Thursday, April 21, 2016

3rd Annual Library Company Lecture in Honor of John Van Horne

The 3rd Annual Library Company Lecture in Honor of John Van Horne will be held on May 5 at the American Philosophical Society. The annual series honors the man who served for over 29 years at the helm of the Library Company. This year’s speaker will be Dr. Charlotte Jacobs whose recent biography Jonas Salk: A Life chronicles the career of the scientist who created the first polio vaccine. The event is co-sponsored by the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine and the American Philosophical Society. A special members-only reception honoring the Library Company's past presidentsB. Robert DeMento, Beatrice W.B. Garvan, William H. Helfand, Elizabeth McLean, Spence Tollwill precede the lecture.

Jacobs’ biography of Salk has been hailed as a model of science writing. Though Salk won widespread acclaim for the development of his polio vaccine, he was also the target of much resentment by fellow scientists and medical researchers. Jacobs’ book illuminates the toll these criticisms took on Salk’s life and career. Still, as Jacobs makes clear, Salk remains a heroic figure to people across the globe.

Though Salk is a 20th century figure, Jacobs’ lecture allows the Library Company to highlight the importance of medical history in its collections and programming. Over the past several decades, the Library Company has amassed one of the best and most important archives on popular medicine, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “I am really looking forward to speaking there,” Jacobs commented about her upcoming talk, which will include a special tour of documents donated by trustees William Helfand and Charles Rosenberg. As Jacobs indicated, she is always looking for new material on the history and evolution of medicine in American culture.

Please register online or call 215-546-3181 to attend the program. We hope to see you there!

Common Touch: The Art of the Senses in the History of the Blind

On April 5, the Library Company held a celebratory opening for its current exhibition Common Touch: The Art of the Senses in the History of the Blind. Organized by the library's Visual Culture Program (VCP at LCP) and curated by artist-in-residence Teresa Jaynes, the exhibition is inspired by the Library Company's Michael Zinman Collection of Printing for the Blind

Vision Council member Suzanne Erb (right) experiencing Common Touch 

Common Touch immerses visitors into a world of discovery in which history intersects with new forms of tactile expression. Complemented by 19th-century personal narratives, raised-print textbooks, and teaching tools of the visually impaired, Jaynes's original works challenge our cultural assumptions about the interrelationship between art, sight, and the history of disability. Exhibition visitors are invited to touch displays that range from a topographic map with porcelain geometric forms that represent the travels of a prominent 18th-century English blind surveyor to movable, sculptural letters after the handwriting of a blind woman corresponding with a benefactor in the late 19th century. Other installations submerge visitors into a cocoon of sound and scent conveying a micro-narrative of the life of Victorian blind musician Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins. A series of silkscreen printed patterns represents a visual transmutation of Wiggins's noted composition March Timpani (1880), an artist book of raised prints after embossed diagrams of snowflakes in the Perkins School for the Blind adaptation of the science text The Rudiments of Natural Philosophy (1845), and an 1838 edition from the first American raised-print periodical The Students' Magazine (1838-1845) are on display in the innovative exhibition.

VCP co-directors Rachel D'Agostino and Erika Piola (left and right) and artist Teresa Jaynes (center).

Common Touch is accompanied by several public programs, including a performance of Terry Galloway's comic, moving, and sometimes profane one-woman show You Are My Sunshine - A Kind of Love Story; a discussion with award-winning author Stephen Kuusisto on blind history and its place in art; and a jazz concert by New Orleans pianist and vocalist Henry Butler and Philadelphia's master percussionist Pablo Batista.

For more information about the exhibition and its accompanying programming, visit Common Touch has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Partners include Art-Reach, Demeter Fragrance Library, the Gershman Y, Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philly Touch Tours, and Philly Jazz Project initiative. Media sponsorship has been generously provided by WHYY. The exhibition is on view  through October 21, 2016.

Collector Puts Papier-Mâché Bindings on Deposit

This past month, we received eleven friendship albums on-deposit from San Diego-area collector Graham Stubbs. They all have papier-mâché bindings (with mother-of-pearl decoration). Our plan is to catalog these extraordinary volumes, photograph them, and make them available to researchers. Jennifer Rosner, who has written extensively about this particular style of binding, will be adding them to the Library Company’s Flickr group:

One of the loveliest in the Stubbs deposit is an album that was owned by Charlotte Altemus, whose name is engraved on the clasps:

Charlotte’s album contains various inscriptions, many by Altemus family members, including one by her mother-in-law, Pamelia Taylor Altemus (1783-1863). Remarkably, Mrs. Altemus was the matron of the Philadelphia City Hospital. Every aspect of this special album suggests that it was a bespoke volume. Charlotte’s husband Samuel may have requested that the best workers put extra effort into producing it as a present for her, and she then used it to strengthen her ties with her extended family by getting people to inscribe pages in it.

In general, however, volumes with papier-mâché bindings, came out in editions. On seeing one of more modestly decorated albums in the Stubbs Collection – that is decorated with simple leaves in mother-of-pearl – Jennifer Rosner noted how remarkable it is that it still has the glaze that generally has worn off in the intervening 150+ years.

Mr. Stubbs himself has plans to publish the results of his own research on the owners and inscribers in the albums. He has uncovered complex networks of associations that these albums document. For example, he traced the story of one woman named Milla Corey (full name: Mary Permillia Corey), of Almond, New York. She signed Maria Barnard’s album. Unfortunately, Milla ended up in Willard State Hospital for the Insane, in Willard, New York. Now, we look forward to hearing the whole story, especially since Milla Corey was also an artist, and at least one of her paintings has been passed down in the family.

It seems there is no such thing as an “ordinary” volume with a papier-mâché binding. Every single one has something special and research-worthy about it. And this is only the start of our study of the
Stubbs Collection, which has so much potential for further discoveries related to a wide range of fields, including women’s history, binding history, and business history.


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Closer Look at Fashioning Philadelphia

The current exhibition, “Fashioning Philadelphia: The Style of the City, 1720-1940,” curated by Wendy Woloson uses the Library Company’s extensive collections of prints, photographs, books, pamphlets, trade cards, and artifacts to tell the largely unexplored story of Philadelphia’s contribution to the fashion trades over three centuries.

As the location of the Continental Congress and the nation’s first capital, 18th-century Philadelphia hosted many trend-setters, who knew that what they wore was as important as what they said. This was true whether representatives dressed in clothing made of luxurious fabrics imported from overseas, or in patriotic homespun, made entirely from domestically-produced materials. Benjamin Franklin can perhaps be considered Philadelphia’s “first fashionista.” Several of his portraits, which show him in his rustic mode – in spectacles and fur hat, and without a wig –  can be seen in the exhibition.

Until the late 19th century Philadelphia was the country’s most cosmopolitan city. Not only was it the country’s most active port, but it also supported diverse cultures and communities whose personal styles helped shape larger fashion trends. The city was home to the largest population of free African Americans, rising classes of skilled and unskilled tradesmen, and generations of Quakers. Cut paper silhouettes, daguerreotype portraits, and lithographic renderings of these and other groups are on display.

Philadelphia’s central place as an important trend-setter was nowhere more evident than on Chestnut Street, renowned as one of the most fashionable retail corridors in the world. Casual travelers and style mavens alike remarked on the thoroughfare’s grandness, elegance, and exclusivity, likening it to the shopping districts of Paris, London, and Milan. People flocked there to “promenade” – to see and be seen – as illustrated in the many scenes of Chestnut Street in the show. One observer at the time noted the “thronging of well-dressed people, and the unexpected splendour of the shops – large stores shewing [sic] a long vista of elegant counters, shelving, and glass-cases. . . stocked with the most costly articles of luxury.”

The city was not merely a consumer of the latest and most fashionable goods, but an important producer of fashion as well: Philadelphia’s industrial might rivaled the factories in New England. Countless numbers of weavers, spinners, dyers, and tailors who settled in Philadelphia brought their skills with them when they immigrated from Europe. The water-powered mills of Manayunk wove some of the finest textiles. The city’s merchant tailors – some of whose innovating patterning systems are included in the exhibition – helped men dress for success; and French milliners outfitted upper-class women in the finest dresses and hats. The city’s many tanneries, set along the banks of the Schuylkill River, processed hundreds of thousands of pounds of leather a year, producing raw material that would make everything from the most durable of coach bags to the most luxurious kid leather shoes.

The Frankford and Kensington sections of the city supported innumerable light industries that also contributed to the fashion trades. Wireworks, iron processors, light metal shops, and carvers made constituent parts for fashion items as diverse as hoop skirts and umbrellas. John B. Stetson’s landmark factory was situated in the heart of Philadelphia, and at is peak in the early 20th century was producing some 2 million hats per year. Visitors to the exhibition are able to see a Stetson top hat along with its custom-made leather case.

Philadelphia was not just an important industrial hub, but a center for printing and publishing as well. As such, it was the place where several important fashion magazines, such as Godey’s Lady’s Book, were launched. These publications disseminated the latest trends far and wide and helped spark the consumer revolution. Examples on display show how these magazines, in their drive to produce color fashion plates more cost-effectively, also spurred important innovations in printing technologies.
In addition to the city’s taste-makers and manufacturers Philadelphia’s retailers also played an important role in shaping the American fashion industry by bringing the latest and most stylish goods to market. Retail visionaries like John Wanamaker, Justus Strawbridge, and Isaac Clothier remain well-known names, even though their flagship stores closed years ago. One of the highlights of the exhibition is a wool pinstripe suit, on loan from Library Company member Walton C. Burwell, whose father purchased it from Wanamaker’s in the 1930s.

All of these stories, and more, are told in “Fashioning Philadelphia: The Style of the City, 1720-1940,” which is on display until March 4, 2016, and can be see for free during the Library Company’s operating hours.

Monday, November 23, 2015

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

This article originally appeared on the blog for the  Library Company's upcoming exhibition Common Touch. Curated by Teresa Jaynes, the exhibition uses historical embossed and raised-letter documents for the visually impaired as a starting point to explore the nature of perception. Common Touch has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and will be on display at the Library Company April 4 -October 21,2016.

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.

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