Photo of the Week: Glass Plate Negatives

[Little girl with doll and doll carriage in yard], circa 1909;  V1985.4.54, William Koch glass plate negatives, V1985.004, Brooklyn Historical Society.

[Little girl with doll and doll carriage in yard], circa 1909; V1985.4.54, William Koch glass plate negatives, V1985.004, Brooklyn Historical Society.

The photo of the week is a dry plate glass negative from the William Koch glass negatives collection. This collection includes 66 photographs from about 1890 to right around 1925. William “Billy” Koch was an amateur photographer in Brooklyn and owned a tavern named Billy Cook’s Saloon in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn. His photographs display houses, farms, and street scenes, as well as informal portraits of groups and individuals outdoors. I find this photograph particularly charming because it feels very candid, like a peek into the life of a young girl in the early 20th century. To see more photographs from this collection, check out this gallery.

Brooklyn Historical Society has approximately 50,000 photographs in its collection, spanning from the 1850s to the present. This includes a variety of photographic processes, including glass plate negatives, like the photograph pictured above. The years when photography was highly experimental, one of the mediums on which photography was particularly successful was glass, perhaps for its sharpness as you can see in this example.

“Glass plate” refers to two separate photographic processes—dry plate and wet plate. Both processes include a light-sensitive emulsion that is fixed to the glass plate. The difference is the wet plate requires the photographer to apply the emulsion, while the dry plate comes prepared with the emulsion. You can often tell a dry plate from a wet plate in that the edges of the photo are straight and lacking brush strokes or even a thumb print!  You can imagine how challenging it might be to be outside setting up the shot, prepping your slide before placing it in the holder in the camera, then firing your shutter. To learn more about this history of glass plate negatives, including how to properly store these negatives for preservation, check out this site.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here. To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. library@brooklynhistory.org

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Unlocking A Civil War-era Surgeon’s Kit

In April 2015, Brooklyn Historical Society opened a new exhibition, “Personal Correspondents: Photography and Letter Writing in Civil War Brooklyn”. The exhibition uses BHS’s evocative 19th century photography and correspondence collections to reveal the personal, funny, moving, and tragic stories of wartime Brooklynites at home and on the battlefield. As a research assistant on the exhibition, I was charged with researching many of the artifacts featured in the exhibition.  The objects – from sewing kits to cannonballs to broadside posters – allowed me to experience the dramatic changes in Brooklynites’ everyday life during wartime.

Fig 1. Civil War Surgeon's Kit, M1985.385,  Brooklyn Historical Society.

Fig 1. Civil War Surgeon’s Kit, M1985.385, Brooklyn Historical Society.

One haunting object in the exhibition is a surgeon’s kit, which evokes the gruesome medical experiences many soldiers faced during the war. The kit is a rectangular wooden case covered with textured black leather. Its interior is contoured to fit the shape of a series of instruments: one tourniquet, a saw with a curved wooden handle, a pair of forceps which have curved blades, a bow saw, three different sized knives, a tortoise-shell handled scalpel, a cautery (used to cauterize a wound), and a serrated-edged blade. It is scary to think that such a simple medical kit could be used to perform complex surgeries directly on people’s bodies in unsanitary and crowded military camps. On the other hand, it is also amazing to imagine that a surgeon or a physician could have carried it to the battlefields and saved numerous lives.

One of the questions I sought to answer about this surgeon’s kit was whether it might have been used by military surgeons during the Civil War. During the Civil War, surgeons for the Union troops were either regular Army Medical staff or certified volunteer militia surgeons.  The former carried Army-issued surgical sets, but volunteer militia surgeons often brought their own sets to the war.

Scholars identify Army-issued surgical sets based on the design of the case. Military-issue cases were wooden and included a brass plate, plaque, or cartouche on top of the case, usually engraved with “U.S.A Hosp’l Dept.” or “U.S.A. Medical Department.” Unfortunately, our case did not fit this description.

Fig.2. A 1860’s Civil War Amputation Set, Issued U.S.A Hospital Department. Source: http://www.medicalantiques.com/civilwar/Surgical_ Set_ Displays/ Surgical_amputation_set_photos7.htm

But after reading Elisabeth Bennion’s book Antique Medical Instruments, it became clear that while this case might not have been issued by the Army, it might well have been used in the war – or at least, during the 1860s. The cross-legged forceps in the BHS case were not introduced until the 1840s, and were used throughout the Civil War. Also, many of the tools in the kit have smooth handles. Older tools often had a criss-cross pattern on the handles, but sterilization techniques developed in the mid-19th century deemed smooth handles to be healthier. And the provenance records related to this artifact indicated that it was a Civil War-era case. Thus our team concluded that it might have been used during the war, possibly by a volunteer surgeon using his own tools.

How were these tools used during the Civil War – and how were the people wielding them trained? The Army offered formal and informal surgical training programs, and special courses on treating gunshot wounds were given. But wartime surgery was difficult and complex; amputation involved much more than whacking off an arm or leg. Basic amputation sets like this one did not include all the tools that would have been necessary for delicate surgery by a trained surgeon during the war years. Civil War surgeons constantly reevaluated their amputation policies and procedures. Both Union and Confederate armies formed army medical societies, and their meetings focused primarily on amputation.

Surgery during the Civil War was a dangerous and unpleasant experience – but doctors and scientists were working hard to make it less so. Anesthesia like ether, developed in the 1840s, came into wider use during the war. In fact, much of the ether used in the Civil War came from factories like that of E.W. Squibb on the Brooklyn waterfront.

The Civil -War Surgeon’s Kit (M1985.385) is shown in the current exhibition “Personal Correspondents: Photography and Letter Writing in Civil War", Brooklyn, on view now at Brooklyn Historical Society.

Fig.3. The Civil -War Surgeon’s Kit (M1985.385) is shown in the current exhibition “Personal Correspondents: Photography and Letter Writing in Civil War Brooklyn”, on view now at Brooklyn Historical Society

When they had it, Civil War surgeons used ether when treating painful wounds. Once the patient lost consciousness, an amputation was carried out quickly. Even though the patient had no awareness of what was happening and felt no pain, he might be agitated, moaning or crying out, even thrashing about during the operation. He sometimes had to be held by assistants so the surgeon could continue.

During the Civil Wwar, nurses, surgeons, and physicians were challenged to mobilize the nation, and they advanced medicine into the modern age. Modern hospital practices methods today owe much to the legacy of Civil War medical treatments, as does  anesthesia and medicine. Combating disease as well as treating wounded soldiers pushed the nation to rethink theories on health and to develop professional practices to care for the sick and wounded.

I used the below sources to piece together the history of this surgeon’s kit.

  1. Bennion, Elisabeth. 1979. Antique medical instruments. London: Sotheby Parke Bernet.
  2. Edmonson, James M. 1997. American surgical instruments: the history of their manufacture and a directory of instrument makers to 1900. San Francisco: Norman Pub.
  3. http://www.medicalantiques.com/civilwar/
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Photo of the Week: Grand Army Plaza

[Traffic at Grand Army Plaza], circa 1892; Adrian Vanderveer Martense collection, ARC.191, V1974.7.60 ; Brooklyn Historical Society

[Traffic at Grand Army Plaza], circa 1892; Adrian Vanderveer Martense collection, ARC.191, V1974.7.60 ; Brooklyn Historical Society.

New York City Department of Health estimates that over a half million New Yorkers ride bikes. Just this past week, I dusted off my old bike to join the other two-wheeled commuters. Brooklyn Historical Society employees participate in the Transportation Authority’s annual Bike to Work Month which is more motivation to take in some fresh air on my commute to work. Check out other bicycle photographs highlighted in our collection from previous blog posts here.

The photo of the week features a few bicyclists (and men on horses) around 1892, cycling past Grand Army Plaza, part of my morning route. Grand Army Plaza was initially designed by park designer Calvert Vaux as a grand entry point to the park. The plaza marks the beginning of Eastern Parkway, the world’s first parkway, and was intended to be free of commercial traffic. That changed by the 1950s when over 40 traffic signals were added and the roads repaved.

The original construction of the plaza was built between 1869 and 1873, however only the elliptical shape and hillocks remain from Vaux’s design. The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch was designed by architect John Hemenway Duncan and was installed in 1892. On top of the arch is a quadriga (a sculpture depicting four horses carrying a chariot) that was created by Frederick MacMonnies, a young, gifted sculptor from Bedford-Stuyvesant. It was installed in 1898. The arch commemorated the Union Army and Navy of the Civil War. It was designated an official city landmark in 1973, and is considered among the great achievements in American sculpture. To learn more about the history of Grand Army Plaza, be sure to check out the Park Slope Neighborhood & Architectural History Guide available in our book store.

This photograph comes from the Adrian Vanderveer Martense collection. The collection contains lantern slides and photographs taken by Martense documenting Brooklyn during the last quarter of the 19th century, in particular Flatbush, Brooklyn and the Blizzard of 1888, as well as other images of Brooklyn. Martense was an amateur photographer who was a descendent of early Dutch settlers in Brooklyn. The Martense family were longtime residents of Flatbush, which became the primary subject of his photography. I think the Martense collection is particularly fascinating because of the unique view it provides of the late 19th century in Brooklyn. To see more of Martense’s photographs, check out this gallery.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here. To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. photos@brooklynhistory.org

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Photo of the Week: Cherry Blossoms

[Blossoms], 1975 ca; Donald L. Nowlan Brooklyn collection, ARC.120, v1990.2.214; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[Blossoms], 1975 ca; Donald L. Nowlan Brooklyn collection, ARC.120, v1990.2.214; Brooklyn Historical Society.

After a long winter, it is a welcome sight to see blooms popping up all over Brooklyn. On one particularly warm day last week, I walked to Prospect Park and sat under a blooming tree and felt so grateful for the beauty that is Brooklyn in the springtime.

With that in mind, the photo of the week is a view of the Cherry Esplanade in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, taken by photographer and Brooklynite Donald L. Nowlan in 1975. When the cherry blossoms bloom every spring, it is a hopeful reminder of warmer, longer days ahead. In celebration of this season, Brooklyn Botanical Garden hosts their annual cherry blossom festival Sakura Matsuri. BBG has over 200 cherry blossom trees, which can be found along the Cherry Espanade, the Cherry Walk and many other locations throughout the garden. The first cherry trees were planted after World War I, as a gift from the Japanese government. Landscape architect and master gardener Brian Funk of BBG reports that the trees are blooming earlier every year, mostly due to climate change. You can view them through mid-May, so don’t miss this special experience.  You can map the blooms here.

The Donald L. Nowlan Brooklyn collection consists of materials pertaining to Nowlan’s high school and college years in Brooklyn, N.Y. and to Nowlan’s effort to document various Brooklyn sites. This series contains 122 color photographic prints, 165 color slides, and three black-and-white photographic prints, taken by Nowlan, that document locations in Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s. Subjects include Coney Island, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Prospect Park, and a Reenactment of the Battle of Brooklyn in Prospect Park (circa 1979). Check out more of Nowlan’s photographs here.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here. To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. photos@brooklynhistory.org

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Narrows Sunday School: Religious education in 19th Century Brooklyn

Narrows School book 1832The following post was authored by our Spring 2015 Library and Archives processing intern Stephanie Coy. It highlights one of several collections which she has cataloged this spring.

In 1988, Brooklyn Historical Society purchased a manuscript that chronicled the weekly activities of the Narrows Sunday School during the period of 1834–1845. The Narrows Sunday School was founded by Dr. John Carpenter in the Village of Fort Hamilton in 1825. After three years of successful service to the village’s residents, the school moved to a chapel building adjacent to the Dutch Reformed Church in the Town of New Utrecht (located at 18th Avenue and 84th Street in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn) where it enjoyed a larger student body and more patronage from wealthy Dutch families. The Sunday school has been in continuous existence at that location ever since!

This manuscript represents a snapshot of life and religious education in Brooklyn during the early 19th century when urbanization was beginning to take hold. With many notes about the moral beliefs of the students and teachers, weather patterns, techniques used in the education system, and the habits and etiquette observed by the staff, this manuscript offers the opportunity to study the lifestyles and beliefs common to teachers, students, and families of Kings County in the first half of the 19th century. This record book complements a large collection at BHS of other materials related to religious education in 19th century Brooklyn.

Perhaps most remarkable about the manuscript itself is its humor. For example, in the tutorial at the front of the book on how to log entries, it states:

“Thomas Wilson, discharged to-day, is a bad boy: his parents have put him to a farmer in the country.”

And on September 15, 1839, with attendance low, the writer notes that if something is not done, there will be “but little or nothing for the poor secretary to make minutes of than the number of flies that lite on the ceiling.”

Narrows School 1839-09-15

May 17, 1840:

“Miss Sarah Van Brunt committed matrimony & removed from the place,” and “the school has by this catastrophe lost one of its more efficient teachers.”

At a special meeting May 9, 1841, called to better organize the school, the “only measure proposed & not objected to was a resolution of Miss Jane Cortelyou ‘that hereafter she would not laugh in school – if she could help it.'”

June 27, 1841:

“Very warm. The school seems to be melting away. Some classes entirely gone. Scarcely a grease spot left.”

May 25, 1845, the secretary asserts a visitor came ostensibly to hear the children sing but “more probably to see Matilda Church if we might be allowed to give our own opinion,” with further comments on the topic in the following entry.

Narrows School 1845-06-15

Later, on June 15, there is somewhat sharper criticism of teachers for “laughing and talking” and a complaint the unclean schoolroom is “more like a hogpen than a place for decent people….”

On the more serious side, there are notes on founding a sewing club, raising money for the school, trips to New Utrecht, collections for missions, scholars’ exams at Flatbush, preparations for anniversary events, etc. Sometimes a religious topic is noted, as on May 8, 1842, when the “girls recited proofs to the May subject ‘That the Holy Spirit is the author of our Sanctification.'” There are also frequent notes on weather, especially as it influences attendance at the school.

This manuscript record reveals the individual personality and social outlook of teachers in southern Kings County in the mid nineteenth century. It documents the early history of a Brooklyn based religious education institution that still remains active to this day. Finally, it is also an important portrait of the early Dutch settlers in Kings County, especially as pertains to the more influential families of the van Brunts and the Bennetts.

Sources:

“New Utrecht Notes: Interesting History of the Reformed Sunday School at Fort Hamilton.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, NY), Jun. 10, 1894. http://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/#50345952

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