The Power of Primary Sources

For nine and a half years, I’ve been working at Special Collections and have been doing instruction just about since I started. After being an observer for one class and anticipating my own first class to follow shortly, I asked myself a basic question that I remember quite well. “What do I want to communicate about Special Collections to a group of students, most of whom have never visited an archival repository before or worked with original primary sources?” Yes, yes, the rules are different here. Explain why. That can lead nicely into a general description of the kinds of materials found here. Sure. No appointment or invitation is necessary. We’re a friendly bunch, after all. Talk about primary sources. What’s a finding aid? All of these came to mind, along with various other important details, all to be ordered in a clear, comprehensive, and understandable way. Describe the materials kept here and how to find them. Talk about collecting areas. All good. All necessary, but, taken together, insufficient.

We also want to give students the experience of interacting with primary sources: to see them up close, to hold them (carefully), to get a sense of how they might be useful in research, to judge the challenges they may present, or to be startled by the surprises they may hold.

Display of materials for class exercise
Display of materials for class exercise

So, we assemble an exercise in which all members of the class get to choose from a selection of largely unidentified items from various collections and spend a few brief moments with the material they’ve chosen. Most likely, it’ll be from a manuscript collection, that is, it’ll be some kind of unpublished primary source. After those few moments, they’ll be asked to talk a bit about the item(s) they’ve picked. The hope is that with as many students as possible talking briefly about the materials they’ve chosen, everyone in the class will leave the session with a better idea about the kinds of materials held at Special Collections.
 
 
That may be the low bar of an adequate objective, but it’s not all we really want to encourage. What we really want is to present an opportunity to create a connection between student and primary sources, broadly considered, through an initial, singular experience.

World War II rationing program materials [inset: OPA Red Point]
World War II rationing program materials [inset: OPA Red Point]

Sometimes that experience depends on pure happenstance. A student beginning work on rationing on the homefront during World War II drew a folder that contained rationing materials that belonged to a nearby Giles Co. family and included a small box of Office of Price Administration (OPA) Red Point ration tokens. These tokens, used for change when buying meats and fats with ration stamps, were first issued in 1944. She was thrilled to see these for the first time, to have the actual materials in front of her.

V-Mail from Lt. James Monteith, 27 May 1944
V-Mail from Lt. James Monteith, 27 May 1944

Another coincidence involved a member of the Corps of Cadets who happened to choose a folder containing a single sheet of paper marked “Reply by V . . .-Mail” at the bottom and “Lt. J.W. Monteith” written in at the top as the sender. The date on the letter is May 27, 1944. I swear that I did not give this particular folder to this fellow, whose eyes lit up and jaw dropped with the recognition that he was holding a letter written about ten days before Monteith, a cadet at Tech in the late 1930s, took part in the assault on Omaha beach during the Normandy invasion. Lt. Monteith was killed that June 6th day and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. Like many (all?) cadets to this day, the cadet in the class knew Monteith’s entire story. I’m guessing, this was not what he expected from a class session at the library!

Honestly, situations like this happen quite often. Both of these incidents happened within the last couple of weeks. Ideally, we’d like students to experience these kinds of connections. Sometimes a connection may occur on the basis of an interest; sometimes it may be more emotional, or anywhere on a scale between the two. In that connection is an initial understanding of the potential power of primary sources. This is what we hope to communicate, especially to students who have not previously had the opportunity to work with these kinds of materials, for example, letters, diaries, journals, correspondence of all kinds, family papers, even legal and business records.

Some instances do depend on luck, as is the case with the two examples above. The right person choosing the right document, though even having one classmate describe a document meaningful to another can have the same effect. Who knows which student will be stirred by the first commercial announcement for the new Lime Jell-o (1930, for all of you who care) or by a police blotter from the Bowery district of New York in 1861. I am still absolutely wowed by a 27 July 1969, post-Apollo 11 letter from Charles Lindbergh to astronaut Michael Collins!

Then, there are some documents that, hopefully, have a wider impact.

Take a look at this document. Don’t even read it. Just look at it. (Click on each image to get a closer look.)

Letter from Elizabeth Carver to Edgar Knapp, 28 January 1863, page 1
Letter from Elizabeth Carver to Edgar Knapp, 28 January 1863, page 1

Letter from Elizabeth Carver to Edgar Knapp, 28 January 1863, pages 2-3
Letter from Elizabeth Carver to Edgar Knapp, 28 January 1863, pages 2-3

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

What do you see? It’s a letter, yes. Is it just me, or isn’t it beautiful to look at? The handwriting is gorgeous. Even if you’re not used to reading cursive writing, it’s clear and easy to read. The paper is accented with a red rule on the top of the first page and blue one down the side of that page. Maybe you couldn’t help but notice the date, January 28, 1863; the location, Philadelphia; or the formal salutation, “Dear Sir.” Now read that first line:

I have just received through your kindness the painfull intelligence of my son’s death.

The beauty of the letter as an object and the foreign quality of the language in that first sentence anticipate the power of its meaning, which comes that much more powerfully precisely because of those two prior elements. The son of Isaac and Elizabeth Carver (she wrote the letter) has died. He’s not named and the circumstances of his death are not specified, though the date and place provide likely clues to both. Charles Carver, 19 years old in 1860 and, in 1862, a private in G Company, 121st Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry, was wounded at Fredericksburg and died some five weeks later. Like so many documents, this letter raises more questions than it answers and invites the reader to discover its stories while delivering an emotional blow that all can understand.

Bill of Sale for a slave named Elijah, 12 years old, 27 September 1796
Bill of Sale for a slave named Elijah, 12 years old, 27 September 1796

Written some sixty-six years earlier is another document I often use in the classroom.

Here the writing is more difficult, as is the language. The date may be the first thing to jump out at a reader, in part because it comes before a line break and, thus, stands out a bit more: 27 September 1796. Here, part of the power lies, first, not in the document’s uniqueness, but in its ubiquity, for its day. In 18th-century America and the first half of the 19th, this kind of document was exceedingly common.

Know all men by these presents that I John Edwards of Rockbridge County with my security John Dunlap & William Johnson of Greenbrier County am held and firmly bound unto Joseph Dickson in the just sum of one hundred ten pounds current money of Virginia to be paid to sd [said] Dickson by sd Edwards or security in witness whereof we have hereunto set our hands & seals this 27th day of September 1796.

The language will sound strange to folks not used to it, but it is, likely, recognizable as legal language. John Edwards is paying Joseph Dickson £110 for something. Of course, the something, in this case, someone, becomes clear in the second paragraph, “a Negro boy named Elijah.”

The ubiquity of this kind of document, a bill of sale for a slave, in the Virginia of 1796 is tied fast to the fate of a specific individual, in this case, the young Elijah. Both characteristics of the document are contained in this single sheet that represents the sale of one human being to another. A note on the reverse of the document tells us that Elijah is 12 years old and weighs 77 pounds. I suggest, if you let yourself realize it, there is great power in this document, precisely both in the commonness of its form and in the specificity of its effect.

In these materials are the potential power of primary source documents that we, as archivists, wish to communicate and share. Of course, these documents are each just one out of a larger collection of materials. Also, recognizing the power of primary sources is just the beginning, not an end in itself. But for students who haven’t had the opportunity to work with materials like these, it’s an important element of starting out. It’s the introduction with a bang, the “wow” that we hope to make possible! Any document is just a piece of a story, a part of a thread of a research question or an element that fills out one’s own interest.

History class working on transcriptions of the Joseph F. Ware letters
A First-Year Experience History class working on transcriptions of the Joseph F. Ware letters

Story is, I think, part of what drove Trudy Harrington Becker’s First-Year Experience History class (HIST1004) in it’s effort to transcribe the letters of Joseph F. Ware this past fall. With nearly 50 students tasked to work with 100-year-old letters written in a cursive script that was often not easy to read, I was first amazed and then very impressed by the determination, excitement, and downright fervor they brought to the assignment. My first thought was to have folks work in small groups, each with a single letter. No, no, every student would get a letter to work on! There are, after all, more than 100 letters in the collection. As two colleagues and I hustled around from table to table, helping folks who were stuck on this word or that phrase, it was clear that everyone was ENGAGED! Folks who finished their first letters were asking for more! A second session with the class turned into a third.

At first, the desire to simply read and make sense of an initial letter seemed to provide more than enough motivation. The students knew only a few general facts about Ware. He had been Commandant to the VPI Corp of Cadets from 1911 to 1914 before resuming his Regular Army commission prior to American involvement in World War I. They began with his wartime letters from France written to his wife, Susie, in Blacksburg. Then, there were the letters home from training sites and other posts prior to his departure for France, along with a few post-war letters. Fifty students in a room all transcribing letters that each tell part of a story led to what became an irresistible incentive to know the full story, to know what happened. There were long separations between husband and wife, wartime wounds, and a young son, among other facts to consider. Students were no longer talking as much to their classmates about this or that word, but asking, “What happened in Paris?” or “Did Ware return to Blacksburg?” The outlines of the story needed to be filled in.

If Ware’s letters provided the impetus to learn of his larger story, they also supplied the gateway to a range of inquiries into broader historical themes taken up by the class. At the end of their semester, these students presented the results of their work in a series of digital posters in an exhibit open to the public. Drawn from Ware’s own texts, they highlight, for example, not only Ware’s personal story and the toll the war took on him and his family, but also, for example, the American conduct of the war and the nation’s attitudes toward the war and its leaders.

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Here, then, is an example of the power of primary sources to fire the imagination and propel further inquiry. At its heart, this is what we want to instill in students. This is the experience we want to provide. The project of any archival repository is not to just preserve history, but to preserve its materiality in order to provide it to following generations for further use. Though obvious to any archivist or historian, this simple point is not necessarily clear to a student—or anyone—who has not yet experienced the archives or had any reason to consider the question.

Of course, students aren’t the only folks who get to recognize the excitement of discovering the possibilities embedded in an archival collection. To bring this long post to a close, I’ll mention one last story, mostly because it shows how the activities of the “Special Collections classroom” and exposure to the power and value of primary sources can truly be preparation for future scholarly endeavor.

Back in May 2014, we received an email from a scholar who wanted to do work at Special Collections with a focus on “Confederate prisoners of war and their intellectual engagement while in prison.” He said it was “part of a larger project on intellectual life in the Confederacy and post-Reconstruction South.” (I didn’t know it at the time, but he was already about to publish a book titled, Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South (published by UNC Press, 2015.) On a list of 14 collections he wanted to see, the Nelson Family Papers were dead last.

Prison Pens: Gender, Memory, and Imprisonment in the Writings of Mollie Scollay and Wash Nelson, 1863–1866 Edited by Timothy J. Williams and Evan A. Kutzler, University of Georgia Press, 2018
Prison Pens: Gender, Memory, and Imprisonment in the Writings of Mollie Scollay and Wash Nelson, 1863–1866
Edited by Timothy J. Williams and Evan A. Kutzler, University of Georgia Press, 2018

A few days ago, we received a copy of Prison Pens
Gender, Memory, and Imprisonment in the Writings of Mollie Scollay and Wash Nelson, 1863–1866
, edited by Timothy J. Williams and Evan A. Kutzler. Tim Williams came here in 2014 with a broad research agenda and found a collection that spurred his interest, I dare say his passion. A correspondence of fifty-five letters, untranscribed, written between “Wash” Nelson and Mollie Scollay from 1863 to 1865 were a part of the Nelson Family collection. Once the collection had been identified, Tim and his co-editor did, essentially, what the students in HIST1004 did, though at the level of professional scholarship. They transcribed the letters. They sought the story of the correspondents and presented research into the themes in which, as context, they wished to place both the writers and the letters themselves. Then . . . with the help of the University of Georgia Press . . . they did take an extra step. They published the book.

The “Wash” Nelson and Mollie Scollay correspondence can be read in the new book by Williams and Kutzler. Digital copies of the letters and the rest of the Nelson Family Papers can be viewed on Special Collections Online. These materials are now broadly available to inform, encourage, and stimulate new research.

The originals remain housed in Special Collections with all the other primary source materials—preserved, available, and powerful.

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Freiheit für Angela Davis . . . and So Much More: The Black History Pamphlet Collection

German Language poster: Freiheit für [Freedom for] Angela Davis, c. 1971-72 (front)
German language poster: Freiheit für [Freedom for] Angela Davis, c. 1971-72

German Language poster: Freiheit für [Freedom for] Angela Davis, c. 1971-72 (back)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Many times over the course of this blog either I or one of my colleagues has written about an aspect of the job of being an archivist that can best be described as “discovery.” Typically, we find something we’ve never seen before, didn’t know about, or never heard of. Sometimes, it’s finding out that several of those Eudora Welty editions that you’ve walked by hundreds of times are signed by the author. Or—as mentioned in a recent post by one of our student workers—discovering in a newly acquired collection that some number of rodents had a fondness for those hundred year-old letters . . . a fondness for eating them or living in them. Not long ago, I came across a letter in which a sitting president of this university turned down an offer to become president of the University of Virginia. I’m sure someone knew about that, but I didn’t. On and on. Surely, it’s one of the most interesting aspects of working in the archives.

Sometimes the discovery is both significant and puzzling. No, not significant in the way that an original letter by Ralph Waldo Emerson was found in a Brown University library book as it was about to be checked out in 2015. And perhaps we shouldn’t be puzzled when a quick google search on combined terms such as “found letter library” turn up instances of letters by Orson Welles, Robert E. Lee, Napoleon, Walt Whitman, Jack London, Thomas Jefferson, and Robert the Bruce, among others, all being found in unexpected places in libraries in recent years.

Even so, it was surprising, if not a bit mysterious, when, several years ago, an entire collection of pamphlets—ten cubic feet of pamphlets and other publications from the 1920s through the early 1970s—mostly having to do with African American politics and history, but also with Africa, the West Indies, Asia, and the Communist Party of the United States, was “found” in a Special Collections storage area. At that time, our staff had increased sufficiently to be able to begin to process the unprocessed or minimally processed “hidden collections” we expected to find there. Also, the space needed to be reclaimed for more active purposes. The materials were in folders labeled by section and most of the pieces had an adhesive label that named the section and numbered the item, the labeling bit being a very un-archivist-like action!

<i>Here and Now for Bobby Seale: Essays by Jean Genet<i>
Here and Now for Bobby Seale: Essays by Jean Genet

Right there in the upper right-hand corner, for example, is a sticker that reads, “Black Panther Party no.13” on a booklet titled, Here and Now for Bobby Seale: Essays by Jean Genet. The back cover has a New York phone number and the name of the Committee to Defend the Panthers. There is no date on the publication, but it is a reprint of articles published in the June 1970 issue of Ramparts. In the essays, Genet presents his appeal to defend Seale against murder charges in New Haven. The booklet concludes by presenting the Panther platform and program and offering subscriptions to the Black Panther Party Black Community News Service. Here are a few other examples from this part of the collection:

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A full list of these publications can be viewed in the finding aid for the collection. In addition to “Black Panther Party,” you’ll see section titles that designate a wide variety of subjects, including: Black Power, Black Nationalism, ACLU, Arts, Brownsville TX, Church, Civil Rights, Discrimination, Convict Labor, Communism, Courts, Education, Music, Lynching, NAACP, Propaganda-Communist, Prisons, Race Problems, South, and many others. The African American material accounts for about half the collection. The material related to Africa, about a quarter of the collection, similarly, represents a wide range of topics, from Apartheid, Algeria, Britain in Africa and Burundi to Uganda and Zambia. The Caribbean material is grouped, first, by country or island, and then by social and/or political issue, with topics such as Trade Unions, Revolution, Industrialization, and People’s National Movement represented. Another box contains about 60 publications grouped simply under the title, “Communism.” These tend to share in the radical/leftist perspective of many of the others—though not exclusively—but have little or nothing to do with Black America or Africa. Pamphlets on the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg or the House Un-American Activities Committee are present alongside more Soviet-related matters, such as Trotsky as counter-revolutionary or the assassination of Sergei Kirov. Here are some examples from these areas:

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So, what was this extremely rich collection doing in a storage area? How long had it been there? How had the collection been used in the past. How did it get here? When? Who put those labels on the individual items? We started using the collection almost immediately, even before we wrote the finding aid, mostly in conjunction with classes that came to Special Collections for instruction, but the questions remained. I wondered if it had been brought in decades ago as a general collection for the library, not by Special Collections, perhaps made available and then put away for some reason and largely forgotten. Maybe too much radical material? And there was just the nagging impression that the collection had not been processed the way any self-respecting archivist would have done. Yet it had been foldered, even though some of the classifications were odd and then there were those #$@*&! stickers!

Two of the largest sections—series, as they are properly called—are titled, Discrimination and Negroes. (The latter, especially, may suggest a clue as to when the collection arrived.) Here, too, broad ranges of topics are covered, but often overlapping with other series. There are materials, for example, on discrimination in housing and employment, in the military, and with regard to voting and transportation. As in the rest of the collection, there are original pamphlets; also reprints of articles from publications as diverse as the New York Times, Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture, and Political Affairs. There’s a typed November 1929 release from the Negro Labor News Service and an article clipped from the April 1944 issue of Spotlight written by Adam Clayton Powell while he was first running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Here’s a view of some of the pieces in these series:

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Yes, that’s Joe Louis with the rifle and bayonet. If you look through the galleries above, you’ll get a sense of just how rich this collection is. There are even some right-wing pamphlets thrown in, like the one that declares the 14th amendment unconstitutional or one from Christian Crusade Publications that proclaims, “The Black Panthers Are Not Black . . . They Are Red!”

But to get back to the mystery, it appears that the collection arrived sometime by April 1974. We found a memo dated 4 April 1974 (we are the Archives, after all) that reads:

Pamphlet files on Afro-American Studies, Communism, and Viet-Nam
Each of these files has its own set of catalog cards in Spec—shelf, author, title and subject, prepared by a cataloger who worked in Spec for this project only. Mr. Bechanan is considering what should be in the Main catalog referring patrons to these files.

H. Gordon Bechanan was Assistant Director of Newman Libraries from 1972 to 1974, when he was made Director. He served in that capacity until 1984. The reference to the collection as a project does suggest that the collection was brought in—undoubtedly, purchased—as a complete entity. The Library did not assemble this collection itself. Most likely, those stickers and the designation by subject was done by the dealer from whom the collection was purchased. (Again, no archivist worth his or her salt . . . never mind.)

As for the efforts of the cataloger and those shelf cards, we found them, too. How they might have been used is anyone’s guess, but the information on them was apparently not transferred to the library’s online catalog when the card catalog system was replaced. I’ve heard that the collection may have been purchased in response to a suggestion or expectation that an African American studies program or department would be formed on campus, but that didn’t happen here in the 1970s. So, as is sometimes the case, maybe there are other records not yet found or maybe, as was true of Special Collections in those years, record-keeping may not have been nearly as complete as it is today. But the answer to the question of how this collection ended up in a storage room remains uncertain.

What is certain is that this is a fabulous collection. As someone who cares deeply about primary source research, I know there are countless questions for which this material will provide a step or several steps along somebody’s research path. Do you know who Angela Davis is, or why there were calls for her to be freed? (She did speak briefly at the Womens March in Washington the day after the inauguration last January.) Why do we have several pieces about her in German? Who was Lieutenant Leon Gilbert or Harry T. Moore or William Milton? We know about Emmett Till, but have you looked at any sources from time of his tragic death? This blog offered a post about the Scottboro trials and, specifically, Langston’s Hughes’s relation to that situation, but did you know about the Freeport GI slayings in 1946? I didn’t until I looked at “Dixie Comes to New York,” one of the pamphlets in the collection.

Once lost, but then found, the Black History Pamphlet Collection provides an important gateway to understanding, a route to discovery and rediscovery. We have kept the classifications as they are, even though they may be inaccurate and, at times, anachronistic, in keeping with the imperative to respect the original order of the collection. In other words, we’re treating the collection as a cultural and documentary artifact itself. And although most of our digitization efforts focus on unpublished sources—because they are truly unique—Special Collections is considering this collection as a candidate for such an effort. We need to find out just how many of these pamphlets are held elsewhere and how many may already be available online, but the importance of the collection is undeniable. At any rate, for those folks in the area or those who can travel to Blacksburg, it presents significant opportunities for reading and study. Come visit Special Collections!

To Boldly Go Where No. . . .

James Doohan's copy of the final script of "Man Trap," the first episode of Star Trek to be broadcast. Doohan played Mister Scott, and that is his signature on this front cover. The show was first aired on 8 September 1966.
James Doohan’s copy of the final script of “The Man Trap,” the first episode of Star Trek to be broadcast. Doohan played Mister Scott, and that is his signature on this front cover. The show was first aired on 8 September 1966.

Cue Shatner’s voice over. Done. Ready to bring up the music. (Maybe we can hear it already.) “. . . where no man has gone before.” (Yes, he really did say that. It was 1966, after all.) On the 8th of September, a Thursday night, on NBC, and after Ron Ely had his premier appearance as Tarzan, William Shatner, an actor with 15 years experience in movies and television, including a turn in the Oscar-nominated Judgment at Nuremburg, said those first words, “Space, the final frontier” to a national audience. The voyages of the starship Enterprise began that evening with a broadcast of “The Man Trap,” even though it was the sixth show Gene Roddenberry and the folks at Desilu had produced. Reportedly, NBC made the decision to begin the show’s run with episode “number 6” because it had more action than did the other five available episodes. It also had a monster.

Page listing cast members from "The Man Trap" script
Page listing cast members from “The Man Trap” script

Among the new acquisitions at Special Collections is this final draft copy of “The Man Trap” signed by James Doohan, the actor who played “Scotty,” Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott. “Officer Scott” is listed among the cast members for the episode, though Scotty doesn’t actually appear in this episode, except as a disembodied voice heard over Kirk’s communicator. Apparently, the audio clip of Mr. Doohan’s brief lines were lifted from one of the other episodes already shot and inserted into this one. IMDB lists Doohan’s contribution to “The Man Trap” as “Scott (voice) (uncredited)!

"Note to Director" from "The Man Trap" script
“Note to Director” from “The Man Trap” script

 
If you don’t remember this particular episode or just need a reminder, this is the one in which Kirk, McCoy, and Darnell, a soon-to-be-deceased crewman, visit a planet to resupply and check in on an archaeological survey team working on what was thought to be an otherwise uninhabited world. The team consists of Robert Crater and his wife, Nancy, an old love of McCoy’s. We know something is up when Nancy appears differently to each member of the landing party. This note to the director from Gene Roddenberry suggests just how the change in appearance might be indicated. Crater tells Kirk that they only want salt tablets and, otherwise, to be left alone.

It turns out that “Nancy” isn’t really Nancy at all, but the shape-shifting last inhabitant of the planet, the last of a species that needs salt to survive. The planet, itself, is running out, and the creature will get the salt it needs wherever it can, from human beings, if necessary, even though doing so will kill them. Well, you can imagine what happens. Mayhem, death, regret, and resolve ensue. McCoy ends up having to kill the being, even as it changes one last time into the shape of his old flame, Nancy.

First page of dialogue from "The Man Trap" script
First page of dialogue from “The Man Trap” script

From such humble beginnings. . . . Shatner has become a caricature of himself (though not just that), some of James Doohan’s ashes were rocketed into space (a couple of times), and Star Trek has become one of the most successful entertainment franchises ever!!

Why did Special Collection acquire this script? Science Fiction, as part of the broader classification of Speculative Fiction, is one of our collecting areas. And, really, how could we resist!! Come see any of the 4500 issues of science fiction and fantasy magazines on hand that date from the late 1920s through the mid-1990s. Some of them are currently on display, along with a remembrance of John Glenn (we collect “non-fictional” science-related materials, too!), and James Doohan’s copy of his script of “The Man Trap” at Special Collections for the next few weeks in an exhibit titled, “Space . . . The Final Frontier.”

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American Song: A Sign of the Times

<em>These Times They Are A-Changin</em>, Bob Dylan, 1964
These Times They Are A-Changin, Bob Dylan, 1964

Did you hear? (Of course, you did.) Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature a few weeks ago. As the Nobel committee wrote, it awarded the prize to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” That is a mighty step up for an already valued and valuable tradition that is even more varied than are Dylan’s songs themselves. Political, personal, complicated, narrowly topical, broad and metaphorical, silly, stupid, catchy, maddening, romantic, lyrical, sentimental, commercial: Whatever human emotion, quality, or experience you may think of, there are songs to go along. And when it comes to reflecting, initiating, or participating in social trends, songs are certainly there, too. So, although the occasion of Dylan’s winning the Prize didn’t, by itself, make me think about the sheet music collections we have here at Special Collections, specifically, collections of “popular” music, it did provide some of the impetus that leads me to write just a bit about some of them.

Sheet music has a long history. Printed sheet music goes back almost to Gutenberg, at least in the West, to about twenty years after his printing press. The variety of printed music is nearly endless–church music, orchestral music, opera, dance music, tunes, lieder–so much so that the best definition of sheet music has to do with its description as a physical object. The Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University offers the following:

On this basis then, sheet music is best described as single sheets printed on one or both sides, folios (one sheet folded in half to form four pages), folios with a loose half-sheet inserted to yield six pages, double-folios (an inner folio inserted within the fold of an outer folio to make eight pages) and double-folios with a loose half-sheet inserted within the fold of an inner folio to produce ten pages.

Honest Old Abe's Quick Step : for the Piano
“Honest Old Abe’s Quick Step : for the Piano” (Published, O. Ditson, Boston, 1860)
Take your gun and go, John. Inscribed to the Maine Volunteers. (Published by Root & Cady, Chicago, 1863)
“Take Your Gun and Go, John, Inscribed to the Maine Volunteers” (Published by Root & Cady, Chicago, 1862)

Some of the earliest popular sheet music we have in our collection dates from around the American Civil War. On the left is a tune published in 1860 for Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign, Honest Old Abe’s Quick Step. On the right, from just a couple of years later is Take Your Gun and Go, John, a song of resignation and sorrow, sung by a wife as her husband leaves for war.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Don’t stop a moment to think John, your country calls then go; Don’t think of me or the children John, I’ll care for them you know.
But take your gun and go John, take your gun and go, for Ruth can drive the oxen John and I can use the hoe. . . .
And now goodbye to you John I cannot say farewell; we’ll hope and pray for the best John; god’s goodness none can tell.
Be his great arm around you John to guard you night and day; Be our beloved country’s shield till the war has passed away.
Then take your gun and go John take your gun and go, for Ruth can drive the oxen John and I can use the hoe. . . .

This song may be from the Civil War, but just about 150 years after its publication, it still is timely. In 2013, it was recorded and released by Loretta Lynn, and although it is on an album of Civil War-era songs, it does continue to speak. Give it a listen.

Moving into the 20th century, the music publishing business increased dramatically as the theater, music, and entertainment industries grew. With the availability of inexpensive color printing, sheet music for popular songs began to feature colorful covers, illustrations that, along with the music and lyrics, offer an additional window into the contemporary currents of the time. Societal norms with regard to gender and race may be represented, as well as less weighty subjects, such as the sudden fashionability of bicycle riding, or the more significant increase in automobile travel, along with all its attendant themes of freedom, mobility, and romance, among others. World events, also, made their way into the popular song of the day. Consider “America, Here’s My Boy.”

"America, Here's My Boy" (Published by Joe Morris Music Co., New York, 1917)
“America, Here’s My Boy” (Published by Joe Morris Music Co., New York, 1917)

Before listening to the song, what do we see? I don’t know about you, but the sight of “Every American Mother” offering up her son to face what was, by May 1917, well-known carnage, is remarkable. Also, let’s just take a moment to reflect on how the image of American motherhood–even idealized American motherhood–has changed in a hundred years. But America needed men (and boys) to fight, so here was the message, as proclaimed in the chorus of the song:
 
 
 
 

America, I raised a boy for you.
America, You’ll find him staunch and true,
Place a gun upon his shoulder,
He is ready to die or do.
America, he is my only one; My hope, my pride and joy,
But if I had another, he would march beside his brother;
America, here’s my boy.

If you’re curious, here’s a recording of the song from 1918 by The Peerless Quartet. I should also mention something about this cover that I hadn’t seen and was pointed out to me by a most perceptive student. Apparently, the United States shares a northern border with another country, but has no such neighbor to the south! Mexico, though officially neutral throughout the First World War, shared a difficult, and often openly hostile relationship with the U.S. at the time. On 28 February 1917, a few months before this song was published, the contents of the Zimmerman Telegram was made public by President Woodrow Wilson. The contents of this communication, intercepted and deciphered by the British in January of that year, was sent from the Foreign Secretary of the German Empire, Arthur Zimmerman, to the German ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt, with instructions to propose a military alliance with Mexico, should the U.S. enter the war against Germany. (OK, it’s more complicated than that, but the deal was to involve return to Mexico of land lost to the U.S. in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.) Anti-Mexican sentiment in the U.S. was already high, and this incident only led to its increase. So, as far as the illustration on the sheet music was concerned, perhaps, geography was taking a back seat to politics.

"Somewhere In France is Daddy" (Published, Howard and LaVar Music, New York, 1917)
“Somewhere In France is Daddy” (Published, Howard and LaVar Music, New York, 1917)

Staying with 1917, the title, “Somewhere in France is Daddy,” is just sopping with sadness. As shown on the cover, a young mother, with a framed photo of her soldier-husband in the background, has to explain to her young son why Daddy isn’t home. Daddy, of course, is fighting for home and country, for liberty . . . “somewhere in France” and he “won’t come back/ ‘Til the stars and stripes they’ll tack/ On Kaiser William’s flagstaff in Berlin.

It’s not quite at the level of . . . “Please Mr. Conductor, Don’t put me off of your train, For the best friend I have in this whole wide world Is waiting for me in vain; Expected to die any moment, And may not live through the day: I want to bid mother goodbye, sir, Before God takes her away” . . . which I know as a Blue Sky Boys song, and which, deservedly, has won every “Saddest Song contest” I’m aware of. But, as the young boy poses the question, he puts this song right up there:

A little boy was sitting on his mother’s knee one day
And as he nestled close to her these words she heard him say
Oh mother dear please tell me why our Daddy don’t come home
I miss him so and you do too, why are we left alone
He tried hard not to cry, as she answered with a sigh

Here are five more sheet music covers from songs associated with World War I. The links below will take you to a recording of the song, if available.

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We Don’t Want the Bacon: What We Want is a Piece of the Rhine” (Shapiro, Bernstein, & Co., New York, 1918) If this link from the Library of Congress is being difficult, try this.

“We’re Going Over” (Joe Morris Music Co., New York, 1917) Again, if this Library of Congress link doesn’t work, try this.

“Loyalty is the Word Today” (Great Aim Society, New York, 1917) No recording available

“Over There” (William Jerome Publishing Corp., New York, 1917). If this link from Library of Congress doesn’t work, you can try this.

“Hoe Your ‘Little Bit’ in Your Own Back Yard: Where the Boy Scouts Go, ‘Tis Hoe, Hoe, Hoe” (Great Aim Society, New York, 1917) No recording available

Sheet music may not be what you think of when your looking for a view on culture and society, but it can definitely provide an interesting, if unexpected, part of the picture. What were folks listening to? How was the music presented? How was it received? How did people react to it? When and where was it played? Who wrote it? What’s their story? Special Collections has three collections comprised entirely of sheet music, as well as individually cataloged pieces and occasional pieces in other collections. These links will take you to the finding aid for each collection, which, among other information, will list all the titles in the collection:

Annie M. Hale Sheet Music Collection
Archer Lawrie Sheet Music Collection
Sheet Music Collection

"When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)" (Published, Campbell, Loft, and Porgie, Inc. , 1942)
“When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)” (Published, Campbell, Loft, and Porgie, Inc. , 1942)

To end on a more hopeful note, is a song from World War II, written in 1942, in fact. The United States had been at war less than a year, though it had been a long war in Europe already. I didn’t recognize this one from the title, “When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World),” but once I heard it, I knew I had heard it before. It hit #1 on the Pop charts by early ’43. It’s an interesting illustration on the cover. Of course, where is the source of the light located? And, there is the “Buy War Bonds” logo in the lower right. Here’s how the song starts:

When the lights go on again all over the world
And the boys are home again all over the world
And rain or snow is all that may fall from the skies above
A kiss won’t mean “goodbye” but “Hello” to love

No more hard rain.

Lastly, to the folks who, given the beginning of this post, thought it might be about some great Bob Dylan stuff we have in Special Collections, I offer my apologies.

In Support of the Veterans in Society NEH Summer Institute

Masthead for the Veterans in Society Summer Institute website
Masthead for the Veterans in Society Summer Institute

For months, co-directors Jim Dubinsky of the English Department and Bruce Pencek of the Library, along with Heidi Nobles have been working to plan and seeking to provide for every detail necessary to make this three-week long NEH-supported Summer Institute for College and University Teachers a reality. This past Monday (the 11th) was the first day in a schedule that will have the 25 extraordinarily accomplished participants from all over the country in Blacksburg this week and in D.C. next week before returning to Blacksburg for the third and final week of the program.

The official name of the Institute is “Veterans in Society: Ambiguities and Representations.” The impressive list of faculty include Jonathan Shay, author of Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. Among his other accomplishments, Shay has served as the Chair of Ethics, Leadership, and Personnel Policy in the office of the U.S. Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel and, in 2007, received a MacArthur fellowship for his work on trauma and the moral injuries of war. Jim Marten is past president of the Society of Civil War Historians, author many books, including Sing Not War: Civil War Veterans in Gilded Age America and the award-winning The Children’s Civil War. Donna Musil is a documentary filmmaker, writer and activist, whose film, Brats: Our Journey Home will be shown as part of a three-show film series that is open to the public. More about that in a moment. Actually, these are just three of the stellar faculty that are participating in the Institute along with Tech’s own Paul Quigley, Director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies and James I. Robertson, Jr. Associate Professor of Civil War History; Edward Fox, Professor of Computer Science; and David Cline, also from the History Dept. and who specializes in 20th century U.S. social movements, oral history, and public history. You get the idea . . . and I’ve left all kinds of folks out. For a complete list, see the Institute’s terrific website.

So, what is it that all these fine folks have come to Virginia Tech to discuss and study? Broadly speaking, they are defining the dynamic that may be leading to the emergence of a new interdisciplinary field, that of Veterans Studies. More specifically, the topics range widely, from the ways in which classical literature may play a part in understanding and assisting veterans to the role commemoration and monument building play in cultural memory and the process of reconciliation following war; from the ways in which stories of military service can be captured in oral history to a consideration of the unique perspectives offered by women veterans; from asking, “Who is a veteran?” and considering the social status of veterans to the effects of war on military children and the ways the voices of veterans emerge in music and literature . . . and everything in between and beyond. The reality is that the fact and aftermath of military service define threads that run through every culture, across the generations, and have an impact on the most significant aspects of life and society. Through the seminars, presentations, and activities listed on the Institute’s syllabus, the participants will seek to investigate these and other questions, while defining the beginnings of individual research projects.

Display of materials related to veterans at Special Collections for the Summer Institute
Display of materials related to veterans at Special Collections for the Summer Institute

On their second full day in Blacksburg, the members of the Institute had an opportunity to hear about collections of primary sources that may be of interest to them at Special Collections. We set up a display of a few documents and other items and, after a brief introduction, made that exhibit available to them, and to the library community for much of the week. While some of the materials have been displayed before, there were several items that have not been exhibited in recent memory.

Theophilus Cocke Letter, 1907, Ms2008-057
Theophilus Cocke Letter, 1907, Ms2008-057

For example, to the right is a scan of a letter written in 1907 by Theophilus Cocke of Carroll County, Virginia. Mr. Cocke was a veteran of the Mexican War (!) writing about the provisions of a new pension bill that would raise his allotment from $12 per month to $20.

In a letter written from Kansas in June 1865, H. E. Norton complained that veteran members of his Michigan Brigade were due to be mustered out following the end of the Civil War, but were instead sent west. He writes, “[I]t is Generally Believed that the Michigan Brigade was Basely sold by the Governor of the State of Michigan for we could never have been transfered to this Dept. if he had not consented to it.” Norton ended up in Nebraska Territory. Extended tours are, apparently, nothing new.

From the Conan W. Vaughan Papers, Ms1991-050: photographs from the European theater, 1945; a copy of Stars and Stripes; a French 10 franc note; and a piece of a German Ju-88 shot down over Iceland
From the Conan W. Vaughan Papers, Ms1991-050: photographs from the European theater, 1945; a copy of Stars and Stripes; a French 10 franc note; and a piece of a German Ju-88 shot down over Iceland

Once in Washington, the Summer Institute participants will spend a day at the Library of Congress and visit Arlington National Cemetery. They’ll talk about the LC’s Veterans History Project and stop at the Confederate memorial, Arlington House, and the U.S. Colored Troops graves. On the way back to Blacksburg, they’ll stop at the D-Day Memorial in Bedford.

Back in town, there will be more seminars, more opportunity to explore topics of interest, and to discuss ideas with the other participants. More time to check out primary sources.

Veterans In Society Summer Institute Presents Film Night
Veterans In Society Summer Institute Presents Film Night

There is also a public component to all of this. The Institute is sponsoring a Free Movie Night. The showing of Coriolanus has already gone, but on July 21st they will be showing The Best Years of Their Lives, a terrific, Oscar-winning movie about returning World War II vets, and on July 25th will be a showing of Brats: Our Journey Home, the documentary mentioned above, with writer and director Donna Musil on hand. These shows begin at 7PM in the MultiPurpose Room on the first floor of Newman Library. Again, the public is invited and admission is free!

The American Woods . . . the 19th Century . . . and Beyond

Hough's The American Woods
Hough’s The American Woods

Some of us carry around images or a sensibility of the 19th century, often for no other reason than to be able to see or hear something and to instantly be able to say, “Ahh, that’s soooo 19th century.” OK, maybe not many of us. For one friend of mine, the slow-moving Connecticut River on a summer day and away from the sound of traffic was 19th-century perfection. We’re not talking nostalgia here, just the satisfaction of a fitting image. Perhaps nobody has offered a more fitting and memorable image of that century than Theodore Adorno, when he said, (in one of my most favorite quotes about anything):

“In the nineteenth century the Germans painted their dream and the outcome was invariably vegetable. The French needed only to paint a vegetable and it was already a dream.”

Don’t I wish I’d said that! My own images of the 19th century include a movement towards—if not culmination of—classification and encyclopedism, as well as the invention of complex or specialized mechanical devices. The dynamic of these two trends rush over the beginning of the 20th century the way a huge post-romantic symphony might be understood to have already overflowed its orchestral banks . . . but without yet doing serious damage to anything.

Romeyn Beck Hough
Romeyn Beck Hough

Romeyn Beck Hough (1857–1924) was a 19th-century American botanist and son of Franklin Benjamin Hough, the first chief of the U.S. Division of Forestry, a man routinely noted as the first leader of the American forestry movement and, sometimes, as the “father” of American forestry (along with Gifford Pinchot). The son’s work, The American Woods, pictured above, is the subject of this post because it seems, to me, at least, emblematic of these two trends.

The full title of the work pictured above is The American Woods: exhibited by actual specimens and with copious explanatory text, and for Hough it was his life’s work. Although he didn’t do the classification himself, he was very keen on comprehensive exhibiting and explaining based on the classification. He began working in 1883 on this project, which had as its goal nothing less than the representation of all American woods. Photographs, of course, would not be an adequate means for representing the wood, so in fine late 19th-century style, Hough provided actual samples of each . . . in three different sections, transverse, radial, and tangential. These specimens, thin enough to be translucent when lit, were, as Hough explained, “mounted in durable frame-like Bristol-board pages, with black waterproofed surfaces . . . and each bears printed in gilt-bronze the technical name of the species and its English, German, French and Spanish names.” As Hough said of the work, it is “illustrated by actual specimens, and being in this way an exhibition of nature itself it possesses a peculiar and great interest never found in a press-printed book.” In Hough’s obituary, William Trelease wrote of the use of the woods themselves as illustrations,”[they], unlike texts and drawings, never can become out-of-date nor be found to contain untruths except as the names applied in his day to the trees he sectioned undergo change with progressing knowledge.” (Science, Vol. LX, No. 1557, October 12, 1924).

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The project was planned as a 15-volume series to be arranged according to geography and released over a number of years. The first three volumes, first made available in 1888, represented the woods of New York, Hough’s home state. Each volume contained, in addition to at least 25 mounted and framed sets of samples, a booklet that offered the “copious explanatory text,” including a “systematic study” of the woods represented in the volume. This material described each tree’s physical characteristics, growth habits, habitat, medicinal properties, and commercial uses.

So, that’s the “classification/presentation” part. What about the mechanical? In order to exhibit samples at the required thinness, Hough had to invent the means to produce them! Of course. In 1886 he received a patent for a device that could cut wood to a thickness of 1/1200th of an inch, far thinner than required for The American Woods project. In fact, ever the entrepreneur, Hough’s purpose for the device as stated in the patent materials was, “to provide flexible wooden cards suitable for use as business or fancy cards, or cards for use in photography, the arts, &c. . . .” The following advertisement could be found inside early editions of The American Woods:

Advertisement for Hough's Wooden Cards
Advertisement for Hough’s Wooden Cards

In another ad, also for the same “Wooden Cross-Section Cards,” the text reads, “It was found in the early experiments in sectioning and preparing specimens for AMERICAN WOODS, that the transverse sections of certain woods were of surprising strength and smoothness, and suitable for cards for commercial purposes.” Not the least of which was advertising The American Woods itself.

Advertisement for The American Woods on one of Hough's Wooden Cross-section Cards (from the Library of Congress)
Advertisement for The American Woods on one of Hough’s Wooden Cross_section Cards (from the Library of Congress)

 
 
 
 
These were not the only uses for Hough’s wood slicing device. Back in the realm of botany and biology, Hough produced slides that could be used by magic lantern projectors allowing the fine detail of the woods to be seen and studied by groups of people. Lastly, using the capacity of the device to produce the thinnest sections, Hough also prepared slides for use with a microscope.

Slide for use with magic lantern projector
Slide for use with magic lantern projector
Slide for use with microscope
Slide for use with microscope

At the beginning of his project, Hough is said to have personally selected each tree that provided his samples. At least with regard to the 27 sets of sections that comprise the first volume, he writes in a November 1887 prospectus seeking subscribers:

“The author has been scrupulously careful about the identification of each tree, selected for the specimens, in the field, before felling it, while the leaves, flowers or fruit (one or all) have been obtainable, and he can vouch for the authenticity of every species represented.”

In 1889, The American Woods was awarded a grand prize at the Paris Exposition. By 1909, it had won medals at the Columbian Exposition at Chicago, Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle and the Elliott Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. It was recognized as an essential resource and was reviewed as such.

Between 1888 and 1913, thirteen of the projected fifteen volumes were published in three editions at an initial price of $5.00 per volume. Extra or replacement specimen cards were available at $0.10 apiece, as announced inside the cover of several volumes. Hough’s aim was to “carry constantly a supply of such specimens.” Of the thirteen volumes, the first four covered the trees of New York and adjacent states, specimens in volume five were collected in Florida, parts six through ten represent the trees of the Pacific slope, eleven and twelve present the species of the Atlantic and Central states, while volume thirteen continued the collection of species from Florida.

Romeyn Hough died in 1924 before he could finish the project. What turned out to be the last volume in the series, the fourteenth, was completed by his daughter, Marjorie Galloway Hough, and published in 1928. It contained additional specimens from Florida. In all, the work presents 354 species and 1056 wood samples.

Romeyn Beck Hough with his samples, from <em>California's Magazine</em> (1916), Hough's "American Woods," vol. 2, p. 285.
Romeyn Beck Hough with his samples, from California’s Magazine (1916), Hough’s “American Woods,” vol. 2, p. 285.

Special Collections has the first twelve volumes of Hough’s work. It is, for the most part, in fabulous shape. The fourteenth volume is particularly rare and we would like to complete the set, if we can.

But if The American Woods had a 19th-century genesis, its life and significance continued through the 20th and into the 21st centuries. In 1954, Robert Speller and Sons, publishers, determined that a large supply of Hough’s original samples still existed and were in the possession of Hough’s daughter, Marjorie. She supplied the specimens for a new edition of the work, published in 1957 and titled, Hough’s Encyclopaedia of American Woods. Eight new volumes of descriptive text was provided by Ellwood Scott Harrar, then Dean of the School of Forestry at Duke University, along with 16 volumes of samples. The samples were presented in much the same manner as the originals, three different sections of a single species mounted on individual cards.

Title page, <em>Hough's Encyclopedia of American Woods</em>
Title page, Hough’s Encyclopedia of American Woods
Sample, Hough's Encyclopedia of American Woods
Sample, Hough’s Encyclopedia of American Woods

 

This newer edition may be found in Newman Library’s general collection. Though perhaps lacking the charm of the original edition, it includes 385 varieties of trees and 1161 separate samples, thus including examples that Hough had not been able to present in the original editions, but for which he had specimens. In fact, as recently as December 2011, Jon Speller, son of the publisher, posted a website on which he offered a collection of nearly 1.2 million individual wood specimens comprising the remainder of Hough’s own collection!

I have had the pleasure of showing the set in Special Collections to students, researchers, and woodworkers alike. The American Woods is a remarkable achievement. An unparalleled resource of its time, it remains an exquisite thing of beauty. It should then come as no surprise that in this century—in 2002 and again in 2013—Taschen, an art book publisher came out with The Woodbook, a volume that contains high quality photographic reproductions of all the original specimen plates from Hough’s original volumes, along with selected drawings and text.

The Wood Book, Taschen
The Wood Book, Taschen

Neither vegetable nor dream, of this century and each of the prior two centuries, and representing a lifetime of work, Hough’s The American Woods remains a testament to the beauty and utility of a fine piece of wood.

The Flying Man: 18th-century style

One of the great things about working in a place like Special Collections is that “discovery” can be an everyday occurrence. I’ve written at this blog—either obliquely or directly—about this dimension of the job, as have many of my colleagues. Whether the find is a promotional flyer for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a journal from an arctic expedition, a letter written by Victoria Cross (one of several pseudonyms of British writer, Annie Sophie Cory), or a copy of The Great Gatsby autographed by F. Scott Fitzgerald . . . there is always some excitement even if you know that the discovery really may mean that you haven’t seen the item before. Someone else, perhaps a colleague, likely a predecessor, may have very well known about the book, letter, paper that you’ve just “discovered.”

Cover of L’Uomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra
Cover of L’Uomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra

So, several years ago, when I was perusing the part of our stacks that deals with aviation (the TLs for all you library-folk out there), I saw for the first time a nondescript book with a rough, brownish, handmade paper cover and pages that were clearly handmade, a book with a lot of age on it. When I opened up the book, this is what I saw: L’Uomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra. Novissima Invenzione di un Anonimo Italiano Dell’ Anno 1784. In Venizia Presso L’Amico Dell’ Autore.

Roughly translated: Man Flying over the air, water, and land. New Inventions/Innovation of an Anonymous Italian of the Year 1784. In Venice at a Friend of the Author’s.

Title page ofTitle page of L’Uomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra. Novissima Invenzione di un Anonimo Italiano Dell’ Anno 1784. In Venizia Presso L’Amico Dell’ Autore.
Title page of L’Uomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra. Novissima Invenzione di un Anonimo Italiano Dell’ Anno 1784. In Venizia Presso L’Amico Dell’ Autore.

Most translations of the title that I’ve seen are close variations of this. Could be “through air” or “on water” or “on land,” I suppose, but the date is clear; that it was published anonymously is clear; and it is completely clear that I’d never heard of this work. A quick check showed that no English translation exists. A handwritten note on the inside front cover, reads (translated), “The author is Count Carlo Bettoni.” Again, he was unknown to me, but a little bit of investigating confirmed that is known to be the author of the book . . . and that only six copies are listed in Worldcat. This is the kind of discovery, a felicitous thing, that drives curiosity! That the two languages of the book, Italian and mathematics, are languages in which I am less than fluent, did nothing to quell my desire to know more.

"Dual-language" spread from L’Uomo Volante
“Dual-language” spread from L’Uomo Volante

So many things to investigate! What do we know about Count Bettoni? A few quick searches on the book title indicate that an individual named Giuseppe Avanzini contributed the mathematical content of the book, but what do all those equations seek to describe? Even more tantalizing . . . Worldcat shows that four of the six copies listed also include illustrations or folding plates! Our copy does not. The year of publication, 1784 is, itself, interesting. Only in late 1782 did the Mongolfier brothers of France start their experiments with balloons, with the first untethered balloon flight with a human aboard occurring on 21 November 1783 in a system of their design. It is fair to say that the early and mid 1780s saw the craze of ballooning emerge—especially in Britain and France, but also in Italy—as a popular craze and a seductive possibility for scientific investigation. Apparently, Bettoni took part, but he also seems to have let his imagination range over . . . what, improved methods of transportation over land and sea, as well?

Bettoni was born in 1725 to a wealthy landowning family in what is now Brescia in the Lombardy region of north Italy. The aptly-named [?] Biographical Dictionary of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (1842–44) describes him as “a nobleman passionately fond of science, and a munificient patron of scientific men.” In 1768, he founded the Academy of Agrarian Brescia and, apparently, conducted experiments to protect mulberry trees from a rampant epidemic. In some circles, (see A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the World . . . Digested on a New Plan by John Pinkerton, vol. 4, 1809), and as a result of these experiments, Bettoni was credited with discovering a new silkworm! Bitten by the ballooning bug in 1783, Bettoni went to work with Avanzini on what would become L’Uomo Volante.

Born in 1753, Avanzini studied theology and mathematics at Brescia, while preparing himself for the priesthood. He came to Bettoni’s attention and had gained recognition for his skill as a mathematician by the time he collaborated with Bettoni on Thoughts on the Government of the Rivers (1782) a work that reported on the practice of planting specific kinds of trees along riverbanks to impede erosion and decrease the dangers of flooding. They would work together again after L’Uomo Volante on a large and unfinished project to produce a topographical map of the area surrounding Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy located about halfway between Brescia and Verona. Whatever the nature of the collaboration between the two men, it is clear that the substance of the mathematical element Avanzini contributed to L’Uomo Volante and to other projects, was the work of a man who would go on to become professor of mathematics and, later, of physics and applied mathematics at the University of Padua. His work, primarily in the area of fluid dynamics, would earn him membership in the Italian National Academy of Sciences (Società Italiana). While I am not qualified to judge the quality and appropriateness of the mathematics in L’Uomo Volante, I would guess that it could be evaluated seriously.

The Enciclopedia Italiana di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti describes L’Uomo Volante, in one of the few characterizations I have found, as “miscuglio piuttosto audace di prosa scientifica e di progetti palesemente utopistici” (translated as “a rather bold mixture of scientific prose and blatantly utopian projects”). The Enciclopedia, also known as Treccani says that Bettoni, an “agricultural and technical aviation pioneer,” was the first to propose a dirigible balloon and a system of propulsion based on rowing. Other sources also suggest his is the first recorded version of an elongated airship, a spindle-shaped balloon, rather than the spherical balloons either in use or proposed at the time. (The use of the word “dirigible” suggests a rigid frame, but I do not know if this is part of the Bettoni/Avanzini design.)

Macchina volante per aria (Flying machine for the air, Tav. 2 (with permission:  Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica "F. Datini" Biblioteca in Linea)
Macchina volante per aria (Flying machine for the air, Tav. 2 (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica “F. Datini”
Biblioteca in Linea)

Of course, there were plans for the more typical version, as well, but with some accommodation for steering and/or propulsion.

Macchina volante per aria (Flying machine for the air, Tav. 1 (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica "F. Datini" Biblioteca in Linea)
Macchina volante per aria (Flying machine for the air, Tav. 1 (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica “F. Datini”
Biblioteca in Linea)

There were also two drawings included for water travel, one involving an elongated system of paddles:

But now, when we come to land, well, this giant-sized hampster wheel really got my attention! Check it out!

Carro volante per terra, Flying chariot/cart/wagon for land (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica "F. Datini")
Carro volante per terra, Flying chariot/cart/wagon for land (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica “F. Datini”)

So, should we ignore this work that seems to have garnered little attention over a couple of centuries? Is it the work of a wealthy amateur scientist (read: crackpot) whose mathematician colleague lent his skills for a free ride? Is it to be taken seriously? Doesn’t someone want to translate it? Is this the basis for a thesis or dissertation just waiting, screaming, in fact, to be tackled? Surely, some student in the history of science and technology wants to rediscover Signori Bettoni and Avanzini. Ladies and Gents, Studente e Studentesse . . . step right up!

Click here for the Full Text of L’uomo volante per aria, per acqua e per terra. (Will open in a new window.)