Part of what I love about working as an archivist is getting to peek in at lives of the past, and getting to know the Brooklynites who walked the streets decades, and centuries, before us. What’s even better (and yes, even nerdier) is learning about a woman who helped build the collections at BHS that we use today. A few months ago, my teammate Patricia and I surveyed a collection from BHS’s third librarian, Emma Toedteberg. If you’re a regular patron of the archives, then you may have already heard of Emma—she’s the namesake of our catablog. Her collection is slim, but it gives us some insight into her rich life.
Emma and her sister Louise were the daughters of German immigrants Augustus Toedteberg and Catherine Lager. The Toedtebergs were married in New York City in 1849, and lived on Vanderbilt Avenue in Fort Greene.
Augustus Toedteberg worked as an illustrator in the publishing industry. He shared with his younger daughter Emma a passion for books and a love of travel. Emma and her father took a six month tour of Europe in 1886, and thoroughly documented the sites they visited in Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium in scrapbooks. Emma returned to Europe in 1916 by herself, and also compiled postcard albums of her solo journey.
At 13 years old, Emma arrived at the Long Island Historical Society (now known as the Brooklyn Historical Society) to address envelopes. From that modest position, she was taken in as an apprentice to the head librarian. She worked as assistant librarian under George Hannah for 20 years, finally becoming head librarian upon his retirement in 1889. A woman with a full-time career was still a radical concept in the late 19th century, and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote that Emma Toedteberg’s appointment was a “fresh illustration of the expanding opportunities of women.”
Emma and her family were fervent advocates for animal rights. She and Louise hosted bridge parties to raise money for animal charities, and Emma served as president of the Brooklyn Women’s Aid Association. Upon her death, she bequeathed almost $10,000 to the New York Women’s League for Animals and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Despite her hard work both in and out of the library, Miss Toedteberg was not one to embrace the spotlight. Fortunately, she did save clippings that documented her busy professional and social life. She attempted to retire in 1924, though letters from board members, such as this one from Willard Bartlett, convinced her to stay—and expressed in no uncertain terms how the trustees and members of LIHS felt about her contributions.
In total, Emma worked at LIHS for 67 years, until her death in 1936. The society was bereft when she passed. Louise wrote in a letter following Emma’s death that every executive committee member from LIHS attended her sister’s funeral, and Emma had been a proud honorary member of the society.
World traveler, animal lover, pioneer for independent women in the workplace; Emma was many amazing things. Check back for a future post about one of the great collections we have at BHS thanks to Miss Toedteberg.