Friday, October 31, 2014

“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