Courtesy Science Museum of MinnesotaA few weeks ago I attended the Beaker & Brush Discussion in St. Paul, a public event about the intersection of science and art put on by the Science Museum of Minnesota the second Tuesday of each month. April’s topic was titled "Why We Collect", a discussion about why we as a society and as individuals like to collect things. Museum staff members were on hand to relate the museum's and their personal perspectives on the nuts and bolts of collecting. The subject particularly interested me because ever since I was a kid, I’ve collected stuff. Things like rocks and fossils, silent movie posters, space memorabilia, historic Duluth material, and early paleontology ephemera – I’ve collected them all. Lately it’s been dinosaur-related postcards. I got interested in collecting those because I designed some dinosaur postcards sold here at the museum gift shop, which, you know, I think is kind of cool. I like how it connects me to the long history of dinosaur postcards, which goes back quite a while. The two oldest cards in my collection date back before 1910. Both are related to industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s namesake dinosaur, Diplodocus carnegiei, which he had spared no expense extracting from the High Plains of Wyoming for his museum in Pittsburgh. Carnegie was so proud of his collection of bones that he had several mounted casts of the great sauropod created that he presented to heads of state in many countries around the world.
Courtesy Mark Ryan collectionThis brings me to a recent postcard I saw on eBay from the Field Museum of Natural History. The card showed a sepia-toned reproduction of one of paleo-artist Charles R. Knight’s murals. Knight was (and still is) a highly regarded natural history artist known for his exceptional talent at bringing long-extinct animals to life in his fantastic paintings. This one showed flying and swimming reptiles in the Cretaceous sea that once extended across the middle of the North American continent. Knight created the original painting (along with 28 others) between 1926 and 1930 for the Field Museum exhibits in Chicago, where they can still be seen today. A color reproduction of the same painting portrayed in the postcard also sets beneath the mosasaur skeleton seen at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Knight, by the way, was my grandmother’s maiden name. She was born in London, as was Charles Knight’s father, so I like to think that somewhere in the past, we might share a family connection.
Courtesy Mark Ryan CollectionBut beyond that, I like Knight’s images and have several in my collection, so even though this postcard wasn’t actually of dinosaurs per se (dinosaurs didn’t fly or live in water), I considered bidding on it. But what clinched it for me was the address on back of the postcard. The reverse side, which the seller included in his listing, displayed a 1932 postmark and was addressed to Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt at 640 Fifth Avenue in New York City, an address with which I happened to be familiar.
Let me explain the connection.
Courtesy Mark RyanA couple summers ago, we went to visit my son, who at the time was living in upstate New York. He and his girlfriend were living in Barryville, a small hamlet in the Catskills on the Delaware River about 100 miles northwest of New York City. They were renting a place for the summer with another couple on an old farm and quarry once owned by a man named Hickok. The site contained three residences, two for rental and another used by the property owners. It was a very quaint and idyllic setting, surrounded by woods, with the three buildings close together on the property and set before a steep wall of quarry rock where a small waterfall tumbled over one corner.
The rock in the quarry, I discovered, was primarily sandstone (or more precisely a feldspathic greywacke) of Devonian age, and the largest bedrock unit of the Catskill formation. Deposited in a delta environment during the Acadian orogeny (ancestral Appalachians Mountains) about 360 million years ago, it’s essentially the same rock that underlies the Pocono Mountains to the south in Pennsylvania. The rock unit was first quarried in Ulster County, New York and became known as bluestone because of its color at that location but the stone can come in several hues – in Barryville it’s red. Over the years, the rock has been heavily quarried as an architectural and building stone because of its durability, resistance to weathering, and how easily it splits into slabs. Today, the term “bluestone” is a commercial designation rather than geological and can include many kinds of rock used for building.
One evening the owners related to me how some of the rock quarried behind their house had been used to pave the sidewalks of New York City, and in fact back in the late 19th century, the house they lived in had been moved several yards toward the river so quarrymen could get at one very large, continuous slab of rock. Once removed, the single slab was shipped by barge over the Delaware & Hudson Canal and down to NYC for placement in front of the Vanderbilt Mansion on Fifth Avenue. The Vanderbilt name is practically synonymous with “filthy rich”, at least back then during the Gilded Age. I enjoy history and geology so the story intrigued me, and later that evening I went online to see what I could find out about the story.
Courtesy Public domainIt didn’t take long at all to come across this 1881 clipping in the New York Times archives that describes, in detail, getting the massive 25-foot rock from Barryville to NYC and placed in front of the William H. Vanderbilt mansion being built on Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Streets in Manhattan. If by now you guessed that the address was 640 Fifth Avenue, you’d be right (actually William H. Vanderbilt built two identical mansions at the same time on the block, one for himself - the 640 address - and another at 642 Fifth Avenue that was divided into two residences for his two daughters and their families).
Courtesy Public domain via WikipediaWilliam Vanderbilt’s father, Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt, had amassed the family fortune via shipping and railroad interests in the mid-1800s, rocketing the ultra-wealthy Vanderbilts to the very stratospheric top layer of the socio-economic heap. To put their vast wealth in perspective compare the Commodore’s $100,000,000 (an inheritance that William Vanderbilt doubled) to the guys who led the mules that pulled the canal barge transporting William’s monster sidewalk slab. They’d have to walk 15-20 miles a day, tend to the mules, and pump out the barges – all for about $3 a month! Even the other wealthy families of the time (i.e. Astors and Carnegies) paled in comparison to the House of Vanderbilt. The extended Vanderbilt clan owned several properties along Fifth Avenue but William Vanderbilt’s Triple Palaces, as they were also known, would be the finest along Vanderbilt Row.
Courtesy Public domainFor nearly two years, six hundred laborers (including 60 sculptors and artisans from Europe) toiled on William H. Vanderbilt’s 640 residence, creating a brownstone behemoth which he filled with extreme opulence, including over 200 original pieces of art now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to a book about the mansion published privately by Vanderbilt, everything inside "sparkles and flashes with gold and color...with mother-of-pearl, with marble, with jewel effects in glass...and every surface is covered, one might say weighted, with ornament." The gigantic five-story oblong pile of stone and marble contained seventy rooms - “most of them huge” - and 33 bathrooms. Many of the dozens of servants lived on site, maids on the 5th floor and attic, manservants in the sub-basement. One employee’s only job was to keep the building’s furnaces stoked with coal.
Courtesy Public domainWhen he died in 1885, William H. Vanderbilt was the richest man in the world (at a time when the US had no income tax!). The mansion at 640 was willed to his brother, George Vanderbilt (who also built a giant 125,000 acre estate in Ashville, North Carolina, called Biltmore), and when George died in 1914, the huge house with the pavement stone from Barryville passed down to Cornelius Vanderbilt III and his wife, Grace Wilson Vanderbilt, the postcard’s addressee.
Courtesy Public domainGrace Wilson Vanderbilt was the darling of European royalty, and for many years New York’s leading socialite. Her marriage to Cornelius III caused him to be disinherited by his father (Cornelius II) and ostracized by many of the other Vanderbilts. (When his father died, rather than getting $60-$70 million, Cornelius III (nicknamed Neily), inherited only half a million dollars plus income from a million dollar trust fund. His brother Alfred threw another $7 million his way to somewhat even the score). Grace’s own father, Richard T. Wilson, was a New York banker of great wealth and close friends with Andrew Carnegie, but the Vanderbilts, for whatever reason, considered her a social climber. Despite the family animosity, Grace managed to make herself the Mrs. Vanderbilt, the family’s last grand dame of the social set. (An article in the November, 1905 Munsey’s Magazine stated Grace had attained her social status by learning “the art of success scientifically, from approved models” – meaning all the European royalty she met as a young girl). During her reign, Grace hosted huge dinner parties, usually twice a week, and even larger, lavish balls for a thousand guests (I guess this is when having 33 bathrooms comes in handy). She once claimed to have entertained 37,000 guests in a single year. Neily wasn’t as interested in his wife’s social activities. As a boy he longed to be a scientist, and graduated from Yale a mechanical engineer. He was also an expert sailor and career military man. When he wasn’t yachting or soldiering he’d spend his time creating various railroad improvement devices for which he owned several patents, or co-founding businesses like the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), New York’s very first subway system.
Courtesy Mark Ryan CollectionSo back to the postcard. The fact it had been addressed to the Vanderbilt mansion where the big sidewalk slab from the Barryville quarry ended up was enough to make it desirable to me, so I bid on it and won it. While waiting for its arrival in the mail, I looked more closely to the card’s inscription: a social regret and thank you for a box of candy to Grace signed simply “Eleanor”. This intrigued me, and investigating it further, I eventually came to the realization that the writer was Eleanor Roosevelt.
Courtesy LIbrary of Congress At the time her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt (we share birthdays!) would have been governor of New York, and within 8 months become the president-elect of the United States. Now that was something. The card was cancelled with a St. Paul & Williston RPO postmark (railroad post office – my grandfather worked the Chicago-St. Paul leg). Eleanor could very well have been west visiting her nephew, Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. at the Field Museum. Like his father, TR - the former president - Teddy Jr. was a naturalist and explorer. Perhaps Eleanor was in Chicago to attend a memorial service for William V. Kelley who had fully financed her nephew’s 1929 Asian expeditions (Kelley-Roosevelts Expedition) for the natural history museum. Kelley had just died days before the postmark date.
Grace Vanderbilt was close friends with Alice Roosevelt, TR’s daughter, and Teddy, Jr’s half-sister, and obviously knew Eleanor, although, later, she and Neily would be vocal opponents of FDR and his New Deal recovery program, which they thought were socialistic. Sounds familiar, does it not? (Neily even called the president a traitor to his class). Of course the Great Depression had little effect on the Vanderbilts or their friends. The House of Vanderbilt’s range was widespread. Besides the Fifth Avenue mansions (and a boatload of private yachts), family members owned several summer homes in Newport, Rhode Island (e.g The Breakers, Marble House, and Grace and Neily’s Beaulieu. At Hyde Park, New York, a Vanderbilt mansion combines withFDR’s birthplace, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s getaway Val-Kill, to form the National Park Service’s Vanderbilt-Roosevelt National Historic sites. .
So, why do people collect things? According to this informative site, it can be for a number of reasons. Personally, I think I do it for several of the reasons listed: it connects me with memories of my youth or to some place I’ve visited, or just hooks me in with something that fascinates me. I know when I’m in the heat of my obsession - whatever that may be at the time, I find it difficult to part with any of my collection. Sometimes I’ll sell a lesser item to acquire something better, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. At some point my interest flags and I sell or give away most of the collection and move on to something else. But I find no matter what I collect, it often triggers an intense desire in me to find out as much as I can about it. Like this Vanderbilt postcard. Because of one silly postcard and a giant slab of sandstone, all these odd historical, geological, architectural, political, and socioeconomic connections have been brought together here. It makes for a good story anyway.
Courtesy Public domain via WikipediaI’ll end with one last anecdote. With all the interest this month with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, there’s a Vanderbilt connection to it. In April of 1912, George Vanderbilt and his wife – the second owners of the 640 Fifth Avenue mansion - were in Europe and had booked passage on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. But George’s mother-in-law expressed a very strong premonition and convinced them to make other plans. Lots can go wrong on maiden voyages, she said. Lucky for them, they followed her advice and removed their luggage from the doomed liner and made the trip back on its sister ship RMS Olympic instead. George’s footman, Frederic Wheeler, however wasn’t as lucky. Wheeler remained on the Titanic and perished in the disaster.
Queen of the Golden Age by Cornelius Vanderbilt IV, McGraw-Hill, 1956
Beetlehead’s 640 Fifth Avenue (excellent blog)
Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Munsey’s Magazine, Nov. 1905
Vanderbilt home and info on Flickr