Brooklyn Public Library

Mobile AppDownload our Mobile App

eNewsletterSubscribe to BPL eNews


Children of the Dump

Jun 10, 2016 12:15 PM | 0 comments

A few months back, the Brooklyn Collection provided some images and expertise to ABC News for a story about Brooklyn’s Dead Horse Bay. The story was most excellent – if you missed it you can check it out here. I used the video as a source for a note taking lesson and, during the lesson, my students kept peppering me with questions: What was life like for the people who lived and worked on the island? What was school like? How did the island's inhabitants navigate all that garbage? 

I could only answer their questions in adjectives: smelly, exhausting, backbreaking, dangerous, filthy, putrid, infested. So, I went on a quest looking for answers in complete sentences. 

Colton, J.H. Map of the country thirty three miles around the city of New York. 1852. Brooklyn Historical Society blog, 16 Mar 2012. Web. 9 Jan 2014. 

Long story short: Barren Island went from being an uninhabited island good for fishing and burying (alleged) pirate treasure to a hub of offal factories -- harboring the largest concentration of them on the planet -- within a twenty year span. Offal refers to the internal organs of animals, usually those not consumed by humans. These factories rendered animal waste, similar to today's rendering plants, where they turned carcasses, bones, and intestines into glue, fertilizer, buttons, etc. In the above map you can see the island in the bottom right-hand corner. 

In the mid-19th century, both Brooklyn and New York City had messes on their hands. Horses routinely died in the street, butchers slaughtered cows in the alleyways, and packs of feral pigs seemed to be in continuous turf wars with packs of feral dogs. Garbage and manure, both human and otherwise, were collected and taken to dumping piers on the waterfront alongside the waste from tanneries and offal factories. Thus, the shoreline of the East River was slowly morphing from a sandy beach to a goopy sponge of entrails and blood. It. Was. Super. Gross. 

Barren Island was the solution. Offal factories, rooming houses, saloons, and single-family homes were built and then populated, creating a multi-ethnic community amidst the hordes of flies and the putrid smells. 

"Barren Island Factory." 1911. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

In 1877, a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter went on an excursion to the island and noted the "the faint odor of decayed horses and putrid dogs" that hit him as he approached. "The stench is something to be feared, even by persons having very strong stomachs." (Side note: We melted a TON of dogs.) In the late 1870s, the population was noted at roughly 500: one hundred gaunt and semi-feral dogs, nine horses, some thirty most likely tubercular cows, about one hundred hogs, 270 men, and 10 women. Most of the humans were Irish, Swedes, and English.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 20 Aug 1877.

Although the island was bustling in the summer months, many factories went dark during the winter, leaving only eight permanent families. Permanent or not, none of the island's residents received a lot of press unless they were involved in a drunken saloon fight; part of a gang of toughs called the "Bone Gang"; kicked off a train for smelling horrible; one-eyed; or sick with cholera, diptheria, or any number of other illnesses. The newspaper lumped all of the island's inhabitants and the garbage with which they worked together. Rarely was there discussion of the conditions of the factories or the families of the workers, but constantly there were discussions about how the offal runoff was ruining the beaches for the middle-class across the bay. 

Jump to the 1890s. Benjamin Miller's Fat of the Land has a pretty succinct description of the island and its amenities: "In 1897, there were five factories and four saloons on Barren Island, one store, one road, no doctor, nurse, or pharmacist, no church, no electricity, no post office, no social hall, no reading room, and a one-room school (on the first floor of a Polish tenement) into which some fifty of the school-age children on the island crowded for daily lessons." By that time, the population was said to be mainly Italians, Poles, and African-Americans. 

One of the factories was used for the melting down of animal carcasses: horse dog, pig, cat, goat; another said to boil down over one million fish weekly. The fish were used for oil and fertilizer, but first dried on massive platforms. The waste wasn't just from New York City and Brooklyn, but also towns in New Jersey. Often, the offal washed back on shore when the tide was high, creating pools of perpetually soggy waste along the shoreline. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle May 9 1899. 

In 1897, Barren Island's PS 120 was shut down. Held in a multi-family dwelling, the children packed into one of the lower rooms for their schooling. The closure was ordered by the Heath Department, as it had come to their attention that a man was dying of diphtheria in an upper apartment. Aside from that, the physical structure wasn't safe. "The school sits in a depression that fills up with water at every tide," wrote a reporter. "After the tide goes out the damp ground is left to dry by evaporation, with stenches of all kinds arising from refuse matter thrown out and left to decay... In front of the school house and about 400 feet from it is McKeever's plant, in which he makes fertilizer out of the carcasses of horses." The school's floors were rotten, the building slanted, and the windows were always shut to keep out the smell. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 17 Sept 1897. 

The reporter goes on to list other factories and odors, culminating in the description of a particularly dangerous puddle: "All sorts of things have been thrown into it... pigs and cows use it at will; dead cats and dogs lie in it and the people who live near it have made it a general dumping ground for all their refuse. One of the objects noticed in it was a large straw tick and the reporter was told that it was the tick on which two children died of diphtheria a short time ago. It has been thrown out to the air and left to scatter germs with every passing wind." 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 17 Sept 1897. 

After much debate, money was put forward to build a new school building. When the structure opened in 1901, the Eagle sent a reporter to cover the story. In this reporters eyes, the school was "the only bright spot for children of that desolate place." Not even the teachers could stand the island for very long, choosing to make the long commute by boat every morning rather than live amongst their students. One educator, described by the reporter as "a pretty teacher," explained how even getting a drink of water was an ordeal: "The water tank in our house was in an indescribable condition of filth, and there is not any water fit to drink upon the island. There are a number of wells on the island from which is must be carried to the house. It usually tastes like oil, though sometimes by way of variation it is flavored much more horribly." 

"PS 120." Board of Education Collection. 1905. Print. New York City Municipal Archives.


"Barren Island." 1912. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

*This is another photograph of PS 120 from 1912, a slight alteration having been made to the front of the building.*

The island's inhabitants lived "in small wooden houses which might be called huts." Here is where the reporter makes choice use of quotation marks: "A few bedraggled sunflowers serve to decorate their 'gardens' and the houses all in a row, each having a number, like a convict settlement or the outdoor wards of a pest house. Amidst such an enviornment these little children are being 'raised'. Down at the opposite end of the island and near the crematory is a dance hall, where a monthly 'soiree' takes place." 

He goes on to talk about the plentiful liquor used to dull the sorrows of the "drunken workman of the garbage heap," and the fact that fruit doesn't grow in the sandy soil. Not that it would matter, writes the reporter, as "it remains a doubt whether the inhabitants would find it of interest. They find amusement in the saloon and the dance hall." The parents would bring their children to the parties with them; "the young white women frequently choose negro partners and the children look on and drink in, as children do, all the sights and sounds of the seamy side of Barren Island society." The saving grace was the school, which provided refinement "unknown in their homes." 

What a glowing review, right?

So often, this is where the story ends. An outsider tells us how it is and, because we lack an opposing voice, we accept it. This particular reporter painted a picture of filth, both human and otherwise. The adults were morally inferior, the children tragedies, and the "pretty teachers" martyrs. We don't get to hear about the community that formed on the island, the culture and connections that these immigrant and African-American people made amongst themselves. 

Thank goodness for Daniel Edwards, principal at PS 120. (This man is my new favorite.) Edwards wrote to the Eagle the following Sunday with a letter to the editor directly rebutting the claims made by the reporter and systematically breaking down the false description of the island community.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 25 Aug 1901. 

Edwards admitted that the island has an odor, but claims it nowhere near as bad as reported. He also made clear that the squalid huts mentioned are actually "respectable cottages," that the inhabitants of the island were "hard working, thrifty people," and that the children were "remarkably healthy and bright." 

Barren Island Houses. 1936. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. Print. 

*The above image was taken in 1936, a few years before the residents evicted and the houses demolished. I'm not sure if these are the "respectable cottages" mentioned by Principal Edwards, but they very well could be.*

And my favorite part, "Some of the children, it is true, go down to the 'Klondike,' as the garbage dumping ground is called. Here they find brass, silver, gold, and once in a while a diamond. But are they not to be commended for thus earning a penny, rather than engaging in more questionable pursuits?" A 1918 article from the Eagle described a special "brass apron" worn by children on their treasure hunts, essentially an embroidery apron folded into a big pocket. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 4 May 1918. 

Barren Island was filled in and is now part of Floyd Bennett Field. All of the inhabitants were evicted in the late 1930s and, as the ABC News story mentions, you can still find treasure out at Dead Horse Bay. If you go, you can leave your "brass apron" at home, as the rangers at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge discourage treasure hunting. With that said, if you do visit and walk away with a diamond, I won't tell. 

Now Showing at the Fox...

Jan 4, 2016 10:00 AM | 2 comments

This summer, I was digging in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle “morgue” for information on one of Brooklyn’s long lost movie palaces, the Fox Theater. The morgue can be overwhelming, with thousands upon thousands of tiny clippings in equally tiny envelopes housed in rows of rather ominous looking file cabinets. That said, the multitude of clippings is exactly what makes morgue exploration so exciting. While digging for one thing you, can’t help but stumble across thousands of other things you didn’t even know you were looking for.  Like this: 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 28 Feb 1930.

I found this really outstanding. "Wired Seats at the Fox Help Deaf Hear Talkies"; assisted listening devices in 1930! And how cutting edge! 

“A number of choice seats in the mezzanine,” reads the article, “have been equipped with the device, which consists of a telephone headpiece and receiver and an adjustable hand switch by which the person using it can control the volume of the sound coming through the instrument.” What other innovations did the Fox champion? What other cool stuff was showing at the Fox? 

The Fox Theater opened in 1928 inside a triangle block bordered by Flatbush, Nevins, and Livingston Streets.

Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn, 1929.

It was one of the “big four” movie palaces in the Fulton-Flatbush theater district, along with the Lowe’s Metropolitan, RKO Albee, and Brooklyn Paramount.  

Fox Theater. 1935. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

At the time the largest theater in Brooklyn, the Fox had a seating capacity of 5,000 and was decked out with an undersea motif. The architect had “planned the large edifice to represent an undersea palace. The inside shell of the dome and the mural decorations carry out a theme as does the combination of green and tan marble in the lobby” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle 9 June 1946). 

Not only was the Fox the biggest, but it was also one of the early hot spots to stay cool during the summer months. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 2 June 1929. 

A complicated cooling system (at least it sounds complicated to me) was installed in 1929. “An enormous fan,” reads the article “draws 80,000 cubic feet of air per minute.” The air was drawn in from vents in the ceiling, headed to the basement where it was cleaned of dust by jets of cool water, refrigerated with some sort of extreme chemical concoction, and then pumped up from the floor. Now that's fancy. 

William Fox was a movie palace mogul and the theater’s namesake. He was hit hard by the Great Depression and ended up leasing the theater to new management in 1934, a Mr. Jacob Fabian and his Fabian Enterprises. The radio station WBNY moved into what had been William Fox's apartment on the eighth floor, which provided a direct line to the screen for radio broadcasts. This innovation diversified the theater's programming. 

The Theater Historical Society - Annual No. 9. The Brooklyn Fox Theater. 1982. Print. 

The radio connection wasn't always spot on. Early on the theater showed a championship boxing match but, for the first few minutes, piped in the audio from a completely different match. Eventually, to keep up with the rise in home television sales, the theater started showing televised broadcasts of a number of things: State of the Union addresses, operas, football games, etc. On November 22nd, 1949, 4,000 junior high school students went to the Fox to watch the first televised broadcast of the United Nations Assembly proceedings. It was said to be the first time a theater had been used for educational purposes. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 22 Nov 1949.

Early in the Fox’s life, vaudeville and amateur shows were all the rage. In 1943, the theater hosted a series of “Victory Amateur Shows” in which all the participants were local defense workers. There were also visiting DJs, all Irish shows, and other famous musical acts. The shows were cancelled in 1945, however, in a “drive against bobby-sox juvenile delinquency in movie theaters.” 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 22 March 1945. 

It seems that 35 arrests had been made over a period of a few weeks and students were using their lunch money for movie tickets! Scandal! There was even a local law that barred unaccompanied minors under 16 between the hours of 3:00pm and 6:00pm in an effort to combat this issue. 

Ultimately, it wasn't bobby soxers but multiplexes that did the Fox Theater in. After being skipped over by big blockbusters, the theater was limited to B movies that didn’t pull in a sustaining crowd. On February 6th, 1966, the theater stopped showing films. The next four years saw a smattering of concerts and events, but in 1971 the theater was demolished and the ConEdison building built atop.

Though the Fox theater is gone, you can still visit a movie palace of old here in Brooklyn. The recently renovated Kings Theater, which you can tour, can give you a glimpse of what it might have felt like to see a show in that extravagant undersea palace that was the Fox Theater. 

What's wrong with your tongue?

Oct 8, 2015 12:00 PM | 2 comments

Our colleague recently left for a new gig in Staten Island. We here at the Collection wanted to give her something to remember us by. We settled on a photo of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s eagle, the one who sat perched over the main entrance to the Eagle Building in Downtown Brooklyn from 1892 until the building was demolished in 1955.  

Brooklyn Daily Eagle Building, 192-?. 

The eagle is special partly because the bulk of the Brooklyn Collection is comprised of holdings from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper, which folded shortly before the building came down. What’s more, the eagle is now perched atop the entrance to the Central Branch, so we see a lot of each other. 

We had a few images to choose from, finally narrowing it down to the following two: 

Dismantling of the Eagle, 1955.

Eagle Moved to Brooklyn Public Library, 1997. 

The first image is a picture of him coming down from the Eagle building in 1955 and the second from his arrival here at Central in 1997. He was at the Brooklyn Historical Society for the better part of the interim years. 

But wait. 

Hold the phone.

What’s up with the eagle’s beak? It’s open in one of the photos, tongue lolling out, and closed in the second. 

And the feet? And the wings? 

Naturally, our first thought was that we had a fake eagle. We’d be duped. Tears, outrage, etc. 

I started digging through the Brooklyn Archival Files (BAF) held in the collection. We needed answers. The files contain clippings from local newspapers on all sorts of topics. I found four folders about the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and, within the hundred or so articles, one article that gave me the solace I was looking for. 

“The cast zinc eagle was the biggest of the four that adorned the newspaper's eight story building at the corner of Johnson and Washington Sts. (now Cadman Plaza East). The whereabouts of the other three are unknown. Its dramatic 10 ft. wingspan has sagged a little since it was made by Hecla Iron Works of Williamsburg in 1892. Some repairs were needed on its beak and feet” (New York Daily News 2 June 1997).  

This explanation eased my concerns. With that said, some of my colleagues remain unconvinced. 

30 September 2015. 

Regardless, we’re happy he’s here. Whoever he is. 

A Whale's Tale

Oct 2, 2015 1:00 PM | 1 comment

Don’t you love a heartwarming animal story? You know, the ones where dogs and cats put aside their instinctual differences to find their way home or children risk it all to rescue baby pandas? Those are excellent stories.

This is not one of those stories. 

I found a photo of a large whale on a flatbed truck in a folder appropriately named “Animals.” The 1953 photo’s caption told of a seven year old, 75 foot, 70 ton fin whale named Mrs. Haroy. Naturally, I had some questions.

"Where's Jonah?" Brooklyn Daily Eagle 30 Mar 1953. Print. 

With a bit of research, I found some answers. But, boy howdy, they aren’t pretty. Here we go.

In 1951, a group of Danish fishermen were sailing off the coast of the Norwegian island of Haroy when they spotted a fantastically huge fin whale. They then shot harpoons into said fantastically huge whale and lugged it to shore. She was quickly embalmed and given the name of Mrs. Haroy. 

Over the next year her owner, a Mr. Lief Soegaard, exhibited her in over 60 cities across Europe. Reports say that she was seen by over 6,000,000 during that year.

If you feel like it, you can actually watch a video of Mrs. Haroy’s last hours on EUScreen, Europe’s version of the Digital Public Library of America. It isn’t pretty. With that said, there is a horribly hilarious and slightly disturbing image of young children gawking at the marine behemoth, one going so far as to climb inside the mouth (it comes at 0:51). 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 30 Mar 1953. 

In early 1953, Mrs. Haroy was returned to her ocean home, though this time above the water, not in it. She arrived in Brooklyn on March 30th, 1953. Mr. Soegaard’s intention was to wow Americans with a whale extravaganza just as he'd done in Europe. Coney Island was to be her home base while in New York City. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 30 Mar 1953. Print. 

When she arrived, Brooklynites reacted variably. As reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “Some sneered at publicity statements that it was the largest leviathan ever caught in North Atlantic waters, saying they had seen larger. Others bemoaned the slaughtering of whales" (1 April 1953).

Another agitated onlooker was quoted saying, “Pretty soon we won’t see any more whales in the Artic. In the Antarctic they’ll soon be gone, too” (1 April 1953). This guy might have been on to something. 

Mrs. Haroy hung around Coney Island for months (as if she had a choice). And then, tragedy struck! 

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “The whale was already harpooned and her body was desecrated by tiny feet. What more could happen?!

I’ll tell you what. She caught fire.

Yes, early in 1954 the structure that protected Mrs. Haroy from the sun caught fire, badly burning the whale. I assume she was quite flammable considering the chemicals inside her incredibly large veins. 

She had already begun to smell, but within days of the fire she began to really smell. 

Keep in mind, Mrs. Hoary was still sitting at 3222 Stillwell Avenue, right smack dab in the middle of Coney Island's tourist hub. 

Desk Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn. New York: E. Belcher & Hyde 1929. Print. 

She remained on her half-burned funeral pyre for weeks. Local business owners claimed the whale was driving away customers. Residents, naturally, were equally unpleased. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 20 July 1954.

On July 21st, 1954, the Eagle reported that the threat of fines and imprisonment had finally convinced Mr. Soegaard to remove the whale that “wafted unladylike odors through Coney Island for some weeks” (21 July 1954).

You totally want her to go to a museum or a place where she can promote conservation or something, right? 

Sorry. As reported in the Eagle: “In court the owner promised they would begin dissecting the whale today, and that, within a week, it would be deposited below three feet of dirt in a Staten Island dump. ‘You had better stick to minnows.’ Justice Thompson told the whale owner” (21 July 1954).  

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 21 July 1954.

Her heart, which was exhibited alongside her during her days as an entertainer, was 1,100 pounds. I assume it went to the dump as well. 

And so ends the tale of Mrs. Haroy. 

...I know, right? 

Preservation and Progress at the Brooklyn Collection

Sep 10, 2015 9:35 AM | 0 comments

Brooklyn is in constant flux. Every day, it seems, someone comments that “the neighborhood is changing so quickly” or “five years ago none of this was here!” The Brooklyn Collection’s new exhibit, Preservation and Progress, explores those very statements. 

Pacific and Atlantic Photos, Inc. Municipal Building Under Construction, 1925. 

In conjunction with the Brooklyn Connections program, the exhibition looks at buildings that are long gone and buildings that have been landmarked by the Landmarks Preservation Commission; buildings that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Two Brooklyn Connections interns, Sydney Fearon and Austin Nguyen, led the charge by identifying buildings of interest for their architectural or historical value.

Brooklyn Connections Interns Austin Nguyen and Sydney Fearon 

With some digging, the archive revealed a diverse set of primary sources to support their interests. We've got some cool stuff, friends. 

The exhibition will be on view from now until December 4th. Come visit!