Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bringing History to Life in the 1920s

Pocahontas and John Rolfe, after their wedding in the Jamestown church, from Jamestown, one of the Chronicles of America Photoplays.

If you had been sitting in the Hastings school auditorium on Friday, September 16th, 1932, you might well have seen the wedding of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. It would have been in black and white, and without any sound – but at least there would have been movement, history brought to life on the silver screen.

How do we know what a high schooler would have been doing on that particular day? Well, we were recently looking through the public school handbook for 1932-33, which is in our pamphlet file, and we became curious about several entries in the school calendar. Sandwiched between the G.O. elections and the Aloha Club dance are three days where the scheduled activity is “Chronicles of America”. A quick google supplied the information that the Chronicles of America Photoplays were films on American history. This series of fifteen silent movies, with titles like The Pilgrims, Peter Stuyvesant, The Declaration of Independence, Dixie, and The Frontier Woman, was one of the earliest educational film series. It was produced between 1923 and 1924 by Vitagraph Studios in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a studio established in 1906 that has been called the “first modern motion picture plant in the country.”

The real Hastings connection here is a person – Arthur E. Krows, who was scenario editor at the Vitagraph company. Krows wrote the scripts for the first two films in the series, Columbus and Jamestown. Krows lived on Farragut Avenue, directly across from the school, with his wife, known to the entire town as an animal lover and host to all the stray dogs and cats in the neighborhood. Krows’ brother was “Doc” Earl Krows, a local dentist, who lived on Euclid Avenue. It seems likely that Arthur Krows was the man responsible for obtaining, or encouraging the school to obtain, copies of the film reels to show to students.

The Chronicles of America Photoplays were based on a set of books called Chronicles of America published by Yale University Press between 1918 and 1922. “This series of fifty volumes,” declared the publishers, “is designed to tell the story of the United States, as it has never before been told… to present the entire history of our country in living form, so related that the reader will be given a real vision of his country from the beginning to the present day." And almost as soon as the first volumes went to press, the publishers had the idea of developing accompanying films that would further the goal of bringing history to life.

Director-General Peter Stuyvesant gives way to fury as the Councilors urge him to accept the English terms for surrendering the Colony of New Amsterdam, from the film Peter Stuyvesant.

The publishers contacted Krows at Vitagraph, who was enthusiastic about the project and agreed to become secretary of the Chronicles of America Picture Corporation, a joint venture between Yale University and Vitagraph. He set to work on the first two scripts and made arrangements for filming to begin. Richard Koszarski in his 2008 book Hollywood on the Hudson: Film and Television in New York from Griffith to Sarnoff describes the process. “Production soon began on Columbus, and the company was lucky enough to locate a full-scale reconstruction of the Santa Maria that had been floating in Chicago’s Jackson Park Lagoon since the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Although the Nina and the Pinta were by now considerably beyond repair, the Santa Maria was towed out into Lake Michigan for a few impressive establishing shots. Back in New York, an estate at Mount Kisco doubled for the palace of King John of Portugal, the La Rabida monastery was shot in Huntington, and beach scenes showing Queen Isabella’s messenger overtaking Columbus were filmed along the shores of Montauk. Interiors were built at the Vitagraph studio in Flatbush.”

The book series took history from the Indians to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Vitagraph was able to produce only fifteen films out of the proposed forty, and only got as far as the Revolutionary War before the combination of incredibly high production costs, conflict between the historian/editors and the filmmakers, and the collapse of the Vitagraph studio brought an end to the photoplays. (Arthur Krows himself resigned as secretary of the Chronicles of America Picture Corporation after an argument over changes that the Yale historians wanted to make in his scripts.)

But though the films may not have recouped their costs, they were popular enough with museums, schools, and local clubs that they helped establish a real market for educational film. As late as the 1950s, prints were still being circulated by various institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Pathe company, and in 1941 the Chronicles of America Photoplays became the first documentary film series to be shown on American television.

Congress assembled in Independence Hall on June 7, 1776 to vote on a resolution for independence, from the film The Declaration of Independence.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Hastings’ First Female Doctor

Sarah Elizabeth "Lizzie" Curry, probably taken in the 1880s.

Do you find obituaries depressing? But you never know what fascinating lives lie behind these short paragraphs! Take a look at this obituary from the Yonkers Herald Statesman of 1932.

“Hastings-on-Hudson, May 31 – Dr. Sarah Elizabeth Curry, one of the oldest woman doctors in the country, died at her home here yesterday after a long illness. Dr. Curry, who lived at 219 Thompkins Avenue, was in her late seventies. Born in New York, the daughter of the late Francis M. and Mary Lane Curry, she moved to Hastings at an early age. Because the Curry home was on the Yonkers-Hastings line, she attended School One in Yonkers for a number of years before continuing her education in Chappaqua and Pennington Seminary. She was graduated from the Women’s Medical College in New York and after practicing in that city, returned here to enter general practice. She retired about 15 years ago because of poor health. She is survived by her brother, Town Judge Frank E. Curry of Greenburgh, and a number of nieces and nephews. ... Burial will be in the family plot in Mount Hope Cemetery.”

Bare bones, indeed—but intriguing! A few comments in the oral histories done for the Historical Society by Vira Curry McNiece, Sarah’s niece, fill in some of the details.

“There was a carriage house on the property that was quite a distance from the house. It housed a two-seater carriage and a buggy. It had a flight of stairs that wound upstairs where the walls were plastered. That’s where school was held. Some of the children around attended, as did my mother. My doctor aunt taught there for a while after my grandfather died while she was waiting for her inheritance.

Later she practiced somewhere in New York, and then she came home and commuted on the old Putnam Railroad, going down every morning and coming back in the evenings. Still later she had her office at our house in Hastings. She charged 50 cents for office visits. I don’t think she had too large a practice, but she made lots of house calls—for $1.00 each—in her horse and buggy. She had quite a few patients in northern Yonkers and on Washington Avenue in Hastings. [Both lower income neighborhoods (Ed).] She was a homeopathic doctor. She lived to be 76 when she died of cancer.”

We’d love to know more about Dr. Lizzie. Anything we discover, we’ll share with you!

June 1894 graduating class of the New York Medical College and Hospital for Women, a homeopathic institution incorporated under the University of the State of New York in 1863. Sarah is the tallest woman standing in the back row, framed by the central arch. This was the first place in New York City where a woman could study medicine and, until 1918, the only hospital that accepted female interns. When Sarah attended it, the school was located near Carnegie Hall.

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mystery Photograph: Church Ladies?

Remember the young commuter from the June 24th post whose name was Josephine Selvaggio? Well, the years have rolled by, and you see her here on the far left of a group of seven senior citizens, with one gentleman standing at the back. They are posed on Main Street, right outside the Youth Center. Behind them is the church of St. Stanislaus Kostka, where Josephine married Joaquim Dos Santos in 1926. This is another of the items given to us by Josephine’s son, Louis Dos Santos. It might have been taken in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

Can you help us with the identifications? Is this a group of ladies from the church? It is a senior citizen group on their way to the Youth Center? Josephine did volunteer at the Hillside School. Could these ladies all be school volunteers? What are the names of the other women, and who is the man behind them? Click on the photograph to look at it more closely in Flickr. Any and all suggestions gratefully appreciated!
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Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Fourth of July Parade – 1910s style

In 1941, long-time Hastings resident Stephen Zebrock wrote a column for the Hastings News called “Main Street Through the Years.” In this column, he set down everything he could remember about his childhood in Hastings in the late 1910s. This week, we thought you might like to read what Stephen wrote about Fourth of July parades. (The photographs that illustrate this post are from the 1914 parade. For more information, click on a specific photograph.)

“Parades were really an event in our lives. A Fourth of July parade would have every kid in the village agog for weeks in advance. Who would march in it? Which band would lead? Where would they start? Ann and I and Margaret and Emma Rimar would awake at six A.M. actually waiting! Finally at eight o’clock or so we’d rush downstairs, wash up, dress, and dash out into the front yard.

My father had built a large picket fence insuring privacy and also a box-seat view of any Main Street proceedings. A hundred precautions to keep our clothes clean, and we’d finally hear distant drums beating…. The parade was coming! Across Warburton Avenue Bridge, we could see the gaily-colored stream of people marching toward us. There they were—going up Main Street.

Look! There’s Louie [Zebrock, Stephen’s older brother], and Steve Snyder, Joe Meyer, and other members of Hastings Brass Band. There too was Mr. [John] Prince, Kitty’s father. Next came Capt. [William] Cronell, looking like a general out of a history book, at the head of our police force. Then came the school children (no one under the fifth grade was allowed to march) all decked out in their finest, all the girls showing their newly-made curls (after a night of torture). …

Next in line came some of the teachers. I recognized Miss [Kate] Crane, Miss [Agnes] McLave, Laura Caffyn, Mae Devery, Emma Van Nostrand, Grace Harlow, Margaret Waldbillig, Grace Sylvester, Mary Toole, Miss Senn (my teacher) and Mr. Peters, the Manual Training teacher. Our new principal, Mr. [H.H.] Murphy, lead this contingent. Following the teachers came some of our well-known and most popular citizens: A.W. Bevers, C.C. Delanoy, John Lawler, Jas. Magee, Dr. H.C. Sherman, Frederick Zinsser [owner of Zinsser Chemical Company on the waterfront], Dr. W.J. Doerfler, Louis Limekiller, and Nicholas Cook.

The Hastings Girl Scouts following the Boy Scouts took a round of applause. The Hungarian, Russian, Italian, Irish, and other local societies were well-represented, their native flags side by side with the American Flag.

About this time my mother would leave the kitchen to join Aunt Vera, Uncle John, my father, Mr. and Mrs. Szabo, and, generally, the proprietor of our home, Mr. Wagner, and his family. The parade stretched on, there were four or five different kinds of bands—from Uniontown, the Manor, from ‘the Juvenile Home’ up the Hill, and at least two or three brass bands. Finally, only a gang of kids trailed by…. The parade was over.

At the holiday spread, the one topic of conversation was the parade. “Didn’t Captain Cronell look dignified. Didn’t our Louis play better than all the rest? Wasn’t Mildred Young pretty in that girl scout uniform. Bill Hogan looked like a real captain. And the new dress on Kathlyne Collins! Mr. Zinsser looked like a Major in that uniform. And did you notice Dr. Doerfler marching?” This was a sample of the talk around the dinner table. We didn’t know whether to eat or talk. After all, didn’t everyone in the village turn out? And hadn’t people come for miles just to see our parade? Darn tootin! A parade in Hastings was an event in those days.”

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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Heads Up – It’s the Hindenburg!

On the 9th of October 1936, retired chemist and camera buff A.C. Langmuir of 383 Broadway set up his camera to take a photograph of the zeppelin Hindenburg hovering above the Anaconda Wire & Cable Company on the waterfront. The same day, the following article appeared in the Yonkers Statesman under the title “Thousands Here View Hindenburg.”

“Thousands of Yonkers residents, craning their necks skyward and shading their eyes against a blazing sun, got their first view of the giant dirigible Hindenburg today.

The glistening German trans-Atlantic air liner was clearly visible in detail, from beaming nose to the colorful Nazi swastika on its tail. Its motors humming, the Zeppelin dipped low over the city, after making a graceful crossing from New Jersey and entering over South Yonkers. The flying level was estimated at 700 feet.

The passage over this city began at 8:50 A.M., about half an hour past schedule. Aboard were a party of commercial men, making an observation tour of Westchester County’s western sector, and prepared to cruise over New England, returning down the Long Island Sound and eastern Westchester this afternoon.

The dirigible glided north, over Hastings, Dobbs Ferry, Ardsley, Irvington, the Tarrytowns, Ossining, and Peekskill. Then it turned east toward Danbury, Conn. It was then to continue on a roughly elliptical course to Boston, and then return via Brockton, Providence, New Haven and Bridgeport, passing then over Port Chester and Mount Vernon.”

Map from the New York Times showing the route of the Hindenburg's 10-hour cruise.

The residents of Yonkers were not the only enthusiastic spectators – every inhabitant of every city that the zeppelin passed over was amazed at the vision of the Hindenburg hovering above them. Factory whistles blew to alert the residents to its arrival in a new town. Planes circled around the liner and dipped in salute. Schools recessed, and the children ran about in the streets shouting so loudly that they could be heard on the zeppelin itself. The New York Times reported that a Newark man had actually died after falling through a skylight while stepping back to get a better view!

And this was no surprise, for the Hindenburg was, and still is, the largest airship ever built. The Camden, NJ paper called her the “Queen of the Skies.” She was built for commercial passenger and mail service, and boasted a dining room, lounge, and writing room designed by the same artist who designed the interiors of ocean liners and luxury trains. The ship could carry up to 72 passengers, and for the trans-Atlantic service from Germany to the U.S. the tickets were $400 each (about $6,300 in 2010 dollars). As you might imagine, the passengers were mostly the very wealthy – politicians, athletes, entertainers, and industrialists.

The “Nazi swastika” on the tail end of the zeppelin may seem a little surprising for a commercial passenger carrier. It probably wouldn’t have been there if Dr. Hugo Eckener, chairman of the company that built the zeppelin, had had anything to say about it. It was Eckener who had insisted on naming his zeppelin after the former president of Germany, and not, as the Nazi propaganda office had instructed him, after Adolf Hitler. For this error, the German newspapers were not permitted to use Eckener’s name in any article they wrote about the airship. In Hitler’s Germany, the state ran the airships in partnership with Dr. Eckener’s company. Both the Hindenburg and the Graf Zeppelin were used for propaganda purposes in Germany, flying around the country dropping leaflets and broadcasting political speeches.

In 1936, the first year of its operation, the Hindenburg made 10 trips across the Atlantic. In October of that year it had reached the end of its official season. The flight over Hastings was part of a special 10-hour cruise before the ship returned to Germany for the winter. Its purpose was two-fold: to inspect sites for future airship air fields and to get the heads of America’s biggest corporations interested in the commercial possibilities of airship travel. Among the 84 passengers invited on the trip were Nelson Rockefeller, the presidents of Chrysler, Packard, and De Soto, and the president of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. (Could this ride have inspired Goodyear’s future affection for blimps?) Every guest was enthusiastic over the smooth and comfortable trip. When the ship returned to its birth at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, Dr. Eckener was able to tell the press that “progress had been made toward the financing of two big rigid airships in this country.”

But almost exactly seven months later, for reasons still not fully explained, the Hindenburg crashed at Lakehurst airfield, killing 35 of the 97 people onboard. This disaster was so horrific that it brought the age of commercial airship travel to an abrupt end. Two days later, the Graf Zeppelin was grounded, and in 1940 the brand new Graf Zeppelin II was dismantled.

But on that clear day in October when A.C. Langmuir set up his camera to snap the photograph at the top of this article, the future of the zeppelin looked bright. Langmuir and the thousands of other people who saw the Hindenburg must have thought they were looking at the dawn of a new age – the glorious hydrogen-filled future of air travel.

Photograph from the October 9, 1936 article in the Yonkers Statesman.

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