What Curran either didn’t know, or wanted to erase, was the fact that up until the late 1890s, cities like “New-York” and “New-Jersey” were usually hyphenated to be consistent with other phrases that had both a noun and an adjective. In 1804, when the “New-York Historical Society” was founded, therefore, hyphenation was de rigueur. The practice of hyphenating New York was adhered to in books and newspapers, and adopted by other states. Even the New York Times featured a masthead written as The New–York Times until the late 1890s.
It was only when the pejorative phrasing of “hyphenated Americans” came into vogue in the 1890s, emboldened by Roosevelt’s anti-hyphen speech, that the pressure for the hyphen’s erasure came to pass.
Writing in 1924, several years after Roosevelt’s speech, Curran accused New York society of being overly judgmental, noting that “it is Ellis Island that catches the devil whenever a decision comes along that does not suit somebody. Of course, we are now in the midst of the open season for attacks on Ellis Island. We have usurped the place of the sea serpent and hay fever. We are ready to be roasted.” For the next twelve years he served as commissioner of immigration, Curran became more staunchly anti-immigrant, and his hatred was fueled by the anti–hyphenated Americanism espoused by people like Roosevelt and, later, Woodrow Wilson.
Curran was outraged that his beloved city would appear hyphenated, and he continually insisted that Morris call a meeting to pass a law that barred the use of a hyphen in New York. Meanwhile, curators, historians, and librarians banded together with antidiscrimination and immigrants’ rights defenders to defend a hyphenated New-York. Curran could not win this time, they insisted. The curators and librarians at the Historical Society bravely stood by the hyphen in their name, confirming that they had been founded in 1804, that the hyphen was in the original configuration of New-York, and that, no, this hyphen would not be erased. Hyphenated Americans and activists throughout New York City worried that this erasure would signal that they would not be welcome in the one city that was supposed to be a bastion of openness in America…
In the end, much to his chagrin, Curran lost this contest. No law was ever passed outlawing the hyphen, and it remains to this day, etched in stone on the building of the New-York Historical Society, a homage to the journey of the city and the hyphenated individuals who fought the good fight to keep the hyphen—and its many meanings—alive.
While it might be easy to dismiss this as a language debate from long ago, this excerpt highlights how language is not just about grammar or particular words: all of it is tied to how people see and understand the world. It sounds like the hyphen in place names followed conventions for the day of separating adjectives and nouns that went together. As hyphens later helped demarcate identity, they generated controversy.
Would New York be a different place today if it were New-York? Perhaps it might work like this. The hyphen implies a more hybrid identity than the solid “New York” together. Would this point people back to the original roots of the city, not as an American place but a British territory and before that a Dutch city? All of this could help put together contradictory ideas including American individualism and capitalism, colonialism, slavery, and pluralism. Add to that the immigrant history of New York from a variety of countries at numerous time points and perhaps the hyphenated version would help highlight the bricolage that is the city of five boroughs, numerous neighborhoods, and uncountable different experiences. “New-York” is still being shaped, “New York” already exists.