A Scrapbook, Two Families, Two Murdered Presidents, and Other Animals: A Riddle From the Charlotte Cushman Club Records

In 1870, children’s writer and translator Henry William Dulcken – best known in England for his translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories – published in London and New York an educational book titled Animal Life all the World Over: With Remarks On the Trees and Plants of Various Regions. As the title suggests, the book describes the aspect and life of the fauna from the four corners of the earth, with the help of a gallery of splendid hand-colored illustrations depicting animals, plants, and the landscape in which they live.

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The first page of the copy of Henry William Dulcken’s Animal Life All the World Over held by the Kislak Center for Special Collections. A dry flower, probably included in the volume by its previous owners, can be seen on the left.

All this, of course, was done from the perspective of a man writing from the metropole of the most powerful colonial empire of the time, just a few years after Charles Darwin had presented his evolutionary theory to the world with his On the Origins of the Species. One, then, should not be surprised to find references to the glorious Kings and Queens of Western Europe, and to read at the same time hopeful passages about the “happy time when… among the benighted people” of Central Africa “the knowledge of the [Christian] truth shall have penetrated.” We can tell many things about the founding values of a society from the way its youth are educated, and in this sense, Dulcken’s book is a valuable witness of the Victorian past.

Almost a century and a half later, the book is not so easy to find of the shelves of American and European libraries. But the only copy of it held by the University of Pennsylvania, now part of the Charlotte Cushman Club records, is truly unique, because it tells us as much about its owner (or its owners) as it does about its content.

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A page from the scrapbook. What appears to be an autograph by Edwin Forrest can be seen in the bottom part of the page.

Sometime at the end of the nineteenth century (we don’t know precisely when), somebody (we don’t know exactly who) turned her/his copy of Dulcken’s book into a scrapbook. The gatherings that formed the original book, all of which are still present, were separated, reshuffled, and then rebound in a new volume also including a few photographs, and several clippings of disparate subjects, but especially of theater reviews, poems, proverbs, jokes, and obituaries.

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The scrapbook as it appears today

These added pages include oddities and precious souvenirs, such as an engraving depicting Chicago after the great fire of 1871, a seemingly original autograph by legendary actor Edwin Forrest, and a macabre “bouquet of game” with dead birds of any kind. Two presidents, Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield – both assassinated – are remembered by poems written in their honor at the time of their death.

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“A bouquet of game” included in the scrapbook

 

Identifying the author and the owners of the scrapbook is a challenging endeavor. A possible hint comes from an obituary pasted in the first pages of the volume, next to a group of poems in honor of President Garfield. The person being mourned is Aurilla B. Drew, born in 1800 in Providence, Rhode Island, and died in Philadelphia at the age of 87. Over the clipping, an unknown hand specifies that Aurilla was “great grandma Drew.” Did the book belong to a descendant of Aurilla? It is hard to say, although the last name Drew constantly recurs in the scrapbook, mostly in connection with a certain I. N. (or J. N.) Drew, an actor member of the successful Richmond and Von Boyle Comedy Company. He could have been Isaac Newton Drew, one of the eleven children of Aurilla Drew (whose maiden name was Aurilla Virginia Bartlett) who died while traveling to Washington, D. C. in 1899, as also reported by a clipping found at the end of the scrapbook. It is certain that did not belong to another Drew family also mentioned in the scrapbook, that of John Drew (1827-1862), an actor from Ireland and father-in-law of Maurice Barrymore, himself an actor and patriarch of a famous acting family.

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Obituary for “great grandma Drew” Aurilla B. Drew, 1886

One of the youngest members of the Barrymore family, actress Drew Barrymore, carries in her first and last name the weight of 150 years of American theater.

 

And what about the obsession with murdered presidents? Theater has a lot to do with at least one of them, Abraham Lincoln, who was famously – and very theatrically – killed by actor John Wilkes Booth while he was attending a play at Ford’s Theatre, in Washington D. C. History has it that after Booth fatally shot Lincoln and fled the theater, actress Laura Keene, who was on stage, reached the presidential box and cradled Lincoln’s head on her lap. The blood of the dying president stained the dress of the actress, making it a relic to be exposed in museums – it is currently on display at the National Museum of American History – or to be photographed and reproduced in the form of postcards and other printed mementos. One such postcard, printed in Springfield, Illinois, was placed between the pages of the scrapbook along with some unrelated clippings, and what seems to have been a red rose.

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Postcard with a picture of Laura Keene’s blood-stained dress

In hindsight, this memorabilia (and, all in all, the scrapbook itself) seem to have to do with a certain idea of theater as a dignified, “high” art, one that clearly began to emerge in the second half of the nineteenth century – and of which the Charlotte Cushman Club, the institution that donated the scrapbook to the Kislak Center, was direct expression until a few decades ago. Perhaps Dulcken’s volume, after having served its function as a children’s book, was deemed not too important by its owner, and was subsequently used as a mere support to document with an almost religious zeal not only the career of many women and men of theater (Isaac Newton Drew and John Wilkes Booth, but also Edwin Forrest, Charlotte Cushman, and Laura Keene), but maybe also the genealogy of a whole family.

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A caption handwritten in the back pastedown of the scrapbook

And yet, a caption penciled on the back pastedown of the book reveals that the scrapbook – animals, dead presidents, blood, and all – may have, after all, been used (assembled? inherited?) by a young reader: “my name is Molly, herein 12 years old. February 24th, 1920.” The circle is closed: a children’s book transformed into adult matter returns to childhood again.

 

 

Far from home … and mail at the pace of a snail

In November of 1897, Lieutenant Sidney Veale Byland shipped out from London to India where he spent the last year of his short life. Without telephone service, emails, text messages, etc., he communicated with his father, a physician in England, by frequently writing letters which included extremely candid descriptions of the world around him and which grew increasingly cranky, as time went on. The letters are quite fun to read today–but I wonder what it must have been like for his father to read while living some 4,000 miles away, knowing that his son was struggling and that he was essentially unreachable.

At the beginning of his time away, Byland’s unique style is evident: he describes an acquaintance as “puffed with pride being the son of his father and the most standoffish haw haw of a little owl that I have ever had the misfortune to meet,” (February 2, 1898). He describes his work and the difficulties of working with accounts that have been mismanaged, but for the most part, he is good humored, even while acknowledging that his work is “hopeless,” (April 30, 1898). In one of his letters, he mentions to his father that “as you know, I have always been of a slap-dash, happy-go-luck disposition” (December 12, 1898).

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“In Labor I Find Peace”: The Works and Notes of a Mysterious Italian-American Composer Find A New Home at Penn

If you are a music historian and have never heard of F. Antonio Di Cecco (1888-1954), don’t worry: neither had the author of this post until a few months ago. After all, why should you know him? Contemporary newspapers reveal very little about his work as a composer and conductor, and when journalists did write something about his music, their opinions were not too flattering.

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A review of a concert featuring music by Antonio Di Cecco, Philadelphia Inquirer, October 15, 1924

A concert featuring Di Cecco’s ballet ”Primavera Italica (“Italian Spring”) and a few others of his works was organized in Philadelphia in October 1924 by a committee of Italians living in the city. “Mr. Di Cecco has real musical feeling,” wrote a reporter of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “but it seemed at times as if he were groping after expression rather than finding it…he is not a born melodist; his themes lack spontaneity.” Overall, the journalist concluded, “it must be said that the composer’s bent seems to be elegiac,’ at times “rather monotonously so.”

Yet, despite his apparently unimpressive record, there are very good reasons to believe that Di Cecco’s works, now part of the F. Antonio Di Cecco collection of manuscripts scores and notebooks, may be of great historical value today. Apart from a few notable exceptions – for example, Gian Carlo Menotti, along with the younger John Corigliano and David Del Tredici – the life and music of Italian-American composers remains today largely unstudied. This is especially true for the crucial period around the turn of the 19thcentury, when millions of impoverished Italians came to the United States to look for better job opportunities. Between the 1880s and the early 1920s, Italians were often viewed with suspicion by both Americans and members of other ethnic communities. These were the years in which the stereotype of the loud, uncultured, ever-gesticulating, mafia-affiliated Italian was born—a stereotype that finds more than an echo in many entertainment products, from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather to the unlikely mobsters of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.


To help each other in a foreign-speaking, hostile land, Italians began to form ethnic businesses, associations, and institutions, including hospitals and schools. Di Cecco’s concert of October 1924, for example, was organized by a special committee named after the composer — the “Di Cecco Music Committee” – to raise funds in support of an Italian hospital in South Philadelphia.

Di Cecco was a child of the great migration wave of the late 19thcentury. His parents, Vincenzo Di Cecco and Giacinta Tavani, moved to the U.S. from the little village of Fara S. Antonio, in Northern Abruzzo, in 1896, and relocated in the Philadelphia area with their sons Antonio (then barely 8 years old), Raffaele, and Nicola. Two daughters, Mary and Susie, were born in the U.S. The family was probably of humble origins, but over the years managed to consolidate their position. In 1921, Mary Di Cecco and her husband Eugene DiFilippo bought a store in Toughkenamon, in the Western suburbs of Philadelphia, and lived there until the end of their lives.

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Mary Di Cecco DiFilippo (Antonio Di Cecco’s sister) and her son Eugenio DiFilippo jr. photographed in their general store in Toughkenamon, PA. From Keith Craig, New Garden Township (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2010).

As for Antonio, his life seems to have been more eventful. He served in the Italian military during World War I, and remained in his native country until 1923. He appears to have studied composition at the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna—a fact that his compatriots from overseas did not fail to remark on in their enthusiastic reviews of everything meant to symbolize Italian creative genius in the eyes of Americans.

In those years, Antonio lived in between two worlds. He was in Philadelphia from 1923 to 1924, and then back in Italy until 1930. For a historian, it is tempting to reflect onto Antonio’s works the years of hardship of his own diasporic existence as well as the reality of a whole community living away from its country of origin. For example, ”Primavera Italica” is opened by a “chorus of the exiled,” whose Italian text (to be sung “nostalgically”) laments the pain of being separated from the beloved motherland: “I long for the land of the Sun/ My heart is broken in pain.” The libretto of the ballet is inspired by the struggles that ancient Italians suffered during the early Roman Republic, when they had to resist repeated invasions of the peninsula by foreign people. Yet, it took all that suffering to make Rome thrive and triumph.

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“Lavorando trovo pace” (“In labor I find peace”), the motto that Di Cecco

The myth of imperial Rome, along with assertions from the libretto such as “Italian people do not give up: they fight back and suffer,” eerily resounds with the political rhetoric of the Fascist regime, which came into power only one year after the libretto was completed. It is easy to see, however, how this imagery also resounded with the feelings and hopes of many among those who left Italy to find new home in the United States. Di Cecco’s motto “In labor I find peace,” written in Italian or Latin on the front of many of his scores, suggests that even his own work as a composer could be seen as a way to heal from homesickness.

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Antonio Di Cecco’s notes on music instrumentation, from one of his notebook

After having completed his three-act opera “Caino” (“Cain”) at the end of the 1920s, Antonio’s work was influenced by the political climate of the New Deal. Mostly tonal and traditional in style, Di Cecco’s music perfectly fit the ideal of artistic accessibility of the time, but his hymn “Lead Us On, Oh President” (1934), including a direct mention in the lyrics of President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself, probably showed more patriotic zeal than it should have had. For another composition, the orchestral “Philarmonia Ouverture” (1939), Di Cecco had a professional copyist prepare duplicates of separate instrumental parts, probably in view of a public performance of this work—no traces of which, however, could be found in the contemporary press.

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A passage of the full score of Di Cecco’s opera “Caino”, act I

After that, silence. No more music is available for the last decades of Di Cecco’s life. Perhaps the end of the Federal Music Project in 1939, and the decline of other programs connected with the Work Progress Administration, led Antonio to gradually abandon composition? And after all, to what extent had Antonio’s music been successful up to then? Was he able to earn a living from music, or was music just something he cultivated along with other professional activities? Nothing certain is known about any of this.

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A textbook once belonged to Di Cecco, probably from his years at the Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna, Italy

Since Antonio’s death in 1954, it seems that he had been completely forgotten as a musician, until his descendants, Mary Di Cecco’s children Aida DiFilippo Stainback and Ralph Leonard DiFilippo, donated his scores to Penn in March 2018. Among these manuscripts are six orchestral works, two marches, four vocal and choral works, two piano works, one opera, and a ballet, for a total of 16 complete compositions. Music is elusive, and these works, like any other music ever composed in history, say probably much more about their creator than we will ever be able to grasp (or, perhaps, we will grasp much more than the artist originally intended to say). Both as music and as material objects, however, these scores open the door to multiple research alleys: from the history of emotions, to (Italian) immigration, to New Deal art, and to national and diasporic identity. Jut as Di Cecco struggled to find a home during all his life, the scores themselves needed to find a new home to allow, for others, new intellectual adventures.

Zen and the Art of Translating Poetry: Stephen Berg and Ikkyu, the world’s most lascivious monk

 

Literary translation is an art, not a science; the act of bringing a story or poem into another language is a creative act, first and foremost, and can’t be fully systematized. And yet there are rules (or, better yet, standard operating procedures) for how one produces a translation that is faithful to the original while standing as an independent work of art. The most traditional of these procedures, developed systematically by Russian and French theorists in the 1950’s, concerns equivalence: that is, the translator’s choice of the best word or phrase in the new language to correspond with each original word or phrase. (One might imagine the best version of a machine translation: Google Translate as omniscient being.)

Other theoretical frameworks are less prescriptive on the sentence level; Skopos theory, for example, stresses that the goal of translation is the transmission of the purpose of the original work—to entertain, to inform, to warn—as opposed to its line-by-line linguistic form. This concept can feel nebulous; how is a translator to define the true purpose of a poem? And yet it does seem to reflect why a reader turns to language in the first place: to learn, to gain wisdom. If a translator achieves grammatical fidelity but fails to transmit the underlying purpose of the work, are they truly successful? What if they produce the linguistically equivalent version of a joke, but the reader doesn’t laugh?

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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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Heads and Tails

An unusual scrapbook arrived recently at the Special Collections Processing Center.  The volume was created in Italy during the 19th century.  Unlike personal scrapbooks there are no cards, mementos, newspaper clippings, or photographs.  Instead, inside the scrapbook are pages decorated with ornamental devices cut out of printed books. These printed books, written in Italian and Latin, were published from 1569 to 1790 chiefly in Italy and France.  There are over 350 woodcuts and engravings of decorative printers’ marks including borders, head-pieces, tail-pieces, initials, vignettes, and portions of title pages. The volume has a decorative label on the cover: Album de stampine antiche (Ms. Codex 1859).

The creator of the scrapbook is unknown, but may have been a member of the Peruzzi family of Italy as several of the items are inscribed “Caroli Peruzzi” (as seen on the portion of a title page below left).  Other title pages pasted in the volume have former owner’s signatures or stamps.  Who took a pair scissors to the books in the family library and excised these decorative printed items? Was the creator a descendant of Caroli Peruzzi?

Curiously, the items in the volume are pasted on top of an instructional and informational manual for practical mathematics regarding business transactions with merchants.  The original handwritten manuscript has no discernible author.  An example of a partial page from the manual is above right.

Many questions are presented through this scrapbook: Who wrote the original instructional manual?, Who created the scrapbook?, Where was and who owned the original library for the books? …

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)

 

 

Marriage: a most dire institution

In the Veale family papers, 1872-1899, Dr. Henry Veale, a British Army physician, received a series of letters from two individuals, both of whom described their decidedly gloomy take on marriage.

The first letter, written on April 28, 1884, by William Aitken (probably a patient), states:

I wish myself to be the first to tell you of my intention to marry a wife.  She is a very old friend who shared (with my sister) in the dismal watches of the day and night during the long illness and the recovery from which I have so much to be grateful to you.  Since my sister left, this dear friend has continued to take care of me and of my household.  Hence she has become a necessity for the valetudinarian life I am now condemned to pass; and so for my own comfort and peace of mind as well as for the sake of propriety, I have resolved to take this course. (box 1, folder 2)

Roughly fifteen years later, Henry Veale received a letter from his twenty-five year old son, Sidney Veale Byland, a lieutenant in the India Staff Corps, who, after discussing the difficulties of army life states:

The only alternative is to marry  and live unhappily on alternate days so as to get a little change.  It makes one almost wish to have someone to squabble with with so as to get through a few odd hours. (box 1, folder 4, letter dated June 23, 1898).

The full set of letters from each correspondent shows that these two writers shared more than just their dismal views on marriage: they both suffered from indigestion. So, was marriage really such a dreadful thing?  Or were these two simply grumpy because of all their discomfort?  This Valentine’s day, may I suggest adding some prettily packaged antacids to the thoughtful and loving gift for your special someone, just to be safe!

 

Going Once, Going Twice! A “Lot of Sundries” for Sixteen Cents

In 1684, Samuel Levis moved to Pennsylvania from his hometown of Leister, England, and settled near the Darby Creek on a parcel of land he had purchased from William Penn. Samuel Levis’ descendants –including at least five more individuals by the same name- established a number of profitable mills in the area, where they manufactured first paper and then, by the mid nineteenth century, cotton. The Levis family papers (Ms. Coll. 1282) contain documents representing generations of family history, from tax returns to report cards to invitations for tea.

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Among these papers are two unassuming booklets, hand-stitched and bound in rag paper. One, dating to 1803, is “An Inventory of The Goods and Chattles rights and Credits” of Isaac Lobb, “appraised by us the Subscribers”. With line-by-line price estimates for all of the late Mr. Lobb’s belongings, the inventory would have provided his beneficiaries with a record of the contents and approximate value of their newly-granted property. The other booklet, composed a decade later, documents the “Vandu” (or “vendue”, a then-common term for a public sale) of the estate of John Hibberd, and lists each item that was auctioned, its selling price, and its buyer.

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A page from Lobb’s Inventory; a “heckel” is a tool for processing flax.

These practical documents, so sparing in their use of words, provide a surprisingly vivid picture of the homes and lives and work of John Hibberd and Isaac Lobb. The ‘Inventory’ progresses room by room, so reading it is almost like taking a tour of Lobb’s house: one moves from the “little back room” to the “garret” and concludes “in the shop”. In both texts, lists of hogs, horses, sheep, dozens of beehives, a “Hare Live”, and cows with charming names like “Cherry” and “Lovely” and “Reddy”, give a sense of the animal life on both farms. Listings like “4 cheese fats”, a “bag of dryed apples” or “bread toster ladle & fleshfork” suggest the foods these men ate. Other items, like “3 dung forks”, “smith tongs” and a “coopers adze” indicate the types of labor the farmers performed. These booklets also describe some possessions that seem, by modern standards, too insignificant to include in an inventory of assets, or undesirable for purchase at auction: a “lot of Onions”, a “rat trap”, “bucket & beans” and a few “old baskets”, for example.

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By far the most common entry in both books is for a “lot of sundries”.

The booklets evoke both a way of life and an economic environment that are strikingly different from those prevailing in the twenty-first century United States. Today, we consume and expel stuff (from clothes to books to electronics) at such a rate that it’s almost hard to imagine a world in which there was a market for something like the second-hand bottle of molasses sold at Hibberd’s vendue. For me, these centuries-old books were a reminder to appreciate the value of even the most quotidian goods, and not take for granted the relative abundances of modern life.

Looking Back at the History of Ocular Medicine through the Albert Collection of Ophthalmology Material

One of the most compelling aspects of processing manuscript collections is the ever-present possibility of finding something unexpected: a photograph tucked between leaves of correspondence, or a Christmas greeting card inexplicably lodged in a stack of legal papers. Nevertheless, I was unprepared last week to lift a pile of photocopied journal articles and find my gaze locked with that of a disembodied human eye:

Well, a prosthetic eye. This early twentieth century glass specimen, a work of realism down to the last hair-thin blood vein, is one of many curiosities in the Dr. Daniel and Eleanor Albert collection of ophthalmology material (Ms. Coll. 1320). From sixteenth century optometric treatises (“Theses Medicae, de Ophthalmia” by Paulus Weinhart) to twenty-first century scholarship (“Eye Making: A Brief History of Artificial Eyes Made in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Surrounding Areas” by Michael Hughes), the varied contents of this collection represent numerous stages in the development of the field of ophthalmology, and significant moments in the history of medicine. A letter written by Helen Keller in 1936, after the death of her friend and teacher Anne Sullivan is heart wrenching (“it is winter in my life since the guardian angel of fifty years no longer walks by my side”). Other files are macabre, including a post-mortem photograph from 1875 of a set of short-lived quintuplets. And nearly outnumbering the manuscripts in this collection are dozens of antique ophthalmoscopes and spectacles, from diminutive Victorian eyeglasses with emerald and cobalt colored lenses to round Chinese tortoiseshell magnifiers (and, of course, the unnerving artificial eye).

In amongst these eclectic artifacts are a few items that relate to the University of Pennsylvania including a letter written by a student at the School of Medicine in 1874. Reading this letter is like eavesdropping on a stranger’s conversation: it’s both amusing and confusing. Which mutual friends are the correspondents gossiping about? What was the comic key to their inside jokes? But while this letter raises questions about the correspondents’ social circle, it answers some about their academic environment. The author, “G. G. S.,” writes (jestingly, one hopes),

“I really did not have time to answer [your letter] sooner. In the evening I dissect and during the day attend lectures and study. I would send you some skin if I could, for I know that you can’t get it in Emaus*- but it might make a smell and a sensation. So if you want any you must come down here.”

The documents in the Albert collection –indeed, maybe all historic manuscripts- are transportative in some respect. They provide a glimpse into a different, and sometimes profoundly distant, time and place. Yet it can be especially fun to peer into a past not wholly unfamiliar: the letterhead of the 1874 letter by G. G. S. shows Claudia Cohen Hall, where I’ve attended many a lecture (and exactly zero nighttime dissections). Now, after nearly a century and a half, this document has resettled just steps from the site where it was created.

 

*The Pennsylvania town where ‘Sam,’ the recipient of this letter, lived (and which is now spelled ‘Emmaus’).