Armistice Day 2018

Wall Street, Armistice Day 1918

It is hard to believe that the 100th anniversary of the Armistice is here. It seems like yesterday that I attended the WW1 Centennial Commission Trade Show in Washington. It is amazing what can change in four years, for good and ill. I thoroughly intend to carry on covering the Great War. As I said to someone earlier today, the fighting of did not end at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Civil war raged in what was once Czarist Russia and small but equally intense conflicts erupted between Greece and the Ottoman Turkey, to give but two examples. These and other conflicts had enormous consequences and came with enormous costs. Putting the world back together at Versailles would prove a daunting task. We would do well to view the officials charged with that undertaking with humility and understanding. Theirs was no easy assignment.

I have been surprised at the wistfulness I have felt over the past few days. These anniversary observations are an interesting thing. For years, from 2009 (the anniversary of John Brown’s Raid) through 2015 with the 150th observation of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox, many of us followed along and even visited the places where these things happened. For much of the rest of the world though, they were barely a thought. The same proved true from 2014-2018 Great War Centennial. I have met many interesting people who have enriched my life over these past few years. I had some ideas for various projects. Many of them came to fruition and others did not pan out as hoped. That’s the way it is with things. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Taking down the WW1 exhibit acquired on loan from The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, October 2018

There are many memories I will always cherish, such as one steamy August Saturday a few years ago when my uncle took me around suburban Boston so we could photograph and record well over a dozen WW1 memorials, the freezing film excursion to Yonkers in March 2017, meeting and befriending the film editor who saved the day on that project, the screenings themselves later that year at my college and in Yonkers a few weeks later, Camp Doughboy at Governors Island, the exhibits that colleagues and I acquired on loan from the Embassy of Belgium & The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and so much else besides.

Regarding Armistice Day 2018 itself, there is so much coverage to watch, read, and contemplate that I will leave it up to you to discover it. I will however share one item: a friend sent me this article from The New York Review of Books written by historian Patrick Chovanec in which he ruminates on what he learned while tweeting the war in historical “real time.” That’s the thing about history: you and I know the outcome. We would do well to humble ourselves and remember that the people of the past lived just the way we do today: unaware of what the future holds and how it would all turn out.

(top image/New York Times Archive via Wikimedia Commons)


On the cusp of the Armistice

I hope everyone’s autumn has been good. These first ten days of November have been busy, thus the lack of posts here.

Readers may recall when I posted just after Memorial Day that I sent a proposal to an academic press regarding “Incorporating New York,” my book project about Civil War Era New City. I heard back earlier this week from the editor asking for the full manuscript. I sent it in this past Thursday. We shall see what happens. I have also been putting the final touches on a talk and interview I will be doing tomorrow for Armistice Day at All Souls Church in Manhattan. It all came about quickly when I got asked to do it a few weeks back. There is a nice bit of serendipity in the thing because All Souls plays a significant role in my history of Civil War Era New York. As Kramer would say, my worlds are colliding. The concert begins at 5:00 pm with my talk and interview an hour before that.

Seward Park, Canal and Essex Streets, November 10, 1918

The image we see above was taken in Seward Park on the Lower East Side 100 years ago today. It is the dedication of the J.W.B. Canteen Hut sponsored by the Jewish Welfare Board. Attorney, reformer, and American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early years of the Wilson Administration Abram L. Elkus oversaw the proceedings. Present also was banker and philanthropist Jacob H. Schiff. Organizers knew that the war was about to end, though they certainly were not aware that it would be the following day. Schiff told the crowd we see here “Now that the war is ending happily for everybody . . . war work organizations will for many months need our support more than ever, our soldiers and sailors will demand more attention when the grim business of battle is over and the guns have ceased. When the boys come back we want them to feel that we did what we could for them.”

The J.W.B. Canteen did its part; in just the next two months alone the site served over 8000 meals to returning servicemen. The Seward Park canteen continued its work for much of 1919 as men continued coming from Europe en route home.

(image/Records of the National Jewish Welfare Board, Center for Jewish History)

Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween, everyone. I saw this small ad from an October 1918 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and thought I would share. I found it curious that it does not give a store name or address, saying only “Subway floor, East Building.” Perhaps the Brooklyn subways were still so rare that readers would have known what that meant? I don’t know. They are plugging their wares to be used for Halloween parties in honor of soldiers on leave from their training camps. The war was grinding to its conclusion by late October 1918, and would end less than two weeks later. The ad is fascinating because it shows us in real time that many doughboys were still stateside when the war’s end came. As for Halloween itself, other editions of the Daily Eagle inform us that there was a big party at Camp Dix on Halloween night. I’m sure camps across the country had their own as well.

Enjoy the day.

Pennsylvania Station, 1910-1963

They began tearing down the original New York Pennsylvania Station fifty-five years ago today. It was a mammoth undertaking that would go on for three years into 1966. When built in 1910 everyone assumed it would stand on the west side of Manhattan for the ages, and yet it lasted just barely more than half a century. In some ways it lasted less than half a century: a major renovation in 1958 had already obliterated much of Charles McKim’s original design. Penn Station’s destruction was a tragedy from which we have never fully recovered and yet its demolition made sense in a way. First of all it was private property, built by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company to tie Manhattan to the continental United States. Before Penn Station opened in 1910 passengers traveling eastward by rail had to disembark in New Jersey and ferry across the Hudson River. It was a perilous undertaking; the ferry boats zigzagged their way between other ferries, around tug boats, and dangerously close to the huge ocean liners that came into New York Harbor daily.

The first act in the demolition of the original New York Pennsylvania Station on October 28, 1963 was the removal this eagle. It was one of twenty-two granite eagles that adorned the structure.

The Pennsylvania Railroad Company, like all the major railroad companies, was hugely powerful and profitable. It would have been difficult to imagine when the station opened just a decade into the twentieth century that it and most other railroads would be rendered obsolete by the 1960s. By this time however, the highway were largely built. Trucks and automobiles, not locomotives, now moved people and products. For longer travel, why spend five days on a train when an airplane could get you there in five hours? Like Kodak after the invention of digital photography, the railroad company’s demise happened swiftly.

New York City and the nation were fortunate Pennsylvania Station opened when it did. It proved hugely important to the Allied war effort, moving men and materiel across the country. Interpreted a certain way it can be seen as a triumvirate of public works projects done in time for the war: Pennsylvania Station in 1910, Grand Central in 1913, and the Panama Canal in 1914 just as the Guns of August began going off. On one day in June 1918 alone over 4,000 men were inducted into the U.S. Army and shipped off from Pennsylvania Station to training camps in various locales. Just a few weeks after his tragic plane accident John Purroy Mitchel’s remains were brought back from Louisiana on a train that pulled into Pennsylvania Station. Theodore Roosevelt, his health rapidly declining in that same summer of 1918, traveled to and from Pennsylvania Station on various trips out West to advocate for the American war effort. I could go on but one gets the idea.

This eagle is one of four from the original New York Penn Station that was moved to Philadelphia’s Market Street Bridge after the destruction of the iconic Manhattan train station. Philadelphia Penn Station is in the background.

Fourteen of the twenty-two eagles that once adorned New York Pennsylvania Station are still known to exist. A few remain in New York and others got sent elsewhere. Four of them decorate the Market Street Bridge in Philadelphia, which is where I took the photo one sees directly above a few summers ago.

(top image/New York Times)



This weekend: the 99th TRA Conference

Theodore Roosevelt writing at his desk, circa 1905

This weekend here in New York City is the 99th annual Theodore Roosevelt Association conference. I am not attending any of the events today but will be at the Harvard Club tomorrow for the symposium. While I have irons in many fires, at the end of the day the Roosevelts are my primary intellectual interest. What I find fascinating about them is that one can interpret pretty much any aspect of American, and often even international history, through the prism of the Roosevelt clan. One hundred years ago right now Theodore Roosevelt’s health was in rapid decline. In 1917 he seemingly sensed that the end was near and began sending his papers to the Library of Congress for posterity. It was a burdensome time, with his health in decline and five of his children in danger serving in the Great War. Quentin of course would be killed on Bastille Day 1918, and the other boys would be gassed and/or wounded before it was all done. Ethel and her surgeon husband Richard Derby were in Paris dealing with the wounded.

Roosevelt was writing his weekly newspaper column well into the later months of 1918 but eventually stopped as he reached his final illness. When he finally died in January 1919 the output from his brief sixty-year life was incredible: 100,000+ letters, 30+ books, reams of journalism, and so much more. The Library of Congress this week, coincidentally or not in time to commemorate Roosevelt’s 160th birthday, has made digitally available a significant portion of that life’s work. They have done us a yeoman’s service.

(image/Library of Congress)

Brooklyn vs Boston, 1916

Note that it was called the “World’s Series” when Brooklyn and Boston squared off in 1916. The American League games were held in the more spacious Boston Braves ballpark to sell more tickets than possible in the much smaller Fenway Park.

I was having a conversation with some students yesterday explaining that the name of the National League team currently playing in the World Series took its name from the period during which the team played in Brooklyn. Fans had to dodge the streetcars to get to the ballpark and thus became known as trolley dodgers. In 1916 however that was still a little ways in the future; the Brooklyn team that played the Red Sox in that year’s World Series was known as the Robins. Charles Ebbets was already the owner by this time. Later in the day I was speaking to someone whose daughter lives in Boston but whose family roots are in Los Angeles. We got into a discussion about how some of those great Dodger players of the 1970s and early 1980s will hopefully be in attendance over the coming week, throwing out first pitches and whatnot. Red Sox Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski threw out the opening pitch in game one last night.

The last time the team that is now the Dodgers played the Red Sox in the World Series was 1916. Seasons ended earlier in those years, with the final game usually taking place around Columbus Day. In October 1916 the Battles of Verdun and the Somme were grinding to their awful conclusions. It was the final weeks of the presidential campaign and the incumbent Woodrow Wilson was running against challenger Charles Evans Hughes on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” Fenway Park was in its fifth season in 1916, but if you look at the score book above you will see that the games in Boston were played not in Fenway but at Braves Field. I was wondering about this when I saw the score card. During the game last night the Red Sox radio announcers eventually spoke about it, noting that the games were moved to the more spacious ballpark to see more tickets. Let that be a lesson to anyone who thinks organized baseball was once only a game and not a business. I say that with no cynicism.

Babe Ruth, Casey Stengel, Fred Merkle and Tris Speaker were just some of the players who squared off in the World Series 102 years ago. Lincoln Logs were invented that year, presumably due to interest in the 16th president just a few years after the centenary of his birth and in the wake of the 50th anniversary of the American Civil War. It was the final season before America joined the Great War. While Europe burned Americans took in the World Series to forget the world’s troubles as best they could.

(image/Lincoln Eng. Co., via Wikimedia Commons)


Twain, Stowe, & Hawley

Mark Twain house, Hartford

I hope everyone had a good weekend. I’m sorry about the lack of posts recently but with the semester in full swing things have been busy. This past Saturday I was up and out of the house at 6:00 am to meet a friend at Grand Central, from where we took the train to Hartford. There we were met by a friend who was our guide for the day. We visited the Mark Twain house and adjacent Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. Literally they are right next each other. Both tours were distinctly different but uniformly excellent. I love to watch interpreters perform their craft. Twain’s house was obviously an anchor for a man who traveled so extensively, both as a younger man finding his way and later as a famous writer supplementing his income on the lecture circuit. Twain often lived out of a suitcase and the house there in Hartford was the place to which he and his family, who often accompanied him abroad, could return. He did most of his writing on the third floor. While up there I mentioned his publishing Ulysses S. Grant’s Memoirs. The guide turned to his immediate left and pointed out a beautiful bust of Grant on the mantel. I so wanted to take a picture but photography was not permitted in the house.

I had never been to either site before. The one that seems to have undergone the most change in recent years has been the Stowe Center. They used to give a more conventional overview of the house itself and Stowe’s time there later in her life. This is what friends of mine and I call a “furniture tour,” in which a guide focuses more on the make and model of a home’s accoutrements instead of the historical figures who lived there. The Stowe Center, thankfully, has changed its interpretive model to discuss not only Stowe’s life and times but the social and cultural issues that faced our nation then and now. We were even told beforehand when buying out tickets that it would be such. Apparently people have gotten angry during tours in the past.

Joseph Roswell Hawley headstone, Cedar Hill Cemetery

Our guide was so generous. I had mentioned a few days earlier that perhaps we might go to Cedar Hill Cemetery, to which none of us had ever been before. It is one of the old garden cemeteries and among other Connecticut luminaries is the final resting place of Joseph Roswell Hawley. We got there late in the day, as dusk was about to settle in. We had a great time driving and taking in the scenery. We had some difficulty finding Hawley however but as you can see here we eventually found him. With the Roosevelt Sr. manuscript complete I intend to spend the rest of this year and probably all of 2019 engaged in the Joseph Hawley project. It was so great to see his headstone and gives me the impetus to return to this fascinating topic.

I had not been to Hartford in several decades, when I was a very young child and my father would occasionally take us in on a Saturday to see the phone company building with its big computers and switchboards where he worked. Being there this Saturday was almost like coming home in a way. Here is to good friends who through their kindness and generosity help make our lives more meaningful.

The 1902 Rochambeau Delegation

One of the most famous moments in American diplomatic history was the Viviani-Joffre Mission to the United States in April-May 1917. This was when the French politician René Viviani and Field Marshal Joseph Joffre, among others, came to America to discuss military and diplomatic details after the United States declared war on Germany that spring. Viviani, Joffre and officials from other Allied governments toured the entire United States for several weeks to meet the American people, many of whom, especially in the South and Midwest, were suspicious of European leaders’ intentions. Fifteen years earlier there was a lesser known diplomatic mission: the 1902 Rochambeau Delegation.

The British Museum acquired this painting of General Joseph Brugère in 1902, the same year this French military leader led a goodwill tour to the United States solidifying Franco-American relations. Many of the individuals involved would go on tour serve in the Great War.

The event was so-called because the central moment of the mission was the May 24, 1902 dedication in Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Park of a memorial to Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, the French military leader who had fought with George Washington during the American Revolution. The early 1900s were an interesting moment in diplomatic relations. The United States had recently won the Spanish-American War and was becoming a true world power; the brutal Philippine Insurrection, the final phase in the Spanish-American War, ended on June 2, 1902. One month earlier, on May 6, General Joseph Brugère boarded Vice Admiral Ernest François Fournier’s Gaulois in Toulon and sailed for Washington. One of the driving forces of this mission was Horace Porter, the United States ambassador to France.

Porter had served under Ulysses S. Grant during the American Civil War and went on to serve in various capacities over the next several decades. He was the driving force to fund and build Grant’s Tomb, which finally came to fruition on April 27, 1897 when William McKinley dedicated his predecessor’s final resting place. Several weeks after that dedication Porter was off to Paris, where he would be President McKinley’s representative to France. Civil War veterans were still very much running American life; the president himself had been in the Battle of Antietam; his Secretary of State, John Hay, had been one of Lincoln’s personal secretaries; and right then in 1902 Secretary of War Elihu Root was putting Ambassador Porter in for the Congressional Medial of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Chickamauga.

Brugère, Fournier and a sizable contingent visited George Washington’s resting place at Mount Vernon on the afternoon of May 22 and were hosted that evening by Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. The big event came two days later when Ambassador Porter, President Roosevelt, General Brugère, Vice Admiral Fournier, scores of dignitaries, and thousands of others turned out at Lafayette Square Park for the Rochambeau statue dedication. Henry Cabot Lodge was the featured speaker. It was all a huge success.

A few days later the Brugère/Fournier contingent would be fêted across New York City. Among other things they got a look at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, dined with mayor Seth Low, and received a tour of Columbia University from college president Nicholas Murray Butler. Columbia is conveniently located next to Grant’s Tomb and on May 28 Ambassador Porter took Brugère, Fournier and the rest of the French delegates to the mausoleum that he had done so much to build. At the time the general public could not walk down to the sarcophagi as one can today. As leader of the Grant Monument Association however Porter was naturally able to take the Rochambeau delegates down the marble steps, where they all stood in hushed stillness for ten minutes. (At the time it was still only Ulysses; Julia passed away seven months later in December 1902.) After the visit, the delegation walked north of the tomb to the Claremont Inn, where several dozen people had a sumptuous meal.

(image/The British Museum)



A World War One era Steinway

Now here is something you don’t see everyday, let alone in a thrift store: a 1917/1918 Steinway & Sons grand piano. I saw this in the city yesterday on 23rd Street. I was a little confused at the 1917/1918 designation. I would have thought it fairly easy to trace the provenance of such a thing; as I understand it Steinways come with serial numbers and other identifying information to track their provenance. Or, maybe due to the war they were producing models on something other than an annual basis? Whatever the reasons, one can’t blame the people in the thrift store for not knowing.

This century-old 1917/1918 Model M Steinway & Son piano is currently in a thrift store on Manhattan’s 23rd Street.

Whenever I see something like this, I wonder how it got there. Was it in someone’s New York City apartment for decades until said person either passed on or moved in to a smaller place? Did the family donate the thing to a thrift store during a house cleaning? What famous pianist might have played it along the way over the past century? There is no way to know. That is the wonderful mystery of such things.

I have passed the Steinway crypt in Green-Wood Cemetery dozens of times over the years. A Wikipedia search informs us that the company was founded by Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg in New York City in 1853. Steinweg had emigrated from Lower Saxony and come to the United States with his sons after the failed revolutions of 1848. It was a wise move; the family avoided much of the tumult of the next 75 years. Steinway the Elder died in 1871 in the middle of the Franco-Prussian War. By the time of the Great War the Steinways were part of the fabric of New York City life and it does not seem they suffered from the anti-German sentiments so common during the Great War. Steinweg himself had anglicized the family name when first coming to the New Country. Perhaps the less overtly Germanic “Steinway” saved the family such grief.

Steinway pianos then and now were made in Queens. During the war the city was building a Steinway tunnel to connect Queens to Manhattan via a new subway line. Frederick Loeser & Co., a Brooklyn-based department store, was one place to buy a Steinway, among dozens of other piano makes and models. Loeser newspaper ads from 1917 and 1918, the period in which the Model M we see above was manufactured, list the original price of a Steinway grand piano at around $1000, just over $18,600 in today’s currency. Loeser’s however was selling them at a steep discount. It would be interesting to know if such discounts were customary or due to the war.


Geoff Emerick, 1945-2018

I learned yesterday of the passing this past Tuesday of Geoff Emerick, who engineered the Beatles’s catalog from Revolver onward. If the name does not ring any bells that is not entirely accidental: producer George Martin was fiercely territorial of his relationship with the Beatles in the recording studio and did not want others getting credit for what he saw as his domain. Emerick complained justifiably in his memoir Here, There, and Everywhere of him and others being minimized cavalierly as merely “the staff” despite their important contributions. Martin’s accomplishments were of course significant but one can state with strong accuracy that had Emerick not been there in the Abbey Road studios that Revolver and Sgt. Pepper in particular would not have been the albums that we have now been listening to for half a century.

Geoff Emerick in 2003

Emerick worked in a supportive role on Beatle recordings from virtually the outset in 1962 and became their chief engineer in April 1966 when Norman Smith left to produce Pink Floyd. The first song Emerick engineered was “Tomorrow Never Knows.” He was all of twenty years old. The Beatles went on the road that summer for what would be their final tour. When they regrouped in London later that year they began the Pepper sessions, beginning with the double-A side single of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” The pressure was truly on Geoff Emerick at this time because the Beatles had made clear to him that they would no longer be touring and that the studio releases were the band’s authoritative communications. It was his job to take their ideas and and find a way to get them on tape. That was no small task in the days before digitization.

It was a seminal year in British history; 1966 came fifty years after the battles of the Verdun and the Somme, nearly twenty years after V-E Day, and a decade after Suez. England defeated West Germany in the Word Cup that summer. Austerity Britain was giving way to Swinging London. Drab greys were giving way to the technicolor uniforms the Beatles would wear in 1967, the style inspired by the nostalgia for neo-militaria that was common in Britain in those years immediately after the Empire’s collapse. So much of that seems dated and overdone today, a relic of a time gone by. I suppose none of that really matters anyway. All that is left of true importance is the magic of what happened in those studios, in which Geoff Emerick played such an important part.

(image/Clusternote via Wikimedia Commons)