Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Print Dealer's World


Park Avenue Hotel, late nineteenth century

There he was at the reunion dinner of 1914, standing in a ballroom at the Park Avenue Hotel, rubbing shoulders with the other men who had dropped out of the City College class of 1880.

You could hardly blame him for shrugging off the degree. By 1914 Robert Fridenberg had risen to the top echelon of print dealers in New York City. A fixture at art auctions who routinely carried off prize engravings, he had one year earlier purchased The Burgis View, a 1717 mint condition print of the New York City skyline seen across the harbor from Brooklyn.

Triumphantly, Robert sold Burgis to an anonymous collector for the ungodly sum of $20,000, about eight times the price previously paid for any print of New York City. Within a few years the collector’s identity would be revealed, but for now Robert reveled in the speculation surrounding “the greatest find of a rare print in a century,” he told the New York Times.

 Partial screenshot of newspaper story about Burgis View

Robert had traveled a ways since 1880 when he abandoned formal education. Living on West Fifty-Second Street with his widowed mother and seven younger brothers and sisters, he had decided to get out of New York. His older brother Albert, a physician and head of the household, may have tried to persuade him not to move out west. Robert went anyway.

He shows up in Arizona Territory in 1882, one year after the Southern Pacific Transportation Company linked Tucson to a transcontinental railroad. His trade is not listed in the Graham County census. Perhaps he is part of a wave of Jewish settlers who are populating Tucson and Tombstone. Perhaps he has decided to become a Mormon.

Neither was the case. Rather, Robert had joined several thousand men from all over the world, from China and Russia, England, Ireland, Mexico, and Germany, hoping to make a fortune in the territory’s Copper Mountain Mining District. The miners, largely under the age of 40, lived in shacks in Clifton, Pima, Oro and surrounding southeastern towns. 

 Copper Mountain, Arizona, nineteenth century

They labored at the top of a canyon whose high cliffs were cut by the switchback San Francisco River. The ore was loaded onto wagons pulled by mules or cable cars that maneuvered down steep inclines well over 1,000 feet long. Once at the river’s edge, the ore was transported to refineries via baby-gauge railway. 

R. Fridenburg (misspelled), 1882 census

Robert lasted a few years. Despite the vagaries of the copper market, he may have returned to New York City with a pile of money. He certainly returned to a new profession.

By 1886 Robert was the proprietor of a small art shop on Forty-Second Street where – unlike most dealers who specialized in works by European artists such as Daumier – he sold engravings of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Soon he moved on to Currier & Ives prints, purchasing them for $1 and selling them for $2. 

Robert may have anticipated that wealthy collectors would eventually find American art and furnishings worthy of display in their homes. The trend began during the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia. By 1890, there were historic preservation societies, a steady stream of patriotic commemorations, and fierce competition for Americana.


Robert’s parents, Henry and Bertha Fridenberg, were German Jewish immigrants who arrived in New York City during the 1850s when Nathaniel Currier and James Ives first set forth to capture old New York.

He was born on leap day, 1860, and grew up on the Lower East Side where his father worked first as a pawnbroker and then as manager of a public bath. Robert once recalled fishing in the swamps along the banks of the East River.

In 1890 he married Miriam Heynman Barnett of Philadelphia and they became parents of Robert Jr. and Paul. Mysteriously, both sons changed their surnames to “Perez” when the US entered World War I. Perez is a common name among Sephardic Jews. Robert Perez became a physician and Paul Perez started as a newspaper reporter and became a screenwriter of English and Spanish language films.

By the time Robert Fridenberg died in 1946, his hair was completely white and he sported a big white mustache and gold rimmed spectacles. He claimed to possess two million prints and engravings that filled three floors and the basement of 22 West Fifty-Sixth Street.

22 West Fifty-Sixth, left storefront, 1940
(City of New York Municipal Archives)

I don’t want to believe that Robert valued the prints exclusively for the profit, notwithstanding his evident delight with the newspaper coverage of each winning bid.

Surely he possessed a genuine affinity with the images of early American life and the landscapes and streetscapes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New York. Did he wish he could have steered that cart full of crates and barrels down that Broadway? Mailed a letter at that post office? Escorted that woman into the Crystal Palace?

No print in the world can reveal that information.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Gotta Get to the Fair


Manhattan, Blizzard of 1888
(Library of Congress)

There was a young man named James Buchanan, born in the year 1888 when a monumental March blizzard dumped as much as 55 inches of snow up and down the East Coast. More than 400 deaths were reported.     

The storm would be a turning point for cities, in particular. Telegraph, telephone, and electrical wires collapsed under ice, snow, and heavy winds. Cable cars, not to mention carriages pulled by horses, were stopped in their tracks. Everything ground to a halt.

Clearly, the utilities and transportation that enabled urban society to prosper would have to be modernized, and no better time than the late nineteenth century. 

American ingenuity had been brilliantly showcased in 1876 at the Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia: the typewriter, sewing machine, mechanical calculator, and Corliss steam engine. During the coming decades, as the pace of daily life accelerated, a steady stream of new devices would promote convenience and efficiency.

The need for innovation was not restricted to industry. A demand for information also drove invention, the natural outcome of America’s growing literacy rate and the proliferation of newspapers and magazines during the decades following the Civil War.  

Poole’s Index, the first major index to periodical literature, had made its debut in 1882. The idea of William Frederick Poole, chief librarian at the Newberry Library in Chicago, who hatched it while still a student at Yale, the index would become a project of the American Library Association. Poole and William I. Fletcher, librarian of Amherst College, produced six volumes, the last in 1908.

William Frederick Poole
(Newberry Library)

At that point, Poole’s Index morphed into the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature (published by the H.W. Wilson Company to this day). The books were large and heavy. Like Poole’s, they were used in libraries by the reading public.    

To better serve business, an Ohioan named Frank Burrelle established a clipping bureau in New York City in 1888. It is said that he came up with the idea after overhearing two businessmen -- possibly in a saloon -- discuss the need to collect news stories about their own companies.* The great success of Burrelle’s Press Clipping Bureau would have been impossible without Frank’s partner, his wife Nellie.     

Advertisement for Burrelle's, 1910
(Museum of Public Relations)

That brings us back to James Buchanan, who worked as an office boy at Burrelle’s for three weeks during the summer of 1904.

The son of Scottish immigrants, fifteen-year-old James lived in Brooklyn with his father, Robert, a boiler master, and his mother, Elizabeth. He was one of eleven siblings, evidently the only Buchanan child who dropped out of school and started running around town when he was ten years old.  Sometimes he would disappear for weeks, his mother told a newspaper reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

 “He has given us a good deal of trouble,” she said. “James is the only wild one.”

Mother of Young James Buchanan
Fears He’s a Criminal

What precipitated the publicity, in August 1904, is that James stole $65 from Burrelle’s. The manager of the bureau, an amateur historian named Charles Hemstreet, had asked James to go to the bank to change large bills to small bills.

James did not return. Instead, he headed west. He had been talking about the Louisiana Purchase Exposition – the St. Louis World’s Fair – since it opened in April, Mrs. Buchanan said. Hemstreet agreed that James had an “intense desire” to visit the Fair.

Who could blame him? I can see him rocking in his seat on the Ferris wheel, 265 feet in the air, leaning over the side to take in the Textiles, Electricity-Machinery, and Transportation Buildings, the Lagoon, the Crystal Palace Tower, Observatory and Wireless Telegraph Station, the Palace of the Arts . . .

 . . . and spending that $65 on cotton candy, ice cream cones, hotdogs, hamburgers – palatable new delights introduced at the fair!

Surely James had a great time in St. Louis. By September, when the fair closed, he had presumably wended his way back east, where he would settle down and marry and become, at various points, a clerk, a bookkeeper, and the assistant superintendent of a plumbing supply house.

There’s one odd aspect of James’s story: the discrepancy between his mother’s description of her son and that of Charles Hemstreet, who considered James to be a “model boy.” The New York Times reported:

The press-clipping bureau people thought the boy a jewel. He parted his hair daily, spoke in a soft voice, was never heard to use bad language, had a neatly folded, clean handkerchief every morning, and never shirked his work except to read a New Testament that he always carried with him.

On his second day at the clipping bureau he astonished manager Charles Hemstreet by asking to be allowed to attend his Bible class. The manager was so astonished that he complied. The boy even got the manager so interested that he tried to help him in his studies, but found the boy almost as proficient as he was.

So, which was it? Can the wild one also be a student of the Bible who parts his hair daily?


*Burrelle's was not the first clipping bureau; the service existed in Paris and London by 1880, and in Chicago and New York City by the mid-1880s.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Psychiatrist

Bookplate, Smith Ely Jelliffe

In 1942, a few years before Smith Ely Jelliffe died at his summer home at Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains, he started to think about selling his vast collection of books and journals. Twenty thousand, it was estimated – volumes not dollars.

Jelliffe had to part with the library because his savings were decimated in 1929 when the stock market crashed. But he intended to keep a few thousand of his most beloved books about psychiatry, histology, and pharmacology, not to mention Tolstoy and Shakespeare.

I imagine the collection precisely organized from floor to ceiling. Each June the doctor ships his favorites from the family’s West Side apartment to the country house. In the fall the books return to the city.    

An “alienist” who gained renown testifying at some of the famous murder trials of the day, Jelliffe played an important part in the emerging field of psychiatry during the first few decades of the twentieth century. Yet he never fully entered the pantheon with Freud, Jung, Adler, and others.

The psychiatrist, early nineteenth century
(NIH: U.S. National Library of Medicine)

Some historians theorize that the psychiatrist, twice married and father of five, fell out of fashion because his second wife, Belinda (“Bee” or “Lady Bee” if you knew her well), alienated his friends and colleagues. Indeed, she did cause a stir with a shocking autobiography, thinly disguised as a novel, in 1936. Bee had once been her husband’s patient and she spared no one. 


 When Jelliffe was born in Brooklyn in 1866, industry already clogged the waterfront and polluted the creeks. The Navy Yard had been around since 1801. Yet swaths of what was still its own city resembled an old Dutch landscape, with churches, shops, and houses scattered along dirt roads. There were ponds where boys jumped in and stole each other’s clothes.

The son of a public-school principal, Jelliffe never played hooky. In fact, he would zip through the syllabus and ask for more. While studying at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute he developed a particular interest in microorganisms and materia medica, remedies used in the practice of medicine.

After receiving an M.D. from Columbia University around 1890, Jelliffe traveled to Europe. For the rest of his life, he would refer reverentially to his Wanderjahr.

He walked everywhere he could, crisscrossing mountains and valleys. He visited the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Italy, France, and England. Along the way he attended conferences and met with scientists, expanding his knowledge of germ theory and microbiology.

A youngish Victorian, Jelliffe complained about the licentiousness of the Europeans. He was grateful to live in America “even with its Wanamakers and Anthony Comstocks,” he wrote to his fiancĂ©e Helena Leeming. The prudishness would disappear by the time he immersed himself in psychoanalysis; perhaps even sooner during his honeymoon. 

Traveling in Europe as a young man, Jelliffe developed
wide-ranging intellectual interests. 

Returning to the United States, Jelliffe married Helena, a belle of Park Slope who had studied botany at Barnard College. He took a job with the Brooklyn Board of Health where he analyzed drinking water and held teaching positions at the New York College of Pharmacy, Fordham University, and St. Mary’s Training School for Nurses.

Amid stunning advances in scientific and medical research, Jelliffe’s interest shifted to psychotherapy and psychosomatic illness. Now a visiting neurologist at City Hospital on Blackwell’s Island (Roosevelt Island), he treated criminals and the mentally ill – work that precipitated his role as an expert witness in the trial of Harry K. Thaw, husband of the sultry actress Evelyn Nesbit. Her affair with the architect Stanford White drove Thaw to murder the eminent New Yorker.    

Thaw did the deed in a jealous rage, firing three shots at White’s head and shoulder during a late-night show in an open-air theater perched on the roof of the original Madison Square Garden on Twenty-Sixth Street – designed by Stanford White.  

One of several psychiatrists who examined Thaw for the defense, Jelliffe coined the term “brainstorm” to describe Thaw’s mental state while planning and committing the murder. Jelliffe testified at two trials (the first ended in a mistrial). In 1908 Thaw was found innocent by reason of insanity and sentenced to imprisonment for life at a state asylum. Eventually he was freed.


Despite financial debt, Jelliffe seems to have been a happy man. He often traveled to Europe with Helena and found his work stimulating. A prolific writer, he dove into the world of medical publishing with his longtime collaborator William Alanson White. They co-founded a monograph series on mental illness in 1908 and the first American journal devoted to psychoanalysis, The Psychoanalytic Review, in 1913. Later Jelliffe and White wrote Diseases of the Nervous System (1915), a widely respected textbook used in neurology and psychiatry.

Helena died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1916, leaving Jelliffe with oversight of their five children, ages fourteen to 21. Within a year, however, he remarried to Belinda Dobson, a nurse 24 years his junior who had wended her way to New York City from a miserable childhood replete with suicide, murder, violence, and drunkenness in North Carolina and Oklahoma.*

Smith Ely Jelliffe and Belinda, passport photo, 1920s

With Belinda, Smith Ely Jelliffe continued to travel abroad and narrowed his focus to psychosomatic illness, a longtime interest that grew out of his work in neurology.

In Sketches in Psychosomatic Medicine (1939), Jelliffe invoked the Socratic principle, as related by Plato: “One looks to the cure of the ‘soul’ in order to cure the body.”

He died in September 1945, five years after his retirement.   


*Belinda would publish a stunning memoir, For Dear Life (1936) and has been the subject of some scholarship. She died in 1979.

April Sunrise