Curatorial Instinct: Or Flying Blind in Upstate New York

In the most recent issue of the Almanac, we had a feature article about the process of bringing new items into the collection. This got us thinking about some of the interesting ways in which these treasures are found. In the coming weeks, each curator will share one of their favorite stories about finding a new acquisition.

496837_0001Early last summer, I (along with curatorial colleagues Vince Golden and Elizabeth Pope) piled into a rental van to travel to upstate New York to pay a visit to dealer Peter Luke, who has managed to fill an old house with crates and boxes full of books, newspapers, and printed scraps politely known as ephemera. While scouring the musty boxes for children’s books, I found ABC Book I, a charming piece of mid-nineteenth-century color relief printing (see right). It was issued without an imprint, adding to its mystery and fascination. I thought it looked very familiar, but could not conclusively tell whether AAS had it or not. Although my colleagues had cell phones with internet search capability that could access our online catalog, Peter’s house was just beyond the reach of the cell towers. My instinct told me I had seen it before, and that we already had it, but I took Peter up on his generous offer to let me take it back to AAS and check it.

213575_0001Upon returning to Worcester, I discovered that we do have a very similar ABC Book (left), but with a bit of a twist; it had no number. Upon opening the two copies, I discovered that our present copy had the images and no text (below left), and that the copy I just got from Peter included the same pictures with verse captions (below right). In this example of the girl and the chickens, the caption fleshes out the story of the girl: her name is Lina, and not only does she take care of the chickens, but she will generously give from “her little savings” to any child needing food. When I showed the two books to my colleague Lauren Hewes, curator of graphic arts, I also learned that the newly acquired copy was probably printed first, as the light brown color block detailing the background sky is much more detailed than the abbreviated brown lines found in the other copy. With their neatly executed color woodblock prints, these two copies occupy a brief moment in children’s picture book production at mid century between crude hand-colored woodcuts and mass-produced chromolithography.


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Laura Wasowicz

Curator of Children's Literature, American Antiquarian Society

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