By Emma Sarconi
On the second Thursday of the month, five objects from across Special Collections’ vast holdings will be on display in the lobby of Firestone Library for anyone to come and see. Here are the objects featured in September 2023:
Object 1: Journal, 1867-1873 (C0938 No. 748)
The Commonplace Book of Countess Lydia Rostopchina
Similar to scrapbooks, since the time of Ancient Greece, the commonplace book has been, in the broadest sense, a log of the personal accumulation of knowledge, typically through reading. This commonplace book belonged to Countess Lydia Rostopchina, a member of the Russian Artistcrasy and daughter of poet and writer Evdokia Rostopchina. In this stunningly comprehensive tome, Rostopchina’s notes and commentary span six years of reading in at least three languages (Russian, French, and English) and include a staggering breadth of authors including Homer, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Gaskell, Bronte, and Sand. At once, the manuscript begs questions related to Rostopchina herself, the politics of the 19th-century Russian Aristocracy, reading and reception culture at the turn of the century, women’s education, and more.
Object 2: Map of New York City to accompany “The temperance movement, or, The conflict between man & alcohol” (HMC01.3565 D Alcove 6, Drawer 13)
New Hampshire Congressman Henry William Blair holds the esteemed distinction of introducing the first proposed amendment on the prohibition of alcohol to the United States Congress in 1876. That motion failed (the 18th Amendment wouldn’t be ratified until 1920), but Blair continued his crusade, publishing The Temperance Movement: or the Conflict Between Men and Alcohol in 1888. This map of the saloons of New York is thought to be the first of its kind, attempting to illustrate the “maelstrom of alcohol” that had taken over the city. Unignorable is the demographic spread of these institutions, the vast majority found in the southern part of Manhattan – a majority immigrant, working-class area of the city at the time. How accurate is this map? Or was it reinforcing recognizable classist and xenophobic ideas of morality that we can still see today?
1954’s Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark case, with the Supreme Court ruling that laws enforcing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional. Shown here is the amicus brief from October 1952 filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Jewish Committee, and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. The ACLU Records take up nearly 6,000 boxes and it is easily our largest collection. It is continually being added to every several years from this active organization.
Object 4: 14th-Century Breviary (Garrett MS. 42)
Written and illustrated by hand, this 14th-century breviary would have been used to guide its reader through Christian rites of worship, including the canonical hours – the seven fixed times a day a practitioner would pray. Not all breviary are as richly illustrated as this one (and there are some, particularly Books of Hours, that are even more spectacular, as we’ve previously shown you), but the historiated initials, colored text, two-column layout, and graphic elements offer premier examples of manuscript culture that characterize this time. By paying attention to the physical elements of the book, we can learn about how it was used, who used it, who wrote it, and contemporary society at large.
Object 5: Birchbark Letter from a Westport, Connecticut Woman to Her Sister, 1888 August 16 (C0140 / Box 61)
This script written on a sheet of birchbark is a bit of a mystery among items found in Special Collections at Princeton. Writing on birchbark is not uncommon and examples have been found from all over the world dating back to the 1st century CE. In the more modern era, Potawatomi author Simon Pokagon was well known for his books published on birchbark in the 19th century, and writing on birchbark was common during Stanlist Russia where birch was the only option available to people wanting to write letters home while interned in Siberian Gulags. The context of this document is not believed to be so bleak. We know it was authored by a woman, writing to her sister from Westport Connecticut in the 1880s. The name of the person who wrote it, the name of the person they were writing to, and even what they were specifically writing about are all unanswered questions, just waiting for the right researcher to come and find the answers.