Miniature Worlds Acting Big: Toy Theaters at the Kislak Center

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The play of Robinson Crusoe (1883), to be performed in J. H. Singer’s Theatre Imperial

“Ocean—strip of water in groove 2; strip of shore, groove 4; wreck, groove 1, right of stage; raft, groove 3, right; Crusoe A, groove 5, left. [Curtain rises]”. When it is performed on a toy theater, the reconstruction of Robinson Crusoe’s shipwreck requires a certain number of technical details. A good staging is about the right choice of sceneries, flats, and figures: Forest or ocean? Little boat or big sinking ship? And which Crusoe figure should we pick – hunting Crusoe? Crusoe in shirt sleeves? Perhaps sitting Crusoe, speaking with his parrot? Granted, numbers and letters help with the assembly, but what would happen if we left our imagination run loose, and create our own deviations from the original story?

 

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A few figures from the stage set of Robinson Crusoe (New York: J. H. Singer, 1883)

 

Toy theaters are miniature theaters used in intimate, private spaces for the performance of special adaptations of plays, novels, and historical events, often published in special booklets called “juvenile dramas.” Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, toy theater was a popular form of entertainment in the United Kingdom and in Europe, and at the end of that century it became widespread in the United States as well. To those interested in the history of this special middle-class pastime for the youth (and their complicit parents), the toy theaters, scene sets, and dramas included in the Charlotte Cushman Club records offer a great starting point.

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The Queer Career of Clyde Fitch

At the beginning of the last century, a playwright had four of his works being produced in Broadway at the same time. He was the first American dramatist to be regularly (and successfully) produced abroad. He wrote an impressive amount of plays, from society plays and historical dramas to farces and melodramas, and he was responsible for more than twenty American adaptations of works by European authors, from Victorien Sardou to Oscar Wilde. Shortly after he died, scholars said of him: “when [he] began to write, American drama scarcely existed; when he died it was reality… He did more for American drama than any other man in history” (William Lyon Phelps, Essays on Modern Dramatists, 1921). In 1971, his name was included in the Theatre Hall of Fame, instituted in that year to “honor those who have made outstanding contributions to American theatre.”

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A portrait of Clyde Fitch (Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, MS. Coll. 1332, Clyde Fitch typescript and letters, circa 1890-1925)

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Clyde Fitch (Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, MS. Coll. 1332, Clyde Fitch typescript and letters, circa 1890-1925)

But today, almost nobody remembers who Clyde Fitch was. In the eyes of younger playwrights and critics, Fitch’s poignant characterization of the protagonists of his works gradually lost relevance as the social context that had inspired them was fading away. For playwright Noël Coward, Fitch was an “old-fashioned” author who wrote “stilted and dated” dialogues, and a few unsuccessful adaptations of Fitch’s works (the opera Jinks, premiered in Kansas City in 1975, and the 1980 Broadway production Hijinks!, both based on Fitch’s play Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines) didn’t do much to rehabilitate the name of the once famous playwright. But even at the peak of Fitch’s career, there was another aspect that led critics to look at him with suspicion, and which to an extent loomed over Fitch’s figure even after his death: he was homosexual.

Granted, no reviewer in Fitch’s time openly stated it. Fitch himself, aware of the rigid confines of the patriarchal society in which he grew up – and to which his work as a writer catered to – strove to keep his sexual inclinations as secret as he could. Nevertheless, rumors circulated. A notorious dandy with a penchant for foreign arts and sartorial luxury, Fitch had been considered “effeminate” since his high school years. This is how writer William Lyon Phelps, who was in school with him, remembered those days:

[Fitch] was even at the age of fourteen a complete individualist…instead of speaking our dialect he spoke English accurately, and even with eloquence, he was immaculately, even exquisitely clothed; he made no friendships among the boys and it was evident that he regarded us as barbarians, which we were… We treated him exactly as the graduates of Oxford ten years earlier had treated Oscar Wilde; they threw him in the Cherwell and wrecked the beautiful decorations of his room in Magdalen.

At Amherst College, where he graduated in 1886, Fitch became especially known as a scenery painter and amateur actor. Because of his slight frame, Fitch was often asked to play female roles, such as Constance Neville in Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, and Peggy Thrift in William Wycherley’s The Country Girl. These and other classics of English literature later inspired the style of Fitch’s first plays: Beau Brummel, Frédéric Lemaître, and Betty’s Finish, all produced in 1890.

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Clyde Fitch in 1884, acting in Wycherley’s The Country Girl (Amherst College Library)

Fitch was especially known for his ability to create well-characterized figures of women with whom the increasingly female-dominated audience of the time could easily identify. In some cases, those characters worked as perfect vehicles for future projects. For example, the English actress and theater manager Olga Nethersole asked Fitch to write a theatrical adaptation of Alphonse Daudet’s novel Sapho (1884) for her. Produced, directed, and interpreted by Nethersole, Fitch’s Sapho (1899) was a triumph with American audiences, who were intrigued by the piquant plot about the love affairs of the lead woman Fanny (Nethersole) with unmarried men. In New York, the show was an authentic succès de scandale. Shocked by the explicitness of the plot which featured an outrageous scene (for the time) in which Fanny and her partner left the stage to consummate their love in an unseen bedroom, several organizations, including the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and the New York Mother’s Club, sued the show organizers for indecency, interrupting the production for more than a month. Overwhelmed by the events, Fitch suffered a nervous breakdown which some scholars believe was the result of his realization of the risks posed by such a scandal for his own private life. “Fitch sensed the ‘danger’ that his private life was on the brink of public exposure”, theater historian Theresa Saxon suggests.Screen Shot 2018-02-22 at 2.07.17 PM

Despite the general obscurity to which Fitch’s work is still consigned, the name of this playwright has known, in recent decades, a limited rediscovery, especially thanks to the growing field of gender studies. Fitch’s homosexuality has been extensively discussed, as well as some of his most notable romantic relationships—particularly the one with Irish playwright Oscar Wilde at the end of the 1880s. But how, and to what extent, did Fitch’s personal life influence his literary output? From now onwards, Penn will have a word to say on this matter. After many decades in which they could be found only through the old card catalogue, two collections of unpublished typescripts of 11 plays and theatrical adaptations by Fitch (Clyde Fitch typescript and letters, circa 1890-1909, and the Edith Wharton and Clyde Fitch typescript of “The House of Mirth”, circa 1895) can now be easily accessed. Covering the whole of Fitch’s career, from the early 1890s to his premature death in 1909, these typescripts offer a unique perspective on his work and the social context in which he was living and operating. Thanks to them, a new posthumous chapter of Fitch’s queer story will perhaps soon be written.

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The eleven typescript plays by Clyde Fitch included in MS Coll. 1332 and 121 (Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts)

 

 

“Save Your Waste Fats to Make Explosives!” A Day in WWII America

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“Hang this up in your kitchen!” A leaflet from WWII America asks citizens to save their waste fats

Please don’t pour your used cooking oil down the drain. Water gets contaminated and becomes very difficult to treat. Instead, put the oil in a closed, non-recyclable container, close it, and throw everything in the trash. But if, when it comes to frying your food, patriotism overcomes earth-friendliness, you can still do as the U.S. government suggested to back in the day. In that case, just take your used (cooled down!) oil to your town store: it may come in handy to make the bombs that will destroy your enemy’s villages.

 

Hopefully, no town store of today – if there is still such a thing – will ask for your used oil to make explosives. But seen through the lens of the Aspero family collection of World War II ephemera (one of Penn’s latest acquisitions), life in America during the conflict was no less terrifying that in the worst totalitarian nightmares of a Bradbury or an Orwell. The war never arrived in continental U.S. And yet, it was very much present in the minds and hearts of those who remained at home. To them, it assumed the form of an invisible presence, ever looming over their daily existences, down to the most apparently innocuous, prosaic aspects. It was not just about knowing that the lives of your beloved children and spouse were constantly in danger or that those who were serving in the Armed Forces were constantly put in danger on the front or in one of the many training camps scattered across the nation. It was also about food, clothing, traveling, and talking in the street–all activities that had to be carefully regulated and controlled.

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A few War Ration Books from 1942-1943

Because most of the processed food and gas was directed to the military, and imports were limited, food and fuel had to be rationed. Individual war ration books were issued for every member of the family by the U.S. government Office of Price Administration. The books included different types of removable stamps, each to be used for the purchase of a specific good. Once a person had reached the set quantity of a given item or food that was established by the government, no more could be bought until the next war ration book was be issued. Ration books were considered serious business by the government, and as personal documents bearing the signature of their owner, they had to be handled with extreme care. In dry prose, the Office of Price Administration issues dire warnings should violations occur and instructions should accidents happen: “This book must be returned to the War Price and Rationing Board which issued it, if the person to whom it was issued is induced into the armed services of the United States, or laves the country for more than 30 days, or dies. The address of the Board appears above.”

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Removable stamps from the inside of a War Ration Book

The government also published special brochures with the purpose of instructing citizen on the appropriate behavior to adopt, especially in public. One of them, titled “A Personal Message to the Mothers, Wives, Fathers, Brothers, Sisters and Friends of Service Men,” warned citizens to not pass on personal communications sent from dear ones at the front, or even make comments on their personal lives. Because … you know, spies are everywhere! Examples are provided. “Last Tuesday evening, on a bus, the wife of a shipping clerk in a Iowa drug house remarked to a friend: “We’re staying home tonight—Al’s tired. He shipped 80 cases of quinine to the Army today.”” But nearby, somebody is listening: “Quinine for the Army… the tropics, eh? And 80 cases means a lot of men. Interesting.”

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A brochure published by the United Service Organization (USO)

As grim as all this may have sounded, morale was to be kept up at any cost and civilians were offered suggestions to how they could help. A brochure issued by the United Service Organization (USO) featuring three smiling soldiers on the front cover, explained the need for support of their organization in highly patriotic terms. “’Sighted sub; sank same.’ ‘Send us more Japs’…..Our fighting men have this spirit. But loneliness, monotony, and boredom can destroy it.” In another leaflet – the one inviting Americans to “save waste fats to make explosives” –, a smiling housewife is nonchalantly placed next to a firing cannon. A greeting card from a military camp comically describes the daily life of training soldiers, but it is folded inside an envelope carrying the picture of a man in uniform, asking in tears to “please write more letters for me.”

 

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A greeting card from Camp Barkeley, Texas

 

 

 

The U.S. declaration of war on Italy, Germany, and Japan made the life of an Italian-American family like the Asperos (the creator of the collection, Umberto Aspero, emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s) even more complicated. Like Japanese and German Americans, U.S. citizens of Italian origins were seen with suspicion; and for a period of time, unnaturalized immigrants from Italy were even designed as enemy aliens. In California, 10,000 Italians were removed from their homes in prohibited zones, and even naturalized citizens were forced to leave their homes or close their businesses because they were considered dangerous by the government. Seen seventy years later, then, the act of collecting material from the war looks not only like an attempt to document the harshness of those days, but perhaps also as a possible way for the Italian ethnic minority to stake a claim on such an important part of American history.

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

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The Charlotte Cushman Club records: A Window on Philadelphia Theater History

Perhaps even more than their male colleagues, actresses are often treated like cultural icons dangerously running on the sharp edge between scandal and sanctity, supported and haunted at the same time by an endless flow of more or less authorized anecdotes, interviews, photographs, Instagram posts, Facebook likes, and Twitter followers. But a century ago, in an age in which theater districts still served as meeting places between prostitutes and their clients, the reputation of actresses, especially in the earlier stages of their careers, was often considered dubious unless otherwise proven. In Philadelphia, a group of wealthy theater-lovers thought that young actresses should at least have the right to escape “the brothel-like atmosphere of cheap hotels and the rude stares of corset drummers;” and in 1907, they opened a new organization, the Charlotte Cushman Club, to provide them respectable lodging while performing in the city.

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The Charlotte Cushman Club house at 239 South Camac Street, Philadelphia

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Frozen Dolls and Famous Actresses: A Tale of Two Charlottes

Somewhere in the New England countryside, first half of the nineteenth century. It is a cold winter night. In a lonely home on the side of a mountain, a young woman named Charlotte is dressing up to go to the ball. Only, the ball will be held in an inn fifteen miles away, and the only available means of transportation is the open sleigh of Charlotte’s boyfriend Charles. “Be careful,” says Charlotte’s mother to her daughter, “make sure to wrap up in a warm blanket, if you don’t want to freeze out there!” “There is no way, mom,” Charlotte responds, “how can I expect my splendid dress to be seen if I muffle myself up in that ugly blanket? My silken cloak will be quite enough.” The bottom line: Charlotte is found frozen to death by her beloved Charles at the end of their ride on the snow.

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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.

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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”

Building the American Chemical Empire: Woodrow Wilson and the Strange Case of A. Mitchell Palmer and Francis P. Garvan

Pennsylvanian Democrat lawyer and politician Alexander Mitchell Palmer (1872-1936) is usually remembered as the U. S. Attorney General who launched thousands of unwarranted police raids – the infamous Palmer raids – against suspected radicals during the first Red Scare of 1919-20. But a previous chapter of Palmer‘s life might turn to be even more controversial (documented in the Bob and Jann Perez collection of A. Mitchell Palmer materials).

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Alexander Mitchell Palmer in the years in which he was serving as Alien Property Custodian

The year was 1917. Right after entering into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson created the Office of Alien Property Custodian to confiscate, administer, and sell any enemy property that might constitute a danger for the United States. Palmer was the one chosen for the job. During his time in office, he was allowed to seize all the belongings of interned immigrants, regardless of their actual involvement in political crimes. In a short time, the Office became a powerful organ of the Wilson administration. At the end of 1918, Palmer estimated the worth of the almost 30.000 trusts he administered to be around half a million dollars. Along these enterprises, the Office took possession of 4.500 German patents, processes, copyrights, and trademarks, especially chemical ones.

 

 

 

Aims and Purposes

Aims and Purposes of the Chemical Foundation (1919)

In 1919, Wilson created a specific organization, the Chemical Foundation, whose main purpose was to buy and resell the chemical patents accumulated by the Alien Property Custodian to “any competent, equipped, and patriotic American firm, or corporation”. The president of the Foundation was Francis Patrick Garvan, a colleague of Palmer who was serving as director of the Bureau of Investigation of the Office of Alien Property Custodian. When Palmer was appointed Attorney General in 1919, Garvan took his place as Alien Property Custodian, and the circle was fully closed. Garvan could now uncover enemy patents in the U.S., sell them to the Chemical Foundation, and finally—as the head of the Foundation — resell them to American companies for the benefit of the national technological progress. In a booklet on the Aims and Purposes of the Chemical Foundation, published in 1919, Attorney General Palmer justified this process on the ground of patriotism and, frankly enough, mere financial profit:

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Francis P. Garvan (1875-1937)

 “The great field of chemical industry… was, or had been until importations ceased, saturated through and through with German influence. In regard of no branch of human endeavor was the myth of German invincibility more firmly fixed in the public mind. The country was flooded with German chemists; and those who were not German by origin, were mostly German, directly or indirectly, by training… The German chemical industry, which had so thoroughly penetrated and permeated our own, was gigantic, perhaps the strongest, and certainly the most remunerative of all Teutonic industries. The task of identifying and taking over its property in the United States was thus a direct attack upon a most formidable opponent, while the information on which the work had to be based, had to be derived, to an exceptional extent, from men hostile by birth or tradition.”

 

 

 

Bayer

Among the German companies that were most affected by the intervention of the Alien Property Custodian was Bayer, the famous pharmaceutical company, which lost its U.S. patent for Aspirin along with its own name and trademark for the United States.