Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Two “van”-Tastic Persons

LCP’s Print Department boasts a collection of some 4000 printed portraits, stored within 52 archival boxes, ranging from Augustus H. Abbott to Ulrich Zwingli. Needless to say, entering all of these priceless items into the LCP database presents a daunting challenge, and encompasses an enormous number of man- (and woman-) hours!

The following are very brief biographies of several of the interesting individuals who reside within the portrait collection.

G. Parker, engraver after a miniature by C. Fraser, Stephen Van Rensselaer, engraving, ca. 1836.

This handsome gentleman, Stephen van Rensselaer (1764-1839), was born with multiple silver spoons in his mouth. The Dutch had awarded his ancestors a huge land grant in upstate New York, and Stephen had thrived within his vast rich family environment. He graduated from Harvard College in 1782. The following year, on his twenty-first birthday, he became lord of his family’s estate, which comprised almost 1200 square miles. As heir to this enormous estate, he was deemed the tenth richest American of all time, having amassed a fortune of $10 million (which was equivalent to 1/194 of the entire nation’s gross domestic product!). As a politician, he was elected Lieutenant Governor of New York from 1795 until 1801. He served in the House of Representatives from 1822 to 1829. As a less-than-stellar military figure, he was a commander during the War of 1812.

His outstanding contribution, however, was the establishment of the Rensselaer School, now known as the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute “for the purpose of instructing persons, who may choose to apply themselves, in the application of science to the common purposes of life”.

I. A. Van Amburgh, woodcut, ca. 1850.

Isaac A. Van Amburgh (1811-1865) was another New Yorker, but one not initially privy to such great wealth. At age nineteen, he was employed as a cage cleaner at North Salem’s Zoological Institute of New York. His boss noted that Isaac showed great aptitude in handling the wild animals while performing his menial cage duties. After spending a winter training his ferocious felines, Isaac –a true showman- made his New York debut in the Van Amburgh Menagerie, dazzlingly wrapped in a Roman toga. The crowd was amazed at his ability to make his cats sit still and then come to him on command. They were even more flabbergasted when he stuck his arm, and then his head, inside a lion’s mouth.

In truth, van Amburgh utilized one of the oldest training methods to “tame” his animals: cruelty, beatings and starvation, inhumane even by nineteenth century standards.  Suffering a fatal heart attack in 1865, van Amburgh died a wealthy man, not between the jaws of one of his lions, but within the confines of his own bed.

Gus Spector
LCP Volunteer

Friday, November 7, 2014

Reconstructing Fragments of African American Life

The Library Company’s next major exhibition, The Genius of Freedom: Northern Black Activism and Uplift after the Civil War, will be on display from November 11, 2014, through June 26, 2015. One of the more unusual items in the exhibition is a mailer tube which held a Children’s Day lithograph published by the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Sunday School Union in Nashville. Copyrighted in 1891, the print commemorates the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the Sunday School Union, the publishing arm of the A.M.E. Church. Depicted are portraits of Charles S. Smith, the Union’s founder, and four regional queens of Children’s Day, an annual fundraiser when small donations were collected from Sunday school students. 

A rare piece of historical ephemera, the mailer tube’s label records the name and address of the lithograph’s purchaser, Absalom Arter of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, providing a glimpse into the A.M.E. Sunday School Union’s customer base in the North. 

Little is known about Absalom Arter’s early life. The records that document that he was born in Charles Town, Virginia (later West Virginia), on December 25, 1839, do not indicate whether he was enslaved or free. By 1863, he was in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where he enlisted as a private in Company H of the 22nd Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry. He served for the duration of the Civil War, mustering out on October 16, 1865.

After the war, Absalom made a living as a day laborer and gardener. He and his family moved often from city to city in central and western Pennsylvania, perhaps in search of steady work. It is notable that, despite their frequent moves, the Arters usually settled in a town or city close to an A.M.E. or an A.M.E. Zion church. In 1880, he and his wife Henrietta (in either his first or second marriage) lived with their four children, Harriet, Laton, Charles, and Anna in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. A November 22, 1884, article in the African American newspaper The State Journal noted that a Miss Hetty Arter (possibly Absalom’s fourteen-year-old daughter Harriet) had won a gold necklace as a prize for her performance in a fundraising concert at Shippensburg’s Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church.

By 1887, Absalom was living in Carlisle, where he married his third wife, Nancy Ellen Plecker, around 1892. Like Absalom’s previous wife Henrietta, Nancy did not work outside of the home. Between 1892 and 1909, Absalom and Nancy had ten children, three of whom died at an early age. Charles and Anna, the two youngest children from his previous marriage, may also have lived in the household until they reached adulthood. It was here in Carlisle that the A.M.E. Sunday School Union lithograph was sent. Solely dependent upon Absalom’s wages, the growing family was not wealthy and probably lived in tight quarters at 59 West Chapel Street. Regardless of a family’s income, a print such as this typically would be displayed in the main living room as a religious and social symbol of racial progress.
The Arters lived on West Chapel Street, between Pitt and Hanover Streets. As pictured on this map, a Bethel A.M.E. church is only a block and a half away at the corner of West Chapel and West Streets. Map of Carlisle from Atlas of Cumberland Co., Pennsylvania (New York: P.W. Beers, 1872).

According to city directories and federal censuses, Absalom probably continued working well into his seventies. Although all of the Arters’ children were literate and had attended school, when they reached adulthood, they too found work in domestic service or manual labor occupations, ranging from maids and laborers to porters and molders. The reasons for their employment choices are likely complex but may have been due to a combination of racial prejudice, economic pressures to earn money rather pursue advanced education, limited employment options, and lack of access to professional training. A December 3, 1891, article in The Christian Recorder observed that African Americans were completely shut out of employment opportunities in the thriving manufacturing sector of central Pennsylvania.

In 1922, for the first time, the Arters settled in a town without an A.M.E. church or a substantial African American population when they moved to Cambridge Springs, a resort town in Crawford County, Pennsylvania. A decade earlier, the Pennsylvania Negro Business Directory, 1910 had noted that the town’s only African American residents were a restaurant proprietor and his wife. In 1920, the entire county of Crawford contained approximately 700 African Americans out of 60,000 residents, suggesting that blacks were still a tiny minority in Cambridge Springs when the Arters arrived. A year following the move Absalom died. Nancy lived with her daughter Mary in Cambridge Springs until her death in 1962, likely supported by Mary’s wages from domestic service and Absalom’s veteran’s pension.

Many gaps remain about the Arters’ aspirations, motivations, and struggles. Nevertheless, as a material artifact of their existence, this print and its mailer tube help to flesh out the lives of a working-class Northern black family in the late 19th century.

Krystal Appiah
Exhibition Curator and
Curator of African American History

Friday, October 31, 2014


The way we experience photographs today is very different from the way people experienced them 120 years ago.  We press the shutter on our digital cameras without concern; if the photograph doesn’t turn out it can easily be deleted.  We load photographs onto our computers, edit them on a screen, and share them online.  Our photographs stay in a digital world, existing as pixels rather than prints or plates. 

It is easy to forget that the photograph can also be an object rather than just an image.  The photographs in the Marriott C. Morris Collection serve as a reminder of the simultaneous fragility and durability, tactility and “thing-ness” that photographs can have.
Marriott C. Morris, Old Swede’s Church Wilmington. From 6th St. Snow on Ground. 1883.
Many of the photographs in the Marriott C. Morris Collection come in the form of glass negatives.  The thin glass plates are all stored individually in acid-free sleeves and organized into boxes.  They must be handled with gloves so that fingerprints and oils from the skin do not damage the plates.  Unless they are held up to the light, the image on the plate is often difficult to discern in the hazy film of emulsion.  With the use of a lightbox, the image appears in negative form.  What we think should be dark is light and vice versa.  For example, in this image of Old Swede’s Church the snow on the roof and cemetery grounds appears black in the negative.  Similarly, the ghostly white tendrils in the negative become bare, black tree branches in the positive image.
Marriott C. Morris, Elliston P. Morris, ca. 1890.
The negatives of people are especially arresting, their faces emerging like ghosts from the lightbox.  While haunting, these negatives hide details about the sitter that only emerge when the positive image is created.  Marriott C. Morris’ father Elliston P. Morris’ kind eyes are obscured in the negative version of his portrait but gaze out warmly from the positive image.

Marriott C. Morris, detail on negative of Elliston P. Morris, ca. 1890.
Negatives hide things but also reveal them.  For example, in the negative view of Morris’ portrait the emulsion has been burnished around the face and small scratches made to emphasize areas of light and create shadow.  This shows Marriott C. Morris’ hand not only in taking the photograph, but also the refinement of the negative, the physical act of dragging metal across glass.  The process of digitizing the Marriott C. Morris Collection is a very important one.  However, we must not forget the original form of these photographs as glass negatives, both mystery and revelation, both object and image.

Alison Van Denend
Assistant Project Manager

The Marriott C. Morris Photograph Collection

“Ghosts Everywhere, and of Every Color”: Spectral Visions at the Library Company

The catalog entry for Spectropia; or, Surprising Spectral Illusions (New York, 1864) piqued the interest of Library Company Fellow Jessica Linker, who is researching women science practitioners in early America. Upon examination, she discovered it to be a peculiar mix of scientific didacticism and spooky entertainment.

“It is a curious fact that, in this age of scientific research, the absurd follies of spiritualism should find an increase of supporters…” lamented J. H. Brown, writing in 1864. Decrying popular belief in spirit-rapping, table-turning, and witchcraft, Brown warned his readers to be wary of practitioners of the supernatural, insisting the “modern professor of these impostures, like his predecessors in all such disreputable arts, is bent only on raising the contents of pockets of the most gullible portion of humanity…” Surely this was sound advice, but perhaps not what one expected of a book that promised to show “ghosts everywhere, and of every color.”

Spectropia; or, Surprising Spectral Illusions was in fact an amusing series of optical illusions that depended upon afterimage, a phenomenon where an image lingers in one’s field of vision. You have likely experienced afterimage before; perhaps, despite your parents’ admonitions, you have glanced at the sun long enough to see blue or purple spots floating through the air upon looking away. Spectropia operates on a similar principle. The book contains sixteen color plates of various ghosts and spectres that, if stared at, would seemingly dance before the reader’s eyes in colors complementary to the original image.

The plates are accompanied by a detailed explanation of both afterimage and color inversion. Brown guides his readers through the function and structure of the human eye, as well as color theory, making what would otherwise be a novelty into something didactic. Why? The author’s ultimate aim was to combat superstition by demonstrating that so-called apparitions had logical explanations, all the while entertaining his audience. In this context, the act of seeing spectres was transformed into a scientific demonstration that robbed would-be charlatans of their power to beguile innocent minds.

If you would like to view the illusion yourself, simply follow these instructions.
  1. In each image, locate the asterisk (*).
  2. In a well-lit room, focus your eyes on the asterisk while counting to 20. Be careful not to blink or look away. The closer you are to your image, the larger the illusion will appear.
  3. Stare at a white piece of paper or wall. You should see the shape of the spectre floating before your eyes. Red spectres on paper will appear green in the air, blue will appear orange, and so on, according to the original color and its complement.

Jessica Linker
Ph.D. Candidate in History, University of Connecticut
Albert M. Greenfield Foundation Dissertation Fellow at the Library Company

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Marriott C. Morris Photograph Collection

Marriott C. Morris, J.R.M. [Jane Rhoads Morris] & baby, ca. 1900.

A young woman leans against a painted brick wall, her back straight and her hair dark hair pulled into a knot at the top of her head.  She holds a baby in her arms wrapped snugly in a knitted blanket. The baby’s left hand is a blur of motion; despite his calm expression he was unable to keep still for the photograph. Who was this woman with the timid smile?  And who was this chubby cheeked child?

We know who this woman was partly because her husband, Marriott C. Morris, decided to take her photograph.  Her name was Jane Rhoads Morris and the baby is probably one of her sons, Elliston Perot Morris or Marriott C. Morris Jr.  She married Morris in 1897, but her husband had been taking photographs long before then.  

Marriott C. Morris, Family group at back porch of 4782 Main St. Father, Bess, Hannah, Mother, Aunt Lydia, Uncle Charles Rhoads, Auntie Beulah. Geo. S. Morris & Catherine Harman, 1889.

Marriott C. Morris was a member of a prominent Philadelphia Quaker family who took his first photographs during his freshman year at Haverford College.  Morris continued to document his life through photographs of his large extended family and network of friends, his Germantown neighborhood and his many travels across the East Coast and even Bermuda.  One of his favorite subjects was the Morris family home Avocado, located in Sea Girt, New Jersey. 

Marriott C. Morris, [Front view of Avocado with two women sitting on the porch, Sea Girt, NJ], ca. 1900.

Marriott C. Morris, [View of Victorian decorated parlor, possibly Avocado at Sea Girt], ca. 1900.
Thanks to a generous donation made by Marriott C. Morris’s grandchildren David Marriott Morris, Eleanor Rhoads Morris Cox and William Perot Morris in memory of Marriott Canby Morris, the Library Company will be able to share these photographs with a wide audience.  Through a process of research, digitization and publication, people will be able to experience these photographs through the Library Company’s blog, twitter feed and an upcoming online exhibition.  As the Assistant Project Manager for this collection it is my hope that these photographs will not be seen simply as images of nameless faces but as a record of lives well lived, as a capsule of what Morris loved and wanted to remember.  Even more, these photographs provide  a window into the past, a snapshot of a time and a place, that give us a glimpse of everyday life in late 19th century Philadelphia.  There is a lot to learn from these photographs and I’m excited to share the Marriott C. Morris Photograph Collection with you.

Alison Van Denend
Assistant Project Manager
Marriott C. Morris Photograph Collection