A Private Investigator’s Guide to Dutch Reformed Churches

When you do genealogy, you quickly discover that you have to become an expert on churches. Where were they located, where are they now, what happened to the buildings, who’s got the records? When it comes to Staten Island, which celebrated its 350th year in 2011, that’s a whole lotta church history to absorb.

Luckily, we have in our possession a handy-dandy guide to all of the churches that existed in Staten Island as of 1942. Now, this doesn’t give you all the churches that ever were, but having an inventory of extant churches at a specific point in time is a great reference. And it is a l-o-n-g list, which you will love if you are a genea-geek.

Anyway – the existence of this list is interesting, in and of itself.  It’s from the Guide to Vital Statistics in the City of New York, created by the Works Progress Administration for the City of New York.  It lists all the churches by borough, and describes the type of vital statistics each church held in its archives at that time – baptisms, marriages, etc.  In 1942, America was at war, and it seems they needed to run some background checks on people, but the Internet was down.

The volumes are primarily designed as an aid to governmental agencies or private individuals interesting in locating corroborative proofs of the facts of birth or marital status as required for military service or engagement in war industry.

How cool is that? Helping to blow the cover of enemy spies who were bent on infiltrating our armed forces based on a fake Staten Island baptismal certificate.

I think I was born too late. I hope I worked for the WPA in a previous life.

In any case, today is the beginning of a series in which I am going to list the churches from that document for you. (In the future, I’ll feature some individual churches in separate posts, with more detail).

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In Over Her Head

Bicycle Skirt image

Clarissa Dockham’s Patented Bicycle Skirt

Since March is Women’s History Month, let’s take a spin backwards in time to see what Staten Island women were up to in, say, 1895.

One industrious Staten Island woman seems to have been very taken with the latest craze: bicycles. Before the 1890’s, bicycle technology wasn’t very advanced, so they were sort of a novelty item. But then vast improvements in design made them sufficiently comfortable and safe for everyone to ride them – particularly and importantly, women. Before this, bicycles had belonged to that class of things that were reserved for men, like football, and cigars, and balancing the checking account.

Then instantly, bicycles became widely, hugely, insanely popular in America, like no-doc mortgages in the 2000s, but with a happier ending. Excitement was palpable. Vast sums were spent. In Dayton, Ohio, Orville and Wilbur Wright were churning them out endlessly. Bicycle societies sprang up everywhere. There was fevered speculation that one day, children would even ride bicycles to school.

The first bicycles on Staten Island were sold from Nicholas Bennett’s general store near Fort Wadsworth in 1896, and today, Bennett’s Bicycles is still in business on Jewett Avenue, where the fifth generation of Bennetts still run the oldest bike shop in New York City.

But back to our industrious woman. In a time when women did not have the right to vote, the suddenly accessible bicycle was a revelation, and an amazingly important factor in the nascent women’s suffrage movement. Bicycles got women out of the house and gave them a sense of mobility and autonomy they’d never known. No less a personage than Susan B. Anthony herself said,

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.

Yeah, that was awesome. Except for the part with the billowing skirts and corsets. Here enters our heroine, Mrs. Clarissa Ellen Dockham, of Tompkinsville, Staten Island, who on Jul 23, 1895 applied for U.S. Patent #556881 for the Bicycle Skirt. “My invention…has for its object to produce a combination garment which may be adjusted for convenient use when bicycling or which may be worn for ordinary street use.” Clarissa had figured out how a woman could, at will, transform her floor-length skirt into “bicycle-bloomers” and then back again, by means of a “forked or bifurcated skirt-lifter.”

No, don’t go there… Clarissa was spot on with the Rational Dress Society, which objected to:

fashion…that either deforms the figure, impedes the movement of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health. It protests against the wearing of tightly fitted corsets, of high-heeled or narrow toed boots and shoes; of heavily weighted skirts, as rendering healthy exercise almost impossible.

Yes. Now if we could just do something about Spanx. But I digress.

You would not think it so, but the increased mobility and the freedom and the bloomers turned out be positively scandalous and caused a whole heap of trouble in some quarters. There was great consternation that upon a bicycle, a woman could injure certain fair body parts, to her ultimate ruin. It was felt that the Orderly Domesticity of The Home would be greatly insulted if women could roam the streets at will, and that without a watchful husband nearby, females might fall prey to a lessening of their morals, thus bringing about the fall of civilization.

They did not yet have cable.

Perhaps Mr. Dockham was embarrassed and put his foot down, or maybe Clarissa was just too out there even for other women. Because the following year she filed another patent application. This one was a riff on the previous design, and it did away with the “skirt-lifters,” combining a skirt with built-in “drawers” in one adjustable garment.

“It will be evident,” Clarissa wrote, “that the skirt may be put on over the head and the drawers afterward buttoned, and it being remembered that women are averse to garments which do not go on over the head, the advantage of a trousers garment which can be put on over the head becomes at once apparent.”

The government of the United States agreed, and granted her Patent #568339.

I’ll just let that sink in for a minute.

Sad to say that’s all I know, except that the New York Daily Tribune reported on February 19, 1907, that “a dwelling house, No. 34 Central in Tompkinsville, formerly the property of the late Mrs.Clarissa Dockham, has been sold under foreclosure proceedings.” It had been a boarding house for some time, and was purchased by Otto W. Thomen of Grymes Hill for $16,500.

Let’s hope Clarissa had a great ride.