Archive for April, 2011

On April 25, 1901, New York became the first state in the nation to require drivers to feature license plates on their automobiles. Though other states would soon follow New York’s lead, many states imposed the requirement without making the licenses readily available. Instead, car owners crafted licenses from materials such as house numbers, leather, and other items. When they appeared, government-made licenses were usually made of porcelain and later steel, though materials as diverse as plastic and soybeans have also been used. License plate sizes varied widely until a national standard was settled upon in 1956, the same year the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 funded the interstate highway system that allowed for faster travel across the country. New York also became the first state to require a driver’s license in 1910, though this was only mandated for chauffeurs.

A rear view of a 1913 Packard 48. Image courtesy of Detroit Public Library

Opening History has several collections relevant to automobile history, including Making of Modern Michigan: Digitizing Michigan’s Hidden Past, which extensively documents the history of the automobile industry in Michigan and its impact on local communities.

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On April 14, 1828, Noah Webster copyrighted An American Dictionary of the English Language. Webster had started working on the dictionary in 1807, and the published version included 70,000 words. In the process of compiling this work and deciphering the etymology of each word, Webster learned 26 different languages. It was also Webster who helped develop the American English used in the United States today by simplifying British spellings (i.e. changing “colour” to “color”). Despite the widespread use of later versions of Webster’s work today, in his own era he was sharply criticized for his seeming disregard for traditional English, and the significance of the dictionary remained largely unrecognized during his lifetime.

A horsehide-covered 1853 edition of Webster's dictionary, published after Noah Websters death in 1843. Image courtesy of the Illinois Digital Archives

Opening History offers a variety of items related to Noah Webster, but the most notable are included in the Papers of John Jay at Columbia University. This collection includes correspondence from Jay to Webster regarding the dictionary, and in one letter Jay expresses that many are concerned about Webster’s desire to depart from British spelling.

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On April 8, 1904, Midtown Manhattan’s Longacre Square was renamed Times Square in honor of The New York Times, which since its founding in 1851 had become a major, international news source. Earlier in the year, the paper had moved into new offices at One Times Square, today the site of New York’s New Year’s Eve ball drop ceremony. Longacre Square had housed stables and the American Horse Exchange in the mid-19th century, but by the end of the 1800s had  transformed into a popular theater and entertainment area. The theaters, jumbotrons, and businesses of Times Square continue to make it a hugely popular tourist destination and New York icon.

An early view of Times Square night life. Image courtesy of the California Historical Society


Opening History has many collections with materials related to New York City, including Digital Metro New York, the Visual Index to the Virtual Archive of the Skyscraper Museum, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online, and Public Art in the Bronx.

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