The arrival of Europeans in the Americas was an event of global importance, and its effect on the people already living here was devastating. That is why in 1552 the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas wrote a book that he called Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias, or A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. The book was so intensely critical of Spanish activities in the New World that it was used for centuries by the opponents of Spain as a way of criticising Spanish rule on both sides of the Atlantic, giving rise to what is now known as “The Black Legend.” As a result, the book was printed in numerous languages, generally in countries that were at war with Spain.
Special Collections already held a couple of these editions and has recently acquired a number of others, so that we now have editions of this book in English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish. Other editions were also produced in Latin and Dutch, although as yet we don’t have copies of these. Some are illustrated, with truly horrific scenes of murder and torture like those shown here, which once again served propaganda purposes, while others leave it to the words to convey the message of brutality.
One of the more interesting of our new arrivals doesn’t have pictures and is in the original Spanish, but its interest lies in where and when it was published and by whom. This is the 1822 Mexican edition, one of the first printings of this book in the Americas.
Moreover, this was the year after Mexico achieved independence from Spain, following a war lasting more than a decade. And the printer was someone who was himself a supporter of Independence and had printed books related to the struggle, Mariano Ontiveras. Thus this book is the perfect way to tie both ends of the story of Spanish activity in the Americas together – it describes the beginning of empire and was itself printed at the moment when independence movements were expelling the Spanish from most of the Americas.
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Most of us, if we recognize the name Maurice Sendak, probably think of him as the man who wrote and illustrated the beloved children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are,” published in 1963. Yet what some may not know is that Sendak wrote (and illustrated) much more than that one popular book. In the Chapin-Horowitz Collection of Cynogetica in the Special Collections stacks is a small book with a baby blue dust jacket with the words “Higglety Pigglety Pop!” along the spine. Next to them, “Sendak.” Inside is a short story illustrated with his familiar style of lines building upon lines to create forms and shadows. And much like “Where the Wild Things Are,” this book has its own brand of amusement and uneasiness that is suggested in its title, which intimates that playfulness will give way to something more contemplative: “Higglety Pigglety Pop!: or There Must Be More to Life.”
Like “Where the Wild Things Are,” which verges on dark and even scary, much of Sendak’s writing toes the line between humorous children’s banter and perceptive musings on adulthood and the business of growing up. At times his language in “Higglety Pigglety Pop!” (and other works) is playful—even, at times, verging on nonsensical—a quality of Sendak’s writing that many have compared to the work of Theodor Geisel, popularly known as Dr. Seuss. It’s this language, paired with Sendak’s characteristic illustrative technique, which gives his writing the veneer of childlike whimsy. Yet fans of Sendak’s work have increasingly suggested that his writings were often not very childlike at all, at least in the sense that they sometimes urge us to contemplate not only what it means to be a child or a “grown up,” but also what it means to be human, mortal, and fallible.
On one hand, this book is a terrific children’s story, elaborating upon a “Mother Goose” nursery rhyme also called “Higglety Pigglety Pop!” On the other hand, however, it is a tale that follows its main character on her journey to see if the grass is truly greener outside the confines of her comfortable home. Indeed, Jennie, the Sealyham terrier, has everything she could ever want: “She had her own comb and brush, two different bottles of pills, eyedrops, eardrops, a thermometer, and for cold weather a wool sweater. There were two windows for her to look out of and two bowls to eat from. She even had a master who loved her.” Yet Jennie is “discontented” and “[doesn’t] care” about all that, saying that she wants “something I do not have. There must be more to life than having everything!” So she packs up all her belongings and leaves home for good. “You have everything,” says the potted plant on the window sill. Jennie responds by chewing off the plant: first one leaf, then a few more, then all of the plant until it cannot speak any more to Jennie about how foolish she is to leave her happy home (3).
Yet while we might expect some kind of instructional tale about how the grass is not, in fact, usually greener on the other side, Sendak writes a story in which the protagonist ends up all right in the end, choosing to abandon her home for good and live at Castle Yonder. In fact, during her journey away from home, she eats a lot, travels to new places, and even gets to perform in a theatrical performance of the eponymous “Mother Goose” nursery rhyme. Jennie even sends a letter to her former owner to inform him of her new life, telling him that if he ever visits to “look for me when you get here.”
Though Jennie’s adventure is not a lesson learned, per se, neither is it a frolic without Sendakian undertones of loneliness, darkness, or growing pains. What builds and supports much of that drama is Sendak’s wonderfully detailed illustrations. His drawings of Jennie are so lovingly described that you can almost see her come to life and imagine her spunky personality (indeed, Jennie was a real dog, and the friend to whom Sendak dedicates the book). And just as imaginatively created are Sendak’s illustrations of various moments Jennie experiences during her trek away from home in search of the “More to Life.” Perhaps even more than the words of the tale or the actual events that unfold, the illustrations convey the uncertainty about what Jennie’s fate will be. They present at once a playful humor as she interacts with other characters—many of them animals, as well as one baby—and a sense of the isolation that looms and encroaches upon her.
Despite her confidence in leaving home and searching for the “more” that could exist in life, Jennie’s journey is always somehow at risk of making it all come undone. The baby tears up the things in her bag; she almost gets eaten by a lion; she gets lost in the woods; and yet Jennie reaches Castle Yonder, where she, quite contentedly, decides to stay. When we reach the tale’s conclusion and read her letter home, we realize that Jennie is happy where she is now, but that’s about all we learn. There’s no moralizing message, no instructional warning that you only know what you had once it’s lost. Instead we find that the journey was exciting, surprising, trying, and sometimes a little sad. But in a way that’s exactly Sendak’s point: that life is all those things, no matter whether you stay in the comfort of what you know or venture out to brave the unknown.
 See Malcolm Jones, “Maurice Sendak Didn’t Just Make Books for Children, but for Everyone,” thedailybeast.com, 2012; Pamela Paul, “The Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules,” Sunday Book Review, The New York Times, 2011; and Avi Steinberg, “‘We Are Inseparable!’: On Maurice Sendak’s Latest Book,” The New Yorker, 2013.
On February 11 the exhibition, “Written in Confidence: The Unpublished Letters of James Monroe,” opened to the public. Featuring 12 letters from the recently-acquired 28-letter collection of correspondence between James Monroe and William Crawford, the exhibition is on display at the Muscarelle Museum of Art on William & Mary’s campus through May 14, 2017.
Accompanying the 12 letters are text and visual material that put the documents into context of what was taking place politically, economically, and socially during Monroe’s presidency. Among the subjects discussed in the exhibition are piracy and privateering, the 1819 financial panic, the acquisition of Florida, and Monroe’s and Crawford’s complicated friendship-rivalry. Imagery in the exhibition includes an engraving of Monroe from the Mucarelle’s collections and a graphite sketch of Monroe by esteemed artist John Vanderlyn.
The collection of Monroe-Crawford letters span from 1817 to 1823, with some of the letters being undated. A couple of the letters in the collection are drafts, revealing the careful consideration Monroe (and other writers of the time) put into composing their correspondence. As a whole, the collection offers researchers and scholars an exciting opportunity for making new discoveries about Monroe and his time as president of the United States (1817-1825). For all of us, it provides the chance to learn more about the nation’s last founding father.
Be sure to stop by and see this exhibition. Student admission is free with your W&M ID!
And don’t forget to visit the Special Collections Research Center in Swem Library to see the letters in person, as they will be available to research use!
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An interesting old map, recently cataloged and made accessible in the Earl Gregg Swem Library Rare Books Collection at SCRC, bears witness to the transformation of West Virginia from a region of “breathtaking scenery and lavish virgin forests” to a land where “mountain farming culture was defeated by the ever widening grasp of speculators and absentees” (Barbara Rasmussen. Absentee Landowning and exploitation in West Virginia, 1760-1920. University Press of Kentucky, 1994). Rasmussen recounts how, in the 1880’s, numerous land-holding companies backed by large eastern banks began buying up swaths of land in West Virginia. Our old map clearly originated during that era. However, the fact that it has no indication of creator or date would present a challenge for the cataloger who had to create a record to represent the old map.
The large-scale, hand-colored map bears the title Map of 47,000 Acres of Land in Raleigh County, West Virginia, Owned by Logan M. Bullitt as Trustee. It is printed on a rectangular sheet (125 x 183 cm) that is attached to and folded into a brown cloth cover. The map depicts properties in Raleigh County, West Virginia, underlain with coal, acquired by some unnamed land-holding company of which Logan M. Bullitt was apparently a trustee. It shows property lines of plots purchased, lists the individuals from whom the land was acquired, and indicates the quality of the coal underlying each property. Locations of existing buildings are marked by small black squares and show that Raleigh County was very sparsely settled at the time the map was made. Raleigh Court House, the county seat later to become known as Beckley, appears as a cluster of only about 35 buildings. Along the northern edge of the mapped area, a short section of the New River can be seen with a bit of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway beside it and with a location designated “Prince.” Historical sources say that the C & O Railway was built between 1869 and 1873–to connect Cincinnati, Ohio, to Richmond, Virginia and the port at Newport News–and that a station with a post office was built at Prince, West Virginia around 1889. Also shown are two projected railroad spurs along major river valleys in Raleigh County, planned to eventually provide transportation of coal and timber to market. Preliminary surveys for those railroad spurs were conducted around 1889. In the upper right corner of the sheet is printed a smaller-scale general map showing the whole of West Virginia and other nearby states. On this general map are depicted rivers and streams and all the railroads existing in those states at the time.
The map was evidently created some time after 1889 and before 1898 when the C & O Railway Company began the official surveying and construction of those spurs shown on the map as “projected,” but when was it made, exactly? And who was Logan M. Bullitt, and with which land-holding company was he associated when these coal lands were being bought up? A search of the internet will find many references to Logan M. Bullitt. He was a wealthy Philadelphia lawyer who, along with his father, John C. Bullitt, invested in both mining enterprises and railroads. The Bullitts were among the so-called “robber barons” of this era, getting rich on royalties from their mining enterprises and fees charged for transporting the coal on their railroads. By 1893 Logan Bullitt is listed in business reference sources as an officer or trustee for a long list of enterprises, including dozens of coal mining companies in West Virginia and Virginia. But which company of the dozens listed was connected to the Raleigh County coal lands?
The answer was found in “Brief History of Beckley, W.Va. (1943)” by Charles Hodel. Hodel describes a man named Azel Ford, a Raleigh County farmer, who was “far ahead of his neighbors in sensing the value of the lands they owned.” The author says “[h]e secured options, and with a briefcase full of them visited some wealthy men in Philadelphia. They became interested, bought the first batch and asked for more … Ford’s perspicacity in the 1880’s formed the basis of what is now the Beaver Coal Corporation. His work of rounding up the lands comprised in its holdings was finished in 1891.…” The current internet website for Beaver Coal Company, Limited, under the “About Us/History” tab, provides confirmation: “In 1889, Anthony Drexel, Logan Bullitt and J.P. Morgan, three prominent men from Philadelphia, PA, sent their land agent, Azel Ford, to Raleigh County, WV, to purchase approximately 50,000 acres of property in and around the Beckley area. The acquired property was later placed under the banner of Beaver Coal Corporation, the predecessor to Beaver Coal Company, Limited, …” The names of Mr. Bullitt’s partners mentioned here will be familiar: Anthony Drexel was a partner in his family’s banking and investment company, Drexel & Co., in 1891 he founded Drexel Institute, now Drexel University; J. Pierpont Morgan was Drexel’s protégé and partner who went on to develop another important corporate giant which today is known as J.P. Morgan and Chase.
Now a catalog record to represent the map could be completed with confirmation of the company responsible and an approximate year of creation.
Postscript: In 2017, Beaver Coal Company, Limited, still owns the 47,000 acres depicted on our old map, and is listed among the 25 largest land-holding companies in West Virginia today. For more information about the problems faced by West Virginia because of absentee corporate ownership of the land, see the internet article, “Who Owns West Virginia in the 21st Century” by Ted Boettner.
Written by Kathryn Blue, Senior Cataloger.
Imagine, if you will, a creature with a lower body made of the skin and scales of a carp, a human-like upper body with prominent ribs, “thin and scraggy” arms, “skeleton-like” fingers, the head of a small monkey, and the teeth of a catfish. Sound familiar? While it may not match the image many of us may think of when we hear the word “mermaid,” this rather shocking description is just one of many presented in a small book called “Sea Fables Explained” (292 .L51v).
In 1883, Henry Lee, “Sometime Naturalist of the Brighton Aquarium and Author of ‘The Octopus, or the Devil-Fish of Fiction and Fact’” and other titles, published “Sea Fables Explained,” a companion to the International Fisheries Exhibition in London that same year. The book is a follow-up of sorts to Lee’s popular handbook, “Sea Monsters Unmasked,” which was also published in connection with the exhibition. The handbooks were small and brief, only 122 pages long and containing 42 illustrations. Published for the price of one shilling each, the book’s inexpensive cost meant that Lee had to limit his subjects and illustrations to the most interesting and important. As such, he wrote six chapters: The Mermaid; The Lernean Hydra; Scylla and Charybdis; The “Spouting” of Whales; The “Sailing” of the Nautilus; and Barnacle Geese—Goose Barnacles. Lee identifies his goal of the text to be the distinguishing “fiction from truth” regarding fables of sea creatures and their behaviors; he explains that most fabled sea monsters can actually be identified as real creatures whose oddities can be accounted for with science.
One of the confusions Lee aims to clear up is the common misconception that whales spout water through their blowholes. Whales’ blowholes, Lee explains, are the mammals’ nostrils, located conveniently on top of their heads so that they can exhale and continue swimming mostly underwater; that way, whales only need to clear the surface enough to forcefully push out the air in their lungs. The reason why water can be seen spouting up from the blowhole with the escaping air is that the water at the surface of the ocean gets spouted up by the powerful gust of air leaving the blowhole. Science, Lee argues, can explain all the amazing–and bewildering–behaviors of the earth’s aquatic creatures.
Mermaids put a bit of a wrench into this generality, however, as Lee explains that they have their history in ancient mythologies, whose imagery and narratives were changed over time and reduced to symbols like the one we recognize today of half-man, half-fish. In fact, Lee states that mermaids have been “known to every generation of men.” Some of the heroes and gods imagined in connection with fish were Noah, survivor of the great flood, and the Hindu god Vishnu, who is illustrated as emerging from a fish’s mouth; in fact, Lee argues that the mermaid fable derives from the idea of a deity coming out of a fish (as opposed to being physically part-fish). Even Venus, goddess of love, was a reimagination of Noah, “second father of mankind, the repopulator of the earth,” as she rises from the sea–a well-known representation in the history of art–as a “representative of the reproductive power of Nature.”
Mermaids were a popular fascination during the nineteenth century, with P. T. Barnum famously exhibiting a “Feejee Mermaid” in the 1840s. Barnum’s bizarre mermaid—with the upper body of an ape and the lower body of a fish—looked much like the one illustrated in Lee’s handbook and, in fact, the description provided at the beginning of this post. Lee’s text is illustrated with a number of fascinating images and multiple accounts of mermaid encounters from around the globe, including a tale of a merman sighting in Virginia, along the Rappahannock River! Seals and manatees, Lee explains, are common culprits in the case of mermaid misidentifications, which continue to occur even in the twenty-first century.
Many of the books in Swem Library’s Special Collections have been gifted by individual donors who have themselves built up their own private collections. This practice of endowing educational institutions with the tools of study has long antecedents, but in the seventeenth century a librarian actually laid out a plan for building a library and advocated wider access for scholars. Shown here is a translation of such a plan, a 1627 book by Gabriel Naudé, addressed to his patron, the President of the Parlement de Paris. Naudé later became librarian to a number of famous figures, including the chief minister of France, Cardinal Mazarin (1602-1661), and built him an enormous library which was open to the public on a regular basis and which remains to this day the oldest public library in France, the Bibliothèque Mazarine.
The translation of Naudé’s work, which is in Special Collections, was made by John Evelyn and published in 1661. Evelyn was a diarist who recorded many of the events following the Restoration of the English monarchy and was also a founding member of the Royal Society, the first scientific academy of its kind. As a member of that society and as the translator of Naudé he arranged for the Society to be given the library of the sixth duke of Norfolk, yet another instance of a benefactor contributing to learning through the gift of books.
In addition to this book on libraries, Special Collections owns a copy of the book Evelyn wrote on trees for the Royal Society, Sylva, or A discourse of forest-trees, and the propagation of timber in His Majesties dominions. Our copy is a replacement for the one lost in the fire of 1705 and has been acquired as part of the attempt to reconstruct the first library of the College of William & Mary, largely the gift of the Lieutenant-Governor of Virginia, Francis Nicholson, another, more local, fondly remembered benefactor of libraries.
Written by Phillip Emanuel, Graduate Student Apprentice.
The University of Leiden in the Netherlands, founded in 1575, is the country’s oldest; it is also now one of the study abroad opportunities offered to William & Mary students. In the first three quarters of a century annual enrollments showed a four-fold rise, with the result being that the Elsevier family in Leiden, who already operated a printing press, decided to get into the early modern equivalent of the text-book industry. To that end, they began in the early seventeenth century to publish small editions of important texts, used by scholars and students, which would be cheaper, in part because their small format and small type required less paper.
This edition of Tacitus, published in Leiden in 1634, was such a work. In the previous century the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius had similarly decided that smaller was better when it came to popular books. Exactly one hundred years before the Elsevier Tacitus held by Swem Special Collections was printed, he had published a version of Tacitus which, though smaller than the large folios of the day, was still much bigger than this little Elsevier, which is only 3 by 4.75 inches, not much bigger than a coffee cup. With small pages and even smaller type the Elseviers were a hit, particularly with students, who, like their modern counterparts, didn’t want to carry lots of heavy books around. Furthermore, before the coming of wood pulp paper, when it was still made from old rags, paper was one of the most expensive elements of book production. Therefore, any printer who could use less paper would produce a cheaper book. The students in Leiden in 1634 might have been even more grateful for e-books, although they probably would have been a bit confused initially. In the meantime they had little volumes like this, and the Elseviers also printed other small editions of classical texts, including one from their office in Amsterdam, which is also in Swem’s Special Collection (Rare Books PA6705 .A2 1665).
Tacitus continues to be read by students today, although most of us are probably not up to reading him in Latin and would prefer a translation. Along with the fact that very few of us read or speak Latin, the four hundred years since the Elseviers have seen some considerable changes in technology. Despite those shifts, there probably hasn’t been much of a change in the attitude of students to heavy and, of their parents, to expensive textbooks.
For more information on the printing business run by generations of Elseviers see David W. Davies, The World of the Elseviers, 1580-1712, The Hague, 1954.
Written by Phillip Emanuel, Graduate Student Apprentice
“A Christmas present of real and enduring value” : Ferdinand Seidel’s Natural History with 179 Copperplate Engravings.
“Buy 5 Get 1 Free” – that is how the publisher advertised the 1805 edition of Ferdinand Seidel’s Naturhistorisches Kupferwerk : mit erklärendem Texte nach Büffon, acquired this fall by Special Collections (Rare Book – Chapin-Horowitz QH45. B84 S45 1805).
This rare volume, the title of which roughly translates as “Natural History in copper plates, with explanatory text following Buffon” makes a wonderful addition to our Chapin-Horowitz Collection of Cynographica. Unlike Buffon’s ten-volume standard scientific work, Seidel’s one volume (the originally planned second volume was never published) intended to reach a more general audience: lovers and amateurs of natural history, as well as juveniles. Newspaper advertising and reviews emphasize that the heavily illustrated volume would both educate and entertain, and thus be a “Christmas present of real and enduring value.”
And given that there are more copperplate engravings (179) than pages of explanatory text (155), Seidel was likely right on track to achieve that goal. Reviews praise the quality and quantity of the illustrations, though at least one reviewer would have preferred if Seidel had copied not the black & white ‘Buffon-style’ illustrations but instead had chosen illuminated copperplates of the kind that adorn naturalist J.C.D. Schreber’s (1739-1810) books.
Nevertheless, the artists and engravers of Seidel’s natural history volume were well-known men, like Jacques de Sève (fl. 1742-1788), Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755), Johann Martin Bernigeroth (1713 – 1767) – and maybe more surprisingly, at least one women: Johanna Dorothea Phillip (nee Sysang) (1729-1791), who had learned the art of copperplate engraving from her father, Johann Christoph Sysang (1703-1757).
Swem Library’s 1805 edition of Seidel is not only very rare (WorldCat shows Swem’s copy as the only one in the United States and one of only 3 in libraries around the World) it also has a unique feature. It bears signatures of two nineteenth century owners, G. Muller and E. Bodenhoff, who, as research conducted as part of the cataloging process shows, are most likely General Frederik Gotthold von Müller (1795-1882) and Ernst Emil Bodenhoff (1852-1934), both of whom were connected to the royal court of Denmark, Mueller as courtier and Bodenhoff as his biographer.
So now more than 200 years after Seidel’s Natural History,was first published, William & Mary Libraries is doing its part to assure the enduring value of the volume, so it can continue to fulfill the author’s mission to educate and entertain. We invite you to come and take a look for yourself!
Reviews consulted: Zeitung für die elegante Welt Berlin: Mode, Unterhaltung, Kunst, Theater, Band 9, 1809; Allgemeine Literaturzeitung ALZ Num. 208, August 1806; Allgemeine Chronik, Gera, No. 97, 1804.
Everyone knows these famous lines even if the rest of the poems escapes them. “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” more popularly known as The Night before Christmas, was written in 1823 by Clement C. Moore (1779-1863) and is a staple in many families’ holiday traditions. But what accounts for the poem’s enduring popularity?
By all accounts, it is a very simple story: a father is awakened on Christmas Eve by the sound of St. Nick plopping down the chimney to distribute presents and then ride away. In trying to understand how readers can so enjoy such a basic narrative, what immediately comes to mind are other holiday classics like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, “Charlie Brown Christmas,” and the Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials which all exert a level of honesty in keeping the story simple so as not to lose the special feeling of the holiday. In all these specials the holiday stands at the forefront, which might be why we continually turn to them around this time of year.
With an uncomplicated story, the poem lends itself to creative variations. It does not seek to explain the meaning of Christmas; rather, it lets its readers indulge in the exciting belief that there is a Santa Claus and appreciate the anticipation felt on Christmas Eve. The magic of the poem is in the details: The Night before Christmas is visually imaginative ─ “a masterpiece of genre word-painting,” according to Nancy Marshall. From stockings hung by the chimney to visions of sugarplums, from fresh fallen snow to Santa on a sleigh pulled by eight familiar reindeers, from Santa’s rosy cheeks to his belly that shook like a bowl full of jelly, the poem help popularizes and cements a distinct Christmas iconography in our contemporary imagination.
Nevertheless, it still leaves much to the imagination of the reader, allowing the story to be visualized in any and all artistic styles. For a nostalgic undertone of the holiday season, one could turn to illustrations by “Grandma Moses” (1860-1961), a self-taught American folk artist. Swiss-born illustrator and writer, Roger Duvoisin (1900-1980), gives us a dash of bright colors and whimsical humor in his illustrations for the poem. And for a more surreal and outsider vision, there is the imagery of American folk artist and minister, Howard Finster (1916-2001).
Every reimagining of Moore’s iconic poem allows the artists and writers to inject themselves into the narrative so that every scene is at once recognizable, yet new. Each new interpretation of The Night before Christmas also contributes to the domestication and, certainly, the Americanization of the gift-bearing saint – transforming him from the pipe-smoking, elf-like St. Nick in Moore’s imagination to a more commercialized red-suited, life-size Santa Claus.
But who’s to say that Santa’s suit cannot be buckskin as in the Native American Night Before Christmas, or green, plaid, or giraffe-print? Moore never specified what color the suit should be. In fact, a fully standardized image of Santa Claus in his trademark red suit and white beard did not come about until the late nineteenth century, when another notable New Yorker, Thomas Nast, created this vision.
So while Clement C. Moore might never have anticipated that his poem would be more than entertainment for his family and friends, the legacy of his work has left us with something small, but impressive, simple but creative, enduring but constantly open to new interpretation.
A modern version of “‘Twas the Night before Christmas” was offered as early as 1932. Everyone who enjoys and looks to the poem around the holiday season probably has their own favorite version.
So until the next retelling … “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”
Written by Graduate Student Assistant, Khanh Vo
In the basement of Swem Library is a room used mostly for storage. Along two walls are machines and wooden cases full of drawers. The machines are printing presses and the cases are filled with type – individual letters cast in metal, designed to be set by hand and printed on the machines. The basic principle–of metal type used in a press–was a technology in use for five hundred years in the West, from the mid-fifteenth century until the twentieth. Now, however, our printing is done by different machines, with jets of ink replacing the metal letters of the past. An upcoming exhibition at Swem Library examines printing from the early days to the present, using some actual equipment, as well as early modern rare books and modern day private press books, all from Special Collections.
Two of the presses held by Special Collections were actually made from scratch by Ralph Green in his workshop. He was also the man responsible for building one of the common presses at Colonial Williamsburg’s Printing Office, and it is still in use on a daily basis. The Special Collections presses are unusual: truly unique, they were made to prove that it was indeed possible to make presses that worked (and still do) using nothing more than the tools in a home workshop.
These are not, however, representative of most printing presses. The early modern books on show for the exhibition were made on something rather closer to what is called a common press. These are the presses operating at Colonial Williamsburg and are of the type featured in Diderot’s famous Encyclopédie, of which William & Mary Libraries has a complete first edition.The more modern private press books in the exhibition, however, have been made on commercially available presses and generally on a far smaller scale. This allows those who participate in the making of such books to give much more attention to detail and to use materials which are themselves special. Many of the books in the Vinyard Collection of private press books fit into this category, being printed in small runs on unusual papers, and hand-bound with other beautiful materials.
Even in our digital age printing with type on presses continues, and in it we may find a way to continue to express the desire for permanence which has always gone hand-in-hand with writing and printing.
(A preview of ‘Lasting Impressions: Printing from the Fifteenth Century to Today’ is on display in the second floor rotunda of Swem Library. The full exhibition will be on display in the new year.)
Written by Phillip Emanuel, Graduate Student Apprentice