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Selections from 'A History of New York in 101 Objects' on view at the New-York Historical Society
Draft wheel (the only to survive New York City's Civil War Draft Riots), 1863. Wood, metal. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Frederic C. Wagner, 1865.6.
NEW YORK, NY.- Can one object define New York City? Can 101? New York Times urban affairs correspondent Sam Roberts has assembled a kaleidoscopic array of possibilities in a new exhibition based on his new book, A History of New York in 101 Objects (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Featuring 30 objects drawn from the New-York Historical Society’s collection, this exhibition highlights some of Roberts’s choices, winnowed from hundreds of possibilities, to constitute a unique history of New York. By turns provocative, iconic, and ironic, the selections share the criteria of having played a transformative role in the city’s history.

Visitors to the New-York Historical Society may be familiar with many of the institution’s more important holdings on view, without which no exhibition about the history of the city would be complete. Among them are the water keg with which Governor DeWitt Clinton marked the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825; the draft wheel used during the 1863 draft riots, the largest civil uprising in American history; the sterling silver Tiffany throttle that powered the inaugural trip of the New York City subway in 1904; and a jar of dust collected by New-York Historical’s curators at Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks. Less well-known selections include a seventeenth-century English–Low Dutch dictionary, revealing linguistic traditions that persist to the present; a section of the transatlantic cable that first facilitated the intercontinental exchange of telegraphs in 1858; and a pair of shoes belonging to a young victim of the 1904 General Slocum steamboat tragedy, which until 9/11 was the city’s worst disaster.

New York City also can be described by far more ubiquitous objects that are unique to its DNA, such as the bubblegum pink Spaldeen ball, a staple of urban street games; the bagel, an unquestionably New York City food; the now-extinct subway token; and the black-and-white cookie, which Roberts believes “democratically says New York” because of its popularity at corner bakeries and elite establishments alike. The selections themselves constitute a democracy of objects that taken together capture the monumental drama as well as the everyday spirit of an extraordinary city.

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Selections from 'A History of New York in 101 Objects' on view at the New-York Historical Society

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