Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Interesting Talk of an Old Brooklyn Citizen -- October 9, 2010

Doctor Peter Henri Van Der Weyde wrote the series of articles which gave this blog its name. This interview, from the 26-August-1888 Brooklyn Eagle, is an interesting supplement to his 23-part (!) memoir, Reminiscences of an Active Life.
Alexander Turney Stewart was a pioneer in retail.

Dr. P. H. Van der Weyde

The interesting Talk of an Old Brooklyn Citizen.
Artist, Musician, Scientist and Inventor -- A Holland Journalist Who Conducted Two Opposing Papers -- Twenty Years Organist of the Old Dutch Church.

The Polytechnic Section of the American Institute of New York City has brought to the surface some of the most remarkable men of the day. Specialists of approved originality, profound research and demonstrated usefulness are from time to time invited to address the Section, and the course entertainment thus afforded is the most unique and profitable offered in the city. One lecturer who is always welcome and always in request if Dr. Pieter Hendrick van der Weyde, whose novel discourses on the relations between color and sound have on several occasions astonished and delighted the assembled scientists.
A writer for the EAGLE recently called on Dr. van der Weyde, at his residence, 236 Duffield street, where he lives modestly, but surrounded by all the objects that make glad the heart of the artist, the musician, the antiquarian, the mechanician and the scientist. The most remarkable object in this extensive collection of curios and utensils is Dr. van der Weyde himself, a small sized, gray haired, gray bearded man, whose pleasing German accent is soon obscured by the novelty and importance of the subject matter of his speech. He is one of the most striking and original characters in the United States, and one scarcely knows whether to admire him most for his artistic accomplishments, his musical gifts, his scientific researches, his inventive achievements, his industrial handiwork, or his varied career. The scientific and artistic temperaments, usually so antagonistic, are blended in him in a manner that fills the beholder with wonder, and almost makes him wish that his gifts had been less profuse and his labors more concentrated. Yet this many sided man -- imaginative, creative, accomplished, practical, is a spectacle so pleasing that he who contemplates the individual as a whole cannot find it in his heart to wish a single line or angle changed. Good health has given him cheerfulness and he has scarcely known a single day's sickness for fifty years. His age is 75, and his only physical ailment is the prevalent one of indigestion, when he partakes too heartily of dinner, as he sometimes does.
Although the object of the writer's visit was the elucidation of Dr. van der Weyde's theory as to color and sound, the old gentleman proved so entertaining a conversationalist, and his career was so varied and remarkable, that every means was used to confine the conversation to himself. In a room, just back of his parlor, is his workshop, so completely filled with mechanical implements and scientific apparatus that a visitor experiences much difficulty in moving about therein. Lathes, drills and circular saws impede one's progress at every step. Round the walls are hundreds, probably thousands, of every description of tool known to the modern trades, of all of which he is master. Several powerful electric batteries, for electroplating and similar work are scattered on convenient shelves. Cabinets of microscopical specimens, labeled "Biology," "Entomology," and so on through the list, suggest in appearance the thread cases of a dry goods store. Hundreds of telegraph instruments -- sounders, relays, keys, rheostats, switches, bells, gongs, galvanometers, and all sorts of testing and measuring electrical apparatus -- cumber the overladen shelves. All of these useful models were made by the doctor's own hands, as he will modestly tell the visitor, adding, almost inaudibly: "I have taken our over fifty patents, many of them electrical." The thoroughness of the man is exemplified by the fact that the has acquired the art of telegraphy, although his skill is necessarily limited. Upstairs is one of the most complete chemical laboratories to be found in the country. Here, also, is the doctor's own printing office, the very pride of his heart. He formerly owned a Washington hand press, but lack of room caused the substitution of a jobber. He is an expert and artistic printer, and his taste in the selection and arrangement of display type would be commended anywhere. Not satisfied with ordinary printing, he frequently sets up, stereotypes and prints his own music, for he is a composer of merit. The musical work turned out from this little office is as good as any the writer has every seen, except for lithograph work. With advancing years, however, he has found it a labor saving plan to prepare the score completely for the lithographer, purchase the plates, and have copies printed as ordered by the music dealers. His principal patrons are Pond, of New York; Ditson of Boston; Gray, of San Francisco; Novelle of London, and Schlesinger of Paris. His productions find ready sale in each of these cities. The doctor relates gleefully how one of those firms once returned fifty copies of a Psalm he had sent them, with the remark that they "didn't want that sort of stuff." The composition, however, became popular and the firm was compelled to shower orders upon him, ranging from three to a dozen copies each. Only one copy of this Psalm is now in the doctor's possession, and he has a number of orders waiting to be filled.
Returning to the parlor, Dr. van der Weyde sat down at an enormous grand concert piano to play some of his own compositions. Struck by the appearance of the venerable instrument, the write asked if it had not a history. "Yes," said the doctor, "it formerly belonged to A.T. Stewart, who paid $2,000 for it to Lindeman & Sons. When about to remove to his new mansion at the corner of Fifth avenue and Thirty-fourth street, New York, he announced his intention of sacrificing every particle of his old furniture, so that his prospective home might be newly equipped throughout. He asked me to make him a bid for the instrument, which I did, and he closed immediately, so that I got it at a bargain." Dr. van der Weyde is an effective performer on the piano, wonderfully so when playing his own compositions with a view to illustrating his theory as to color and sound. A slight nervousness in the fingers is apparent, but not sufficient to impair the melody or weaken the touch. He prefers to play with his music before him, but even in the dark his manipulations of the keys would enlist the attention and excite the admiration of a critic.
Becoming more impressed with the originality, fecundity and versatility of this remarkable man, the guest of the evening besought him to narrate something of his history. More as a pleasurable diversion than with a view to gaining notoriety the old gentleman plunged into anecdotal reminiscences of sufficient length to fill a page of the EAGLE. He is a capital story teller, modest and unexaggerative, and more than three hours had elapsed before the writer could bring himself to the point of suggesting that some unadorned facts as to his long career would properly terminate the interview.
"As you can easily tell," he continued, "I am a native of Holland speak with what is known as a Low Dutch pronunciation. My home was formerly in Zierikzee, in the Province of Zeeland. I am a graduate, as a doctor of philosophy, of the University of Delft. While in Zierikzee I was editor of a scientific magazine and also of two daily newspapers, from 1842 to 1849, when I came to this country. At the same time I was professor of descriptive geometry in the School of Design and lecturer in the School of Natural Philosophy. After coming to the United States I graduated as a doctor of medicine from the University of New York, in 1857. Then I became physician to the Northwestern Dispensary. Among the other professions which I subsequently held were professor of chemistry in the New York Medical College, professor of industrial science in Girard College, Philadelphia, and professor of physics, mechanics and chemistry in Cooper Union, New York. While at the last named place it was part of my duty to deliver a lecture every week day night. I was there under the curatorship of Major Smith, and went with him to Girard College when he became president of that institution.
"For fifty continuous years," continued Dr. van der Weyde, "I played the organ in some church. During that period I missed but one Sunday outside of the vacation season. That was due to illness; so you see, my health has been pretty good. My total experience as an organist extends over fifty-eight years, from 1829 to 1887. My labors were principally in the Dutch Reformed churches in Amsterdam, New York, Philadelphia and Brooklyn. For twenty years I was organist of the First Reformed Church, which recently stood on Joralemon street. I am not playing anywhere now, as the congregation is erecting a new edifice at the corner of Seventh avenue and Carroll street.
"Of what other churches in America have you been organist?"
"I held that position for one year in St. Thomas' Episcopal Church, which formerly stood at the corner of Broadway and Houston street, New York. Then for eight years, from 1856 to 1864, I was organist of Dr. Burchard's Thirteenth Street Presbyterian Church. As I before said, I held a similar position for three years in the Dutch Reformed Church in Philadelphia. On my return to New York, three offers were made to me, and I closed with the First Reformed Church of Brooklyn."
"A little while ago you spoke of having been editor of two daily newspapers in Holland. What were they?" This query by the visitor quite unexpectedly raised the flood gates for another reminiscence, which is sufficiently interesting and remarkable to give in the doctor's own language.
"It was in Zierikzee," he began after a prolonged paroxysm of merry laughter as ever was heard. "I tell you, when I was a young man I had plenty of fun, but my journalistic career was the rarest and mellowest experience of my life. I was the simultaneous editor not only of a scientific magazine, but of two daily papers, one published in the morning and the other in the evening. The fun of it was that the morning paper was a Conservative or Royalist journal, while the one published in the evening was extremely, extravagantly Liberal. This I enjoyed the peculiar felicity of abusing myself impersonally to my heart's content, and retaliating impersonally in the following issue of the opposition journal. Sometimes when the King visited the city I would palaver him in the Conservative paper, describe his passage along the canals as a sort of Venetian pageant, glorify his retinue, and set a portion of the populace wild with patriotic fervor. On the same evening perhaps, through the Liberal journal, I would have the town by the ears with my ridiculous description of the King's visit, painting the alleged gondolas as old mud-scows, the extreme patriots as fawning curs, the retinue as uproarious drunkards, the trappings as tinsel and gewgaws, and the enthusiasm of the populate as venting itself in jeers and the casting of rotten apples and decayed vegetables at the royal procession. At night when I went to my club, I would be saluted with good-natured taunts from my friends, such as 'Ah, ha! you caught it this evening, didn't you?' Of course I was nearly bursting with suppressed laughter during all those years, which formed the happiest period of my life."
"I infer that your connection with the Liberal journal was a secret. How did you manage to preserved your incognito?"
"The huge joke was the result of an accidental combination of circumstances for which I was in no wise responsible. While editing the Tydschrift voor de Wisen Natuurkunde (Journal of Mathematics and Physics), the printer one day suggested that it was a pity the type should be used only once a month, and 0ffered to print a daily paper if I would edit it. I consented on condition that my connection with the new paper should remain a secret. In this way the Nieusbode (News Carrier) was founded. The only other daily paper in the city, a Government organ subsisting on patronage, whose editor dared not maintain that his soul was his own, was edited with almost utter imbecility. At that time (1842) almost everything was taxed in Holland and there was a stamp tax of 1 cent per sheet on printing paper. This tax was graded according to the size of the paper, but fragments of eight inches square or less were not taxed, therefore we avoided the tax by making the Nieusbode a sheet 10x6 inches, printed on both sides. After we had made a success of the paper -- which we sold at about two-fifths of a cent per copy -- the Conservatives succeeded in having the Legislature pass a bill repealing the law exempting this small sized paper from taxation. On the last day of grace the Nieusbode appeared with a cut of a skull and crossbones on one side and a weeping willow over a grave on the other. Everybody thought the paper was dead and there was great rejoicing among the municipal politicians. But we were very much alive. On the next evening the Nieusbode, unannounced and unexpected, appeared greatly enlarged, paying the full stamp tax, and selling for 2 cents a copy. The populace greeted our new appearance rapturously and we received great accessions of subscriptions and advertising patronage. The government officials were thrown into a state of frenzied desperation."
"But you haven't told me how you were able to preserve your secret and how you came to be chosen editor of the Government paper."
"My wife, who is a French lady, was then teaching a select school in my house. The daughter of my partner, the printer, who was one of the pupils, brought proofs to the schoolroom twice a day, and they were secretly transferred to me. On her return she carried away the marked slips and fresh copy. It thus happened that I was known as the editor of the Tydschrift voor de Wisen Natuurkunde, but my connection with the Nieusbode was not discovered until long after I had come to America.
"Soon after enlarging our paper I received a visit from the secretary of the mayor. He informed me that he had been authorized by the Common Council to offer the position of editor of the Courant, the Government organ. The paper was so much enfeebled by the opposition journal, he said, that something had to be done to improve its standing and fortunes. I was astounded at the proposition, but, as the salary mentioned was quite large, I asked time for reflection. On the advice of a learned medical friend, who had an acute relish for a joke, I accepted the proffered position, without, however, relinquishing my secret labor on the Nieusbode. It thus happened that I maintained the dual role until was deposed from the editorship of the Government organ."
"How did that occur, if you were not known to be the editor of the opposition paper?"
"In this wise: That same secretary of the mayor wished to become a member of the House of Representatives, the elective branch. He was an extremely unscrupulous politician, unpopular even with the Conservatives. An article indorsing him was was set up without my knowledge. I promptly 'killed' it in the proof. Nevertheless, while I was at the club that night, the article was again intruded and appeared the following morning. The indignation of the Government party leaders was so great that I lost my place. Several years after I had come to this country, my old partner, the printer, was imprisoned. The editor who succeeded me on the Nieusbode was arrested for libel, and, coward like, laid the whole blame on the printer, so the poor fellow had to go to jail.
"The fact of my connection with the two papers is not unknown in this country. It was made public at the time of the legal contest over Commodore Vanderbilt's will. The evidence of the physicians who made the post mortem examination was submitted to me and I was placed onthe witness stand as an expert to testify as to the Commodore's mental condition. My evidence was to the effect that while the Commodore might not have been actually insane, yet his mind was in such a condition that he was very liable to do great injustice to some of his children by leaving all, or nearly all, of his property to one son, or to commit some other equally extravagant act. Then some of the lawyers tried to impair the value of my testimony by showing that I had been simultaneously editor of those two papers in Holland. I explained the whole thing, and they failed to establish, as they wished to, that because I carried water on both shoulders there I would swear in the interest of whichever side subpoenaed me."
"Have you ever done literary work?"
"Oh yes; we must all do more or less of that, but it is not worth referring to at this time. I was urged to enter into a competition in the preparation of a school book of natural philosophy in Holland. My other duties prevented the completion of the work within the limited time. As none of the tenders were deemed worthy of acceptance no award was made, and the contest was reopened. The Board of Examiners unanimously decided in favor of my work, and I was given a gold medal."
Dr. van der Weyde is extremely happy in his domestic relations. His wife, a well preserved, kindly matron, is, like himself, a painter and somewhat of a musician. Henry van der Weyde, one of his sons, is a portrait painter of eminence in London. Of late years the latter has made a specialty of electric light photography. Scattered about the doctor's parlor are photographs of American and European celebrities taken with such artificial aids. Among them, works of marvelous art, are photographs of the Prince of Wales, Lady Churchill, Mary Anderson, and other well known personages, bearing the imprint of H. van der Weyde. "Harry prefers the electric light because it is artificial and can be easily managed," explained the doctor, "while the control of sunlight is in the hands of a higher power." One of the greatest joys of the doctor's life, near the close of honorable and industrious career, is the exhibition of some landscape views executed by his grandson Harry, of London, who is now 10 years of age. W.M.A.

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