My favorite thing of the moment is a hefty, three-volume manuscript memoir and scrapbook made by our former Librarian John Jay Smith (1798-1881). Through it I discovered that the man in the portrait with the white beard and red fez had a wonderful sense of humor.
|James Reid Lambdin. John Jay Smith. Oil on canvas. Gift of Lloyd P., Robert P., and Horace J. Smith, 1883. Library Company of Philadelphia.|
Silhouettes of Robert Pearsall Smith (1827-1898) and Horace John Smith (1832-1906), John Jay's sons.
The number of responsibilities Smith juggled simultaneously truly was astonishing. The Library Company at the time opened from 2 p.m. until sunset, leaving his mornings free. He was editor for Littell’s Museum, Waldie’s Library, and Journal of Belles Lettres; served as Treasurer to the Philadelphia Museum (Peale’s Museum); and supervised Laurel Hill Cemetery, which he founded. He described his schedule. Beginning at seven o’clock, he read and prepared copy for his printers, at nine he would be at the Museum, at ten he rode to Laurel Hill, had lunch at noon or one and then went to work at the Library Company. I would have loved to read more about his typical day at the Library. Alas, as his family was so familiar with the Library (his son Lloyd P. Smith took over his position as Librarian when he retired), he felt no need to write it down. “The history of my long attendance to the duties of the institution might prove tedious, and you who participated in and enjoyed the literary surrounding are so familiar with the facts, I may be excused from entering into the particulars. Suffice it to say, that the intervals of time my sons passed with me here were useful and instructive.”
He recalled that Cox, “lived by himself, if I except an old dog and a macaw, in a two story house of his own, in Almond Street…. On entering, the parrot, a large and elegant green fellow, much fiercer than his dog, flew furiously at me, and was taken off with difficulty. Visitors were few, and the bird was furious at any intrusion.” His description of Cox’s house is that of a hoarder where “books were piled in all conceivable places and positions” with a bed he could only access on one side. After much effort, Smith finally persuaded Cox in 1832 to allow the Library to purchase his collection of about 6,000 volumes for an annuity of $400 a year. It seemed Cox had difficulty parting with his books, buying back duplicates the Library sold at auction. Smith noted that “he could not survive the loss of his treasures” and died in 1834. I can’t help but visualize the green parrot any time I see either man’s portrait.
|Philip F. Snyder. James Cox. Oil on canvas. Gift of the artist, 1885. Library Company of Philadelphia.|
Curator of Art & Artifacts and Reference Librarian