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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Text Me Back! The Cunnington and Lee Family Papers

Have you ever texted someone and then waited … waited … waited for a response? Navigating relationships in the age of texting can cause a lot of uncertainty, impatience, and disappointment. How dare your romantic interest like that photo on Instagram or comment on that Facebook post without having responded to that meme you just sent?! I was reminded that the frustration of communication between romantic partners is not new when I recently processed the Cunnington and Lee family papers, 1813-1866.

William P. Cunnington (1804-1871) led the orchestra at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia and traveled with orchestras in Baltimore and New York. While on an extended business trip to Baltimore, he wrote to his wife, Jane Cook Cunnington (1808-1872), and very freely described his displeasure at the infrequency of her letters (and of the topics on which she wrote).

cunnington-letter

Ms. Coll. 1258, Box 1, Folder 3

Baltimore
Nov 25, 1846

My dear Jane—

I scarcely know whether to feel more distressed or incensed at your conduct. I have been here nearly two weeks & not one word from you. I wrote to you last Friday night & sent the letter by Rink on Saturday morning. I wrote as much as it was possible for me to do situated as I was. I begged of you to sit down on Sunday & write to me & I felt as certain of having a letter on Monday as I did of seeing the daylight. I counted the hours for the office to open but I only experienced the bitter disappointment. I have been to the office every day…. I could scarcely believe my own senses when told again this morning & again this afternoon that there was no letter.

Wow—tell us how you really feel, Willy! William and Jane did have three children—William H., Oldine, and Francis—so it’s possible that Jane’s infrequent missives were a result of taking care of the children and not because she was trying to “distress” or “incense” her rather impatient husband.

Another highlight of this collection is an example of a crossed letter. A crossed, or cross-hatched, letter contains two sets of writing on top of each other at right angles. This practice was done in the nineteenth century to save paper, as well as postal charges. (Even after paper became more readily available, some people practiced crossed writing as a show of thrift.) As you can see from the example, it’s a challenge to read such crossed letters!

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Ms. Coll. 1258, Drawer 55

The Cunnington and Lee family papers also contain the papers of antiquarian William H. Cunnington (1754-1810) of Heytesbury, Wiltshire, England. In addition to the family letters—which are concerned with issues such issues of daily life as health, the settling of estates, and travel—the collection contains poems written by, and apparently copied by, the families. The poems are primarily concerned with love and death (is there anything else?).

This collection is now open for researchers. After perusing the collection, perhaps you will be moved to show more patience toward your paramours than William showed poor Jane.