Friday, July 18, 2014

Mellon Scholars Program: Igniting a Scholarly Journey

In a series of occasional blog posts, participants in our Mellon Scholars Internship and Workshop programs will introduce themselves, discuss their experiences at the Library Company, and share their goals for pursuing careers in the field of early African American history. This program is generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Writing about myself is often one of the most difficult things to do. I mean, I could tell you my name is Sherri Cummings, I am a "native New Yorker," and I majored in Africana studies, history, and literature at Brooklyn College. I could also tell you that before my professor encouraged me to apply to the Mellon Scholars internship program at the Library Company of Philadelphia I had never heard of the institution ... and yet, I am here.

I am here because of my fascination with Atlantic world history, from the 17th century to the 19th century, and its relationship with the African Diaspora. My love for literature, especially from these time periods, and my profound interest in the history of Africa and her children in Europe and the Americas were the sparks that ignited my scholarly journey. For my graduate studies, I intend to explore the ways the events transpiring in the Atlantic world, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, affected the descendants of Africans in the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe. I would also like to explore women's narratives within this context because women's narratives are so often overlooked. 

Y. J. Grice. "To Miss Martina," from the Martina Dickerson
Friendship Album (circa 1840-1846).

After my first day at the Library Company, I was overwhelmed ... overwhelmed by the vast collection of African American history archived within the walls of the building neatly tucked into the block on Locust Street ... and overwhelmed with gratitude at the unique opportunity I had been blessed with. The first project I had the privilege of working on was transcribing pages from Martina Dickerson's friendship album. Emotionally, it was no easy task. Here I was leafing through the personal inscriptions of some of Philadelphia's black elite, written in the 1840s (let that sink in for a minute) ... who were responding to the death of Dickerson’s one-year-old son. Some wrote personal messages of sympathy, while others transcribed poems from William Wordsworth and Erasmus Darwin. Through their heartfelt sentiments, not only was I offered an intimate glimpse into the lives of these affluent and respectable African American men and women, I also got a sense of how educated they were and how informed about world events, and also how these events affected them.

This leads me to my independent research project here at the Library Company. I have chosen to examine the effects of the Saint Domingue (Haiti) Revolution on the City of Brotherly Love, paying close attention to the response of the African American community as they sought to define their space in the capital of the new republic. In doing so, I hope to place black Philadelphians in a transnational context actively reacting to occurrences in the 18th- and 19th- century Atlantic world that would ultimately shape the fight for liberty, equality, and the abolishment of slavery in Pennsylvania.    

Frontispiece from Saint-Domingue, ou Histoire de ses Revolutions (Paris, 1815). Hand-colored engraving. 
So there you have it, just a little bit about me. I am sincerely living in the moment, enjoying my time at the Library Company of Philadelphia surrounded by knowledgeable and passionate people who treasure this fabulous institution and all that it has to offer. 

Sherri Cummings
Mellon Scholars Intern, Summer 2014


Monday, July 14, 2014

“Sew on Your Own Buttons, I’m Going for a Ride!”

The Library Company of Philadelphia’s current exhibition That’s So Gay: Outing Early America showcases books, photographs, and graphic material that address gay identity in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Beyond attempting to identify individuals from this time as gay or straight, the exhibition digs deep into the ways that prescribed gender rules were broken, gender identities redefined, and the social repercussions of these changes.  One example from the exhibition is this comic valentine created by Frank Beard around 1870.  These “vinegar” valentines provided a way for people to criticize gender-benders in a humorous and typically scathing way.


The valentine shows a well-dressed woman standing on a platform addressing a crowd of women below her.  The text beneath the image reads, “You’re all aflame with woman’s rights, / And hope thereby to see strange sights; / No place too bold for such a trump - / You’d even go so far as mount the stump. / If you thus cast all social laws aside, / You’ll never be a happy bride.” 

Both the text and the image discourage women from transgressing social boundaries and gender roles to become involved with politics.  The valentine depicts the woman on the platform as frivolous: instead of campaign slogans advertising her political views, the woman is flanked by signs emphasizing her fashion sense.  Similarly, the text implies that a man would not want to marry a woman who has disregarded social mores in favor of women’s rights. 

Despite the prevalence of this kind of criticism, many women began to change their place in society.  In addition to political rights, women sought employment, education and an independent life outside the home, often without the constraints of marriage.  In the words of Winifred Harper Cooley, this “new woman is only the old woman with new opportunities.”

With these new opportunities came the need for mobility.  Women began using bicycles and wearing bloomers rather than voluminous dresses to accommodate their new mode of transportation.  These stereographs show another satirical view of women who are “all aflame with women’s rights”, paying particular attention to the effect that the “new woman” had on the traditional household.  The women in the photographs embrace their independence and leave the traditional tasks of wife and mother to their chagrined husbands.  Notice how bloomers and bicycles are featured in each image.  

The New Woman – Wash Day, c. 1901

William Herman Rau, Have Dinner at One Dear, c. 1897   

Sew on Your Own Buttons, I’m Going for a Ride. c. 1896

For more images like these and further discussion of gender roles in the 19th and early 20th centuries, be sure to visit That’s So Gay: Outing Early America on view until October 17, 2014 as well as review the complementary blog at

Alison Van Denend
IFPDA Foundation Curatorial Intern, Summer 2014


Winnifred Harper Cooley.  The New Womanhood. New York: Broadway Publishing Company, 1904.

Loralee MacPike. "The New Woman, Childbearing, and the Reconstruction of Gender, 1880-1900." NWSA Journal 1, no. 3 (Spring 1989): 368-97. JSTOR.

Additionally, see:

Melody Davis. “The New Woman in American Stereoviews, 1871-1905,” in Elizabeth Otto and Vanessa Rocco, eds., The New Woman International: Representations in Photography and Film from the 1870s through the 1960s.;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1#4.1

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Philly-DH@Penn and The Collinson Book

Philly-DH@Penn is an annual event consisting of workshops, “unconferences,” and lightening talks. The event attracts a wide audience ranging from academic faculty and students to GLAM (Gallery, Library, Archive, Museum) institution staff and administrators. The event is informal; attendees collaborate at the start of the day to propose the unconference sessions around prescheduled one hour mini workshops. All participants are expected to share personal experiences and goals related to the topic at hand and work with fellow participants to evaluate existing resources and opportunities. This casual format facilitates the open exchange of ideas from all attendees.

Attendees choose which unconference sessions to attend based on their interests and backgrounds. The relatively small size of the sessions facilitates the open exchange of ideas among the participants. Photo courtesy of Weigle Information Commons.
All of the attendees gather at the start to propose and listen to unconference session topics. Photo courtesy of Weigle Information Commons
The representatives from the Library Company hoped to gather general information about the developing field of digital humanities, as well as to discuss the specific application of this field to the collections. Peter Collinson’s annotated and extra-illustrated copy of William Maitland’s History of London (London, 1739) was the focus of one unconference session that raised the question “How do we make 18th century texts engaging to a modern audience?”

Attendees choose which unconference sessions to attend based on their interests and backgrounds. The relatively small size of the sessions facilitates the open exchange of ideas among the participants. Photo courtesy of Weigle Information Commons. 
The extensive experience of those in attendance allowed for a very productive discussion that revealed a wide range of  possibilities that we previously had not considered. Many of the ideas were derived from attendee’s experiences on comparable projects. The Chemical Heritage Foundation demonstrated the animated and interactive experience they developed with two books; Johann Conrad Barchusen’s Elementa chemiae (1718) and Epimetheus’s Pandora (1582)— “to reveal their hidden secrets.” The demo was engaging and the application’s extensibility was explored making it clear that it was a valuable model for future digitization projects at the Library Company. Attendees also suggested publishing a transcription of the annotations and marginalia while others saw the value in the ability to search both the published text and the added material simultaneously. Additional suggestions included crowd-sourcing annotations, creating a timeline of events, making a Twitter feed for Collinson, and using GIS technology to record data from the volume on both historic and modern maps. The Library Company is considering many of these options. As this project moves forward, we invite you to share your suggestions and experiences with us.

By Giles Holbrow, LCP Intern

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Amy Matilda Cassey’s Friendship Album

Title page from the Amy Matilda Cassey Friendship Album (circa 1833). Ink.
There are few insights into the lives of free wealthy African American women in antebellum Philadelphia as unique as those made possible by the Amy Matilda Cassey Friendship Album. A friendship album is similar to a scrapbook in that it contains a series of hand-crafted entries. The album itself would be passed to various friends for them to contribute to as they chose. This one in particular was owned by a member of the black elite in Philadelphia. The earliest dated entry in the album is from 1833 and the latest is from 1856.

One of the most essential aspects of the album is the social network that is depicted through the many contributions and names signed in it. It is a network made up of many abolitionists, both black and white, in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Many of the women represented connected through societies such as the interracial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and the Female Literary Association for African American women.

The women who made up these networks were working against daily prejudice and increasing racial violence. These networks were one way of keeping themselves safe. Writing in one of these friendship albums was a sign of connection to these social circles, allowing them to obtain letters of introduction and places to stay when traveling for abolition conferences and lecturing opportunities. Though not commonly accepted, many of these women lectured to audiences of mixed race and gender. Sarah Mapps Douglass, for example, was a Cassey friend who contributed several paintings of flowers to the album and in later years went on to lecture on medicine and female hygiene.

Sarah Mapps Douglass, A Token of Love from Me to Thee from the
Amy Matilda Cassey Friendship Album (circa 1836). Watercolor and gouache.
The album allows us to see what was important to this particular group of people. An album such as this in the homes of white women would be largely sentimental, whereas Amy Cassey’s album is peppered with abolitionist essays and poems. On top of that, many pieces examine the elegant qualities that embody a good woman and wife. Other entries discuss friendship in terms of its value and sweetness. The album’s semi-public mode of communication would likely have influenced contributors as they composed chose their selections. Contributors would have had the opportunity to read previous entries and reply or consider them in their own entries, a kind of 19th-century Facebook comment thread.

The first entry in the album is a poem, probably by Amy Cassey, that reads:

                       ‘Tis hoped, in gratitude alone,
                        You’ll add a tribute of your own,
                        And thus, with one choice piece at least
                        Enrich this mental pic-nic feast.

The album’s collection of personal affection, sentimentality, and edifying lessons on abolition brings together this “mental pic-nic feast,” creating a snapshot of the rich interactions among the members of this community that can be examined and displayed.

Jo Dutilloy
Tri-Co Digital Humanities Initiative
Summer 2014 Intern at the Library Company of Philadelphia

Monday, June 30, 2014

Tales from the Mystery Drawers, Part 1: The World of Tomorrow

New York World's Fair 1939. Color poster.

The Print Room at the Library Company of Philadelphia is a very organized place.  Each box is labeled and lovingly tucked back into its proper slot after a research session.  Each drawer is carefully inventoried and organized by subject matter, size, and accession number.  However, there are still corners of the Print Room where mysterious objects lurk, waiting to be discovered, studied, and processed.  Not only do these graphic works provide stunning examples of prints, maps and photographs, they also give us a glimpse into history.

One such resident of the so called Mystery Drawers is this poster advertising the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.  Its vibrant colors leap off the page, saturated blues and yellows demanding the viewer’s attention.  In the lithographic print, a young woman stands in the foreground, her cap at a jaunty angle, her cheeks rosy and her arm raised in an enthusiastic gesture.  Behind her is a large building, its white fa├žade lit by colorful fireworks.  It is composed of two giant structures: a three sided obelisk called the Trylon and a sphere almost 200 feet in diameter called the Perisphere.  The pair, also known as Theme Center, were used in all kinds of promotional material and came to symbolize the Fair’s “World of Tomorrow” theme.  Inside the Perisphere was a model of “Democracity”, a united, organized city of the future.  This optimistic view was reflected throughout the Fair and can also be seen in the Library Company’s 1939 poster.  The woman smiles and raises her arm as if welcoming in the bright new day ahead of her, volunteering to do her part in the World of Tomorrow.

However, the Fair’s forward-looking focus took a turn with the outbreak of World War II.  The hope for a peaceful, unified future stood in contrast with the horrors of war, just as the bright colors and optimistic message of the poster would seem increasingly disparate from the growing tension in Europe. As the war progressed, nations represented at the Fair were wiped off the map.  For example, the Czechoslovakian contingent defied Germany, who had annexed their nation in March, 1939, and went ahead with their pavilion at the Fair.  Many of their exhibitions were confiscated by the Nazis and by consequence the Czech pavilion was unfinished when the Fair opened.  Even in 1939, the effects of war were palpable.  In his review of the Fair, American poet John Peale Bishop wrote a somber description of the Soviet pavilion: “The effect of the whole is like that of a tomb, one of those impressive tombs which in almost every country after the last war were erected about an Unknown Soldier.  No man is buried under the flagstones of the courtyard; and yet I am not so sure that there is not something dead there.  It is hope that lies dead.”

By 1940, the Fair was in its second season and its theme had been changed to “Peace and Freedom.” Rather than futuristic exhibitions like the Trylon and Perisphere, nostalgic historical exhibitions and the amusement area became the most popular areas of the Fair.  The happy World of Tomorrow shown in the Library Company’s poster depicted a fair that no longer existed and a future whose existence seemed almost impossible at the outset of WWII.

Alison Van Denend
IFPDA Foundation Curatorial Intern, Summer 2014

John Peale Bishop. “World’s Fair Notes.” The Kenyon Review 1 no. 3 (Summer 1939): 239-50. JSTOR.

Marco Duranti. “Utopia, Nostalgia and World War at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair.” Journal of Contemporary History 41, no. 4 (October 2006): 663-83. JSTOR.

Helen A. Harrison. “Stuart Davis’s World of Tomorrow.” American Art 9, no. 3 (Autumn 1995): 96-100. JSTOR.