The “Theatricals in Philadelphia” Scrapbooks: Or, How Yesterday’s Old Stuff Became the Treasure Trove of Today

The complete set of “Theatricals in Philadelphia” scrapbooks (MS. Coll. 1384)

If you work in an archival repository, you know that no matter how uninteresting or randomly assembled a collection may appear, it probably meant a lot to whoever decided to put it together. Archivists are also used to dealing with the hyperbolic language of the auctioneers from whom collections are sometimes purchased. Everything has to be “unusual,” “rare,” “unique,” etc. to attract the generous offers of the bidders. So, there seems to be nothing special about the note that opens the 15-volume scrapbook set of “Theatricals in Philadelphia”. The anonymous writer – probably an employee of the well-known Philadelphia auction house of Stanislaus Henckels – informs us that “somebody has devoted almost a lifetime in making this collection,” which is of course defined as “invaluable,” at least to “those interested in Philadelphia theatrical affairs.” 

A description of the “Theatricals in Philadelphia” scrapbooks found at the beginning of volume I

But let’s face it: who, in 1920 Philadelphia, could be interested in purchasing a huge pile of materials on literally anything happened on the city stages only a few decades before? Sure, today’s opera aficionados would likely love to read page after page of Pavarotti programs, and admire dusty portraits of the singer clipped out of 1990s magazines; and theater buffs may crave to know more about the time when the Trocadero – which will permanently close at the end of May 2019 – was the kingdom of burlesque, and the 4,000-seat Broad Street Metropolitan Opera House – which was recently reopened as a concert venue – was used as a church. But 3,500 pages of this (and what’s more, in no apparent order)? Maybe it’s a bit too much. Continue reading

Heroines Behind the Scenes of War

World War II provides much of the lore and mystique which fuels the modern American culture.  From movies, books, and television documentaries, it is hard to escape the particular monopoly this time period has on popular media.  When it comes to women of World War II, media tends to focus on those who have driven ambulances onto battlefields, stitched up patients on bloody stretchers, or spied behind enemy lines; but women served heroically in many ways, on the home front and overseas.  The Jane Wright Proctor Wallis family papers (Ms. Coll. 1310) tells one such story.

HoneyinmaskWhen the United States entered World War II, many families and individuals answered the call to serve anyway they could.  One such person was Honoria Wallis (Honey), the eighth child in the Wallis family, who after college, was working as a social service worker in Philadelphia. Upon joining the Red Cross Medical Corps, Honey was trained at the 46th General Hospital at Fort Riley, Kansas, from September 1942 to June 1943.

In July 1943, Honey was sent overseas, eventually serving “somewhere in North Africa,” in England, and “somewhere in Italy” as head medical social worker, where her job including “writing letters and securing comforts for sick and wounded soldiers to wrangling a circus tent for use as a recreation center.”

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Honey wrote to her mother whenever she was able, offering what news she could share, as well as her impressions of her surroundings. In addition to reassuring her family of safety measures for the social workers and describing eating out of mess kits, “a system which should have been organized in [her large] family years ago,” Honey wrote requesting light and diverting reading material to be sent for the injured soldiers (“western, mystery, and detective stories are badly wanted!”).  A letter from January 15, 1944  reads:

“We continue to be exceedingly busy, going as many hours as we can hold out…Our days are spent in the wards, giving out comfort articles which the men need.  Both sick and wounded, they come in from the front without any of their personal articles.  Many men cannot write their own letters.  We wrap and censor packages for mailing.  We help them with necessary telephone calls or telegrams.  We read to them and give any comfort and sympathy in our power.”

Typical nursing scenes

A scrapbook page documenting time in Naples, Italy 1944

Honey’s letters are fairly cheerful, but she clearly experienced hardships.  She writes of bad weather tearing down tents, illness, lack of sanitary facilities, long hours, and, of course, watching patients suffer.  In addition to the general miseries of war, some of Honey’s friends were killed in a plane crash and others were sent home with tuberculosis.  By the end of the summer of 1944, only Honey and one other woman from her Fort Riley class remained.  Despite all the difficulties, Honey stated, “I have never worked so hard nor been so happy in all my life.”  Although Honey “preferred to work directly with patients,” she was promoted to hospital supervisor, and she was assigned to hospitals in Naples and Rome until the end of the war.

After the war in Europe was over, Honey was Acting Field Director at Fitzsimons General Hospital in Denver, Colorado, which treated mostly tuberculosis patients, many of whom were released from Japanese prison camps. Honey was no doubt seen as a great hero to the bored and lonely patients recuperating in military hospitals.  With books, music, movies, puzzles and recreation centers, she provided diversions from terrible memories and brought laughter into the dark world of war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The scrapbook as it appears today

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

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“A bouquet of game” included in the scrapbook

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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A caption handwritten in the back pastedown of the scrapbook

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

 

 

Ghosts on the Shelf: Or, the Long-Awaited Return of Charles Durang’s “History of The Philadelphia Stage Between the Years 1749 and 1855” (But, Wait, Wasn’t that Thompson Westcott’s?)

Historians of American drama know it well: there is hardly a more precious source on 19th-century Philadelphia theater than Charles Durang’s work dedicated to the history of the city stage in the years between 1749 and 1855. A painstakingly detailed account of the theatrical activities that took place in Philadelphia over a century, Durang’s work appeared in weekly installments on a Philadelphia newspaper, the Sunday Dispatch, and was thus widely available at the time it was published. Today, it can be found in dozens of libraries across the U.S., either in its original form – that is, as clippings from the original newspapers from the 1850s and 1860s, often pasted onto more or less inclusive scrapbooks – or, much more frequently, as a microfilm.

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The title page of volume I of Thompson Westcott’s scrapbooks of Charles Durang’s history of theater in Philadelphia. Westcott’s signature and the date can be seen on the bottom left corner of the image. To the left is an engraving of actor, playwright, and theater manager David Garrick

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