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The History of New York through 101 Objects, by Sam Roberts.

March 9, 2014

The History of New York through 101 Objects, by Sam Roberts.  Simon & Schuster (September 23, 2014), 160 pages.

An innovative approach to researching the past through the objects that people created, lived with, and used.  Here the focus is on New York City and how its people define themselves.

When historians began to include people who left no written documents in their narratives, they had to develop new ways of doing history.  One method was to examine the objects that people had used and to think about what those objects could say about the people who made and used them.  Historical museums began to apply what was being discovered to their collections to help viewers imagine life in the past.

In 2012 the director of the British Museum created an elegant book that featured the objects in his institution in The History of the World in 100 Objects.  His book gave me a new appreciation of a world connected by trade rather than by the nation states which were not even present until the relatively recent past.  Since then other historians have followed the example of Ferguson and used his approach to tell the story of a variety of places and institutions.  For example, the Smithsonian Institution has published its History of the United States in 100 Objects.  This History of New York City is part of this trend, as its author makes clear.

Sam Roberts is Urban Affairs Editor for The New York Times and does a weekly TV show about the city. Having covered New York for “almost 50 years,” he knows it well. He also blogs about local history and has published a book about Grand Central Station and its impact on people’s lives.  In 2012 he did a feature in The New York Times of 50 objects of the city’s history, which he has expanded into this book.  In the introduction, he describes his goals and how he chose what to include.  While he describes his choices as subjective and “whimsical,” and also views them as “transformative,” “emblematic,” and “enduring.”  He excluded buildings and human beings, dead or alive.  In his words, his purpose was to write

A biography of material things–things, some remarkable, some mundane, that illuminate history through their unique prism.

Roberts seeks to write history that “informs the present” and helps New Yorkers understand who they are.  Yet the book has great relevance for US history more generally given the significant role that New York has always played outside its boundaries.

I received a prepublication ebook of this book to review, but it only contained a sampling of the objects which Roberts includes; 44 out of 160 pages, 6 of 101 objects.  The table of contents indicates that the full book starts with the rocks under the city and its early Native American inhabitants.  The list of objects indicates that Roberts has fulfilled his goal of writing a truly diverse and inclusive book, even though the sampling of chapters I received did not.

Although I have not seen the entire book, I am glad to recommend it to those interested in New York City and in the way objects can give us new insights into our past in all its diversity.

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