Monday, June 20, 2016

A Puzzling History

by Erin Doane, curator

I really enjoy jigsaw puzzles. Give me a good 1000-piecer and I will stay happily busy for some time. The museum has a nice little collection of historic jigsaw puzzles.

Jigsaw puzzles were first commercially produced in England around 1760. Early puzzles had images painted or adhered to thin wood sheets that were hand-cut into pieces. The term “jigsaw” was first used around 1880. Maps were particularly popular subjects of early puzzles and were used as education tools. By around 1900, adults were taking an interest in completing puzzles as a leisure activity. By 1908, adult jigsaw puzzles had become a full-blown trend in England and the United States.

Tuck's Zag-Zaw Picture Puzzle, wood, c. 1927
The museum has two hand-cut, wooden jigsaw puzzles made by Raphael Tuck & Sons of London, England. They were given to Elmira musician and artist TalithaBotsford in 1927 and then found their way to the museum some 40 years later. The company was founded in 1908 and started its Zag-Zaw line of puzzles in 1909. The puzzles were known for including figurative pieces along with the standard-cut pieces. Tuck & Sons continued making puzzles until World War II when its factory was destroyed during the German blitz.

Figurative pieces from Tuck's puzzle
All of the Tuck’s puzzles came in basic red or orange boxes without any image of the subject. Each had a paper label on the bottom with a handwritten title, the name of the artist, the approximate piece count, and size. One of Talitha’s puzzles was entitled Glorious Days of Summer Flowers by E. Fisher. It has around 100 pieces and measures 10 x 7 ½ when completed. Unfortunately, I could not read the label on the second puzzle so I am not entirely sure of its subject. My guess is that it is a Dickensian scene as the company seemed to specialize in creating puzzles of subjects from Dickens' novels. Someday I may have a chance to put the puzzle together and find out for sure.

Glorious Days of Summer Flowers, wood, c. 1927
Label on the back of the puzzle box
Cardboard jigsaw puzzles were first made in the late 19th century. During the Great Depression in the 1930s they became very popular. Hand-cut, wooden puzzles were expensive while die-cut, cardboard puzzles could be purchased for as little as ten cents each. In 1932, a newsstand in Boston, Massachusetts offered different weekly puzzles. Cardboard puzzles were also popular in advertising and as promotional items for various products.

Arabian Chiefs Perfect Picture Puzzle, cardboard, c. 1930s-40s
The museum has a cardboard “Perfect Picture Puzzle” made by the Consolidated Paper Box Company of Somerville, Massachusetts. The company was organized in 1931 and began making cardboard jigsaw puzzles a year later. They started including a picture of the puzzle’s subject on the box lid in 1934. The Arabian Chiefs was probably made sometime in the late 1930s or 1940s. It is die-cut cardboard with a color image. The fun thing is that it appears to be printed on both sides. Picture Perfect Puzzles were made until around 1961.

Two-sides of the same Perfect Picture Puzzle piece
The popularity of jigsaw puzzles as adult entertainment began to wane in the 1950s. I blame television. Yet, they did remain common as children’s educational toys. I’m sure many people remember Playskool’s brightly colored wooden puzzles. The Playskool Institute was founded in 1928 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The company made durable, educational, wooden toys for young children.  The museum has a collection of four Playskool puzzles from the 1960s including two rabbits, a duck, and a panda.

13-piece wooden panda puzzle by Playskool, 1960s
One additional puzzle that was just added to the museum’s collection two years ago is one that I find a bit odd. It is a die-cut cardboard puzzle made by F.M. Howell & Company of Elmira. It shows an aerial view of the city taken at 2:30pm on Friday, June 23, 1972 – during the massive flood caused by Hurricane Agnes. The Howell factory is circled in red. It is a wonderful, commemorative piece but it is also only cut into 12 pieces, which makes me think that it was intended for children. Puzzling, but historically interesting.

F.M. Howell & Company puzzle, cardboard, 1972



Monday, June 13, 2016

The Mayor’s Pet Porcupine

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

I’m writing a book tentatively called Curiosities of Elmira that will be published by The History Press next year. When I was doing additional research on Elmira’s bear pit for the book (you can read a little about the bear pit here), I found a delightful little story that didn’t make the cut. In December 1909, Charles Rodburn of Erin presented Elmira Mayor Daniel Sheehan with an odd gift: a live porcupine.

Rodburn left a note stating that porcupines had become rare in this area and that he thought the mayor might like to domesticate it because “it would make a great watch dog.” He alternatively suggested that, if the mayor didn’t want it as a pet, he could keep it in the bear pit because the spiny critter could stand up to the larger predators. I’m not sure if this was a politically-motivated message or a genuine gift, but it’s odd either way.

Mayor Daniel Sheehan, proud pet porcupine parent
Reportedly, Mayor Sheehan was happy with the gift and relayed a story of a friend who once had a pet porcupine in his orchard. The Star-Gazette suggested that the mayor might want to let this animal free in an orchard, too. There's no word of what Sheehan ever decided to do with his new pet, but I suspect it was likely freed in a suitable habitat (although I much prefer to imagine that it just ran around City Hall).

An orchard like this would be a far more suitable habitat for a porcupine than City Hall.
This odd story got me wondering if there was a time when it was more common to see porcupines as pets. The short answer: I don’t think so. I did find a few scattered references to pet porcupines around the country, but, understandably, the trend never caught on. There was one other notable local pet porcupine incident, however.

In 1933, City Clerk William T. Coleman had a strange complaint come across his desk. A man’s pet porcupine routinely followed him to the store and, one time, had an unfortunate run-in with another person’s dog. The dog owner complained to Coleman that the “porky” shouldn’t be allowed on the streets. Coleman talked to the porcupine owner and they agreed on reasonable limits for the spiky pet.

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Life, Death and Rebirth of Clinton Island


The Life, Death and Rebirth of Clinton Island
by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

The river giveth, and the river taketh away.  Back during the early 1800s, the Chemung River gave Elmira Clinton Island, a true beauty spot of the Southern Tier.  Located between Lake Street and College Avenue, the 2,600 foot long island was covered shade trees including maple, elm, butternut, and sycamore.  The Lake Street Bridge was constructed with several of its legs actually built into the island, and there was a flight of stairs leading down from the bridge to it.  During the summer, it was a favorite spot for picnics and was the site of an annual 4th of July celebration featuring music and rousing political speeches. 

Postcard of Clinton Island, ca. 1900
Eventually all good things must come to an end, and the end of Clinton Island came on March 17, 1865.  Caused by heavy rains, the Saint Patrick’s Day Flood devastated the island and swamped much of the city’s low-lying areas.  The flood waters knocked down trees and completely washed away the island’s charming bandstand.  The whole Lake Street Bridge was destroyed, along with the stairs to the island.  Following the flood, the island was sold to a local contractor who removed what was left of the trees and left it a dilapidated wasteland.

But then, the river gave the island back, or at least S.G.H. Turner did.  On July 8, 1921, he held a grand opening of his new island playground on Clinton Island.  He brought in his friends from the Elks Club to help him clear the island of brush and debris in what was no doubt an exhausting, and not so fun-fueled day, featuring free food for anyone who came to work.  In short order, he constructed a playground, changing house, and a refreshment stand to once again make Clinton Island a summer fun destination.  At the time, a reporter for the paper cynically suggested that readers visit as soon as possible because the whole thing was likely to wash away in the next spring flood.  Turns out, of course, he was right. 

Clinton Island, ca. 1920s

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Reconstruction Home, FDR, and the Iron Lung Club: A History of Polio in Chemung County

by Erin Doane, curator

From April 17 to May 1, 2016 the World Health Organization (WHO) undertook the largest synchronized event in the history of vaccines. The organization coordinated 155 countries and areas around the world in the simultaneous switch from the old oral polio vaccine to a new vaccine in the hope of fully eradicating polio worldwide by 2019.

The United States stopped using the oral polio vaccine entirely in 1999, so we were not part of this world health event. There has not been a reported case of polio in Chemung County since 1961. People born here in the last 50 years have never experienced the fear of contagion or the effects of the crippling disease that swept through the population on a fairly regular basis before the development of a vaccine in the 1950s. Many people today may not even know what polio is or why it is so important to finally eradicate it forever.


Governor Roosevelt meeting a child stricken

by polio on his visit to Elmira in 1929.
Poliomyelitis, or polio, is also known as infantile paralysis. According to the WHO website, polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus that is transmitted person-to-person through the fecal-oral routine. Children under 5 years old are at the greatest risk of infection. Early symptoms of polio include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness of the neck, and pain in the limbs. The infection can spread to the nervous system causing paralysis, usually in the legs. 1 in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis. Among those paralyzed, 5 to 10 percent die when their breathing muscles become immobilized. There is no cure for polio.

Chemung County suffered a polio epidemic in 1921 that left many disabled children without rehabilitative or long-term care. In January 1923, the Elmira Rotary Club took steps to help those children. The club purchased the former home of Governor Lucius Robinson at 563 Maple Avenue in Elmira and created the Reconstruction Home for Crippled Children. The home opened its doors just a month later. Children who came to live in the home received physical therapy and had around-the-clock care. There was also a classroom in the home, equipped and staffed by the Elmira school system.

The Reconstruction Home for Crippled Children on Maple Avenue in Elmira, c. 1920s
Shortly after the Rotary Club began its charitable undertaking, the members’ wives got together and formed the Rotary Anns, an auxiliary group dedicated to the Reconstruction Home. They raised money for furnishings and equipment for the home, sewed linens, and provided special treats for the children. The Anns’ goal was to make the place feel more like home to the children, many of whom lived there for months at a time. Whenever possible, they took the children on outings to the movies or the circus. There was also a picnic at the Roy Farm in Wellsburg each summer. All the children, whether they were ambulatory, in wheelchairs, or on frames, were loaded into cars and trucks and taken out to enjoy a day in the countryside.

Christmas at the Reconstruction Home, 1924
In August 1929, the Reconstruction Home received a famous visitor – then-governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt made the brief stop while in the area to inspect the State Reformatory in Elmira. In 1921, he himself had been stricken with polio and became permanently paralyzed from the waist down. The Elmira Star-Gazette reported that the children were a bit shy at first about meeting the governor but “when Roosevelt smiled they all hobbled up to meet him.” One youngster in a wheelchair declared, “I wanna meet the guvnor. Take me to him.”

Governor Roosevelt visiting the Reconstruction Home in Elmira, August 1929

Eddie Wright of Hornell, resident of the Reconstruction
Home, meeting Governor Roosevelt,
Elmira Star-Gazette, August 14, 1929
By the late 1930s, demand for the rehabilitation services and care at the Reconstruction Home had waned. At the end of 1936, there were only five children left in residence. The home closed its doors for good in February 1937. It had operated in Elmira for 15 years during which time nearly 350 children had received care.

Children outside of the Reconstruction Home, c. 1920s
In 1944, Chemung County suffered its worst polio epidemic. The first case was reported on June 20. By the time the outbreak ended in December of that year, 293 patients from the region had been treated at St. Joseph’s and Arnot Ogden Memorial Hospitals. Six people died in the epidemic and many more were permanently paralyzed by the disease. Five out of the six deaths were children. One of the reasons that this outbreak was particularly bad was because it took place while World War II was raging. Of Chemung County’s 60 physicians, nearly half were away in military service.

Another polio outbreak hit the county in May 1953. While not as severe as the 1944 epidemic, there were still 80 cases reported and four deaths. St. Joseph’s Hospital started what became known as the “Iron Lung Club.” The hospital had been presented with an iron lung in 1946 by the National Foundation. An iron lung is a negative pressure ventilator that was essential in treating people with polio when they could not breathe on their own. Patients would stay in the iron lung for weeks, months, and even years at a time.


Diane Bacon, last respirator polio patient at St. Joseph’s Hospital

in Elmira, is transported in an iron lung for further treatment in
Buffalo, September 22, 1953, Elmira Star-Gazette
In 1952, Dr. Jonas Salk first tested his polio vaccine. Five years later, Dr. Albert Sabin developed a new oral vaccine. Sabin’s vaccine was licensed in 1962 and became used world-wide to prevent the disease. Starting in 1962, the Chemung County Medical Society sponsored mass clinics for the administration of the Sabin vaccine. That year, some 92,000 area residents were inoculated. The final clinics took place on “Sabin Oral Sunday,” November 15, 1964.

In 1988, there was an estimated 350,000 cases of polio in 125 countries worldwide. In 2015, those numbers were down to just 74 reported cases in two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is a decrease of over 99 percent. The WHO’s dream to completely eradicate polio may well have a chance of becoming a reality.

Children and staff at the Reconstruction Home, c. 1930s