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And to Think That I Saw It in Union Square: Primary Sources Representing Public Space

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Sailors dance on the deck of the U.S.S. Recruit, Union Square, New York, ca1917

What did you see the last time you visited a city park? Thousands of striking barbers? A rolling suffrage shop in a trolley car promoting women’s right to vote? Sailors dancing on the deck of a wooden battleship?

If you’d passed through New York City’s Union Square in the 1910s, you might have seen these scenes or others like them. A century later, we stumbled upon photographs of these events and others in the course of our ongoing research in the Library’s online collections. They made us wonder: What was going on in Union Square? And what can that tell us about the uses of public space?

Union Square opened as a public park in 1839, and by the first decades of  the twentieth century was an established destination for anyone who wanted to stroll under the trees, shop for flowers, or just sit and read a newspaper. But it was also the site of a variety of large and small public demonstrations and events.

May Day strikers in Union Square, New York, 1913

In the 1910s, the adjoining neighborhoods were dotted with factories, so it’s unsurprising that the park would be home to labor gatherings in many languages, as socialists, anarchists, strikers, and other organizers and activists took to the square.

At the same time, the park was also used for military purposes. Troops paraded in the square, and a Salvation Army hut, much like those deployed on the front during World War I, served coffee and doughnuts to servicemen. The wooden battleship in the square was the U.S.S. Recruit, which the U.S. Navy built to recruit seamen, stayed there for more than two years, its crew of sailors greeting celebrities, scrubbing the decks, and performing their other routine duties in public.

Although these events represented a wide range of interests and points of view, they shared a focus on spectacle. The sets, props, stunts, and signs were all persuasive strategies, and their users likely recognized the square as a place where their message would find a sizable audience.

  • Ask students to search for events in Union Square at the time, or in other public spaces in U.S. history. What persuasive techniques can they see participants using?
  • Encourage students to search in the digitized newspaper collections in Chronicling America for news coverage of events that took place in Union Square or other public spaces. Can they also find opposing perspectives on the more controversial moments?
  • Challenge students to consider whether public parks still serve as the site of persuasive public events today. Ask them to identify other public spaces – physical or otherwise – that people currently use as venues for getting their message out. What strategies do they use?

We welcome your thoughts on persuasive events in public spaces, and hope you’ll leave them in the comments. (We’d also be glad to hear of the last time you just enjoyed a pleasant day in the park.)



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