Palm Leaf Manuscript

Guest post by our Reading Room Attendant, Audrey Buhain.

This new year we processed something that is the first of its kind into our Special Collections: a palm leaf manuscript! 

The production of palm leaf manuscripts was most common before mass printing methods were adopted throughout South and Southeast Asia, but their production continues to this day. They consist of literary, folkloric, and religious texts that are handwritten onto palm leaves. Manuscripts are usually arranged between two wooden boards just like the ones pictured in this post.

We also wrote up a short finding aid (coming soon) to go along with this palm leaf manuscript. Written by archivists and librarians to contextualize the archives in their care, finding aids are guides that hope to structure informed, meaningful connections between visitors and the materials they wish to look at.

Crafting a finding aid for something that had never been cataloged into our collections had us thinking about a lot of things. For one, how can we be mindful as we navigate, affirm, and deviate from the historical narratives that already exist around this object? The knowledge we choose to share about the materials in our collections shapes not only present-day interactions between our visitors and our materials, but especially future interactions.

When we recognize that archiving actively shapes how objects exist in the present, and can exist throughout time, it’s our hope that we can offer historical knowledge in such a way that grants our collections the support to be understood with as much dimension and autonomy as is possible.


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


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


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.

Natural Language

A few weeks ago Occasional Nuggets subscribers got a bonus issue highlighting a little gem I had noticed for the first time and wanted to immediately send out:

Landscape Alphabet

It’s a small leather telescoping box containing twenty-six little sketches, each one representing a letter of the alphabet as a natural feature in the landscape. Here’s the card for “K”:


Rather than do any research to figure out what this thing actually is, I decided just to scan the cards and send them out to the Occasional Nuggets readers, who, it turns out, are pretty smart folks. Within a few days I had a couple responses pointing to an 1830 publication called The Landscape Alphabet, which was produced in two lithographed versions by G. Engelmann, Graf, Coindet & Co. in 1830. One version was done in standard codex form, but the other was done on individual cards (the same size as ours) with embossed borders stamped with the paper maker’s name, “Dobbs” (just like ours). The card version was, in turn, based on a series of pen-sketches done by an artist indicated only by the initials “EK”. (The original cards are now in the collections of the Pierpont Morgan Library.)

Here’s an image from an article by Michael Twyman that appeared in the journal Typography Papers (you can even buy your own copy), where the original pen and ink drawing (top) is compared to the lithographed version published on the cards:

TwymanIt’s immediately apparent that what we have is related, but it’s equally apparent that our version is not in fact the lithographed 1830 publication. Take the scene at the bottom left, for instance:

Litho version:litho-detail

Our version: pencil-detail

They’re close, but not quite the same (note that bundle on the right is sideways to the viewer in our copy and end-on in the lithographed version).

So what’s going on? In his article Twyman quotes a contemporary reviewer of Engelmann’s Landscape Alphabet who declares that “The value of this little work will probably be found to consist in the stimulus it will afford to the very young students of drawing, form exact copies of the scenes here affixed to them….”

Our copy seems to be an example of just that kind of copying: pencil sketches that do their best to mimic the original (25 years after the publication of the original, if the date of 1855 on the box is an indicator of when they were produced).

But that answer just prompts more questions. The cards our anonymous artist used aren’t just similar to the originals, they’re the same size, made by the same company and featuring the same embossing. The 1830 lithograph set was sold in a publisher’s box that seems to be the same size and format (sliding open in the middle) but featured a label that functioned like a title page. Were blank cards and boxes sold for this express purpose? Or was it a standard format before it was used by Engelmann in 1830? If you’ve got the answers, let me know.

More History on the Internet

if there’s one thing more frustrating than interesting manuscripts hiding away with no way for researchers to find them, it’s when those manuscripts are also being stored in acidic folders and boxes, slowly self-destructing.

That was the case with the Arnold Autograph Collection until Stephanie Knott, a library student at the University of Rhode Island, arrived at the beginning of this semester and set to work on the collection. The Arnold Autograph Collection is a miscellaneous group of about 150 manuscript items (not to be confused with this nasty kind of autograph collection). They focus mostly on Rhode Island history, going back all the way to the 1600s and including items relating to the American Revolution, a bill of sale for a slave, and the deed to a pew.

In addition to moving items to new acid-free folders and boxes and creating an online collection guide, Stephanie has scanned the entire collection, and created an online exhibition focusing on a dozen items. The collection as a whole should be online in 2014.

Bodoni in Motion

Two hundred years ago on this day, Giambattista Bodoni, the great Italian typographer, died. The Updike Collection includes one of the United States’ best collections of books published by Bodoni, as well as ephemera and a few manuscripts, and we’re going to be celebrating with an exhibition this February (so stay tuned for more information and mark your calendars for February 27th for the opening reception).

Having such a fine Bodoni collection means that in some cases we have multiple copies of items he printed. Why would anyone need more than one, you ask? Here’s an example, with two copies of a 1799 broadside side-by-side:


On the left is a copy with hand-written annotations, in this case possibly by Bodoni himself. On the right is a copy with the emendations called for in the copy on the left. In other words, this is a chance to see a great printer at work. Here are some of the details:

In many cases Bodoni (we’ll just assume that’s who made the correction marks) is indicating letters that need to be replaced, as in the case of the damaged “I” in Austria:


Or the “D” in “Ducum” with the wandering lead at the bottom of its bowl (say that ten times fast) and changes to letter spacing:


Sometimes you’ll have a letter like the “A” not keeping up with the baseline:


Or punctuation that needs to disappear completely (plus a shift closer to the center):


Here’s the full page view (Click for animation):


The devil is in the details.

(And if you find yourself wanting more bookish animated gifts, there’s no place better than the University of Iowa Special Collections tumblr.)

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.)


History Has a Scent

Working in a special collections library I’ve often thought to myself, “If I just took a random book off the shelf, I’m sure it would be fascinating somehow.” Here’s a quick post to demonstrate that.

On Tuesday, while preparing for one of our twice-monthly Library architectural tours, I decided to put one of our whaling logbooks on display, so I turned to a shelf and pulled down a logbook I’d never opened before, the journal of the ship Marcus, which set out in 1844. By the time I got to the first page the volume was already proving interesting:

Marcus journal, p. 1

Look closely and you’ll see the page is encoded in some kind of substitution cypher. (According to a cataloging note, it’s a “serenade.” Anyone looking for a challenge is welcome to submit their own decryption in the comments.)

Next, after a few pages of fairly standard logbook entries (wind, weather, etc.), the volume turns into a storehouse for pressed flowers and other plants:


Some, like this lady slipper, include the plant’s root structure:
lady slipper

By my count there are 42 specimens, not counting the flying fish wings:

flying fish wingsAnd it’s all rounded out with a bit of poetry:



But my favorite part is that the author of this journal apparently included spices. Spices that still retain their scent after 170 years. (I think it might be oregano, but I haven’t gone through them all to find out what the spice is yet.)

Just another reminder that rare materials require the use of all five senses. (Well, maybe not taste. I wouldn’t recommend actually eating 170-year-old plants found in books.)

Latest Additions: How to Run a Print Shop, Brush Your Teeth, Save Money, Etc.

It’s been a while since the latest post about new additions to Special Collections, so here are notes on items that have come in during the last month or two.

Cart of new books


If forced to choose my single favorite category of books, I’d probably go with what you might call practical books: books that have a job to do in the world and get that job done. They’re not always pretty — sometimes they feature page after page of numbers and lists. Often they show signs of being roughed up, marked up and stored in less-than-ideal locations. 

One such class of items in our Updike Collection is books on print shop management, and the first two shelves of books in the image above are new additions in that category. The first shelf are transfers from our general, circulating collection. One of our sharp-eyed librarians noticed them in the stacks and asked if I was interested. I certainly was.

There were some type specimen books…type specimen

… and manuals on useful topics, like how to keep your Linotype machine running smoothly:

Linotype manual


The second row of books are new purchases along similar lines, particularly handbooks for pricing a print job…

Price Book, cover

Price book, text


… and being a good printer/salesman:2013-08-23 11.07.19Row three offers a couple more purchases, from recently-published books for the Updike Collection…

printing history books… to an interesting children’s book/toothpaste advertisement…

Tinies who live in a tube… to a collection of items on roller skating …

roller skating… and a sammelband bringing together six very scarce short works published in Ireland in the nineteenth century. They’re mostly religious in nature, but included among them is an 1817 report published by the Belfast Saving Bank, which includes stories of exemplary savers who took advantage of the banks services:

2013-08-23 11.11.282013-08-23 11.12.21





Portrait Double Feature

Since the weekly portrait series has been quiet recently, we’re offering two portraits today, both nautically themed.

1: “Lord Bateman”

Lord BatemanThis drawing appears in the logbook of the whaling ship Martha, during an 1838-41 voyage.

2: The mailman



Alright, maybe not the actual mailman. But this letter-deliverer was intended to proudly decorate the bow of a 19th-century ship. The image comes from an amazing item in our Brownell Collection, the pattern book of a figurehead carver named R. Lee. You can read more about Lee in volume 2, issue 3 of Occasional Nuggets, but if you’d like to view the pattern book in it’s entirety, it’s now available online.


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.