Christopher C. Kraft 1924–2019: A Miscellaneous Retrospective and Tribute, Including His Virginia Tech Connection, His Papers, and . . . the Story of a Close Call

Christopher C. Kraft
In the couple of weeks since the passing of Christopher Kraft, there have been many well-deserved tributes to a life of historic and significant scientific and technical achievement. As many folks may know, he joined the NASA Space Task Group in November 1958 as NASA’s first flight director, created the concept of NASA’s Mission Control, served as Flight Director for all of the Mercury flights and several Gemini missions before becoming NASA’s Director of Flight Operations. In 1972, he became Director of the Manned Spaceflight Center, soon thereafter to be named the Johnson Space Center. Kraft served as its Director until his retirement in 1982, having gone on to play an essential role in the latter Apollo missions, Skylab, the Apollo Soyuz Project, and early space shuttle flights. He was an indispensable force and presence in this country’s space program.

Kraft, a sophomore, from the 1943 Bugle

For readers interested in Kraft’s Virginia Tech connections, they are many. He graduated at the age of 20 in December 1944 (officially, Class of 1945) with a degree in aeronautical engineering. He had also been elected president of the Corps of Cadets his senior year. In November 1965, he was honored with a Convocation at Burruss Hall, where he was presented with the highest award the university can bestow on any person or alumnus, the Distinguished Alumnus Citation.

At the same event, he received from Time Magazine the original portrait used on the cover of the 27 August 1965 issue in which Kraft was featured, and, also, from the university, a Steuben Glass Eagle “on behalf of the entire VPI family.” According to the Roanoke Times, a crowd of over 3,000 was in attendance, including students, faculty, university officials, NASA colleagues, members of Kraft’s graduating class, and locals. Following the program, Kraft was also honored by a review of the Corps of Cadets on the Drillfield.

Time Magazine 27 August 1965
Time Magazine 27 August 1965

From 1970 to 1978, Kraft served on this university’s Board of Visitors. Among the many times he spoke on this campus, he gave the Founder’s Day Address at Burruss in April 1974, titled, “The Frontiers of Space . . . America’s Space Program in the 1970s” and was the featured speaker at the 110th annual commencement in June 1982. Well before he achieved the national spotlight and while he was working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, precursor to NASA) back in April 1954, he presented a technical paper, “Gust Alleviation,” to the Fifth Annual Engineering Conference on campus.

Opening of the Kraft Collection, 11 April 1986
Opening of the Kraft Collection, 11 April 1986

With regard to the University Libraries, 11 April 1986 was, likely, the most significant date in its relationship with Kraft as that was the day of the ceremony marking the opening of the Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. Papers and the establishment of the Archives of American Aerospace Exploration at Special Collections. On the program that day, in addition to Kraft himself, were Paul Gherman, Director of Libraries; David Roselle, Provost; and William Lavery, President of the University. Kraft had donated his papers, approximately 28 cubic feet of material when processed, that documented his 37-year professional career, and he would prove essential in helping Special Collections to acquire the papers of many of his NACA and NASA associates. In fact, collections from several individuals from NASA present at the 1965 Convocation went on to donate their papers to Special Collections, including Melvin Gough, Hartley Soule, John Duberg, and William Hewitt Phillips. Other collections in the group of over thirty include the papers of Robert Gilruth, Michael Collins, Blake Corson Jr., Marjorie Rhodes Townsend and James Avitabile.

Flight: My Life In Mission Control by Christopher Kraft
Flight: My Life In Mission Control by Christopher Kraft

As the details of Chris Kraft’s life can be found in numerous and just-published obituaries and tributes, as well as in his 2001 autobiography, Flight: My Life in Mission Control, I would rather offer a glimpse into certain early stages or moments in his career as represented in his Papers, and to choose a selection of items readers may find interesting, surprising, or, simply, less well-known. The collection includes more than 27 boxes and 5 large folders, so we’ll only be touching the surface. Check the finding aid for the collection to see a list of the collection’s contents. Lastly, I’ll end by retelling a story about Kraft involving a very close call that I discovered only in my preparation for this post.

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You may be surprised to find that there are a few items in the collection from Kraft’s days at Tech. There are seven lab reports from the summer and fall of 1944, all from class(es) taught by L.Z. Seltzer (and all graded, by the way . . . one “B” and all the rest “A” or “A-“) on topics such as: Turbulence Test on the V.P.I. Wind Tunnel, Yaw Characteristics of Pitot-Static Tubes, Wing Tunnel Test on Low Wing Monoplane, and Airplane Propellers Problem, among others.

After leaving Blacksburg, Kraft went to work for NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), the US government’s agency for aeronautical research, at Langley Field, near Hampton, Va. (though not before a very funny brush with Chance Vought Corp. in Connecticut: see Flight, page 27). The war was still raging and Langley was doing important work. Kraft had been excluded from active military service because of a serious burn he sustained to his right hand as a child, and he clearly saw this work as his way to make a contribution. In those early days at Langley, Kraft did extensive work on the P-47D Thunderbolt and the P-51H, a late model Mustang, both piston-driven advanced fighters of their day. Kraft’s Papers include a good selection of this work, including various reports, calibrations, photographs, and memoranda.

You might notice that the photo farthest to the right in group above shows some of the instruments ready to be loaded aboard the Bell XS-1. Beginning in 1946, NACA began testing this aircraft and one other like it to explore flying conditions at transonic speeds. On 14 October 1947, Chuck Yeager flew faster than the speed of sound in the Bell XS-1, and Kraft’s Papers show his own involvement in this area of research. One of the documents, dated 23 June 1948 and titled, “A Free-Fall Test to Determine the Longitudinal Stability and Control Characteristics of a 1/4 Scale Model of the Bell XS-1 Airplane at Transonic Speeds” shows Kraft’s name at the top of the cover page and identifies him as Chairman, FRD [Flight Research Division] Stability and Control [Branch].

About this time, Kraft was handed another assignment to work on—gust alleviation—that is, creation of an automatic system that would smooth out the motion of an airplane when it encountered turbulent air. This is the same topic Kraft presented on at the 1954 Engineering conference at Virginia Tech mentioned above. As he was beginning this work, and as described in his autobiography:

I found a French aerodynamicist, René Hirsch, who’d designed and built a gust-alleviation airplane and was beginning to test it. We corresponded about our various plans and concerns and seemed to be in some agreement. Then he was injured when his airplane crashed. I never learned the cause of the accident. Gust alleviation was not only a mysterious quest, but now I knew it was dangerous as well. (page 41)

Draft and typed copy of letter from Kraft to Hirsch, July 1952
Draft and typed copy of letter from Kraft to Hirsch, July 1952
A reply from Hirsch to Kraft, March 1952
A reply from Hirsch to Kraft, March 1952

Well, of course this correspondence is available in Kraft’s Papers! In some cases, we have a draft version and a typed copy of Kraft’s letter as well as Hirsch’s reply. Through most of the first half of the 1950s, this problem took up much of Kraft’s time and there are many documents on the topic in the Papers. I’m no engineer, but I imagine this kind of exchange would be interesting to explore.

The collection of Kraft’s papers are arranged chronologically by year, and in the materials from 1959, following the creation of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in case you wondered) in July 1958, documents that refer to Project Mercury begin to appear. During this time, Kraft stopped being a flight research engineer and became an engineering manager, and these documents include Mission Documents for the first Mercury-Atlas and Mercury-Redstone missions. In NASA lingo, each mission was typically (there are exceptions) named by the spacecraft, booster rocket, and number. Thus, MA-5, which took place on 29 November 1961 with Enos, a chimpanzee, aboard, was the fifth mission to fly a Mercury spacecraft atop an Atlas booster. MR-3, NASA’s first manned suborbital mission, with Alan Shepard aboard on 5 May 1961 (about three weeks after Yuri Gagarin’s “first man in space” mission), was the third Mercury mission with the Redstone rocket. Also among the documents for 1959 are notes and materials related to a talk Kraft presented to a symposium titled, The Pilot’s Role in Space Exploration (a controversial and dicey topic) offered by the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, 8–10 October 1959.

Test procedures and reports; project discussions; post-Launch reports; flight plans; post-flight debriefings of Shepard and then Gus Grissom, the second American to fly a suborbital mission: these are among the documents to be found in Kraft’s papers from these early years of the space program. The success of Shepard’s 15-minute flight was followed three weeks later by President Kennedy’s public proposal “that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” We would do well to remember Kraft’s response, as recalled in his autobiography:

The moon . . . we’ve only put Shepard on a suborbital flight . . . an Atlas can’t reach the moon . . . we have mountains of work just to do the three-orbit flight . . . the moon . . . we’ll need real spacecraft, big ones and a lot better than Mercury . . . men on the moon, has he lost his mind? . . . Have I?

Well, the rest is history. And it can all be followed in Chris Kraft’s Papers: the technical aspects, the failures, the tragedies, and the successes, but mostly the development towards that success, as revealed through the documentation accumulated by Kraft over the course of a storied career.

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But wait. There is one more thing. I promised to describe a close call in Chris Kraft’s life before ending this post. It does not involve a rocket exploding on a launch pad or anything like the difficulties of Apollo 13. In fact, I did not know about this story. Never heard it before. If you’ve read Kraft’s book, Flight, you probably do, unless you were blinking for the couple of paragraphs at the bottom of page 238 and the top of 239. Here’s what I found as I was going through our biographical file of newspaper clippings on Kraft.

That’s right. Just a few days after Kraft left Virginia Tech following the Convocation in his honor, he was flying with several other NASA officials on a National Airlines flight from Houston to Miami with a scheduled stop in New Orleans. As they were climbing out of New Orleans, a young man whom Kraft describes as “sickly” and carrying “a small paper bag” was seated by the flight attendant in the seat across from him. As Kraft tells it, the attendant said, “He’s acting funny. Do you mind if I put him in that seat across from you?”(Flight, page 238). The young man—Thomas Robinson, age 16, from Brownsville, Texas—pulled a gun out of the bag and pointed it at Kraft. As quoted in the newspaper article, Paul Haney of NASA’s Public Affairs Office and also a passenger, said, “He pointed it at Chris . . . it was only six inches off his jaw. . . . There was a click which I thought was a cocking action . . . it did not fire. That’s why I thought it was a cocking action. The kid stood up and backed toward the cockpit door and fired three shots in the floor of the lounge.”

Robinson demanded the plane fly to Cuba. He actually had two guns and fired both into the floor of the cabin. Kraft writes, “He fired both into the floor of the lounge in front of me, then he was tossed sideways as the pilot put the plane in a high-g turning descent, heading back to New Orleans.”

At that point, another passenger, Edward Haake, described in the newspaper as an electronics executive and a decorated B-17 pilot (of course) got involved. Again, from the newspaper:

Haake was the only other person in the lounge, Haney said. The husky 6-footer talked to Robinson calmly, pretending to go along with the wild plans about going to Cuba, even though Robinson now had a revolver in the other hand. “He even fixed him a drink,” Haney said.

“Then the kid calmed down and Haake pulled out a plastic holder full of gold coins. He asked the boy if he would like to see them. The kid said he was a coin collector.

“At some point along the way, the kid lowered his hands. I think he was going to reload the gun. When he put his hands together Haake grabbed them.

“Chris and I immediately jumped. I was the first one there. Haake held his hands and I threw him against the seat.

“And while Haake held him, both Chris and I helped subdue him.”

According to Brendan I. Koerner, author of The Skies Belong to Us: Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, Robinson pleaded guilty to attempting to intimidate a pilot, a less serious charge than air piracy. He served a brief sentence at an Arizona prison camp for youthful offenders.

As I said, quite the life!

For more on the life of Christopher Columbus Kraft, Jr. see an earlier blog post: Chris Kraft: Oral History of an Aerospace Pioneer.

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Special Collections to the Rescue: In a Small Way, We Do That, Too!

Cover from the first set of instructions, Ragsdale’s Original Course of Candy Manufacturing Instructions

About two months ago, while staffing the front desk at Special Collections, I took an interesting phone call. A woman called to ask if we really had copies of Ragsdale’s Original Scientific Course of Candy Manufacturing Instructions and, if we did, could she get copies. If I remember correctly, she said that she had found out that Virginia Tech was one of only two libraries that held these materials. The catalog showed that we did, indeed, have it, but since she was interested in obtaining copies, I asked if she would hold the line while I went to retrieve it. “It” turned out to be ten sets of mimeographed sheets, each with a well-designed heavy paper cover and held together by two grommets at its top. “It” also turned out to be something I’d never seen while working here (therein lies the fun, as I have often said before).

I got back to the phone and described what I had in my hands. She was overjoyed. I said that we were talking about approximately 90 scans—not a problem—but that the grommets could be a problem. It would be impossible to scan the sheets without unbinding each set of instructions. Typically, we would want to “remove the metal,” but I would have to see if the grommets could be safely removed without damaging the documents. Ten years as an archivist and I’d never removed grommets. Surprise, surprise!

“I hope you’ll see what you can do,” she said.

I saw no copyright notice, but each of the folders/volumes carried a big WARNING:

Statement from back cover of each set of instructions
Statement from back cover of each set of instructions

I was not too worried about the threat of prosecution from Mr. Ragsdale, and even though the item’s cataloging gave its pub date as 1930 (Worldcat says, “approximately 1930?”), I was more than willing to scan the entire set for our patron . . . if I got past the grommets. That was before I heard the story behind the request.

She was calling from Nebraska. It was the end of March. Her house had been completely flooded in the history-making flood that had occurred about 2 weeks before. These booklets had been in her family for a couple of generations and were cherished. More than that, they were part of her family’s story. And, they were gone. She specifically mentioned the recipe for fruit cake fudge—a great favorite.

That was more than enough for me, and I told her I would get back in touch with her when I knew more. A couple of days later, I reported that the grommets were out and the scanning had begun. I thought I had heard there was a specialty tool for removing grommets, but, in the end, a small pair of wire cutters (used primarily not to cut, but to bend the metal) and an equally small needle-nosed pliers did the trick.

Of course, as I was scanning the materials, I became more interested in their origin. First, Worldcat does report that only Virginia Tech and Rutgers have these materials. (We acquired them in 2013, not that long ago. One of our major collecting areas is the History of Food and Drink.) But what of these lessons, and what might we find out about W. Hillyer Ragsdale?

The lessons were not written for folks who wanted, occasionally, to make candy, but were for entrepreneurs or established small business folks who wanted to make and sell various kinds of confections. The cover page of the booklet titled, Beginner’s Work Sheets and Special Supplement . . . declares:

Statement on page one of Beginner’s Work Sheets and Special Supplement

On page 2 of the same set, under the subhead, Selling Plans, Ragsdale writes: “As you are perfectly aware, the market for candy is absolutely unlimited. Its sale is no longer confined to the corner confectionery store—but department stores, tea rooms, grocery stores, drug stores, cafeterias, office buildings, road stands, amusement parks, fairs, and hotels all sell tremendous quantities.” Ragsdale includes lots of practical advice for the business of selling confections in this folder, everything from buying attractive boxes (cheaply) for display and packaging, to staying up-to-date by reading the appropriate trade papers. As for the recipes in this lesson, they include Almond Crunch (“a delightful nut piece—very popular everywhere. Usually sells for 80¢ to $1.00 per lb. retail.”); Haystack Goodies; Maple, Mocha, Pistachio Fudge, and the curious Chop Suey Candy (“take a popcorn crispette, but add roasted peanuts and concoanut . . . more corn and cocoanut than peanuts”).

Our patron from Nebraska told me that her family had these in the 1920s, that her grandmother had passed them down to her mother. Certainly, as early as October 1923, Ragsdale’s ads appear in the Newsstand Group advertising supplement to Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness, then edited by H.L. Menken and George Jean Nathan. In fact, In his autobiography, My Life as Author and Editor, Menken writes about the introduction of this kind of advertising to his posh, literary magazine:

H.L. Menken and GEorge Jean Nathan, August 1928. Theatre Magazine Company; Ben Pinchot, Photographer

“Inasmuch as all the other members of this group [Newsstand Group] were such dubious pulps as Snappy Stories, Breezy Stories, and Young’s Magazine, Nathan and I were perturbed more than gratified, and our doubts were not allayed when we saw the advertisements that began to come in. They included everything in the shabby line save lost manhood and bust developer ads, as we had to take a pretty severe kidding from readers and friends.”

The ads in Smart Set started with a couple of pages, but by December 1922, there were 23 pages of advertisements. Look to the November 1923 set of ads, and there is W. Hillyer Ragsdale at Drawer 400, East Orange, N.J. proclaiming:

Ad for W. Hillyer Ragsdale’s Candy Making opportunities, Smart Set, November 1923

“GO INTO BUSINESS FOR YOURSELF,” right there between “Don’t Wear a Truss” and a bust developer ad! Menken, in the same passage quoted above goes on to write of that December 1922 supplement, “There were several ads headed “Send No Money” and half a dozen or more announcing ways to make fortunes by spare-time work at home! Ragsdale was right there.

So, by 1923, Ragsdale was running ads enticing folks to “Establish and operate a “New System Specialty Candy Factory,” using some of the same language that appears in our sets of lessons. Also by 1923, Tools and Machinery for Confectioners by W. Hillyer Ragsdale, The Candy Specialist, becomes available. Here are the first three pages, including a price list (From the Alan and Shirley Brocker Sliker Culinary Collection, Michigan State University Libraries.)

Here’s his ad from the November 1929 issue of Popular Mechanics, promising enormous profits:

Ad for W. Hillyer Ragsdale’s New System Specialty Candy Factories, Popular Mechanics, November 1929

Throughout the 1920s, Ragsdale’s business must have grown. Perhaps the 10 sets of lessons were available at once; perhaps they were developed over a few years. We do know that Ragsdale was born on a farm in Lithonia, DeKalb County, Georgia in 1876. According to census data, in 1900 he was living at home and employed as a clerk in a drugstore in nearby Kirkwood, Georgia. By 1910, he had relocated with his wife, Wilhelmina (Willie) to East Orange, N.J. where he was working as a traveling salesman possibly for a department store. The 1920 US census lists his occupation as “Proprietor,” his status as “Employer,” and the “Industry” in which he was engaged as “Jobber Confectioner Supply House.” At the very least, by 1920 the roots of his candy-making endeavors were firmly in place. A notice on the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association website dates the set of lessons as “ca. 1920s?”

Vintage Ragsdale Candy Thermometer

In David Lawrence Pierson’s History of the Oranges to 1921, Vol. 4 (Orange, NJ: Lewis Historical Publishing Co. 1922), Ragsdale is reported to have come to East Orange in 1908, where he established and built his “ large business as a manufacturer and jobber of confectioners’ supplies.” Pierson also writes that, as of 1922, Ragsdale was a director of the Lackawanna Building and Loan of East Orange. We can assume that his business was quite successful, at least through the early part of the depression. In 1930, Ragsdale is listed in the census as manager of his Confectionary Supply Company. By 1940, however, at age 63, he was employed as an investigator for the New Jersey State Beverage Tax Department. William Hillyer Ragsdale died in East Orange in 1957, but the traces of his candy-making business can still be found quite easily. It is not at all hard to find some of his equipment, for example, especially his candy thermometers, on eBay.

But the sets of instructions in candy-making for profit are the trace that continue to hold significance for our patron in Nebraska. After we’d gotten the scans to her, about three weeks after our phone call, I asked her if she would send me a bit of her family’s story in connection with these sets of instructions; also if I might retell that story in our blog. Here’s what she wrote (copied with permission):

“My grandmother passed them down to my mom. So, since the 1920’s. They were really prized. When my mom’s family was young, her father came down with tuberculosis of the liver. That knocked him out of working. My grandmother, being an excellent cook to seven children, and having a brother that owned an ice cream store in Massachusetts, set out to do the confections. They were sold through the brother’s store and during the holidays, the kids would go door to door. Then the depression happened and finding work was even more hard to do. They kept their business going. They were hard workers. They rallied around my grandfather. There were four boys. When the war broke out, they left to serve their country and of course, they were no longer involved in the candy making business.”

She also wrote this:

“We’re still under water where the farm is. It’s going to take a long time . . . but, we are hardy people and will probably just rebuild. . . . I’m going to be sharing them with Mom on Friday. I haven’t told her that I got them replaced. I know what this means to her.”

A little over a month after the flood, still under water. That made me think about a lot of different things. After considering how horrific it must be, how staggering to have such an event occur and how more common weather events of this historic proportion are becoming, I thought about how short our news cycle is. Perhaps it’s just because we are east-coasters, but we stopped hearing about midwest flood waters about a day or two after they first hit. Every big rain in April added to the disaster. Incredible.

But then, hearing about her plan to surprise her mom with the material Special Collections was able to provide, well, I was glad to have been able to help in a very small way. I’ve probably never felt so good about providing a patron with scans from our collections.

Oh yes, and she again mentioned the fruit cake fudge. If you make it, she says, you have to add some peach Schnapps to it! I’m guessing this is it:

Fruit Fudge Bar from Lesson 23, Ragsdale’s Scientific Course of Candy Manufacturing

A New Group for Archivists of this Region

Logo of the Appalachian Studies Association
Logo of the Appalachian Studies Association

This year, a new standing committee will be making an appearance at the annual meeting of the Appalachian Studies Association (ASA), to be held next month at the University of North Carolina, Asheville (UNCA). There has been no formal organization of Appalachian Special Collections archivists and librarians since the Appalachian Consortium disbanded in 2004, but due to an effort headed up by Gene Hyde (UNCA), this absence has now been remedied. Initial interest in the formation of this group was received from archivists representing Appalachian State University, Mars Hill University, Western Carolina University, East Tennessee State University, University of Kentucky, Berea College, Virginia Tech, Marshall University, Radford University, West Virginia University, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and Morehead State University. Rachel Vagts of Berea will serve as the new committee’s first chair.

While there are regional organizations of archivists defined by the boundaries of states or groups of states—Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC), for example, includes states from New York to Virginia, while North Carolina and Ohio have organizations of their own—the Appalachian region cuts across these boundaries. Also, these are organizations, overwhelmingly, of, by, and for archivists. By having an increased and formal presence within the Appalachian Studies Association, archivists of the region will gain an opportunity to create a larger profile for themselves and their repositories among scholars of the region and share more directly in the exchange of ideas among people working in the region.

In part, the new group will update and continue the work of the Special Collections committees that existed under the Appalachian Consortium. This work may include identifying and providing information about Appalachian repositories, facilitating the exchange of information between repositories, assessing the needs of larger and smaller repositories, and providing information and services to repositories. New tasks may include offering workshops, exhibits, and sessions at future ASA meetings; exploring external funding sources for shared projects; and encouraging and recognizing new scholarly work in the area that uses primary source materials.

One task that has already begun is the rejuvenation of the Appalachian Curator newsletter. From 1986 to 2004 this newsletter existed as a print publication under the direction of the Appalachian Consortium. The new version will go online next month, in time for the ASA conference, March 14–17. A new editorial board is in place. Articles and news items are being collected. The URL for the newsletter will appear here as soon as it goes up!

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.

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.