Bits and Pieces

Bits and Pieces

One of the most valuable collections at the New Haven Museum’s Whitney Library isn’t a set of rare manuscripts or first editions. It’s a series of scrapbooks.

They comprise the Dana Collection—about 150 homemade volumes stored in a pair of humble metal cabinets. Most of them are bound in Navy blue, their spines bearing gilded numbers, subjects and the series title: New Haven Old & New. Their pages are stiff with glue, rippled with age and brimming with cut rectangles of hand-typed pages, printed pages torn from books and photographs with typed captions on scraps of paper, plus maps, newspaper clippings and correspondence. Between their covers they cover the breadth and depth of New Haven history, with full volumes dedicated to subjects such as railroads, factories, utilities, churches, civic clubs, nearby towns and more. There are nine books on the city’s schools alone. The Dana scrapbooks also offer a deep collection of materials related to every major street in New Haven, covering houses, businesses and institutions, address by address.

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Take, for example, the first of seven volumes dedicated to Chapel Street, this one from York to College. It begins with a chronological account of all the changes to street numbering that occurred on Chapel from its 1784 naming at a city meeting to an 1893 extension of numbers out to Westville and Forest Road. Here, researchers also learn about notable Chapel Street residents including doctor Eneas Munson, merchant Henry Daggett and steamship captain Benjamin Beecher, all of them also local politicians. Photographs and clippings identify notable buildings—the Hotel Taft (now apartments), the Gallery of Fine Arts (now the Yale University Art Gallery), the Union League Club, J. P. Beers’ Drug Store, Smith & Bryan dry good and grocery store and WICC Radio, to name a few. Newsworthy events on those blocks of Chapel Street, including a fire in the Hotel Bishop that killed one guest and a procession of elephants parading down the street, are covered as well.

The collection’s namesake, Arnold Guyot Dana, was born in New Haven in 1862 to an old New England family. His mother, Henrietta Silliman Dana, was the daughter of Yale professor Benjamin Silliman, for whom one of Yale’s colleges is named; his father, James Dwight Dana, was “an internationally famous geologist and mineralogist,” the New York Times wrote in the son’s obituary. Dana was raised and educated here, including at Hopkins and Yale, then moved to New York City to become an editor for a weekly paper, the Commercial and Financial Chronicle, published by his uncle. In 1922 he retired and returned to New Haven. But he didn’t retire from intellectual or social life. He continued to write on economics and served on the board of a manufacturing firm in Providence. He was instrumental in saving the head of the giant in Sleeping Giant State Park from a quarrying operation that threatened to destroy it. (As a boy, he’d fallen 100 feet from the Giant’s head, a terrifying accident now memorialized by a plaque along the park’s Tower Trail.)

And, of course, he compiled his scrapbooks. “They’re the most unique piece of material we have here,” Whitney librarian Ed Surato says. Dana gathered and collated information from many resources, some of which are in the library’s collection and some of which are not. Having them compiled in a single resource makes them a gold mine. “And he finds things that we wouldn’t necessarily have the time to ,” Surato says.

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Dana first started his scrapbook project in advance of his 50th Yale reunion, “as a kindly thought to help his friends readjust themselves at old Eli,” according to a 1939 feature in the New Haven Register. A later study he wrote of New Haven’s financial problems reportedly “crystallized his plan,” and the scrapbooks multiplied. Eventually, the Register reported, he set up a workshop in the basement of his home on Livingston Street and worked with materials spread out on a billiard table. An assistant, Earl G. Fowler, did much of the cutting, pasting and lettering. After the original scrapbook paper began to fail, the entire collection to that point was transferred onto the heavier, archival paper it’s found on today.

In addition to Whitney Library’s collection, Dana completed 102 scrapbooks in a separate series he titled Yale: Old and New, covering the university’s buildings, finance, history, libraries, presidents, sports and students. All but three of these volumes can be viewed on microfilm—19 reels’ worth—in the Manuscripts and Archives collection of the Yale University Library.

Whitney Library visitors today can browse its collection of scrapbooks via indexed microfilm or digital files, allowing access by more than one researcher at a time. Countless cards in the library’s catalog also refer researchers to the scrapbooks, thanks to the painstaking work of Dana’s grandson, James English, who indexed the entire collection. (English’s grandfather on the other side of the family, Henry Fowler English, was a major benefactor of the historical society and paid for construction of the first New Haven Museum building, at 144 Grove Street.)

Despite digitization of the scrapbooks, Surato says sometimes he pulls out the originals for visitors, either because the computerized version doesn’t include scans of some of the double-sided pages Dana included, or “if some people just very fascinating, just love it, we’ll take it out and show them.”

The final scrapbook volume, labeled “General History,” includes Civil War-era Confederate currency, pages cut from the 1874 city directory, hand-typed recollections from New Haven elders, memorabilia from the city’s tercentennial celebrations in 1938 and newspaper clippings on a 1944 hurricane. Dana was apparently still working on the project when he died in 1947 at the age of 85.

“This invaluable spadework of assembling the primary source material for definitive histories of the city and Yale was to him not drudgery but a labor of love,” the New Haven Courier proclaimed in its obituary of the amateur historian. That project in turn supports labors of love for others, especially those who want to learn more about the city that, like Dana once did, they call home.

The Dana Collection
New Haven Museum – 114 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)
Tues-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat noon-5pm
(203) 562-4183
Members free, or adults $4, seniors $3, students $2, under 12 free

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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