Monday, October 28, 2013

A Few of Our Favorite Things, Part Six: Men in Jaunty Aprons

[Washington and Others in Masonic Aprons]. Philadelphia:  Thomas Phenix, 1860.

My “favorite” from our collections has alternated over the years, but I thought I would write about my first. There is nothing like your first love. Thanks to a library fellow researching George Washington, I came across “Washington and Others in Masonic Aprons” soon after I began working at the Library Company in 1997.

We had not yet added our visual material holdings to our online catalog when I discovered this print in our portrait collections through the tried and true hunt and peck method. I was immediately smitten when I came across this trimmed and annotated 1860 lithograph copyrighted by Thomas Phenix. How could you not love all of these distinguished men, living and dead, including Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson, in jaunty little aprons in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall? The unintentional ludicrousness of the group portrait just grabbed me. Conceivably, Phenix did not intend for this inadvertent humorous undertone to the image. And yes, I was likely misplacing a modern reading onto it. But there was a little bit of me that thought possibly not. Washington’s hand on hip pose alone had to cause a smile on some mid-19th-century viewer’s lips.

By 1997, our book collections had started to be cataloged online and I performed a keyword search to no avail for Phenix. I was hoping to ascertain more information about the publisher (who I envisioned as somewhat eccentric) and thus more information about how the print came to be. In subsequent years, another keyword search for Phenix turned up the pamphlet Masonic Memorial, which happily answered many of the questions of the print’s origin.

Phenix, a Mason, had published the lithograph printed by Duval, Williams, and Duval as “a contribution to … Masonic Literature and History” and as an inspirational tribute to the past and current members of his distinguished fraternal organization. Phenix zealously urged his Masonic brethren to purchase the “picture” so that they may be in possession of the “likenesses of friends whose characters they esteem, and whose Masonic services, talents, and virtues they must ever admire.” Set in Independence Hall “to recognize” the site in which many of those portrayed “pledged their lives” as signers of the Declaration of Independence, the print could be acquired for the “small sum” of two dollars. (I certainly got my two dollars’ worth and more.) Phenix hoped to make it the first of a series of commemorative prints in honor of the Masons. By all accounts, not surprisingly to this “admirer,” the series did not come to fruition.

Erika Piola Associate Curator, Prints and Photographs

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Few of Our Favorite Things, Part Five: Uzbek Connection

Last summer, the International Visitor’s Council in Philadelphia asked the Library Company to host a group from Uzbekistan visiting the US for a State Department-sponsored program on library conservation.  On July 23, I welcomed a delegation that included Ms. Nargiza Zaitova, Head of the Department of Rare Collections and Manuscripts of the National Library of Uzbekistan in Tashkent; Ms. Zulhumor Hadjaniyazova, Head of the Department of Rare Collections for the Information and Library Center in Khorezm Province; Ms. Gulnorahon Ismailova, Director of the Information and Library Center in Andijan Province; and Ms. Venera Lentovskaya, Deputy Director of the Information and Library Center in Namangan Province.

Two interpreters carrying portable simultaneous translation equipment were able to render John Van Horne’s introductory remarks to the group into Uzbek in real time.  For the rest of the tour, we muddled through with sequential translation by these talented and resourceful linguists. 

Our guests were full of admiration for the history and operations of the Library Company (even if we couldn’t wow them with our great antiquity as we do many American visitors), and especially inspired by a stop in the bindery. Having seen the condition of archives in various developing countries, I could only imagine some of the environmental hazards they were up against in Tashkent and Khiva.  After leaving the bindery we headed into the stacks for the pièce de résistance of any Library Company tour. 

In my first year on the job, I had tagged along as John gave any number of tours of the treasures of our Americana collection, so I headed confidently to the fifth floor. My guests listened politely to my discussion of our colonial imprints—then someone asked if we had any Korans.  Hoping very much that we did, I led the group uncertainly to the Northeast corner of the building where, I had only recently learned, we kept early imported imprints.  I scoured the spines on the shelves anxiously and hoped that it wouldn’t be apparent to all that I had no idea what I was doing. With some relief, I spotted a run of fat glossy bibles in the second stack row I tried. I knew enough to know that our non-Americana holdings were still organized by subject, so I felt certain that if we had a Koran it would be nearby. 

Turning to the facing shelf, my heart leapt at the sight of “l’Alcoran de Mahomet” on a pair of duodecimo volumes.  I lifted one of the little books off the shelf, so much daintier than the quarto bibles covered in heavy calf across the aisle.  Bound in milky vellum, the little volume was a French translation of the Koran by “le Sieur du Ryer” published in Amsterdam in 1672. Unlike the volume’s mate on the shelf—a Koran in Latin and Arabic from 1698—our French Koran read left to right, enabling me to find the vivid red-and-black title page on the first try.

My Uzbek visitors were delighted.  It was clearly meaningful for them to find editions of the holy book of their faith on the shelves of a distinguished American rare book library. I was moved to have helped make this connection between our respective book cultures and, by proxy, between our nations and histories. 

When my visitors took their leave after almost two hours with us, they graciously pressed on me some representative gifts and a brochure about Uzbekistan’s national libraries.  It wasn’t until casually flipping through the brochure back at my desk that I understood the full charge of the connection we had made.  Among the mind-blowing pictures of ancient illuminated manuscripts, I found the title page of a small French-language Koran, printed in matching red-and-black typeface.  Though closer inspection shows that the volumes are not from the same edition, the family relationship between these precious little books—one in Tashkent and one in Philadelphia—feels like a real bond. 

My colleagues had longed to know how our little “Alcoran” had come into the collection and I had no satisfying information to offer them.  As it happens, despite a bookplate designating the volume as part of the Loganian Library, the trail is probably cold.  Only three of the Library Company’s 12 Korans had belonged to James Logan in his lifetime. According to Chief of Reference Connie King, after our acquisition of the Loganian Library in 1792 we continued to assign newly acquired rare imprints to that collection.  She surmises that we probably purchased M. du Ryer’s effort sometime early in the nineteenth century.

Spanning the period from 1627 to 1806, our Korans include 1 in the proper Arabic (for the faithful, translating the Koran is a no-no), 2 in Arabic and Latin, 1 in Latin, 4 in French, 1 in German, and 3 in English.  Two of the English volumes are retranslations based on Andre du Ryer’s efforts (we learn the translator's given name from the Uzbek copy)—including the first American edition from Springfield, MA, in 1806—and one (London, 1734) is an original translation. 

The wealth and power of the Ottoman Empire induced any number of Europeans to want to take a closer look at this text, and the fruit of their scholarly curiosity is now a cherished part of the national and international book heritage housed on our shelves. The IVC representative who had arranged the visit noted in her initial correspondence that Uzbekistan has historically been the repository for knowledge in Central Asia, and the brochure left by our visitors makes clear the depth and breadth of history preserved in their institutions. In this way, they are our Central Asian mirror image. I hope that this visit is just the beginning of increasingly meaningful connections between our institutions and others like them around the world. 

Molly Roth
Development Director 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Few of Our Favorite Things, Part Four: Learning from a Damaged Book, Margarita Philosophica (Basel, 1508)

Exposed sewing

As a book conservator, I am drawn to a book for the binding, not the contents. I enjoy learning about different book structures and making historic models in order to fully understand how a book is constructed. This understanding is then useful for making any repairs that need to be done. Because the structure of the book is generally covered, this can be challenging. For this reason, the Margarita Philosophica (Basel, 1508) drew my attention. The spine is missing which means that the sewing is exposed and can be studied. There is a remnant of the linen spine lining on the inside of the wooden boards. The book is missing the metal fastenings that would have kept it securely shut, but the boards are covered in brown calf and blind-tooled with an image of a wanderer with a knapsack. For the Margarita Philosophica, the best conservation decision was to do nothing, other than make a sturdy box. But for me, the chance to study the book’s structure was enormously significant.

Cover, Margarita Philosophica, gift of Michael Zinman

It turns out that the contents of the book are also interesting. The Margarita Philosophica, first published in 1503, was widely used as a textbook. Written in Latin by Gregor Reisch, this encyclopedia of twelve chapters is illustrated with many woodcuts, and has an index and printed marginalia. It remained in use by students for about fifty years as a comprehensive source of knowledge. Both the binding and the contents are beautiful and provide valuable information on 16th-century books and learning.

Woodcut Illustration

Alice Austin

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A Few of Our Favorite Things, Part Three: William Jennings's Ralph, Sara, and Bill Jennings at Fern Rock Camp

How does one pick a favorite from a collection of nearly 100,000 graphic items? (I refused to even consider selecting a favorite from our book, manuscript, or art and artifact collections in order to make the task at least a little bit more manageable.) What I chose is not one of our more monetarily valuable pieces, nor is it particularly historically significant. I chose my item for the emotional response it elicits from me every time I look at it.

William Jennings. Ralph, Sara, and Bill Jennings at Fern Rock Camp, gelatin silver photograph, ca. 1912.

This photograph makes me happy and brings a smile to my face whenever I see it. When looking at the photograph, I can feel the grass underneath the children’s bare feet, sense the warm sun on their faces, and hear the high pitched giggles and screams that all happy, excited little ones make when they are having a really good time. The Jennings children are completely unselfconscious around the camera and their joy of running in carefree abandon through the field on a sunny day radiates from this image.

Taken by the children’s father Philadelphia photographer William Nicholson Jennings (1860-1946), this photograph came into the Library Company’s collection in 2010, purchased from an auction house that was selling material consigned by the family. We already had a large collection of the commercial work Jennings had produced during his long photographic career, but this acquisition brought us more personal material. The Jennings family, concerned about the health of their young children particularly their prematurely born twins, Sara and Bill, established a vacation campsite, Fern Bank Camp, along the Wissahickon Creek in Philadelphia’s Roxborough neighborhood. The children spent their summer days fishing, making small boats to sail in the creek, and exploring the wooded area while the adults found respite swinging in hammocks and entertaining friends. If this photograph represents how the Jennings children felt about their time at their family camp, we can be sure they had many joyous childhood memories of summers along the Wissahickon.

Sarah J. Weatherwax
Curator of Prints and Photographs