Sunday, October 11, 2015

Material Culture Minute: Map Memories

Browsing the aisles of a favorite antique mall in Lewes, DE, a few weeks ago, I came across a 1958 "how-to-get-there" street guide for New York City.

I was going to leave it. It fits in the palm of your hand, but it's kind of thick and bulky. Tyler and I have a large binder of ephemera we've accumulated over the past few years for teaching purposes. Do we really need an outdated map? 

Of course we do! We're historians. New York is my favorite city. And I can't tell you how often I've gotten important social-historical details from historic city directories. Students, I think, could get a lot out of this. Who was the audience, and how can you tell? Why was Roosevelt Island known as Welfare Island? What can you deduce about the 1958 world political scene based on the list of consulates?

Not only that, but it occurred to me that I was looking at my dad's New York. Born there in 1939, he was 19 when this "how to get there" map was published by the Barkan System. I thought it might be fun to take a look at it with him and see what he recognized and talk about what's changed. 

Sure enough, my dad was full of stories, memories drawn out by looking through the directory of places of worship, schools, and hotels and spending some time with the large street and transportation map. 

Perhaps my favorite memory revolved around television. We were browsing the list of local TV stations (just seven) when Tyler asked my dad about when his family got a TV. 

My dad came back with a story about the time he was at his parents' house (by this time, my dad's family had moved from the Lower East Side in Manhattan to Queens) and some of his friends--one in the FBI and another in the Secret Service--stopped by to watch a game on the family's new color TV.

OK, so this photo was not of my father's TV, but it's one of my favorite snapshots in my collection and is roughly contemporaneous with when my dad's family got a color TV. I love the whimsical figurines perched on top.
While munching on snacks and enjoying some drinks, my dad's mom walked into the room, opened the top drawer of a bureau to fetch some tablecloths, and started--"oh, my!"--at the government-issued firearms my dad's buddies stored there for safekeeping while cheering on their favorite team.

I'm not sure who won or what sport they were watching. But who cares? For $4, I got some great anecdotes and another treasure to add to our bursting binder of ephemera fun. 

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