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The Visitor's Book

Jan 16, 2009 2:43 PM | 2 comments

If there is one category of manuscript material that, for whatever reason, often sits for years unused and neglected, it is the visitor's book, with its close friend, the autograph collection. These single items, sometimes physically substantial in themselves but not a part of a group of letters or other materials relating to one  subject, and often containing nothing but signatures, are hard to connect to substantive research projects. And yet, they do sometimes offer insights that enrich our knowledge of events and through the window of the locality offer an idiosyncratic view of national developments.


One such item is the "Register" of Brooklyn's P.S. 1.  Brooklyn's first Public Elementary School was founded in the 1830s. The register, or visitor's book in our possession starts in 1843 after the school moved to spacious premises at Adams and Concord Streets, on a plot that would in 1949 be cleared to allow for easier road access to the Brooklyn Bridge. Compulsive readers of city directories would be drawn to this genre. We learn, for example, that on Jan 15 1846, Horace Mann, U.S. Secretary of Education and one of the founders of public school education in the U.S., visited P.S. 1. In 1850 Gen. Duryea honored the school with his presence, leaving an extraordinary page of fluid manuscript in his wake. The General was not big on punctuation. He wrote:

"The appearance of this school is very fine the air of freshness and health revealed in the complexion and the flashing of bright eyes is most pleasant The influence of Education upon the harmonies of the (illegible) nature are so interesting and beautiful to me that I feel and write like an enthusiast when in the presence of those who are very soon to control the world's destinies  The tens of thousands of boy-men of to day who will be the business men of to-morrow directing the white wings of commerce and enterprise I have stood oft on the ocean wave when the soft moonlight to it stole like the emotion of a kind word on the soul--A kind word Ah! remember a kind word may oft sink or save  a soul My boys and ever speak kindly to the (illegible) and less fortunate than yourselves you will sleep all the sweeter for it in life and such a course will sweeten death--For we must all die one day not far in the future and the eye, electric focus of passion affection and intellect will become dim and passionless as the cold angel as he rests with wing of ice on the shivering bosom of the dying."

At the foot of the page, is the name "Kossuth," as if some or all of the above were a quotation. As a military man and living in the 19th century, Duryea no doubt saw death up close more than once. Still, the high flown sentiment of this passage certainly clashes with today's notions of what is the appropriate tone for a school visit.

General Harmanus Barkuloo Duryea, (1815-1884) scion of a family that has a whole graveyard named after it, served in the New York State Militia and apparently married well. A charming little booklet that lists the richest men and women of Brooklyn and Williamsburg tells us:

"Duryea Harmanus B.  ...............$30,000
General Duryea will, in all probability, ere many years elapse.
be one of the richest men in Brooklyn, having married the only daughter
of Samuel Bowne, Esq., who is almost a millionaire.  He is eminently 
deserving of any good fortune he may attain, and possesses qualities both of
head and heart which endear him to all who are acquainted with him, and
render him exceedingly popular among all classes of the community."

(John Lomas, The Wealthy Men and Women of Brooklyn and Williamsburgh. Brooklyn: A.S. Peace, 1847)

 General Duryea's words had a certain prescience to them though. For after pages of signatures and notations of heatwaves ("July 19 1855 At 3 p.m. thermometer at 95", "Alden J. Spooner Editor Star" "John R. Murray Truant officer") we find the following: To day, the Grammar Departments of this school attended the funeral of Clarence McKenzie, one of its pupils until he left to accompany the 13th Regiment, as drummer boy to Annapolis MD where he was accidentally shot the 10th inst."

The circumstances of the accident are described in detail in Mandeville's History of the 13th Regiment, N.G., S.N.Y., as well as in one of the most maudlin pieces of funerary literature ever to see the light of day, Luther Bingham's The Little Drummer Boy, the child of the Thirteenth Regiment. This was a dark day for the locality, but a day that would rock the nation is noted on April 14th 1865:

And so the Civil War years pass,  the hand of war relaxes the grip it held even upon P.S. 1 in Brooklyn; the entries return to a humdrum rhythm of visits from the School Board, the Truant officer, the Orphan Asylum, and all manner of folks with fancy handwriting; and the special notes of the peacetime years refer to certificates earned, characters formed, to lives being built and not destroyed.


1/18/2009 12:33:47 PM #

I think it would be wonderful to look through those visitor books to see all of the beautiful handwriting. People of that time had such gorgeous handwriting, and such an emphasis was put on penmanship as not seen today. Today I rarely use a pen anymore and when I do it's likely the mundane tasks of signing a check or writing a grocery list. I yearn for the days past of writing a long letter to a friend or writing in my diary. Now it seems there is never enough time in the day for all the things I'd like to do, and writing falls to the wayside. I think those visitor logs are a hidden treasure that the true writing fan usually misses.


Johannah Layson Hutchens Gage

2/5/2009 5:47:29 PM #

Those who are interested in a magnificent resource on NYC public schools would do well to visit the Municipal Archives at 31 Chambers Street in Manhattan and take a look at the 2 volumes of photos and real estate information from the 1906 Board of Ed statistical report on every public school in the 5 boroughs in use at that time.  The volumes are out in the open, along the East wall of the entrance room, on the shelves with the bound land maps.  Some of the buildings in use at that time date back to the 1850s, and many had uses previous to their conversion to school use. It is an incredible researchaid.

Benjamin Feldman