Now on Exhibit: Portals art!

While the Portals exhibition (February – June 2016) showcased historical items describing imagined futures, local artists were hard at work researching in Special Collections and creating derivative art, both through programming at the library and in their own studios.

We’re lucky to have our exhibit cases jam-packed with selections of this Portals art, on view at the library now through August 15th!

Left to right: miniature dress and headdress created by teens in RISD CE fashion classes at the library; 18th century French funeral invitation from the Barrois Collection of Funeral Invitations, alongside a candle by Burke & Hare Co.; drafts, color separations, and layout notes from the Special Collections-themed issue of The Providence Sunday Wipeout.

The exhibit includes illustrations, song lyrics, candles, comics, letterpress prints, short stories, headdresses, and clothing designs by Rhode Island artists including Walker Mettling, Mickey Zacchilli, Brian Whitney, Dan Wood, Caitlin Cali, Guy-Maly Pierre, Dailen Williams, Jim Frain, Joe DeGeorge, Veronica Santos, Burke & Hare Co., Jeremy Ferris, Keegan Bonds-Harmon, and many teen fashion designers.

New creative works are displayed alongside the historical items that inspired them, including Maukisch’s Das Jagen, Fangen, Zähmen und Abrichten der Thiere (1837), The Necropolis of Ancón in Peru (circa 1880), design classic The Grammar of Ornament (1856), Academie Universelle des Jeux (1824) (from the Haynes Checkers Collection), Rational Recreations (1794), and other gems from the stacks.

Some of these artists’ original items are available for sale. (The library doesn’t receive any proceeds from these sales, but we are thrilled to support local businesses and Rhode Island artists!) You can purchase Burke & Hare Co’s Horace B. Knowles candle here, or their Repose en Paix candle here. To get a copy of the Special Collections-themed issue of The Providence Sunday Wipeout comics newspaper, visit Ada Books in Providence or contact Special Collections!

Advertisements

Art//Archives: An Avian Extravaganza

Today’s visual research open hours (Tuesdays, 10:00 – 1:00) offer you an avian extravaganza, an ornithological assemblage, a great number of illustrated birds!

IMG_0079

This lovely, bespectacled fellow hails from E. Donovan’s 1794 The Natural History of British Birds; Or, a Selection of the Most Rare, Beautiful, and Interesting Birds Which Inhabit This Country: The Descriptions from the Systema Naturae of Linnaeus; With General Observations, Either Original, or Collected From the Latest and Most Esteemed English Ornithologists; and Embellished with Figures, Drawn, Engraved, and Coloured from the Original Specimens. (Say that five times fast!)

Today’s visitors also can page through this book on “cage and chamber-birds”. It includes information on “their natural history, habits, food, diseases, management, and modes of capture”. (A researcher yesterday deemed this book “kind of awesome and kind of a bummer,” which I find to be entirely accurate.)

Studer’s Popular Ornithology, published in 1881, has beautiful, large-scale, color illustrations of birds, as well as a spectacular title page. (Does the “A” in the word “America” look vaguely masonic to anyone else?)

Stop by to spend some time with these books today, or contact us to make an appointment with these feathered friends.

Acting Black: Exhibition, Opening, and Press

Our newest exhibition, “Acting Black: Black Performing Arts in RI since the 1700s”, guest curated by Robb Dimmick, explores the roles played by Black musicians, actors and actresses, models, writers, storytellers, poets, and dancers.

This past weekend the Providence Journal published an article about the exhibit, including a series of beautiful photos.

An opening reception will be held at the library tonight, October 19th, 2015, from 5 – 6:30 p.m. Please join us if you are in the area!

Valerie Lester discusses Giambattista Bodoni: His Life and His World

Remember this guy?:

Bodoni-giambattista

It’s been a year and a half since we celebrated Giambattista Bodoni and the 200th anniversary of his death. In all those years, no one has written a full-length English biography of the great printer and type designer – until now.

Join us at 6:00pm on Wednesday, October 7th for a lecture by Valerie Lester, whose biography of Bodoni is being published this month. Copies of the book will be available for purchase, and refreshments will be served. We’ll also have a selection of items from our collections of Bodoniana on display.

Impeccable Science, or, the Flames of Intemperance

What do you do when you want to evaluate if an article is a reliable, credible source of information? Purdue’s Online Writing Lab, my favorite wellspring of writing advice, counsels that “responsible, credible authors will cite their sources so that you can check the accuracy of and support for what they’ve written.” Sensible advice, in my opinion.

Bearing that in mind, let’s take a look at this July 1812 issue of The Emporium of Arts and Sciences (vol. 1, no. 3), which features some of the most fantastically impeccable science I have ever encountered in my short but highly scientific life.

The name sounds pretty legit, no? It even says “sciences” in the title!

IMG_1808

How reliable is the author? Does he cite his sources so that we can examine the support for what he’s written?

footnotes

Ooo, yes, plenty of (poorly photographed) footnotes, and some of them are even in French! This author does his homework, and he’s bilingual, to boot. I’m leaning towards deeming this a trustworthy source for information about…

IMG_1814

“Combustion of the Human Body, produced by the long and immoderate use of Spirituous Liquors”.

Hang on, what? Drinking too much can make your body catch on fire? I’d consider that “destitute of probability”, as author Pierre-Aime Lair notes that some readers, myself apparently included, may be apt to consider. He promptly addresses our collective doubts:

IMG_1815

Is it more surprising to experience such incineration than to void saccharine urine, or to see the bones softened to such a degree as to be reduced to the state of a jelly? The effects of this combustion are certainly not more wonderful than those of the bones softened, or of the diabetes mellitus.

Point taken– the human body can be strange and marvelous. I still want more proof, though.

In physics, facts being always preferable to reasoning, I shall here collect those which appear to me to bear the impression of truth; and, lest I should alter the sense, I shall quote them such as they are given in the works from which I have extracted them.

Oh good, facts! The author’s “facts” are henceforth presented in nine thoroughly footnoted pages of wildly gruesome recollections wherein women, in their drunkenness, were reduced to piles of ash, often with a few extremities preserved in near-perfect condition. It’s an awful lot to take in, and I’ll spare you the bulk of it, lest you be haunted by nightmares like the ones I’m sure to have tonight. Highlights include a woman whose maid found her as “a heap of ashes, in which could be distinguished the legs and arms untouched”, a room full of “a moist kind of soot” which was “conveyed to a neighbouring kitchen… a piece of bread in the cupboard was covered with it, and no dog would touch it”, a woman whose trunk had “the appearance of a log of wood”, and an ash pile next to an extremely small hearth with a “right foot… found entire, and scorched at its upper junction”.

So, that’s terrifying. For readers who are, no doubt, feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of this horrific evidence, the author sums up commonalities in a handy list:

IMG_1817

1. The persons who experienced the effects of this combustion had for a long time made an immoderate use of spirituous liquors.
2. The combustion took place only in women.
3. These women were far advanced in life.
4. Their bodies did not take fire spontaneously, but were burnt by accident.
5. The extremities, such as the feet and the hands, were generally spared by the fire.
6. Water sometimes, instead of extinguishing the flames which proceeded from parts on fire, gave them more activity.
7. The fire did very little damage, and often even spared the combustible objects which were in contact with the human body at the moment when it was burning.
8. The combustion of these bodies left as a residuum fat foetid ashes, with an unctuous, stinking, and very penetrating soot.

All of my modern, feminist sensibilities are offended by the idea that this fate only befalls older women. Why do women have to bear the brunt of the ill effects of heavy drinking? How on earth do fiery accidents distinguish between male and female bodies in the first place? How does one become so deeply imbued with liquor that one’s body is essentially a figgy pudding?

Not to fear, Pierre-Aime Lair can explain.

IMG_1818

The female body is generally more delicate than that of the other sex. The system of their solids is more relaxed; their fibres are more fragile and of a weaker structure, and therefore their texture more easily hurt. Their mode of life also contributes to increase the weakness of their organization. Women, abandoned in general to a sedentary life, charged with the care of the internal domestic economy, and often shut up in close apartments, where they are condemned to spend whole days without taking any exercise, are more subject than men to become corpulent. The texture of the soft parts in female bodies being more spongy, absorption ought to be freer; and as their whole bodies imbibe spirituous liquors with more ease, they ought to experience more readily the impression of fire.

Um. Women have weak fibers and are spongy. But why older women, specifically?

IMG_1821

Dancing and walking, which form salutary recreation for young persons, are at a certain age interdicted as much by nature as by prejudice. It needs therefore excite no astonishment that old women, who are in general more corpulent and more addicted to drinking, and who are often motionless like inanimate masses, during the moment of intoxication, should experience the effects of combustion.

Older women are “spongy”, AND they’re “motionless like inanimate masses”?! They’re more likely to be drunk, and therefore more likely to light on fire while going about their daily business? This is amazing! This is impeccably scientific! Surely our female readers are now convinced not to imbibe in excess.

Does that mean that nothing bad ever happens to men who drink? Not the case, according to dear old Pierre-Aime. It’s just that men don’t burn in place, leaving behind forlorn hands and feet, but rather tend towards having flames shoot out of their bodies.

IMG_1822

Sturmius says, that in the northern countries flames often burst from the stomach of persons in a state of intoxication. Three noblemen of Courland having laid a bet which of them could drink most spirits, two of them died in consequence of suffocation by the flames which issued with great violence from their stomachs. We are told by Thomas Bartholin, on the authority of Vorstius, that a soldier, who had drunk two glasses of spirits, died after an eruption of flames from his mouth.

There are the facts, folks. I’ll let them speak for themselves.

Impeccable Science: Finny Tribes, Horse Fishing, and Dental Apparatus

Today’s post highlights science writing which is not only impeccable, but also delightfully florid, with selections from Dr. G. Hartwig’s The Harmonies of Nature, or, the Unity of Creation (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1866). The book itself is an interesting reflection on homeostasis within ecosystems through predator satiation, various instinctual behaviors, and a balance of “passive and active defences“.

The Harmonies of Nature includes some satisfyingly grotesque scientific diagrams, like this cross-section of the “dental apparatus of the Lamprey, & fang fixed to the roof”.

IMG_1550

If that fang fixed to the roof isn’t enough for you, take a gander at this illustration of horses being used to capture electric eels. Hartwig describes it as a “highly entertaining and animated scene”.

IMG_1547

(In the spirit of scientific inquiry/ morbid fascination with this mass of writhing aquatic horses, I had to investigate whether Hartwig’s described equine fishing method was a real thing. Apparently 18th and 19th century scientists were very interested in electrical impulses within animals’ bodies, and did scores of somewhat ghastly experiments including one where the charge from an electric catfish stimulated the sciatic nerve in a recently-amputated frog’s leg, causing the leg to kick a little bell. I can’t make this stuff up.

Anyway, among the electrically-curious minds of history was that of German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who convinced understandably leery Guayquerie Indians to help him capture electric eels for study and documentation. In his account of this process, the Guayquerie drove about 30 wild horses and mules into the river, where the animals thrashed about, driving the eels out of the mud and subsequently tiring them out by absorbing numerous benumbing shocks. The exhausted eels could then be pulled to shore with small harpoons. You can read the text of von Humboldt’s distressing account of ‘horse fishing’ here.)

Steering our conversation back to The Harmonies of Nature, let me leave you with one of the most impressive and reassuring sentences I’ve read in a good while:

IMG_1552

Under the protection of an Almighty Lawgiver the equilibrium of the inhabitants of the ocean is thus constantly renewed though constantly assailed; and though the scythe of death is indefatigably mowing throughout Neptune’s domain, it is but to celebrate the eternal triumph of life.

From a current perspective, Hartwig’s earnest confidence in the resilience of Nature’s systems is almost touching. Let’s all keep our collective fingers crossed for the oceanic eternal triumph of life.

First Draft of History? Or Maybe the Second?

I recently decided to take a look at one of the Benedict Arnold letters in our Updike Autograph Collection, and came across a curious situation. Here’s an image of the letter:

2014-10-07 13.41.33

and the verso:

2014-10-07 13.41.51

The letter is dated May 19th, 1775, just a month after the battles of Lexington and Concord, and it describes Benedict Arnold’s successful raid on Fort St. Jean in Quebec, where Arnold had captured a ship and the small group of soldiers at the fort. Here’s Arnold’s account from the letter:

Manned out two small batteaux with 35 men and at 6 the next morning arrived there and surprised a sergeant and his party of 12 men and took the King’s sloop of about 70 tons and 2 brass six-pounders and 7 men without any loss on either side. The captain was hourly expected from Montreal with a large detachment of men, some guns and carriages for the sloop, as was a captain and 40 men from Chambly at 12 miles distance from St. Johns, so that providence seems to have smiled on us in arriving so fortunate an hour. For had we been 6 hours later in all probability we should have miscarried in our design.

The letter is also notable for a passage in which Arnold describes an encounter with Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys:

 I must here observe that in my return some distance this side [of] St. John I met Col. Allen with 90 or 100 of his men in a starving condition. I supplied him with provisions. He informed me of his intentions of proceeding on to St. Johns and keeping possession there. It appeared to me a wild, expensive, impracticable scheme…

What makes the letter particularly interesting, though, is that it doesn’t seem to be the only version that Arnold wrote. An alternate version (addressed to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety) is available in a compilation of Revolutionary War documents published in the 1830s-40s (text | page image). The letters are both dated May 19th, 1775, and are basically the same in content, but there are routinely differences in language, and occasionally major differences in content. Our draft of the letter, for instance, doesn’t include the following passage, which appears in the other version:

I wrote you, gentlemen, in my former letters, that I should be extremely glad to be superseded in my command here, as I find it next to impossible to repair the old fort at Ticonderoga, and am not qualified to direct in building a new one. I am really of opinion it will be necessary to employ one thousand or fifteen hundred men here this summer, in which I have the pleasure of being joined in sentiment by Mr. Romans, who is esteemed an able engineer….

… I beg leave to observe I have had intimations given me, that some persons had determined to apply to you and the Provincial Congress, to injure me in your esteem, by misrepresenting matters of fact. I know of no other motive they can have, only my refusing them commissions, for the very simple reason that I did not think them qualified. However, gentlemen, I have the satisfaction of imagining I am employed by gentlemen of so much candour, that my conduct will not be condemned until I have the opportunity of being heard.

It’s illuminating to note that these lines — which move beyond the immediate reporting of forts taken and cannons captured — were ones that Arnold seemed to hesitate to send.

So why two copies, and why would they be different?* Unfortunately, our letter isn’t addressed, so we can only guess that it was intended for the same recipients (the MA Committee of Safety). But one bit of evidence appears in the last lines. Our copy concludes with this note:

For particulars [I] must refer you to Capt. Oswald, who has been very active and serviceable and is a prudent, good officer.

Indicating, it seems, that Oswald was delivering our copy of the letter. The other letter ends this way:

I must refer you for particulars to the bearer, Captain Jonathan Brown, who has been very active and serviceable, and is a prudent, good officer…

Scholars of the American Revolution (who are hopefully more knowledgeable of the conventions of military correspondence of the time) are encouraged to comment on whether Arnold was more likely to be sending two copies of a letter like this with different couriers, to ensure that it arrived safely, or sending a similar letter to two different sets of recipients.

In either case, it’s a reminder that even what seems like a clear piece of historical evidence might be only part of the story.

Here’s a transcription (spelling adjusted) of our copy of the letter:

Crown Point 19th May 1775

Gentlemen-

I wrote you the 14th instant by Mr. Romans, which I make no doubt you have received. The afternoon of the same day I left Ticonderoga with Capt. Brown and Arnold and fifty men in a small schooner. Arrived at Skenesborough and proceeded for St. Johns. The weather calm. 17th at 6 PM being within 30 miles of St. Johns. Manned out two small batteaux with 35 men and at 6 the next morning arrived there and surprised a sergeant and his party of 12 men and took the King’s sloop of about 70 tons and 2 brass six-pounders and 7 men without any loss on either side. The captain was hourly expected from Montreal with a large detachment of men, some guns and carriages for the sloop, as was a captain and 40 men from Chambly at 12 miles distance from St. Johns, so that providence seems to have smiled on us in arriving so fortunate an hour. For had we been 6 hours later in all probability we should have miscarried in our design. The wind proving favourable in two hours after our arrival we got on most all the stores, provisions and weighed anchor for this place with the sloop and 5 large batteaux, which we seized, having destroyed 5 others, and arrived here at 10 this morning, not leaving any one craft of any kind behind that the enemy can cross the lake in if they have any such intentions. I must here observe that in my return some distance this side [of] St. John I met Col. Allen with 90 or 100 of his men in a starving condition. I supplied him with provisions. He informed me of his intentions of proceeding on to St. Johns and keeping possession there. It appeared to me a wild, expensive, impracticable scheme and provided it could be carried into execution of no consequence so long as we are masters of the lake, [and] of that I make no doubt we should be as I am determined to arm the sloop and schooner immediately. For particulars [I] must refer you to Capt. Oswald, who has been very active and serviceable and is a prudent, good officer.

Bened: Arnold

Verso:

P.S. to the foregoing letter

By a return sent to Gen. Gage last week I find there are in the 7th and 26th regiments now in Canada 717 men including 170 we have taken prisoner. Enclosed is a list of cannon here at Ticonderoga:

[list follows]


* It’s also possible, of course, that one or the other letters wasn’t actually composed by Arnold at all, or at least not on May 15th, 1775. Arnold seems to have signed his name in a number of ways, as evidenced by comparing this signature with this one, both dating from 1775. The latter version uses a two-story form of the “A” in “Arnold,” and seems similar in other ways. I haven’t seen a copy of the other letter, which may be part of the Library of Congress’s Peter Force Library, donated by the author of compilation in which that copy appears.