Invisible History

Corsets and Carriages, Industry and Immigrants:

Invisible History Unveiled for ‘Beyond the New Township: Wooster Square’
at the New Haven Museum

New Haven, Conn. (June 20, 2013) –Contemporary descendants of European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries often perceive Ellis Island as the sole gateway into America. In fact, in the late 1800s, throngs of workers from the Amalfi coast of Italy were transported directly into New Haven harbor on ships sent by Sargent & Company – a local manufacturer that still exists today. Much more of Wooster Square’s fascinating yet often invisible history will be brought to light as the New Haven Museum unveils a community-focused exhibition, “Beyond the New Township: Wooster Square.” The exhibition runs June 21, 2013 through February 28, 2014, and is made possible with lead support from Connecticut Humanities.

“Beyond the New Township: Wooster Square” offers an in-depth and often personal view of the neighborhood’s 18th-century beginnings, the evolution of industry and the arrival of immigrants, the effect of urban renewal, and the impact of historic preservation. The assemblage incorporates more than 200 objects from the Museum’s photo, manuscript, and fine and decorative arts collections, multimedia presentations, products manufactured in New Haven, and family treasures contributed by neighborhood residents and local historical societies. “‘Beyond the New Township’ integrates all of what we find fascinating about Wooster Square by combining some of the latest technology, for example, iPads and QR codes,  with what may be the most extensive use of the New Haven Museum’s collections to date,” says New Haven Museum Executive Director Margaret Anne Tockarshewsky.

In the New Haven Museum’s neoclassical, two-story rotunda, a map dissolve helps visitors understand and redefine the boundaries of the Wooster Square neighborhood, from the colonial period to the present day. Most noticeable is the rapid disappearance of the colonial waterfront by the mid-19th century, to accommodate construction of new factories and transportation of products by canal and rail. Urban renewal removed blocks of residences and businesses for interstate highway construction in the 20th century.  Shown on an HDTV screen, a map dissolve intersperses graphics with quotes from city officials and local residents at that time.

Named for fallen Revolutionary War hero David Wooster, the neighborhood grew up at the center of the city’s rail and shipping industries and at its periphery stood the major manufacturing facilities of Strouse, Adler (corsets),  Candee Rubber Co. (boots),  The New Haven Clock Company, Sargent & Company,  C. Cowles & Co. (carriage parts)  and dozens of carriage factories. Around the public square titans of industry built large homes designed by the city’s premier architects, while factory workers settled in dwellings along side streets en route to the factories. Successive waves of immigration brought the Irish and Scots, Lithuanians, Poles, Swedes, French Canadians, and Italians to Wooster Square, to work in factories and construction.  Wooster Square’s decline into New Haven’s third-largest slum area, following factory closings before World War II, made it ripe for redevelopment by the City’s urban planners who targeted the area for highway construction during the 1950s and 1960s. Efforts to save the neighborhood, including its fabled square and significant architecture, rallied the city’s preservationists with The New Haven Preservation Trust taking a leadership role. This activity led to its designation as the city’s first local historic district in 1970, and listing in the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

Tockarshewsky stresses the value of community involvement in developing “Beyond the New Township,” noting the curatorial team worked with the Greater New Haven Labor History Association, The Connecticut Irish-American Historical Society, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven, Inc., Saint Andrew Apostle Society, and various individuals and neighborhood organizations mining for the important stories that needed to be told in the exhibition and related programming. “The results of the community’s research and input provide a rich and personal context for the stories that connect all the area’s stakeholders to a common theme – the preservation of a shared heritage,” she says.

Likewise, an installation, “25 Views of Wooster Square,” consists of 25 framed, rotating images submitted by visitors. The photos will be changed to reflect current events – festivals, farmers market activities, social gatherings at the dog park, potlucks sponsored by neighbors, classes at Conte/West Hills School, and other community events.  Visitors may submit their digital images to for consideration.

“Beyond the New Township: Wooster Square” is also the New Haven Museum’s most family-friendly exhibition to date, encouraging intergenerational activities through a family guide, a puzzle depicting the people, products, and production of The New Haven Clock Company, and an interactive board about Mix’s Museum—a treasury of “natural and artificial curiosities” at the east end of Court Street in the early 1800s. Visitors at Mix’s Museum could see full-size wax figures, taxidermied animals, fossils, rocks, minerals, and other fascinating objects, and explore the grounds and entertainments of the adjacent Columbian Gardens, where exotic birds nested in fruit trees. New Haven Museum visitors may contribute original drawings and make suggestions as to what they would have liked to see in the Mix’s Museum original collection.

A number of related activities—lectures, neighborhood tours and special events —will take place throughout the exhibition. Through multidisciplinary school programs, schoolchildren and teachers will use primary sources such as maps, business records, trade cards and other original materials to understand how the neighborhood grew and changed.

“One of our goals was to challenge visitors to ponder the question: Where is Wooster Square?,” says Tockarshewsky. “They’ll see how planners carved out the boundaries of the neighborhood versus how the area’s residents identified themselves and their neighborhood by the block where they grew up or worked.” They’ll also see how dramatically the topography changed with the growth of industry and construction of highways, as waterfront areas were infilled.”

In developing the exhibition, the Museum invited two well-known scholars with deep knowledge of the city’s history and ties to the neighborhood to share curatorial duties – Elizabeth Pratt Fox and Wm. Frank Mitchell, Ph.D. Co-curator Fox conducted research related to the story of Wooster Square’s early development through the period of immigration, and the early 20th century. A museum and historic-site consultant, she has assisted institutions with exhibition planning and implementation, institutional planning, and collection assessments. Prior to forming her own consulting practice, she worked at the Yale University Art Gallery, Connecticut Landmarks, Wadsworth Atheneum, and The Connecticut Historical Society. Her projects have won awards from the Connecticut Humanities Council, Decorative Arts Society, and AASLH.  Fox holds a B.F.A. from the University of Oklahoma, and an M.A. in art history from Tulane University.

Mitchell’s focus as co-curator was the story of urban renewal, the rally to preserve Wooster Square from redevelopment, and its successful designation as the city’s first local historic district in 1970.  He explored the neighborhood’s design heritage, and present- day cultural activities. He is a consulting curator to the Connecticut Audubon Society Birdcraft Museum; the collections manager for New Haven Free Public Library Municipal Art Collection; an adjunct curator for The Amistad Center for Art & Culture, The Wadsworth Atheneum; and an instructor in the Urban and Community Studies program at the University of Connecticut, West Hartford, CT.  Selected publications include African American Food Culture (Greenwood Press, 2009) and 75 Years of Greater New Haven’s Tomorrow (2004) for The Community Foundation of Greater New Haven.  Mitchell holds a Ph.D. in American culture from the University of Michigan, an M.A. in African-American studies from Yale, and an A.B. in history/English from Bowdoin College.

“Beyond the New Township: Wooster Square” is the third in a series of neighborhood shows at the New Haven Museum, and was preceded by “East Shore Reflections” and “The Hill: New Haven’s First Suburb.”  Tockarshewsky says, “With its architectural legacy, pervasive feeling of community, preservation spirit and storied resiliency in the face of urban renewal, annual Cherry Blossom Festival, Columbus Day celebration, and daily celebration of Italian heritage in its eateries, businesses, festivals, and religious processions, Wooster Square was as an exciting choice for our third neighborhood show.”

“Beyond the New Township: Wooster Square” is made possible with lead support from Connecticut Humanities.  Additional support has been provided by C. Cowles & Company, The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, NewAlliance Foundation, The Richard L. English Fund, The Woman’s Seamen’s Friend Society of Connecticut, Inc., and various individuals, businesses, and organizations.

Exhibition hours:  The New Haven Museum is open Tuesday through Friday, from 10 am to 5 pm, and Saturday, from 12 noon to 5 pm.  This summer, the Museum is also open free of charge on first and third Sundays of July and August.

Exhibition admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, $2 students (age 12+), children free.

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