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

Save waste fats

“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.

Ration books

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.”

Ration stamps

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.”


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.”


Screen Shot 2018-03-27 at 11.22.34 AM

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!


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.


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.


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.


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’).

Beyond the human cost–World War I’s financial implications

Box 2, Folder 8When it comes to archival collections, I almost always fall in love because I am forced to look at something in an entirely new way … the Paul Schrecker collection of Austrian World War I ephemera is no exception.  This collection documents a Viennese man’s experience on the home front during World War I. I have not really had the opportunity to work with primary sources from the Central Powers’ perspective.  The American perspective, sure!  And with some frequency, the British and French perspective too!  This collection was an absolute treasure trove of stuff folded up and squashed into an old scrapbook called Kriegserinnerungen 1914 (War Memories).

Box 1, Folder 6Nearly every item in this collection is illuminating, but what struck me over and over again was the cost of war … not just in lives (around 40 million), which goes without saying, but the financial cost of war and the efforts Austria made to afford such a catastrophic event.  It appears to me that Schrecker, in addition to recognizing the monumental effect the Great War would have on history, was supporting his country and the war effort by purchasing items produced for those purposes.  It appears that his brother was a civilian prisoner of war held at the Alexandra Palace in London, so the need to support the war effort was not only patriotic, but also personal.

Box 1, Folder 5As I began working with the collection, I noticed that a number of items were issued by Rotes Kreuz, Kriegshilfsbüro, Kriegsfürsorgeamt) (the Red Cross, the War Support Office, and the War Welfare Office).  According to my research online, the War Welfare Office was established in 1914 to “alleviate the plight of war victims – soldiers and surviving families,” (Wikiversity).  The organization sold postcards (between 2000 and 2500) a few of which are in this collection among a larger selection of postcards.  The War Welfare Office postcards in this collection (numbers 9, 10, 11, 143, 145, 149, 150, 234, 502, 542, 547, and two unnumbered) document battle scenes, military leaders, Franz Joseph, and patriotic images.

Box 1, Folder 9This collection also contains some absolutely amazing bookplates and a book mark issued by the Red Cross, the War Support Office, and the War Welfare Office.  We have fifteen bookplates, but none of my research comes up with more than two in any one other collection, so I cannot be certain if we have a full set.  Artists Karl Sterrer, Alfred Offner, Hans Maria Glatz, and Richard Moser created dramatic and sometimes disturbing images.

Box 1, Folder 7In addition to publications memorializing World War I that were published before the war was over (probably sold to bolster funds) and numerous subscription documents and requests for donations, the collection contains ration cards dating from 1915 until 1922.  Bread and flour, milk, sugar, and coffee were rationed throughout the war, but tobacco appears to have been rationed even after the war with one card from 1919 and another from 1922.  A fascinating (and confusing) document shows the hoops jumped through to claim a pair of shoes!

Despite his loyalty to his country during the Great War and its aftermath, with the passing of the Nuremberg Laws, Schrecker, a Jewish professor and a philosopher, was dismissed from his position at the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin 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.  He taught in New York and at Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore before coming to Penn in 1950 where he remained until his retirement in 1960.



The Writers’ Children: the Wolfert Family Papers

When the impractical and somewhat hazardous desire to write books is passed down through a family, the results are often dangerous. Consider the Wolfert family, whose papers I recently had the pleasure of processing here in the Special Collections Processing Center. The father, Ira Wolfert, was a well-known war correspondent (his coverage of the Battle of Guadalcanal won a Pulitzer) and the author of Tucker’s People, a novel concerning the numbers racket and political corruption in 1930’s New York City which was a post-war bestseller: a feat he would never again equal. The mother, Helen Wolfert, was a school-teacher, an intermittently successful poet, and a polemical essayist on a wide range of subjects, from the space program to the Song of Songs—but was beset throughout her life with rejection and persistent lack of recognition. Their son, Michael, fancied himself a novelist but could best be described as a career bohemian, turning down plum positions in UNESCO (the then-new cultural wing of the UN) and dragging numerous wives and children from Paris to Tangier to Sweden as he attempted to produce a novel that would justify these peregrinations.  (Their daughter, Ruth, seems to have briefly entertained literary ambitions, but decided—in a move that seems commendable and somewhat fitting—to pursue a career in family therapy.)

Continue reading

Raman and the Rays of Light

Philosophical Magazine is one the oldest and longest-running scientific periodicals—published from 1798 to the present day (now published by Taylor & Francis). The name of the journal derives from when the term “natural philosophy” covered aspects of science including: astronomy, biology, botany, chemistry, geology, medicine, physics, and zoology; in addition to natural phenomena such as aurora, earthquakes, lightning strikes, and volcanic eruptions (Davis, 2010, p. 1).


Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (britannica.com)

Among the many notable scientists who have appeared in the pages of Philosophical Magazine—including Lord Kelvin, Niels Bohr, and Sir Joseph John Thomson—is Chandrasekhara Venkata (“C.V.”) Raman (1888–1970), an Indian physicist who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1930 “for his work on the scattering of light and for the discovery of the effect named after him.” The Nobel Committee described the Raman Effect:

“When light meets particles that are smaller than the light’s wavelength, the light spreads in different directions. This occurs, for example, when light packets – photons – encounter molecules in a gas. In 1928 Venkata Raman discovered that a small portion of the scattered light acquires other wavelengths than that of the original light. This is because some of the incoming photons’ energy can be transferred to a molecule, giving it a higher level of energy. Among other things, the phenomenon is used to analyze different types of material” (Nobel Prize, 1930).

The newly processed collection Philosophical Magazine galley proofs for science articles, 1920-1921, Ms. Coll. 1329, consists of galley proofs of science research articles for Philosophical Magazine published from 1920 to 1921. Most of the galley proofs show proofreader edits, as well as some author edits, and many of the proofs are accompanied by manuscripts or typescripts of the articles, which makes for a fascinating glimpse into the publishing process for this scientific journal in the 1920s.


Before his 1928 discovery of the Raman Effect, Raman and fellow scientist Bhabonath Banerji published a 1921 article in Philosophical Magazine (volume 41, issue 243) entitled, “On the Colours of Mixed Plates” (the galley with handwritten edits is pictured above).

While the article, which investigates “the colours exhibited by a mixed plate or film consisting of two interspersed transparent media,” is far above the head of this non-scientist, I was able to appreciate the publication process exhibited in the files found in this collection (Raman and Banerji, 1921, p. 338). Along with the galley proof of “On the Colours of Mixed Plates,” included in the collection is the typewritten manuscript (pictured below).


Box 2, Folder 16

Also included is the illustration used for the article, shown below (left) alongside the printed illustration (right), which is cut and pasted to a board– ah, the days before Photoshop!


Box 2, Folder 16

This collection, which is now open, will be useful to researchers interested in the publication process for some of the most notable scientists of the 1920s and the journal that presented their groundbreaking ideas.



Professor E.A. Davis (2010). Philosophical Magazine Archive, Philosophical Magazine, 90:S1, 1-2, DOI: 10.1080/14786431003659149

The Nobel Prize (1930). Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman – Facts. Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1930/raman-facts.html

C.V. Raman M.A. & Bhabonath Banerji M.Sc. (1921). XXX. On the colours of mixed plates.—Part I, Philosophical Magazine, 41:243, 338-347, DOI: 10.1080/14786442108636226

“Women Ain’t No Fools” – The Paul Eldridge Papers

Paul Eldridge (1888-1982) was a poet, novelist, essayist, short story writer, and teacher. Eldridge was born in Bucharest, raised in Philadelphia, and spent most of his life in New York City. He married fellow writer, stage actress, and soprano, Sylvette De La Mar (also known as Sylvette De Lamar, née Sylvia Reiss). Whenever I catalog a collection, I love to find photographs that allow me to picture the collection’s creator as I work, so imagine my delight when I came across these dapper photos of Paul and Sylvette, below.


Paul viewed Sylvette as his intellectual equal and dedicated all of his books to her. Alongside this respect for his wife and life partner, Paul Eldridge displayed a playful irreverence with regard to concepts of male and female roles, as is evident in the subjects and titles of many of his works.

Continue reading

Behind the Scenes–in person and virtually

On October 17, 2017, the catalogers of the Special Collections Processing Center had the chance to show off some of their favorite items! This year we offered tours of SCPC so that visitors could learn what happens to a book or collection “behind the scenes”–from the time that it is purchased or gifted, right up until it is publicly available.

The Behind the Scenes tours were in-person only, but in case you didn’t make it to the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, you can discover online the invisible sights and unheard sounds of the moments before the big moments … before the counter-attack is launched, the play performed, an execution ordered, a new bestseller published.  And you might just discover why the catalogers in SCPC love their jobs so much!