Student-Curated Exhibition: Imagining the U.S. Civil War

Civil-War2_exhibition2_350The RBC is pleased to be sponsoring the current Wilson Library exhibition, Imagining the U.S. Civil War 1861-1900, curated by Professor Eliza Richards’s undergraduate seminar in American literature.  On April 24, the show opened with a reception, where the 21 student curators fielded questions from some 120 visitors about the over 80 items on display. Organized into categories such as “Union and Confederate Poetry,” “The Suffering of Prisoners,” “African American Literature” and “Women at War,” the diverse materials include memoirs, dime novels, anthologies, photographs, broadsides, periodicals, and even a surgical kit.

Students (with name tags) discuss their selections
Students (with name tags) discuss their selections. Photo by Sarah Boyd. Courtesy UNC Department of English & Comparative Literature.

Professor Eliza Richards led the reading- and research-intensive semester class, and students worked closely with Library staff to create an exhibition that gives a unique perspective on the epochal event through the superb holdings of Wilson Library’s Rare Book Collection, North Carolina Collection, and Southern Historical Collection, as well as the Special Collections at the Health Sciences Library.

The opening took place the day after Unesco’s World Book Day, April 23, the death date of writers William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes.  April 23 is also the feast day of St. George, or Sant Jordi, in Catalonia, where it is traditional for a man to present a rose to his beloved. In 1923, a bookseller created an adjunct tradition that caught on, in which a woman gives a book to her loved one. Millions of roses and hundreds of thousands of books are exchanged throughout Spain on April 23.

And so, in gratitude for presenting the public with so many amazing books, the student curators were presented with red roses, which they brandished with great flair for a group photograph.

Top row: Second row: Third row: Fourth row: Bottom row: Tommy Nixon, Subject Liaison at Davis Library; Professor Eliza Richards; Emily Kader, Rare Book Research Librarian; Leslie McAbee, Graduate Assistant Research Consultant
Top row: Anthony P. Garcia, Karon Annette Griffin, Corinne Goudreault, Sarah Frances Rabon, Katherine A. Benson. Second row: Bethany L. Corbett, Christopher McGrath, Catherine Margaret Cheney, Kelly A. MacDevette, Brianna Rhodes. Third row: Morgan Beamon, Toni J. Bowerman, Samuel L. Bondurant,  Eleanor Houser, Wan-Ting Lin, Sarah M. Placyk. Fourth row: John Dennis Howell, Jr., Hannah Marie Wallace,  Krista R. Fulbright, Dane Louise Fields, Anna Christian Spivey.  Bottom row: Tommy Nixon, Subject Liaison at Davis Library; Professor Eliza Richards; Emily Kader, Rare Book Research Librarian; Leslie McAbee, Graduate Assistant Research Consultant. Photo by Sarah Boyd. Courtesy UNC Department of English & Comparative Literature.

The exhibition is up for graduation this weekend and continues through July 20.

A Working Christmas

IsaiahThomas_XmasIn 1802, the great American printer Isaiah Thomas retired from business to write his landmark book The History of Printing in America (1810). At that time, he handed over his firm to his son of the same name. The latter made a serious start at business, as this advertisement indicates, announcing his services on Christmas day (note the date at the bottom of the oval). The single leaf is bound with another Thomas imprint held by the RBC, the first Greek New Testament printed in the U.S., in 1800.

Working on Christmas was common in the early years of our nation. And so we honor our industrious forebears by posting this ephemeral printing dated exactly two hundred and eleven years ago today.

Just know, however, that UNC and the RBC are closed on Christmas. We wrote this in advance and programmed it for posting.  Happy holidays!

Ghostly Days

Halloween has passed. At the Rare Book Collection, however, ghostly apparitions continue to haunt our days.


Among the spectral appearances is this P. T. Barnum show bill from exactly 150 years ago today, announcing “The Ghost,” a performance at the famous American impresario’s museum. The ephemeral printing for November 16, 1863, was in Wilson Library’s Conservation Lab receiving treatment for display in the upcoming Rooms of Wonder exhibition. While most materials in that show will come from the collection of alumna/curator Florence Fearrington, the RBC will supply a few choice items such as this one, which testifies to the commercialization of the cabinet of curiosities concept in the mid-1800s. (A giant boy and giant girl are among the museum’s other attractions for the day.)

The nineteenth century was an era of scientific progress. It was also one that had a strong fascination with the supernatural.  A recent donation to the RBC from Dr. Charles T. White, a volume of spiritualist writings, underscores this interest in the uncanny and suggests how spiritual doings were viewed as phenomena open to scientific inquiry. Inside this book, which has the spine title “Celestial Gems,” are a selection of texts and a detailed manuscript index.

Manuscript content list for "Celestial Gems" / accession 130623
Manuscript content list for “Celestial Gems” / BF1283 .H3 K3913 1845

The “General Index” begins with an alphabetical listing of the subjects and events in The Seeress of Prevorst, Being Revelations Concerning the Inner-life of Man, and the Inter-Diffusion of a World of Spirits in the One We Inhabit (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1845). This first work in the volume is an English translation of Justinus Kerner’s famous account of Friederike Hauffe, a sleepwalking clairovyant in a small town in Baden-Württenburg, Germany. Kerner was a poet and physician who came to know the woman.

Following Kerner’s classic work is Elements of Spiritual Philosophy; Being an Exposition of Interior Principles. Written by Spirits of the Sixth Circle. R.P. Ambler, Medium. The author of this rare 1852 Springfield, Massachusetts, imprint was a Universalist minister who claimed the power to speak for spirits, hence his self-identification as a “medium” on the title page. He briefly published a journal, The Spirit Messenger, issues of which are also present in “Celestial Gems.” For Ambler, communication with spirits was a new stage in religion and represented a release from traditional superstition, contrary to what we might think today.


Celestial_Gems_admit1-696x1024The pages of this book have evidence of past owners and readers beyond the index. Most evocative are the items laid in.  The unsettling albumen print above suggests a woman in a trance state, although lengthy photographic exposure times could necessitate an eerily frozen countenance. The “ADMIT BEARER” ticket found at another page might have permitted entrance to a staged mediumship séance, such as were not uncommon in the period.

Celestial_Gems_bookplateOne Elisha Thayer’s book label appears twice in the volume, although we can make no claims for his leaving these relics behind.

“Celestial Gems” is a particularly compelling and ironic example of the book as material object–a physical manifestation of an earlier era’s encounter with the immaterial world.