Monday, December 30, 2013

A Few of Our Favorite Things, Part Twelve: John Jay Smith's Manuscript Memoir




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.
Smith began jotting down his memories on scraps of paper and later his cousin Edmund Morris encouraged him to compile them more formally into these manuscript volumes. He meant the style to be “the off-hand chit-chat of a parent to his successors.” It is a mix of genealogy and stories about his family (Smith was the great-grandson of James Logan and had a large Quaker family), recollections of his youth and the changes he had seen in society over his lifetime, and funny and amusing anecdotes. He also pasted in various ephemera, including letters, engravings, tickets, silhouettes, and photographs. He hoped that “a century hence his notes might be of some value” and that they “may interest some future antiquary of the same blood.” His daughter Elizabeth would later edit and publish a shorter version of the text in Recollections of John Jay Smith. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1892.


Silhouettes of Robert Pearsall Smith (1827-1898) and Horace John Smith (1832-1906), John Jay's sons.
Smith provided a wealth of information in these volumes, but many of his stories are charming and quite funny, intended to entertain his family. He began his career as an apprentice to a druggist in Philadelphia, which he soon learned was a trade in which he did not wish to remain. He recounted his youthful naivet√© about alcohol “of which there was always a plentiful supply” in the drug business. His landlady and his two masters all drank. His first master had a gallon jug labeled, “antimonial wine.”  “On unexpectedly returning, on one occasion, for my gloves, I saw him swigging it.”  After this incident, his master hid his alcohol in bottles labeled, “castor oil.” Regarding his landlady he “found that her tottering to bed early was not caused by age” but by drinking “‘medicines’ as she called them.” Smith highlighted that the three were “all Quakers!”


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.”
Particularly interesting is Smith’s description of James Cox (1751-1834). Cox was an artist and rabid book collector whom Smith called “an eccentric old man” and who “was the picture of a miser, but his love was not for money, but for books.”  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.


Linda August
Curator of Art & Artifacts and Reference Librarian



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