Wednesday, December 14, 2011

BHS Has a Cool New Digital Exhibit on an Old Brooklyn Family

A slave bill of sale (1818) from the Lefferts family collection

The Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) has just launched a new exhibit that you can visit from the comfort of your own home.

“An American Family Grows in Brooklyn: The Lefferts Family Papers at Brooklyn Historical Society” is a digital exhibit that tells the story of one of Brooklyn’s oldest families.

Items from the Lefferts collection span centuries of history, from when the Lefferts family first settled in Flatbush in 1660. The family came to own large tracts of property, not only in Brooklyn, but in Queens County, Staten Island and New Jersey as well.

Over the years, the clan included slave-owning farmers, Revolutionary War veterans, politicians, real estate developers, and one rather pioneering female historian, Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt, author of The Social History of Flatbush.

In addition to short, informative essays on topics such as “Slavery in Brooklyn,” “Marriage and Family,” “The Church” and “Farming Brooklyn,” the digital exhibit includes an image gallery of 77 different documents and pictures that have been scanned from the collection for our viewing enjoyment.

There are maps, newspaper clippings, a handwritten account of the Draft Riots in 1863, deeds, estate inventories, pictures of the Lefferts homestead (interior shots included), bills of sale for slaves and all sorts of other interesting material.

Says the exhibit’s curator, BHS’s Julie Golia, “The Lefferts family papers illustrate some of the most important themes of Brooklyn’s history: slavery and freedom, the development of Flatbush from farmland to suburb, the experiences of women in colonial Brooklyn, and many more.”

The collection was donated to BHS in 2010 by the Lefferts Historic House in Prospect Park. The original Lefferts house was burned down during the American Revolution. The rebuilt house, dating to 1783, stood at 563 Flatbush Ave. and was moved to the park in 1918, where it holds public programs about Brooklyn’s Dutch history.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Calendar: 'Literary Brooklyn' Author Evan Hughes at BPL Wednesday

Evan Hughes, author of Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life, will be speaking at the Brooklyn Public Library's main branch at Grand Army Plaza on Weds., Dec. 14 at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. The event is free, but limited to 40 people.

As per the library:
  "Literary Brooklyn uncovers the borough's — and a nation's — history through the minds of its greatest writers.  In it, Hughes not only traces the origins of Brooklyn's contemporary literary scene but illuminates a revealing slice of American urban history.  Starting with Walt Whitman, Brooklyn's first laureate, through the greats of the twentieth century, such as Henry Miller, Marianne Moore, Richard Wright, to today's prominent writers — Jonathan Lethem, Jhumpa Lahiri, Colson Whitehead, and more — Hughes peers into their lives, their work, and their Brooklyn, the home that shaped them."

Should be interesting — and maybe you'll be able to score a signed copy of the book, which would make a great gift for the Brooklynologist in your life.

Brooklyn Takes a Bow as a Town of Writers [New York Times]
Brooklyn Has Inspired Writers Since Whitman, Miller and Mailer [Brooklyn Eagle]

Monday, December 5, 2011

Quirky Tales Of Brooklyn’s Business History

Historian Julie Golia and Librarian Elizabeth Call
Maybe you knew that the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer started here in Brooklyn in 1849. And that it went on to become the primary producer of penicillin during WWII (thanks for that). But did you ever think about how bad their factory may have smelled?

Well, it smelled like “old garbage” — and the level of pungency depended on the weather, at least according to one woman who worked at their Flushing Avenue plant in Williamsburg.

She is one of dozens of Pfizer employees who were interviewed by the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) for their oral history archives. And while the nugget of posterity she left us doesn’t offer too much insight into Pfizer’s growth from a rinky-dink operation into international behemoth, it does stir the imagination. It helps to make Pfizer’s history a bit more tangible, and a lot more human.

“You never know what you’re going to find in a collection. A lot of research is serendipity,” says Julie Golia, a public historian at BHS, who, along with BHS Special Collections Librarian Elizabeth Call, made a presentation on Thursday night at the Brooklyn Public Library titled “From Earplugs to Warships: Exploring the History of Business in Brooklyn.”

Up until the 19th century, Brooklyn was primarily agricultural. But in 1814, Robert Fulton’s steam ferry commenced between Brooklyn and Manhattan, which made the commute reliable and practical for the first time.

Thus Brooklyn Heights became “America’s first suburb,” and the County of Kings started on its staggering path of 19th-century growth — acquiring hundreds of thousands of new residents, undergoing a boom in real estate and construction, and developing huge waterfront enterprises in sugar refining, oil refining, beer brewing and the like.

Beginning in the 1940s, the painful process of deindustrialization set in, depressing the economy for decades until recently, when a new thrust of the “creative class” moved into the borough, bringing new businesses and investment and the mixed blessing of gentrification. 

But Thursday’s presentation didn’t spend too much time delving into this timeline. Rather, Golia and Call opened up some of the Historical Society’s collections to show the employee newsletters, financial ledgers, insurance maps, scrapbooks, posters, advertisements, catalogues and recorded interviews, that give a fuller and more nuanced picture of the businesses and people that have made Brooklyn tick.

You probably didn’t know about J.A.R. Elliot Co., manufacturer of earplugs. Elliott patented a protective earplug at the end of his very successful career as a champion shooter of live birds. He was the “Tiger Woods of sharp-shooting” said Golia, and a spokesman for Winchester rifles. But he developed hearing problems (go figure), so he went into the earplug business here in Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th century. (His earplugs were actually made out of wood, and then he wisely moved on to more malleable materials.) 

Another small-scale manufacturer was Well Made Gloves, which had a small factory in south Park Slope during the mid-20th century. It was a family business owned by Louis Lebman, who had apprenticed with a glove maker in upstate New York (who knew people were still apprenticing in the 20th century?)

And then there was the Brooklyn Brush Manufacture, incorporated in 1848, which was extraordinary because it was an African American-owned business. “This reflects a time when African-Americans were becoming interested in creating their own institutions,” said Golia.

Racism, it seems, is a theme that runs throughout Brooklyn’s business history. A 1940s employee newsletter in BHS’ collection from the Fulton Street department store Abraham & Strauss showed employees in “black face” for a minstrel show at the company Christmas party.

Documents from the Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a lead organization of the Civil Rights movement, show that CORE organized a protest against Ebinger Baking Company, beloved for its Blackout Cake, because they used discriminatory hiring practices. (In 1962, Ebinger signed an agreement with CORE promising to be more equitable.)

Also in BHS’s collection are the scrapbooks and autobiography of Henry A. Meyer, “who had a huge impact on Brooklyn, but nobody knows his name,” says Golia. He was a German immigrant who ran for mayor of Brooklyn in 1882, but lost. Through his Germania Real Estate Company, he developed large parts of Flatbush, including Vanderveer Park and south Midwood, turning the farms of such old Dutch families as the Lotts, Cortelyous and Van Wycks into the urban streets we know today. He was also president of the Jamaica Bay Improvement Association, and thought that Jamaica Bay was going to be the next big shipping port of the world. (That didn’t pan out, but it is home to a pretty big airport.)

There are a million more stories to be found in the collections of the Brooklyn Historical Society. You can find them at its library, located at 129 Pierrepont St. in Brooklyn Heights. Visit and click on “Library and Collections” to get a better idea of what’s in the archives and the best ways to access them.