Friday, February 20, 2009

From the Archives at my office . . .

One would think that a New York City organization founded in 1848, one with a rich history of involvement in this neighborhood of Manhattan, might have a respectable archives cataloging its history. Unfortunately, that's not the case here. Indeed, there are official records, diaries, meeting minutes, photographs, blueprints - and god only knows what else - scattered higgledy-piggledy in drawers, closets and cabinets throughout this 1906 building.

(And I should note that this isn't unusual. As a historian I encountered soooo many institutions/associations, some with histories stretching back 200 years, that had taken little or no care in preserving their records. If you're in a business that generates a great deal of paper, you understand the dilemma. What gets saved? Sure, it's easier in a digital age. But New York City still has mobile paper-shredding trucks that shred tons of documents every day. Thus my indignation over poorly preserved and/or badly organized records is always tempered with an understanding of the difficulties inherent in the archival process.)

I found this photo tucked away in a storage cabinet, sharing space with bound copies of Harper's magazine from the 1880s and 90s. It's ca. 1910 and documents the "Free Vacation School" offered to neighborhood children. Close inspection reveals a pretty diverse group, including an African-American boy on the front row and an African-American girl at the rear. Right away one knows that this is not a southern institution! Beyond this photograph, I've seen no other records about the "Free Vacation School" program. (And I have no idea what that netting is for. Any ideas? I don't think it's a product of the "raffia" listed on the sign. In fact, the raffia makes sense in the context of the "basketry" offered as an activity for the children.) By the way, the front of the building looks exactly the same today. My office is behind the leaded-glass windows to the left. (Click on the image to view a larger version.)

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Barbara said...

Speaking of outdated methods, the essence of this post in a way, I discovered over the weekend that until 1985 the Atlanta Fire Department used a telegraph system to alert individual stations to fires. The firemen had to memorize codes for area and neighborhoods so they'd know where to go! There was a telegraph set up at Station No. 6 just a few doors down from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthplace.

One Wink at a Time said...

I loved studying this photo. Was intrigued by the clothing (a boy and girl in similar polka-dots) and the lack of happy-looking children. One boy looked rather devilish and that amused me, as did the stern look on a woman "in charge" I'm supposing. Being that games were listed on the sign, maybe the netting was used as a basket for ball-throwing? It looks amazingly like the mesh they sell these days for the storage of stuffed animals for children, don't you think?
I love getting lost in old photos and this one is definitely one of the more interesting type. Thanks.