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Friday, September 30, 2016

The Knight of the Folding-Stick

Here at the Rosenbach we celebrate all things bookish.  Our latest exhibition, The Art of Ownership: Bookplates and Book Collectors from 1480 to the Present, celebrates the many wonderful bookplates throughout our collections and uses them to delve into the biographies of book collectors/owners.  I happened to stumble upon another curiously self-referential book about books in our collection in recent days.  In fact it's bibliopegistical (relating to the art of binding books).  The volume is The Poetical Vagaries of a Knight of the Folding-Stick of Paste-Castle...Translated from the hieroglyphics of the Society by a Member of the Order of the Blue-String.  Printed by the author, presumably John Bradford, a New York binder who entered the book's copyright in "Gotham" in 1815.  The book itself is full of sprightly poems about books and bindings, like "This World's a Huge Bindery," and the frontispiece features an unusual "knight" made of bookbinder's materials.  Part of its body is made up of a saw and small hammer, one of its arms appears to be an awl for stitching, and the "plume" of its helmet is a paste brush.  
The Poetical Vagaries of a Knight of the Folding-Stick of Paste-Castle... Gotham, 1815.  Rosenbach A 815p. 
One of the poems is a curse upon all book-binders who seek to undermine each other's prices, and is worth quoting in part:

"May rats and mice devour your paste,
Your paper and your leather,
May your hand letters be defac'd,
Your types all mix'd together...

May your lying presses all get broke,
Your books be wrong colated,
And may you with foul charcoal smoke,
Be almost suffocated.

May your apprentices run away,
Your business be diminish'd,
And may booksellers never pay
You when your work is finish'd. 

God grant that you distress'd may be,
From Constable to beadles,
And live till you can't feel or see,
Your presspins from your needles.

Perhaps not surprisingly, contemporary binders have had a lot of fun creating playful modern bindings for this book, for which you can see two examples here and here

A History of the Garret, &c. &c., translated from the heiroglyphics of the Society by a member of the Order of the Blue-String.  Gotham: Printed by Order of the Society, In the Land of Musquetoes, Year of the Garret, Eleven Thousand Five Hundred.  Rosenbach A 815p. 
Even more curious, a second part of this book by the same author is a tongue-in-cheek history of The Garret, to which the Knight of the Folding-Stick's creator supposedly belongs.  This fictitious society's constitution was translated out of "heiroglyphics," which look like 19th-century QR codes.  Here are a couple of interest:

Patrick Rodgers is a curator at the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Man Who Took the Freedom Train

I've written before about our current Freedom Train exhibition , but one element I ran across in my research and was unable to include in the exhibition was an episode of the popular Cavalcade of America radio show promoting the train. At a half-hour long, it was too long for exhibit audio, but I thought web visitors might have a bit more time for a listen to this fascinating period radio drama: you can listen through the audio player below, or you can download an MP3 from archive. org

The episode, starring Shirley Booth and Eddie Albert aired on April 12, 1948, when the train itself was in Wenatchee, Washington. In the show, a reluctant Freedom Train visitor falls into a daydream and visits dramatic moments in American history. A newspaper ad (quoted in Shirley Booth: A Biography and Career Record) gives this synopsis:
Eddie Bullock was afraid...afraid of visiting the Freedom train because it would take his lunch hour; afraid of his boss; afraid of going it business for himself. One day on the Freedom Train with his girl Marge, he suddenly realized what the world would be like if other men in other times had been afraid to push ahead, to work and strive and sacrifice

Cavalcade of America itself has an interesting history, one that echoes certain aspects of the Freedom Train. Calvalcade was an American history program sponsored by Dupont and had an extremely long run: 1935-1953 on the radio and 1952-57 on television. Dupont's aim in sponsoring the show was to overcome its bad publicity from WWI gunpowder profiteering (revealed in a 1935 report) and to associate itself with a positive view of American history that focused on "the rugged scene of American struggle"  and avoided discussion of war.  Like the Freedom Train, the show sidestepped matters of potential controversy, including race and labor. Frank Monaghan, who would later serve on the document advisory committee  and a writer for the Freedom Train, was a historical advisor for Cavalcade and although the show didn't get the ratings of some other dramas and comedy acts, it proved popular with educators.

If we've piqued your interest in the Freedom Train and its presentation of American history, be sure to stop by and see the exhibit before it closes on November 1. If you stop by this Saturday (9/24) we are having our annual open house; we will be free all day and in addition to the exhibits, you can enjoy self-guided walks through the period house. So come join us.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Cheers for Chairs II

Following up on last week's post on our cockfighting chair, I thought I'd highlight another interesting set of chairs in our collection in anticipation of  next Thursday's conversation on the history of the chair with Witold Rybczynski.

If you've been on a Rosenbach house tour, you've seen these English mahogany chairs around the dining room table.

Chippendale-style chair. English, 19th century. Collection of the Rosenbach. 1954.166.7
The chairs are in a mid-18th century rococo style, often called Chippendale after Thomas Chippendale's pattern book The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker's Director, which was first published in 1754. In fact, the design of the back of this chair is copied directly from plate XVI of Chippendale's Director (shown below--look at the chair on the left). However, although the chairs are designed from Chippendale's book, they are not 18th-century chairs, but 19th-century reproductions.

There are six of the chairs around the table, but the Rosenbach owns a total of eleven with the same back design. If you look closely you'll notice that these the eleven chairs are actually from two sets:  seven have paw feet and upward-pointing acanthus leaves on the "knee"  and four have ball-and-claw feet and downward-pointing acanthus with a punched background.

Philip Rosenbach bought these eleven chairs in 1926 as a suite from the estate of  William Hesketh Lever, the first Viscount Leverhulme. Lever was a soap manufacturing magnate who founded Lever Brothers (now part of Unilever)  in 1886 and turned it into a multinational powerhouse. He also served as a liberal M.P.. The mid-19th century Thornton Manor was his Cheshire home.
Image result for thornton manor
Photograph by John Robertson. 30 May 2005. Wikimedia.

Following the first Viscount's death, there were several auctions of sections of his collections from his many homes, including one of "Rare English Furniture and Works of Art Removed from Cheshire" on June 3-4, 1926.

Here is the Leverhulme sale description and pictures of the furniture suite, which also included a settee.

Philip bought the whole set and sold the settee  in 1930 to Mrs. Blakemore Wheeler of Louisville, Kentucky. In a letter to Mrs. Wheeler, Philip described his purchase  of the set (which he noted was "old but not a period piece," e.g. not from Chippendale's time) :

 [The set] did not reach the limit which was placed by the executors, as the dealers had gotten together and tried to make what they call a knock-out on the entire collection. I was in the room when it was put up for sale, and succeeded in purchasing the entire suite privately afterwards.

The chairs are in my own dining room and I would not have parted with the settee at any price but that I had no place for it in the house. You are thus getting the benefit of an extremely low price for it.

 So the next time you are in the dining room, be sure to take a look at the chairs!

Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at the Rosenbach and the primary poster for the Rosen-blog.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Cheers for Chairs

In two weeks, on September 22, our "In Conversation with the Rosenbach" series will feature a conversation on the history of the chair with architectural writer Witold Rybczynski, author of Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair, A Natural History. There are more than 60 chairs in the Rosenbach's decorative arts collection, but probably the one that generates the most questions on tours is the "cockfighting chair" in the East Library.

Reading chair. 1750-1775. Collection of the Rosenbach. 1954.0312            
Reading chair. 1750-1775. Collection of the Rosenbach. 1954.0312   

The term "cockfighting chair" seems to be a modern collector's term; our chair is described this way on the Rosenbach Company's 1952  purchase invoice from Wood and Hogan. But when chairs like this were created in the 18th and 19th centuries they were described in terms of reading. Here's an 1810 image of "Library Reading Chairs" from the magazine Ackermann's Repository.

The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions and politics. London : Published by R. Ackermann ... Sherwood & Co. and Walker & Co. ... and Simpkin & Marshall ... September 1810.

The accompanying text describes the chair on the right as:
a more novel article, but equally convenient and pleasant [as the chair on the left]: gentlemen ... sit across, with the face towards the desk, contrived for reading, writing, &c. and which, by a rising rack, can be elevated at pleasure... As a proof of their real comfort and convenience, they are now in great sale at  the ware-rooms of the inventors, Messrs. Morgan and Saunders, Catherine-street, Strand.
Thomas Sheraton's furniture design book The Cabinet Directory, published in 1803,  also provides an image of this type of chair and a description of its use.

Thomas Sheraton, The Cabinet Directory Plate 5.. London: W. Smith, 1803.

These are intended to make the exercise easy and for the convenience of taking down a note or quotation from any subject. The reader places himself with his back to the front of the chair and rests his arms on the top yoke.

Unlike the examples in Ackermann's and Sheraton, ours has no convenient candle holders, but it does include drawers under the arms and seat, presumably to hold paper and writing implements for "taking down a note." Also in contrast to ours, both the Ackermann and Sheraton models have semi-circular arms with the reading surface mounted in a groove so it can be moved along the arms to many different positions. As Ackermann's explains, "when its occupier is tired of the first position, it is with the greatest ease turned round in a brass grove, to either one side or the other ; in which case, the gentleman sits sideways."

By the way, I'd like to note in passing that both Sheraton and Ackermann's describe the user of this furniture in male terms;  this would seem to be a very gendered form of furniture, since women's clothing would not have allowed the straddle position the chair was designed for, nor would it have been considered seemly, although maybe the sideways position described by Ackermann might have been acceptable.

Another drawing of a reading chair with arms more similar to ours turns up in the Winterthur library, which preserves drawings of furniture made ca. 1780-1810 by the Gillow Company.  This chair is described in the company's estimate book  (apparently in the Westminster archive) as "a  mahogany reading chair"

The Winterhur Library, Joseph downs Collection of Manuscripts and Ephemera,  Document 257.

In addition to these images, examples of reading chairs like ours survive in a number of collections. Here's a ca. 1750 example from the Met.
  Metropolitan Museum of Art 68.164. Gift of William C. Jackson, 1968

And here's a  1725-35 example from London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

Victoria and Albert Museum W.13:1, 2-1970

This ca. 1720 example, also from the V&A is thought to have belonged to John Gay, who wrote the Beggar's Opera.

Victoria and Albert Museum. W.47:1-1948
Preservation concerns keep me from trying out our cockfighting chair to personally assess its ergonomic and comfort qualities, but the form seems to have had a long run and is certainly an ingenious and fascinating  piece of furniture.

Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at the Rosenbach and the primary poster for the Rosen-blog.
She would also like to thank former collections intern Emily Pazar for her research on this chair, which informed this post.

Friday, September 02, 2016

The curious Sir Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne with his wife, Lady Dorothy, attributed to Joan Carlile.  Oil on panel, ca. 1641-50.  National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 2062. 
It was a time of increasing globalization, sectarian conflict, and political polarization.  No, I'm not talking about the U.S. today, but about Europe in the 1630s, when the Continent was tearing itself apart in the Thirty Years War and England was drawing the battle lines of its own Civil War, which erupted in 1642.  In the midst of this strife, a Norwich physician named Thomas Browne quietly circulated a very personal work, Religio Medici ("the religion of the doctor"), a sort of autobiography before such things existed.  Readers found in it one of the few truly tolerant voices of the period.  It was a sign of the times that a statement like this proved controversial: "I could never divide myself from any man upon the difference of an opinion, or be angry with his judgement for not agreeing with me in that, from which perhaps within a few days I should dissent myself."  In claiming, "I have no genius to disputes in religion," and that "I borrow not the rules of my Religion from Rome or Geneva but the dictates of my owne reason," Browne's book raised many eyebrows.  Some denounced him as an atheist but others found the work refreshingly honest and open-minded.  Printer Andrew Crooke initially published the book without Browne's knowledge from a manuscript copy that had been circulating for some time.  Browne subsequently sent a corrected version to Crooke, who published an authorized edition in 1643. 

Frontispiece to the first, unauthorized edition of Browne's Religio Medici, 1642.  Rosenbach EL2 .B884r 642. 
1643 authorized edition, or as it says here "A true and full copy of that which was most imperfectly and surreptitiously printed before..."  Rosenbach EL2 .B884r 643. 

Browne's little volume sparked a lot of conversation.  Our 1643 edition of Religio Medici is bound with two critiques: Catholic cavalier Sir Kenelm Digby's Observations Upon Religio Medici (written in response to the earlier unauthorized edition); and Anglican conservative Alexander Ross's Medicus Medicatus, or The Physicians Religion Cured (1645), which was sharply critical of what he saw as Browne's religious relativism.  Religio Medici landed on the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books in 1645.  But many readers were impressed by Browne's style: scientific but not heavy; pious but not preachy; slyly humorous and profoundly deep.  Imitations later appeared, including Religio Jurisprudentis (lawyerly advice) and Dryden's Religio Laici (a layman's religion). 

Browne's next major work, which proved to be his most popular, was his 1646 Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Enquiries into Very many received tenents and commonly presumed Truths, often called "Vulgar Errors."  As a doctor, Browne heard all sorts of complaints, remedies, and beliefs from his patients.  Browne himself was full of questions concerning received wisdom, so he decided to write a book about them.  He became the 17th century's myth-buster, collecting about 200 commonly held misconceptions, folk beliefs, and other unexamined bits of knowledge, then deftly and sensitively (never deprecatingly) debunking each of them, often using scientific reasoning or experiment to prove his points.  To address the superstition that a dead kingfisher could be used to foretell the weather Browne conducted two experiments using the dead birds as weather vanes (shocker: they don't work!).  He dove into such debates as whether storks live only in republics, whether garlic affected magnetism, and whether Adam and Even had belly-buttons.  The book was widely celebrated at the time for providing scientific insight into everyday situations and beliefs, and it's now celebrated not only as one of Browne's most interesting works but also for its many neologisms.  Browne coined the words "electricity" and "computer" in this very book, as well as "hallucination," "pathology," and perhaps a dozen others still in common use. 
Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Browne's "Vulgar Errors," 1646.  Rosenbach EL2 .B884p 646.
Here are some snapshots from the table to contents just to give you a sense of Browne's astounding range of interests in "Vulgar Errors:"

Browne's curiosity knew no bounds: his next two works were a sort of anthropological study of burial practices in his home county of Norfolk (Hydriotaphia) and a meditation upon nature through a five-sided geometrical shape called a quincunx (The Garden of Cyrus).  One of his shorter tracts called Museaum Clausum was a catalogue for an imaginary museum with entries on books, pictures, and artifacts that didn't exist.

Browne's erudite commentary, subtle humor, eclectic interests, and open-hearted manner won him many literary followers through the centuries.  Samuel Johnson was a great admirer, as were Coleridge and Charles Lamb.  Herman Melville admiringly referred to Browne as a "crack'd Archangel" and became such a fan of Browne's prose that his own style began to mimic the good doctor's.  In 1851, Melville included a quote about sperm whales from Browne's Pseudodoxia in the opening epigrams to Moby Dick ("What spermacetti is, men might justly doubt, since the learned Hosmannus in his work of thirty years, saith plainly, Nescio quid sit.").  Melville's contemporary, Edgar Allan Poe, likewise borrowed a phrase from Browne for the epigram of his own masterpiece, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841; the manuscript for the story is owned by the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia.  You can access it here, though Poe didn't pen the epigram into his manuscript).
Joseph Conrad found Browne no less quotable than Poe and Melville.  His Chance includes an epigram from Browne on the title page.  This copy was inscribed by Conrad to his wife, "Dear Jessie's copy, 1912."  Rosenabch EL4 .C754c 913 copy1.

Bram Stoker also made use of both Psuedodoxia Epidemica and Religio Medici when writing Dracula, transcribing passages about necromancy, dreams, and the devil into his notes for his 1897 Gothic novel.

Two of Stoker's research notes: the manuscript note at the top is from Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica and the typed note is from Religio Medici. Bram Stoker, Dracula: notes and outline, [ca. 1890-ca. 1896].  Rosenbach EL3 f.S874d MS, pages 43b & 67.

Today, Browne isn't as widely known as other 17th-century writers and thinkers, but Oxford University Press is hoping to change that.  Its 8-volume edition of Browne's entire body of writing is expected out in 2017, and you can follow its progress here

Patrick Rodgers is a curator at the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.