Emily Warren Roebling, the Woman Who Helped Build the Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By all accounts, Emily Roebling had an exceptional mind. Born Emily Warren on September 23, 1843, in Cold Spring, New York, she graduated with top honors from the Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington, D.C., where she excelled in science and algebra. But in the mid-19th century, a woman entering those fields was almost unheard of—the more acceptable path for her would have been settling into the standard life of raising children in the tiny Hudson Valley community where she was born. Thankfully for the sake of New York City's iconic skyline, Emily was anything but standard.

The Warren family had been part of the Cold Spring community for generations. Its most famous member was Emily's brother, who found a place in history books as General Gouverneur Warren, a prominent Civil War figure who also helped create some of the best maps of the land west of the Mississippi River for the Corps of Topographical Engineers.

It was while Emily was visiting her brother during the war that she met Washington Roebling. The son of John Roebling—an engineer responsible for a number of prominent suspension bridges in Niagara Falls, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh—Washington himself was a civil engineer serving underneath Gouverneur at the time. He and Emily soon began a feverish courtship that ended with their marriage in January 1865, less than a year after they first met, and just months before the war's end.

It was only a few years later that John Roebling took on the biggest job of his career: the creation of a suspension bridge that would unite Brooklyn and Manhattan. Originally called the New York and Brooklyn Bridge, the project would eventually just be known as the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the great engineering marvels of the late 19th century.

Washington and Emily were involved in the project from the start. In 1867, John Roebling sent the young couple to Europe so Washington could study the techniques used on some of the most notable bridges in France, England, and Germany, including the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England, and the Menai Suspension Bridge in Wales.

Most importantly, Washington was to study the caisson technique, which had originated in Europe decades earlier. These pressurized chambers were the future of bridge construction—built so that water could be kept out of them to provide a dry working environment, they gave engineers the ability to build underwater on sites that were once totally inaccessible.

Sadly, John Roebling's work on the Brooklyn Bridge would be short-lived: An injury sustained while scouting construction locations in 1869 proved fatal, leaving the project in Washington's hands. Luckily, the time spent in Europe had prepared him well.

As with any construction process, Washington knew he had to focus on the foundations—the caissons, which would become the base of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge towers. These took the form of mammoth, bottomless boxes of wood and iron that were piled with large granite blocks to sink them through the muddy ground toward bedrock. As the caissons slowly sunk to their destination, workers entered through a shaft at the top and excavated the riverbed until they hit stable ground. Each caisson was pumped full of compressed air to allow the workers to remove the mud and gravel, and when it settled into its final location, it was filled with concrete. The men who built the caissons worked around the clock in hideous conditions, with most of them earning around $2 a day.

In 1872, as construction on the bridge was well underway, tragedy again struck the Roebling family. Many of the men working in the highly pressurized caissons were becoming cripplingly ill, and even dying, due to an ailment that wasn't yet understood. It was known as "caisson disease," soon to be called "the bends," a potentially deadly reaction to changes in pressure. This was a time before the principles of decompression were fully fleshed out, and Washington's penchant for appearing deep underground with his workers—sometimes staying inside for longer than a typical shift—led him to come down with the affliction. It eventually induced cramps, hindered his eyesight, and threw off his equilibrium, leaving him in near-constant pain. Though he would live for another 50 years, he would never recover (although the extent to which the bends were to blame for all of his troubles is debated).

Portrait of Washington Roebling
Washington Roebling
Théobald Chartran, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Washington stayed on the project, but during the rest of the construction he observed progress through a telescope from his bedroom window on Brooklyn's Columbia Street. To communicate orders to his assistant engineers, Emily would write down detailed notes from her husband and give them to the various departments. She was his eyes and ears at the site, while doubling as nurse and confidant.

Soon enough, there were rumblings that Emily was doing much more than simply parroting information given by her husband. She was gaining a keen understanding of the engineering of the bridge and was able to speak to Roebling's assistant engineers on their level. As historian David McCullough says in his book The Great Bridge, "In truth she had by then a thorough grasp of the engineering involved. She had a quick and retentive mind, a natural gift for mathematics, and she had been a diligent student during the long years he had been incapacitated."

McCullough stresses that Emily never took over for Washington as the bridge's chief engineer, but the rumors at the time said otherwise [PDF]. A New York Times article published in 1883 quoted a source close to the family as saying, "Since her husband's unfortunate illness, Mrs. Roebling has filled his position as chief in engineering staff."

While the news about a woman at the helm of one of the most significant construction projects in New York history must have sold newspapers, according to McCullough, it also led to whisperings about the mental condition of her husband. Washington's illness was still a mystery to most, and it led to speculation he'd given Emily a larger role in the construction only because he was losing his mind. But while people on the outside were worrying, those closest to the project knew Emily's worth was immeasurable, despite not having the formal education of her husband or father-in-law. She was even becoming an "idolized figure" among assistant engineers, McCullough writes.

Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge
Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge
George Bradford Brainerd, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Histories of the Brooklyn Bridge are filled with anecdotes highlighting the importance of Emily during this time. One of the most well-known took place when representatives of a steel mill appeared on the Roeblings' doorstep to ask Washington a question about how a part of the superstructure should be formed. Only they didn't get to see Washington; instead, Emily invited them inside and sketched out the specs herself. Her quick decision-making had, according to the Times, "cleared away difficulties that had for weeks been puzzling their brains."

But Emily's job stretched far beyond her burgeoning engineering know-how. She was heavily involved in the politics of the bridge, at one point successfully lobbying for her husband when the bridge company was to vote on his ouster due to absence. And when rumors emerged that one contractor was trying to renegotiate their contract, the company sent a letter of reassurance addressed to Emily Roebling, not Washington.

For all her work on the bridge, Emily was still a doting wife, and stayed vigilant about protecting her husband's health and privacy. She made sure that visitors were rare, including Washington's own assistant engineers, and that no interviews were conducted from the bed where he was so vulnerable.

After 14 years of construction, the Brooklyn Bridge was nearly ready for its unveiling in May 1883. A week and a half before the official opening, the engineers wanted to test the new structure with an inaugural carriage ride. Everyone agreed the first rider to cross the bridge should be Emily—and she did so with a rooster on her lap, a symbol of victory, as the workers and other onlookers removed their hats and cheered her on.

At the official unveiling ceremonies on May 24, hundreds of thousands of people rushed over to celebrate the completion of the bridge that would forever alter Manhattan and Brooklyn, two separate cities on the path to becoming one. President Chester A. Arthur was among the guests, as was the governor of New York (and future president) Grover Cleveland. There was music and fireworks so dazzling they could be seen in New Jersey. Though Emily stayed for a few of the speeches, she enjoyed much of the opening day at the home her husband had been confined to for years.

It's possible that Washington Roebling never stepped foot on the bridge that he dedicated his life to. It was the bridge that killed his father and left him in constant pain, but that also helped Emily Roebling contribute to a world of engineering otherwise inaccessible to her. Today, her contributions are far from forgotten, and, along with her husband and father-in-law, she is immortalized on a plaque on the Brooklyn-side tower, which reads:

THE BUILDERS OF THE BRIDGE
DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF
EMILY WARREN ROEBLING
1843 - 1903
WHOSE FAITH AND COURAGE HELPED HER STRICKEN HUSBAND
COL. WASHINGTON A. ROEBLING, C.E.
1837 - 1926
COMPLETE THE CONSTRUCTION OF THIS BRIDGE
FROM THE PLANS OF HIS FATHER
JOHN A. ROEBLING, C.E.
1805 - 1869
WHO GAVE HIS LIFE TO THE BRIDGE

“BACK OF EVERY GREAT WORK WE CAN FIND
THE SELF-SACRIFICING DEVOTION OF A WOMAN"

Eliza Leslie: The Most Influential Cookbook Writer of the 19th Century

American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
Wikimedia // Public Domain

If it wasn't for Eliza Leslie, American recipes might look very different. Leslie wrote the most popular cookbook of the 19th century, published a recipe widely credited as being the first for chocolate cake in the United States, and authored fiction for both adults and children. Her nine cookbooks—as well as her domestic management and etiquette guides—made a significant mark in American history and society, despite the fact that she never ran a kitchen of her own.

Early Dreams

Born in Philadelphia on November 15, 1787, to Robert and Lydia Leslie, Eliza was an intelligent child and a voracious reader. Her dream of becoming a writer was nurtured by her father, a prosperous watchmaker, inventor, and intellectual who was friends with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. She once wrote that "the dream of my childhood [was] one day seeing my name in print."

Sadly, her father’s business failed around the turn of the 19th century and he died in 1803. The family took in boarders to make ends meet, and as the oldest of five, Leslie helped her mother in the kitchen. To gain culinary experience, she attended Mrs. Goodfellow’s Cooking School in Philadelphia, the first school of its kind in the United States. Urged by her brother Thomas—and after fielding numerous requests for recipes from friends and family—she compiled her first book, Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, in 1828. Notably, the book included the term cup cake, referring to Leslie's employment of a teacup as a measuring tool ("two large tea-cups full of molasses")—possibly the first-ever mention of a cup cake in print.

Seventy-Five Receipts was a hit, and was reprinted numerous times. Encouraged by this success—and by her publisher, Munroe & Francis—Leslie moved on to her true desire: writing fiction. She penned short stories and storybooks for young readers as well as adult fiction and won several awards for her efforts. One of her prize-winning short stories, the humorous "Mrs. Washington Potts," appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the popular 19th century magazine for which she also served as assistant editor. Leslie also contributed to Graham’s Magazine, the Saturday Gazette, and The Saturday Evening Post. At least one critic called her tales "perfect daguerreotypes of real life."

As much as Leslie loved writing fiction, however, it didn't always pay the bills. She wrote a second cookbook, Domestic French Cookery, in 1832, and achieved the pinnacle of her success in 1837 with Directions for Cookery. That work became the most beloved cookbook of the 1800s; it sold at least 150,000 copies and was republished 60 times by 1870. She offered pointers on procuring the best ingredients ("catfish that have been caught near the middle of the river are much nicer than those that are taken near the shore where they have access to impure food") and infused the book with wit. In a section discouraging the use of cold meat in soups, she wrote, "It is not true that French cooks have the art of producing excellent soups from cold scraps. There is much bad soup to be found in France, at inferior houses; but good French cooks are not, as is generally supposed, really in the practice of concocting any dishes out of the refuse of the table."

In The Taste of America, noted modern food historians John and Karen Hess called Directions for Cookery “one of the two best American cookbooks ever written," citing the book's precise directions, engaging tips, straightforward commentary, and diverse recipes—such as catfish soup and election cake—as the keys to its excellence.

Leslie is also credited with publishing America’s first printed recipe for chocolate cake, in her 1846 Lady’s Receipt Book. While chocolate had been used in baking in Europe as far back as the 1600s, Leslie’s recipe was probably obtained from a professional chef or pastry cook in Philadelphia. The recipe, which featured grated chocolate and a whole grated nutmeg, is quite different from most of today's chocolate cakes, with its strong overtones of spice and earthy, rather than sweet, flavors. (You can find the full recipe below.)

Later in life, while continuing to write cookbooks, Leslie edited The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present, which included early publications by Edgar Allan Poe. She also edited her own magazine of literature and fashion, Miss Leslie’s Magazine. She wrote only one novel, 1848's Amelia; Or a Young Lady’s Vicissitudes, but once said that if she was to start her literary career over, she would have only written novels.

A Uniquely American Voice

Historians have argued that Leslie was successful because she crafted recipes to appeal to the young country’s desire for upward mobility as well as a uniquely American identity. At the time she began writing, women primarily used British cookbooks; Leslie appealed to them with a distinctly American work. (She noted in the preface to Seventy-Five Receipts, "There is frequently much difficulty in following directions in English and French Cookery Books, not only from their want of explicitness, but from the difference in the fuel, fire-places, and cooking utensils. ... The receipts in this little book are, in every sense of the word, American.")

Leslie included regional American dishes in her books, promoted the use of quality ingredients, and was the first to (sometimes) organize recipes by including ingredients at the beginning of each recipe instead of using a narrative form, setting the tone for modern recipe writing. Her books were considered a treasure trove of knowledge for young pioneer women who, frequently separated from their families for the first time, often relied on Leslie's works for guidance.

Unmarried herself, Leslie never managed her own kitchen, and often had others testing recipes for her. She maintained strong ties with her erudite, sophisticated family, and lived for a time with her brother Thomas while he was attending West Point. Another brother, Charles Leslie, was a well-regarded painter in England; her sister Anna was also an artist, and sister Patty was married to a publisher who produced some of Leslie’s work. As she got older, Leslie lived for years in the United States Hotel in Philadelphia, where she was something of a celebrity for her wit and strong opinions.

Leslie died on January 1, 1858. Many of her recipes are still used today, but it's likely she’d be most pleased to know that many of her short stories are available online. Modern readers can appreciate the totality of her work: the fiction writing that was her passion, though for which she was lesser known, and her culinary writing, which guided generations.

Eliza Leslie's Recipe for Chocolate Cake

From The Lady's Receipt Book:

CHOCOLATE CAKE.—Scrape down three ounces of the best and purest chocolate, or prepared cocoa. Cut up, into a deep pan, three-quarters of a pound of fresh butter; add to it a pound of powdered loaf-sugar; and stir the butter and sugar together till very light and white. Have ready 14 ounces (two ounces less than a pound) of sifted flour; a powdered nutmeg; and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon—mixed together. Beat the whites of ten eggs till they stand alone; then the yolks till they are very thick and smooth. Then mix the yolks and whites gradually together, beating very hard when they are all mixed. Add the eggs, by degrees, to the beaten butter and sugar, in turn with the flour and the scraped chocolate,—a little at a time of each; also the spice. Stir the whole very hard. Put the mixture into a buttered tin pan with straight sides, and bake it at least four hours. If nothing is to be baked afterwards, let it remain in till the oven becomes cool. When cold, ice it.

Lincoln Perry, the First African-American Movie Star

Lincoln Perry (stage name Stepin Fetchit) circa 1927
Lincoln Perry (stage name Stepin Fetchit) circa 1927
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before the likes of Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington, successful African-American actors were hard to find in Hollywood. Lincoln Perry (1902-1985) is often credited as the world’s first African-American movie star. Using the stage name Stepin Fetchit, he is also said to be the first black actor to become a millionaire.

Born in Key West, Florida, Perry had a Jamaican father and Bahamian mother. His father, Joseph Perry, was a cigar wrapper and cook who sometimes sang and danced in minstrel shows. His mother, a devout Catholic, worked as a seamstress for a dentist’s family. As a young teenager, Perry sang and tap-danced as a tent-show performer, traveling around the U.S. with carnivals and medicine shows. In his twenties, Perry performed in black vaudeville shows as one-half of a duo called “Step and Fetch It” (although he also claimed to have taken the name "Stepin Fetchit” from a racehorse). After he came to Los Angeles in the 1920s, a talent scout for Fox Studios offered him a screen test, which proved successful.

During his career, Perry appeared in more than 40 movies, such as 1929’s Hearts In Dixie, 1930’s A Tough Winter, and 1934’s Judge Priest. In one of his early roles, 1927’s silent film In Old Kentucky, Perry won audiences over by providing comic relief. He got a contract with Fox to appear in the studio’s films as a featured player. Credited as Stepin Fetchit, Perry pretended to be “The Laziest Man On Earth” (or sometimes “The Laziest Man In The World”) to make audiences laugh, and he played a similar character in multiple films.

Perry’s peak of fame and fortune was in the 1930s, when he became a millionaire. Newspapers, magazines, and tabloids featured articles on Perry and his extravagant lifestyle. He reportedly owned a dozen cars (including a pink Cadillac with his name in neon lights), wore expensive cashmere suits, and had 16 servants and chauffeurs. He also attended Hollywood parties with celebrities such as Will Rogers, John Wayne, Mae West, Shirley Temple and, later, Muhammad Ali.

Beginning in the 1930s, though, Americans (black and white) and civil rights leaders harshly condemned Perry’s portrayals. Because he frequently played lazy, illiterate characters—often an aloof, slow, confused man with drooping eyes and rambling, incoherent speech—Perry was called out for promoting racist stereotypes. Criticized as a buffoon, an embarrassment, and a degrading caricature, Perry’s characters were seen as perpetuating the contemporary racist ideas of black people as lazy, dumb, and unsophisticated.

At the time, the NAACP was working to get film studios to give equal pay and billing to black and white actors, and to stop portraying black people negatively. Perry tried to get equal pay and billing from Fox, but failed, and quit Hollywood by 1940. In 1947, he was bankrupt. His acting work was sporadic in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. He died in 1985 in Los Angeles, at a hospital for members of the motion picture and television industry.

Although black historians and critics have often viewed Perry’s contributions to cinema negatively, some of them take a more nuanced view. Jimmie Walker, a black comedian, said that he doesn’t think Stephin Fetchit is all bad. According to Walker, Perry created a funny character that actually functions as a subversive trickster. In films, Perry’s character would often outsmart white characters by pretending to be incompetent so that the white people would get impatient and end up doing the work themselves. Black film critic Mel Watkins has said that African-Americans understood that Perry’s character had its origins in slaves resisting work, and found the humor in it.

Because Perry was billed as Stepin Fetchit rather than as Lincoln Perry, audiences had a difficult time separating the actor from his character. In a 1968 interview, Fetchit said, “Just because Charlie Chaplin played a tramp doesn't make tramps out of all Englishmen, and because Dean Martin drinks, that doesn't make drunks out of all Italians … I was only playing a character, and that character did a lot of good.” Far from being lazy or stupid himself, Perry wrote regular columns for The Chicago Defender newspaper to share his experience in Hollywood.

In 1976, Perry got a Special NAACP Image Award for his accomplishments, and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame under the name Stepin Fetchit. Despite disagreements about Perry’s legacy, many agree that he opened a door for black actors in Hollywood.

This article first ran in 2017.

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