Monday, March 26, 2012

How Did People Learn about the World before the World Wide Web?

With the “Arab Spring” in the headlines over the past year, many people have needed a look at the map to figure out where these events were occurring. A quick Google search might start to fill us in nowadays, but how knowledgeable were people in the past about the world outside the United States, and where did they get this knowledge?

A common way was to attend or see souvenirs from a World’s Fair. The Library Company holds a rich collection of ephemera relating to World’s Fairs, not only the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, but others as well. The Fairs generally showcased particular countries, along with exhibits devoted to scientific advances and new industrial processes.
A variety of Egyptian artifacts on display at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.
Examining photographs of the country displays reveals that visitors could see a range of artifacts, from musical instruments, to saddles, and even the door of a mosque.
Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia. 1876. (Philadelphia, 1876).
World’s Fairs also built sections with architecture representing different countries in the world. The Centennial Exhibition featured both an Egyptian and a Tunisian section, with characteristic edifices.
Souvenir de L'Exposition Universelle 1878 (Paris, 1878). [Gift of Michael Zinman]

The Exposition Universelle in Paris had an Algerian Palace,
Philadelphia. The birthplace of liberty. Official souvenir view book Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition (Philadelphia, 1926). [Gift of Michael Zinman]

while the American Sesquicentennial included “A Bit of Cairo.”
Le cavalier Marocain (Paris, 1867) [Gift of Michael Zinman]

The French fair even included life-size figurines, like this “Moroccan cavalier.”
Memorial of the International Exhibition 1876. 48 Views. [Gift of Michael Zinman]
What can these examples tell us about interest in faraway lands? A familiar name at the Centennial Exposition might be a clue. Along with other pavilions, that fair featured Cook’s World Ticket Office.
In the second half of the 19th Century, Cook’s took advantage of railways and the lower cost of travel to extend the European Grand Tour to more middle class customers, and to add destinations in the recently colonized Middle East.
Emerson, Smith & Co., L'td., saw manufacturers (Beaver Falls, PA, 1886) and French Spy (Philadelphia, 1865) [Gift of Helen Beitler and Estate of Helen Beitler]
Of course, a grand tour was out of the reach of many pocketbooks, but familiarity with world events and other cultures is evident in consumer products and popular entertainment as well. A trade card features a curved dagger, and bears the words Damascus Temper.  Blades forged in Damascus were renowned for their strength and sharpness, but also bore a particular pattern, reminiscent of Damask cloth.   A label, possibly from tobacco, is emblazoned “French Spy,” which most likely refers to a play by J. T. Haines. Also entitled “The Siege of Constantina” or “The Fall of Algiers,” this oft-performed work owed some of its popularity to the fact that the title character was played by a woman, whose bare legs were visible onstage in her “Arab” costume.

These images are all drawn from a current NEH-funded digitization project, focusing on ephemera. Such comparatively everyday items open a unique window on the past and allow us to gain a better understanding of the lived experience of our forebears, without access to their Facebook pages or Twitter updates.

Edith Mulhern
Digitization and Reference Assistant

Monday, March 19, 2012

Good Things Come in Small Packages

Hugo Sebald Collection. Gift of David Doret.

Despite their small size, the visual content of vignettes often provides narratives equal to those of large-format prints.  The advertisements of Philadelphia wood engraver Hugo Sebald (1825-1903), given by longtime donor David Doret, and the banknote vignettes included in a scrapbook compiled by American Banknote Company printer Thomas Richardson (1802-ca. 1881) are cases in point. Although made through different mediums, the details on these prints are beyond charming. The street and pedestrian traffic juxtaposed with merchandise on display in storefront windows in the advertisements are little slices of 19th-century Americana. The steel-engraved banknote vignettes not only inspire awe for their fine workmanship, but also occasionally dumbfound the viewer as to their context, particularly when allegorical or industrial. See for yourself.
Hugo Sebald Collection . Gift of David Doret.

Hugo Sebald Collection. Gift of David Doret.

Hugo Sebald Collection. Gift of David Doret.

Thomas Richardson Scrapbook

Thomas Richardson Scrapbook

Thomas Richardson Scrapbook

Thomas Richardson Scrapbook. One of those allegories that is a bit of a head scratcher.

Thomas Richardson Scrapbook. This is definitely a factory, but what are the men doing exactly?

Erika Piola
Associate Curator, Prints and Photographs 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Exploring Ephemera

As an intern in the Print and Photograph Department, I work frequently with the Library Company’s ephemera collection. Ephemera – a term first defined by Maurice Rickards in 1988 as the “minor transient documents of everyday life” – is a growing field of study, and the Library Company has an excellent collection that includes everything from broadsides to trade cards. I have been processing the Brightbill Postcard Collection through funding provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities in order to prepare a selection of the collection to be available through ImPAC, the library’s digital catalog.

While processing the postcards, I’ve noticed the incredible variety in the collection. The Brightbill collection contains images from all over Philadelphia, including automats, trains, hotels, schools, libraries, parks, hospitals, and even window displays in the subway! These images offer a series of views of Philadelphia from famous monuments to daily scenes. 

St. Joseph's Hospital

Postcards were introduced in the United States in 1861, when John P. Charlton of Philadelphia acquired a copyright for an unstamped “postal card.” The US postal service did not allow the use of the phrase “post card” by private publishers until 1901, and the divided backs that we know and use on modern postcards (message on one side, address on the other) were not allowed until 1907 (Rickards 249, Werther and Mott 12). That is why there is often text written along the edges or over the image of early postcards!

Young Friends’ Association Building, Philadelphia, PA

One of my favorite postcards is also an advertisement for Horn & Hardart Automat. The postcard shows the interior of “One of the Fifty Automat Cafeterias in Philadelphia and New York” alongside illustrated instructions on how to use an automat. I love the illustrations that accompany the text, and how the card is designed to catch your attention. This is a good example of how postcards were used for advertising products and services.


Horn & Hardart, How an Automat Works

Check out the rest of the Brightbill postcards on ImPAC at,  and see the Library Company’s flikr account for even more images!

Lydia Bello
Print and Photograph Department Intern Spring 2012

Rickards, Maurice. The Encyclopedia of Ephemera: A Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Creator, and Historian. Edited by Michael Twyman, Sally de Beaumont, and Amoret Tanner. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Werther, Mark and Lorenzo Mott. Linen Postcards: Images of the American Dream. Pennsylvania: Sentinel Publishing. 2002.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Marking African American History Month

In 1926, Carter G. Woodson initiated Negro History Week, which during the bicentennial was expanded to Black History Month. Created to celebrate the achievements of African Americans, Black History Month also recognizes the central role played by people of African descent in the history of the United States. In recognition of Black History Month we were very fortunate to have Professor Carla Peterson visit with the Library Company’s Program in African American History. In the inaugural Black History Month program, Professor Peterson introduced her newest publication, Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York, to a very engaged audience. Although Professor Peterson’s work focuses on 19th-century New York, her talk incorporated a broader discussion about slavery, freedom, race, and gender that was applicable to African Americans in antebellum Philadelphia. Professor Peterson’s talk reminded history lovers that freedom was experienced and expressed by members of the black elite all along the east coast. Peterson’s fascinating family tree introduced a vibrant group of black entrepreneurs, politicians, and religious leaders to audience members. By focusing on her great-great grandfather Peter Guignon and great-grandfather Philip White, Peterson traced the forgotten stories of New York’s black elite who lived before and during the Civil War. 

The stories found in Black Gotham serve as a reminder of the buried past. We are indebted to Carla Peterson, and to other scholars, who make it their mission to uncover the past and to incorporate it into the larger narrative of American history.

Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Director, Program in African American History

Check out the Library Company's upcoming programs