LAST BLOG OF THE YEAR: The Mystery of Emma Waite
By Susan Ingalls Lewis
The leather-bound Emma Waite Diary
My final blog of the year is based on my own research into the 1870 diary of Emma Waite, housed in the Manuscripts and Special Collections unit of the New York State Library. In 2005, I was the fortunate recipient of an Anna K. and Mary E. Cunningham Research Residency in New York State History and Culture at the Library, searching for any material related to nineteenth-century businesswomen in New York State. I did find a few trade cards (which were eventually reproduced on the cover of my book Unexceptional Women: Female Proprietors in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Albany, New York, 1830-1885 , SUNY Press, 2009) – but otherwise, nothing. As I continued my fruitless search, Librarian Paul Mercer encouraged me to look at the Emma Waite diary. Since this was the record of a worker rather than a businesswoman, I resisted his advice. One day, because my own efforts continued to prove futile, I decided that I might as well examine the diary. From the first moment I opened it, I have been convinced that Waite’s story deserves a wide audience.
A page from the diary
The “Emma Waite Diary” is an intriguing document, written by an African-American domestic servant and hotel cook who worked in Saratoga and New York City. Recorded on the pages of a small, leather-bound, printed daybook that Waite received as a gift early in 1870, it chronicles a single year in the life of this otherwise unknown individual. Waite’s opening entry: “Quite mild and pleasant for the first I did not spend a very pleasant new years day, was home sick all day,” foreshadows the challenges faced by a single black woman trying to make her way in New York State. Illness, injuries, bitter cold, exhausting work, headaches, unemployment, deadening heat, and racial discrimination plague Waite’s months in Saratoga.
THE EYE OF THEODOSIA BURR: Aaron Burr, his daughter Theodosia, and Kingston painter John Vanderlyn
By Susan Ingalls Lewis
The Eye of Theodosia Burr
One of the most interesting objects on display at the Senate House State Historic Site Museum in Kingston, New York, is a miniature painting of a single female eye: The Eye of Theodosia Burr. This delicate image symbolizes the intersecting stories of three New Yorkers: the painter John Vanderlyn (1775-1852), his patron, Aaron Burr, Jr. (1756-1836), and his subject, Burr’s beloved daughter Theodosia (1783-1813). All three stories represent different degrees of unfulfilled promise and unhappy endings.
The most familiar name of these three is that of Aaron Burr. Like Benedict Arnold, about whom I wrote in a previous blog, Burr is considered one of the great villains of New York history—most famous for killing his political rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. Burr was a clever, cultured, and well-educated man who grew up in New Jersey (his father was the second president of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, and his maternal grandfather was the famous minister Jonathan Edwards). Orphaned as a toddler and raised by relatives, Burr was admitted to college at the age of 13, and studied theology and law after his graduation. He joined the Continental Army in the early days of the Revolution, traveling with Benedict Arnold through the Maine wilderness for the attack on Quebec (see blog from October 17th, Benedict Arnold’s Boot, Part 1).
November 6th 1917: Women win the right to vote in New York State
By Susan Ingalls Lewis
How did women get the right to vote in New York State? Most of my students assume that all women in the United States were granted suffrage at the same time, as the result of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1920. To the contrary, women won the vote across the country in an irregular, piecemeal fashion. The territory of Wyoming allowed women to vote in 1869, and joined the union in 1890 as the first state where women could vote in all elections. By the time the women’s suffrage amendment was passed, 15 states across the country (including New York) already had full suffrage, and more had partial suffrage – that is, women could vote in some but not all elections. For example, in some states or localities women could vote in presidential elections, primaries, municipal elections, or school board elections.
Button from 1917
Often my students assume that New Yorkers Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were responsible for winning the suffrage campaign. Unfortunately, neither lived to see women gain the vote either nationally or state-wide. Essentially, they failed—not for lack of energy, organization, or compelling arguments, but because they were unable to convince the male voters of their period that women needed or deserved the vote. Even the majority of women in the United States were probably not persuaded that enfranchising women was a good idea at the time that Stanton and Anthony died (1902 and 1906, respectively). Surprisingly to us today, there was actually a strong anti-suffrage movement led by women, including a chapter in New York.
Washington Irving’s Iconic New York Stories: Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
By Susan Ingalls Lewis
John Quidor: Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (Smithsonian)
Despite the fact that he spent many of his productive years abroad, Washington Irving (1783-1859) was a quintessential New Yorker. The man who coined the nicknames Gotham for New York City, and Knickerbocker for New Yorker also enshrined the Hudson River village of Sleepy Hollow (formerly North Tarrytown) and the Catskill Mountains in the collective American memory. His fictional characters Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane are recognizable to most of us today through various adaptations of their stories (some having very little relationship to the originals, as with the current Fox series Sleepy Hollow, a surprise hit just renewed for a second season). What witches are to Massachusetts, the Headless Horseman is to New York State; The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is New York’s ultimate Halloween story. In fact, after the village of North Tarrytown lost its General Motors assembly plant in 1996, it actually changed its name to Sleepy Hollow to increase tourism, and the new TV series has furthered that goal.
Irving’s most famous stories are not just part of New York State history because he was from New York – born in New York City, died in his cottage Sunnyside (now a National Historic Landmark) in Tarrytown—but because they also reflect the history of the period in which he lived and wrote. Rip Van Winkle highlights the difference between New York as a pre-Revolutionary provincial backwater and a growing state; after his twenty-year sleep, Rip awakes to find that the “very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility . . .” Though Irving is exaggerating colonial New York’s lethargy for literary effect, the period following the Revolution—the Early Republican period—was precisely the time when New York began to surpass other states in population, commerce, and industrial development. The changes Rip notices are the very changes that had happened in Irving’s own lifetime (he was in his mid-thirties when these stories were written). Similarly, Irving’s nostalgia for the “old” New York is evident in this paragraph from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow:
. . . it is in such little retired Dutch valleys, found here and there embosomed in the great State of New-York, that population, manners, and customs, remain fixed; while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved.
New York: Aviation Pioneer
By Susan Ingalls Lewis
The story of aviation in the United States usually begins with the Wright Brothers and their famous flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. Yet the Wrights, though they were the first to successfully test a flying machine, are only a small part of the story of the development of powered aircraft. New York State was actually at the center of aviation pioneering in the years between 1908 and 1929, with developments concentrated first near Keuka Lake, then on Hempstead Plains. This period of aviation history highlights New York as a center of innovation, leadership, competition, and capitalism.
The first name in New York aviation was Glenn H. Curtiss of Hammondsport New York (Steuben County) in the Finger Lakes region of the state. Curtiss became known as “The Fastest Man of Earth” in 1907, when the “Hercules” motorcycle he designed, built, and raced set a speed record of more than 136 miles per hour. By 1908, Curtiss had moved from motorcycles to flying, and began testing his planes by taking off on the frozen surface of Keuka Lake. When Scientific American organized a three-part contest that year, Curtiss set out to win all three competitions. “On July 4, 1908, the publication’s editors, along with members of the Aero Club of America traveled to the tiny hamlet of Hammondsport, N.Y., to witness the first pre-announced, public flight of an aircraft in America, the ‘June Bug,’ which won the first leg of the three-part competition” by flying in a straight line for 1 kilometer (.62 miles). Although the Wright brothers had preceded Curtiss’s flight by several years, his was the first scheduled, publicized test of an airplane. The following year Curtiss flew 25 kilometers (15 miles) in his “Golden Flyer” biplane to win the second stage of the contest. Finally, in 1910 he won both the third leg of the Scientific American competition in “The Albany Flyer,” which he piloted from Albany to New York City. Curtiss not only designed and flew his planes, but built the special high-powered, water-cooled V-8 engines that ran them.