Cutting up Documents for Fun and Profit

If anyone makes a special collections horror movie, this would undoubtedly be one of the scariest villains:

autograph scraps


These are just a few of the hundreds (HUNDREDS!) of autographs in our Miscellaneous Manuscript Collection. Many were collected by a single, dedicated individual whose interest in history went as far as the signatures on the documents but not so far as the documents themselves. In some cases the autograph collector apparently sent a blank card requesting a signature, as in this example signed by Mark Twain:

Twain SignatureBut in many cases signatures were brutally cut from their proper places:

Tillinghast letter 2013-11-20 07.46.37


It would be nice to know what Daniel Tillinghast was writing in 1785 (“… will not answer … till she is over…” is an intriguing bit to have), but that isn’t likely to happen thanks to our autograph collector.

I recently came across an example of the autograph industry from the other side of the mirror: Laid into one of our copies of Thomas Clarkson’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade (1808 ed.) is a letter from Clarkson to the book’s owner at that time, a man named Edward Raleigh Moran. The copy is inscribed by Clarkson, and Moran is requesting information about the recipient to whom Clarkson presented the book:

Clarkson Letter


In a postscript Clarkson writes “I have below sent you two autographs, which you may cut off and give to any of your friends should any be desirous of having them.” Mr. Moran’s friends apparently were not desirous of having them (or perhaps Moran wasn’t desirous of cutting up his letter and giving them away), because they’re still visible at the bottom of the page. (The verso of the page is blank, so if Moran had in fact cut out the signatures at least we wouldn’t have lost any original writing.)



More Transcription

If the George Turner letters mentioned yesterday aren’t enough for you, you can now also read the text of a 19th-century whaler who abandoned his ship.

Back in February we had a visit from some Fulbright scholars who began the process of transcribing the Daniel Mowry letters in our Nicholson Whaling Manuscripts Collection. We haven’t yet had a chance to digitize the letters, but we wanted to make the transcriptions available, and you can now find the text of all of them on one page. These are some pretty illuminating letters telling a great story.

Civil Warrior of the Week #15 (Special Edition): George Turner

George Turner in a tent

The image above is a sketch from a letter written by George Turner, a Rhode Island Civil War soldier whose correspondence has recently been scanned and transcribed by URI student Michaela Keating. The online collection (available here) includes nearly 200 letters, mostly sent by Turner to his parents at home in Rhode Island, dating from 1861 to 1864. Taken together they offer an evolving portrait of one soldier’s daily life over the years of the war and his developing attitudes toward race, the South and the purpose of the war.

Turner wrote the letter from which the image above was taken in December of 1861, not long after the Union capture of Fort Wells in Hilton Head, South Carolina, where Turner spent the majority of his time during the war. In the letter, Turner describes his entry into the fort and the circumstances of his drawing:

Soon after entering the Fort we were allowed to stroll around and look about. And during my stroll I cam across a gun carriage that was completely smashed up and while I was looking at it I picked up picked up part of a man’s ear and some teeth and while looking at it come to conclusion that this man had changed his southern views and gone to another land. And now that I think of it of will give you another drawing [sketch of two figures in a tent with “Traveller’s Rest” written on the side of the tent] The picture which I bring before your view this time represents your humble servant writing a letter to his Rhode Island friends while one of his mess mates lays on the ground smoking. The name which you see marked on the tent is marked with a led pencil. But I pity the poor fellow who comes there for rest if he does not belong there. Now I have lived in just such a house as you see just four months on the 20th this month, and during that that time I have not taken off my pants olny when I change my under clothes or to wash all over. And I am just as tuff as a birch I am fat rugged and saucy. I can swallow a roast turkey at one gullup. Yesterday we had the first white bread we have had since the 23 day of Oct and when we got our loaf we went about looking at it like so many boys with a new year’s present. But after a while we came to the conclusion to eat it and the way it went down my illustrious gullet was a caution to lookers on.

The letter is typical in its attention to the daily details of camp life. Also typical is the discussion that takes place just prior to this excerpt in which Turner displays antagonism toward the “contraband” freed slaves present at the fort. It’s a theme that develops throughout the course of Turner’s letters, as he grows to despise the former slaves he feels are being better treated than the soldiers.

For more information about the George Turner correspondence, visit our online exhibition, which provides background information about Turner and some of the major themes of his letters. And visit the digital collection to read the letters yourself. As of now over 100 letters have been transcribed, with more to come. And if you’d like to take part and try transcribing some of the letters yourself, just click the “Transcribe this item” link at the bottom of an item and then click the “edit” button.

(If you’re interested in Turner you might also want to check out the Summer/Fall 2012 issue of Rhode Island History (vol. 70.2), which features an article by Kirsten Hammerstrom on Turner titled “Souvenirs of War” (pp. 74-86).

Fulbright, brighter, brightest

We were very lucky to get a visit last Friday from some exceptional students. They’re part of the Fulbright Foreign Student Program, so they were from countries around the world. One component of their visit to the US is a volunteer session, so 14 of them showed up at PPL, ready to do some volunteer transcription. (Thanks to Justin Dunnavant for the photos.)

Fulbright Students

Our Nicholson Whaling Collection is well known as one of the best collections of whaling logbooks in the country. But the collection also includes quite a few other resources, including nearly 60 boxes of manuscript materials. (They’re described in a collection guide on our website.) So after getting a brief introduction to Special Collections, they set to work transcribing one small portion, the letters of Daniel D. Mowry.

Transcription in processMowry went to sea as an 18-year-old, and it didn’t take long for him to regret the decision. We have letters from Mowry to his parents during the period from 1858 to 1861, at which point he abandoned ship in Auckland, New Zealand. He continued to write home from Auckland and Sydney, Australia for years.

Daniel Mowry letter

The Fulbright student volunteers set out to transcribe the manuscripts and help fill out the story, and in just a few short hours they made quite a bit of progress.

Students transcribing lettersHere’s a short sample (transcribed by Sylmina Alkaff), in which Mowry tells his parents that he’s abandoning the voyage:

Dear Father & Mother
You will no doubt be much surprised when you get this letter to hear that I am no longer in the Sea (Gull). I left the ship about four weeks previous to this date….
My dear Father and Mother I have done a thing which you will at first blame me for. But could you know all could you
but know what I have endured and what I have seen with my own eyes you would blame me not. Her thirty three months I staid in that ship and they were months of misery to me. I took no comfort of my life neither did any of the ships company.

It should be a great story when it’s all told. Within the next few months we’ll plan to have the images online with the transcriptions by the Fulbright students. Since they were working with limited time, many of the letters are not yet fully transcribed, so blog readers can have a chance to put some of the pieces of the story together as well by doing some voluntary, online transcription work of your own.

Thanks again, Fulbright students!

group photo



Time Machine: 13 December 1871

Sometimes the documents saved in libraries don’t record moments of great historic importance. Sometimes they’re just the casual notes that probably make up the bulk of communication in any time. Here’s an example of a quick note to Secretary of State (among other things) John Russell Bartlett from Elisha Dyer, a former governor.



Providence December 13 1871

My Dear Sir,

My friend from England (J. N. Dyer Esq) has arrived and I propose favoring him with an introduction to your self tomorrow if opportunity offers. Are you at the State House after dinner?

May I have the favor of an introductory note from you, for myself, to some of the leading publishing houses in Boston as I propose to accompany him there in a day or two. Much obliging.

Very Res[pectfully] Yours

Elisha Dyer

Time Machine: 6 December 1775

237 years ago today James Macpherson wrote this letter to Gen. Philip Schuyler of the relatively new Continental Army. The purpose of the letter is to request that Shuyler remove him from what was essentially a desk job and let him join the soldiers on their way to Canada:mcpherson1 macpherson2 macpherson3

The Happiness I experienced while I was in yours & since I have been of General Montgomery’s family is lessened, when I reflect that I am but half a soldier, as being at Headquarters exempts me from many Fatigues which others undergo — This, a natural desire of Rising, which is I believe common to every one lead me to request the favor of your recommendation for such a Commission as you think I deserve.

If this takes Place, I should not desire on that account to quit the present service till the Reduction of Quebec (an event I imagine at no great Distance) till when I think the service of all here indispensibly necessary — After that many of us may be spared.

Macpherson was granted his request, but he wasn’t spared. He died in battle only a few weeks after the letter was penned, together with Gen. Richard Montgomery during the assault on Quebec.

macpherson4(This is the second in a series of posts highlighting newly-accessible and re-housed items from our Updike Autograph Collection.)

Time Machine: 28 November 1812

The regular portrait series takes the week off today. In it’s place, the first of an occasional series that highlights an item from the collection created on this day in the past.

The first post celebrates the completion of our project to re-house the Updike Autograph Collection. (Mentioned previously here.) As you might recall, this collection of fascinating manuscript items was previously difficult to access and stored in acidic folders and boxes. Thanks to volunteer Ramon Cartwright, a finding aid for the collection is now available online; and thanks to funds provided by subscribers to our Occasional Nuggets publication and the efforts of volunteer Pat Loan, the entire collection is now rehoused in archival folders and boxes.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be posting a few items from the collection on the day of the year they were created, starting with this letter from Raymond Perry to his mother Sarah, dated 28 November 1812. In the letter Raymond describes the public response to his brother Oliver’s heroic actions at the Battle of Lake Erie.

The following transcription accompanied the letter:

Off Bristol Harbor
28th Nov. [1812]
My dear Mother –
I have not written
your for some days, owing to being
to much engaged getting down the
River this far – Alex. left me
day before yesterd in Providence
he recd. the attention due [to his?]
gallantry. every one was anxious to
be introduced to the young Hero
of Erie – his mind is much improved
so much so, that, it was a subject
of remark at our mess Table. he
supported a conversation for some
time – my Father was on b[oar]d this
Eveng. on his way to New Port
where he says it will be necessary to
visit often – I cannot express how much
my satisfaction is, to see him so
much pleased with his appointment
he is in excellent spirits, every one in
Bristol seems anxious to know him. the
De Wolfs are raped up in his interest
The Female part of‘the Family talk
much of the pleasure of your society as
soon as you can join them – The House
is a very good one, and stands in the
best part of the Town – Mary An
De Wolf is a charming girl, and I have
reason to believe very much my Friend
[They were married in 1814]
We were to a pleasant Ball two evengs
since in honor of Oliver – the House
was brilliantly illuminated, and over
the entrance was the appropriate motto
“Dont give up the ship”. I was recd
with more politeness than all my
vanity could flater me I deserved
but, I was next Brother to the greatest
man in our Country -. Of Comd Rodgers
[I?] have but little to say, only that
[he?] is wonderfully polite to [?]
and on duty, he is extremely
careful how he acts. I think
our cruise will be pleasant – our
mess is cheerfull – The wind is now
from the northw[ard] nd a probabilty
of a snow storm & fear we shall get
out – I will write the girls if we
do not get out – but this letter is for them too. Your affect Son

Addressed to:
Christopher R. Perry Esq
Chelsea Landing

If you’re interested in finding out what else happened today in history, check out our RI Collection Blog, where Tracy Connolly has begun a series called “100 Years Ago Today,” which draws on items from the Providence Journal of a century past.

The One-Hour Digitization Challenge

(Updated Below)

I recently received a package containing my very first Kickstarter purchase, the ScanBox Plus. The Scanbox is basically a small box with a hole in the top (the “Plus” adds a set of lights powered by a 9-volt battery), designed to be used with a smartphone camera as a portable scanning station. The whole apparatus folds flat and fits inside a paper envelope.

The Scanbox seemed like the perfect tool for some guerrilla digitization, so I set myself the following challenge: Digitize a complete (if small) manuscript collection in an hour. That’s everything from soup to nuts, including installation of software and uploading the images. I decided to use a small collection of manuscripts (34 folders), the correspondence of Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell. The collection itself was recently removed from less-than-archival housing

binder and plastic sheetsand processed by a volunteer (finding aid). Here’s the newly-rehoused Pennell Collection next to the Scanbox:

scanbox and manuscript box

I put an hour on the timer and got to work:

Step One: “Scanning”. Time: 18:54 (Time remaining: 41:06)

Each page with writing was scanned (blank versos were skipped), including envelopes. Items were moved in and out of the box quickly but carefully. The total number of resulting images was 76, which means it took about 15 seconds per image. The scanning process involved nothing more than sliding each item in and tapping the photo button.

Step Two: Setting Up the Online Gallery. Time: 13:14 (Time remaining: 27:52)

While the photos uploaded from the phone to the computer via Dropbox, I downloaded and set up the software I’d be using for the digital collection. I decided on Gallery because it’s the quickest and easiest option I know of. Given the time to add image metadata or create a nicer interface, I might have chosen something else. The quick installation was also a plus: I set up a MySQL database on the server, uploaded the Gallery folder, visited it in a web browser, and that was about it.

Step Three: Image Rotation. Time: 4:14 (Time remaining: 23:38)

No time for cropping or any other image editing, just time to make sure everything pointed in the right direction.

Step Four: Re-Scanning. Time: 7:44 (Time remaining: 15:54)

While going quickly through the images I noticed a few that were just too bad to use. Back to the Scanbox.

Step Five: Uploading. Time: 12:30 (Time remaining: 3:20)

Most of this time was wasted trying to figure out a plugin I didn’t even need to use.

Step Six: Cleanup. Time: 3:20

With all the images online, I still had a few minutes to tweak things a bit. I clicked “Save” on the last edits as the stopwatch reached an hour.

The Results:

The collection is available online at for the moment. (In the future I might tweak things a bit more. Update: Tweaking began almost immediately. I soon realized I had somehow uploaded two copies of each image, so I deleted everything and re-uploaded the images.)


Image quality isn’t very good: Smartphone cameras are handy, but they don’t currently match the resolution of scanners. And the Scanbox lights were underwhelming. In most cases one side of a letter is illuminated more than the other.

Absent metadata: A great deal of the work that goes into good digital projects takes place in the metadata and the rest of the apparatus supporting the images themselves. This collection is just a pile of images (it’s not necessarily even clear what images represent different sides of the same item).

Limited longevity: Don’t expect any of these images (or the collection as a whole) to be around in 100 years. Or 50. Maybe 10 if we’re lucky. Keeping digital reproductions alive takes a lot of effort.


A number of letters by two interesting people that weren’t available an hour ago suddenly are now.

“Write soon”

The Arnold Family Papers, 1861-1904, and the Edwin W. Arnold Correspondence, 1862-1894, two collections now available to researchers at PPL Special Collections, chronicle the lives of the Arnold family, descendants of William Arnold, one of the founders of the city of Providence. The family includes Russell and Sarah, their five children, Henry, Frederick, Edwin, George, and Susan, their spouses and their extended family. Through their letters to one another, the Arnolds demonstrate that the everyday lives of residents of Providence have always contained remarkable moments and deep familial bonds.

The Arnolds were one family of many affected by the Civil War; all three sons served in the Union Army. While recovering from illness at a convalescent camp in Washington, D.C.,  Edwin, the middle son, met Abraham Lincoln, and described the experience in a post script of a letter to his mother:

Washington, D.C.
May. /63

                                Dear Mother

I received your letter day before yesterday and was glad to hear from home once more, but was surprised to hear of Uncle Whipple’s death, it don’t seem hardly possible that it is so, I recived a press the first of the week and a bulletin day before yestaday, it is awful Hot out here I tell you, the sweat is rolling off of me as I sit here writeing at the rate of a quart minite a day of course I am acting nurse and have got charge of seven beds, those right along where my bed is, fred knows where it is. for it is the same one that I had when he was here, there is three wounded and two sick, one with a leg of, and one with his foot  cut off with a piece of shell, the other is a flesh wound I have not been out since I got back and that was to get my ration money so of course I have not seen Nick tell fred that man that layed right across from me Died while I was home and that tall fellow that had so big a head, and used came so often after a drink of water, he layed down at the other end towards the street. All the public schools in the city had a concert the othe night over at the Smithsonian, but I am spinning to long a yarn. ask Fred to get me a mask and send it by expression as soon as possible so I will close.

Boy Ned

his MARK


P.S. President Lincon has just been through the ward and shook hands with every man so you see I have shook hands with the great man he looks as though he had been out all night and had lost his best friend.


Write soon

Write soon

I have not seen Mason

*spelling errors left uncorrected

After the end of the Civil War, many soldiers remained in service, waiting to be sent home. Edwin’s wife, Louisa, wrote to Russell Arnold following the news that his brothers were safe and the soldiers in the Veterans Reserve Corps (VRC), including Edwin, had finally been dismissed:

Concord N.H.

Nov 5th 1865

       Dear Father

We recived your latter yesterday and was glad to here that you was all well and was glad to here that Fred has got home all safe we was feeling very bad about them after we recived Miss Whipple’s  letter Edwin came out of Camp and Stayed hear all day and he felt so bad that I could not say anything to him about them and he did not sleep any all night and he had a pass again the next day ‘till four o’clock and when dinner time came he whent to Camp to get his dinner and after dinner he came so happy as he could be singing and lughing and I asked him if he had heard from home and he said he had just seen a piece in the paper about the vessel that Fred and Garge ware on, it was them at Port Royal getting repaird and he knows that they was all right and since the order was issued to discharge VRC. he has been all most crazy, every time that he comes out he packes his things up just as though he was going to start for home right away he wants to get home to see you all so bad that he is growing poor, he is not half so fat as he was when you were here and I will be glad when we get home so that he will get fat again, and not be warring all of the time as he is now I would like to come home first rate but Edwin says that he will coming home the last of this weeck or the first of next and I would rather not wait and come whit him, but I must close, give my love to all but keep a share for you self.

from Louisa Arnold.

*spelling errors left uncorrected

Both collections show what daily life was like during and after the Civil War. Edwin’s correspondence highlights the experience of those in the Veterans Reserve Corps, and the Arnold family’s papers show what life was like after the war, particularly in Frederick’s correspondence from veterans’ associations.  The family also corresponds on travel, family matters, and the changing world around them.

Finding aids for both collections can be found at Providence Public Library’s Special Collections site:

The Arnold Family Papers (MSS 009)

Edwin W. Arnold Correspondence (MSS 006)


Bookman in Chief

Teddy Roosevelt has to be the president to beat for the title of Renaissance man in the oval office. Not only was he the sort of president who could take a bullet and then walk onstage and give his speech anyway*, he also displayed a sensitive eye for book design, and a taste for well-made books, as demonstrated in this letter to Edith Greenough Wendell found in the Updike Correspondence Collection, our collection of Daniel Berkeley Updike’s personal letters (as well as a few letters that just mention him, as in this case).

Here’s a transcription of the letter:

The White House

Oyster Bay, N.Y.,
July 30, 1907.

My dear Mrs. Wendell:
I am greatly obliged to you for the beautiful books. By George, it is a pleasure to see such work done in America! Indeed, when I get the chance I shall certainly ask you to take me around to the Mary-Mount [sic] Press. What a remarkable work Updike is doing!

It was such a pleasure to see you down here. all I regretted was that Barrett was not along.

Do you recollect my speaking to you about the remarkable Venetian Fifteenth Century Livy, and saying I did not think we had any modern printing that compared with it! Upon my word I think that Updike’s Tacitus runs it close. If I remember aright, however, there was a little more spacing between the lines of the Livy, so that it gave a clearer look to the page.

Faithfully yours,
Theodore Roosevelt

Mrs. Edith Greenough Wendell
Nahant, Massachusetts.

Even if Roosevelt didn’t have the name of Updike’s press quite right, he certainly did seem to appreciate the work he was doing.

* “The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.” (!)