Database Reveals a Soldier’s Unexpected Past

Online searching has undoubtedly revolutionized information gathering.  Census rolls, vital records, family trees, and genealogies are among the familiar, much-used digital resources at our fingertips free of charge in the Society’s reading room.  A lesser utilized treasure trove of information is held in the Society’s collection of printed college and school catalogs. These “catalogs” were issued annually and often listed the names and city of origin of its students and faculty.  Many of these names—nearly three quarters of a million of them—have been indexed in the Student, Teacher and Trustee Database Project, 1800-1900, freely accessible on the AAS website.

AAS member Richard P. Morgan saw the research value in indexing student and faculty names and has made this database his mission.  Always striving to improve the online presentation and functionality of the database, Rich will periodically call upon me to tweak the search or results interface pages.  Recently, in the midst of testing an update, I searched for a name that popped into my head—“Aaron Scott.”  It’s the name of my great-grandfather, a Connecticut Valley tobacco farmer born in the 1860s.  I was surprised when four results from the 1850s for an Aaron Scott of North Hadley, Massachusetts, appeared.  I was well aware of this Aaron Scott—the uncle after whom my own great-grandfather was named.  Stories of this beloved uncle and the circumstance of his death as a Civil War soldier have long loomed large in our family lore.  I had no idea, however, that this son of a farming family had the opportunity to attend Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, from 1850 to 1851, and Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, New Hampshire, from 1854 to 1857, as the database now showed me.

Portrait of Aaron Scott from “History of the Ninety-Sixth Regiment: Illinois Volunteer Infantry,” 1887.

During the Atlanta campaign on August 2, 1864, Aaron Scott, having suffered a serious wound to his face, was lying on his bunk reading his Bible when he was struck by a bullet.  An account of the event, recorded in a history of his regiment, describes Scott’s refusal of whiskey; he preferred to sip cold water.[1] His dramatic passing was recorded as having a profound effect on the other soldiers.  This tragic end is really all that our family had remembered about Uncle Aaron, but his educational background does help explain how, at the time of his enlistment, he was a teacher in charge of the agricultural department of the Reform School at Chicago.   Without the indexing provided by the Student, Teacher and Trustee Database Project, the knowledge of Aaron Scott’s education and experience as a student would have most likely have remained a missing piece of his story.


[1] History of the Ninety-Sixth Regiment: Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Edited by Charles A. Partridge. Chicago: Brown, Pettibone, printers, 1887.

Show the Love: McLoughlin Christmas Books

St. Nicholas. New York: McLoughlin Bros., ca. 1895.

One year from now AAS will be opening the exhibition Radiant with Color and Light: McLoughlin Brothers and the Business of Picture Books, 1858-1920 at the Grolier Club in New York. The show will feature nearly two hundred books, games, watercolors, toys, and ephemera, all produced by the McLoughlin Bros. firm and their contemporaries. The Society’s curators and conservators have been hard at work planning the show since 2013 and, in recent weeks, have begun to lay out the installation in preparation for the construction of book cradles, mattes, frames, and other display elements, as well as the writing of exhibition labels, all work that is slated for early 2017.

Christmas Boxes. New York: McLoughlin Bros., 1881.

This month, appropriately, we decided to focus on a section of the show devoted to Christmas.  McLoughlin Bros. are well known for hiring American illustrator Thomas Nast to create images for the popular poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas (also known as The Night Before Christmas), which was issued in multiple editions starting around 1869. After 1870, the firm was very invested in the holiday, issuing numerous books and toys focused on Christmas, Santa, and winter activities, all intended to tempt children and parents into purchasing McLoughlin products for Christmas and New Year’s gift giving.  During the object selection process last year, Children’s Literature Curator Laura Wasowicz and I pulled dozens of examples of holiday books offered by the firm, with titles ranging in date from 1863 to 1927.

Page spread from Clement Clarke Moore, A Visit from Saint Nicholas. Illustrated by Thomas Nast. New York: McLoughlin Bros., 1869.

George P. Webster. Santa Claus and His Works. Illustrated by Thomas Nast. New York: McLoughlin Bros., 1869.

We were looking for outstanding examples to feature at the Grolier Club, a society of bibliophiles passionate about fine bindings, rare books, book history, and book production.  We laid all the volumes out on our work table and both of us were struck by a unifying characteristic shared by the holiday titles.  They had been, in the words of the curator, “very nearly read to death.” Heavily dog-eared, creased, soiled, stained, and torn, the books were often actually limp from overuse.  One tattered copy of the 1869 title Santa Claus and His Works, for example, had been sewn, taped, and glued by previous owners in an attempt to keep the pages together (fortunately, we also have a pristine copy). Overall though, the holiday books showed more wear and tear than any of the other 150 titles that we had examined for other sections of the show. What to do? Could they travel? Would we be embarrassed to show them in the august halls of the Grolier Club?

Around the World with Santa Claus. Illustrated by Richard Andre. New York: McLoughlin Bros, 1900.

As with many problems, this one was solved with a compromise. Any title too damaged to travel or be displayed was rejected out of hand (although some will be photographed for the catalog that will accompany the exhibition). Then we met with our head conservator and explained that we wanted to show the wear on these books in order to allow them to represent the popularity of the titles with their young readers. She agreed and we worked together to isolate those well-loved titles with the most structural integrity. In the end, we selected fourteen books and games for the Christmas section and feel confident that they will reflect well on both the McLoughlin Bros. and on AAS, while also providing indisputable evidence of repeated and enthusiastic readings by excited children. We’ll have more updates about the progress of the McLoughlin exhibition as we move forward in the months ahead.

Halfway across the world and back again

Kathleen Major has been volunteering in the Manuscripts Department at AAS for several years and just recently processed the diaries of nineteenth-century serviceman, adventurer, and housekeeper Frank Nash. Kathy worked at AAS from 1976 to 1984 and was Keeper of Manuscripts for a portion of that time. After leaving the Society to care for her children, Kathy worked at the Gale Free Library in Holden, most recently as head of technical services, until her retirement in 2014.

Francis Alvarez Hartley Nash (1834-1898), the son of a farmer in Abington, Massachusetts, was determined to seek a life of adventure—and he did exactly that—before settling down to help his wife keep house.

In fourteen volumes of diaries, kept from 1852-1867, Nash tells us that he joined the United States Navy at age eighteen and was assigned to the store ship Supply, which was part of Commodore Matthew Perry’s famous Black Ships Cruise to Japan, a type of gunboat diplomacy to open trade—forcibly if necessary—with Japan.


Nash describes visiting a library, a brothel, and a bowling alley all in one day (Saturday, August 5, 1854)

The experience proved to be insufficient adventure for Frank Nash. Although he had a wife and three children, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard when the Civil War began. Because he deemed the pay insufficient, he quickly decided to rejoin the Navy and participate in the blockade of Southern ports. Nash later joined the 38th Massachusetts Infantry, but, due to a gap in the diaries, we don’t know why Nash decided to fight in the land war instead of the Navy. He also participated in the siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana. Finally, in July 1865, he was sent home to his family and life as a bookkeeper in Abington, Massachusetts.

The fourteen volumes of Nash’s diaries contain wonderful descriptions of life at sea during the Black Ships cruise, life in China and Japan (where Nash hired a courtesan), and Perry’s success with the Japanese. While home in Abington he wrote of his devotion to Unitarian Universalism, his family, and abolitionism and the Union (at one point contributing money to help a father free his son from slavery). He was also a progressive who helped his wife with housekeeping and child care and “had no doubt that woman’s sphere will be greatly changed in 20 years from now [1860], and without their losing their feminine traits of character, of mildness, gentleness, and loveliness.” 

Nash’s diaries are a remarkably descriptive account of both family life in the mid-nineteenth century and a life of adventure during a turbulent time. Molly McCarthy says in The Accidental Diarist that keeping a diary became so popular and so common as to be a “national pursuit” for Americans in the nineteenth century, and it is true that diaries from this period abound (AAS has over 240 in its collection). But the record of each unique life details an individual world that can never be reduced to generalizations.

Isaiah Is Going Digital: The Prototype

digital-isaiah-screenshotA few weeks ago, a post shared the final cut of a short film depicting a young Isaiah Thomas learning about the legal indenture that bound him to his apprenticeship. As explained in the post, that film is part of a larger project that aims to create an interactive educational website inspired by AAS’s one-man theater performance Isaiah Thomas – Patriot Printer. We now have a fully working prototype of the segment of the site that explores Isaiah’s indenture, designed by Digital Gizmo, and we’re excited to share it here!

This segment, or module, called “Becoming a Printer,” features all of the components that will comprise each of the six modules of the full site. After viewing the film, the user is able to explore the indenture document interactively through zooming features, transcriptions, and clickable hotspots that provide information about the physical document and its textual content. The indenture is further contextualized through related primary sources, links, and lesson plans. We are also in the early development stages of creating a game centered on setting type. Once the site is completed, each module will use this format to examine a different primary source document of significance to Isaiah and the nation.

Please take a moment to do your own exploration of this first module, and let us know what you think!

The Acquisitions Table: The Great Bloomer Prize Fight

John L. Magee. The Great Bloomer Prize Fight for the Champion’s Belt. New York, 1851.

535413_0001This lithographed cartoon depicts two women in bloomer costume preparing for a fight. One stands at center, ready to box, while the second sits on a man’s knee and hides her face. The
cartoon was drawn by John Magee of New York and references several 1851 trends. Dress
reform in America was gaining ground at this time after Amelia Bloomer supported the style in
her periodical The Lily. Many leaders in the woman’s suffrage movement were wearing the
loose-fitting pantaloons and tunicsshown in the cartoon and were being lambasted in the press
for doing so. In the caption the standing figure calls out “Where’s Tommy Hyer,” a reference to
the famous bare-knuckle boxer Tom Hyer who retired, much to the disappointment of his fans,
after winning a $10,000 purse in Maryland in 1851. The empty bottles of beer and the jeering
crowd waiting for the fight to start create a very masculine space and it is likely this cartoon, like
many by Magee, was intended for a male audience. The sheet joins the Society’s collection of a
dozen cartoons issued by Magee between 1844 and 1865.

The Story of a Sword: Fitz-John Winthrop and King William’s War, Part II

Last week, Dan Boudreau posted about a sword held in the AAS collections that belonged to Fitz-John Winthrop, an early governor of Connecticut and the grandson of the famous John Winthrop—the influential Puritan leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This week, Dan continues the story, focusing on Winthrop’s participation in King William’s War and his connections to the controversial Edmund Andros.            

Liebler, Theodore August. “Sir Edmund Andros, Kent.” Late 19th century. From the American Portrait Prints Collection at the American Antiquarian Society.

Liebler, Theodore August. “Sir Edmund Andros, Kent.” Late nineteenth century. From the American Portrait Prints Collection at the American Antiquarian Society.

The much-reviled Edmund Andros has an important presence in the events of Fitz-John Winthrop’s life and links Winthrop’s efforts during King William’s war to other critical occurrences that were shaping the course of the war. Born in 1637, Andros had a strongly aristocratic and royalist upbringing that made him the perfect colonial administrator for the Stuart monarchy. By the end of his career, he had served as the governor-general of New England, New York, and Virginia. Like Winthrop, Andros was a military man through and through, and this shared background likely contributed to their friendship. Unlike Winthrop, though, he had no connections to Puritanism, and in fact hated the anti-Stuart sentiment and Calvinist republicanism that New England’s Puritans cultivated in the late seventeenth century.

While twentieth-century biographers make the case that Winthrop was only being dutiful and lawful in supporting Andros and his government, the fact that he was not just compliant but friendly with a man who held  such royalist convictions undercuts these types of claims. There is no doubt that Andros and Winthrop had a friendly relationship. When the governments of New York and Connecticut were disputing jurisdiction over the Winthrop family’s Fisher’s Island, Winthrop, despite his affiliation with Connecticut, chose to remain neutral in the affair, and Andros (governor of New York at the time) by all accounts seemed willing to show him some favor. Winthrop was not unhappy when New York won the dispute. On another occasion, Andros gladly confirmed a Winthrop claim to land on Long Island; Winthrop told his brother that “Sr. Edmd. has giuen me a confirmation of ye Indian guift of land on Long Island, & tells me he is ready to doe any thing elce within his power.”[1]

Unidentified artist. “Ideal Portrait of Baron Castine.” From Wheeler, George Augustus. Castine Past and Present: The Ancient Settlement of Pentagoet and the Modern Town: 12-13. Boston: Rockwell and Churchill Press, 1896.

Unidentified artist. “Ideal Portrait of Baron Castine.” From Wheeler, George Augustus. Castine Past and Present: The Ancient Settlement of Pentagoet and the Modern Town: 12-13. Boston: Rockwell and Churchill Press, 1896.

Andros’s notable presence in Winthrop’s life not only complicates Winthrop’s legacy as a proto-Patriot and Puritan, but also helps to contextualize the failed 1690 expedition into Canada. Winthrop’s mission was intended as a response to French and Indian threats in the north, and it was in part modeled upon previous expeditions into the north that were organized by Andros. During King Philip’s War, while governor of New York, Andros sent a force into Maine where they successfully established a critical fort. In 1688, during the early stages of King William’s War, Andros (now governor of the Dominion of New England) led another mission into Maine, this time in response to Abenaki attempts at halting the steady advance of English settlers. Here he would cross paths with Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie de Saint-Castin, a French military officer who lived among the Abenaki and was tasked with defending the southern border of French Acadia.  (Oddly enough, I was recently surprised to learn that I am a descendant of St. Castin: he is my ninth great-grandfather!)

The Present State of the New-English Affairs: This is Published to Prevent False Reports. Boston: Samuel Green, 1689.

The Present State of the New-English Affairs: This is Published to Prevent False Reports. Boston: Samuel Green, 1689.

St. Castin was known to the English as a troublemaker, supplying arms to and aiding the attacks of his Abenaki allies—even as he traded furs with Boston’s merchants. Andros, during his 1688 expedition, ransacked St. Castin’s home and took much of his property, including weapons, ammunition, and wine. Oddly, it was what Andros did not touch at the St. Castin property that proved most important: he chose to preserve the Catholic Frenchman’s chapel, and his New England soldiers took notice. When word reached the Puritans of Massachusetts, Andros’s actions were seized upon as further proof of the Catholic leanings so typical of a supporter of the Stuarts. It is not surprising, then, that New Englanders ousted Andros at the first opportunity, provided in April 1689 when news of the Glorious Revolution and the end of the Stuarts reached America. Edmund Andros’s administrative career was not over, however, and he later served as governor of Virginia. He died in London in 1714.

Mather, Cotton. The Present State of New-England: Considered in a Discourse on the Necessities and Advantages of a Public Spirit in every Man; Especially, at such a time as this. Boston: Samuel Green, 1690.

Mather, Cotton. The Present State of New-England: Considered in a Discourse on the Necessities and Advantages of a Public Spirit in every Man; Especially, at such a time as this. Boston: Samuel Green, 1690.

St. Castin’s father-in-law Madockawando, a Penobscot chief, also had dealings with Edmund Andros, and he was not left with a good impression of the English. Despite having made an agreement with the English in 1678, the Abenaki in Maine were finding their crops destroyed by settlers’ livestock, their property rights disregarded, and their complaints ignored. Andros refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Abenaki grievances and attempted to silence them. Madockawando was furious. With the help of his son-in-law, he began to raid English settlements in the Casco Bay area. Clearly, Andros’s “diplomacy” had failed. It would be misleading, though, to place this failure solely on Edmund’s shoulders: this type of negotiation (or lack thereof) was part and parcel of the English method of dealing with native communities. Typically, representatives of the English colonies showed little regard for native sovereignty and almost no respect for native custom. Instead, they stubbornly insisted on adherence to the colony’s dictates.

Detail showing parts of contemporary Maine, from “A Map of New-England.” Boston: John Foster, 1677.

Detail showing parts of contemporary Maine, from “A Map of New-England.” Boston: John Foster, 1677.

In the affiliation between Madockawando and Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie de Saint-Castin, we see a different type of relationship between colonist and native, one indicative of the French approach. St. Castin was born to nobility in France, but when he relocated to America he was willing to integrate to a degree with native society: he lived among them, respected their customs, and even married a native woman. This was not unusual for French settlers in North America. In large part because of necessity, they were willing to accept native sovereignty and customs. Because of this, the French were able to maintain critical alliances with northern tribes during King William’s War, much to their strategic benefit. Working together, St. Castin and Madockawando launched numerous successful raids on English forts and settlements; Fitz-John Winthrop, perhaps wielding his Ferrara blade, was sent northward in response to these types of attacks.

Winthrop sword in its scabbard.

Winthrop sword in its scabbard.

Clearly, there is a lot to be learned from the stories revealed by this old sword. King William’s War is not often remembered by the wider public, but perhaps it should be: the conflict can tell us a lot about the struggle for power in colonial America that would eventually give way to the birth of this country. In these early conflicts, as with Winthrop and his contemporaries, we see complicated legacies that beg to be scrutinized.

[1] Winthrop, “Letters of Fitz-John Winthrop,” 286.

Full Works Cited

The Story of a Sword: Fitz-John Winthrop and King William’s War, Part I

Detail of Ferrara mark on Winthrop sword. From the collections of the American Antiquarian Society.

Detail of Ferrara mark on Winthrop sword. From the collections of the American Antiquarian Society.

You never know what you’ll find while browsing the stacks at AAS. A few years back, when I had just started working at the Society, I stumbled across something unusual in the library basement: a pair of ornate swords, one from the early nineteenth century and the other from the seventeenth century. It was this second, older sword that really intrigued me. I soon learned it was carried by Fitz-John Winthrop, an early governor of Connecticut and the grandson of the famous John Winthrop—the influential Puritan leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Recently, I looked deeper into the history of the sword and its owner and found a remarkable story, one that even involved one of my ancestors (much to my surprise). In fact, the life of Fitz-John Winthrop reveals a web of connected historical figures  and their stories, which, taken as a whole, have a lot to say about the struggle for power that took place in the northeast during the late seventeenth century. Taking a closer look at these linked people and events, we can learn a lot about the Native American, French, and English forces that fought for control and survival during King William’s War.

Scottish Highland basket-hilt on Winthrop sword.

Scottish Highland basket-hilt on Winthrop sword.

The sword by itself, as an object, can tell us a great deal of Fitz-John Winthrop’s history. The sword has a Scottish Highland basket-hilt and bears the renowned “Andrea Ferrara” name on its blade. While the blade likely dates from the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, the hilt was probably added in the early eighteenth century. The age of the blade makes it nearly certain that Winthrop carried the sword as a young man, while serving overseas in the English Civil War. And while the famed Ferrara blades were falling out of favor by the end of the seventeenth century, the early eighteenth-century addition of the hilt indicates that he may have continued to use the sword well past the turn of the century. For this reason, it is very possible that Winthrop was still carrying this sword when he led a failed expedition into Canada during King William’s War in 1690.

While largely forgotten by modern historians, Fitz-John Winthrop was involved in several key moments of seventeenth-century New England history and interacted with powerful figures who shaped the development of the English colonies. Born in Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1638, young Winthrop quickly showed himself to be more of a soldier than a scholar. At age sixteen, he was denied entry into Harvard and left America to fight in the English Civil War shortly thereafter. He served in George Monck’s army and was present in 1660 when Monck used his forces to support the restoration of Charles II. (In an 1888 AAS Proceedings article, it is speculated that his sword “may have been drawn from its scabbard to salute Charles the Second.”)[1] The fact that young Winthrop aided in the restoration of a Stuart monarch is not insignificant, as his later support for the Stuart-appointed New England government under Edmund Andros became a point of controversy.

Walker, Clement. The High Court of Justice, or Cromwels New Slaughter-House in England. London: 1660.

Walker, Clement. The High Court of Justice, or Cromwels New Slaughter-House in England. London: 1660.

After his service in the English military, Winthrop eventually returned to America, where he was involved in both the conflict with the Dutch in New York and then King Philip’s War. In 1686, he became a member of the council of the Dominion of New England—the Andros-led government that quickly proved unpopular with the region’s Puritans, who felt it was tainted by the Stuarts’ Catholic leanings. Despite backlash against this government, and despite Winthrop’s strong Puritan heritage, he maintained support for the Dominion and a friendship with Andros. Winthrop cautiously acknowledged the legitimacy of the 1689 revolt that overthrew Andros, but his prior support for the regime casts doubt on later depictions that portray him as a proto-Patriot and Puritan populist. (The 1888 Proceedings article even claims that he “rendered a great service in advance to the cause of the American Revolution.”)[2]

Unidentified artist. Portrait of Fitz-John Winthrop, circa 1694-1697. Harvard University Portrait Collection, Gift of Robert Winthrop, representing the Winthrop family, to Harvard University, 1964.

Unidentified artist. Portrait of Fitz-John Winthrop, circa 1694-1697. Harvard University Portrait Collection, Gift of Robert Winthrop, representing the Winthrop family, to Harvard University, 1964.

Regardless, Winthrop was not judged too harshly by the people of New England in 1689, and he was given a position in the new Connecticut government. He soon became involved with the growing King William’s War, which pitted the English settlers and their Iroquois allies against the Wabanaki Confederacy and the French. In 1690, New England authorities, in response to threats along the northern border, decided to organize two military expeditions into the heart of enemy territory in Canada. One of these expeditions was to attack Quebec by sea, and the other, led by Winthrop, was to strike at Montreal via Lake Champlain. Both were failures. French forces defeated the English at Quebec, and Winthrop never even made it to Montreal. Overwhelmed by disease and logistical issues, Winthrop was forced to call off the mission near the shores of Lake Champlain. Writing to the Connecticut governor and council, he declared the “designe against Canada poorely contrived & little prosecuted.”[3]

While the New England authorities ultimately agreed that Winthrop could not have succeeded given the circumstances, others were not so forgiving. On his trip back to Connecticut, Winthrop was briefly imprisoned by New York authorities for his conduct during the expedition; he had to be freed by some nearby Mohawk allies. One contemporary commentator declared that Winthrop and William Phips, leader of the Quebec mission, each deserved “a wooden sword” for their failures rather than the credit that New England authorities were granting them.[4] (If Fitz ever did receive this wooden sword, it failed to make its way to the AAS collections!) After the war, Winthrop would continue to serve the Connecticut government, until his death in 1707.

Check back in next week to read Part II, where we will learn more about some of the historical figures connected to Fitz-John Winthrop and King William’s War.

Full Works Cited

[1] AAS, April 1888 Proceedings, 155.

[2] AAS, April 1888 Proceedings, 154.

[3] Winthrop, “Letters of Fitz-John Winthrop,” 308.

[4] Quoted in Baker and Reid, The New England Knight, 239.


Boo! Bookplates!

Each year as Halloween comes around, the staff here at AAS tries to think of ways to feature the spooky, scary, and creepy material in the Society’s collection. We have shown off our postcard collection and some fright-inducing stereograph photos. We’ve hunted for ghost stories, featured gift book illustrations of the supernatural, and peered into the pale, icy eyes of old photographs.

This year, we decided to dive into our collection of ex libris. The Society has an outstanding collection of around 40,000 American bookplates, ranging in date from 1642 to about 1945. Although the collection is not digitized, you can see a small assortment of our plates via our Instagram account by searching there the hashtag #aasbookplates. Some plates in the collection are set in type; others are engraved or printed with relief blocks. There are lots of coats of arms, images of library interiors, names with elaborate flourishes, library rules, threats about damaging or forgetting to return books, and skulls. Wait, skulls? Yes, skulls.

img_6610Symbolic memento mori images include skulls, corpses, skeletons, and hourglasses – all intended to remind mortals of their short time here on Earth. They are common on bookplates because of the popular eighteenth- and nineteenth-century belief that self-improvement by reading was a morally righteous way to spend one’s limited time (rather than gaming, carousing, or thieving, for example). One of the earlier plates in the collection that fits this mold is the type-set plate for George Carter, which was removed from a 1790 London edition of a translation of Justini’s Histori Phillippic. The Latin motto, Hunc Librum, jure optimo, tenet (which translates roughly to “This Book holds truth”), is surrounded by alternating rows of skull with crossbones and hourglasses.

517142_wethersfield_0001The hourglass is frequently used to illustrate the passage of time—something that can move quickly when a reader is absorbed in a good book—as well as something which is proscribed for human beings. The engraved plate for the Social Library in Wethersfield, Connecticut, was made around 1795. The artist, Amos Doolittle, included a winged hour glass and the motto “Waste Not a Moment,” encouraging the viewer to better themselves through books should they find themselves with free time. A similar design was used by an unidentified engraver for the Guilford [Connecticut] Library bookplate sometime around 1815, with a fluttering hour glass and the motto “Improve your hours for they never return.”


517142_swett_0001Not surprisingly, doctors frequently use memento mori images on their personal plates. The circa 1790 bookplate for Dr. John Barnard Swett of Newburyport, Massachusetts, includes glass retorts, herbs, a caduceus, and a corpse surrounded by putti and surgical tools. Death for Dr. Swett was likely not only a moment for reflection but also an opportunity for education. More than a hundred years later, the railroad executive, doctor, and book collector Frank Graef Darlington of Indianapolis, 517142_darlington_0001ordered a bookplate design from Frank S. Bowers, the famous cartoonist for the Indianapolis News. Bowers crammed in references to all of Darlington’s passions (engineering, mining, MIT) and surrounded a leering skeleton with a python border. Darlington struggled with health issues most of his adult life (suffering a debilitating stroke at age thirty-seven) and apparently had a wry sense of his own mortality. A fellow bibliophile commented that this particular bookplate was appropriate for Darlington as it held a “hideous and inexplicable fascination.”


517142_blumer_0001Doctors continue to use memento mori symbols on their bookplates well into the twentieth century. Dr. George Blumer, the dean of Yale’s Medical School, selected Hans Holbein’s well-known print from the 1520s, “Death and the Physician,” as inspiration for his circa 1910 bookplate. He even had the unidentified artist keep Holbein’s error: two bones in the upper arm versus one in the lower arm of the skeleton. In 1948, Dr. William E. Daignault had Californian artist Anne M. Danielsen etch his elegant bookplate (one of several that he commissioned) incorporating a caduceus, rows of medical books, and a human skull into the design.



517142_uofca_0001Not surprisingly, societies and organizations also feature skulls on their ex libris. In 1908, the Calimedico Club at the University of California, commissioned artist Sheldon Cheney to make their bookplate featuring a smiling human skull and crossbones. The Free Public Library in Newark, New Jersey, added a tree of knowledge to a skull for the plate used in their science collection. The Skull and Bones Society, a non-medical secret society founded in 1832 at Yale, used a skull without a lower jaw on their circa 1900 bookplate, along with the Latin motto Sit Bona Librorum Copia (“There are many good books”). The small library of the society was described in 1877 as being held in a bookcase on the second floor of their hall (known as The Tomb). It was made up of a complete set of Yale publications, handsomely bound college catalogs, and books published by members. Today it is known that the organization also holds an Aldine edition of Demosthenes and a first edition of Tristam Shandy. Unfortunately, it is not known how this bookplate ended up at AAS, or even the title from which it was removed.










517142_stewart_0001During our hunt for memento mori bookplates in the collection, we found several plates that were not necessarily focused on the loftier aspects of the brevity of human life. Most of these were along the lines of the unsigned plate for John M. Stewart, often threatening bodily harm, sometimes humorously, if books were not kept safe while out of their owner’s care. With a motto of “Return it,or Else,” this circa 1930s bookplate takes matters into its own hands: forget moralistic reflection, winged hourglasses, or skulls – just be sure to get the book back to Mr. Stewart in a timely manner!

Visit AAS at the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair!

Want to see a souvenir score card from the 1915 World Series between the Red Sox and the Phillies?  How about first editions by Lewis Carroll, Stephen King, Jonathan Swift, Sylvia Plath, or Toni Morrison?  A signed photograph of Harry Houdini?  A book printed from wood blocks in 1250?  An illustrated Japanese edition of Don Quixote?  Not only will all of this and much more be on exhibit, it is all for sale.

This weekend, October 28 to 30, is the 40th Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair at the Hynes Convention Center.  This is one of the three major book fairs held in the country (New aas-eal-ad-9-16York and California being the others) and is hosted by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America.  One hundred and twenty dealers from around the world will be exhibiting books, manuscripts, maps, prints, and ephemera for sale.  In addition there will be an exhibition on the Boston Music Scene 1976-2016, a Typewriter Rodeo where poets will write custom poems on vintage typewriters, a talk by Paul Lewis on Edgar Allen Poe, and a round-table discussion of librarians talking about what they collect (hosted by the Ticknor Society).

And while you are there, visit the American Antiquarian Society booth on Cultural Row (Booth #626).  Throughout the weekend various curators and staff will be at the booth promoting the society and answering any questions you have about our collections and activities.  AAS President Ellen Dunlap will be there Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m.  Stop by for a visit and pick up one of our commemorative chocolate coins.

The fair is open:
Friday, Oct. 28, 5-9 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 29, 12–7 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 30, 12-5 p.m.

Admission is $20 on Friday.  Because it is their 40th fair, ABAA is giving free admission on Saturday and Sunday.

Get thee to the waters

In the mid-nineteenth century, “taking the waters,” or hydropathy, became a fashionable so-called natural therapy. It was first promoted in Europe by Austrian Vincenz Priessnitz after he claimed to have mended his broken ribs in the spring waters of Grafenberg, Silesia.  His spa attracted crowds, including royalty. Joel Shew, a physician from New York, became an immediate advocate of the system and is reputed to have introduced hydropathy to America in 1844.  Interest spread rapidly and water cure emerged as a popular alternative to the standard remedies of bleeding, purging, and puking advocated by most physicians.536057_0017

A recently processed collection pertaining to John Hero, M.D., provides a fascinating picture of the industry in general and his spa in particular.  Correspondence, handbills, and newspaper clippings about hydropathy document Dr. Hero’s path to the eventual establishment of his spa in Westboro, Massachusetts.

A stream of letters from Butler Wilmarth, M.D., to Hero beginning in 1849 traces the development of their eventual, if short-lived, partnership. At the start of their correspondence, Wilmarth noted that he would give a lecture on the water cure in Leverett. In subsequent letters, Wilmarth discussed his patients, his feelings about allopathic medicine, homeopathy, and the possible “indelicacy for a male practitioner” in treating female patients. It is evident that both men were treating patients but struggling to make ends meet. The letters reveal them as caring practitioners and as men who wanted to make money.

To improve their chances of launching a successful partnership, John Hero decided acquiring a medical degree at Syracuse would be “time and money well invested.” In one letter during this period, Wilmarth reported sending Hero a skeleton which he had prepared in lye. While Hero pursued his education, Wilmarth was employed at various institutions, including New Graefenberg Hydropathic and Kinesipathic Establishment and the New Lebanon Springs. His letters included thoughts about their future practice, including sitz baths, douches, exercise, “motorpathy” and electricity as possible therapies.

In 1854, shortly after their new venture, the New Malvern Water-Cure, opened in Westboro, Wilmarth was tragically killed in a train wreck, leaving Hero to make a success of the business.  It was not easy. In a letter from his wife Irene, then visiting her sister, she wrote, “If your ship has come in, I wish you would send me one dollar when you write.  How are money matters with you? I hope they will not have you in prison when I return.”

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One piece of family correspondence especially enhances the collection. By using the back page of a brochure advertising his New Malvern Water-Cure to write his wife, Hero gave us both a printed record of his establishment and a hand-written summary of his work.  The printed pamphlet describes the history, activities, cost, and requirements of the Westboro water cure. The letter to Irene suggested a number of work-related errands for her to undertake and demonstrated that she was fully involved in the business. The pamphlet also displayed Dwight Russell as a partner.

Among the various papers is a remarkable handbill from Turkish Baths, Boston, which unfolds to four pages of information, including a floorplan of the baths. The collection also contains an 1879 handwritten legal document regarding the purchase  of the Charles Washburn Estate for $800, used as a Turkish Bath Establishment and called Dr. Hero’s Cure Corner, located on Arch and Summer Street in Worcester.

Hero seems to have advertised widely. Several letters in the collection, from as far away as South Carolina, solicit information from Hero about his cures. Despite all the early difficulties, the Heros clearly established successful water cure establishments in Westboro and Worcester.


Newest Issue of the Almanac Features Some Big News about AAS

“This project will secure the base of collection and program management as AAS moves forward with strength and purpose into its third century.” – Bill Reese, AAS Councilor

Usually we plug new issues of the Almanac by talking about great recent acquisitions, upcoming programs, and spotlights on AAS history and new projects. This is no different for the most recent issue, but what we’re really excited about is announcing the Society’s plans for the construction of a three-story, 7,000-square-foot addition to Antiquarian Hall that will strengthen our ability  to preserve and to share the multitude of American stories documented in the printed record of our nation’s past.


The addition will feature a mechanical room to house a modern HVAC system, ensuring high-quality climate control for collection preservation; a flexible multipurpose room for programming; and a state-of-the-art conservation lab. The façade of the addition will present a welcoming face to the community, literally opening up a portion of the historic library to view through a glass and patinated-copper façade facing onto Park Avenue, one of Worcester’s busiest thoroughfares.

We’re bursting with pride and excitement as we share this news, and we’re looking forward to providing updates as the project progresses. In the meantime, you can get more details about the planned addition in this issue of the Almanac, right alongside all of the AAS newsletter staples. We hope you enjoy reading all about it!   

Revisiting Rebellion: Nat Turner in the American Imagination

AAS recently collaborated with the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery to create our latest exhibition, Revisiting Rebellion: Nat Turner in the American Imagination.

A man who has been immortalized as a hero and condemned as a charlatan, mourned as a victim and reviled as a traitor, Nat Turner lives in myriad formats and genres in the historical record. In August 1831, he led a group of some fifty enslaved men in Southampton County to attack four plantations, killing any man, woman, or child they encountered, and the effort to define his legacy has been ongoing ever since. No uncontested records of Turner’s own voice remain, and so journalists, polemicists, novelists, poets, playwrights, and filmmakers have imagined Nat Turners that reflect as much what we know about the man as they do about the zeitgeist in which they were created.

Revisiting Rebellion: Nat Turner in the American Imagination

Revisiting Rebellion: Nat Turner in the American Imagination

In the AAS collections, we found Nat Turner in imprints, from contemporaneous pamphlets to antebellum novels to commemorative histories. We also found him in newspapers, where there was an abundance of mentions, from full articles to small references. Because of the scope of AAS collections, we were limited to nineteenth-century depictions of Turner but we knew that some of the most controversial depictions of Turner can be found in twentieth-century collections.

The response to Styron's novel (1968)

The response to Styron’s novel (1968)

Styron's controversial novel (1967)

Styron’s controversial novel (1967)

To capture the Nat Turner of the twentieth century, we turned to one of the foremost collections of African American history and culture: The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Sylviane A. Diouf, preeminent scholar of the African Diaspora and Director of the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, agreed to collaborate with us.

Most of the materials she chose are from the John Henrik Clarke Papers. A Pan-Africanist actively engaged in the rewriting of African and African American history, Clarke organized the response among black intellectuals and activists to William Styron’s highly controversial depiction of Turner in his 1967 novel. These papers not only reveal the staunch support Clarke found when he reached out to like-minded individuals to contribute to William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (1968), but also the opposition encountered, most notably in an unanswered letter to James Baldwin. Perhaps most germane responses to Nat Parker’s controversial depiction of Nat Turner in The Birth of a Nation (2016) is the documentation of an effort to thwart the making of a film based on Styron’s depiction because, according to the Black Anti-Defamation Association, the novel “contain[s] serious historical distortions and defames black people.”

The many faces of Nat Turner

The many faces of Nat Turner

The 1831 rebellion and the response to Styron’s novel bookend Revisiting Rebellion: Nat Turner in the American Imagination.Portrayals” is the organizing principle for the newspaper clippings, pamphlets, novels, poems, plays, and historical accounts that were published in the 136 years between the rebellion and Styron’s novel. In these works, Turner can be victimized or dehumanized, he can be a religious leader or a false prophet, he can be an abolitionist or a military leader. We had trouble narrowing down the many characterizations to these six archetypes, but we found that these were the prevailing portrayals we most consistently encountered as we read Nat Turner across time and place. As any student of literature knows, a work can contain its own contradictions, and so within a given selection, Turner can be classified as an inspired leader and a bloodthirsty animal. The cross-indexing that digital platforms enable allowed us to capture this multiplicity and, we hope, will facilitate navigation of the site. As the “browse” tab will reveal, there are other ways to search the site—by format or simply by perusing each item.

It is our hope that students and scholars of history as well as of popular culture will make use of this exhibition to reflect on the relationship between race, the historical record, and the American story.



Isaiah Thomas Is Going Digital

img_1861On a beautiful sunny day in June, AAS Director of Outreach Jim Moran and I headed out to Historic Deerfield in western Massachusetts to meet up with a film crew from Northern Light Productions. Surrounded by the dark wood and heavy equipment of the Wilson Printing Office, it wasn’t difficult to set the stage for a young Isaiah Thomas to enter into his apprenticeship with Zechariah Fowle in 1756 Boston. For that’s exactly what we were trying to do. In a 5-minute film, we were looking to make Isaiah’s story about his earliest years—the abandonment of his father, the destitution of his mother, and his subsequent placement with Fowle by the Overseers of the Poor—come to life.

The film is part of a larger project, which we have taken to calling Digital Isaiah, to create an interactive educational website inspired by the one-man theater performance Isaiah Thomas – Patriot Printer that AAS has been touring periodically for seventeen years. The play, which was written by Jim Moran, has and will continue to serve us well on a local level, but we also wanted to bring Isaiah’s story to a national audience. With themes of literacy, artisanship, civic engagement, entrepreneurship, and preservation, Isaiah’s story is full of relevance for today’s students.

20160624_163713With a generous grant from the Ahmanson Foundation, we set out to create a prototype of just one segment of the site, focused on Isaiah’s apprenticeship and the legal indenture document that bound him to Zechariah Fowle. The short film introduces the document and explains the story behind it. (A sneak-peek at the prototype itself will be coming in another blog post soon.)

Creating the film was a particularly fun part of the prototype process, for it made historic people that we talk about all the time here at AAS real. Here was a very young Isaiah in Fowle’s printing shop, asking what his apprenticeship meant and learning to read by setting type and studying a dictionary and Bible, just as he tells us he did in autobiographical manuscripts he left behind. Young Isaiah is played by William Hood, the son of Nan Wolverton, the director of the Center for Historic American Visual Culture (CHAViC) here at AAS, and we were even more pleased that she agreed to play Fidelia Thomas, Isaiah’s mother!

Filming adult Isaiah in his 1812 study.

Filming adult Isaiah in his 1812 study, which was set up in the Council Room at AAS.

The scene in Fowle’s shop is set up by an adult Isaiah, sitting in his study in 1812. We have long thought that Neil Gustafson, the professional actor who has played Isaiah all these years, looks remarkably like the man himself. We were able to take full advantage of this in the introductory shot to the video, which fades Isaiah’s portrait into Neil. And although it is often hard to capture the power of a live performance on film, with Jim Moran once again writing the script and Neil applying all of his experience as Isaiah, there was a strong foundation to build upon.

We’re now setting out to raise funds to turn the prototype into a full website. But in the meantime, we’re excited to give a glimpse into what that may look like by sharing this first short film about Isaiah’s indenture. We would love to hear what you think!