Brooklyn Public Library


Before "organic" was even a notion...

Jul 9, 2014 9:00 AM | 0 comments

In an unusual confluence of the World War I centennial observation and the height of harvesting season, a small, curious cache of photographic images found its way to the Brooklyn Collection. Twenty six lantern slides and seven photographic prints, presumably from 1919, depict a group of Brooklyn youngsters and their teachers tending vegetable plots. A couple of them feature the Park Commissioner John N. Harman as well.

It was not only a tree that grew in Brooklyn, apparently, but also carrots, kohlrabi, beans, beets, radishes and corn.

The pictures were taken at the Betsy Park Playground. The park, which still exists, and the playground (since redesigned) were named after Mrs. Betsy Head, who bequeathed her considerable estate to the City of New York with the provision that one half of it would be spent on child welfare charities, and the other for the purposes of health and recreation. The Betsy Park Playground, in Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood, answered both requirements.

A few words about the benefactress herself; Mrs. Betsy Head was perhaps one of the most unusual cases in the history of the New York philanthropy. A British native, she was hired by a Long Island millionaire recluse, George C. Taylor, to manage his estate in Islip. She became his trusted accountant and confidante, and over the many years of her employment with Mr. Taylor, Betsy Head accumulated quite considerable wealth herself. She had come to the United States with her daughter Lena. Lena fell in love with one of the employees of Mr. Taylor and married him against the wishes of her mother and Mr. Taylor. Both were banished from the estate, and the mother and daughter became estranged. They never saw each other again. When in 1907 Mrs. Head died of illness at the age of 60, her personal assets were upwards of $200,000 (the equivalent of today’s five million dollars). She left Lena only $5 ($125 today), and the rest went to the benefit of the City of New York. As it sometimes happens, reconciliation came too late, after death. Lena was inconsolable at the funeral, and it was rumored that Mr. Taylor was moved by her grief. Through this private drama in 1907, New York City came into a windfall of cash for its charities.

The Betsy Head Park was open to the public in September of 1914. (Mrs. Frederick W. Bodley, once the wayward and lovelorn Lena, was an honored guest during the opening ceremony.) It is perhaps worth mentioning that the Betsy Head Park came into the existence not only due to the largess of the donor, but also because of the local residents’ activism. Although Mrs. Head's charitable monies were allocated, they were not being spent; it was only thanks to the pressure from the Brownsville community leaders that the park finally was designed and constructed on the stretch from Blake Ave., Dumont Ave., Livonia Ave. between. Strauss St., Hopkinson Ave. and Bristol St. It absorbed land that was formerly used as a dumping site.

Architect Henry B. Herts designed the recreational center. The park also included an athletic field and stadium which could hold up to 20,000 viewers, public baths and a swimming pool. The Children’s playground consisted of a park with wading pool and a beach; mothers’ recreation center – which also included the city milk station; a model farmhouse and, finally, the farm school and a school for nature study.

The playground farm became the largest of the four existing children’s farms in Brooklyn. The other three were in Highland Park, McCarren Park, and Fort Greene Park.

I must acknowledge that some images of very young children at work in the fields made me cringe. However, there were some laws against the child labor already in place at the time, and since each little gardener took all the produce he or she raised home to replenish the family table, it was considered beneficial on the whole.


The girls (and some boys too!) were taught canning techniques, and the canning classes were offered to local residents as well. The newspapers could not resist publishing syrupy stories about struggling families who were able to survive cold winters thanks to pickled vegetables from the children’s gardens.

There were competitions among the gardens from the different parks, with trophies for the best harvest. Here you can see Mrs. Jane C. Roth, a longtime director of the Besty Head playground garden with one of the winning student farmers.

And there were annual fall harvest festivals. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described one of these events in 1919:

Whether the gardening fever was natural or motivated by adult supervision, the little gardeners exhibited an admirable fervor in pushing for three crops during a season:

And, perhaps, it was not an unattainable goal. The young farmers grew hardy, short-season vegetables: carrots, cabbages, corn, beets, radishes, Swiss chard, turnips, peas and kohlrabi. The crops that grew more slowly – potatoes, cauliflowers, and celery – were avoided.

So, what is the World War I connection? During the Great War, such gardens became known as “Children’s War Gardens”, and the Betsy Head farm was part of the movement. New York City alone counted 100 schools with vegetable gardens and it is estimated that these children-run gardens produced as much as $5,074.28 worth of vegetables, worth nearly $100,000 in today's economy.

The children’s farm persevered and lasted through the 1920s and ‘30s and well into the World War II, when the urban gardening tradition found new life in the so-called "victory gardens" that grew throughout the city in support of the war effort.

Although the Betsy Head children’s garden survived a park redesign in 1936, when an Olympic-sized pool was added to the list of attractions, the little farm for "little farmers and farmerettes" is sadly no more. It appears that the baseball diamond now occupies the patch of land where the garden once thrived.  

Summing Up a School Year with Brooklyn Connections

Jun 24, 2014 8:29 AM | 0 comments

The 2013-2014 school year has proven to be a truly banner year for Brooklyn Connections.  We're pleased to have partnered with over 2,000 students in 70 classes from 30 schools in Queens, Manhattan and of course, Brooklyn.

Students from PS 131 before their visit to the Brooklyn Collection in January

Throughout the year, Connections staff supported students by teaching Common Core-aligned research skills, including note-taking, text and photographic analysis, outlining, and writing a research question or thesis statement.  All partner schools visited the Brooklyn Collection at least once and an educator visited each class five or more times -- that's over 350 in-class visits this year!  After the students learned the necessary skills to do authentic historic research, they worked on a project that incorporated oral, written and visual components.

11th and 12th grade students from the Academy for Environmental Leadership in May

Celebration and Exhibition

The annual end-of-year celebration and recognition ceremony was held on May 23rd in Central Library's Dweck auditorium.  All projects were put on display and one student or group from 12 of our 30 partner schools presented their Brooklyn Connections project to an audience of over 130 people.  After all speeches and presentations were finished, each student and teacher was given a certificate of participation and a small gift as a token of our appreciation.

Students from PS 66 presenting their project about Weeksville at the end-of-year celebration

The Brooklyn Collection's current exhibit is a sampling of our students' work.  Our annual exhibit highlights the creativity and originality conveyed in our students' final projects, which ranged from the highly academic to the wildly creative.  Research topics included the abolitionist movement, neighborhood history, architecture, city planning and famous Brooklyn residents.  Students produced exhibit boards, models, plays, research papers, slideshows, movies, scrapbooks and more.  These projects reflect not only a significant amount of research, but also the unique personalities of our students.

2013-2014 student exhibition on-view throughout the summer

Professional Development

We're continuing to work hard to offer high-quality teacher professional developments for teachers in New York City.  This year, we held an open house and tour for teachers in October; an in-house student-teacher professional development with CUNY College of Staten Island and Brooklyn College; a professional development about local history in December with author and former Kingsborough professor John Manbeck; a full-day workshop with author and historian Brian Purnell about the Civil Rights Movement in Brooklyn and a tour of Green-Wood Cemetery for Brooklyn-Queens Day (a Department of Education mandatory staff professional development day).  Over 100 teachers, administrators and pre-service teacher attended these sessions.

Teachers touring Green-Wood Cemetery on a rainy June morning

Teachers exploring our Civil Rights and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) materials

Attending and presenting at conferences is crucial for our professional development and also informs the public and our colleagues about the Brooklyn Connections program.  We attended several conferences this year, including the National Council for History Education in New Mexico where I was awarded with the prestigious Paul A. Gagnon Prize -- an award bestowed to an educator who contributes significantly to promoting history education in the United States. We also presented at the New York City Librarians Conference, New York City Museum Educator Roundtable Conference and most recently the New York State History Conference at Marist College where Ivy Marvel, Manager of Special Collections, presented about the Brooklyn Eagle digitization project with

In the Media

On May 7th we were featured on a News12 segment. Eighth graders from Brooklyn Prospect Charter School visited the Brooklyn Collection while a reporter followed our tour from the reserve room to the open browsing section of the Collection.  Students were in the process of obtaning resources about World War II and while looking through our resources, a student found his great, great grandfather in one of the Brooklyn city directories.  It was truly a special visit.

Future Funding

We are pleased to announce that we have received a $400,000 grant from the New York Life Foundation to continue our efforts of teaching authentic historical research to students around Brooklyn for the next two years.  You can read the official press release here.  This is in addition to our current funding from the Morris and Alma Schapiro Fund, David and Paula Weiner Memorial grant, the Tiger Baron Foundation and Epstein Teicher Philanthropies.

We're currently accepting applications for partner schools for the 2014-2015 school year.  If you are or know a teacher, librarian or administrator in a middle or high school, please consider applying or forwarding the application.

Borough Park's P.S. 131, a trove of school history

Jun 19, 2014 9:34 AM | 0 comments

Last fall the Brooklyn Connections staff was approached by two enthusiastic educators from P.S. 131 who had recently discovered fascinating artifacts at their Borough Park school. They hoped to use the artifacts to inform a school history research project with a select group of 5th grade students in collaboration with Brooklyn Connections. Given our love of school history (see To Number a School, We Don't Need No Education, Brooklyn Schools: A Look at Ephemera and MoreWelcome to M.S. 57), it should come as no surprise to our faithful readers that we jumped at the opportunity. 

Hidden in the dark depths of a high and rarely seen shelf in an old art supply closet were a hundred or so Teacher's Record of Attendance and Progress of Pupils booklets from the 1910s - 1940s. Wrapped carefully in brown paper and tied with string, they had been left untouched since they were stowed there years ago. One could spend days poring over the information found in these booklets, all of it notated in beautiful handwritten script.

F.L.Thomas Teacher's Record of Attendance and Progress of Pupils, 1921.

Of particular interest to me was what we found inside the booklets: vital contact information for students (you can learn so much about Borough Park at the time from the names alone!), grading systems, punctuality protocols and how these all changed over time. What I haven't included here, though equally fascinating, is the Board of Education's (as it was previously referred to) instructions for using the booklets, which ranged from one page in 1921 to more than a dozen pages in 1947.

Marjorie W. Nichols Teacher's Record of Attendance and Progress of Pupils, 1947-8.

Also found at P.S. 131 were two treasured copies of the same photo album from the early 20th century; we couldn't pinpoint a date until we stumbled across a very subtle hint in this class photo -- Thursday, October 21, 1909 is written on the board.

P.S. 131 Photo Album, 1909.  

It's difficult to make sense of the class makeup at the time. Inspection of the albums show both mixed and single-sex classes ranging from kindergarten to high school students.


P.S. 131 Photo Album, 1909.  

Someone with an eye for design might appreciate the architectural details. I couldn't help but see hints of teachers' stern instruction, as students sit with hands nicely folded behind their backs or studiously engaged with a book at the front.

P.S. 131 Photo Album, 1909.

We were swept up in studying and marveling at these documents and photos, but our 5th grade students wanted to know more about the history of their school's building, so we moved on.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 1, 1909.

P.S. 131 was built between 1900 and 1901 by preeminent Superintendant of School Buildings C.B.J. Snyder. During his tenure (1891-1921), Synder was responsible for building over 400 New York City schools with innovative architecture allowing for cross breezes and natural light in classrooms, rooftop playgrounds and virtually fireproof structures (Epoch Times, September 5, 2012). And yet, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, overcrowding remained a constant problem. Despite Synder's advancements in making education more comfortable and accessible to New York City students, the Eagle offered this criticism: 

"The typical big elementary school now has forty-eight class rooms, with auditoriums, gymnasia and facilities for instruction in special subjects, like cooking, sewing and shop work ... But forty-eight room buildings will not reduce overcrowing quickly enough ... Is the sacrifice of outward impressiveness - even magnificence in many cases - too great a price to pay for haste in reaching the ideal of this administration to [sic] a seat for every child? It is high time that this problem of the quickest practical construction be given careful attention. In education looks are not everything."

Brooklyn Daily EagleJune 5, 1922.

I suppose it should come as no surprise then that the Board of Education published a call for proposals for the temporary construction of an annex to P.S. 131 a mere 7 years after its initial completion. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 10, 1908.

 P.S. 131 Photo Album, 1909.    

Temporary the annex was not. A generation later, in 1935, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle describes in great detail parents' complaints and concerns over the safety of the now dilapidated structure: 


"The annex is practically falling apart; the outer and inner wood is rotting away. There is no adequate heating facilities and children have informed me that the rooms do not warm until noon time. Ventilation is poor and the windows have heavy wire netting on the outside to protect the glass. This netting is locked and can only be opened by the use of a key, which the teachers in the individual classroom do not possess. In the event of a fire this means of escape is blocked ... it is unsanitary; the plaster is falling from the walls and ceilings and there is a distinctly unhealthy odor throughout the entire building. There is no lavatory in the annex and children are forced to cross the open court to the main building to reach one ... the water trough where the children are supposed to drink is exactly what the word implies, a place for animals to drink. The bottom of it is filthy and looks as though it had not been cleaned in months."

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 2, 1935.

A surprise inspection of the annex by Mayor LaGuardia confirmed parents' allegations and resulted in an official promise to replace the dangerous building ...

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 5, 1935.

... but a failure to follow through. Parents spent much of 1935-36 lobbying to protest delays in the destruction and rebuilding of a new annex.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 5, 1935.

It took a full two years for the Board of Estimate to act on Mayor LaGuardia's promise and even then only after ongoing threats by parents to pull their children from the school.


Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 10, 1937.

Finally, a confirmation from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in August, 1938 that the construction of the new annex was complete, adding 1,042 seats to the school:


Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 28, 1938.

And here a plaque marking the addition found just inside the current structure:

Holt, Kaitlin. "Addition to P.S. 131 Plaque," January 8, 2014.

It's hard to look at P.S. 131 in 2014 and imagine the structure that used to exist behind C.B.J. Synder's original building. Today's 5th graders are working on an exhibition and accompanying tour they plan to offer fellow classmates on this and many other historical aspects of their school. With any luck I'll be invited to attend a tour myself and report back on their success. Stay tuned!

"P.S. 131 Annex, Brooklyn, NY." Map. Google Maps, June 9, 2014. 

Everybody Loves a Parade

Jun 2, 2014 11:08 AM | 0 comments

Born in 1846, William Cody, better known by his stage name Buffalo Bill, was a jack-of-all-trades when it came to the American West. He rode for the Pony Express, scouted for the Union during the Civil War, and rode against various Native American tribes during the period of westward expansion. His stories would eventually find their way to the big top when, in 1882, Cody began his 45-year career as an entertainer and showman by creating a small show that would eventually morph into an extravaganza entitled Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. He wooed audiences with daring reenactments of famous battles, feats of marksmanship, and buffalo hunts which, by the 1880s, were fast becoming a thing of the past. At its peak, Buffalo Bill's Wild West show included military battalions from across the globe and special appearances by celebrities like markswoman Annie Oakley and Lakota chief Sitting Bill. Cody became a global phenomenon, his show traveling across America and Europe.

Thus, you can imagine how exciting it must have been for Brooklynites in the 1890s, crowded into one of America's fastest growing metropolises, to escape the urban jungle and take refuge in the Wild West.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 16, 1898.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West came through New York many times, staying for periods ranging from weeks to months. Regardless of which borough housed the show, it always arrived with much fanfare. In 1898: "Early this morning a strange cavalcade crossed the bridge from Manhattan. The greater part of it was of a military character. There were some strange uniforms worn in addition to those of the United States cavalry and artillery. There were the red and blue of the Irish Royal Lancers, the white facing and glittering helmet and armor of the German cuirassiers, the long brown flowing coats and cloaks of the Russian Cossacks, the variegated hues of Indian blankets and feathers, the light brown and the shining buttons and enormous sombreros of Mexican vaqueros, the white waving sheets and red fez worn by the Arabians and so on through the entire gamut of garb and color" (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 24, 1898).

In addition to the military battalions, Native Americans in traditional garb were prominently featured. I love the juxtaposition in the photos below, rows of onlookers in black hats and black coats next to the white horses and presumably colorful clothing worn by the tribesmen.

Froger-Doudement, Raoul. Parade of Buffalo Bill. 1898. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

Froger-Doudement, Raoul. Parade of Buffalo Bill. 1898. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.

The 1898 procession was headed to an open area at the intersection of Knickerbocker and Myrtle Avenue and, although the weather wasn't all that nice, the attendance was high.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 28, 1898.

People poured into the city and waited in long lines to catch sight of the famous cowboy and his entourage and some people went to extreme lengths to secure tickets. A petty thief by the name of Louis Gerner, or Sweet Breads to his friends, stole a stack of tickets to the show in 1886. Gerner pretended to be a shopkeeper and attempted to resell the tickets. He was arrested. I don't know what his punishment was, but considering this next run in with the police, I don't imagine he got off easy.

During that same 1886 show a group of teenagers were arrested for passing around a growler. Katie Dooley (aged 17), Katie Kelly (aged 16), and Annie Callahan (aged 18) were under the "influence of drink" although, upon arrival at the police station, "the two Katies refused to be sworn, but Ann took the stand and swore that she hadn't drunk a drop." Best not to lie to judges in the 1880s -- Annie and Katie Kelly both received six months in the penitentiary (I know, right?!). Katie Dooley escaped with a mere 29 days in jail. "As the girls walked back to the pen, Katie Kelly exclaimed, 'That spoils our racket!' 'No Buffalo Bill show for us to-day!' chimed in Annie' " (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 4 1886).

I sincerely hope that Sweet Breads, the Katies, and Annie Callahan all had a chance to see Buffalo Bill's Wild West, as it sounds like it was quite a sight.

Knish Knosh

May 23, 2014 3:06 PM | 0 comments


Join us this Wednesday evening May 28th, when the "world's leading knish expert and author" Laura Silver will be with us to talk about her new book, "Knish, In Search of Jewish Soul Food".  Ms. Silver will share with us her travels and research through various countries and communities, as she traces the origins and contemporary expressions of this ubiquitous culinary icon that once reigned from Brownsville to the Lower East Side.

We'll have a knish reception at 6:30, with the talk beginning at 7:00 p.m.