Ghosts on the Shelf: Or, the Long-Awaited Return of Charles Durang’s “History of The Philadelphia Stage Between the Years 1749 and 1855” (But, Wait, Wasn’t that Thompson Westcott’s?)

Historians of American drama know it well: there is hardly a more precious source on 19th-century Philadelphia theater than Charles Durang’s work dedicated to the history of the city stage in the years between 1749 and 1855. A painstakingly detailed account of the theatrical activities that took place in Philadelphia over a century, Durang’s work appeared in weekly installments on a Philadelphia newspaper, the Sunday Dispatch, and was thus widely available at the time it was published. Today, it can be found in dozens of libraries across the U.S., either in its original form – that is, as clippings from the original newspapers from the 1850s and 1860s, often pasted onto more or less inclusive scrapbooks – or, much more frequently, as a microfilm.

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The title page of volume I of Thompson Westcott’s scrapbooks of Charles Durang’s history of theater in Philadelphia. Westcott’s signature and the date can be seen on the bottom left corner of the image. To the left is an engraving of actor, playwright, and theater manager David Garrick

All of this considered, Durang’s work should be far from being a mysterious object. And yet it still has some secrets, beginning with its title. As such, a History of the Philadelphia Stage Between the Years 1749 and 1855 was never published by Durang. It is, instead, the title of a set of scrapbooks arranged in 1868 by a friend of Durang’s, Thompson Westcott (1820-1888), who patiently clipped all of the 267 original chapters from the Dispatch, and pasted them in six volumes luxuriantly illustrated with hundreds of portraits of actors, playwrights, and musicians. The microfilm version of Westcott’s volumes has been circulating for many decades, serving as the most widespread access point to Durang’s work, and eventually contributing to assign it a definitive title. For many scholars who worked with the microfilm, Durang’s work was, in fact, Westcott’s collection of scrapbooks. Things, however, are a bit more complicated than that.

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The microfilm version of Westcott’s scrapbooks, from the University of Pennsylvania, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center

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A portrait of Charles Durang (1794-1870)

The son of John Durang, America’s first professional dancer, Charles Durang (1794-1870) led an impressive life, himself, as a dancer, actor, and historian. He had his debut on stage at 9, when he appeared as a dancer in Holcraft’s melodrama The Tale of Mystery, along with his father and his brother Ferdinand. In 1814, during the War of 1812, Charles and Ferdinand were among those who first sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” in public – although probably to a different tune than the one in use today. At the same time, Charles had established himself as a successful performer regularly touring in the United States and Canada; although mostly based in his native Philadelphia.

 

 

 

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A portrait of Thompson Westcott (1820-1888)

After Durang retired from performing in 1853, his life-long familiarity with the stage allowed him to chronicle the last century of Philadelphia’s theater history, from the first instances of theatrical performances in the city until the closure of the second Chestnut Street Theatre in 1855. His task was made easier thanks to the notes of his father John, and to the precious editorial help of his collaborators at the Sunday Dispatch, the newspaper that Charles chose for his endeavor. One of them was Thomas Westcott himself, who, in 1848, had been appointed as main editor of the Dispatch, and would remain in that position until his retirement in 1882. The first run of Durang’s history, published in separate chapters and titled The Philadelphia Stage: From 1749 to 1821 (1854-55), was a tremendous success, and soon prompted its author to write two additional series, each one bearing a different title: The Philadelphia Stage From 1749 to 1855 (1856-57); and The Philadelphia Stage From the Year 1749 to the Year 1855 (1860-63).

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A page from volume I of Westcott’s set of scrapbooks

Acknowledging the importance of Durang’s work, his readers soon began to collect chapters into scrapbooks, which are today scattered through libraries across the country. But the most complete of them all are the six volumes prepared by Westcott, who personally knew Durang and had easy access to the clippings thanks to his job at the Dispatch. “Arranged and illustrated” in 1868, Westcott’s scrapbooks are elegant volumes which include page numbers and indexes, and are embellished with an incredible number of portraits, autographs, and images from American and European theater. There are only a few names mentioned by Durang in the text for which Westcott did not provide at least one accompanying portrait. All of this makes this set of scrapbooks an invaluable resource for generations of scholars in several fields, from theater and dance history to musicology and cultural history at large.

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The whole set of Westcott’s scrabooks of Durang’s history of theater in Philadelphia.

Westcott’s scrapbooks joined the University of Pennsylvania collections at the end of a curious journey. Upon the death of their creator in 1888, historian John Thomas Scharf, who, with Westcott, had co-edited “History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884” (1884), acquired a large portion of the papers and collections of his colleague. In 1891, Scharf donated the scrapbooks, along with other material, to Johns Hopkins University. However, for unclear reasons, those volumes were later sold at an auction in June 1915, and acquired by Penn the following year thanks to the funds made available by one of its trustees, Morris L. Clothier. Over the next decades, the Clothier Collection of American Drama was enlarged under the supervision of University of Pennsylvania English professor Arthur Hobson Quinn, a leading authority in the field. Within the Clothier collection, Quinn held Westcott’s scrapbooks in great consideration, and deemed them “of inestimable value to the student of the early American theatre.”

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A bookplate of the former Morris L. Clothier Collection of American Drama, from volume I of Westcott’s set of scrabooks

A combination of factors, however, led to the gradual inaccessibility of those volumes for researchers, and even to their seeming disappearance in more recent times. Although it allowed for a better access, the microfilm version of the volumes, prepared in 1956, discouraged the direct consultation of Westcott’s scrapbooks. Quinn retired in the same year, and died in 1960. After serving as a reference point for national and international scholars, the Clothier Collection of American Drama itself was gradually forgotten as such, and the many volumes that once composed it were catalogued independently. The computer era troubled the waters even more. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, several scholars attempted to publish Westcott’s volumes, either in book form or electronically, but all of them eventually gave up when faced with the huge task. Access to the scrapbooks was restricted during the negotiations, limiting, even more, the use of the volumes by researchers. Subsequent changes to library classification, and the later adoption of online cataloguing systems, ended up by virtually canceling the presence of these scrapbooks, which, until very recently, could only be found through the old card catalogue.

You only exist if you are online, as any 21st century business or cultural institution is well aware. After years spent as a ghost on the shelf, Westcott’s scrapbooks finally return to life, shedding light upon a long past of contested authorship, and a whole genealogy of collecting, researching, and cataloguing practices.

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