Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Announcing the Illustrated Manuscripts Project

One of the great joys about working at the William L. Clements Library is that while we preserve historical records and make them accessible for research, we also get to explore and discover the human experience across time. Stories of heartbreak and joy, historical drama and mundane family headaches fill our collections. Sometimes, if we're lucky, the writer will include a drawing to illustrate a point, making that moment all the more vivid to us centuries later.

Writing home from Shiloh, Tennessee, during the Civil War, Fairfield Goodwin drew this self-portrait of himself.

For over 15 years, as Clements Library staff have processed manuscript collections, read letters, and hunted for information, we've also been documenting the hand-made drawings that appear throughout the Manuscripts Division. To date we've identified over 2,500 images from nearly 500 separate collections. Scribbled in margins, sketched on envelopes, pasted into volumes, these illustrations are largely hidden within larger bodies of papers and therefore commonly uncataloged, their research value untapped. In January of 2018 we launched the Illustrated Manuscripts Project in the hopes of changing that. Kelly Powers, Digitization Technician, began the formidable task of scanning these illustrations, writing metadata for them, and uploading them to our Image Bank. As of September, we have over 880 images freely available online, highlighting some of the least-accessible visual materials in the archive.

The John Paulding Papers include illustrated letters from a young artist in training in late nineteenth-century Chicago. This street scene depicts a crowd watching a Salvation Army band.

Ranging from laymen's rough pencil sketches drawn within letters to trained artists' polished pieces of art, these manuscript illustrations provide a representative sampling of the American artistic vernacular. Subject areas of particular strength include the military and wartime experiences, travel and transportation, natural history, women and domestic life, racial minorities, commerce, humor, technical drawings, education, and children. The illustrations can be deeply moving and intimate or genuinely baffling, but all of them add depth to the historical record.

It's unclear what this undated children's drawing from our Abbot Family Papers represents, possibly a birds'-eye view or map of some sort.

In these subject areas, as well as in others, manuscript drawings help researchers understand the lived experience of history. Details of where people were, what they saw, how they communicated, and what was important to them, all come through in the visual materials they produced. Whether explaining the unusual or documenting the everyday, illustrations emphasize what historical actors found significant and worth sharing on a level beyond words. In contrast to photographs that capture everything placed before the camera, no matter how staged, manuscript illustrations are deliberately crafted, subjective pieces by their very nature. Everything that was consciously selected to appear in the image, then, carries additional weight. Studying these choices, in conjunction with what may have been intentionally omitted, can help illuminate the artist's underlying beliefs.

An 1862 interior view of a Colorado shop from the Blake-Colony Collection provides details of mercantile displays, room layout, and workspace.

The detail present in these drawings also reveals many of the ephemeral aspects of the past that were less likely to be recorded—information about dress, informal labor, and furniture arrangement, for example, can be found in these depictions. Manuscript drawings are also fruitful avenues to explore the often hidden world of imagination and emotion. How people connected to those geographically distant from them, how they visualized personal relationships and reactions to events, and how they drew the fantastic and absurd all provide information about people's internal and idiosyncratic views. The visual story complements the written archival record in meaningful ways, and having these hidden images brought to light and freely accessible online grants researchers another avenue to explore the past.

The Clark-McCreary Papers feature a dramatic... peanut horse race attended by peanut people. Humorous images are well represented in the project, as people wrote about what they found funny and aimed to entertain their readers as well. A goal they continue to achieve centuries later.

We invite you to explore the Illustrated Manuscripts Project through the Clements Library's Image Bank. Content will be added periodically. As friends of the Clements know, our holdings are rich and voluminous. We hope this offers one more avenue to delve deeply into them and learn more about our shared past.

Jayne Ptolemy
Assistant Curator of Manuscripts