Celebrate People’s History

2016-10-11-11-45_page_10One of the best parts about preparing for our Archives Month Philly Event (this year our event, “By the Book:  Making–And Breaking!–The Rules,” is on October 25) is looking at my colleagues’ favorite finds.  This year, Abby Lang suggested an amazing collection of posters, Celebrate people’s history, compiled by Josh MacPhee, a designer, artist, and archivist who is a founding member of both the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative and Interference Archive.  He is also an author and editor and clearly interested in social justice.

2016-10-11-11-45_page_11According to the Justseeds Artists Cooperative website, “this cloth-bound box set documents the first 18 years and 100 posters in the Celebrate People’s History Poster series. The posters are rooted in the do-it-yourself tradition of mass-produced and distributed political propaganda, but detourned to embody principles of democracy, inclusion, and group participation in the writing and interpretation of history. It’s rare today that a political poster is celebratory, and when it is, it almost always focuses on a small canon of male individuals: MLK, Ghandi, Che, or Mandela. Rather than create another exclusive set of heroes, I’ve generated a diverse set of posters that bring to life successful moments in the history of social justice struggles. To that end, I’ve asked artists and designers to find events, groups, and people who have moved forward the collective struggle of humanity to create a more equitable and just world. The posters tell stories from the subjective position of the artists, and are often the stories of underdogs, those written out of history. The goal of this project is not to tell a definitive history, but to suggest a new relationship to the past.”

2016-10-11-11-45_page_08Each poster is offset printed and the box set includes a letterpress printed half-title sheet with curator’s statement.  One of the amazing things about these posters is that despite the date of the event, so many of them are completely relevant today.  We still worry about the same issues:  African American rights, Native American rights, gender equality, workers’ rights, environmental issues, and animal rights.  Every single poster is beautiful, powerful, and educational.

Researchers–come to the reading room to check out these images; students–use these images in your papers and projects, and everyone–come to see just one of these beauties displayed at our Archives Month event as an example of people who challenged the rules!

By the Book: Making–And Breaking!–The Rules

archives16_300Ah, rules! Where would we be without them? According to some, we would be savages at the dinner table, we couldn’t shoe a horse, and Penn students would be dueling willy-nilly! As a result, rules have flourished: governments issued them, activists challenged them, and inquisitors enforced them. And literary critic Burton Rascoe had so little faith in his own ability to follow the rules of society that he purchased pre-printed apologies to send following events! As part of Philly Archives Month, join the catalogers of the Kislak Center to meet the medieval to modern role models and scape-graces who inhabit our collections.

When:  October 25, 2016, 5:00-7:00 PM (drop in or stay the entire time!)

Where:  University of Pennsylvania, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Class of 1978 Orrery Pavilion, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, sixth floor, 3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA

This event is free and open to the public!  We look forward to seeing you!

All the Gotham’s Parties

One should never measure great institutions merely by how well they put on a party. When it comes to the American literary scene of the twentieth century, however, one could be forgiven for correlating success in the book trade and success by the open bar. In this, the Gotham Book Mart – the NYC bookstore typically considered the leading booster of literary modernism in the United States – is no exception. As one of the archivists tasked with organizing Penn’s collection of papers from the Book Mart, it was my pleasure to experience a vast treasure trove of documents related to such leading literary lights as James Joyce, Allen Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams, Anais Nin, and Marianne Moore – and, perhaps more importantly, to get my hands on photographic documentation of just how rollicking these literary figures could be, given copious amounts of liquor and a suitable forum to impress the crowd. (In the beginning I was surprised at how much literary correspondence consists of simply setting the alcohol budgets for these sorts of events – but no longer.)

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The Wreck of the “Standard of Living”: an unpublished novel by William Wister Haines

How does an editor convince a writer that their book isn’t worth publishing? In the case of William Wister Haines and his editor, Edward Weeks, the answer can be found in the submission draft of Haines’ second novel, Standard of Living and the recently processed William Wister Haines papers. Not that Weeks ever directly conveys this opinion to Haines, of course; instead, the conversation takes place in the margins, between Weeks’ increasingly strident comments and Haines’ weakening attempts to address his criticisms. Taken as a whole, this conversation represents a fascinating portrait of editorial persuasion, as Weeks’ initial open-mindedness gives way, and he begins to lay the groundwork for rejection.

No longer a well-known figure in American letters, in his time William Wister Haines was best known for writing two novels about working-class railway linemen, Slim and High Tension, as well as Command Decision, a book (and play) about the latter days of World War II. For all three of these books, Haines’ editor at Atlantic Monthly Books was Edward Weeks, with whom he had a working relationship for over two decades.

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Pass the Hemlock … but let Burton Rascoe live!

IMG_0183There is so much to love in the Burton Rascoe papers, not least, Burton Rascoe himself! Mr. Rascoe, for those who don’t know him, was a delightfully snarky and brutally honest literary critic and journalist.  He is known, not only for his own writings, but for championing the work of some of America’s best known literary giants, including Theodore Dreiser, H.L. Mencken, Sherwood Anderson, James Branch Cabell, and Carl Sandberg to name just a few.  Mr. Rascoe (1892-1957) started his career in Chicago, but moved on to New York in 1920.

IMG_0170I knew I was going to fall hard for Mr. Rascoe when I came across a letter he wrote to H.L. Mencken in which he complained about Theodore Dreiser (with whom he had a close personal relationship, deeply admired, and about whom he wrote his first book).  Nonetheless, when Mr. Rascoe had something to say, he said it.  In this case, he stated: “Dreiser’s stupidity and ingratitude give me an acute attack of proctalgia. What the hell is the use?  Here you have touted him in and out of season, fought his battles for him almost single-handed, sacrificed your time and money to secure him a hearing, and written a wholly admirable adjutication [sic] of his aims and methods, and he, the thankless fathead, is offended!  Pass the hemlock!” (box 4, folders 7-9).  I looked up proctalgia, and it is does not sound great.  I expect that Rascoe was not always popular after writing things like this, but he had his defenders like Bertha Downing who wrote “on the whole, Rascoe is good for one, like spinach and carrots, not pleasant but healthful … I say, let him live.” (Box 17, Folder 29). Possibly because he was so incredibly blunt and honest and forthcoming, it seems that many were simply delighted by him. Indeed, he had any number of correspondents who addressed him early in their correspondence as “Dear Mr. Rascoe” but who later addressed him as “My very dear Burton.”

Edward C. Caswell

Edward C. Caswell

The correspondence, all by itself, is a reason to love this collection. In a world of email and text messages, I often find myself wallowing in nostalgia while processing correspondence in archival collections–there is really nothing quite like that physical piece of paper on which the personality and the character of the writer can be seen in smudges and quirky handwriting.  I can only imagine the pleasure Rascoe had in receiving delightfully illustrated letters; from the absolutely exquisite artwork of Edward C. Caswell, to the more cartoon-y illustrations of Gene Markey, to the colorful sketches by Anna O. Thomas, to the charming drawings by his niece Judy Rascoe.

IMG_0178 - CopyThis collection is absolutely rife with visual delights.  Not only did Mr. Rascoe sketch, but many others sketched items for him.  One of my favorites is this drawing “Ted” did although I think it seems out of character (from all I gathered, Mr. Rascoe was an absolute bundle of energy). Regardless, it and all the other sketches in the collection (see box 16, folder 20 and box 26, folder 4) provide a wonderful window into the world in which Mr. Rascoe lived.

IMG_0182For me, a collection is truly great (not just containing items from important and influential people) when I feel like I get to know the creator and their surroundings.  I love when I can imagine their world and how they fit into it.  Mr. Rascoe makes this so easy … from his openness in his writing, to the sharing of his photos and sketches, to the inclusion of less-than-flattering descriptions of his work … he is not hiding who he is and the papers were not sanitized to make him look good. Although including a photograph of yourself with not one but FOUR kittens is guaranteed to help in that department!

Come to the Kislak Center and get to know this man … you might not love him as I do, but you will find him fascinating!

Brothers and Sisters in the Teacher Collection of Running Press

The Stuart Teacher collection of Running Press material (Ms. Coll. 1209) augments the full story of the Running Press (told in the Running Press records; Ms. Coll. 727),  a successful independent publishing house based in Philadelphia. Yet while it presents a fairly complete picture of thirty years (circa 1972-2002) of Running Press business, the collection has a lovably miscellaneous quality about it, with some documents that have quite little to do with the Press. Mixed in among the sales reports, business travel itineraries and legal documents that illustrate the company’s foundation and growth, are different sorts of documents- greeting cards, photo albums and gifts- that tell another story, about family.

This photograph (circa 1948) shows the Teacher brothers with Larry on the left and Stuart on the right.

This photograph, circa 1948, shows the Larry Teacher (left) and Stuart Teacher (right).

Stuart “Buz” Teacher founded Running Press in 1972 with his brother, Lawrence (“Larry”). The company started small, reprinting works that were in the public domain and appealed to New Age-y interests in craftsmanship and environmentalism. Running Press was successful and able to expand without taking on risky projects, thanks largely to the brothers’ complementary styles of management and close collaboration. In 1994, Larry Teacher retired from the company and that same year Running Press was surprised by the unanticipated success of Sisters, a book of photographs and essays by Sharon Wohlmuth, Larry’s wife, and Carol Saline. Yet as advantageous as this bestseller was for Running Press business, it was destructive to the relationship between the Teacher brothers. First, Saline and Wohlmuth signed with Doubleday instead of Running Press to produce Mothers & Daughters, a sequel to Sisters. Then, a month before Mothers & Daughters was scheduled to go on sale, Running Press released Daughters and Mothers, at a significantly lower price. Wohlmuth, perhaps rightly, interpreted this competition as a vengeful jab from her brother in law, and Larry Teacher sided with his wife rather than his brother. In 1997, Stuart and Larry got into a bitter argument after which they stopped speaking for years. The irony that Sisters, which celebrates love between siblings, so completely soured relations between the Teacher brothers, was not lost on news reporters who told the story of Larry and Stuart’s estrangement in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Magazine.

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Martha Millet and International Marxism

Because she was both a poet/critic and a devoted Communist Party member, the life and work of Martha Millet is of particular interest to anyone looking for a deeper understanding of what it meant to be a Communist artist during the tumultuous period that spanned the Great Depression, World War II, and the beginning of the Cold War. With its emphasis on ideological conformity within American civil society, the McCarthyite period casts a long historical shadow over our understanding of Communist literary and social activity in American life, with the Communist themselves given only two roles to play: either foreign agents, actively undermining American society (the McCarthyite view) or unwitting stooges manipulated by the Kremlin. The papers of Martha Millet, however, tell a different story. Millet was certainly a committed Marxist; her work is deeply ideological, concerned with the struggle of the working classes and consciously anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, but it is not reducible to propaganda. Instead, it provides a compelling example of how the vision of international Marxism inspired working-class Communist artists to investigate and explore intersections between their own experiences and larger political struggles – even when the substance of these struggles conflicted with the official party line.

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Wandering Testimonies: The Diaspora of Mexican Ex-votos (and Their Stories)

Nurse Bartolo Garcia thanks Saint Cosmas, patron saint of physicians, for having been transferred to another hospital ward, so he doesn’t have to give enemas anymore. Remedios Mendoza is grateful to Saint Anthony of Padua for saving her boyfriend’s life after he had an embolic stroke at the altar during their wedding. And the Virgin of Guadalupe is being credited for having accomplished the ‘miracle’ of ridding Tereso Garcia of his hangover. The William H. Helfand collection of ex-votos and devotional paintings on medical subjects, recently donated to the Kislak Center, is a treasure trove of such anecdotes, and an open portal to late 19th and 20th century Mexican folk religious practices.

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“Nurse Bartolo Garcia was very unhappy with his job because he did not like giving enemas, so he invoked San Sosimo [possibly Saint Chosmas] and since he was transferred he gives thanks with this small retablo. Puebla 1927”

A graduate from Penn (CHE 1948), Helfand is a well-known historian of pharmacy and medicine, and a collector of prints, posters, illustrations, and ephemera on medical subjects. Such interests are reflected in this collection of ex-votos, votive paintings on tin or other cheap metal sheets, which were — and still are — usually hung in Mexican churches and other religious venues as a sign of gratitude for received blessings or healings. In a nutshell, the long ex-voto tradition is a reflection of the rich cultural history of Mexico. Public offerings of symbolic objects in response to the benevolence of the divinity are common in Europe, and their origins may be traced back to the ancient Greeks. In Mexico, votive customs had existed even before the arrival of the Spanish, but a figurative tradition emerged only in the 16th century, with the dissemination of Marian cults promoted by European evangelists. Until the end of the 18th century the offering of votive paintings was mostly a prerogative of the wealthy, but after Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the tradition was gradually appropriated by the lower classes. With this social shift came a corresponding change in the ex-votos themselves. In the 19th century, tin replaced the expensive canvas that had previously been used, and local, unschooled painters began to specialize in this kind of production, gradually developing personal styles.


Room dedicated with votive paintings and other ex votos at the Sanctuary of Chalma in Mexico State [source: Wikipedia]

20th-century Mexican painters such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Gabriel Fernández Ledesma, and Roberto Montenegro highly valued ex-votos, and employed them as a source of inspiration for their own works. Unmediated by academic pictorial influences, the genuine devotion embodied and transmitted by these small paintings – “masterpieces on tin,” Rivera famously called them – can be appreciated in the ex-votos of the Helfand collection. Even in the case of the most overt and comical deviations from official religious practices, viewing these images is a touching experience, for both the simplicity of the drawings, and the shaky handwriting of the captions accompanying them, never fail to reveal the emotional participation of the worshippers, if not their personal struggles. Such is the case, for instance, of a 1943 ex-voto from Mexico City, in which a woman is portrayed kneeling, her hands covering her face,  next to the bed in which her son is suffering from measles. Or of another example from 1960 dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua, in which the praying mother and her baby daughter with pneumonia are humbly portrayed at the very bottom of the painting, while an ochre-colored backdrop symbolizes both the intimacy of the domestic space and the immensurable distance separating the mortal world from that of saint.

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“I lovingly give thanks to Saint Anthony of Padua for having listened to my pleas and prayers and for having cured my daughter Sanara Luego from pneumonia, while the doctors said that she would die. Antonia Tura, June 26, 1960”

But the ex-votos in the collection also tell us another story, not less moving than the personal stakes of the people being portrayed: that of their extraordinary life as historical objects, scattered around the world as collectible items after having been discarded from overcrowded walls. It is a story that ex-votos have in common with much other archival material, and it is in most cases hard to reconstruct. Yet, an ex-voto represents not only a personal testimony of the blessing received in a given historical moment, but also a sum of human emotional encounters, enabled and accrued through the decades by the religious subject-matter, the image on the painting, or even the material carrying them. An ex-voto to Saint Paschal Baylon, patron of the kitchen and of cooks, was painted on a circular metal lid: an object with its own life story, maybe used in that same kitchen represented in the scene, and which has experienced so many uses and meanings before having been handed to us.

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“While she was in her kitchen in Puebla, in 1928, a wounded Cristero rebel came to the house of Maria Nojera, so she entrusted him to San Pascualito [Saint Paschal Baylon] and since everything went well she dedicates this small retablo to the saint, giving him endless gratitude”

“A Glimpse of the Garden at Sunshine Cottage”: Una Nixson Hopkins’ Model Neighbors

In 1911 Una Nixson Hopkins published her only novel, A Winter Romance in Poppy Land (Boston: Richard G. Badger).  Remembered now largely as an architect and interior designer, as well as a Hollywood art director, she was also a frequent contributer of articles and short stories to magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal.  The plot of A Winter Romance in Poppy Land is very much in the vein of such magazine fiction:  George Oliver and June Winthrop, both visiting Pasadena, fall in love, but June rejects him when an overheard conversation suggests his complicity in a jewel theft from their hotel.  Once June learns that Oliver is an aspiring playwright and the conversation concerned a plot twist in his latest work (the actual theft was a mere coincidence), she yields to his advances and the two announce their engagement.  “An interesting love story with rather an unusual plot of misunderstandings,” concludes a contemporary reviewer in Out West, commending the book’s affectionately “vivid and true” depictions of its California settings (James 59).


Frontispiece (featuring Julia S. Holmes and “our gardener John”) and title page of A Winter Romance in Poppy Land, previously owned by the Dewey family of Pasadena, Calif.

The characters are all stock figures (distressingly so in the case of the African-American gardener, Japanese servants, and Hispanic locals), but when it came to choosing models for the photographic illustrations of her tale, Hopkins eschewed stock in favor of her Pasadena neighbors.  Uncredited in the book itself, their identities are revealed in an eight-page manuscript tucked into the copy recently donated to the Penn Libraries by Caroline F. Schimmel as part of the Collection of Women in the American Wilderness.

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The Frederic(k) Beasleys of Philadelphia: Three generations of academics, preachers, and family men

The joy I find in processing family papers originates, to some extent, from the unfiltered perspective one is privileged to enjoy in reading personal correspondence between close friends and family members who may have lived anywhere between 2, 20, or 200 years ago. Maybe it’s the amateur historian in me coming out, but I love the rush of that “aha!” moment discovering the missing connection of who knows who, who’s related to who, and why it all matters.

The Beasley family papers promise not to disappoint. Starting with the first Frederick Beasley (1777-1845), we gain a personal perspective of the man who would eventually serve as Penn’s fifth Provost in addition to his role as Professor of Moral Philosophy, rector in the Protestant Episcopal Church, and loving husband and father to ten children. It is clear that Beasley was a well-liked and amiable member of the community as is stated in this letter from William Jay on March 22, 1842:

“… It is pleasant to interchange ideas with intelligent men, but still more pleasant is it to interchange ideas with men who are not only intelligent, but in whose sincerity & Christian motives we have full confidence. The little collision of opinion also in our correspondence renders it more agreeable to me, particularly as we are both in search of truth.” [Ms. Coll. 1217 box 1 folder 8]

William Jay letter to Frederick Beasley

William Jay letter to Frederick Beasley

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