The Titanic … remembering those who survived

When I think of the Titanic sinking, my first thoughts go to the 1,500 people who died in the freezing cold North Atlantic waters on the night of April 14, 1912.  Everything we know about the disastrous event comes from the 700 people who survived, but oddly enough, their accounts have always seemed only to paint the backdrop for the tale of the people who never finished that journey from England to America.  The John B. Thayer memorial collection on the sinking of Titanic is about the survivors and includes first hand accounts of the sinking and some really fabulous letters from Bruce Ismay to Marian Thayer, in which we learn that surviving the sinking may have been nearly as tragic as not surviving.

Thayer_familyphotosThe Thayers were just what one would expect from the first-class passengers on the Titanic:  a railroad executive from Main Line Philadelphia traveling with his lovely wife and intelligent and ambitious son, Jack.  The railroad executive, John B. Thayer, did not come home–he drowned in the Atlantic Ocean and his remains were never found.  His wife, Marian, and his son, John B. Thayer (“Jack”), did survive and life went on … but with quite a bit of suffering.

Jack wrote about his experiences on the Titanic on three occasions.  The first was a Thayer_accountstatement to the press immediately following the sinking, and although vivid in detail, this account contains no reflection.  In fact, reading it now makes me think that it was provided by someone in shock.  Twenty years later, Jack had quite a bit of perspective.  He wrote:

The spectacle of nearly 1,500 people struggling in the ice-cold waters of the Atlantic, and the steady roar of their voices, which kept up for 15 or 20 minutes, is a memory that does not become dim, even after 20 years.

Eight years later, in 1940, still struggling with his memories, Jack wrote again, this time for his family.  This account was published and provides a fascinating glimpse into his memories, almost thirty years after the event.

Jack’s mother, Marian, began corresponding with Bruce Ismay, the CEO of the White Star Line which commissioned the Titanic, less than a month after the sinking and they continued to exchange letters for about one year.  Ismay may have survived the sinking of the ship, but he was a tortured soul from that day forward.  Although Marian’s letters are not included in the collection, her suffering is evident from Ismay’s responses.  A constant refrain in Ismay’s letters is his wish to ease Marian’s grief and loss.  The year following the sinking was filled with sadness and Ismay responded to one of her letters on May 5, 1912, stating,  “as you say, the easiest way would be to join those who have gone before, I well know the feeling.”

Thayer_ismayHistory has not been kind to Bruce Ismay, portraying him, from the time of the tragedy to present day, as a coward for accepting a place on a lifeboat when women and children remained on the ship.  It is difficult to say how much of his depression resulted from guilt, although Ismay clearly stated his lack of guilt and responsibility following British and American inquiries into the sinking during the summer of 1912.  After being questioned at both inquiries, Ismay wrote to Marian in August 1912, “I cannot blame myself in anyway for the awful disaster and had no more to do with it than you had.  Still, horrible accusations were made against me.”  Marian Thayer did not seem to view Ismay as a coward, nor did she appear to hold him responsible for the death of her husband.  Regardless, life after the Titanic was not easy for Ismay.  He wrote, “I have been very depressed lately and have lost all desire for living and see no future for me.”

The future for the Thayers was also a sad one.  Marian Thayer never remarried and her son Jack, while leading a busy and successful life, does not appear to have ever truly recovered from the sinking.  Jack graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, fought in World War I, worked in banking (eventually returning to the University of Pennsylvania in a professional capacity), and had a family.  Depression must have run close to the surface, however, and it resulted in his death by his own hand in 1945, following news that one of his sons had died while serving in World War II.

So, this year, while I am remembering 1,500 people who died the night between April 14 and April 15 more than a hundred years ago, I will also take a moment to think of those who survived and lived with their memories, guilt, and depression throughout their lives.

Maximo and Bartola and the myth of Iximaya

While cataloging a volume of nineteenth century anthropologic and ethnographic pamphlets on the Indians of North America, this pamphlet jumped out with its typographically festive message of cultural imperialism and racialization:FrontwrapperVelasquez, Pedro.   Memoir of an eventful expedition in Central America : resulting in the discovery of the idolatrous city of Iximaya, in an unexplored region, and the possession of two remarkable Aztec children, descendants and specimens of the sacerdotal caste (now nearly extinct) of the ancient Aztec founders of the ruined temples of that country / described by John L. Stevens, Esq., and other travellers ; translated from the Spanish of Pedro Velasquez, of San Salvador.

New York : E.F. Applegate …, 1850. 35, [1] p. : ill. ; 22 cm.

Cataloging this pamphlet turned up an extremely sad history involving the kidnapping of two children from El Salvador, nineteenth century conceptions of race and disability in America and Europe, and P. T. Barnum and the American circus freak show. The pamphlet Memoir of an eventful expedition in Central America helps tell the story of the construction of racial and ethnic others during the period of the birth of American anthropology.

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In its nondescript cloth binding, the University of Pennsylvania’s copy of The Works of Publius Virgilius Maro Translated by John Ogilby (London : T. Maxey, 1650) at first appears unremarkable. However, the book’s association with the infamous 19th c. forger Harry Buxton Forman (1842-1917) makes it noteworthy. When this volume of Virgil’s works in the Latin Culture Class Collection was rebound, the binder took care to preserve Forman’s bookplate by affixing it to the title page. LatC V5874 Eg1 1650 H. Buxton Forman was a respected bookman of his time. He was a bibliophile and scholar, establishing his reputation with bibliographies of Shelley and Keats. During his years of book collecting and literary pursuits Forman developed a friendship with T.J. Wise (1859-1937), also a collector and respected bibliographer. Their friendship ultimately took a criminal turn as they used their combined bibliographic expertise to fabricate dozens of counterfeit works.

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The Francis Campbell Macaulay Autograph Collection

Since finishing work on the Richard Bartlett Gregg papers I have been processing the Francis Campbell Macaulay autograph collection.  As of this writing, that project is complete and the family of collections open to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania has gained a new member.  Its finding aide can be found here.


Francis Campbell Macaulay was a Philadelphia lawyer of the 19th century.  His relations include Charles Stewart and Charles Stewart McCauley, two American naval heroes of the War of 1812 and the Civil War.  Like his predecessors, the lawyerly Francis left behind a solid legacy.  For example, in 1888 he successfully proposed to Dr. William Pepper and other Penn leaders the establishment of a “Museum of American Archaeology” at the university.  When the museum opened in the old University Library building (now the Fisher Fine Arts Library) Macaulay became an early benefactor by donating several Anglo-Saxon artifacts from his private collection.  Macaulay’s brainchild grew into the present-day University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, so next time you visit or walk by, spare a thought the gentleman who conceived it!  However, beyond this Macaulay has merited few attestations on the World Wide Web, even fewer than Richard Bartlett Gregg.  Furthermore, since the collection contained none of Macaulay’s correspondence, I feel like I know the autograph-collecting esquire far less than I came to know the down-to-earth social philosopher.  However, the comparatively little I have gleaned from the collection and online sources lead me to think Macaulay must have approached the ideal of a lettered gentleman in his lifetime.   In addition to his archaeological advocacy and his legal practice (which I imagine must have made him rather wealthy, given the social circles he ran in and the content of his leisure activities), Macaulay was a dedicated literary enthusiast, particularly for Italian Renaissance literature.  He was a member of the Dante Society, a learned circle of Renaissance aficionados, and collected numerous early editions of Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Torquato Tasso which he generously donated to the University in 1896.  Accompanying this veritable light-show of Western literary talent was a somewhat miscellaneous collection of autographs and vocabulary notebooks.  This is the collection I have completed processing as of this writing.  


Macaulay evidently dedicated a portion of his leisure time to compiling a vocabulary of the dialect of Nice in southern France and to collecting autographs like some people collect cats.  The notebooks are in rough shape, but are admirably thorough.  They have been safely re-housed in individual folders in an archival box, and comprise the second series of the collection.  The first was already well-preserved and safely housed.  It comprises the autographs of well-known (or at least once well-known) literary figures, political leaders, scientists, and other public intellectuals.  Many of them, including that of the great Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto, were Italian, as befit Macaulay’s interests.  However, our intrepid lawyer didn’t limit himself to them.  There was also a stray but nonetheless very cool autograph from Alexandre Dumas himself!  Macaulay also had a fledgling collection of presidents’ autographs, including those of Thomas Jefferson, James Buchanan, Millard Fillmore and – somewhat humorously – an envelope addressed by Martin Van Buren.  I suppose as long as it had a president’s handwriting on it, it was fair game!  Macaulay also had a series of signed documents and letters relating to the lives and careers of his naval ancestors Charles Stewart and C.S. McCauley.      

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Humor during World War 1: French Propaganda in the archive of Richard Norris Williams

The Special Collections Processing Center is pleased to welcome Aleth Tisseau des Escotais.  Aleth, a student at École Nationale Superiéure des Sciences de l’Information et des Bibliothèques in France, is working with us from February to April, as part of her training in libraries.  She will be working on a number of collections during her time with us, and will be reporting on her collections and her experiences working with archival collections in the United States.  Her first post follows:

World War 1 is well-known for its over 16 million deaths, 20 million wounded, and 7 million imprisoned, along with the dramatic living conditions of the soldiers in the trenches. It should have been a short-lived war, but eventually it turned out to be a long-lasting and stalemated conflict. More than ever, it was important to keep one’s chin up. This is the goal of the propaganda found within the R. Norris Williams collection of World War I material.  R. Norris Williams, a soldier in World War I and General Harbord’s aide de camp, collected an excellent group of humorous French propaganda documents, a few of which will be highlighted below.

2014-02-25 13-56-17On the one hand, they laugh at their enemies. The French propaganda describes the German soldiers as ogres or monsters. Their chief, Kaiser Wilhelm II, is its main target, nothing is spared from him. Many jokes lack subtlety, as you can see on the following picture. On this toilet paper, a “Boche” sticks his tongue out in order to catch his food. The inscription says: “Donnez-moi mon dessert du 11 août S.V.P.”, that is “Please give me my August 11 dessert”.

2014-02-25 13-57-52On the other hand, they can also use self-mockery. Making fun of themselves and their tragic situation allow them to put things into perspective and accept them more easily. In the newspaper L’Exilé written in the prisoner-of-war camp of Hammelburg, in January 1917, we can read this comic article where one of the prisoners gives a funny portrayal of himself and his fellow inmates. The author, Crapouillot, describes in a scientific way the “Françousse”, an unknown red, blue and khaki only-male animal who appeared in the Hammelburg area, in Bavaria, Germany, about two years ago, who lives inside a wire enclosure and feeds himself mainly with potatoes. On the left is an excerpt from this article.

croppedHumor is not a French prerogative. I will end this post by showing you an extract from an American “confidential and secret” leaflet, “for distribution by aeroplane”, entitled “Summary of Unintelligence”:

The R. Norris Williams collection of World War I material is now available for research.

You can see more World War I propaganda in the World War I Printed Media and Art Collection (to which R. Norris Williams material has been added).

Reflections on the Richard Bartlett Gregg Papers

Salvete, fellow libronauts!  As the old hymn goes, “the strife is o’er, the battle done.”  The Culture Class Collection has been successfully cataloged, and so off we all go to new pastures.  I was originally hired to help get the Culture Class Collection cataloged on time, but Regan has been more than gracious and kind.  She has retained me beyond the expiration of my original purpose, and I am now on the archives side of our operation.  Under Holly Mengel’s tutelage I have completed my first project, the archiving of the Richard Bartlett Gregg papers.  Through it I gained experience reorganizing a collection, using Archivists’ Toolkit, and creating a finding aid.  This experience however has been more than a training session.  It’s been an unquestionable high point of all my work at the Van Pelt Library.  This project elicited a number of powerful emotions and filled my head with quite a few thoughts.  The following reflections comprise my attempt to untangle them and lay them out for you, and to make clear what an absolute privilege we enjoy when working on projects such as this.

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If John Mauchly was a superhero …

… he would have been called DATAMAN! What he did with data (collecting, creating, analyzing, and saving) certainly required skills that are beyond the typical human.  To provide a little background, Mauchly was the co-inventer of the first computer, ENIAC, which was developed here at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Engineering in 1946.  His co-inventor, J. Prosper Eckert, and he continued to work together on other computer related projects, including the first commercial computer, the EDVAC.

When I started working on this massive collection (approximately 500 linear feet of material), I was baffled by the sheer volume and types of data that Mauchly collected and saved.  But as I get to know Mauchly, I understand, more and more, why he was such a data pack-rat!  It is just how his brain worked and how he learned — and it how his brain ALWAYS worked and how he ALWAYS learned.

boys-quizMay I introduce you to DataBoy, DataMan’s early persona?  It turns out that as early as age 10, Mauchly was actively collecting data and recording it in a nice, standardized format.  What did DataBoy collect information on at age 10?  Why, his friends’ likes and dislikes, of course!  I have not found that Mauchly analyzed any of this data, so  I did a quick and incomplete analysis:  Douglas Fairbanks and Marguerite Clarke were the clear winners in the favorite actor and actress categories; ice cream was the favorite dessert, followed by pineapple, brown betty, and pie; and blue was the favorite color.  One snarky ten-year-old listed flirting as his favorite sport and kissing as his favorite game!  Scandalous!

In addition to learning all this outstanding information about a group of ten to eleven-year-olds in Chevy Chase, Maryland in 1918, we have evidence of  Mauchly’s delightfully charming methodology to ensure that the same questions were asked of each kid.  Both boys and girls filled out the data request in separate sections of the notebook (they are ten, after all), and in a happy coincidence, Mauchly and “his girl” both identified each other as their special person.

diary_1diary2Things only became more structured for DataBoy in his high school years. The collection includes a couple of Mauchly’s diaries in which he records a great deal of data:  when he went to sleep, when he awoke, the number of hours he slept, and where and how he spent his evenings.  I was entertained and awed by his discipline, but I was thunderstruck when I discovered that he had used his data to prove his mother wrong in an argument about his staying out too late too many evenings.  Not only does he present his argument in “The Somerset Affair,” but he provides supplements to the data!

special_attentionsBy college at Johns Hopkins University, DataBoy was evolving into DataMan, if for no other reason than the subject of his data; in this case:  “Girls to whom I have given special attentions!”  Not only does he record the lady’s name, but also the number of times and the reason for giving the ladies his special attentions (with a numeric code)!  Don’t worry, he defined the code: 1. Because I wanted to; 2. Because I thought she wanted me to; 3. Both of the above; and 4. Because I wanted to see what would happen.

So, after learning about Mauchly’s love of data as a boy, is it really surprising that he collected and saved boxes and boxes (and boxes) of weather data?  That he kept more than fifty boxes of scholarly (and not-so-scholarly) journals? That he recorded from whom he received Christmas gifts and if and how those gifts were reciprocated each year?  No, it is not surprising and that is why archival collections, and especially collections as rich as Mauchly’s, are so amazing–no one piece of paper tells the whole story, but taken as a whole … oh, what a delightful tale this collection tells!

Keep an eye out for more posts on Mauchly … every box presents another fascinating picture of who this man was and how he was able to create the first computer!

What I am Thankful For from My RBC Experience

As I move into the spring semester of my second and final (at least that’s the plan!) post-baccalaureate year here at Penn, and thus my final months at the Van Pelt Library, I cannot help but look towards the future and consider the gifts rare book cataloging has given me.  From a young age I have believed that no endeavor to which I have devoted considerable time and effort should become an isolated, hermetically sealed episode of my life with no influence or bearing on what I do next.  Rather, each great experience is a perennial gift.  If the lessons imparted are learned from, then each job, each volunteer opportunity, and each adventure builds on top of all the preceding ones in a continuous cycle of improvement and enrichment.  All that is required is a willingness to reflect upon the experience and receive and understand the blessings it has to offer.

At the moment, I am in the midst of applying to six M.A. programs in classical archaeology at schools across the U.S. and Canada.  My primary plan for the future is to become a classical archaeologist, teaching at the college level and conducting field research in the summers.  I have no idea whether this will pan out or not, given the tight academic job market and the impending burst of the higher education bubble.  However, I truly love the field, and as such contributing to it remains my Plan A.  My primary interest is the layout of ancient cities, but I intend for that to be expanded and informed by two years of study in a Master’s program and five more in pursuit of a PhD, after which I am very much on God’s good humor when it comes to the teaching market.  As such, in keeping with my father’s advice to always have multiple fallbacks, if classical archaeology doesn’t work out I am considering reskilling in architecture, electrical work or carpentry, or achieving certification to teach Latin in public schools (a market for which there is, surprisingly, a great demand).  Another avenue – oh so obvious, given the blog I’m writing this for, eh? – is library science.  Whatever I settle on, I am utterly thankful for these three blessings of my rare book cataloging experience.

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Found: One Incunable!

As a rare books cataloger, I have learned to trust my predecessors.  (Or, as one of my instructors in the art of bibliography put it, to cheat.)  The notes they have left about an item are usually correct; the habit of checking for such indications has spared me many times from reinventing the wheel.  But every now and then I do have to play wheelwright:  updating old conclusions with new research, remedying oversights, correcting errors.

And occasionally — very, very occasionally — I find something everyone else has missed.

According to its shelf-list card, Folio GC5 H7480R 522d in the Penn Libraries German Culture Class Collection contains two items:

An edict describing measures, financial and other, to meet the threat of the Turks, given at Coblenz in 1522(?) … With this is a 14-line broadside … designed to accompany this or a similar proclamation, and announcing a meeting of the Reichstag in 1523.

The University of Pennsylvania purchased these items in 1955 from a Dutch antiquarian bookseller, A.L. van Gendt.  Their accession record notes that they were acquired with a set of sixteenth-century broadsides, primarily decrees of the Holy Roman Empire.  The shelf-list card quotes the accession record’s description of the 1522 edict verbatim, suggesting that the identification came from van Gendt.  He, in turn, may have been following a German note penciled at the foot of the document’s first page:

Beschlüsse … der Reichsstände zu Coblenz zur Abwendung der Türken- u. Franzosengefahr!  Ca. 1522 [i.e. Decisions ... of the estates at Koblenz for averting the threat of the Turks and the French! Ca. 1522]

Since this item is otherwise undated, it seems likely that the impetus to assign it to the early sixteenth century comes from its association with the 14-line broadside publicizing the diet at Nuremberg in 1523.

Unfortunately for van Gendt’s bottom line, however, the two are unrelated.

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My Rare Book Cataloging Adventure: A Student’s Perspective – The Sequel

Hello again fellow libronauts, and Happy New Year!  A year ago I wrote a post detailing my experiences as a student worker in rare book cataloging.  I had only been on the job for approximately three months when I wrote that.  Now that I have twelve more months of cataloging under my belt, Regan has asked me to write a follow-up, and I am more than eager to share my new experiences and reflections upon them.

Since my first post I have completed my first year of post-baccalaureate study in Greek and Latin here at Penn and am now midway through my second.  Throughout that period I’ve moved desks, had my first experience handling manuscripts, and cataloged many more works.  When I wrote last, I had completed two volumes of French laws from the height of the Reign of Terror, myriad broadsides from the Duchy of Braunschweig-Luneburg, a series of Italian civic ordinances, and an index of Spanish plays.  While this wide swath of materials took me all over Europe at the end of 2012, in 2013 my work has generally kept me in the Germanic world with a great deal of Dutch and German legal writing.

The year began with the long-awaited conclusion of the Braunschweig project (I know that was a great weight off of Regan’s shoulders) and the return of – drum roll for the dread to build – a project known by the very descriptive title of “Big Dutch Things.”  They are exactly that.  Big dusty volumes consisting of acts passed by the national legislative bodies of the Batavian Republic.  I wish I could give you all one single more descriptive title than “national legislative bodies,” but unfortunately history itself puts the kibosh to my preference for preciseness.  The Batavian Republic was a sister republic (aka, complete puppet state) of the French First Republic from 1795 to the creation of the Kingdom of Holland by Napoleon in 1806.  Over that period, the Batavian Republic seemed determined to set a record for the number of differently-named national legislative organs, switching them out seemingly by the year.  They ran through such names as “States-General” and “National Assembly” before finally being superseded by the authoritarian post of “Grand Pensionary” lead by an individual with the eminently Dutch name of Rutger Jan Schimmelpenninck. (As amazing as this gentleman’s name is, the coolest Dutch name [literally] I came across in these documents was “Bastien Cool.”  I believe it will be years before I discover a name which beats that one.  It sounds like the name of a character someone needs to copyright.)  Schimmelpenninck was replaced a year later by Napoleon’s brother.  Just as the Braunschweig broadsides inspired me to learn more about the duchy and its dukes, the Big Dutch Things encouraged research into the context surrounding them.  The colorful nature of the period covered by the Big Dutch Things is not always communicated by their contents, which deal with the minutiae of agricultural law, civil government, and travel regulations.  Like the French Revolution laws I’d cataloged the year before, in which utterly mundane matters were dealt with while “enemies” of the Republic were guillotined, the Big Dutch Things served as a poignant reminder of how even in extraordinary times, the ordinary business of daily life goes on.  Perhaps this is one reason we sometimes feel our lives are “boring” or not exciting enough.  Plenty of interesting things are going on in the world, but the routine of our daily lives lulls us into thinking little is going on.

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