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: Acadia 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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Edward Gorey papers

Yet another side-product of the Gotham Book Mart gift, the Gotham Book Mart collection of Edward Gorey material documents the later (and posthumous) career of the celebrated author, artist, and illustrator.  These papers actually contain very little written by Edward Gorey himself, but I think the collection is more interesting because of this.

Versions of a Gorey print, Ms. Coll. 1185, Box 9, Folder 8

In the late 1970s, Gorey, already nationally established and renowned, formed a company, Doomed Enterprises, to handle the distribution of his work and the licensing and merchandising of his art.  In 1982, Gorey effectively retired to Yarmouthport, Massachusetts, where he was able to live the quiet and secluded life of the artist.  Meanwhile, back in New York, a team of agents and lawyers, which included Gotham Book Mart owner Andreas Brown as vice-president of Doomed Enterprises, promoted Gorey’s legacy, worked out licensing and reproduction deals, and policed the unauthorized use of copyrighted materials.  After Gorey’s death in 2000, Brown continued this work as executor of Edward Gorey’s estate.  It is this business side of Gorey’s life and work – the economics and legal complications of licensing and producing cat dolls or desk calendars, the assiduous cultivation of Gorey’s public image as much more than a quirky illustrator of children’s books – that is represented in this collection.

Buttons for the New York City (or “Kitty”) Ballet, Ms. Coll. 1185, Box 14, Folder 4

A common theme I’ve discovered in these Gotham-related collections has been how broadly applicable these materials can be to scholars of authorship and reading in the 20th century (a community that I myself have had some involvement in).  The Gorey collection is no exception.  The fact that Gorey himself is largely absent from this collection of correspondence, legal agreements, and business transactions says something about the nature of authorship in the 20th century, both as Gorey envisioned it and as it was actually practiced.  Like the Padraic and Mary Colum papers (see also the blog post on the Colum papers), the Gorey collection also reflects the tension between art and commercialism in this era of American history.

But above all, the Gorey collection is simply fun.  In addition to letters and invoices and contracts, we have several boxes of merchandise, including dolls, rubber stamps, mugs, and t-shirts, all bearing Gorey’s designs and images.

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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Doctor to Fish Farmer

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John Hamilton Slack, pictured in the photograph at left, was born in 1834 and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  He received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania.  In addition to practicing medicine in Philadelphia Slack was an avid fisherman, painter, composer, naturalist, and amateur printer.  Here at the Kislak Center is the first volume of Slack’s travel diary (Ms. Codex 1880), written in 1858.

This handwritten diary, possibly bound by Slack, recounted his trip to England in the spring and summer of 1856.  The diary is formally written with a title page, preface, and table of contents.  Slack stated in the preface: “[I] wrote with a double purpose, first as a souvenir of my voyage for my own gratification, and secondly to afford pleasure to my large circle of friends to whom my private journal would be inaccessible.” Slack’s notes dubbed this volume one of his year abroad in Europe and Africa.  It would be interesting to find out whether other volumes or the original diaries exist.

The diary is written with great detail noting sights, encounters, and excursions.  Slack wrote of his activities each day including Madame Tussauds, the Crystal Palace, Zoological Gardens, Warwick Castle, etc.  Additionally, Slack recounted a fishing adventure with Charles Dickens and Robert Rawson.

Codex1880.3Slack’s love for fishing eventually led him to farm fishing.  In 1867, he bought 169 acres in Bloomsbury, New Jersey and named his new venture Troutdale Fish Ponds.  Slack created a hatchery raising brook trout, salmon, and shad.  He even introduced some non-native species to the Delaware River.  Slack published books on the subject and produced a catalog of supplies catering to fish culturalists. One of these catalogs was laid in the diary.  Slack became commissioner of fisheries of New Jersey and a founding member of the American Fish Culturalists’ Association.  His wife Thirza continued the work at Troutdale following Slack’s death in 1874.

 

 

McMaster’s War: Research into the Causes of World War I

While working on the papers of pioneering U.S. historian John Bach McMaster this past month, I found myself combing through a section of research material he used while writing about World War I: specifically, a series of documents produced during the lead-up to the American decision to join the side of the Triple Entente against the Central Powers. Although World War I occupies only a small part of our national imagination—certainly as compared to the gigantic position of World War II—this year, the hundred year anniversary of the Great War’s end, seems a particularly timely position from which to assess the causes and effects of the war, and the dialogue which grew up around it—and John B. McMaster, one if the first historians to embrace social history, provides an excellent perspective from which to examine them.

One of McMaster’s pioneering contributions to American history was his use of newspaper material to provide social context for political changes. This sort of source is so commonplace now that it hardly seems revolutionary, but for McMaster, writing about the U.S. entry into the Great War barely a few years after the event in question, providing material from the daily papers that his readers might have read themselves must have seemed remarkably forward-thinking. And the newspaper clippings showing how the war was communicated to readers at home are certainly remarkable, especially the detailed maps describing the various offensives:

But, for all the historical value that might rest in examining the maps that the American people themselves examined during the war, I was particularly interested in a much different sort of map that I discovered among McMaster’s research material: one far less interested in accurate reportage:

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From the pages of Life, this highly partisan and often hilarious (Weinerschnitzelplatz? Heidelbergapolis?) map of what might happen to the United States if it didn’t enter the war on the Allied side gives a sense of how highly mobilized the pro-war propaganda effort was in the lead-up to America’s final  decision.

(The use of a Germanized map of America also has disturbing resonance with the later harassment of German-Americans, who made up a large percentage of the American population, and, especially in the case of many Midwestern farming communities, gave their settlements Germanic names.)

Much of McMaster’s research file is geared towards America’s entry into the war and, more specifically, the various arguments marshaled by the Triple Entente and the Central Powers to place blame on each other for starting the conflict. Some, like this omnibus publication of national statements from the New York Times, strained to maintain some sense of objectivity, at least in presentation.

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Although the papers inside of it did not, as this bold German pamphlet makes clear. (The delightful nicknames which the rulers of Europe gave each other gives this a kind of gossip-roundup flavor: the “Willy,” “George,” and “Nicky” correspondence.)

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But some publications were more nakedly partisan in their intentions, like this oh-so-scarlet pamphlet produced by the Entente, which purports to parse the overwhelming evidence of wartime wickedness amongst the Teutonic hordes.

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That being said, the amount of public debate regarding the preparation for war contained here is remarkable, not for its virulence (which would not be out of place today) but for its nuance. Even publications one might have expected to be partisan, like the Illustrated London News, presented several subsets of war reporting in their initial “War” issue that might seem counter-productive to national mobilization efforts, like a section on the “war cloud” over international finance and a spread on the might of the German navy.

 

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Though a photo calling the German emperor a “war lord” might foreshadow the growing nationalist propaganda to come. (After all, the Kaiser had been relatively pacifistic in the lead-up to the war, and complained that he only heard about a major attack on Verdun from the newspapers; the myth of a uniquely belligerent and autocratic Germany would only grow after the armistice.) But even here, note the precise description of the federal military system within the German empire: clearly the readers of the Illustrated London News wanted a firm grounding in the particularities of wartime statecraft!

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Overall, these materials reflect how the onset of World War I reflected a mass readership eager for as much information about the war as the newly muscular mass media could provide. Some of it was crudely propagandist, but—especially in the opening years of the war—much of it expressed a level of nuance nearly unthinkable in our current age of hyper-partisan, image-first media saturation.

Perhaps McMaster’s interest in the newspaper as a historical source reflected the state of print journalism as he was coming into his own as a historian. Certainly this small repository shows the wide variety of social and historical conclusions one could draw from the print sources of the time, especially when they trained their collective powers on the first great military conflagration of the modern era.

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

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

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

 

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

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A few War Ration Books from 1942-1943

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

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Removable stamps from the inside of a War Ration Book

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

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A brochure published by the United Service Organization (USO)

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

 

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A greeting card from Camp Barkeley, Texas

 

 

 

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

Copy Contraptions

When I first encountered this weighty, iron and steel book-like device with a locking mechanism, I had some apprehension about opening this tightly, hinged trap.  I soon discovered, after carefully opening the metal contraption, a letterpress copybook was housed inside.  The metal container is a portable, personal copy press.  This particular press was used by George Müller of Germany from 1885 to 1890 during his travels in Mexico, California, Tahiti, and Christmas Island.  Müller’s copy press and letterpress copybook is Ms. Coll. 1341 at the Kislak Center.

The copy press was created by Friedrich Soennecken (1848-1919), inventor of the round tip pen nib, the hole punch, and three ring binders.  This portable copy press weighed about eight pounds and was made to copy outgoing letters for professional and private use at home or while traveling.  One would write a letter with special transferable ink, slip it under a thin, translucent leaf in the copybook with blotter paper, place the copybook in the metal copy press, and close the hinged lever.  Pushing down the metal lever produces the pressure for the ink to adhere to the leaf in the copy book.  This creates a copy of the outgoing letter.  Below is Müller’s letterpress copybook and an example of a copied letter.

 

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!