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She is mentioned ( not even in a full sentence) in the recent "Encyclopedia of New York City" in an article, but is absent from most resources I consulted including reference works which highlight the accomplishments of American women.
Mentioned as a predecessor of her complete history of our city is William Smith's "History of the Province of New York" (1757) London which was severely criticized by Cadwallader Colden of the famed Flushing family. Until the first half of mid 19th century, histories of our city were merely chapters in descriptive books by various authors.
Mary Louise Booth wrote the first extended history of New York City in 1859. Born on Long Island in 1831, Mary was descended on her father's side from a family which had come to this country from England in 1649. Her mother's family descended from exiles driven from their home by the French Revolution.
A precocious child, Mary grew up learning English and French simultaneously, reading Hume and Gibbon before she was 10. At 14 she became a teacher in a school in Brooklyn founded by her father. Choosing not to continue in that career, she immersed herself in the study of languages, gaining fluency in German, Italian, and Spanish as well as French. She translated two reference works in special fields in the years before the Civil War when American workers and craftsmen were expanding their knowledge: "The Marble Workers Manual" (1856) and "The New and Complete Clock Workers' Manual" (1860).
It was in 1859 that her "History of the City of New York" was published and is now recognized as the first such complete work on the subject. It sold well for many years and was revised in 1860.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, she used her talent to translate the works of writers in France who favored the Union position. In a single week, working seemingly 24 hours a day, she translated Count Agenor de Gasparin's "The Uprising of a Great People" (1861). The book was well-received and Senator Charles Sumner wrote to her, "It is worth a whole phalanx in the cause of human freedom." He also applauded her translation of August Cochin's "Results of Slavery" (1863).
President Lincoln also applauded her efforts and felt she encouraged the people dedicated to saving the Union. Her letters to friends in France were important influences on public opinion and replies to them from abroad were published in pamphlets and the press. During the war years she produced 20 volumes of translations.
In 1867 Harper Brothers publishers, founded by former Mayor James Harper of Newtown, Queens, invited Mary Louise Booth to become the editor of Harper's Bazaar, a magazine they were establishing. For 21 years she served as editor of this influential periodical, calling on the most prominent writers and essayists of England and America for their literary expertise, and attracting their works to the magazine's pages. She also lent her support to the cause of higher education for women.
Described by her acquaintances as not a beauty in the conventional sense, but "of majestic bearing, a sagacious and energetic woman, with a cool judgment, brilliant foresight, full of both critical power and of imagination, with the love of nature and of beauty in every form."
Regrettably most of the material detailing the accomplishments of this talented woman were gleaned from obituaries written at the time of her death in March 1889 in Harper's, The New York Times, and the New York daily Tribune.
It is my hope she will attain her rightful place not only as an extraordinary woman of her time, but in the annals of our city's history.
©2000 Community Newspaper Group
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