Monday, January 28, 2013

Erector Set

I recently came across a few photocopied pages from one of those "The Story of My Life" books, filled out in my grandfather's hand. My aunt had given it to him when he was alive, and he proceeded to fill out only the first three pages. Although he started by answering the prompts, it soon became a list of "Quotes from My Parents," which I'll cover in a different post.

The first prompt, the only one he actually responded to, asked "What did you enjoy doing most as a child? Did you prefer doing it alone or with someone else?" Pop responded
Playing stick ball, having a catch with Dad in Prospect Park, going to Ebetts [sic] Field for the first time with Dad.

I enjoyed my Erector Set. You could build all sorts of things.
The first part was par for the course.  If you'd asked me what Pop had liked doing as a kid, my answer would have been all baseball, all the time. I'm sure I knew that that was an impossibly limited view of my grandfather's childhood, but what I knew of his younger years consisted almost entirely of stick ball, rooting for Dodgers, and playing ball in Prospect Park.

The bit about the Erector Set, though, stunned me. I don't know why it should seem so completely unexpected - Erector Sets were popular, obviously, and Pop couldn't have spent all  his free time playing baseball, but it was a part of my grandfather's childhood that stood out enough to be the only non-baseball activity that he listed and at the same time a part that I had never heard about before.

I didn't know the first thing about Erector Sets, other than that they failed to save the day in the movie The Sandlot, so I did a quick internet search and landed on the website of the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, which has a page about the Erector Set. The Eli Whitney Museum has a collection related to A.C. Gilbert, one of the foremost toymakers of the 20th Century, whose products included the Erector Set.

1938 Advertisement for the No. 7 1/2 Erector
Image courtesy of the Eli Whitney Museum,

To be honest, part of what surprised me about reading that Pop liked playing with an Erector Set was that my entire knowledge of the toy came from those scenes in The Sandlot, and as a result, I associated it with the 1960s, and didn't realize that it had been around since my grandfather's boyhood in the 1930s. As it turns out, according to the Eli Whitney Museum, the Erector Set was invented in 1913, and was essentially already a classic when Pop was a kid. I found the image above on the website of the Eli Whitney Museum, and it reads, in part, "[Gilbert's] new 1938 Erectors have been completely redesigned and modernized." Pop was about 8 years old in 1938, so this seems to be pretty close to what he would have been playing with himself, in their apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

The last line of the ad, pictured above, reads "The No. 7 1/2 Erector shown here is $10.00. Other sets are from $1.00 to $27.50." We can put that in the context of information gleaned from the 1940 US Census, which says that my great-grandfather, John J. O'Hara, made $2,180.00 in 1939, and paid $25/month in rent. This is a crude measurement to be sure, and rendered inaccurate by the vast changes in relative valuations over the past 70-odd years, but I can't fathom buying a child a toy that cost, at the upper end of the range cited, more than the monthly rent in an NYC apartment! (It should be noted that most people in their building were paying between $30 and $45; it seems that my great-grandfather was getting a deal on rent because his father was the landlord. But still!) I can only assume that Pop's Erector Set was not the extravagant $27.50 kit that was worth more than a month's rent for his parents.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Book Review: Brooklyn! An Illustrated History

When I was at The Genealogy Event last year, I attended a session by Laura G. Prescott on Timelines: Putting Your History into Historical Perspective, and it made me realize that I need to do more background research on my family's history. Luckily, after they immigrated, every line of my family (except 1) settled in Brooklyn, New York, and stayed there. While there's plenty of research still to do in various areas of Ireland, two towns in southern Italy, and Rio de Janiero, Brazil, I've been focusing my reading on Brooklyn, because it kills so many birds with one stone.

I started with Diocese of Immigrants: The Brooklyn Catholic Experience 1853-2003, which was a very interesting read, but I found it too heavy on the modern-day experience to be particularly useful in my research. Once I'd gotten through the first couple chapters, on the founding of the diocese, etc., I felt like I had to keep reading, in case anything good was in there, but wasn't finding it relevant to my work.

The next book I read was Brooklyn! An Illustrated History by Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier, and it was fantastic. This book covers so many aspects of Brooklyn's rich and varied history, from its relationship to New York City, to the rise and fall of industry, to entertainment and recreation (Coney Island, anyone?) to a whole chapter on the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The book starts near the beginning*, with the original 5 Dutch towns that made up what is now the Borough of Brooklyn, and includes everything up to the more modern trends that were emerging when it was published in 1996. With nary a mention of hipsters, it's clear that this is not a book about Brooklyn that was published within the last decade! However, I know plenty about hipsters from my own friends, relatives, and personal observations - I don't need a book to tell me about skinny jeans, yoga, and mustaches. Brooklyn! An Illustrated History covers all the other important aspects of the borough. I found it particularly useful that it focused on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as those were the years of my family's primary residence in the area. (My earliest immigrant ancestors arrived circa 1851, and stayed until the mid-1950s.)

Of all the topics that the book touches upon, a few that interested me the most, in terms of situating the facts of my ancestors' lives in historical context, included the New York City draft riots in 1863; the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883; the expansion of the subway system through the early 20th century, the industry centered around the docks in Red Hook through the 19th and much of the 20th centuries; the development and popularity of Coney Island; and the rise and fall of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I particularly appreciated that the chapter on industry gave so much insight into Red Hook and South Brooklyn, where the docks were located, and also where my ancestors were located.

It would probably be an overstatement to say that this book is a tearjerker, but I'm beginning to worry that I've gotten a bit too invested in the lives - and geography - of my ancestors, because it made me cry. Twice.
  • I couldn't quite hold back a few tears - on the subway, no less - when I read about the Dodgers' move to LA. This one hit particularly close to home, as I could imagine my Brooklyn-born, baseball-loving grandfather's dismay at the loss, made all the more vivid by the book's archival images of protesting fans.  
  • After reading about the vibrant industrial center that Brooklyn once was, and the long and defunct history of brewing beer there, and knowing that my great-great-grandfather Michael Mulcahy was probably serving locally brewed beer at his pub in South Brooklyn, reading that "In a former matzoh factory on North Eleventh Street, the Brooklyn Brewery . . . revives Brooklyn's brewing tradition" made me cry. On the subway, once again. Now, this was not news to me. I've walked past Brooklyn Brewery dozens of times. I've drunk plenty of their beer. And I happen to be well aware that in the decade and a half since this book was published, Brooklyn Brewery has been joined by a number of other brewers making beer in the borough. But apparently I'm a big crybaby anyway.

While I can't guarantee that you'll be as moved as I was - probably a good thing, considering that this is not actually a book that's aiming to play on readers' emotions - I can unreservedly say that Brooklyn! An Illustrated History is a must-read for anyone looking for a good overview of the important parts of Brooklyn's history and development. It also has a very thorough bibliography at the end, offering lots of further avenues for research for those who are looking for a more in-depth examination of any particular topic.

*The earlier Indian inhabitants are treated with an unfortunately cursory description.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you choose to make a purchase from Amazon after clicking one of these links, I will receive a small portion of your purchase price as a commission. I personally make a point of starting my Amazon shopping through the affiliate links of bloggers and friends whenever possible, so that large corporations are not the only beneficiaries of my purchases, and encourage others to do the same, regardless of whether they use my affiliate links or another blogger's.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Update: Graduation Day

Over a year ago, I published a post titled (Almost) Wordless Wednesday: Graduation Day, which featured a graduation day photograph of my grandfather, William J. O'Hara, and my musings about which graduation day it had been. Family opinion was divided as to whether he looked like he could be 13 (grade school graduation, from St. Savior's School), 18 (high school graduation, from Regis High School), 22 (college graduation, from Fordham University), or 26 (grad school graduation, from NYU). Obviously, that's a really big range, and the middle range, Regis or Fordham, seemed to be the most likely candidates.

Take a look at the fellow in the cap and gown and let me know how old you think he is. (Answer below.)

William J. O'Hara (L) and Henry Gorra

A few weeks ago, as I was preparing to publish a small booklet about my grandfather through Lulu, I found myself at my parents' house, browsing his old yearbooks. I hadn't meant to take them out - the thought of using his school pictures as illustrations hadn't occurred to me - but I went into the bookcase looking for something else, and walked away with yearbooks in hand instead.

I went through the Regis yearbook first, and this picture wasn't even in the back of my mind - until I saw what appeared to be a graduation day photograph, rows of boys seated upon a stage, all wearing jackets and ties, but not in caps and gowns. If I was right about that being graduation, then Regis would be ruled out, because the students didn't graduate in caps and gowns. The caption, which I don't recall exactly at the moment, was just explicit enough to make it clear that this was the graduating class (Class of 1948), but not quite specific enough to state whether or not they were actually graduating that day.

Next, I started going through the Fordham yearbook, now with this graduation picture very much on my mind. I got pretty far into the book without coming across anything that looked like a graduation picture, but then I saw something better. There was a shot of some other people standing outside of a building that looked like it very well might be the building behind my grandfather in our mystery picture, and it was identified as Reidy Hall. I went right to Google, and searched on the name of the building, which led me to Fordham University Library's digital collection, where a few further searches, and a few new images, left me with no doubt that Pop had been on the Fordham University campus when he was photographed, in his cap and gown, with his childhood friend Henry Gorra.

Blessing of Reidy Hall. Father at entrance, blessing plaque
October 10, 1947
With permission of Fordham University Archives and Special Collections

It's clear that this building has the same siding, same doors, same plaque.

Reidy Hall, according to the Fordham University website, was "a war barracks structure . . . named Reidy Hall in memory of Daniel Reidy, Class of 1935, who died in the assault on the Anzio beachhead in southern Italy."* I had tried to decipher what I could see of the plaque in the original picture of my grandfather, but it didn't tell me much. In this new picture, from Fordham, you can see that the entire plaque reads

Had I been able to read the entire plaque in the original photograph, of course, it would have shortened my search significantly.

So how old was he? If Pop was graduating from Fordham, then the photograph dates to June 1952, making him 21.5 years old. I'm eating a bit a crow, since I was on the side of "he looks too young to be graduating from college!" when we initially tried to figure out how to date the photograph last year.

*Howe, Bob, ed. "The College of Business Administration: 90 Years of History." Inside Fordham Online. N.p., 04 Oct 2010. Web. 4 Jan 2013. .

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Accentuate the Positives Geneameme - 2012 in Review

I didn't have time to do a year in review/resolutions post as 2012 waned and 2013 dawned, so I'm going to take advantage of Geniaus's most recent Geneameme and Accentuate the Positive:

Remember to accentuate the positive - please delete the statements that are not relevant to your situation.

1.  [Some] elusive ancestor[s] I found [were] the Italians (I found a bunch, but they weren't particularly elusive, just on a line I hadn't explored before.)

2.  A precious family photo I found was not a photo of my family at all. I found a photo of other people that identified the location of this photo of my grandfather, and thus what school he was graduating from. I'm planning a post on it, so I won't say more now.

4.  An important vital record I found was Julia Mulvaney's death certificate. I didn't think it would be important, but boy was it!

6.  A geneasurprise I received was finding out that my great-grandmother, known to all as Molly throughout her life, was actually named Anna.

8.   My 2012 blog post that received a large number of hits or comments was On serendipity, and obstinately ignoring conflicting evidence - the above-mentioned post about my Grandma Molly. My actual post with the most hits was this one, for the 118th Carnival of Genealogy, but the CoG probably led to inflated numbers, so I won't count that.

10. A social media tool I enjoyed using for genealogy was Google+, not for research, but for connecting with and interacting with other genealogists.

11. A genealogy conference/seminar/webinar from which I learnt something new was The Genealogy Event.

15. A genealogy book that taught me something new was Brooklyn! An Illustrated History by Ellen Snyder-Grenier. (I'm reading it now, but I started it in 2012. That counts, right?) I recommend it highly for anyone with roots in Brooklyn at any point during its history.

16. A great repository/archive/library I visited was the Brooklyn Historical Society. I seriously need to get back there!

17. A new genealogy/history book I enjoyed was Hey America! Your Roots are Showing! by Megan Smolenyak, which I read on vacation soon after it came out. Very entertaining, but also a bit excruciating to read on the beach with no internet access, because it had me itching to renew my research exactly when I had no opportunity to do so!

19. A geneadventure I enjoyed was appearing on an episode of the Irish television show The Gathering, when my husband and I were interviewed about his ancestors, whose decades of correspondence can be found on our other blog, The Gleasure Letters.

20. Another positive I would like to share is that while posts on this blog have slowed to a trickle, that's mainly because I've been making a real effort for them each to be interesting, content-rich pieces, so I've been able to use my blogging to really help me organize my thoughts and my research and make connections I otherwise wouldn't have - and it's been pretty successful so far!