Tea. Earl Grey. Cream Puffs.

I have a lot of tea. Like…a lot a lot. No, seriously, I won a twenty pound box of assorted loose teas a couple of years ago. It’s really a lot. So imagine my elation when I stumbled across the Bigelow Tea Recipes book in Victus Populi.

2015-01-16 15-43 page #0

Finally, I thought, a way to use up some of that tea without having to drink all of it! I mean, as much as I love my tea (earl grey hot, please), twenty pounds at 1.5 teaspoons per cup is too much to drink, especially when you work in a food-and-drink-free zone like the SCPC (because if we were allowed to have drinks at our desk, someone (almost definitely me) would wind up spilling their drink and ruining priceless manuscripts).

Twenty pounds of tea might even be too much for my dear Captain Picard

Twenty pounds of tea might even be too much for my dear Captain Picard

When Victus Populi furnished a recipe for Earl Grey Cream Puffs, I knew what I had to do. So I did it. And it was delicious.

side 1

Make them! Make them now!

The recipe is actually deceptively simple, thanks to the magic of Jell-O pudding. Seriously, don’t knock it before you try it! The whole thing came together in about fifteen minutes of prep time and baked up really quickly. I used a slightly shorter cooking time because I decided to make mini cream puffs since, you know, it’s the new year, so I’m being healthy. Eating three mini cream puffs is definitely better than eating one regular sized cream puff…right?


SEE! There’s a strawberry! It’s healthy!!!

The only other modification I made is the addition of one teaspoon of my mom’s homemade vanilla extract to the filling. I’m sure it would be delicious without it, but if I make these again (which I most certainly will will), I will definitely add the vanilla again. I might also steep the tea a bit longer or use a larger ratio of tea leaves to water, since the tea flavor was not as pronounced as I had hoped it would be. That said, the recipe as-is is an excellent dessert for tea lovers and non-fans alike. I also imagine that they would taste incredible with coffee substituted for the tea, maybe with a bit of orange zest in the batter or chocolate pudding instead of vanilla in the filling.

I’ve posted a scan of the recipe, but please feel free to try as many versions as you can dream up. I’d love to hear from anyone who makes these or tries a variation on them. Let me know how yours turned out!

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with tea

And, of course, enjoy with a cup of tea!

Andreas Brown and the World of Postcards

One of the most fascinating things about processing an archive is discovering the hidden worlds within it. The project on which I’m currently working, the Gotham Book Mart archive, is particularly interesting this regard. The iconic New York bookstore was central in the development of Modernism and American small-press poetry throughout the 20th century, and the archive is certainly of interest for anyone exploring these worlds, but there are other – perhaps odder – universes contained within it as well: for example, a large and impressive collection of postcards.

Andreas Brown, the owner of the Book Mart from 1967 until its closing, was one of the most well-known postcard collectors (the technical term is “deltiologist”) in America. Like many of the most serious deltiologists, his collection focused on “real photo” postcards: a short-lived style that appeared in the early twentieth century, in which the front of the card was a piece of undeveloped photo paper, allowing for a customizable – and sometimes one-of-a-kind – image. photo 1-1

But Brown’s collection contains many other kinds of cards, as well: panoramic cards, cards that also served as paper fans, and (my personal favorite!) a series of promotional cards for a Russian production of one of Chekhov’s lesser known plays, “Ivanov.”

Taken on their own, these cards are impressive enough, but what makes them especially fascinating is the context which surrounds them. See, Andreas Brown wasn’t simply a collector; as one of the most famous collectors in America, he was also a member of a national deltiological community which, in the pre-internet world, meant he received a great number of newsletters from postcard clubs across the country: the Maple City Postcard Club; the Pacific Northwest Postcard Bulletin; and, of course, the organization which Brown himself helped found, the Metropolitan Poscard Collector.

And, of course, Brown developed a relationship with individual collectors, too, many of whom sent him personalized cards during National Postcard Week. Besides being notable for their range of design style (and, frankly, skill), the cards are interesting for the window they give into the lives of their creators. Who can resist young Barbara Ellen, with her space-related collection? Here’s hoping that she completed sixth grade successfully!
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This is what I meant by hidden worlds. It’s remarkable to think about (or, if you have the historical perspective, to remember) just how many of these small mail-order organizations there were in America – almost all of which have been rendered irrelevant by the web – and how many people’s lives were influenced by the networks they helped support. As J.P. Hartley famously put it in his novel The Go-Between, “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Sometimes, in the act of processing, it can be helpful to stop and consider the customs of the countries one is continually discovering, and their relation to our own.

Staying healthy, 1920s style

The new year has come and gone and the holiday frenzy has finally ended. As we spend the next two months writing the wrong year on everything, we feel the chill of winter creeping its way around us as well. It’s important to stay healthy during these cold months when the first signs of winter colds develop, even if it does sound ideal to curl up on the couch in sweatpants, mug of green tea clutched in a vise grip, quilt wrapped tightly around your shoulders as you binge watch every season of Friends that Netflix so graciously gifted us this past holiday season. All that and more could be yours but without the disadvantages of sniffling and coughing.

As I prepared for the winter months and stock piled supplies like an apocalypse prepper, I thought of a pamphlet I saw in a collection I had recently worked on. The young man was named David B. Walker and I had the privilege to catalog his school notebooks. He attended several public schools in the West Philadelphia area. It was incredibly fascinating to see how education has changed since the 1920s and early 30s when Mr. Walker was in school. One of the things I came across from his school days was a ninth grade health project he made. image(5)The pamphlet really exemplifies how differently health was viewed in the 1920s as opposed to now. And rightfully so, since, you know, this was a prominent problem then:imageIt’s featured on the very first page of the pamphlet. We have a lot to be thankful for here in 2015. But, if you, like me, are worried about the inevitable epidemic of sickness that always comes around this time of year, perhaps a few tips from Mr. Walker’s pamphlet could be of service to you.

1.) Wash food that needs to be washed, including lettuce that you’re going to put slices of pears on. And always put your food into clean bowls, especially if you’re serving your brunch guests shiny peach slices in a huge bowl. It certainly pays to insist.image(3)2.) Air your bed clothes out every day. Wave those PJs in the air like you just don’t care (to be sick, that is). image(4)3.) If the outside of your house looks clean then germs won’t mess with you. And your neighbors will think you have your life together and your health on lock. Don’t mind the giant maids sweeping the sidewalk in the background – it was alllll you who cleaned that lawn! Go you!image(1)4.) And finally, invest in a Cleanerette. You can even “cleanerette” your clothes! It can help you out if you don’t want to wave those bedclothes around every morning. Clean those rooms once a week with your electrical appliances and let the healthy vibes flow on through.image(2)These are just a few of the tips that can be found in this pamphlet and only a glimpse at the collection itself. All joking aside, it’s always wonderful to be able to take a trip through time here at the Special Collections processing Center. Every day I get to see how people in the past thought, how they wrote, what they thought was important. The advertising was different, the colors, the art. It’s amazing to see the types of media people were exposed to and to think about how those forms shaped how they thought. So the next time I see advertisements for how to stay healthy, I’m probably going to think of this little pamphlet and how different everything is but also how it’s sort of the same. I mean, it is our own responsibility to stay healthy and we should all do our part to lead happy lives. Perhaps this will be the season and the year where we all get sick less. And if not, well, there’s always that Friends marathon…


New Year’s Resolutions

Happy (slightly-belated) new year, reader-friends! I hope you’ve all had lovely holidays and are as excited to get back to work as I am (seriously, I love my job!!!). With the new year, of course, comes the New Year’s resolution. Research at the University of Scranton shows that the number one resolution that Americans made in 2014 is to lose weight and that 38% of Americans made some kind of weight-related resolution. The same study also shows that only about 8% of Americans succeed at keeping their resolution for the entire year. That is not a pretty statistic.

But never fear, Victus Populi is here to help! Yes, reader-friends, that’s right. The print collection that brought you not one, but TWO full boxes of jiggly, gelatin-based desserts has an entire box marked “Healthy Cooking,” and its contents are magnificent. The items inside range from the gentle…

sunny side of life

Copyright 1934 by Kellogg Company

…to the less-than-believable…

weight watchers

Copyright 1961 by Hunt Foods and Industries, Inc.

…to the blunt…


Metropolitan Life Insurance Company

…to the…resigned?

so you have to lose weight

Am I the only one who thinks this title could make a great start to a Broadway production number?; Metropolitan Life Insurance Company

But perhaps you have also resolved to get more in touch with your cultural heritage. Well, Victus Populi has your back there, too. You can taste your ancestral cookery and lose weight at the same time. Prepare to enter “The Fascinating World of Gourmet Eating (With Calorie Control),” which sounds much more exciting if you ignore the part in parentheses.

fascinating world 1

Copyright 1967 by the Wm. S. Merrell Company

This 1967 pamphlet includes recipes from various international cuisines. In an attempt to get in touch with my cultural heritage, I flipped to the section on Jewish recipes, and there I found this:

fascinating world 2

This doesn’t not sound like my Jewish grandma, except she was usually trying to fatten me up rather than slim me down.

So if you can’t diet without giving up your bagel with a schmear and some lox, then mazel tov! You’re good to go.

And once you’re on track with your resolution, be sure to remember that Victus Populi has fifty other boxes, including eight filled with dessert recipes, so you can reward yourself with a treat!

Or, you could just adopt this guy’s strategy:

Victus Populi page #17

Copyright 1964 by Cameron & Co

Adalbert Riedl collection of prayer and song leaflets

2014-12-08 15.17.55Processing the “Adalbert Riedl collection of prayer and song leaflets” was quite enjoyable for several reasons having to do with its material qualities, and it was also relatively easy, because it had been pre-arranged and had a typed paper inventory. It allowed me to learn about a region of world I didn’t know too much about (Burgenland in Eastern Austria), made me brush off my high school and college German, and provided seemingly endless visual stimulation, what with so many great religious and secular illustrations included on most of the pamphlets. It also was fascinating from the standpoint of printing and illustration history, as it covered a wide period of time, from at least 1746 to 1929 and perhaps later.

2014-12-11 09.47.16The short story about Adalbert Riedl is that he was an Austrian teacher, politician, museum director, collector, and folklorist (for more information, please see the Biographical note in the online finding aid). After going into education and then dabbling in party politics (a stint in Dachau concentration camp seems to have taken care of that ambition), Riedl settled down to work at and eventually run the Burgenland State Museum (Landesmuseum Burgenland) in Eisenstadt, Austria. There he championed the folklore of his native region and wrote several books on the subject. While the content of the pamphlet collection is not only from this region, it is representative of Riedl’s interest in collecting the cultural production of a given area. Continue reading

Anniversary of another Marian Anderson milestone

Marian Anderson after her Met debut, 7 January 1955

Sixty years ago today, when the contralto Marian Anderson appeared at the Metropolitan Opera as the fortune teller Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, she was the first African-American to sing a solo role at the preeminent opera house.  The Marian Anderson Papers (Ms. Coll. 200), one of the treasures of the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, include not only photographs from that groundbreaking performance, but also rehearsal notices from the Met, the program from the performance, and responses from the press and admirers.

When the Metropolitan Opera signed Anderson the previous fall, New Yorker James Comegys sent a telegram of congratulations:  “It’s edifying that Bing has sought you to honor the Met by its belated invitation; not as chicken hearted as Stokowsky who ducked you for years in Philadelphia … I can now make peace with the Met.”  Four days after the New York premiere, on January 11, the Metropolitan production took the stage at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, and Philadelphians claimed Anderson as their own.  William D. Wilson III wrote, “Besides seeing you in New York as Ulrica I managed to see ‘The Masked Ball’ here in Philadelphia.  As you must know, we Philadelphians are very proud of our great contralto and we all look forward to seeing you perform here soon again.”

Let them Eat Horrified Gingerbread Boy Cake!

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present to you my latest collection: Victus Populi, a rather large collection of cookery pamphlets from throughout the 20th Century donated by Chef Fritz Blank.

It. Is. Fabulous.

I’ve only just started working with Victus Populi, and I am already completely enthralled. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that the first box Regan handed me was titled “Cakes.” Some of the cakes are deliciously tempting (I’m looking at you, Orange Rum Yum Cake), but my personal favorites are the ones that look absolutely ridiculous, the very best of which, in my opinion, is this layer cake featuring a small troupe of absolutely horrified gingerbread boys.

Recipe and image from Betty Crocker's Cakes Kids Love, 1969

Recipe and image from Betty Crocker’s Cakes Kids Love, 1969

Like I said, it’s fabulous. Doesn’t that gingerbread boy look like he’s just seen something AWFUL? This would be a perfect cake for a holiday party gone terribly awry or a Christmas-themed horror movie party (yes, they exist) because it is the stuff of wintertime nightmares.

What I’m really saying is: please, somebody make this cake and post pictures of it in the comments.

Cigarette and Trade Cards: For Non-Smokers, too!

A recent collection of mine, Dr. Daniel and Eleanor Albert collection of cigarette and trade cards, here at the Special Collections Processing Center contained a little over 1,400 cigarette and trade cards. When these six binders were wheeled down to my desk and I saw the sheer number of cards carefully sealed inside their little plastic squares, I grimaced. I had no idea what cigarette cards were; I was born in the 90’s and my childhood consisted of Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! cards – and I’ve never been a smoker – so why would I be interested? Why should anyone be interested? You couldn’t do anything with them (like duel or play a rousing game of Rummy), so who cares? I found out exactly why as soon as I cataloged the very first card.

Cigarette and trade cards are really cool (and totally for non-smokers, too!).

Originally, cigarette cards were simply cardboard stiffeners that cigarette companies would use inside their cartons to help hold their shape. Trade cards were also receipt-like slips at their beginning, only needed to show purchase history. Then, both of these card types evolved into something much bigger: collectible items. Companies would manufacture sets of these little stiff squares and use them for advertising, urging the public to collect the entire set. These sets also had various subjects. Famous characters from literature, cries heard in the streets of London, and optical illusions were among the most popular. Artists could be employed to make a set for a company, using their creativity to produce beautifully drawn scenes with bright colors and quirky characters. These cards became so much more than cardboard inserts.

Cigarette and trade cards are actually highly collected ephemera, widely known and traded around the world in the inner circle of collectors. This collection itself has cards of several different languages, including French, German, and Chinese. These cards reflect each culture in the way they are drawn, the subjects they depict, and the companies that sponsor them. Looking through the some 1,400 cards was incredibly enjoyable and I hadn’t even realized just how many there were until I went to proof my work, I enjoyed them that much. The artwork on some are so beautiful for being printed on little cards, some smaller than a standard index card. Several of these cards definitely put my 90’s game cards to shame (as if they’re winning any awards for art, anyway). I certainly encourage those who did not know about cigarette and trade cards to look a few up, maybe even start a collection of their own, because they’re definitely not just for smokers or people from the late 1800s, and, you know, some of them wouldn’t look bad framed and on a wall…

The Charles Mulford Robinson papers

The Charles Mulford Robinson papers composed a landmark collection for me in many ways.  It was the most extensive collection I’d worked on in terms of variety of materials, it was the most initially disorganized, and it was my last.  I completed it on Monday, July 28, 2014, my last day working here at the Van Pelt Library.  Bittersweet as it is to leave, I am very pleased with the challenge and topic the Robinson papers presented me.

Charles Mulford Robinson (1869-1917) is an interesting example of a lauded celebrity from his own time who has since virtually disappeared from popular and even historical recollection.  During his life, Robinson was celebrated as the first American city planner and an early advocate of the “City Beautiful” movement.  After about a decade as a newspaper editor based out of Rochester, New York, Robinson developed a reputation for thoughtful ideas and judgments on city appearance and improvement.  Soon he was being invited by various cities and town in the capacity of “civic adviser” to tour them and offer suggestions on their improvement and beautification in line with the “City Beautiful” principles developed initially by Daniel Burnham in Chicago.  He produced reports and newspaper articles containing his advice for communities as different in size as in geographic location from Freeport, Illinois and Hannibal, Missouri to Syracuse, New York, Denver, Colorado and Honolulu, Hawaii.  The esteem he received from this earned him a professorship of urban planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a post in fact created especially for him, and the second of its kind in the country, the first being located and filled at Harvard.  He died suddenly at Albany at the young age of 48 from pneumonia in 1917.  Now, 97 years after his celebrated life, our nation’s first native-born city planner who was recognized as such is probably a new name to most of you, and his Wikipedia article is only three short paragraphs in length.  I find that to be a good warning for those who worship and seek celebrity: even if it is obtained based on the merits of your accomplishments, there is no guarantee that any number of people will remember you after your death.  To adapt some recent terminology, in the long-haul, those who join the ranks of Cicero and St. Paul are the 1%.

As an aspiring classical archaeologist interested in comparative urbanism across the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, I was very pleased to work with the papers of a city planner.  However, as I worked through the quasi-organized documents, I realized the collection would more reflect Robinson himself than his city planning activities.  The collection contains a few of his civic advising reports, but for the most part contains newspaper articles about him, personal papers, and personal items.  As such I got to know Robinson the man more than Robinson the city planner.  No matter, for Robinson was an interesting, agreeable individual who approached the Platonic ideal of a late 19th/early 20th-century gentleman.  His papers show him to be a conscientious, learned individual involved in his community.  The set of papers I eventually organized as the collection’s first series consists of a number of newspaper clippings and letters Robinson collected related to the 1912 controversy in Rochester over the planned construction of tenements under the auspices of George Eastman, the philanthropic founder of Kodak.  Eastman’s move was heavily opposed by elements of the Rochester community, including Robinson, who solidly believed Rochester should remain a city of single-family homes. In addition, he objected to safety hazards inherent in the tenements’ design, such as no fire escapes, no fireproof (i.e., brick-encased) interior stairways, and a complex which would have made heavy use of wood as a construction material.  In the end, Eastman lost and the tenements were not built.  Through this, Robinson showed himself to be possessed of the predominate sensibilities of his time, namely that the comparatively underprivileged of society should be taken care of and that civic virtue and integrity should be preserved and encouraged via a beautiful city.  Indeed, his correspondence and other papers show him to run in the Progressive circles of the time.  We have preserved letters from such Progressive personalities as the economist Richard T. Ely, Unitarian minister and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and outspoken labor leader Samuel Gompers.  One of the newspaper clippings from 1916 contains a photograph of pacifists attending an annual conference the year before the United States entered World War I, in which Robinson can be seen standing in the second row.  For some reason also preserved in the collection was a number of excised autographs of Susan B. Anthony, apparently clipped out from letters.  Now personally I’d prefer the letters had been preserved in their entirety, because I’d like to know what Susan B. Anthony was saying in them, but here we have another example of what different time periods and individuals find valuable.

Even more than the correspondence (which was littered with club acceptance cards and other ephemera which only let us track Robinson’s social involvements), I enjoyed the poems, prose, and hymns Robinson authored in his spare time.  We have a number of them in various states of progress, from fully published ones to manuscripts on scrap paper with strike-throughs and corrections.  Proving Robinson had a gentlemanly sardonic humor, one poem is in fact the text of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” with humorous lyrics about the stock market and other present-day institutions.  The most memorable piece of Robinson’s prose for me was his piece entitled “Westward Ho!” about his trip to California on the Transcontinental railroad, advising Denver and Salt Lake City on the way, and which reflects upon the trip through the Great Plains and the Rockies.  In it, he used most every fancy turn of phrase I could imagine for a period gentleman to describe the purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain.  In addition to the stories and hymns (which unfortunately were not have set to music, so as far as far as I know none have yet been sung in the pews), I rather enjoyed the librettos from two plays Robinson co-authored, “Ye Gods and Goddesses” (an 1889 mythical romp with the Greco-Roman pantheon with 19th century accoutrements, such as Jupiter using opera glasses to observe the chorus), and “Dream Camp,” (an 1890 production in which a bust of Plato watches the antics of then-present day college students).  We also have an interesting “Reference” book of Robinson’s, containing lists of books he means to read on any number of topics from Roman law to archaeology, economics, and the philosophy of Seneca, his notes on those topics, and an impeccably organized index at the front guiding the reader to any topic.  That Robinson was so multi-talented (or at least dilettantish enough) to compose his own verses and chapters and keep up his learning in addition to his day-job as a newspaperman and eventually civic adviser and professor of city planning, thoroughly impresses me and convinces me of the possibility of living a lettered and learned in addition to a professional life.  I don’t think I’d be writing poetry or plays, but just the fact that I have this example of a man who lived out his interests in tandem with his career is inspiring in and of itself.

In addition to the correspondence, conflicts, creative writing, the collection contains a number of books, scrapbooks, and articles which provide a testament to Robinson’s life.  The scrapbooks contain snippings from the Arts & Books column of the New York Times, several volumes of clippings from the “Chat and Clippings” columns of an unidentified newspaper (possibly the Rochester Post-Express or the Rochester Courier), a boyhood scrapbooks containing clippings on any number of topics of interest from faith to a limerick meant to help children memorize the order of the English monarchs back to William the Conqueror, and any and all articles that mentioned his wedding to Eliza Ten Eyck Pruyn of Albany.  Indeed, the number of clippings Robinson collected about his wedding is only rivaled by the number of clippings a hired service(!) collected for his estate on the matter of his death, which is by far the most common topic in all the collection’s loose newspaper clippings.  Others include Robinson’s advising visits to Denver and Honolulu, reviews on some of Robinson’s published works, and, following his death, the successful efforts to establish a memorial to him in Rochester (including a renamed street in Highland Park, Robinson Drive, which maintains that name to this day).  Several books are also native to the collection which, again, do more to shed light on Robinson’s personal than professional life.  There are a couple professional books, a city planning progress report from 1917 and a book on horticultural landscaping.  The rest are a mix with sentimental value.  We have two darling, small devotional books, containing a daily Scripture reading and portion of a hymn, owned respectively by Robinson (a lifelong Presbyterian) and his wife Eliza.  Both books had been given to them as children, as Robinson notes in the front flap of his on the date he “entered” the church, and as Eliza proved with her innocent doodles and inscription of “Satan trembles when he sees a poor sinner on his knees.” There is a children’s novel called “Doctor Papa,” which after a month in Italy on a dig earlier this summer and hearing much about “Papa Francesco” while there, immediately made me imagine the novel was about a Pope-cum-Doctor of the Church, though somehow I doubt a book in the “Flaxie Frizzle” (actual name!) series was about St. Gregory the Great.  As Robinson’s description in the beginning attests, “Doctor Papa” was given to him as a school reward for “Good Deportment.”  We also have a book of “birthday gems” that belonged to Eliza, with a proverb and Bible verse for each day and an adjacent column for entering friend’s names (so as to bless them with the advice of their birthday) and a small book of good-night thoughts for children by the Anglican hymnist and poet Frances Ridley Havergal.  Wonderfully, the Van Pelt Library has Havergal’s companion volume to this, a book of good-morning thoughts for little ones to reflect upon when rising for the day.  Supposing Franklin is accurate, we did not previously have the evening volume, and now we do!  Nice saving throw from the past there, Mr. Robinson!  Thank you.  We also have a copy of Robinson’s own rip-roaring fun small book “The Third Ward Catechism,” a humorous look at Rochester’s Third Ward, and a pamphlet written by Frederick Law Olmsted (a friend of Robinson’s) called “The Smoke Nuisance,” which is basically New York having fun at Chicago’s expense for not having a smoke ordinance.  Chicago was a legendarily filthy and sooty city at the turn of the century due to heavy industry and lack of a civic smoke ordinance.  My maternal grandmother, who grew up in Chicago, recalled simply going outside for a day and returning home filthy just for being outside, the soot in the air was so heavy.  Perhaps the best part about the pamphlet was its cartoons, including ones making fun of “Cinderitis (a Chicago disease)” (caption of a drawing of a gentleman having an entire cinder of coal removed from his eye) and another poking fun at Daniel Burnham, who in the cartoon is presenting his “City Beautiful” plan for Chicago to local dignitaries.  The plan, due to the smoke-pumping factories outside the window, is covered up completely with soot in the seconds it takes Burnham to go to the door and welcome the gentlemen in, much to their and Burnham’s consternation!

As you can tell, we have in the Charles Mulford Robinson papers a most engaging collection shining a light into the life and character of our nation’s first city planner to be hailed as such.  While the comparative lack of professional materials is a tad disappointing (those can be found at Harvard, as an extensive correspondence in the collection between Mrs. Robinson and the Widener Library attests), the collection more than makes up for that in personal attestations and quirks.  Indeed, this collection ended up with the largest “Miscellaneous” section of any I’d had the pleasure of working on, containing items ranging from Robinson’s personal stamp and papers related to a club (“The Humdrum Club”!) headed by Robinson, to the (without any explanation I could divine) schematics of the steamer Kaiserin Auguste Victoria and the dried and pressed remains of different plants!  Yes, we are in possession of an interesting hodgepodge here, thanks to which Holly, with good reason, has laughingly proclaimed Robinson “whack-a-doodle,” which in some regards may not be off the mark!  I personally think of him as an eccentric, accomplished gentleman and was very pleased to make his acquaintance across time by way of this, my final collection at the Van Pelt Library.  Farewell to all, and Godspeed!

Finding Old Friends in Less-Old Places

I love MSG. I love monosodium glutamate, and I am not ashamed! Thus, naturally, I was quite pleased when I was handed the Melvin Benarde papers. This collection contains manuscripts for the title The Chemicals in our Food by Melvin A. Benarde, an author and professor of Environmental Studies at Temple, Drexel, and Hahnemann Medical School, all right here in Philadelphia. “Oh yes,” I thought. This was going to be lots of fun. “Bring on the doomsday warnings! Tell us about how food additives are going to make us grow extra limbs and hideously disfigured faces!”

However, I did not find any such warnings. Instead I found a surprisingly sympathetic attitude toward chemicals in food, and the Classicist in me found a few old friends. Herodotus, Benarde says, described an Egyptian practice of preserving fish by salting. This, in my book, is a huge point in favor of salted fish. If it’s good enough for Herodotus, it’s good enough for me!

Benarde also uses a Classical example to point out the fact that “natural” chemicals can be just as harmful as artificial ones: “When…the ‘elders’ decided that Socrates was too disturbing an influence on the Athenian community, he was handed an extract of Conium maculatum—the hemlock plant—with which to dispatch himself to a more propitious environment.” Ah, yes, that little incident. Let’s just call that strike one against natural chemical “comestibles” and say it cancels out with the one above…

Oddly humorous references to the death of Socrates aside, this collection was a lot of fun to work with. Seeing Benarde’s ideas on chemical food additives from a time before some of them had a chance to be normalized or vilified, as they are now, provided unique insights into how our own ideas, and doomsday fears, about chemical additives developed.