Saturday, February 6, 2016

1860: Married Women as Wage Slaves

            As the national debate over the extension of chattel slavery into the territories heated up in February and March of 1860, women’s rights advocates were storming the capitol in Albany demanding an end to what they felt was another form of slavery—wage slavery for married women.

            Under the law in effect until March 20, 1860 in New York State, married women did not have legal control over any money they earned working for themselves or others. All of it belonged to their husbands! As Lucy Stone explained it to the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1853, “unless by cunning she can keep her earnings away from him, he can and does take them to pay the drunkard’s bill, and to squander upon abandoned women.” According to women’s rights supporters, there were tens of thousands of these kinds of ne’er-do-well husbands, most of whom were cigar-smoking drunkards and/or womanizers, who paid their bills with money they took from their wives’ bank accounts without their permission.
            On the law reform campaign trail, Lucy Stone often told the story of an “energetic woman” she knew who ran “a successful millinery establishment.” Her husband seduced their neighbor’s daughter. The girl’s father sued the husband for personal injury damages and won a substantial award. The husband “went to the bank and drew the money that she [his wife], by her long toil had earned, and paid it for his lust!”

            The law governing the earnings of married women in New York State originated in English common law. According to the 1765 edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries, a treatise on the common law of England, “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law, that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband, under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything.” Women’s rights activists explained this legal state of affairs in simpler terms, “The husband and wife are one person in law and that person is the husband.”
            The common law gave husbands the right to control their wives’ earnings and property and wives were prohibited from holding property in their own names, filing a law suit, making a contract or a will.

            In response to demands by women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ernestine L. Rose and Paulina Wright Davis, the 1848 New York legislature modified common law by enacting legislation that enabled married women to receive and hold to their “sole and separate use” real and personal property. However, the legislature refused to grant women control over their earnings. As The New York Times said, wives had no protection from “worthless husbands.”
            For the next twelve years, women lobbied the legislature to grant wives the right to their wages. During the summer and fall of 1859, they redoubled their efforts. They organized petition drives in every county. Leading women’s rights activists including Frances D. Gage, Hannah Tracy Cutler, J. Elizabeth Jones, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Lucy N. Colman and Susan B. Anthony, gave speeches throughout the state. Conventions were held in 40 of the state’s 60 counties and one or more lectures were delivered in 150 towns and villages.
            All this hard work paid off during the 1860 session of the legislature. Andrew J. Colvin, a Democratic state senator representing Albany County, proposed a bill that enabled a married woman “to carry on any trade or business, and perform any labor or services on her sole and separate account” and declared that “the earnings of any married woman, from her trade, business, labor or services, shall be her sole and separate property, and may be used or invested by her in her own name.”

            The bill proposed by Colvin was based on a similar measure that had been introduced in the Massachusetts legislature and had been given to Colvin by Susan B. Anthony. The state senate adopted it on February 28, 1860. Assemblyman Anson Bingham, a Republican and Colvin’s law partner in Albany, shepherded the bill through the assembly, which passed it on March 20, 1860. Governor Edwin D. Morgan promptly signed it into law.
            Women’s rights supporters hailed the new law but the New York State Woman’s Rights Committee, which consisted of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lydia Mott, Ernestine L. Rose, Martha C. Wright and Susan B. Anthony, was not satisfied. In November, 1860, they demanded additional changes to the law that would give women “the ballot, trial by jury of our peers, and an equal right to the joint earnings of the marriage copartnership.”

            However, the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 curtailed their efforts and brought the momentum of the woman’s rights movement to a screeching halt.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Bicycle History: Velocipede Mania Sweeps New York State in 1869

            Signs of a serious statewide love affair between New Yorkers and two-wheel transportation broke out into the open 147 years ago this month when newspapers began to warn readers about an impending “fearful outbreak” of “velocipede mania.” According to the January 10, 1869 issue of the New York Times, the first sight of a velocipede created “wonder and amazement among all classes” which made them “anxious to mount the fiery steed.”

            The velocipede was an advance over the two-wheeled vehicle known as the “hobby horse” or “draisine” which had been patented in Germany in 1818. It was propelled by the rider’s feet, walking or running. The velocipede adapted the hobby horse by adding cranks and pedals to the front wheel. The new vehicles became known as bicycles or velocipedes by enthusiasts, and boneshakers by detractors. They were heavy, weighing about 60 pounds, and difficult to mount. To brake a velocipede, a rider had to back peddle and pull a cord near the handlebars that activated a spoon brake on the back wheel.
            On some models, there were curved leg rests projecting out over the front wheels that a rider going downhill could use to raise his or her feet from the rapidly spinning pedals. The frame was made of wrought iron and the wheels and spokes were wood. It had iron tires. The axle bushes were made of bronze and lubricated with whale oil. The front wheel usually was about 36 inches in diameter and the rear wheel about 20 inches.
            The major velocipede manufacturers in the state were located in New York City. They included the carriage maker Calvin Witty, and the firms of Pickering and Davis and G.H. Mercer and Monad. New velocipedes were priced from $100 (about $1,700 in today’s dollars) for a plain model. However, those with ivory handles and silver plating might cost $200.

            As interest in the velocipede mushroomed into a full-fledged mania, devotees organized velocipede riding academies and bicycle clubs. Sheet music for new songs such as “The Velocipede Galop,” and “The New Velocipede,” appeared in music stores.
            Indoor velocipede rinks opened throughout New York State from West Troy, Saratoga and Malone in the east, to Gowanda and Buffalo in the west. In several urban centers, entrepreneurs found new uses for old buildings to meet the growing demand for smooth, safe places to ride—a freight house in Albany and an art gallery in New York City were converted into velocipede rinks.
            In no time, human-interest articles about races between velocipedes and horses, streetcars, and pedestrians or walkists, began to appear in newspapers. Sports news soon included stories about racing competition between velocipedists. The Boston-New York sports rivalry intensified when Walter Brown of Boston rode 50 miles in less than 6 hours in the Boston Velocipede Rink in preparation for an upcoming race against one of the Hanlon brothers from New York City for a cash prize of $1,000 (about $17,000 in today’s money). Velocipede races were also held on the horseracing tracks at fair grounds such Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Washington and Franklin County Fairgrounds in Malone.
            At the height of the mania, public discussion about the use of velocipedes was typically light-hearted. In Malone, one user reported that after riding for a few hours, he felt as though “he had accidentally fallen into a threshing machine and had been carried up upon the thing-um-a-jig under the horse’s feet.” In New York City, readers learned that a rider increases the speed of the velocipede “by lively agitation of the driving wheel. The more revolutions you make, the faster you will go. That is why the Mexicans will be the greatest velocipedists on this continent. As the French have been in Europe.”

            On a more serious note, accidents involving velocipedes led to heated arguments about whether or not to ban them from public roads and sidewalks. Some newspapers described velocipedes as the “new terror of the streets.” In Troy, the press editorialized, “the streets are no place for the velocipede.”
            Toward the end of 1869, there were signs that velocipede mania was coming to an end. Only three velocipedists entered a race at the Albany fair grounds. Use of velocipede rinks in New York City had declined. In fact, some rinks had become “the resort of roughs who monopolize the floors.” Second-hand prices for velocipedes had sunk to an average of $22 (about $380 in today’s dollars).
            Within a few years, the velocipede gave way to the English high-wheel vehicle known as the “ordinary” or “penny-farthing.” Introduced at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, it had solid rubber tires on wire-spoked wheels. Its larger front wheel, as large as the rider’s leg would allow, meant it could cover more ground with each revolution. By the 1880’s, a new craze was underway and the boneshaker had become a faded memory.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving History: The Two Thanksgivings of 1871

            For about a week in 1871, New Yorkers were in a quandary about Thanksgiving. On October 25, New York Governor John T. Hoffman designated Thursday, November 23 as Thanksgiving Day for the state. In his Thanksgiving Day proclamation, the Tammany Hall Democrat urged New Yorkers to spend time on that day to declare “their gratitude to God for all his mercies” and to “remember especially the poor.”
            On October 28, President Ulysses S. Grant recommended that the nation observe Thanksgiving a week after the New York Thanksgiving, on Thursday November 30. In his proclamation, the Republican chief executive called for Americans to “make the usual acknowledgments to Almighty God for the blessings he has conferred on them” and ask “His protection and kindness for their less fortunate brethren.”

            What was a conscientious, holiday-minded New Yorker supposed to do? Observe the Democratic Thanksgiving on November 23, or the Republican Thanksgiving on November 30, or both?
            Neither Governor Hoffman nor President Grant had done anything wrong or unusual. They both were following customs established by their predecessors in office. In New York State, governors had been calling for the observance of a general statewide Thanksgiving on an annual basis continuously since Governor DeWitt Clinton issued his Thanksgiving proclamation in 1817. Previously, Federalist Governor John Jay had issued a proclamation recommending November 26, 1795, as a day of public thanksgiving but Jay’s recommendation quickly became a political football. Democratic-Republicans assailed Jay for using the civil government to influence religious institutions to declare a religious holiday. Others saw “the cloven foot of monarchy in this business.” Jay held office until 1801 but never issued another Thanksgiving Day proclamation to the Empire State.
            The days chosen for state Thanksgivings by Clinton and his immediate successors were all Thursdays but they ranged in date from as early as November 5 to as late as December 21.

            On the national level, there were no calls from the president for the observance of a general day of Thanksgiving on an annual basis until President Abraham Lincoln set the precedent on October 3, 1863 when he issued a proclamation inviting Americans “to observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
            Before 1863, Lincoln and other presidents had proclaimed nationwide thanksgiving observances but they had been called in response to specific events. For example, in 1789, President George Washington recommended that Americans observe a day of thanksgiving on November 26 in response to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. He recommended another thanksgiving be observed on February 19, 1795 following the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. In 1815, President Madison called for the observance of a day of thanksgiving on the second Thursday of April in response to the signing of the peace treaty ending the War of 1812.
            When Andrew Johnson became president, he followed the precedent established by Lincoln and also proclaimed annual national days of Thanksgiving. All of them were scheduled to be held on the last Thursday of November, except for Johnson’s first Thanksgiving which he set for December 7.
            In 1871, President Grant continued the custom set by Lincoln and Johnson. Unfortunately, Grant’s choice of November 30 for Thanksgiving Day came in conflict with Governor Hoffman’s choice in New York for a Thanksgiving to be observed on November 23.

            New Yorkers had two Thanksgivings to choose from until November 1 when Governor Hoffman revoked his proclamation naming November 23 and went along with Grant’s choice of November 30. Hoffman explained he had changed his mind because he wanted to encourage “peace and good will” and not “contention.” He added, “It becomes those in authority to set to the people the example.”

Friday, October 30, 2015

Blind Tom: The 19th Century Predecessor to Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder

            In June 1874, music lovers in the North Country were excited. For the second time in three years, Blind Tom, the world-renowned black pianist and entertainer and arguably the first black superstar to perform in the U.S., was coming to Malone. For years after the Civil War, he had been wowing audiences throughout the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, continental Europe, and South America with his one-man show, which was part vaudeville and part classical piano music.

            Tom had many talents including the ability to: play the piano, coronet, French horn and flute; sing and recite speeches of well-known politicians in Greek, Latin, German and French; mimic any music a member of the audience might offer for him to hear; and use his voice to make the sounds of locomotives, bagpipes, banjos and music boxes. While singing one song, he could play a second with his right hand, and a third with the left.

            During the serious part of the show, he often would play Liszt fantasies, Beethoven sonatas, and Bach fugues. Tom’s repertoire also included popular music of the day as well as his own musical compositions – he is reported to have written 100 of them. His most popular titles were: “The Rain Song,” “The Battle of Manassas,” and “The Sewing Song: Imitation of the Sewing Machine.” Contemporary reviewers often compared him to Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin.
            Thomas Greene “Blind Tom” Wiggins was born blind, possibly autistic, and a slave in Georgia on May 25, 1849. When he was four, his master’s family noticed his ability to mimic the sounds he heard and play back piano music performed by family members. They gave him piano lessons and by the age of six, Tom was composing his own music. When Tom turned eight, he made his debut as “Blind Tom” in a concert hall rented by his slave master in Columbus, Georgia. After receiving rave reviews following his performance at the University of Georgia later that year, his musical career soared. Often performing four shows a day, he became a megastar. He entertained enthusiastic audiences for the next 50 years including a performance at the White House for President James Buchanan in 1860. Tom died from a stroke in New Jersey on June 13, 1908 at the age of 59. He was buried in an unmarked grave at The Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn.

            Tom’s concert tours often took him to the major urban centers of New York State. In New York City, he performed at the Academy of Music, Irving Hall, Cooper Institute and Steinway Hall. In Brooklyn he played in the Brooklyn Athenaeum, and in Albany, he performed in Tweddle Hall. On June 14, 1874, Blind Tom, advertised as “the most wonderful living curiosity of the 19th century,” performed in Lawrence Hall in Malone. His advance notices billed him as “the great incomprehensible musical mystery of the 19th century.” They dramatically explained to readers that as if to make amends for his blindness, “a flood of light poured into his brain, and his mind became an opera of beauty written by the Hand of God in syllables of music, for the delight of the world.”
            Reviews following Tom’s show in Malone described him as “the great musical conundrum” and noted “the music just slips off his fingers in chunks.”
            Modern musicologists have revisited Tom’s performances and musical compositions. Their articles tend to look past the vaudevillian segments of his act which 19th century critics labeled “freakish” and “idiotic.” Instead, modern music writers praise Tom for being a serious composer and gifted concert pianist. A writer for The New York Times went so far to say that Tom is “the most celebrated black concert artist of the 19th century.”
            In 2000, John Davis, a New York pianist, released a CD of 14 of Tom’s compositions. Davis became so interested in Tom’s life, he located where Tom’s grave was on Pleasant Hill in The Evergreens Cemetery and arranged to have a tombstone placed on it. The inscription reads, “Renowned pianist and composer who performed in the White House before President James Buchanan.”