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NYPL // Public Domain
NYPL // Public Domain

11 Highlights From the New York Public Library’s New Public Domain Collections

NYPL // Public Domain
NYPL // Public Domain

Today, the New York Public Library released more than 180,000 images in the library’s collection, making high-resolution scans available to the public for free. The digitized collections now available in high resolution include papers from James Madison and Walt Whitman, photographs from New Deal artist programs, city plans for Washington D.C., scans of The Green Book (a guidebook to African-American-friendly establishments published until the 1960s), and manuscripts of the Japanese classic The Tale of Genji

In addition to plenty of historic photographs and documents relating to New York City and the United States at large, the collection contains an exhaustive amount of broader historical resources, such as images of the Russian Imperial family and the German Reich. Here are 11 of the hidden treasures: 

1. HENRY DAVID THOREAU’S 1846 PENCILED MAP OF WALDEN POND: 

Henry David Thoreau via NYPL // Public Domain

Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau moved into the house he built near Walden Pond in 1945. This is one of his hand-drawn maps of the area.

2. DEPRESSION-ERA PHOTOS FROM ARTISTS LIKE WALKER EVANS AND DOROTHEA LANGE:

Image Credit: Dorothea Lange via NYPL // Public Domain

Dorothea Lange’s Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California, one of the images created for the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration, became an iconic image of the Great Depression. 

3. LEWIS HINE’S PHOTOGRAPHY OF TENEMENT LIVING IN THE EARLY 1900s: 

Living rooms of a tenement family near Hull House, Chicago, 1910.” Image Credit: Lewis Wickes Hine via NYPL // Public Domain

Hine photographed tenement conditions on the Lower East Side in New York and near Hull House in Chicago. The NYPL collection also contains his photographs from Ellis Island. 

4. STEREOSCOPIC IMAGES OF THE KLONDIKE GOLD RUSH:

“Women prospectors on their way to Klondyke [Klondike].” Image Credit: B.W. Kilburn via NYPL // Public Domain

Starting in 1896, thousands of people flocked to the Yukon to try to strike gold. Not all of them were the male prospectors we often imagine, as this 1898 image shows. 

5. MAPS OF THE EARLY UNITED STATES:

“Map of the Indian Territory, Northern Texas and New Mexico.”Image Credit: Sidney E. Morse via NYPL // Public Domain 

The digital collections include a large selection of historic atlases and maps dating back as far as the 1500s. This one shows Indian territories around the Rocky Mountains, as well as the boundaries of Texas and New Mexico, as they stood in 1842. 

6. AN ENDLESS ARRAY OF CIGARETTE CARDS:

Image Credit: NYPL // Public Domain

In the mid-19th century, tobacco companies included illustrated collector’s cards with their products that depicted everything from Aesop’s fables to contemporary starlets. The one above features Lynn Gilbert, a film star considered one of “Today’s Beauties” by the Abdulla & Co. tobacco company. 

7. NAZI PROPAGANDA PHOTOS FROM WWII: 

Besides the people's gas mask, there are also gas defenses created for German children.” Image Credit: Heinrich Hoffman via NYPL // Public Domain

Propaganda photos from the studio of Adolf Hitler’s personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, were collected in four separate albums, one published each year from 1939 through 1942. The library found an incomplete set of these images in their archives a few years ago, and sorted, translated, and captioned them. This photograph depicts how children can be protected from poisonous gases aside from traditional masks. 

8. PORTRAITS OF EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY

Image Credit: NYPL // Public Domain

The library has several photos of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Here she is with her husband, Eugen Jan Boissevain, in the 1920s. 

9. CIVIL WAR PHOTOGRAPHS:

Rebel works in front of Atlanta, Ga. No. 2.” Image Credit: George N. Barnard via NYPL // Public Domain

This image of Civil War Atlanta comes from an 1866 book of the images of official military photographer George Barnard. He photographed General William Tecumseh Sherman’s campaigns in the South, including the infamous March to the Sea and destructive passage through the Carolinas. 

10. A FIRST DRAFT OF UNCLE TOM’S CABIN

Image Credit: Harriet Beecher Stowe via NYPL // Public Domain

The library holds part of a handwritten first draft of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel. This page is from the first chapter. 

11. 19TH CENTURY MEDICAL PHOTOS

Attitudes obtenues dans la catalepsie sous l'influence de diverses excitations.” Image Credit: Albert Londe via NYPL // Public Domain

This image from 1893, part of the library's collection of historic medical images, shows “attitudes obtained in catalepsy [a nervous condition] under the influence of various stimuli,” such as different chemicals like chloroform or camphor. 

Explore all the collections from the New York Public Library for yourself here. For archive lovers with an artistic inclination, NYPL Labs is launching a paid residency program for artists and designers interested in creating new works using the public domain collection and the NYPL's other digital materials. 

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Can You Decipher the Playful 1817 Letter Jane Austen Sent to Her Niece in Code?
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Jane Austen—homebrewer, musician, and, oh, one of the most famous novelists in the English language—didn’t limit her prose to the fictional world. She was a prolific correspondent, sending missives to friends and relatives (and occasionally soliciting feedback on her work). Some of these were quite playful, as a letter highlighted recently on the Two Nerdy History Girls blog shows.

Austen’s 1817 letter to her young niece, Cassandra Esten Austen, is a bit hard to read even if you are an expert in 19th century handwriting styles. That’s because all the words are spelled backwards. Instead of signing off with “Good bye my dear Cassy,” for instance, Austen wrote “Doog eyb ym raed Yssac.” The letter served as both a New Year’s greeting and a puzzle for the 8-year-old to solve.

A close-up of a handwritten letter with words written backwards
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

The letter is currently on view at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City as part of the museum’s "Treasures From the Vault" exhibition, having been donated to the institution in 1975 by a Jane Austen collector and Morgan Library regular named Alberta Burke.

While any of Austen’s communications would be of interest to fans and literary scholars, this one is particularly unique as a historical object. In it, Austen wishes Cassandra a happy new year and writes about a visit she received from six of Cassandra’s cousins the day before, telling her about the cake they ate, feeding robins, Frank’s Latin studies, and Sally’s new green dress.

A handwritten letter from Jane Austen
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

“Those simple details give a sense of the texture of Austen’s everyday life—and that she thinks to communicate them to her young niece makes clear that ‘Aunt Jane’ knew just the kinds of tidbits a child of that age would relish,” Christine Nelson, the Morgan’s literary and historic manuscripts curator, tells Mental Floss.

Austen would die just six months later, making it a valuable look at the end of her life. As far as we know, no other backwards-written letters like the one sent to Cassandra have survived in Austen’s archives, according to Nelson, but she says she wouldn’t be surprised if the famous author wrote more. “Given her love of riddles and linguistic games (which comes through, of course, in her novels), I have to believe that other family members were the recipients of similarly playful epistolary gifts,” Nelson says.

If you make it to New York City, you can go decode the letter yourself in person. It will be on display at the Morgan Library until March 11, 2018.

[h/t Two Nerdy History Girls]

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This 1940 Film on Road Maps Will Make You Appreciate Map Apps Like Never Before
Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images
Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images

In the modern era, we take for granted having constantly updated, largely accurate maps of just about every road in the world at our fingertips. If you need to find your way through a city or across a country, Google Maps has your back. You no longer have to go out and buy a paper map.

But to appreciate just what a monstrous task making road maps and keeping them updated was in decades past, take a look at this vintage short film, "Caught Mapping," spotted at the Internet Archive by National Geographic.

The 1940 film, produced by the educational and promotional company Jam Handy Organization (which created films for corporations like Chevrolet), spotlights the difficult task of producing and revising maps to keep up with new road construction and repair.

The film is a major booster of the mapmaking industry, and those involved in it come off as near-miracle workers. The process of updating maps involved sending scouts out into the field to drive along every road and note conditions, compare the roads against topographical maps, and confirm mileage figures. Then, those scouts reported back to the draughtsmen responsible for producing revised maps every two weeks. The draughtsmen updated the data on road closures and other changes.

Once those maps were printed, they were "ready to give folks a good steer," as the film's narrator puts it, quietly determining the success of any road trip in the country.

"Presto! and right at their fingertips, modern motorists can have [information] on any road they wish to take." A modern marvel, really.

[h/t National Geographic]

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