Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Joyful New Year

When icicles hang by the wall,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
When blood is nipt and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-whoo! Tu-whit; tu-whoo!
-- Shakespeare

We are starting to develop quite a nice collection of 19th- and 20th-century greeting cards here at the Historical Society. This is one of the most elaborate. It measures five by seven inches, and is a double-sided card made up of two cards pasted back to back surrounded by silk fringe. The scenes are printed in beautiful detail using the color lithograph process; on one side is a Christmas greeting and on the other side is a New Year’s greeting. At the very bottom in letters too small to read without a magnifying glass is the name of the publisher: Wirths Bros. & Owen.

The Wirths brothers, Colvert and Robert, were engravers. In the 1850s they emigrated from Hanover, Germany to the United States. From the 1860s to the turn of the century the brothers designed and produced greeting cards, calendars, and small illustrated books. By the time this card was published in the 1880s, they had offices in New York at 12 Bond Street, and in London. Their cards, however, were printed in Germany. This was common for cards and postcards produced before the first World War, since German printing methods were considered far superior to American.

The Boston printer Louis Prang had introduced English-style Christmas cards to the United States in 1874, and the Wirths brothers began designing their own cards soon after. In the 1880s, Christmas cards were still a novelty, and each December the cards of the season were reviewed in popular magazines like The Literary World and Athenaeum. Wirths brothers’ painted satin cards and cards frosted with glitter were praised as “dainty and attractive” and “much superior to the common run.” Cassell’s Family Magazine admired their sunsets and snowy landscapes. And in 1887, the London magazine Punch confirmed the popularity of Wirths Brothers cards in its supposedly humorous verses on new Christmas products:

Wirths Brothers cards we like, and for this reason
They are in keeping with the Christmas season
Of Christmas Cards, you will ask, well, where on
Their point? Quite so, but here’s your money’s wirths.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Volumes of Good Wishes from the Historical Society

In 1982 Algernon Gordon Smith, known to his Hastings friends as Gordon, gave the Historical Society a small scrapbook of greeting cards, two of which you see here. Gordon was a third generation Hastings-ite, and he and his wife were charter members of the society when it was founded back in 1971. He was the first editor of the Hastings Historian and the second president of the Historical Society, and his historical notes are some of the oldest in our files.

Gordon compiled his scrapbook in the first grade – that would have been in 1911. One of the cards in the book actually has a copyright date of 1909, so Gordon had probably been collecting these cards for a few years. He gave his little scrapbook as a present to “Mrs. Smith,” presumably his mother. And today we share it with you – with volumes of good wishes this holiday season!

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Speed Demons of Hastings

Gus Wagner's goat cart with Ed Rohrbach at the reins, ca. 1910

By now you will have received your new Hastings Historian with the lead article by Bob Russell on the 1950s Hastings car club called the Driftin’ Shifters. The young mechanics in that club rebuilt and souped up old cars to race on the Dover Drag Strip in Wingdale, New York.

The racing spirit has a long history among Hastings residents of all ages. But while automobiles absorbed the attention of adults, kids had to take what they could get. At the turn of the century, the transportation of choice among the young racing set in Hastings was the goat cart.

In 1974 Albert Shaw Jr. described the sport of goat-cart racing in a letter to the Historical Society’s Gordon Smith. Albert Jr. was born in 1898 and his family lived on North Broadway, the stage for many hotly contested races between goat-cart owners John “Jack” Zinsser and Stanley Halle. Jack was the son of Col. Frederick G. Zinsser, owner of Zinsser Chemical Company, whose house once stood in Zinsser Park. Stanley was the nephew of the Sidenbergs, who lived on North Broadway near the Dobbs Ferry border. In their races, Albert Jr. observed a pattern – Jack always won when they were coming south and Stanley always won when they were going north. The goats, it seemed, were always willing to put on a little extra steam when heading in the direction of their own barn and feed bag.

Alfred Jr. was clearly a sporting young gentleman, following in the footsteps of his neighbors. According to an article in our files, Alfred Jr. won the local soapbox derby in 1908. This race was run on the grounds of Mackenzie School in Dobbs Ferry (now the site of Cabrini Nursing Home). Albert Jr. called his car “Isotta-Fraschini” after the make of the car that had won the popular Briarcliff Cup stock car race in Westchester that year. Our hero might not have been able to enter the race at all—he had broken both his spare wheels (they were express-wagon wheels made of wood)—but the chauffeur of another contestant lent him an extra wheel. The course ran steeply downhill along the border of Dobbs Ferry and Hastings and included at the end a hairpin turn onto Broadway that a later newspaper article described as “something of a killer-diller.” But Albert Jr. and his mechanic, a youngster from Ardsley named K.B. Conger, were clocked as the fastest and took home the prize against a field that included the fiercest competition from all the local villages.

Jack Zinsser in his pre-racing days, standing by the head of a goat cart ca. 1900; photograph lent for copying by Jack's son John A. Zinsser

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hastings’ Model Orphanage

Children from the New York Orphan Asylum in Hastings-on-Hudson with their donkey cart pulled by "Jack", the school donkey. (All the pictures in this post are from Dr. Reeder's 1909 book on the orphanage.)

One hundred years ago, in the very southwest corner of Hastings, there was a model orphanage. In 1910, the Review of Reviews described it as “one of the best examples of the cottage system for the care of orphans to be found anywhere in the world.”

The “cottage system” was invented by reformers at the end of the 19th century to counteract the evils of what they called “institutionalism.” In the early 19th century, philanthropists thought they could rescue children from the unsanitary and dangerous conditions of cities like New York by removing them from their homes and placing them in charitable institutions. But many of these were overcrowded and far from the sanitary and orderly places that the philanthropists had envisioned. They were institutions where, as Hastings R. Hart wrote in his book Preventive Treatment of Neglected Children, “children are kept in uniform, with shaved heads; where they do not have individual clothing, but have clothing distributed to them promiscuously from week to week; where lice and bedbugs prevail; where food is meager and of inferior quality; … where sleeping rooms are insanitary; where thin straw beds let the tender bodies down upon hard wooden slats; where cuffs and abuse are more freely distributed than kind words.”

The “cottage system” tried to create an environment that was more like a real home. Different ages of children lived together in fairly small groups with “cottage parents.” The ideal cottage system was also outside the city, where the air and water were clean, and where children could spend part of their day out of doors. This was what the New York Orphan Asylum had in mind when they bought their property in Hastings in 1869.

"Where We Live and Learn." The New York Orphan Asylum in 1909. On the left are the "cottages" and on the right are the administrative buildings.

But it was not until 1899 that the orphanage board decided to begin the move to Hastings, a move that was completed when the buildings were finished, in 1902. To help them carry out their plans, they hired a new superintendent, Dr. Rudolph Rex Reeder. Dr. Reeder is described in the 1913 Who’s Who in America as a “social worker,” a new profession that had developed in the 1890s. Reeder had started his career as a school principal in Illinois and completed his doctorate in education at Columbia Teacher’s College in 1900, the year he was hired by the New York Orphan Asylum.

Reeder was an enthusiastic champion of the cottage system. He wrote books and articles on the subject and spoke at conferences. He described with horror orphanages he had seen where children’s individuality and creativity were stifled. “The life of the child in most of these institutions is so dreary, soul shriveling, and void of happy interests, the daily routine of marching and eating and singing and of lining up for whatever is to be done so stupefying, as to inhibit the child’s normal development.”

Girls from the orphanage caring for a family of chickens.

In Hastings, Reeder tried to create the complete opposite of this kind of institution, and to Hart, who visited the orphanage and wrote about it in 1910, Dr. Reeder had succeeded.

“The ideal of an orphan asylum has been very nearly attained in the New York Orphanage at Hastings-on-Hudson, under the direction of Dr. R.R. Reeder. ... The institution is established on the cottage plan, with cheerful sitting rooms, well-ventilated dormitories, small dining rooms and a separate kitchen for each cottage, partly in order that the older children may assist in the care of the younger ones and partly in order to create a homelike atmosphere.

A class in a greenhouse.

Around the different cottages will be found flowerbeds, chicken coops and pets. Nearby will be found vegetable gardens, beehives, rabbit hutches, stables, etc. …

The school rooms are spacious, affording twice as much room per child as is found in the ordinary public school. This plan permits proper ventilation, exercise in the school room and comfortable seating. The schools are only an incident in the training of the child. The whole life of the child is made to articulate with his education; farming, gardening, grading, building, domestic work, play, environment of every sort, are skillfully wrought into educational material.

At the foot of the bluffs flows the Hudson River, where a bathing place is enclosed, allowing boys and girls alike to learn and practice the joyful art of swimming. ... The evils of 'institutionalism' are practically absent from this beautiful institution, and already its influence is being felt upon the orphan asylums and children's homes of the United States.”

Boys swimming in the Hudson.

Reeder wrote his own book about the Hastings orphanage in 1909, and you can read it online at Google Books, or by clicking here. Reeder was so well thought of that in 1921 he was hired to head the Oversees Child Welfare Association of America in Serbia. In 1929, following a long tradition of orphanages trading the name “asylum” for “school”, the New York Orphan Asylum changed its name to the Graham School in honor of its original founder, Isabella Graham. During the 1950s, the Manhattan branch was reorganized and renamed the Windham Society. In 1977, the Graham School and the Windham Society were consolidated into the current Graham-Windham.

Christmas in one of the cottages in 1909.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Open House This Saturday, Dec. 5th

Now that Thanksgiving is over and the last slice of pumpkin pie has been eaten, we can turn our attention to the next set of holidays! We don’t often open the cottage on a Saturday, but in honor of the season we are going to have an open house this coming weekend.

Come by and visit us at 407 Broadway between 10AM and 2PM on Saturday, December 5th. It will be your last chance to catch our 2009 exhibitions, including the displays on the Hudson-Fulton Celebration of 1909 and on John William and Henry Draper’s contribution to celestial photography. You can also help to support the good work of the Historical Society by stocking up on our t-shirts, postcards, prints, throws, and maps, buying yourself a copy of the Arcadia Press book on Hastings, or renewing your membership. They all make wonderful gifts. If you can’t make it to the cottage, take a look at our “Emporium” on the web site. It includes pictures of all our offerings and a mail-in order form. Give us a call if you have any questions.

We also have some lovely note cards with Hastings scenes that make perfect Season's Greetings cards. Our best seller since 1982 is this lovely little watercolor painting by Jasper F. Cropsey showing a sleigh flying down Ravensdale Road.

In Cropsey’s day, Hastings was much less built up than it is today, and his many paintings of our town show an area where the presence of human beings had not yet disfigured the natural landscape. And it was the natural landscape that inspired Cropsey, as you can tell from this letter that Cropsey wrote to John Wickliffe Kitchell in November of 1897.

“Some years ago, one winters day, I felt like having a little recreation—and a tramp in the snow—which lay freshly fallen, and very tempting in the sun-light. It did not seem cold—the air was so soft, and glorious; although a biting frost prevailed and with buttoned up overcoat I wended my way nearly knee-deep, out, and along the Farragut Avenue, here, near my place at Hastings-on-Hudson till I came to a turning called Ravensdale Road. This struck my fancy as being delightful, picturesque, and artistic. I immediately turned in, on this lovely road. By this time the sun had warmed the sky, and an afternoon glow had begun to prevail. A little further tramping and I entered a bit of wood, in which the snow lay pure and soft, and untrodden; tinted with gleaming sun light that flitted in, and out through the stately tree-trunks warming the branches with roseatic light, while it deepened every little hollow in the more obscure parts of the woods, with a cool shadow. Thus, I tramped along, admiring the beauty of the soft blue in the sky overhead—the warmth and glow in the fresh snow besplattered tree trunks: when turning to take a moments breath, I had before me, ... just as the sleigh came dashing along, the subject of your picture, cool and tender, as no language can describe.

It is needless to say, I went no further but then and there made notes which I embodied in the picture which was produced on my return home of which I think you are to be congratulated as the happy possessor.”

Cropsey is referring to the fact that Kitchell had recently purchased one of his paintings entitled “The Ravensdale Road in Winter.” Kitchell’s painting and the painting on our note card are two of Cropsey’s variations on the same theme. Not all are dated, but they must have been produced after 1885, when Cropsey first moved to Hastings.

Another of our Cropsey note cards, "Winter on the Hudson," painted in 1887. The original painting is in collection of the Newington-Cropsey Foundation

John Wickliffe Kitchell was a mid-westerner who had made his little fortune in developing coal mines and farming land in Illinois. In the 1890s he retired and began to enlarge his art collection. His favorite artist was Jasper F. Cropsey. Between 1897 and 1900, Kitchell purchased twenty of Cropsey’s paintings through the St. Louis dealer Alfred Newhouse for a sum in excess of $5,000. This must have seemed like a fortune to an artist who spent the last years of his life in poverty.

Kitchell liked to have a “pedigree” for his paintings, and Newhouse encouraged Cropsey to send Kitchell notes about the paintings he bought, giving him some description of the subject—whether it was Greenwood Lake, Niagra Falls, or Storm King. It was perhaps from these letters about Kitchell’s purchases that a friendly correspondence developed between Kitchell and Cropsey. Kitchell urged the artist more than once to visit him at his home in Pana, Illinois. But Cropsey, worried perhaps about the cost of the trip, always excused himself, explaining that he simply had too much work.

Kitchell’s painting, along with his correspondence with Cropsey, is now in the collection of the MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois. The painting on our note card is in the collection of long-time Historical Society friend and supporter Barbara Newington. And there are several other versions of the Ravensdale Road theme in other collections, in watercolor and oil. One of these, a watercolor entitled “Winter—Ravensdale Road,” sold at auction at Christie’s in 1995 for $45,600.

And yet another! "The Ravine at Hastings," a watercolor painted by Cropsey in 1895 and showing a view down the Ravine only a few years before the Warburton Avenue Bridge was built, with the pond in the center, a few of the houses near the railroad tracks, and, in the distance, steamships and sailing boats on the Hudson. The original painting is in the collection of the Newington-Cropsey Foundation.

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