Friday, April 1, 2016

Exploring the World of Marriot C. Morris

Elliston Perot Morris Jr. and Marriott Canby Morris Jr. on Pocono Lake, 1909. P.2013.13.361.

The Marriott C. Morris Photograph Collection is now available online in two ways.  Almost 2500 photographic prints, negatives and lantern slides from the Morris Collection are accessible on ImPAC, the Library Company’s digital collections catalog.  From September 2014 through the summer of 2015, Alison Van Denend, the Assistant Project Manager for the Morris Collection, processed and digitized these photographs as part of an effort to preserve, organize, and research the work of amateur Philadelphia photographer Marriott C. Morris.  The Library Company’s entire collection of Morris’s work, including new materials generously donated by Morris’s grandchildren David Marriott Morris, Eleanor Rhoads Morris Cox, and William Perot Morris, is now accessible in one searchable database.  Each record contains a high quality jpg file as well as information regarding the date, location, and subject of the photograph gleaned from Morris’s meticulous journals.

In addition to the resources available on ImPAC, the Morris Collection can be explored further via the project’s website.  The website includes a family tree, copies of Morris’s photographic journals, a link to ImPAC records, and all of Alison Van Denend’s blog posts about the collection, as well as links to other repositories with Morris’s work.  Please visit to learn more.

Mt. Rainier, Washington.  August 5, 1921. P.2014.69.31.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

"I Read as Much as I Dare"

At the Library Company’s 2015 Annual Dinner, speaker Jill Lepore talked about her recent biography of Benjamin Franklin’s sister, The Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. We learned that in a letter to her brother, Jane Franklin penned the words, “I read as much as I dare.” Digital Outreach Librarian and Curatorial Assistant (and artist) Concetta Barbera used Jane Franklin’s bold words to design a new Library Company T-shirt. Printed in either blue or dark red text, the white and off-white T-shirts are available for $20.00 (plus $6.00 shipping) by contacting the Library Company at 215-546-3181 or

Jane Franklin’s words also inspired me to I look through our collection for photographic portraits of people with books or other reading material. 
Books appear as studio props with relative frequency even in some of our earliest photographs. Sitters may have felt that being portrayed next to books stacked on a table or posing with a book in one’s lap lent an air of education or sophistication to a portrait. In her portrait, Juliana Randolph Wood, a member of a prominent Philadelphia Quaker family, pays little heed to the daguerreotypist taking her image. Her attention is completely occupied with the book opened on the table next to her. 

Montgomery P. Simons, Julianna Randolph Wood, ca. 1847. P.8928.2. Gift of Radclyffe F. & Maria M. Thompson.

Providing children with a book or a toy to ensure cooperation in the tedious process of sitting for a portrait has long been a staple in the portrait photographer’s arsenal. Although the child on the left seems a tad bored with the letters “F” and “G” in the image below, both children in this turn-of-the century image sit quietly with the large book opened on their laps. 

Seth Pancoast Levis, Children Reading, 1909. P.9645.372. Gift of Matthew Schultz

The latest in women’s hairstyles seems to have completely captivated the attention of the little girl who posed with her magazine and perfect posture for a series of portraits by the well-known Philadelphia female artist Jessie Willcox Smith. 

Jessie Willcox Smith, Unidentified Girl Reading, ca. 1920. P.9446.

Even an amateur photographer knew that having a relaxed sitter engaged in reading made the work of the photographer go the most smoothly. Here a boy looks down at a book while his brother or friend attempts to take his portrait. 
 Frank Berry, Boy Photographing Another Young Boy, ca. 1907. P.8986.40. Gift of Richard R. Frame.

For elderly sitters, a book may have represented the knowledge and wisdom acquired over a long life. These two older women, identified as sisters in their 80s, share a book in this portrait later given to a family member.

Ludecke Studio, Cousin Matttie Wright’s Aunts from Wilmington, 1912. P.2015.75.

In the earliest days of photography, books provided a familiar and comfortable prop during what might have been a person’s first experience of sitting for a daguerreotype. Even as photography grew commonplace, reading material gave sitters something to focus on to alleviate the self-consciousness that often accompanies sitting for a portrait session. Whether young or old, sitters with a book could at least give the illusion of being caught in a moment of quiet reflection.

Sarah J. Weatherwax
Curator of Prints and Photographs

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Tickling the Ivories

LCP has an enormous collection of sheet music. One could almost say that it is elephantine in size. Amidst this veritable jungle of well-thumbed-through pages are examples of the polkas and mazurkas of the 1840s, as well as twangy hillbilly and cowboy songs, circa 1940. There is a gaggle of Civil War patriotics, sad ballads (“oh if I could only be in my mother’s arms before I die!”), and raucous melodies made famous by now long-forgotten quartets. Some of the earlier works sport beautifully printed and hand colored front covers, produced by the eminent lithographers of the day.

Much of LCP’s music collection is composed of scores for the piano (known in 1840s lingo as the piano forte). Our allusion to “tickling the ivories” refers to the archaic term for “playing the piano.” At one time piano keys were made of ivory. Since ivory-yielding animal species are endangered and protected by international treaty, piano manufacturers now utilize plastics that are more durable than their ivory counterparts. 

Of all the wonderful sheet music in LCP’s mammoth collection,  J. W. Wheeler’s “White Elephant March” of 1884, depicting the forlorn animal seen in this simple crude illustration, has been chosen to be highlighted since it unravels a tale of duplicity and greed. It also has a strong Philadelphia connection.

White elephants are albinos. Most of the white variety actually have yellowish or reddish brown skin. Historically, the lower class populations of Laos and Siam believed the white elephants to be divine. The lords of these countries captured the gargantuan white creatures and housed them in huge stables, where they drank from golden water jars laced with perfumed flowers and were bedded upon gold inlaid floors. In 1884 P. T. Barnum purchased “Toung Taloung” (English translation: “Gem of the Sky”), a towering white behemoth from Burma. He was advertised as the “first and only genuine sacred white elephant ever permitted to leave his native land.”

 Adam Forepaugh, born into an impoverished Philadelphia family, made his fortune during the Civil War dealing in livestock. He became a circus operator, opening a permanent circus building in Philadelphia. During his career, he actually owned more elephants than Barnum: 39 as compared to P.T.’s 36. Forepaugh, upon learning that Barnum was about to introduce his white elephant to the American public, formulated a dastardly plan to one-up the master showman. Six days before Barnum’s Toung Taloung was to appear in Madison Square Garden, Forepaugh trotted out his own white elephant, dubbed “The Light of Asia” (later renaming him “John”). While Barnum’s albino was actually a disappointing spotted brownish color, “The Light of Asia” was brilliant white since he had been painted that color by Forepaugh’s circus workers!

Upon Toung Taloung’s death, Barnum was quoted as saying “I was greatly disappointed in him. He was as genuine an animal as ever existed, but, in fact, there was never such an animal known. The white spots are simply diseased blotches… I can’t say that I grieved much over him.” The term “white elephant” has been handed down to us from Barnum’s era meaning something that has been given away, but is generally useless to the receiver.

Incidentally, Adam Forepaugh died in 1890 and was interred in the family vault at Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Gus Spector
Library Company of Philadelphia Volunteer

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Rev. W.F. Johnson: Blind Phrenologist, Abolitionist, and Picture Show Lecturer

Beginning in April 2016, the Library Company will host Common Touch, a multimedia and sensory exhibition curated by artist Teresa Jaynes. Generously funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, the exhibition inspired by historical embossed and raised-letter documents for the visually impaired will explore the nature of perception. The following is a shared blog post from the CommonTouch website, where in anticipation of the forthcoming exhibition we have been showcasing relevant items from our historical collections documenting the blind and other communities with disabilities.     

Camera Obscura! [United States, ca. 1853]. Printed handbill. 11.5 x 5 in.

Picture shows a handbill illustrated with a decorative border. The document will be described from the top of the page to the bottom.  Text reads: Camera Obscura! [new line] There will be an Exhibition [new line] of  [new line]  Paintings! [new line] Given this [blank] Even[in]g, [new line]  at 7 o’clock, [blank] 185[blank] [new line]. In the [blank]  [new line] at [blank]. [new line] At which [new line] Prof. W. F. Johnson,  [new line] A Colored Gentleman, of the N. Y. In-[new line] stitute for the Blind, will introduce to the citizens [new line] of this vicinity, and the public generally, without [new line] reference to Party or Politics, Fifteen Scenes, illus-[new line] trative of some of the features of the American In- [new line] stitution of Slavery, accompanied by some ap- [new line]propriate odes, “The Slave Mothers’s La-[new line] ment,” “Appeal to Christina,” “Un- [new line] cle Tom’s Religion.” To conclude with ten interesting Changing [new line] Views, magnified, active, and as large as life. [new line] Admission One Shilling. [new line] Children Under 10 years of age sixpence. [new line] [picture of pointed finger] Complimentary to Press and Clergy. [new line] Opinion of the Press.- Mr. Johnson, has been a re- [new line] sident of our village, when at home, for some 20 years, during much of [new line] which time we have been acquainted with him. Blind since his youth, [new line] he has, with untiring perseverance [sic], educated himself. During three [new line] years’ residence in New York Institute for the blind, he made him [new line] self acquainted with the science of Phrenology, under the instruction of [new line]  Prof. Fowler. The independence and strength of character exhibited by [new line] Mr. J. in procuring an education, with the privilege of sight denied him, [new line] is worthy of admirati[o]n;  and those who know him, stand ready at all [new line] times to attend his lectures and exhibitions. He has an instructive and [new line] entertaining exhibition. – Ithaca Journal. [End of description]

The Library Company has several collecting strengths and many often intersect and intertwine as in the case of this handbill advertising a circa 1853 picture show presented by the blind African American abolitionist, professor, and minister William F. Johnson. Pertinent to our African American history, visual culture, and disability studies collections, the print represents the career of a man whose profession was comprised of intertwined roles of educator, abolitionist, and phrenologist.

Born free in Baltimore, Maryland in 1822 and blind from a young age, Johnson is most remembered for his revered position as Superintendent of the Brooklyn Colored Howard Orphan Asylum from 1870 to his death in 1903. His earlier career as a lecturer, typically using a camera obscura to provide an illustrated presentation, is often overshadowed by his later calling.

Before movie theaters, camera obscura rooms provided a similar visual experience. Composed of a darkened room in which a light was shown through illustrated glass plates, the camera allowed for the images on the plate to be reproduced in color on an inside wall. During the 1850s Johnson not only informed his audience with an exhibition of paintings of “fifteen scenes, illustrative of some of the features of the American Institution of Slavery,” but also created a verbal picture “without reference to Party or Politics.” to deepen the understanding of their context for their viewers.

By promoting the non-partisanship of his exhibition, Johnson marketed his presentation to a diverse crowd that would likely not have attended his lecture if advertised more stridently.  People curious to see a blind man lecture on illustrations, which he himself could not physically see, certainly comprised a segment of the audience.  Enticed by the spectacle of Johnson, the curious there less to learn about the life of a slave and more to see Johnson, still received a visual, and more resonant, lesson of the injustices of slavery.

Audience members also typically partook of Johnson’s skills as a phrenologist. Phrenology, a pseudoscience that linked bumps on a person's head to certain aspects of the individual's personality, character, and mental capacity, had not only been taught at Johnson’s alma mater the New York Institute for the Blind, but also at the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Massachusetts. Based on touch, phrenology allowed Johnson, an African American man who was blind and likely educated through his fingers, to educate his audience, in a poignant manner, about their personal identity as well as their character in a society that permitted slavery.

Although absent itself of much illustration, this handbill provides a picture of the man, the culture, and the society that fostered its production. The printed sheet implies Johnson’s savvy understanding of the visual and popular culture of his time to facilitate his mission to end slavery through the power of sight and touch.

Selected Sources:
William Hanks Levy,  Blindness and the Blind: Or A Treatise on the Science of Typhology. London: Chapman and Hall, 1872.

1870 and 1900 United States Federal Census,

“From our Philadelphia Correspondent,” Provincial Freeman, June 23, 1855.

“The Howard Orphan Asylum,” New York Globe, June 14, 1884.

“New York and Brooklyn News,” Frederick Douglass’s Paper, February 2, 1855.

“Prof. W. F. Johnson,” The Christian Recorder, July 16, 1864.

“The Rev. W. F. Johnson,” New York Times, October 19, 1903.

Erika Piola
Associate Curator, Prints & Photographs
Co-director, VCP at LCP