Thursday, August 26, 2021

The Land of Enchantment: Exploring the Norman Rockwell Museum

Did you know the Library owns an original Norman Rockwell painting? This treasured piece of art is now on view in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge MA? Barbara Davis, New Rochelle City Historian and former NRPL Community Relations Coordinator, recently visited the museum and shares this illustrated brief with us:

If you have an opportunity to travel to the Berkshires, be sure to visit the museum to see NRPL’s magnificent painting, Land of Enchantment, prominently on display in the exhibit, Real and Imagined: Fantastical Rockwell. (It will return to its permanent home, above the desk in the Children’s Room at the main library, once the exhibit concludes on October 30, 2021.) 

The works of four other (former) New Rochelle artists – all members of the New Rochelle Art Association – are also on view! They are part of the corresponding exhibit, Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration.

"The Other Side" by Dean Cornwell with exhibit label at the start of the "Enchanted" exhibit.

"Vampire Girl" by Coles Phillips with exhibit label

"Pan" by J.C. Leyendecker with exhibit label

"The Submarine Menace Again!" by Orson Lowell with exhibit label

Never been to the Norman Rockwell Museum? You can meet many of his New Rochelle models there, as they are featured on the covers of Saturday Evening Post Magazines exhibited on the museum’s lower level. This space also features a video on the life of Norman Rockwell which, regrettably, omits the fact that he came into prominence while working and living in New Rochelle. He was an active member of our community for over 25 years, from 1913 – 1939.
And – he was a great supporter of New Rochelle’s extraordinary history, as evidenced in this letter found in NRPL’s archives.


Thursday, April 22, 2021

Environmental Activism in New Rochelle: Citizens for a Better Environment

The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 ushered in an era of popular concern for our living environment unlike any other event. It arrived in an era of grievance and protest over war, racism, and social justice; and while it seems celebratory, Earth Day now provides a regular opportunity to educate about climate change, the extinction of species, and our fragile environment. There were other watershed moments – the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and the nuclear catastrophes of Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) come to mind, but Earth Day is special for its hybrid mix of purpose, gravitas, and celebration.

Several New Rochelle residents observed Earth Day in 1970, all eco-friendly citizens who had organized the Ecology Club of New Rochelle in 1969. This group built a foundation of concern about environment pollution and alarm over the possibility of construction of a nuclear power plant on Davids Island. The Ecology Club was an offshoot of an earlier group, the Citizens League for Education About Nuclear Energy (CLEAN). As their concerns grew, the club reorganized as the New Rochelle Citizens for a Better Environment (CBE) to focus on a broader spectrum of issues beyond the single matter of nuclear power and its dangerous waste streams.

Excerpt from CBE News / December 1972

CBE opposed the nuclear plant and helped to prevent it by requesting a public hearing in 1971 prior to a city council vote on a contract extension pertinent to Davids Island. CBE’s pressure led to broader interventions. On April 12, 1971 (ten days before the second Earth Day), council passed a resolution to establish an Environmental Conservation Advisory Commission for New Rochelle. The commission was created to advise the mayor and the city council on environmental problems, conduct surveys and studies, educate the public, and connect with other environmental groups. 

County Sewage Treatment Plant / Echo Bay, New Rochelle / c. 1975
Photo courtesy Kit Bregman
Through the decade of the 1970s, the New Rochelle Citizens for a Better Environment served the community as a voice to raise awareness and a platform to offer realistic solutions to ecological problems. CBE was surprised to be dismissed by some as “well-meaning obstructionists,” but to its credit it focused on air pollution, water pollution, wildlife preservation, recycling, and consumer education. CBE advocated for a municipal recycling program, a wetlands ordinance to protect Titus Mill Pond, and the prevention of unplanned zoning in the city. It also established the first municipal curbside pickup of newspaper waste in Westchester County.

The NRPL Archive contains newsletters and records of the CBE along with the Long Island Sound Study Records. This study was a cooperative project of the 1990s to mitigate disastrous water quality problems in the Sound that also benefitted from a citizen’s advisory committee. As we focus on Earth Day 2021, with our urgent concerns over a global pandemic and rampant climate change, we should also remember the earlier efforts by citizen’s groups such as CBE to focus attention on the fragility of our planet.

April 22, 2021 / David Rose / NRPL Archive

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

A Good Laugh Is the Best Pesticide

Newspaper pranks on April Fools’ Day are as numerous as strands of pasta on a spaghetti tree, almost as old as journalism itself. A bit of research on this subject will have you chuckling over news stories on draining clouds for powdered water, how to leash your pet lobster for a stroll in the park, and the day the Pittsburgh Pirates moved to Titusville. The Harvard Lampoon has long been a bastion of “undergraduate humor,” and after World War II Mad Magazine set a new standard for lowbrow humor that entertained teens across the nation for years. As models of parody, both have been influential.

Excerpt from Stranded Scar, 1947
Student journalists at New Rochelle High School have participated in the tradition of All Fools’ Day hijinks, and there are two wonderful (or silly) examples of this in the Library Archive. Residents of New Rochelle remember its long-lived newspaper
The Standard-Star published from 1923 to 1998. High school students themselves still produce the Huguenot Herald, a school publication now online whose name recalls the founding of the city by the French Huguenots. Each of these newspapers has been parodied in All Fools’ Day spoofs as “Stranded Scar” and “Hug Me Not, Harold.”

Stranded Scar appeared on April 1, 1947. Its banner headline announced “NRHS Will Become Boy’s School in September.” Along with loopy stories about rheumatism in Ford automobiles and the Insect Suffrage Society, complaints about the quality of food served in the high school cafeteria were abundant, as in the story on the oyster-eating frenzy of the Rhinoceros and Circular Clubs. It’s possible that Stranded Scar was repeated in subsequent years.

Hug Me Not, Harold was published in 1952. Again, the lead article revealed a jaded expression about the fate of the high school: “NRHS to Flee Fires by Move into Lakes.” Sixteen years later, this idea tragically came to pass when the high school was destroyed by the work of an arsonist. A concert notice for Happy Harry Haigh and his Heavenly Hepcats offered a manic preview of musical repertoire: “The Teachers Are Earning More Money,” “Overture to the Underworld,” and the finale of “Tsaishdotlekbuslkrjsky’s 10th Symphony (his 6th and 4th combined).” One immediately thinks of PDQ Bach’s “Fanfare for the Common Cold” and the musical shenanigans of Spike Jones. 

Excerpt from Hug Me Not, Harold, 1952

There are at least two historical lessons in this April Fools’ Day tomfoolery. The first is that we are attracted to eccentricity through humor, and this leads to an appreciation of intellectual diversity, or so we would hope. The second is that student journalists are not spouting empty foolishness as much as they are exercising their imaginations, and imagination is always the secret ingredient for accomplishment and success. Most everyone likes to pull a prank on April Fools’ Day, but no one likes to get pranked. So be careful (but irreverent) on April First this year and every year. And keep in mind the sage remark for dispelling the blues from the novelist Vladimir Nabokov – a good laugh is the best pesticide

April 1, 2021 / David Rose / NRPL Archive

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Do You Rhumba?

Castle Society Dance Folio

Do you rhumba? Groucho Marx famously asked this question in the zany movie A Night at the Opera. Groucho took special pleasure in spoofing ballroom dancing. But along with the rhumba there was the foxtrot, the bunny hug, the hesitation, the maxixe, the Boston, the one-step, the tango, the turkey trot, and most especially the Castle walk, named for New Rochelle’s lively dance couple Vernon and Irene Castle (1893-1969). 

Irene was born Irene Foote on April 17, 1893 in New Rochelle. Her father was a local physician. Her romance with Vernon – born William Vernon Blythe – began at the New Rochelle Rowing Club in 1910. Within a year they were married and launched in a career that put them in the forefront of the ballroom dance craze in America and Europe.

Irene was a fashion trend-setter in many aspects of pop culture beyond dance – her bobbed hair style was a hit and copied widely; she appeared in silent films; and many women envied or emulated her elegant lifestyle. She traveled to Paris with Vernon and achieved instant popularity in ragtime dance. In 1914, the couple opened a dancing school, and the two illustrations here (from the Library’s Archive) of the Castle Society Dance Folios are evidence of their popularity – everyone wanted to dance like the Castles and step out to their music. 

Castle Society Dance Folio No. 2 

The jazz historian Phil Schaap has pointed out that the ballroom dance craze of the 1910s and 1920s was a major factor in the breakthrough of jazz to the very pinnacle of pop music. Before jazz and swing, ballroom dancing ruled pop music in America. Dancers were the music stars, and the ballroom styles of dance fostered an orchestral concept. Jazz merged with the social ballroom phenomenon to create the jazz orchestra in the 1920s, usually with the extra vitality of a hot tempo. Not only that, paired couples like Irene and Vernon Castle countered sexism in instrumental music at the time by bringing the talent, grace, and audacity of female performers to the forefront. 

The Castles made ballroom dancing respectable and fostered much enjoyable entertainment during the years of the Great War. Tragically, Vernon lost his life in an aviation accident in 1918, but Irene went on to star in many silent films. For more on the Castles, see the 1939 film, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (another famous dance couple), and the biography by Eve Golden, Vernon and Irene Castle’s Ragtime Revolution (2007).

March 1, 2021 / David Rose / New Rochelle Public Library Archive

Monday, February 1, 2021

Two African American Philanthropists of New Rochelle

The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) stands as one of the most successful philanthropies in American history. Its incisive slogan – a mind is a terrible thing to waste – is etched into our collective memory because it challenges us to fulfill every promise of human improvement. We must never believe this principle can be reduced only to a branding exercise or advertising tagline, for it resonates with the necessity of seeking social justice through the immediate needs for higher education. The mind is a wonderful thing to nurture, cherish, and protect.

Frederick Douglas Patterson
Frederick Douglas Patterson
The UNCF ( today follows a threefold mission of student scholarships, financial support for historically Black colleges and universities, and advocacy for minority education. Two of its most prominent leaders, Frederick Patterson and Christopher Edley, were long-time residents of New Rochelle. Frederick Douglas Patterson (1901-1988) was President of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) from 1935 to 1953. His many educational attainments culminated in a Ph.D. in Veterinary Pathology from Cornell University. Named for the famed abolitionist leader Frederick Douglas, Dr. Patterson recognized the need for collaborative fund-raising among colleges serving Black students and founded the UNCF in 1944. Under his leadership, the UNCF became the largest independent source of financial support for the nation’s private, historically Black colleges and universities. Dr. Patterson went on to create the College Endowment Funding Plan in 1976, and after a long life of activism and leadership in education and philanthropy he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1987.

Christopher Fairfield Edley, Sr.

Christopher Fairfield Edley, Sr. (1928-2003) became President and CEO of the UNCF in 1973 just after the Advertising Council, a public service organization, coined its famous slogan. He had graduated magna cum laude from Howard University in 1949 and received his law degree from Harvard University in 1953. He then joined the Human Rights Commission of Philadelphia and became a law partner of the firm of Moore, Lightfoot & Edley. Over the course of a 17-year career with the UNCF, Mr. Edley developed it into one of the most widely recognized charitable organizations in the nation, increasing the visibility of the needs of Black colleges. Leveraging the UNCF mission into further prominence through strategic marketing, Mr. Edley broadened its campaign to television in an annual telethon with the singer Lou Rawls as host. His work set new standards in public service advertising. Further, he orchestrated the largest individual donation in the history of Black philanthropya $50 million challenge grant in 1990 from publishing magnate Walter H. Annenberg.  

The achievements of African American professionals in the struggle for racial justice in the U.S. have lasting importance to this day. The innovative leadership of Frederick Patterson and Christopher Edley of New Rochelle stand high among many signal achievements, and we salute their lives of service and activism during Black History Month as we study and learn African American history throughout the year.

February 1, 2021 / David Rose / New Rochelle Public Library Archive

Friday, October 23, 2020

“Oh, What a Beautiful City”: Treasures from NRPL’s Archives Center’s African-American Collection

African American history is central to the understanding of American history. This insight deserves repeated emphasis. African American history is central – not marginal, not tangential, not secondary, not something to be noticed only during Black History Month (though it is perfectly appropriate for deep focus then), but without understanding African American history in its full entirety we will fall short in understanding the history of our nation and the contemporary dynamics of our political life.

Bethesda Baptist Church Program / January 20, 2014
Bethesda Baptist Church Program / January 20, 2014

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee / A Raisin in the Sun / Playbill / 1959
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee / A Raisin in the Sun / Playbill / 1959

Harlem Blues & Jazz Band at New Rochelle Public Library / Concert Announcement / February 23, 2020
Harlem Blues & Jazz Band at New Rochelle Public Library / Concert Announcement / February 23, 2020

Whitney M. Young, Jr. / National Urban League / Flyer / May 21, 1968

At the New Rochelle Public Library, African Americans are documented in photographs and civic records in the Library’s Archive. With the growing force of the civil rights movement after World War II, the Council for Unity of New Rochelle was formed in 1947 “devoted to securing equal opportunities in employment, education, health, recreation, housing, and civil rights for all citizens, regardless of race, creed, or ancestry.” These words are quoted from a 1948 booklet of the Council for Unity, a key document in our Publications Collection, along with a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1962 that describes in a concise narrative the Lincoln School desegregation case. 

Much of the printed ephemera that abounds in our collection is more celebratory.  First and foremost are concert programs of Ellabelle Davis, a New Rochelle resident who was the first African American to sing the lead role in Verdi’s opera Aida. There is a program from 1971 of the St. Catherine A.M.E. Zion Church, where she first sang in the church choir. Ms. Davis was later celebrated by the late Karen S. Allen in the opera The Gentle Lark of New Rochelle. Other concert programs include those of Katherine Graves, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, and Pearl Primus and her company, all of whom performed in New Rochelle. Our Publications Collection also features materials of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Colored Women’s Club of New Rochelle, the National Association of Negro Business, and the Alumni Association of the Charles W. Dickerson Field Music, Inc. 

Ellabelle Davis Headlines 1948 Season at Carnegie Hall / Jan 13, 1948
Ellabelle Davis Headlines 1948 Season at Carnegie Hall / Jan 13, 1948

Ellabelle Davis recorded the song “Oh, What a Beautiful City,” and one can discover in our Archive tints of the sentimental beauty of that spiritual song in many documents and recordings of African American history. Hear Ellabelle Davis sing it in this magnificent rendition from a 1950 London Recording, Ellabelle Davis Sings Negro Spirituals, one of several of her recordings we have digitized, and preserved. The novelist James Baldwin expressed one of the essential statements on the meaning of history. He wrote: “History is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in everything we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” It is worth noting that this stunning quotation is presented as a monumental inscription in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, which should be the first destination on your agenda the next time you visit the nation’s capital.

October 16, 2020 / David Rose / New Rochelle Public Library Archive

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Small Tracts and Fugitive Pieces

A Guide to New Rochelle and Vicinity by Robert Bolton / 1842
Samuel Johnson, the preeminent literary figure of the 18th century, once organized a collection of materials from the library of the Earl of Oxford known as the Harleian Miscellany. In doing so, Johnson spoke up for the importance of preserving "small tracts and fugitive pieces," that is, ephemeral pamphlets that are more likely to be discarded than preserved. On the contrary, Johnson insisted, such "fugitive" pamphlets constitute a vital part of a library collection. He went even further, stating with great emphasis that such tracts "preserve a multitude of particular incidents, which are forgotten in a short time...and which are yet to be considered sparks of truth, which, when united, may afford light in some of the darkest scenes of state."

Thanksgiving Dinner Menu / Fort Slocum / 1920
Sparks of truth! What a fascinating phrase! The Archive of the New Rochelle Public Library has its own collection of pamphlets that deserve recognition as the "sparks of truth" that illuminate the history of New Rochelle. Our collection of pamphlets is gathered into a group of records call the Publications Collection. In this collection are the ephemeral pamphlets, brochures, and printed notices that document our social and cultural life through the course of two centuries. Over the years, the Library staff has built up a collection of hundred of pieces of printed literature. Many items have been generously donated by history-conscious city residents who find an old trunk in the attic with their own fugitive pieces. The Publications Collection includes historical programs for anniversaries and special occasions, stage coach schedules, periodical publications such as the magazines They Say and The Tatler, church bulletins from our many churches, concert and graduation programs from our schools, exhibit programs of the Library, journals for annual Police Department benefits, offprints of scholarly articles about Thomas Paine, auction notices, industrial catalogues, street maps, a variety of printed city codes that regulate traffic, building, plumbing, and civil service - the list goes on and on. To make sense of this miscellany is the business of archives, and we now have the archival collection of printed materials organized into logical categories known as "archival series" described in a finding guide to the entire collection. 

National Airmail Week / Commemorative Envelope / 1946       

Found among this historical bounty of printed matter are some unexpected items; for example, a bookplate of Carrie Chapman Catt; a musical score for City Alive, the official song of New Rochelle; an invitation to a cruise sponsored by the Quahaug Club, dated 1865; a report card of a high school student from 1945; and two of Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" posters. There are also many brochures in French relating to La Rochelle, France, our "sister city" which launched the migration of Huguenots who landed on the shore of what became the City of New Rochelle. Samuel Johnson claimed that there are many advantages to maintaining such a collection of printed literature or "flying sheets." The obvious advantage for us today is that the Library makes accessible for study a great stream of occasional documents that collectively portray the scintillating historical landscape of our city that we can all claim as our own "sparks of truth."

Advertising Brochure for Greater La Rochelle, Our “Sister City” in France / 2016

Calendar Illustration for Teddy’s Deli / c. 1960sLibrary Exhibit / Association of Women Painters and Sculptors / 1915

Images (In Order of Appearance): 
1. A Guide to New Rochelle and Vicinity by Robert Bolton / 1842
2. Thanksgiving Dinner Menu / Fort Slocum / 1920
3. National Airmail Week / Commemorative Envelope / 1946
4. Advertising Brochure for Greater La Rochelle, Our “Sister City” in France / 2016
5. Calendar Illustration for Teddy’s Deli / c. 1960s
6. Library Exhibit / Association of Women Painters and Sculptors / 1915

September 3, 2020 / David Rose / New Rochelle Public Library Archives