Corrections or additions?
This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the August 15, 2001
of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
New Jersey: Land of Invention
Once, while Manhattanites still huddled behind their
Wall Street forts squabbling over Dutch/English/Indian commerce, New
Jerseyans were spreading out across the land making, building,
Lumber, sand, clays, the Passaic’s rushing waters, rich arable
— even those strange lumps of bog iron that tinged our southern
streams the hue of strong tea — everything was put to use for
New Jersey’s burgeoning industries. It’s a proud story which, when
experienced at the Museum of the New Jersey Historical Society in
Newark, will again give you a good feeling about our Garden State.
Were it not for some stiff competition from the city across the river,
Newark’s cultural facilities would mark it as a true East Coast arts
mecca. The New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) draws the best
of international talents. The Newark Museum boasts American art
as well as the richest Tibetan collections this side of Lhasa. Add
to that the city’s historic architecture (well worth the walking tour)
and the Newark Library, rightly regarded statewide as tops in
Yet tucked away at 52 South Park Place, beside the bland Robert Treat
Hotel, stands the delightfully Victorian and too-frequently bypassed
Museum of the New Jersey Historical Society. Located just around the
corner from NJPAC, the museum is currently devoting its third floor
to a marvelous piece of clever curatorial ingenuity entitled
New Jersey," on view through 2002.
At first glance, the exhibit seemed small and, I thought, probably
typical. But it immediately lured me in with huge photo of tough,
but weary 19th-century miners. Beaming young nine-year-old lads, the
tool carriers, stood beside the earnest mining students and laborers
before mouths of immense shafts. If you were a European or American
mining engineer in 1880, wanting to learn the latest techniques for
handling the newest steamdrills, you would have competed frantically
for a study-apprenticeship at the Dickerson iron mine in Dover.
Calvin Green’s diary depicting his life as an independent farmer in
Morris County from 1765 to 1847, hangs innocently from a cord at the
farming exhibit hiding a wealth of fascination. "Got my feet wet
in snow, like a fool. Had pleurisy for six weeks; Spring, 1780. The
British came from New York and did much damage; Spring, 1792. I
work with my neighbors, I ploughed for them, they did my hoeing. This
is the way I farmed for many years."
Maryland and Virginia had tobacco, but New Jersey farms made ambitious
industry of everything else. Every store-bought blueberry you have
ever eaten can trace its illustrious ancestry to a South Jersey farm.
Here also, the tiny cranberry grew from a side crop into a mechanized
Soon my pace slowed from a browse, to a thoughtful study. The
of science, society, history, all become clear in this exhaustive
exhibit. Copies of actual account ledgers from the 1763 Ringwood iron
forges show how the colonial trade had boomed already for over a
Samples of "pigs" — iron ingots — are displayed as
a revolutionary bone of contention. Colonial law demanded that no
raw iron could be worked here, but must be shipped to Mother England
whose forges would turn it into finished tools and sell it back to
a captive market of New Jerseyans. A George Washington casting shows
Limonite from South Jersey bogs, magnetite and hematite from the
hills, continued to make New Jersey rich for all of America’s first
century. In 1839, the Russian immigrant Obadiah and his son Seth
invented the new malleable iron process in their New Jersey works.
It made the infant railroads possible, providing straight axles for
the first New Jersey Railroad cars. Seven years later, the Trenton
Iron Company’s Roger Stevens designed the first T-shaped rail. It
was Boyden’s discovery which later allowed John Roebling to invent
and produce steel cable for such industrial wonders as the Brooklyn
Yet mine owner Frederick Canfield took a more capitalistic view of
this endless innovation, commenting, "It makes no difference
(the new iron making process) succeeds or not as to the sale of ore.
The demand in l854 is almost unlimited and increasing yearly."
A Cradle of Invention
As I progressed through "Resource-Full New
new sections — and new segments of Garden State industry —
followed close and tightly packed. I became dazzled by how much our
state invented and produced, and how little I knew.
Clever contrivances struck the eye from J. Mercette’s 1876 reusable
egg crate, to samples of John Roebling’s flexible steel cable, to
an impressive array of practical, artistically shaped whiskey flasks
and soda bottles made by South Jersey’s huge sand-to-glass processing
plants. How did that machine of Charles Everet remove foul air from
railroad vegetable cars? Why did Alfred Vail’s invention come to be
labeled "Morse Code"?
Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison each come in for a nod, but
no more than one of many. Frankly, I found their ingenuity eclipsed
by Thomas Maddock’s valuable invention of the indoor toilet, which,
along with sinks and tubs were produced in his Hamilton Township
as plumbing moved in from the outhouse. The tough terra cotta fire
bricks which lined the upper reaches of the then-world’s tallest F.W.
Woolworth building, and Walter Scott Lenox’s delicate, highly glazed
ceramics all enliven the exhibit of how Trenton’s early pottery shops
expanded to feed world markets.
The sons and daughters of the Garden State proved themselves inspired
rather than complacent by the wealth of nature’s bounty. More, faster,
and more inventive came the passwords. "Down in South Jersey,
they make glass by day and night. The fires burn on in Millville and
bid the sand let in the light," penned young Princeton student
Carl Sandburg in l904. An excellent video explains how the Lenape
Indian shell mounds were blended with New Jersey’s pure "sugar
sand" to create glass and demonstrates the glass-blowing process
But if you attend "Resource-Full New Jersey" in search of
a sweeping endorsement of mindless manufacture, beware. This is no
simple industrial lovefest. Benefits are carefully — sometimes
frighteningly — weighed against both the social and environmental
costs they exacted. Small wooden boxes stand prominently before each
exhibit, curiously marked "What Price Prosperity?" Lift the
lid and you’ll learn that the process of mining clay on Burts Creek
totally polluted the Raritan River. Another "price tag"
exactly how the yellow pottery glazes, laden with uranium and cadmium,
poisoned workers, miners, and the local towns.
Sometimes the price was human rights. Leering over all
the fine delicate silk weavings which emanated from the mills along
the Passaic’s Great Falls, is a photograph of a weary, rather shabby
woman. She leads a line of strikers with the sign "Does the Boss’s
wife have only one hat? Hell NO!" Due to a deliberate system of
starvation wages, these workers, who kept over two thirds of
America in silk and other fine cloth, could barely clothe or feed
themselves. And equally sad, for me, was the lovely early landscape
painting of the Passaic River’s magnificent Great Falls as the waters
raged through the forest, before its uglification and pollution by
the textile industry.
This truly exhaustive "Resource-Full New Jersey" exhibit
everyone from the young and easily bored glancer to an old plodder,
like myself. Apparently children have become so enthused that they
have added their own display as a tribute to Dr. Sylvia Earle, New
Jersey’s native inventor of the Deep Rover Submersible, an undersea
explorer. There is so much to feel, touch; so many primary ledgers,
documents and diaries to read, I had not succeeded in exploring it
all during my first two-hour visit.
Add Baseball, Diners, and Genealogy
While the "Resource-Full New Jersey" more than
rewards your trek up the turnpike to Newark, the museum’s two other
floors of exhibits add equally fascinating views of our history.
Descending to the second floor, the elevator ushers you amongst subtle
but very definite sounds of eating. Soft requests for butter, clinking
of pots and silverware, the unmistakable pouring of delicious coffee
all quietly accompany your tour through "Dining In, Dining
Enter into the exhibit kitchen and pull out a drawer describing
of an Arabic festive meal. Other drawers unfold the foods of German,
Vietnamese, Turkish, Greek families. Move down to the lavish Victorian
table and return to the days when eating was a ritual of unforgiving
propriety. Try your hand at setting the nine-piece silver setting.
Do you really know your pickle from your fish fork — and where
Finally, settle down comfortably in a true Garden State landmark:
a reconstructed Jersey Diner, complete with swivel stools, jukebox
and an enchanting written history. Pick out your hometown diner from
among the hundreds dotting the large map.
As baseball returns to Newark with the initiation of its own minor
league, the New Jersey Historical Society also recalls the game’s
grand home teams that smacked the old horsehide out of the park seven
decades ago. Panoramic photos of Newark’s old park, mitts, signed
balls and of course all the stars’ pictures can be examined while
listening to the background recordings of hyperbolizing sportscasters.
Depression era white teams, along with famed black Newark Eagles,
each drew their own huge and ferocious followings that rivaled the
One of the few failings I felt in the New Jersey
Society Museum was the lack of knowledgeable reception. The side wall
pamphlets seem to offer a lot more than the volunteers manning the
front desk. And while staff may neglect to inform you about the top
floor library, don’t dare miss it.
Amid this furtive wealth of archival information, here the
staff stands skilled and willing. They guided me through a host of
rare and valuable old ledgers, primary and secondary historic sources.
Intrigued by the title, I pulled out "Book of the Dead of
wherein I learned of a 17th-century ancestor resting peacefully in
the old Rumson Burying Ground.
This extremely well organized 25,000-volume archive throws a
but sharp light on your home village of yore, or provides invaluable
aid to genealogy hounds. "Colonial Conveyances of East and West
Jersey, 1664-1794," told me how Joseph Skelton set up a small
land empire surrounding West Windsor’s Devil’s Brook and central
by buying all the holdings of Obadiah Davidson and his brothers.
A 1788 sample of The New Jersey Gazette, Mercer County’s first
carries its Quaker publisher’s staunch fulminations against the Tory
government, in favor of the new Republic.
No matter which floor you visit, 52 Park Place, Newark, houses an
exhaustive fount of lore well worthy of exploration. Scores of cozy
displays make it the kind of place ideal for poking into for hours
of fascination. While classes of school children often take advantage
of the tours and programs, the museum is seldom crowded or
noisy on weekends. And best of all, each of its rotating exhibits
are handled with by laudably creative curators whose off-beat, even
bizarre displays draw you in, affording layers of information from
light browse to deep study. Take your family, take your date, and
plan to return more than once.
— Bart Jackson
Society Museum, 52 Park Place, Newark, 973-596-8500. Open Tuesday
through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The top-floor library opens
at noon. Free.
reached via either the New Jersey Turnpike exit for Newark or by
Route 280 East to Broad Street.
Your best bet is to drive in from the New Jersey Turnpike onto Broad
Street. Go past NJPAC, the Robert Treat Hotel, and the Newark Museum,
and continue the few blocks up Broad towards Market Street. Side
here boast a host of mini-lots, all cheaper and no more distant than
those back by the Arts Center.
to Newark Penn Station. From here walk up from Raymond Boulevard and
turn right down Park Place.
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