -- prizes which ranged from gum, candy, cigarettes and cigars to finer items like chinaware, cocktail sets, jewelry, and even lamps. In the eyes of city officials, there was no skill involved in winning these prizes, making the pinball game nothing more than an elaborate slot machine, which had been banned in the city since 1934.
If pinball machines were in reality gambling machines, then the industry was, as the Eagle put it, "peculiarly open to exploitation by racketeers." In December of 1935 Justice Frederick L. Hackenburg of the Court of Special Sessions handed down a conviction of a pinball game operator in the Bronx and in his ruling laid out just how racketeering was involved: "There is a central place for people to go for prizes. They control the entire game in the [Bronx] county through the central places. The next thing, they will be allotting territories. The next thing, when somebody walks across the boundary of the territory, we will find somebody in Bronx Park with five bullets in his head. It is an incipient racket... There is potential murder somewhere in the back of it." Twelve days later, a Charles Zavatoni was found dead in Long Island City, with two pinball machines in his car.
Mayors LaGuardia and, later, O'Dwyer both mounted campaigns to keep the gambling racket, which included not just pinball machines but also slot machines and roulette wheels, out of New York. On multiple occasions through the 1930s LaGuardia ordered the seizure of pinball machines throughout the city and revoked the licenses of establishments that housed them. The matter was repeatedly brought to court to determine if the game could be won with skill or if it was all a matter of luck. According to New York state penal code, if chance was the dominating factor for success, then the games were essentially gambling, and were illegal. In 1936 an NYU professor sought to settle the question with a "strictly scientific" study of game. According to an Eagle article from June 22 of 1936, "97,800 plays were made on nine machines... Students at the Washington Square school made a total of 67,800 plays on the machines. None of the students had any technique and a great many plays were made blind, with the machines covered. Dr. Clark when assigned 10 assistants in his department to the special task of developing skill on the same machines. They played scientifically 30,000 times in their efforts to become good at it." Nice work if you can get it! The result of the experiment showed only a 2 to 9 percent better chance at winning for the practiced students.
Above and below, Police Commissioner Louis Valentine strikes a pose to demonstrate his aggressive stance against gambling in the city. These photographs show the destruction of roulette wheels, slot machines and pinball machines gathered in raids in April of 1935, but our photograph collection shows similar scenes throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
Despite the various raids and arraignments of pinball operators, the games still proliferated throughout the city. One raid in January of 1942 alone netted 1,802 games. Aside from possible connections to the criminal underworld, the games were seen by many as morally degrading and a waste of money -- something considered especially intolerable as the country entered war. The Eagle, in a not-so-rare moment of hyperbole, drew a straight line connecting the frittering away of so much lunch money on pinball machines to our national fate in wartimes saying, "In these days banishment of gambling devices, innocent in appearance yet thorough in thievery, is really an aid to national defense."
Above, police load a truck with pinball machines confiscated at 651 Atlantic Avenue (which fittingly, if Google Maps is to be believed, is now the site of a Party City Store), in 1942.
Our photo collection regarding the pinball controversy largely documents the aftermath of police raids -- the fun that was had smashing up a warehouse full of roulette wheels, slot machines, and pinball games.
And when the fun of smashing, stomping and shattering is over, what do you do with several hundred pounds of wrecked gaming equipment? Load it up on a barge, steer it out to sea, and dump it in the ocean, of course.