Historic, but not famous

Alfred M. Butts, inventor of Scrabble

Alfred M. Butts,  as a jobless architect in the Depression invented the enduringly popular board game Scrabble. Although its sales eventually approached 100 million sets, Scrabble languished for nearly two decades, rejected by major game manufacturers as unmarketable. Mr. Butts was a fan of chess, crosswords and jigsaw puzzles. Working in his fifth floor walk-up in Jackson Heights, Queens, he designed the new game to be based on knowledge, strategy and chance. He lined the original playing board into small squares and cut the 100 lettered wooden tiles by hand. First players of the game included his wife and family friends. Mrs. Butts becoming a better player than Alfred and once scoring 234 points with “quixotic.”

The game remained among friends, one of them even volunteering to be its salesman after his retirement and giving it the name “Scrabble”. He sold a few, but it wasn’t until it was seen being played at a resort by a vacationing Macy’s executive that the game took off. The executive convinced the company to carry the game and the Butts’ lives were never the same. Orders started pouring in. Thirty-five workers hired to churn out 6,000 sets a week could not meet the

 

demand. The game was eventually turned over to a company that had initially rejected it.

 

For many years Mr. Butts earned royalties, which he said were about three cents a set. “One-third went to taxes,” he said. “I gave one-third away, and the other third enabled me to have an enjoyable life.”

Mr. Butts died at the age of 93 in 1993. A street sign honoring him went up in Jackson Heights in 1995.

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Historic, but not famous

Elizabeth Alice Austen (March 17, 1866 – June 9, 1952) was a Staten Island photographer. She lived in a house built in the 17th century, but was expanded during the 19th century by her grandparents. The house was called Clear Comfort and was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark on April 8, 1976. It is also known as “Alice Austen House” and is located in the Rosebank neighborhood of Staten Island. This house is where Alice discovered photography when her uncle brought a camera home in 1876.

Alice’s uncle was a chemistry professor and helped her build a darkroom on the second floor of the home. She produced over 8000 photographs over the next 40 years. Ms. Austen photographed the daily lives of people on Staten Island and the lower east side of Manhattan, especially immigrants.

She had a life long companion, Gertrude Amelia Tate. Ms. Tate moved into the home, but moved out during the depression though they remained close. The families of both women objected to the relationship and did not honor their wish to be buried next to each other.

Alice lost all of her money, the house and eventually her possessions and photos during the depression. They were rediscovered in 1950 finding 3,500 extant, uncatalogued Austen glass plate negatives. The photos were published in a book “Revolt of Women”, a Life magazine article and Holiday magazine. This brought Alice enough money to live in a private nursing home. She was supported by the Staten Island Historical Society until her death. Many of her photos are part of their collection.

The Staten Island Historical Society at Historic Richmond owns over 7,000 original items (glass plate negatives, film base negatives, and original prints) by Austen. However, the society does not have the copyright. This collection is cataloged, digitized, and stored in an archival manner at Historic Richmond Town, and it is available for study by appointment. The Alice Austen House Museum also has a collection of photographs, with about 300 on display in the resource room, which is open to the public.

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