Update from our 2019 Creative Fellow

Today’s blog post comes from PPL’s 2019 Creative Fellow Laura Brown-Lavoie, who offers us an update on her research and an opportunity to see her perform this weekend:

photo on 1-16-19 at 9.59 am

“Fun fact from the special collections today: 2 out of 3 special collections librarians hate desiccated rubber bands. (‘They are like dried out noodles.’ ‘Ugh.’ ‘Me? I don’t mind them.’) Anyway this is what a rubber band looks like when you leave it in a box of papers for a long time. In other news from special collections: I’ve been studying obscenity, coal of Rhode Island, and pilgrims, and I’m performing some of the poems this Saturday with my synth at the AS220 Mainstage in downtown Providence. Details about the show below, hope you can make it!”

You are invited to attend this special music performance at AS220

on Saturday January 19





LEFT HAND MAN (Laura Brown Lavoie)

9pm $6-10


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.)

Historic Book Person of the Week #15: James Woodhouse, Poetical Cobler

Mr. Woodhouse, the Poetical Cobler, who might consider using his table as a desk, rather than a chair.

What, you haven’t read his biography in Lives of Illustrious Shoemakers?

The Updike Autograph Collection Is Now Open For Use

(The following post is contributed by Ramon Cartwright, a RISD graduate and one of our fantastic volunteers. Ramon recently finished processing a collection of over 800 important and wide-ranging manuscript items. Items from the collection have been mentioned on this blog before (here, here, here and here, for instance) but this is the first time the collection has been fully listed online. Upcoming posts will highlight other items from the collection and conservation efforts to preserve it.)

The processing of the Daniel Berkeley Updike Autograph Collection has been completed. Although there is evidence that the collection was initially comprised of New England names, the collection has now grown to reflect a more diverse grouping. A selection of the material, much of which had been culled from the correspondence and papers of Wilkins Updike, includes the names of men involved in politics. Eleven presidential signatures are included in the collection. Also included within the miscellany is a letter from Edgar Rice Burroughs, a poetic excerpt from Sarah Helen Whitman, and a series of fervid letters from a Union soldier to his parents.

During the processing of the Daniel Berkeley Updike Autograph Collection I encountered a 12 page manuscript by Agnes Repplier (1855-1950), titled “What Pessimism Is.” Repplier was a Philadelphia born essayist, biographer and occasional poet published regularly within the pages of The Atlantic Monthly. Her numerous essays were also published in Life, Harper’s, Monthly Magazine, The New Republic, McClure’s, and The Yale Review. “What Pessimism Is” expands upon and clarifies Repplier’s criticism of the poetry of Robert Browning. In an earlier analysis, also published in The Atlantic Monthly, Repplier had classified Browning’s poetry as “of the pessimistic order.” A controversy ensued. Browning enthusiasts found fault with the criticism and surmised that Repplier had failed to grasp Browning’s meaning. “What Pessimism Is,” offers her defense of the initial appraisal using examples of the poet’s works. The essay was published in The Atlantic Monthly Vol. LXII, 1888. Below the reader will find the first four pages of the manuscript. The pages illuminate the background to the article’s origin. Her wit and erudition, for which she had been known, are evinced in these first few pages.

Also included in the Updike Autograph Collection is a leaf from Henry David Thoreau’s essay “October, or Autumnal Tints.”  Originally published in the October 1862 Atlantic Monthly, the essay offers Thoreau’s extended meditation on the changing color of New England autumnal foliage. Among the tints that Thoreau focuses upon, the reader will find poetic descriptions of Sarsaparilla, Pokeweed, Red Maple, the Elm, Scarlet Oak, and more. The brief explication on each tint is presented in the order in which the brightest colors are displayed. The manuscript focuses on ripeness, as it is evinced in the brighter hue flowers assume prior to falling. The extract includes passages that were later revised prior to publication.  The leaf is float mounted on an 8 3/4 x 10 1/4 sheet of paper.

Solving the Riddle

Thanks to some helpful transcribers, we can now offer at least a rough transcription of the riddle presented last week. Here’s the text:

In the Creation I was made
And bound by cord, into my bed
And in it I’m oblig’d to keep
While I have life awake or asleep
Yet I can [run?] tho I am bound
In half a minute five miles [round?]
And all the time can keep my bed
Prehaps not more my cover Red [?]
Which when I sleep doth cover me
But when I wake I naked be
In [so tender?] under evr’y touch
Tho n’er so gentle hurts me [such?]
Which is the heaven I’m well [us’d?]
And I scarce by any [arm?] [abus’d?]
Tho’ I have for my masters all
Both man & beast both great & small
Of different colours I pertake
But call’d most beautiful when black
And many crimes are charged on me
Pride coveting and adultery
And many more I have to bear
Tho I am deaf & cannot hear
And I am dumb ’tis known full well
And I can neither taste nor smell
Sometimes, I do water make
Tho never I single drop I take
I all my life did never think
That I should ever want to drink
I am a servant all agree
Yet I have some waiters two or three
I never taste their drink nor meat
But always live by what they eat
My appetite is never satisfied
To eat & drink I am denied
Yet I am always plump & round
as any thing that may be found
I live with all it is well known
And yet I die with every one
And now you may surprised be
With this description had of me
The [best?] thing after what is said
Is to tell what use of me is made
But half the use I shall not tell
For it would many volumes fill
But if it had not been for me
The Merchant ne’er would trade to sea
Nor farmers that live on the land
Their farming business understand
No [curious] work had ever been done
In brass or [on?] wood or stone
No liberal art had been professet
If man by me had not been blest
The sun would ne’er appear in sight
Nor moon be seen in fairest night
All this more had not been done
If I never had been known
And now ’tis time for to pass on
And tell the things I’ve seen and done
For tho in bed I’m bound to stay
I travel much by land and sea

I was with Adam at the time
When Mother Eve was brought to him
And when the serpent did beguile
I was in the garden all the while
After they ate forbidden fruits
I help’d them make [?]
I am I now must [surely] own
Something the cause of what was done
I was in Cain and Abel’s day
And I saw Cain his brother slay
I also saw the old world drown’d
And in the [?] was found
But I [forbear] to enumerate
I find the truth will be too great
And I your patience shall intrude
If I don’t hasten to conclude
I’ll only say I’ve witness been
Of many things none else have seen
When you this riddle do unfold
You’ll own the truth of all that’s told.

And we even have a potential answer: The Eye. If that does, or doesn’t, sound right to you, you can vote on it:

Or, if you have a better solution, you can leave it in the comments.

A 200-Year-Old Riddle Is Waiting for You

I came across this interesting item a little while back (click for large image):

It’s a manuscript riddle, apparently written at Mount Vernon (maybe) to commemorate a celebration of American Independence. It’s probably from sometime around 1812, since the riddle is written on the verso of a published anti-War-of-1812 resolution of the Providence Federal Republicans dated 8 April 1812:

It’s easy to imagine the riddle’s author grabbing a nearby scrap of paper, essentially a piece of political ephemera that you wouldn’t have thought twice about recycling at the time, and penning the riddle on the back.

As far as I know, this is a riddle that hasn’t been read—or solved—in a very long time, which is where you come in. If you’d like to contribute to the transcription, just visit: http://pplspc.org/digital/scripto/transcribe/7/7 and click on the “edit” link next to “Current Page Transcription.” I got the first few lines started, beginning with the information at the top and then the first few lines of the riddle:

In the Creation I was made
And bound by cord, into my bed

You can use some basic html formatting, for instance to create horizontal rules (<hr />) or strike through a line (<del>). Uncertain or illegible portions can go in brackets, with a guess or just a question mark ([?]). When you’re finished adding and correcting the transcription, just click the “Edit transcription” button. And if you have any difficulty with the page, you can just contact me.

I’m looking forward to finding out what the riddle says, and, even better, what the solution is. And there might even be a prize for the first person to solve it.