Thursday, June 23, 2016

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

So, the other day I was reading an issue of The Investigator from 1822 when I came across this little gem:
Notice posted in The Investigator, an Elmira paper, on March 16, 1822
It got me thinking.  How common was divorce in the early 1800s?  How did it even work?  Why did James Decker feel compelled to announce it in the paper?

 Today in America, half of all marriages end in divorce, but it wasn’t always that way. While today couples have the option to dissolve their union with relative ease, in the early 1800s, New York law made getting a divorce really difficult.  The Divorce Act of 1787 (originally proposed by Alexander Hamilton) officially transferred the right to grant divorces from the New York State Legislature to the courts.  The law stipulated that divorces could only be granted in cases where one party had been convicted of adultery and barred the guilty party from ever marrying again. 
Not every act of adultery resulted in divorce, however.  In 1817, Elmiran John McCann was successfully sued by Miss Betsey Jennings for the upkeep of their bastard child, which he fathered while his wife was pregnant with their first child.  Why didn’t Mrs. Susannah McCann divorce her cheating husband?  Maybe because she was already pregnant with her second child when John’s lovechild was born.  Or maybe it was because divorces were expensive and she was entirely depended on her husband’s financial resources.  Or just maybe she loved him enough to forgive him.  I guess that’s always a possibility. 

Court order requiring John McCann to pay for the upkeep of Betsey Jennings' bastard daughter, 1817

Even without adultery, there were plenty of reasons a couple might want to split.  Some common complaints included abuse, abandonment, and excessive drinking.  Unfortunately, unless someone was cheating, unhappy couples were all legally stuck together.  Around the turn of the 19th century, several states with more lenient laws became divorce havens.  During the 1800s, nearly one-third to one-half of all divorces obtained by New York State residents actually occurred out of state.  For couples who could not afford the move, separating and posting a notice in the paper renouncing each others’ debts was the best they could do.
The only change in New York marriage law in the 19th century came in 1830, when the legislature decreed that annulments could be granted if the participants were underage, related, had been married under duress, were insane, or were physically incapable of consummating the marriage. 

Happy couple or trapped in a loveless marriage?  You decide

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