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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Scrapbooks: the social media of yesteryear?

As we approach the prime time for summer vacation, social media is inundated with photos of everyone’s travels and adventures. These days, sharing those photos is a matter of posting them online and waiting for the likes and comments to roll in (and avoiding them just involves scrolling past), but before we were all glued to our screens, people used glue to put together photo albums and scrapbooks to preserve their memories.

Katharine “Kay” Reichert spent two years in Japan in the Air Force Nurse Corps during the Korean War and she took tons of photographs during that time. She was a dedicated amateur photographer and many of her photos have notes on the back about lighting, focus, filters, or, unfortunately, the roll of film getting exposed. In her collection are 5 photo albums filled with snapshots of her friends/co-workers, scenes around the Johnson and Shiroi Air Bases, other people she met, and places she visited around Japan.

I find these photos kind of fascinating because even though the dates show that they were taken during the war, the notes say they were taken on an air force base, and many of the subjects are wearing military uniforms, the war does not seem to be present in most (if any) of the photos. These are just snapshots of friends spending time together – goofing off in the yard, cooking dinner, having parties, going on trips, etc. There are travel photos and pictures of cats and dogs, and snaps of Kay’s beloved car. They’re the kinds of photos that I took when I got my first camera as a kid. They’re the kinds of photos I still take now when I get together with friends.

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Philadelphia Dentistry of the 1890s: The Papers of Dr. W. A. Capon, D.D.S.

We’ve all been there. The tightened stomach, the gasps of anxious breath, the lingering guilt of lying about our flossing habits—all due to a friendly, routine visit to our local dentist! While modern dentistry has made caring for our teeth a relative breeze, the journey to this enlightened state hasn’t always been so, well, painless.

Enter Dr. William A. Capon, D.D.S. A Canadian by birth and a dentist by trade, his papers [Ms. Coll. 1222] tell a story of what dentistry looked like in turn-of-the-century Philadelphia. Lecture notes from his studies at the Philadelphia Dental College (now Temple University’s Kornberg School of Dentistry) include entries under courses like “Mechan Dentistry,” “Anatomy,” “Operative,” and “Surgery.” What oral surgery looked like in 1890 when he graduated may have been slightly horrifying by 2016 standards.

Student lecture notebook

Student lecture notebook, 1887-1890

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1920s Broadway: The Women Behind The Scenes

Picture the Roaring Twenties at its height. Everything about the scene is loud and imposing, colorful and vibrant, daring and flashy. The women are dressed like never before, exploring the limits of their sexual freedom by wearing shorter and shinier skirts, more feathers and more attitude. All standards are turned on their heads as new painting, new music, new writing, and new social expectations flood America’s cities. These new ways of seeing the world cross paths at every social gathering, but all accumulate together on the stages along Broadway in Manhattan.american girl

Broadway musicals are all essentially love stories. In the vein of all love stories, they both celebrate the feminine through extensive appreciation (almost entirely commentary on physical appearance) and demean the feminine by showing it to be predictable, weak, and confused. The main goal is usually still marriage. However, historical context is key to these musicals, and the idea of the contemporary love story is more important than ever. And for the first time, producers had to consider their audience differently. During the 1920s, a record number of white single women held jobs as typists and assistants in the rise of corporate America, especially in New York City.

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Physician, officer, ladies man: a snapshot of the short life of Howard Myers Scull

On July 4, 1944, a routine flight over the Irish Sea ended in the tragic early deaths of six Army Air Corps officers.  Major Howard Myers Scull, a 30 year old flight surgeon with rising career aspirations and close family ties, was unfortunately aboard the fated flight, accounting for one of many non-combat related fatalities during World War II.

Although his life was cut short in its prime, we get a glimpse of his daily life throughout medical school, military training, and active duty while stationed in England through diaries and letters written to family and friends. (Ms. Coll. 1208, Howard Myers Scull papers, 1896-2015 [bulk: 1936-1944]) It doesn’t take long to discover that he was a popular, handsome, and successful physician with close friendships and various girlfriends.

Howard Myers Scull

Howard Myers Scull, 1944

Scull attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania between 1935-1939, giving readers a colorful view of his world as a student with lively diary entries: “November 17, Tue [1936]: Best news in a long time. X-ray negative. Fears unfounded. Gene better. Life is good! Work in library in P.M. Autopsy in A.M. Tuberculous meningitis with interesting spinal fistula. I posted the lungs. Saw the tail end of a terrible sarcomatous, gangrenous, ulcerative dialectic foot. A most awful stink! And a hideous sight!”

Howard Myers Scull diary

Howard Myers Scull medical school diary, 1936

After completing his internship at Presbyterian Hospital in Philadelphia, Scull immediately entered the Army and was stationed at various bases around the United States before receiving notice of his call to foreign duty in 1942: “Dear Fred & Ella … This is the letter I guess I have hoped I’d never have to write. We got news this A.M. of a permanent change of station in less than two weeks. First we go to Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. to take the place of the 6th Cavalry moving to foreign duty. Then we shall follow them shortly. I can’t tell you where. I think I shall now ask for transfer to the Air Corps but it is rather unlikely now that I will be released from this Regiment.” [letter written to his brother and sister-in-law, dated Feb. 2, 1942, Monday noon]  His request was eventually granted, and after completing officer training at Maxwell Field, Alabama, he was sent to Mac Dill Field, Florida, as an Army Air Force physician.

Letter to Fred and Ella, 1942

Letter to Fred and Ella, 1942

By January of 1943 his honest musings about a love affair with a woman in Tampa, Florida, led him to make a strikingly accurate prediction in a letter to his family:

“About Jane Price – no, it really hasn’t happened to me. I don’t love the girl & doubt if I ever shall. I think a great deal of her, she is very worth while, sweet, has many virtues – would make an excellent doctor’s wife – unhappily she has told me that she is in love with me – unhappily, I couldn’t truthfully return that statement – and didn’t.
Do you remember the time I told you I had a premonition that love – a real love – might never be mine – again. I’m afraid that is going to be true…” [letter dated 1/24/1943, Sunday night]

Scull's last letter written to his family, July 3, 1944

Scull’s last letter written to his family, July 3, 1944

Scull’s last letter was written on July 3, 1944, with the opening line: “Dear Family … You are indeed a grand family to write me so often – even tho the conditions which you suppose for me do not exist, I appreciate it none the less, believe me.” His obvious affection and admiration for his father, brother and sister-in-law, sister, and nieces make this collection an enjoyable read and gives an intimate firsthand perspective of the hopes and fears of this medical student-turned-Army Air Corps physician during the 1930s and 1940s.

Who IS Francis Howard Williams?


Much of the Francis Howard Williams papers consists of correspondence and manuscripts from a literary critic and writer in the late nineteenth century. There is extensive correspondence ranging from 1880 to 1909 between Williams and the “who’s who” of the nineteenth century literary world. These letters contain dialogue concerning poems and texts that Williams both sent and received. The members of the literary world offer endless and excessive praise for each one of these texts and the editors and publishers included in the correspondence often sent notes confirming the inclusion of Williams’s work in their publications.

In addition to this, the Francis Howard Williams correspondence and manuscripts include countless first draft manuscripts of Williams’s own work, both published and private. Among these works are A Field of Corn, A Midnight Phantasy, A Wild Lecture, And he Never Knew?, AVE AMERICA An Ode, Biographia Literaria Americana, The Clock that Struck Thirteen, The Sea, The Tragic Touch, Two Roses, and The Wanderers. This list is just a small selection of the titled and untitled works. Williams’s manuscripts are riddled with notes and sketches, adding a distinct personality to the works. The inter-workings of Williams’s mind are preserved on the sheets. His writing is preserved here, be it a great success or utter failure. His work ranges from the published masterpieces listed above to works such as the untitled poem that begins,

“There once was a girl with a bang

Who looked cross eyed whenever she sang…”

It is safe to say that that one was never meant to be published.

Despite the bulk of the collection being fairly predictable for a literary critic and aspiring writer, this collection contains several oddities that come together to shed some light on Francis Howard Williams the man. Researchers will find several pages of science notes, a typed copy of Williams’s AVE AMERICA An Ode, in invitation to the Informals Club and a newspaper clipping concerning the Informals Club, an envelope with “Yellow Wing Club” written on it, a Crawford Shoe miniature notebook containing the history of Johannes Kelpius and sketched of the Kelpius Cave, a photograph of a tennis match and a photograph of a man near a hedge sent to Mrs. F. H. Williams by a photographer named D. Hinkle, a photograph possibly of Louisa May Alcott, and a copy of “Two Friends and the Inn” by Edwin N. Benson addressed to Francis Howard Williams and Harrison S. Morris. Upon looking at the diverse elements of this collection I found myself thinking ‘Why save all of these things? What is the significance of this stuff? How do these items all relate and tell the story of Francis Howard Williams?’

crawford picThe Crawford Shoe miniature journal was made by a company called Bouvé, Crawford & Co., a Boston based company with a branch in Philadelphia that advertised “the Crawford handmade shoe, made on five different shaped lasts and sold by us at $4.00, has more value in it than any shoe made for that price.” The notebook came free with any purchase from Bouvé, Crawford and Co. Inside the notebook are details of the story of Johannes Kelpius, a mystic Pietist from Transylvania who led a group of men to Philadelphia seeking religious haven before his predicted end of the world in 1694. Williams wrote his story and the titles of several of Kelpius’s hymns in the notebook and also sketched the “Kelpius Cave” in modern day Fairmount Park, the location of Kelpius and his men’s meditation. This sketch is dated to May 7, 1893 at 5pm, evidence that Williams himself had hiked to see the place. In the manuscripts portion of the collection are several texts written by Williams about Kelpius, John Kelpius, pietist, Kelpius Hymns, and Hymn 1.

HinklepicThese quirky bits obviously increase my interest in Williams and I find myself wondering if the photograph of a tennis match and one of a man near a hedge that were sent to Mrs. Francis Howard Williams might be Mr. Williams himself?

“Dear No. One Maven” : The wild constructions of Stephen Berg’s letters to Seth Fagen

“O Maddest of Poodles,” “O mighty brain,” “Master of Mania,” and “Dr. Poo” – only a few examples of the various terms of endearment used by poet, translator, and professor Stephen Berg during his ongoing correspondence with fellow academic Seth Fagen. During the late 1980s into the early 1990s, we are privy to a glimpse of the personal letters Berg sent to Fagen in this collection (Ms. Coll. 1211, Stephen Berg letters to Seth Fagen, 1983-2002) as they both wrestled with professional triumphs and defeats and personal issues.

Letter from Stephen Berg to Seth Fagen, February 21, 1990

Letter from Stephen Berg to Seth Fagen, February 21, 1990

Berg’s poetic nature shines through his often wild constructions with brutally honest musings to his friend and colleague who he offers advice as he would a son more than twenty years his junior. Despite the age difference, it is clear that the two writers had a natural connection which allowed their relationship to grow although Berg was based in Philadelphia and Fagen lived in Massachusetts and New York City during the length of their correspondence.

Although Stephen Berg was best known for his editorial role at American Poetry Review and his long tenure as Professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, these elements play only a minor role in the letters to Fagen. Instead, we quickly learn about Berg’s penchant for Japanese Toshiko bowls, a good martini, his love for cycling (in one letter he boasts of his trek from Manayunk to Conshohocken with aplomb), and the endless search for reasonably priced stylish glasses.

Addressed to "No. One Maven" - Letter from Stephen Berg to Seth Fagen, July 5, 1988

Addressed to “No. One Maven” – Letter from Stephen Berg to Seth Fagen, July 5, 1988

References to his current writing projects pepper the scrawled pages of the letters as well, sometimes with self-proclaimed praise below the body of the message: “PS … This one is probably good enough to qualify as a sketch for a masterpiece” [12.07.1990]. Praise is also doled out to Fagen with writerly glee: “About your letter: the syntax is brilliant, too, like fresh pond ice” [11.18.1990]. It is clear the author didn’t have an ego problem.

One of the funniest letters of the collection centers around advice Berg shares with Fagen as he enters middle age:

“Items to stock up on now that you have entered middle age … Neutrogena Norwegian Hand Cream … Ella Freeman Sharpe’s book Dream Analysis … suspenders … Cashmere mufflers only … carry silver flask of cognac at all times just in case … stop buying in Filene’s basement and switch back to Brooks regular store … give up wearing loafers in public … begin having power lunches under the guise of friendly desire … make home movies of yourself cooking and watch on your Sony … LL Bean comfortor [sic] for bed … watch major golf tournaments on TV … enclosed please find perfect metaphor for the above condition” [12.16.1989]

Letter from Stephen Berg to Seth Fagen, December 16, 1989

Letter from Stephen Berg to Seth Fagen, December 16, 1989

Readers won’t be disappointed as they comb through these letters which provide a unique viewpoint of the publishing world, the joys and annoyances of academic life, and an intimate view into the friendship of two men with strong opinions on just about everything.

The Belle Époque Brought to Life

header pictureThe Belle Époque musical concert and opera programs and periodicals collection contains memorabilia from Belle Époque concerts that provide a glimpse into several of the most notable concert locations in Francophone Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Belle Époque was named in retrospect as it was considered to be the “golden age” that preceded World War I. This golden age was especially present in Paris where culture flourished in visual and performing arts. The relative wealth, optimism and peace of the French Third Republic permitted a population wide participation in the arts, with the upper class and bourgeoisie, or nouveau-riches, attending casinos and lavish music halls, and the less affluent frequenting cabarets, bistros, and music halls. The artists of the time were heavily influenced by this way of life and took to depicting it frequently. Artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Édouard Manet were known for frequently depicting scenes in several of the venues present in this collection.



Edouard Manet, Bar at the Folies Bergere, 1882.

One of Manet’s most famous works, Bar at the Folies Bergère, gives a true sense of the scene behind the playbill. In the painting, Manet depicts a young female bartender who is seemingly on display with the rest of the items for sale. In the mirror behind her, the chaos and liveliness of this venue is evident. This collection contains a 1897 playbill from the Folies Bergère advertising a performance from the famous Loïe Fuller, a dancer who is known as a pioneer of modern dance. She performed burlesque and vaudeville shows which were both staples of the era.


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1892-1895.

The painting depicts the visual aspects of the venue and the playbill is evidence of what was actually happening on a specific day in history. While the playbill in this collection comes years after the Manet painting, the two items work together to give the Folies Bergère a lasting sense of life. In addition to Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec was known companions with Loïe Fuller and frequently painted scenes of cabaret life with paintings such as his 1892 masterpiece, At the Moulin Rouge. 



The most popular style of music during the Belle Époque was salon music, short pieces performed in salons that were not intended to be notably serious but rather display fleeting emotional expression. In this collection, there is an advertisement for the papers of one of the most famous composers of salon music, Franz List which includes a biography of another of the most notable composers of salon music, Frédéric Chopin. Their Debussymusic appears in several programs and is advertised as being performed by one of the most famous performers of salon music, Jacques Thibaud. In addition to this salon style, this era produced one of the most prominent composers of Impressionist music, Claude Debussy. Debussy, who appears several times in this collection.

The cultural trends at this time produced a Bohemian lifestyle, an unconventional lifestyle of adventurers involved primarily in musical, artistic and cultural pursuits. This lifestyle was reflected in many of the forms of entertainment of the era, particularly in performance dancing styles, such as burlesque and vaudeville. This free-spirited artistic lifestyle was concentrated in Montmartre. Home of the Sacré-Coeur, Montmartre was known for


housing artists during the Belle Époque such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Salvador Dali, Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro and Vincent van Gogh, among many others. It was also the home of many of the famous concert venues and cabarets of the era, most notably the Moulin Rouge. It was the birthplace of the cancan and the pure embodiment of the Bohemian Belle Époque lifestyle. Several of the programs in this collection come from the seemingly endless collection of cabarets and performance halls in Montmartre and help give a sense of the artistic pulse that permeated the neighborhood.

These primary source documents prevent this unique era of history from becoming just an allusive time period taught in school. The programs allow the Belle Époque to become a vivid memory, despite the fact that it is not the memory of the modern people.  In combination with the lasting cultural elements of the time, these programs bring the Belle Époque to life in the modern era.