Devin Manzullo-Thomas

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M’Carty and Davis: 19th century booksellers

Friday, October 21st, 2011

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Have you ever wondered how books were sold in the nineteenth century, long before the advent of Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com? Probably not. I certainly hadn’t—at least not until my processing partner Dan and I started working on the M’Carty and Davis collection at the Rosenbach Museum and Library.

As we learned while processing this collection, nineteenth-century book selling didn’t just happen in the context of a traditional, brick-and-mortar store—at least at M’Carty and Davis, a Philadelphia book-selling and -publishing firm launched by William McCarty and Thomas Davis in 1816. Although it maintained a shop in the City of Brotherly Love, M’Carty and Davis made much of its money through the endeavors of a corps of traveling salesmen who peddled company wares across western Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia.

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According to historian Rosalind Remer, author of Printers and Men of Capital: Philadelphia Book Publishers in the New Republic , M’Carty and Davis’ business model differed from that of other booksellers in early nineteenth century America. Their salesmen traveled widely, sold books on the spot, hooked subscribers for future publications, and exchanged inventory with other area sellers. These activities, along with the distribution of mail-order catalogs, linked urban M’Carty and Davis with rural Americans eager for reading material.

The sales journals of M’Carty and Davis’ salesmen are part of the collection now open for research at the Rosenbach Museum and Library.

Birth dates and the British Empire

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

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I always feel a mild sense of archivist euphoria (or, perhaps, geek-phoria) when I encounter a document bearing my birth date: July 9. Certainly the oldest such document I’ve uncovered while working on the PACSCL project lives at the Rosenbach Museum and Library: a July 9, 1657, letter written to John Thurloe, British secretary of state under Oliver Cromwell, from one of his officials on the island of Jamaica. “Wow,” I thought, staring at the letter, “this was written 330 years to the date before I was born!”

Imagine my consternation, then, when I read a bit of the letter and discovered it was a sobering missive relating early British colonizers’ attempts to “subdue” the island’s indigenous population. The letter-writer—apparently a British soldier named William Brayne—requests that Thurloe dispatch to the island “bloodhounds” to assist soldiers in “finding and killing” Jamaica’s “wild negroes.” The letter continues: “I am Confident [that] if his Highness did but know how useful they [the bloodhounds] might be here he would cause some to be speedily sent” (Volume 3, p. 121).

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The topic of the letter was enough to turn my stomach; the cold, detached, even clinical way in which Brayne discusses the topic made me even more ill. It’s not every day that you read a coolly written letter requesting the tools by which to subjugate an entire civilization.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised, given the years covered by the John Thurloe papers—1655 to 1660. By this time, the British Empire had established its dominion: in parts of the present-day United States, in many of the smaller Caribbean islands, and in Asia, Africa, and other regions. It had also, by this time, established and consolidated a number of trading companies, like the British East India Company, to administer the colonies and capitalize upon their economic possibilities. Furthermore, the Empire had just signed the Treaty of Westminster, ending the first conflicts in the Anglo-Dutch Wars, and was well-embroiled in the Anglo-Spanish War (1654-1660), which was sparked by commercial rivalry and resulted in the English takeover of Jamaica in 1655.

By the time the Protectorate collapsed and Thurloe lost his job in 1660, paving the way for the return of the monarchy and the further expansion of the British Empire, the “wild negroes” of Jamaica had been sold into slavery, exploited by British trade groups as free labor for the burgeoning sugar cane and coffee industries. (Enslaved Africans were also transported to the island.) A century later, those slaves—who by then well outnumbered their white masters—mounted Tacky’s Revolt, an attempt to overthrown the colonial government. More than two centuries of violence and political maneuvering would ensue before Jamaica could finally become an independent state on August 6, 1962—a mere twenty-five years before my birth, in 1987.

The Thurloe papers at Rosenbach are chock-a-block full of interesting insights into Protectorate-era England (at least for those who can decipher seventeenth-century script). Check out some of my images of the five-volume set below.

Picturing religion

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

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What can a photograph tell us about an individual’s religious beliefs and practices? A lot, according to Colleen McDannell, author of Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. In that book’s opening chapter, McDannell unpacks a single image—a snapshot of the living room of a home built by the Farm Security Administration—to reveal how wall hangings, knick-knacks, and furniture communicate valuable (and otherwise unobtainable) information about a family’s connection to the divine, the church, and other believers.

McDannell’s analysis came to mind as my partner, Dan, and I began processing the photographic collection of the Religious News Service at Presbyterian Historical Society. The photographs in the collection are nothing like the one McDannell uses in her analysis—most of the images are photojournalistic shots of denominational gatherings, public appearances, or other religion-related activities. Nevertheless, McDannell’s larger point—that a photographic image can tell us just as much or more than the written word—still applies to this fascinating collection.

Since its founding in 1934 by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, Religious News Service (RNS) has operated as a sort of religious Associated Press, sharing religious happenings and religious takes on current events with the broader reading public.

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To say that RNS’s photographic records capture every U.S. religion-related event in the twentieth-century would be an overstatement—but not a major one. The photos depict typical national and international “current events”: political ceremonies, summits, and speeches; social events like rallies, protests, demonstrations; scenes from wars and other conflicts; and the like. But they also depict specifically religious events, trends, and observances, and introduce viewers to important contemporary figures in Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities.

Some researchers might value this collection for its visual chronicle of major events in twentieth-century American religious history. Indeed, the collection does substantially document the history of American Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish groups during the twentieth century. But for researchers who want to move beyond this narrative usage, the collection might prove useful in raising questions. Why do the photos often document meetings between politicians and religious figures? And why do they so frequently depict those whose religious beliefs and practices make them “different”—Amish, Orthodox Jews, Catholic nuns?

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Questions like these point to the real utility of a collection like the RNS photos: scholars of American religious history can take the collection itself as a historical document and consider how its composition—its foci and its lacunae—reveals Americans’ thinking about religious matters during this era. Perhaps RNS focused on political-religious interactions because so many mid-century Americans were concerned about the “dividing wall” between church and state. And perhaps photographers pursued images of the Amish, Orthodox Jews, and Catholic nuns because Americans have had (and continue to have) an ongoing fascinating with the unknowable religious “other.”

Regardless of their value to researchers, the RNS photos—from the breathtaking to the bucolic, from the horrifying to the hilarious—have provided for interesting conversations between my processing partner and me over the last month-or-so. Check out the thumbnails below for some images from our processing work.  Photographs may not be used without permission from the Presbyterian Historical Society.

Jesus Loves You… Let Me Draw You a Picture To Prove It

Monday, July 11th, 2011

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When most of us think of the word “evangelist,” we picture people like Billy Graham—seemingly angry, fist-shaking preachers who whisper, cry, shake, and shout in an effort to drive their audience to a spiritual frenzy. McKendree Robbins Long—the early twentieth century Presbyterian evangelist whose papers Dan and I just finished processing at Presbyterian Historical Society—was probably a lot like Graham in some ways. But Long didn’t just rely on his oratorical prowess to draw would-be believers to Jesus Christ. Long, a classically trained visual artist, also used pictures to proclaim the Old Time Religion.

Long’s papers at PHS reveal this evangelist’s penchant for fusing his soul-saving impulse with his artistic muse. Two classical examples of this activity—hand-drawn sketches titled “I Will, Be Thou Clean” and “There is Never a Drought in the Spirit”—depict the two New Testament tales in which Jesus heals the lepers and meets the woman at the well, respectively. Each contains an implicit message to viewers—Jesus saves, both physically (from disease) and emotionally (from the “drought” of loneliness experienced by the woman at the well).

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Most interesting to me was Long’s apparent obsession with the Christian doctrine about the end of the world. A number of his paintings and illustrations depict death, destruction, and damnation—all end-of-the-world themes Long culled from New Testament scriptures. Many of the works feature familiar faces, too—one, appropriately titled “Apocalyptic Scene with Philosophers and Historical Figures,” shows historical actors like Charles Darwin and Karl Marx awaiting their final Judgment on the banks of a boiling lava-filled river. (Researchers, please note that only a copy from a scan of this piece of art is available at the Presbyterian Historical Society.  The original oil painting is at the North Carolina Museum of Art).

As in much apocalyptic art, Long’s work isn’t just about condemnation. The artist-evangelist also fills his paintings with impressions of hope and salvation. In “Apocalyptic Scene,” that hope takes a familiar Christian form: a cross, surrounded by angels and gilded with a heavenly glow. It’s far off in the distance, a fleeting glimpse of redemption amid the terrifying immediacy of Hell—just where an evangelist like Long, preoccupied with fire-and-brimstone approaches to Christian conversion, would want it.

Photographs cannot be used without permission from the Presbyterian Historical Society.

Atrocities in the Congo

Friday, May 13th, 2011

In 1898, a Southern Presbyterian named Lachlan Cumming Vass II volunteered as a missionary to the Congo Free State. At the time, the nation was still under the oppressive control of Belgium’s King Leopold II. In the 1890s, Leopold’s dummy non-governmental organization, the Association Internationale Africaine, began to exploit Congolese natural resources (including rubber, copper, and other minerals) and to forcibly employ indigenous peoples as laborers. Leopold made huge profits from these endeavors, but only through the violent physical oppression of Congolese workers, many of whom were tortured, maimed, and/or killed. Estimates suggest that this forced labor system directly or indirectly decimated the Free State’s indigenous population by 20%. Gradually, the international community learned of these atrocities, often through consciousness-raising activities of Presbyterian missionaries like William M. Morrison and William H. Sheppard. Upon his arrival, Vass quickly joined his colleagues’ efforts.

Vass’ photographic documentation of the atrocities now resides at the Presbyterian Historical Society, in the Vass Family papers collection. My partner Dan and I recently had the opportunity to process these records. As we did, I was fascinated to learn more about Presbyterians’ roles in exposing the horrors of early colonial Congo rule.

Vass spoke explicitly about the rubber worker atrocities in a 1906 letter to Stanley Hall, president of the Congo Reform Association in the U.S.:

“How bad are the conditions? . . . I am in a position to say from personal experience . . . that the conditions in the Congo have not in the least been exaggerated . . . . It would make your blood boil to see some of the treatment meeted [sic] out on these poor defenseless people . . .”

Vass was also frank about his own cultural and social baggage, having been born in the Reconstruction-era South just seven years after Emancipation:

“I am a Southern [white] man from the black belt of eastern [North Carolina] and I don’t think we are often loaded with praise for our love of the Negro . . . but I wish to protest in the strongest terms to the absolutely inhuman way these poor people in their own country are being butchered by the white man, and all under the cloak of Philanthropy. I believe confidently that there has never been such a contemptably dishonest government on the face of the earth.”

Vass and his fellow missionaries certainly suffered for their outspokenness. In fact, both Sheppard and Morrison were charged with libel after they accused the Company Kasai rubber company of malfeasance and violence against workers. (Both missionaries were eventually acquitted). Nevertheless, the actions of these Presbyterian missionaries contributed to the overall effort to topple the regime, which succeeded on November 15, 1908, when Belgium annexed the state.

What amazing activists! You can learn more about Vass II and his work in the Congo by checking out the Vass Family Papers at PHS.

[Excerpts above from L.C. Vass, letter to G. Stanley Hall, September 4, 1906, Vass Family Papers, 1:14, Presbyterian Historical Society (Philadelphia, Pa.).]

An Archival Quandary at PHS

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

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When Frank A. Brown (1876-1967) retired in 1949 following a four-decade career as a Presbyterian missionary to China, he didn’t just sit back and enjoy “those happy golden years.” Between 1949 and his death in 1967, Brown remained active in a number of ways: writing articles, letters to the editor, and books, including a biography of his late wife titled Charlotte Brown: A Mother in China; serving on boards and committees of both religious and secular organizations; and lecturing on his experiences in China.

Brown also stayed busy in his later years by selecting for and arranging his personal papers—a fact that became quite clear to me and my processing partner, Dan, as we began to survey the Brown papers at Presbyterian Historical Society. At least one box of the less-than-three box collection had been pristinely ordered by Brown, complete with descriptive folder titles like “Retirement Years” and “Carville Hospital Experience” (a particularly interesting file of materials—including press clippings from several newspapers—documenting Brown’s bout with leprosy in the 1950s and early 1960s).

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It struck me almost immediately that there might be some intellectual problems associated with this collection—a collection consciously selected and arranged for posterity by the creator of the papers. Could personal bias have entered into the collection, either consciously or unconsciously? Couldn’t the creator have left out certain materials—materials he didn’t want to bequeath to future generations, for instance, because they might make him “look bad”? Will researchers be misled by such a collection, if archivists don’t warn them of the potential problems? Will they be put off by such a “flawed” collection if the archivist discloses the problems? How can an archivist detail the intellectual limits of the collection without firing off wild and potentially baseless accusations about the motivation of the collection creator? What is the archivist’s responsibility to this kind of material?

Unfortunately, I don’t have any easy answers to these questions. In fact, my response is tempered by my dual identities: as archivist and as public historian. As an aspiring archivist (and current archival processor), I have the daunting responsibility of consciously, critically, and carefully cultivating and preserving one small corner of the intellectual heritage of our society—the responsibility, to put it another way, of cultivating a cultural memory. But as a public historian-in-training, I also have a responsibility to the public, which includes collection creators and their family members.

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I think, therefore, that we need to walk a fine line in these situations: being transparent and honest with potential researchers, and maintaining appropriate respect for the creator of the collection. We don’t want to obfuscate intellectual problems from our researchers, nor do we want to dissuade them from using a particular collection because of potential—and unavoidable—embedded bias. (After all, no collection is perfect—all are, in one way or another, shaped by imperfect humans.) And at the same time, we need to respect our collection creators and not hastily accuse them of attempting to white-wash their legacy. (We don’t want to get a reputation, after all.)

In the end, Dan and I added just a short blurb to our finding aid—enough to let future researchers know about the provenance so they can draw their own conclusions about the potential intellectual problems of the collection: “The series title ‘Life and Letters’ appears to have originated with Frank Brown, whom it seems originally arranged these records.” Hopefully, researchers will recognize that Brown’s legacy doesn’t just live in the papers and pictures arranged in the boxes; his legacy also lives in the arrangement itself.

For permission to use images of items from the Johnson papers, please contact the Presbyterian Historical Society.