The Mystery of the Lecherous Limerick

Everyone loves a good limerick. Though somewhat out of fashion these days—what has the man from Nantucket been up to?—that perennial poetic configuration of lowbrow humor can still get a smile when crafted properly. Everyone from Mark Twain to Shakespeare has tried their hand at putting together a good limerick: Stephano’s drinking song in The Tempest as well as the wine-drunk Iago’s barroom shanty “And let me the canakin clink” are both composed of the requisite five anapestic lines and AABBA rhyme scheme. Likely originating in France in the eleventh century (it’s true—the limerick didn’t even make it to Limerick until the 1700s) everyone reading this probably has that familiar rhythm in their heads. And if you didn’t, now you will:

The misspelled word in line two is supposed to be “guileless”–that gave me some trouble for a while

These paired verses have been stuck in my head since I cataloged the Anne Sandwith Drinker scrapbook (Anne Sandwith Drinker scrapbook, 1934-1937, Ms. Coll. 1422, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania). During processing, I was struck by both how much and how little I learned about Anne Sandwith Drinker—the author of the little ditty above—who was just graduating high school and beginning to head off to college when she started putting this scrapbook together in 1934.

I learned that Drinker’s friends and family referred to her almost exclusively as “Nancy,” which was the name written at the top of every letter and telegram pasted throughout the scrapbook. I learned that she rarely went a week, and never went two, without attending a play, ballet, or concert of some kind. I learned what her grades were in November of 1934 (she was quite a good student, but evidently her posture was abysmal—see the gym class grade below), and that she graduated from high school 57 years and one day before I was born. I learned that she liked to dance.

But scrapbooks are strange, even frustrating, in that for all the information you can glean about a person who puts one together—from pet names to academic standing (pun intended)—there is quite often little if anything written by that person included among its pages. Everything you can learn you get, literally, from the scraps of this-and-that that the author (is that even the right word?) comes across by fate or happenstance. Imagine telling your autobiography only through what you find in your pockets at the end of each day; then imagine some poor archival processor, nearly a century later, sifting through those odds and ends in search of the “real you.” Where do I even begin?

Needless to say, the Anne Sandwith Drinker scrapbook’s letters, playbills, magazine clippings, report cards, and sundry documentary bric-a-brac gave me a surfeit of what and a paucity of why. Where did the name “Nancy” come from anyway? What was her favorite play? Did she really slouch, or was her gym teacher just an insufferable hardass? In examining each page, I started to keep an eye out for anything that seemed like it might have been written by Drinker herself, for anything that might give me some whys to go with all my whats.

Aside from the occasional descriptive caption of a photograph or clipping, I was only able to locate a few substantive documents in Ms. Coll. 1422 that appear to have been written by Drinker herself. One is a brief paragraph in French about how beautiful Boston is in the wintertime—a composition, it seems, assigned in her French class, and not a bad one at that. There are also two original dramatic compositions, evidently written when Drinker was very young.

What Happened to the Widow’s Daughter is actually quite fun, and shows both that Drinker’s obsession with the theater was truly lifelong and that she had a preternatural sense of what makes a good story.

But then there’s that limerick. That’s the one that stuck with me. See, in researching Drinker, I found that she married Hans Handforth Zinsser, a student of her father’s, just two years after her scrapbook leaves off. Part of me was hoping for some evidence of budding romance—playbills and dinner invitations are all well and good, but I tend to find that love letters are much more interesting. Evidently hers was a whirlwind romance, because there is no evidence that Nancy and Hans even crossed paths aside from (possibly) at a dinner party hosted by the former’s mother. Drinker in fact seemed to be the object of another’s affections, namely one Bob Murphy, a quite funny young man who also happened to be a student of her father’s. Bob would often visit Nancy at Vassar, where she studied, and he apparently became a more or less constant companion in her frequent social outings during her early college years. When not by her side, Murphy would send her a fairly steady stream of cheeky notes and telegrams—often anonymously or pseudonymously—which seem to me to imply a good deal more than their laconic form may at first betray (see below).

Pasted among several of these notes and telegrams is that strange and provocative little limerick, written in Drinker’s hand and certainly about herself, being as she was “a young lady from Brookline.” Given its placement and the apparent relationship between Drinker and Murphy at the time, I can’t help but think Murphy is the “manly sire” of the second verse. Of course, I learned years ago not to read poetry biographically and everyone knows that limericks are supposed to be humorously lecherous, but still—that little scrap certainly felt like it gave me more insight into the inner life of the young woman who put this fascinating scrapbook together. And it gave me a bit of the romance I was hoping for, even if it does leave me thinking that there are even more mysteries in the Anne Sandwith Drinker scrapbook than I could ever begin to tease out.

Crowdfunding Penn in 1925

By 1925, the University of Pennsylvania comprised some 8,000 full-time students from every state in the U.S. and 40 foreign countries, as well as an additional 7,000 part-time students. Penn’s three hospitals treated more than 150,000 patients and its dental school treated 14,000 others. Fourth in enrollment and size of faculty among U.S. universities, Penn had been growing for almost two centuries. Also growing—disconcertingly so—were the University’s financial needs.

Despite its size and prestige, in 1925 Penn ranked 21st in its amount of productive endowment. Professors’ salaries had stagnated and the university was having trouble attracting new, dynamic teachers and researchers. Penn’s facilities, many of which were originally built with a much smaller student population in mind, were also starting to fall apart. Its scientific departments, in particular, lacked the space and resources to accommodate new equipment, not to mention the additional workers and laboratory assistants needed to maintain the university’s standing as a leader in scientific innovation. Though sixth in size among U.S. university libraries, the Penn University Library was 14th in amount of annual appropriation. For years, diligence and duct tape made up the difference between what Penn needed and what it could pay for—but on October 27th, 1924, the Board of Trustees of the University approved the establishment of an organization called The University of Pennsylvania Fund, whose explicit directive was to “solve the financial problems of the university” (“What Should I Give?” p. 3, Box 1 Folder 4). Continue reading

Whose World’s Fair? Advertisements in Print Collection 47

Come see the wondrous plank! Sixteen feet across if it’s an inch! From the most ancient depths of the old-growth redwood forests of Humboldt County, the tree from which it was hewn overlooked the Pacific Ocean for centuries before Europeans ever arrived on this country’s eastern shore. And now it’s here, through the might and main of modern industry, polished to a high sheen with our celebrated and unparalleled Berry Brother’s Hard Oil Finish! “It is highly improbable,” says this informational handbill, “if a tree will ever be found that will yield a larger plank; so that the mammoth piece of timber here may certainly be termed the ‘sight of a lifetime.’” So come see the plank! And buy Berry Brothers Hard Oil Finish!

Print Coll 47 Michael Zinman collection of World’s Fairs and Expositions material is filled with promotional booklets, brochures, and handbills like this one from the legendary World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, more popularly known as the Chicago World’s Fair. Some are sillier than others, though few reach such heights as the ad for the “Mammoth Redwood Plank.”

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Tall tales, scholarly spats, and a whole lot of research: A look at the Arthur Scouten papers

It was Sunday, September 17 1944, and the Battle of Arnheim had begun. The British Second Tactical Air Force along with the American 8th and 9th Air Forces initiated intense bombing and strafing raids on Nazi garrisons, barracks, and anti-aircraft guns in and around the capital of the province of Gelderland and several other Dutch cities. Operation Market Garden, as it was called, intended to keep pushing the Wehrmacht retreat that began on the beaches of Normandy by securing Allied control over several strategic bridges across the Rhine.

After routing the Germans at Antwerp just days before, the Allies expected little resistance or even outright surrender. Some Allied soldiers had even packed leisure equipment in their kits before heading off to battle; they certainly didn’t expect to be met on the banks of the Rhine by two elite Panzer divisions and newly regrouped battalions ready to defend their position. A heavy firefight ensued, and for the next nine days the streets of Arnheim were a war zone.

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Weird, Weird World: Some strange world’s fair memorabilia

While cataloging Print Collection 47 Michael Zinman collection of World’s Fairs and Expositions material, I came across a significant amount of stuff — I don’t really have another word for it — that I didn’t expect. Any time I process a collection, of course, I inevitably run up against things that don’t seem to “fit,” that are surprising, or confusing, or just plain weird. But Print Coll 47 was eight boxes of nonstop weirdness, and I want to share as much of it as I can.


That there is so much of this material is a testament to the popularity — indeed the craze — of world’s fairs during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beginning with London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, the modern world’s fair/exposition showcased new technologies and industrial progress in general. Many world’s fairs/expositions also centered around specifically nationalistic and at times generally western-imperial themes. (In a follow-up post, I will go into detail about the confluence of industrialism and imperialism in world’s fair advertisements.)

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Sherman Frankel’s Stand against the End of the World (and Dirty Streets)

Sherman Frankel (center, 1923-2019) with Andrei Sakharov (left, 1921-1989) and Yelena Bonner (right, 1923-2011) likely circa May 1987. Sakharov was a Soviet physicist who designed the USSR’s first nuclear weapons. He later became a political dissident and reform activist, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. Bonner was a lifelong human rights activist.

For nearly thirty years, Sherman Frankel’s professional life revolved around what could happen in thirty minutes. Specifically, his life revolved around what could happen in the period between the moment an intercontinental ballistic missile equipped with a nuclear warhead is launched and the moment it reaches a target up to ten thousand kilometers away. Astoundingly, horrifyingly, this period would last about thirty minutes. Maybe less.

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The Bumpy Story of the Phrenological Fowlers

Evidently, I am an open and amative person, quick to laugh and always ready to be the center of attention. Though I have a tendency toward pinching pennies, I will always go out of my way to help a friend. I would make for a good salesman or restaurateur; I would struggle in professions that require much solitude.

At least, that’s what my phrenological chart says, which I put together at my desk in the Kislak Special Collections Processing Center with the help of my handy Fowler and Wells Illustrated Self-Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology (New York: Fowler & Wells, 1850; Box 1 Folder 4, Fowler and Wells phrenological character readings, ephemera, and printed material, 1840-1910, Ms. Coll. 1418 Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania.)

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From Philadelphia To Madeira: The Early U.S. and the Transatlantic Wine Trade

“Think of this wine for instance,” said old Sol, “which has been to the East Indies and back, I’m not able to say how often, and has been once round the world. Think of the pitch-dark nights, the roaring winds, and rolling seas—”

“The thunder, lightning, rain, hail, storm of all kinds,” said the boy.

“To be sure,” said Solomon “—that this wine has passed through. Think what a straining and creaking of timbers and masts: what a whistling and howling of the gale through ropes and rigging—”

“What a clambering aloft of men, vying with each other who shall lie out first upon the yards to furl the icy sails, while the ship rolls and pitches, like mad!” cried his nephew.

“Exactly so,’ said Solomon “—has gone on, over the old cask that held this wine.”

The wine that Solomon Gills and Walter Gay share at the beginning of Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1848) is, of course, Madeira. The most popular drink in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Madeira wine was traded at a premium all over the world. So for the salty old sailor Sol and his young, wanderlust-stricken nephew Wally, a taste of Madeira was a taste of the wide world—its distant shores, churning oceans, and all its myriad opportunities for adventure. Among many things, Dombey and Son is about international trade and the expanding horizons of the nineteenth-century world; it is scarcely surprising, therefore, that the symbolic potency of Madeira wine should shine through so clearly in the novel.

Now available to researchers, the Newton, Gordon, Johnston, Murdoch, and Scott of Madeira, Portugal letters (Ms. Coll. 1417) offer firsthand insight into the Madeira trade at its height. In these letters, we read American businessmen writing to the Madeira, Portugal-based wine trading firm of Newton, Gordon, and Johnston (and its various successors) to establish trade relations, haggle over the terms of particular deals, share stock prices, and discuss the vicissitudes of transatlantic shipping. A window into the world of late-eighteenth to early-nineteenth-century international trade, the collection maps the peaks and valleys of the early American market and bears witness to the rise of the period’s most fashionable drink.

During the heady years immediately following the Revolution the United States was a precarious trading partner at best. But by the 1790s the young nation had started to become the world’s most avid consumer of Madeira wine. Twenty-four of the letters in this collection come from traders in Philadelphia alone, and the amounts discussed lend credence to the suspicion that Philly has always been a hard-drinking city—and that it was no stranger to the Madeira craze that swept the country. At one point, in fact, Madeira of particularly high caliber was referred to as “New York quality,” as seen in this letter of June 24, 1796 from Richard Waln of Philadelphia:

Francis Newton and Alexander Johnston, who formed their import-export consortium under the name of Newton and Johnston in 1748, were themselves no strangers to political upheaval. Both had to flee their native Scotland after fighting for Charles Stuart—known as the “Young Pretender” to his enemies and “Bonnie Prince Charlie” to his supporters—whose claim to the throne of the United Kingdom ended with his army’s defeat at Culloden in 1746. While Johnston oversaw business in London, Newton moved to the Portuguese-controlled Madeira islands in 1748 to gain his company a foothold in what was fast becoming the most lucrative business of the time: selling the fortified wine unique to the tiny archipelago. Soon, trading that wine would entirely take over the business lives of Newton and Johnston. In 1758 Francis Newton’s brother Thomas and Johnston’s nephew Thomas Gordon joined the firm, creating the consortium of Newton, Gordon, and Johnston, and the group would thereafter become a dominant force in the transatlantic Madeira wine trade. Incidentally, this company still exists to this day under the name of Cossart Gordon, the “oldest shippers of Madeira wine,” according to their website. Their claim to having been founded in 1745, however, is disputed in David Hancock’s Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste (2009), in which both the company’s founding and Newton’s arrival in Madeira are traced to 1748.

One of the most interesting parts of the thirty-six letters in this collection is how many include rudimentary tables of stock prices for staples such as flour, corn, pork, butter, tallow, rice, and beef:

Even if these goods are not being discussed for trade in the letters themselves, it is clear that keeping one’s business partners up-to-date on the state of trade in general was a big part of the social network undergirding the nascent international capitalist market. Weather, bad harvests, and difficulties chartering ships also arise as common themes in the letters, and accordingly affect the terms and timetables of the deals under discussion. John Vaughan of Philadelphia writes to Newton et. al. in 1790 of his hope that “we shall never again experience the fluctuations which the last Season has witnessed, which have baffled all calculations and led to severe disappointments.” Vaughan knew that less flour to trade meant less wine for him and his customers, and he begged the Madeira moguls to allow him to wait for prices to fall before making a deal.

Curiously, wine as such is seldom discussed in these letters, except purely as an article of trade. In fact, the only time anyone mentions actually tasting the wine occurs in Edward Penington’s letter dated June 26, 1835 from Philadelphia, where the merchant remarks that one of his clients, a “gentleman” with a “reputation for fine taste,” recently complained to him that the Madeira received from Newton and company “was not what he expected.” The customer demanded another cask, “the selection of which,” Penington somewhat exasperatedly notes, “we beg your particular attention.” Even the most distinguished purveyors of Madeira couldn’t get a break from the local wine snob, it seems.

After Walter Gay returns to London as a sea-worn sailor not unlike the old Solomon Gills at the end of Dickens’s Dombey and Son, the young man and his uncle share a glass of old Madeira and toast to hearth and home. The wine still reminds them of faraway horizons, but the intimacy of a drink after a long journey makes them realize just how much of the world can fit in a bottle shared between friends. For some in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a bottle of Madeira indeed represented the whole world—livelihoods and even whole economies depended on it, after all. Reading the Newton, Gordon, Johnston, Murdoch, and Scott letters, 1790-1835 gives us a sense of truly how much went into and came out of the trade of Madeira.