George H.W. Bush, 1924-2018

President George H.W. Bush (standing illegibly on center platform) at Federal Hall, April 30, 1989. The white specks are not snow but confetti to celebrate the bicentennial of George Washington’s First Inaugural.

Let me be the first to acknowledge that the image here is not the clearest. I wanted to share it however not for its clarity but for its historical significance: in the middle of the image, admittedly impossible to make out, is President George H.W. Bush. This New York Times photo was taken at Federal Hall on Wall Street on April 30, 1989. The occasion was the bicentennial of George Washington’s First Inaugural, which had taken place on the same spot two hundred years earlier. I wanted to share t because today is the day of mourning for the 41st president.

Coupled with the death of John McCain earlier in the year it seems that 2018 really is the end of something, the end of what I am exactly not certain, but the end of something nonetheless. Watching Bob Dole struggle to attention to pay his respects in the Capitol rotunda was profoundly moving. I don’t idealize the past or political figures–I spend half my time telling students not to look away or respond cynically to the sausage making that is baked in to the process. I agreed and disagreed with various aspects of each of these three men’s choices. That said, at their best they represented something better and larger than themselves. Notions of service, grace, kindness, civility, and respect for others. Wherever we are on the spectrum, it is something to think about on this national day of mourning.

Sunday morning coffee

The Blackwelder family observe Thanksgiving on the assembly line, circa 1942

I hope everyone’s Thanksgiving weekend was good. I was more tired than I knew. I slept until 7:20 am on Thanksgiving Day and until 9:30 am on Friday, which is unheard of for me. We had visions of going to the National Gallery of Art the day after Thanksgiving but decided to pass because of the cold. Yesterday I took the bus home. It left Arlington at 12:30 pm and we arrived in New York in a driving rain six hours later safe and sound. The bus drivers who work for the various lines along the Northeast Corridor do an extraordinary job. Unfortunately we saw a few accidents along the way.

When I arrived home I emptied my bag and took a hot shower. I was so keyed up that I stayed up reading and working until 1:30 am. I ordered some library books, explored up a few things in some databases, and moved a few files around. I also went online and bought a 2019 weekly planner, which will arrive Tuesday. I don’t want to go into the details just yet, but I have a strong sense of what my 2019 projects are going to be. I hope they come to fruition.

I thought I would share one more Thanksgiving-related image before putting this holiday in the books. The one above was taken during the Second World War, probably in 1942 although that is not certain. President Roosevelt had given his “Arsenal of Democracy” speech in December 1940 when the United States was still technically neutral. Here we see a father, mother, and daughter pausing for a quick Thanksgiving Day meal before supposedly heading back to their stations on the assembly line. I say “supposedly” because these do not look like workers on the line; they seem too clean and their clothes too well-pressed for that. The Office of War Information’s own Office for Emergency Management originally created the image, which could be a giveaway. Whatever its provenance, it is a striking photograph from a unique moment in our history.

Enjoy your Sunday.

(image/FDR Presidential Library)

Thanksgiving in Siberia, 1918

The Red Cross distributing care packages at a military hospital in recognition of Thanksgiving, Tieumen, Siberia, November 1918

I hope everyone has been enjoying their Thanksgiving. It is a cold one here in Virginia. I wanted to share one more photograph relating to Thanksgiving 1918. The above image was taken in Tieumen, Siberia in those weeks just after the Armistice. As I have said before, it is important to remember that the fighting did not neatly end on November 11. Here we see Red Cross workers passing out parcels, including cigarettes, to the wounded in a hospital ward. The A.E.F.’s involvement in the Siberian campaign is one of the least explored aspects of the Great War. Hopefully someone has been working on that in preparation for the centennial of the war and we will learn more in 2019.

There is an interesting lesson in the provenance of this photograph. Its Library of Congress record says the image was taken on Thanksgiving Day, 20 November. Thanksgiving that year however fell on 28 November. I figured this was a typo and so checked the Catalogue of Official A.E.F. Photographs Taken by the Signal Corps, U.S.A., the source from where the Library of Congress catalogers took the bibliographic record. The thing is, the Signal Corps catalogue lists Thanksgiving as falling on 26 November. I checked the 1918 calendar and the record is obviously wrong; 26 November 1918 is a Tuesday.

I did a little digging but could find nothing more definitive about this Siberian Thanksgiving one hundred years ago. My guess is that both of those second-hand sources are incorrect and the image was taken on Thanksgiving Day itself. Or, they celebrated the holiday on another day for some logistical reason. Whatever the full story–and we alas will probably never know–it is an extraordinary image and testimony to the power and importance of Thanksgiving for Americans wherever they may be.

Wherever you are, enjoy your holiday.

The United War Work Campaign of November 1918

The YMCA was one of the seven organizations involved in The United War Work Campaign in November 1918.

The Armistice of November 11, 1918 coincided with the start of The United War Work Campaign, a national initiative to raise a staggering $170,500,000 in 1918 dollars to aid the American Expeditionary Forces. The project began back in the summer and was, to put it mildly, a massive undertaking; in addition to raising that extraordinary sum, organizers hoped to marshal one million Victory Boys between the ages of 12 and 20 to feed, entertain, and provide educational instruction to doughboys. The United War Work Campaign was the effort of seven agencies: the YMCA, the YWCA, the National Catholic War Council of the Knights of Columbus, the Jewish Welfare Board, Salvation Army, American Library Association, and the War Camp Community Community Service. Clearly the intent was to involve as many constituencies as possible across religious and other lines. The chairman of the initiative in New York City was none other than John D. Rockefeller  Jr., who spoke at various functions around the city in early October drumming up interest. Another prominent New Yorker involved in the campaign was Theodore Roosevelt, who spoke at the Manhattan Opera House on November 1 for that same purpose. Colonel Roosevelt implored his audience that while the kaiser was on his heels there was still much work to be done in winning the war.

As mentioned above the campaign began on November 11 just as news of the Armistice was coming in. For much of the the next week while the celebrated Americans still went out and participated in charity gold tournaments, bake sales, benefit concerts, and so many others things besides. When it became obvious that the funding goal would be a bit short come the November 18 deadline organizers pushed the date back, first to the 20th and then to the 25th. This had the desired results. In those two weeks just after the German surrender Americans donated $203,179,038 to the campaign.

(poster/Library of Congress, designed by Neysa McMein)


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)