Visitors to the New-York Historical Society may be familiar with many of the institution’s more important holdings which will be on view, and without which no exhibition about the history of the city would be complete. Among them are the water keg with which Governor DeWitt Clinton marked the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825; the draft wheel used during the 1863 draft riots, the largest civil uprising in American history; the sterling silver throttle that powered the inaugural trip of the New York City subway in 1904; and a jar of dust collected by N-YHS curators at Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks. Less well-known selections include a seventeenth-century English–Low Dutch dictionary revealing linguistic traditions that persist to the present; a section of the transatlantic cable that first facilitated the intercontinental exchange of telegraphs in 1858; or a pair of shoes belonging to a young victim of the 1904 General Slocum steamboat tragedy, which until 9/11 was the city’s worst disaster.
Yet the city also can be described by far more ubiquitous objects that are no less unique to its DNA. The bubblegum pink Spaldeen ball, a staple of urban street games. The bagel, an unquestionably New York City food. Graffiti. The (now-extinct) subway token. The black-and-white cookie, which Roberts believes “democratically says New York,” because of its popularity at subway bakeries and elite establishments alike. Indeed, the selections themselves constitute a democracy of objects that taken together capture the monumental drama as well as the everyday spirit of an extraordinary city.