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On Bookplates

Sep 24, 2009 3:42 PM | 1 comment

A question from one of our longtime patrons got me thinking about bookplates. Brooklyn Public Library has used many bookplates through the course of its 110-year history. Mostly they celebrate the donor of a book, or of the funds that  provided the book, but in the early years of the library bookplates were used simply to announce ownership. As any collector of bookplates will know, wonderful things can happen in the space of that little scrap of paper, usually no more than 3" x 4" and often smaller. 

As it happens, although the mission of the Brooklyn Collection is to collect and make available to the public material on the history of Brooklyn in all media,  we have one collection among our holdings that is completely out of scope--the Bookplate Collection.  Consisting of about 800 bookplates from Europe and America, this collection showcases  the graphic artist's genius writ small.  All kinds of symbolism, heraldry, drawing, printing, etching and typography have been marshalled to claim ownership of books. Libraries, colleges, individuals--the libraries of the mighty and the humble are all represented. The Bookplate Collection was started in 1906 with a gift by Wilbur Macey Stone on behalf of Jay Chambers.

It is a beautiful thing to see how a tiny rectangle can contain a design that encapsulates the spirit and ambition of a book's owner.

As I am unable to do proper justice to that collection here, (but don't despair, I could do a bookplate a week!)  let me concentrate on a few plates produced by Brooklyn Public Library over the years.  The most elaborate of the plates (above) features a torch with the motto Litterae, Lux, Scientiae, surrounded by laurels and curlicues. This design was progressively simplified until few further reductions were possible (see left below). I imagine these design changes were intended to show that the library was moving with the times. Like the pared-down design for the Central Library building, the torch bookplate shed all unnecessary decoration until it was reduced to its most essential and functional elements, beaux arts excess giving way to art deco austerity. Finally the ultimate simplification took place and bookplates disappeared from BPL's incoming books. A complicating factor might have been Queens Borough Public Library's use of a similar torch logo.

There are numerous touching examples throughout the library's collections of bookplates used as memorials.  You see many of them over the course of a career here, but when you actually want to find one in a book, can you? Of course not.

The bookplate that started all this arrived a few days ago with a research request. Our patron had bought a small etching bearing the legend "Gift of the Friends of Brooklyn Public Library" and wanted to know what it was.  We recognized it immediately as a bookplate but knew nothing of its history.  We soon discovered that in 1939 the Friends of Brooklyn Public Library announced a competition for the design of a bookplate. Entries were to be in black and white only, and a prize of $100 was set aside for the winner. Prints submitted were to be exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in November of 1939.

Bookplate by Ernest D. Roth

We still do not know for sure, but it seems likely that this plate by New York artist Ernest D. Roth was the winner. The view is a glamorized version of Manhattan seen through the window of the then new Central Library's Trustees Room. The plate could have been produced to celebrate the opening of the new building, which took place after years of delays, in 1941. Roth was born in Germany in 1883 but moved to New York City as a child. The son of a baker, by the 1930s he was living on East 71st Street and enjoying some success as a painter and print maker. 

Perhaps it was to be expected that Manhattanite Roth's design would more or less obliterate Brooklyn. Aside from the magnificent Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument and the owls that guard the Library's Trustees Room, Brooklyn is as compressed as the rest of the world in Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker cover. But as with so many of the bookplates in our collection, or indeed with any miniature format, one can't help being slightly amazed that so large a vision can be poured into so small a vessel.


Back to School

Sep 19, 2009 2:47 PM | 1 comment

  A new school year has begun and with it, one of the annual rites of Fall - shopping for new school clothes.  How have clothes changed since the Eagle first started running back-to-school advertisements at the turn of the last century? How have the ads changed?  From mid-July to September today's parents are inundated with TV ads, circulars, flyers, and catalogues. Children in Brooklyn today have a wider variety of styles and stores to choose from. Local stores and national and international brands offer choices that would have been mind-boggling for the early-20th-century Brooklynite.  But in 2009 parents can outfit their children in any style and within all types of budgets.  

Here we have Eli and his friend Ludie getting ready to rock the 2nd and 1st grades  respectively at the appropriately named Brooklyn New School, and the Brooklyn Waldorf School. Their clothes were carefully selected by them for the first day.  Eli is in a new pair of blue jeans from Target and a sweatjacket hoodie. His green T-shirt says "Stay Cool" and has a fan printed on the front. Considering the hot weather we had in early September, it is very a propos.  With him is his friend Ludie who is wearing an adorable teal polka-dot skirt with tulle crinoline. Her brown and pink plaid jacket has a Peter Pan collar with rick-rack, and pink buttons.  She also has red and black plaid ballet flats.                  


But what about kids of yester-year?  How did they and their parents get ready to start the school year?  What type of advertisements were run to keep parents abreast of the new fashions? I've found a few that take us from 1902 to 1954.  

The majority of notices in the early 1900's were composed of just text, but this small advertisement from 1902 features a charming illustration of a schoolboy.  



In 1919 girls' as well as women's dresses featured a drop-waist.  This dress also sports a sailor collar which would prove to be popular for many more decades. 


What impressed me about this ad was the quality of the artwork. The illustrator's use of line is so fluid and relaxed you can almost feel the dresses billowing in the breeze.





Alas, I'm all too familiar with the sentiments behind this headline of 1929.  I have a 7-year-old fashionista, otherwise known as "She who must be obeyed." She insisted on a tutu for her back-to-school wardrobe. And not just any tutu, a black tutu with black leggings and black ballet flats.  She called it her Goth Princess outfit.                


                   Well she did look cute

But I digress. In 1929 the dropped-waist and flapper style are apparent,  children's clothes being still designed as smaller versions of adult styles.   

I had erronousely thought that the marketing to the pre-teen set known as  "tweens" was a recent development.  But in going through these ads I learned that before tweens there were twixteens, as evidenced in this ad from Abraham & Strauss in 1949. 

This young man, from 1954, looks like he's ready to take on the world. He's sporting a wool sport coat, Heeksuede (cotton)vest and slacks. By this time synthetic fabrics had found their way into American's wardrobes.  His slacks are a made from rayon and nylon blend garbadine.  This outfit could be found at Namm Loeser's.    


By 1954 photography was used everywhere in fashion advertising. Fashion illustration would still be heavily used for a few more decades, but sadly its days were numbered.   



Wish You Were Here

Sep 14, 2009 11:11 AM | 3 comments

"The Steeplechase"                                                                                                                                           "Hello Betty:  How would you like to take a ride on those horses down that hill?  Would you?  I wish you could be here to ride with us."

Much of our postcard collection is available through our digitized Historic Photographs, but what our virtual visitors may not realize is that some of our postcards were actually used and include letters, addresses, and postage. 

Many of the cards are from the first half of the twentieth century and have come back to Brooklyn after travelling to Pennsylvania, Illinois, Massachusetts and even Cuba.  As you would expect, many were sent by vacationers, who provide an outsider's view of Brooklyn.  One writer remarks that the Soldiers and Sailors' monument is "pretty", while Earl writes he is having a "fine time" in Coney Island. 

But postcards were also used to write notes and letters.  Often, these cards feature images of Brooklyn that may not be on a tourist's itinerary:  the Long Island Storage Warehouse, Brooklyn Public Library, Fort Hamilton Avenue or the Troop C Armory, for example.  Cassie from Delaware County used a postcard to tell her mother she had "got here all right."  Margie from Dorchester, MA wrote to say she'd be arriving home on the six o'clock train on Saturday.  And Edith Hyden sent a card depicting Pratt Institute to her Aunt Minnie in New Hampshire because she thought "you might like to know where I go to school."

My personal favorites are the longer postcards, that give us a brief glimpse into the life of an individual:  "Dear Mr. Losee:  You left so early and in such a hurry on saturday morning that I didn't get a chance to say Good-Bye to you.  So here goes now.  "Good-Bye" and I hope we'll meet again in the near future.  Our trip home was real nice and we all arrived O.K.  What kind of a time did you have in Millerton?  Real jolly I hope.  So now, once more thanking for that treat on Friday.  I am your friend."  Who were these two and how did they meet? 

Postcards bring out the "human" side of Brooklyn history: birthday wishes, invitations to parties, and good luck messages at the start of a new school year.  Friends write to each other, expressing the hope of seeing one another during the next holiday, or apologizing for not stopping by when they were last in town.  These postcards help us to remember that Brooklyn's history included the same daily relationships we all work to maintain today -- now through Facebook, Email and Text Messages. 

And then of course, there are the truly cryptic postcards that just make us wonder.  In 1906 a postcard from Coney Island was sent with the shortest of messages: 

Poor Fred, I guess his trip to Coney Island wasn't as cheerful as it should have been. 

Brooklyn (Non New York)

Sep 11, 2009 11:17 AM | 0 comments

There are a lot of serious and solid information sources in the Brooklyn Collection, but over the years we have certainly allowed great amounts of trivia to accumulate in our files. The pursuit of the trivial, it has been argued, can actually lead to profound insights; and you just never know whether a matter that seems trivial today might turn out to be of immense importance  tomorrow. At least, that is my excuse for digging into one of our so-called "Brooklyn Archive Files" or "BAFs" labeled Brooklyn (Non-New York). Under this cryptic heading we find articles on towns and villages named after our own Brooklyn, or on occasion sharing our name and denying any relationshipWe have BAF files under about 8000 different subject headings holding newspaper clippings from approximately the 1950s to the present. Often they provide us with the only information we can find on subjects of interest to our patrons. 

Brooklyn Street off Beverley Road, Hull

Back in my English home town recently I happened upon a "Brooklyn Street, " right next to "Vermont Street."  We take it for granted that the US is crammed with transplanted European place names, but of course there is also a traffic in the other direction.  There are Brooklyn Streets in Crewe, Leeds, Bradford, St. Helier, Oldham, Bolton and Seaham; the towns and cities of Cheltenham, Nottingham, Woking, Brentwood, Cleckheaton, London, Harwich and Bristol all boast a Brooklyn Road; while Brooklyn Avenues can be found in Manchester, Loughton, Blackpool, Rochdale, Worthing, Birmingham, Huddersfield, Bangor and London. There are also at least eight Brooklyn Drives and five Brooklyn Places, including one in Portrush, County Antrim. Since the origins of the names of British towns and villages are mostly wreathed in the mists of antiquity, it makes sense that streets erected in the 19th century and onwards should reflect the fame of New York's most populous borough.In Medicine Bow National Forest, Wyoming

It is mainly to points of the compass other than East of here that we must turn to find towns being founded bearing the name of Brooklyn. Articles in the BAF file tell me that Cleveland Ohio has a suburb named Brooklyn; there is a Brooklyn in Oakland CA, and Brooklyn MD was annexed to the city of Baltimore in 1919. According to a 1985 New York Times article, the town of Brooklyn CT owes its name not to our Brooklyn but to a variant 18th century spelling of the phrase "Brook line." Brooklyn PA is also in denial, claiming that it was named for a town in Holland, not for one in New York.  There is a Brooklyn in Michigan and one in Wisconsin that is located 90 miles west of Milwaukee. Other Brooklyns can be found in Oregon, Mississippi,  and Iowa.  No doubt I've missed a few, but we're not done yet.Brooklyn Division, Jewish National Fund fundraising booklet for Kfar Brooklyn

Brooklyn, Australia lies about 30 miles from Sydney; there are Brooklyns in South Africa and New Zealand too according to  an article in the World Telegram of 1952. Another yellowing scrap from 1956 states confidently that "Brooklyn, Brazil is on the railroad. It is a whistle stop for a big iron mine where the ore assays 67 percent..."  Just in case you plan on making a visit, Brooklyn Brazil lies about 600 miles from the coast in the Itabira Mountains.  Skipping quickly to another continent, there was talk of a Brooklyn Village in Israel back in 1968,  but if it actually exists today it is keeping rather quiet.

The gem in this little compilation refers to the daddy of all the Brooklyns, Breuckelen in the Netherlands.  An undated flyer that probably comes down to us from the late 1940s was issued by the Brooklyn Heights Garden Club, which sponsored a project called "Brooklyn Adopts Breuckelen." The flyer explains that the shortages of the war and the German occupiers have stripped the town of even the necessities of life, leaving the population completely impoverished. It requests gifts of all manner of everyday items and food, including:

"Knitted underwear for men, women and children--about 5100 units; sheets and pillows for maternity cases--approximately 300 of each; outing flannel for babies; 300 diapers; 1000 crib sheets; 3000 safety pins...cotton thread, darning cotton, rubber bands, elastic pins, snappers, buttons etc...send meat spreads, luncheon meats, peanut butter, jams, marmalade, cheese spreads, hard candies...corsets, sanitary napkins, rubbers, wash cloths, towels, soap, youth handicrafts materials..."

I have no doubt whatever that Brooklyn came through for Breuckelen. 

Well, maybe there is nothing profound in this BAF file after all, just a meandering journey that touches on iron mines and post-war scarcity, the popularity of a name, and the peculiar connections a name can make between people--and that will have to be enough.

Help Police!

Sep 3, 2009 4:24 PM | 3 comments

In our collection there are quite a few books from the 19th century. These books are not only valuable for the information contained within their pages, but also for their historical perspective.  One such book is "Brooklyn's Guardians" by William E. S. Fales.  This book published in 1887 traces the "origin, growth and development of the Brooklyn police force", from the early colonial period to it's enrollment in 1887 of 972 policemen.  



Fales begins the book with the basic need for protection in the Dutch colony, where every man was required to stand guard duty. The British instituted the use of a constable who was able to arrest murderers, manslayers, thieves, burglarers, vagrant persons, swearers, drunks or night walkers. He was also able to punish Sabbath breakers and brawlers, using The Pillory or Whipping Post.  A woman's punishment was meted out on the "Ducking Stool",  where scolds, nags, loud-mouths and other offending females were tied to a chair, and dunked in the water - supposedly to cool off. 


Around 1842 people began the call for a police department, based on New York's, as Brooklyn's population continued to grow. You would think that this idea would have unanimous support, but there were many who opposed it.  Chief among them were wealthy landowners who could afford their own private security.  They did not relish the idea of paying higher taxes, so that everyone could be safer.  Fortunately it was an idea whose time had come, with support coming from shopowners, robbery victims, merchants, journalists and politicians. 

1850 brought the establishment of the Brooklyn Police Department, and with it, the first superintendent John S. Folk. Folk is described as "a large, muscular, intelligent and fearless man, who even at that time was feared by roughs and criminals"  His coolness and bravery contributed to his election as Brooklyn's top cop by a wide majority.  Folk distinguished himself during the draft riots of 1863, where he led a group of officers across the Fulton Ferry to Manhattan, and during a labor riot, where he is quoted as saying, "Now my men, we must stand together and keep a solid front.  Don't separate, whatever you do, and wherever you see a head, hit it!"


"Brooklyn's Guardians" takes the reader through the early days of the Brooklyn police force, describing in detail each precinct, station house and police captain, as well as devoting considerable coverage to the final stop for many of Brooklyn's prisoners -- the Brooklyn Penitentiary in Crow Hill. Fales also covers Brooklyn's criminal lawyers, police reporters, detectives, newspapers and breweries.  For fans of criminology this is a very interesting read.