The Angel of the Waters

The cover of my novel, The Better Angels, features a photo of the Angel of the Waters statue which rises above Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain. Let me tell you a bit about the statue’s history, and how one woman’s vision was validated and embraced by generations of park visitors despite a sharply critical negative review published in the New York Times at the statue’s unveiling.

Cover of the novel The Better Angels by Bette Bono showing the Bethesda Fountain Angel.
Photo by Douglas Biklen. Cover design by All Things That Matter Press.

The angel was New York’s first major public art commission awarded to a woman. The sculptor, Emma Stebbins (1815-1882), was from a prominent New York family. Her brother, Henry, was chairman of the park’s Committee on Statuary, Fountains and Architectural Structure, and many assumed that was how Emma received the commission. This is not to say that Emma was untrained or untalented. She had shown promise from an early age and had studied sculpting in Rome. While in Rome, she also met and fell in love with the American actress Charlotte Cushman, and the two exchanged “unofficial vows.”

The angel is the only sculpture commissioned as a part of the park’s original design. It was intended to embody the idea of love. As the Central Park Conservancy puts it, Emma “put her own spin on the work, interpreting the statue’s directive, that it be dedicated to ‘Love,’ liberally by adding several layers of meaning.”

One of the meanings invested in the statue was healing, particularly the healing power of water. The design referenced the biblical story in which an angel gives healing powers to the waters of Bethesda. The fountain was also meant to celebrate the new Croton Aqueduct (a water distribution system built between 1837 and 1842) which supplied clean drinking water to the city.

The angel herself is eight feet tall and made of bronze. She carries a lily, the symbol of purity. The four cherubs that support her represent health, purity, temperance, and peace. Construction of the terrace and fountain occurred during the American Civil War, but the angel did not appear until 1873.

Now here’s the part of the angel’s story that had me shaking my head. I found the June 1873 New York Times review of the statue’s unveiling, and, reading it now, it is clearly wrong in every respect—completely, inarguably, laughably wrong. The unnamed reviewer hated just about everything about the statue and even disagreed with the placement of the fountain itself. (Placing a fountain directly beside a lake was described as “ill-chosen” because it was like adding “sugar to sweetmeats or carrying coals to Newcastle.”)

Close up of the Angel of the Waters. Photo by Douglas Biklen.
Photo by Douglas Biklen

He (I’m assuming the reviewer was male) began by saying everyone had expected “something great” and experienced “a revulsion of feeling” at the “feebly-pretty … thing of bronze.” He goes on to opine that the head is male, the breasts female, and the rest of the body a combination of male and female. He compares the figure to a servant girl doing a polka in the back kitchen and a dancing girl jumping over stepping stones. He apparently doesn’t like the fact that the angel seems to be wearing “voluminous folds” of petticoats that are nonetheless diaphanous and reveal the angel’s figure. The wings come in for criticism as well, as do the four cherubs (“hopelessly nondescript”).

Bethesda Fountain Angel with lake and trees in the background.
Photo by Douglas Biklen

All who have seen the angel, know how wrong the reviewer was. I found myself wondering how he could fail to fathom—to truly see—the beauty and the love embodied in that sculpture. If you would like to see the angel yourself, she can be found mid park, at about 72nd. Street.

The 1873 review is at In May of this year, the New York Times published an “overlooked no more” obituary of Emma Stebbins. It is at  My publisher is All Things That Matter Press which can be found at  The photo of the angel on the cover of my book is by Douglas Biklen. His website is


Imagine you could travel back in time … could close your eyes and move 100 years into the past. What would you encounter in the year 1919? Let’s explore.

Want to catch a movie? We are in the silent film era. On-screen titles help you follow the story, and someone plays the piano or organ to accompany the action. A Day’s Pleasure, Charlie Chaplin’s fourth film is released this year. In February, Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith incorporate the United Artists studio.

If you’d rather read, Sherwood Anderson, Jack London, Virginia Woolf, H.L. Mencken, Carl Sandburg, Franz Kafka, and Baroness Orczy have books coming out. If you’re a fan of L. Frank Baum, his 13th Oz book, The Magic of Oz, is published in June. And heads up you language nerds! Professor William Strunk Jr. will publish The Elements of Style. If you’d rather roam about outside, Grand Canyon, Acadia, and Zion enter the National Parks system.

What music is playing? Maybe “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” or “Mandy” or “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree).” It’s quite an interesting year in baseball. The Chicago White Sox throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds resulting in the Black Sox Scandal. 1919 is also the last year Babe Ruth plays for the Red Sox. Want to shop? Women’s skirts have risen several inches above the ankle. Some women are bobbing their hair. Many women are ditching their corsets in favor of less-confining undergarments. Women still cannot vote, but in June, after years of work by suffragists, the Senate passes the 19th Amendment and sends it to the states for ratification.

Most of the adults you encounter have not graduated from high school. It will be more than 20 years before half the young adult population has a high school diploma. So if children aren’t in school, what are they doing? Many work full time. It will be years before there is a direct prohibition on child labor. There will be a prohibition, however, on alcohol. During 1919, three quarters of the states ratify the 18th Amendment. Prohibition will take effect in January of 1920.

Woodrow Wilson is in his second term as president. WWI broke out in 1914, but the United State remained neutral until 1917. An armistice signed on November 11, 1918, ended the fighting. The Paris Peace Conference will begin in January of 1919 and produce the Treaty of Versailles in June. Wilson advocates ratification of the treaty and U.S. participation in the new League of Nations, but in October he suffers a serious stroke and is unable to advance his agenda. The Treaty is not ratified by the Senate, and the U.S. does not join the League of Nations.

World War I had cost more than 115,000 American lives. Shockingly, about 45,000 of those deaths are a result of the Spanish flu pandemic which began in 1918 and continued for more than two years. The flu killed an estimated 50 million victims around the world. Ten to twenty percent of the people infected with the flu died from it. In the United States, estimates of the number of flu deaths range from 500,000 to 675,000. Unlike most flu epidemics, those most likely to die from Spanish flu were young adults.

The summer and fall of 1919 is also scarred by brutal actions against workers and those suspected of being leftist radicals. In addition, there are white-supremacist attacks on African Americans in a number of cities, which result in hundreds of deaths. One of the most horrific of these events occurs in Elaine, Arkansas. An exchange of gunfire at a meeting of black tenant farmers leads to days of indiscriminate killing of African Americans by white vigilantes and troops called up by the governor.

The country is on the doorstep of the Roaring Twenties. But there are hints of great evil to come. In May, 1919, Benito Mussolini will found the Italian Fascist Party. In September, 1919, 30-year-old Adolf Hitler becomes a member of the newly-formed German Workers’ Party. By 1920, he will remake this group into the National Socialist German Workers’ Party—the Nazi Party.

Who is born in 1919? Jackie Robinson in January, Nat King Cole in March, and Pete Seeger in May. What new words find a place in literature and dictionaries? Some include ad-lib, bagel, phooey, skivvies, and snookums.

The Huntington Library in San Marino, California, has mounted a fabulous exhibit on the year 1919, the year Henry and Arabella Huntington began to transform their estate into a public institution. The exhibition is organized around the themes Fight, Return, Map, Move, and Build. It runs until January 20, 2020. Find out more at

Similes and Stereoscopes

My most recent dive into history started with an attempt to find the right simile to use in my novel. I wanted to describe an episode of double-vision that hits my main character. (She doesn’t yet realize that double vision is a symptom indicating she’s developed the ability to travel through time.) This is what I came up with:

It was an odd feeling, like peering through a View-Master and discovering the cardboard reel was bent and stuck between two pictures. She had owned a View-Master in her childhood and remembered those out-of-kilter images: the Statue of Liberty listing to one side, Mount Rushmore with a few extra shadowy faces superimposed on the originals.

View-Master stereoscopic viewers and reels
View-Masters and reels

I figured everyone would understand this comparison because everyone, at some point in time, has looked into a View-Master and marveled at a 3-D scene. So I was satisfied with my simile, but found myself curious about this toy I remembered from my childhood. I decided to learn more.

Just in case there is someone who doesn’t know about View-Masters, let’s start with the basics. A View-Master is a type of stereoscope. A stereoscope is a viewer that allows someone to look at a pair of stereo pictures and see them as a single three-dimensional image. Stereo pictures are left-eye and right-eye views—views at slightly different angles—of the same object or scene.

Early Holmes style stereoscope
Holmes stereoscope

The first stereoscopes were invented in the early nineteenth century. Because photography was still in its infancy, these early stereoscopes showed drawings, not photographic scenes. By mid-century, things had changed—both with stereoscopes and the pictures they showed. David Brewster, a British scientist and inventor, developed a hand-held stereoscope that used lenses to merge the two pictures. And the pictures were photographs—not drawings—thus adding an additional layer of reality. Brewster exhibited his viewer in 1851 at the Great Exhibition in London. Queen Victoria became a big fan, and interest in stereoscopes spread rapidly.

In the United States, Oliver Wendell Holmes (the father of the man who would become a Supreme Court Justice) invented an inexpensive stereoscopic viewer and photographers began producing stereoscope cards of famous people, majestic natural wonders, and faraway lands. Soon companies in Europe and the United States offered thousands of stereograph “views” to the thousands of families that kept a stereoscope in the parlor for entertainment and education. During the Civil War, Mathew Brady, known as the father of photo journalism, exhibited stereo views taken at the Battle of Antietam.

Eighty-eight years after London’s Great Exhibition, the View-Master stereoscope premiered at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. The View-Master differed from older stereoscopes by replacing stereograph cards with round cardboard reels each holding 7 small pairs of Kodachrome color film images. The View-Master was first marketed as an educational aide, then as a way to view tourist sights.

Vintage ad showing whole family enjoying View-Master stereo pictures
Vintage ad for View-Master pictures

Another transformation occurred in the 1950s when View-Master partnered with Disney and began offering reels featuring Disney characters and scenes from the newly-opened Disneyland theme park. In subsequent decades 3-D viewers would continue to find a place both on the toy shelf and in the classroom.

The View-Master, the Holmes stereoscope, and several other types of 3-D viewers are still available along with hundreds and hundreds of reels on almost any topic. Some companies offer kits to build your own stereoscope or will make reels based on your own photographs. In addition, there are many books showcasing vintage stereo images.

Of course, the real magic of stereoscopes is what happens in the brain. The stereoscope presents the two slightly different views. The brain merges them into a fascinating three-dimensional picture.

One Woman. A Lot of History.

What women’s names come to mind when you hear these descriptions? Writer. Feminist. Home décor guru. D.C. socialite. Suffragist. Journalist. Red Cross nurse. World traveler. Oh, one more thing: Titanic survivor. Well, the headline to this post kind of gave away the fact that a single woman fit all these descriptions. She’s Helen Churchill Candee. When I first learned about her, I was intrigued. Then I found out she had a connection to my own city, Norwalk, Connecticut, and her whole story came alive.

Mrs. Helen Churchill Candee

Helen was born in New York in 1858, but spent most of her youth in Connecticut. In 1880, she married Edward Candee of Norwalk, Connecticut, and had two children. But Edward was abusive and eventually abandoned his family. From that point on, Helen was on her own. She began supporting herself by writing magazine articles and moved to the Oklahoma Territory where she could more easily obtain a divorce. In 1900 she published How Women May Earn a Living offering advice on how to attain financial independence. A year later she penned An Oklahoma Romance. Her articles on life in Oklahoma became extremely popular and secured her reputation as a writer.

Helen Churchill Candee book How Women May Earn a Living
A copy of How Women May Earn a Living on display at the Lockwood Mathews Mansion in Norwalk, Connecticut

In 1904, Helen and her children moved to Washington, D.C., where she became part of the social and political scene, and a supporter of the National Women’s Suffrage Association. Having developed expertise in furniture and decorative styles, she worked as an interior design consultant. One of her clients was Theodore Roosevelt. In 1906, her first book on decorative styles was published.

Titanic classic book A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

Helen traveled extensively in Europe for pleasure and to do research on art and home décor. While in France, she received word that her son had been injured in an airplane crash—quite an unusual event in 1912—so she booked passage on the first available ship: the White Star Line’s brand new liner Titanic. In his classic book on the sinking, A Night to Remember, Walter Lord notes that Mrs. Candee “must have been attractive indeed,” because after the ship struck the iceberg “just about everybody wanted to protect her.” Several of her gentlemen friends helped escort her to a lifeboat. Unfortunately, upon stepping in, Helen’s ankle got caught and twisted, causing a fracture. Nonetheless, she helped pull an oar along with Mrs. Margaret Brown, later known as “the unsinkable Molly Brown.”

After landing in New York on the rescue ship Carpathia, Helen went to stay with her married daughter, Mrs. H.C. Mathews who lived in a beautiful mansion back in Norwalk, Connecticut. That home, known as the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion, is now a National Historic Landmark.

Helen’s adventures were not over, of course. In 1913, she rode a horse along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., as part of a massive suffrage parade. She published another book, this one on Jacobean furniture, and raised money for a variety of charitable causes. When World War I broke out, she volunteered with the Italian Red Cross. She was one of several nurses that tended a wounded eighteen-year-old Ernest Hemingway who had been driving an ambulance for the American Red Cross.

Women's suffrage parade in 1913 with Helen Churchill Candee riding a horse
Helen riding at the head of the 10,000-person-strong suffrage parade in 1913

At war’s end, Helen returned to travel and writing. In the 1920s she produced two more books, one on the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and a second on her journeys through Asia. In her 70s, she began writing articles for National Geographic. Helen Candee died in Maine in the summer of 1949. She was ninety. The photos below were taken at the Lockwood-Mathews exhibit From Corsets to Suffrage: Victorian Women Trailblazers. Several displays feature artifacts and information relating to Mrs. Candee.

I realized, as I finished writing this post, that the title I chose is not apt. Yes, it is the story of one woman. But so many others—men and women—must have been inspired by her life and work. Who picked up her book on women earning a living and said, “I can do this, too”? Who else, besides Hemingway, were comforted and healed by her care in World War I? Who learned about tapestries or home décor because of her books? Who saw her riding a horse down Pennsylvania Avenue and determined to work for women’s rights? Who was encouraged to travel and write and seek adventure because of her example?

Many of Helen Candee’s books and articles are still available. The Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum in Norwalk, Connecticut, a National Historic Landmark, offers tours and exhibits. Their website is Walter Lord’s classic A Night to Remember, is still in print and available in most libraries. I recommend the 50th anniversary edition which features an introduction by Nathanial Philbrick who characterizes the work as a “finely cut gem of a book.”

Victorian Flower Cryptography

Everything has a history. Even the simple act of handing someone a flower. In Victorian times, flowers had symbolic meanings. Giving someone red roses conveyed a message of romantic love. If the roses were yellow, however, the message was an accusation: You’ve been unfaithful!

Today, with a few exceptions—like red roses on Valentine’s Day—people select flowers without regard to symbolism. Rather, they choose freely for practical or personal reasons: What’s in season? What corsage will look good with the dress? What smells heavenly? What makes a nice cut flower? What will bloom all summer and repel mosquitoes, squash bugs, and tomato worms? (Hint: Go with marigolds on that one.)

cover of Language of Flowers, a Victorian flower dictionary by Kate Greenaway
Many flower dictionaries appeared, offering a guide to the symbolism of different blooms

It was different in England and the United States in the nineteenth century. Floriography—the language of flowers—was a means of cryptological communication, a secret code that carried a message from the donor to the recipient. Many cultures attribute symbolic meanings to flowers, but the Victorians went all out on this. At its height, floriography inspired writers to produce dozens of magazine articles on the topic as well as scores of books including floral poetry collections and dictionaries listing meanings for both flowers and herbs. Some of these books are still available, including Language of Flowers by Kate Greenaway (1846-1901), an English writer and illustrator, whose work appeared in children’s books and on greeting cards and bookplates.

Page from Language of Flowers, a Victorian flower dictionary by Kate Greenaway

Inevitably, there were disagreements among floriography authors on what certain flowers symbolized. It made me wonder if someone handing over a bouquet needed to provide an explanatory note citing their sources in order to avoid ambiguity in the message. Another problem developed when florists realized that flowers with negative meanings were not big sellers. No one wanted to risk giving someone a gift of beautiful, expensive flowers only to find out they stood for an unflattering trait. This led to the invention of inoffensive “new meanings.” You’d be hard pressed now to find any florist or nursery that will tell you that dahlias were thought to represent instability and lobelia symbolized malevolence.

It’s actually a little distressing to think about the message a Victorian-era visitor might get from what I’ve planted at home. My lilacs represent the first expression of love, peonies symbolize a happy marriage, and the Rose-of-Sharon—those tall bushes that sprout like weeds and are covered in pink, white, and lavender blooms—mean you are consumed by love. All good. But the pots along my front walk hold geraniums and petunias which the Victorians associated with stupidity and anger. And I could only pray that they would overlook the dill, a symbol of lust.

Bouquet of red roses, the symbol of romantic love

Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about the symbolism of my garden. I’ve happily learned some of the Victorian definitions, and just as happily thrown them overboard. And yet … my heart still turns over when my true love brings me red roses.

Early Morning Editing

I had a lovely start to the morning. What made it so? My partner/best friend/true love/lawfully-wedded companion knew I was going to spend the day editing so made BLTs for breakfast. Let me say that again, in case it didn’t sink in. He made BLTs. For breakfast.

BLT on a plate served for breakfast to author Bette Bono

I am now ready to dive back into the editing comments from my wonderful publisher, All Things That Matter Press. I am actually looking forward to the hours ahead wrestling with concepts such as the serial comma, introductory adverbial phrases, phrasal adjectives, supplementary or parenthetical dependent clauses, parentheses and em dashes, suspension points versus ellipses, and aesthetic considerations regarding punctuation and font (yes, this is a real thing) as addressed in the Chicago Manual of Style. Life is good.

I know. Some of you are laughing. Some of you are rolling your eyes. But I am pretty much serious about this. Language is a structure. A structure as ingenious and baffling and complicated as the most advanced computer or telescope or rocket ship to Mars. It is also a structure that grows and changes, modified through time by millions and millions of users.

Should rules about language be simpler? What artist or craftsperson would choose simpler tools or fewer options? Would a painter opt for fewer colors? Would a photographer elect to use a primitive camera? Would any person devoted to a creative enterprise willingly accept less precision? I think not. But enough philosophy. Back to work.

The history of the Chicago Manual of Style—a history dating back to 1891—is on their website at


I’ve been spending a lot of time in 1933. Not literally. Unlike my fictional characters, I am not a time traveler. But I’ve been reading about the Great Depression and FDR’s rise to the presidency. As always, when I dive into history, I am fascinated by the complicated interplay of events—both monumental and mundane—that form the mosaic of an era.

When FDR was inaugurated on March 4, the nation was in crisis. Thousands of banks had failed and unemployment was at 25 percent. Roosevelt’s brilliant speech called for broad executive power to combat the Great Depression and declared “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Speaking on that day, at that moment, on that topic, those words brought hope to millions. Looking back, we know that new fears–and global war–would require FDR’s continuing leadership and courage.

FDR delivers his first inaugural address declaring "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
FDR delivers his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933

Here’s a sampling of what else was going on in 1933:

On January 5, construction begins on the Golden Gate Bridge. On January 30, just over a month before FDR’s inauguration, Hitler is appointed Chancellor of Germany. It is also the date of the first radio broadcast of The Lone Ranger. In February, the Reichstag is set afire. Hitler uses this as an excuse to arrest opponents without charges, dissolve political organizations, and limit the press. On February 21, Nina Simone is born.

Hitler's speech following passage of the Enabling Act which gives him absolute power
Hitler becomes a dictator following passage of the Enabling Act

A lot happens in March. On the 2nd, King Kong premieres. On March 3, Mount Rushmore is dedicated. On the 4th, FDR is inaugurated. He declares a “bank holiday” on March 5. On March 7, the board game Monopoly appears. On March 9, Congress begins working with FDR on the legislation of the “first hundred days.” The first fireside chat is delivered on March 12. Two days later, Quincy Jones is born. The next day Ruth Bader Ginsburg is born. On March 20, the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, is completed. On March 23, the Reichstag passes the Enabling Act giving Adolf Hitler absolute power. Albert Einstein renounces his German citizenship on March 28. The month ends with the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps on March 31.

Hitler outlaws trade unions on May 2. On May 10, book burnings are carried out throughout Germany. In Chicago, the “Century of Progress” World’s Fair opens on May 27. Mussolini’s air marshal, Italo Balbo, arrives at the fair in July with 24 flying boats that land on Lake Michigan. He receives an enthusiastic welcome. In October, the Graf Zeppelin bearing a Nazi swastika on its tail circles over the fair grounds and the city of Chicago.

On June 6 the first drive-in movie theater opens in New Jersey. In October, Germany withdraws from the League of Nations, and the New York Giants defeat the Washington Senators in the World Series. In November, Fiorello La Guardia is elected mayor of New York City. Prohibition is repealed on December 5.

What are people reading? William Butler Yeats, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Sayers, Gertrude Stein, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Agatha Christie all publish books in 1933. The 9th and 10th Nancy Drews appear. What are people listening to? Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, and Bing Crosby have hit songs at the top of the charts.  

Jonathan Alter’s book The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope offers a compelling look at Roosevelt’s first months as president and his role in creating “a new notion of social obligation, especially in a crisis.” You can read more about Jonathan Alter and his other books at

The Angels of All Angels

If you wander through the light-filled sculpture court of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you may come upon angels.

The sculpture court in front of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

There they are, on the right side of the courtyard. Look up and you’ll see one blowing a trumpet.

Carved angel from all angels church located atop pulpit on display in Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

Walk forward and you’ll see a line of them surrounding a giant limestone pulpit. They are all rather busy swinging censers, strewing flowers, and playing musical instruments. One holds a scale and a sword. Maybe she’s assigned to mete out justice. Several are talking, or singing perhaps.

Carved angels on the All Angels pulpit created by the sculptor Karl Bitter

The pulpit is the work of the Austrian-born sculptor Karl Bitter who immigrated to the United States as a 21-year old in 1889 after deserting from the Austrian army. The pulpit was completed in 1896 and stood in All Angels Church, which at the time was located on West End Avenue and 80th Street. In addition to the pulpit, the church featured a two-and-a-half story Tiffany window.

Sculptor Karl Bitter as he appeared in the early 1900s

Bitter enjoyed great success in America. He created sculptures for the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. Yes, that’s the one that is the subject of Erik Larson’s book, Devil in the White City. Bitter also did sculptural work on many other buildings including Trinity Church, the Biltmore Estate, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bitter died in 1915 at age 47 when he was struck by a car.

All Angels Church has its own fascinating history. It was founded in the 1830s, well before the pulpit was carved or the building it stood in was built. All Angels’ first church building was a wooden structure constructed in Seneca Village, a nineteenth-century inter-racial community on the west side of Manhattan. Seneca Village was established in 1825, and was the first place in the city that African Americans owned property. In addition to its African American founders, Seneca Village became home to German and Irish immigrants.

Angels sculpted by Karl Bitter on a pulpit used in All Angels Church

What happened to Seneca Village and the original All Angels Church? The land was taken by eminent domain in 1857 when construction began on Central Park, and the whole village was demolished. Demolition was also the fate of the second All Angels building. In 1979 it was torn down, and an apartment building was constructed in its place. Fortunately, the beautiful pulpit found a home in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. All Angels is now in its third location, on West 80th Street.

There are so many threads that connect these carved angels to New York City and the history of art and architecture. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s description of the pulpit can be found at Another interesting note can be found on the website of Evergreene, an architectural arts company that removed, then reinstalled the pulpit during a renovation of the American Wing.

A Library’s History

The history of a public library is often the history of a town, its residents, political trends, American culture, and world events.

What do library lovers do on vacation? Visit libraries, of course. Recently I spent a delightful morning exploring the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury, Vermont. Later, I went on its website and read up on its “colorful history” which touches on a worldwide pandemic, the Depression, World War II, controversial books, access for those with disabilities, and the dawn of the computer age. Here is a short summary culled from the library’s timeline:

Main reading room at the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury VT
Reading area near the entrance

The Middlebury library began as a reading room in 1848. By 1870 it was housed in a rented room that contained 673 books. In 1924, the current building was completed, thanks to Colonel Silas Augustine Ilsley, a Civil War veteran who gave $25,000 in his will to pay for construction. His widow also gave $25,000.

The website of the Ilsley Library provides a series of timelines that detail some of the institution’s colorful history. For example, the library was closed in October, 1918, “due to the epidemic.” This is a reference to the 1918 Influenza (“Spanish Flu”) pandemic that the CDC estimates killed 50 million people worldwide, 675,000 in the United States. In 1934, the library basement was used by WPA artists. In 1939, it was noted that despite numerous requests for The Grapes of Wrath, the novel was not purchased because it “would cause too much adverse comment.” This decision was reversed by 1940, but the librarian was asked to “keep track of its loan.” In 1942, the Red Cross used a portion of the library basement as a “surgical dressings room.” The early 60s saw some discussion about whether it was appropriate to have Updike’s Rabbit Run on loan. A federal grant in 1977 helped pay for an addition which allowed “handicapped access.” In 1984, an anonymous donor provided the children’s room with the library’s first computer, a Commodore.

Walking into this library gives evidence of its long history and very active present. An easel at the entrance holds dozens of book reviews written by patrons. The children’s room is so engaging I can easily imagine parents having a hard time getting their children to leave. I especially loved the way picture books are displayed—like records used to be at music stores. This allows children to flip through the books and easily see the cover illustrations—so important for attracting interest. And the whole room was filled with stories and story-telling props. There were computers and building toys. And a place to paint moon rocks. And a dragon made from paper plates. And a mural with sea creatures and a pirate ship. And a bathtub filled with stuffed animals. And an inflatable earth and moon hanging from the ceiling. And … so much more.

If you have a chance to visit this wonderful library, be sure to stop in. Here’s a link to the library website.

Our Carnegie Libraries

History is all around us. You can find it in your own city or small town. One place to start is the library. Maybe it’s a library that began with a grant from Andrew Carnegie.

Generally I’m a kitchen table writer. I love working at home and have the house to myself during my most productive hours, about 9 am to 3 pm. But our 1940s-era cape lacks central air, so when the heat and humidity become unbearable I head to one of the Norwalk libraries.

The Tudor-style Carnegie Library in Norwalk, Connecticut.
The main branch of the Norwalk Public Library in Norwalk, Connecticut

Libraries play a huge role in the life of a writer, and not just for AC. It’s wonderful for research, reading groups, author talks, writers’ conferences, and books. Loads and loads of books. And librarians. No matter how odd your question, they treat you like you’re Indiana Jones heading out on an amazing quest.

Carnegie Library in South Norwalk, Connecticut showing lamp post and front entrance steps.
The South Norwalk branch of the Norwalk Public Library

Norwalk, Connecticut, is one of the few cities to have two Carnegie Libraries. The reason is that until 1913, Norwalk and South Norwalk were separate cities. There are over 1,600 Carnegie libraries in the United States. A Carnegie library is one built with the financial support of the wealthy industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). Carnegie was one of the richest men in the country, and gave away about 90 percent of his fortune. He funded the construction of Carnegie Hall, opened in 1891, and gave donations to advance teaching and world peace. His life was not without controversy, especially when it came to unions and workers’ rights. But such good has come from those libraries.

The South Norwalk Library began in 1878 as a reading room holding 500 donated books. By 1885 sufficient funds had been raised to construct a building at 108 Washington Street. That building is still there—it houses a salon now. Norwalk’s first library was organized in 1879 with about 100 books and a rented room near the intersection of Wall and Main Streets. For both libraries, the reading rooms were open to residents, but to take out a book you had to pay a $2.00 membership fee.

The Carnegie library in Norwalk, CT, as it appeared in the early 1900s

Norwalk applied for a Carnegie grant in 1901 and received $20,000 after promising continued municipal support and a building lot. The lot was donated by a local businessman, the Tudor-style building was completed in 1902, and the new library opened in 1903.

The Carnegie library in South Norwalk, CT

In 1908, South Norwalk also received a $20,000 Carnegie grant and completed construction on its Greek Revival building in 1913. Carnegie libraries were constructed in many architectural styles, but often featured lamp posts representing enlightenment and a set of steps at the entrance representing advancement by learning.

Although the cities of Norwalk and South Norwalk merged in 1913, the libraries were not united under municipal administration until the 1970s. Norwalk also has two smaller independent neighborhood libraries: The East Norwalk Library opened in 1913 and the Rowayton Library in 1915.

Plaque on Norwalk Connecticut library indicating it was presented to the people of Norwalk in 1902 by Andrew Carnegie.
1902 plaque commemorating the opening of Norwalk’s Carnegie library

You can find an article on Norwalk’s library history at . A list of all the Carnegie libraries in the U.S. can be found at ttps:// . The PBS American Experience site offers a concise biography of Andrew Carnegie at