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Art in the Archives: Doodles, Sketches, and Fine Art

Monday, January 24th, 2011

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People often think of archival collections as dusty boring boxes of papers, but even if the boxes are dusty and full of paper, they are rarely (never, in my opinion) boring.  Who knows what you will find when you pop open that liquor store or candy bar box ?  One of the things that I love finding is artwork, which is very prevalent in archival collections, in varying degrees of artistic quality.  Regardless, I love it because it really allows you to see the world through the creator’s eyes.  Textual material allows you to discover the way the creator thought , but art allows you to see what they saw (or maybe not … maybe it is what they wanted to see).  Fascinating!

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The kind of art that our project has revealed was created for lots of purposes:  work, clarity, creativity, and boredom (or perhaps nerves—I am a nervous doodler).  Workwise, we have found amazing sketches in the Academy of Natural Sciences Exhibit records reflecting the creation of the dioramas  with plans for the backgrounds, the foliage, and habitat.  A professional artist’s work is represented in the Thornton Oakley collection on Howard Pyle and his student.  The John H. Mathis Company records contains ship plans; and when we process the Armistead Browning, Jr. papers at the University of Delaware, we will be working with landscape plans.  Natural historians documented their scientific studies as well as amazing new things they discovered:  Pierre Eugene du Simitière and J. Percy Moore are notable examples.  The Logan family papers include some drawings that show James Logan’s interactions with the Native Americans in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s.

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We also have student artists who saved their work—this is evident in the Reinhardt, Hawley and Hewes family papers, the Marvin Rosefield Keck, the Vaux family papers and Nicholson and Taylor family papers.  The artwork in these collection is far beyond amateur and both William Nicholson Taylor and Mary Vaux Walcott studied art formally.  Taylor and Keck used their considerable talents to draw humorous cartoons of the world they observed.  Mary Vaux Walcott created beautiful paintings from her experiences with the United States Board of Indian Commissions.

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Others drew plans of their hopes … James Rush has amazing sketches of architectural features for a home he was building on Chestnut Street.  In John Dickinson’s papers, there are sketches of a bathtub (introduced by Benjamin Franklin) as well as plans for succeeding in a military battle.  I can only imagine how wonderful a bathtub seemed in a time when plumbing was scarce.  The Logan family papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania include tons of land surveys—quite beautiful … I don’t know if the Logan, Dickinson and Norris families were planning to buy land or or already owned it.

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Finally we have the doodlers … and I love the doodlers!  I cannot decide if I like the doodles on the inside covers of Benjamin Rush’s financial books or John Dickinson Logan’s doodles on the list of rules for officers serving in the Civil War.  Either way, these doodles are of a most decidedly human nature … I have a strong suspicion that I, and many of the readers of the blog post, would doodle in similar situations.  Hopefully, you have not been doodling during the perusal of this post!

Hollywood in Philadelphia? The Lubin Manufacturing Company collection at Free Library of Philadelphia

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

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While at the Free Library of Philadelphia, Forrest and I had the opportunity to process one of the most interesting and exciting collections that we have ever seen: the Lubin Manufacturing Company records collection. The collection contained scrapbooks, bulletins, business records, photographs, advertisements, and artifacts relating to Siegmund Lubin, the founder of the Lubin film empire, and his company.

Lubin created one of the largest motion picture production companies in the world from 1895 to 1916, all of which began with the purchase of a film projector. His biography truly spells out the American dream. Lubin emigrated from Germany to the United States, worked as an optician, and found his way into the movie industry solely by his extreme interest in film production. He was a savvy entrepreneur and a gifted marketer, but unfortunately, did not invest in the overall quality of his films or heed the copyright laws, all of which led to the company’s collapse in 1916.

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Since the Lubin Manufacturing Company lasted for such a brief time, its records are sparse and the films even more rare. An explosion destroyed thousands of feet of film in Lubin’s main studio in 1914. Currently, there are only a few institutions that have Lubin Manufacturing Company collections, of which the Free Library has the largest amount of textual material. So, this collection was not only exciting to work with, but rewarding to process since the materials had little original order and were scattered throughout the Theatre Collection at the Free Library.

A couple of photographs of one movie, ‘Disaster Movie,” caught us by surprise. We kept finding stills of a time progression of two trains colliding into each other, all with the title of the film penciled in on the reverse of the photographs. Deciding to do some further research into the movie, we found out that the train scene cost $20,000 to film in the 1910s and that two old scrapped engines were purchased to make this scene. Since it cost so much to get the train disaster scene and the audiences loved it, Lubin decided to use it in five different films to get the most for his money (again, he was a savvy business man). There is a clip of the train scene on YouTube and you can watch it by clicking here.

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Even though the whole collection was fascinating, the artifacts were the icing on the cake. There is a Lubin paperweight, a Lubin film projector from 1905, and even the hood ornament from Siegmund Lubin’s car: his logo created into bronze bell. Also included in the artifacts was a box of reels and VHS tapes about the company, film clips, and ones that only had vague names, like Reel 8. With no way to know what is on the reels and no equipment to view them on, it is sad that we couldn’t have spent more time finding out what they were and who they were about.

Starting the Lubin collection, we knew that we were going to have a fun time processing these materials. But one thing that I don’t think that we realized was the rarity of the collection and Lubin materials in general.

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Because of the 1914 explosion, only 29 Lubin films have been located in the world, the majority of which are fragments. Luckily, while searching about the train scene, we came across the Betzwood Film Archive. Located at Montgomery County Community College, the archive maintains information about the Lubin company and Betzwood history. Every year they host the Betzwood Film Festival, at which a selection of Lubin films are screened the way they were meant to be shown: on a large screen and with live musical accompaniment. Needless to say, the Lubin collection at the Free Library is an exceptional resource to researchers interested in the Lubin film empire and the history of early moviemaking.

19th Century Playbills at Free Library of Philadelphia

Friday, July 9th, 2010

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During the 19th century, Philadelphians flocked to theaters in droves to see burlesque shows, minstrel shows, vaudeville, melodramas, comedies, and musicals. The demand for this type of entertainment can be seen in the sheer number of theaters open in Philadelphia during this time, with the most popular destinations being the Walnut Street, Chestnut Street, Continental, Arch Street, and Academy of Music theaters. The 19th Century Playbills collection at the Free Library provides a fascinating glimpse into the Philadelphia theater culture throughout this time period, not only through the spans of playbills in the collection, but also the dozens of scrapbooks put together by theatergoing fans.

This collection boasts thousands of playbills from several Philadelphia theaters. The Chestnut Street Theater, one of Philadelphia’s earliest, has playbills in this collection dating back as early as 1803. The Walnut and Arch Street Theaters are also well represented in the collection, with hundreds of playbills for each theater.

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Each playbill provided all the information the public would need in deciding whether or not they would attend a production. This typically included a list of actors, a schedule of events (most theaters would offer more than one event per evening), ticket prices, and even a synopsis of the plays.

Like film and theater fans today, many theatergoers during the 19th century weren’t satisfied with simply attending a production. They wanted to document their theater experiences by saving the playbills, tickets, and related ephemera of performances they attended. Some enthusiasts even arranged these saved items into scrapbooks. The 19th Century Playbills collection includes dozens of theater-related scrapbooks assembled by Philadelphians. Flipping through the pages of these scrapbooks, one can see the various interests of theatergoers during this period. Some scrapbooks were dutifully arranged by date and location, as if the creator wanted to track their weekly theater consumption. Other scrapbooks resemble collages, with playbills, ticket stubs, and published reviews glued adjacent to one another, representing a more overall experience.

Some were dedicated exclusively to photos of popular actors and actresses, a reminder that American celebrity culture has deeper roots than one might expect. Overall, this was an amazing collection for anyone looking to learn more about Philadelphia theater history.

Thornton Oakley collection of Howard Pyle and his Students at Free Library of Philadelphia

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

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While at the Free Library of Philadelphia, we processed the Thornton Oakley collection of Howard Pyle and his students. The long name of the collection matched its size: large! This collection contained correspondence, art work, photographs, tear sheets, and many more items regarding Howard Pyle and his students from the Brandywine School of Art.

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While Howard Pyle’s name might not be well-known, several of his students are widely acclaimed as some of the best American illustrators of the 20th century: Violet Oakley, Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Jessie Wilcox Smith. Pyle, an accomplished artist, taught drawing and illustration at Drexel, starting in 1894. The success of his classes led to the creation of the School of Illustration within the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry. Disliking the lack of personal attention he was able to give his students’, Pyle left Drexel and taught students at his studio in Wilmington and at Chadd’s Ford Mill. He was quite a character in the art world and was known for his lack of time restriction on a student’s education. Pyle taught students until he felt that his instruction was no longer needed.

The collection was donated by Thornton Oakley, a student of Pyle, who collected materials about Pyle, other students, and information about the Brandywine School of Art. Processing this collection was unique due to the fact that the materials we had included primary and secondary sources. This really helped Forrest and me to develop a better understanding of the people, places, and art work in the collection.

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One of the most rewarding experiences processing this collection was the ability to handle and see the art work and prints of Pyle and his students. Some of the artists have completed work at the Pennsylvania State Capital, like Violet Oakley, while others have done murals at local institutions such as The Franklin Institute, like Thornton Oakley.

Overall, the Oakley collection at the Free Library is such a treasure to not only Delaware Valley and Philadelphia history, but also to the history of 20th century art. With the extent of Oakley’s collection, I would not hesitate to say that the collection is arguably one of the most complete documentations of great American Illustration.

The name is Bond, James Bond

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

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Processing the James Bond collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia was fun—I felt like I was hobnobbing with a spy, even though the “real” James Bond was not a spy at all, but an ornithologist.  I would be lying if I said that Sean Connery’s visage did not swim before my eyes a few times, but truth be told, the “real” James Bond is pretty dashing himself.

“How 007 Got His Name” is a great story and the best part about it is that it is true!  Ian Fleming, the author of the popular novels that were adapted for film, was familiar with James Bond’s book “The Birds of the West Indies,” and apparently believed that the name James Bond was brief, unromantic and masculine.  Once his novels acquired fame, the real James Bond and his wife Mary Wickham Bond felt the effect.

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This collection is actually a lot more about Mary than it is about James Bond whose ornithological papers can be found at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.  Mary, an author of quite a few novels, appears to have had quite a sense of humor and enjoyed the wacky and sometimes annoying results of her husband sharing the name of a dangerous and suave British spy.  She wrote her anecdotes in the book, “How 007 Got His Name,” followed by “Far Afield in the Caribbean” and “To James Bond with Love,” so that the story of the “real” James Bond might be told.  This collection really documents the publishing and promotion of her books—there are drafts and proofs of her writings; correspondence with her publishers; and clippings regarding the “real” James Bond, the fictional James Bond, and her books.

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Two scrapbooks which she titled “James and Mary Bondiana”  span their entire marriage and are among my favorite items in the collection.  Mary collected clippings, saved invitations and memorabilia, and pasted photographs into these scrapbooks.  They tell the story of Mary and James’ careers and their marriage.  What is astounding is the scope of Mary’s career.  She founded, wrote for, and edited the Chestnut Hill Local, authored quite a few novels, and wrote poetry.  After her marriage to James Bond, she traveled with him across the world while he studied birds.  She seems to have been tireless and full of enthusiasm.  At the age of ninety, she wrote her autobiography, “Ninety Years at Home in Philadelphia.”  She and the “real” James Bond were clearly extraordinary people.

My guess is that if Ian Fleming had not appropriated the name James Bond, we would still know about James because he was a prominent and influential ornithologist.  We might not know as much about him as we do today, but his ornithological career would still be documented at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.  I am not sure, however, if we would know much about Mary Wickham Bond!  So thanks, Ian Fleming, for making it so we can learn about this amazing woman.

Processing plans for minimal processing

Monday, March 1st, 2010

You haven’t heard much from me in the past month or so because I have been out in the field on a reconnaissance mission, so to speak.  Since the middle of January, I visited Independence Seaport Museum and Presbyterian Historical Society, and Holly joined me at The Library Company, Free Library of Philadelphia, Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Chester County Historical Society, to gather information about collections for the creation of processing plans.

Our processors do not have a lot of time to think about their processing decisions and once those decisions are made there’s no turning back.  Not to mention, we are working with students, who are learning the art of archival processing as they go and therefore do not have a lot of experience to draw from when making decisions about arranging collections.  Even so, because of the nature of the project, we need our teams to work independently.  As such, the processing plan is a very important part of our work flow.  It is completed prior to the processors’ arrival, provides them a place to start, and guides them in their decision making as they begin to divide collections into series and subseries.

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I spent from one to four hours with each collection, its accession file (if there was one), and collecting biographical information about its creator(s). Taking this information (and lots of photocopies) away with me, I created processing packets.  Each collection’s packet contains the processing plan, a preliminary biographical/historical note (written by Holly or me), copies of useful documentation from the accession file, a copy of the PACSCL survey record, and copies of any historical/biographical information we found about the creator(s). The processing plan itself identifies basic information about the collection, including its date range, linear footage and container count, and a basic list of supplies needed for processing.  More importantly, the plan offers a list of proposed series and subseries as well as specific processing instructions for collections that are especially unique or potentially problematic.  For example, at the Independence Seaport Museum, numerous collections contain large numbers (1000s, actually) of rolled ship’s plans, which will present significant problems in terms of time–the students will not have time to unroll the plans in order to identify them nor will they have time to figure out how to effectively deal with them.  As such, Matt Herbison, the Director of the Library at the Seaport Museum, and I took some time one afternoon to figure out the best way to handle those collections that would enable both greater intellectual and physical access.  The systems we came up with are outlined in the processing plans for those collections for the students to replicate.

Our teams are instructed to completely read all the materials in the processing packet prior to processing.  In doing so, the teams quickly become acquainted with the collection and its creators and are made aware of the various types of records to look for and how to group them.  Additionally, through the packets students gain a sense of the historical context in which the records were created—information that they do not have enough time to uncover on their own and that we believe to be essential in understanding archives and their value.

Since the students will ultimately devote a lot more time to the collections than we can, we do allow them to adapt the processing plan as they see fit.  If they feel additional or different series are necessary to maximize the collection’s accessibility, they may make those decisions on their own.

At all the repositories I have visited thus far (there are a few more stops along the way) I have gotten quite an in depth “sneak peek” at what’s in store.  Based on my experience over the past couple of weeks, we have some exciting collections coming up that are sure to be both interesting and challenging from the perspectives of history AND minimal processing — so stay tuned!

Here are some teaser snapshots of what’s to come: