In trying to find some primary source material on the 19th century history of New York, I stumbled upon Letters to Phil: Memories of a New York Boyhood 1848 – 1856. It was right in the time period I needed, so I took a shot on the old edition. Published in 1982, it’s a slim book, and not much more than the sum of it’s parts on the surface. A New York native named Gene Shermerhorn wrote a series of letters to his nephew, who was living in New York City during the height of its Victorian expansion. In these letters, Gene tries to capture what he remembers Manhattan looking like in the early 1850s when most of uptown was farmland dotted with little homes. The letters refer to specific streets, houses, buildings, and other locations, as well as providing Phil (the nephew) with beautifully rendered sketches of what Gene remembers these places looking like.
The letters themselves aren’t very well written from a literary perspective, but they weren’t meant to be read by anyone other than 11-year-old Phil in 1889, and so we can cut Gene a little slack. I did feel like I needed a map the whole time I was reading since Gene is often only referring to street names or intersections that bare zero resemblance to their 2019 counterparts. While there is an old map of NYC in the front of the book, the print’s very small, so it was difficult to keep flipping back and trying to find the specific areas. But the drawings were really lovely. I’m always surprised at how well 19th century people could draw – the perspective is wonderful and the detail on these tiny images that were just meant to accompany letters to a family member are pretty incredible.
Gene’s amazing rendering of a firehouse in 1855 (I have a BA in Art, and I probably couldn’t do this without 15 erasers and a ruler)
The part I found most interesting about this book, though, is the forward by the editor in which he tells the story of how these letters were found and ultimately ended up being published. They were not passed down from family member to family member as one would assume. The Shermerhorns were (apparently) one of the more prominent members of 1850s New York, and so my expectation was that these letters were kept sacred by the family. Not so. They were found in a thrift store, surprisingly intact, and someone thought they were important enough to publish. There’s a nice little bibliography in the back, as well as a glossary giving the history and location of all the places Gene talks about, and a copy of one of Gene’s original letters to show his penmanship and where the drawings originally sat in the letters.
It was a neat little book I’m happy to have stumbled upon, and even if it wasn’t the help I was hoping for in my research, the old museum professional inside me is happy to own a little piece of someone’s personal history.
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