“I was very much disappointed …”

The last thing I anticipated when processing a collection of 19th century business letters (the Austin and Austin business letters) from a paper mill, was to discover a character like Ruth Benjamin (1770-1857). She first caught my attention, because the vast majority of those who were writing to the company Austin & Austin were men putting in requests for paper orders and discussing money. Amongst this sea of men, both Ruth’s gender and the tone she used in her letters stood out.

At first, it was unclear to me what her relationship with the owner of the paper mill, Abner Austin (1771-1848), was. In her letters to Mr. Austin in 1817, at which point she would have been 47, only a year older than he, she takes the tone of a stern mother. She berates him in each letter, voicing her “disappointment” in him over and over in each letter for not sending her money, or sending her less money than she had wished for. Though the topic of these is the same as many of the other letters in this collection, her tone is far from professional. At first, I thought that she might be family member, looking for Abner to help her with her financial woes, as various family members of his had done in other letters. However, in one instance, she signs a letter to him “your friend” which, though uncharacteristically friendly in tone for Mrs. Benjamin, suggested that she was not in fact a family member.

After a bit of poking around, I discovered that Abner Austin and his brother had originally procured their paper mill and the land it stood on from a Mr. Nathan Benjamin in 1813. According to death records, Mr. Benjamin had passed away that same spring. As the Benjamins had only one daughter, Lucy (1791-1892), and no one else to take over the family business, it seems likely that either Mr. Benjamin’s death, or some circumstance that may have led to his demise, instigated the sale of the mill and property. However, this does not explain why the widow Benjamin continued to remain in contact with Abner Austin, or why she continued to ask him for money. Unfortunately, the handful of letters contained in this collection provide no real answers to this mystery.

Whatever the ongoing nature of the relationship between Ruth Benjamin and Abner Austin was after the purchase of the paper, one thing is clear, she was a firebrand who had no compunctions about demanding what she felt was due to her.

Through Being Cool: Arthur Hobson Quinn and the Modernists

Now that the worth of literary Modernism has become a commonplace within academic circles, one can forget how hostile most American academics were to experimental work in the first part of the 20th century. How delightful, then, to stumble, in his papers, across a handwritten note by Arthur Hobson Quinn, longtime professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, assessing the early work of T.S. Eliot:

“He can work phrases that are bitter and at times clever, and he has become very superior to all forms of life; he does not hesitate however to speak of his aunt as living in a fashionable neighborhood, and he betrays other signs of arrested development, such as a belief that being up at dawn is an achievement.”

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No contemporary academic would dare treat an iconic Modernist with such flippancy! But even by 1950, when this note was written, the place for the movement within the academy was by no means clear, despite Eliot’s preeminent position of influence; traditional scholars like Quinn were still openly hostile to what others saw as innovations. That academics like Quinn ended up the losers in the debate only makes their reactions fascinating, fruitful, and often quite funny; the way he treats contemporary writers who exhibit Modernist (or even moderately experimental ) tendencies represents just how wide the chasm really was, even twenty years after the movement’s height.

In Quinn’s lecture notes, one can see this hostility expressed over and over again, especially in his assessment of contemporary poetry. For example, his dismissal of Marianne Moore’s 1944 collection Nevertheless as “only 7 poems on Elephants, etc – not important,” and his inclusion of her in a folder called “Contemporary Poets, B Grade.”

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What, exactly, did Quinn present in opposition to such experiments? His aesthetic perspective is laid out well in a lecture entitled “Eliot and Others,” the notes for which are contained in this archive. “The best definition of poetry is that it is rhythmical language containing the elements of truth and beauty,” Quinn writes. “Contemporary American poetry has given up all three of these qualities to a marked extent.” Perhaps fittingly for a scholar of American theatre, Quinn sees the only hope for contemporary American poetry in musical theater, where “there are verses often of an unusual quality.”

Clearly, Quinn felt that contemporary American poetry was taking a turn for the worse—or, perhaps more importantly, a turn away from his own comprehension. In reading Quinn’s notes, one can sense a frustration with his inability to penetrate verse which seemed to him purposefully obscure, and his hostility to “difficulty” as an aesthetic project. In his assessment of Wallace Stevens, for example, he writes: “In his verse ‘Man Carrying Thing’ [Stevens] says, ‘the poem must resist the intelligence / almost successfully,’ which explains why he is not a poet.” The definition of who is (and, more importantly, who is not) a poet is one of Quinn’s rhetorical commonplaces. In order to reject the Modernist project, it was necessary to exclude them from the poetic canon entirely.

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But what did it mean to be a poet? To Quinn, poetry was meant to be expressive, clear, and above all populist, even nationalist. In his lecture “The Magnificent Phrase,” he claims that the easy transmission of a phrase—its memorable nature, its accessibility—is what allows for poetry’s greatness, and its greatness is linked to a project of national identity. It’s telling that the contemporary poet Quinn references in this lecture, Edwin Arlington Robinson, is featured for his stanzas on Lincoln: “The face we see was never young / nor could it ever have been old.”  Clearly poetry is particularly successful when wedded to an iconic representation of political power.

Considering this positivist, patriotic conception of poetry, it’s no wonder that the particular combination of pessimism and ambiguity that unified disparate strands of Modernism would be so difficult for Quinn and other traditional academics to accept. It was more than simply an aesthetic challenge; it was an assault on an entire worldview. (At the same time that he was writing these notes on contemporary poetry, Quinn was overseeing the creation of a massive textbook of American Literature entitled The Literature of the American People, and had already undertaken a vast socio-historical investigation of national identity entitled The Soul of America.)  In the wake of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, academics like Quinn, invested in the idea of American Literature as a viable, coherent academic discipline, would find little common cause with the late Modernists, for whom fragmentation and ambiguity were the rule. Consider Quinn’s judgment of the work of William Carlos Williams: “no poetry=no unity or coherence.”

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But even this seemingly ironclad judgment on Williams contains a kernel of self-doubt: “the Wanderer is a narrator—seems to be symbolic but I can’t tell about what.” This inability to comprehend, to make sense of the fractured nature of late Modernism, represented a threat to Quinn’s position as an authority. To add insult to injury, Quinn’s eyesight was fading, which made repetitious reading literally painful.  Several times in his notes, Quinn reminds himself to ask his wife, Helen, to read the poems and see if she can make anything of them; whether this is a reference to physical or metaphorical legibility is impossible to say.

This brings us back to Quinn’s attacks on Eliot.  As a poet/critic who managed to move from the vanguard of Modernist experimentation to a more comfortable position as one of the main critical influences of New Criticism, Eliot represented a much greater threat than Moore or Stevens or Williams. It was easy enough for Quinn to repudiate the work of individual Modernist poets, and exile them to the land of “not-poetry,” but Eliot seized the power of definition for himself. His work represented a reorientation of poetics towards a kind of academic Classicism, the antithesis of the broadly populist and even nationalist vision which Quinn championed. “It is an example of the semi-profound type of criticism,” Quinn writes. “very positive in statements, at times discriminating, but constantly shedding implications of profound depths of knowledge on Eliot’s part, especially of Foreign Literature and criticism, usually of books which the general reader would certainly not know, and which impress him or not, just as he is impressionable or not by that ex cathedra criticism.” For Quinn, interested in a common cultural legacy for the U.S. reader, prizing clarity and transmissibility above all things, Eliot’s insistence on difficulty and on European cultural tradition seemed an elitist boondoggle.

In hindsight, one can see in Quinn’s reaction to Eliot certain commonalities with the very poets he maligned. In his blanket hostility to Modernist experimentation, Quinn failed to realize that there were many practitioners who disliked Eliot’s academic orientation just as much as he did. Of his first reading of “The Waste Land,” William Carlos Williams wrote: “I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years, and I’m sure it did. Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which would give it fruit.” Indeed, with a work like Paterson, Williams’ practice of historical quotation as method of establishing an American “voice” hewed more closely to Quinn’s conception of clarity and accessibility than he might have realized, albeit in a fragmented, anguished form.  But Quinn’s anti-experimental perspective couldn’t allow for such nuances. He seemed to feel that the very idea of experimentation was a fad: an aberration in the development of cultural understanding. “Perhaps he wants simply to be fashionable,” he writes of Eliot, in the last in a series of notes in response to “Four Quartets.”

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In response to this dangerous fad, Quinn—ever the scholar of drama—turned away from written poetry and towards the Broadway stage, where he could still find the sort of direct, plainspoken lyricism that he felt epitomized the “spirit of America”: most notably, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. In this, he prefigured some of the interest Postmodernist critics would have in popular culture as a whole—though not in the manner Quinn would have liked. The sort of unified nationalist cultural project he trumpeted was soon lost forever, a casualty of the 60’s, and the ironic gaze of Postmodernism, which turned the tools of the Modernists onto the very pillars of American popular culture that Quinn championed.

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All this makes Quinn’s notes seem like something of a last stand. When looking over the production of his favorite poets from the early 20th century, his notes bemoan that so many of them simply stopped producing work as the century moved on. Seeing examples of the work he champions, one can easily see why. The strict meter, clear rhymes, and somewhat simplistic images contained in “Lilacs of the City,” by Brian Hooker, one of the librettists who Quinn claimed “surpasses anything I have seen by contemporary poets,” are so out of step with what has happened to poetry in the second half of the 20th century that we can see, in hindsight, that Quinn was right to make the terms of the argument “poetry v. non-poetry.” The whole nature of the form was being redefined before his eyes, and Quinn was on the losing end.

The Correspondence of James T. Farrell: a smorgasbord of the 20th century

The ring has been cast into the fires of Mount Doom; the dragon has been slain. The sword has been released from the rock and the spell lifted from the lands.  Nearly two years and three hundred boxes later; it is finished.  The correspondence series of James T. Farrell (1904-1979) has been my project since I started working here in the Special Collections at Penn, and while it has certainly sent me through the entire Kübler-Ross cycle of grief, I cannot be happier that this collection is now available to researchers.

Aside from the literary and biographical insight, Farrell’s correspondence  includes a wide range of materials dealing with 20th century thought: political figures, philosophies, the arts, and sports. Additionally, due to Farrell’s intent to keep a record of nearly everything, a variety of materials from fan mail, scathing and silly messages to organizational bulletins, solicitations, and cultural ephemera are preserved in the correspondence.

After sifting through thousands of pages, let me share a few of my favorite offbeat themes found within the Farrell.

Quirks

One cannot start sifting through Farrell’s correspondence without noticing at times it feels as if you are working through graphology puzzles, or as I affectionately like to put it, looking at an electrocardiogram.  Having personally endured Palmer method penmanship classes in grade school, I feel confident assuming that Farrell, who also had a parochial school upbringing, would have been subjected to the same torment.  However, despite my best efforts, often times I found myself wondering if I needed to consult a hieroglyphics expert at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

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A mild example of Farrell’s handwriting

Farrell’s handwriting at times was a bear, perhaps accentuated by the use of amphetamines and alcohol, and could quickly became illegible over the course of a letter.  It was very reassuring to see that throughout the correspondence, this was a common issue.  On occasion, Farrell’s handwriting lead to many misunderstandings and arguments, to include a fallout with arguably his biggest professional supporter, James Henle.  However, despite the difficulties presented by Farrell’s scrawling, I believe a letter from Marcus Cunliffe (January 9, 1960) expresses working through the challenge best, “I am getting the hang of it, and the struggle is certainly worthwhile.”

On many occasions, Farrell’s publishers repeatedly pleaded  for him to use a typewriter and eventually he obliged, at least some of the time.

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Interesting post script

Despite their legibility, these typed letters were not always without Farrell’s idiosyncratic ways.  One of my favorite examples of this is from a letter written to the Hotel du Danube. The letter itself is particularly mundane however, after typing the contents in very light ink, Farrell announced at the very bottom, that he finally had changed the typewriter ribbon.  Unfortunately, there is no way to confirm if the letter was actually sent–copies of unsent correspondence are very common within the collection– however, I find little quirks such as these to be very revealing to the inner workings of James T. Farrell.

Mums and Nuns and Guns, Oh My!

Scholars have asserted that Farrell often was writing autobiographically and used his life and family as blueprints for his stories. Much like himself, a key element to characters found in Farrell’s writing is that they are born and raised Catholic, often attending parish schools.

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A mother, who is none too pleased

On quite a few occasions, Farrell would receive letters from mothers expressing their displeasure with themes in his novels, and the corruption of “the minds of young people.” One mother even took it upon herself use the cover of her son’s copy of Young Lonigan to express her dismay, labeling it “a bad book for boys.”  Mrs. T. Luhy  (Box 153 Folder 10) writes, “I was ashamed that you have on the back cover that you graduated from a Catholic school. Please ask yourself if you wish your little son to read this book when he is in his teens.”

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Letter from Mrs. T. Luhy

As if his penmanship wasn’t enough, Farrell’s portrayal of everyday Catholics also drew the ire of the religious community.  Sister Roberta of the College of Paola (Box 201 Folder 3) warned Farrell about his own salvation. “Mr. Farrell, do you realize you are either directly or indirectly irresponsible for the moral sins committed by every person whom there is a deliberate stirring of venereal pleasures as a result of reading your filth.”  However she concludes, “If you are as your work indicates a fallen away Catholic for whom a good dear old mother prayed or is still praying, get down on your knees, beg pardon of the God whose law of purity you have handled so lightly and broken so violently. Go to a priest and get your past cleared.  I shall be happy to pray for you.  And in future consecrate your creative gift to God spreading His kingdom on earth through a clean, Catholic press.”

Although most of these letters were not met with replies, Farrell did make it a point to document them and include them in his papers.  He even offered additional information for this lively correspondent.

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Szostak, Alexander: A lunatic who wrote letters to me, once threatened to kill me.             (Box 223 Folder 9)

The Triumph of Farrell

Although he endured many personal attacks on his character, James T. Farrell enjoyed a large share of fans and friends, who seemed to revel in his non conventional ways. Never a silent by-stander, Farrell fought to ensure he would be remembered, by any means necessary.  The James T. Farrell papers represents his legacy as an insatiable writer and collector who by personal effort and determination, left an amazing collection of 20th century thought for those in the future to dissect.

I leave you with poem written by Paul J. Gabriner, an early fan of Farrell.

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“Poem for a Die-hard Writer of Great Novels” (Box 102 Folder 50)

“…and though time is growing late, greatness never leaves the great.”

Small Details of a Big Life: the Paul Schrecker papers, 1921-1964

Paul Schrecker (1889-1963) was an Austrian-born philosopher who, in 1933, in compliance with the passing of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws, was dismissed from his position at the Prussian Academy of Sciences and fled to Paris where he taught at the University of Paris from 1933 to 1940. He moved to the United States after the German occupation of France in 1940 and taught at the New School for Social Research, Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, Swarthmore College, and at the University of Pennsylvania from 1950 until his retirement in 1960.

Schrecker’s work is most notable for his writings on, and editing of, the works of Enlightenment-era philosophers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) and Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715).

And yet, faced with this incredibly impressive body of work in the Paul Schrecker papers, as an archival processor, it’s often the personal elements of a collection’s creator that jump out. For instance, I made note of Schrecker’s consistent appearance throughout the years, as documented by his identification papers and passport. He seems the sort of person who was born looking very wise (naturalization photos, box 9, folders 1-2; journal cover, box 9, folder 20).

I also made note of his date books, ranging from the years 1933 to 1959. Schrecker’s eye for detail is reflected not only in his date-keeping, but in the beautiful marbled endpapers to be found in many of the books (box 8, folders 1-5).

I was also touched by the papers that documented his son Theodore’s birth, which include birth announcements, congratulatory cards and letters, and this flowery telegram (box 9, folder 5).

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I also couldn’t help noting how inexpensive it was to have a child in 1953—the University of Pennsylvania Hospital bill lists the total as $222! – and that fathers were only permitted to view their newborns through the window of the nursery after birth (box 9, folder 5).

This collection is of immense value to those studying Enlightenment philosophers and, as you’ve seen here, also includes elements that serve to bring Paul Schrecker, the person, to life. This collection is now open to researchers.

Havas: The human news aggregator

Charles-Louis Havas and the Agence Havas

For those who ever wondered how people got news briefs before the modern age, meet Charles-Louis Havas (1783-1858), the founder of what today is known as Agence France-Presse (AFP) Reuters. The wonderful collection of 101 lithographed news reports from 1845-1848 is a terrific example of how international news was shared before modern technology made it easy.

Based on what we found on the internet, Charles-Louis Havas was born in 1783 and after a stint in finance, he founded, in 1825, a news translation business, Bureau Havas, to service the French papers. The concept in the beginning was quite simple. He and his wife, speaking about a half dozen languages between them, could read and translate various international newspapers. His business grew through hard work, acquisition, and government relationships. Havas eventually began to hire international reporters to write original pieces, in addition to the continued translation services, for what became in 1835 the Agence Havas (one of these reporters was Paul Julius Reuter, future founder of Reuters).

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An example of what Agence Havas produced: an international news bulletin from 1847.  PRINT COLL. 29

Not only did Havas develop this translation/aggregation model, he innovated news distribution through a subscription formula (selling his news to small papers throughout France). Whether he did well solely due to his wits, guts, and sweat or whether his government relationships allowed him to dominate the distribution of news, he certainly became a notorious figure. Balzac openly accused Havas of having a monopoly in 1840:

“Le public peut croire qu’il existe plusieurs journaux, mail il n’y a en définitive, qu’un seul journal … Monsiuer Havas.”  (The public may believe that there exists a free press, but in reality, there is only one press, Mr. Havas.)

Havas was also different in regard to his interest in advertising – of his own paper but also as a revenue stream. He managed to involve his business in a new advertising model, devoting an entire staff to advertising, paving the way for the merger with Société Générale des Annonces soon after his death.  By that point, the Havas papers were as much about advertising as they were about news, if not more.

Considering the “technology” at the time, which included pigeons, it’s remarkable anyone could develop a business at all. Pigeons were heavily used to share stock market information between London, Brussels and Paris, but more substantial political and cultural news demanded a different carrier. While the railroad and telegraph revolutionized how information was transmitted, it’s still amazing to me that some of the main drivers of Havas’s success are timeless: a strong relationship with the government and an understanding of how to use advertising as an income source.

Who wants to see the photos from my trip?

Muffle that groan! The Penn Libraries acquired several dozen photograph albums, many of which I had the luck to process, and am happy to say beat hands down many of the slideshows I have been subjected to. The common thread in these albums is India from the late 1800’s to the second World War, most often created by military servicemen and women from Great Britain or the United States, but also by some missionaries and other travelers.

Each album gave a window into the specific experiences of ordinary individuals in a foreign and exotic country. It was amusing to see how well-chronicled tourist attractions were. Almost every album contained the obligatory shot of the Taj Mahal and other local sights. More adventurous albums contained photos of religious rituals like the cremation of human remains on ghats, or the everyday hard work of earning a living as best as possible. Only a few of these visitors were compelled to capture the extreme poverty and afflictions of the poorest Indians.

Some albums solely focused on the military installation or company around that individual and others were clearly photos taken on leave, enjoying vacation trips to Bombay or the mountains. The sporting activities, from polo in private clubs to military “Tug-of-War” teams to hunting expeditions, also appear regularly.

While no one album stood out particularly to me, the story that the collective body of these albums told was a wonderful opportunity to glimpse life in colonial India spanning decades before the Partition, as told by men and women, poor and rich, religious or not, military and civilian.

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The “Tug of War” team from the 2nd highlanders Light Infantry album (1896), Ms. Coll. 1160

I couldn’t help but wonder how it would compare to a trip I would take today. Has photography changed? Has social media impacted what we photograph? #tajmahal has over 580,000 posts on Instagram – and of course includes selfies, something not found anywhere in the albums. You can’t count the number of hashtags on Facebook, but there seems to be an endless supply of Taj Mahal photos there too. I’m sure I’d be guilty of adding mine…

Don’t Judge A Book by Its Cover: Dentist’s Notebook, circa 1906-1909

What would you expect a dentist’s notebook to look like? Perhaps you picture something with a corporate logo or, at the very least, a diagram of some juicy molars on the cover?

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This early 20th-century Gem Exercise & Dictation Book, which is actually three notebooks joined at the spine with glue to form one book, features a lovely image of a child in a field of flowers. Looking at it, you might expect diary entries, recipes, or drawings inside. Instead, what we have here is the notebook of dentist Robert Waller Bragg II, D.D.S. (1872-1956), of Richmond, Virginia (R.W. Bragg dentist’s notebook, circa 1906-1909).

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This notebook contains manuscripts or treatises– possibly speeches or lectures– on methodology concerning dental crown work. The various treatises are titled “Crown Work,” “Bridge-Work,” “Preparation of the Mouth for Artificial Dentures,” and—wait for it—”Treatment of Exposed Pulps.”

“What are you in for today?”
“Well, doc … I’ve got these … exposed pulps.”
“Let’s take care of that, tout de suite, shall we?”

The information is fairly technical and includes tables of gravity, malleability, and melting points for various metals involved in making crowns.

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It’s fascinating to look at the approaches to dentistry in the early 20th-century and, throughout the book, Dr. Bragg conveys an obvious passion for his subject.

If I’m faced with a choice between a dentist who is just phoning it in and a dentist who is passionate about his work, like Dr. Bragg, I know who I’m going with!

This collection is now open for researchers.

 

 

Survivors of War: Albert D. Hequembourg and his diary

Hequembourg’s ID card

Today on the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I, I would like to tell the story of Albert D. Hequembourg and his two-volume diary, both of whom happily survived his service overseas in Belgium and France in 1918.  Hequembourg, a 1908 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, was a dental surgeon who volunteered for service shortly after the United States declared war.  He served most of his first year on American soil, providing dental care for soldiers who were training for duty in Europe.

July 7, 1918 entry

On June 5, 1918, Hequembourg left New York City and traveled to France aboard the S.S.  Mauretania; landed in Liverpool, England; traveled south by train to Southhampton; and took Channel transport to Havre, France, arriving there on June 14, 1918. During his time overseas, he was “in action from close to Ypres, Belgium to Amiens, France,” (inside front cover, Volume 2).  In an entry written on July 7, 1918, somewhere in France or Belgium, Hequembourg describes examining the teeth of 348 American soldiers.  He does not appear to have treated injured soldiers–instead, he was performing typical dental work:  “getting patients ready to go to front, filling root canals and putting treatments in to hold over till they get back.”

Front line dental office

Hequembourg appears to have been a keen observer who was aware of the historic impact the War would have on the world.  As such, he seems to have taken advantage of opportunities to see the front and he describes in great detail being caught in a German air-raid, living in a dug-out and working in a dental office in “a corrugated iron shed camouflaged with branches,” and seeing a field hospital. It seems that Hequembourg and his fellow soldier Lt. Rhea traveled with transport and were often in the midst of shelling.

Inside front cover of Volume 2

In the midst of one such shelling, his belongings were struck by German artillery fire (resulting in the mud on the front cover) and he thought he had lost the diary … but it turned up, albeit missing the key to the locations he describes in the diary!  As a result, we have an amazing resource for people studying first-hand non-combat experience to life on or near the front lines of World War I.   Before processing this collection, I never once thought of dentists serving during World War I and I never once thought of the American Expeditionary Forces having their teeth cleaned or having potentially painful problems with their teeth being treated.  One of the many things I absolutely love about my job is the constant exposure to new perspectives on “old history.”

I feel as if, at some point, I should stop being surprised by how much has survived and is available for use today in the amazing libraries and archives across the world.  If you are interested in some of our other amazing World War I collections, may I personally recommend a few of my favorites:

David Rosenblum World War I letters,1918-1919, Ms. Coll. 1262
R. Norris Williams collection of World War I material, 1914-1988, Ms. Coll. 956
Dorothy E. Withrow collection of World War memorabilia, 1892-1951, Ms. Coll. 930

Atha Tehon: Loved much more than “a cat’s whisker”

I knew I was going to love Atha Tehon from the moment I started my research on her—before I ever even opened a box of her papers.  As always, I started with a simple google search and one of the first results was “Syracuse woman adopts four cats with $50,000 trust fund.”  Turns out, those four cats belonged to Atha Tehon, a book designer and art director for children’s books.  She had lost her husband and lived alone—and for the first of many times during the processing of her papers, I was struck by her thoughtfulness and caring—not just of her concern for the well-being of her pets after her death, but also the financial burden four cats would put on the good soul who adopted them.

I started with her correspondence thinking I would separate her professional correspondence from her personal correspondence; but  I quickly discovered that this was impossible—professional colleagues soon became treasured friends who  communicated long after a project was completed.  As I scanned the contents of her letters, it was clear that she was beloved—every letter was full of respect and love. In one letter, Guy Fleming, writing to someone who forwarded a copy to Atha, stated “I remember Atha perfectly well:  … there she’d be, center of a circle of peace and calm,” (box 3, folder 1) which seemed to accurately put into the words the woman I was quickly getting to know and love.

As I moved on through the remainder of her papers, I determined that she was peaceful and calm because she put herself in order through the EXTENSIVE use of post-it notes … I suspect that there was a fairly large number in the budget line for post-its at Dial Books for Young Readers where Atha worked for thirty years.  She may have been calm, but there is absolutely nothing calm about her calendars which show what her day-to-day life must have been like.  She seems to have had her hand in many of our most beloved children’s books and worked closely with any number of extraordinary authors and illustrators including Tom Feelings, Jerry Pinkney, Maurice Sendak, William Steig, and Margot Zemach, to name only a few.

This collection is nothing short of a visual delight—pretty much every folder contains copies of beautiful illustrations for children’s books in every possible state of completion.  Sometimes there are rough sketches, sometimes the finished product, and occasionally, you can really see how a book started, evolved, was revised, evolved again, and was completed.  But her book projects are not the only place in the collection that we find art.  Atha Tehon, herself, was an accomplished artist and the collection holds sketchbooks, pencil drawings, Christmas cards of her own design, photographs of her paintings, etc. She was also friends with a whole host of creative people who sent her artwork, illustrated letters, and beautifully handmade Christmas cards.  The entire time I worked on this collection, I was in heaven.

When I came to the end, I was sad … I had truly enjoyed the company of Atha Tehon and I thought I knew her pretty well, but I was wrong. I saw the humble, beautiful woman she was, certainly, but it was only once I read  the letters and notes people sent after she died, that I truly understood what an amazing woman she was and how far-reaching her influence.  The folder of memorial information came to me late in the processing stage (it was not part of the papers that came to us after her death), but as I sat reading, I had tears in my eyes.  It was only here, in words of others, did I learn how many people credited her with the success of their careers in publishing, design, and illustration and how much they learned from her.  It was here that I learned that she was known for “Athaisms” and for inventing “a measure for that huge gap between a hairline and a ½ point space—the ‘cat’s whisker.’” (box 2, folder 10).  Jerry Pinkney stated that “she had the rare gift of a critical eye as well as an uncanny ability to gently support, nurture, and inspire illustrators to create their best work,” and Sara Reynolds, senior designer for Dial Books for Young Readers from 1984 to 1987, wrote in “A Tribute to Atha” that “Atha cared about those who worked with her as much as she cared about every detail in a book.  She was kind, patient, thoughtful, and always ready to listen.  When we worked with Atha, we were a family, and after we left her staff, we were still a family … Atha seemed ageless, and now we grapple with the knowledge that she wasn’t.  But her voice, vision, and legacy live on in thousands of books, hundreds of illustrators, and scores of editors, designers, and art directors who benefited from her wisdom, taste, sensitivity, and support.”

Who would not wish to be remembered in such a way?

 

 

Archiving for Artists: Tips from the Etta Winigrad Papers, 1968-2016

I recently processed the Etta Winigrad papers, 1968-2016, a collection of slides and photographs of artwork, correspondence, and exhibition records belonging to Philadelphia-based sculptor, and University of Pennsylvania graduate, Etta Winigrad.

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In addition to her amazing art (see above), I was struck by how many things Etta Winigrad did right in terms of organizing and collecting her papers. I mentioned this to a couple of my friends who are visual artists and they immediately asked me about best practices for storage of their own papers. While a short blog post absolutely cannot replace a proper workshop, class, or consultation with an experienced archivist, I thought it might be helpful to outline a few basic tips for artists organizing their archives. Please note that these tips are intended for straightforward archival collections such as loose papers and notebooks, and not for complex artworks in various mediums and materials which are better preserved in museum settings by art conservators and archivists. This blog post only addresses paper files and not born-digital files or files on media such as DVDs, CDs, VHS, etc. (See the end of the post for additional resources.)

First off, you may be thinking to yourself: I’m an active artist, but I don’t think that I’m going to be famous enough for anyone to want to collect my archives! Without going too deeply into this issue, I will say that there may be an interest in your archives for their historical/research value, even if you’re not the next Andy Warhol. For instance, the university you attended may be interested in acquiring your archives for your connection to their school. And, at the very least, you may want to leave your archives to a member of your family as a piece of family history.

Archiving for Artists: A Few Basic Tips

Location
Keep your papers out of direct sunlight and in an area of relatively low temperature and humidity. Basements, garages, and hot attics are not good locations for your papers. Dust, moisture, and bugs/pests will damage your papers, so you’ll want to store them in containers of some sort (see next item).

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Storage containers
If you prefer to pile your papers, use storage boxes to organize them. If you prefer to file your papers, a filing cabinet may be best for you. Whatever container you use—whether it’s a metal file cabinet, a cardboard Banker’s box, or a plastic tub, to offer a few examples—make sure that your files are protected from dust, moisture, and bugs/pests. You may have heard about acid-free folders and boxes, which archivists use for storage, but these boxes are pricey and only necessary for long-term storage. If you donate/sell your archives to an institution, the archivist who processes your collection will transfer everything into acid-free housing, so you shouldn’t worry about this for short-term storage. As most artists already know (hello, flat files!) it’s best to store paper flat, rather than rolled, and never folded, as the folds will damage the paper and, over time, the paper will begin to tear at the folds.

Dates and Labels
Whether you place your papers in folders or boxes, do make a habit of dating the folders, boxes, or pieces of paper themselves. Etta Winigrad, as an example, was very diligent about dating the files containing her exhibition records, which was immensely helpful in processing her papers. Remember also to date your sketchbooks and notebooks (not necessarily for every sketch or note, but intermittently throughout the book is helpful, especially since they usually cover a large span of time). Labels that identify your artwork or the exhibition that the artwork was shown in are also very helpful for your future archivist. Etta Winigrad has many slides in her collection, for instance, and the slide boxes are labeled with the titles of the artworks shown on the slides (see above).

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Fasteners

Adhesive tape is the enemy. Over time, the glue on the tape will become yellow and gummy, marking the papers, and the tape itself will become brittle. Paper clips and staples are also problematic, as they damage papers both mechanically and by rusting over time. Processing archivists are usually working with backlogs and do not have time to remove staples and paper clips from every collection and, even if they do, the staples and paper clips will have already damaged the papers to some extent. Plastic paperclips, while they avoid the rust issue, can also damage the papers they fasten. Rubber bands rot over time and may attach to the papers as they disintegrate. The solution? There is no simple one. If you can go without a fastener, you should, especially if the papers are already grouped together in a folder. And fasteners should never go on top of original artworks like photographs or drawings.

LOCKSS
You may have heard of LOCKSS, or Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe. If your work appears in an exhibition, keep more than one copy of the exhibition flyer or program, as Etta Winigrad did. Keeping more than one copy ensures that, if something happens to one of the copies, another is available as back-up. As another great example from the Etta Winigrad collection, one of Winigrad’s essays appears in an issue of Ceramics Monthly. One copy of the magazine, while still legible, has water damage, but she kept another copy of the same magazine issue, as well as a printout of the article. (Keeping multiple copies is especially important for digital files which, again, we won’t go into here.)

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For more in-depth information, see the resources below. You may also inquire at a local archives, historical association, or library with archives and special collections holdings to see if an archivist, librarian, or curator can meet with you to answer your questions.

Thanks for your great example, Etta Winigrad! This collection is now open to researchers.

 

Resources for Collection and Preservation

Library of Congress – Audio-Visual Preservation:
https://www.loc.gov/avconservation/

Library of Congress – Care, Handling, and Storage of Works on Paper:
https://www.loc.gov/preservation/care/paper.html

Library of Congress – Digital Preservation:
https://www.loc.gov/preservation/digital/

National Archives – How to Preserve Family Papers and Artifacts:
https://www.archives.gov/preservation/family-archives

Northeast Document Conservation Center – Preservation:
https://www.nedcc.org/free-resources/preservation-leaflets/overview

Smithsonian Institution Archives – Preservation:
https://siarchives.si.edu/services/preservation