Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Latest Quarto: Natural History

The Fall-Winter 2014 Quarto is now available. The Quarto is a semi-annual magazine published by the William L. Clements Library and sent to members of the Clements Library Associates. This issue of The Quarto focuses on the Clements Library collections related to natural history, in celebration of our recent acquisition of Audubon's Viviparous Quadrupeds.
  1. "Natural History," by J. Kevin Graffagnino, Director of the Library.
  2. "Natural History Drawn Large," by Emiko Hastings, Curator of Books & Digital Projects Librarian. Large color-plate books of American natural history. 
  3. "Finding Flora," by Jayne Ptolemy, Curatorial Assistant. Botanical samples in the Manuscripts Division. 
  4. "Castor Canadensis," by Brian Leigh Dunnigan, Associate Director & Curator of Maps. The North American beaver.
  5. "Nature Surveyed," by Clayton Lewis, Curator of Graphic Materials. United States railroad surveys. 
  6. "Political Animals," by Diana Sykes, Head of Reader Services. Political cartoons featuring animal caricatures. 
  7. "Developments," by Ann Rock, Director of Development. Acquisition of John James Audubon's Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America
  8. Announcements
  9. Calendar of Events
Read past issues of The Quarto online. Members of the Clements Library Associates will receive the current copy in the mail. If you would like more information about membership, please contact Ann Rock at or 734-358-9770.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Today in History: Miniature Hand-Cut Valentines

According to Ruth Webb Lee's A History of Valentines (1952), the creation and distribution of valentines in America began sometime in the mid-18th century. Prior to the advent of mass-produced, printed notes and cards around 100 years later, women and men made these often anonymous tokens of affection by hand. Valentines took many forms, from acrostics, rebuses, cryptograms, and other puzzles, to elaborately illustrated or cutwork designs. The awe-inspiring valentines shown below suggest the time and dedication required to create these messages of love and esteem using only scissors, quill knives, and/or needles.

Measuring only around 1-inch across, these hand-cut valentines from the Weld-Grimké Family Papers show great skill. These three valentines were found with 13 others in a small paper enclosure marked "Valuable."

Valentine's Day celebrants may sometimes forget that not all persons share in the warm and comforting embrace of a loved one's attentions. L.S.S.S. wrote the following poem for the Valentine's Day of 1848. It reflects the perspective of a lonely and aging man in North Central New York State:

"A bachelor, a bachelor,
When age with wrinkled face,
Comes creeping on him by degrees,
With slow yet steady pace,
The jovial set whom once he met
An evening hour to pass,
Some some [sic.] are dead and some are wed
For Time still turns his glass -
No friend to cheer his silent home,
No hearts responsive beat
He bears his sorrows all alone
And pity never meets -" [From the George and Frederick Scriba Family Papers]

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

In the Classroom: Photography and African American Identity

Post by Clayton Lewis, Curator of Graphic Materials

During fall semester 2014, University of Michigan Professor Martha Jones's African American Women's History class embarked on a detailed examination of a pair of photograph albums from the Clements Library collection. The albums originally belonged to Arabella Chapman (1859-1927), an African American woman from Albany, New York. They were assembled from 1878 to 1900 using portraits taken from the 1860s to the turn of the century. The photos include Arabella, her family, friends, and admirers, and well-known public figures. The class discovered that these two albums have depth of meaning well beyond what is initially apparent.

Portrait photographs have been presented as a declaration of status and identity since their first widespread use in the 1840s to the Facebook era today. In the first decades, carefully composed studio photographs often showed people in their finest dress or work attire, holding symbolic objects like diplomas, books, or tools. As paper prints replaced the hard-cased Daguerreotype, photos began to be combined into albums, presenting narratives of the social fabric of families and communities. By the late 1880s, amateur photographers with inexpensive Kodak cameras encouraged a casual playfulness that greatly expanded the range of meaning.

"The power of images to construct ideas about race and difference had its origins in early 16th century encounters between Europeans and Africans. With the advent of photography in the 19th century, African American activists reflected on the possibility for this new medium. Photographs might be used to perpetuate racist stereotypes, warned Frederick Douglass. However, photography might be a democratizing technology that would provide Black Americans with the opportunity to craft their own images. It is this latter possibility that Chapman’s albums evidence," said Professor Jones. Her class discovered how African Americans creating and purchasing photographs could steer self-expression and personal identity towards images of empowerment rather than degrading caricatures.

The class began with a close examination of all types of early portrait photography. The Chapman albums were then minutely documented, photographed, and assessed for content -- the who, what, when, where, why, and how. The albums’ individual card-mounted photographs were carefully removed by Clements conservationist Julie Fremuth, revealing hidden information about subjects, places, photographers, and even one additional photograph hidden behind a photograph.

Family genealogy, career paths, and political alliances were uncovered, establishing the Chapmans at the center of active African American communities in eastern New York and Western Massachusetts. The hidden back-stamps of some photographs indicated leisure travel to areas such as Saratoga Springs.

The students concluded that the Chapman albums are an example of a confident, educated, and socially engaged African American woman representing herself to her peers, her family, and posterity. In spite of whatever racist barriers the Chapman family faced, the story told through the images is about accomplishment, pride, and overcoming oppression. Family values are established by the inclusion of commercial portraits of Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, and Frederick Douglass in among the images of family and friends.

The known information about the Chapman family has been greatly expanded by the class work, but some mysteries remain. Who are the unidentified people in the albums? The two albums overlap to some degree -- were they intended for different audiences? How certain can we be about authorship? The albums appear to have been assembled over several decades and annotated by more than one person, including a child of Arabella's. Were they edited by others as well? These and other questions will sustain further research into the Chapman albums for others to pursue.

Nor is the work of the class complete. By spring 2015, they will launch a website devoted to the Chapman albums. It will include scans of the album pages, genealogical information, maps, texts on the history of photograph albums and the role that photography played in African American lives, a portal for crowdsourcing more information, and more.

It is exciting to work with Professor Jones, her innovative teaching methodology, and her ambitious and alert group of students. In an era of electronic media, this class linked past practices to the present in an important and meaningful way.

Wikipedia article on Arabella Chapman
Finding aid for the Arabella Chapman Carte-de-visite Albums, 1878-[1890s]
Pinterest board for the Arabella Chapman Album