Tiny Show Tells Big Story at NY Historical Society

Tiffany & Co., Sterling silver controller handle used to operate NYC’s first subway train, 1904. Source: NYHS

Tiffany & Co., Sterling silver controller handle used to operate NYC’s first subway train, 1904. Source: NYHS

Has anything changed in New York in the last 400 years?

To celebrate the debut of a history book by Sam Roberts, the New-York Historical Society has filled its tiny second-floor gallery with A Brief History of New York: Selections from A History of New York in 101 Objects. Perhaps it’s always been about infrastructure, finance, and tourism. See for yourself through Sunday, November 30.

Many of the stories intertwine, and it’s fun to get insights from reading the backstories of the items on display, like the 1500s arrowhead and the 1700s oyster. We all know that New York City was the oyster capital of North America until the 1920s, but did you know that they were so abundant that crushed shells were used to line Pearl Street and provide the major component of the foundation mortar for Trinity Church on Wall Street?

Consider that the earliest guidebook to New York City (formerly New Amsterdam) was written in 1670, long before double-decker buses were trolling the mean streets.

New York's first guide book from 1640

New York’s first guide book from 1640

Mass-market media manipulations were born here as long ago as 1809, when young Washington Irving (who first used “Gotham” as a synonym the city in 1807) began posting missing-persons advertisements in a variety of city papers (the New York Evening Post is on display) to drive sales of his satirical political “history” of New York by a fictional Diedrich Knickerbocker. Move over, Buzzfeed.

City infrastructure highlights include Mr. Randal’s field books for laying out the Manhattan street grid in the early 1800s (see the digitized results here) and a snippet from the first transatlantic cable, deployed in 1854-1858. Queen Victoria sent an 88-word telegram to New York, which was officially received in an astounding 17 hours — an innovation at the time but significantly slower than dial-up AOL.

Visitors absolutely love the wooden water pipes on display at NYHS, but the show shares the fact that these were deployed by Aaron Burr, who got the state license to build New York’s first water system as part of his mission with The Manhattan Company. We’re used to hearing about the crumbling infrastructure under the streets today and contractors under-funding city technology projects, but this item underscores that it’s not a new story.

Section of water pipe, 1770-1804. The note says it was put into service in 1804 on Washington Street near Liberty Street and pulled out of the ground around 1911.

Section of water pipe, 1770-1804. The note says it was installed on Washington Street (near Liberty) in 1804 and pulled out of the ground around 1911.

Burr made money but let this innovative delivery system deteriorate. Instead of keeping the infrastructure up-to-date, he use the cash to build The Manhattan Bank (today JPMorgan Chase) to break the monopoly held by Mr. Hamilton’s Bank of New York – a rivalry that later escalated toward an historically tragic outcome. (See their dueling pistols in the lobby.)

On a happier note, one of the brightest objects in the show is the sterling silver Tiffany handle used to operate the first subway train in New York in 1904. Dignitaries used it to make the first run from City Hall up to 103rd Street on a day when 150,000 tickets were sold and New Yorkers took their first ride.

Subway tokens (1995-2003). Source: NYHS

Subway tokens (1995-2003). Source: NYHS

Although they only went extinct in 2003, the subway tokens mounted behind glass seem like ancient history – little round artifacts that look as though they should have been dangling from beaded wampum belts and not carried around as currency in the 20th century.

Thanks to NYHS for providing us with this illuminating capsule collection.

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