Special Collections Showcase October 2023

Once a 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 October 2023:

Object 1: Inkwell: Self-portrait as a Sphinx by Sarah Bernhardt, 1880 (MOC01/Sculpture/Small/ 4907 B-West 11)

Late 19th- and early 20th-century French actress Sarah Bernhardt has been called one of the first celebrities, finding worldwide notoriety in roles like her gender-bending take on Hamlet in Hamlet. Between performances, however, she also nurtured a love of art, studying painting and sculpture. This bronze inkwell is a self-portrait – posed like a sphynx, Bernhardt’s head and face are recognizable, but her body is that of a griffon, complete with monstrous bat wings and a fish tail. Rife with symbolism, Bernhardt’s statue reflects the late 19th-century Art Nouveau movement while also referencing the imagery and techniques of 16th-century Mannerist bronzes.

Object 2: “Der Evangelischen Ober Gottes Ackher”, 1714 (Alma-54083e)

Seemingly one of a kind, this etching of an Ausburg, Germany cemetery in the 18th century is a very eerie oddity. The document records the names of those interred, but at the same time, most plots are left blank, despite the cemetery still being in use today. The script is too small for it to act as a helpful map for visitors, but it also wasn’t helpful enough for internal use for all plots to eventually be filled in. Was this an attempt to keep track of real estate (and bodies) that fell apart? Or did the creators have another (creepier) design in mind?

Object 3: Daemonologie, in forme of a dialogve, diuided into three bookes by King James I, 1603 (GR535 .J24)

Following his attendance at the North Berwick witch trials in 1590, the first major persecution of witches in Scotland under the Witchcraft Act 1563, King James I of Scotland wrote Daemonologie, detailing and denouncing the practices of witchcraft, necromancy, and sorcery. Believed to be a refute of Reginald Scot’s exposé The Discoverie of Witchcraft, the book had an immediate cultural impact – adding flames to the already burning fires of Scotland’s brutal witch hunts and serving as inspiration for similar actions one hundred years later in Salem, Massachusetts. The descriptions provided by King James also influenced the characterization of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Princeton’s copy is very well worn with marginalia in Latin throughout.

Object 4: Paper mache pumpkin, undated (Memorabilia Collection (AC053, Box 135))

Lawyer Alger Hiss was an American government official accused in 1948 during the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee of acting as a Communist spy for the Soviet Union throughout the 1930s. Part of the case against Hiss involved five canisters of microfilmed state secrets hidden within a hallowed-out pumpkin on a farm owned by US Communist Party member Whittaker Chambers. Eventually found guilty of perjury, Hiss served three and a half years in prison. In 1956 following his release, Whig-Clio, an undergraduate debating club at Princeton invited Hiss to speak on campus, causing quite an uproar. In addition to active protests, a cheeky group of students made and placed these paper mache pumpkins around campus to taunt Hiss. Today objects like these act as monuments to student activism, ingenuity, and campus politics.

Object 5: Spiritual Photography by William H. Mumler (E Row 2/GC057/Box 01-Box 05/Normal)

William H. Mumler claimed that his “spirit photographs” could capture images of dead relatives, capitalizing on the widespread grief that characterized the 19th century. His most famous image was that of Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of her husband, President Abraham Lincoln, standing behind her, hands on her shoulders. Mumler was accused of being a fake, achieving the ghostly effect by reusing already exposed glass plate negatives during the development process. He was eventually taken to court and tried for fraud and larceny, with circus magnate PT Barnum acting as a witness for the prosecution, himself a victim of Mumler’s supposed swindling.

Bonus Object! Object 6: Grimoire, 18th century (General Manuscripts Miscellaneous Collection, (C0938 no. 822))

Often believed to be imbued with magic themselves, a “Grimoire” is simply a textbook of black magic. Often hand-written, content can range from incantations for spells, instructions for invoking spirits, and guidelines for the creation of talismans. This text is written in Latin and includes sections on alchemy, astrology, and demonology as well as a diagram of the “house of the planets” and a series of prophecies. The author or owner is unknown and so far the text has shown no signs of any supernatural influence beyond its pages but offers endless possibilities for research related to the occult.

Be sure to stop by on Thursday, November 9th from 2-4pm for a new set objects from the depths of the collection.

Learn more about seeing these items for yourself on the access services page of the Special Collections website.